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Reluctant Tin Star - Dale Graham

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Reluctant Tin Star

When Marshal Troy Garrison is forced to leave the Colorado town of Aguilar under a cloud, he figured he was done with the law for good. Shamed and humiliated through no fault of his own he heads south into New Mexico. A meeting with an itinerant gambler finds the unlikely travelling companions in Cimarron.

A series of unsavoury incidents culminating in Troy’s rescue of a damsel in distress finds him reluctantly pinning on the tin star once again. An unscrupulous gang of rustlers is terrorizing the area. And Troy is forced to choose between the girl of his dreams and upholding the law when her brother becomes involved with the gang. Unfortunately, a man’s past has a habit of catching him unawares. The havoc this causes will need all of the reluctant tin star’s daring and ingenuity to overcome.

By the same author

High Plains Vendetta

Dance with the Devil

Nugget!

Montezuma’s Legacy

Death Rides Alone

Gambler’s Dawn

Vengeance at Bittersweet

Justice for Crockett

Bluecoat Renegade

Gun Smoke over New Mexico

Montaigne’s Revenge

Black Gold

Backshooter!

Bitter Trail

The Reckless Gun

Snake Eyes

Sundown over the Sierras

Wyoming Blood Feud

Hangman’s Reach

Lonely is the Hunter

Wichita Town Tamer

Writing as Ethan Flagg

Dead Man Walking

Two for Texas

Divided Loyalties

Return of the Gunfighter

Dynamite Daze

Apache Rifles

Duel at Del Notre

Outlaw Queen

When Lightning Strikes

Praise Be to Silver

A Necktie for Gifford

Navajo Sunrise

Shotgun Charade

Blackjacks of Nevada

Derby John’s Alibi

Long Ride to Purgatory

No Way Back

Revenge Burns Deep

Bad Deal in Buckskin

Send for the BAD Guy!

Cross of Iron

Reluctant Tin Star

Dale Graham

ROBERT HALE

© Dale Graham 2017

First published in Great Britain 2017

ISBN 978-0-7198-2201-8

The Crowood Press

The Stable Block

Crowood Lane

Ramsbury

Marlborough

Wiltshire SN8 2HR

www.bhwesterns.com

Robert Hale is an imprint of The Crowood Press

The right of Dale Graham to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him

in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

CHAPTER ONE

Rolling Stones

The lone rider emerged from the enclosing confines of Bluebottle Canyon and pushed his sturdy bay mare to the gallop. The horse was eager to stretch her legs for a spell. And Troy Garrison needed to clear the mush from his head. Too much whiskey the night before had addled his brain. There were things scrambling around inside that needed exorcising. And at that moment whiskey had seemed like the only cure. He had regretted that decision on waking up the next morning.

Not normally a man who resorted to hard liquor to assuage a troubled mind, Troy reckoned he had good reason. But such a dicey means of solving problems rarely amounted to anything other than misgivings. These were now being painfully resurrected as the demons once again reasserted their presence. ‘Never again,’ he muttered under his breath before uttering a morbid chuckle. How many times had a man made that promise?

Troy’s disturbing exit from the Colorado town of Aguilar would have turned any man to the demon drink. At least the soporific effects of hard liquor had enabled him to forget, if only for the few hours of darkness. Three cups of strong coffee at daybreak had helped somewhat. Although they couldn’t allay the iron hammer pounding relentlessly inside his skull. Only a good ride would do that. Man and beast thundered across the rolling grasslands. The wind in Troy’s face, the clear morning air, both felt heady and invigorating.

Only the love of a good woman offered a better panacea when a man was feeling low. On more than one occasion he had figured to have found one for life. All had deserted him when he refused to abandon his profession. Such was the tenuous line between life and death that a dedicated lawman had to walk.

A growl of anger emerged from between clenched teeth, a biting wail plucked away on the early morning breeze. And it was all down to that bastard Isaac Dooley. Hence it was that the further from Aguilar he rode, the better he felt. What he couldn’t escape was the humiliation those skunks had heaped upon the tough lawman. For Troy Garrison, town marshal of Aguilar, had been forced to quit under the most irksome of circumstances. Sure he could have stayed and toughed it out. But Troy refused to toady to anybody’s behest, least of all that snake of a mayor who had bought the town council to further his own ends.

Again his teeth ground in a fresh spate of indignation. Over the next few hours, he tried to concentrate on the notion of a fresh start, a new beginning far away from Aguilar. Around noon he crossed the border into New Mexico. A faded signboard pinned to a tree was all that indicated he had now left Colorado. And good riddance.

That was when he noticed the plume of smoke snaking up out of a dip in the ground some distance ahead. Must be a camp of some sort. And he could sure use a cup of coffee, not to mention some vittles if’n they were available. Forced to leave Aguilar in a hurry, there had been no time for anything other than flight. Luckily a detailed knowledge of the terrain had enabled the fugitive to evade his pursuers.

