August, 2018

Home | About | Brags | Submissions | Authors | Writing Tips | Donate | Links

Issue #107

All The Tales

by Brodie Lowe

From Pleasant's vantage point, the wobbling wagon bounded down the flat horizon like a fattened armadillo; it was a good two miles away, its rocking form distorted by the thick dust which seemed to carry it along in an uneven, angry gait similar to that of an irritated deputy bringing a mortally—and particularly aggravating—wounded criminal into custody.

"You said that grandfather once likened death unto saddling up his horse. What he called leavin' the world behind and takin' his time before doin' so," Jubal said.

"Said that on his death bed," Pleasant agreed.

"What'd he mean?"

"He liked to compare it all to a last ride. But that ain't how it always goes."

"What do you mean?"

"Sometimes, death ain't nice or amusing. It comes in a whirlwind. And you ain't got the time to gear up and put the saddle on. Sometimes, it's just you leaving this mortal coil, bracin' for what comes next, with nothin' under you and nothin' strapped to your back."

"He ever tell you what he saw in the dream before he died?"

"Over there," Pleasant motioned with a lazily arched eyebrow—most of its elasticity lost to the hands of time long ago—a wooden pipe held between tightened lips as he lit the tobacco in the pipe's cradle. After small smoke signals rose from the glowing ash, Pleasant felt an instantaneous calming wash over him as if he was a four-year-old again and his mother was tucking him in for the night. But those feelings were never to be repeated, not by a man well into his seventies, and he knew that. So he moved his tongue around in his mouth, savoring the taste.

The blatant disregard for Jubal's question was noticed and the subject changed. "I'm noticing," the voice of Jubal mumbled beside Pleasant.

"Reckon he's as good as his father?" Pleasant asked.

"Those kinds of apples don't fall far from the tree. Seen it happen too many times for it not to be true," Jubal said.

The wagon limped onward, closing the distance but never really going anywhere, or so it seemed to the two gentlemen. The dust whirling around the wagon took on shapes that appeared recognizable at once before dissipating into formless assemblies of grime on the wind. The phantasmal carriage was led by two horses in perfect unison. Powerful thoroughbreds pulled a pile of wooden scrap which looked as if it had been lackadaisically patched together. The dichotomy alone confused Jubal.

"Looks as if he's—" Pleasant began.

Jubal put up a left hand to silence his father. He leaned forward, the other hand grasping the front porch's splintered post tighter. "In a rush," he muttered, finishing Pleasant's sentence. "What'd you write in that letter?" he asked, turning to Pleasant inquisitively.

"That the b . . . ," he paused, searching for an appropriate and less derogatory term, "the deceased ain't in no hurry." He strained his eyes at the approaching horse-drawn wagon. "Pace shouldn't be this urgent-like."

The individual driving the dilapidated, rickety wagon in the distance was Mr. Braxton Vestal, an unusually thin man, standing at 6'5", whose occupation was a mortician. Cramped in the jockey box, his dangling spidery legs spilled over, nearly causing his toes to graze the barren wasteland. Sweating profusely, hands calloused from the reins, shoulders tired from commanding the direction of the horses (a lone cactus or rock would jump into his vision from time to time and an occasional last minute dodge was required), he looked behind him, eyes wide thanks to an adrenaline-induced state of emergency.

Most undertakers who were around in the year of 1866—shortly after the Civil War—weren't as busy as before and were looking to make more money to supplement the income that they had once made during the violence and carnage of the war. Such situations do force greatness upon others in the arena of inventions (most times out of necessity), and it was no surprise to the universal formulaic design seen throughout history when a man by the name of Thomas Holmes, through innovative chemical know-how, founded the process of embalming. Now this was crucial in the Civil War as the body count significantly increased, and although the embalming techniques had not yet reached the Midwest, they had tickled Braxton's ears quite a bit. That explained the three dollar-gallon jugs of embalming fluid which swished around viciously in the back of the carriage.

