June, 2017

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Issue #93

All The Tales

Duel at Devil's Draw
by Bradford T. Brazeal


Satan himself couldn't handle the heat, and so he lounged lazily beneath the shade of a soaring saguaro cactus, watching the gun battle play out, ever eager to claim the souls of the shooters.

Any second now, he was sure.

A crow cawed and the Devil yawned.

Rivaling Satan in the abominable art of sheer evil, the Carson City Kid took momentary cover behind a Palo Verde tree, which he swiftly set ablaze with flint and whiskey, adding his own rabid brand of chaos to the conflict: an ever-growing and uncontrollable inferno, one that swiftly spread like a biblical plague, threatening to turn to cinders everything and everyone in the draw, himself included. Strangely, however, the Kid found this hilarious rather than worrisome, a telling testament to the depths of his murderous insanity, and he laughed as he dashed to the sanctuary of a nearby boulder, his Colt. 45 blazing beneath his furious fanning hands.

Sheriff Jericho Hill was a claustrophobic, and the cramped confines of the midget canyon had already been taking their toll on his normally imperturbable disposition. The fire didn't help matters much, and nervous sweat streamed down Hill's face and back, aggravated by the steadily rising heat of the Kid's suicidal stratagem.

"What're we gonna do, Sheriff?!" Hill's deputy, Shameless Slim McCoy, demanded. "That wacky bastard done plugged the rest o' the posse, and now he's set the whole durned draw afire! Gots us penned down ta boot!"

"I'm thinking!" the sheriff answered irritably, gauging the scene with the grimness of a man about to combust. "If we could just reach the horses—!"

"You wanna light out?!" Shameless cut him off incredulously, willing to risk turning to ashes for a chance to claim the hefty bounty on the Kid's head.

"The Kid'll keep!" Sheriff Hill countered with a scolding tone, suspecting—perhaps correctly—that his courage was being questioned. "I don't have no mind to become that little bastard's barbeque! Do you?"

"Well, I, uh . . . " Shameless Slim stumbled, studying the firestorm, his own questionable courage catching up to him.

"Waz the matter, Sheriff?!" the Carson City Kid called out, offering Hill an aimless blast to punctuate his rhetorical question. "Ya'll ain't turnin' yeller, is ya?!? Bwak, bwak! Ha ha ha!"

"Gawddamnit," Hill hissed, realizing that the draw carried an amphitheater effect in terms of its echo; the Kid had heard his every word. Hill's pride had now ensnared him, insisting that he stay. "See that there mesquite tree?" he whispered to his deputy, his eyes darting about for ideas. "Make fer it—I'll cover ya—and we'll catch the Kid in a crossfire!"

Hesitant at first, Shameless Slim did as he was instructed—in part anyway, for the Carson City Kid's marksmanship was legendary both above and below the border, the stuff of mariachi ballad and saloon girl song. Hill's deputy, his last decoy, died within three feet in the midst of the attempt, his brain turning to brisket beneath the encroaching blaze.

"Looks like it's jest you and me now, Sheriff!" the Kid chortled, gulping in gun smoke in lieu of a cigarette, which he crazily craved. "What say we leg wrestle to settle our differences? You win, I'll ride outta Arizona and never look back! I win, you gives me yo' hoss! I'm about ta need one!"

Too shaken with terror to even realize that the Kid's offer was just a cruel joke, Sheriff Hill glanced worriedly at his horse, actually considering such a contest for a second.

And then, like some nightmarish phantasm with a six-gun, the Carson City Kid charged his horse, which was engulfed in flames and screaming to deafen Heaven, straight towards Sheriff Hill, who was too stunned by what he was seeing to shoot what was actually a tailor-made target. This act of short-lived indecision cost Hill—everything—and the Kid's bullet blasted to bits the back of the sheriff's skull, sending the meaty remains of his brain splattering onto a hot rock, where they immediately began to sizzle like bacon.

The Carson City Kid leapt from his crumbling stallion in an almost acrobatic dismount, indifferent to the desert holocaust around him. Laughing uncontrollably, he quickly rifled through the sheriff's pockets and commandeered his tobacco, as well as the dead man's pocket knife. And with this same knife, which had been passed down in Hill's family for three generations, the Kid cut off Hill's trigger finger, to add to all the others, which comprised the necklace the outlaw had made for himself from the trigger fingers of the untold men he'd killed (although the term had yet to be coined at this time, you could say that the Carson City Kid was the Wild West's very own "serial killer," and he cherished "souvenirs").

As if he believed himself to be fireproof, the Kid then dared the raging blaze to claim Hill's horse, and he slapped the spooked animal hard across its muzzle to calm it down, gripping it furiously by the mane as he mounted it in a blur (and thereby almost breaking the beast's neck as he did). And with the crazed laughter of a killer, which was the Kid's calling come Kingdom Come, and with a hell for leather gallop to tremble the gods, the Carson City Kid was gone.

Another crow cawed, and Satan, who had dozed off during the duel, now languidly arose, wondering what he'd missed.

The End

Bradford T. Brazeal is a former reporter for the Western New Mexico Mustang who now spends his time writing pulp fiction exclusively, with a particular passion for all things Western.

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Dr. Death
by James R. Sheehan

Part 2

The sheriff was not a writer of letters, but this was a letter that had to be written. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair at his desk in the little office that fronted the jail, flattened the paper in front him, dipped his pen in ink, cleared his voice, and began:

Dear Troy,

It is with considerable and heartfelt regret that I write to inform you that your dear sister and my darling wife, Alexandria, has succumbed to the temptations of a laudanum addiction. I am hoping to enlist your support in a plan to ease her of this affliction because an opportunity to do so has presented itself that I feel we must not fail to take advantage of.

To explain: Recently two ranch hands, employees of the redoubtable Mr. Charles Goodnight, were murdered by party or parties as yet unknown, and two of their friends have taken it upon themselves to locate and apprehend the heinous scoundrel or scoundrels who perpetrated this frightful crime, as well as other even more wicked offenses. One of these two vigilantes, in carrying out his search for the murderer (or murderers), encountered a severely injured orphan, who was brought to our town for treatment by the Dodge City physician, Dr. Heath Jones, the same physician who provides Alexandria with laudanum. I will not bore you with too many details, other than to say that the vigilante had a falling out with Dr. Jones over matters relating to the treatment of the injured orphan. This cowboy, one Saber Shadowblood by name, took it upon himself to render unto Dr. Jones a life lesson, and in doing so, actually and physically kidnapped the said doctor and dragged him unwilling into the southern wilderness. Now, if I had known that such a crime as kidnapping were about to be perpetrated, it would have behooved me, as sheriff, to prevent the crime. But I had no such foreknowledge, and in fact by the time that I learned of the crime, Mr. Shadowblood and his captive, Dr. Jones, were well beyond the jurisdiction wherein it is my duty to enforce the law.

In short, dear Troy, with her source of laudanum no longer available, the opportunity to break my wife (and your sister) of her addiction has presented itself. I am writing to request that you come to Dodge City forthwith to assist me in caring for her during this period of enforced absence of her dependency. And, in case Dr. Jones should return to Dodge during this time, I further request that you travel with our darling Alexandria back to Ohio and stay with her there until such time as her dependency has been alleviated. Should you agree to my proposal, I will of course provide such remuneration as may be required in order to execute this plan.

Very sincerely yours,

George T. Hinkle

Sheriff, Dodge City, and your humble brother-in-law

The sheriff of Dodge City allowed the ink on the paper to dry, then carefully folded the letter, slid it into an envelope, and scrawled Troy Williamson's Ohio address onto it. If he hurried, he could get to the stage office in time for the noontime eastbound express.

* * *

Pecos Pete was surprised that the white man named Jack Brane had buried the dead Kiowas. Pecos Pete wasn't sure that he himself would have bothered to bury them. His own people, the Tigua nation, considered the Kiowa to be among the "wild people" who neither built towns nor grew crops, but rather who were nomadic hunters and gatherers. They were uncivilized brutes, to a man.

But now, living as he did among the white people, Pecos Pete had developed some sympathy for the wild tribes. He had learned that most whites considered both the Pueblo and the wild people to be sub-human. Whites had a tendency to lump them all together as "Red Indians." Over time, that attitude had changed Pete's identity enough so that it was possible for him to identify more with the wild people like the Kiowa.

Back in Dodge, Pete had wondered about the strangeness of white man medicine. Among his own people, a shaman would have performed daily rituals and smokes above the injured child in order to drive away the evil that was the root cause of the illness. The white medicine man's ritual had lasted only a few seconds, and the giving of money to the white shaman seemed more important than anything else in getting the child well. Pecos Pete had picked up on this right away, even quicker than Shadowblood did (which was very strange). The whole scene in the white medicine man's lodge had befuddled Pete. Why was Shadowblood so angry at the shaman?

Later, Pete sat outside the Long Branch while Shadowblood went inside to drink Cutter's whiskey (Red Indians were not allowed inside). Shadowblood had brought his bottle of whiskey outside and shared a little with Pecos Pete.

Pecos Pete shied away from whiskey as a general rule, because he felt it contained evil that made people go loco and get sick. But once in a great while he would allow himself a swallow or two because he felt it was best to go ahead and invite the evil into his body occasionally, to get his body used to the evil, so that if ever a large evil came along, at least his body would know what evil felt like, and therefore might be able to fend against it better than if no evil had ever entered.

And Pete had noticed that Shadowblood, unlike Jack Brane, usually drank only a few sips of whiskey, but on this occasion, shortly after lunch, he was guzzling.

"Pete," said Shadowblood, "Get ready to travel back to camp. I'll be leaving in a minute."

Pete was caught by surprise, since he didn't think they would be leaving till morning, so he didn't rush off to keep pace with the horses like he usually did. Instead, he watched as Shadowblood, somewhat unsteadily, paid the stable mate and saddled his horse. He brought his saddle horse and his spare horse around to the front of the saloon and then waited, continuing to sip his whiskey. He ignored Pecos Pete completely.

After a while, the white medicine man, Heath Jones they called him, stepped out of the Long Branch. Shadowblood brained the shaman with his half-full bottle of whiskey. Heath collapsed, and Shadowblood roped him to his pack horse and set off southwards. Shadowblood rode all the rest of that day, all through the night, and all of the next day with the captive shaman roped on the pack horse. Pecos Pete had shuffled along as fast as could behind them, and just managed to keep up. By evening, they had re-joined Jack Brane.

Now an exhausted Pecos Pete went over to the white man camp, where the three white men were sitting in the twilight. Heath was cursing.

"Take these damned bonds off me," he snarled as Pecos Pete took a seat across the campfire.

"Tell the good doctor I shall do no such thing," said Shadowblood to Jack Brane.

Jack took a drink of whiskey and leaned back on his saddle, which he was using as a backrest. "Now, I've got to hand it to you, Saber. We can always use a physician on a manhunt. Why, this is probably the wisest action I've ever known you to take."

"I have no use for your sarcasm, Jack. I'm dog tired. I need Dr. Heath to shut up so I can catch up on my rest."

"Then you had better stuff a sock in his mouth," said Jack.

