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Bounty Hunter

Bounty Hunter

By Scriptorius


Bounty Hunter

“Don’t you ever bring them in alive?” grunted Sheriff Douglas Greenaway. The toe of his left boot traced an arc in the thin scurf of snow on the sidewalk outside his office as he looked across the hitching rail at a pair of horses. Draped across the saddle of one was the corpse of Ben Avery, former killer and bank robber. Astride the other was Dave Bartlett, aged thirty, an inch under six feet tall, heavily built, with a round, clean-shaven face, pale blue eyes and, under the battered black hat, sandy hair, already thinning.

“They don’t usually give me much choice,” he answered, easing himself down from the big grullo. What he said was true. The men he usually tangled with were the most notorious desperadoes, who had everything to gain by shooting their way to freedom and little to lose by being cut down in the process, since they would hang anyway if taken alive.

Bartlett’s occupation was not universally regarded as a savoury one. Some people were indifferent to bounty hunters, while many hated them and few admired them. That didn’t seem right to Dave, when he could be bothered to think about it. After all, what was he doing? He was ridding society of pests, reducing the workload of official lawmen and helping to make life safer for the settlers pouring into the West.

None of that cut any ice with Saltwater’s law custodian Greenaway, who detested those he called scalpers in general and Dave Bartlett in particular. He made no secret of this as he looked into the challenging eyes of the man he considered barely better than an outlaw. The hostility radiating from the sheriff could have penetrated the hide of a pachyderm. Bartlett was not the most sensitive of men, but he felt himself singed by Greenaway’s projected loathing. “You don’t like me one little bit, do you?” he said.

“No, Bartlett, I don’t. If you really want to know, I’d just as soon see you as anybody else brought in sideways over a saddle.”

“You’ve no call to talk that way,” Bartlett snapped. “Maybe you don’t like the way I make a living, but it saves you and your kind a lot of trouble. Anyway, I’m not asking you to like me, just to pay me.”

“You’ll get paid,” the Sheriff replied. “Come by this afternoon. Meanwhile you can hand over that hardware you’re toting. I don’t allow firearms in town any longer. Collect them when you leave and make sure you do that by sundown.”

The two men had crossed swords more than once over the subject of Bartlett’s livelihood, but Greenaway was in a particularly malevolent mood this time. Bartlett glared up at him. “I don’t see where you have the right to order me around like that,” he said as he handed over his rifle and handgun.

The lawman stood to his full six feet three inches, his hefty, paunchy frame up on the sidewalk towering over the bounty hunter standing in the iron-frozen wagon ruts of the street. Even without the force of law behind him, Greenaway would have been an intimidating figure. “What do you aim to do about it?” he asked, his speech changing suddenly to a mildness which Bartlett realised was more dangerous than the open fury it replaced.

Of course, Greenaway held the reins. Bartlett didn’t like the instructions, but he was in no position to defy them, though he had intended to stay in town for two or three days. “All right, I’ll go,” he muttered. “I don’t reckon you’ll object to my eating while I’m here – or have you banned that as well?”

The sheriff was already turning back to his office. “Eat all you want,” he said. “Get whatever else you need. See me around three o’clock for your blood money, then get out.” He stomped inside, slamming the door with a force that shook snow from the awning.

Bartlett was annoyed. In four years, he had brought in the cadavers of seven high-priced bandits, three of them to Greenaway. Somewhere along the line, rightly or wrongly, he’d rationalised his work. In his mind, he was an unofficial agent of justice, if not of the law. The spasm of anger passed quickly. In this line of business, a man had to get used to being a loner. Not many people wanted to keep company with a manhunter.

Leaving the dead bandit for the Sheriff to deal with, Bartlett trudged off to the livery stable, ensured care for his horse, then went to the better of the town’s two saloons where, his alcohol tolerance being limited, he contented himself with a couple of beers. Next he bought supplies to last him a couple of weeks. Finally, with the sheriff’s deadline looming, he treated himself to a meal of steak, eggs, potatoes and apple pie.

At three o’clock, with a fall of fine snow beginning to sift along the street, he returned to Greenaway’s office to collect his weapons and reward money. That done, he paused to look at the wanted dodgers pinned to the notice board, seeking to establish whether any of the villains on show deserved his attention. Deciding that none of them did, he turned to head for the door, then at the last moment saw a new-looking poster, part-covered by a ledger, on the lawman’s desk. He pointed at it. “Who’s that?”

Greenaway sighed. “I was hoping we wouldn’t get around to this,” he said, hauling out the dodger. “Still, I guess you’ve as much right as anybody else to see it. Arrived this morning. Shame you didn’t come and go yesterday, but since you’re here, you’d better sit down for this one.”

