Matter transmission has opened the universe to Man, and brought back the frontier spirit
|"Ben?" Brad spoke gently, in the voice he used for calming skittish animals, "I'm Brad Sommerset, son of the owner of the Lightning. Tools said he'd pay half, and I think that's more than fair, since he and Charlie say he didn't spill the drink to begin with. They're both honest men, as everyone around these parts knows."
The large man turned on him, glaring. "This ain't none o' your business, I don't care who you are, punk! Stay out of it!"
"My men's troubles are always my business, Ben, and you've increased my stake by insulting me, as well as accusing one of my boys of being dishonest. I suggest you take Tools's offer of a drink, and splitting the cleaning or purchase of a new shirt." Brad said calmly, knowing every eye in the room was now on the two of them. Brad wasn't hunting trouble, but he was damned if he was going to let Tools get slaughtered by this beast of a human in a fistfight over a ruined shirt.
"Sommerset, eh? You're the boy of thet old man who came over all better-than-thou and told our ramrod to keep off'n your range, eh? I guess you figger you're better than us cowhands, too?"
"Sir, I don't think I'm better than anyone at any particular thing, until it's proven, first off, and neither does my father. Secondly, he asked to speak to your ranch's owner about tresspass on registered range and watersheds. You seem to be hunting trouble, I don't really want any, but I am not about to run from it, either. You're mighty brave threatening an old man and a guy half your size, but I'm willing to bet I stack up about even with you, minus a few pounds, if I gotta."
The large man roared with anger, and charged Brad, both hands curled into fists, swinging wide for the midsection with both hands, like a grappler. Brad noted this mentally, as he sidestepped, dropping a bit low, and leaving a foot out that triiped the bull of a man, sending him sprawling on the floor facefirst.
"You don't want to do this, Ben. You're gonna make a fool out of yourself and lose a fair offer at getting half that shirt paid for." Brad said as Ben got up.
The larger man shook himself, like a dog, and soundlessly started towards Brad again, hands out and read, not charging now, but still moving like a grappler, not a boxer, as Brad had surmised from his first attack.
Well, Brad knew well enough how to counter a homebrewed bar brawler who relied on his size and strenght to intimidate opponents, or win fights. He waded in slipping sideways one step to dodge one of the grasping hands that shot out at him, then as he spun left to avoid the second, he shot out his right fist, using the spin's momentum to add power to it, right into the large man's midriff. He felt it sink into unprepared muscle, and heard the larger man grunt with the impact. he followed it quickly with a left snapping out to the point of the man's jaw. The second punch wasn't near as hard as the first, thanks to angle and lack of the added spin, but it was a sharply snapping jab, witch clicked the big man's mouth shut with a snap, and threw his head back.
Dancing back out of the grappler's reach, Brad watched to see what effect he'd had with his first attack on the man.
Ben looked slightly suprised, either at having been hit at all, or by the speed and strength of the smaller man, but he wasn't slowed signifigantly. Gathering himself again, he stepped forward, and Brad gave ground a step. Encouraged by this, the larger man took another step, reaching out again with his right. Brad ducked his head, letting the blow fall on his shoulder, missing a grip, as he stepped inside again, and threw a quick combination of jabs into the man's middle, followed by two driving fists to the chin and the side of the head, respectively. The looping right that had caught the man on the side of the head was right on the cheekbone, and hard enough that it laid the skin open to the bone, snapping the man halfway around in a turn.
Brad backed out of reach again, amazed at how much the forearm dropping on his shoulder as he went in had hurt. This man would flat kill him, if he let him get a proper grip on him for long, he realized.
Despite the damage he'd done, Ben was still game, and came in again. Brad's ears didn't hear the yelling of the crowd, as he concentrated on the deadly dance he was involved in. He was fooled into sidestepping again by a feigned right, and cursed, as he felt a heavy blow meet his ribs as he stepped into it, from the left.
The big man did not fail to use this advantage, and dropped the right to Brad's head, making his ears ring. He felt the hammering blows hitting him, driving him back and down, until he felt the bar against his back.
