The bright autumn day seemed to darken when the three riders entered Dustville. They were all dressed in black and riding three grey horses. As they trotted, three-abreast, down our main street, they rode with a hostile insolence, as if, by their presence, they possessed the town.
I was sitting outside my office, enjoying the fine weather and having a quiet smoke. The riders pulled up in front of me and stared down at me from their saddles. I did a quick inventory of the trio. They all wore heavy hardware with their holsters tied down, an indication they were not particularly interested in resolving differences of opinion through friendly conversation.
“You the sheriff?” asked the tallest of the three. His face and eyes told me he was part Injun, most likely half Apache. He spoke in a gravelly whisper with a voice like the mean edge of a rusty knife.
“Yes,” I said. “Welcome to Dustville. If you plan to stay in town, you’re going to have to check your weaponry with me.”
The tall man looked at the closer of his two companions. “You hear that, Chico?” he said. “A man without a gun in sight wants us to hand him our hardware. What do you think?”
“We gun him down now, Indigo,” Chico replied. There was no warm lilt of friendship in his Mexican drawl.
“What do you think, Little Bart?” Indigo asked the third rider. This young gentleman was probably pure Anglo. His face was a little less hardened than his two companions, but it didn’t invite friendly companionship.
“You said not to kill anyone till they knew why they were going to die,” he said.
“Right,” Indigo said. “I’ll make it fast.” He turned back to me. “We’re Bart Slanker’s three sons.”
I could believe that statement. Slanker had been an hombre not particular as to who he killed and had probably been equally careless as to where he planted his seed. “So what’s your business?” I said.
“We’re here to avenge our father’s death. You the one who killed him?”
“If you’re referring to the gent we called Blackheart Bart hereabouts, I didn’t kill him. He ran into a lot of rattlesnakes in a cave where he was hiding and died from their bites. I just brought his body back to town.”
“You left town to hunt him down, and you brought his body back. That makes you his killer in our mind.”
I didn’t bother to remind them Bart was an escaped convicted murderer when I went hunting him down.
“Now he know,” said Chico. “We gun him down now?”
Before Indigo could answer, a shout came from across the street. “I’d think twice about that.” We all looked over to the boardwalk in front of Dan’s Hardware and Dry Goods Emporium where Dan was standing in his work apron holding a double barreled shotgun.
Indigo twisted his mouth into a mean little grin. “Brothers, are we going to get all frightened up over an old man who probably is bluffing us with an unloaded gun?” he said to his companions.
“Grouse,” I said.
“Grouse. Dan is awful good at shooting grouse. They pop up in front of you, fifty feet into the air. Dan tracks them and picks them off. Usually gets two of them, one per barrel. Those birds are a lot smaller than a man, they are moving fast and they’re a goodly distance farther away than you three hombres are from that definitely loaded shotgun.”
The three brothers looked at each other. For the first time, there seemed to be a bit of doubt in their eyes.
“Sheriff, hold up your hat!” A second shout came from down the street. I took a look. There was Nancy Turgis, my rancher friend, sitting on her big old horse and holding a rifle. She was a good hundred feet away.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I shouted back.
“Those three came riding by the ranch. They looked like trouble, so I followed them in. Hold up your hat.”