Intrigued, Bartlett took the proffered paper and dropped onto one of the couple of bare wooden chairs that Greenaway kept for visitors. Looking down, he twitched involuntarily, even his tough constitution jolted. Staring up at him was a face which, apart from its trim moustache and short beard, was his own.

With a head-shake, he handed the poster back. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. “So he’s really notorious now, is he?”

“Yes. Your twin brother. Changed his name, but that didn’t fool me. He’s top of the wanted list now. Didn’t know that myself until today.”

Dave Bartlett was still staring at the picture. “What did he do?” he said.

“Robbed a bank. When they tried to stop him, he shot a teller dead, then when he was running for his horse, he knocked a ten-year-old boy into the path of freight wagon. They say the kid’ll never walk again.”

“I’d better bring him in,” said Bartlett.

Hardened though he was, the lawman was taken aback by this one. “For heaven’s sake man,” he almost shouted. “This is your brother.”

Now it was Bartlett’s turn to show irritation. “Listen to me, Greenaway,” he barked. “He may be my identical twin, but he stinks in spades. Let me tell you about him. When we were youngsters, he was a real louse. He never passed up a single chance to give me a hard time. Got me into trouble more often than I can remember. If there’s a man in this world I have cause to hate, it’s my brother.”

It was an unusually long speech from the normally taciturn bounty hunter and for a moment Greenaway was astounded by the man’s vehemence. He sat nodding, collecting his thoughts, then scraped back his chair, slapping his palms on meaty thighs. “Well Bartlett,” he said at length, “I never took you for the emotional type. I was going to say something about blood being thicker than water, but I guess I’d be wasting my breath.”

“Yes, you would.”

Now it was time for Greenaway to shake his head. “I always had a low opinion of you,” he said, “but I guess you’ve found new depths. I reckon a man who’d go out hunting his own brother must be about the lowest of the low. As between you and him, I don’t know which one I’d rather see in jail.”

“Don’t lecture me about family matters,” Bartlett snarled. “You have your experiences and I have mine.”

Greenaway inclined his head towards the door. “Get out,” he said quietly, “before I throw you out. And don’t forget what I said about leaving town.”

Bartlett stamped across the street, cursing as he wrenched a foot in one of the vicious ruts. “To hell with this for a one-eyed place anyway,” he muttered to himself, then, balancing his ire against the reward he’d just received, he put the argument with Greenaway behind him, concentrating instead on his brother.

As the lawman had said, Lew had changed his family name and was now known as Lew Wharton. The price on him was two thousand dollars, dead or alive. This time, Bartlett would try hard to make it alive, though he had no doubt that had their roles been reversed, Lew would have had no such scruple.

Mindful of the sheriff’s last words, Bartlett lugged his purchases to the livery stable, saddled up and moved out into the drab main street. The brief flurry of snow had stopped and he looked westward through the clear air to the bulk of the mountains, a good day’s ride away. He had no doubt that his brother was holed up there and he had a good idea where.

Camping in the foothills that night, Dave Bartlett thought about his bitter exchanges with Sheriff Greenaway. It never occurred to Dave that he might be in the wrong. Nor did he entertain the possibility of treating his brother much differently from any other outlaw. He would make some extra effort to avoid killing him. That was enough. What he had told the sheriff was true. Lew had made his early life miserable.

The boys’ mother had died when they were four years old and they had been brought up by a father who, besides being stern by nature, was usually overworked, fatigued and careworn. He provided shelter, food and clothing for the boys, but the unremitting toil involved in making a living left him little time or inclination for pastoral care. He was just, according to his lights, which sometimes did not burn as brightly as they might have done.

Dave had found the general monotony and endless chores of the domestic scene dispiriting enough without the added woes caused by the behaviour of his brother. It had never been clear to Dave whether his own somewhat misanthropic bent had arisen from his innate character or from Lew’s malign influence. Inclined as he was to self-justification, he preferred to believe the latter. He’d spent a good deal of time trying to work out why such a strange situation should arise between twin brothers. Eventually, he ascribed it to one of Lew’s boyhood accidents, when he had fallen from a hay loft, receiving a mighty crack on the head.

Both boys had left home while still in their teens. Dave went first, Lew shortly afterwards. Within two years of the boys’ departure, their father had died, penniless despite the years of labour. There were no other relations.

