One Night in Calico
by Tom Sheehan
Tudor Yarborough III rode into Calico as the first light snapped on in the saloon sitting directly ahead of him. He was as thirsty as he'd ever been and a ponderous sense of dryness came over him. Perhaps a bath at the hotel would do him well. It had been a while since he and his horse had forded the river just below Chico Corners, downriver a dozen miles and escaping the posse for the third day. And none of the posse knew they were on a fruitless mission.
His horse had fought a difficulty in the river, and Yarborough's rifle and lariat were gone, but he had his revolver, a small sum of money in a money belt, and his saddle bag with his earthly remains, which he had tied securely to the saddle. The list of contents of the saddle bag ran through his mind amid his wondering why he'd kept some things and let others go, tossing them away or burning them in several campfires. In a tin that held off water were two pictures of his parents and kid brother and sister, along with the sheriff's badge his father had worn at Willow Bend and a copy of the wanted poster that erroneously claimed he had killed the stage driver and two passengers outside Fremont, Nebraska. There was an extra shirt in the bag and a pair of socks.
The sketch on the poster was a good likeness he knew could be attributed to an old friend and artist, Shannah O'Toole. Shannah had drawn several pictures of him in pencil when they were locked in a quick romance, summarily broken when he was denounced as a killer by an opponent of his father in a previous election, sour grapes of the worst kind.
The sour grapes fact had eluded Shannah, too, as it had a great many people in Willow Bend. She was shamed in her own family and it left Yarborough as cold as a January morning, even as he wondered if he was really as good looking as she made him out to be.
He knew who must be leading the posse on his trail. None other than loathsome Orville McClernon, reptilian backstabber, as yet unproven bushwhacker, but successor to Tudor Yarborough II as sheriff of Willow Bend.
As he settled his horse into the Calico Livery and saw that it was rubbed down and taken care of, Yarborough thought of a bath for his own good and headed for the hotel, a small addition atop the Prince of Wales Saloon, more lights now lit up in the saloon.
He felt the side-tracking influence of a stiff drink and a beer slide into his appreciation; it had an overwhelming acceptance.
Yarborough heard the music and the laughter and the slow drone of talk from the other side of the Prince of Wales Saloon door,
and felt a momentary sense of comfort and security. There'd be the smells of stale beer and floor sawdust, an odor of a hard
liquor to whip the nose into hearkening, a burnt steak's scent floating on the air from a late meal as it kept hanging out in a
corner, each one of the hard scents like an old welcoming committee. Incense or bouquet didn't matter to him because he'd be
safe there for at least a night, the posse way off his trail by now . . . he'd seen to that with several moves and ruses learned from his father who had learned them from the many wily outlaws he'd chased to bay over his long career with the badge.
"Never refuse a lesson that can help you later on," his father said on returning from several pursuits of outlaws.
"Let me tell you what Dirty Jack did this time," and he'd roar with laughter as honest as a sharp ax and then he'd illustrate a maneuver or ruse Dirty Jack had used. Some of the tricks were novel and intricate. His favorite one from Dirty Jack was to carry a pair of wooden horseshoes in his saddle bag and lead the posse, by hiding his horse someplace and wearing the wooden shoes himself, right to the edge of a cliff beside a river, and try to confuse the posse that him and his horse went right over the edge. "Sometimes it was enough to get them off his trail for a short spell." He'd snicker and laugh and add, "Perhaps it also gave Dirty Jack a laugh or two and made his flight a bit easier to take."
The taste of good liquor and the sound of the music drew Yarborough into the Prince of Wales Saloon, and into the bright lights for the first time in a pell-mell rush of hidden trails, deep mountain passes, constant pushing by the posse riders, scattered fears and warnings, and a dream of escape at every turn.
With his revolver near weightless on one hip, worn for an easy and quick draw, eyes trying to see every face in the room without alerting too many curious patrons about a new customer, he advanced toward an open space at the far end of the bar.
One of the ladies of the saloon smiled at him, and the bartender, a happy looking gent named Jake Thursday, smiled at the lady and Yarborough in turn, and poured a beer, as the lady started to move closer to Yarborough. Her smile had not lessened at all.
Yarborough thought about Shannah's pencil sketch and wondered if the lady recognized him, liked his looks, or was just quick to get down to business. He decided he'd savor a drink before anything else.
That decision sat in his mind as he reached for the beer the bartender shoved his way, and the bartender said, with great surprise to Yarborough, "I think the poster sketch looks just like you."
Surprised and alarmed, Yarborough almost drew his gun, but the bartender said, "Easy now. My name's Jake Thursday, and they were in here today, ahead of you. I've known that rat McClernon for a few years and when he showed me the sketch and gave me the story, I saw the other side of it, him bein' the barn rat he is. I go back a long way with him, even before he got to Willow Bend. He ain't changed none that I can see, so I'm on your side. You best find a place to hide for the night because some others were in here today and saw the poster. McClernon only had one and wanted to hold onto it and wouldn't hang it up. I'd guess you're some lucky on that account 'cause we got some folks here with mouths like clothes on the line on a windy day."
Thursday looked around and said, "She's your best bet and is a square shooter," as he nodded at the girl still looking at Yarborough. "Her name's Coralee, which ain't her real name but a make-up name, but she's a good lady and dependable. She owns the place since her father was killed about a year ago in a crazy shoot-out between two stupid punk gunmen couldn't handle the drink. She almost got killed too, standin' in the middle of it screamin' at them two crazy kids."
Thursday high-signed Coralee, and when she came to the end of the bar, he said, "Coralee, this is Tudor Yarborough and he's a good guy runnin' ahead of a bad lawman, that noisy sheriff who was in here this mornin'. I know you got up a heavy dislike for him in a hurry 'cause of the way he handled the cook and makin' all kinds of demands when you was upstairs. Tudor here needs some quick hidin' in case the sheriff comes back, which is likely what he'll do if he runs out of signs out there. They always come back if only to wet out the dryness. They got a sketch of him on a poster, but didn't hang it up. Tudor's father was the sheriff over there in Willow Bend one time, a good man."
Coralee said, "Did that animal show that poster around? I didn't see much of him except how he acted like he was the king of the hill."
Thursday said, "He showed it to a few people in here then, but I can't remember who saw it, who was here then. This gent needs a spot to duck into for a spell. Believe me, that guy chasing him is a poor excuse for wearing a badge."
Coralee smiled at both of them, looked around the room, and said to Yarborough, "Go into the kitchen and wait for me. Be kind to the cook. She's a good lady."
She spun on her heel and headed for the other end of the room, every eye looking at her as she walked, her movements sliding over her chassis the way a reflection moves on a pond in a gentle breeze.
Yarborough, watching her like he was seeing the sunrise come up after a bad sleep, marveled at the sensation touching him.
Coralee's room, on the second floor front, looked down on Calico and the river in the distance where it caught a few stars on wet brush along one side of the river. Yarborough thought the stars looked like lamps lighting up another street in the town, a comforting image. Also coming on him was the long day of running ahead of the law as it claimed him. He closed his eyes as he sat on the edge of the bed, thinking to relax only for a few minutes and, with the exhaustion at work, slowly leaned over and fell asleep on the one bed in the room.
Some sound other than voices woke him. He didn't know what sound it was, and then he heard voices, the first one being Coralee's just outside the door. "I suppose you want to check my room, too, Sheriff. I'm only the owner here. I don't work here, but if you want to see my room, I'll let you in. Don't even breathe in there. Take your quick look and get out of my place. I don't like your attitude or your lack of manners toward proper ladies."
Yarborough was upright in a flash, but made no sound. He had his revolver in hand, his eyes looking out the corner window, guessing the distance to the livery and his horse, and understood Coralee's making a stand in her own place of business. He wondered if she'd turn him over to the sheriff and be done with him and thought she wouldn't.
But he waited for the latch to noisily climb free of its roost and the sheriff enter the room and arrest him.
"Now, now, Coralee," the sheriff said, "don't go jumping too fast. I'm not as bad as you think I am. I'm just an old cowhand trying to do a tough job, and this time I'm chasing down a killer. It's simple. It's him and me and the dead person, the one he shot from behind a rock, just a plain old bushwhacker, that's all he is. That's all that counts. I don't want to look in your room. I trust you. You have too much sitting in your saddle to risk losing it all by going against the law, against the badge I'm wearing." The threat in his tone was easily noticeable. As a further degradation of his elusive prey, he said, "That's just the way someone killed his own father too, so you never know how things go, do you? What makes people spin the cylinder the way they do." He placed one hand over his side arm that showed a bone-white handle.
The sound of several pairs of boots came from the hallway, and the descending movement on stairs made a new sound followed by a heavy silence. Yarborough let out a breath he must have held in his lungs for the whole time of the outside discussion. He went back to bed and rolled over easily in the bed, though sleep did not ensue.
He lay awake for a few hours, not daring to move about too much, all the while searching in his mind for answers, reasons, the immediate past and the immediate future. He had not heard from Coralee after the sheriff and his men departed. They may have gone out of town, he figured, or were put up somewhere local; but he was sure they were not in the hotel.
The latch was lifted on the door and Yarborough stiffened in the bed, gun in hand.
The door swung open with a slight creak, and the essence of a perfume entered the room. It carried the aura of Coralee.
Yarborough said, "Did he bother you, Coralee? Are you all right? I heard you last night putting him off by saying it was okay to look in your room. You must have been pretty sure of the outcome." He hoped he had correctly interpreted her action.
"Oh, I'm fine," she said. "I knew what I was doing. I've been a gambler before, and I had the good odds." With a sincere smile she said, "Did you get some sleep?" then quickly added, "They're down at the livery, in the loft. The sheriff and five other men. I think they're leaving after breakfast."
"I'm afraid they'll recognize my horse down there. I should have known better than to leave him there."
Coralee replied, with some consideration and care in her voice, "Jake took care of that. Your horse is with a friend and your saddle is in the leather shop, supposedly getting fixed." She smiled a wide smile.
"Why'd you treat me like this? I don't even know you."
Coralee replied, softness revealed in her voice as shallow as a whisper, "I don't like those who pretend when they're wearing a badge. Our own sheriff is a loser too, just like the one chasing you. And Jake Thursday is like an uncle to me, and he tells the truth every time out of the stable. He never lies, unless it's for me."
She looked down from a corner window onto the dark street. "Nothing's moving out there. They're probably sleeping good, getting rid of the long chase you've lead them on for the past few days."
He said, "Please take your bed back, Coralee. I'll sleep in the hall or down in the kitchen."
"No," Coralee replied, "I've been sleeping in another room and a couple of the ladies have doubled up. I'm the boss, you know. You lock the door, go back to sleep, and I'll wake you up when they've gone, but don't come out until I tell you, or Jake does."
She gave him a look that melted him, and for a few more hours he saw it again and again, that look, the look only angels can share.
The knock was light as an echo in the back end of a cave, and Yarborough was not sure he heard the knock, but he felt he had been summoned from a tossing sleep.
At the door he whispered, "Who is it?"
"Jake Thursday, Tudor. I think they headed out of town, goin' east. They might be back if they don't pick up any sign of you. I've got your horse out back of the kitchen. You can grab some grub on the way. Best to move it and keep Coralee out of trouble with that McClernon. I think she's got a soft place for you."
Saddling up, putting a bag of grub in his saddle bag, Yarborough headed out of town, also heading east. Now, for a change, he'd track them. A small pleasure engulfed him.
Toward late afternoon, the sun touching most surfaces, no clouds evident to the whole horizon, he finally spotted the posse at a cross-trail water and grub stop that he was very familiar with, and knew the owner. The posse had looped across a few valleys, crisscrossing their own trails a few times, which had raised Yarborough's curiosity.
He'd been to this site several times with his father in years past and remembered fondly the old man who ran the place, Homer Iacobellis, and how difficult it was to first say his name carved on a piece of board.
The old man made it easy on him the first visit. "Just call me Yaco 'cause it's easier to say," he'd said, putting an end to the problem of saying correctly and with respect an old man's name. Yarborough wondered how many times the old gent had gone through the same routine.