Having nowhere to go but forward, into the storm, Brad stepped inside, throwing both fists blindly into Ben, and was gratified to find they landed well enough to slow the onslaught of blows for a moment. Brad took this split second to step all the way inside, threw a short uppercut into the man's jaw, and butted his head forward into Ben's chest, pushing him further back. Now that he had some room to move again, he was dangerously close to the man he was fighting, and couldn't really use it for boxing.
Instinctually, he used a movement Travis had taught him, while they were working out at the High-C, one day. he formed his hand into a flat plane, and shot it up, just like he would for a close uppercut. The points of his fingers caught the big man under the chin, in the soft tissue, and drove his whole body upright out of the fighting crouch it had been in, snapping his head back in suprise and pain. Brad stepped half backwards, half turning, to the man's right arm, stopping when he felt the iron-bar hardness of it against his shoulderblades, and snapped a forearm sideways into Ben's adam's apple.
The large man fell to his knees, eyes wide, and gagging for breath. Brad waded in, raining blows down on the man, snapping his head back, left, right, grunting with the effort of each blow, until he saw the awareness of defeat in the man's eyes, through the mask of blood that had become his face. Then he stepped back, and using one hand to guide Ben's head forward, slammed his knee into the man's face, and stepped back, letting him fall unconcious on the floor.
Stepping back, himself, he caught the bar towel Charlie threw to him, and began to dab at his own wounds.
"Damn, son! That was some of the meanest fighting I've seen in a day!" exclaimed Dancer "For a few minutes there, I thought you'd had it!"
"So did I, Dancer, so did I." Brad said "But what was I supposed to do? Tools was half his size, and he was intent on fighting someone."
"Brad, you didn't have to do that for me." Tools said "Yeah he was hunting trouble, and he'd have hurt me, but I'd have taken an ass whippin', and healed up fine."
Charlie spoke to Tools "I take it you don't know Ben Richards' reputation, then, Tools? That man aimed to kill you, not beat you up."
"Over a shirt?" Tools looked incredulous.
"Ben Richards was a convict shippee, Tools...Murder, and he's said to have killed several others in fights since coming to Mesa. Only reason he's not been hung is he lets 'em walk away if they are willing to show yellow, which you wouldn't have done." Dancer said quietly.
"Oh." was all Tools found to say.
Brad felt a tap on his shoulder, and turned, to see a tallish man he knew from the Bar-D opposite from his own spread from the town.
"Brad, don't count yourself as having won, from beating that man. The crowd he runs with...some were in here tonight, but not the BAD ones. Except maybe the dandy over there, who showed up around the time the RR did. Bull Allen's one of them, so's Kid Richards, Ben's little brother. And Ben himself will be wanting your blood. I think you're the only one I've ever heard of to have beat him.That crowd's a rough lot, some of them known. I understand Kelly Khatrezcheyk ramrods them, and Donnie Shannigan rides with them."
"Thanks, Mark, I'll keep my eyes open, then."
"You might be a bit late for that, kid." Dancer said, nodding towards the club's doors.
Brad looked in that direction, and saw one of the men who'd been there when he came in, but not after the fight, with two others. Two were looking around the club, meeting eyes here and there, the third was glaring down at the bloody and unconcious man on the floor.
"Who done this?" said the man who'd been looking at Ben Richards' unconcious body, glaring around the room.
"How's it your business? The man picked a fight, and lost." Dancer said calmly.
"It's my business because that's my brother. And there ain't no one man who can whup him in a fair fight, so's when I find out who played dirty on him, I aim to teach them a lesson in fair play." retorted the man.
"So you're Kid Richards." said Brad at the same time as Dancer said "Fair fight? Ben's never fought fair in his life, and you know it, Kid."
Kid glared at Dancer, while answering Brad "Yeah, they call me Kid, what's it to you?"
"Well, Kid, what it is to me is that I'm the "one man" who took him down, he was trying to pick a fight with one of my men half his size, and I couldn't let him do it, you see. Your own boys, the ones who stayed to watch, will tell you noone else interfered."