Since striking out on their respective ways, Dave and Lew had met only once, even that encounter being unintentional. Lew had already made a reputation for himself as a small-time bandit and when the twins’ paths had crossed, he had been with a choice pack of ruffians and clearly enjoying the company. Even now, years later, Dave’s mouth twisted in a thin grimace as he recalled the occasion. Well, they would meet again now, for Dave was sure he would find Lew. This time it would be just the two of them, as it was well known that the outlaw now worked alone.

Dave had no illusions about tackling his brother. Lew was an expert at living in the wilds, especially in these mountains. He had few equals as a tracker and in a land of fine marksmen, he was as good as they came. Also, he had more than his fair share of cunning. Dave was a formidable operator in his chosen field, but he suspected that this time he might be biting off at least as much as he could chew.

It didn’t take Dave long to start picking up sign and Lew was equally quick to realise that he was being pursued. For five days, the deadly game went on, the two men quartering a region of the mountains that each knew well, zigzagging, backtracking and overlapping.

Lew could have made a run for it but Dave knew he wouldn’t. This was not only a manhunt, but also a matter of pride. Dave had never failed to bring in his man, while Lew had never been outsmarted by anyone. Dave excelled at what he did, with no pretensions in other fields. Lew had no speciality, but was versatile. Though he had not been chased quite like this before, his whole adult existence had been spent living by his wits and he was accustomed to coping with the unfamiliar. It was a classic contest.

On the morning of the sixth day, Dave scented success. He had camped on high ground. After taking a cold breakfast, he exploited his fine vantage point, inspecting the land to the west with his telescope. In the distance, beyond a wide belt of pines which he knew to be five or six miles from his position, there was a strip of open ground running north-south for as far as he could see, and seemingly several hundred yards wide. It was swept bare of snow by the wind, and bounded to the west by a high escarpment. Dave knew that in that rock face were caves, at least two of which offered shelter, though neither could be classed as a secure hiding place.

It was as likely a spot as any, Dave decided. He would have to go down, up and down again, and do it with the utmost care. Within ten minutes he was on his way. It took him three tense hours to cover the distance to the far edge of the woodland, his necessarily slow progress being further hampered by a short but heavy snow shower.

Reaching the western fringe of the conifers, Dave emerged cautiously, to view the rock-strewn open stretch. Threading his way through the trees, he rode slowly along for over a mile, then stopped, drawing in his breath in mixed surprise and satisfaction. The earlier shower had deposited a white carpet over the open expanse and there, leading towards the rock face, were hoofprints. That they were fresh was clear, for Dave had seen from his morning survey that the ground had been practically snow-free. It was now noon and the flurry had stopped at around ten. The tracks were no more than two hours old.

Could it be that Lew was slipping at last? It wouldn’t be characteristic of him to leave such a trail, but there it was. Dave moved back into the trees, mounted his horse and began to make a long shallow arc to the south-west. It would take time, but would get him to the end of the escarpment, from where he could cross the open space, then move back northwards along the wall of rock. One of the caves was, he’d noted, almost directly facing his start point. Was Lew really there? That seemed too easy.

It took Dave much of the afternoon to reach his goal. Arriving at the southern end of his horseshoe-shaped detour, he left his mount and began walking slowly along the base of the escarpment. He was less than five yards from the cave mouth he was seeking when he smelt cooking meat. There was no noise, nor was there a horse in sight – and Dave was aware from first-hand experience that the contours of the cave didn’t admit of one being concealed there. But the hoofprints were clear, running arrow-straight across the open space and becoming jumbled outside the cave where rider and animal had stopped, then continuing north alongside the rock wall.

Dave, his nerves now strung like piano wire, covered the remaining ground virtually inch by inch. He knew that the cave was about fifteen feet deep and had no nook or cranny for anyone to hide in, so one glance would reveal everything inside. Still, he took some time to summon up the will to poke his head out the last few inches. He was nonplussed by what he saw. It was a camp all right – fire, saddle, bedroll, tin plates and cups, a small sack of flour and what looked like a chunk of roasted beef, suspended on a spit over the low flames. But like his mount, the man was absent.

Now so far committed, Dave was drawn the rest of the way. Even so, it was fully two minutes before he moved towards the fire. Three feet from it he found a scrap of paper in a knife-cleft at the top of a short stick, rammed into the ground. With a sinking feeling, he pulled out and straightened what he was already convinced was a message to him. He read:

You’re good, but not good enough. I guess you’ll have to get up a little earlier to catch me. Keep trying, but remember I’m watching you. Lew.

It was a chastening experience for the great hunter. He tossed the paper into the fire and considered his next move. He could stay in the cave, awaiting his brother’s pleasure, but he had no illusions about what might happen if he did that. Lew was quite capable of throwing in a stick of dynamite, or holding Dave at gunpoint while walling him in with rocks, or thinking up some other equally unpleasant idea.