Dr. Heath cried, "You'll not be putting anything in my mouth. Why, when I wrest myself free of you two scoundrels, I'll have my revenge on you. You wait and see. You should never make an enemy of a doctor, I can assure you of that."

"The way I see it," continued Jack as if the doctor had said nothing, "he's probably even more wore out than you are. He's been jogging along on the back of that sorry sorrel of yours. That horse's gait is uneven on level ground. The man is plumb exhausted, you can see it on his face."

"Good then," answered Shadowblood. "I shall get some rest as soon as he shuts up."

"Where is the law when it's needed, that's what I'd like to know," said Dr. Heath. He glared at Pecos Pete. "Pecos Pete, get over here and now and release me. Take your knife and cut these ropes."

Pecos looked at Shadowblood, who appeared to have dozed off. Jack Brane was taking another deep draw from his whiskey bottle. He handed the bottle to Pete. "Take a swig, Pete, and then take the bottle over to our physician. Maybe if he gets all liquored up, he'll shut up."

Pete only pretended to take a sip of the evil that was in the bottle; he was much too tired to fend off spirits at this time. Then he rose painfully and limped over to Dr. Heath, who snatched the bottle with his two hands that were tied together. He worked the cork on the bottle and took a deep swig.

"Yes, indeed," proclaimed Jack Brane. "Just genius. Just what we needed, a sawbones, and another mouth to drink our whiskey."

With that, the fire ebbed low, Pete collapsed on his blanket, and everyone fell asleep.

* * *

The killer was scoping out what appeared to be a sod house on the Llano. The house was located about a mile from the rim of the canyon of the Canadian River. For miles around the house, sheep were grazing.

"Sheep!" the killer spat. His sympathies were with the cattle ranchers, not the sheep herders. The killer considered it a very bad sign that sheep herders were settling on the Llano. Where were the murdering Comanche when you needed them? Had the Texas Rangers been so successful in their campaign against the Comanche that the Llano was now safe for the likes of sheep herders?

The more the killer thought about the fact that sheep were now penetrating the wilderness, the hotter his blood ran and the more he wanted to butcher the herders and their flock. He considered it to be a downright impertinent infringement.

As he watched, a woman emerged from the sod house. She had an infant strapped in a bundle on her bosom. The woman had a sharp, angled face and wispy blondish hair. She was thin. She looked tough and worn. The killer took an immediate dislike to her, unslung his Winchester Rifle, and shot the woman right through the bundle on her chest. He rode down to make sure of her. He found her crawling in front of the door of the sod house, vainly trying to creep back inside. She left a slimy trail of blood behind her as she groped.

The killer used the crossbow to finish the woman off. He dragged her lifeless carcass inside the house, where he found a mutton stew boiling on the hearth. There was also some flatbread on a skillet. He helped himself to the victuals, and then found coffee makings and made himself some coffee. He was enjoying his third cup when he heard the sheep outside grow restive, a sign that the sheep man was coming home.

He rose from the table and went to the corpse of the dead wife. He pushed the crossbow bolt through her heart, and then pulled it on through from her back. He loaded the bloody bolt into his crossbow, and took a seat in a rocking chair facing the door to the cabin. Shortly, the door opened, and the sheepherder came in, blinking and staring.

He was a small, wiry man with dark hair and dark beard. He wore a Mexican sarape and a sombrero.

"Veo sangre fuera de la puerta," said the sheep herder.

The killer shot him through the heart with the same bolt that had killed his skinny wife.

* * *

Pecos Pete had been trying to communicate with the white men for some time that the killer was near. But they didn't appear to be paying any attention. They were too busy bickering as they rode along. Pete dimly understood that Jack Brane didn't like having the medicine doctor along on the hunt for the killer, though exactly what his objection was, Pete wasn't sure. In the meantime, Pete wasn't clear on why Shadowblood had kidnapped the medicine doctor to begin with. Among his own people, the Tigua, coercing a medicine doctor for any reason whatsoever was unthinkable. If they got angry with you for any reason, they could unleash evil into you, or at the least if you ever got any evil in you, they might refuse to drive it out.

Pete understood that Shadowblood was angry with the medicine doctor because the medicine doctor had demanded payment for treating the orphan child back in Dodge. But to Pete, that was the medicine man's prerogative. If the medicine priest required money in order to drive away the evil that was in someone, then the medicine priest probably understood that the money was a necessity for driving away the evil. To Pete, it was that simple. But there were subtleties to white culture that were opaque to Pete. Apparently, even a non-medicine priest like Shadowblood could challenge decisions of the spirit made by a specialist like Jones.

Finally, there was the fact that the medicine doctor, Jones, was himself very unhappy about having been kidnapped. But, really, thinking about white man culture often made Pete's head hurt, so he just concentrated on keeping his eye on the killer's track.

The scene at the sheepherder's camp had been truly barbaric. Even though they had taken an entire day off from the chase to bury the sheepherding family (a man, a woman, and their infant), they were still gaining on the killer, which gave Pete pause. It almost seemed as if the killer was dawdling along, as if he knew he was being followed, and wanted to make sure his followers caught up with him.

In fact, in studying the tale-tell signs left by the killer, Pete became more and more convinced that something dire was about to happen. He felt that the killer was laying a trap for the tracking party. But when Pete went back to the three white men, and gestured, and signed, and cleared his throat, and gestured some more, all he got was more bickering:

Brane: "We had a nice, organized, efficient little killer tracking party going on, but you had to up and ruin it by dragging this loud-mouthed, uncouth, uncivilized madman of a doctor into it."

Jones: "Who are you calling uncivilized, you barbaric savage? Why, if you were to sever these bonds, I'd—"

Shadowblood: "I've already explained it to you, Jack. The good doctor here misbehaved himself in Dodge. He refused to treat the orphan child until such time as his fee was rendered. Meanwhile, the health of the child was endangered by his delay and procrastination. It is my considered opinion that a doctor of medicine should treat the injured first and worry about his compensation second."

Brane: "Since when is it your job to concern yourself with the compensation received by Dodge City physicians, Saber?"

Jones: "You're both of you swine."

Pete: "Hmmph! Hmmph!"

Then Pecos Pete collapsed.

* * *

The killer first became aware of the tracking party shortly after the murder of the sheep herding family. He dragged the bodies outside and spent the night in the sod hut, finishing off the stew and coffee the next morning. Then he spent the day killing sheep, and by nightfall, the idea of another night in the luxury of the sheepherder's bed was quite attractive to him.

But when he headed back to the sod hut, he was alarmed to find the party of three white men and Pecos Pete. They had just finished burying the dead as night was falling, but the killer knew what the presence of Pecos Pete meant. It meant they were on his trail, because Pecos Pete was known throughout the wilderness as one of the finest trackers that lived.

So, the killer laid a plain trail that would lead the vigilantes to an ambush of his choosing. And the plan worked perfectly.

The killer sighted down the barrel of his Winchester. He wanted to take Pecos Pete out first. Without Pete, the party would be deaf and blind, and even if he didn't kill all of them in this surprise attack, they would be without Pete's services, and he should be able to lose them on the Llano.

One thing that didn't make sense is why one of the cowboys, the one dressed all in black, was trussed up. Had they already made one arrest?

The killer put the anomaly out of his mind, aimed for Pete's heart, and pulled the trigger.

* * *

Pete collapsed first and they heard the crack of the rifle's report second. Shadowblood and Brane were men of the prairie, and their response was rapid and confident. They slipped off their ponies, grabbed the fallen Indian, and scuttled for cover behind a boulder, letting Dr. Jones fend for himself. Jones deliberately fell from his horse and lay still, hoping the sniper would assume he had been knocked out by the fall.

Bullets peppered the bald scalp of the boulder behind which Shadowblood and Brane crouched.

"Now I hope you see the foolhardiness of bringing that damned physician out here," spat Brane. "He's laying out there playing possum."

"If he gets plugged, then by God he deserves it. But here, give me some covering fire, and I will see if I can get him to safety."

Brane popped up and fired shots at the hillock ahead, where he assumed the sniper was embedded. Shadowblood sprinted for Dr. Jones, hauled him to his feet, and together they ran in a crouch as the sniper's bullets spawned tiny dust storms at their boots. A bullet entered Shadowblood's left thigh, ripping through the quadriceps femoris muscle and lodging in the biceps femoris. Despite the injury, Shadowblood limped to the relative safety of the boulder. He took a knife from its scabbard on his belt and cut the ropes from Dr. Jones. He dug in his pocket and pulled out a Seated Liberty, which he slapped in Jones's palm. "See to Pete," he said between clinched teeth. He used the rope he had cut from the doctor as a tourniquet on his own thigh.

"Did you see him?" Shadowblood asked Brane.

"No, but I saw the smoke from his rifle. He's up there," answered Brane, gesturing towards the hillock.

For once, Heath Jones was silent. He looked for a few moments at the coin in his hand, the coin which Shadowblood had smacked there with contempt. Jones let the coin fall into the dust and turned to look at the Indian.

What he found wasn't good. The bullet had entered the Indian's shoulder from the rear, and impacted with the scapula and the clavicle as it attempted to exit. The pain must have been excruciating. Fortunately, Pete was unconscious. Still, Jones would need his physician's bag, which was tied to the saddle of the horse on which he had been riding.

Brane said, "You and Pete are out of it, and the doc here is useless. Guess that leaves it up to me."

Heath Jones wanted to protest that he was far from useless in the situation, but again he kept quiet.

"What do you have in mind?" asked Shadowblood.

"Your turn to provide covering fire. I'll try to get mounted and make a run at him."

"So . . . what exactly is it that you have in mind?" asked Shadowblood.

Brane outlined his plan.

As Shadowblood stood and fired successive blasts at the sniper's location on the hill, Brane bolted for his horse. Simultaneously, Jones bolted for his.

Jones used his pocket knife to free his physician's bag from the saddle of his horse and scampered back behind the boulder, while Brane threw himself on his pony and kicked the mount into action. The horse, quick as lightning, zigged left and zagged right. At the base of the hill, Brane turned left. He and his pony vanished from sight.

* * *

The killer's plan to ambush the vigilantes began to go awry when not one, but two of the party bolted from their cover to their horses. The killer hesitated. Which to fire on? He noticed that the man in black had been freed. Now, why would they do that? The killer had even entertained fantasies that he might spare the man who had been captured by his hunters. Of course, he was a killer, and eventually he would kill everyone who crossed his path in the wilderness, but it might have been fun to have a companion for a while.

These thoughts caused the killer to hesitate, so that by the time he got off a hurried a shot, he knew he had missed. With uncanny speed, the wrangler was atop his pony and rushing towards his hideout on the hill in a cloud of dust and pebbles. The killer managed only one more shot, which missed. In a panic, he made a run for his own horse.

He didn't make it. Brane was on him with a profound suddenness. The killer didn't even have time to draw his pistol. Brane shot him in the head.

The killer was killed.

* * *

By the time Jack Brane rode back to the camp behind the boulder, Heath Jones had gathered a bundle of mesquite branches and had a fire going. He was trying to boil water in a pan.

"Well, Saber, does this hombre here look familiar to you?" asked Brane as he rode up, towing the body of the killer on a second horse.

"Why, that looks like Charlie Goodnight's preacher brother," exclaimed Shadowblood.