The Kid's eyes snapped to Brad's face, measuring him. "Your men? Who are you, to have men, you ain't but barely out of diapers! And there ain't no way YOU coulda taken down Ben on your lonesome, so don't lie to me, you shitheel!"
"I'm Brad Sommerset, son of the owner of the Lightning..that makes Lightning men "my men". As for my age, I may be young, but I taught your brother a thing or two about barfighting, it seems." Brad saw it coming, and still charged with the adrenalin of fighting, didn't even try to avoid the trouble headed his way. He gathered up Sandy with his eyes, and wordlessly told her to step back from where she might be hurt.
Dancer and Tools spread out, watching the room. As long as it stayed between Brad and the Kid, they would stay out of it, Brad knew. But he also knew they had his back if this was the situational ambush it could turn into. There were two more Lazy ZZ men in Sally's at the time, and they unobtrusively watched from the seats they had been in since this started, but Brad noticed gratefully that they had both dropped one hand under the level of the tables they were at. If it was to be more than a duel, they might be outnumbered, but he trusted his men.
"You know what, you lyin' pup, I don't even think I'm gonna enjoy killing you, you're gonna be too damned easy."
"Well Kid, I'm right here, and I'm not going anywhere, so if you got it to do, go to it." Brad said, facing the man straight on, relaxed, and watching, ready for what he knew was going to happen.
"Ah hell, you ain't nuthin' but a pup, you and I both know you didn't whup Ben on yer own, but I ain't gonna hang for murderin' a kid who didn't know no better than to talk too big for his britches." the Kid lied smoothly.
Brad saw through it, but pretended to relax, as if the crisis had passed, dropping his hand below his holster edge.
The Kid made as if to turn away, but suddenly spun back, gun coming up level with Brad's heart, as he'd drawn it while the movement was concealed by the movement of his body. Brad had expected this trick, felt the intention in the air, as clearly as if it had been spoken aloud. As the Kid turned back towards him and was leveling his pistol, Brad's hands sped for his own guns, and the bar erupted in gunfire.
Dancer's gun spoke first, from behind Brad, telling him that this was indeed intended to be a massacre of Lazy ZZ men by the RR. His pistols cleared leather unbelievably fast, one in each hand, and he saw the panic in the Kid's eyes as he saw that he was outdrawn despite his trick.
Brad's right hand snapped off two shots at the Kid while the left was still spinning into position from the akward looking draw Brad had practiced to perfection. The first two rounds from the left pistol took the man who'd left the bar after the fight, and returned with the Kid, who was just clearing leather, hitting him squarely in the breadbasket, with impacts that visibly rippled his loose shirt. At the same time, Brad fired two more from the right pistol at the Kid, who was still standing, pistol raised, already dead, and not knowing it yet, from the first two rounds, which had neatly impacted over his breast pocket. These two rounds drove the Kid to his knees, as blood began to rise to his lips from the internal injuries, and his pistol barked twice more, into the floor, as he twisted and fell on his side.
Diving forward, Brad twisted in the air, having seen Tools shooting at the third man who'd come in with the Kid, and landed on the ground, sliding, searching for targets. he saw two more standing, with guns drawn, and snapped shots at both, then rolled over, gaining cover from the corner of the bar, before rising once again to his feet.
One of the two he'd snapped his sliding shots at was down, the other was watching the corner of the bar, and fired as Brad rose. Tools and Dancer were both shooting with practiced ease at men who were still firing back, and Brad saw one of the Lightning men who'd been quietly prepared to back him lying on his back behind the fallen chair he'd been sitting in, the other was firing at the same man Dancer had engaged as a second target, from behind his overturned table.
Brad fired both pistols in a rolling cannonade at the man he'd missed while sliding for cover, then turned his attention to the RR man who'd taken down one of his own, as he saw his bullets turn the man around in a half circle and knock him down.