He slowed the bay to a trot, then a walk as he neared the hidden pitch. A few yards back from the downfall, he stopped, a hand straying to the gun on his hip. It always paid to be wary when approaching an unknown bivouac.

‘Coffee’s on the boil, if’n you’ve a mind,’ a cheery voice called out before Troy could announce his presence. The ex-lawman frowned, nudging the bay down into the hollow where a lone camper was standing with a blackened pot in one hand and a tin cup in the other. ‘There’s some rabbit stew on the boil as well. You’re welcome to share the feast, such as it is.’

‘Much obliged,’ the newcomer replied. Caution laced his chary reaction while stepping down and ground-hitching his cayuse. A hawkish gaze never left the nattily clad traveller. ‘You must have mighty good hearing. I barely made a sound approaching your camp.’

‘Known someone was a-coming since you crested that last ridge back yonder,’ the man explained while pouring out the coffee which he handed across. ‘Look, listen and never drink too much hard liquor. That’s my motto.’ Troy could certainly empathize with the latter piece of wisdom. ‘Always pays for a guy in my profession to have all his senses tuned up.’

‘And what might that be?’ the newcomer posed, gratefully sipping the hot liquid. Although he had already guessed from the garish if somewhat shabby duds the guy was wearing.

The man tapped his tilted derby. ‘See this? The King of Clubs, my lucky card. Fairplay’s the name, gambling’s my game – anything you fancy, poker, blackjack, penny-ante, even craps.’ He flipped a pair of dice into the air catching them one-handed. ‘You name it, I play it.’

Troy nodded, his supposition having been proved correct. A barely disguised wry smile broke across the stoic demeanour as he sat down. ‘Mighty interesting. But does the name fit the player?’ His thoughts briefly flashed back to a previous life, now hopefully put behind him.

‘Honest Hal, that’s me,’ the jaunty card wielder intoned smugly while smoothing out the creases of his nifty silk vest. ‘Although there are those who sometimes can’t get it into their thick skulls that the best players don’t need to cheat. It’s my proud boast, mister, that if’n I can’t beat a fella squarely, it’s me that’s at fault. I clearly haven’t read the signs right. When that happens it’s best to throw in the towel and start up again elsewhere.’ He eyed the newcomer over his coffee cup. ‘Didn’t quite catch your name, stranger?’

‘Maybe that’s cos I never gave it.’ Troy remained silent.

The camper’s right eyebrow lifted. This guy was not exactly what you would call the outgoing type. ‘In that case, perhaps I should just call you Mister. So where you from Mr Mister? If’n that isn’t too impertinent a question.’

Troy was not a man prone to revealing his past, nor his present. And the future would have to take care of itself. But nevertheless he gave the witty riposte an expressive nod. Fairplay’s grin-cloaked features received a considered appraisal. He pondered awhile. Maybe he was being a mite too suspicious of his fellow traveller. After all, the gambler appeared to be just that, a likeminded rolling stone heading in the same direction.

Yet still he maintained a terse silence. After all he had good reason not to trust his fellow man. But Fairplay was not about to give up. A further attempt was made to fill the tense void. ‘I was hoping for some companionable conversation. A drink, a bite to eat, maybe a game of cards. A guy gets kinda lonesome just talking to himself and his horse all the time. I could have kept quiet and allowed you to pass by on the far side of the ridge. Don’t that mean something?’

Troy relented, as much as he considered was necessary. The guy had a point. ‘The name is Troy Garrison. And I ain’t normally a gambling man.’ A gimlet eye held the other man in its poignant grip. ‘As you have so eloquently explained, Mr Fairplay, the only winner in your line of work is the one who wears a King of Clubs in his hat.’

‘Guess I asked for that,’ was the contrite reply. Yet like a galling itch, he still persisted. ‘Won’t you even go for a simple game of rummy? We can play for match sticks if’n you like.’

Troy laughed. ‘You just don’t give up, do you?’

Fairplay shrugged. ‘Gambling’s in my blood. Don’t know anything else. I was taught rummy by my pa at the age of six. Picked it up like a dog attracts fleas.’ Once again the lilting southern drawl brought a half smile to Troy’s craggy features. ‘After the first half hour I had taken the old devil for twenty dollars. By the age of twelve there was nobody in town willing to sit in a game when young Harold was dealing. I’ve been playing the tables ever since.’

The listener could well believe the gambler’s claim. A lazy right eye gave his features a lob-sided appearance likely to fox any opponent hoping to gain an advantage. It provided the classic poker face.

The observation took him back to another gambler he had known where a harelip had afforded a similar benefit. Unfortunately for Montana Red, his luck had run out when he made the mistake of playing poker with Sheb Dooley. Troy’s eyes misted over at the recollection of why he happened to be sitting here right now, drinking coffee with a gambler in the middle of nowhere.

He shook off the traumatic remembrance. ‘Guess you must be on the trail now due to a bad spell.’