1 The Bounty On Coalmine Murphy

"Zeke, I'm going to tell you a story," Amos said, and gave me one of his Looks over the rim of his whiskey glass. Gray eyes sharp and full of wickedness, smirking like the spoiled child he was.

"All right," I said, not much caring.

"All right," he echoed, and downed the shot. "It's the tale of an outlaw."

"This better not get personal."

He laughed and waved that aside. "You know I only pretend to be bad. No, this is a story about a hard-hearted sonofabitch they call Coalmine Murphy."

Some motion or change drew my attention to the bar, but by the time I focused it had gone, whatever it was. I gave the barroom a lookover while I listened to Amos, wondering if what I scented was trouble. Plenty of big, rough-looking men in there, this end of the season, but they looked like mainly cowhands nursing out the last of their pay before looking for other work. Nobody as crazy-looking as, say, prospectors with pockets full of gold dust, nor rustlers anyone might know as such. Not in Abilene in the fall. Probably just a wink off somebody's glass.

"They call him Coalmine Murphy," Amos was saying, "by reason of his soul, which is as black as a coal mine and twice as low. Wickedest man in this wicked world ever since the devil sired him on a Mexican whore."

"So Murphy's a Mexican name now?"

"It's customary to take your pa's name, ain't it?" Amos drawled.

"Wouldn't astound me if the devil was Irish, but which of them named the poor tot Coalmine? No wonder the kid went bad."

"I could do without the commentary, Ezekiel."

I gestured generously with my glass that he was to go ahead. I knew he liked when I argued with him. It was attention, it made his story into a conversation. I thought that was probably the reason he took up with me. I gave him all the attention he could want. He was funny and talkative, and a handsome devil too, and though I don't discuss it, I'm a pushover for a handsome face. Not that I expected to get anything but conversation from him. Maybe a flirting remark when he was well drunk. It contented me for the time being.

"Now, Coalmine Murphy is an outlaw, as I said. A rustler like his pa --"

"His pa the Irish devil."

"-- but more than a thief, he's a killer of men. Fifteen men he's shot down in cold blood, and not a one of 'em gave offense to deserve it."

Now I was sure I saw something out of the corner of my eye, and this time I turned quick enough to see it. A man at the near end of the bar had gone tense at those words. A big man, slim at the waist but broad at the shoulders, with a tousle of black hair, and big pale hands wrapped around a bottle. Riding his hips was a pair of short-barrel Peacemakers, and I could see on the near one how the leather of the holster was worn where a draw would rub it. That was a gunfighter, that man.

I began to have a suspicion.

"Amos," I said, "I'm about drank out. Think I'll turn in. You coming?"

Amos's puzzled look was almost as cute as his wicked one, and just as calculated. "I'm in the middle of a story, Zeke."

"Maybe you could tell me what's the point of relating it."

"Just to pass the time, I guess."

"Pass the time walking with me round by the livery. I'm a little concerned over the horses with all these fellows drinking the end of their pay."

"You are a fuss and a hen and a wet blanket, Ezekiel Moss, and you ain't going anywhere til I finish my goddamn story."

Sighing, I put my glass down on a puddle of spilled whiskey and pushed it to see it skate. He took this as an invitation to continue.

"What I'm telling you, Zeke, is this man's even worse'n that. If ever he catches a woman alone, well, she's in some trouble, I tell you. Only she don't live long enough to fret on it, for once he's had his fun --"

"Amos," I interrupted. I was watching the man at the end of the bar this time, and I saw his hands release the bottle and his thighs tense, then half relax, as he thought of standing up and then thought again.

"Goddamn it, Zeke." Amos was watching the man too. My suspicion hardened to almost a surety.

"Amos, I count you a friend, and a good friend too."

Amos looked back to me, this time really puzzled, not putting it on. "You ain't drank that much yet."

"You listen. I am the kind of man who would do near anything for a friend, and I think you know it." I showed him I had a Look of my own. He'd never seen this one yet, and it stilled him. I don't know how I appear to an onlooker when I look like that, just fixing a fellow's eyes steady, but it seems to make folks freeze up. "But only near anything. If you take a running jump off a cliff, Amos, I will not dive ahead to break your fall."

