It was a feeling more than anything that could be seen or touched, when the hairs on the back of Shane’s neck stood on end. That was usually a reliable predictor of things to come, and Shane never ignored his feelings. Ignoring his instincts would most likely have gotten him killed out here by now. His perception was acute, wary, as he stopped and listened with every sense he had been taught to use so well from the time he was a small boy. Before he had time to think, he turned, drew both guns and fired, just in time to see the man who had been parted from his money so recently, holding his wrist and swearing, while a gun lay in the dirt at his feet. The gun had been shot precisely out of his hand without drawing a drop of blood.
This wouldn’t be the first time he had been there for Jake, protecting him like a brother. Even though Shane was younger by almost four years, he always looked out for Jake. Shane’s mother had even taken him in as a small boy and raised him as her own after his parents died. They were bound together in so many ways, it seemed to create a connection stronger than blood. He would die for Jake and he knew Jake would die for him, and he believed that this bond would even transcend death. Shane had been raised by the Cheyenne, and while he had been living in the white world for the better part of ten years, his Cheyenne upbringing was always an undeniable element in his life.
Shane’s feral gaze was fixed on the man who had just tried to shoot Jake in the back, or at least that was what he surmised, seeing as how Jake had taken most of his wages for that month in one game of chance.
Shane’s tone was quiet, but sinister, “I should have shot you between the eyes, you no-good, back-shooting coward. You have your life, but don’t expect me to be so pleasant the next time I see you, ya hear? Now leave your gun where it lies, and get on outta here before I change my mind.”
“Mister, I don’t know who you are and I don’t care. My feud’s with your friend there, who stole my money in an unfair game, and I wasn’t gonna shoot nobody in the back. I just had my gun ready, that’s all. Ya never know how a man’s gonna react when you call him a cheater. Can’t be too careful these days.”
Shane didn’t believe a word he said and he usually had a pretty good take on most people. His take on this one was a no account back shooter.
“Well, whatever you had in mind, I was there when you lost your money, and I know for a fact it was a fair game. You bet on a hand, you lost, end of story. You might think twice from now on before you call a man a cheat. Most folks probably won’t be near as nice about it. Now get on outta here before I quit being so nice, end up losing my temper, and decide to shoot you between the eyes just for target practice.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, but I can’t do that. I say he’s a cheat and I ain’t leavin’ ’til I get my money back…ever’ cent.”
Shane called back, “You’ll have to tangle with me if you want a fight today, that what you want?”
The man spit tobacco juice in the dirt and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before answering, “Suits me fine, don’t make me no never mind which one a’ ya I kill, so long as I get my money.”
Shane looked dead serious as he faced Jake. “Let me handle this. You’re pretty good with that rifle, but when it comes to drawing a six gun, you don’t stand a chance. Now don’t you start getting stubborn on me, I mean it, I’m asking nice. Please!” he added with a menacing smile.
The man looked at Shane and spit another stream of tobacco juice onto the ground. “What do you say, is it gonna be you or the cheat? Which one of ya? Don’t matter none to me, one dead cheat’s good as another, but I will get my money back, so let’s get on with it. Time’s a-wastin’ and I’m a busy man.”
Shane could feel that something wasn’t right…but what? “Keep your pants on mister, just one minute.”
“Just one, no more, like ah said, I’m a busy man.”
“Something’s wrong, Jake. I can feel it!” He was already on the prowl for anything that didn’t seem right.
“I’ve got the same sense…but what?” Jake whispered.
Shane took the minute he had to look around, alert to every sound, every movement, however slight. He surveyed the surroundings much like he always did out in the wilderness. Making the wrong decisions out here could be deadly, as it would be today if he weren’t careful. Just for an instant, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a glint of metal in the sunlight and it all fell into place.
He whispered to Jake under his breath, “You let me worry about him, ’cause we’ve got another problem that needs your attention.”
He and Jake talked for a minute more before Shane turned and said sarcastically, “You’re insisting on being the guest of honor at your own funeral? You should have walked away when you had the chance, now you’re a dead man!” I didn’t want to do any killing today, but I guess if I have to, I will.”
“I ’preciate the concern, but don’t you worry ’bout me none. I can take care of myself. Name’s Dugan, by the way, Cletus Dugan. Always introduce myself to a man afore he meets his maker at my hand so’s he knows who sent ’em.”
“Couldn’t agree more. Cordell here.”
Shane stepped off a few paces. No sound at all hung in the air except for the clank of his spurs as he planted his feet firmly on the ground, legs apart. His coat was behind the gun grips of both holsters and he stood motionless, emotionless. He felt that familiar deadly calm pass over him, as he stared unflinching at his opponent.
The only muscle moving was the slight twitch of his trigger finger as he waited for the other man to make the first move. Shane was confident, as he watched his adversary start to sweat. A nasty leer distorted Dugan’s face as he pulled his gun clear from the holster, and to anyone watching, it would seem that Shane was a dead man, but in a blur, Shane drew and fired before the other man’s finger, already on the trigger, could pull it back to take the shot, and Jake, in that same instant, aimed and fired, hitting his intended target and a shrill squeal echoed from the adjacent rooftop.
