Wanted: Dead or Alive was a western that aired on CBS from 1958 to 1961. It starred Steve McQueen as Josh Randall, a bounty hunter roaming the West. For several episodes in Season 2, Josh was joined by Jason Nichols (actor Wright King), a Virginia City deputy who wants to pursue the more glamorous profession - or so he thinks. The role of Jason was written to take some weight off of McQueen's shoulders while he was on location filming The Magnificent Seven. When McQueen wanted to leave the show, the PTB decided to have the show continue by bringing Nichols back. That never materialized and the show was canceled.
W:DOA is the property of Four Star Productions. No copyright infringement intended.
Late August, 1880
"Two thousand dollars, you bastard moneygrubbers! Just try to get me!"
A bullet plowed into the rock face of a sheer cliff wall, sending a shower of chips and dust onto the two men crouching behind a boulder the size of a small mining shack.
"You know," said one, "I'm getting mighty sick of that mouth of his."
Josh Randall smiled grimly and looked over at his partner, a slender man of middling height and less than thirty years. "He's been chattier than some," he agreed, "but he's got a lot waiting for him back at Fort Collins, none of it good. It drives a man desperate, and you've been with me for eight months now, Jason. What do you think? Think our man Tillot out there is going to slip up eventually?"
He already has, Jason Nichols thought, recalling the outlay of the narrow silver mine canyon where the three men now watched each other, and waited.
Tillot Burns had led them on a merry chase for most of the day, flogging his mount with little thought beyond finding a hole to hide himself. When the old silver mine appeared, with its main shaft entrance a natural spider-hole for fleeing outlaws, Jason suspected the man had wanted to throw himself upon the ground in abject gratitude to luck.
But whatever Fortune had seen fit to give Tillot Burns that day was quickly snatched away when his exhausted horse collapsed in the mouth of the canyon with the two bounty hunters mere yards behind. His horse dead, Burns had been forced to take the first shelter he could find. Several carelessly nailed boards barred the mineshaft entrance, easily torn down under other circumstances but solid as an iron door when seconds could mean his life or death. After a frantic tug on one board, Burns had dashed to the next refuge, a rockslide to the right of the entrance that Jason guessed was a controlled shaft detonation gone horribly wrong.
The entrance to the mine lay between the two camps' positions, and all the advantages were against Burns. Jason and Josh had a clear bead on the only way to get out. Burns had a dead-end canyon behind him, a dead horse, and a jury waiting for him at Fort Collins.
"Yeah, it's gonna make him desperate," Jason thought aloud, reflexively hunching further behind the boulder as another shot resounded through the narrow canyon. "Even if nothing else, he's gonna run out of bullets."
"And he knows it." Josh calmly tilted his hat back on his head and slouched against the cool rock, his sawed-off Winchester lying ready across his lap. "It costs me far more to arm this than that peashooter of his, so I'll bide my time 'til he gets tired. It might take all night, but some time alone with his Maker in the dark could get him to give up."
"You're too hopeful, Randall," Jason said. "After what he's done - or what they say he's done - he might just have a run at us so's we kill him and spare him the noose."
"Not up for us to decide if he deserves it or not, but if he comes at us, I won't be thinking twice." Josh looked up at the sky, a crystalline blue interrupted by only the wispiest of clouds and a sun that had barely crested the edge of the canyon. Heat began to hammer down on them, and as one, they both began to sweat a little heavier.
Jason went over to his horse and retrieved his canteen, taking a small swig with an eye to preserving it as long as he could. Josh seemed confident that the wait would be one night at most, but Jason wasn't so sure.
The water in his stomach churned sourly as he thought of the man they had hunted successfully, but had yet to catch. In his eight months riding by Josh's side and earning half of the bounties, he had encountered all manner of thieves, murderers, and wanted men of every imaginable stripe. There had even been several women of varying shades of innocence and guilt. Tillot Burns was a special case, and Jason found himself doubting whether he would give the man an honest chance to defend himself if the opportunity should arise.
"Let go of that canteen, Jason. Your fingers are going to punch through it, sure as you're standing there."
Jason flinched and looked over at Josh, who had assumed a bored pose against the boulder, arms and legs crossed as if ready for sleep. Despite looking relaxed, Randall's blue eyes were keenly watching him and a knowing, tolerant smile curved his mouth.
"Just go easy, Jason. I know he's a bad customer, and I once had a sister myself. Bet that's what you're thinking, too, innit?"
Jason turned and stuffed the canteen into his saddle bag, glad for the excuse to turn away. "Maybe," he said tightly. "You had a sister, and I still got one. Imagine how I'd feel if this man did to her what he's done to another man's. Imagine what I'd do." He gave the dark chestnut a sharp stroke along its neck, and the gelding flicked its flaxen tail in irritated reply.
With a sigh, he returned to the boulder and quickly glanced around it, satisfied that Burns was still unable to aim true at either them or the horses. He remained on his feet, leaning against the rock to absorb the coolness that was quickly leeching away from it under the midday heat.
"Remember Clell Fannon?" he asked.
Josh nodded, his brow furrowed in remembered pain. "Killed a friend of mine."
"Yeah. And a half dozen others."
