Here we present a taster of the action.
BAR-ROOM brawls were not a speciality with Cannon. But he had fitness and long experience predating his army years to aid him. Moreover, his opponents in the Four Aces Saloon were either flatfooted drunk or his fist-fight skills had improved rather than deteriorated with the passing of time.
He was quick to dodge the retaliatory blows thrown at him by the pards of the sassy puncher who'd kicked the sheriff and called him "gran'paw". He swiftly floored a second man with a steam-hammer jab to the ribs.
The hapless man doubled up, scrabbling in the sawdust as he gasped for breath, his face going purple.
But Cannon had no time to relish his comeuppance. He was busy delivering a roundhouse swing to the point of a third would-be opponent's jaw. It sent him flying backwards, out through the creaking batwings a heap faster than he'd ever gone through them before.
It seemed like Cannon, Sheriff Randers and the deputy were bailed up by the entire rowdy clientele. "I ain't here to go the distance with all comers among the local hell-raisers," Cannon reminded himself.
To get clear of the smashed furniture and fallen bodies blocking any path across the sawdusted floor, Cannon jumped onto a bench that stood flush beneath a side window, meaning to edge along it to the door. With his back to the wall and above the mêlée, he might avoid further ambush.
It didn't work out.
Randers, propelled backwards by the drunk he was trying to restrain, crashed into Cannon's legs. Cannon teetered momentarily, then crashed headlong through the panes behind him.
He landed in the dust of an alley, showered by shattering glass. The heel of the left hand he put out to break his fall was cut and another shard scratched his brow. But he was lucky not to break bones – or even his back.
Stunned, Cannon heard what seemed to be a crackle of gunfire in his ringing ears. They hadn't returned to gunplay in the saloon, had they?
No – he recognized the sound had been too distant for that, and it was not repeated while the yells, scuffles and thumps raged on in the Four Aces.
He rolled over and was up onto his knees, shaking the splinters of glass out of his hair and off his clothes, when the next fast-moving development occurred.
"Mr Cannon!" It was Kate McDowell's voice, someplace close.
He groaned his annoyance aloud. "I told you to stay well out of this, Miss McDowell," he said tightly.
Perhaps deliberately, she ignored his reprimand and mistook his groan for pain, which it might have been, partly.
"Are you hurt, Mr Cannon?"
"Yeah, but not bad enough to stop me being hopping mad! This trouble was just drunken rannihans letting off steam, I reckon."
"No, Mr Cannon. I think not."
Cannon, hauling himself onto his feet and dusting himself down, was brought up short. "How do you mean – you think not?"
"Those shots a moment ago, Mr Cannon – they came from the jailhouse."
Silence fell between them in the alley as Cannon digested the startling import of what the young woman had told him. The hullabaloo from the saloon had wound down into exchanges of harsh words and curses. Somewhere far off in the darkness out of town, coyotes yapped.
"What are you suggesting, Miss McDowell?" he asked, but already guessing.
"That the fight here was a deliberate diversion ordered by the ranch bosses. I suspect their committee has already acted on its plan to release Red Effingham!"
"Well," he said ironically, bitterly, "they don't let the grass grow under their feet, do they?"
Kate shook her head. "I'm afraid not, Mr Cannon."
Privately, Cannon was kicking himself. Like the sheriff and his deputy he'd been sucked in by the ruckus at the Four Aces, which he should have realized from the start had the smell of a put-up job.
More to the point, he'd had no right to dally over his official business. He shouldn't have wasted one minute in this pitiful little burg trying to lay private ghosts.
"I guess I should have gotten straight on with my duties when I arrived in Antelope," he reflected aloud.
Kate's perspicacity was of a high order. She cottoned on to his train of thought and seemed to sense his frustration with himself. She tried to ease his mind.
"Duties to one's soul are sometimes no less important than duties to one's nation," she suggested. "You said yourself that the inquiries you made of my father were genuine."
"Sure. But I was also being smart. Too smart," he said with a wry smile. "I kidded myself I was using my personal affairs as a smokescreen to blind the hostile ones, like the Perigos, to the more relevant nature of my excursion here. That was unnecessary and unjustified."
"Oh, I'm sure that's not true."