Almost aloud, he said, "I wonder if the old one is still around," remembering how he was physically bent over back then, when the old man confirmed had his condition by saying, "I'm closer to the ground now, and getting closer, so it won't hurt too much when I go down."
Yarborough was high on a crag looking down at the posse's horses tied up at a rail and none of the riders in sight. He pictured them at a decent meal and started to munch on the grub Coralee's cook had prepared for him, all the time keeping his eye on the cross-trail stop.
And then, in one sweep of his vision, he saw the reflections, saw them a few times, coming from the same spot at the edge of the small building, tossing off blips of sunlight, and suspected one member of the posse was watching the trail behind them with binoculars, his field of vision sweeping back and forth, and the movements of the spy glass or binoculars catching old sol.
McClernon, it was plain to Yarborough, was expecting him. He had known his father, what he had been like in dire straits and circumstances, and what the son was most likely to do in certain situations.
He'd also count on McClernon's reactions.
The voice of his father came back, re-affirming an off-hand study; "Never forget a lesson that can help you later on." He meant, "You have to use all your skills to catch some bad dude who might be just as smart as you."
McClernon, he figured, was aware of a lot of lessons and was likely clued in to a few others he'd come across. This one might be, "Lure a desperado into your clutches by making him follow you right to the hoosegow."
Yarborough weighed that possibility with deep concern and spent time on a new routine. But he kept thinking about McClernon leaving a wide trail a tenderfoot might follow with ease. Going back over the trail, he recalled the broken twigs, the snapped branches, the deep hoof prints in especially open places, a fire that had been warm to his touch well after a water stop. "Why didn't he leave his name on a hunk of wood and plant it on the trail?" Then, as though brightness slammed into him, he asked, "Why the hell didn't I see it all earlier, him playing with me? I wonder if he suspects Coralee of having any part in it. That's the last thing I want to happen."
A deeper and more malicious thought came to him that McClernon was setting her up for a gigantic fall right into the sheriff's grasp. And he was playing a part in it; what would his father say to this situation?
He kept thinking about Coralee and how she had shaken him up on more than one occasion, his life probably in her hands more often than not during the night at Calico. She didn't deserve any pain from him.
He'd remember that forever, he was sure. Just as he would remember Shannah in their short time together and her quick exit in the face of family embarrassment and ridicule. He was excessively lucky to balance that fact against Coralee's stance with McClernon, and knew the scale was heavily in Coralee's favor . . . and thus his.
What further came to him was the possibility he might know some members of the posse. The few times he had them in his view he could not identify any of them. He was looking for that break. It might give him an edge.
Yarborough made a decision on that assumption, that some of them were good acquaintances from his early days in Willow Bend. His friends had always been bouncy, young enough for any adventure, instant volunteers for a posse or a search for a lost soul. They were good kids, young, in love with every new girl, part explosion in their own right.
There was a time, he recalled with clear vision, that his father had great influence on all his close friends; the old man showed them endlessly the difference not just between right and wrong, but winning or losing in the battle for justice and temperance of emotions; "You lose your head and you're dead before your head hits the ground. A quick trigger means a quicker death, yours or his. A wasted bullet can save your life, or someone you love, and only minutes later. These options come as quick as you can deliver bullets. Options are quicker than bullets. Make the difference on your own ground."
The wise sheriff's son slipped down toward the cross-trail stop, making sure the eye glass user would not spot him, found a secure hiding spot, much closer, where he could see some of the men, try to identify them; help could be used no matter where it came from, no matter what side of the badge.
When the posse members came out of the small building, Yarborough was unable to identify anyone though a few seemed somewhat familiar. He decided to wait out their departure and check the proprietor of the place and try to get some answers that way.
The posse rode east again, and disappeared beyond a bald-faced cliff the sun was hitting. They re-appeared later still further down the prairie after coming up out of a dip in the prairie. Then were gone from sight again.
He rode up to the cross-trail stop and old man Iacobellis, still leaning, still hanging on, came out and dumped a small bunch of garbage in a sump hole, two birds overhead swooping low when he turned to leave. Yarborough yelled out, "Yaco, this is an old friend, Tudor Yarborough's son, Tudor III. 'Member me?" He waved his hand as he neared the old man.
"Yah, Yaco remember you and your papa. Bless his name. Bless his journey." Then said, "The men just go out look again for you. I hear them talk. That big man, the sheriff, 'ha la bocca grande bugiardo,' he big mouth liar. He say wrong thing about your papa."
"I know he is, Yaco. He blames me for killing someone I did not kill, i swear to the Almighty."
"You don't have to swear for Yaco. Yaco know. Yaco know for long time you and good papa are good men, good friends." He blessed all memories with his hand making a cross in the air, his eyes closed, an unknown image seen or brought to mind.
"Did you hear any of the names of the men riding with him?"
"Two names I hear.One, Corsica like island, and one, O'Hara, young man have red hair like fire under hat. Corsica swear in old
tongue and tell me he hate big mouth liar. He say he only ride because big mouth liar say he will put friend in jail and beat
him, beat his woman. Maybe worse." Then the old man muttered it several times, all in his old language: "Metterà amico in carcere e picchiato picchiato la sua donna. Forse peggio."
Yarborough didn't understand a word of it, but somehow knew what the muttering was all about. He had liked Yako in the past and was fond of him all the more; it was understanding a good man that made it so.
Now, he assented with surety, that Angelo Corsica, the curser, was a good friend from the old days, the younger days, but no more so than Rod O'Hara, who slept in the loft of the barn with him many times, telling stories, of their favorite horses, best hunting adventure, where they'd go if they ever got the chance, what girls smiled at who at the general store or around town at picnics or dances. Even in church.
Both of them, with a chance for an escape from McClernon's clutches, would take a chance to do so and in his favor. He'd have to count on them right from the start. It made him wonder about friendship, how deep it could go, how it made deeper friendships or let them be. Shannah had been locked in by his looks and had sketched him. Then she had departed at the first sign of trouble. He saw distinctions, differences because Coralee on the other hand hung in tight when it really counted. "Now," he said with coniction, "there's a girl of interest." He could count on her if hell wass rushing at them.
Advice from Yarborough's father surged back into attention: "The less foes you face might give you an edge in comrades. Change the numbers whenever you can. Spoil their ammunition. Run off their water. Reduce their cover. But don't ever steal their women. It will never pay you back for your troubles."
It was left-over campaign maneuvers the old sheriff had used in years of outlaw pursuits, endless face-offs at the finish of a long journey, the back trail littered with errors and illuminations about the minds of men.
His predicament made him decide in that instant that he'd best use his friends to try to dilute McClernon's forces, reduce the odds. O'Hara, it came evident, would be the one to take a chance with on the first try. The redhead was a good man, reliable in a fight.
He said to his horse as if it was a listener, "It's time to put it all those lessons to work, horse, and get on with all of this."
He bid adios to Yaco and headed back up to his previous lookout, hoping the posse would come back.
They appeared later, on the horizon, trail dust making the announcement, and slowly rode back in to Yaco's place. About to search for best ways to approach the cabin while they were there, Yarborough saw two of the posse take saddles off their horses and get them ready for the night. The posse, he realized, was going to spend the night again at Yaco's place.
A plan slipped into his mind. Rummaging in his saddle bag, he pulled out the tin container with the pictures and badge and wanted poster in it, checked the shiny surface and decided it was still shiny enough to reflect morning sunlight. He wrapped the contents in his extra shirt and put them back in his saddle bag. The shiny tin he set on a clear surface of rock where the sun would catch it sometime in the morniing.
He pictured the resultant scene in the morning. With the scene locked into his mind, he found a decent spot to sleep, prepared it, saw to his horse's needs, and went to sleep.
Well before dawn he was downhill in a good surveying position. A lamp glow appeared at one window and was followed minutes later with smell of a new fire filtering in the air. Morning rounds were being done, and coffee aroma soon came after the fire's smoke. Other flavors came on the air, like bacon and burnt bread.
All five riders used the outhouse in a matter of 10 or 15 minutes, and he easily recognized old friends Angelo Corsica and Rod O'Hara, then McClernon. He did not know the others, and Yaco did not come out of the cabin.
While the sun was coming up and touching surfaces with its warmth, the posse members saddled their horses. They were in the middle of mounting when McClernon himself pointed up at the rocky ledge where Yarborough had left the shiny tin.
"Do you see that reflection up there, boys? That's him, that's Yarborough. I'll bet on it. Got him right where we want him." He chortled and made sounds in his throat, and said, "Now we got him. Followed like I knew he would, and he's up there and there's only two ways down. So we got him. You three go that way, up the south trail and me and Gabbler'll go up the other trail. We'll have him in a couple of hours. Don't let him slip into a cave on you, and you better shoot at first sight. Knock him down. Get him under cover where we can smoke him out one way or another."
There was a fair amount of glee in his voice that Yarborough, closer than he had been in a long time, heard clearly. And measured.
The posse took off in two directions and Yarborough, after making sure they were out of sight, slipped into the cabin. Yaco was in his cot, his head bloody but unbandaged. "Big mouth hit me when I was going out. Said I had to stay here. Hit me hard. That Gabber one he killed your father. I heard him and big mouth talk. Say they get you and it done." He rubbed his hand in the old gesture.
Yarborough said, "I'll write that down on the back of this piece of the poster and you sign your name to it. Is that okay with you?"
Yaco said, "I sign it I-a-c-o-b-e-l-l-i-s like real way. Yes, I will sign."
Up on the ledge where the tin container had lost some of its shine, it sat on the rock clearly visible to Angelo Corsica, Rod O'Hara and another rider. The two old friends had worried they'd be the ones to find Yarborough, but what they found was a note on the back of half of Yarborough's wanted poster that said:
"To whoever finds this note, the killers of my father, Tudor Yarborough II, Sheriff, and a siddekick named Gabbler are part of the posse that has been chasing me. I will get them before it's over. This is signed by me, in my hand, knowing that the end depends on who finds this note. Signed, Tudor Yarborough III."
O'Hara, in a second, said, "We're getting out of here. I never wanted to find Tudor on this search. I don't believe he killed anyone and the sheriff and his sidekick are in on it. I'm going. You with me, Angelo?"
"Yes, I am, and Harry here's going with us whether he likes it or not." He whipped the gun from the other man's holster and said, "Excuse me, Harry, but just in case."
They went down the mountain, leaving the note in place.
McClernon, finding the note as he came up the other trail, rushed with his sidekick to get down off the mountain, knowing that Yarborough was now down below them and not on the mountain at all.
They found Yarborough, of course, waiting for him. He was standing in front of Yaco Iacobellis's cabin, three riders behind him, each of whom had read Yaco's signed note.
"I know you killed my father, Gabbler, and McClernon sicced you on him and now holds that over you, so you best do one of two things right now, draw on me or draw on the rat who's got a hold on you."
McClernon couldn't wait, feeling the noose coming closer. He drew and shot Gabbler in the back, grabbed him as a shield, and faced Yarborough straight on. He didn't get off a shot, as O'Hara, at a better angle than Yarborough, dropped him with one shot. Gabbler and McClernon fell as one body, lay on the ground as one body, and Yaco Iacobellis knew good old justice had come this far west.
And Tudor Yarborough was sure to give thanks to Coralee back in Calico where he had already spent one long night and hoped for more.
Sheehan's published 28 books, multiple work in Rosebud, Linnet's Wings, Serving House Journal, Literally Stories,
Copperfield Review, Literary Orphans, Indiana Voices Journal, Frontier Tales, Western Online Magazine, Faith-Hope
and Fiction, Provo Canyon Review, Eastlit, Rope & Wire Magazine, The Literary Yard, Green Silk Journal, Fiction on
the Web, The Path, etc. Has 31 Pushcart nominations, 5 Best of the Net nominations (one winner). Recent publications -
Swan River Daisy by KY Stories, The Cowboys by Pocol Press, and Jehrico by Danse Macabre. Back Home in Saugus is
being considered, as is Elements & Accessories, Small Victories for the Soul and Valor's Commission. He's 2016
Writer-in-Residence at Danse Macabre in Las Vegas.
