January, 2018

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Issue #100

All The Tales

by Ronald Miller

Brite stepped up on the porch in front of the sheriff's office in Washington and saw a big good-looking kid staring at him with a big crazy grin. It surprised him so much he bumped into the kid's partner, another big guy, older, with a scraggly beard. They both wore guns slung low, gunfighter style.

"Hey watch it!" The older guy grunted in some guttural Tex-Missouri accent, his hand straying towards his gun.

"You better watch it Muley," the big kid laughed, still grinning ear to ear. "This here's Claude Brite."

Muley paused his reach for his gun and glanced out the corner of his eye at the kid.

"Now who the hell is Claude Brite and why the hell should I care?" He glanced at Brite then back to the kid. "Hey, ain't your name Brite? Who is this, your old man?"

"Well he's pretty old and worn out but he's not my dad. This is my brother Claude."

Muley apparently feared the kid as he took a step back.

"Hell Bo, I didn't know he was kin. I wouldn't shoot your kin."

"You wouldn't shoot Claude in any situation. I've seen you both draw—you'd be dead before you cleared leather. 'Course, he's retired and respectable now."

Muley eyed Claude and gulped. "He that fast?"

"Fastest I ever saw—next to me."

* * *

It was in a seedy bar in Kansas City, Missouri, just after the war, the last time Claude had seen Bo. What with the end of the war and the Missouri Pacific railroad hitting town, things were hopping. A little too hot for the temperance league and do-gooders. The authorities were just itching to throw rowdies in jail and had already collected quite a few.

Claude hadn't talked to Bo yet but had heard he was in town causing trouble. Now he had shot some cowpoke in a fast draw duel and they were coming for him.

Claude found Bo drinking with his buddies.

"Bo." he said. Bo turned slightly.

"Well if it isn't the war hero. What the hell do you want Claude?"

"You need to get out of town. The police are coming."

"That piece of crap went for his gun first. I got witnesses. And ain't no two-bit sheriff scaring me off."

"This is the city police, probably a bunch of them. And it don't matter what you did or didn't do, they're looking for examples." Claude had not seen him in five years and in truth barely recognized him. He'd filled out to a big man but still with that boyish face.

Bo eyed him. He had been drinking, Claude could tell he was very drunk.

"Who is they, Claude. You and your friends? You all respectable now? As I remember you raised some hell and killed a few before the war."

"That was all I knew back then, Bo. Gun fighting and drinking is no way to live."

Bo turned all the way toward him. "You run off on ma and me and do your killing for Sherman and the blue-bellies and now you're the big hero giving advice. I come back and I'm nothing."

"You joined Quantrill, Bo. People remember the raids and the killings, especially Lawrence."

"'Round here people are of two minds about that."

"Like hell they are. Even the Confederates were disgusted."

Bo pushed away from the bar. "What you and Sherman did in Georgia was no Sunday picnic." In a flash, he went for his gun. Being so close, Claude knocked the gun from his hand with his left and clipped him on the chin with a short right. Bo sagged and Claude caught him.

"Christ." Claude thought. "If he wasn't drunk he would have shot me easy. He is fast."

Bo's friends took him away and Claude had not seen him until this day.

* * *

The sheriff of Washington, Lars Wilson, had his feet up on his desk, leaning back in his chair, ever-present sprig of cinnamon dangling from his mouth. He kept a jar of them on his desk.

"Swede." Claude said.

Wilson didn't look at Claude, speaking slowly. "Those two vagrants on the porch are going to be trouble."

"I spoke with them."

"Claim they are working for Mr. Watson as laborers." He looked at Claude for the first time. "Kind of heavily armed for laborers."

Swede was a tall lean man, decent with a gun, who tried to avoid trouble—up to a point. While tactful, he could be brutally honest if the situation called for it.

"Rumor has it they're trying to scare Douglas off his land, though I don't know why Watson would want it." Swede said. In the checkerboard pattern of railroad and private land along the new intercontinental railroad, Douglas owned a stretch east of Reno in Lockwood, just to the north of Washington on the Truckee.

"I heard Watson wants a right-of-way for a spur to Virginia City."

Lars scratched his head. "The V&T already goes there." Of course, they both knew Douglas would never deal with the railroads, he was retired and happy with his spread on the river. More importantly, his wife had run off with a fancy railroad man.

"Probably feels he's given enough to the railroads already." Lars said. "Why can't we all just get along?" He moved closer to Claude. He was an inch taller. Up close you could see his thinness was the tough kind, like a stick of jerky, in contrast to Claude's solid build. He strode to the window and peered out. "I told those two I want no trouble in my town."

"Two problems, Swede."

"Only two?"

"First, Douglas's ranch is out of your jurisdiction." Washington was a small town, really just a wide spot in a canyon. It had sprung up overnight around a small mine which already looked to be played out. "That's the county and Ray Harris." Harris had been good twenty years ago, now he had gone to fat and mostly donned his guns for the Fourth of July parade in Virginia City. Anything serious he left to his young deputies.

"Second, the young tough is very good and very dangerous. Name's Bo Brite. Good with a gun. Rode with Quantrill in Missouri and Texas."

"That was a nasty business. 'Course, it all was." He eyed Claude. "Brite. That's your last name."

"Yeah," Claude said softly. "He's my brother."

Lars let that sink in. "I hear Watson is over at the hotel. What do you say we pay him a visit?"

Claude occasionally backed up Lars. "Gunna deputize me?"

"Nope. Just want a witness. Watson's always bending the law on something. Probably got a lawyer with him."

* * *

Claude had ridden into town earlier with Mary, his horse tied to the wagon. She sold beef, mutton and vegetables to the hotel diner and a couple places in Reno. Mary had red hair and dark eyes Claude could easily fall into. He was always a little nervous around her even though they had been seeing each other for 2 years. It was one of those blustery spring days when the wind still blew cold. Here in the canyons of the Virginia Range, winter was stubborn and patches of snow still hid in a few crevasses.

"Reminds me of Dublin," she said, "cold and windy but warm when it stops blowing."

"You ever think of going back?"

She was a child when her family had emigrated.

"To visit, Claude, yes. But I've got my life here now. Ties." She stared at him like she did sometimes and, like always, he cleared his throat and changed the subject.

"How's the ranch?" he managed to say, although he knew perfectly well how it was. The small ranch was in Spanish Springs, just northeast of Reno. Her mom had bought it when they came to the U.S. Now her mom was gone and Mary ran it with a couple of hands.

Now Mary changed the subject. "I had the dream again. That horrible man killing my father." Her dad had been a lawyer for coal miners. He was gunned down by a killer hired by the mine owners. Just a child, she had witnessed it. "I'm having it a lot lately. I'll never forget that face." She had told him no charges were ever brought, the man had disappeared.

"Men like that always meet bad ends, Mary," he said. She didn't respond.

* * *

Claude and Lars left the office. Bo and Muley were gone. Washington had just the one Main Street, which ran off the Lockwood-Virginia City road, and the one hotel, which sat at the end. Behind that was hillside, the mine and mine buildings. The hotel was 2 stories, of wood with a stone foundation. The town boasted 3 saloons, although no one was about this time of day, miners were working. The mine was slowing and half the businesses were empty. Most transactions took place in Virginia City, maybe 10 miles to the south or Reno, about the same distance to the west.

They were on the sidewalk a block from the hotel when the first shot threw up splinters next to Claude's head. He and Lars ducked behind a horse rail, not much cover.

"The alley across the street," Lars whispered. Claude saw a barrel emerge then a hint of a figure. They both fired at the same time.

* * *

They climbed the stairs of the hotel.

"What's the plan, Lars?"

"The usual. No trouble. Just everybody get along."

"That's it?"

"Maybe find out what Watson really wants."

In the hallway, Bo lounged like a big rangy kid in a chair outside Watson's door. Bo wasn't a kid anymore, but he always would be to Claude.

"Two senior citizens here to see Mr. Watson," Bo laughed. He stood.

"That's right son," Lars said, "and to tell you about your friend."

"What friend?"

"You called him Muley." Claude said.

"What did that idiot do now? Watson canned him. Can't stop drinking or getting in trouble."

"He won't be getting in trouble anymore. He's dead. Tried to bushwhack me and Claude."

Bo swore. "That fool."

"You and Watson didn't know anything about his actions?" Lars bored in like a bulldog when he got down to business.

"Last I saw him, maybe an hour ago, Watson fired him. The boss has big plans, he wouldn't go for anything stupid like that. Muley probably thought he could get back in the boss's good graces. Hell, Mr. Watson probably would have shot him if you didn't."

Lars stared intently at Bo for a long second. "Tell Watson we're here."

Watson had dark black hair which hung down and plastered to his forehead, along with a doughy white face. A soft face, Claude thought, for a rough man. He was standing by the window in the big room, a paper in his hand and a displeased look on his face. A stranger sat in a chair to his left. Bo went up to him, whispered something, then left.

"So that was the shooting I heard. I'm sorry, sheriff. Muley was an imbecile. I fired him."

"So, you know nothing of his actions?" Swede was still a little riled.

"Come on sheriff, if I was going to kill you it wouldn't be in broad daylight in the middle of town." He laughed, a short bark. "Muley was stupider than I thought."

Claude couldn't help staring at the stranger. He had short black hair and strange black eyes but the oddest thing was his face. It was almost a skull, drawn skin, sharp bones, and a death's head grin. Claude couldn't help but shudder. The stranger stared back at him.

Swede spoke, his voice back now to the relaxed familiar tone. "I'll get to the point, Mr. Watson, I know you're a busy man." Lars looked and spoke like a hayseed much of the time but could be very proper if needed.

Watson nodded impatiently. "Go on."

"Rumor has it you and your men are pressuring Mr. Douglas to sell you his land or give you a right-of-way for a railroad spur to Virginia City."

"Go on."

"I have no problem with someone trying to do a business deal. But anything outside the law, I get concerned."

"Outside the law, sheriff?" Watson laughed that short unpleasant laugh again. "Such as?"

"Threats of physical violence. Extortion. Intimidation."

"Would I do that sheriff?"

"You have in the past. In Virginia City and Carson City."

"You are sheriff of Washington, sir, an insignificant blight in the mountains. Everyone knows the mine isn't paying out. This town will be gone in a few years."

Swede ignored that. "Another question. There is the existing road, right outside, from Lockwood through Lousetown to VC. Seems a railroad could go there."

"Which it will, sheriff, but I still need a right-of-way. And it crosses Douglas's land, I need an easement. But my point is, sheriff, you have no jurisdiction in this matter. Douglas's place is in Storey county and Sheriff Harris handles that. You are sheriff of a nowhere town with no pull at all."

Swede said icily, "I know the police chiefs in Virginia City and Reno and most of the officers, as well as the Nevada Attorney General."

"I'll keep that in mind sheriff. Anything else?"

"Keep everything on the up and up here in Washington. Keep your hired thugs out of town. If you want to talk to Mr. Douglas or relay him a message, he is a friend and I'd be glad to help."

Claude spoke. "I have a question."

"Claude Brite. Quite a reputation you have. Your brother Bo speaks highly of you. Says you were good—when you were younger." Again, a short laugh. "Even O'Malley here has heard of you."

With a start, Claude realized the stranger had risen, fast and smooth like a snake uncoiling. With difficulty, he focused back on Watson.

"Why a spur from Lockwood? The V&T already goes to Virginia City."

"Through Carson City yes, from the Central Pacific in Reno over 40 miles. Lockwood to Virginia City, maybe 15 miles. Time is money." Watson gave a long look at the paper he was holding. "Douglas's latest refusal of my offer." He brightened, a little too fast for Claude. "Tell you what, I'm meeting with Douglas tonight at 7 at his place in Lockwood. Why don't you two joint us." His pale watery eyes peered at them.

Claude looked at Swede who gave an okay shrug. "I'll be there."

"Me too," said Swede.

"Good. One big happy family." And Watson barked the short laugh again. And O'Malley kept grinning like the grim reaper.

* * *

As they walked back to the sheriff's office Claude thought of Mary. Her wagon wasn't at the hotel, meaning she had finished the delivery and was headed for Reno. In the office, Swede handed him some papers and motioned to his desk.

"What is this for?"

"You get to write your version of Muley's demise. For the coroner. I get to do it too. Part of the joy of being sheriff."

Claude moaned, he hated paper work. It must have taken an hour. Then he went to the mine owner's office about a job they had guarding ore shipments. A few days a week. Perfect for a retired man. That's what Bo had called him. Retired and respectable. Guess that was right. He had a small pension from the army and savings and that seemed to be enough. He had wandered after the war and ended up in the Comstock, picking up odd jobs here and there. But he wasn't a gunslinger anymore. Then he met Mary.

Turned out the mine had slowed so much they no longer needed anyone. When he got back to the sheriff's office the sun was setting, casting long shadows. They rode down the canyon towards the Truckee River and Lockwood.

"Maybe this is all legitimate, Claude. But Watson always seems like he's up to no good."

"I agree."

About 3 and a half miles later the canyon opened to the larger Truckee River canyon and they could see Douglas's place on the left, on a small bluff above the river. Claude always like it here, the river winding through cottonwoods, sagebrush, with piņon pine above that as the Virginia Range rose. Across the canyon, the Pah Rah range rose steeply as well.