Jason paused, recalling the cold-blooded bank robber who had masked his true identity behind a smile, a false name, and confident Irish cheer. Fannon had fooled him, Randall, and the Sheriff of Virginia City into believing that he was actually Fannon's right-hand man, Doc Phillips. At the time, Jason had been serving as deputy sheriff when Randall arrived with the man calling himself Doc Phillips in tow for a reward for possessing stolen money. The idea was to use Phillips to bait Fannon into making an appearance in Virginia City, where Randall and the law would be waiting. Almost too late, they realized they had had the gang's leader in custody all along.
"What of him?" Josh prompted.
"I don't know if you ever heard about it from Sheriff Holmes before Fannon's gang killed him, but I earned myself a stripping-down for taking a punch at Fannon – or who I thought at the time was Phillips."
"No," Josh said. "Can't say as Holmes ever mentioned it directly, though I did overhear him telling you not to mistreat prisoners. Guess that was right after Fannon's face accidentally walked in front of your fist?"
Jason gave a lopsided grin and shrugged. "He was locked up in there, couldn't run or anything. I took a swing at him, just because I felt the star on my chest said I could."
"Didn't work, did it? He'd have told you he was really Fannon, otherwise."
"You're right, of course. I doubt I'd have listened to you anyway if you'd told me at the time, since even after Holmes warned me, I did it again."
At Josh's questioning look, Jason continued. "You were lying in a bed in your own sweat and blood," he said, referring to Randall's injuries from the same shootout that killed Holmes. "I was the new sheriff and I'd finally figured out that Phillips and Fannon were one and the same man. Had about enough of everyone running around like a whipped dog with their tail between their legs, waiting for the other shoe to drop. I was going to get a confession out of him and I laid into him, just for the sheer hell of it to get him to say what I already knew."
"Every man's got something they're not proud of," Josh said, "but I have a feeling what you're getting at is that if you had Burns in a cell, they'd have to scrape him off the walls when you were done."
Jason nodded. "That's about it." He stared in the direction of where Burns waited, as if seeing the dark, wiry man through the rock. "Fannon was a thief, robbing banks and killing unlucky people who were in his way, but what drives a man to do such things to helpless women?"
Josh looked up to see Jason watching him expectantly. "You look at me like I have an answer for that. It might be as you say, just bad luck that put that woman in his path that day. I doubt he cared if the stagecoach carried a nun or the actual mail-order bride he…killed. He got her money and took more besides as added luck."
"Like an extra payday," Jason said bitterly.
"The West has all kinds, Jason, but don't think the East is much better. The bad blood's sometimes just under fancier clothes and talk, is all." With that, Josh rose to his feet, the Winchester hanging loosely from one hand.
Burns' voice carried across the short divide between the two positions. "I know that little sidekick of yours is itching to get his hands on me, Randall!" he shouted. "The poster says one thousand for dead, two for alive. Which'll it be?"
Josh smiled, a tight twist of his lips. He pointed behind them at the mouth of the canyon. "Distracting us," he whispered. "You want to shoot him? Get him in the leg or shoulder if he runs for it, and I think he's going to."
He turned his attention to Burns. "One thousand's still a powerful lot of money," he taunted back. "I won't sneeze at any amount!"
Jason slowly pulled his gun from the holster and took point at the edge of the boulder, his line of sight wide and clear. He licked his lips and forced himself to breathe easy as the back-and-forth behind him became a distant buzz.
Josh was right. He did want to shoot him: between the eyes in the same manner Burns had executed the doomed Vera Coulson when he had finished with her.
Normally Jason paid little attention to the details of the crimes their marks had allegedly committed, but the murder of the mail-order bride Vera Coulson had shocked the town of Fort Collins and the surrounding territory so badly that every lurid fact and rumor swept from tongue to ear like a summer wildfire. No matter where he and Josh had gone on their hunt for Burns, every man, woman, and child seemed to know the details of the case, from what the woman had worn to the time of day the stagecoach was robbed and Coulson dragged away to her death.
Her body had only been discovered because her carpet satchel of meager possessions had been opened and discarded, the pieces of her life scattered about the countryside by crow and wind. Scavenging animals had left a portion of Vera herself in the path of a circuit rider, who went to the law ashen-faced and trembling with his discovery.
Jason focused all his sadness and anger on the canyon mouth before him, doubts about his career as a bounty hunter beginning to creep over him for the first time. If people like him and Josh didn't take the risks to reel in the vile outlaws like Burns, who else would bring them to justice? That thought alone kept him in the saddle day after day, sleeping on cold ground and eating out of cans for days on end. But he was getting tired.
A hail of gunfire snapped Jason out of his thoughts, and a sharp clap on his back from Josh set his senses tingling. Every inch of him was alert, ready to shoot. Ready to kill, if need be.
Need. Only if I have to, he reminded himself.
The short, lean figure of Tillot Burns staggered into his sight. When the horse had collapsed, it had wrenched Burns' knee something fierce, and Jason wondered just what the murderer was thinking, trying to make a bolt for freedom at high noon in such a condition. Maybe it was as Josh had said, and Burns was forcing them to spare him the noose.
Well, I won't oblige the bastard, Jason thought. Sparing him death had seemed unfairly merciful only minutes ago. Now, seeing him try to hobble away prompted a greater ruthlessness.
How fitting it would be to have those legs kicking and twisting in a different dance.
Jason sighted down the barrel of his revolver and fired.
Note: The reference to Clell Fannon is the plot of the episode "The Partners," the episode that introduced Nichols.