February, 2017

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Issue #89

All The Tales

Hell's Gulch
by Ethan Bernard

The night Filibert Swain blew into Hell's Gulch, the winter wind kicked in through the pine trees, powerful and fierce. He wound down the steep mountain path on Old Betsy, a mare not given to complaining. Pine trees gave way to sagebrush. Down below the few lanterns in camp bobbed and weaved in rhythm with the motion of the wind.

Through the dusty streets he led her to Keinhorn's Tavern, mostly known as German's Place. Filibert tied Old Betsy up to the hitching post. He pulled on the worn leather reins, hard and tight, till they crackled. Gave her some sweet feed, and patted her nice and tender. Her mane shivered in the wind. Old Betsy had a habit of running like thunder when the situation so required and Filibert wasn't one to forget it.

He pulled at his holster, so it hung low, then swung the double doors open. The place was dark, a full, red dark with oil lamps burning low. A few round wooden tables and chairs tilted easy over the floor covered with sawdust. The place was deserted. Keinhorn, a plump Saxon, stood behind the bar. He wore a black apron, sleeves of his white shirt rolled up over his knotty forearms.

Filibert strode over, tipped his hat. Keinhorn put down a whiskey. It glowed a deep amber. Filibert blew the dust off the top and tossed it back. The dirt had caked onto his duster, but had spared his black suit with the frills at the collars. He motioned for another drink.

A portrait of a busty lady hung behind the bar, ripe and inviting. The oil lamps played tricks such that she seemed to be singing some sweet Siren song. Filibert Swain blinked and turned to Keinhorn.

"Wind's powerful this time of year."

"Ja," said Keinhorn.

"Awful hard for a man to sit still."

"Could be. You show me your silver, eh stranger?"

Filibert pulled a handful of silver coins from a satchel and set it on the cherrywood bar so that they gleamed against the shine of the wood.

"You ain't got the hands of a miner." Keinhorn said.

"And you ain't got the accent of a German. But a night like this we don't look too close at things."

Keinhorn ran his hands over his red beard. "Father's from Germany, but, you know, good for business."

Filibert scanned the bar. "Not tonight."

"Nah, yesterday men heard of some stake upriver. They'll come back, drooping and thirsty in a couple of days. Always do. Name's Keinhorn, Wilhelm . . .  William Keinhorn." Keinhorn extended his hand.

Filibert just watched it blankly until Keinhorn pulled it back. They fell into an unblinking silence. Finally, Filibert tipped his hat. "My name's Swain, Filibert Swain, man of leisure."

Keinhorn smiled. "And what brings you to Hell's Gulch, Mr. Swain?"

Filibert retrieved his Colt from the holster languidly and laid it next to the silver. "Well, Keinhorn, you charge this glass full of whiskey and keep it coming, you might just find out."

Keinhorn's beady black eyes widened. He poured out another whiskey for Filibert. He kept his other hand below the bar.

Filibert pushed his duster off his shoulders and let it drift to the floor. "You ever hear of Cedar's Landing?"

"You want to sit down?"

Filibert eyes flashed high and imperious until the German looked away.

"Yeah, silver town. About a day's ride out of Reno," Keinhorn said.

"Company town."


"Potts Mining owned the general store, the saloon, the deeds to the rickety houses where the men used to sleep. Even owned Sweet Mary's, where the men would go for recreation and a spell of female companionship."

Keinhorn filled Filibert's glass, and placed both hands on the bar. "You live there or something?"

Filibert laughed and sat down on a stool.

"Point of a company town is that the town is the company," he said. "They get money when a man spits, when his dog looks in the wrong direction. Felicia Wiles lived there, one of Sweet Mary's girls. A girl with eyes the color of Chinese jade. Came out of Tennessee, looking for opportunity out West. Only one kind of opportunity for a pretty gal without a man.

Filibert looked up to the lady on the wall.

"Thing is, company takes a cut even from the charms of the fairer sex. But Felicia came out of Tennessee, high in Appalachia. Her people lived damn poor, and they knew how to make shine. Soon Felicia's got a still. Shine so pure and sweet it deceives a man into happiness.

"One day a few men missed work. They stumbled around town. Big Bill Tanner was so grinning and merry he stomped his shoddy house to the ground. Company got word. Started hearing about this shine. And they didn't worry about the houses or the men thinking they're happy. They worried that this lady's got a product, and they didn't know what it was.

"Barrett, the Potts' man in town, came to her. Barrett, man so thin you could use him as fishing line. Asked her where the still was. They searched Sweet Mary's. Didn't find a thing. She told them nothing. Felicia just looked at Barrett and said, 'It's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.' Barrett braced himself as if a cool breeze were about to carry him away."

Keinhorn was grinning now. He filled Filibert's glass. One lamp went out in the corner, shifting the shadows like a crooked mirror.

"They tried to run Felicia out of town, Filibert said, "replace her with another girl, Lord knows they could find one. But the men wouldn't have it. They struck the day she was to leave town. Barrett got to thinking. How to get Felicia out of town. Kill her? Who knows how the men would react. And her still would be out there somewhere, and someone would know.

"A couple days later the Preacher rode into town. Dressed in black finery, riding a fancy mare, he came into Cedar's Landing. He talked to the men, walked among them. Listened to their problems, counseled them. Listened to Bill Tanner profess his love for this woman as pure as the shine she produced. And her profession? He didn't care.

"'Life's not a ledger,' Bill had said. 'Sometimes the figures don't always add up.'

"They told him many things, the men, but not the things the Preacher was paid to learn. He gave sermons, stressed honesty, clean living, hard work, temperance. He visited Felicia, went out walking with her on more than one occasion. Strolled the dirt streets. And their talks would sometimes take them far out, up into the foothills where they'd stare up at ice-capped mountains. She knew her scripture, on account of the way she was raised before she came to her eventual line of business. Of that she never said much, just said it was a 'closed book' and she was now 'in the wilderness.' The Preacher, he tried to win her confidence, offer her solace, but he always ended up plagued by questions, lulled by her voice. What you might call rustic, with an unexpected sweetness.

"Barrett, he was impatient, agitated. Didn't see these perambulations getting him any closer to what he wanted. The men, they were liable to get ideas. Few weeks later, Sweet Mary's burned to the ground. Sunday came round and the town was transformed. Colored banners hung from the dull brown houses. The saloon was closed. A great podium and stage stood in the middle of Main Street. Men started coming out, groggy and shielding their eyes from the noonday sun."

"They gonna cure a bunch of miners with religion?" asked Keinhorn.

Filbert glanced at the dancing flame of the oil lamp. "I'd wager you wouldn't know much in the way of religion." He continued. "It was cold that morning, frozen dew on the tips of the houses, but the sun was shining big and bright. The kind of day you can't figure why it isn't warm. When all the men arrived, the Preacher came onto the stage, behind the podium.

"'Repent, my brothers, the time is nigh. Do not be fooled by the Devil's bargain.'

"The men were murmuring. The Preacher was waving his arms.

"'Did Adam eat the apple, or was he tempted? Do not be tempted by the Devil and his handmaidens. The path of righteousness is paved by those who will guide you there. Hard work is the Lord's work. Do not doubt that heaven awaits those who are just.'"

Filibert was shaking his fist, panting. He grabbed himself, took a deep, long breath.

"You all right?" asked Keinhorn.

"Barrett was standing by the Preacher, hands hooked into his lapels, beaming respectability. The men listened there, trying to understand this man's flowery words. Big Bill Tanner was scratching his chin. Then Felicia came into the center of the square, her dress dusty and torn. She said, not screaming, but her voice loud, clear like a gunshot on an icy day: 'It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.'

"Barrett looked at the Preacher and nodded. The Preacher descended the podium. The crowd made way and soon the Preacher was facing Felicia.

"'To corrupt the scripture is a sin,' he said.

"'Yes,' she said.

"'Be gone.'

"'The rich man will not pass into the kingdom of heaven,' she said.

"The Preacher's eyes narrowed. He raised one hand. 'My child . . . '

"But the Preacher stopped. A great hiss followed by a clap of thunder. The colored banners swayed in the streets. The Preacher, he clutched at his own body, just to make sure it was there. The men looked from one to the other. And Barrett, shaking, he came down from the stage. He tried to speak. Couldn't. But he had a smoking revolver in his hand that had shot Felicia flush in the chest. Felicia smiled, her green eyes flashed. They met the Preacher's. Then she crumpled into his arms."

"And then?" asked Keinhorn.

"Well, then things got kinda rough." Filibert spun the Colt on the bar, faster and faster until its form blurred.

"You read the Bible much?" asked Keinhorn, his hand groping again beneath the bar.

Filibert was just smiling, a wild smile, and spinning that Colt, watching the blur like it was hovering in air.

"You fixing to get into heaven, Mr. Swain?"

A man burst into the tavern, the doors swinging wildly behind him. His shadow leapt and danced on the walls, a great ox of a man. "Evening, Preacher," he said.

Filibert turned and tipped his hat. "Evening Bill. You come for the silver?"

Bill kept his hands at his sides.

"There's laws that we can't always understand," Filibert said. The smile faded and his face sagged like a weighted-down stage. He stared through Bill, his eyes steeled to a place they couldn't get past.

"I'm here to settle accounts," Bill said.

Keinhorn's gaze moved from man to man, his arm frozen under the bar.

"Barkeep, I'd put both your hands on the bar and say a silent prayer if you know what's what," Bill said, still fixed on Filibert.

Keinhorn complied.

Filibert was staring at his glass, the silver and his gun. "Barrett was . . . You know, Bill, I can't be blamed for acts . . . Bill, there are mysteries."

"But you get paid for the mysteries, Preacher. And Barrett, that's settled," Bill said, and reached.

Filibert scooped his gun off the bar and turned and Bill shot him in the gut. Filibert clutched his middle and went down and Bill shot him again and again until Filibert lay motionless as the sawdust absorbed the blood.

Keinhorn kept his hands on the bar. He swallowed hard. "I get you a whiskey, ja?"

Tanner's face stayed blank.

"Or maybe you want something else? Maybe?" Keinhorn said.

Keinhorn poured a drink, his hands shaking. Bill moved up to the bar, slowly, stepping over the lifeless body as islands of wood shavings formed around the blood. He sat down and gulped the drink. Keinhorn poured another. The oil lamps flickered. Outside, Old Betsy neighed, her cry caught and carried up by the wind.

The End

Ethan Bernard lives in New York City. His work has been published in print journals such as Denver Quarterly and Barrelhouse, and online journals such as Underground Voices (//undergroundvoices.com/UVBernardEthan.htm) and Word Riot (//wordriot.org/template.php?ID=517).

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Harley Slater's Runaway
by Robert Gilbert

Harley Slater was in my office yesterday, hashing out conversation. I was working on U.S. Marshal business and stopped long enough to let him know the serious situation. He was a big man, with inherent strength, a broad mustache that covered his generous mouth, and a bronzed face.

Just west of town was their spread of land. He and his wife, Thelma, had come into Cheyenne River for supplies they needed before spring planting. He told Thelma to spend some time in Nadine's Linens, across the front road, inquiring into new fabric and pattern ideas. She had no idea of this talk.

"It was a damn mistake, Warren," Harley said. His dark eyes stayed with mine, anxious.

"Your son killed Toby Joseph. Witnesses say so."

"So you're gonna come out and arrest him?"

"He broke the law and I'm bound to bring him in for murder."

"You know he might hang, don't ya?"

"That's for the judge to decide," I said.

"But Luke is just a kid. Eighteen last month."

"Don't matter to the age. Law in this territory says he's an adult. You kill somebody and that's murder."

"Luke and Toby were target shootin' just a few doors down by the mercantile. Funnin', that's all."

"People watchin' said that Luke turned and fired directly at Toby. That's murder, Harley."

Harley's mind was conflicted with doubts. The juices in the big man were flowing in anger.

"So what happens next, Warren?" he asked.

"I got work in front of me," I said. "Government information needed from me twice a year that's then sent on to Washington, DC. They want to know what's goin' on here in cowboy country. As if we don't exist."

"Why don't they come here?" Harley said, regaining his strength. "Let 'em find out what goes on in these high plains parts. Sure won't be disappointed."

"Where's Luke right now?" I said.

"Guessin' he's at home. Might be doin' chores or runnin' the range."

"If he knows I'm comin' he might run."

"He's my son, Warren. When he gets hungry he knows it's suppertime."