Moxley Hotchkiss, a once very lively woman who could turn a head or two as she sauntered by, and who had lived far away from Pleasant's and Jubal's humble residence, was now lying on ice in the cellar, cold and stiff. She was the reason for the mortician's visit. Braxton had been notified by Pleasant, via letter, that there was a particular lady whose body had been unclaimed. And Pleasant made it known to him that he would be reimbursed for his travels, given that it was a distance longer than usual.

Mrs. Moxley's casket, customized and tailored to fit her corpse specifically, was in the back of Braxton's covered wagon beside the embalming containers, but Mr. Vestal wasn't looking back to check on the casket's aesthetic condition; instead, he was looking over his shoulder at the cannibal on the horse only feet away from the wagon's back end.

The horse on which the cannibal, whose wispy hair violated the humid air with a stench that rivaled that of the dead, rode could at once be identified as a rabid animal. Saliva ran over his gummy lips as it bellowed like a pig—the kind of bawl something would make out of anger toward the designer of its deformed body. Sun glistened madly on blood and pus which oozed from its various wounds.

The cannibal atop the abomination growled at the carriage, a simultaneous attempt to scare the mortician into submission and to quicken his own steed's pace.

"He's being chased by someone," Jubal pointed out, took a step inside the front door and grabbed an 1863 Springfield rifle musket.

"Wait a damn second," Pleasant said, taking a step in front of his son, blocking Jubal's view, placing a calloused hand on the barrel. "That comes later."

"If we don't kill whatever's behind him, that time won't come," Jubal said, his youthful impatience getting the best of him, concentrating his ill-focusing optics on the chase which was now only a mile away. He noticed something in the pursuer's hand. "The hell's he carryin'?"

The cannibal raised something—a Molotov cocktail lit ablaze—bright and glowing above his head. From their earshot, the two gentlemen on the front porch could hear the maniacal laugh as it poured from the cannibal's throat in an acidic procession of gurgling grunts and wheezing inhalations. Then he launched the object from his hand. It landed in the back of the carriage, the flames immediately engulfing the cloth. The explosion of flames temporarily muted the hilarity induced cackling from the hunter.

The mortician placed both reins in his right hand, balanced himself on the footrest just below the jockey box and leapt for whichever of the two thoroughbreds would take him.

Jubal descended the porch's steps with hurried feet. "That man's more important than anything we got at the moment." He took a few steps in the hot dirt and took aim.

Mr. Vestal had indeed landed on one of the horse's rear, albeit messy and nearly breaking a hip in the process, and clung to the horse with tufts of mane clutched in his hands. "Good boy, Pilot," he spoke to his companion, his mouth inches from the animal's ear, his belly flat over the horse's back. However, unsolicited heavy breathing interrupted the short-lived victory of having just survived leaping flames at his back.

It was the cannibal, grinning from ear to ear.

"He's next to Braxton. Can't get a clear shot, right now," Jubal commentated. "Shit."

Only five hundred yards away, the nameless cannibal and Mr. Vestal were side-by-side.

"See if he can get it himself," Pleasant suggested.

Jubal shot a look over his shoulder, an eyebrow raised in shock. "You're crazy. We need this man."

The cannibal's condemned horse galloped at a pace that nearly bucked its owner off. Braxton couldn't remain steady on his own steed and, the carriage a huge ball of sun behind him along with the two horses clumsily falling out of order, decided it was time to bail. Instead of the fast, hard ground beneath him, he needed something a little softer on which to land. Braxton's anxious eyes leapt into the man-eater's hungry ones and then the mortician jumped on the back of the diseased horse which instinctually veered away from the carriage as Mr. Vestal's vehicle crashed in flames, the horses falling over each other, collapsing in a mound of fatigue.

The cannibal and mortician, now sharing the same horse, continued in the direction of Pleasant's and Jubal's cabin, now only fifty yards away.

Shocked by the surprisingly fearless (really unplanned desperation) junction of the two riders, the cannibal whipped his head around and bit into Braxton's shoulder, his putrefied teeth sinking deep into the muscle. He tore the meat from Braxton, his one-track mind sending him into a concentrated feast which included his mouth munching and his hands holding the spills. Braxton leaned back in agony and fell off the horse, landing flat on his back.

Suddenly, the cannibal's head exploded as a bullet found its mark and his body fell off the horse lifelessly. The horse, his equestrian now having relinquished him of his duties, road away, vanishing in the distance.