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Back to Home
by Robert Gilbert
I footed the stirrup to my bay after receiving the news from Johnny Myers. Meyers was a good friend of Sam and Ruth Kiles', and had ridden fast to Cheyenne River after surveying property four miles east of town for the land company. Johnny had intended to stop for water at the Kile spread, heard Ruth screaming for help, and he brought word to me.
"Sam Kile's shot bad, Marshal," Johnny said, out of breath, standing in front of me. "May be dead by now."
I left Deputy Creel Troyer to watch the town.
Set to leave, I approached Nadine Truce, their close friend, to ask her to accompany me. She was the Sunday school teacher who had known the Kile family since their son Mark was a youngun'.
It didn't take us long to arrive at the Kile spread. I usually take the Simer Rock shortcut, through Nasse's Pass, a hilly single path, easily accessible by horseback. Nadine drove her buckboard so we took the main road, a long stretch of flatland across the high plains territory.
Arriving at their spread I dismounted. Nadine pulled the reins and stepped to the ground. With heart-rendering sobs, Ruth and Nadine embraced for comfort and sympathy.
I was standing nearby, bending down to look at the remains of Sam in front of the house. I had hard questions to ask. Ruth could barely speak and needed help walking as all three of us made our way to the porch. The ladies sat on the swing and it gently rocked back and forth. Ruth mentioned that where I stood was the same location where Sam had been leaning against the porch pillar, before the riders approached.
"Thanks be to Johnny Meyers," Ruth said. Tears were filling her eyes and choking her voice. Deep sobs racked her insides. Her cheeks were red and she was doing her best to find strength enough to talk to me.
Nadine couldn't hold back her emotions. She wept aloud, rocking back and forth.
"Don't know if I could have been able to ride to town for help," Ruth said. "Just happened all of a sudden. They come on horseback, shot Sam for no reason, and took off ridin' in the direction of Comanche Ridge." She raised her hand to point at the path they'd taken then dropped her arm in her lap.
Nadine swallowed hard and bit back additional tears.
"Who were they, Ruth?" I said. "What was the squabble all about? I can't form a posse in Cheyenne River without some help with names."
Ruth buried her face in cupped hands. The stress of recollection caused her to continuously moan. Endless sobs punctuated the storytelling.
"Three of 'em, Marshal," she said. "Three gunman that I ain't never seen before."
In my mind came a flash of memory.
"Rough-lookin' cowboys," she said. "Without the decency to talk things out before showin' their guns. The pistols were all pointed in the direction of Sam."
"Was Sam armed?" I asked.
"No way!" Ruth said. "Killed 'im in cold blood. They come on our property with no other intention than to talk tough. Argued at first, and then each man didn't hold back from empting his Colt into my husband."
"Were all three arguing with Sam?" I continued.
"Arguing only come from one fella," she said, lifting her head to look straight ahead. Slowly she began to look in my direction. "The big one in the middle. He used strong-talk with mean cuss words. Let it be known that he was in charge, and the other two just followed orders. Huge man in the saddle with only one reason to ride onto our property." Her red eyes were a teary blur.
"Names?" I said. "Did this big fella talk enough to say a name or where he was from?"
"Dwayne," she remembered. The widow shook her head in disbelief. She tried to swallow but the lump in her throat seemed to be ever present.
"What about the others?" I said. "Any other names or facial markings that stood out?"
"The only one talkin' said he was Dwayne Stewart. He was claiming that his brother, Merritt, was hanged for no reason. Three witnesses claimed it was Merritt who stole cattle. It was all mentioned at the trial. Sam was there to testify that the story was ever' bit true."
"Merritt Stewart?" I said. "That happened some time ago. Over in Dulce, bordering the Apache Nation. I received a telegram about that trail, knew the facts to be true and nothing more was said after they hanged Merritt."
"Dwayne Stewart heard different," Ruth said. "He come here to set it straight that Sam lied at the trial. Dwayne and them others showed up here for revenge against those three witnesses. He said all they'd testified was a lie. The law was out to get Merritt for a crime that he ain't to be blamed for."
"Sam didn't lie," I said in a matter-of-fact tone. "What I heard was rightly the truth. Merritt was hanged for a reason. Now I've gotta get wanted sheets printed and send 'em all around in the territory and up into Colorado. At least I have Dwayne Stewart's name. I'm sure that the other two are probably known by somebody. Let me spread the word and before long those responsible for this will have names.
"I want you to come into town with me," Nadine said to Ruth. "Stay there a while, even after Sam's burial. Mark and you need some time to get over this terrible wrong."
"I need descriptions of those other cowboys," I said.
"Mark had a better view of their faces," Ruth said. "When the riders were well off the property, Mark saddled up and gave chase. He went south toward Comanche Ridge. He should be back soon and give you better information on their faces. I was in shadow by the front door and them cowboys were well back into the yard."
I continued listening to Ruth's recollection of the event. I heard the sound of distant horses approaching the house and I turned from my position standing next to the pillar. I saw two riders on horseback, and in tow was a third person, belly down over the saddle. I stepped into the sunlight when the men brought the horses to a slow gait. My palm was against my black-face Colt, ready to react in case the horsemen from the same gang were returning to take care of unfinished business.
"Marshal Brothers!" the rider said. His voice was harsh and pronounced.
I immediately stepped away from the porch. Afternoon sunshine surrounded my huge frame, closer now to the lead rider.
"Warren," he said. "I was passing through the territory, asking for you. I was met by Chet Harris who hunts in this area. He said he saw you comin' in the direction of this homestead." The man had dismounted and his spurs jingled when he brought his horse forward. Shade shadowed his face beneath his Stetson but his gruff voice became recognizable.
"I'll be damned," I said in recognition. "Jack Rubley. What's a trusted ol' U.S. Marshal doin' in this territory?" My hand moved away from the Colt handle as I outstretched it and welcomed my Colorado friend. We knew each other like we were brothers.
Jack took my handshake. His grip was tight and firm. Releasing my hand, the marshal removed his worn crown hat and used his sleeve to wipe away the beads of forehead sweat. The sun baked against his bronzed skin and deep wrinkles that curved black lines across his face. He was muscular, inches taller than me, and his duster was charcoal mixed with layers of trail dust. Boots that were once shiny black had turned gray from desert debris. A tarnished badge poked out from beneath his coat on a shabby vest.
"I see you've been busy," I said, casting an approving glance at the strangers in back of Jack.
"Let me introduce Edward Horn," Jack said, making a small turn. "The man with his hands tied. I believe you and I have the same wanted sheet that says he escaped from Issaquena Prison. He got himself a stolen gun, swiped a horse and decided to hold up a Cimarron Stage. Killed the driver, too. He's been on the run for a good while, but he's not runnin' anymore."
"So this is Eddie Horn," I said. "Ain't he the meanest-lookin' crook you've ever seen in your life?" I stepped toward the prisoner to better my view. My hands rested on my hips as I squinted to get a closer look.
Horn's face was covered with a mass of bruises. Shades of deep black and blue mixed with dried blood and shiny sweat.
"Eddie don't talk too good anymore," Jack said, in a matter-of-fact introduction. "Sorta lost his smile with no teeth upfront. Kinda had this idea that after I shot his gun away, he was wantin' to be a real tough guy to apprehend. He come straight at me with a right fist, thinkin' it was his best to give. He didn't realize I was a bit quicker and bigger than him. He was met with my heavy hand and a deep kick of my boot. Mister Horn finally got the message as far as who he was dealing with."
Mark's buckskin was sandwiched in and hidden behind Jack's horse and the motionless outlaw. On its own, the buckskin gradually moved into the open. The remains of the boy were face down and didn't move. Although a distance from the yard, Ruth suddenly brought the swing to a halt. Nadine was beside her when both women stood and walked to the beginning of the porch. Screams filled the air and it was apparent that Ruth was uncontrollably shaken. She gazed at the horse, knowing its owner.
I held on to Ruth, her nerves shattered, and the reaction to her son echoed into the horizon.
"That's my son, Mark, isn't it?" she said. Her testimony was slow and the scorching heat and bloody sight played havoc with her emotions. Her crying and sobbing was never ending, as she was held by Nadine and me. She wanted to touch her son who lay dead across the hard leather.
"Ruth," I said in comfort. "Don't get closer. I'll take the responsibility of being in charge of your son."
"My husband first, and now Mark," she bellowed. "He was a fine boy, only seventeen, defending his pa and going after the men who come here for Sam. Damn nasty people that need to be caught and hanged." Ruth was hysterical and ready to faint. Her screams increased as Nadine let her shoulder be the comfort Ruth needed in her tears. Together the women walked toward the house.
"Jack," I said, hoping to piece the story together for my lawman friend. "There's some real wicked sonsa bitches out here. They have trouble getting along with other folks. I got my hands full with work back in Cheyenne River and maybe you might wanna help out in this situation?"
"I gotta prisoner here," Jack said. "We're headin' to Colorado. Then I could swing back and do what I can to help."
"Cheyenne River is closer," I said. "We'll leave Eddie Horn in my jail. My deputy is real friendly with a shotgun, especially if Mr. Outlaw decides to create some unexpected problems."
"All right," Jack said. "Sounds good to me."
"Shouldn't take us long to get back here," I said.
"The sooner the better," Ruth said. "Look around; these killers need to be caught."
"Nadine," I said. "Jack and I are gonna put Sam in the back of your buckboard. Ever'body is headin' to Cheyenne River. Ruth will be stayin' with you. Tell Paster Carlman to prepare the funeral."
No sooner had I finished my say when Jack and I lifted Sam into the buckboard. Then Jack and I mounted up and the ladies were seated up front in the open carriage. Nadine slapped the horses with a steep drop downward in front of us. It was the same road that Nadine and I took previously in the earlier part of the day to get here.
Jack and I headed the group to Cheyenne River with the buckboard behind us. Farther back was Eddie Horn, hands tied to the pommel. From the way he looked, I was sure Eddie had already taken a severe beating and didn't want another.
The ride back to town set its own pace, moderate compared to the run through Simer Rock, the shortcut by way of Nasse's Pass. Jack rode to my right, giving me time to explain the details.
"The man in the buckboard is Sam Kile," I said. "Where we were was their family spread. His wife, Ruth, is sitting next to Nadine, our Sunday school teacher. The boy across the saddle is their son, Mark. Ruth tells me that three riders came onto their property, maybe two hours ago, asking for Sam. They were after him 'cause he spoke the truth at Merritt Stewart's trial. That took place some time ago over in Dulce."
"I've been through that town," Jack said. "The territorial judge is Royce Hinke, a good friend who knows the law and is fair with the innocent. A real bastard to those who ain't."
"Sam was one of three witnesses at the trial," I said. "Merritt was found guilty and hanged. His brother, Dwayne, thought different. So him and two others rode this direction to Sam's spread, called him out to even the score. All three opened up with pointed guns and emptied their hot lead into Sam."
"What about the youngster?" Jack said.
"After they killed Sam, his boy, Mark, went after them and ended up shot."
"Found him about a half mile from the spread," Jack said. "Was towin' my prisoner and a distance away I heard shots. Got closer to where the noise was comin' from and the boy was on the ground. His horse wasn't that far away."
"Two are dead," I said. "Three are out there and I'm asking for your help to bring 'em in."
"You think they changed direction after killin' Mark?" Jack asked.
"My guess is they're goin' south, Marshal," Ruth said. She'd heard Jack's question and pointed. "In the direction you come from, probably upwards into Comanche Ridge. Sam's been up that way and it's fairly rugged land. Easy to get lost, he said. Steep countryside, and maybe with canyons to hide in. Not much flat land, like here."
"Traveled up that way myself," I said. "It's been some time ago but I agree with Ruth. If three are runnin' from the law, that's a damn good place to hide out. But sometime soon they'll be needin' supplies, moseyin' back to Cheyenne River."
"Anybody live up there?" Jack said, looking at me.