About that time Thelma stepped into my office holding bags of different cloths. She was homely but pretty once, with wind-whipped color in her cheeks. I could see the once-thick dark hair, now gray, that hung in long curves over her shoulders. Most times her hair was coiled into a tight bun atop her head. She didn't like to wear a bonnet like most women-folk do and I never asked why. Just plain none of my business.

"What's new, Marshal?" she said. "You an' Harley been jawin' a long spell." Her eyes flashed in a familiar display of impatience. "Must be somethin' real important."

"Nothin' we can't handle," Harley said, his eyes aimed straight at his wife. "Fetchin' to find you at Nadine's, but I guess you're done with buyin' whatcha need."

"Lotta new fabric choices for spring," she said. From her hand-made over-the-shoulder bag she retrieved material for a ladies'-gathering dress, fittings and various colors for a patch quilt. A half smile crossed her face.

"Must be goin'," Harley said. His expression remained serious.

"When you gonna come visit, Marshal?" Thelma said. "Ain't seen you in our direction in quite a while. Stay the day and have supper with us. Me an' Harley an' Luke would enjoy your company."

I was standing beside my desk when Thelma finished her invitation. She finally opened up with a thoughtful smile that curved her mouth upward.

"I think that might happen," I said, throwing my sight first at Thelma, and then staying with Harley. "Let me give it some thought. Maybe tomorrow."

"Tomorrow it is," Thelma said, giving me an increased smile.

Harley's jaw clenched, his eyes slightly narrowed.

"Can't wait to see Luke again," I said, expressing myself in an exchange of politeness. They left my office, she holding her new linen material, both walking to their work wagon in front of the land office. I stepped to the boardwalk in front of my office, listening to their conversation. I could tell Thelma was jawin' extensively, probably talking about clothing pattern ideas that she hoped to make and wear.

"Can't wait to see the good Marshal tomorrow," Thelma said to Harley. "Long time since we seen him last. Maybe over a month. People seem to not stop by anymore. We'll have a damn good ol' time. Maybe play some poker when the Marshal arrives."

Both were now sitting square on the wagon bench seat. Harley released the brake, slapped the reins and the two team plow horses pulled away.

I watched as they left town, west in direction, until finally vanishing from sight. Even as they drove on, Thelma continued to jaw somethin' fierce, like she couldn't shut up. I'm guessing Harley had a lot on his mind, especially about his son and the forthcoming consequences that he and I talked about in my office.

Thoughts ran through my mind of how Thelma would react when told of what awaited Luke, and told pretty soon. I knew it would be damn terrible losing a son if found guilty, then watching when they put a rope around his neck for a senseless crime. But murder is murder and the law has answers for that crime.

After my thoughts concluded for the moment, I left the office, crossed the dirt road, and walked in the direction of the telegraph business. Byers Roebuck ran the office and he didn't seem too busy, just sweeping the floor in my direction when I entered. He was real good at his business as long as the telegraph lines were running. Indians would come along and snap the wires and down would go the communication lines.

"You look mighty brisk today, Marshal," Byers said. He turned and continued to sweep, paying little attention to the collected dust and debris that now covered my boots. He leaned the broom against the wall and returned to his desk after hearing the telegraph key hammer an incoming message. He sat down and replied, lifting his eyes to exchange looks with me.

I had scribbled a note that I wanted to send, pushing the paper toward his outstretched fingers.

"Is this all you wanna say, Marshal?" Byers said. "Kinda short." His eyes probed my message.

"I need the Circuit Judge here in maybe a day or two," I said.

"Judge Speers is a good man. Honest as they come."

I didn't reply. I've known Rance Speers longer than anyone in this section of territory.

"Is this about the Toby Joseph killin', Marshal?" Byers was on the nosy side. He's run this business for seven years and knows a great deal of what goes on here in Cheyenne River.

"Never you mind about the Toby situation," I said to set the tone. "Do your work and send this telegram." I still spoke with respect.

"Where do I find ya, Marshal? Most times you're drinking coffee, sittin' in the saloon."

"Or in my office. Paperwork that's gotta be done. Let me know of any reply from the judge."

Keeping my word with Byers, I decided coffee was top of my list in the Eagle Nest Saloon. Sitting there long enough, I hear an earful of town gossip that people think I'm not listening to. Especially when too much whiskey is consumed and the storytelling progresses into an all out-brawl. The sots have a notion I'm not paying attention until I step in to break up the quarrel. It can get pretty damn loud.

As I was relaxing with my coffee and minding my business, Chad Swain, the busybody in Cheyenne River, was enjoying another rye spirit, expressing his opinion while seated at a table close to mine.

I paid no attention until his words sounded loaded with pointed criticism.

"Ya know somethin'," he said. "When somebody kills somebody, pretty sure the guilty is supposed to hang. Ain't that right, Marshal?"

I continued to sip the warm coffee. My eyes narrowed in his direction.

"Toby Joseph is dead, Marshal. Good idea to bring Luke Slater into town. Not much to talk about. Ever'body knows of it."

"I know what has to be done," I said, "according to the law."

"Luke is guilty. Easy enough to understand."

"I have a responsibility and it'll be met."

"Happened yesterday. You'd think he'd be in jail by now."

"I'm guessin' you're the judge and jury, findin' him guilty and sentenced to hang?"

"Looks that way, Marshal. Best if you put Luke under arrest."

"You worry too much, Chad. That whiskey is makin' you feel too good inside."

"Cheyenne River 'ill be a better place to live in once that kid is behind bars."

"Some people in this town have a big mouth. Especially you."

"I wanna sleep better at night, Marshal. A kid like that could kill anybody."

"Nothin' to worry about. His pa knows that I'll be out there, late tomorrow."

"Harley Slater is a real bastard. He'll protect his son from anybody. 'Specially the law."

"I spoke with Harley an hour ago. Told 'im the facts and he understands."

"When you go out there, you best watch your back. No tellin' 'bout them two gunnin' for ya. Luke might've already run. Maybe some town folks with shotguns should ride with you. Five or six others with ya would make for great protection."

About to comment, my eyes stayed with Byers who'd just entered. He was walking toward me holding a single sheet of paper. Looking at Byers' expression, I already knew the message. Judge Speers to arrive in two days on the 10:00 a.m. stage. Court will begin at noon. Select jury.

I thanked Byers, finished another cup of coffee and walked straight to my office. No more comments came from Chad Swain, but I knew there would be weighty conversations tonight in the saloon.

The rest of the day I spent going over some government papers involving bank robberies in surrounding states. Lengthy descriptions and printed portraits seemed to resemble the same Rummer gang from around Coyote Canyon.

Once the paperwork was finished, I walked through Cheyenne River to find five unbiased members of the community for jury duty. Most had opinions but were honest about it when being considered.

The next day I was up early having coffee and breakfast in Josh Simon's Cafe. Those at the tables around me were pleased at seeing me but I could hear questionings about my intention of bringing in Luke Slater to stand trial. Joe Pikes, sitting with Hank Delp, sneaked a peek in my direction, and his eyes narrowed suspiciously. People were looking at me with various comments, which I ignored. I was thinking too much about the circumstances in front of me, paying little attention until Charlie and Melba Cobb entered. They owned the mercantile next to the cafe. They were regulars, always sitting at the same table, both ordering chicken with biscuits, gravy and coffee. He was a short man with a big belly. The cafe served good food and Charlie was a fine example of its draw. After breakfast they mentioned to Josh Simon that they had store business to tend to before catching the next stage, set to depart in another hour.

"We'll be gone a day," Charlie said, voicing words in my direction. His smile was without humor and his frown registered on a face that seemed to be a cold mask.

I offered a polite smile.

"But we'll be back tomorrow for the hangin'!" he said. A sarcastic smile spread across his lips.

My eyes blazed with sudden anger.

"Sorry to be so callous, Marshal," he said. "I was a witness to Luke Slater killin' Toby Joseph. They were funnin' and jokin' 'round, shootin' off guns at targets next to my store. Saw Luke point his Colt right at Toby's chest and fire. Toby tried to hold his own and yelled, Why, Luke? His legs buckled and gave way before he died in a pool of blood. What's more to be said?"

"He's innocent till found guilty," I stated firmly.

"Won't take long, Marshal. I saw the whole thing. Guilty as charged."

Nothing more was said. I paid my bill, left the cafe and crossed the road to my office. Standing near my desk was Virgil Tomms, the deputy I swore in until my return from the Slater place. Conversation between us consisted of only a few words. Virgil had a profile of power and strength, and could be trusted.

Outside, he stood on the boardwalk and watched me foot the stirrup, easing over the saddle. Pulling up the reins, I guided the roan to the left, west in direction, opposite the morning sun.

About a half hour later I slowed my progress in front of the Slater homestead. Harley and Thelma were already outside; Harley working just inside the barn and Thelma tending the spring garden planting.

"I know why you come, Marshal," Harley said, walking toward me.

Thelma's disposition had changed, as she looked straight me. She threw a garden spade to the ground, heading straight for me. Hard language fell from her mouth.

For a moment I studied her intently.

"Marshal, you're nothin' but a sonvabitch ridin' out here," she said, cold as ice.

"Where's Luke?" I said. "That's why I'm here, to take 'im back to Cheyenne River."

"Ya coulda told me yesterday, Marshal, when we was in town," she said. "Ya left it up to Harley to spill the news." Tears began to well in her eyes, and she used a garden apron to wipe them away.

"Bring Luke here," I said. "I need to get on with bringin' my prisoner back to town."

"He ran, Marshal," Harley said. "Heard that you was comin' and ran in the night." His voice was rough with anxiety.

"Where is he now?" I said.

"Oh, he decided to come back some time later," Harley said. "Luke told me he ran almost twenty miles straight north, seein' how far he could get. But he come back. Ma and me thought he would. He knows where the food on the table is."

Luke appeared in the open door of the barn, pulling the reins to his bay, walking in our direction.

"Luke," I said. "Begin to mount up. You're being arrested for the murder of Toby Joseph. Witnesses say so. Trial will start maybe tomorrow. Let's get a move on and don't try to run away again. I'll catch you in a flash."

"We'll be there, too," said Harley and Thelma in unison. "Sit in the front row behind our son."

Luke and I were already miles away from their spread, riding two across on a small trail used occasionally by the Butterfield stage. Along the trail hues of brown and green plants and scrubs were coming alive with the awakening of spring. I was enjoying the peaceful ride, taking note of the changing colors, and Luke began to talk.

"You ever see a young kid get strung up, Marshal?" Luke asked in a cold voice.

I could see perspiration beading across his forehead.

"What's does it feel like to have that thick rope around your neck?"

"I've seen it happen before, Luke. I'm not crazy about it, but that's the law if you're found guilty."

"No doubt I'm guilty, but damn scared o' that rope."

"Nothin' to worry about. Once that trap door opens, you're in the hands of God."

"Don't think God 'ill take me. End up in the other direction, where people meet the devil."

Luke continued to talk, in nervous spurts, remembering the good times with Toby.

We finally made our way into Cheyenne River and it seemed that Luke had turned into a spectacle. Onlookers on boardwalks on both sides of the road voiced opinions and jeers, laughing and scoffing.

"These people knew and liked me," Luke said, "and now I'm the fool they all hate." His mind seemed to reel with confusion.

In front of my office, Luke and I stepped down from our horses. We tied the reins to the hitch rail, crossed the boardwalk and proceeded inside. To my surprise, Judge Speers was standing near my desk. He came forward to shake my hand. His grip was strong and he towered inches above me.

"I received your telegram this morning," he said, looking directly at me. "I was in nearby Owl Creek, tending to a legal matter. I came in this direction, took me about an hour."

"You the judge ta hang me?" Luke said. "I . . . I don't wanna die!" Tense lines creased his face.

"Son, I'm only the judge. If found guilty, you will hang. If not, you'll go free."

"I know I shot Toby, but I didn't mean to . . . honest." Luke choked back a cry.

The office door swung open and Harley and Thelma entered. I quickly introduced them and mentioned the trial would begin tomorrow.

"Ma . . . Pa . . . I'm gonna hang." His pulse was beating erratically in his neck.

"Luke!" Harley shouted. "You calm down right now. Trial ain't till morning. Get in that jail cell and stop your damn fearfulness. Ma an' me 'ill be givin' some heavy talk to this here judge."

"But it's too late in thinkin' I'm gonna receive some prison time. I ain't done nothin' bad in my life till now. Real sorry it happened." Luke was struggling to hold back his raw emotions.

The room remained quiet as I escorted Luke to the rear cell area. The next sound in the office was the heavy key ring turning and the cell door slamming as it locked.