Four more rounds, and the man in the corner was also down. Quiet fell, as the battle ended. Tools had taken his man down, but was bleeding from a wound in the shoulder and thigh, Dancer was miraculously untouched, having stood stolidly in the center of the room, and blazed it out with two different men. Jackson, the man who'd fired from behind the overturned table, was unhurt, but shaken, having been a top-notch ranchhand, but never having been in a shooting before. The man down was Amos, and he was hurt badly, but not fatally, by a shot in his right hipbone.
As Brad tried to comfort him, the older man embarassedly tried to push him off, complaining that the worst injury was to his pride, the man who'd been closest to him had shoved his table into him, blocking his draw, then shot him as his chair tumbled over.
Brad walked to the bar to get a towel and some ice, to clean and numb Amos's wound, as well as Tool's, before finding a buckboard to borrow at this time of night, to get the injured men back to the ranch for proper care. As he faced full-on to the bar, something in him suddenly cried out, and he lept to the side, then rolled, vertically, along the bar edge, in a 180 degree trun, and shot the dandy who'd been sitting clamly at the poker table the whole time, with the last two rounds in his righthand gun.
The man went over backwards, as two rounds from the pistol he'd drawn under the table impacted the bar where Brad had been, and then a third hit the ceiling.
As this happened, Dancer yelled "What the HELL, Brad!?" and ran over towards the gambler, where he saw the smoke rising from the "lady's" .380 in the man's outflung right hand.
"How-how'd he know?" the man gasped, struggling for breath.
Brad walkd over as well, and quietly answerd "I dunno how I know, I just do. Why'd you try it? Backshooting me, I mean?"
"Shan..Shannigan paid me to make sure. He'd heard rumor 'bout you. Told me if Ben or the Kid...didn't manage you...to take you myself, first chance...I got. Rumor was right...Kid was fast...not fast enough, even with that dirty trick he tried. They're gonna have more'n they thought running your...running your outfit out."
The man died then, the light leaving his eyes.
Brad, Dancer, and Jackson took care of Tools and Amos as best they could, while Sandy got her father's buckboard ready for them to borrow, at Charlie's insistance.
Brad tried to tell them to bill the Lazy ZZ for repairs, but Charlie shook his head, and said "Son those RR boys were hunting it tonight, and you gave it to them. I'll be sending a bill to them with Sheriff King, once I've got the repairs done. Collecting may be another story."
Brad was unusually quiet, even for him, on the ride home, but Tools was more than willing to make up for it. Still charged with adrenaline from the gunfight, and hopped up on medical-strength artificial endorphines to help kill the pain and encourage faster healing, he talked nonstop all the way home, and, when Brad left him, Dancer, and the rest of the boys in the bunkhouse, was already turning the tale into something of mythic proportions, in his telling of it to the cowboys who'd missed the original fun.
Brad left to bunkhouse for his own bed to the trailing words "You boys should've seen them, I tell you! Dancer standing there like the Iron Golem himself, in the middle of the room, shooting it out with two, and Brad...that boy was layin 'em down faster than they could pop up! He got the Kid, and four more, after whuppin Ben Richards barehanded, without takin' punch number one! Then he got that gambler dude who was aimin to backshoot him. I never seen nothin like it...never HEARD of nothin' like it!"
Brad was unhappy with Tools's tale telling, especially as it was inflating his part, with each telling. He was very much aware that when one gained a reputation as a gunhand, that person could never walk easy again, as some punk wanting to earn himself a reputation of his own would constantly be making trouble for him.
All Brad wanted was to be known, as his father was, as a fair man to work for, a good man to work with, and a good friend. It wasn't his fault he was good with a gun, and it wasn't his fault these idiots had chosen to hunt trouble with the weakest of his bunch. That's what bullies did...picked a sure thing, and used it to make them look more than they were. He couldn't let his men get hurt so somone else could look stronger. Not right in front of him, when there was anything he, himself, could do about it. Had Tools been the one with the mouth, hunting trouble, Brad knew he'd have let him take an earned whupping, but Tools had no harm in him.
No one was awake in the main house, so Brad gladly snuck off to his own room, and bed, for some sleep.