"That's what I thought as well. One damned murderous preacher, if you ask me."

Heath Jones looked up from his preparations. He had never met Charlie Goodnight, much less his brother. But if the brother of the famous rancher was the killer they were after, then Jones was good and glad he was dead.

"I have a minute while this water is boiling," said Dr. Jones to Saber Shadowblood. "Let me look at your leg."

"You'll not lay a hand on me till you've been properly compensated, sir. Jack, do me a favor, lead my horse over here and dig another dollar out of my saddlebag to give to the good doctor here."

"Now—" Dr. Jones protested.

But Shadowblood held up a hand. "I won't hear a word of it. Until you've had your pay, you'll not be allowed to treat me."

Jones exhaled heavily in exasperation, but he had no choice but to take the cowboy's implied criticism. He accepted another silver dollar that Jack Brane handed him from Shadowblood's saddle bag, and even took a moment to find the Seated Liberty he had dropped earlier in the dust. He opened his black physician's bag, took out a vial of laudanum and a small flask of whiskey and handed both of them to Shadowblood.

"Drink both of these. You're going to need it when I start digging that bullet out of your thigh."

* * *

Pecos Pete was riding a horse. It was the oddest sensation. It made him feel like the master of the world, to sit so high, swaying back and forth with the gait of the powerful creature below him, watching the dusty landscape between the Llano Estacado and Dodge City roll past him like a dream.

Pete knew that Saber Shadowblood had paid the white medicine man to draw the evil bullet out of his shoulder while he lay fainted and helpless. He had a spent a few days wandering in the spirit world, sometimes coming to at night in front of a small camp fire, and other times trying to keep up with his soul as it traveled out beyond the stars and back.

Finally, he was well enough to travel, and the white men had tied him to a horse, and for the first time in his life, he was riding, not walking, jogging, or running. Pete couldn't get the smile off his face, even though the pain across his collar bone was like a burning coal that wouldn't cool off. They took the killer back to the JA, where Charlie Goodnight shook his head in a saddened wonder that his own brother, whom he had thought was a righteous man, was actually the killer.

And in fact, other than the testimony of the three white men and the Indian who had been ambushed, there was no real evidence that Richard Goodnight had been a murdering fiend. It was enough that he was dead, shot in the head after ambushing people. But why would a man of God, sober and pure, ambush these men? Charlie Goodnight knew Jack Brane and Saber Shadowblood to be among the finest of his corps of cowboys, men unlikely to invent slanders.

Still, he gave his brother what would pass as a Christian burial.

Brane and Shadowblood elected to stay on at the JA while Shadowblood convalesced from his leg wound. But Heath Jones and Pecos Pete left for Dodge shortly after the funeral.

And now Pecos was riding. Riding! Into Dodge City, on a fine palomino.

They rode right up to Heath Jones's professional office and dismounted. Pecos Pete sat outside on the boardwalk, huddled in his blanket.

Jones fingered the plaque on the wall next to the door of his office.

Payment is due at the time that services are rendered

Thank you.

Dr. Heath Jones, M.D.

He carefully lifted the plaque from the hooks that held it. He looked up the alley that ran between the building that housed his office and the next building in Dodge. A pile of rubbish was heaped up near the rear of the alley. He tossed the plaque into the trash.

"Pete, I've got to go check on that orphan child that I left with the school teacher. Then I'll be back. Stay here, because I'll be wanting to re-dress your wound. Understand?"

Pecos Pete nodded, and looked out across the dusty streets of Dodge City.

The End

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Occurrence in the High Desert
by Lawrence E. Cox

An aging cowboy sat down on a smoothed, round rock in the middle of the high desert mesa under a scorching sun. Receding glaciers thousands of years ago left behind the smoothed, round rock. Restless renegades the day before left behind the dusty old cowhand taking his Colt.45, his hat and his horse. A cowboy without his six-gun, his hat or his horse is as naked as a smoothed, round rock in the middle of a high desert mesa under a scorching sun.

Apple Mac watched the gray, dry dirt swirl into a dust devil. The funnel twisted and jumped. A tumbleweed was lifted several feet into the air. His focus became entangled with the debris in the eddy rising high into the hot white sky. Staring upward, he reflected on the few good things this life had given him and how fickle the hold can be on those few good things.

His bald head baked under the sun. Without his horse he would surely succumb to dehydration before reaching any watering hole. Without his hat, heat stroke or boiled brains could kill him before dehydration. And, should he survive the lack of water and a singed scalp, without his revolver to bring down a cottontail or dove, he just might starve to death.

Apple Mac was in a real mess.

Selecting a couple of pebbles small enough to stick in his mouth, he stirred up the saliva glands keeping his tongue somewhat lubricated. It was late afternoon and he was well aware the gusty wind would bring on a bitter chill at night. The old cowboy surmised his only chance was to head northwest toward Black Butte. If luck would turn good, he just might make it to the Crooked or Bear Rivers in just a few days. His trek would take him over old lava beds. The chance of finding flint rock would be favorable. With flint he could spark a fire to keep him warm at night. Obsidian was common so he could fashion a knife or spear if need be. He reasoned all these things while not losing sight of how remote all this planning was from reality.

The old man had conjured a future, but he had to concentrate on more immediate concerns. All he had were his boots, a leather belt, pants, shirt and under garment. He took off his shirt and formed a Bedouin-like head cover to protect him from heat stroke as best he could. He figured he would soak up the sweat from his forehead and suck it from his shirt to slow down dehydration. Come evening, he would create a trap in the sand with his shirt and a stone to capture morning dew if any existed in the desert air.

He got up from his rock, dusted off his jeans and looked toward the northwest. He went over in his head what had happened the day before. Riding the high desert alone is still dangerous these days. He had left his companions Hank, Pelican Joe and Emmett near Juniper Mountain. They were set on heading east to check out work at the French-Glenn Livestock Company located on The "P" Ranch. Hank worked there in the early nineties for Peter French who owned the livestock company. Hank heard rumor Pete's neighbor Ed Oliver gunned him down over a road easement dispute. Even if it was true that Pete was dead, Hank figured it was the best chance for a job through the winter. Apple Mac could have gone with them, but he knew he was too old to be considered for a job on such a big spread as The "P" Ranch. He had ridden with these cowboys since early spring doing small time cowboy jobs here and there from Murphy, Idaho to Hardin, Oregon and now he decided it was best for him to continue west and try to find work in the Willamette Valley where winters were not so hard. It was the end of August and Apple Mac did not want to wait any longer. He bid his partners so long and headed off on his own.

That was his downfall. Now, here he was without a crumb of food or a drop of water. He was left in the desert to die. Paiutes had stolen all he owned. They spared him of a quick, merciful death saying he was too old and too stringy to cut up in jerky strips for their journey. They were a ragged bunch of four young men and two women on their way to Idaho or Nevada to join a Bannock Indian named Shoshone Mike. They were convinced Shoshone Mike would lead them in a life free from the reservation. The Indians looked haggard, but full of pride and they were no less for wear than the starving reservation Indians. Their leader upon mounting Apple Mac's horse, looked down on the old man and laughed at him saying, "You don't even have hair to scalp." The leader then kicked Mac hard under his ribs. Apple Mac bent over, unable to catch his breath, but did not fall to the ground. The old man would not give the young, brash Indian that pleasure.

Still, he was not too angry at the small band of Northern Paiute for treating him like they did. It was not that Apple Mac was a free thinker of the times. Hell, he would have done the same to any one of them if he had had the upper hand. Apple Mac understood the importance of freedom and these Indians were seeking the old way of life - to wander freely. What did not make sense to him were the liberal thinkers from the big cities back east who were so hell bent on changing things. These liberals wanted to educate and blend the Indians into White society. No damned way would that work and he was living proof standing in the middle of the high desert mesa all alone without his horse, his gun and his hat. The Indian folks hated the Whites and their way of life and that was the way it was going to always be.

Two days was near past and had old Apple Mac considering the worst. It was looking like a rotten end for a man who was smarter than most cowboys. Mac pondered if it might have been a better fate to have been a bit less cunning or even a tad slower as a young soldier during the War Between the States. He could have had a more honorable and, most likely, quicker death.

Mac laughed out loud. He could not remember a time he did so much thinking in one spot. He looked down at the solitary rock and considered the millenniums of time this rock has had to reflect on its lonely plight. As he started walking away he considered some kind of salutation to the rock, but thought better of it. He had never talked to a rock in his life and he was not about to start.

* * *

Twilight was waxing quickly with the Cascade Mountains blocking out the sunset you only see when riding the beaches of the Oregon Coast. Apple Mac had been to the coast and had seen a few sunsets on the ocean. Those times he would remember as damn fine evenings for reflecting. The night was going to be a bit colder than he figured. He took off his Arab headdress and wrapped the shirt over his torso. Any sweat had long dried up and left salt stains where his forehead had been. Mac had no luck finding flint so he had long given up on a warm night's rest. That is to say, he was resolved to his plight until he saw a dim light waving about in the distance. Maybe a quarter mile or so he figured. It was definitely a campfire. Now the question was who was hanging around it. The old man hoped it were not Paiute Indians or outlaws, but regular old cowboys.

Apple Mac slipped down a small gully and headed south of the campsite. He went southward because there were more junipers and sagebrush for hiding should he decide to do some sneaking up. Since he was unarmed and hungry he had to take a chance...so hide and seek seemed the best way to get close before introducing himself. Hell, if it was a single Indian or outlaw or cowboy he might just get close enough to jump the loner and take what he needed. Stealing a sidearm, hat and a horse would be ideal Apple Mac thought. There he went on again thinking too much of what might be and not paying enough attention on what was going on at the moment. Apple Mac paid for his inattentiveness by startling a group of resting quail. The quail covey, needless to say, stirred up a raucous of wings and whistling that could be heard by anybody at the campsite ol' Mac was trying to surprise. His advantage had been compromised. He really had no chance of keeping to his original plan so he had to decide whether or not to speak up and let whomever know he was approaching or hide in the gully until morning.

"No worry," yelled Apple Mac, "just a lone cowboy hoofin' it up to yer camp to see if you could spare a cup of hot coffee or something to eat if you've got enough." There was not an immediate answer so Apple Mac continued his introduction. "Thank God, the wind died down. Sure would have made for a miserable night don't you think?"

It was then that the old cowboy got a response, but it was in the form of a hammer being cocked back into the firing position and soon after followed by a voice saying, "Where is your horse, cowboy?"

Apple Mac could not see the man or the rifle, but he knew the man was to his left behind the 'Y' trunk juniper. "I'd like to tell you if I knew. I haven't seen her for days. She was southeast bound when I last saw her with the injuns that took her." Apple Mac had slowly raised his arms in the air to show the man he was unarmed. He figured if the mystery man were trigger-happy Mac's display of hands would make the man less inclined to squeeze off a round. Apple Mac's mind was racing like a politician in a tough debate. "I heard you cock what sounds like a Springfield. Maybe you were in Teddy's war? Cuba or even the Philippines?" Again, there was no immediate response from behind the juniper tree. Apple Mac's arms would not last too much longer in the up position.

