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Sudden

Oliver Strange

Chapter I

'Too many strangers, that's the trouble in this here one-eyed burg.'

The hoarse, sneering voice rang out like a challenge, which indeed it was, and the speaker's bloodshot, savage glare roamed round the room as though daring those present to refute his statement. He was a big fellow, blue-shirted, with trousers stuffed into the tops of his high boots, and he wore two guns; a slouched hat partly shaded his bloated, unshaven face. A deepening scowl further detracted from his looks when the continued hum of conversation showed that his remark was being ignored, and the beady eyes glinted evilly. So that was it, huh? Well, he'd let them see that someone had to sit up and take notice when 'Pug' Parsons spoke.

Though it was yet afternoon, the bar of the Palace Saloon was fairly well patronized, and the crowd was typical of the Western frontier settlements of that day: tradesmen, teamsters, riders from the neighboring ranches, gamblers, a few Mexicans, and a leavening of hard-bitten citizens into whose means of livelihood it would not have been wise to probe. Most of these Parsons knew by sight at least, but there was one whom he had not seen before. Still in his early twenties, slim of hip and broad of shoulder, the stranger leant against the bar with the easy pose of the athlete. His cowboy rig, though worn, was neat, his shirt and the silk handkerchief slung round his neck were clean, and the grey 'two-gallon' Stetson pushed back on his head was nearly new. He also sported two guns, the ends of the holsters tied with rawhide strings to his leathern chaps. His lean, shaven, deeply-bronzed face and black hair gave him almost the appearance of an Indian, but the high cheekbones were missing and there was a quirk of humor about the grim mouth which softened the out-thrust of jaw and level, grayish-blue eyes. Parsons absorbed these details and came to his own conclusion.

'Dude puncher, tryin' to put up a two-gun bluff,' he muttered. 'Reckon I'll call it.' He turned to the proprietor of the place. 'Who's the yearlin'?' he asked, with a nod towards the unconscious cowboy.

The saloon-keeper, a short, stout man of middle age, with a pleasant but weak face, looked in the direction indicated. 'New to me,' he said. 'Rid into town 's'afternoon.' Then, divining what was in the other's mind, 'Aw, leave the boy be, Pug; he ain't doin' no harm. Looks as if he mightn't be too easy rode neither, an' I don't want no trouble here now I got them new glasses.'

He glanced pridefully at the three gaudy, gilt-framed mirrors decorating the back of the bar. His warning precipitated the calamity it was designed to prevent. The big man's face bacame suffused with passion. Snatching out a gun, he fired point-blank at the centre mirror, defacing its shining surface with a great jagged star and bringing down a clatter of broken glass.

'That for yu an' yore damn mirrors,' he snarled. 'Mebbe it'll larn yu that we ain't goin' to drink cheap liquor so's yu can admire yoreself. Another yap outa yu an' I'll serve the other two the same an' close yore joint.'

The saloon-keeper dared not reply--he knew the threat was no vain one. The gunman had only to let it be known that to drink at the Palace would be to incur his displeasure, and few in the town would run the risk; there were other saloons. Parsons swung about, his fierce gaze travelling over the company and finally resting on the indifferent figure by the bar.

'Hey, stranger ! ' he called.

The cow-puncher looked up. 'Speakin' to me?' he asked quietly.

'Shore I am,' the other roared. 'Ain't yu the on'y stranger here?'

'Can't say,' the cowboy replied, adding with a ghost of a smile, 'yu see, they's all strangers to me.'

Someone sniggered, and Parsons, suspecting he was being made fun of, growled out an oath.

'Don't git festive with me, fella,' he warned. 'It ain't considered wise. What yu smash that mirror for, huh?'

This astounding accusation was followed by a silence broken only by little scufflings as men unobtrusively slid out of the possible line of fire; with Pug on the warpath, it behoved the bystander to take precautions; usually the brute got away with his bullying, but this time .. .

''Pears to me Parsons may've picked the wrong man--that boy looks a plenty cold proposition,' a poker player whispered to a neighbour.

'If he downs Pug this yer town won't go inta mournin',' was the reply. ''Bout time that big bear had his claws cut.'

The subject of the conversation still lounged carelessly against the bar, a smile on his mobile lips, but there was no humour in the cold, narrowed eyes.

'So I busted her?' he said softly. 'Well, what yu aimin' to do about it?'

The bully's lips wreathed in a hateful sneer--it was going to be easy. Though not drunk, he had swallowed enough raw spirit to blunt his perceptive faculties, or he would not have come to this decision; his victim's demeanour was not that of a scared man.

'I'm aimin' to make yu pay for it, but first yu'll entertain the company with a li'l dance,' Parsons said. 'Step lively, yu ' The word was not a pretty one, and the bullet which followed it tore a splinter from the floor close to the puncher's right foot. 'The next one takes a toe,' the gunman warned, and fired again.

But even as he pressed the trigger the cowboy had moved, a swift jump forward to the right, and then his left foot swept up and kicked the loosely-held weapon from the marksman's fingers. Recovering his balance, the stranger stepped in and drove a fist, with all the impetus of his advancing body, to the bully's jaw. For an instant the stricken man rocked on his heels, and then crashed to the floor, where he lay mouthing curses and clawing for his other gun.

'Don't yu,' the puncher rasped. 'I'm showin' yu why.'

He flipped a silver dollar away from him and by the time it tinkled on the boards both his guns were out and spouting flame. The first bullet struck the edge of the coin, spinning it in the air again, the second drove it down, and the third jumped it a yard further away. Ten shots in as many seconds were fired, and each time the winking target was fairly hit. Then the puncher thrust his weapons back into their holsters and looked contemptuously at the prostrate man.

'Here endeth the first lesson,' he said. 'yu can stand up on yore hind legs again. There's two pills left in my guns, case yu got any ideas.'

Parsons scrambled slowly to his feet; the blood seemed to have drained from his face, leaving it a yellowish white --a fish-belly white, unwholesome, repulsive. Out of it his malignant little eyes watched the smoke-wreathed wizard who had sardonically invited him to die. For he knew it meant just that, and for the first time in his life, he, Pug Parsons, who had watched men cringe before his levelled gun and had shot them down with a jeer, was conscious of abject physical fear. He had only one desire--to save his life. A little cough broke the tense silence and Parsons jumped; his nerve had gone.

'`Li'l think-box don't seem to be workin',' the stranger said mockingly, and then, in a different tone, 'I'm givin' yu thirty minutes to leave town.' He looked at the landlord. 'How much that mirror cost yu?'

'She set me back one hundred bucks,' was the reply. The puncher turned to Parsons. 'Ante up,' he said curtly.

The gunman moistened his parched lips. 'I ain't got--' he began.

'Yu took three hundred from a pilgrim in this room las' night,' the saloon-keeper cut in.

'Ante up,' the puncher repeated, and there was a deadly finality in his voice.

Parsons pulled a roll of bills from his pocket, and, with fumbling fingers, peeled off several and flung them on the bar.

'Better count 'em,' he said, with a poor attempt at bravado.

'Betche life,' the landlord retorted, and did so. 'All correct,' he added.

The puncher looked at the man he had worsted. 'Yu got twenty minutes left,' he said. 'Make good use of 'em, or yu'll be takin' part in a funeral--the leadin' part. Sabe?'

Like a whipped hound the ruffian slunk out of the saloon, and the onlookers stirred to action again. The owner of the place put the matter plainly.

'Stranger, I reckon this town is mighty obliged to yu,' he said. 'That fella has been a blister on it for

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