Jubal stood like a statue, smoke billowing from the rifle's muzzle, he dropped it and ran over to the mortician.

* * *

"That's one way to make an entrance," Pleasant said, his voice reaching Braxton's deep sleep and awakening him. As if leaving a nightmare, Braxton quickly sat up in bed.

"Careful, now. You're badly injured," Jubal said.

"What . . . ?" Braxton couldn't finish his question as his shoulder throbbed, the blood pulsing, thudding like horse's hooves. He let out a sore cry and fell back on the bed.

"Shot him clean through. He ain't comin' back," Jubal informed Braxton.

"I . . . I . . . apologize," Braxton said through clenched teeth, his eyes closed.

"Rest here for the night. We'll wake you in the morning," Pleasant said, his worried eyes looking at his son, Jubal. "Just don't die."

* * *

The next morning, after sharing breakfast and a pot of coffee, Braxton said "Thank you for your help. I was on my way here when I came upon a body, one that I perceived to have been long dormant. The body was that of the man you shot. Some sort of crazed lunatic. Fought me. We scrambled. I got back on the carriage. Riding away, I heard a whistle and then heard hoof."

"Those kind are out here. But not in here, Mr. Vestal," Jubal calmed his visitor.

"Looked out the window this morning. Foxes had taken the best of him off with 'em," Pleasant said as he swallowed the rest of his coffee.

"I'll have to go back into town and get another casket and order of embalming fluid," Braxton said.

"I'll write to Chasin, next town over. See if he can accommodate you," Jubal said.

"She in an airtight container?" Braxton asked.

"On ice," Jubal said.

"I'll have to take a looksee," Braxton replied. "See if she's too far gone. Decomposed, I mean."

Father and son shot an agreeable look and nodded. "This way," Jubal motioned.

Minutes later, Braxton found himself in the cellar, surveying the body.

Pleasant said "Look just like your father."

Confused at the observation which seemed to come out of nowhere, Braxton replied with a "Yeah." His eyes scanned Moxley Hotchkiss' corpse which was covered in mounds of ice. Braxton pushed the ice over her face as if smoothing off excess sand in the building of a castle on the beach. The nose was extremely decayed as if her body began rotting a few days before they put her on ice. "Who is this woman?"

"Sound like him to," Pleasant said, ignoring the question.

"Who is she?" Braxton pressed.

"Kin to us," Jubal responded. "Cousin."

"Shit, I 'member when your daddy performed one of them miracles we all read about in the stories. Had a harelip, he did. Man had a speech impediment. Couldn't cure himself, but knew how to get others over the ailments they was born with," Pleasant said, admiring the humble, selfless character. "You ever do the same?"

Braxton shot a quizzical look at the old man, then at Jubal. "What y'all brought me here for?"

"Wondered if you raised the dead like your father," Jubal answered.

"Exactly who you want raised?" Braxton asked the obvious.

"This here woman," Jubal quipped.

"She ain't too long dead. And if memory serves me correct, your daddy made an arm grow back, 'bout oh," Pleasant paused to collect his thoughts, his eyes wandering heavenward, "fifty years ago. I was a kid," he said, his eyes meeting Braxton's. "Hadn't seen anything like it. Never seen him after that one. Read about him in the papers though."

"You think I can do what he did?"

Jubal motioned to Pleasant, a signal that told his father to stop the reminiscing, forego the stories of long ago, and get to the point. "We figure you ain't fall too far from the tree. Got a little juice in the hands from your father, do ya?"

"Never." Acid rose in Braxton's throat.

"Relations are a powerful thing, Mr. Vestal. You're lucky. My daddy was a farmer. That's all I ever done. Ain't as good, though. Still tryna' farm like him," Pleasant said. "We want you to bring this girl back to life."

"Got reasons?" Braxton pressed.

"Plenty. None of which are your concern."

"We want you to give her life. Breathe a little into her. Just like your dad when he travelled down in the south."

"I ain't like him. I come to bury. Not to raise," Braxton said, his voice hinting a little regret.

"Raise her or you'll be six feet under, yourself, within the hour," Jubal said.

