Heller with a Gun

He was riding southwest in a gathering storm and behind him a lone man clung to his trail.

It was a bitter cold . . .

He came down off the ridge into the shelter of the draw with the wind kicking up snow behind him. The sky was a flat slate gray, unbroken and low. The air grew colder by the minute and there was a savage bite to the wind.

He was a big, wide-shouldered man with a lean, strong-boned face. His black, flat-crowned hat was pulled low, the collar of his sheep-lined coat turned up. Wind-whipped particles of snow rattled off his coat like thrown gravel.

He was two days out of Deadwood and riding for Cheyenne, and the nearest shelter was at Hat Creek Station, probably fifty miles along.

Wind knifed at his exposed cheek. He drew deeply on his cigarette. Whoever followed him had the same problem. Find shelter or die. The wind was a moving wall of snow and the evening was filled with vast sound.

There is something fiercely insensate about a Wyoming or Dakota blizzard, something malevolent and shocking in its brutality. It ripped at him now, smashing him with jarring fists of wind, and raking his face with claws of blown ice.

King Mabry lowered his head to shield his face, breathing with his mouth open. Whenever he lifted his head the wind whipped at him, sucking air from his lungs.

When they came to the creek bottom it was suddenly. The horse plunged belly-deep in the snow and began fighting for a foothold. Forcing the black through a crackle of frozen brush, he let it slide and stumble to the creek bottom.

Here was respite from the wind. The creek was narrow, sheathed in ice, yet the high banks and the trees offered protection. He headed downstream.

It was bitter cold . . .

When he found what he wanted it was more than he expected. The creek turned a rocky shoulder and had heaved some logs and brush over a triangle of huge boulders. On the downstream side there was an opening. When he had pulled the brush away he had a cave fifteen feet deep and almost seven feet high.

Leading the horse inside, Mabry began to work swiftly. He cut evergreens and made a windbreak that could be shifted if the wind changed, and which would also serve to reflect the heat from his fire back into the cave.

With shredded bark from the underside of a log, some dry leaves from the same place, and some twigs broken from the trunks of trees, he built a fire. He added fuel and the blaze mounted higher.

There was no shortage of fuel, yet he dragged several dead branches closer, and one half-rotted log. Stumbling through deepening snow, he cut evergreen boughs for a bed. Heat form the fire and warmth of the horse's body would make the shelter warm enough for survival, if no more.

Working slowly, he rubbed the horse down, then hung half his supply of corn over the horse's nose in its feed bag.

The great stones warmed slowly, gathering heat from the fire. Outside the wind howled. His thoughts turned to the man who followed him.

Somehow he must have learned of the money Mabry was carrying. Several hundred dollars of his own money, and a thousand dollars to be returned to the rancher in Cheyenne.

The trouble was that when a man had a reputation as a gun fighter, somebody always believed his gun was for hire.

The trouble was that in a time and area when all men carried guns, and used them on occasion, he used them too well.

He awakened in the first cold light of dawn. He lunged from his blankets and stirred the remains of his fire. He tossed on some dry leaves, some bark, and a piece of evergreen bough. Then he scrambled back into his bed, shaking with cold.

It was far below zero. He knew by the wind, by the pistol crack of frozen branches, by the crisp sharpness of the air.

After an interminable time a faint tendril of smoke lifted, a tiny flame appeared, and the pine needles flared hotly. He thrust an arm from under the blankets and tossed more fuel into the fire.

When he could feel the warmth in the shelter, he got up and dressed quickly, then shouldered into his sheepskin. He drew one gun from its holster, checked it, and thrust it behind his belt.

With a friendly slap on the black's rump he stepped past the horse and stood beside the windbreak, looking out into the morning.

He faced downstream. Occasionally the white veil of falling or blown snow would break and he could see as far as the point, some thirty yards away. Flakes touched his cheek with damp fingers. He narrowed his eyes, studying what lay outside.

His eyes went to that point of trees around which the stream bent in a slow arc. He studied them, started to step outside, and then he stopped.

Mabry did not know why he hesitated.

A gust whipped snow into the air, lashing at his face, sucking at his lungs. And a man's subconscious can be his best friend.

Mabry stood very still.

He was invisible from the outside. Another step and he would be framed black against the snow.

He was playing a game where life was the blue chip. A step into the open meant to chuck that blue chip on the table. And he had but one.

His eyes returned to the trees.

He thrust his right hand into the front of his coat to warm his fingers against his body. Stiff fingers might fumble or drop a gun.

Then his eyes saw what his brain knew was there: a spot of darkness in the tops of the trees.

A small thing, a simple thing, yet the price of a man's life. A place in the branches where there was no snow.

Somebody had to be under that spot with a going fire. Rising heat waves had melted the snow above it.

It was all of thirty yards away, but knowing now where he must look, King Mabry found it.

Drifted snow over a pile of debris. Not so large or imposing as his own shelter, but enough to conceal a man who lay in warmth while he waited with a rifle for Mabry to emerge and die.

Mabry possessed one advantage. His pursuer could not be aware that his presence was known. From behind the windbreak Mabry studied the situation with infinite care.

The unknown watcher lay close to the ground, which decreased his field of vision. Without rising from his hiding place that man could see nothing lower than three feet above the ground, and the snow was that deep in the creek bottom.