Returning up front, I could see the emotions in the room swirled with confusing thoughts. Judge Speers was extremely limited to his opinions, fearing his feelings would be brought out at the trial. Eventually the judge had heard enough, left my office, and walked across the road to get a room at the McKinzie Hotel. No further discussions arose between the Slaters, my deputy and me.

By evening and into the night, tensions throughout Cheyenne River had grown among the town folk. I had no prediction to the outcome of the trial, yet I was instructed by Judge Speers to have carpenters build a hangman's scaffolding at the edge of town. Construction went on throughout the night with the workers' kerosene lanterns providing a shadowy light.

In the morning after Luke was fed, I walked with him, now in handcuffs, to the Eagle Nest saloon. Tables were lined up on the sides of the room except for a rectangle one in the center for the judge. Chairs were in rows and all were filled with anxious citizens. Luke and I sat in the first row to the left and the five jury members sat in the front row to the right. Keeping their word, Harley and Thelma chose to sit directly behind their son.

Judge Speers didn't waste any time in getting the trial underway. He questioned those individuals who were, in his opinion, hearsay witnesses. All concluded that the evidence against Luke was true; the killing was deliberate and not accidental.

The key witness was Charlie Cobb, from the mercantile. He kept to his word as to what really happened. He was smooth with his answers, certain of a guilty response.

Silence filled the room as the judge asked the five jury members for their answers. Luke was unanimously found guilty and sentenced to hang at twelve noon.

"I don't want to hang," Luck screamed after being returned to jail. "I don't wanna die. I really don't want to die." He paced back and forth, yelling and repenting for his evil deed. No one paid attention and he only served as his own entertainer.

Twelve noon arrived and Judge Speers and I escorted Luke to the make-shift gallows. Luck was more nervous than before. "I don't wanna die!" he kept repeating. Curses fell from his mouth. At the edge of the gallows, Harley took his son aside and whispered softly.

"You ain't gonna die, Luke, listen. I rigged the rope. Some of the rope strands are completely ripped in half. It'll look real, but the cut rope 'ill split when you drop, lookin' like a real hanging. You're gonna live another day. Don't be scared no more."

"I ain't gonna die? Sure 'bout that, Pa? That rope looks thick enough to me. Honest, Pa?"

"Sure I'm sure. I did it last night. Once you drop, that rope is gonna snap, but snap long enough to look like you're dead. I paid off the doctor who'll say you're dead."

"That the truth, Pa? Never heard it done like that."

"Sure it's been done. Many times. I read about it in California."

"But what happens if it don't work like you say. Then I hang. I don't wanna hang. That tight rope'll feel awful. Don't care what you say, I'm damned scared that I'm gonna die."

"You ain't, Luke. It's gonna work."

Luke remained fearful.

"Listen," Harley said. "I slipped a note in your pocket. Once you're free, read it and hightail it to this homestead north o' here 'bout ten miles. When you get there there'll be someone waitin' for ya. Stay put until I arrive in a couple weeks. You understand? You'll be alive in minutes. Goodbye, son, don't worry, you'll be okay." Harley held his son in a tight embrace.

Luke and a minister and I climbed the scaffold steps and the prisoner stood centermost on the platform. A rope was secured around Luke's neck and pulled taut.

The minister said a lengthy prayer. Luke was asked to say something but he chose not to. He finally showed a smile, knowing the rope was cut and he'd go free and escape.

Judge Speers gave the signal and the trap door opened. Luke dangled for the next ten minutes until pronounced dead.

I walked over to Harley and Thelma, who was sobbing.

"I didn't want him to think that hangin' would hurt," Harley said. "I didn't want him scared to die and I proved my point. He was damn plain scared, but I told him about the cut rope and that ever'thing would be okay. Now we can take our son home and know he's not scared no more."

The End

Robert Gilbert, author of Westerns, romance and children's stories, lives near Chicago. Hooked on Westerns began when Gilbert lived in Hollywood, California as a entertainment writer. He spent numerous occasions on the Western back lot of Warner Bros. movie studio, His action packed Western heroes come to life on his computer and have been enjoyed worldwide. He has had several stories published in Frontier Tales: "Too Much of a Kid" in December, 2014; "Pointed Gun" in March, 2016;"Chase for Uber Mix" in April, 2016; "Run with the Outlaws" in December, 2016; and "Squire Canyon" in February, 2017.

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Go on and Count
by RJ Young

Jackson Pickard had seen enough. He'd watched this highfalutin darky walking and talking in the Loose Noose Saloon carry on with that fine piece of white ass long enough. He stood up from his stool at the bar and pulled back on the darky's collar, getting his attention.

"You need to find yourself somewhere else to drink, boy," Pickard said. "I think this white lady's had enough of being pestered by you."

The darky put his hands on his hip, acting the part of an arrogant spook. "Well where do you suggest I go get a drink? I'm new here. But, to the best of my knowledge, this is the only saloon in town."

"I don't care if you drink from the trough outside. You're through drinking here."

The darky sighed. "This the part where I'm supposed to say I'll leave when I'm good and ready and make a fuss and create a ruckus. But I'd prefer to finish my milk," he pointed toward the glass on the table in front of him, "and continue my conversation with this lovely vessel, a shimmering example of beauty in this rough country."

Pickard gestured to the full saloon. "Then I think we got a problem, don't we, nigger?"

The darky sighed, acting hurt now. Pickard couldn't help thinking he was about to teach this darky a lesson in how to talk to white folks.

The last lesson he'd ever learn.

* * *

"See?" Lincoln Szaikowicz said. "You're waving your hands around, calling me all kinds of derogatory names and telling everyone in here what you're gonna do to me. Like I'm not standing right here. Like I don't hear you." Lincoln put a hand on his hip, fingering one of the Griswold & Gunnison pistols he carried. "Now," Lincoln said, "how would you react if I was saying those things about you? I suspect you'd take special offense."

Lincoln wasn't laying it out for Jackson Pickard so much as he was for all those who stood watching. He wanted to give everyone the same idea of what to tell the authorities when they finally got off their asses and walked into that Fort Smith saloon.

Pickard gave Lincoln a once over and looked around, seeing he had an audience now. "Well, seeing as you ain't nothing but a uppity nigger, I don't think anybody in here would give a damn if I shot you down like a dog."

"But I would give a damn." Lincoln let that racist remark wash over him, playing to crowd. "I'd give a damn because I'd be dead. And then mama would mourn my passing, and they'd have to go through all the trouble of arranging a funeral and buying flowers and so on. Not to mention the charges that would be brought up on you. You can see how that would be a great hassle for all involved. So how about you forget that you picked a fight with me, leave this fine establishment, and I'll forget all about your picking a fight with me over nothing."

"Look here, nigger with the fancy mouth." Pickard kept on with that word. "Talking to a fine-looking white lady ain't nothing in my book."

"The nice lady didn't seem to mind, did you?" Lincoln threw a look over in the woman's direction. The slightest hint of a smile crept around the edge of her lips. Lincoln gave her a big grin back. "See?" He turned to Pickard. "I didn't think so."

That was enough to incense Pickard. Lincoln, feeling it coming on, took a natural lean out of the way of the oncoming punch and kicked Jackson to the side.

"Now, don't do something else stupid." Lincoln watched Jackson put his hand on his pistol. "Like pointing that at me."

Pickard slowly came to his feet. "You ain't gonna shoot me," he said. "If you were, you'd have done it already."

"You mean when I put your ass on the ground a second ago? No, that was so these find folks can testify before the law and Saint Peter himself if they have to that I gave you not one but two," he gestured with two fingers, "opportunities to walk out of here without getting killed."

"So you, a nigger, is looking out for me, a white man?" Pickard pointed toward his chest, gesturing for the crowd.

"It's the damndest thing, I know, but there it is."

"I tell you what, uppity nigger. Seeing as you're doing me such a great favor, I'm gonna do you one."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah." Jackson Pickard drew his gun from its holster. "I'm gonna give you till the count of three to get yourself out of here." Pickard pulled the hammer back. "Come my three count, though, I'm gonna kill you where you stand."

"So that's the way you want to play it?"

"Yeah, it is."

Lincoln sighed and slowly shook his head. "Well, go on. Count."

Jackson's face turned ponderous. "You ain't gonna run? Ain't that all you slaves was good for? Running?"

"So you can shoot me in the back? Nah, I ain't gonna run. Go on and count."

"Even though I got a gun pulled on you, you ain't gonna run? You know I'll squeeze the trigger before you clear your holster."

Lincoln crossed his arms. He was annoyed now. "Are you gonna count or not? We don't have all day."

Jackson smirked. "All right, you stupid nigger. One—"

Lincoln pulled his Griswold, thumbed the hammer and put one through Jackson's firing arm. He pulled with his left hand and put another through Jackson's shoulder before Jackson hit the ground. Lincoln made his way over to Jackson's body on the floor. He kicked at the man's boot and said, "You want to finish counting, or should I?"

* * *

Lincoln was brought in for questioning along with a wailing Jackson Pickard who kept going on about how Lincoln had tried to kill him while the doctor tried to get the man to sit still long enough to get the pistol rounds out of his arm.

The arresting marshal, a fella named Duane Peterson, came right at Lincoln, asking if Lincoln meant to kill Pickard.

"If I did, he'd be dead now, wouldn't he?" Lincoln said.

"I don't know," Peterson said. "You might have missed your mark."

"If we were talking about you hitting the clit-TOR-is on your old lady, then, yeah, maybe. But since we're talking about me with a pistol, you should know I can shoot the buzzing wings off a horsefly's ass at fifty paces."

Peterson leaned back in his chair, sizing up this black man with Confederate Army-issued pistols. "You know, I could see why most men would want to shoot you dead."

"Then you'll understand the need for me to be a better shot than most men."

"What brought you into that saloon today?"

"A white woman with knockers the size of your head and a rear end big enough to sit a whiskey bottle on top of."

Peterson smiled. "I know that woman. That's Eliza Dufresne. She's married to Elroy Dufresne. She tell you that?"

"You know something?" Lincoln put his hand to his chin. "I do recall she did. Then I told her about this one time my mama beat me with a switch for having a potty mouth. And then I told her about this cat I once saw roaming around the street. And then I told her about this really bad steak I ate in Clinton on the way out here."

"What's the hell that got to do with anything?"

"She said the same damn thing. So I told her. I thought we were having a conversation about shit that doesn't matter."

The marshal heard a laugh come from the other side of the room. It came out of a well-made old man with a groomed goatee matching the white tuft of hair on his head.

"Send him over to my office with your write-up when you're done, Duane," the old man said. "I believe me and that fella have business to discuss."

Lincoln waited until the man left and then pointed a thumb in the direction of the exit. "And who, pray tell, was that individual?"

Peterson chortled. "You don't know the Honorable Judge Isaac Charles Parker when you see him?"

"The Hanging Judge?"

Peterson made a face, feigning like he'd been wounded. "Best not call him that to his face."

"Why not? It's what is, ain't it?"

"And if I was to call you a nigger to your face like poor old Jackson Pickard back there?"

"I see your point. What do you think he wants with me?"

"I better not venture a guess."

"Oh, but you want to. So go on. Venture."

"Seeing as Jackson Pickard was a wanted outlaw, he probably just wants to say thank you."

Lincoln pointed across the room to Pickard who was being pushed into the only cell in the room. "That fella is an outlaw?"

"You amazed you gunned down an outlaw?"

"Just that you can be that stupid and still make a living on wanted poster."

"Hey." Pickard pushed his face against the cell bars, his arm in a sling. "I heard that."

"Well I'm glad to know you still got ears," Lincoln said over his shoulder. "They'll give me something else of yours to shoot at the next time we cross paths." Lincoln looked back at this marshal Peterson. "You still got my guns. When do I get my guns back? And somebody needs to check on my horse. He's a chestnut mustang. About seventeen hands tall and answers to Barak. Y'all might get him some oats, too. He ain't ate for a time now."

Peterson looked at Lincoln's gun belt lying next to him on the floor and then back at this black man with more gumption than ten men. "I'm sure your horse is fine."

"He might be. But I'd feel better if somebody checked on him. He's hitched up just outside the saloon. Now give me my guns."

"You'll get them back when Judge Parker says you can have the horse back. So I suggest you take a stroll over to the courthouse."

"Soon as I know my horse is all right."

* * *

Lincoln made sure his horse was OK, feeding it some oats he bought from the general store before deciding he probably should go talk with the judge. It'd crossed his mind to just leave without explanation or permission, but he couldn't think of a better way to make sure he was gunned down, hung or worse. So he took himself over to the courthouse.

He had been shown into the judge's chambers and told to sit down by a delectable white lady Lincoln assumed was his secretary. She told him the judge would be with him shortly, and it was true enough.