He shrugged. "Well, all I've managed is to trip my own self up," he admitted before briskly changing tack. A man of action, he knew all self-recrimination to be an indulgence and a waste of time. "I've got to get down to the jailhouse," he said.
He had to confirm how things now stood, get to grips with the new circumstances, whatever they might turn out to be, and to try to salvage the apparent wreck of his mission.
"But you're bleeding, Mr Cannon," Kate said.
"Stop worrying about me, young woman, and take yourself home out of harm's way!" he snapped. He looked at his hand and dabbed at his forehead. "They're only scratches. People may be dead or dying at the jailhouse."
Kate frowned. "I hope not. There was probably only the night jailer left there. A harmless old-timer called Jarrod. I'll come with you."
Cannon was opening his mouth to veto that idea firmly when Sheriff Willy Randers and his deputy stumped out of the Four Aces. They shepherded onto the street two sullen, handcuffed prisoners. One of them was the little tyke who'd booted the sheriff's backside.
"Yuh all right, stranger?" Randers asked.
"Coming right," Cannon said. "Sort of mortified . . ." he didn't try to explain why.
"Much obliged, yuh hornin' in like yuh did," the sheriff said. "Them looked mighty unfair odds fer a spell, but the hellions settled down sudden like, an' we got room in the cells fer the ringleaders, ain't that so, Tom?"
The deputy, one eye reduced to a puffy slit, growled an affirmative.
"Mr Randers, I fear you may have more empty cells than you allow." Kate spoke up sharply, unconsciously employing her schoolroom manner, and instantly had the lawmen's attention. "There was shooting at the jailhouse in your absence," she continued.
Randers took it like another blow between the eyes. "Eb Jarrod!" he burst out. "We left him lone-handed!"
Tom dropped a scorching curse and Cannon saw Kate flinch at its vulgarity. Pausing only to manacle their prisoners to a hitch-rail, Randers and the deputy pounded up the street, drawing six-guns.
Cannon shook his head, then loped in pursuit. He wasn't much surprised when Kate followed. Nor did he try to remonstrate further. Things were moving too fast to waste effort on lost causes.
Eb Jarrod was slumped white-faced, bleeding from a shot leg, in the jailhouse doorway. A strong smell of gunsmoke hung around the place.
"Bastards threw down on me, Willy!" Jarrod wheezed, his wizened features creasing with pain.
"Oh, the brutes!" Kate's voice trembled with indignation. "I'll go fetch Doc Reedy for you this minute, Mr Jarrod."
"A smart idea, ma'am," Cannon approved. He unbuckled his trouser belt and quickly looped it round Jarrod's leg as a makeshift tourniquet which he began to tighten above the spreading bloodstain.
Randers rubbed the bristly hair at the back of his thick red neck. "Who was they, Eb?"
"Dunno," the old man gasped. "They was hooded . . . flour sacks with eyeholes cut in 'em. Pards of Effingham, I guess. They busted 'im out . . . took 'im with 'em . . ." His voice trailed off weakly and he closed his eyes.
"Which way did they go, Eb?" Randers asked urgently.
"Uptown . . . road to High Crossing an' the mesa." He sank back on the boards with a sigh.
"All right, old-timer, take it easy now. Doc'll be here any moment, yuh savvy?"
Randers turned to his deputy. "We'll organize a posse an' take out after the yeller skunks!"
"They got a head start, Sheriff," Tom said.
"Cris'sake, there'll be tracks t' foller. We dassn't let 'em get away – thar's a deppity marshal a-comin' to take Effingham inta federal custody. Go round up some volunteers, Tom!"
The deputy shuffled and looked at his feet. "Well . . . I can try."
"Huh?" Randers' pale eyes narrowed with puzzlement. But very quickly he understood and glared with disgust. "You reckon we can't count on help?"
"Naw. This thing'll tear the town apart," Tom said balefully. "That's what I reckon."
Silence. Randers couldn't be resigned or reconciled to the notion, though he'd heard the towntalk and Red Effingham had exulted in putting him wise to the lay of the land.
"Hell, man, go and try!"
"Yeah," said Tom thickly. "I suppose we have to."
Tom went and Kate came back with Doc Reedy. The sawbones shook his head and clucked his tongue and said it was a disgrace. "Mebbe you gents could give me a hand to shift Mr Jarrod to my rooms. If the slug's still in there, I'll have to dig it out."