Almost certainly the fugitive – or were the roles now reversed? – was outside somewhere, observing, so any attempt by Dave to sidle out slowly wouldn’t work. The only move that made any sense would be to rush out, weaving across the open space towards the trees, taking advantage of the cover offered by one or other of the many boulders scattered around. It would be extremely hazardous, but even Lew might be hard pressed to hit a fast-moving man continually changing course.

Dave’s decision was helped by another fall of snow. Taking advantage of the extra cover it offered, he raced from the cave, tacking erratically, making for a scatter of rocks two hundred yards ahead. It was a hair-raising chance to take, but he made it. For anything he knew, he might have been heading straight for Lew, but he rated that a justifiable risk.

Reaching the scant cover of the rocks, Dave sprawled flat, lying motionless for ten minutes, trying to work out his next step. Eventually, satisfied that his move had succeeded, he crawled to the largest of the boulders dotted around him. Rising to his knees, he scanned the area.

The stretch of open ground between the rock face to the west and the trees to the east was now enjoying the last few minutes of full daylight, as the sun began to set behind the escarpment. Suddenly, Dave started, catching something reflecting from the top of a rock, a little over a hundred yards to the northeast. Having brought his telescope along, he made use of it. What he saw were two close-set points glinting in the sunshine, with dark patches to left and right of them.

So that was it – binoculars in black-gloved hands. The head must have been well down, behind the rock, out of sight. As he had indicated, Lew was watching, but he’d made a slight slip. Perhaps he’d grown over-confident. It would probably be Dave’s only chance and he decided to take it. Somewhere, low behind those glasses must be the watcher’s hairline. Even to get close to a hit was going to be difficult, but at least it would show Lew that he’d been spotted and carry the attack to him. Cautiously, Dave snugged his rifle to his shoulder then, exposing himself for a moment, sighted and fired.

It was a fine shot. The field glasses leapt backwards and both dark blobs disappeared behind the rock. Dave cowered down again, waiting nearly five minutes in the unnerving silence before he began to get back to his feet. He’d barely levered himself upright when he felt his right foot almost knocked from under him, just as he heard the crack of a rifle. He looked down to find that the heel of his boot had been removed. Knowing his brother, he didn’t need two guesses to work out that the shot had been as intentional as it was accurate.

“Hold it right there.” Lew’s sharp command came from behind. “Don’t move a muscle.”

Dave stopped, rooted to the spot, his hands holding the rifle in front of him across the rock. An instant later he heard Lew’s weapon snap again. This time it was Dave’s left boot heel, shorn away as neatly as its mate. It was exhibition shooting.

“You can turn around now,” Lew called. Dave swung to see his brother advancing on him. “Thought that trick with the glasses might fool you,” Lew shouted. “Now, you can leave the rifle, shuck the gun belt and move a little to your right, away from the rocks.”

Dave discarded his armament and hobbled on his mangled boots out into open space. Lew closed in quickly. “I reckoned you’d come, Dave,” he said, “but I figured you’d do better. Now you can just teeter over to the cave yonder and rest up. You’re not going anywhere for a while.”

Lew was right. For over two weeks he kept his brother prisoner. Dave was well fed and allowed a brief exercise period each day. Between times, he was guarded carefully and, during Lew’s frequent absences, tied securely. Not that the precaution was really necessary, for Lew had removed Dave’s horse and each time he disappeared, he also took away his brother’s socks and the mutilated boots. Without weapons, horse or footwear, Dave would not have survived, even if he had escaped.

Usually, Lew went off twice a day but on two occasions, he was away from morning until late evening. He had always been notorious for his sudden mood changes. During his brother’s captivity, he had been mostly grim and uncommunicative, but twice he had flown into towering rages. Once Dave asked for his razor and some hot water, so that he could shave his fast growing beard. Lew refused, saying that he had no intention of letting Dave get hold of anything sharp before they parted company. Dave stroked his unfamiliar whiskers in resignation, deciding not to ask for any further favours.

One night Lew returned after being away since early morning. For once, he was in high spirits. “We’re moving on tomorrow,” he said busying himself over the fire with a skillet full of thick slices of bacon.

“Moving on?” said Dave. “I swear Lew, I don’t know what the hell you’re up to, but if you aim to shoot me, why don’t you do it now?”

Lew laughed long and loud. “Shoot you?” he said at last. “No. I have plans for you all right, but they don’t include any shooting.”