Amos was silent a moment. I saw he took my meaning. He tipped the bottle above his glass, but it was empty. "Guess you've got me nervous over them horses too," he said in a low voice. "Guess I could stand to take a turn by the livery and look in on 'em."

"Good man," I said, and we got up and went.

As we passed the man at the bar, we both took a curious glance at him, but he kept his face turned away. His broad back was stiff as a board, though, and while his hands weren't on his guns, well, as it takes one to know one, I wouldn't have wagered I could get a shot off before he did.

So I reflected, as we walked on, that I didn't appreciate Amos taking that wager with my life as the stake, and without consulting me on it either.

I didn't know the kid all that well, to be honest. I came into Abilene at the end of a cattle drive, like so many others, and spent my pay on drink and baths and soft beds just like those others, only the soft beds for me weren't ones with whores in 'em. I just like to sleep in. Guess I'm a slower drinker than most, too, and not much for fighting and hollering either. Amos looked to be another quiet type, and we sort of gradually magnetized into drinking at the same table. He showed me he liked to talk, and I showed I liked to listen, and so we got along. I guessed he was about eighteen or nineteen, a few years younger than me. He said he'd been wrangler on his first drive and didn't like it much. Wasn't sure he wanted to keep on with working cattle, wondered why I did it.

I told him the truth, that I had a couple of good stock horses and no other skills so I reckoned I might as well. He laughed and bought me a drink, and after that we were more like friends. I found out he was camping out in the long grass, so I invited him to share my room. Mainly because the nights were getting chilly, to be honest. Sure the thought crossed my mind now and then that I might wake up with his hand down my fly, but it was an idle wish, like striking gold or meeting someone famous.

This new game of his unnerved me. I wondered what he meant by it. Was he testing me? Testing to see if I'd throw a gun on his behalf? Or if I was fast enough to take this outlaw of his? Or wanted the man dead, or me dead, for some reason of his own?

I am a distrustful person by nature, but for the sake of what's left of religion in me, I fight against it. I fought to trust Amos that night as we looked in on my horses and then went up to bed. We took off our boots, put out the light, and shared out the blankets as always, but this time I didn't turn my back on him. I lay flat instead. That meant our shoulders fought for space, but I just didn't feel right having him behind me.

"Are you angry at me, Zeke?" he said softly.

He sounded so young all of a sudden. If I hadn't had my hands on my stomach, I would've thought it turned to butter and melted right off my spine. It took me a long time to muster an answer. "Maybe just a little bit. You got me wondering, at least."

"Why?"

Then it crossed my mind that all the evidence I had was in looks and pauses and the tensing of a stranger's leg, and maybe it wouldn't sound so good out loud. So all I said was, "Never mind. I'll get past it. I just have these moods. Go to sleep, Amos."

"If you say so," he said, with a shrug that jostled me, and turned his back to sleep.

He was gone when I woke up. He was up before me more often than not, so I thought nothing of it. I got some water and had a wash and a shave, combed my hair, scrubbed my teeth, and gave myself a good looking-over since the room had a mirror in it. I confess to taking some care over my looks. It's not that I'm a vain man, exactly. Things just run smoother when you present a pleasing appearance.

And I guess that pleasing appearance was still new enough to interest me, too. Up until I was maybe twenty, I was a weedy kid, hands too big for my arms and a neck with an elbow in it. Tall looked silly on me. Blond didn't look too dignified either, with my eyebrows the same color as my forehead like they were. But in the past few years I'd filled out some, and my hair finally darkened like yellow hair sometimes does, until it was more of a palomino color. Having eyebrows did a wonder for my face. I let my hair grow long like Wild Bill's, though less to ape him and more because when you don't see a barber half the year you might as well give up on haircuts altogether. I guess it suited me all right. I had a hope my eyes would darken too, but they stayed light, about the color of a heat haze, which more than one man told me put him in mind of a deaf horse.

I had clean clothes to go with my comb-and-shave, though they were working clothes. The hotel fellow had made an effort with my boots, too, and taken a brush to my hat. I was feeling downright handsome when I went out into the thoroughfare in search of some breakfast.