Judge Parker appeared almost as soon as Lincoln sat down, but he didn't acknowledge Lincoln. He just took to his desk, started fretting over sheets of paper and a plate of food he'd brought in with him, never even raising an eye toward Lincoln.

Of course Lincoln knew better than to just get up and leave, even though it was lunchtime and Lincoln himself was starting to feel hunger pangs. Pissing off the hanging judge was still a good way to depart this earth before your time, and Lincoln knew that, too. But he couldn't help tapping his fingers on the stiff wood chair his ass was in and feeling like he was being punished for something.

The judge picked up a sheet of paper that was lying next to his desk. "Says here," the judge said through forkfuls of ham and eggs, "you had Jackson Pickard dead to rights."

When Lincoln didn't immediately answer, the judge finally raised his head.

"Oh, so you do see me," Lincoln said. "I was beginning to think I was blending in with the walls."

The judge shoved another forkful into his mouth and leaned back in his chair, chewing with a closed mouth and studying Lincoln for a moment. "You have an air about you. An air that makes me think you can handle yourself with bad men. Can you?"

"Handle myself?"

"What I'm asking."

"I prefer it to be handled if you catch my meaning, Judge."

The judge didn't even smile at it, giving away nothing. "You gonna answer the question or keep acting like a mule's ass?"

Lincoln adjusted his hat, putting on his serious posture now. "I can handle most anyone wants to try me."

"Jean!" the judge said. Lincoln watched the petite little secretary who showed him in walk into the judge's chambers. "Jean, would you go get Marshal Upham for me?" The secretary nodded and left. The judge turned his attention back to Lincoln. "Your last name? Suh—SAKE-co-WICKS?"


The judge tried saying it again. Butchered it again.

"Close enough," Lincoln said.

"How do you get a name like that?"

"The same way I expect you got yours."

The judge frowned.

"My mama," Lincoln said. "She named me."

"Your mama? What's your mama like? She was strict bringing you up?"

"She's Jewish."

"What's that got do with anything?"

"I could ask you the same thing, Judge."

The judge crossed his arms. "What about your daddy then?"

"I've got one—just like everybody else brought into this world."

"So was it your mama or your daddy who taught you these manners?"

"You want to talk about manners? How about it's bad manners to let a man pull on you and not shoot him. Speaking of which, when am I going to get my pistols back? I feel naked sitting here."

"Your first name, though. I know that one."

"My mama had an affinity for the President and took it out on me."

"So you were born during the war then. What are you? About twenty-five?"


Jean ushered a rather large white man into the room, sporting a silver star on his belt. "I see you brought me a live one," the man said. "And here Bass thought he was gonna have the franchise on being the only black marshal west of the Mississippi."

"Marshal D.P. Upham," Judge Parker said. "Meet your new deputy." The judge gestured at Lincoln. "Lincoln, uh—well hell you say it."

"Szaikowicz. And I don't see me being a deputy at all. I see you giving my guns back and me getting on my way."

"Well the way I see it," the judge said, "you need every opportunity to put your past to bed. And as long as you're my marshal, I aim to help you."

"What past? And I don't want to be a marshal. I want to be on my way."

"Well, that's nice thing about being the Federal Judge for the Western District of Arkansas. I don't have to give a goddamn about what you want. I can pretty well do as I please." The judge smiled on it.

"And here I was thinking slavery was over," Lincoln said.

"Oh? The chattel of human beings is over—in this country at least. But I'm afraid we are all slaves to the law, to right and wrong. We will always be slaves to God almighty—"

"And what if I refuse to be liberty's great arbiter of justice?" Lincoln said. "What if I just want to get a parcel out around Deep Fork River, plant pecan trees and just let someone else be a slave to right and wrong?"

"You gonna hang up those pistols when you get your pecan farm?"

"Not as long as there's a need for slaves to the law, no."

"You know anything about growing pecan trees?"

"You put seeds in the ground and throw water on 'em."

"Anything else?"

Lincoln readjusted himself in the seat, feeling a little flustered. "I'm a quick study."

"I'm counting on it. We got a barrelful of outstanding warrants, and Marshal Upham needs all the help I can get him to bring these thieves and murderers to justice." The judge pushed a stack of papers across his desk toward Lincoln. "Here are one hundred and warrants for fugitives from this court. But all you gotta do is bring me back one of them, and you can go water your pecan seeds."

Lincoln took a look at the warrant on top. "That one says Jackson Pickard. Count that as the one I brought back. We square now?"

"Well, I'll be damned," Upham said. "He can read, too. Bass can't even read."

"No," the judge said. "We are not square. You get no credit for time served on this deal."

Lincoln didn't mind showing he was anger now. "Let's assume I didn't take care of this warrant. What happens then?"

"Then I think I can get Mr. Pickard to press charges, if that's what you want. I'm sure not everybody in that saloon thought what you did was self-defense. Then you can take up how you feel about this arrangement with the noose." The judge plopped a marshal's star down on top of the warrants. "You can start as soon as you get your rear end out of that chair. Keep track of your expenses, and you'll be reimbursed."

"What if I take your warrant and make a run for it?" Lincoln said. "What then?"

"What happens then is," Upham said, "you go from a man paid to catch fugitives from the law to being a fugitive from the law. Which means I'll hunt you down like a dog myself, and let the judge introduce you to that noose he was just talking about."

The judge said, "You can take the deal. You can help your United States government create a more perfect society, and I will help you pick out a parcel perfect for growing pecans down around Okmulgee myself." The judge brought his hands together in a steeple. "Or you can take a murder charge and swing."

Lincoln looked across the desk at the judge and then at Marshal Upham. "Shit."

"Wise choice, deputy," the judge said.

* * *

Upham walked Lincoln out of the judge's chambers and back across the street to where the deputies did their business while talking Lincoln through the fugitive he was commissioned to bring back to Fort Smith.

"He's a horse thief who just now graduated to murder," Upham said.

"Graduated?" Lincoln said. He stalked up the steps to the marshals' office and stopped there.

Upham waited until he'd climbed the steps and drew level with Lincoln. "I could give you the particulars, but that part doesn't much concern you."

"Then why don't you tell me what does concern me." Lincoln showing some flex, wanting to get going just as soon as possible.

"In a hurry to go gallivanting off into Indian Territory, are you? You can venture as far as Fort Sill with that badge on your chest. But once you cross into Indian Territory? Past the dead line? You're taking your life into your own hands. There ain't too much respect for the law out there. And while I personally don't care what kind of shape an outlaw is in when he gets here, the judge does. So make sure your prisoner can walk and talk if at all possible. You get to take along one posse man—every deputy out on the hunt has to take at least one."

"Well, I'm not gonna be a deputy that long. I'll be fine by myself."

Upham set his jaw. "I don't care who you take with you, but you have to take somebody with you. It's Marshal Service regulations."

"And if I don't take a posse man, what are you gonna do? Fire me?"

Upham just glared at Lincoln in response.

"Didn't think so. Now, you gonna give me any money to tide me over till I bring back this supposed bad man?"

"Like the judge said, you'll get reimbursed for your expenses—keep your receipts—and you'll get your bounty when the judge says I can give it to you."

"So that's a no." Lincoln walked into the marshal's office and found Peterson holding his guns out for him.

"I see you got drafted." Peterson said it with a smirk as Lincoln strapped on his gun belt.

"Blackmailed is more like it." Lincoln shot a look to Upham and watched the corners of Upham's mouth curling into a smile.

"They give you the bit about taking it up with noose?"

Lincoln glared at Upham.

"Well, who you going after first?" Peterson said.

Lincoln looked at the warrant and read aloud. "Randall Caldwell."

* * *

Randall Caldwell was deep into Marilyn Humphries, pumping and sweating, when her husband, Grantham Humphries, burst through the hotel bedroom door with a pistol trained on Randall and Marilyn,

"I told you I was gonna catch you with this nigger boy," Grantham said. "And now that I have, ain't a law man in the territory gonna stop a lead piece of justice bearing down on the both of you."

Randall pulled up, pulled out and threw up his hands. "Hey now. I had no idea she was married to you."

Grantham looked disappointed. "I hadn't even told you she's my wife yet."

Randall winced. "But I had no idea you'd be coming home right now. That part really is true."

The truth he was willing to acknowledge anyway. Randall had been diddling this woman off and on for a couple months now—pretty much whenever he was in Van Buren County. She'd mentioned her husband was "the jealous kind" once or twice, but what did that mean to Randall? If a husband wasn't the jealous kind, what kind of husband was he?

"Now honey," Marilyn said to Grantham. "This ain't what it looks like."

"Oh, it ain't?" Grantham saying it with an air of amused sarcasm. "Please then, tell me exactly what this is if it ain't what it looks like?"

"Well." Marilyn started looking around the room.

Grantham could tell she was looking for a worthwhile explanation to present itself to her woman's brain. And Grantham was prepared to give her all the time in the world. He wanted to hear this.

"Well," Marilyn started again. "I don't think I'm gonna be able to come up with a lie you'll believe just now. So I'm just gonna skip to the end part."

She pulled a Philadelphia Derringer from underneath her pillow and pumped twenty grains of black powder into her husband's chest.

Grantham didn't fall, not immediately. He lowered his pistol and fingered at the small wound in his chest with his free hand and looked at it for a moment. Then he raised his head and said, "I'm still alive! Hallelujah!"

Marilyn pushed passed Randall and reached for his gun belt. She came back with his Colt Army pistol, pulled back on the hammer and fired twice—once to clear the empty chamber and once more into Grantham's chest. She repeated the effort twice more and watched her husband fall over in a great heap, the toes of his boots pointing toward the bedroom ceiling.

Randall, still stark naked, backed into the corner of the bedroom and stared in disbelief at the dead husband laying just a few feet from him. He took in the porcelain-skinned redhead sitting in bed with the covers pulled up over her nipples protruding like .45 casings through the sheets.

"You better run, Randall," Marilyn said, "what with you shooting my husband and all."

"What? No! You shot him. I was just standing here."

"Honey." Marilyn pouted at him, feigning being hurt. "That ain't how the story goes. In this story, I'm just a frightened white woman recovering from watching her Sheriff husband gunned down in cold blood after you, the bad man and killer negro Randall Caldwell, had your Biblical way with me."

"But that ain't how it happened." Randall was pleading with her now. "I didn't know your husband was the Sheriff, and I didn't know you were gonna shoot him."

"Since I like you, baby, I'm going to give you a two minute head start. Then I'm going to scream and point in the direction you fled." Marilyn cocked the Colt's hammer and pointed it at him. "If you act fast, you'll still have time to get dressed."

Randall saw he didn't have much choice. He threw on his clothes, boots and hat and pointed at the gun belt. His remaining gun was still in the chair where he'd thrown all his things. "I can take that with me?"

"Sure," Marilyn said. "You're gonna need it." She blew him a kiss, and Randall made for the door muttering angry profanities about life being a bitch and her whorehouse name was Karma.

* * *

Randall made it down from the second floor. He didn't think anything of jumping onto the Sheriff's horse—not then. To Randall, a man who made his bones as an outlaw stealing horses, a horse was just a horse. They were stupid, hammerhead ornery sons of bitches that cost too much to keep and were only good for as long as they could carry you. So he didn't think twice about straddling the Appaloosa and putting it into a swift gallop out of Van Buren County.

If he didn't let the horse sit back and rode it to near death, he'd be able to make it back to Miller's town before dark, he decided. He had been riding for nearly an hour when he remembered the saddlebags—the saddlebags with the Miller Gang's last score sitting right underneath that chair in the hotel bedroom where he was poking the Sheriff's wife.

Maybe if he wasn't so flustered or struck by the thought, he wouldn't have brought the horse to such a breakneck stop. And maybe if he hadn't brought the horse to such a breakneck stop, the horse wouldn't have been spooked by that rattlesnake raising up and bearing its fangs in the horse's direction. And maybe if the horse hadn't have been spooked by that rattlesnake, it wouldn't have reared up in such a fit and fury that it wouldn't have thrown Randall clear off its back. And then maybe, just maybe, if the horse hadn't thrown Randall off his back, he wouldn't have had to watch the horse sprint toward the west and leave him stranded just west of the Illinois River somewhere between Eufaula and Webbers Falls. As it was, though, Randall was left to try to make the trek toward Miller's town in his boots while trying to steer clear of whatever lawmen he knew must be looking for him.