On the ground, however, not a single sound came from Cletus Dugan. Shane was positive that’s why Dugan was so sure of himself, he knew it wouldn’t be a fair fight from the start, as a sniper was well positioned for the kill shot just a few yards away. He knew he would get his money back, probably like he always did after a poker game. The game was fixed from the start.
Shane saw the shocked look on Dugan’s face, quickly being replaced by a death mask. Shane’s bullet had struck true, as usual, straight for the heart.
Shane felt sick. He was never complacent about taking a life, even gutter trash like this one.
“Shane! You did everything you could. He gave us no choice.”
“His blood is on my hands. You know when you kill a man, any man, you never wash it off, and you never forget the face. It haunts you in your dreams ’til the day you die.”
“All I know is that I’d have a bullet in my back if you hadn’t been here and I can’t say I have any tears to shed for a no-account snake like Dugan.”
The gunfight had drawn an audience, as usual, and while there was no question that it had been a fair fight, Shane was the one breathing. He was the one who had taken a life. The story would most likely be told and retold countless times, and would probably add to his reputation. Deserved or not, people think what they want. After Jake and Shane pointed out to the sheriff where the sniper had been, they both searched for Dugan’s accomplice, but there was nothing to be found except a few drops of blood, not that they expected anything more.
Shane was ready to be finished with this town, people, and the world in general for a while. He needed to get back to the wilderness where he could run free.
“Jake, I’m outta here. I don’t mean to butt into your business, but that pen up in the hills is a might crowded with prime horseflesh and I figure you’ve got the money you need to start on that dream of yours, so what are you waiting for?”
“Half those horses are yours, my friend.”
“Oh no. Not on your life. They’re all yours, Jake. I’m not ready to settle down.” Then he added under his breath, “Most likely never will be.”
“No way, half of ’em are…”
Shane knew when Jake was digging in his heels. “Tell you what, how ’bout if you just keep ’em for me for just a little while. You know, ’til I’ve a mind to get a stake of my own and settle down. If you’d do that for me, I’d be mighty obliged.”
“Obliged? Right! You must take me for a pure fool, Shane Cordell. I’ll tell you what. I’ll keep ’em all for now, but only until you get a place of your own, then half of those beauties and their offspring are yours. Deal? And I’ll have your word on that.”
“You’ve got yourself a deal. Now, I think it’s high time you head on outta here and put your name on that deed before someone else snatches it up, prime piece o’ land that it is, and I’ll have those mustangs ready for their new home in no time. I’ll see you back at camp after you tie up the loose ends on your place. Your place…Kinda has a nice ring to it, eh hóovéhe, my friend.”
“Sure does, and I couldn’t have done it without you, Aénohe.
“Sure ya could, but I was glad to help all the same, but now…no, no, don’t look at me that way. I’ve got something to say and you’re going to hear it so I can get it off my chest. You need to quit pussyfootin’ around here and haul your ass on over to the Morgans’ place before you lose your nerve, get down on your knees and ask Faith, no beg Faith to marry your sorry ass. For some reason, God only knows why, she seems to have eyes for you. And you, why you’re so transparent, a blind man could see you’re head over heels in love with that pretty little girl. So, best waste no more time and get that girl into your bed—legal like, of course.”
“Shane, why the devil are you so all fired up to get me hitched? I don’t see you tying yourself down to one woman.”
“There’s a real good reason for that, no woman would have me.” He grinned. “You, on the other hand, found yourself a good one, so you get on outta here, quit looking at me like I’m loco, and tend to your business. Don’t you know by now it’s no use arguing with me? I’d hate to, but I will bust you up a bit to get you to do what I say. I might even like it, been feeling real itchy lately. Course, if you’re chicken, I could ask her myself.”
Jake rolled his eyes. “Hearts would be breaking wide open all over the territory if you settled down!”
“Jake, you’re so full of it, it’s going to start coming out your ears. Now that I’ve got your life all figured out, guess it’s high time I started on my own. After we get all the horses rounded up and settled at your new place, I think I’ll take that job up around Bent Creek. Vince keeps pestering me about it and it’s a good one. He’s not going to hold it for me forever.”
“Why don’t you just stay here, out at my place, after it is my place.”
“Listen, after you get hitched and the ranch is going good, me staying there with you and Faith would make me feel as out a’ place as teats on a bull. Faith can help ya at first, ’til you get her with a baby, or do I need to help you out with that too? I don’t think I’d mind too much, in fact I’d be glad to volunteer my services!” He laughed and slapped Jake on the back. Teasing Jake always put him in a better mood as Jake started to turn red and sputter.
“Shane, sometimes you can be a real horse’s ass.”
“Thanks, I try my best.”
“Well, you try your best on some other girl, I think I can take care of this one all by myself!” He cocked his brow. “She is kinda pretty, isn’t she?”
“Kinda! You musta been out in the hills way too long, my friend!” Shane looped his thumbs through his gun belt and looked at Jake, waiting. “Well? What the hell are you waiting for? Sounds like a plan to me. How ’bout you?”
“Yep, sounds like.”
“Well, hell, what ya waiting for, get going!”
“I’m going, I’m going!”
He almost felt like a proud papa watching Jake head toward the bank, and his future.
Now if he could just figure out as good a plan for his own life!