"Not that I recall. Maybe a mine shack. Nothin' fancy."
"Maybe somebody is up there," Jack said. "Coulda high-tailed it to Cheyenne River without being noticed."
"Won't know that," I said, "'till you and me ride up there."
We made our way into Cheyenne River. Silence prevailed except for the clopping of hooves through the center of town. People stopped and remained where they stood on the boardwalks. Those inside watched with their faces to the glass. What they saw was worth remembering, especially those who knew Sam and Mark.
Jack and I pulled up on the reins in front of my office. Nadine passed on by in the direction of the undertaker with Mark and his horse in tow.
We quickly dismounted and Jack tied Eddie Horn's horse to the hitching rail. He released the rope from the saddle horn and pulled the prisoner to the ground. Deputy Creel Troyer was on the boardwalk and I told him the short version of the Kile family story. He escorted the prisoner inside. We followed behind, listening to the sound of the heavy key ring turn and lock the jail cell.
"Fella back there is Eddie Horn," Jack said. He took a moment to introduce himself to Creel. "Tough guy, absolute sonava bitch, and he's mine now."
"Looks like he took a whuppin' real bad," Creel said. His face split into a wide grin.
"Evidence is right there," Jack said. His eyes stayed with Creel. "Tried to get away and I told 'im what would happen." They shared a smile.
"Take care o' the prisoner till we get back," I said. "Jack and I are headin' into Comanche Ridge. Huntin' for the three fellas that did in Sam and Mark."
"Any ideas ta who they were?" Creel replied.
"Dwayne Stewart," I said. "Don't know the other two. Probably related."
Jack nodded in agreement.
In short order we had our weapons loaded and were walking outside and securing additional ammunition in our saddlebags. Creel watched as we untied our horses from the hitch rail, footed the stirrups and swung over hard saddles.
"Tell Eddie to mind his business," Jack said. "If I hear any nasty news, I'll be back to do some damage to his face."
Our trip toward Comanche Ridge was in near the same direction as the Kile spread, well above the high plains with various rock formations, steep and treacherous. Upward we rode, with sunlight in our faces, the sky cloudless over the horizon. The ride gave us the opportunity to jaw back and forth, telling lawmen stories to pass the time. We had our equal share of stories but somehow I got the impression he thought mine were more interesting. I'll let Jack be the judge of who's the better storyteller.
Ahead of us the trail became single file and I took the lead. This part of Comanche Ridge was known as Questa Mesa, with rough terrain. I'd been in this part of the territory years back, but right now what looked to be familiar was altogether new. Off in the distance long afternoon shadows from the San Antonio Mountain range began to turn the lean trail into deeper shades of brown stone.
A little farther in the distance I could see a clearing. It seemed open but dangerous if Jack and I decided to hold up there. At that moment we were next to each other, conversing. A slight breeze came toward us and we could immediately smell campfire smoke. We quickly dismounted and took cover. Using sign language between us, Jack circled to the left and I aimed to the right. Huge boulders sat in front of us as protection, but as we circled around, what was there to find?
I was first in slowly coming around this side of the boulder into an abundant open space. It seemed a dangerous location and I was correct. Moving inches forward, I suddenly heard the sound of a rifle cocking and thereafter the explosion from the weapon. A whizzing bullet passed by in my direction. Likewise, Jack, on his side, suddenly became a target and again a rifle sound interrupted the silence, zinging in Jack's position.
"You see where they're comin' from?" I questioned Jack.
"I'm countin' two," Jack said. "You said there were three. Right?"
"Maybe so," I said, "but right now I'm in pursuit of Dwayne Stewart."
"Who else is with 'im?" Jack said.
Rifle shots at each marshal came again with fragments of rocks shattering around us.
"Dwayne?" I yelled in a loud tone. "Dwayne Stewart, is that you shootin'?"
"Dwayne," Jack voiced loudly. "You're surrounded. Give up peaceful."
"And tell your friends the same message," I said. "No use for all three of ya to get killed in this skirmish."
"No such deal," once voice spoke, followed by a single shot that clipped off another chip of stone.
I glanced at Jack who was able to edge forward a short distance. Somewhere above, he was in sight of another rifleman who fired twice and each round whizzed over the marshal's location. Jack ducked, with bits of boulder ricocheting off his body.
"You okay?" I said. My eyes shifted, trying to find Jack's location.
"There's one above me," Jack said. "Two in your direction."
I eased forward, spotted Jack's position, and moved closer.
A head raised above Jack, the shooter ready to fire. Jack took aim with his Winchester and squeezed the trigger. The bullet entered the man in the chest and he fell forward, tumbling over gray tips of scraped stone.
Immediately the other two defended their hiding spot, shooting from two new locations.
Jack had scrambled upward, caught sight of one and let off the next round. The gang member lifted up, staggered, and a limp body dropped from sight.
"Dwayne," I called out, "you ain't gettin' away."
He mumbled some cuss words and had his rifle pointed at me. I quickly responded with my Winchester before he had a chance to fire. My shot was centermost in his face. His head jerked back, splattering blood, and his lifeless body fell between the boulders.
The winding trail back through Questa Mesa was again over rough terrain. Evening was fast approaching and long shadows from the San Antonio Mountain range turned the trail into a blanket of darkness. Hues of sunset painted the sky a deep Indian red with streaks of Juarez yellow. The sunlight waned between the peaks of Comanche Ridge. The glow of sunshine finally disappeared and the wandering trail gradually faded into a never-ending path of ebony. Cheyenne River would be surrounded in darkness when we approached, except for the faint yellow glow of the dim, lighted kerosene lamps inside my office.
Robert Gilbert, author of Westerns, romance and children's stories, lives near Chicago. Hooked on
Westerns began when Gilbert lived in Hollywood, California as a entertainment writer. He spent
numerous occasions on the Western back lot of Warner Bros. movie studio, His action packed Western
heroes come to life on his computer and have been enjoyed worldwide.He has had several stories
published in Frontier Tales: "Too Much of a Kid" in December, 2014; "Pointed Gun" in March, 2016;
"Chase for Uber Mix" in April, 2016; "Run with the Outlaws" in December, 2016; "Squire Canyon" in
February, 2017; and "Harley Slater's Runaway" in April, 2017.
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The Redemption of Antonio Fuentes
by B. Craig Grafton
"Gringo you die! Gringo we kill you! Kill all of you!" These were the screams that came pouring over the walls and into the Alamo from somewhere out there in the blackness beyond. Screams that crept in and worked their way into the minds and souls of the men inside. Screams that chilled them to the bone even more than the cold dampness of the March night. "Die Gringo! Die!"
"Somebody's gotta do something about him," sputtered Washington Cottle. "This crap has been going on for the last half hour. One more time and I'm going out there and cut out his damn tongue."
"Don't let him get your goat Wash. He's drunk and probably will fall asleep soon," said Antonio Fuentes. Fuentes was one of the dozen local Tejanos who had cast their lot with the Anglos. A convicted thief he had been released from jail by Jim Bowie. And now he, Washington Cottle, and the other Alamo defenders endured the constant eerie taunts of this drunken Mexican soldier.
"Can you see him?" hollered Wash to the man standing watch on the wall.
"I can't tell where he is Wash," came the reply. "Out there straight ahead of me twenty, thirty, yards would be my guess. Hell he's drunker than a skunk. He'd have to be to come this close to harass us."
"Die Gringo! You die!" His hollerings were becoming more slurred but less often now. His broken English carried a heavy Spanish accent. "Die! Die! Die! We keel you. Keel all of you!"
Wash Cottle drew his big heavy Bowie knife from its sheath. He was a giant of a man. His brownish long unkempt mane and beard made him look like a lion. His eyes glazed over as he slashed his knife back and forth. "I'm going to shut him up once and for all," he roared.
Then from beyond the darkness came words, not mad ravings, but coherent sentences. The words were in Spanish, not broken English. Their drunken Mexican antagonist's tone now was solemn and sober, his speech not slurred.
The men sensed that what he was saying now in his native tongue was deadly serious, a call for something. Then suddenly he was finished. The silence became loud.
"What did he say Fuentes?" Wash blurted out. "What did he say?"
But before he could speak the Gatekeeper answered. It was his way of putting Fuentes on notice that Fuentes was not the only one who understood Spanish. "He says that you Tejanos in there that have joined with these Norteamericanos, these filibusters, these freebooters, these mercenaries, these pirates who have come to steal our land, we will kill you and all of your families very very slowly. But if you come over and join us you can save your family and yourself. Come have a drink."
Wash and the other Norteamericanos turned their eyes on Fuentes. He was the only Tejano in this group of men. Fuentes returned their stares.
Antonio Fuentes was a little thin boned man. Wash was a head taller than him. Fuentes's slicked back wavy black hair and scraggly thin mustache gave him a weasley look. These men knew that he was a convicted thief. Knew that Jim Bowie got drunk and released him from jail.
And these men knew and so did Fuentes that this was the time, the time for Fuentes to prove his loyalty and courage. To prove it to his friend, Jim Bowie. After all Jim had released him from jail to join him in the fight against Santa Anna. He owed Jim. Jim who was lying unconscious delirious with fever in the chapel and would never know what he was about to do here.
There was another reason too. Fuentes knew that he had gotten a fair trial. Not many guilty men would admit that. Knew that he would not have gotten a fair trial under Santa Anna's system of justice. There he would have been quickly sentenced by a judge, no jury trial. His sentence: twenty years in the Mexican army, a death sentence. For this reason also he had to do this.
"Gringo you die!" Their adversary started his usual taunts again. "Gringo your 'seester' is with us. All of us!"
Wash jumped up and rushed to the gate. "How dare you speak of my sister like that," screamed back Wash. "Open the gate Gatekeeper," he ordered.
"Wash you don't even have a sister," shouted down the Watchman on the wall.
Antonio Fuentes stepped forward in front of Wash extended his right hand palm up. This was his way of demanding Wash's Bowie knife and his way of volunteering to redeem himself.
"You saying I can't do it. That I'm a coward," Wash growled.
"No Wash I'm saying that you don't know the language. I do. I'm the one that has to do this."
Fuentes trembled. He had never killed a man. He would do so now or die trying.
Wash Cottle handed over the knife hilt first and said, "Gatekeeper, let this man out."
Antonio Fuentes walked out armed only with the Bowie knife and melded into the night.
"Donde esta amigo?" shouted Fuentes.
"I understand amigo," spit out Wash. "That goddamn Fuentes has gone over."
"Aqui," was the response. "Tequila aqui."
"Now he's drinking with him. I understand amigo and tequila. I knew we couldn't trust him," bellowed Washington Cottle.
The next sounds from beyond were the gurgling sounds of a man choking on his own blood. A man moaning in the throngs of death, the life being let out of him.
"You understand that Wash!" shouted down the Watchman.
The gate opened and Antonio Fuentes re entered the Alamo. No one said a word. Fuentes walked up to Wash and wiped the blood off both sides of the knife on Wash's pant legs and handed Wash his knife blade first.
"Thanks," said Wash.
"Don't thank me. Thank Jim Bowie," replied Fuentes.
In addition to Frontier Tales, author's stories have appeared in Heater, The Fable Online, The Zodiac Review,
and Romance Magazine where two other stories about the Alamo appear.
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Tragedy on Fremont Street
Part 1 of the Cochise County Trilogy
by Dick Derham
"It don't take near as much sweat to make your money our way."
The shirtless man leaned on his spade as he looked at the jovial rider. Up at first light he had been getting a head start on the building furnace that was Arizona under a cloudless summer sky. The irrigation ditch now stretched south three miles, from Soldier's Well toward the parched land he worked with his brother and to his planned alfalfa field. Hot, backbreaking, sweaty work, it was and a half mile still to go before time for the August planting. At a time like this, his sore muscles cried out in support of Curly Bill's carefree life.
"We've had this talk before," Tom McLaury reminded the horseman. "Come back in ten years when I got a good ranch built and see what you think then."