Before settling on what to eat, though, it crossed my mind to see if Amos took one of my horses out. I'd told him he could, a few days before, and now I wasn't sure I trusted him with them. Not that I thought he'd steal them, exactly, but when a man shows himself to be devious you feel an urge to take a fresh look at everything he does. I turned down an alley and went into the livery the back way, since I knew my horses were closer to that end of the stable. I was relieved to see them both there, big ugly Hammerhead and quick little Frostbite, looking up at my coming as if they wanted to ask when we'd be on our way.

I went to greet them, thinking maybe I'd take them out for a run -- and nearly tripped over the dark man from the bar. He was sleeping in the hay in front of Hammerhead's stall. Dead drunk from the smell of him, and not a care in the world from the way he sprawled there in the way of those big dark hooves. Hammerhead had done him no harm, of course; that animal will about float in the air to keep from stepping on a prone man, or a bit of ground he doesn't trust for that matter. But Coalmine Murphy didn't know that. If he was, in fact, Coalmine Murphy, and not some other man who had reason to tense up on hearing Amos prattle about the name.

I squatted on my heels to give him a look-over. Tall as me, or taller, and with a fair bit more muscle on him; that much I could see last night in the bar. He wasn't hairy, though, as big men often are. His hands and arms hardly had a fuzz to them. His jaw, too, from what I could see under the mess of his hair, barely had a shadow on it. Young, then, or maybe part Injun. Or Mexican, I supposed, like the story said, because some of those Mexicanos can't grow one hair on their chins even if their moustaches drag behind 'em like the train on a ball gown. He was sure pale though. Pale, but not pink pale. More like new cream.

His kit was all worn and grimy. Holes in his jeans, holes in his shirt, a hole in the sole of his boot. Only the guns were in good condition. But he couldn't have been all that bad off if he still had those. And money to drink, too, unless someone stood him the bottle that put him here.

He gave a grunting snuffle like a contented pig and flopped onto his back. Hammerhead sidled in an offended way as a hand fell near his forehoof. Murphy's black hair slid aside from his face, and I finally got a good look at him.

My thoughts on Amos, as I've said, were idle, and didn't trouble me much. What came over me at the sight of Murphy, though, troubled me plenty. This was one goddamned handsome man. No, more like beautiful, like that boy in the story who fell in love with his own reflection. Even the blast of whiskey breath didn't put that impression aside, since the drink put roses in his ivory cheeks. I rocked back on my heels and stared and stared. I could leave Amos alone and not even bother dropping hints to him, but if Murphy spoke to me, I feared just then I'd confess to every hot flush of feeling, or maybe just leap on him without so much as giving my name. I was that bothered.

Then he opened his eyes, and I don't know why I didn't fall over. His eyes about killed me at the very first glance. I saw at once why his hair was such a perfect black but he had no beard to speak of: the parent that wasn't a Murphy was Chinese! His eyes had that angle to them, there's no mistaking it if you've seen a half-Chinese before. A real pretty hazel color, too, like the prairie at the end of summer when it just starts to turn from green to gold. And when they were handing out eyelashes, Coalmine Murphy went through the line three times.

He looked up at me with those miraculous Zeke-slaying eyes and cracked a grin. "Hey," he said.

"Hey," I said back, and then shut my trap. There was no knowing what would come out if I got to talking.

"Thought you might come by here sooner or later." He levered himself to a sitting position, hand to his head. No doubt to keep his brains in, if he was half as hung over as he should've been. "Mr. Moss, ain't it?"

I nodded. After a moment's stupid hesitation I offered my hand. "And you'd be Mr. Murphy?"

His grin, which had faded a bit as he felt his head, freshened up at this. He climbed to his feet, and so did I. He shook my hand. "Don't know if I should admit to it after what your friend told you."

"Maybe you can shed some light. I can't guess what he was after."

"Can't you?" he said shrewdly.

"No, sir, I can't, and to tell the truth I don't want to know. Only I reckon I'd better, unless he's done with it. Why do you suppose he wanted you and me to fight?"

"Maybe he wants you to prove your devotion," Murphy laughed.

My face felt hot, but I told myself he wouldn't see that in the dark of the stable, and anyway, it was a warm day. "Well, I gave him my answer to that. I'd die defending a friend, sure, but not for a stupid reason. So is his reason stupid, Murphy? Or maybe one of them fellows he said you killed was a relative of his."