As they neared the house Claude pulled up short. Mary's outfit was tied up at the rail.

* * *

Claude and Lars were both on edge as Bo opened the door. Bo didn't look happy.

"Hey Claude," he said in a low voice.

They pushed past him into the house. Claude took it all in, Mary across the room with a strange look on her face. Douglas—obviously mad—standing by Watson, to her right. O'Malley to her left.

"Mary, are you alright?" Claude asked as he moved to her. She was staring at O'Malley. Claude spun to face Watson. "What's going on here?"

"Blame the sheriff, Mr. Brite." Watson said. "All that talk of the Attorney General and crime." His coal-black eyes in that white face were a little crazy. "I had Bo ask Mary to join us. You have given me no other choice."

Lars remained by the door with a neutral look on his face. Claude knew that look well, if you were a bad guy that look should scare you, if you had any common sense. Watson was apparently beyond that.

Watson spoke in a smug voice. "Douglas here is just getting ready to grant me right-of-way. You and the sheriff will witness the deed." He smiled a pasty-faced smile. "Or else."

"You in on this Bo?" Claude asked.

Bo looked really looked uncomfortable. "We don't want to hurt anyone Claude. Just give him what he wants."

Mary still stared at O'Malley and started trembling. "It's him," she whispered. "The man who killed my father. It's him."

O'Malley, suddenly intent, leaned forward eagerly. "You haven't lost your brogue girl." He added something else Claude didn't understand.

"It's Irish, Claude," she said, her voice firm now. "He said 'you stink of the Dublin tenements.'"

Watson laughed that short bark of his. "You know each other? It's old family homecoming here at the Douglas ranch. The Brite brothers and Irish reunion."

"So, you ran off to America when they chased you out of Ireland." she said in a voice Claude had never heard before, calm but cold. She stared at O'Malley and he looked away.

"Enough of this." Watson spit out. "Mr. Douglas will sign the right-of-way—I've persuaded him it's in his and his daughter's best interest." Another short laugh while Douglas had an infuriated but hopeless look on his face. "And Mary, Mary will die here and now if you and the sheriff do not sign as witnesses to the deed."

"Hold on a minute," Bo spoke. "I didn't sign up for cold blooded murder. Especially a woman."

Claude saw the whole room—Bo looking very conflicted, Watson haughty, O'Malley eager like a snake about to strike, Lars strangely quit.

"I knew you'd be trouble Bo, it's your brother, isn't it? The brother who never showed you any respect. Remember what I told you about my brother? He never showed me respect either until I forced him to. Now is the time to grow up and deal with him."

Bo laughed, unexpected and short. "I reckon you're right, Mr. Watson, 'bout growing up. But it ain't the way you imagine it."

Watson flicked a glance at O'Malley and all hell broke loose.

* * *

Claude was fast, but O'Malley and Bo drew in a blur which beat him. Claude shot once at O'Malley but the man had already moved. There were several shots including Swede's old Navy Colt, then blackness washed over him.

He woke to Mr. Douglas and Swede's concerned faces. Swede was bleeding.

"He took her." Swede said tonelessly.


"The stranger. O'Malley. He grabbed Mary and dragged her out of here."

Claude sat up and his head swam. He felt his forehead. There was a gash that was bleeding. "Damn close." he muttered.

"Didn't have to come to this." Lars said. "Why can't we all just get along?"

A few feet away Bo lay with blood covering his shirt. Watson was sprawled on the floor, unmoving. Claude went to Bo's side and knelt. "Bo." he said.

Bo's eyes were fluttering then steady. "I got him, Claude. O'Malley. Him and Watson too, he was drawing on you." He coughed up blood. "Jesus, O'Malley got me too. He was the fastest I ever seen. Next to me."

"You're the fastest I've seen, Bo." Bo smiled. It was true. "You saved my life."

Bo tried to say something else but passed out.

Claude stood. "Take care of Bo. I'm going after Mary."

"I'll come with you." Lars said, but Claude saw he was barely standing.

"Stay here and do what you can do."

* * *

A trail of blood led to the hitching rail. O'Malley's, he hoped. No one in sight. Not that one could see far, it was dark. Where would he go? Trying to escape, but why take Mary? That would only ensure he would be followed. The blood was bright red and frothy. The wound was in the chest and bad. He was probably dying and knew it. Claude hoped he wanted Mary as a shield or bargaining chip, and not a last chance to go out with a killing. Frantically he searched the narrow river valley below, but couldn't see much. He mounted and trotted to the road. South towards Washington it was empty. He knelt and made out blood droplets leading to the river. He moved that direction.

* * *

She had been in a daze since she saw him—her father's killer. It had been 10 years but she would never forget that skull face and that snake-hiss voice. "Too bad you came home early, girl." he had whispered when she found her father dead. He stared at her but then looked away. She was sure he would have killed her but just then the housemaids could be heard in the kitchen and O'Malley just disappeared.

Later, they found out O'Malley was a hit man employed by the coal mine owners. He was wanted in other killings. The women, mostly prostitutes, were killed in gristly fashion with a knife. His picture was in the papers for a while but he was never seen again. And now they had dismounted and he held a gun on her.

"I'm not from a Dublin tenement, O'Malley. We had a nice house in Howth. But you should remember, you were there."

O'Malley had grabbed her as she knelt next to Claude—he was alive, the bullet grazing his skull—put her on his horse in front of him and rode down to the Truckee by the train tracks. But he was breathing raggedly and blood ran freely from a wound in his chest down his shirt. He stared at her strangely.

"Thomas McCarthy. A lawyer for the coal miners. You killed him in March 1860."

He looked away, shook his head, and staggered. She thought he might go down.

"I cut girls like you." he gasped and pulled a long knife.

"Not girls like me, O'Malley. Poor lost girls from the tenements. You couldn't look a good girl in the eyes."

A whistle sounded, the Central Pacific headed out of Reno towards parts east. The searchlight hit them, flashing in and out.

* * *

Claude saw figures in the throbbing train light ahead. Light then dark, again and again. He raced towards them. He saw a knife flash again and again. "Mary!" he yelled, and fear like cold ice shot through him. He jumped off his horse and grabbed Mary's arm, which held the knife. "Mary. Stop, Mary." He held her close. "O'Malley's dead."

* * *

Swede recovered, his left arm in a sling for a while. Douglas seemed okay, with just another reason to hate the railroads. Watson was dead, Bo had shot him between the eyes. Turns out he had bad money troubles, something to do with the Credit Moblier scandal, and had several wild schemes to raise cash.

* * *

Claude rode out to Washington on a fine spring day. The weather had warmed. Washington was empty. Not as everyone at work, but everyone gone.

"Where is everyone?" he asked Swede, who was chewing a sprig of cinnamon.

"The mine closed. Hell, everyone knew it was coming. The company wants me to stay here a couple weeks while they remove some equipment."

"What you gunna do after that?"

"Colorado. Leadville area. The company needs a sheriff in a small town."

They were standing on the porch. Lars eyed Claude's horse and saddle bags. "You going somewhere?"

"This is the longest I've spent in one place since I was a kid, Swede. Time to move on, I reckon."

Swede eyed him speculatively. "You're a smart man, Claude, but sometimes . . . " He paused and sighed. "You spoke to Mary?"

"On my way out there after this."

Lars smiled and laughed. Claude was a little perplexed. "What's so funny?"

"Nothing, my friend, nothing at all."

* * *

Claude rode to Mary's place. She was out front by the barn with a loaded wagon, standing still, watching him approach.

"Going somewhere, Claude?" She stared at his outfit strapped to the horse, then back to him. She was doing it again, looking at him that way.

"I've been thinking, Mary. I can't stay here, in this area. I need to be moving on."

She still stared and he began to sweat. Did anyone ever have a look like that?

"Claude Brite. Just where do you have to go? Nowhere. Your life is here. Your brother is buried here." She stepped up close to his horse. "And I'm here."

She had a point. "Bring your stuff in the house. You can ride in to Reno with me. We can stop at the courthouse."

The End

Ron lives and writes in Northern Nevada. He has been spotted roaming the Pah Rah and Virginia ranges looking for and photographing wild horses, raptors, and petroglyphs. He graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno.

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by Dave Barr

Dell Norris stood in the shade of the stage depot's porch watching the people around him. The crowd was eddying up and down the street, and the noise was considerable as the citizens conducted their affairs, but Dell Norris heard none of it. He had heard nothing since the mortar accident during the siege of Petersburg ten years ago. Dell had been engulfed by an immense explosion that had knocked him out, tossed his body like a ragdoll, and deafened him to the world of men.

Since that awful day in Virginia, Dell had learned the hard way that nobody notices deaf people. Deaf folks look normal, and go about their business in the usual ways, but they miss out on the sounds of ordinary life, and tend to become cut off from regular human interactions. It is a lonely and frustrating existence where a man is surrounded by people yet unable to communicate properly with them. Dell's answer to this loneliness had been to retreat into his work designing windmills. Dell could still communicate with others through his drawings, but his boss Mr. Mackey insisted that he get out in the field occasionally to see how his designs were holding up in the real world. Dell was on one of those trips right now, and although he hadn't left the station yet he was already wishing the trip was over.

When the stage arrived for the Strasburg, Colorado to Hays, Kansas run Dell was confronted with another unpleasantness. There were two female passengers riding with him today, and he would have to publicly announce to them that he was deaf, or there would be all sorts of social miscues. Dell reluctantly introduced himself, and mentioned that he was hard-of-hearing; the older, Miss Abagail Irwin, had seemed offended by Dell's remark, while the younger, Miss Debra Platz, seemed sympathetic enough. But after his admission Dell assumed both women would ignore him since a deaf person would be little help with conversation.

Once the stage got moving Dell stared out the window, trying to keep his mind on windmill design, but his thoughts and eyes kept drifting back to the young woman seated across from him. Dell wondered what life would be like with someone like Miss Debra Platz, but it was hopeless to think that she could understand him, so few people could anymore.

Across the stage's cramped interior, the young lady in question smiled to herself as she toyed with the beaded bag her father had given her as she packed. This was Debra Platz's first long trip alone, and she was looking forward to talking to the people she met and hearing their stories. Debra considered the silent deaf fellow a bit of a challenge, but the trip would be long, and she hoped to find a way to communicate with him. For now, Debra tried to converse with the older woman, and was surprised to find that she was an unemployed veterinarian from Portland Oregon.

Miss Abagail Irwin, the unemployed veterinarian, fidgeted awkwardly in her seat; she wasn't used to sharing her personal life with strangers, but here was this silly slip of a girl asking damn fool questions. How she wished she was back at her infirmary in Portland, tending her patients in peace.

But Dr. Francis, the head veterinarian in Portland, didn't believe a woman should be handling large animals. He had given Miss Irwin the task of overseeing feeding procedures instead of working with the sick. Embittered by this treatment, Miss Irwin had offered her resignation in a fit of pique, and had been mortified when it was accepted. Now an angry Abagail Irwin was on her way to Kansas, hoping to obtain work there as a veterinarian. Miss Irwin was actually glad when the lone man in the stage announced that he was deaf; that meant she won't be expected to talk to him. His presence would be a nuisance, but at least he wasn't continually chatting like this young woman.

Debra sat beside Miss Irwin and bubbled with enthusiastic conversation as the stage rolled along; the young woman was excited about everything, and assumed her companions were as well. If Debra noticed Miss Irwin's reticence she ignored it after she discovered that Dell could lip read. Debra had made a comment about how rough the road seemed, and Dell had been looking at her at the time and nodded in agreement.

"I think the station masters are responsible for road maintenance," he said, not realizing he was interrupting.

"Well, I could do with a little less of this sort of excitement," Miss Irwin grumped, as she bounced in her seat. "Travel by stage robs a person of their rest."

"Oh, I don't think there has been a stage robbery for quite some time," Dell answered, not realizing he had misunderstood the lady's concern.

Debra made certain that she was facing the man when she spoke, "Do you think there's danger?" she asked.

"There might be some," Dell conceded.

"Don't worry, dearie," Miss Irwin snorted, "The conductor's armed."

After that the conversation lagged, and even Debra lapsed into a fretful silence as she toyed with her beaded bag while the coach bounced along. The road grew rougher as it crossed a part of the prairie littered with arroyos, washes made by run-off water from the hills. The coach was forced to slow down each time it crossed one of these depressions, and the passengers began to dread the hard bounce the wagon made as it hit the bottom of the grades.

The stage had just started up the far side of one of these washes when a rifle shot echoed across the prairie, and the team's lead horse dropped like it had been hit by lightning. As the coach lurched to a stop, three armed horsemen appeared out of the sagebrush shouting for everyone to get their hands up. The passengers complied, but the conductor foolishly thought to try his luck with the desperados, and raised his weapon, only to be shot by the marksmen still hidden in the sage.