Curly Bill Brocius gave an amused scoff at the optimism of the sweaty man. "In ten years, you and me will be stretched out in some dusty arroyo bleaching our bones, Tom."
McLaury knew better than to try to persuade the outlaw to see a future different than the present. He bent his neck backward and looked up at the sun. "I have one more hour fighting old Sol's tender caresses and I'll break for noon. See you at the house."
"Whiskey's in my saddlebags," Brocius replied. He jerked his head toward the draw. "We borrowed a dozen Mex steers to fatten themselves on your range. Hope we can count on your neighborly courtesy like before."
McLaury and his brother had talked it over time and time again, and the conclusion had always been the same: don't join Curly Bill in Mexico, but help him market his stolen beef. It wasn't Tom's choice, but Frank had a say in their life, too. "See you at the cabin," McLaury said as he watched the rider and his companion depart.
Boyhood on a Buchanan County farm in central Iowa teaches a lad one of two things: that hard work is an essential part of a contented life, or that avoiding chores—and the responsibility that goes with them—is the secret to a life of pleasure.
As he put his weight behind the spade, Tom McClaury gave no thought to the philosophical choice he had made—perhaps he was unaware he had made a choice. His hard-working father had voiced no complaint at his labor as long as Tom had known him; Tom's own daily chores had grown in intensity as he grew in capability. To be a man meant to be like his father. And to be successful in life, to know the joys of his own family, meant carving his existence out of the land here in Sulphur Springs Valley as his father had in Buchanan County.
"Dropping off twelve cows for you today," Curly Bill was saying as Tom pushed through the door. "Same deal as usual?"
"Be faster for you if you just ran them into the butcher yourself," Tom pointed out.
"Sure, but you boys are running beef with this spread you brag about. You can dicker for a better price than good, honest rustlers like ourselves." Johnny Ringo joined in the laughter.
"No one is being fooled," Frank McLaury said. "We aren't getting enough for the risk."
"Ride with us to Mexico, and you'll get a full share, Frank," Ringo reminded him.
"We won't." Tom hastened to forestall any wavering by his brother.
"He speak for you, Frank?"
"We talked it over," the older McLaury admitted. And so they, several times, Frank's argument always yielding to Tom's insistence. "I stand with my brother." The one fixed star in Frank's constellation, Tom knew family ruled him more than money.
It was hours before Curly Bill and Johnny mounted and rode on, hours of whiskey, and useless chatter, but finally Tom could take up his spade again and extend the irrigation ditch a few more feet before graying skies and his belly combined to call a halt to the day's labor.
After supper, Tom renewed the old debate. "Time we stopped making their deliveries, Frank. It ain't right."
"Doing favors is just being a good neighbor," Frank replied.
"It's not Bill's beef we're delivering. He's bringing them up from Mexico and you know no Mex ranchers are getting paid for them."
"You want to spread the word to our neighbors that we're too sniffy legal to associate with the likes of them?"
"Curly Bill's a good fellow. He won't get mad. Nor Johnny Ringo, either."
"You can swing by Ike Clanton's place and explain to him."
Tom had yet to find an answer to that regular sally of Frank. "He's a mean one. Wouldn't put it past him, some night in his cups, to ride over and toss a flaming brand into someone's barn if he took it into his mind that the neighbor wasn't friendly."
"We're not in Iowa any more, Tom. We can't look to the county sheriff to keep the peace. Out here it's just us and our neighbors."
Tom McLaury leaned on his spade to rest his muscles for a moment and gazed out over the near-empty grasslands
Southeast Arizona was a new frontier, a land of promise for two young men seeking to carve out a good life for themselves. That it was still lawless, that other kinds of men—takers, not builders—were drawn to the land barely dimmed the optimistic plans with which the two brothers had arrived in what was still Pima County in 1878.
Tom and Frank had left home together to seek their place in the world when he was twenty-one, Frank being four years older, and the natural leader. First, they went to Fort Worth, Texas, where their older brother Will was starting his career as a lawyer, doing dusty office work that held no attraction for young men of action. They cowboyed for others, learning new skills, but working for wages only satisfied men of limited aspirations.
Finally, when still sparsely settled Southeast Arizona opened for settlement, opportunity cried out to them. With the spurt of growth promised by the silver strikes that gave birth to the burgeoning community of Tombstone, with open range and the Homestead Act, all a man needed to make his way was a few cows and a willingness to work.
Tom admired the austere beauty in the reddish sand dotted with the gray-green clumps of tabaso grass, a beauty it had taken him years to value after the rich, dark loam of Iowa and the lush greenness of cultivated fields. Part of the beauty, he knew, came from one simple fact: this land was his land. But he valued it too for its ruggedness. It took a strong man to thrive in the Arizona desert. As he imagined the land dotted with cattle carrying the McLoury Inverted Triangle brand, Tom McClaury could see the future and liked what he saw.
Sometimes he wondered whether Frank shared the vision.
"Where's your brother?"
At the harsh, guttural voice, Tom turned to face the dark-mustachioed horseman quartering down the hogback. Lawmen had a quality to them that quickened the pulse, tensed the muscles, even for a simple cowman engaged in honest labor on his own land. This lawman special. "He's up to the house fixing supper, Marshall."
"Meet me at your shack," the rider said as he reined aside. Not "when you're done with your work." Not even, "please." Just a peremptory command given with no doubt it would be obeyed. Two good hours of work lost to whatever was stuck in the lawman's craw. Just a gambler in town and brother to the town marshal, the Deputy US Marshal badge he carried gave him enough heft to command obedience and to make trouble for those with minds of their own. "Yes. sir, Mister Earp," Tom called after the departing lawman.
"Two Army mules were stolen in town yesterday with big conspicuous US brands on their rumps. You want to walk to the corral with me where I can learn what you already know?"
"We saw the US brand, but the fellow who left them said he has a bill of sale," Tom assured the Marshall.
Earp's sniff showed the two young cowmen what little credit he gave to Tom's tale. "Fellow have a name?"
"Not a name you're needing to hear," Frank growled.
Tom's hand brushed Frank's arm as he quickly spoke up to forestall his brother's anger. "We didn't know they were stolen, Marshall. We'll bring them in tomorrow."
Wyatt Earp fixed Tom with a practiced lawman's stare. "I'll hold you to that." He paused at the doorway and faced Frank. "If you can find that friend of yours, tell him I'd like to take a gander at that bill of sale." He gave a short laugh. "If he can find it."
Tom held tight to Frank's arm and released it only when they heard the hoof beats moving off. "That tinhorn gambler don't respect men who earn their living by their sweat," Frank McLaury declared. "Wyatt Earp is nothing but an arrogant bully."
"Earp's a bully with a badge, Frank. That makes the difference."
"Lawmen come and go. We're building us a ranch that will be here long after they move on."
The scar on the land that went by the name Tombstone jarred Tom McLaury's senses even before he reached the outskirts. The smells came first, rising from the garbage heaps outside town, and then the fragrance of the unwashed sweat of three thousand human beings; after the smell came the noise, the bustling disorder heard half a mile away, the hammering of rebuilding after the June fire that devastated three blocks of the commercial center of town, from the Birdcage Theater to the Oriental Saloon, rising above the clean desert sounds. Finally the town came in view, with its slew of dust-covered miners, boisterous cowhands spruced up for a town's excitement, cursing teamsters driving their wagon loads through the bustle of the street, women of all kinds on the boardwalk, some stepping aside to avoid brushing a sweaty workman, others seeking to apply their wiles, the promise of violence not needing to be spoken in the new, some would say violent, community. Tom felt his tension rise every time he crested the eastern hill and looked down at the sprawling ramshackle thrown-together excuse for human habitation. Back in Iowa, a trip to Independence was pleasurable and predictable, a place where everyone knew each other, where a man didn't have to worry that a stray glance would give offense and lead to fists, knifes, or worse. He wondered if Buchanan County had once been as wild as Tombstone.
Tom paused at the Wells Fargo station on the outskirts of town and turned the mules loose. "Marshall Earp will be by to take charge," he told the station master. After dropping off the mules, Tom led two steers with foreign brands down Allen Street where he found Jim Carruthers standing in front of the meat market that bore his name. "Got room for some more beef?" Tom asked.
Carruthers looked hastily up and down the street. "You seen Earp since you got to town?"
When Tom shook his head, Carruthers motioned to the narrow alley between his shop and the restaurant next door. "Make it quick. Get then out of sight."
Behind the building, Tom removed the lead rope from the steers and turned them loose in Carruthers' makeshift holding pen. He stepped through the rear door into the butcher shop. "Touchy today, Jim."
"It's Marshall Earp. He's making trouble, threatening to confiscate beef he decides is stolen."
"Sheriff Behan's never questioned our beef. Virgil Earp's got no call sticking his nose into what happens outside Tombstone."
"Not our town marshal, Tom. I'm talking about Wyatt. Some say he's trying to make Johnny look bad. The skinny is that he's running against him for Sheriff come election."
"Still don't see why he's got his nose in cattle business. Nothing federal there."
"He struts that badge as though it makes him some big auger that runs things around here. He tells me and the other butchers we're buying Mex brands. He says they been stolen."
"Stolen in Mexico. What's his beef?"
"He says they been driven across the border, smuggling he calls it, not paying the import tariff. So he says that makes them contraband and he'll seize any he finds. I'll butcher these quick and get rid of the hides, Tom, but I can't pay you for them until I know I can sell the beef."
In a small town, trust is the commodity that makes economic exchange possible. "We've been working together a long time, Jim. You'll still be here next time I come to town."
Tom turned on Third Street and walked past the Chinese laundry, past Mulligan's Blacksmith shop and turned east on Fremont Street. He slowed as he passed Camillus Fly's photographic shop and reminded himself to get Frank in so they can get a picture made to send back to the family in Iowa. Half a block beyond Fly's was the City Hall and the marshal's office. Tom congratulated himself on his early start, early enough that the Earps would still be abed, especially Wyatt who ran his faro table as far into the wee hours of the morning as he had customers. Tom planned to leave a message that the mules had been delivered and go about his business.
No such luck.
"You bring them like you said?" The deep rumbling voice of Wyatt Earp greeted him as he swung open the door.
"Yes sir. They're at the Wells Fargo corral." The message delivered, he turned to leave but Earp's voice stopped him.
"Trouble's brewing, McLaury. Maybe you don't seem as rotten as some I could name, but when an angry fire scours the range it turns to black ruin whatever if finds in its path. You be careful you ain't burned with the rest."
"Just minding our business, Marshall," McLaury insisted. "Trying to start a ranch."
"You declare sides every time you ride with them. You cross the line every time you market stolen beef. Don't think I don't know."
Frank looked at the newspapers Tom had tossed on the table. "I won't have that Earp-loving Cowboy-hating rag in my house."
"The house every nail of which you hammered personal," Tom replied. It was the standard joke between the brothers, and it usually brought the start of a smile to Frank's lips. Not today.
"You know what I mean. Clum can't let a week go by without he tells he town how much he hates our friends, and that means us too."
"I brought the Nugget, too. You can read that," Tom told his brother. "I'll know more about what's going on if I read both sides." The Tombstone Epitaph carried the story of the theft of the US Army mules. "It is understood our enterprising Deputy US Marshal has quickly determined the guilty party and expects the mules to be restored to federal authority promptly." On an inside page, an editorial decried the lawlessness of Cochise County, "which Sheriff Behan seems unable, or unwilling, to address. Only the vigilance of the town marshal, Virgil Earp, keeps the violence of the Cowboy elements under control in the city."
The Tombstone Nugget had an answering editorial praising Sheriff Behan for his monumental efforts to transform the newly-formed Cochise County, less than one year old, from the wildness of life beyond the reach of the law to the beginning of civilization. "His Republican opponents, blinded by personal ambition, are unable to see the changes he has achieved."
September 30, 1881.