"You look too old to have done any fighting with the Spaniards," said the stranger. "Ain't no recent Indian wars either. I find it a bit of a stretch your story, old man." The man could see in the last dim of twilight that this clumsy old fart was no danger. The old man was bare. No gun. No hat. No horse. "You can put your arms down," he said to Mac.

"I thank you," said Apple Mac, "and I can tell you that the Indian band that took my mare is trying to hook up with some Bannock Indian who is trying to bring back the buffalo. I don't think there's an Indian war yet, but I'm sure this free thinkin' stuff has already stirred up trouble."

"I'd say so," said the man. "They're already stealin' horses." The man came out from behind his hiding place and lowered the U.S. Army issue Springfield, but left it cocked. "My name's Howard Fitch and I did some fighting in the war. I was with the 16th Pennsylvania under James Wilson."

"Wilson? I knew him during the Confederacy uprising. A good Union officer he was."

"He retired and then they called him back to fight Spain. I was with him in Porto Rico."

"Oh," said Apple Mac, "so you partook in the battle over Coamo?"

Fitch chuckled in a short burst. "That's what they wrote. There was some heavy artillery fire goin' on before we marched on the city, but I can't say it was much of a fight for the city itself." Fitch quietly released the rifle hammer and brought the barrel up over his head resting the rifle on his right shoulder. "When we got there two officers from the Commissariat were already there along with a reporter who handed the Spaniards' flag to Wilson and said he was now the Military Governor, Mayor and Chief of Police."

"They must have seen you all comin'. Victory in numbers, eh?" Apple Mac commented.

Fitch smiled. "No. It were seven men whose wild Porto Rico ponies got 'em to Coamo ahead of the army. Yep, all seven were green and still in knickers."

Apple Mac saw Fitch's relaxed stance and decided he could now move a bit more freely. "Sure can't believe what the Hearst papers say. Never could."

Fitch turned toward his camp. "I got some coffee brewed and some bacon for breakfast. Help yourself to coffee. I got an extra cup in my bags." He looked at the old man who was hatless. "Maybe even a spare blanket. You can keep warm by the fire tonight if you ain't in a hurry to get somewhere."

"Much obliged, Mr. Fitch. My name's Jonathan. Jonathan MacKinney, but most people, 'cept my ma, has been callin' me Apple Mac since I was about eight years old."

"Mac," said Fitch without offering his hand.

"Well, I guess it all started with my old man." Mac's father had often visited the town's jail to dry out and sometimes spent a night or two in a cell for getting into scrapes and being drunk and disorderly. Mac was constantly getting into fights with the other boys who would repeat what they heard about his father from their fathers or uncles. Most was true what they said about his dad, but he hated what it was doing to his mother. "One day after an altercation with one of my antagonists at school the teacher, Mr. Whittle, made mention 'the Jonathan does not fall too far from the tree...' - hence, my nickname Apple Mac."

"Too much talk. Go get some coffee. I'll be watchin' you while I scout about and check out your horseless story. You know I got a single shot, but I am also packin' a .357 Remington and I know how to use both."

"You go snoop about. The quicker you find out I'm tellin' the truth the easier I will feel about keepin' my hands at my sides," replied the old man. It now made some sense to Mac as to why the man was out here in the high desert alone. He had to be a reservation officer in pursuit of the Paiute group. His .357 was probably a Remington Police revolver and only reservation lawmen had those firearms out here Apple Mac figured.

* * *

Mac looked at the cloudless sky. It was going to be a salt-spilled-on-black-slate kind of night. No moon and one campfire. As he waded his way through the sagebrush and deep, soft dirt to Fitch's site he could smell the dry desert being kicked up by his boots. There was a comfort he got from inhaling this arid earth. He did not quite understand it. Maybe the years of riding throughout the parched lands of Eastern Oregon and Southern Idaho had turned his insides to a true westerner. Illinois was only a shadow of a past to him. He had not been east of the Rockies since '65 when he left the Union army. He was only fifteen at the time. All he really knew was this country. All he really learned was how to tend cattle and mend fences. All he really wanted was a good cutting horse, his Colt .45 and a hat that fit him right.

He sat himself down on a jagged lava rock with a flat top and stirred the firewood. He reached for Fitch's saddlebags that leaned up against the rock he was sitting on. Mac took the cup from the saddlebags and poured hot coffee. It smelled like coffee, but too hot for a taste test at the moment. The old man breathed softly over the hot cup. Things seemed to be looking up for old Apple Mac.

"There's a blanket and a bedroll next to my saddle. The bedroll is mine. You can have the blanket tonight," said Fitch from behind Mac. Fitch circled the fire and set himself down opposite Apple Mac. He slowly rested his Springfield on his lap keeping his revolver free from obstruction should he require quick use. "Here you go," grunted Fitch as he threw a piece of elk jerky at Apple Mac, "you look like you could eat somethin'. I'll cook up some bacon in the morning."

Fitch continued. "Seems you have walked for some ways just to get here. I guess you are damned lucky you didn't die before stumblin' on my campsite. Your double fortunate for making it all this way and not getting shot by me after all the trouble you went through to get this far. Just how long have you been without your horse?"

"It's been nearly three days."

Fitch pulled out a tobacco bag, slipped out papers from his pocket then rolled two smokes lighting one with a piece of kindling. He then gestured to Mac he was welcome to a smoke. Mac accepted. "Yep, you're damned lucky."

The fire crackled sending live cinders up into the black sky. "Listen old man, I'm headin' in the wrong direction as I see it. You are a number of days away from Bend by foot and I am pressed for time to keep going the way I am aimed. I cannot help you much more than coffee, a smoke and bacon in the morning. I don't know what else to tell ya."

"Like I said before, I'm much obliged as it is, Mr. Fitch. Besides, I assume you want to hasten your pace to catch up with those reservation escapees that robbed me of my horse, gun and hat."

Fitch gave Apple Mac a steely stare for a moment and then smiled slightly. "You assume pretty good. But, then I guess some things about this situation are fairly obvious." Fitch replied.

"Yes, sir," said Mac. "You're Police revolver was the big clue though I am wonderin' why you are still packin' a Springfield single shot. Is it Army issue from the war?" Mac asked.

"Nah. We were better supplied in Porto Rico. We had '96 Krags. They didn't let us take our rifles after the war. I got this old gal from a friend who does not need it anymore."

"Uh huh. Your friend settled down?" Mac inquired.

"Nope. He settled a poker debt with his life." Fitch said matter-of-fact like.

"That would explain why the initials on your rifle don't match your name," Mac commented.

Even though they were strangers the two weathered cowboys seemed to have a common thread. They rambled on for most of the night and rarely out in the desert do you say more than a word or two even to your traveling compadres. Both Apple Mac and Howard Fitch had experienced war. It was obvious to each soul that the other was a loner. And, both men knew their lot in life. Fitch said he took the first job available when he came back home to Pendleton from the Caribbean and that was policing the Warm Springs Reservation. Mac was destined to keep doing those cowboy tasks that he knew how to do and that kept him fed and warm for the most part. Both were two ears of corn from the same stalk.

The elk jerky and the hot coffee eased Apple Mac's current dire strait. He forgot about planning and relaxed in the moment. After his two days without one particle of food and very little sweat to drink, the meat and the coffee was the best he ever recalled consuming. He eased himself off the flat top rock and laid himself down on the dirt with the borrowed blanket. The fire was the only thing doing any talking now and Fitch's bay quarter horse and mustang paint pack horse were at ease themselves. Morning was just a few hours away and the air was going to get a bit colder before the dawn. Apple Mac covered his shoulders and swung his left arm under his head. He did not want to think much about tomorrow. He was warm and that was all that mattered now.

* * *

When morning in the high desert of Oregon is not too cold or not too hot you are waking up as close to heaven as you can get without dying. This was one of those mornings even though it brought stiffness deep in Apple Mac's bones. These days Mac never got up in a start. He had to take his time, even when he was in a rush. He always tried to be the first up when working. This morning was no different after all those years of self discipline. But, he was not the first one up. Fitch had already re-stoked the fire with fresh dead wood and the coffee pot was boiling. It was the bacon frying in the pan that opened Apple Mac's eyes.

Fitch had already saddled his horse and was ready to break camp right after breakfast. "You can keep the roll. It can give you shade in the afternoon and keep you warm at night though I doubt it'll help you get where you want to go." Fitch turned the bacon over and then poured coffee for Mac and set it down on a flat top rock. "You know you most likely ain't gonna make it. The closest water is days away. You got too much wasteland to cover, old man." Fitch stirred the bacon and set his eyes eastward. The sun seemed as slow to get up as Apple Mac. It was light out, but the bare hills kept everything in various shades of sleepy blue gray. "I can't be slowed down. I'm already days behind them."

Apple Mac nodded. "It won't take you long to make up that time." Mac sneered. "Hell, they got only one horse that's any good and that one's mine. They'll be eatin' the other two horses before they make it to Idaho.

Fitch fetched a plate and forked a chunk of bacon. Handing the plate to Mac he said, "I ain't too worried about catching up with them. I got to get 'em back sooner than later. The commander wants a speedy trial and quick punishment back at the reservation. There'll be no droppin' off the sorry lot anywhere else. The local newspaper got wind of the starvin' Indians slippin' out from under his nose. The story even made the Oregonian and that really has him riled." He paused. He was talking too much. Fitch stood up grabbing his saddlebag. "About your horse, Mac. If I find her you can pick her up in Madras."

Apple Mac pulled himself onto the flat top rock putting the plate on his lap. The bacon was hot to his fingers. He brought the slab of meat to his mouth and tore a healthy sized morsel of flesh to chew. Mac watched Fitch pack up the pan and pour the coffee and grounds on the fire. "You done with that plate, yet?" Fitch grumbled.

"Pretty much. Let me clean 'er up a bit. You got some water to spare?" Mac asked.

Fitch was too busy to turn around. "No water for washin', old man." Fitch checked the saddle cinch and dropped the stirrup. Turning to collect his saddlebags and the plate Mac was using he saw the old man behind his left shoulder. Before Fitch could react, Mac had come down on his head with a hard blow using a large tuff rock. Fitch felt a sharp pain on his cheekbone just before he saw the white light and then all went black. He crumpled to the ground like a saddle blanket.

Apple Mac dropped the rock to steady Fitch's steed. "Easy, boy." Apple Mac whispered in the gelding's ear. He stroked the horse slowly between its eyes to further calm the beast. Fitch was twitching a bit on the ground. Mac had hit him hard enough that it was unlikely Fitch would ever get up again. The old man patted Howard Fitch's shoulder then pulled the revolver from the holster. Apple Mac collected the bedroll Fitch gave him and stuffed the revolver inside. Mac rested the covered barrel on Fitch's temple before pulling the trigger. The wool roll muffled the sound of the shot. The horses did not spook. Apple Mac sighed in relief. All had gone better than anticipated. Fitch had been a good man, but Apple Mac could not be expected to survive in the high desert with only a blanket and a chunk of elk jerky.

Mac had considered his options and executed the most logical plan. Old Mac was always planning things and this time it proved to be a good habit.