"I don't have the same thing he had. Don't believe like him. You're talking to a man who's no closer to the truth than an elder is his youth. I'm afraid you've made a grave mistake," Braxton said.

Jubal walked over to the mortician, grabbed Braxton's right hand and, almost yanking his shoulder out of socket, placed the visitor's digits on Moxley's cold face; Braxton's hand hit a stone. And the stone face didn't move. And the stone was a maddened beast of hardened flesh that felt as if it would jump out and take his breath from his lungs and make him join the rest.

And the room spun.

And the alcoholic touch burned his soul.

And his soul made a shudder.

"The hell is this?" Braxton asked.

"Bring her to life or we'll kill you," Jubal said.

"Look, I ain't doing this shit. You think you're gonna make me do this? I seen what's on the other side. Don't mean a damn bit that I believe like my father. I seen these people raised from the dead before. What they seen on the other side? It's somethin' that won't ever leave ya. It's somethin' that will make them go crazy when they wake."

"And what's that? What do they glimpse on the other side?" Jubal asked.

Braxton's thoughts raced like lightning through his head, remembering his father's miracles across many landscapes of America. "Themselves."

"You speakin' in riddles now, Mr. Vestal," Pleasant said.

"Themselves. And the hate that burrows inside doesn't wear off. It lives on," Braxton said.

"Just what do they see?"

"A version of themselves."

"What's this woman seein' right now?"

"Her face on the body of another. Her face on the figure that tortures her. Several figures. They torture her—her very own likeness atop the bodies. They stare. They mock. They beat. Drive her insane. And their faces, the same as her own, make her hate herself. For millennia."

"Millenia? It's only been a few days since she's been dead."

"Eternity doesn't pay any mind to time. What's not here is happenin' there. And vice versa."

"What then?"

"Those on the other side are placed in a room full of mirrors after the torturous ages, only to look at themselves, at their faces and forms. The hatred they have stored for themselves for having tossed themselves in such a predicament haunts them forever because they are the ones responsible for it all. And after millennia, their very soul is driven insane. And they fade into somethin' else."

"And you know this how?"

"Heard it as testimony from the ones my father raised."

"Then raise her. You believe in the stories. So raise her," Jubal pressed both of Braxton's hands on Moxley's face, pressing into her forehead, smearing the cartilage on her nose. "Pick her up from death or you'll join her."

Braxton's eyes burned into Jubal's. "Thing about faith is it ain't genetic. Lost everyone I love. Not gonna owe any allegiance to somebody who coulda protected 'em." Braxton paused and looked at the cold lump of coal that was Moxley's corpse. "Just why do you want to see her? What you got for her? Or what do you need from her?" He turned his gaze back to Jubal's face sprayed with sweat.

The butt of Pleasant's pistol, previously holstered and tempting a meeting with dust and rust, fell against Braxton's temple like the Titanic and its nemesis, cracking his consciousness into pieces, leaving only blackness as the residue of what once remained.

* * *

After much deliberating, and saying things like "enough is enough" and "time's runnin' out, Jubal, look at her! Ice is meltin' and she's gonna' be rotted through before long," Pleasant took to his horse and disappeared.

* * *

When Mr. Vestal awoke, the air smelled of sulfur and his hair stood on end from the static electricity surging along the walls in the cellar. Pleasant and Jubal were on their backs, pinned to the ground by an invisible force, their hair blowing wildly in waves as if they were underwater. It was as if the room had been filled with an otherworldly type of material. A dreadful feeling overwhelmed Braxton's senses. He was a penny lost at sea, as worthless in the real world as he was in the world for which he was not yet made. His value lost all and the weight and realness of the room fell on his shoulders. It was as if air had been replaced with oxygen that he had never breathed before, making his body literally feel heavier as his lungs expanded. It was as if the outside world was no longer exciting and the room that held the mortal beings was the only thing that made any sense.

Immediately, he knew from whence this reality came, from whence it poured, and how it got there.

Then he sat up, his eyes chasing the power surges that ran along the floor like electric snakes (his blurry vision never truly coming into focus), weaving around the feet of the unknown man standing next to the tub of ice in which the corpse resided, bumping into Braxton's fingertips. "What'd you do?" were the first words that crept slowly from the mortician's numbed lips.