Cannon said, "I guess he'll pull through."
"Hard as nails is Eb," Randers remarked. "Used t' be a buffalo hunter, freight hauler, Injun agent an' whatnot in his prime."
They used part of the cot from Effingham's empty iron cage in the jailhouse as a makeshift stretcher to shift the shot night guard to Reedy's place around a nearby corner.
Between the jailhouse and the medico's, Randers again expressed his thanks to Cannon, and the federal lawman felt obligated to introduce himself.
"So my horning in, as you put it, was close to being in the line of duty."
Randers looked at him amazed, but it didn't take long for his wits to gather. "Yuh gonna ride with the posse, Mr Cannon?" he probed.
"Sure. Count me your first recruit, Sheriff."
"Proud to have you along," Randers said. "Right proud!"
If Randers was encouraged by having a US marshal's deputy to side him, Cannon noted he was also discouraged when they arrived back at the jailhouse to find Tom returned ahead of them, with a scant two volunteers for the posse.
Where the breakout of Red Effingham was concerned Antelope's citizenry didn't want to know.
"Those folks that ain't plumb vanished, jes' turned their backs and looked the other way," Tom said. "They got smart enough heads to know the big wheels want Effingham runnin' loose to stop Pryor's dirty work."
Randers, bleak-faced, growled back, "Tomfool heads! Don't they savvy them as fight fire with fire is apt to git their own fingers burned?"
"So it'll be just the five of us on the trail, and myself in country new to me ..." Cannon mused. He thought following the sign of Effingham and the crew who'd freed him was going to be a difficult task in the dark of night. Possibly a dangerous one.
"No, Mr Cannon. Add me to the muster." Kate's calm words brought gasps of surprise from the men. "Perhaps I can talk some sense yet into the people riding with this dreadful gunman."
"Now see here, Miss McDowell, that's plumb ridiculous!" Randers objected. "This is men's business."
The sheriff had used the wrong word; Cannon saw Kate tense up and draw deep breath.
"Sheriff Randers is right, you know," he said quickly, quietly. "These hotheads have already used guns and they plainly mean to force a showdown with Preacher Pryor and his colony. They'll not suspect they might be slinging their lead at a lady. Your place is in Antelope beside your pa, where the need for your services will outlive this crisis."
Notwithstanding his cool reasoning, Kate persisted with saying her piece.
"Your opinions are outdated, gentlemen. No doubt you also subscribe to the view that woman wasn't put on this earth to vote!"
Randers, his mind on the more pressing issues at hand, rashly confirmed her belief. "Fer certain sure, fightin' is men's business, ma'am. A female's proper duties is to cook and keep house and have babies."
"So many have forced her to accept."
Cannon swiftly blocked whatever might have been the rest of Kate's retort. He knew they could ill-afford an inopportune raking over of what were probably old ashes.
"We thank you kindly for your willingness, Miss McDowell," he put in as she reached the first pause in what sounded set to be a lecture. "Fair-minded men agree women are their equal in everything except physical strength. And as Sheriff Randers was trying to say, it's on such account we must decline your selfless offer to accompany us."
His dignified manners and his firmness on the point appeared to turn the trick.
"Very well, Mr Cannon. But let it not be forgotten that while women cook, sew, do laundry and teach children, they also think, have opinions, and are citizens of this republic, just as men are."
Cannon answered in a soft murmur. "When the time comes for persuasive talk, we'll be mighty glad to avail ourselves of your powerful logic, Miss McDowell."
What they say about Chap O'Keefe:
"You could as well have been watching a movie as
reading a book. . . O'Keefe writes westerns with the
coolness of a hired gun."
– New Zealand Herald
"...a lot of fun, pulpish but with a sharp, contemporary edge. The
dark, complex plot, the emotional angst, and the gritty storytelling
remind me very much of many westerns published in the fifties by
Gold Medal, by authors such as Lewis B. Patten, Dean Owen
and William Heuman. The pace is very fast, the action scenes
are handled well..."
– James Reasoner
""Please keep 'em coming, Chap!"
– David Whitehead aka Ben Bridges
". . .the quintessential action-packed western."
– Saddlebums Western Review