Waking the next morning even earlier than was his habit, he had only coffee for breaking fast, and saddled up to ride out on his own, before having to face the men full of the tales from last night. Taking Buck up the northwest canyon trail, he ranged farther than was the habit of any of the men on the ranch, figuring on looking into damming another wash this wet season, and possibly to cultivating another wiregrass pasture, to mow for the heavy winter and dry seasons.
Far out on the borders of the Lightning's adknowledged range, Brad was disturbed to have seen signs of unshod riders out in this area. The sign was at least a week old, but all the Lightning's men rode carefully shod stock, as Pa wouldn't have stock mistreated in such a way as to endanger it. Following the tracks, Brad came to an area where beeves' trail mixed with the unshod horses', confusing it quite thouroughly.
With the eyes of an experienced trailman and cowhand, Brad methodically read sign of something at least a week past. At least four riders had come in this trail, none of them Lazy ZZ men. Once here, they had discovered beeves up the canyon end, and, by the sign, they had laid down many of them. Lacking blood signature, Brad was sure those cattle hadn't been killed, so there was only one purpose he could think of for lieing them down...to brand them. By the size of the prints in the dirt, most of these cattle had been old enough to wear brands already.
Blotching brands? That was a serious offense! Who would take the risk, even out here?
Brad followed the trail far into the canyon, until the sunlight passed from the canyon rim, and he couldn't reasonably track any further. Had the trail been fresh, he'd have pressed on, he knew, but a week old trail, he'd never follow without enough light. Trails told their own story, and this one, he felt he couldn't afford to miss a letter of.
Well before first light, he was awake, brewing the strong, bark-infused concoction Mesa cowhands called "coffee". This stuff would've made many an old-Earth naval CPO wince, and, even cold, was strong enough to tan a fresh hide.
Come sunup, Brad was again following the trail, convinced he was following some of those who'd been making off with the Lightning's cattle.
Up the canyon, and into the narrow, grass-littered vallies, he rode, reading the sign like a bloodhound. Already he could tell these were rough men, not given to thought, and with little foresight. Little bits of debris that were salvageable, clear signs of fires left improperly smothered, and the length between capsites showed Brad these men either weren't thoughtful of what came ahead, or were cruel, and unworried about what wear they put on their animals and property.
These signs could be signs of a new hand to the planet, but, more often, in groups like this, it was a sign of hard men, but men riding without a leader amongst them. This, in turn, indicated a party sent out on orders.
The reasoning behind this thought process was simple. Any outlaw band riding together and rustling cattle, blotting brands, and such, would soon be caught, and hung to a man, if they rode as these men did, as a habit. Thus, if they weren't a new outlaw band, which the effective way they worked together at the branding site showed they did indicated they were not, then they had to be part of an established band. No established band would be unknown without a careful leader. A careful leader wouldn't allow such waste or lack of forethought, as it could put him, and the group at risk. Both from the law, and from the desert itself.
Mulling these thoughts over, considering what they meant, and the implications from there, Brad rode towards the home ranch.
At dinner that night, with the hands, Brad tried to maintain a front of his normal joking conviviality with the hands, but was preoccupied with his own thoughts. Dancer and Pa noticed this, and spent some extra time watching him, while trying to decide what could bother the boy so, yet would be something he wouldn't have brought to either of them to discuss.
What it was was Brad knew he didn't have anything more than the dying words of a gambler that noone knew, and only he'd hears, and his own feelings, to base any real mistrust of the RR on. Noone else had seen anything more than some rough behaviour out of men already known to be rough, anyhow...and even the evidence of possible rustling didn't conclusively point to RR hands, just that it was done over towards their claims.
Knowing all of this, Brad was puzzling over why anyone would want to attempt to drive the Lightning out, when they had claims of their own right nearby with plenty of water and grass, and why anyone would risk their necks being stretched by blotting brands and rustling, if they had a good herd of their own, plus trying to figure out exactly why the RR seemed to have marked him, in particular, for trouble.
more to come, but tell me what you think, please