Apple Mac scooped up the fine dirt with the plate he used at breakfast and poured the loose desert on the face of the dead man. It took the old man some time to completely cover the corpse with dirt and lava rock. The grave was not deep enough to keep the coyotes and Turkey Vultures away. It would not be long before Fitch, who was recently a living, breathing soul, would be scavengers' carrion. Apple Mac knew that someday, sooner than later, he would be buzzard meat himself. Death did not concern him all that much. It was just that he had a preference in how it came upon him and he had done what was necessary to prevent a long, lingering, parched death.

Smoothing out the gelding's hindquarters, Apple Mac found no brand. He found the mustang was also unmarked. This was good. He could now continue on his way to the Willamette Valley to find some work in a more tolerable climate come winter. He figured he would ditch the government issued .356 once he got on the other side of the Cascades, but keep the Springfield. God knows he would need both arms for his trek through Oregon's outback and over the mountains.

Before he hiked up on the saddle, the aging cowboy sat down on the flat rock. It was not so unusual for him to be sitting on a rock alone in the middle of the high desert mesa, directly under a scorching sun. In fact, things were almost as they should be. You could say Apple Mac was himself again; a dusty old cowhand with a horse, a six-gun and a cowboy hat that fit a bit too loose.

The End

Lawrence E. Cox was born in Idaho and raised in cowboy boots and manure. He once rode calf in Little Britches rodeo way back when, but did not last the eight seconds. He was awarded Grand Master of Fright Write by Valley Daily News in 1996 and has had two poems published by Highline Community College Arbiter Magazine while attending the school. He has enjoyed a long career in transportation and is currently pumping gas and writing in Central Oregon.

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Gold Dream
by Connie Cockrell

Part 2

The next morning Zeke was in the general store. "Mr. Burell, I'd like to order twenty pounds of flour, ten of cornmeal, fifteen pounds of beans, five pounds of lard, ten pounds of salt pork, and twenty pounds of grain for my donkey."

Walter Burell nodded as he jotted notes. "Any more dynamite, Zeke?"

"I think so." Zeke scratched his head. "A case, I guess. Can't hurt to have it on hand." He stared at the jar of peppermint sticks on the counter. "Give me one of them, too." He jerked his chin at the jar.

"Sure thing." He put down his pencil and as he removed it the glass top rang on the jar below it. He took out a stick, handing it to Zeke. "On the house, for a good customer."

"Oh, no, Mr. Burell. These must cost you a fortune to ship in."

The storekeeper shrugged. "Call it good business, Zeke. You pay your bills, you're polite. I like doing business with you." He picked up the list. "When do you want your order ready?"

"A day, maybe two." Zeke was about to say he was waiting for a test from the assay office, then changed his mind. "I have some other business in town to take care of. I'll let you know."

"Fair enough. Anything else I can get you?"

"Some mercury and a sack of potatoes. Oh, yes. Some writing paper, a couple of envelopes and a pencil. I need to write to my ma and pa. "

"Good boy." Walter Burell walked along his counter and reached up onto a shelf on the wall. "There's ten sheets of paper in this box and five envelopes. How many stamps do you need?" The general store was also the post office and Walter Burell the postmaster.

"Four stamps. That should do me for awhile."

The storekeeper added the paper and stamps to the list. "That'll be seventeen dollars."

Zeke handed him the money.

Walter put the stamps in the box with the paper and the envelopes. He pulled a pencil out of a can on the counter and dropped that in the box as well. "There, all together in a kit, so to speak." He handed Zeke the box. "I'll have your order ready by tonight so when you're ready, come on by to load up."

The men shook hands. "Thank you, Mr. Burell."

Zeke went out of the store and stood on the porch, leaning up against one of the posts. He pulled the stick of candy out of his shirt pocket and stuck one end in his mouth. The blast of peppermint filled his mouth. He felt good. The morning wasn't yet too hot, he had some free time and he had a candy treat.

From his vantage point he could see men already camped out in front of the three bars. The Oxbow had several men on the porch, chairs tipped back against the wall, their feet up on the porch rail. It seemed curious that so many men were just lazing around. Why weren't they on their ranches or at work somewhere? Maybe they were cowboys driving cattle through the area and stopped to resupply, just like he was. The thought occurred to him that they could be outlaws but he shoved it away. He was just standing around on a porch, too. Maybe they were wondering about him.

He pushed off of the post and headed back to Mrs. Entrada's. He'd sit in the shade of the barn and write his folks and Mary. Zeke passed the livery on his way. Three men came out, guns on their hips. The way they were dressed, Zeke thought they'd been living rough for awhile. While it wasn't uncommon for men to carry guns out in the countryside, very few people in town carried them. He'd left his rifle in his room. Still, a prickle of danger ran down the back of his neck.

As he passed them he nodded and moved out of their way. "Hey," the middle man called out. "You Zeke Stanford?"

Zeke stopped, took the peppermint stick out of his mouth and put it in his pocket. He turned to face them. This could not be good. He could already feel a patch of sweat on his back. "Do I know you?"

The man laughed. "No, I just heard about you. I'm Tom Duffy. You're a gold miner, I heard."

Zeke wondered who had been talking. Earl at the Oxbow? "I mine, pan for gold a little. Why do you ask?"

"Oh, me and the boys here," he nodded at each man beside him, "were wonderin' where some likely spots were."

"Sorry, can't help you. I'm still searchin' myself."

"That's not what I heard." Tom Duffy's voice dropped the friendly tone.

Zeke wished he had his rifle in hand as the hairs on his neck rose. "Shouldn't listen to bar room rumors." He turned and walked off, the skin in the middle of his back itching. He didn't relax until he'd reached the Entrada barn. Cesar was sitting on a keg, mending a piece of harness.

"Hey, Cesar." Zeke dropped onto a stump the ranch hand used as a chair or as a table, depending on what he was working on.

"Something wrong, Mr. Zeke?"

Zeke took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair. "I don't know, Cesar. A stranger just stopped me outside the livery. Knew my name and my business."

The harness Cesar was working on dropped to his lap. "That doesn't sound good, Mr. Zeke."

"No, it doesn't." Zeke put his hat back on. "There seems to be a lot of men sitting on the bar porches. Is there a cattle drive in town?"

"No. I would have heard." Cesar picked up the harness and began to work again. "Were there a lot of cowboys?"

"Not that I could tell. Just men. The man who questioned me was wearing a gun on his hip. Him and his two friends."

Cesar peered up at him as he punched a hole in the harness leather. "Not too many men in town go around armed, Mr. Zeke."

"I know. I was wishin' I had my rifle with me."

"Did they threaten you?"

"Not exactly in so many words." Zeke scratched an ear. "But I felt threatened. How did they know me? They asked me about my claim. Seemed to think I found something." He stared at the stationery box in his hand. "I'll take this up to my room. I'll hold off writing to Ma and Pa until things are more settled."

He stood and went to the back door. Pia was pulling a pie from the oven. "Blackberry pie for dessert tonight, Mr. Zeke."

"Smells wonderful, Pia." He held up the box. "Just taking some letter-writin' stuff to my room."

Once upstairs he placed the box on the dresser and stood staring out the window at the cottonwoods. He wondered how much time Mr. Markum needed to do his tests. Zeke felt nervous and wanted to get the claim signed and out of town. Those men, they didn't seem like cowboys and they were too curious about his mining. He needed to get out of the house and move around.

Back in the kitchen he told Pia, "I'm going out to the stream. I need to think."

"Wait, Mr. Zeke." Pia hurried around the kitchen. She pulled a chicken thigh from her cool storage and wrapped it in a napkin. She did the same with a square of cornbread. "Here." She thrust the napkin bundles at him. "For your lunch."

The thoughtfulness made him smile. "Thank you, Pia. I appreciate it."

She waved him to the door, smile beaming. "Go on now. I have work to do."

Zeke left and headed for the line of cottonwoods. He felt a little of the tension drain off, after Pia's gesture. But he was still worried. Were those men watching the assay office? All they had to do was sit on the Oxbow porch for a clear view of anyone going in or out. That worried him but he didn't know what to do about it.

* * *

Late afternoon Zeke came back to his room and after splashing hands and face with water from the basin, he pulled his rifle out of the wardrobe. An Army Springfield, it only held one shot at a time. He had cleaned the rifle the first day he was in town. Now he dropped a handful of cartridges in his pocket, checked the action once more and went down to the kitchen.

"I may be late for dinner, Pia."

Her eyebrow raised as she looked at the rifle in the crook of his arm. "Trouble, Mr. Zeke?"

He sighed. "I hope not, Pia. I'm going to the assay office."

"Take care, Mr. Zeke."

The young man nodded and left through the back door. He breathed a sigh of relief that he didn't see Cesar. He didn't want to explain to the man he considered a friend what he was doing. He certainly didn't want Cesar to come along. Zeke was hoping he wouldn't run into trouble. But if he did, he didn't want the man he thought of as a second father to get hurt.

Once in town, he peered at the street around the corner of the livery. The Oxbow was the farthest from him. Two men, beer glasses in hand, sat sprawled in their chairs, feet on the porch railing. The two bars across the street from the Oxbow had empty porches. The assay office was a little over ninety feet from him, two buildings past the livery. It was close to closing time and Zeke was counting on it that the cowboys, or whatever Tom Duffy and his men were, would have given up watching the assay office for the day.

He saw the two men on the Oxbow porch empty their glasses and get up and go inside. This was his chance. He walked to the assay office, doing his best to appear normal. He opened the door, surprising Mr. Markum, who was just about to grab the door handle. "Sorry, Mr. Markum." Zeke moved inside and shut the door. "There are men watching the door, I didn't want them to see me come inside."

Markum looked out through the wavy glass of his door. "No one out there now, Mr. Stanford." He took off his hat and faced Zeke. "I suppose you'd like to know about the test?"

"Yes, sir. I would."

Markum cleared his throat. "It's a good strike with a high percentage of ore in the quartz. Are you ready to file?"

"What is the legal standing, Mr. Markum, if I file now?"

Markum went to the filing cabinet and pulled out the claim form. "You mean if something should happen to you before the claim reaches the territorial capital?"

"Yes, that's it."

The assay man pulled his gold-nibbed pen from his pocket and motioned Zeke to the chair on his side of the table and sat down in his usual spot. "It's an official claim, even if a copy hasn't reached the mail office."

Zeke took off his hat and scratched his head. "Let me see the form, then."

Markum handed over the form and the pen. Zeke read through the whole document. "I'm sorry I'm keepin' you from your supper."

"Don't worry about it, son. Take your time."

Zeke uncapped the pen and began to write in the location of the mine. He filled out all of the rest of the blanks on the page, then signed his name at the bottom. "You said you needed a copy. Should I fill that out?"

"I can do that, Mr. Stanford. It'll be labeled as a copy. No need for your signature."

"If you don't mind, Mr. Markum. I'd like to see that done, then I'd like to walk you to the General Store to give to the post office."

"Being cautious, son."

"I know. I just have a feeling, is all. Do you mind?"

Markum shook his head. "No. This won't take long." He pulled another sheet from the cabinet under the table and, with Zeke's original in front of him, filled in all of the blanks on the sheet in neat Spenserian script.

Zeke stood up and went to the window. Across the street he could see Tom Duffy and his two friends take the chairs on the Oxbow porch. He could feel his hands go sweaty as his mouth went dry.