A man who Braxton had never seen before stood motionless in the swirling of the air, his hands on Moxley. He turned his head and his eyes, lit ablaze with blue fire, the flames leaping from the lids, engulfing the lashes like burning butterflies that never adjusted to ash, met Braxton's. "What have you done?!" the mortician screamed, the sound of his voice nearly ethereal and soundless in this newfound atmosphere. He leaped to his feet and hobbled hurriedly to the stranger.

"Resurgam," the stranger said confidently, ending his muffled speech.

A gushing of energy heaved itself in one splash of irrefutable force, knocking Braxton back to the ground, his body sliding over the uneven dirt floor. He slid into Jubal, nearly knocking heads with his traitor.

"What is this?" Braxton yelled next to Jubal's ear, the question barely audible, veins bulging in his neck.

"Had to get someone who'd bring her back. Dad kidnapped . . . "

"A man who could do as you requested?"

"A man of faith."

"Who is this guy?"

"I . . . I don't know. Some pastor down the road. We put a gun to his head. Then he started doin' what I heard your father used to do. Then somethin' else took over. He's not himself!"

"Tell him to stop!"

"Can't," Jubal said, breathing as if he had been chased by some cannibal in the open desert.

Pleasant lay unconscious only feet away. And if Braxton's eyes didn't deceive him, his chest did not fall with any type of rise.

The room suddenly became dark, save for the light that ghosted along the stranger's silhouette. The three men on the floor felt lightheaded as if they were losing blood. Their very essence edged away from their bodies as if the reality had left and they truly felt like the penny lost in the ocean, insignificant. They could have crawled inside themselves and never been found again.

The other world had entered and they were now a part of it.

From the corner of the room, a gargantuan spider revealed itself, the legs covered in human fingernails that appeared as if they were growing from the tungsten-like skin. The creature scurried closer to Braxton and Jubal and stopped abruptly, staring at the two men. Moxley's face masked the top of the spider's miniscule humanistic head. And her eyes burned with a certain sense of loss, her head twitching in several directions like a house fly.

Then the abomination jumped toward Braxton and Jubal.

A rifle blast rang out from a now-conscious Pleasant who stood like the statue whose original marble could not be duplicated in his own son's courage. The projectiles collided into the spider like hot coals heaved into the cold snow.

The room went dark.

The End

North Carolinian by birth. Raised on about ten acres of land where, as a kid, he roamed with a coonskin hat and Red Ryder BB gun, imagining himself to be Davy Crockett—all thanks to Fess Parker. Grew up on Elvis music. Graduated from Western Carolina University with a B.A. in English. His brother and he wrote a film named Three Count that was picked up by executive producers of One Media Productions in 2016.

Back to Top
Back to Home

The Bear Creek Incident
by Stephen O'Connor

Not a lot of chuck wagons trundled this far out from West Bridge, and mine was the only that kept a dog under the seat. Customers enjoyed posing for my photographs, having watched the dog sit pretty and beg. The kids would run out from the cabins that squatted in a U shape facing the sawmill, each one of them demanding the dog repeat its trick. The mothers would also appear, lured from their menial tasks. A crowd would gather and crowds meant business, and business meant one step closer to the ring on the finger of the lovely Helen.

I knew that Anthony enjoyed the wan sunlight filtering through the forest. Break time was always taken out in front of the engineering shop, and whenever I came up to his mill, I'd sit down with him and his crew after making some money from my photographs. One of the new guys, from down south, tells me his job is harder than mine. He has a big dumb-shit leer as he's saying it. I shrug and reply something along the lines that my Thornton-Pickard camera blanks out if things get too ugly, and emphasized the point with a wink. The crew laughed through a couple more coffees, and Michael from down south simmered through it all. On the way home, not far from the mill, Michael ambushed me. He'd cut some branches across the track, and in the fracas busted one of my teeth. I landed an uppercut, but he was bigger than me and something in the blows that rained in on me suggested he wasn't wrong in the hardness of his work. As I was on the ground fumbling to cover my head, the dog growling from his box under the seat, Michael kicked my gut, and I felt the bile rising in my throat. I then watched silently as he smashed and splintered my camera under his boots. He went back to work and I lay on the ground.