At first, it didn't seem so bad. Being left out in the wild with just his gun and his wits about him, he thought he would be fine. After all, he was near fresh water and could drink from the river whenever he felt a thirst hit him. But there's no sustenance in water, just survival. The reality of that began to hit Randall around the time the moon became bright enough to illuminate night.

Randall knew he must not be that far from Miller's town, but he dreaded walking into it empty-handed. There's no telling what Miller would do—or have any of his boys do—to Randall if he showed himself there without one red cent from a bank job Miller had been planning for weeks. Knowing the things Miller had done to folks who just looked at him crossways gave Randall the willies. And it wasn't like Randall could go running to the Indian agents or the marshals. They'd want him for themselves.

No, he decided. Even if he were to make it there tonight—which was a real big if—it was probably best to wait until he had some kind of plan, some kind of ironclad explanation, for coming back on foot with just his pistol and a story. He picked out a tree with good shade to lean up against and shut his eyes for a small nap to stave off his hunger and clear his head.

* * *

But, like all great naps, Randall's lasted for a little longer than he'd wanted or expected.

When he woke up, light was shining through the treetops. Randall squinted and squirmed. He found a blanket had been tossed over him and was able to make out the hazy image of a stranger tending to a small campfire just a few paces away. He scrambled on the ground, looking for and finally locating his pistol on his belt and then stood up quickly.

The stranger seems to be at peace with the whole situation, glancing at Randall while Randall looked around trying to make sense of it.

"You're welcome," the stranger said.


"For the blanket. You're welcome to the blanket."

"That mean I'm supposed to thank you? I'm supposed to thank you for covering me with a blanket that could be very well covered in disease?"

The stranger gave Randall a quizzical look. "That'd be mighty stupid of me, now wouldn't it? Cover a man in a diseased blanket who could help me? That'd be damn stupid."

Randall was cautious. Help with what?"

"Help me find a wanted fugitive. His name is Randall Caldwell. He's a black fella and about my height from what I been told. I was led to believe he was spotted riding a spotted black Appaloosa through here late yesterday."

"And you think that's me."

"I don't know. You haven't told me your name, friend."

"I could say the same to you, marshal."

The stranger smiled. "Did the star on my chest give it away?"

"Wait. You ain't Bass Reeves, are you?"

"I guess I'm the other black deputy marshal."

"Damn. You know I always wanted to meet Bass Reeves? What's he like?"

"I wouldn't know. I've never met the man."

"But you're a marshal? For Hanging Judge Parker?"

"I am. But I just started."


"Yesterday as a matter of fact."

"And they put you on to catching this fella Randall Caldwell to pop your cherry?"

"That's right."

"They must not like you then."

"Why's that?"

"'Cause, what I heard? About the Randall Caldwell? He's the biggest colored man you ever seen or heard about."

"Is that right?"

"Sure is. He's about seven feet tall, three hundred pounds and got a handshake that could make a stone bleed."

"Is he a fast draw, though?"

"Shit. Does a hobbyhorse have wooden pecker? I heard he gunned down five men at once with one pistol."

"Sounds like one tough son of a bitch."

"The toughest son of a bitch in Indian Territory." Randall sucked on his teeth. "Course that's just what I heard."

"Course it is." Lincoln played with his hat and then let the whimsy wash from his face. "But you wouldn't know anything about where I could find this tough son of a bitch Randall Caldwell now, would you?"

"I wish I could help you, marshal . . . What'd you say your name was?"

"I didn't. It's Lincoln. My name's Lincoln Szaikowicz."

"Kind of name is SUH-what?"

"You can just call me Lincoln, Mister—"

"Winston," Caldwell said. "Millard Winston."

"Ain't that funny?" Lincoln said.


"We're both named after Presidents. What are the odds two negroes would be named after Presidents of the United States? About the same chance as two white men meeting each other named Benjamin Banneker and Frederick Douglass, huh?"


"Probably about as slim as my finding Randall Caldwell in these woods." Lincoln held the man's gaze and then broke off. "Well, I guess I can eat while I figure out what to do next. You can have some too if you want. It's just coffee and bacon, but it's better than nothing."

Lincoln turned back to the campfire, and Randall watched him for a moment. He thought about it, weighing how much this man, this marshal, actually knew about him before thinking there was no harm in eating with him. Randall was starving something awful anyway. Lincoln scooped out some bacon and put it in a little tin plate for Randall. Randall signaled his thanks and wolfed it down in a few bites. Without saying anything about it, Lincoln gave Randall a couple more strips and sipped his coffee.

"So," Randall said, dusting his hands, "what'd they say Randall Caldwell done this time?"

Lincoln took out the warrant and handed to Caldwell. Caldwell just stared at it and then narrowed his eyes at Lincoln. "You trying to be funny, marshal?" He wasn't asking so much as he was telling.

"No," Lincoln said. "Just thought you'd like to read it for yourself there, Millard. Not too many negroes know their history—talking presidents and famous negroes and all. I just assumed you were educated one."

"You still being funny."

"You telling me you can't read, Millard?"

Randall thrust the warrant back at Lincoln.

"That your way of telling me you want me to read it?"

Randall just glared at Lincoln.

"OK." Lincoln straightened out the paper. "Says here that Randall Caldwell is a fugitive from the law. Says here he was convicted of three counts of robbery, fourteen counts of horse theft and is wanted for murder." Lincoln folded up the paper and put it back into his shirt pocket. "Know what Judge Parker gives you for just one count of horse theft in the Western District?"

"Why don't you tell me?" Randall said.

"Well he don't give you a medal, that's for sure. I can understand why a fella would light out just as soon as he was good and able with the kind of punishment Judge Parker is known for doling out waiting on him. Hell, he'd probably have a good mind to take it right on into Indian Territory and keep riding as far as one of those ill-gotten steeds he made off with would take him. But that's only what I would do—a regular fella. Now this Randall Caldwell, being as tall as a timber and twice as thick like you say, he might be willing to take on the law with just his six-shooter."

"Ain't no man, not even Randall Caldwell, can beat the noose."

"Yeah, that's true. Maybe Randall came around to that kind of thinking, and that's why he decided to make a break for it. Only thing I can't figure, though, is the girl."

"What girl?"

"She ain't a girl exactly. She's a grown woman with all nice parts is what she is. Until I saw her for myself, with that great flowing red hair of hers and milky skin, I couldn't come to understand why Randal Caldwell would be so stupid as to stop off with another man's woman after being seen making a getaway from a bank just one county over? Hell, with cash the bank manager said he and his posse made off with, sounds to me like he could've had himself a whorehouse full of women if he was so inclined.

"But he stopped for one woman, and that might be his undoing. She's the one who alerted the Marshal Service to his whereabouts after he shot the poor woman's husband. A lawman named Humphries in Van Buren? Shot him down like a dog the way the woman told it. Said he used a Colt Army to do the job—one of two he kept on his gun belt. Then, this fella Randall Caldwell, he stole the dead man's horse and lit out of town."

"Is that right?"

"Sure is—if you believe the woman." Lincoln fretted over what was left of his bacon and drained the rest of his coffee down to the grounds before picking back up. "And most folks are inclined to. But the curious thing? Along with the bullets the doc pulled out this man Humphries from the Colt Army was small hole just above his heart where a bullet went through. Looked like the kind of powder pellet that comes out of a pocket pistol. And I don't know of any grown man that carries a pocket pistol, especially if he's got a couple Colt Army pistols on his hips. Anyway, it wasn't my call. I just go find who they tell me to find."

"All you can do is your piece," Randall said.

"The one thing I don't think the woman was, well, let's say exaggerating about was her description of this outlaw Randall Caldwell because hers fit the same one been associated with the man since the Marshal Service has had a file on him." Lincoln set his tin cup down and glared at Randall. "And I'll be damned if don't describe a man that looks . . . just . . . like . . . you."

Randall drew his pistol at that, and trained it on Lincoln's chest.

"Now, Millard." Lincoln was still cool while he said it, not reaching for either of his pistols, but he held Randal in his eyes. "Why would you do something like that?"

"If you go for your guns, I will shoot you where you sit." Randall stood up and cocked back the hammer on his Colt Army. "Now, slowly, take your gun belt off and toss it to me."

"You know, a fella once a gave me to the count of three to draw on him. I'm going to give you the same courtesy. But I'll warn you. If I get to three and you ain't pulled your pistol before I pull mine, I'm gonna shoot you. One."

"If you go for your gun, you'll be dead before your pistol leaves the holster."


"You ain't got to die out here, Marshal. Don't be stupid. I'm not lying to you. I will gun you down and leave you here for the critters to have."


Randall pulled the trigger.

The gun made a clicking noise. The chamber was empty. While Randall cocked and clicked through every chamber in his pistol, Lincoln casually pulled back his coat and methodically removed his pistol. "Now, you said I'd be dead before my pistol left the holster." He pointed it straight at Randall's chest, cocked back the hammer and smiled. "You lied to me, Randall."

The End

Meet RJ Young. He's written two novels: COWETA CHRONICLES: RECKONING and IT ONLY GOT WORSE. You can find him on Twitter (https://twitter.com/RJ_Young) Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/RJYoungWrites/) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/byrjyoung/)

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Middle of Nowhere
by David Hesse

"I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that's on its mind and can't make itself understood, and so can't rest easy in its grave, and has to go about that way every night grieving."
– Mark Twain

The sky was empty of birds and clouds. The sun beat down on the small town in the middle of nowhere. Tumbleweeds blew across the dry rutted street. The town hadn't seen rain in months and everything was dried up. The streets were deserted as if the town was forgotten.

The tall stranger rode in from the East; the sun scorched his eyes. The wind bit at his raw and sunburned face. A stubble of beard ran from ear to ear; the lines around his mouth etched a story of a desolate and rough life.There was no sadness, no anger, and no emotion.

He shifted in his saddle and squinted into the afternoon sun. A film of water covered his coal black, hardened eyes, reflecting the light from the fading sun. His long scraggly hair hung in greasy strands from under his sweat-stained hat. His horse, a brown and white paint, was covered with dust. They had been riding for four days.

The stranger gazed to his left and right as he rode down the deserted street. The town was eerily quiet. Nothing moved, not even a stray cur.

A face suddenly appeared at the window of Maude's Saloon and Hotel; but just as quickly, it was gone.

He dismounted and tied his horse to the post in front of Maude's, the only hotel in town. A town named Middle Of Nowhere, because it is located in the middle of nowhere. The air suddenly stilled as if it was tense with nerves for what was to come and seemed to suck even the sound of his footfalls into the nothingness of the street. He stopped, and in the distance came hoofbeats; getting closer, louder, he turned but saw nothing.

The wind picked up and whipped the white duster around his legs. He pushed it back, exposing the pearl handles of his two Colt .45 Peacemakers, each perched on a hip in a shiny black holster, adorned with silver conches, fashioned from silver dollars by a little señorita he spent time with down in San Antonio in '58. He removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with a red bandana.

He turned and gazed at the sheriff's office and the General Store; both were deserted. He removed his duster and folded it over his saddle, securing it with his quirt. The Texas Ranger Star pinned to his chest, shimmered in the late afternoon sun. He untied his saddle bags and threw them over his shoulder before removing his rifle, a Henry Repeater, from the leather scabbard on the side of his saddle. The smooth metal glimmered in the sun. He reached down and loosened the saddle's latigo, allowing his horse to expand his belly and drink of the warm water in the trough in front of him. The stranger entered Maude's. He walked to the check in counter and ran his finger across the surface; it was covered in a carpet of dust. A pen sat in a dry inkwell and next to it was a small stack of the most beautifully embossed notepaper he ever laid eyes on. He turned around. He felt a chill in the air, a shimmer of mist, something.

He noticed the curtains rustle as if blown by the wind, but there was no wind. The curtains were made of a delicate white lace, embroidered and fringed in crimson cloth, covered with cobwebs, and yellowed from the constant exposure to the hot West Texas sun. The fixtures were expensive and lavish. Dust covered the lampshades, chairs, tables, and divan, as well as the burgundy and gold inlaid Persian rug on the floor.

He laid his saddlebags and Henry Repeater on the counter and rang the bell. There was no response. He didn't expect one.

