"Yur a yellow, snivelin' coward, Lancer! Git up 'n fight me or I'm gonna kill you right where yur alayin'!"
Delbert Murray plucked nervously at the sleeve of the big man who had issued the insult. "Rupe, you really ain't gonna kill him, are ya? I don't cotton to murder."
Rupert Hodgkins backhanded his weasely partner. "Don't give me none of yur sassiness. If I wanna kill this blond furriner, I will!"
Murray, who had been on the receiving end of many a blow from the overgrown human being he sometimes called a friend, stood his ground. "Git him to draw on you. You can do it 'n then we don't have to worry 'bout some lawman comin' after us!"
Hodgkins, who weighed in at 250 pounds and was close to 6'6", stared down at the short dark man at his side. "I tole you to butt out. He insulted me 'n no one does that to Rupert Hodgkins 'n lives very long."
Speaking slowly due to the split lip he now sported, Scott Lancer spoke up, "I can assure you, Mr. Hodgkins, that I did not intend to insult you when you inadvertently put your foot under mine when you were escorted out of the saloon."
Murray looked at Hodgkins. Hodgkins looked at Murray. "What'd he say?"
Delbert, who was not as simple as he appeared, spoke up hesitantly. "Think he's tryin' to 'pologize for steppin' on yur foot when the sheriff tossed you outta the saloon."
"Dammit! He broke my toe. He cain't think I kin forget that."
The blond Lancer struggled to his feet. "If I did indeed, break one of your toes, I will be glad to pay for the attention of a physician of your choice. I believe there is one in Green River."
"Ain't goin' to Green River 'n you kin just hold it there. Delbert, give him back his gun 'n let's get on with it. Looks like it's gonna rain 'n I don't wanna spend the night on the trail. Wanna find a nice soft bed, a bottle and a purty woman for t'night."
"You. . .you gonna pay fer me a room t'night or am I gonna have ta sleep in the stable agin?"
"Well, tell you what, Delbert, after I kill this here fancy dude, you kin look through his pockets 'n if'n you find enuf ta pay fer a bed, you can stay in a room."
A grotesque grin covered the weasel's face, but then it faded. "I don't hold with rummagin' through dead men's pockets."
"You didn't object to it durin' the War!"
"That wuz diff'rent. They wuz the enemy!"
"Did you two gentlemen serve with the Army of Northern Virginia, by any chance?"
Rupert looked at the shorter blond man. "No, smartie, we wuz in the Army o' Tennessee, out where all the real fightin' went on."
"I see. The Army of Tennessee certainly had some excellent soldiers. They put up a hell of a fight in Georgia."
Slightly mollified, Rupert clapped Murray on the back—so hard that the slight man almost dropped to his knees. "Hey, Del, this here dandy heard of us!"
"Indeed. I was at Vicksburg before moving east so I am well aware of the fighting caliber of the soldiers who fought in the West."
"You wuz at Vicksburg?"
"And other places."
"You one of Lee's men?'
"Not exactly," the Lancer scion admitted.
Swallowing with difficulty, Scott confessed, "I was in the cavalry under General Phil Sheridan."
Rupert Hodgkins cocked the hammer of his pistol. "You jist said the wrong thing, mister. Some of our kin were in the Shenandoah when he came through. They were jis farmers n' they lost it all."
Lancer's steel blue eyes flickered for a moment, but he coolly replied, "I am aware that many farms were destroyed as a result of Sheridan's campaign which, unfortunately, was a part of the late war, but I was not there since I was in a prison by that time."
Without thinking, Delbert nudged his companion in the gut. Rupert grabbed Murray's skinny arm in an iron grip. "Don't ever do that!" He snarled.
"S-sorry, Rupe, forgot. He. . .he wuz in prison too."
"Yeah, but it wuz one of ours!" Hodgkins protested.
"Mebbe, but that don't mean it was a good place."
All three men looked at each other for a moment. Scott took a deep breath. This trip to Merced had not turned out as expected because of his inadvertent encounter with the mountain and molehill in front of him. Just as the blond had tried to enter the Atwater saloon for a touch of refreshment, Hodgkins had been tossed out of the establishment by an even bigger man, wearing a badge. Somehow in the melee Scott had stepped on Rupert's toe, but considering the difference in their weights, it did not seem likely that anything had been broken. Scott had offered an 'excuse me', but then had proceeded inside for a cold beer. Fifteen minutes later he had been on the road again, only to be waylaid out on the open road by Hodgkins and Murray.
The big man had immediately demanded that Scott draw so that he could be filled full of bullet holes, but the easterner had declined the honor. Rupert had then punched him several times, trying to provoke a fight. Itching to tackle the man mountain, Scott restrained himself since taking on the man mountain in a fistfight was obviously suicidal. It would seem that he would have to talk his way out of being killed.
"Do I take it that you gentlemen also suffered incarceration during the War?"
Delbert scrunched up his face. "I think he's askin' if we wuz in prison too?"
Scott nodded. "I understand that there were many hellacious places of imprisonment in the North."
"Uh, yeah, well, it sure was hell. We wuz on an island near Alton. There wuz a smallpox hospit'l there. We took care a t'others. Most died, but me and Rupe here made it out 'cuz we had cowpox as youngsters."
"You were fortunate. Libby Prison had many diseases too. I. . .I still don't know how I survived."
"That there Libby wuz in Richmond, t'weren't it? Guess no prison place is a good one."
"You've got that right. A lot of good men died in prisons and on the battlefield—North and South."
"Yur kinda young ta have fit, ain't ya?" Delbert asked.
"I. . .I thought I was doing the right thing." Scott replied.
Rupert looked over at his friend. "Me 'n Del jist didn't want you Yankees on our land. We shared a small place. After a time, t'weren’t no way ta even walk out without fallin' in shell hole. We jined up then. Got taken up north a Atlanta. After t' war was over, we come out here."
"Lots of men did. I guess we all wanted to forget."
"S'pose yur right. Anyways, mebbe I wuz wrong. If'n you made it through anythin' like me 'n Del suffered, you ain't a coward."
"Thank you, but there were times during the War when I was scared to death. Many times since as well."
"Ain't no shame in bein' scared. Man firin' them shells at ya, man's should be scared or a damned fool! 'Sides ya seem ta take the beatin' I give ya purty well. Lots a men woulda jist stayed down."
"Gentlemen, would it be presumptuous of me, if I asked you to accompany me to the next sizeable town where we can stop and partake of some food and liquor?"
Rupert glanced at Delbert again, a question in his eyes. Del leaned over to whisper to the bent over man, "Think he's askin' us ta eat with him."
"Indeed, I am. I would be proud to buy the two of you a meal and a drink. I also promise not to step on anybody's toe."
Rupert wiped one hand across his mouth. "That's neighborly of ya. Gotta admit we kinda lost most of our poke inna game of poker."
"Well then, gentlemen, shall we venture forth in search of refreshment?"
three men took to their horses, riding along the dusty road until they
came to a road sign, with towns listed in two different directions.
Although the town to the right was two miles closer, they all agreed to
head to the west. As a result, the three men wined and dined that
night in the town of Coward, California.