The force of the bullet pitched the conductor's body into the coachman, knocking the man down onto the road. Now the dying guard sprawled awkwardly across the stage's roof, and the driver groaned in the dust wondering if he would ever use his broken left arm again. The bandits ignored the passengers; they had come for the Wells Fargo chest that was lashed to the coach's roof. One bandit covered the coach's occupants with a pistol while the other outlaws fetched the strongbox, and released the stage's team. The desperados kept one horse to act as a pack animal, and scattered the rest into the sage.

In less than ten minutes the bandits were heading south, and the doors of the stage were tentatively opening as the passengers stepped out onto the prairie. Dell looked around blinking at the glare of the midday sun. He walked over to the driver who was sitting beside the road cursing quietly as the shock of his injury turned into pain. Dell was wondering what he could do to help when the man looked up and said, "See to my partner."

Dell read his lips, and climbed up on the stage seat, but as soon as he looked at the conductor he knew the man's wound was fatal. "He's dead," he said.

Meanwhile the women had exited the coach; Debra stood forlornly beside the road clutching her beaded bag while Miss Irwin knelt beside the driver and examined his arm. "Both the ulna and radius bones are fractured, there may be damage to his wrist as well," she announced as she looked up at Dell, "We need to get this immobilized and elevated." But Dell wasn't looking at Miss Irwin, and began pulling the conductor's body down. Miss Irwin felt her diagnosis was being ignored, "Leave the dead man! We need to see to the living!" She said irritably.

"You know he can't hear you," Debra answered sharply. She stepped forward and tugged at Dell's pants leg, and when the deaf man looked down she said, "Please help her!" while pointing to where Miss Irwin was examining on the driver. Dell smiled, and stepped back down looking at Miss Irwin to see what she needed.

"I'm sorry," he said loudly as he pointed at his ears, "I can't hear; I was next to an explosion—"

"I couldn't care less about that right now," the older woman interrupted, "We need to get this arm immobilized." She looked around. "Make yourself useful, and find some straight pieces of wood to use for a splint."

Dell didn't understand what the woman wanted until Debra took the time to explain. After a bit of a search they managed to find several wooden seat supports to use for splint material. While Debra helped Miss Irwin, Dell pulled down the dead man, and removed his suspenders to use as binders.

Miss Irwin took the proffered suspenders without a glance at the man helping her, and went to work on the driver who cursed roundly as his bones were set. Feeling a bit ignored, Dell decided to examine their surroundings, but all he could see was sagebrush in every direction. He concluded that the bandits had picked their ambush point well, and it was unlikely that anyone would find them soon, "Does anyone know how far it is to the next station?" He asked thoughtfully.

Miss Irwin merely grunted as she worked on the driver's arm, but the patient spoke up, "It's at least fifteen miles to Pete's Place . . . JEEZUS lady . . . " he gasped as Miss Irwin roughly knotted the suspenders around his arm.

Debra realized that Dell was wondering when help might arrive, so she tapped his shoulder, and when she had his attention passed on the driver's information. Dell nodded and said, "I think one of us needs to try to walk to the station for help."

"Well that's up to you mister," Miss Irwin said as she gave the suspender a final tug before looking up from the brace she was building. "This fellow certainly isn't in any shape to walk that far and, as I'm sure you've noticed, women's shoes aren't designed for hiking." She waved an arm at Debra's high heeled shoes which were buttoned firmly around her ankles.

Debra looked at her feet as if she had never noticed them before. Then she remembered something, "I have other shoes!" she said suddenly. "I intended to use them once I reached Hays, but there is no reason not to get them out now!" The young woman went to the stage's boot, and began tugging at the straps holding the tarpaulin in place, "Can someone help me get to my trunk?"

The veterinarian and the stagedriver looked at each other in disbelief before Miss Irwin nudged Dell and pointed. "Help her," she said dismissively as she began arranging a sling for the driver's arm.

Miss Irwin's attitude was lost on Dell who looked around for a moment before figuring out what she wanted him to do. While the deaf man helped Debra, the driver spoke up, "They'll send someone to check on us when we're overdue."

"And you might pass out from shock before they get here," Miss Irwin pronounced. "That is a bad break mister. If you were a horse I'd recommend putting you down," the driver wilted at this, groaning as pain flowed up his arm.

Meanwhile Dell had found Debra's trunk, and the young woman was going through the carefully packed clothes searching for her boots. Dell wondered what she was looking for, but no one volunteered the information, so he turned to the driver, "Do you have a canteen? It's going to be pretty hot today," he said.

The driver pointed at the wagon seat, "There's cold coffee in a canteen up there."

Dell climbed up to the blood-stained seat, and retrieved the container, "I'll take this," he said, "There's water down in the wash if you get thirsty."

Realizing that Dell was serious about leaving, Miss Irwin turned her ire on him, "So, you're just going to leave us here with a corpse?" She spat out the words. Dell didn't hear her, and continued to prepare to leave. The angry woman finally placed herself in front of the deaf man, and wagged a finger in his face as she said, "You're not leaving till that man is buried somehow!" She pointed at the conductor's body.

Dell stared thoughtfully at the corpse before turning his attention back to the crabby woman, "Have you handled dead bodies before?" He asked.

Miss Irwin stiffened her spine and retorted, "Of course. I've handled many dead animals in my day. I'm capable of any medical function from births to autopsies," she huffed.

Dell nodded, "Good. Grab a leg, and we'll pull him into the brush. You can cover him while I go for help." Miss Irwin was surprised by this casualness, but Dell had gotten used to seeing the dead during the war. Now he waited patiently by the body, and after a moment the veterinarian caved in, and they towed the conductor into a wash. Dell pointed, "You can break sage branches off to cover him with. That should keep him fresh till someone comes from Pete's Place," he said.

"So, you're really leaving?" Miss Irwin asked.

But Dell had turned away and didn't see the question, but Debra heard it and answered, "He's not leaving alone! I'm going with him!" She said as she tugged on her new boots.

Miss Irwin looked at Debra and smirked. "I don't think he knows that, dearie," she said acidly. "You should think twice before marching off in the desert with that deaf fool. You don't know what you could run into out there." She looked at Dell hard. "You know he won't be much help if there's trouble," she warned.

"I'm going," Debra said as she picked up the canteen and her beaded bundle, "I'm sure Mr. Norris is very capable. However, he may need me to listen for him. You should stay here, Miss Irwin. You don't have proper shoes, and the driver may need your assistance."

Miss Irwin gave a dry chuckle. "Dearie, I've lanced an abscess on a Tiger's gum, and caught an elephant calf when it was born." She gestured toward the injured man. "I can take care of things here with no trouble at all." The driver looked at his nurse in horror, wondering what he had let himself in for.

Dell heard none of this, and was surprised when Debra presented herself in her flat-soled boots carrying her beaded bag in one hand and the canteen in the other, "You're sure you want to come?" He asked, "It's a long walk in the sun." When the young woman nodded he pointed at her head, "You should have a hat." But the only hat available had belonged to the conductor, and Debra couldn't bring herself to wear it, so they settled for a scarf instead. Dell picked up the shotgun, "Do you mind if I borrow this?" He asked, but neither the driver nor Miss Irwin bothered to answer, so Dell took the gun and a handful of shells.

The man and woman began their journey eastward with the sun at their backs. At first the walk was pleasant after being cooped up in the stage, but that feeling quickly passed as both the temperature and the dust rose around them. Dell offered to carry the canteen and Debra's little bag, but she insisted that if she was making this trek then she was going to help, and Dell respected that.

Following the well-worn trail wasn't difficult, but the pair soon noticed the stage road wasn't built with pedestrians in mind. The track meandered across the prairie skirting places where a wagon would find rough going. This wandering increased the distance Dell and Debra needed to cover, so to pass the time they began to chat after a fashion. Telling their respective stories meant that they had to pay close attention to each other since Dell understood nothing unless he saw Debra's lips move. Communicating in this way allowed Debra to see the pain on her companion's face as he related how he had lost his hearing, and Dell noticed the wistful look in Debra's eyes as she related how she had stayed home, caring for things since her mother died.

"Daddy is always so busy at his brewery I can never get away," she sighed. "That's why I'm so excited about this trip."

Dell laughed. "I never leave the office unless Mr. Mackey sends me someplace."

Debra looked at him. "Don't you want to get outside sometimes?"

"Sure," Dell agreed. "But when you can't understand what folks are saying you tend to stay away from them," he said.

"I can understand you," she said.

"You're different," he answered.

"How?" Debra asked.

Dell thought about that for a moment. "You take the time to look at me and listen," he finally said.

Debra stopped and faced the deaf man before she asked her next question; she wanted to be sure he understood what she was saying. "Mr. Norris, why are you making this hike? The driver is right you know, someone will eventually come for us."

Dell smiled a little sadly, "I guess to prove I can still do things that matter . . . even though I can't hear." He shrugged. "Why are you walking with me?"

Debra looked down; sometimes it was hard to think straight when he stared at her mouth, "I guess I wanted to talk to you a bit," she smiled. "I like to walk like this," she said. "It seems to make everything a bit of an adventure, doesn't it?"

Dell looked around at the empty prairie, "Well, if you wanted adventure I can think of other ways of finding it." They shared a laugh at that and resumed walking. After several hours, the pair reached a prominence where Dell paused to survey the country before boldly stepping off the road and heading in a straight line down the hillside.

Debra pulled at the man's sleeve, "We should stay on the trail," she pointed out.

Dell shook his head. "It's fifteen miles as the crow flies to Pete's Place, but it's probably closer to twenty if we stick to the road." He pointed downhill. "Besides, you can see where the road crosses that ridge over there. All we have to do is walk in that direction."

Debra looked worried, but agreed. The short cut would save them some steps, and her new boots were chafing her feet terribly. They headed downhill, but hadn't walked far when they discovered a fresh trail made by shod horses traveling in single file. Dell examined the tracks carefully. "White men or Mexicans on four to six horses," he said as he pointed out where someone had spit tobacco juice in the dirt, "Looks like they're headed northeast."

Debra faced the deaf man. "Maybe they would help us?" she asked hopefully.

Dell read her lips and answered. "Maybe . . . " he said doubtfully. "Or maybe the bandits looped around, and are headed north now. Let's keep going the way we are, we can always cut back to this trail later."

Privately, Debra felt that if they caught up with whoever was on those horses they could ride to Pete's Place, and it certainly would be pleasant to get off her feet. But Dell resolutely stepped across the tracks, and they continued downhill with the man assisting Debra as she struggled with her new boots and long skirts. Dell was beginning to wonder if allowing Debra along had been a good idea. He held his peace though, and ten minutes later they reached a swallow arroyo. There was water in the wash, and Dell looked at the girl questioningly. "Oh yes," she said, "please, let's rest a moment!" Debra clutched her beaded bag tightly as she looked for a place to step down.

"What do you have in the bag?" Dell asked.

Debra sat on a stone, and loosened the laces on her boots before looking at Dell shyly, "Just some lady things I didn't want to leave behind. Do you mind if I take off my boots for a moment?"

Dell sat down, "Go ahead," he said, and then frowned when he got a look at her blistered feet. "You shouldn't have worn those boots without breaking them in," he pointed out as he watched her face for a response.

Debra felt foolish. "I know, but I couldn't stand staying at the coach with that Miss Irwin," she answered as she rubbed water over the sores. Debra tried not to meet Dell's look. She found it unsettling to have him stare at her face right now. Debra wondered what he must think of her, traipsing through the desert like some Indian, then pulling off her boots and exposing her ankles like some saloon girl, when any real lady would have stayed at the stage.

But Dell accepted Debra's answer. Briefly he wondered how the driver was faring with Miss Irwin, but his thoughts kept returning to the woman bathing her feet beside him. Communicating with hearing people was a challenge, but dealing with women placed the problem on another level. As much as he wanted to speak to her, Dell thought it best to just let Debra alone for a bit. She probably felt silly for some reason or other, and he resolved to say no more about her feet or her shoes.

The duo's respective reveries were interrupted by three rifle shots. Dell started at the sounds and looked around alertly. Debra touched his arm, and when he turned to face her she asked, "Could you hear that?"

Dell nodded, "I can hear loud noises," he grinned, "I just don't always know what they mean."

"It was gunfire," Debra said. "What do you suppose it was about?" Dell answered with a shrug. There was no way of knowing unless they went to look. The deaf man stood up and pointed toward where the sounds had come from, and Debra nodded.

Dell frowned, "Lace up your boots," he said as he checked the shotgun. When Debra was ready, the pair moved up the wash with the young woman limping slightly as the new boots settled over her blisters again. Fortunately, walking in the hard sand of the wash was easier than ducking around sagebrush, and after about fifteen minutes they came upon a dry camp in the shade of a large cottonwood tree. There was an empty whiskey bottle lying in the sand, and a horse tied up nearby. The animal was flicking at insects with its tail while nuzzling a small pool of water at its feet.

Dell pointed to marks in the sand where horses had dragged away three heavily bleeding burdens. Then the gleam of an empty cartridge lying by a stone caught the deaf man's eye, and he picked it up. "From a Henry repeater," he said as he looked about.

"There doesn't seem to be anyone around. Do you suppose we could borrow this horse?" Debra asked. Dell handed the shotgun to her and turned his attention to the beast. The animal swiveled its ears toward Dell as he patted the dusty flank, and untied the line holding the bridle, "This is one of the stagecoach's horses," Dell said as he pointed to the horse's rump. "See the brand?"