He heard a scraping noise, like a chair being slid across the floor. He glanced to his right and saw a form that shimmered and waved, it appeared and vanished, there one moment, gone the next. It wasn't ghostly, not transparent in any way or frightening. It was some kind of an apparition. He shook his head and turned and walked into the bar. Chairs had been stacked on all the tables; dust and dirt covered the bar and floor. In the middle of the bar, there was a mirror, framed in gold, hanging on the wall. Above it was a picture of a woman, covered in a gauzy dress, draped over her reclining body while sitting in a carriage being pulled by two stallions, one white, one black. It appeared like she was smiling at him. He tipped his hat and smiled back. The bar was long and made of mahogany. At one time it must have been polished to a splendid shine. A tarnished brass foot rail encircled the base of the bar. A row of dusty spittoons was spaced on the floor next to the bar. Along the ledge, towels used by the patrons to wipe the beer suds from their mustaches still hung. In the middle of the bar sat a half-empty bottle, alone and corked, with a glass next to it. He picked it up and pulled the cork with his teeth. The pop of the cork leaving the bottle echoed in the empty room. He put his nose to the bottle and inhaled. "Smells like tequila," he mumbled and wiped the dirt off the top. He poured two fingers in the glass and held it up in a salute to the lady staring down at him. Did she just smile or was it his imagination? "I need to wash down some of that dust in my throat. I have been ridin' for four days. Left Nogadoches last Friday. Come lookin' for a lady; heard she was in the Middle Of Nowhere. I thought that was a joke the first time I heard it." He chuckled. "Don't look like she's here. Looks like nobody's here; just you and me. Well, here's to your health, if it ain't too late," he said with a grim smile. He threw back the drink and shook his head. "Wow, I drunk some mighty strong stuff in my day, but you got something here, Miss, and it tastes very good. I might have me another; I hope you don't mind?" he said, as he poured a generous portion into the glass. He threw it back and shook his head. "Damn, that's mighty good. Tastes like Cactus Wine, tequila and peyote tea, Is that what I got me, Miss? Stuff can kill a snake."

He poured another and lifted his glass to his nude lady friend, hanging on the wall.

Before he could throw it back, he heard a voice ask him, "What's your name ranger and what are you doing in the Middle Of Nowhere?"

His hand dropped to his hip and he turned around; no one. He pulled out one of his Peacemakers and looked behind the tattered curtains in front of an elevated stage that was by the far wall behind him; nobody there. He returned to the bar and finished his drink.

"Musta been my imagination," he said to the naked lady in the carriage over the bar. "Name's Mike. They call me Ranger Mike. I come lookin' for Kitty Leroy, one of the best poker players in the West. She also dances; started at the age of ten, they say. I heard she was sittin' at one of them tables over there," he said, pointing at the round tables in the corner with six chairs turned upside down on each of them.

"She's from Michigan. Know where that is? No? Well, neither do I. She worked dance halls and saloons from Chicago to Houston before she supposedly ended up in the Middle Of Nowhere. Along the way, she picked up some other skills, specifically, I heard she's savvy with a gun and knives. Heard she would shoot apples off her husband's head. She got restless, I guess, and wanted to take her show on the road, so she headed for Texas and left her husband behind. By the time she was 20, they say she was the most popular entertainer in Dallas, but she gave up dancing to become a faro dealer and was knowed to bring knives and revolvers to the faro tables."

"What did she do that makes you come lookin' for her?"

"Killed a man, they say," the tall Ranger answered as if the voice was coming from someone standing next to him at the bar, but there wasn't anyone there. The stranger acted like it was as normal as could be, that he would be, talkin' to a voice coming out of nowhere.

He swung around and looked over the empty bar again, his eyes squinting in the sunlight, slicing through the window.

The Ranger stared at the lady lounging in the horse carriage on the wall and said, "I think I better sit down. This here stuff is going to my head. Ain't had much to eat but Pecos Strawberries for the past four days. That's beans in case you don't know."

"I know what Pecos Strawberries are, cowboy," the woman's voice replied.

The tall Ranger shook his head and said, "This Cactus Wine is hittin' on an empty plate." He picked up the bottle and glass and went to the table in front of the stage. He took down a chair and was about to sit down when he heard a woman's voice ask, "Mind if I join you? We won't be gettin' busy for another two hours and I sure am working up a thirst havin' these two stallions pullin' me around town. I sent out invitations to all the principal gentlemen of the city, including the tax collector, mayor, aldermen, judges of the county, and members of the legislature. A splendid band of music will be in attendance. I hope you will stay and join us."

The tall stranger's jaw dropped as he saw an apparition of a woman in a translucent and silky dress, step out of the picture and float to his table.

"Offer a woman a chair, cowboy?" she said.

"Why, why, yes, yes, of course; here, take mine." He stood up and pulled out his chair for her and she sat down. "Are we going to share that glass or are you going to get me my own?" she smiled.

"Well, of course, where are the glasses?"

"Behind the bar," she replied.

The tall Ranger found a dusty glass and was using one of the bar rags to clean it when he saw the figure of a man, walking on air, materialize out of nowhere; a man he knew quite well, another Texas Ranger, William Alexander Anderson Wallace, known as Big Foot Wallace, a rough and tumble frontiersman. They rode together with Captain Jack Hay's Texas Rangers.

Wallace sat down next to the lady and turned with a far-reaching smile, Cheshire-cat like. Ranger Mike watched him, transfixed, waiting to see if he would speak. At last Big Foot Wallace opened his mouth, but instead of words, he set in motion a stream of thoughts from his mind to the Ranger's; thoughts of days gone by.

"Crazy? I'm not crazy," Ranger Mike said. But he couldn't move his hands. His head was clear, no trace of the "madness" that he could tell; but he couldn't budge. His back began to hurt from the top of his spine to his tail bone. His mouth was dry and his heart was pounding and felt like it was ready to explode, his eyes scanned left and right for signs of someone or something to make sense of all this.

What sort of hell am I in? I knowed Wallace and he was never one to repeat the same story twice; I was with him in Mexico when we participated in what was knowed as the "Black Bean Incident". It was a lottery where 159 white and 17 black beans were drawn from a crock to determine which men would be executed. A black bean meant execution; a white bean meant prison. Wallace, always the non-conformist, drew a gray bean. The Mexican Officer in charge determined the bean to be white and Big Foot was spared death. We survived an 800-mile march to Perote prison in the state of Vera Cruz. Once Big Foot Wallace went without water for six days and then drank an entire gallon at once. We attempted to stop him, but he fought us off and collapsed in sleep. We never expected him to awaken but he did, the next day, refreshed and famished for the remainder of the mule meat he had been living on.

The last time I saw him was on Rattlesnake Ridge, outside of Austin. He went South and I went West. I sure as hell didn't 'spect ta see him sittin' here.

"Why are you here, Big Foot? Lookin' for revenge?"

"No, Ranger Mike, I'm here to see a friend."

Ranger Mike heard laughter and voices coming from the hotel lobby. A group of "painted ladies" wearing make-up and dyed hair, floated into the bar. They wore brightly colored ruffled skirts that were scandalously short. Under the bell-shaped skirts, their legs were covered with net stockings, held up by garters; their boots were adorned with tassels. Their arms and shoulders were bare, their bodices cut low over their bosoms, and their dresses decorated with sequins and fringe. All were armed with pistols or jeweled daggers concealed in their boot tops or tucked between her breasts, in case they needed to keep boisterous cowboys in line.

One of the ladies with beautiful red hair, twisted into a bun on top of her head and held in place with red and white roses, sat down at the table next to Ranger Mike. She wore a shell pink chiffon gown, complete with sequins and seed pearls, imported from Paris.

"That's one purty dress, madam," Big Foot Wallace said.

"Why thank you; I was buried in this gown with much pomp and circumstance, the funeral parade was led by the Elks Band. They played the Death March and were escorted by four mounted policemen. Carriages followed filled with business men, girls from my house, "The Row," and many miners from the camp. My casket was lavender and covered with red and white roses They buried me at the foot of Mt. Pisgah Cemetery at Cripple Creek Colorado. It was a lovely way to dispatch me."

"They dispatched me in San Miguel Creek. That's in Frio County," Big Foot said. "I lived on prickly pear and red pepper and followed my own cow with a dog for a living and ain't nobody played the Death March for me and I ain't much for roses, 'cept the Yellow Rose of Texas."

"And what's your name?" Pearl asked, looking coyly at the tall ranger sitting to her left.

"Folks call me Ranger Mike," he replied.

"Well Ranger Mike, my name is Pearl de Vere. I come from Cripple Creek Colorado and I come here to have some fun. Wanna dance with me, Ranger Mike?"

Ranger Mike looked up and saw the full orchestra appear on the stage and all the painted ladies were dancing with cowboys. The judges and the mayor of the city, Middle of Nowhere, were also present and dancing. They were all floating across the dance floor while the orchestra played "The Yellow Rose of Texas".

Big Foot Wallace was smiling and dancing with the lady from the picture over the bar.

Suddenly, the music stopped and everyone on the dance floor turned and looked at the door as five cowboys entered and encircled Big Foot Wallace. The lady he was dancing with faded away and the rest of the dancers shimmered away in a smokey mist. The five cowboys were close to Big Foot in height. They called him names, but then they pushed him and the leader poked him in the chest. Big Foot held it back as long as he could, his veins swelled, he smiled; it didn't reach his eyes. It appeared he was waiting to explode; then he did.

Big Foot grabbed the hand that poked him and bent it back to the cowboy's chin while punching him in the stomach at the same time. One cowboy grabbed Big Foot's left arm. Big Foot whirled and landed a blow solidly on his jaw, right below his eye. He went down. Two of the other three held Big Foot's arms while another cowboy hit him in the stomach twice. Big Foot kicked the cowboy solidly in the midsection, knocking the breath out of him. He bent over but didn't fall. When Big Foot kicked the cowboy in the gut, he pushed the others back and they all went down.

Ranger Mike stood up and entered the fray. One of the cowboy's was on all fours, and Ranger Mike kicked at his chin and landed a hard one on his head. The other cowboy was up and ran at him to tackle him. He stiff-armed the cowboy and pushed him to the ground. While they were regaining their balances, he pulled out his guns. He turned and he saw Big Foot Wallace standing there, smiling.

"Thanks for the he'p, pardner," Big Foot said, as he held up two of the cowboys who were still knocked out.

Ranger Mike nodded and turned and came face to face with the cowboy that he stiff-armed. He had pulled his gun and was pointing it at Ranger Mike's gut. The cowboy's eyes were hard-rimmed and fixed like they'd rusted into place. Ranger Mike could not see the whites of his eyes nor the vessels that flowed through them.They contained a greater darkness then any night Ranger Mike had witnessed. His fingers curled tightly around the triggers. He smiled and then he fired. So did the cowboy. The gunshots cracked in the air as loud as thunder. The cowboy dropped to the floor.

Ranger Mike looked at the cowboy lying dead on the floor. There was no spark left in the cowboy's eye, the blood pool darkened around the stain on his shirt and spread from his stomach to the floor. The cowboy lay as lifeless as a cadaver and just as pallid.

Ranger Mike's pulse was thready and his hands were shaking so badly, his guns slipped out and landed softly on the body, before falling to the wooden floor. But Ranger Mike was no longer watching the guns. Or even the body. He was watching his own pale hands, covered with scarlet blood, his blood, oozing from the wound in his gut, deep and warm.The pain throbbed. It felt like someone had their hand in there, squeezing his organs as hard as they could. When it waned he could move and he stumbled, when it returned he could only hold still and breathe, breathe slow and deep until it passed. There was no blood anywhere but on his hands and his abdomen which turned purple and lumpy where it should be smooth. Every step felt like a bomb exploding in his innards.

His breathing was ragged, loose hair fell over his features that contorted with pain. Silently he crumbled.

The next thing Ranger Mike saw was Big Foot Wallace bending over him. He wasn't illusory, or frightening. He was like spectral, ghostlike. His skin was as brown as acorns and his plain black cotton pants were held up with black suspenders and his ranger star was pinned on a stained white undershirt. His beat up hat was pushed back from his face. He held out his hand toward Ranger Mike in a gesture of friendship. "Come along now, Ranger Mike, it is time for us to go. Captain John Coffee Hays needs our help fightin' that Mexican General, Adrian Woll, down San Antonio way."

Ranger Mike smiled and nodded. He looked down and saw that his gut was no longer bloodied. The pain he felt had turned to an unpleasant warmth and then disappeared. His body then elevated from the floor and floated out the door with Big Foot Wallace. They mounted their horses and rode south, toward San Antonio, traveling to meet up with Captain Hays and his contingency of Texas Rangers.

The End

David Hesse lives in Roswell Georgia, spending most of his time at Rocco's Pub in Jasper, Georgia, sipping a brandy while telling anyone who will listen that he really is an author and a prevaricator of fallacious tales and a Fire Painter (Yaqui for story-teller). The rest of his time is spent rescuing mustang horses and enjoying his grandchildren. If you go to www.davidhesseauthor.com you can enjoy reading his rants and excerpts from his upcoming novels and anything else he says that is simpleminded and witless. All opinions and ideas are welcome.