No one questioned that Ike Clanton was a forceful man, a man of strong opinions even when sober. If you chose to talk about the rumors, he and his father, Newton, had been involved in the Skeleton Canyon massacre where a dozen Mexican smugglers and their pack train had been ambushed, killed, and their booty sold in Tucson, Willcox, and Tombstone. None doubted that the Clanton ranch gave friendly welcome to outlaws of all sorts, including the robbers of the Benson stage, as well as men in "the border trade," men like Curly Bill Brocius, Pony Deal, Johnny Ringo, and a roster of the most notorious men of Arizona. Tom and Frank McLaury knew these things, but spoke of them only among themselves.
So when Tom saw Ike swing down and hitch his horse to the corral post, he schooled himself to handle his tongue and avoid offense.
"Damn that Wyatt Earp," Clanton snarled as he came through the door. "Ran into the polecat in Tombstone today. Told him if he don't shut his lips, folks will hear some stories about his buddy Doc Holliday he don't want told."
"What's he got stuck in your craw this time?" Frank asked.
"Him and that so-called dentist pal of his are spreading the damn lie I was working with him to split the reward for bringing in Billy Leonard for the Benson stage robbery."
"The one where Bud Philpott got killed?" Tom asked. "Folks liked him."
"No one believes that about you, Ike," Frank assured Clanton. Tom remained silent, remembering the doubts he had heard men express. Johnny Ringo maintained that Earp had made a deal with Clanton, Clanton would set up Leonard, and would get the reward, but Earp would get the public credit that would elect him as Sheriff. "Billy Leonard, or money," Ringo said. "Which do you think gets Ike's loyalty?" So said Ringo.
"I've had all I can take from Earp's run-on mouth. Looks like I'm going to have to do some business with him that he won't like." Clanton drained his glass and rose to leave. "Almost forgot. Reason I stopped by. The Nugget's list of unclaimed mail has your name in it."
Tom watched thoughtfully as the door closed behind Clanton. "Trouble's coming Frank, and were going to get caught in the middle."
"Not me, Tom. You'll never find me straddling between our friends and swaggering bullies like the Earps."
After picking up the supplies that Tom had listed, and swinging by the post office to retrieve his letter, Frank made his customary final stop in the ornate Alhambra Saloon, not as crowded or noisy this midafternoon as it would be later; only two gambling tables in operation, one being Doc Holliday's.
McLaury took his beer off to the farthest corner, settled in and leaned back. He ran a thumb under the seal and opened the letter from home. Frank McLaury didn't have a face that smiled easily, but the bartender thought it softened as he read.
"Save me some work, McLaury. Tell me what butchers you sold your smuggled beef to so I don't have to traipse all over town."
"Never smuggled as much as a baby goat, Wyatt," Frank insisted. "Never even been to Mexico."
"Receiving stolen goods gets a man as much penitentiary time is stealing them in the first place. Yuma for cattle, Leavenworth for Army mules."
"Don't think I don't know what you're doing. You and your neighbors. Question is which one of you will it be that pushes me too far so I use him to be the "Come to Jesus" moment for the rest of you outlaws."
Frank stuffed the letter in his shirt and got to his feet. "Like a law-abiding citizen, I'm not wearing a gun in town, Earp. That makes it easy for you to run your mouth. Anytime you want to meet me outside of town, let me know."
The face-off with Earp was hardly worth a mention when Frank got home. The big news was what he was bursting to share with Tom. "Letter from ma," he told his brother. "Sister Caroline. She's getting married to Jim Reed come November."
"Reed? The son of old Joshua Reed? He's got a big spread. That's a good match for Caroline."
"Hard to think of little Caroline being grown up now. She always was my favorite." Frank's face softened and Tom could see his mind was miles away. "Sure wish we could be there to see it."
"Why not?" Tom's sudden inspiration could give them a respite from the Earp-Cowboy turmoil. "Winter's coming. The cattle graze fine without us. We go back for the wedding. Visit awhile, we'll be back in spring in time for calving, roundup and branding." But even as he spoke, Tom knew Frank would have a major objection.
"Hate to look like I'm running out on our friends."
"Things will cool off during winter," Tom assured his brother. "It's when the election gets close, that's when things get hot. We'll be back by then."
As Frank's face brightened at the notion, Tom's mind roamed far ahead. "Remember Annie Baker, one of Caroline's schoolmates? I wonder how she's filled out." He looked around their small house and considered the expansion his new plans would require. "Who knows? Maybe I'll even get fitted for out a double yoke myself."
October 26, 1881.
The McLaury brothers halted at the outskirts of Tombstone and saddle-bagged their .45s. "So the plan for the day is we ride into town, settle our accounts, have a couple of drinks for the road, and be back home for an early supper, bed and on the trail to Willcox at first light."
Their first chore was to swing by Carruthers Meat Market. "Got some regular Arizona beef for you today, Jim," Tom told Carruthers. "Burned our Inverted Triangle on them myself when they were barely weaned."
Carruthers stepped over to the lead steer. "Let me check the brands, Tom."
Frank McClaury bristled. "You questioning my brother's word?"
"Tom's word's all I need, Frank. But if the brand don't pass Wyatt's inspection, the beef's no good to me."
Tom shrugged off Frank's predictability and played his customary role of pacifier. "Jim's got a job to do, Frank. Let him get on with it."
Carruthers examined the brand. "Looks well-seasoned, Tom. Come inside. I'll pay you for them and for the last you brought in."
While Carruthers was counting out the money, he filled the brothers in. "Today's not a good day to be in town. Ike Clanton's been drinking hard since yesterday, saying he'll kill Doc Holliday on sight along with any Earp that gets in his way. Folks are saying if the Earps don't stand up to him, none of the Cowboys will ever respect the badge. It'll be like before Virg was made Town Marshall."
When the brothers separated for their errands, they agreed to meet in an hour at the Oriental Saloon. Tom needed to stop by butchers Jacob Eberhard and Bob Clifford to make his collections and then settle his accounts at Dexter's Feed Store and Hoeffler's General Merchandise. Finally, he completed his business at the Pima County Bank where he made his deposits and withdrew their needed traveling money.
As Tom left the bank, he heard two men talking, "Wyatt took that loudmouth Clanton to Judge Wallace. That should quiet things down."
Curious, Tom turned down Fourth Street toward police court where he encountered Wyatt Earp coming the other way.
Onlookers never knew what words were exchanged when the two men met, but suddenly Wyatt's left hand slapped Tom across the face while his right fisted his revolver and slammed it into Tom's head. While Tom slumped to the street, Earp stalked off.
Back on his feet but still shaken, Tom fought down his resentment at the departing Marshall's bullying and turned toward the Oriental Saloon, the drink, and the badly needed respite from the streets of Tombstone. He was on his second whiskey when his brother stormed in.
"I hear that Wyatt pistol-whipped you. We ain't taking that. Get up. We'll brace the bastard."
Tom booted back the chair across from him. "Have a drink for the trail, Frank," he told his brother. "Then we ride out. All I'm thinking about is that train ride tomorrow, Iowa, and seeing home again. Cochise County troubles will be here for us when we get back." Before Frank could answer, Billy Clanton rushed in.
"Tom, you got to help me. Ike's got it in his craw that Holliday has been spreading word about Billy Leonard. He's raving about killing him before he leaves town. Wyatt, too. I got to get him in the saddle and on the trail."
"Where is he now?"
"Out in the vacant lot behind the OK Corral. Billy Claibourne is trying to calm him down."
If trust is the major economic glue in a small town, friendship imposes its own obligation. The McLaurys responded to Billy Clanton as a matter of course. As they led their horses down Fifth Street behind Billy, they ignored the clusters of men on the street. But when they turned west on Fremont, they couldn't miss the words "the Earps" and "Clanton."
Nestled between Fly's boarding house and Harwood's house, the small vacant lot backed onto the building that housed the OK Corral. Scarcely thirty feet wide, Harwood's gave some afternoon shade from an Arizona sun hot even in October. It was there they found Ike Clanton and Billy Claibourne.
"Got to settle this with Wyatt once and for all," Ike was saying.
"You're drunk, man," Frank told the older Clanton, as he strapped on his gun belt now that they were leaving town. "It won't be a fair fight. Take him when you got an even chance."
"Front or back, makes no difference. Wyatt's been spreading lies about me. Once he shows himself, I'll get him."
Tom could see Ike Clanton was in one of his moods. Even without the whiskey, he was never an easy man to turn aside. But Tom owed it to Billy to try. "Got more important things to do, Ike. We need you back at our cabin, We're having a going-away party and need your help using up our whiskey."
"Whiskey," Ike began and Tom knew he had found the lure to get Ike Clanton out of town. Just keep him focused, Tom told himself, and we'll be mounted and on the trail in five minutes.
"What you boys up to?"
Tom turned to face the interruption. "We don't plan no trouble, Johnny," he assured the sheriff. "Saddle-bagged my irons like the law says," he shifted so Behan could see his empty holster. "We're just getting ready to head for home."
Behan looked from Tom to Frank standing behind his horse, to Billy Claibourne and Billy Clanton, and a long time at Ike Clanton before he turned back to Tom. "I'll hold you to that, Tom," he said and turned back down Fremont Street. As Tom watched him walk away, he saw four determined men brush past Behan's attempt to slow them down.
"Get ready to be braced," he muttered to Frank. "Let them bluster their piece and let's get out of here."
As he lay in the street, Tom Mclaury tried to remember how it had happened. Had Doc Holliday opened up with the shotgun? Had Frank's hotheaded nature erupted at one more episode of Earp bullying? Had Wyatt come with killing in his intent? Or had Ike Clanton's whiskey-clouded bluster been accompanied by an unwise move toward his hip? It had erupted so suddenly, been over so quickly, he couldn't be sure, like a harsh thunder clap and a gully washer that took out everything in its path. Now his world was closing in on him and all that remained was the hole in his belly and unendurable pain.
Then that, too, was gone.
End Part 1
Dick Derham, a native of Seattle, has been reading Western history and fiction since his teenage years. He seeks to
combine historical accuracy with an understanding of how real people dealt with the challenges of frontier life.
His first story, "The Pride of the Apache," dealt with Geronimo's interaction with the US Army was published in April,
2015. The Cochise County Trilogy stories are the ninth, tenth and eleventh stories published in Frontier Tales.
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by David P. Barker
"At last I thought I could shoot by guess, and kill him; so I pointed as near the lump as I could,
and fired away. But the bear didn't come, he only climb up higher, and got out on a limb, which
helped me to see him better. I now loaded up again and fired, but this time he didn't move at all.
I commenced loading for a third fire, but the first thing I knowed, the bear was down among my dogs,
and they were fighting all around me" – Davy Crockett
Five Years Ago
A streak of lightning cut through the night sky and was followed almost immediately by a ground-shaking clap of
thunder. Sheriff James Andrews pulled the brim of his hat down lower on his head as he ducked back into the cave.
He looked down at his Plott Hound, Colt. His dog was a gift to him many years ago by an uncle who was visiting from North Carolina. He reached down and scratched Colt behind his ears.
"Its okay boy," He said in a low voice. The dog turned its head and stared up at The Sheriff before it turned its head back to stare into the darkness. "What's out there?" The Sheriff asked almost as if he expected a response. He knew better of course. He knew Colt would never answer him because dogs don't talk. On nights in the wilderness, though, talking out loud made him feel better.
The rain fell in large drops. The constant down pour made visibility almost nonexistent.
"Remember the last time we were in a cave?" He said to the dog. Sitting on its haunches, the dog stared out into the nothingness while the Sheriff rambled idly.
"It was a storm like this. We were hunting that bear—that one that killed the Campbell's livestock. We got caught in a cave just like this. Turned out the bear wanted to be in the cave with us. That was a damn vicious fight. I didn't know if we were going to make it. If you didn't tree him, we wouldn't have."
The Sheriff lowered his body to the ground and reached out for his dog. He touched for his dog and stroked behind its head while he listened to the storm. A lightning flash cut through the night sky again followed by another loud blast of thunder. The dog growled at the sound.