Dropping to his knees, Mabry dug out snow, working with care to disturb no snow where it might be seen by he watcher. He worked slowly. In that temperature perspiration could easily be fatal, for when one stopped working the moisture would freeze into a thin film of ice inside one's clothing, and death would follow quickly.

There was a huge log, a great snow-covered tree that lay on an angle, its far end almost flanking the hiding place of the watcher. Mabry dug his way to that deadfall, then crawled along the ground behind it. When he reached the upthrust roots at its base, he stood up.

Concealed by the wall of tangled roots and frozen earth embedded around them, he could see behind the shelter, yet at first he saw nothing.

Mabry kept his right hand under his coat and close to his gun. He was forty yards away. Slow anger was building in him. He did not like to be hunted. Whoever the watcher was, he planned murder.

Mabry's face, darkened by many suns and winds, seemed not to be drawn in hard planes. It was a still face, remote, lonely. It was the face of a hunter.

He felt the cold, knew he could not long remain away from his fire. He took his hand from his coat and rolled a smoke. He put it to his lips and lit up. He squinted his eyes against the first exhalation and looked past the blown smoke at the shelter.

There was no target, nothing. The man there was warm. He was cold. There was no sense in waiting longer.

A heavy branch of evergreen hung over the other man's shelter, thick with a weight of snow, a bit away from the circle of warmth from the fire . . . but near enough.

Mabry drew his gun, tested the balance in his palm, judged the distance, and fired.

Cut by the bullet, the branch broke and the snow fell, partly outside the shelter, partly inside. And probably on the man's fire.

The sound of the shot racketed down the ravine, and silence followed.

Mabry's feet were icy. The chill was beginning to penetrate. He thrust his gun back inside his coat and watched a little smoke rise, thick smoke.

The hidden man had lost his fire.

The slide of snow from the branch had done what Mabry hoped it would, and now the watcher must lie there in the cold to await death by freezing, or he must come out.

A slight movement within the shelter alerted him, but nobody appeared.

Wind whined among the trees. Branches creaked in the cold. Snow flurried, whipped across the point, then died out. The wind was going down, the storm was over. Yet Mabry did not intend to be followed when he moved on again.

He moved to another hiding place behind a tree. He was not twenty yards from the man's hideout now and he could see the darkness of the hole into which the man had crawled.

The man had waited in ambush to kill him. He had followed him for two days or more.

"Come out."

Mabry did not speak loudly, for in the still air the smallest sound could be heard. "Come out with your hands up, or come shootin'."

Silence . . . .

And then he came with a lunge, throwing himself from the shelter, rifle in hand. He had heard Mabry's voice, so he knew where to look, yet the instant it took to separate his target from the trunks of the trees was fatal.

Yet at the last moment, Mabry shot high. His bullet smashed the man on the shoulder, turning him half around. The rifle dropped and the wounded man grasped at the wound, going to his knees in the snow. Then he fell, grabbing for the rifle.

King Mabry balanced his gun in his palm and walked nearer, ready to fire.

The wounded man had fallen against the front of his shelter, which was only a hollow under the roots of a blow-down. There was blood on the snow, and blood on the man's shoulder and chest.

He stared up at Mabry, hating him. He was a sallow-faced man with lean cheeks and a hawk's hard face and a scar over one eye. Now it was a frightened face, but not one Mabry had ever seen before.

"You . . . you goin' to stand there?"

"Why not?" Mabry asked coldly. "I wasn't huntin' you."

"I hope you die! I hope you die hard!"

"I will," Mabry said. "I've been expecting it for years. Who put you on to me?"

"Why tell you?" the man sneered.

"You can tell me," Mabry said without emotion, "or you can die there in the snow."

Grudgingly the wounded man said, "It was Hunter. If you didn't take the job, you were to die."

Mabry understood the truth of that. Ever since he arrived in Deadwood and understood why he had been hired, he should have expected this. They could not afford to have him talk.

No man lost blood in such cold and lasted long without care. If he left this man, he would die. Dropping to his knee, he reached for the shoulder. The fellow grabbed at Mabry's gun and Mabry hit him with his fist. Then he bound up the wound with makeshifts and then gathered up the guns and walked back to his own shelter. He rolled his bed and saddled up, then drank the rest of the coffee.

Mounting, he rode back to where the man lay. The fellow was conscious, but he looked bad.

"Where's your horse?"

Too weak to fight, the man whispered an answer, and Mabry rode to the clay bank behind some trees, where he found a beat-up buckskin, more dead than alive.

When he got back to the man's shelter he picked the fellow up and shook him. "Get up on that horse," he said. "We'll start for Hat Creek. Make a wrong move and I'll blow you out of the saddle."

He took the blankets and threw them around the man to keep in what warmth his body could develop.

It would be cold tonight, but with luck he could make Hat Creek Station.

Wind flapped his hat brim and snow sifted across the trail. He lifted the black into a trot. The country about them was white and still. In the distance he could see a line of trees along the creek.

His mind was empty. He did not think. Only the occasional tug on the lead rope reminded him of the man who rode behind him.

It was a hard land, and it bred hard men to hard ways.