But Debra was looking at something under the sagebrush. "Isn't that the strongbox from the stage?" She gasped.

Dell saw her question and nodded. "Looks like, and that means we need to get out of here as quick as we can," he said.

"Do you think they'll come back?" Debra asked.

Dell glanced at the bloodstained sand. "The ones that are still alive will," he said as he turned his attention back to the horse. Dell was thinking that he should put Debra on the animal and let her ride to spare her feet. He ignored the strongbox. Let the stage company retrieve it if they could. The horse didn't move, but its ears flicked in another direction, hearing something the man couldn't. Dell realized that someone was coming, and as he turned he saw Debra pointing up the wash.

A cowboy was approaching on foot. He was rangy man with a growth of stubble covering his face, and the brim of his hat shading his eyes. The man's plaid shirt was faded, and his leather chaps were worn to a glossy finish in places, but the Henry rifle in his right hand looked well cared for. The man looked startled when he saw Dell and Debra; he obviously wasn't expecting company, but he managed a smile showing a set of tobacco stained teeth. "Howdy folks," he said.

Dell looked at Debra who was a good fifteen feet away. She was watching the stranger and clutching her bag in one hand and the shotgun in the other. "Hello," she managed to say, "we're . . . sort of lost. Can you help us?"

Dell looked back at the cowboy. The man was eyeing him curiously, probably wondering why Dell let the woman speak for him. The cowboy relaxed a bit, and answered Debra civilly enough, "Lost huh? Where you trying to get to, missy?" he asked.

"To a way station called Pete's Place," Debra answered. "Our coach was held up, and the conductor was killed. The bandits cut the team loose, and left us stranded, so we decided to walk," Debra looked at Dell, but he had switched his attention to the man with the rifle. She took a step in Dell's direction and went on. "We stopped for water, and heard some gunshots, so we decided to look for whoever was shooting, but all we found was this horse . . . " she let the sentence trail off because she didn't want to mention the strongbox under the sagebrush, and the cowboy didn't seem to be paying attention anyway. She was wrong.

The stranger shook his head and said, "Oh, Lordy, where are my manners? I'm Bo Harper, and that was me you heard shooting. I was hunting coyotes. My horse run off when I opened fire, and I was chasing it. That animal there is my pack train . . . " Harper switched his attention from Dell to the girl, "What's the matter with that fella? Why does he stare at a man so?"

Debra grinned. "He's deaf, he reads lips," she said.

"Deaf?" the cowboy said thoughtfully before changing the subject. "So you were held up on the way to Pete's Place huh? Did you see who did it?" he asked casually.

Debra told a short version of the robbery, and Dell busied himself with the horse, but he kept an eye on Harper as he worked. The stranger took several more steps toward them, and was now holding the rifle with both hands as he listened to Debra's tale. When she finished talking, Dell walked the horse over to where she stood. "Get on," he said.

"Hey now! "Bo yelled, "I said that's my animal! You could at least ask!"

Dell didn't hear this outburst of course, and he ignored the girl's startled look as he took the shotgun from her and suddenly stepped away, leveling the weapon at Harper. "Drop the rifle or you're dead," he said flatly. The cowboy started to speak but looked at the stubby shotgun in the deaf man's hands and dropped his rifle.

"Mister, you're making a big mistake—" Harper began.

Dell read his lips and interrupted. "Not as big as your ex-partners did when they trusted you." Dell gestured with the shotgun. "Now back up and get down on your knees." The cowboy backed up and knelt in the dirt. Dell picked up Harper's rifle, "It's still warm, Debra," he said as he turned his attention from Harper to the girl.

"I was hunting coyotes," Bo repeated.

Dell was looking at Debra, and couldn't hear the excuse, "We didn't see who shot the conductor," he said, "But that horse was pulling our stage, and that strongbox was on the coach!" He said as he gestured at the whiskey bottle, "I'll bet those shots were this fellow finishing off his partners after he got 'em drunk, and the bodies are up that wash somewhere—" but Debra wasn't listening. She was pointing and soundlessly yelling.

Dell started to turn, but Harper tackled him, and with a gun in each hand the deaf man fell heavily. Harper pressed his advantage, punching Dell with his fists, and the deaf man let go of the weapons as he tried to fight back. Harper dived for the rifle only to be brought up short by the crack of a pistol, and a spurt of dust where a slug buried itself between his outstretched arms.


Harper froze with his fingers a good foot away from the rifle.

Dell heard the shot, and sat up wondering what was going on. Debra was standing about twenty feet away holding a smoking pistol in her tightly clasped hands; the empty beaded bag lay crumpled at her feet. As the young woman coolly re-cocked her weapon, Dell retrieved the rifle and shotgun. "Just a few things you didn't want to leave behind eh?" he said, and grinned.

Debra looked at Dell and answered primly. "A girl can't be too careful Mr. Norris. How was I supposed to know you were so trustworthy?"

Dell looked at her admiringly, and Debra gestured with her gun, "Perhaps we'd better tie this one up?" she suggested.

Dell read her lips and realized he had finally met a woman who could understand him.

The End

Dave Barr has hiked and fished across the American West for thirty years. He has had one story published previously in Frontier Tales. Currently Dave lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he grows vegetables and plans his next adventure.

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A Close Shave, Part 1 of 2
by Brandon Abbott

Red licked his lips and eyed the aces in his hand. Peering over his cards, he watched the grimy gamblers around the table. Each of them returned his stare, keeping one eye on Red and one eye on the mound of money in the middle. Cigar haze danced with the dingy light of saloon chandeliers and played with Red's imagination. The pot assumed a heavenly glow that whispered to him, tempted him.

Go all in, it said. This is your ticket out of Widow's Rest. No more watching over your shoulder. No more living under the rich man's thumb.

The rich man watched him now, flipping his own cards with that same oppressive thumb. Jasper Tate owned the saloon and half the men at the table, including Red. But not for long. Soon the fair-haired barber from Biloxi would lay down his cards and walk away from this table (and this town) free and clear, maybe even a little flush.

"Another round, fellas?" A buxom waitress in a constricting corset cut the tension and cozied up behind Red. She leaned over his shoulder, as if to press her own luck. Her smile was full of promise, and her tray was full of whiskey. Red looked down and liked his chances. Meanwhile, the pile of money harmonized with the dreamy dissonance of a distant upright piano and resumed its siren song.

Take it, Red. Take it all. Show Jasper Tate just who owns who.

"Darlin'," Red slurred, "If you're a sellin', I'm a buyin'." Emboldened by the virility of waiting wealth, he pushed his entire pile of money to the center of the table. "Drinks on me!" His arm extended in a show of magnanimity. A cheer erupted from the crowd.

Then, without warning, the lady lunged forward, pinning Red against the table.

"Hey!" he grunted. The tray teetered over his shoulder.

"Watch it, Mister!" the waitress shouted at a faceless cowboy who shoved his way past. Inertia took over, and the top-heavy tart lost her balance. Whiskey rained. Glass shattered. And Red's cards (along with Red's future) went flying out of his hands and across the prodigious kitty. As the table tumbled, one of Red's aces lodged in the woman's cleavage, falling (like the kitty) hopelessly out of reach.

"Nooo!" Red cried. His eyes burned from the fumes of the whiskey. But he drew his tears from a different well. Once again, Red had mined a mountain called Fortune. And once again, Fortune had failed to deliver. Tears followed a worn path down his face, like a stream cutting through the mountainside, eroding Fortune, eroding hope. Like a forgotten 49er, Red was on his knees sifting silty pans of disappointment. The mountain was made of it, and so was Red.

"Mr. Graves!" someone shouted from the back of the room.

"What?" the groggy old man grumbled and shifted in the barber's chair.

"Wake up. I need some help," the distant voice pleaded.

"What is it?" Red slurred, this time for real. Perfumed haze, like smelling salts, smacked him back to a waking reality. He rubbed his eyes. They really were burning, but not from whiskey.

"What in tarnation is that stench?"

"It's bad, sir. The whole case busted."

"Open the door, you coot!" Red choked out. "I can't breathe."

Harley Atwater stumbled to the door and flung it open. The room imploded with dust as precious oxygen rode in on fire-breathing steeds of hot, Arizona air.

"Fan it, Harley. Fan the blasted door." Red covered his mouth with his apron and wrestled with the arm of the recliner. Righting himself, he saw the labels on the broken glass. "Thayer's Witch Hazel Tonic." Noxious fumes wafted through the twelve square, two-chair barbershop as the remains of fourteen containers spilled across the floor. A blood-red cloud spread in a circle and tattooed raw wooden planks.

"Harley, you addle-headed moron!"

"I know, I know, Mr. Graves," Harley coughed. He spat and tried to catch his breath. "It weren't my fault, though. Heflin Spears knocked 'em over. Honest!"

"Spears? Why?" Red coughed again.

"He just stormed out so fast. Didn't look where he was goin', I guess." Harley worked the door like a butter churn. Red wiped water from his bloodshot sockets and tried to solve the sleepy puzzle in his mind.

"But I didn't even hear him come in."

"Well," Harley began, "you was sleeping." He stopped churning as if he just remembered something important to his cause. "And you was a smiling." He smiled himself and laughed, despite the predicament. "That's right, Mr. Graves. Smiling like a little baby nursing at his mama's bosom." He puckered in a ridiculous gesture. Understanding descended on Red like Sitting Bull on Custard.

"You tried to give him a shave." Red reasoned aloud. Harley dropped his hands and answered the accusation with sheepish contrition.

"Yessir. Yessir, I did."

"And how far did you make it this time, young Harley?"

"Third stroke." Harley answered proudly.

"Before you nicked him?" If so, that was an improvement on which Red would not have wagered.

"No." Harley coughed again. "Before I drew blood. That's when he jumped up and said . . . ," Harley rubbed his nervous hands together and tried to remember the exchange. "He said, 'Blast it all to . . . ' well, you know. Then, 'I'm a-gonna leave here and fetch my iron. Then we'll see if you can sit still.' Because, see, I kept telling him to try and sit—"

"I got it," Red interrupted. "The man's lucky. You could've slit his throat like you did Miller's sow."

"Now, that weren't my fault, neither," Harley defended with an indignant finger. "That practice pig was too fidgety for shavin'."

"That pig feared for its very life, and with good reason. It was good sausage, though."

"I think I cost you a customer," demurred Harley. Red considered the supplies spilling across the floor.

"I think you cost me a dollar and forty cents is what you did! I swear, I oughta hide you for this."

Harley hung his head. "I'm awful sorry. Say, I'll go get a crate and a mop and clean this up."

"You do that."

"Mr. Graves," Harley whirled around. "I think next time, if I just angle it a little better—"

"Mop. Now!"

"Yessir." Harley hurried off.

Red rocked his head on its post and tried to dispel the rigamortis from his afternoon nap. His dry mouth tasted like a buzzard's breakfast. He walked carefully past the spill and pulled a flask from his coat. He took a drink and watched out the window as the heat imposed its will on deserted streets. Waiting for customers who didn't come, he held the liquor in his mouth and let it burn. Then he choked it down and took another swig. Anything to wash away the dreamy residue of reality. He didn't want to think about Tate and his thumb the rest of the afternoon.

But he didn't have to. Suddenly, he had other things to worry about.

"Harley!" he yelled. The flask fell to the floor, and whiskey added its own color to the blood red planks. "What day is it?" Red trembled in disbelief as he watched the Twitch ride into town. This was no dream. This was a nightmare.

* * *

Tucker "the Twitch" Maynard was a legendary outlaw, at least in Widow's Rest. He was too ugly and simple for the world-wide fame that belonged to Billy the Kid or Hoodoo Brown. But most of the widows in Widow's Rest owed their titles and their tears to his erratic temper and unpredictable pistol.

Red was betting on an inside straight the first time he encountered the half-crazed outlaw. Justo Fuente, an aspiring bandito himself, was about to take Red's money with little more than a pair of tens when he suddenly pulled the brim of his sombrero over his dark eyes and buried his face deep in his cards. Red, hunched over with his back to the door, noticed Justo's fingers inching toward the six-shooter strapped to his waist. This made Red want to reach for his own gun, but he never carried one. He did keep a Henry rifle in the back of the barbershop, a leftover from his days with the Confederacy. But he had never fired it. As a medic, he had never needed to. Of course, he had never met the Twitch. Clearly, Justo had.

A fog of silence fell over the saloon. The only sound came from the irregular gait of heavy boots limping across a creaky, wooden floor. Shump, drag, shump. For ten full minutes, an eternity, the room died.

Red's curiosity held claim over his common sense. Call it a character flaw. So, of course, he glanced over his shoulder. But his timing was worse than his card playing, and he instantly locked eyes with Tucker Maynard.

What Redmond saw in that briefest of moments was not a mere man. Instead, he beheld what that voodoo queen from New Orleans had once called the "black djab," an evil spirit of darkness she warned would come knocking upon Red's door one fateful day. As a young boy, Red had dismissed the ancient mambo's musings. But she had also foretold of his life as a fou kwafè, a foolish barber. Now, looking back in time and into the eyes of Tucker Maynard, the old hag seemed downright prescient. Maynard was a giant, amorphous darkness beneath an oily hat, with renegade hair that (frankly) needed a trim. Red resented life, but he feared death. And the image before him was death incarnate.