"We've been through a lot, haven't we boy?" he said softly as Colt settled down into a laying position. The Sheriff pressed his hand into his own knee, rubbing at the stiffness that had begun to build. Age has not been kind to the Sheriff's joint. Age and hours spent in a saddle and the times he had bullets dug from his flesh have left his body stiff and prone to soreness. His hand moved to his shoulder and massaged the joint tenderly, "Back before my body hurt constantly?"
The Sheriff knelt in the dirt. His right hand traced the outline of a large print. "It's a big one," He
said to his dog Colt. Most men didn't hunt with just one dog; at least not when they were bear hunting.
Bears were dangerous to hunt because not only were they prone to fight back, but they were big, strong,
vicious, and incredibly tough to bring down. A man who was a good shot could bring down a deer, wolf, or
coyote with one shot—but unless one got a direct shot to the heart or the brain of the bear it
wasn't going down. Since bears were so difficult to kill, most men used teams of dogs to hunt. A team
of dogs could surround the bear and get it to climb a tree—where it was much safer to shoot.
The Sheriff hated hunting with a team of dogs. He liked the idea that he was battling an animal with his own wits and the assistance of one dog. It was also why he rarely hunted in a group. It was him and Colt—the dog named after the gun manufacturer.
Colt lowered his snout to the ground and sniffed to try and pick up a scent. The Sheriff just studied the ground. Bears were significantly harder to track than most wild animals. Unless a hunter was really seasoned, he would never be able to actually track a bear. Bears walk on the soles of their feet and rarely leave discernible tracks unless it was muddy or snowy. A person had to know what to look for because there weren't toe prints, there were only soft dents in the ground from where the paws pressed against the ground.
The Sheriff's eyes scanned forward. When a bear leaves tracks, the front paws leave a wider track—but the
rear paws are longer. The Sheriff shifted forward as his eyes picked up the direction the bear was heading. It
went deeper into the woods—deeper into a place it could hide or could launch an attack at the man and his dog.
Colt was staring ahead. His ears had almost flattened back and his wet nose was flared. He had caught the scent of something. "Let's go boy," The Sheriff said while sliding his rifle off his shoulder. He double-checked that he had the tube loaded into it. While most men on the Western frontier preferred the 1873 .44 caliber lever action Winchester, The Sheriff still preferred the lever action rifle by Spencer. He trusted it. He knew it inside and out.
Colt took off towards the deep forest and was followed closely by The Sheriff. The Sheriff made sure he was several paces behind his hound. His head was on a swivel and turned every which way. He was checking to make sure a bear would not blind-side him. Then he heard it. The distinctive low bellied growl of a black bear. He heard Colt's distinct bark. He pulled the hammer back as he crept closer. He stopped in his tracks.
About a hundred yards in front of him was the biggest black bear he had ever seen. Most black bears were a little more than five feet long, a little more than two feet from shoulder to ground (when walking) and somewhere between two and three hundred pounds. This bear was much bigger. It had to be at least six and a half feet long and three and a half feet from shoulder to the ground. The Sheriff sucked in his breath as he studied the bear—it had to be four hundred pounds. This was the biggest bear he had ever seen in his life.
The bear's fur was matted to its body and its head was massive. Colt was about twenty-five yards away from the bear. He always stopped short. The bear was still down on all fours when it snarled at Colt. The Sheriff moved closer while he raised his rifle. He closed one eye while he sighted the bear. His finger pressed against the trigger and the first shot rocketed towards the bear. It managed to graze the bear's shoulder but it did not do any real damage. Instead, the mighty bear stood on its hind legs and let out a deafening roar.
Colt backed up. The dog was not quick to be afraid but he was not a dumb dog. Colt barked back. The bear bellowed once more before it dropped onto all fours and charged forward towards the dog. The dog leapt out of the way as The Sheriff fired a second shot. This shot pierced the heavy bear's shoulder. The bear's head turned towards The Sheriff. He roared again. The bear charged again—this time at The Sheriff. The Sheriff dropped and rolled out of the way before the bear could get hold of him. In the process of rolling, The Sheriff lost the grip on his rifle and leapt to his feet. The formidable bear turned to face him once more. The two of them locked eyes. They stared at each other for a long moment. The bear ran forward again and once more, The Sheriff had to roll out of the way.
Colt charged forward and leapt at the bear. The tenacious hound sank its teeth into the bear's neck. The bear shook its head and reached a paw up to slap the dog off of him. The distraction gave The Sheriff enough time to grab his rifle. He lifted the trusty rifle up to his shoulder and took quick aim. It didn't take him long to fire another shot at the bear. The bullet sank into the haunches of the bear. The bear howled with pain as it turned to face the Sheriff once more. The Sheriff recocked the lever and fired the fourth shot at the charging bear. The bullet caught the bear just above the right eye. With another roar, the bear stumbled but it did not fall. It kept charging.
The Sheriff slammed against the lever once more and fired a fifth shot. This shot went wide. The bear was only a few yards away from The Sheriff. The Sheriff pulled on the lever again and fired the sixth shot. This shot caught the bear in the shoulder again. The bear growled as it rose up to pounce down on The Sheriff. With the bear coming down on him, The Sheriff fired the seventh and final shot at the bear. This bullet caught the bear in the heart and the bear fell. The Sheriff rolled away and just managed to avoid the bear falling on top of him.
The Sheriff rolled to his knees and looked at the now dead bear and let out a low breath.
The Sheriff pulled his hat off his head and rested it on the ground next to him. The rain still poured around him and he still stared into the darkness. Colt stirred on the ground next to him. Another flash of lightning and a clap of thunder shook the ground. "Should be a town posse that hunts down wild animals." The Sheriff grumbled to the dog.
The Sheriff gripped at his shoulder once more as he worked a knot out of it. "We're getting too old to be out here like this hunting bears. Sure, the ranchers will shoot the smaller threats like wolves and coyotes. They'll protect their livestock. Ask them to come into the woods and hunt a black bear and they'll say 'No, thank you.' Damn ranchers want you to keep all the peace for them but don't want to help you out and shoot a bear."
In the darkness, a roar cut through the rain. The sound shook both The Sheriff and Colt from their idleness. The Sheriff reached for his trusty Spencer rifle. He acted quickly to check and make sure he had it loaded—he always did but habit made sure he always checked before firing. Another roar cut through the air. It was loud. Harsh. The Sheriff looked down at his dog and it was like they were in sync with each other. "That's not a black bear," The Sheriff muttered to himself.
Another flash of lightning illuminated the night sky. The Sheriff almost faltered when he saw what stood only a few yards in front of the cave entrance. It was not a black bear. This bear was brown and it was much bigger than any bear he had ever seen. "Grizzly." He muttered in shock. "How the hell did this bear get here?" He whispered again. Grizzlies were not native to this area.
The grizzly bear rose onto its back legs and bellowed once more as another flash of lightning cut through the sky. This bear had to be in excess of eight hundred pounds. When it lowered back to all fours, the bear had to be over five feet from shoulder to ground. "I don't know if I have enough bullets, boy," The Sheriff whispered to his dog. The dog snorted in response and dug his paws into the ground of the cave.
Lightning flashed again and the massive grizzly charged forward into the cave. With only the light provided by the lightning, The Sheriff acted quickly to raise his rifle and shoot. The bear snarled—clearly struck by the bullet, but the sound of the bear only grew louder. The bear collided with The Sheriff and sent him flying back into the cave. He tried to hold onto his rifle, he tried to keep a hold of it, but he could not. The Spencer slipped from his grip while he was air born. He groaned when he hit the ground. His back arched in agony. The bear thundered again.
The dog barked and the bear growled back. The fearless hound ducked underneath a swipe from the bear and bounded towards his master. Propped against the cave wall, The Sheriff reached into his holster for his revolver. "This will have to do," He muttered and closed his eyes. With his eyes closed, he sniffed the air for the smell of wet fur. His ears tuned in to the sound of the bear's breath and his paws against the cave floor.
Swallowing hard, The Sheriff opened his eyes and raised his revolver. He fired the double action pistol and dropped to the ground to roll out of the way. The colossal bear slammed into the side of the cave with a bellow. Scrambling towards the entrance of the cave, The Sheriff holstered his revolver and grabbed at the rifle he nearly tripped over.
Exiting the cave, he turned and raised the Spencer, keeping it trained on the entrance to the cave. Another howl came from the bear and lightning flashed. The bear stood at the entrance of the cave, its fur wet with blood and rain. The grizzly roared and barreled into the storm towards The Sheriff. Colt charged towards the bear and leapt at it. The bear merely used its big skull to send Colt off to the side. The Sheriff fired once. Twice. Three times. Four times. Five times. Six times. Then nothing. The rifle was out and the bear had not dropped yet. The bear was only a few feet away—but its steps were labored. Scrambling for his revolver, The Sheriff was hit again by the thick shoulder of the bear. He skidded across the muddy ground and winced in agony. The bear roared and stalked forward. It was leaking blood from multiple places—but all of the bullets had just dug into the fleshy part of its body.
The Sheriff tried to raise his revolver, but his arm was in agony. The bear snarled and opened its massive mouth. It lunged down towards The Sheriff—but it never got there. Colt's teeth sank into the tender throat of the bear and the dog clamped down. The grizzly roared and shook its head, but the dog did not come loose. It just held onto the throat of the bear while The Sheriff managed to raise his arm and press his revolver into the chest of the bear. He pulled the trigger three times and the bear slumped to the mud lifeless.
Colt released the throat of the bear and limped towards The Sheriff. He groaned in agony as he crawled to lean against a tree. Rain soaking his body, he looked at his dog, "I think that was the last bear we're ever going to hunt."
David P. Barker is an American writer currently residing in the habitually hot Los Angeles, California
but calls Indiana his home. He spent his childhood living in Indiana, Arkansas and Texas. When not writing,
he can be found teaching history.
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Burial at Little Fork
by Robert Steele
Aurora was a bay more squat and sturdy than most. His thick neck and body sat atop his thin, but strong, black legs that looked like a bunch of smoldering matchsticks as they faded into his dirt-filled copper coat.
* * *
The seller told James he had blood from English knight horses. "Able to carry all that armor and the like," said the man out one side of his mouth, the other full of chew.
James didn't believe any of it, he'd been raised in Coloma during the rush and heard all kinds of tales, hardly any of them true. But he had a keen enough eye, and there was no doubt Aurora could carry a large, broad shouldered man like himself.
He gave the seller a fair price, but when the man asked where he was headed, he gave a glare like he often did when he didn't care for an intrusive question. Without a response he put a saddle and his gear on Aurora. He headed West for a few miles, then doubled back on a lonely road, toward the East, bound for the Colorado River, sure that he wasn't being followed.
Earlier in the day a thin, long-faced man with puffy dark eyes sat in a chair atop the Dayler Hotel veranda and told James about a man shot just outside of Crystal Springs. "He'd done something real stupid," said the man. "Spotted what he thought was a mustang. A big, beautiful dark horse with no saddle. So he hopped on, claimed him as his own."
James for a moment thought it was just a man telling tales out of boredom the way some do. "Go on," he said, as he looked across the horizon as the sun began to rise and make the shadows retreat.
The man pulled on the tuft of hairs around his chin, a habit he probably did anytime he was a bit anxious. "Well that so-called mustang was someone's horse. And not just anybody's horse. It was Slick Terry Simm's." The man's voice began to shake as he continued. "This poor fool was an eastern fellow, never been to Crystal Springs or anywhere near here. He didn't know about Slick, and he wasn't about to give up a nice horse just because someone else made claim. Eventually there was gunplay, and that fellow took a bullet to the chest, courtesy of one beady-eyed Slick Terry Simm."
"You need to be careful," said James as he tipped his cap. "Taking a fellow's horse." He began to move inside from the veranda, but the man held up his hand.
"But that's not the best part of the story. The man robbed a bank in Coloma. Some wealthy prospector named Vance Nichols had all his money there. He took it and split for a place called Little Fork near the Colorado River."
James squatted down to the man's eye level. Being from Coloma he'd heard of Vance Nichols. And he also knew no one in Crystal Springs aside from him would know that name unless they heard it from someone who'd been there. He looked the man in the eyes. "How do you know all this?"