When Markum finished, he pulled an envelope out and addressed it, folded the copy claim form in thirds and sealed it inside. "There we are, Mr. Stanford. Signed and sealed. We just need to deliver it." He scraped the wooden chair back from the table and put his hat on. "Shall we go?"

"The men that have been watching are back on the Oxbow porch."

The assay man stood beside Zeke at the window.

"Do you know those men?"

Markum shook his head. "No. You sure they're watching?"

"They stopped me in the street this morning. Seemed to know all about my claim."

"We can go out the back door." Markum locked the front door and led Zeke to the back of the building. There was a store room on one side of the short hall and a work room, full of shelves of stoppered glass bottles, a small stove and cast iron pots and other implements Zeke couldn't identify. Markum unlocked the back door and once they were outside, relocked it.

Here weeds grew in the shadow of the building, and the back side of a row of three houses were forty feet away. Markum led Zeke along behind the buildings until they reached the General Store. They went in.

Walter Burell was at the counter, working on his books. Zeke looked around. No one else was in the store.

"John, Zeke, what's the matter?"

"We didn't want to be seen, Walter." John Markum handed Walt the envelope. We have a letter to give to the postmaster and didn't want others to see the delivery."

Walter scratched his beard. "Fair enough." He looked at the envelope, pulled a stamp from under the counter and pasted it in the upper-right corner. "I'll add it to your tab, John." Walter walked the envelope to the end of the counter and in a space clearly marked United States Mail, dropped it into a canvas bag marked U.S. Mail. "It's as safe there as I can make it, gentlemen."

Zeke went to the front door. The Oxbow porch was empty. "Thank you, Mr. Burell. And thank you, Mr. Markum. Appreciate your time."

The men shook hands. "Stay safe, young man."

Zeke nodded. Despite the fact that Tom Duffy had disappeared from the porch, he felt better. His claim was official. The original was in the assay office and a copy was in the post office. "Mr. Markum, shouldn't I have a copy of the claim?"

"You're right, son. In all the hurry, I didn't make one for you. We'll go back right now. I know you'll sleep better having it in hand."

"Thank you, sir." Zeke turned to Walter. "I'll get my supplies tomorrow, Mr. Burell. Time for me to get out of town."

"Sure thing. It'll all be ready when you get here."

Zeke and Markum left through the back door. They were halfway to the assay office when Tom Duffy and his two friends came around the corner of the building. "Well, look who's here, boys. Mr. Stanford."

Zeke moved his Springfield from the crook of his arm and readied it in his hands, muzzle pointed at the ground. It was loaded, but with only one shot before he had to reload, he was outgunned. Each of the three men had six-shooters on their hips.

"Now that isn't very friendly, Zeke." Duffy looked with a raised eyebrow at the rifle now pointed in his direction.

"Not used to town life, people springing out at me from around corners." Zeke could feel his heart pounding.

"Step aside, gentlemen," Mr. Markum told the men. "I'm on my way to my office."

Duffy grinned. "Do tell. And with Mr. Stanford along, too."

Zeke adjusted his grip on the rifle and stepped forward. "Gentlemen."

He and Markum walked around the three men, giving them a wide berth. Duffy tipped his hat, grinning all the while.

Inside the assay office, Markum locked the back door. "We aren't going to be able to go out that way when we leave." He went to the table and pulled out the original claim and a blank. He sat down and began to write.

Zeke watched out of the door. Duffy and his men left the alley and walked across the street to lean on the hitching post in front of the newspaper office. "They're across the street. Waiting." His hands were slick on the rifle. He wiped each one on his jacket.

"Here you are, Mr. Stanford." Markum was folding the claim into thirds when Zeke turned around. He put it in an envelope.

Zeke took it and folded it in half, then put it in his inside coat breast pocket. He took a deep breath and held out his hand. "Appreciate the help, sir."

"Look. If all three men are across the street, we can go out the back."

"No, Mr. Markum. This needs to be settled now. I'll go out. You lock the door behind me."

Markum shook his head. "Don't be rash. We can go out the back and that'll be the end of it."

"No." Zeke looked out of the window. "No, sir, it won't. They'll follow me out of town, tonight or tomorrow and if I'm lucky, someone will find my body. This has to be handled tonight."

"I understand, son." The assayer rubbed an eye. "That's mighty brave." He walked to the door and unlocked it. "Good luck to you, sir."

Zeke wiped each hand on his coat. "Thank you."

Markum opened the door and Zeke stepped outside. He saw Duffy and his friends stand up and could hear the assay office door lock behind him. That was good. He didn't want John Markum to get hurt. He stepped off of the porch onto the street. Duffy and his men stepped away from the hitching post. They spread across the street each man three feet from the other. There was no way they were letting Zeke go.

"Gentlemen." Zeke's hands twisted on the rifle. He'd never had to shoot a man before. His stomach rolled.

"Hey, boy." Duffy laughed. "You've been mighty unfriendly. You should come have a drink with us." The two men with him, grinned.

"No thank you, sir. My supper is waitin'." The late afternoon sun shone just over the top of the newspaper office. The outlaws' shadows slanted to Zeke's left. The street was in full sun—it would be hours yet before the sun dropped behind the buildings to shade the street. He wished for a breeze. He could feel the sweat forming on his back and armpits.

"We can eat at the Oxbow, boy. The chili is pretty good, I hear."

"Appreciate that. But I think I'll just go back to my room."

Duffy and his friends took a step toward Zeke. They were about thirty feet away. "Don't be unfriendly, now."

Zeke didn't know what to do next. It was clear they weren't going to take no for an answer. Could he go with them and then slip out the back? Did they know where he was staying? He didn't want to bring trouble to Mrs. Entrada's house. "Don't mean to be unfriendly. It's just been a long day. I'm going to turn in."

"Young man like you, goin' ta bed already?" Duffy glanced at each of his friends. "Young men today have gone soft, boys."

The men didn't take their eyes from Zeke but they both laughed. "Weak, boss. That's what I say."

"Look, I'm done with my business. I don't want a drink. I'm going to pass by and be on my way." Zeke took two steps forward and raised his rifle to point at Tom Duffy. He'd decided it was better to shoot the leader than the other two. They stood twenty-five feet apart.

Duffy raised a hand. "No sense bein' hasty, son."

"I'm not your son."

"Oh, ho! Listen to that, boys. There is a little fight in the boy." Duffy's hand moved from his belt buckle to hover over his gun. "Looks to me like he wants a fight."

"I don't want a fight. You go back to the Oxbow and I'll tend to my own affairs."

"I don't think so, son. Word is you have found gold in the Mazatzal's. We'd like to be partners."

"I don't need partners." He took another step toward the men. His stomach was rolling and his mouth was so dry he could barely speak the words. Zeke was beginning to think the gold was more trouble than it was worth.

"Don't be like that. Mining's more work than one man can do alone."

Zeke saw Duffy's friends' hands move over their guns. He stared at Duffy. "If you touch your gun I'm shooting you first. He pointed the rifle directly at Duffy.

"Don't be stupid, boy. That Springfield is a single shot. The boys here would both shoot you before you could get to your next cartridge."

"Let me worry about that." Zeke saw movement at the corner of the General Store. He glanced at it but couldn't look for long—he needed to keep an eye on the three in front of him. More of Duffy's men, no doubt. He could feel his knees begin to tremble. Zeke began to regret not writing his ma and pa and Mary when he had the chance. Now they'd have nothing from him after he died. He swallowed. The three men in front of him were trading glances. They were going to make their move. His hands moved on the rifle, getting a grip through the sweat.

He saw Duffy make his move, his hand moving that fraction of an inch to the gun. Zeke took a breath, he didn't want to miss. When Duffy's gun cleared the holster, Zeke fired. Smoke filled the air as he heard four shots ring out.

Four shots? The smoke cleared. Duffy and his two men lay on the street. Zeke felt light-headed and sank to his knees in the dirt. From behind the newspaper and the General Store, two men came out. Zeke could see the star on the one man's vest. The other man was Mr. Markum.

Zeke pulled himself to his feet as the sheriff stood over the three men on the street. He nudged them with the toe of his boot.

"You all right, young fella?"

Zeke staggered over to the men, Markum joining them. "Yes, sir. I'm fine."

"You look shaken, Mr. Stanford."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Markum. I reckon I am. I thought I was a dead man."

"John found me and told me what was going on. You did well, son."

Zeke didn't feel that way. He felt as though he were going to vomit. "I suppose so, since I'm still standing."

"I'll look through my posters and see if these men are wanted. There may be a reward."

"Oh." The young miner's hearing buzzed. "Thank you."

"You're free to go. I saw what happened. You gave them several chances to back off. They attacked you. It's cut and dried son."

Zeke nodded. It didn't feel cut and dried to him. He shook hands with the sheriff and Markum and began the walk back to Mrs. Entrada's house. Halfway there he ran into the bushes to throw up.

* * *

The next day at the General Store, Zeke handed Walter Burell two envelopes. He'd written to both his parents and to Mary what had happened. He didn't feel good about himself at all. Three men dead for rocks in the ground.

He was nearly loaded when Mr. Markum stopped at the back of the store to speak to him. "Any plans for that mine, son?"

"I'm gonna work it best I can, sir." He added the lighter goods to the top of the pack on Jenny.

"You know, there's many a company that would buy the rights to your claim."

Zeke blinked. "I didn't know that."

"If you'd like, I can contact two or three of them. Get some bids on the claim. Next time you come to town you can make your decision."

"You would do that?" Zeke thought about the three men lying in the street. His stomach still rolled at the memory of the sight and the smell of gunpowder and blood.

"Yes, I would. I'll have everything here by the time you return."

Zeke liked the idea. The fight for the mine was a black cloud on everything he wanted for his parents and for himself. "You do that. I'll be back in about a month." The two shook hands. He finished loading Jenny as Markum walked off toward the telegraph office. He thought about the money he might be able to sell the mine for. It would still be tainted. A month working the claim wouldn't be nearly enough penance.

He finished loading the donkey and left, staying in the back alley to the edge of town. He'd have to do some good with whatever money he got. He'd talk to his ma and pa and Mary. In the meantime, he'd think on it. Zeke led the donkey out into the already hot morning, dust rising in puffs from their footsteps. It was going to have to be a very good thing, a gold dream.

The End

Connie Cockrell grew up in upstate NY, just outside of Gloversville, NY. She now lives in Payson, AZ with her husband: hiking, gardening, and playing bunko. Connie Cockrell began writing in response to a challenge from her daughter in October 2011 and has been hooked ever since. She writes about whatever comes into her head so her books could be in any genre. She's published fourteen books so far, has been included in five different anthologies and been published on EveryDayStories.com. Connie's always on the lookout for a good story idea. Beware, you may be the next one.

She can be found at www.conniesrandomthoughts.com or on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/ConniesRandomThoughts or on Twitter at: @ConnieCockrell

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The Valley
by R. E. Jackson

There was little sound in Deer Canyon. Secluded high in the rocky mountains, few white men had ever run across the seemingly random cut in what was otherwise a tall mountain of granite. Stretching for nearly a mile from end to end, and nearly three-hundred yards across at the narrowest point, the canyon was sheltered from the high winds of the mountains by its thousand foot walls on three sides. There were but two ways in: one entrance was a narrow cut in the southernmost wall that was hardly wide enough to ride a mule through; The other, a treacherous goat trail down the eastern face.