The barber turned back to his cards and (like everyone else) held his breath. When the Twitch drank his fill, he pushed back the stool with a screech, released a seismic belch, and limped out. Shump, drag, shump. The sound alone raised the rust-colored hairs on the back of Red's ivory neck. He sat paralyzed by the pulse of that irregular gait. Without so much as a word, the dreaded djab of Widow's Rest had cast a voodoo spell on ole Red de kwafè. Shump, drag, shump. Red would remember that sound as long as he lived, however long that might be.

"A mule," Justo whispered, breaking the silence.

"What's that?" Red whispered back. Eventually, low murmurs crescendoed into a steady roar of relief around the entire room. Then Justo continued.

"A mule. Dis is why he leemps," his compadre explained. "But why he kills," Justo shook his head, "ees longer estory. Gringo is muy loco, I tell you."

Justo's fingers, now trembling slightly, left his gun and labored to deliver a steady dose of tequila to his lips. A heavy sigh signaled his reluctance to recount the story. He threw his head back and downed a shot of medicine. Then he peered through his empty shot glass, as if looking back in time, and somehow found the strength to begin.

"Was in de mountains of East Kentucky on coldest night of longest winter en seis décadas. Wind howling, esnow blinding. Ees kind of night animals don' survive. Muy frio!" he wheezed. He shivered and slammed the shot glass on the table.

According to Justo, this inauspicious evening found homely Celia Maynard, alone and unsettled, with a low turmoil in her gut which she feared to be more than her chamber pot could bear. By the time she made it to the door, she could hardly stand. Pain-ridden and oblivious to the elements, she stumbled barefoot through winter's worst to an outhouse more than fifty frigid feet from her front door. But what she mistook for irritable bowels was instead the painful miracle of labor. And thus Tucker Maynard tumbled unassisted and head first into the bottom of a frosty latrine.

Poor Celia, the haggard, yet portly matron, could hardly claim fault for such an oversight, novice as she was to childbearing. Tucker was the offspring of a passing tragedy on horseback and was not planned, expected, nor wanted. Celia didn't even know she was pregnant.

"That's terrible," Red had exclaimed.

"Sí. Infortunado. Eet gets worse," Justo frowned as he dealt a new hand. From day one, little Tucker bore the unfortunate resemblance of his incidental outlaw father, even after his mother cleaned him up. With each passing day, he was a constant reminder of the worst night of Celia's sad life, (the night of Tucker's birth coming in a close second.) Yet, as difficult as motherhood was for the solitary spinster, she nonetheless tried to do right by the child. She nursed and knitted away his needs, even attending to his midnight cries, despite her own exhaustion.

One night, however, Tucker's wails reached a new level of persistence. All night long, he screamed for his mother's attention. But after a full day of pushing needles and thread with bleeding fingers, Celia was simply too tired to hear her child's duress. The next morning, however, she screamed herself and recoiled in horror at the sight of a fugitive cottonmouth nestled next to Tucker in his crib. Two small puncture wounds flared on the infant's thighs. But they were the only evidence of injury.

"For Tucker," Justo clarified. He looked around as if sharing a secret. "De snake," he whispered, "was deed."

As young Tucker grew into a boy, signs of venomous corruption began to surface. A hobbled hound, a nervous goat, a bare-backed chicken, were all indicators that the Maynard homestead was now a very scary place to live. Even Thimble, Celia's shorthaired tabby, cashed in all nine lives before its master found it starved, frozen, and swinging by a broken tail.

"Pobre gatito," Justo wept openly then. "What man does dees ting to a little kitten?" After a few moments, Justo took a deep breath through his nose and let it out with another sigh. "How many?"

Red looked at his cards. "I'll take two."

"Okay." Justo nodded and dealt two cards. Red was glad the draw was finally catching on out here. He had played this way on the riverboats back home, and with full decks of fifty-two as well. So it surprised him upon his arrival in Widow's Rest to learn that tens to aces with no draw was still the local custom. In Red's opinion, a man ought to have a second chance, a way to overcome whatever bad hand he held. Not that it was helping him now. His new cards were worse than the ones he had just given back.

As Justo drew his own cards, he fell into a pensive silence.

"So, the mule?" Red asked. After a moment, Justo wiped his eyes and resumed his sad tale.

"De señorita, she died. Officially, consumption. But you ask me," Justo's voice grew strained with contempt, "I say she died of a broken heart." He shook his head and crossed himself with his free hand. "And little niño, older and meaner, finally met som'ting as mean and as stubborn as he was."

"The mule."

"Sí. One swift kick to de head." Justo slapped his hands together loud enough to draw attention. Hatred filled the blacks of his eyes as his voice grew louder and louder. "Little diablo awoke two days later with a limp leg and a nervous twitch that plagues him to dis very day!" He slapped his hand on the table, rattling the glasses, which by now had accumulated significantly. Then, as pleasantly as a spring breeze on a Sunday afternoon, he asked, "Raise?"


Justo smiled as he raked in the last of Red's money. He seemed to feel much better. Red did not.

"Years later," Justo added as he stood to leave, "he kill de mule." Then, pausing for dramatic effect, he continued. "And de mule's owner." Justo drained the last of his tequila and pointed a wobbly finger at Red. "Amigo! You no go near dees man. Comprende?" Red nodded. Nothing lost in translation there.

But that wasn't the end of the story. Red would later learn from others that, to date, Tucker Maynard had killed forty-one men. That was, of course, in addition to the mule and the cat. Sadly, due to the aforementioned infirmity for which he would eventually receive his nickname, almost half of the Twitch's kills were completely unintentional. One did not want to be in the line of fire when Tucker's twitch took control.

Since that day with Justo Fuente, Redmond took great pains to steer clear of Tucker Maynard. It wasn't hard. The man might disappear for months on end. Other than operating as a hired gun for Jasper Tate, no one really knew what the Twitch did with his time. But if a poor soul were to get himself in too deep with the Colonel, that pale horse of death was certain to ride into town. Plenty of men owed money to Jasper Tate. But currently there was only one resident of Widow's Rest in so deep as to enlist the services of the Twitch. And that man was Redmond Graves.

End, Part 1 of 2

Brandon Abbott serves as a minister in Spring Hill, Tennessee, where he resides with his wife and three children. In addition to writing, Brandon spends his spare time playing drums and working toward a Masters of Divinity from Southern Seminary.

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Riding the Border
by Dick Derham

In the West of old, the progression of the seasons dictated the rhythm of life. For some men, spring was for roundup and branding; the long hot days of summer for riding bog; fall for driving the annual harvest of steers to market; and the short, cold days of winter for mending tack and rebuilding energy against the demands of the year to come. For their part, farmers faced a succession of plowing their acreage, sowing seed, praying for rain and, in the years their prayers were answered, harvesting their crops. Even in the towns, the seasons drove the economic life which revolved around changing needs.

For a certain kind of enterprising man, profitable visits to stages and banks were best planned for the warm days of late spring and summer, when extended sunlit days and dry trails served the needs of long-distance travel, outdistancing horseflies, chiggers, and busybody posses. The advent of fall and the cold nights of winter invited such men to congregate with others of their profession for conviviality, relaxation and enjoyment of their year's earnings.

One place many in the trade chose to winter was in the remote fastness of the Chiricahua Mountains where the narrow, twisting defiles a horseman must navigate to penetrate to Parson's Den promised any foolhardy lawman a loud—and satisfactorily lethal—welcome.

Inevitably, as whiskey warmed men's bellies, talk turned to reminiscing about their past exploits. And those old enough to have shared in the mid-century adventure which formed a nation and taught men unexpected skills always had good stories to tell—not least those who had reached a premature manhood along the Missouri-Kansas border.

* * *

On one mid-winter night, the men split into their usual groupings, several men passed out the poker chips for an evening testing their skills at the pasteboards—only sheep to be sheared talked of luck; others sat drinking alone or with a companion. The central table had several young outlaws, eager to lap up tales of the glory days at the feet of their elders. It was the man pumping up his own military credentials who got the discussion started. "Heard a lot about the Border War," Sarge Turnbull said. "What was it really like?"

Old Man Barnes, him being near forty, flashed a quick glance around the table and preened himself for an appreciative audience.

"At first, me and my folks didn't pay much attention to the ruckus old Abe Lincoln started," Barnes said. "Pa ran the general store in Osceola, way back from the state line, so we exulted in tales of Price's resistance to the blue-coated Federals but didn't give no care to Jim Lane and his damn Jayhawker vultures stealing from good true Missourians along the Kansas line. Should have known better. One morning, there was Lane and his boys riding into town, sitting tall in their saddles and proud as Napoleon's Frenchies ever were. They spread out around town, visited all the businesses and the houses, paid for what they wanted from Pa's store with a single bullet, and left him bleeding on the floor when they fired the place. When they rode out, stores, warehouses, barns and houses were all smoking and our horses and mules were on the road to Kansas. They say Lane even carted someone's piano all the way back to Lawrence. With Pa dead and the store burned, there was nothing left in Osceola for me, so I rode off looking for some hard-fighting Bushwhacker outfit. Once I linked up with Anderson, I knew I was in for a good time."

"I hear you was in the shindig at Lawrence," the young Jack Wells said. "What was that like?"

"We had us a real fandango," Barnes remembered. "The Yankees were wrong calling us thieves. 'Course we cleaned out the banks, emptied the gun shop, got new duds from the stores, before we fired them, just part of a day's work. But we didn't come just to loot. We was fighting a war, case stay-at-homes hadn't noticed. We came to burn and kill. Biggest operation of the whole border war: Quantrill's men, us Bloody Bill boys, Younger's group, Todd's crew, even some southern recruits on their way to the Missouri militia, 450 of us there was to tree a town of 3000.

"We crossed the Kansas border and stayed away from folks, riding at night," Barnes remembered. "The birds was just starting to tweet their morning song, most folks still abed and everything peaceful, when we clattered into town. We wasn't just a ragtag band; Quantrill ran a first-rate military operation. We all had our jobs, most important being the Kill List of Union lovers, Kansas militia members, and Jayhawkers and we was told to show them what men of the South thought of Abolitionist trash. One team headed right away to the house of old Jim Lane, but he got wind of us and skedaddled off into the woods." Barnes leaned his head back and laughed. "Still in his nightshirt, he was, scampering through farmers' fields as fast as his beanpole legs would take him." Barnes waited for the laughter to subside. "Most of the others wasn't so lucky, so the day got off to a good start.

"Gregg's squad found some 14th Kansas trash, new recruits not even issued their rifles yet, so they couldn't fight back. The Bluebelly pups was just scrambling out of their tents as Gregg rode in. Our boys killed seventeen of them, most still pulling on their britches when they died." Barnes sobered for a moment. "But our boys was careless. Five more was only wounded."

"Paying a morning visit to an Indian camp sometimes went down that way," Sarge Turnbull remembered.

"The squad I rode with surrounded the Johnson House where we thought we'd kill us some Redlegs. There was fourteen men inside, but nary a Redleg in the whole scurvy bunch. We told them to surrender." Barnes laughed. "Once we got us a good bonfire going, we marched them out into the street, let them donate all their money to our good cause, and finished the chore. I guess we downed them all.

"When we was done there, we fanned out in small squads and went hunting for them on the Kill List, but once we left Johnson House no one was paying much attention so we could do whatever pleasured us. I turned my horse down Kentucky Street, lots of houses there to burn; I stopped any time a house looked like it had money in it. Took anything else I liked, burned their houses and left the men folks like they deserved. You could hear pops going off all around town, and every one a dead man.

"One man, his name was on the list, offered me $1000 to let him be," Barnes remembered. "While he fumbled for the money, I trained my pistol on him, waiting patiently like a good fellow for him to hand it up." Barnes pointed his index finger at Wells' chest, dead center, pantomiming his action. "As my left hand took," Barnes' wrist bucked sharply, "my right hand killed.

"I had just finished torching my second house, and started to the next house, a big three-story mansion with picture windows that must have been carted in from Boston, ornate carvings on the stair posts, and everything, when the owner came out. He begged me not to burn his house so I took pity on him, said if he found the kindling and coal oil and did my work for me on the rest of the block, I'd pass his house by. It sure gave a man a warm feeling to watch one of them Abolitionists get a good blaze going in five of his neighbor's houses."

"So that's one you let live," Wells said.

Barnes guffawed. He held out his hand. "See this ring. After he was down, I chopped it off his pinkie." Wells and Turnbull chuckled. "But I kept my word. I left his house for Stafford's squad.

"One fellow near got clean away. I come to this house, a big one, but no one was to home and I thought I wouldn't get my fun. Me and the boys went through it, cramming all the silverware and jewelry we could find into a pillow case, then made three heaps of bed clothes and mattresses. Just as I started to match the first pile, I heard a baby crying. Come to find out this German had took his brat in his arms and lay low out in the corn field back of his house. I shoved the brat's head aside with my pistol barrel and splattered the German's brains into the ground. I'd say the brat killed him."