"Slick Terry came in here last night with his men, drinking and hollering. He told the bartender about how the man lay in the creek, begging for his life, telling him about where he'd stuck the loot. Slick sat and listened, finding out as much as he could before putting another bullet in the man."
After a quick look across the veranda to find the direction of the creek, James nodded at the stranger and made his way inside, paid for his room, and took his horse toward the location of the dead body.
James didn't even bother stepping down from his horse. He saw the body awkwardly up against some small rocks, a few fish trapped and flopping beside the torso. The rambling man was telling the truth.
As James headed back into town, his horse slowed its pace, no longer responded to his heels, and was covered with a sheen of sweat uncharacteristic for a relatively cool morning.
He tied his horse to the post outside the Dayler Hotel and told the bartender the thin, dark-eyed fellow could have him. "He's getting too old to carry someone my size," said James. "He won't fetch me much anyhow. I'll find another."
"There's a man named Olly next to the Gimbler Ranch. He's got a nice, strong bay."
James nodded. "When Slick came in here last night, did he say he was headed right for Little Fork?"
The bartender turned and adjusted some of the liquor bottles on the back counter. "I'd go on and look at that bay," he said.
He rode all afternoon at a good pace, and with the sun setting, Aurora still seemed like he could go through the night without slowing. But James wanted to build a fire while there was still a bit of light.
* * *
The land was open, harsh, and unsheltered, not normally a good place to stop. But he brought his own wood and a tent.
It took him only twenty minutes get a fire going and stake the tent. As he rested his head he wondered what he'd do with all of Vance Nichol's money. Certainly, not buy up all the mining land and leave everyone for broke like that crook did.
James had been raised by two parents who told him to work hard, that Lady Luck would seek out those who first paid the earth with their hands. When he reached eighteen, his father no longer had work in Coloma. Vance Nichols had his own crew for working the mines, which meant the family had to up and move to another town.
Then was as good a time as any for James to leave his family. He moved further East as his parents went South. James got good with a horse, and great with a gun. He earned money any way he could, some of it honest, but more often than not, like some young men roaming from town to town, he needed to do a little bit of stealing, helping gangs whenever the opportunity arose.
He worked with Slick Terry once on a job just South of Crystal Springs. The crew ambushed a wagon carrying a safe full of money. A kid named Will set everything up, found the route where the wagon was headed. But he proved terrible with a gun, and Slick cut the kid out of the job at the last minute. The kid didn't dare object. He just told Slick he'd do his best to work on his gun.
Still, with all the set-up Will put into the job, James found it sour that Slick didn't give the kid even a few dollars for his trouble.
James thought about his old jobs as he listened to Aurora huff. He rested his head, doing his best to sleep.
Just after sunrise, Aurora stomped his hoofs, kicking up a cloud of dirt that blew against the tent making a whooshing sound that woke James from his slumber.
* * *
James moved from the tent with a knife in hand, expecting that a snake had got Aurora all worked up.
It was a snake, but not one that slithers. Slick Terry and his beady eyes was charging forward on a grey horse with his gun drawn, another rider following closely behind, doing his best to keep up. James swapped out his knife for his gun.
There looked to be no time for discussion. Slick Terry must have known James was in pursuit, that he'd be looking to make a claim to Vance Nichol's money.
A bullet fired by Slick's gun took a couple hairs from Aurora's head. The next would be headed for James. But James drew quick, fanned his gun, and sent a hellfire of bullets the other way.
The companion rider took a bullet to the neck and fell from his horse.
Slick, trying to change direction, fumbled his gun, dropping it to the ground. He cursed, leaned flat against his horse, and rode full-out before James could get his six reloaded.
James didn't waste too much time with the dead rider. He looked under his vest, didn't find anything of use. The rider's horse was narrow and built for speed, not strength. James directed the horse toward town and smacked its hind to send it bolting away.
He picked up Slick's gun, gathered his gear, and checked to see if Aurora was okay. When the bullet spit by, the horse didn't even flinch. Maybe he did have bloodlines from English knight horses.
With Slick now needing to circle around and go the long way, James knew he'd gained an edge. He'd be first to Vance Nichol's money if he could find it.
James had never been as far East as Little Fork. He came to realize that the town was divided into to two small gatherings only a few miles apart. Upon his arrival, he saw a staked sign that read "West Fork."
A few small, crooked buildings shot up from the ground, scattered by the road next to a rail line like wildflowers.
Out front of the hotel a bald man with gray hair hammered some nails to fix the front step. When the man stood and wiped his brow, James noticed that the man's back stayed arched.
The man took a quick look at James and smiled.
James thought about offering the man his hat, but he knew it might be a long day looking for that buried loot.
"Good day," said the bald man. "Would you like a room?"
"Not at the moment," said James as he looked around the rest of the nearby buildings that seemed like they could fall with a good gust of wind. "I may need one later tonight. I'll let you know."
"Always open. We're never full."
James nodded and did his best to contain his smirk. "Have you had any run-ins with a man coming from Coloma recently?"
"No, can't say I have. We don't tend to get people from that far West too often."
"He's from the East, but came from Coloma."
"From the East, but came from Coloma," the man repeated. "I'm really sorry, but I can't recall. What kind of man? Banker? Farmer?"
"One who's probably never done an honest day of work in his life."
The old man lifted his head slightly to indicate understanding. "Someone like that would have more use in East Fork, across the way. They have saloons that gangs frequent, gun stores, that type of thing. And not a lawman anywhere to speak of."
"Is that so?"
"Yes, sir. I wouldn't venture there myself. But you look like a man who can handle himself just fine."
James nodded and made his way to East Fork, ignoring the roads, and cutting across the property of what seemed to be a rundown, abandoned ranch on a beautiful piece of land. Large fruit trees dotted the fence line, a stream cut across on a slant. Too bad a tree had fallen and smashed through one corner of the house.
But there was no time to enjoy the scenery, Slick Terry was surely on his way.
As James came upon East Fork he saw that there were some solid buildings with proper masonry. Given what the old man had said, some gang money was no doubt given to the business owners to keep the law out of town.
The Eaglefoot Saloon seemed as good a place as any to ask around about the stolen money. It was full of people and noise, with someone hitting the piano keys with an upbeat tune.
Three dandified males stood by the winged doors as James entered. They had high black hats, bandana's around their necks, and rose colored shirts covered in dirt and filth. James had to step around them to make his way to the bar.
"Can we help you with anything?" asked the tallest of the three. He had a scraggily, uneven beard, which appeared to be tied in little knots along the chin.
"Was wondering if you ever met a man coming from Coloma?"
The tall man provided quick glances to the other two men. "Not too long back. A yappy, aggressive little dog. Talked about some money he had from there. I thought he was pushing for someone to put a bullet in him."
"Someone did," said James.
The man's eyes widened. "Are you a lawman? Are you looking for this man's killer?"
"No to both. I'm looking for the loot he stole."
The man bellowed a laugh which managed to cut through all of the noise and echo around the bar. "You and everyone else. If we knew where it was it'd be gone by now."
James nodded and smiled, then managed his way to the bar area. He wanted a word with the bartender, they always knew best.
The red-haired bartender was busy moving whiskey to the thirsty patrons, breaking only to wipe his sweat with a cloth.
Another bellowing laugh came from the tall man at the doorway. James turned and caught a glimpse of Slick Terry talking to the men.
James panicked over the thought of gunfire causing chaos in the bar. He dropped his hat on the ground as an attempt to remove any recognizable items. He ducked down, as much as a man his size could, and moved his way around the bar into the back room.
Off to the side some older men played poker. He continued around and found a staircase. It was occupied by a man pressed on top of a girl. James attempted to remove his hat out of habit, forgetting he'd already taken it off. He squeezed by the narrow passage and found his way upstairs.
Double doors led to a veranda, and James made his way to them in a hurry. He stepped outside, moved to the end of the long veranda, and looked down. The building was higher than most, and even to hang and drop meant a good chance of a big man rolling over on his ankle. A lame man would take a bullet pretty easy.
During his indecision the double doors swung open. Just the head of a small gun poked out and fired two shots in the opposite direction. James pressed his back against the wall, and sucked in his gut, knowing some silver was coming his way.
Another two shots, one grazed his chest, but did even less damage than the one that clipped Aurora.
Quick thinking, James stuck out his foot and kicked the veranda rail, ripping out the nails and sending planks of wood tumbling to the ground.
Slick Terry rushed out of the doorway with his eyes wide, directed at the railing.
James drew his gun and fired without hesitation.
Slick's eyes fell upon James, but he had no time to draw his gun. All Slick could do was watch as the bullet entered his chest.
The noise throughout the bar had hushed. The piano had stopped. James stepped to Slick and took a knee, hearing his wheezing gasps for air.
"Too fast," said Slick looking up at James with those beady eyes.
James touched him on the shoulder. "The money. It's no use to you now. Where is it?"
"Don't know. Was hoping you'd already found it." Slick smiled briefly, but it vanished as he seemed overcome by the pain.
"What did the little guy you killed say?"
"West Fork. Under a tree."
James stood and looked over the railing toward West Fork. There were a great number of trees. He wondered if it was one right in town, or any of the hundreds on the outskirts.
A sudden excitement filled his chest and made his fingers tingle. He was too anxious to run back downstairs. Nor did he want to be questioned by the gang of dandified men. James sat and put his legs to the edge of the overhang. He didn't care about a little rolled ankle. The money was his as long as no one else had come to the same realization.
He hung tight on the overhang and dropped down from the veranda. He landed flush on his feet and squatted to brace his fall. It was perfection.
Aurora stomped his hoofs if to say he was ready run. James hopped on and they made their way to the abandoned ranch.
There seemed to be determination in the way Aurora ran, as if he sensed James' urgency. When they came upon the ranch, Aurora leapt the fence and splashed his way through the stream.
The fallen tree that crushed the corner of the house left a gap in the structure big enough for James to squeeze through. Rain had previously fallen in the opening making puddles that smelled sour.
A dresser, thick and sturdy like Auroa's body, held the weight of the fallen tree. James opened the top drawer and found a metal lock box. The box had been dented and busted open.
James opened the lid and inside found a wad of money. He counted it out. He wasn't sure how much the little man had taken before he was shot by Slick, but he left near $30,000.
Thoughts about what to do with all that money gave James quite a bit of thinking to do. He stepped out from the sour smelling home and stood next to Aurora, overlooking the beautiful land.
He didn't drink enough to spend it on booze, nor did he want to set up a saloon and attract patrons he didn't care to see. He felt too old and tame to blow it all on strange women. $30,000 was more than he ever needed.
James hopped on Aurora and took a saunter through West Fork. The bald man was still hammering away at the step of the rundown hotel.
"Hello again," said the bald man, squinting up with a smile.
James reached into his vest and pulled out about $5,000. "Take this."
The man looked confused, and as he stepped closer to the money, his hand seemed to shake with fear.
"It's okay," said James. "Go on and take it."
"What's it for?"
"Fix up this hotel, and buy yourself a hat."
The bald man smiled for a moment, but long lines of worry again drew on his face. "If this is money that you—"
"It's found money. I've got no claim to it any more than anyone else. If anyone comes asking where you got it, you say your cousin from the West Coast gave it to you. If they keep asking, you send them to me."
"Where will you be?"
James pointed his thumb back at the ranch. "I'll be fixing up this place."
And in the days and years to come, James did more than fix up just the ranch. He gave money to the hard-working people of West Fork who needed it. He rode around with Aurora looking for ways to make it stronger. As he got older, he helped Logan Miles, the town Sheriff, by becoming a deputy and making sure none of the crime from East Fork made its way across.
West Fork blossomed into a beautiful area and the people had a place to be proud of. It just needed a little help to its foundation, and James was happy to provide it.
Robert Steele has an obsession with classic western books and film. His debut novel, Those Outside the Law,
was released in May. https://store.kobobooks.com/en-ca/ebook/those-outside-the-law
You can check out his blog and website at: https://robertwilliamsteele.wordpress.com
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