The winter snows from the surrounding peaks would melt, sending waterfalls cascading down the sheer cliffs, ultimately collecting into a lake at the far north of the canyon. The lake was drained by a snaking stream which flowed through the middle of the canyon all year and spilled out through a hidden cave. The stream would resume on the other side of the mountain, flowing down until it met the mighty Missouri river after many miles of bending and winding.

This stream allowed wild grasses to grow through spring and summer, providing food for the numerous elk, deer, bear, sheep and goats to grow fat on for winter. A pair of eagles perpetually guarded the valley from a nest on the western wall, swooping down and catching rainbow trout from the lake to feed their young.

Deer Canyon was hidden from all observers on the peaks above by the glaring of the sun. The light reflecting off the opposite walls, and the green of the canyon floor would play tricks on the eyes, making the canyon appear to be just a greener patch on the mountainside.

Del Brinks stumbled up the side of the mountain. The ground was made of loose granite shards that cut through the legs of his thin pants, bloodying his shins every time he slipped. His water had run out half way up, and his tongue was getting dry after the climb. Turning around, Del glanced at his three companions following him up. Moe Phillips was next in line, the summer sun glaring off of his stolen white hat. Behind him was Frank Doors, a short man with an ugly scar on his left cheek from when he had been hit by a broken bottle in a saloon brawl. Bringing up the rear, Cal Scour led a mule laden with twenty thousand dollars of Army payroll up the mountain.

There had originally been six in the gang, but two of them were being picked clean by buzzards in the foothills of Montana. They had sneaked into a sleeping army camp one night, grabbing the chest containing the payroll from the back of a truck and stealing a mule to carry it from the livestock trailer, escaping without even disturbing the sentries. But two days later, an army patrol had caught up to them, and in the ensuing battle, two outlaws had been wounded and all the horses killed. Since the two wounded men were unable to walk, they were left behind, and when the remaining outlaws heard a flurry of shots several minutes later, they knew it wasn't a hunter shooting at a deer.

But that was three days and twenty rugged miles ago. The mule was the only one that had eaten more than wild onions in that time, and the altitude combined with lack of sound sleep had the gang tired and edgy.

"Hey Del," Frank Doors called up, "how long until we get to this 'hidden canyon?'"

Brinks had heard an old trapper talk of a hidden canyon in this area one time in a saloon. At the time, it had seemed unimportant, but now it was the objective of their climb.

"Should be just over this peak," Brinks responded coldly.

The outlaws made it to where the stream flowed out of the mountain just as night was falling. Wearily, they took the load off of the mule and turned it loose to graze while Cal Scour gathered an armful of tender mountain onions. They ate silently before rolling over one by one into a fitful sleep.

At noon the next day they walked into Deer Canyon. Each man let out a gasp of amazement as he stepped from the narrow crack in the wall, getting their first glimpse of the majestic treasure hidden within the Rocky mountains. Moe Phillips built a fire while the others set up a little shelter out of branches against the side of the canyon. Then they each attempted to catch a trout. They all succeeded, and the fish were cooked on a rock with wild onions.

The night was quiet, the only sound that of the stream rolling over rounded rocks. The outlaws were relaxed now, confident that they were hidden from any lawman or army patrol indefinitely, and they slept soundly. Suddenly, Brinks sat bolt upright, Colt in hand. Something had awakened him; a rock had slipped on another rock. Looking around, the outlaw saw nothing in the deep darkness of the mountains. Slowly, he returned the worn gun to the holster on his left hip and went back to sleep.

The sound that had awakened Brinks had come from a tired old mule. The animal was loaded with elk meat and leather sacks of salt that had been collected from the banks of a saline spring. The animal was being led by an old man.

William Bridger was one of famous mountain man Jim Bridger's sons. His mother, a Flathead Indian, had died when he was very young, and he was sent off to an eastern school to be educated. But he had returned to the mountains of his ancestry, and the simple ways of life in the mountains. Surviving with no tools of the white man, save a short steel knife, a stolen mule, and an old flintlock rifle that he kept stashed in his house, William had been forgotten by civilization for the past sixty years.

When he had entered the opening in the canyon wall, the mule had nickered. Sensing trouble, William had led the animal while keeping it quiet. He had just peeked out of the pass when the animal had slipped and kicked a rock loose. Seeing the outlaw rise in the dim glow of the fire, William had melted into the shadow of the rocks, waiting patiently until the stranger had fallen back to sleep. Only when he had resumed snoring did the old man move. He walked right through the middle of their camp, leaving the mule in the pass until he had examined the men thoroughly. When he found the gold, he scowled. He had learned to hate the greed that gold would put in men. Carefully, he took a silent handful of the coins and put them in his buckskin pocket. The he walked back and led the mule out across the canyon.

At the opposite end, William walked through a hole in the grass, which concealed his home. Long years of freezing and thawing had cracked the granite high above on the cliff, until at some point a gigantic slab of rock came crashing to the ground. This slab had fallen in such a way as to create a cave-like room behind it. With the cliff for one wall, and the large slab for the opposite wall, all Bridger had needed to do was pile round rocks from the stream on opposite ends, and he was left with a cozy cabin that was twelve feet wide and nearly forty feet long. The rock created a natural smoke stack, and some minor digging created a draft that allowed one fire in the middle of the house to heat the entire thing, even on the coldest winter nights.

Away from the house, a similar slab had been made into a barn for the mule. It was heated by a natural hot spring, which gave water to both man and beast when the lake and stream froze in October or November.

At dawn, Bridger was hidden in the bushes, watching the four strangers sleep in the cool grass. One by one they stirred, until they were all up and eating the remainder of their supper. Then they spread out, exploring the valley. On silent feet, Bridger followed the two who were heading toward his home. His bow was made of spruce and sinew, but it was deadly in his expert hands. The heads of the arrows had been cut from a glass-like rock that would occasionally appear in the hot spring, making them very hard, and sharper than most knives. They had also been dipped in a poisonous liquid that had come from a mixture of wild herbs. Bridger was prepared to defend his secret world.

The outlaws never made it to the hidden cabin, instead having their attention taken by a series of caves in the side of the cliff. These were the product of hundreds of of years of native people coming to the valley for religious ceremonies. Over the many years he had lived in the valley, William would join their ceremonies and share his home with the elders of the tribe, until he had become one of them.

Inside these caves were many shards of clay pottery, some more than a thousand years old. There were also other trinkets of Native society, such as knives and silver pendants. Many of the more valuable items had belonged to chiefs of the tribe who had died, or been killed, and had been left there as part of the burial. The outlaws sorted through some of the debris, but nothing was valuable enough to them to be worth taking. By the time they were through, the sun was painting the sky pink and orange in its final farewell of the day. They returned to the camp, still unaware of their stalker.

Back at camp, the four caught more fish and cooked them the same way as before, turning in as the last purple of sunset was fading. William again waited for them to fall asleep, then slipped in and took more gold from the chest.

William was again watching the camp at dawn. But as the sun was just peeking over the rim of the canyon, a boy of no more than twelve appeared from the pass in the wall. He noticed the strangers and disappeared into the grass just as they started to wake. Recognizing the boy as on of the elders' sons, William returned to his house to meet him.

When the boy arrived, there was already a bowl of meat stew prepared for him, and a stack of gold coins. The boy entered the cabin and greeted the man who was like one of his family. William soon learned that the rest of the tribe was but a day away, preparing for a ceremony to be held in order to bury a child that had died of sickness.

"Wandering Hawk, tell the tribe to wait until I come to them or there will be more dead. And I do not wish these strangers in my valley to harm our people. Now go. Take this gold from the white man, and use it to trade with the white man."

The boy shoved the coins in his haversack, and departed. When he had gone, William pulled a small piece of rawhide from a stack, and using a charred stick, wrote a message. When he was done, he took the rawhide and placed it on top of the chest of gold after taking another handful. He then retreated to his home until the shadows grew long.

Bridger had been sitting in his bush for only a short time when the outlaws came back. They immediately found the note, and Cal Scour read it aloud.

"It says 'I humbly request that ye leave by sundown, misters Brinks, Scour, Doors and Phillips. My people wish to use this valley for the funeral of a child and want only peace. There is another valley that is acceptable for your desire of concealment, unto which I have drawn a map. Sincerely, William Bridger.'"

"Who the hell is this William Bridger that he thinks he can tell us to leave?" Moe Phillips asked when Cal was done. Cal shrugged his shoulders.

"I don't know, but he used old timey English. And he drew a passable map."

They all looked to Brinks, their leader.

"I say we ignore him. I ain't about to leave this valley for no damned Injun buryin'.

There were shouts of agreement, and the four went to sleep.

In the dark of the night, William sneaked into the camp again. This time, he crept up to each man and carved their last name into the toe of their boots with his knife. Then he took a handful of gold and left another note.

When the four awoke the next morning, Frank Doors was the first to notice the note on the chest, and the cuts in their boots.

"Hot damn!" he exclaimed. "This feller is good." Picking up the note, he read it aloud.

" 'Gentlemen, I could have easily killed you while you slept, yet I showed you great kindness in not doing so. Furthermore, I do not appreciate the disparaging comments you have made toward my people. They wish only peace and seclusion. I have again drawn a map to a sufficient vale to house you for several months. I again request you take your leave and relocate.'

"And it's signed 'W.B.' " Frank said at the end.

The others stared sullenly at the names on their toes for a while before Cal looked up.

"I vote we track this tricky bastard down and give him a good thumpin'." The others agreed, and they left with Colts in their hands, fanning across the valley to search.

When they were out of sight, William again entered their camp, this time taking the chest of gold and dragging it into the middle of the stream. There he stacked rock on top of it, the idea being that they understand that he could bury their gold without them ever knowing he was there, and they would never see it again.

Returning to the camp, Bridger tossed the onions they had gathered into the bushes and spread the ashes of the fire out, stomping the embers. Finally, he shooed the mule out into the middle of the valley. He then began his trip home. Walking to the edge of the valley, he entered a crack in the wall where the granite was being broken down by erosion in much the same way as the rock that had created his home. This hidden trail led right to his door.

After a meal of elk meat and wild herbs, William walked to his barn and gathered his mule before heading out again through the hidden trail. The mule was familiar with the narrow passage and followed his master faithfully until they were at the other end of the canyon. Here, William led the animal out through the pass and onto the sunny mountainside. There he picketed it and returned to the valley to begin taking his prey.

Bridger first found Moe Phillips who was poking around in the head high grass. Without so much as a blink, he drew his bow and shot the outlaw. Moe let out a strangled cry, clawing at the wooden shaft that protruded from his chest. Then he fell into unconsciousness. William strode forward, slung the limp body over his shoulder and carried the limp man back to the outlaw camp. Here he left Phillips with the arrow pointing skyward, and a note attached. That done, he took the Colt revolver from the bloody holster and fired a single shot into the dirt before tossing the weapon in the stream.

Nearing the other end of the valley, the other three outlaws heard the shot and returned to their camp at a run. Cal Scour got there first, and had read the note several times before the other two showed up.

