"But dad, look," Asa's finger rested between the illustration of Brisco and Bowler on one side of the table, Dawkins and Jessie on the other. Jessie and Bowler looked apprehensively at Brisco as the elder County traded an icy stare with Dawkins. "It's Juno Dawkins. He's the worst of John Bly's gang. Brisco's back undercover as 'Kansas' Wiley Stafford. Jessie robbed a train just to get Brisco and Bowler out there and she hasn't said why yet. Just one more chapter, please?" The words ran together quickly and ended breathlessly. His father, whom both boys strongly resembled, took a seat on the edge of Asa's bed and turned back a corner of the cover so he could read the title.
"It's late." He remarked, but the tone in his voice betrayed with what he was really concerned.
"I promise we'll finish all of our chores early tomorrow and go to bed right after dinner. Please, dad?" Asa's lip pouted just enough to convince his father. The look never worked on his mother, but it was a certainty with the patriarch of the family.
"One more chapter. Then it's lights out." The brothers shared excited glances.
"'Juno Dawkins may have been out of sight for the time being, but Brisco and Bowler never were. Eyes had been left behind, more than likely to report to Dawkins later on what they had seen. Most of Dawkins' gang remained in town; Bowler pointed out the short, long haired fellow positioned just outside the hotel, calmly rolling a cigarette. Angel Flybaker, a rather odd gent who was partially deaf from standing too close to a canon some time in another life. He glanced up when Brisco and Bowler exited. Apathy reflected on his face but the bounty hunters noticed his gaze followed them as they led their horses down the street. Beck Calder, bespectacled and brainy with dreams of branching out on his own, made no sort of attempt to hide his interest. He walked along the boardwalk, step for step with Brisco and Bowler, his hands shoved into pockets and his eyes focused completely on the two. The third of Dawkins' gang, and by far the deadliest, didn't appear until have Brisco and Bowler's horses had been stabled. He popped up as they exited the corral, leaning against a hitching post, a cigarette dangling from his lips. Jeremiah Johnson was long and lean, with a thick head of dark hair and eyes the color of coal. He stared at the two men hard, his mouth twisted in a snarl.
"You got a problem?" Brisco asked after exchanging glances with his partner.
"So you're 'Kansas' Wiley Stafford." Johnson's voice was smooth and quiet. Much quieter than one would expect from a man with a ten thousand bounty on his head.
"Who wants to know?" Brisco asked, even though he knew fair well the man who stood before him. Before hitching up with Dawkins, Johnson had been part of the Sutton-James Gang. Cousin to the gang's second in command, George Sutton. The same George Sutton who made Jessamyn County a widow on September 3rd, 1891 in Tucson, Arizona. Rumor had it Jessie and Johnson had never seen eye to eye with Jessie publicly disagreeing with any and all decisions made by the outlaw. It had been Johnson's idea to rob the First National Bank in Tucson and if Brisco knew anything about the younger County, he was certain Jessie had never allowed him to live it down. Knowing their history, Brisco found it odd they would ride together again, even if she didn't really have a say, and he figured she didn't have much pull with Dawkins in that department. Jessie had gone off on her own before, she wouldn't hesitate to do it again, but as far as he could tell—if the information fed to him was correct—Jessie had been riding with Dawkins for over four months, meeting up with the deadly outlaw just weeks after the death of Brisco County Sr. There were lots of questions Jessie would have to answer once Brisco got her alone. And he was not going to let her leave before answering them.
Johnson hadn't answered, instead continued to stare at our heroes. He took a long drag off his cigarette before tossing it to the ground. "Never thought you'd be a lefty."
"Well, I hope I didn't disappoint you." Brisco sneered.
"You met Jessie in Mexico I hear." Johnson pushed himself off the post and crossed his arms over his chest. "Now when abouts did that happen?"
"That's none of your business." Bowler growled, the expression on his face hard and unmoving. Brisco matched Johnson's stance, intrigue showing in his eyes.
"You wouldn't be Jeremiah Johnson, would you?"
"You're awfully interested in Jessie. Might I ask why?"
"Well then, it's been nice talking to you." Brisco turned his back and continued his walk away when Johnson called out again.
"I didn't know 'Kansas' Wiley Stafford started riding with anyone. Especially with someone I've never heard of before." Brisco paused, the tension thick so thick in the air it nearly made it difficult to breathe. He turned on his heel, the look of intrigue replaced by narrowed, suspicious eyes.
"If you got something to say, why don't you just come right out and say it?"
"Alright." Johnson uncrossed his arms and allowed them to hang at his side, one hand hovering near the handle of the Colt slung low on his hips. He took a classic gunfighter's stance, weak foot forward slightly, shifting most of his weight to his strong side. The movements were subtle but very much noticeable to a seasoned man like Brisco County Jr. "I find it kind of suspicious the two of you just happen to show up at this exact time. I also find it suspicious the two of you know Jessie County."
"Why is that?" Brisco echoed the gunslinger's movements. In his peripheral, he could see Bowler do the same.
"I think you know why, and if you don't, you'll find out soon enough when Dawkins and Jessie get back. You see, Dawkins may trust Jessie, but I don't. Conversely, I don't trust you. Especially since I've never heard of 'Kansas' venturing much further south than Oklahoma and I ain't never heard of Joe Echohawk." Brisco shrugged, a smirk on his lips that didn't reach his eyes.
"I wasn't aware I had such a fan in you, Jeremiah. I mean, you seem to know so much about me. Don't you think it's a little obsessive?" Brisco noticed Johnson's stance relaxed. His hand no longer hovered near the Colt. If Johnson had prepared for a gunfight, he would be leaving disappointed and he knew it. "You have a problem with County, I don't care. And I don't really much care if you have a problem with me. But we had an early morning after a late night and I'd really like to get a few hours of rest, if that's alright with you." Johnson shrugged nonchalantly. Brisco nodded, satisfied Johnson would let the issue drop for the time being and turned once again. Beside him, Bowler grunted before joining him.
In the distance, the sky grew dark, promising the kind of a heavy afternoon downpour only late summer could bring. Thunder rolled, momentary drowning out most of the sounds around them, but years on the road dealing with the worse mankind could offer made Brisco attuned to certain sounds. The heavy thud of hoofbeats as they contacted with the earth, the break of a branch beneath the weight of a footfall, the sound of a gun clearing leather. This was the sound that grabbed his attention. The faint rip of metal rushing against cowhide roared in his ears. Instinctively, Brisco pulled the Peacemaker from its holster as he spun. His heart pounded, sending blood rushing through his body. The barrel of his father's Peacemaker found its target quickly. The surprise was evident on Johnson's face, the Colt hanging, stained, just inches from its holster. Brisco's finger twitched on the trigger, his hand and gaze steady. The two watched each other closely; neither wanting to be the first to move for fear it might be seen as an act of aggression.
It was finally Brisco who lowered his guard, holstering cautiously, his eyes never leaving Johnson's. Once Brisco was no longer perceived as a threat, Johnson followed suit, a smile forming.
"I heard you were fast. That seems to be one thing right about you." Johnson walked toward the two, giving Brisco a pat on the shoulder as he passed. "But don't you worry, I'll still be keeping a close eye on you. Both of you."