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A Daughter in the Mix
by Tom Sheehan

The pickings were slim, if there were any at all, and Thorn Lavery looked down the length of the ranch and saw one mule, three cows, and four cowpokes, all idling like scarecrows, and he made a quick decision.

He saddled his horse and rode toward town; there was payment due and he was on the short end. He carried no side arms and no rifle showed in his saddle scabbard. Some locals said he was average height, average weight, with the usual blue eyes that come with sandy hair the wind often played with. They also said he was short of bad habits, good with good friends, a decent employer at times who was not the best businessman, but he was long on determination.

Most of those people liked Lavery, but Gus Marshall did not like him. Nobody knew the reason why, except Marshall who had heard Lavery had spoken out against him several times, saying, "That man wants everything he sees, takes much of it, plays to beat everybody at whatever he's involved in, and does what it takes to stay ahead of those who have and those who don't have."

At Pecos Hill, Gus Marshall, owner of the massive Circle Ought-Bar-Ought spread, was waiting for Lavery, his arms folded across his chest as he sat outside The Pecos West Saloon in the only chair on the boardwalk, the chair generally not used by anybody else when Marshall was in town. A few of his ranch hands were hunkered near him, trying to squeeze themselves out of sight, and a few others had scattered into the morning crowd. Marshall rarely went anyplace without a likely amount of force at close call. Older folks at Pecos Hill hinted often that he was like the queen bee with all the drones scrambling for crumbs off the earth.

A few of those folks were convinced this day promised action before noon, tempo in the air for one reason or another.

The sun, meanwhile, shot its slanting rays into the heart of Pecos Hill. Even so early in the day that orb sat like a fist on top of the town, much like Marshall sat on the town; oppressive in his way, making people come to a uncanny standstill and show their worst under the pressure.

As he rode into town, Lavery entertained several thoughts, foremost being that he'd never tell Marshall all the facts in their ongoing problems lest he appear to be alibi-ing; he had never stolen a cow in his life, or a horse, and especially had never cut a man's fence, even though he hated fences and the people who put them up . . . like Marshall did on every new piece of land he grabbed out from under someone who "owed him."

Lastly, Lavery'd die before he'd let on that daughter Penny, 12, had overheard two of Marshall's men discussing her planned kidnapping. "She's the only thing Lavery loves, and the boss knows it. That's why we got to get the edge on things for the boss, the way he likes them. He don't like no odd chances."

The other man, in a deeper voice, said, "He don't like to lose no way out of the barn, but he ain't plannin' on hurtin' her, just gettin' that edge he needs all the time, force an issue."

Other knowledge stayed in the mix of Lavery's mind as he mulled things over.

One of them was that Penny should never have been out there alone, at the edge of the foothills, her horse run off towards home, and her hiding in the higher limbs of the tree, the two Marshall hands sitting under tree taking a break from fence repair, and each one shooting off his mouth about how they ought to "cash in on that little Penny."

One of them left a permanent thought in Penny's mind when he said, "She's a troublemaker like all girls this side of The Pecos West." His laughter was shared by his partner on fence duty, who said, "Give her a year or so and see what you get then."

That brought a round of laughter she faintly understood.

Later, she said to her irritated father, "Why do they want me, Pa?" Her eyes looking as big as flapjacks. She was as pretty as the summer mountain in the distance, or the winter copy of it when snow topped it off. He'd say she warmed every room she entered.

"That squirrely one," she put forth, "that Doak Witherspoon, he's always thinking he's the best looking man on the whole side of the mountain, just 'cause he is. Don't give him the right to say what he said, about grabbing me and taking me up to Peanut Hill to their line camp up there?"

"Penny," Lavery had burst out with, "are you damned sure that's what he said? He ain't a bad guy though he thinks awful big. You said stuff before about him. What the hell were you doing up in that tree? You could have been killed."

His nerves jumped at the thought.

"I told you, Ginger run off on me when I was picking flowers. I think she got spooked by a snake in the rocks that are spread all over the hill."

His nerves jumped again, but she had artfully shifted some of the focus again, the way her mother had been able to do, manipulating in a mostly innocent manner, and his eyes now making off with most of the elusive mischief. Lavery found the images of strewn rocks filling the back of his mind along with poisonous snakes.

He finally allowed one hidden thought to stick in his mind as he rode and all the images it carried with it.

He saw her again with the cards in her hand on the evening before at the kitchen table, as though she was going to wave them and make you think she'd show them off, a wicked smile curving her lips, her eyes lit up by the lamps. She had even said during the half wave, "Watch the cards, Pa. Watch the cards."

Then a new idea grasped her attention. "Didn't Grandma or Grandpa or somebody say something like that, Pa . . . Watch the cards?" The lamplight still sat in her eyes as though it had picked her out for special reflections.

He had shaken his head, but she hadn't let it go. "It keeps coming at me, Pa," she said. "Like just now. Like last night. Like when I think of Ma leaving so early. Think it's her saying, 'Watch the cards?' That mean anything special, Pa?"

She closed her eyes, slowly tilted her head as though one suitable image was clutching for room, and offered up a new measure: "Think that makes me a special messenger, Pa? Think I really got something to say? All I have to say is, Watch the cards. Watch the cards."

Thorn Lavery, never a card player outside of his own home, noticed her eyes change, her face striking for some message too old for her few years.

Girls were a mystery to him. Always had been. And he was continually amazed at Penny's looks, nothing like her real father, that miserable creature sitting in town waiting for him, but like her mother. She was the prettiest thing in the whole valley, her mom gone just as she gave birth, her mom's hand out to her best friend, Thorn Lavery, her last words saying, "Don't ever let Marshall know I had a baby, Thorn. He stole me off one night and took me up to a line camp and got me this way." She looked away from Thorn Lavery for a moment.

"Him and my pa would have had a war and my pa would have died. I couldn't stand that. Told him it was an Indian and he near went crazy. That's when he tossed me out and you found me, took me in here. I'm sorry to lay this all on you, Thorn. It was no Indian, but Gus Marshall. Please don't tell him I had a baby by him. I'd die."

She had looked off again, adding, "I hope pa is there waiting for me. I miss him." She did die. She was dead in seconds after the birth of her daughter, the baby swept into another room by the Mexican lady that worked Lavery's kitchen . . . from then on working for the infant, from then on working for the whole house. Her name was Lily-do, the name coming from Lavery saying so often, "Lily do this, Lily do that."

They laughed at it as the baby grew, but the name stuck. "Lily-do."

And "Penny," the name they gave the infant, stuck too.

Thorn Lavery was alone with the infant girl and the Mexican woman, him the apparent father to the whole town of Pecos Hill, as well as to the girl as she grew. He gave his all in raising her, his hate for Marshall falling away more and more each year as Penny came to be a beautiful young girl. Marshall's name never came up in rumor or silly talk from Saturday night drunks.

It was apparent that nobody knew.

Including Gus Marshall.

In town, seeing Marshall in repose in the chair on the boardwalk, like he was holding court, Lavery slowed his horse, dismounted at the rail and tied his horse to the rail. He looked at Marshall sort of apologetically, still wondering what he was going to do to pay his debt off to Marshall, sitting on his IOU from the general store. To pay now would hold off on his purchase of one good build to start a new herd.

Marshall looked up, saw he was unarmed, and said, "Hell, Thorn, you didn't have to come all the way into town to pay off that debt. I would have ridden out there to collect in a week or so. No trouble at all."

He smiled, looking around, seeing that his boys were spread around town like always, and Lavery coming alone, not that there was going to be a fight, but Marshall always liked odds in his favor.

"I'm not sure that I'll pay it off today. I got more than a week to go before you tally the new stuff I'm going to pick up today."

"Uh uh," Marshal said. "I'm not giving you any more credit until this one's paid off." He looked around, saw all eyes on him, like the lord on high had made a pronouncement. He figured, with the opportunity right in his hands, he'd make it go as far as possible.

"You never come into town except to buy at the store. You rarely have a drink with the other boys at the saloon, you don't go to the barbershop, and you've never stayed at the hotel. Hell, Lavery, I never saw you in a card game in my whole life. You afraid of the cards, Lavery?"

His smile ran right through the crowd that had filtered from sundry sources at the sight of the two men talking, two gents at odds.

"Cards were never for me, or haircuts, or a hotel bed when I have my own bed back at the ranch. And why would I go to the saloon if I don't drink? That thinking throws me off. Is there something else there that I'm missing?"

As soon as he said that he heard Penny say, a dozen times if once, "Watch the cards. Watch the cards." A strange feeling came over him, as if he was in the grip of a surge of energy or a light was trying to shine in him.

Marshall, feeling he was in absolute control of the whole scene, said, "We could play poker, Lavery. You could bet what you owe me, if you don't happen to have any cash in your pockets right now."

It was one of his standard ploys.

The snickers ran through the crowd, much of it spawned by Marshall's men.

Not believing what came out of his mouth, Lavery said, "Why not? Let's play poker. I'll ante up some of the debt I owe you, if that's okay with you."

"That's fine by me," Marshall said. He yelled to one of his men, a sly looking cowpoke, thin as a split rail, a mustache just as thin, like a black wire sitting on his upper lip holding a sneer tightly in place.

"Jake," he said, "go pick a table for us and set up the cards and the chips like usual. We're going to have a big game of poker. Thorn Lavery's going to play poker!" He yelled out his words, which worked slick as a veil.

"Can you imagine that? Me and him, me and Lavery, like it's a Duel at Pecos Hill. Ain't that the top of the day for you? The Duel at Pecos Hill, and right here at the card table in The Pecos West Saloon. Don't that beat all hell."

He shook his head in false disbelief and uttered a laugh rife with derision.

The gathering in The Pecos West Saloon caught it on the first toss.

The two men went at it, virtual as sworn enemies. They played and played and the game went back and forth, Lavery winning some, losing some, and the edge slowly sliding away on the hands with bigger pots. At the far end of the room, silence hanging in the air like a prairie mist, a few men heard the whisper of cards being dealt, chips falling in place, breath abated at raises, cards tossed onto the table top. Some of the watchers wished they were right in the game, but others knew their place; this was trenchant, extraordinary, the salient game in the history of The Pecos West Saloon.

At length, thirst working, Lavery accepted a drink from Marshall, then another. He appeared to be getting dizzy, and after winning one good pot, turned to one of Marshall's men and said, surprisingly, "If you caught me cheating, what would you do, Doak?"

It was the good looking gent that Penny had mentioned a few times. He would agree with Penny that he was a good looking fellow.

"Hell, mister," Doak said, "if you was caught cheating at cards we'd do a couple of things I've seen done before . . . either hang you right outside the door or run you out of town all slickered up with tar and feathers on your own horse." He slapped his thigh and yelled a loud, "Yippee! Ain't that a sight to bust your britches!"

Lavery turned to another one of Marshall's men sitting at the next table. It was Jake Preble, the one who had set up the table, the cards, the chips. Jake Preble had huge grin on his face.

Lavery looked at him right in the eye and asked, "You wouldn't be so quick as your pal there, would you, Jake? Would you run a cheat out of town, or worse, hang him out front?

Preble laughed loud enough to be heard outside and down the boardwalk. "I sure would, mister. I'd hang you on the spot. I wouldn't waste my time slickin' you up on a horse. I'd do it good, quick, right and proper, and right out front. It'd be a good end to the Duel at Pecos Hill." He let loose another loud laugh that bounced off the walls of the saloon.

"Would you really do that to a cheater, Jake?" Lavery looked all around the room, finding few eyes in the room that had ascertained fully what he was saying. Most faces were thick with other thoughts, other leanings.

It was only the bartender, smarter than some folks, who had a slight grin beginning its place on his lips, thinking about pouring himself a beer before the situation developed into an interesting episode.

"What the hell did I just say, mister?" Preble said. "Can't you hear me any good at all. What did I just say?" He was standing beside his chair, his hand too near his revolver to be incidental. On his face an old scar threatened its perceivable redness, liquor dotted his eyes, and anger was having its way with him.

The bartender put one hand on the butt of a rifle under the bar, and with his other hand he slid a beer mug under the tap. The taste was on his lips, in his throat . . . and a bit of suspense, like seeing a cougar preparing to leap.

Lavery wanted to be as quick as Preble's gun hand appeared to be. "Well, Jake, what you just said was that you'd hang a cheater quick and good and right out front. Am I right on that?"

The bartender poured himself a beer and waited for the suds to settle on the top before he wiped them off. One hand was still on the butt of the rifle.