"And the women," Turnbull prompted. "Got to be some hot stories there."

"Never touched a one," Barnes told him. "Colonel Quantrill had a rule. Said he'd shoot personal anyone who molested a woman. None of the boys wanted to test him."

"Didn't the town folks fight back?" Wells wanted to know.

"Townies don't carry side arms and they locked up their militia weapons in the armory for safekeeping. They made themselves easy.

"By nine, most of the town was smoldering and me and the boys was drifting down Massachusetts Street out of town when I come to this gun shop with the owner standing in the doorway. He'd helped out some of the boys with their needs all morning, but now their business was done and he was just watching us on our way out of town. I went over to make his acquaintance, popped him a gentle one in the leg, tied his hands and set his shop on fire. When he crawled out, I tossed him back. Since he wasn't cooperating, I stood vigil until the screaming stopped and the fun was over.

"Figuring we'd taught them Federals a good lesson, we took our loot and rode for Missouri. They say we did two hundred men that day," Barnes continued. "I couldn't say. Bloody Bill claimed fourteen. Myself, I only popped eight or so after doing my share at the Johnson House, but you couldn't ride down any street without seeing that our boys had been busy."

"Two hundred men killed," Wells' eyes were wide as he did the arithmetic. "That's near a man a minute,"

"We should have got more:" Barnes said. "Sorry to say, some of the men got marshmallows where their manhood should be. They say Cole Younger stuck his nose in and stopped a dozen killings. Then there's 'big bad Quantrill.'" Barnes snorted. "He surrounded the Eldridge House, just like we did the Johnson House. After he talked them into surrendering, he burned the hotel to the ground. Then the damn fool posted guards to protect them as had surrendered so no one else could kill them either. No wonder his own men finally turned on him."

"How many did you lose?"

"Only one the townies got was old Larkin Skaggs, good boy to ride with. A Baptist preacher-man he was. He liked killing."

Barnes poured himself another drink. "Centralia was even better," he remembered. "We was just raiding this burg for supplies when a train steamed in, so we took it over, figuring to pay our respects to the passengers. In the rear car, we found 28 boys in blue suits heading home for discharge, not a weapon among them. Naturally, we was happy to give them a Missouri welcome. We liked surprising Federals by riding in blue ourselves, so we had them boys strip down to their Long Johns and lined them up like good soldiers in their clean white undies, and gave them their 'carbine discharge.'

"We wasn't but a couple of miles down the road when the 39th Missouri rode in. Guess seeing all them bloody Long Johns got their dander up, 'cause they decided they'd run us to ground, them outnumbering us."

"What happened?" Wells asked.

"Bagged us every one. Some of their horse-holders yellowed and scampered off to Sturgeon. Guess they figured we'd let them off if they got to town. Me and Frank James exercised our horses some. Brung down the last of them less than a hundred yards from the first buildings." Barnes laughed. "Got us a hundred fifty Bluebellies that day, near as much as Lawrence and we didn't have to share."

"And after the war, they wouldn't let you go back to your farm? Just like Frank and Jesse?" Wells asked.

"Most of the boys tucked their tails between their legs and hitched themselves to a plow, just like the Bluebellies wanted. Me and Frank talked about it after the romp at Centralia. We learned a man with a gun takes what he wants and don't have to touch his cap to no one. We decided a man ain't defeated unless he agrees, so after Lee tossed it in and Price lit out for Mexico, we kept riding free and living off them Northerners and their banks and railroads."

Author's note: Each of the events in Barnes' narration is documented fact. What is also documented is that some of the raiders ware so appalled by the carnage that they showed their unfired guns to civilians to demonstrate that they had not killed anyone. While one raider refused to allow a woman to remove the portrait of "my dear dead daughter" from her burning house, others helped move prized possessions out of the path of flames they had just kindled. That four hundred fifty raiders killed "only" at most two hundred men also suggests that the brutal killing was not pervasive or indiscriminate. For a properly chilling and detailed narration of the raid and the many killings in Lawrence that day, see Edward E. Leslie, "The Devil Knows How to Ride" (1996) pages 193-244 and Thomas Goodrich, "Bloody Dawn" (1991), telling the story from the perspective of Lawrence residents. A book that emphasizes the military nature of the raid from the Quantrill side is Paul Peterson's "Quantrill at Lawrence" (2011). Read together, these give a comprehensive study of what Peterson calls "one of the most daring light cavalry raids of the war." (Frank James' participation in the Centralia massacre is disputed.)

The End

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.

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The Cottonwood Incident
by Mickey Bellman

Bert figured he would have to get south of Helena before he was in the clear. That meant getting past Great Falls with a very low profile. Maybe he could find a drover's job someplace in Idaho, but that was still 400 miles away. He turned round in his saddle and scanned the prairie—no, he was alone except for a couple of mule deer and stray steers that ignored his passing.

The gunfight at the High Line shack had left four men in their graves—his deputy father and three vengeful cowboys. The saloon drunk in Miles City was just an unfortunate accident, but the sheriff had put out a $1000 Wanted poster on Bert. With five dead men in his wake, Bert knew someone would be looking for him.

The easy trail was through Fort Benton and Great Falls, but that would invite recognition. East meant a Missouri River crossing, difficult at best, deadly at worst. A trail west of Great Falls meant Blackfoot Indian country. The Indians would not know of the bounty on his head, but his head also grew a nice scalp they might covet.

"Rosie, what you think? You want to drown in the Missouri or get scalped?" Rosie stood motionless; all she wanted was to get shed of the saddle and rider.

"OK, if you won't decide, then I will. We stay west." Bert gently nudged Rosie towards the distant Rockies and she started off at a slow, steady walk.

Without a cloud in the Big Sky, Bert was enjoying the slow ride. It was a good day for a ride surrounded by sagebrush and prairie grass, even if it was a matter of his life or death.

The warm sun and gentle breeze became a balm for both rider and horse. Rosie felt the slack in her reins and ambled about the prairie. Bert's head bobbed under his father's Stetson.

"An unobservant man could get scalped out here."

Bert jerked awake and instantly reached for the ebony-handled Colt tied to his leg. The shocking voice came from behind. He reined Rosie around in a tight circle while the .45 slipped from its holster.

"Whoa, Whoa, Whoa, there, White Eyes! Don't shoot me yet! I thought you might want to know where you are heading." A bronze, twenty-something Indian sat bareback astride a pinto pony. He wore only a breech cloth while his scraggly, black hair hung down to his shoulders. He carried a sheathed hunting knife in a belt once worn by a cavalry trooper.

Bert eased back in his saddle, .45 still in hand, still groggy from his mid-day saddle nap. "What you mean sneaking' up on me like that? I could shoot you right now."

"Yes you could, cowboy, but then you would not know about the burial grounds you are about to blunder into. My relatives may not take kindly to you desecrating their sacred grounds." The Indian sat calmly on his pony looking at Bert.

"Who the hell are you? You ain't no renegade."

"My name is Comach. I am of the Blackfoot tribe, Nitawyiks band. I was taken to the school of the Black Robes—Jesuits as you call them—and educated there for several years. Only now am I returning to my people near the Canadian border. Is that sufficient information?"

Bert was in a real flummox. A civilized, educated Indian out on the prairie? Was this still a dream? He shook his head and rubbed his eyes but an Indian on a pinto pony still stood there, not twenty feet away.

"I am glad I have not lost all my native skills. Obviously, you did not hear my approach." With that, Comach dismounted and squatted on the ground. "I saw you riding towards the burial grounds of my ancestors and thought you may not want to join them very soon. I have intervened to warn you. What is your name?"

Bert was speechless. He slowly holstered his pistol and slipped from his saddle. "Much obliged for that. I just want to get 'round Great Falls and head south. Bert is my handle. And you are  . . . Comach?"

"Yes. At the missionary school they weren't quite sure what I was, so they baptized me Comach. Well, whatever." The young Indian stared at Bert and then scanned the surrounding prairie. Not much to see but Comach knew there might be many eyes watching them. "Why don't we just backtrack a bit. There's a small grove of cottonwoods just over that low ridge. It would be a good place to water the horses and camp for the night." With that Comach leaped aboard his pony, like a frog leaving a lily pad, and reined his pony northward. Dumbfounded, Bert stepped into his stirrups and followed. A half hour later they were enjoying the shade and the cool spring water.

Bert was still cautious about this surprise meeting as he loosened the cinch on Rosie. "So Injun . . . Comach, I'm still trying to figure this out."

"Oh, no worries, Bert. I am just heading north and you are heading south. This chance encounter of ours is just a delightful, unplanned rendezvous in the wilderness. Do you have anything to eat besides pemmican? I have never developed a taste for that sort of food. Coffee and some bacon would be ideal." Comach flashed a smile at Bert while he gathered some dry branches for a fire.

"Yeah, sure. I've got a little bit left. Might even find some stale biscuits in my saddlebags."

"Oh please, not stale biscuits! I've had quite enough of those at the school. Unless, of course, you have some jams or jellies to go with them. On the other hand, I should not be too particular as I am quite famished. Stale biscuits will be just fine.

"Nice pistol belt you have there. Very professional. Are you a pistolero? A gun for hire? Just curious, as I have not seen many cowboys with that quality of rig before. Usually, the ones I see are pretty beat up with lots of rust. It is a fine looking weapon you have there."

"Aw, yeah, well, it was my pa's. It is purty, isn't it? Bert slipped the Colt from its holster and twirled it about. "Sure feels nice," and he aimed it straight at Comach. "Shoots real straight, too, if you get my drift."

Comach winced and then settled back into a friendly squat. "Oh, I understand perfectly. Perhaps now we can have a nice campfire and watch the smoke drift."

Bert allowed himself a small smile. Maybe this Indian wasn't so bad after all.

The Big Sky of Montana darkened and then lit up with a dazzling ceiling of stars. Bert and Comach lingered around the campfire embers. They talked idly of their histories—Bert careful not to mention gunfights or Wanted posters. Comach told of a time when his people hunted the dwindling buffalo herds, of a nomadic prairie existence, of the hostile encounters between Indians and soldiers. He was careful to say nothing about the cavalry belt or how he came to own it. Worn out from so much history, both men settled down and were soon breathing softly.

Bert awoke with a start when a bronzed hand gently nudged him awake. In the early dawn light, Comach squatted nearby making a hand signal to be quiet. Bert lay there listening and then heard the sound of horse hooves and distant voices. Posse or Indians, he didn't know which, but he wanted to meet neither one of them. Both men crept to the edge of the trees; in the dim light they could see four horses and riders approaching. All wore hats, so that meant more white eyes. The fourth rider slouched in the saddle, barely able to stay astride.

Bert exhaled with some relief—not a war party but maybe a posse. Comach sucked in his breath—not any of his relatives, but maybe scalp hunters. They eased themselves back into the grove. "What you think, Injun? Do we wait or ride?"

"From their appearance, I'm judging they are not friendly. The last rider seems to be seriously injured the way he bobs about in the saddle. Number two rider carries a long rifle across his saddle as though he expects trouble. Number three rider wears a bandolier across his chest and wears his pistol tied low on his hip—surely a gunfighter. Number one rider wears a sombrero and is constantly scanning the horizon. I think she is trying to get away from something."

She? Bert was not ready for that. "How do you figure 'she'?"

"Look at her closely. She is smaller than the others, rides a bit more erect, and has two nice bumps on her chest. Her hair is long though rather well combed, and she wears a knife strapped to her left arm. The bridle is adorned with silver buckles and so is the saddle. I think she is also leader of this band," Comach replied. "Perhaps they will ride on, but they travel at night so as not to be seen."

Just then Rosie sensed the other horses and nickered. The riders all reined in and stared at the grove of trees. There was a hushed conversation as the riders separated in two groups to approach the trees from opposite sides.

With that, Bert was suddenly alone. Comach had slipped away into the trees without a sound. Bert muttered to himself, "Why that no good . . . "

Bert was suddenly surrounded by the four riders, all with guns drawn. Bert smiled and tried to be relaxed and be friendly. "Howdy. Out for a morning ride?" The fourth rider wavered in his saddle and fell to the ground. The female leader momentarily lost interest in Bert and gave a sharp command.

"Jake. Conner. See what you can do for Lance. I'll tend to this one," as she fixed her eyes back on Bert. "Who are you and what you doin' out here?"

"Well, I could ask you the same question," and Bert eased his hand towards his own gun.

"Don't try it, mister, or you'll be soon dead. I asked you a question and I want an answer."

Jake and Conner had rolled Lance on his back. Fresh blood covered his chest.

He had been gut-shot and could only moan in delirious pain. "He ain't gonna last much longer if we don't find a doc real soon."

Sadie scanned the prairie all around and then smirked. "You see anything that looks like a doc's office around here? So much for Lance but that's one less to split with. Do what you can for him and we'll leave him here. This lonesome stranger can tend to him. What's you name, mister?"

"Bert. I'm just headin' south, lookin' for work."

"Fancy rig you got there. Mind if you just unbuckle it and let it drop? I want to keep this friendly."

Bert slowly unbuckled his black leather gunbelt and let it slip to the ground. Sadie stepped out of her saddle. Beneath her sombrero, Bert could see black raven eyes and hair to match. She was a good looker and there were two nice chest bumps to admire.

