The Gun Fight

Richard Matheson

Forge Books

Chapter One
The chaparral bird was running a .erce race with the black roan as it pounded across the hard earth. The long legs of the bird .ashed wildly in a swirl of alkali dust, ten yards ahead of the roan’s battering hooves.
Off the wide trail, a jackrabbit bounded into the brush with great, erratic leaps. Awakened by the muf­.ed thunder in the earth, a coiled rattlesnake writhed sluggishly and lifted its .at head, dead eyes searching.
The tall roan galloped along the trail, its broad legs drawing high, then driving down quickly at the  dust-clouded earth. The spur rowels of its young rider raked once across its heaving .anks and the thick weave of muscles underneath its hide drove it on still faster.
Robby Coles paid no attention to the  long- beaked roadrunner skittering its weaving path on the trail ahead. He rode close- seated, his knees clamped against the roan’s .anks, his booted feet braced forward and out against the stirrups. Beneath the broad brim of his Stet-son, his dark eyes peered straight ahead at the out fences of the small ranch he approached.
The driving hooves came too close and the chaparral bird lunged off the trail, racing into the brush. The roan thundered on, following the twists of the trail, a thin froth blowing from its muzzle. Spur rowels scratched again, the horse leaped forward obediently, past the tall and spiny- branched cholla cactus, galloping past the .rst fence line of the ranch.
Now the rider’s eyes focused on the  far-off cluster of buildings that comprised the ranch layout. His thin lips pressed together into a  blood- pinched line and there was a strained movement in his throat. Was he there? The question drifted like smoke across his mind and he felt sweat dripping down beneath his shirt collar and realized, abruptly, how thirsty he was.
Cold resolve forced itself into his eyes again and his slender hands tightened on the  sweat- slick reins. He could feel the rhythmic pounding inside his body as the hooves of his roan pistoned against the hard earth. He could feel the arid bluntness of the wind buffeting across his cheeks and against his forehead; the abra­sive rubbing of his legs against the  horse’s .anks.
There  were other things he felt, too.
As the hooves of his mount drummed along the trail, Robby Coles noticed, from the corners of his eyes, the aimless wandering of cattle beyond the fences. He swal­lowed hot air and coughed once as the dustiness tickled in his throat. The ranch was a half mile distant now. Robby Coles reached down ner vous ly and touched the smooth walnut of his gun stock. He wondered if he should be wearing it.
Merv Linken was coming out of the barn, carrying a pitchfork, when the big black roan came charging into the open area between the barn and the main  house.
At .rst, the  horse headed for the main  house. Then the rider saw Merv and pulled his mount around sharply. Merv stood watching as the roan cantered over and stopped before him, its .anks heaving, hot breath steam­ing from its nostrils.
“Hello there, Robby,” Merv said, smiling up at the grim- faced young rider. “What brings you out in sech a rush?” Robby Coles drew in a quick breath and forced it out.
“Benton  here?” he asked breathlessly, his  dark- eyed gaze drifting toward the main  house.
“No, he ain’t,” Merv said. “Matter o’ fact, he’s to town gettin’ supplies.”
He saw how the skin tightened across Robby’s cheeks and how his mouth pressed suddenly into a line.
“Guess you rode out fer nothin’,” Merv said, then shrugged. “Unless you want to set and wait.”
“How long’s he been gone?” Robby’s voice sounded thin and disturbed above the shuddering pants of his roan. He drew out a bandanna and mopped at his face.
“Oh... I reckon, since about eight,” Merv said. “Said he was—”
He stopped talking abruptly as Robby jerked the horse around and kicked his spur rowels in. The  sweat-.ecked roan started forward, breaking into a hard gal­lop before it passed the bunk house.
Merv Linken stood there a while, leaning on the pitchfork, watching Robby Coles  ride away toward town. Then he shrugged and turned toward the  house.
Julia Benton came walking in quick strides across the yard, drying her hands. She was a tall woman, slen­der and softly curved, her hair a light blond.
“Who was that?” she asked.
“Young Robby Coles,” Merv answered.
“What did he want?”
“Got no notion, ma’m,” Merv told her. “Just came in, tight- leggin’ and asked for the old man.”
“Is that all?”
“That’s all, ma’m. Reckon he’s headed for Kellville to see Mr. Benton now.”
They stood silent for a moment, watching from be­neath the shading of their palms, the roan and its rider dwindle into the distance of the brush country.
“He’s sure bakin’ that hoss,” Merv said. “Must be anxious to see yore husband.” 
Julia Benton stood motionless in the hot sunlight, a look of uneasy curiosity in her eyes. She watched until she couldn’t see the  horse any longer.
Then she went back to her dishes.

Excerpted from The Gun Fight by Richard Matheson.
Copyright © 1993 by RXR, Inc.
Published in November 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and
reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in
any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.