"Oh, you'd die for his revenge?" The grin was gone, trimmed back to a sad smile. He shook his head. "To tell the truth, I wouldn't know. I've shot a few men, I confess that to you. Nobody who didn't go for his gun first, but I guess it doesn't matter if you believe me or not. Thing is, if it's not vengeance he's after, then it's money. Did he tell you there's a bounty on me?"

"No."

"Well, there is, and it's a big one. If that's his reason, would you die for that?"

"No. Man, drunk as you are, I don't think I'm the one who'd die. But making Amos rich ain't worth my life. Why talk to me, though? Why not just cut town? You've proved you could steal my horses if you want. Guess you proved you know where I sleep, too, if you followed me this far."

"And I know you two sleep in the same room." His eyes watched mine closely.

"I'm doing that boy a charity. He'd be sleeping in the grass otherwise."

His eyes narrowed with what looked like the beginning of anger. "Maybe it ain't me he wants dead."

"That crossed my mind," I said mildly. "Only why are you mad about it?"

"Had that same charity offered me a time or two. Not by a handsome young fella like you, though, so maybe he should count himself lucky instead of blaming other folks for what he done."

I finally realized what he thought. I laughed at myself for being thick. Having it on my mind all this time, you'd think I'd recognize it when someone raised the topic. "Jesus. You mistook my meaning. It ain't that kind of charity. We split up the blankets, I never laid a hand on him. So did you accept those offers, Murphy?"

"That's none of your goddamn business," he growled, and the sound of it, and the flash of his eyes, put a fire in my belly. "I'm just here to tell you to find out why he's set you after me, or me after you, and decide what you're going to do about it. And I thought I'd see if you're the kind of man to shoot me in the back or the kind to come at me in the open." The anger subsided as he answered his own question. "I don't think you'd shoot me in the back."

"No. You're right about that."

He nodded. I thought he'd leave then, but he didn't. There was an awkward silence while we both tried to work out if we were done talking. He turned to look over the horses. "To tell the truth," he said with the slow return of his grin, "I don't know which of these hosses is yours. You only stuck your head in last night, and I didn't see where you was looking."

I knew I shouldn't tell him, but I was still a little addled by attraction. And damn it, I just plain liked him. The way he went from anger to laughter in an instant made me feel light in my heart. "The paint there, that's Frostbite, he's my cutter. The gray, Hammerhead, I use for roping. He's got some endurance, too, long as I don't make him run. Never needed to take a remount from the string while I had these two with me."

"That's no gray," Murphy said, tilting his chin at Hammerhead.

I gave him a confused half-smile, trying to see the joke. "He's gray as a steel hammer, Murphy, and no prettier neither."

"Yeah, but he ain't properly a gray, see? He's what they call a blue dun. Look how his head and tail are darker than his back."

I snorted. "Thanks for the education."

"Well, he won't go white when he's older like grays do."

"Guess I would've found that out on my own with time."

"And if you put him to stud," Murphy said patiently, "there's no chance of him siring a dead white. I mean a real white that dies foaling. That failing ain't in his blood, if he's dun. Which he is."

I laughed. "Who'd put a dog-headed brute like him to stud?"

"I would. That endurance you talked about, I have a line that could use it."

I took a closer look at him. "Huh. I guess it wasn't cattle you rustled, then. And to keep, not sell. You have a ranch somewhere?"

"Cattle and hosses both. But I never killed a man before that bounty was put out. After that, well, I had to defend myself." His black brows drew together. "Never forced myself on a woman, neither, and I'd like to know who's the shit-heel who put that on the list of my crimes."

"Could be Amos made it up himself to see if it'd get you off that barstool."

"It nearly did." He looked at the ground, then back up at my face, and gave me a crooked smile. "Glad I stayed put. I was well and truly shitfaced last night. I think you woulda killed me if I drew."

"And that would've been a shame," I said firmly. "I'm going to find out what Amos wants. If you did kill his brother or some damn thing... well, you and me will discuss it face to face, you know that now."

He nodded. Hesitated one more moment, then turned and went out. I appreciated his going out first, because much as I liked him, I'd have felt uneasy leaving him with my horses. And I did enjoy watching him walk away. The back view was nearly as fine as the front.