Hawke: Showdown at Dead End Canyon

Robert Vaughan

This book

is dedicated to

Bob Robison


THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES WAS THE COSTLIEST war in American history. From Bull Run to Franklin, neighbor fought neighbor and brother fought brother until half a million men lay dead on the bloody battlefields.

For all intents and purposes, it ended when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, but for many veterans of that terrible war, the surrender was just the beginning of a much more personal conflict. Young men who had lived their lives on the edge for four years found it nearly impossible to return home and take up the plow, or go back to work in a store, repair wagons, or do any of the other things that were the necessary part of becoming whole again.

Others found nothing to come home to. Many of the veterans—especially those who had fought for the South—returned to burned-out homes, farms gone to seed or, worse, taken for taxes. These men became the dispossessed. Unable to settle down, they became wanderers. Many of them went west, where there would be less civilized encroachment upon their chosen way of life.

Some took up the outlaw trail, continuing to practice the skills they had learned during the war. But most were innocent wanderers, with all bridges to their past burned and the paths to their future uncharted.

Mason Hawke was such a man. When he found that he had nothing to return to, he became a wandering minstrel, playing the piano in saloons and bawdy houses throughout the West. Few of those who heard him playing “Cowboy Joe” or “Buffalo Gals” realized that he had once played before the crowned heads of Europe. There were many, however, who learned to appreciate his talent, for from time to time Hawke would bring out the music at his core, playing a concert at three o’clock in the morning for the ghosts of his past. But it wasn’t just the ghosts who enjoyed those midnight concerts; often, a crowd would gather silently just outside the saloon, listening to the music.

But there was another, darker side to Hawke.

The same digital dexterity that made him a great pianist also made him exceptionally good with a gun. Hawke did not openly seek trouble, but neither would he back away from it. Hotheaded hooligans would sometimes mistake the piano player for an easy mark.

It was a mistake they only made once.

Chapter 1

SECONDS EARLIER THE LUCKY DOG SALOON HAD been peaceful. A card game was in progress in one part of the room, the teases, touches, and flirtatious laughter of the bar girls were in play in another. Mason Hawke, who had only been in Buffalo Creek, Colorado, for six weeks, was at the piano, his music adding to the gaiety and celebratory atmosphere of the evening.

But all that changed in an instant when Ebenezer Priest shouted out, “By God, you’ll play what I tell you to play, or I’ll kill you where you sit!”

The music, conversation, and laughter stopped, the loudest sound in the saloon the ticking of the Regulator clock that stood by the door that led out to the privy. There were twelve people in the saloon, ten men and two women, and all eyes were directed toward the piano where Priest stood just behind Mason Hawke. Priest had his gun out and was aiming it at the back of Hawke’s head.

Ebenezer Priest was a small, gnarled-looking man. In a world without guns, he would barely draw a second look, let alone command fear and begrudging respect. But this was a world with guns, and Priest had to be taken seriously because he had proven his skill with the pistol, and had a known propensity, almost an eagerness, to use it. He enjoyed watching bigger, stronger men quake in their boots when he addressed them. No one had ever defied him and lived.

Those thoughts were on everyone’s mind now as they watched and wondered how this drama, so rapidly unfolding before them, would play itself out.

“Did you hear what I said, piano player?” Priest asked. His voice was a low, evil hiss. “I told you to play ‘Marching Through Georgia.’”

“I don’t know that song,” Hawke replied calmly.

“You know it, you Rebel son of a bitch. All you Rebel bastards know it. I was in the Union Army, and we sang it as we marched through Georgia. Now, play it. Play it, or I’m going to splatter your blood and brains all over the front of that piano.”

“Leave ’im be, Priest,” the bartender called. “He ain’t nothin’ but a piano player. What do you want to go shucking a piano player for?”

With his left hand, Priest pointed a finger at the bartender, all the while keeping his gun pointed at Hawke’s head.

“You just stay the hell out of this, Kirby. This ain’t none of your concern.” He turned his attention back to Hawke. “Now, start playing,” he ordered.

Hawke began to play. It took but a few bars of music before Priest realized that he wasn’t playing “Marching Through Georgia.” He was playing “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” the Confederate marching song.

The saloon patrons laughed at the joke. With a yell of rage, Priest pulled the trigger on his pistol. The laughter stopped and everyone gasped, expecting to see the back of Hawke’s head blown away. What they saw instead was the destruction of a mug of beer sitting on top of the piano. The glass shattered and beer splattered. Even as people’s ears were still ringing from the noise of the gunshot, they could hear the hum of the soundboard as the piano strings vibrated in resonance.

Hawke quit playing and sat quietly on the bench.

“Now, Mr. Piano Player, I’m through playing with you,” Priest said in a low, menacing voice. “You had better play ‘Marching Through Georgia,’ or by God the next bullet is going to go through your head.”

Hawke sighed. “I told you I don’t know it.”

Priest cocked his gun, the action making a double click as the sear engaged the cylinder and rotated a new bullet under the hammer. “You had better learn it real quick, music man.”

“As I said, I don’t know it, but I do have the music in my bench. I’ll have to get it out.”

“All right, do it. And be quick about it.”

Hawke stood up, then turning around so that he was facing Priest, opened the top of the bench. As the bench lid came up, it shielded Hawke’s hands from Priest’s view.

“You know, it seems to me like you could have picked a better reason to get yourself killed than this,” Hawke said. “‘Marching Through Georgia’ isn’t even that good of a tune.”

“What do you mean, get myself killed?” Priest asked, confused. “You’re the one that’s going to get yourself killed. If you don’t find that music in the next five seconds, I’m going to shoot you where you stand.”

“I don’t think so,” Hawke said.

Priest wasn’t used to anyone taking his threats so casually. And he especially didn’t expect such a calm

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