"You know anything about doctorin'?" Bert shook his head. "Well, no matter, you are one now. See what you can do for Lance."

"Sadie, we can't do no more. Leave Lance to Bert and let's ride out," Conner snarled.

"In good time, all in good time. Let's see what Bert has to offer. There's a nice saddle and horse. Two horses! You alone, Mr. Bert?"

"Yeah. Just picked up the Indian pony and was gonna sell him someplace."

"Well, consider him sold. You can keep Lance and his horse."

Bert winced at this, but maybe he'd at least keep his hide intact.

"Jake. Gather up the horses and saddles. We've got a ways to go before the posse finds our trail. Leave Lance's belongings but make sure you've got all the guns. Mr. Bert won't need them anyhow."

Bert felt as lonesome as a skunk in a spotlight. He'd be shot down if he tried to run. His Winchester was still in its scabbard near his saddle. The three outlaws were in a hurry to leave. Bert had to act quickly.

"Suppose I told you you're in Blackfoot country. Suppose I told you I saw a war party camped not a mile from here. Suppose I told you that you are in their sacred burial grounds."

Jake and Conner looked at each other with a bit of panic. They knew of the massacres, tortures and scalping.

"Suppose you just shut up, Mr. Bert!" Sadie snapped. "We don't intend to be here much longer."

The seeds of fear and doubt had been sown. The threesome nervously looked about the trees. Then came a soft hiss in the air followed by an audile thunk. Conner crumpled to the ground—blood and brains spilling out above his ear. A fist-size rock lay nearby covered with blood. Jake and Sadie rushed over to the suddenly deceased outlaw and then crouched low, scanning the trees. A nervous Jake fired three quick shots at a shadow in the trees, then three more times. Sadie searched all around for a target but saw nothing.

"Well, I'll be," Bert thought to himself. "Comach is still out there somewhere."

"What was that? Where'd it come from? Who's out there, Bert?" Sadie was getting a bit rattled.

"I told you there were Blackfeet hereabouts. Maybe they're here already," Bert dryly replied.

Jake began backing away from Conner's body with no doubt he was dead already. Still pointing his gun at the shadows, he realized too late that he was looking in the wrong direction.

Comach erupted from a screen of brush with a war cry and a 6-foot long sapling sharpened to a fine point. Jake took the spear in the back, right through his heart. Sadie whirled about and fired her Colt at the Indian but a cottonwood tree intervened. Comach dodged among the trees and back into the shadows while Sadie blazed away. Jake now looked like an olive stuck on a toothpick.

Bert sprang like a cougar at Sadie. She was bowled over and her pistol stripped from her hand. In an instant she was back on her feet and slipped the wicked knife from its sheath. Bert backed away from the steel blade as Sadie stalked him with a murderous look in her eyes. A cruel smile crossed her lips; she had a knife and knew how to use it.

The Winchester and other guns were too far away before the deadly vixen would be on him. She slowly closed the distance as Bert stumbled and fell backwards to the ground. He grabbed up a handful of dirt and threw it into her face as he rolled to the side, but not quick enough. Sadie leaped at him and her sharp blade slashed a nasty gash across his back. Bert scrambled to his feet while Sadie rolled over still wearing that fiendish smile to stare into Bert's eyes.

For only a second Bert was mesmerized by the beauty of this deadly vixen—hair and eyes black as the bottom of a mine, fair white skin soft enough to stroke, a small mouth showing a fine set of teeth clenched in hate. A cute upturned nose . . . 

Bert made his choice. He grabbed up a piece of firewood and brought it crashing down on the pretty face. Her dark eyes showed a look of bewilderment as she made another thrust with her knife and found Bert's forearm. Again, Bert brought the club to her head with all the force he could muster. She made a last gasp and quivered, and died.

"For a moment there, I thought I would have to finish all this gruesome business myself." Comach stood a few feet away, knife in hand. "I understand this is the Wild West, but all this is getting out of hand."

Dazed, Bert surveyed the bloody carnage all around. Lance was all but dead. Comach had used a rock and a spear to kill two of the outlaws. Bert had clubbed Sadie to death—she was no longer very pretty to look at.

"Bert, you've been afflicted with a couple of nasty gashes. Would you trust some savage Native American to minister to you?"

Bert slowly turned his head towards the young Indian. "I suppose they taught you doctoring at that missionary school, too." He staggered towards Comach and collapsed to his knees. "Sure, go ahead, but don't get no ideas about my scalp." He flashed a crooked smile at Comach.

"Aw, but it is such a fine scalp . . . "

The End

Mickey Bellman has earned a living for five decades as a professional forester in western Oregon. In his spare time he has written hundreds of articles for hunting and forestry magazines as well as numerous newspapers. A wife and two Golden Retrievers reside with him in Salem, Oregon.

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Cross' Justice, Part 2 of 2
by Sam Grym

Her light-brown eyes looked upon him with slight annoyance, as a mother upset with a child. Looking to be only a couple of years younger than the Marshal, she carried herself as one who was all too familiar with the situation presented to her.

"So, did Marshal Cross do what he is best at?" she asked satirically, as she leaned over Lancelot Cross to look at his wound and feel around it. She always could find a way to make him feel stupid for his life decisions—something very few could do. There was a reason he didn't want to see her, after all.

"It appears that he did," Speaks with Hawks answered. "He has kept quiet about what happened when he went to Eagle's View."

"So, this is what it takes to quiet him?" Running Dove smiled.

"And what am I best at?" the Marshal groaned.

"That didn't last long. Help me take his coat and shirt off," Running Dove said, in a manner that told him she was not going to listen to whatever he had to say. The Marshal sat up, slipping off his coat and doing his best to remove his shirt through his pain.

"Lance, stop fidgeting and let me and Speaks with Hawks remove it! You won't be able to remove your shirt on your own, so stop trying!" Running Dove scolded him.

"Just let me get the buttons and—" he said with the pride of a damaged man.

"No. Stop being stubborn for a moment!" she shouted, despite her eyes asking him gently.

She moved behind him, examining the wound carefully as she lightly ran her fingers over and around it. There was no gentleness in their touch, just a calculated, focused search for what would come next.

"Ahh!" he shouted as he felt something sharp graze inside him, burrowing its way into his damaged flesh. With each turn of whatever instrument was inside him, slowly prying out the bullet, he felt a faint, yet still extraordinarily noticeable, increase in pain that caused him to growl like a wolf.

"Please . . . hand me my flask," he demanded through a grunt.

"You will have your poor excuse for medicine when I'm done with you," Running Dove answered sharply, her tone masking budding aggravation. He rolled his eyes, holding back his thoughts about the situation.

"Urgh!" He suddenly felt a massive pain explode from his shoulder, a pain that stretched to his temples and ended at his toes. He was still reeling from the bullet's removal as Running Dove's delicate hand became visible to him as she started to wrap a bandage around his shoulder. Speaks with Hawks handed him his flask, signifying to him that the procedure was over.

"So, how did it go?" Speaks with Hawks asked. "Clearly you got shot for a reason."

The Marshal was contemplating his answers as Running Dove tightened his bandage, ironically not as bitterly as he feared.

"I attempted peaceful resolution," he said through a sigh and grunt combined. "I didn't kill any of them, though. Would have been easier, I tell you what. Though, I learned that the man who raped Little Water is named Silas. And what's more, he is the Sheriff's deputy. Seein' as they shot me, I don't think that they're gonna hang him."

"What! Why didn't you kill him, then?" Speaks with Hawks voice turned to ice. Running Dove remained silent as she helped the Marshal get his shirt back on.

"It's bad business for a lawman to kill other lawmen, even the bad ones. I scared them right good, though. By not killing them, I've put the fear of god into them. They now know that you are under my protection, and should think twice before they harm your people."

Speaks with Hawks glared at him. "Lance, your idealism is beautiful, but naïve. They will seek vengeance for you hurting their pride, but they will not place that vengeance on you—they will place it on us. I must go and meet this Sheriff before he makes it to the rest of the tribe. I've trusted your judgement in the past, but not in this matter. I knew we should have taken care of this ourselves." Speaks with Hawks moved towards his horse, the drums of war beating in his heart.

"Speaks with Hawks, listen. Don't do this," the Marshal said as he rose to his feet with grim determination. "That Sheriff, that town, they see you as nothing more than savages. They are eager to hunt you. You are better than they are, so don't give them provocation. Go to your people and defend them if you must, but don't seek war with the town. If you attack them, you are risking so much more."

"I don't expect you to understand, Lance. The town has already declared war on us. You may have been as a brother to me long ago, but Little Water deserves justice, justice which you failed to give. So, we shall get it on our own. Come, Running Dove. You should head back and warn the others."

"I will stay for a moment," she said with quiet strength. He silently gazed at her for a moment, upset at her defiance.

"I understand. Just say what you need to and get back as soon as possible," Speaks with Hawks said coldly.

He turned and shouted at his men in their native tongue, and within in a minute they were gone. The old man of the party looked upon the Marshal with bitter disdain, the sense of betrayal in the lines of his face more frightening than the blood-red war paint under his eyes. He was the last to leave and soon caught up to Speaks with Hawks.

The Marshal sighed again, upset with himself for not stopping Speaks with Hawks—another failing to add to the day's tally. He had started a war today by trying to keep the peace.

"Is there any chance that you can you talk some sense into him, before he heads to town? That's where I'm guessin' he's headed."

"That is where he is most likely headed, yes. But no, you were the one who could talk him into anything when we were younger, you know that." She shook her head, a tragic smile of lost youth on her lips.

"Why didn't you kill the sheriff and his deputies?" she asked, her nostalgia quickly washing away to the reality of the present. "I know that you have shot men for less."

The Marshal cringed, having to answer to the most ultimate form of jury he could. "Because, I . . . felt obligated to try to give the law, such as it is, a chance," he stated as he moved over to Foxcatcher, putting on a shirt with less bloodstains. He grunted with every movement of his left shoulder, his eyes telling Running Dove not to help him. "Speaks with Hawks is right. I believed that the sheriff would do his job, as I do mine. I was very, very wrong—and naive. Especially when I found out Silas was a deputy. I wanted to avoid a bloodbath, worried that killing them when only incite violence against y'all. Instead, I only created the grounds for more. Now, I have very few options. Either I stop the sheriff and his deputies, or I stop your brother."

She looked at him with softness for the first time in many years, reading his heart as he fumbled with the buttons on his shirt. Even after him leaving three years ago, she held out more hope for him than he did for himself. She also knew this would be the last time she saw him for a few more. She moved to him gracefully, and placed her hand on his, soothing his restlessness, if only for a moment. His eyes met hers as she smiled warmly and took over the task of buttoning his shirt.

"You are a strange man, Lance Cross. And a stubborn one. So, who are you going to try to stop—my brother, or the sheriff?" she asked him as she finished with his shirt. "And yes, I hope no harm comes to my brother, before you ask."

He pulled out another, even more warn-out coat that he draped quickly upon himself, with more effort than he was willing to show. He moved over to the tree, picking up his damaged coat, which he stuffed with frustration into his saddlebags. She watched him intently, knowing he couldn't keep himself quiet for much longer. He stopped and met her eyes. He brought her close and kissed her forehead.

"To answer your question, I'm going to stop the one that I can," he said as he looked in the direction Speaks with Hawks had rode in, searching the skies for the bird that always seemed to follow his old friend. He slowly turned to her, a powerful affection in his eyes.

"I know I haven't said this often enough, Dove, so I will damn sure say it now. Thank you." He then spurred Foxcatcher, riding with the power of the wind towards the valley.

She bowed her head, and uttered a prayer of peace, her heart heavy with the grief only loved ones can bring.

The Marshal looked over the valley that was only a mile or two from the clump of trees where his shoulder had been dressed at. He was high on top of a ridge overlooking the wide, green pass between two hills, with the ability to shoot anyone that passed through. The sun was finally making its way home in the west, the crickets and cicadas awakening for their nightly prowl with a song. The long blades of grass danced gracefully in the winds coming from the east. He was hunched over the back of Foxcatcher slightly, his shoulder still the source of a copious amount of pain. He reached back to his saddlebag, and pulled out his flask. A swig of whiskey was all he had for the pain, so he took the medicine gratefully. He tried to keep his weary eyes peeled, hoping that he'd made the correct assessment of the direction of travel for both parties. Both were likely expecting an ambush, but neither were expecting it to be him.

The sound of the wind was soft and continuous, the kind that was easy to ignore or fall asleep to. The downside, however, was that it made it all the harder to hear anything moving through the valley, namely horses and men. In his weakened, painful state, this was more effort on the Marshal's part to focus than he wanted. He looked towards the northwest entrance to the valley, the direction that the town of Eagle's View laid in. He shifted his eyes towards the east as well, to the land of the Comanche. Halfway between the most likely route that both would take to meet each other, or so he hoped. He then scanned the vicinity immediately in front of him—small, grassy areas punctuated by breaks of large rocks that were easy to seek cover behind.