Lavery, thinking all the time about Penny, what would happen to her if he messed things up, knowing full well what had developed in front of him, alerted from the first word to be watching the cards, as she had advised, as she had foresworn, as she had prophesized from the beginning, was not worried about Marshall.

Lavery took stock: Marshall was now the pawn in the whole mess, in this place, in the seat he would never have chosen. His guns sat hanging at his hips.

Doak, the good looking kid, didn't bother Lavery.

But Jake Preble did. Jake had set up the table. Jake Preble had set down the deck of cards. Jake was Marshall's man from the very first minute, Jake Preble with the thin mustache, like it was clipped from a strand of barbed wire, like it could twist a smile into a snarl.

It was Jake Preble he was worried about. But Jake Preble, at the same time, seemed to be the key to it all and Marshall the mere pawn.

Nothing told him he was wrong.

Lavery knew it had to be quick. It had to be firm. It had to be so open there could be no complaint. No false moves. No alibis or excuses or mixed words tossed into the mess to twist it further, to hide reality.

Lavery, turning slowly, noted that Preble and Witherspoon, as well as Marshall, were all of a like mind. His eyes, in a sweep of the room, caught only they eyes of the bartender, with minute admiration . . . and hope.

Lavery knew some men were smarter than he was . . . and he hoped the bartender was one of them.

But he made his move, depending on Preble's attitude, Witherspoon's youth and basic honesty, and the bartender's alertness. He did not know the man's name, but he hoped he was accountable.

He looked at Preble, his eyes narrowing in intentness, and said, his words coming alive across the whole room, "If I told you the deck of cards we're using had 5 aces in it, would you say that was cheating? Would you hang the guy that put it there? Would you hang that gent who would stoop as low as a common barn rat?"

The room was deadly silent.

The bartender gripped the rifle under the bar and slowly lifted it onto the bar top. Many customers in the saloon saw the move.

Preble, frozen in place, coming up as bare as a sudden decoy, did not move, except for the grimace that traversed his face, a grimace that carried all he knew.

Doak Witherspoon, the handsome kid, stuck in a spot, was stunned; he knew who always set up Marshall's card table.

Marshall, caught in the midst of his usual way of odds-leaning, seeking the edge, seeing Jake Preble about to break a long trust and the handsome kid Doak Witherspoon now caught without a paddle, his own status brought into the open, slyly reached one hand for his pistol.

"Don't," said the bartender, pointing the rifle directly at him, his single word resounding in the room.

Marshall reached anyway, measuring all the consequences, coming up the loser no matter what happened, and the bartender fired the rifle at him as he pulled his revolver free of the holster.

Marshall never knew he had a daughter, about the prettiest girl in the whole valley, and Penny Lavery, 13 and going on 30, never knew that Gus Marshall was her real father.

The End

Sheehan has published 28 books and has multiple work in Rosebud, Linnet's Wings, Serving House Journal, Literally Stories, Copperfield Review, Literary Orphans, Indiana Voices Journal, Frontier Tales, Western Online Magazine, Faith-Hope and Fiction, Provo Canyon Review, Eastlit, Rope & Wire Magazine, The Literary Yard, Green Silk Journal, Fiction on the Web, The Path, etc. He has 30 Pushcart nominations, 5 Best of the Net nominations (one winner). Recent publications - Swan River Daisy by KY Stories, The Cowboys by Pocol Press, and Jehrico by Danse Macabre. Back Home in Saugus is being considered, as is Elements & Accessories, Small Victories for the Soul and Valor's Commission. He is 2016 Writer-in-Residence at Danse Macabre in Las Vegas.

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The Tree of Voodoo Evil
by B. Craig Grafton

"You telling me, that Johnny told you, that you killed a fellow last night. That what you telling me Asa?" asked Judge Wright. Judge Wright had been a judge in Alabama but he wasn't one here in Texas. Texas was under Spanish rule. Nevertheless the Americans here looked to Judge Wright, not the Spanish authorities, whenever justice needed to be administered.

"Yes Judge. We was drinking and playing cards, Johnny, me, and this fellow from Ohio and I got drunk and Johnny said that I accused the fella of cheating, got mad at him and killed him. Said he was going to bury the body for me under that big live oak with the Spanish moss hanging all the way to the ground. You know, the one Fatima does her voodoo under. Said no one would find him there 'cause everyone's scared to go around that tree. Said he wouldn't tell anyone 'cause we're friends and told me to light out for the Arkansas territory."

Asa Aubert, who was not all that bright, lived in the Neutral Ground, the land just across the Sabine River, not under the law of either Spain or the United States, and thus inhabited by scoundrels, thieves, cutthroats and other assorted criminals and characters.

"And you believe Johnny, that conniving little weasel?

"Well ya. I was drunk. I couldn't remember anything. But Johnny showed me the body this morning, so I must've killed him."

"So why didn't you just take off Asa like Johnny told you to?"

"Well I started to Judge but I couldn't. I've done some terrible things in my life but I ain't never killed no man before. This man was down here to buy land. Said he was going to bring his wife and kids here. Ain't right me leaving his wife a widow, his young uns fatherless. Ain't right me getting away with murder, not paying for my crime."

Asa paused, closed his eyes, and shivered. "It's been eating at me all day Judge, tearing me up inside. I had to do something so I went to see Padre Pedro 'fore I come here. Confessed my sin. Made it right with the Lord. Now I got to make it right with you the law."

The judge noticed that Asa was trembling.

"Didn't know you was religious Asa?"

"I ain't really but my French Creole mother raised me Catholic when I was a kid back in New Orleans. Not that it made any difference anyway."

"Well I think it did Asa or you wouldn't be here. I don't believe you killed that man. Don't believe you got it in ya to do that. Johnny on the other hand, well I think he probably killed that fella for his land purchasing money. Then he got you to believe you did it, buries the body where no one will ever find it, and tells you to make a run for it. Johnny set you up Asa."

Johnny Devlin was a sneaky, conniving little weasel of Irishman who lived in a falling down cabin on the Texas side of the Sabine. He lived there with a mulatto woman known as Fatima who everyone believed was a voodoo priestess. She and Johnny were partners in God knows what illegal activities including the southern crime of miscegenation.

"Asa I'm going to get some men together and then we're all going ride out to Johnny's and get to the bottom of all this and you're coming with us."

An hour or so later the judge, a posse, Asa and Padre Pedro left for Johnny's. The judge told the men that he brought the priest along to administer the last rights to Johnny before they hung him. But really he brought him along because he knew that some of the men feared Fatima and he hoped the presence of a priest would allay those fears.

As they came to Johnny's cabin there stood the heavy set Fatima in the doorway with a knife in one hand and a meat mallet in the other. She gave the judge the evil eye and glared at him.

"Can't talk now. Got supper cooking. Got to get back to it."

"And a howdy do to you too Fatima. Now where the hell's Johnny?"

Her eyes glanced furtively at the large live oak fifty or so yards away, then she answered, "He's way on business."

"And I bet I know what business that is," said Judge Wright as he and the men spurred their horses and rode over to live oak or the tree of voodoo evil as some called it.

There they dismounted, went over to and gingerly parted the hanging moss. Timidly they entered, fearful of what they might find under that tree since they had heard so many stories about what Fatima did there. There before them now was a candle lit shrine and a small butcher's block covered with dried blood on which Fatima obviously prepared her animal sacrifices. And there over on the far side, a mound of fresh dirt, one dead body and one Johnny Devlin crawling out of a just dug grave.

Padre Pedro crossed himself and whispered, "I feel the presence of evil here." And when he said so a chill went down the spine of every man there, except for Judge Wright that is.

"Well hello there Judge. Hello Asa. Hello fellas," said Johnny with a false cheerfulness, forcing a smile, trying to act nonchalantly as he could, as all five foot five and a hundred thirty pounds of him climbed out and stood up. His shoulder twitched while his eyes scanned the room assessing his situation.

"Tell us what happened here last night Johnny. Asa says you told him he killed this man you're burying here."

"Well Judge that's true. He done kilt him alright and he done admitted to it. Just ask him."

"Just tell me what happened here last night Johnny. I know what Asa said. I want to hear what you got to say."

"Well Judge there was this fella stopped here last night on his way to buy land. Told him he could stay the night here. Well we got to playing cards, gambling and drinking and Asa here gets rip roaring drunk and accuses the fella of cheating. Next thing I know he just up and kilt him in a drunken rage."

"How'd he kill him Johnny?"

"Hit him on the head and stabbed him. Look at the body Judge if you don't believe.You'll see."

Judge Wright went over and examined the body. Obviously the man had been killed by a blow to the back of the head and a knife in the back.

"Well looks like Johnny's telling the truth for once boys," Judge Wright announced.

"Like I said the fella was sitting there playing cards and Asa just come up behind him, struck him, and stabbed him," Johnny added, confident now that the Judge believed him.

"That so huh Johnny? That how he just up and killed him in a drunken rage? Come up behind him like that. I don't think that's Asa's style even if he's drunk."

Johnny had been called out. He noticeably squirmed, mopped his brow and glanced here and there around the moss draped room contemplating where to make a break for it.

And he was just about to bolt when suddenly a blast of cold air gushed in and there was Fatima, fancily clad in her voodoo outfit. Long red rooster tail feathers adorned her hair. Earrings of shiny purple mottled sea shells dangled from her elongated earlobes. A necklace of sharp animal claws hung from her neck and her long black robe undulated in the breeze. She began chanting some gibberish and then suddenly, her eyes rolled back in her head and she went into a spasmodic, trance like dance.

Padre Pedro crossed himself and began reciting the Lord's prayer. Some of the men did the same. Fatima's satanic presence had unnerved them all, all but Judge Wright again that is.

"Any papers on this man Johnny?" he continued ignoring Fatima. "Anything to tell us where he was from, any letters, banknotes, identification?

"Well yes there was Judge but neither Fatima or me can read so we used them to light the fire this morning. It was powerful cold here this morning."

"That proves him guilty Judge, burning evidence," hollered a posse member.

"Hang him Judge," hollered another. "He did it."

"Where's the money Johnny? This man had money on him didn't he? He was here to buy land."

"No money Judge. I swear."

"I don't believe you Johnny."

"Honest no money. Didn't find any money. All I found was a letter of credit from some Ohio bank," And then Johnny realized that he had just signed his own death warrant. He bolted. He never had a chance.

Someone threw a rope over a branch. Someone else got the butcher's block. Johnny was lifted up on it, a noose put around his neck, and tightened.

"Wait," shrieked Fatima as she ran up to Johnny, mumbled an incantation in an African language and sprinkled some glittering gold dust on him. The men stood there entranced, slack jawed, not moving, too spellbound to do anything.

"The magic of my ancestors will save my Johnny," she eerily cackled. "This tree will not hang an innocent man."

"The hell it won't," said one of the braver men as he kicked out the butcher's block from under Johnny.

Padre Pedro never got a chance to administer Johnny his last rites. But it wasn't necessary. For to everyone's surprise, the branch drooped and lowered Johnny to the ground, unhurt and unhung.

"Fatima's magic worked," someone in the back whispered. Others nodded their heads in hushed agreement,

Then Fatima went over and took the noose off Johnny and announced. "We're leaving now."

"No you're not Fatima," said Judge Wright. "Maybe the tree won't hang an innocent man but let's see if it will hang a guilty woman. Shouldn't have had that meat mallet and knife with you when you so warmly greeted us Fatima. You made it too easy for me. Grab her boys."

Fatima did not go quietly into that good night. She fought furiously with her captors, kicking, screaming, biting, and gouging them as they bound her hands and feet, gagged her mouth and hung her from the branch that they tried to hang Johnny on. Only this time the branch didn't droop. It held firm and hung the heavy set woman.

They buried her in the grave Johnny had dug.

Per the priest's advice the men burned Johnny's cabin to the ground to rid it of the evil residing therein.

And the men on their own, tarred and feathered Johnny before banishing him to the other side of the Sabine on the penalty of death should he ever return.

As to the dead man from Ohio, Asa saw to it that he got a proper burial at his expense.

And based on Johnny telling the Judge, as a condition of his exile, what bank the letter of credit was from, the Judge wrote the bank and told them what had happened.

Finally as to that live oak, the tree of the voodoo evil, well lightning hit it that very night and burned it to the ground. Whether it was an act of God destroying the evil residing therein or the act of the Devil releasing its evil spirits into the world was a discussion of some considerable debate in East Texas for some years to come. A final consensus of which was never reached.

The End

B. Craig Grafton's other stories have recently appeared in Scarlet Leaf Review

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