"Damn this Bridger!" He exclaimed. "He done kilt Moe and run off with his gun."

"Not to mention stole our gold," Brinks added angrily. Doors was examining Phillips' body. Feeling the man's neck, he found a pulse.

"Moe's still alive," he said. The others walked over and looked at him. He was pale and his skin cold, but his chest pumped slowly and shallowly. And while the arrow had surely done damage, it was not in what was normally considered a lethal place. The three remaining outlaws were just regaining hope that their companion would survive when Phillips' eyes shot open and he let out a horrible scream.

Taken aback, Brinks, Doors and Scour all stepped back involuntarily. But as suddenly as he had awoken, Phillips slipped back into unconsciousness. Doors was feeling his brow for a fever when Moe Phillips twitched once, then died.

"Poison on the arrows," Doors remarked. The three stepped away from their dead friend and decided that their best course of action would be to go all the way to the other side of the canyon together, and see if they could find this stealthy man.

They left in single file, Brinks in front, followed by Doors, and Scour bringing up the rear. The grass was lower there, only about waist height, and their eyes scanned everything. William Bridger crawled through the brush at the base of the cliff on their right, listening to their every sound and making none of his own.

When they got to the tall grass, William crept closer, until he was but five feet away. Then he was directly behind them. Their pace had slowed in order to be able to navigate the foliage, and the noise they made was easily covering any he could make. Finally, he made his move.

One hand held Moe Phillips' handkerchief, the other his knife. With remarkable speed, he grabbed Cal Scour, sticking the handkerchief over both his mouth and nose which prevented him from both making noise and breathing. Then he dragged the man down into the grass and sliced his throat. Cal Scour died quickly and silently.

After he had wiped the knife on Scour's shirt sleeve, he took his Colt and fired a shot into the grass in the direction of the others. Then he ran off noiselessly. He tossed the Colt under a boulder and continued on ahead of the other two.

Brinks and Doors reached Scour's body within twenty seconds of the shot having been fired, and blood still flowed from the fresh wound.

"Frank, this feller is slick. One of us has to watch the back, and the other the front." Brinks whispered. Doors nodded and they stood. Brinks walked forward, breaking trail while Doors walked backward, watching behind. Neither of them knew that their adversary was already gone.

After two tense hours, the outlaws broke out of the tall grass and into the clearing that contained Bridger's home. They could not see the building because it was so well hidden in the wall of the mountain, but they saw the lake. Thirsty from their trek, they both headed for the sandy banks and the clear waters. There was only one tree on the shore of the lake, and they stopped in its shade. While Brinks knelt to drink, Doors kept watch. But he never saw the arrow.

Suddenly Brinks fell in the water, splashing a moment before clambering ashore. Where he had fallen, the water was stained red from blood. Looking down, he saw the broken shaft of an arrow poking from his thigh, and already he could feel the poison it carried flowing through his veins.

"The damned sonofa bitch shot me Frank!" he yelled, more scared than angry. Doors crept over from where he had taken cover behind a rock and examined the wound. It was clean, and had the arrow not been poisoned, Brinks would have had nothing but soreness to worry about. But looking at the way the blood was already clotting, he knew his companion was done for. Brinks saw the look in Doors' eyes and realized that he was dying. A wave of panic flashed through him, as he contemplated the thought of death. Then he resolved that he would at least get a shot at the man who was slowly killing him before he cashed in.

"Help me up, Frank."

William saw Brinks stand back up and the two outlaws begin to head his way. Carefully he worked his way up the side of the cliff until he was nearly one hundred feet up. From his vantage point he watched the two men start searching for his tracks, but he had a secret weapon. Pulling a series of stones from the hillside, he stomped on a pocket of shale and watched it cascade down into the valley. With a look of horror in his eyes, Brinks was overtaken in the landslide, smashed to oblivion by boulders. Frank Doors managed to escape, but he could now see William Bridger standing on the cliff face above him. Falling down behind a rock, he took aim with his pistol and fired.

William heard the shot ricochet off the granite wall about five feet away. Knowing that his prey was too far away to shoot a pistol with any accuracy, William picked his way down the mountain as lead tore the air around him. Finally he disappeared in the rubble of the landslide, and Doors lost his target.

Inside his house, William hung the bow on a root that poked out of the wall and retrieved his old rifle. It was the last gift he had ever received from his father. Taking up his possibles bag, the old man walked back out into the valley.

Frank Doors stayed behind his bush for several minutes before ducking back out into the grass. His heart was racing an he only had three shots left in his Colt. All the ammo on his belt had been used as he tried to shoot Bridger off of the mountain. Realizing his only chance of survival was to flee, he began running through the grass.

When he got back to the camp, Doors took a glance at Moe Phillips laying there. A thought entered his head and he holstered his gun and began rummaging through the dead man's pockets to see if he had anything valuable. Taking the only piece of gold Phillips had, Doors stood and headed for the pass in the wall. He hadn't taken three steps when a rifle barked and he was thrown to the ground. The bullet had hit his side, and the last thing he ever saw was William Bridger standing in a cloud of smoke, holding an old flintlock rifle.

As the smoke cleared, William lowered his rifle. The only thing that never changed about mankind, whatever their race, was the lust for money. This was one of the reasons for his isolation, he reflected. Leaning over, he picked up the note he had left on Phillips' body. The one that only Cal Scour had read. He had paid for his not sharing. Reading it himself one last time, Bridger tossed the rawhide in the stream and watched as the charcoal words washed away.

"I do not appreciate being cursed. Leave now or I will kill you all."

In the distance he heard a low humming, growing louder as it grew closer. Taking cover in the grass, one of the last mountain men watched a biplane fly overhead.

Several days later, a mule bearing a chest of gold wandered into an army fort. In the Chest was a rawhide square with the words "Lost Payroll. Returned by W.B." written in charcoal. Nobody would ever find the bodies of Del Brinks, Moe Phillips, Frank Doors or Cal Scour. There never would be an explanation of where a secluded band Flathead found one thousand dollars of freshly minted gold, either. Nor would anyone ever know of the hidden rock house in Deer Canyon, or the quiet old man who lived there. But one thing was certain: Deer Canyon would be silent for a long time to come.

The End

R. E. Jackson has been writing short stories since seventh grade, when he read a collection of stories from Louis L'Amour. Since then, Jackson has written many short stories, and is working on his first novel. Jackson is currently preparing to attend Montana State University, where he will study agribusiness.

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A Bad Draw of the Cards
by J. R. Lindermuth

The outlaw was busy currying his horse when Abel Kane entered the stable.

Rowdy Joe McKibben glanced at him, but didn't hesitate in his task. "Figured you'd be along sooner or later, Sheriff. They tell you where to find me?"

"Jacobs did."

Rowdy Joe nodded his head. "Never should have teamed up with those fool amateurs."

"I have a warrant for your arrest, Joe," Kane said, his pistol pointed at the outlaw. "Don't go doin' anything foolish like going for your gun."

"No use to it. I ain't had no luck since comin' to Texas."

Despite all the stories he'd heard, Kane didn't see anything fearful about the outlaw. McKibben was a scrawny little man with dark hair and beard, gimlet eyes and a sallow complexion. His shirt was faded from many washings, his trousers were torn at one knee and his boots appeared so old and worn Kane expected it might not be many more days until his toes were exposed through the leather. All evidence his career hadn't been profitable lately.

Kane had given the liveryman money and told him to go up the street to the saloon and have a drink. It was a precaution he took to assure the safety of an innocent bystander. The warm air in the stable was thick with the mingled odor of horses, warm straw bedding and manure. Dust motes floated in the streams of light that entered through cracks in the rough wood walls of the barn.

Kane grinned. "What happened to you, Joe? You had a reputation back in Arkansas. How'd you end up with that bunch of fools anyway?"

McKibben shrugged. "Good men seem to be in short supply around here. One of 'em recognized me when I was in a saloon havin' a drink. They begged me to take them on, teach 'em the outlaw trade. I figured, what the hell. Nothin' to lose. All they had to do was follow my orders." He snorted what might have passed for a laugh. "Guess you heard about our first attempt to rob a train over in San Saba County?"

"That was you? Every lawman in the state had a laugh over that fiasco."

The outlaw hung his head. "Don't rub it in. I had drummed my plan into their fool heads and they assured me we could pull it off. What happens? We come up to the express car just as a conductor opened the door. He yells 'What do you riff-raff want here?' And they all took off like scared rabbits."

"What did you do?"

Rowdy Joe shrugged again. "What could I do? I had no idea how many guns were on that train. I had no choice but to go runnin' off, too."

Kane gestured with his pistol. "Let's go outside. Light ain't so good in here and I don't like you bein' so close to your mount."

The sheriff followed his prisoner out the door, both of them blinking in the glare of the bright sun. A few horsemen and wagons passed on the street, their presence raising no more than an occasional curious glance.

"I set up another train job," Rowdy Joe continued, "but they failed me again. They begged me for one last chance. Like the fool I am, I gave in to their pleading. Another disaster."

"The train you waylaid outside of my town?"

"The very one. There was a safe on the train, just like I'd been told. We used too much dynamite. Blew the car all to hell. Safe stayed intact. We'd blown all the dynamite. No way to open the danged thing. 'Okay, boys,' I sez. 'We can still rob the passengers.' We got ourselves a couple hundred dollars, some whiskey and even a nice picnic lunch some woman was carryin'. Would have got away with it, too. Except that fool Jacobs let his mask slip and some people on the train recognized him. Reckon you rounded all those boys up?"

"Yes, I did."

The outlaw shook his head. "Lady Luck sure dealt me a bad draw of the cards when I come out here."

"And now I've got you, too," Kane told him. Readying his shackles, he noticed Rowdy Joe's hand inching closer to his holstered gun. He wasn't sure how fast on the draw the outlaw might be, but he didn't want to take any chances. After all, the man did have a reputation in the past. "Why don't you unbuckle your gun belt now, Joe, and drop it to the ground. I'd rather take you in alive then draped over your horse's back."

Joe grinned. "You pretty fast, Sheriff?"

"Fast enough. Besides, my gun's already drawn."

Rowdy Joe shifted around so the sun was at his back and in the sheriff's eyes.

Kane blinked and shielded his eyes with his other hand. "Move back where you were, damn you. No tricks now, Joe."

The words were barely out of the sheriff's mouth when Joe drew his pistol and snapped off a shot. Realizing he'd missed, he muttered, "Ain't got no luck at all." He took off running.

Rowdy Joe had made it only a few paces when Kane's shot took him down. Squealing in pain, the outlaw yelled, "Don't shoot again. I'm bad hit."

Kane stood over him, pistol still in hand. He kicked Joe's weapon out of reach and knelt beside him to examine the wound. "Not that bad. You'll live to make it back to town and stand trial. I warned you not to try any tricks." He secured the shackles on McKibben's wrists.

"No luck. No luck at all," the outlaw said.

The End

J. R. Lindermuth lives and writes in a house built by a man who rode with Buffalo Bill. A retired newspaper editor, he is the author of 14 novels, including five in his Sticks Hetrick mystery series. His most recent Western novel is The Tithing Herd. His stories and articles have appeared in a variety of magazines.

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