He pulled out his Peacemaker and checked to make sure that all six rounds were loaded. He grunted to himself as he put two .45 rounds in, replacing it back with rough care into his even rougher holster. He then pulled out his lever-action Winchester and checked to make sure that it too was fully loaded. He put the rifle back in its saddle-holster and took off his dark-gray, flat-billed hat to wipe his brow.

Dammit, Dove, he thought to himself. Why are these the only circumstances that I allow myself to see you under? Before she answered him in his mind, he heard something else: the violent rumble of horses. He looked to see which direction that it came from, hoping to catch a dust trail. He scanned the area and saw dust being kicked up from the west. Good.

As quickly as he could, he dismounted Foxcatcher and pulled the Winchester from its holster. He hit Foxcatcher's rear, and the horse ran off in the direction from which it came. The Marshal ran to a nearby rock and took cover behind it. As he pulled up the sights, he took stock of those who entered.

The sheriff led a posse of eleven into the valley, Silas amongst them. He wore the wild grin of madman let loose upon the world, eager for blood. If there was any doubt in the Marshal's mind as to his guilt, the savage grin convinced him otherwise. The other lawmen had eager looks on their faces as well; years of pent-up hatred towards the Comanche now close to having a sanctioned release.

The Marshal had shortened time to make his move. He fired a shot in the air to get their attention then quickly moved to another rock before anyone could spy where the shot had come from. The posse scattered for a moment upon hearing the shot, then stopped. Their eyes scanned both sides of the valley, weapons drawn. This was not only the least safe way to handle an ambush, it was also the exact thing the Marshal hoped for. He aimed his sights right at the sheriff.

"Sheriff Smith!" he shouted. "I highly suggest that you and your boys turn around! If you go any further, this won't end pretty. I can't promise you what will happen if your ride back home, but I can if you ride into Comanche territory."

The sheriff looked at one of his deputies. "I thought you said you got him!" The deputy shook his head in disbelief.

"You should be dead, Cross!" his bitter, gruff voice echoed across the valley.

"I got better!" the Marshal shouted back. "You should really teach your men to be better shots, Sheriff."

"Sonofa . . . " the sheriff said to himself.

"Why don't you come out o' wherever you're hidin' and we can give them the practice they need. How about that?"

"Temptin' offer, but they ain't my responsibility. Now, how about you reconsider mine?"

Silas' mad smile quivered with sick anticipation. His brown eyes eagerly looked to the sheriff.

"Cross, I'm tired of your games! I'm sick of your mouth and all the—"

"Is that Silas?" the marshal interrupted him. "Haven't heard you talk in a while. Gotta say, I liked you more with the gag in your mouth."

The sheriff shot an angry look at Silas, and then his posse. "He might be tryin' to hold out for some of help or somethin'. Spread out and find 'im!"

The posse began to fan out, searching with vigor. The Marshal, sensing their growing bloodlust, picked up a rock.

"Sorry you feel that way, Sheriff. Coulda ended this right here peacefully." He threw the rock at another nearby boulder, which created a massive clank.

The sheriff and his deputies all started firing on the rock, just as the Marshal had hoped. He got up, quickly aiming at the chest of one of the deputies. He shot his target, and instantly recocked his Winchester, shooting his next before the man could move his weapon. The Marshal then ran three steps, and dived, the impact ringing through his shoulder. Dove would love seeing me undo her work, he thought with a grunt as he crawled to another rock.

"He's over there!" The sheriff pointed to the cloud of smoke where the Marshal had fired the shots from. Good, he thought to himself. They don't know where I'm at.

The Marshal pulled himself up behind the boulder, moving to its western side, out of the posse's sight. He looked around the corner, cocking his Winchester. Two of the deputies were now close to his first firing position. The other seven men were slowly moving in his direction as well, but they were not the immediate threat the other two posed. He let out a breath of air as he put down his Winchester and pulled out his Peacemaker. He wanted to save the rifle's bullets for his enemies that were at a longer range. Plus, the Peacemaker would be a quicker fire for the two, closer targets.

He turned the corner of the rock, pulling his hammer and then his trigger in one fluid motion, felling his first target. He used the kick of his Colt to line up his next shot, and repeated the same motion on the second target.

The man fell from his horse, striking the earth with a cold, impassionate thud. The Marshal holstered his Peacemaker and picked up the Winchester. The seven other targets knew his location now, and there was no trickery he could use to give himself any kind of advantage.

Bullets began to ricochet off the rock he was hiding behind, the rumble of the horses' hooves moving in on him. He turned the corner to see three deputies charging his location, intent upon violent action. Each had six shooters aimed right at him. He aimed at the closest and fired. The man fell off his horse—right into the legs of the horse to his left.

The beast buckled, falling over itself. Its rider was flung powerfully forward, letting out a scream cut short as his mouth smashed right into a rock. The Marshal would have been impressed with his handiwork had it not been for the bullet that sang past his right ear. He then took out the final rider headed his way, before resuming station behind the rock again.

He breathed in the overwhelming stench of gunpowder, which, oddly enough, kept his nerves at bay. His shoulder pain was now only an echo of its former self in all the excitement, and was going to remain that way until either he or his targets were dead.

He had four more, including the Sheriff and Silas—sixteen bullets, no more tricks, and possibly no more luck. My luck most likely got all used up on the horse that I flipped. He smiled to himself as he finally had a chance to admire his handiwork.

Well, time to take a bullet or five, he thought as he prepared his Winchester once again. He took a deep breath as he rose to his knees, then took one more draw of air as he rounded the corner.

He aimed his Winchester at one of the remaining deputies' neck, and pulled the trigger. The man fell to the ground quickly, his life ended in an instant. The Marshal quickly looked for another target, but found the three other riders on the other side of the valley—taking shots elsewhere.

He stood up cautiously, not willing to give up his one piece of cover so easily. He realized that when the bullets flew towards him, he may have missed something—the sound of the low roar that was the Comanche descending upon the valley. There were nine of them in total; some armed with Winchesters themselves, some spears and tomahawks. All, however, were armed with burning hatred for the sheriff and his deputies.

They were swarming the three men, who found out too late that they were in no position to flee. They tried to head back the way they came, but were quickly enveloped. The Marshal knew what was coming next.

He whistled to Foxcatcher, who ran up to him swiftly. He holstered the Winchester, mounted his horse, and cantered to the surrounded lawmen. The Comanche were going to be twitchy, and he didn't want them to mistake him for another one of the deputies.

"Speaks with Hawks!" he shouted calmly from his stomach. "If you could speak with me before you do whatever it is you're about to do, maybe I can convince you why you shouldn't."

The four Comanche still on their horses turned to him with annoyance. Three were restraining the surviving deputies in the middle of the circle. Speaks with Hawks moved towards him with an angry swagger, a tomahawk in his right hand.

"What is it that you want, Lance?" Speaks with Hawks questioned in vexed rage.

The sound of a blunt object slicing through flesh followed by the sound of a man choking on his own blood interrupted them.

"Dancing Tree!" the Marshal shouted. "Speaks with Hawks, please stop him now!" Speaks with Hawks rolled his eyes then turned his head. He shouted in his native tongue, and forward walked the angry old Comanche.

Blood covered his tomahawk and arm, with a heavy splattering of it running the length of his right side, from his brow to the knee of his paints; his eyes dark eyes were on fire and his eyebrows furrowed. His lips were locked, straining under the pressure of the violent obscenities he wanted to shout. The quivering bodies of the sheriff, Silas, and the lifeless body of the other deputy—the one who successfully shot him—silently pleaded. The Marshal locked eyes with Dancing Tree for a moment, an understanding between the two men communicated. The Marshal then moved his eyes to the sheriff.

"Now, Sheriff. I've got a question for you. How should we handle this? You and your deputies have shot a federal agent and attempted to kill him. This is also after one of your deputies—Silas—also violated a federal treaty with the Comanche. If you were in my boots, how'd you handle this?"

"Are you actually askin' for my opinion, or are you just bein' an ass, Cross?" the sheriff asked defiantly, still on his knees, his peppered hair disheveled. Speaks with Hawks had a look of outrage.

"Yes, Lance. Why are you leaving it up to him? He deserves nothing less than death."

The sheriff shot Speaks with Hawks a violent look. The Marshal kept his poise, and answered him calmly.

"All in all, Sheriff, I want to see what your answer is. Speaks with Hawks is most correct. You are looking at death, most likely. But, if you can give me a reason to let you live, you may just leave this valley alive."

"Same for me?" Silas asked with a nonsensical optimism.

"Depends upon the Sheriff. What do you purpose we do with Silas, Sheriff? He is your deputy. This is your last chance to make a wise decision."

Silas' brown eyes pleaded with his boss, begging for mercy. The sheriff nodded slightly.

"You kill both of us, Cross, and you leave Eagle's View without a sheriff or any deputies. So, one of us has to go free, unless you want Eagle's View to be without law."

"You're headin' in the right direction, Sheriff. That bein' said, Eagle's View only needs one sheriff. But, both of you are criminals in the eyes of the law. Even so, I'm feelin' like lettin' one of you go free to be the sheriff of this town. The other, well, the other will be hanged. Or do you have another proposition?"

The Comanche were angered by this statement, and Speaks with Hawks raised his hand to quiet them. He turned back his friend, curious as to where the Marshal was going with this.

"That's mighty generous of you, Cross. But I have another idea. I stay Sheriff, and you release Silas to me? I promise he will be punished."

The Marshal rubbed his chin for a moment, thinking it over. "So, you wouldn't hang him?"

"He made a stupid error, not one that deserves hangin'. But I ain't got any use for him, and he's caused me more trouble than he's worth. He won't be a deputy anymore and he's gonna be punished severely."

The Marshal's brows narrowed. "Is that your final proposition? Also, are you seriously simple enough to . . . well, make that proposition in front of him?" He pointed to Dancing Tree. "I mean, how would you feel if the man who raped your daughter got anythin' less than death?"

"It's . . . it's the fairest one that I can think of," the sheriff answered with a growing reluctance.

The Marshal locked eyes with Speaks with Hawks, and shook his head as looked back at the sheriff.

"No, sir. That's it. I'm done with this," the Marshal said. "I gave you a chance to go about this sensibly and you chose not to. You've forgone upholding the letter and rule of the law."

"What does that mean?" the sheriff asked, his indignation giving way to nervousness.

"Yeah . . . yeah . . .  what do you mean, Marshal?" Silas asked, fear coloring his voice and eyes.

"Meanin' . . . " He paused, wiping his forehead a little bit more dramatically than the situation called for. "The Sheriff's comin' with me, and you're stayin' here with the Comanche."

"You can't . . . you can't do this!" Silas shouted.

"That isn't legal, Cross," the sheriff stated.

The Marshal shrugged. "I tried the law in your town, Sheriff, and it didn't work out the way it was supposed to. Last time I tried to turn Silas over—well, here we are. Now that you have violated federal law, I'm gonna have to take you in on my own."

The sheriff smiled. "Oh, so you're gonna try to turn me over to the mayor?"

"No, I won't make that mistake either. I'm gonna see to it that you are punished to the full extent of the law—at the federal level. Such is my jurisdiction. Between breaking a treaty with the Comanche, and firing upon a Federal Law Officer, what do you think your punishment's gonna be?"

Speaks with Hawks smiled at the Marshal, who then nodded to Dancing Tree. He did not smile, but his eyes told the Marshal "Thank You."

Speaks with Hawks began to shout at the Comanche warriors, who then tied up the sheriff and Silas. The sheriff resisted with a stiff, defiant posture, whereas Silas resisted . . . loudly. The Marshal got down from his horse and walked over to Speaks with Hawks, placing a hand upon his shoulder.

"Tell Running Dove that she will see me again, and next time without any bullets in me," he said with a smile.

"You never fail to surprise me, Bleeding Fox," he said as he looked at the dead deputies throughout the valley.

"Didn't think that you would ever call me that again." The Marshal cocked his head. "That impressed?"

"No," Speaks with Hawks answered. "That grateful."

The two looked as the sheriff was loaded onto the back of Foxcatcher—the old gal grunting as she was once again burdened with extra weight.

"So, what do you think the chances are that I'm gonna get run out of town again?" Lance asked.

Speaks with Hawks laughed as the Marshal got on his horse. "We will remain nearby just in case."

"Just as well, I will still stand by my original statement. Next time I see Running Dove, I will not have a bullet in me. Ain't that right, Sheriff?" he asked with a pat to the back of the man now tied up on his horse. The sheriff didn't respond at all.

"Oh, you're not a talker like Silas. I think I can use some silence after all this commotion anyway. Speaks with Hawks," He tipped his hat. "Be well. I will see you again soon, under more peaceful circumstances."

"You're not a good liar, as I have told you. May the spirits of peace find you. At least when you let them find you."

The Marshal nodded sadly, and turned his horse. He rode into the growing night, leaving Silas to the judgement of the Comanche, and the sheriff to the judgment of the law.

Justice had been served as far as Marshal Lancelot Cross was concerned.

The End

Sam Grym is a true Son of Texas. After getting a degree in Criminal Justice from Texas State University -San Marcos, he has served as an Officer in the Army National Guard and has a passion for great story telling in all forms. He currently lives in Austin, Texas and enjoys the sun when he can!

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