Overcoming his fear of his brother’s strange ways, Dave probed, but Lew was not to be drawn. He would only repeat that he had something in mind. Finally, he lost patience with the questions, turned savagely on Dave and told him to wait and see.

The following morning they made an early start. Lew turned up with Dave’s boots, which had been repaired somewhere, and his horse. They rode slowly, bearing eastwards, keeping to the cover of the trees wherever possible. That night they camped eight miles west of Saltwater. Lew had lapsed into another of his silent moods and Dave had given up trying to work out what his brother intended.

The captured bounty hunter spent a restless night and was relieved to be fully awake by dawn. Lew was already up and about, whistling tunelessly and splashing in the nearby stream. Then he appeared, in jovial mood, his hair cut short, beard, moustache and sideburns gone.

Suppressing his curiosity, Dave said nothing as they ate breakfast in silence. Lew cleaned up, packed everything but the two tin cups they’d been using, then came back to the dying fire, carrying a bottle of whiskey. “Now, brother,” he said. “I guess we’ll not be meeting again after today, so we’re going to have a farewell drink.” He filled the cups, handed one to Dave and raised the other in salute. “Get it down, Dave,” he beamed. “I guess I outwitted you and I kept you quiet till the hue and cry was over. After this, we’ll go our separate ways to the bad place.”

Dave shook his head in weary acceptance of his brother’s odd conduct. “Well,” he said at length, “you sure got he better of me and I’ll drink to that, but I swear I don’t know what your game is.”

“Game,” said Lew, laughing. “Why should I be playing games? I just beat the best manhunter in the business and I’m free. I guess that calls for a celebration. Here, we’ll finish the bottle.”

Dave stared glumly at his brother. “It’s a real shame about you, Lew,” he said. “A man with your talents. Still, it’s your life, so you’ll do what you want with it.”

“That’s right,” Lew answered, “and I don’t see where you’re in any position to talk down to me. Your own way’s none too praiseworthy.”

Dave was about to answer when Lew leaned forward, eyes suddenly blazing in one of those alarmingly abrupt changes of mood. “Cut the lecture,” he snarled. “I’m in control here and I say for once we’re going to get liquored up together. It’s little enough for a man to ask of his own brother.” He went back to his horse, untied a small sack from the bedroll and returned, producing two more bottles of the cheap, fiery whiskey. “I aim to see us well and truly drunk,” he said. “Let’s get to it.”

Shortly after midday, Sheriff Doug Greenaway was roused from a doze by the sound of horses halting outside his office. He appeared on the sidewalk, to be greeted by the not unfamiliar sight of two mounts, one bearing a grim-looking rider, the other with a man tied sideways across the saddle. “You just had to kill again, did you?” he said, looking into the pale blue eyes of the dismounting rider.

“Not this time. He’s just drunk. I’ll help you in with him, then if you’ve seen to the reward, I’ll be on my way.”

“I already have the money,” the sheriff replied. “I figured you’d be along today.” The two men hauled the bound, senseless captive from the second horse and carried the bundle into one of Greenaway’s cells. Then, with scarcely another word spoken, the sheriff, having identified the prisoner, handed his other visitor a sheaf of bills. “Here you are. Now go, quick,” he grated. In return he got one chilling look from those eyes, then he was alone.

Two hours later, Dave Bartlett came to his senses. It took a few minutes for him to grasp that he was in Greenaway’s charge, then his protests began. They were long and loud, but fell on deaf ears. The sheriff was busy counting. He reached one thousand dollars – his share of the bounty for the capture of Lew Wharton, killer and thief. Behind his facade of probity, Greenaway had proved himself easily corruptible. Only two men – the one who’d brought in the prisoner and the Saltwater sheriff himself – knew that the lawman had unofficially accepted half the reward. Neither of them would ever tell.

The members of a hastily convened jury had difficulty in suppressing their mirth at Dave Bartlett’s patently risible claim of mistaken identity. Nobody but Dave had the slightest doubt as to who was on trial. It might have helped if old man Bartlett had still been around, but as he was long gone and as neither Dave nor Lew had kin or friends, nobody came forward to clarify the position. After all, who could be expected to care about the fate of either an outlaw or a manhunter?

A month later and five hundred miles further south, Lew Bartlett, alias Lew Wharton, had changed his name for the last time. He was now Dave Bartlett, bounty hunter. He sat in an easy chair in the lobby of the best hotel in town, smoking a large cigar and sipping French brandy. Before him on the table was a copy of the Saltwater Valley Sentinel, specially delivered to him. Always an avid news gatherer, he’d read the paper from beginning to end – and had been particularly interested in the lurid account of his own hanging.

* * *

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14 Apr, 2018
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