I got home and scrubbed the blood out of my shirt. I'd taken beatings before. My dad, bless his black soul, used to whack me with his dirty great coal mining boots. They were covered in mud and by the time he'd finished thrashing me, I'd look and smell like an eight-hour muck man at the coal face.

Now though, I had a problem. The camera was replaceable, but I didn't have the money and Helen wasn't going to wait around, she was that kind of girl. I considered walking straight into the lake. Its turbid waters would fill my lungs, but the thought of the dog miserably howling my demise changed my mind. I didn't really have much choice. Dad never really explained the rights and wrongs, he'd just smash me with his boots, and so my stealing through childhood reached a culmination of jail time in my early twenties. Nothing too long, but enough for a taste that I could survive a return trip, if needed.

Anthony's sawmill plant was high up on the spur, overlooking the short plains and the ropey river that meandered its slow way to West Bridge. I'd left the dog at home and he'd dropped his head and retreated to his kennel, pushing his nose under the tip of his tail and looking at me, pleading for a safe return. I felt the burden of responsibility for both him and Helen as I tied my horse to the tree and cradled the rifle, making my way quietly through the forest.

Between periods of stillness in the forest, I heard quiet murmurings a short distance away. I slowed my pace and raised the rifle. Twenty meters away, next to a red pine, a man in a blue shirt was kissing a woman. I made a decision. Pine needles cracked under my boots as I ran and burst into the clearing. There was silence. Michael's mouth gaped and his instinct was to loosen his arm from the woman's grip. The woman's face suddenly glowed white like she'd just seen an apparitional snake. She uttered my name, as there had been many a time when I'd had dinner with her husband, Anthony and their two kids.

"Well, this is a fine mess, isn't it," I said and narrowed my eyes. Rosie started tearing up, slowly moving away, her hands outstretched, and I gestured silently with the rifle that she should be on her way. She took one last look at Michael and then pitched off through the forest.

I faced Michael at a distance of four paces and I smiled with a quiet ferocity.

"So, you sneaked up on me," Michael said, his eyes baleful. He made a slight movement and I thrust the rifle forward.

"No, you don't. I'm going to settle with you. I need money and you're gonna get it." I outlined my plan, it was simple. He had to get money from the sawmill's takings. I mentioned the crew's salaries were kept in a small room next to the engineering shop, and as there was only 30 minutes before lunch ended, he'd better hustle. "I'll be waiting here."

Michael's face went livid, but he realized he was backed into a very tight corner.

* * *

It had been a week since Michael had delivered the takings from the sawmill. Even now, as I set off in my chuck wagon, I recall Michael's lack of fight. His quiet recognition of defeat like the heavy arch of a tomb, as he'd handed the money over. I slowly smile, the small town of West Bridge at my back as I cross the plain, the morning light licking the horizon. I laugh at the prospective arrival at Two Creeks and the thought of parading through the main street with dough in my pocket, and Helen on my arm, her cheeks flushed in delight.

I make good time and at the day's end, the mountains begin to rise around me. I know this is the beginning of a long and treacherous journey. It begins to rain, slowly at first, but then gushing in torrents as I reach the summit of a ravine. As I begin the steep run down into Bear Creek, I push hard on the foot brake lever, but it doesn't hold. I pump desperately, but nothing. It had been vandalized. The coach starts rocking from side to side and my dog yelps, jammed to the side of his box. I pull hard on the reins and the horses momentarily lurch back, but the wagon keeps rolling, careening over the stony ground, picking up speed and ahead, I can see a sharp bend, and beyond that a vast, empty rocky canyon.

In a split second, my mind's eye plays the outcome. The horses will make the corner, but the wagon's weight will pull them into the chasm. I throw myself out and left, airborne for a moment and crash into the ground, elbow first and roll forward. Out of the corner of my eye, I see glimpses of the wagon as it pitches left, scraping the corner, the horses pull, but gravity spins everything over the edge of the cliff. The horse's eyes are rolling as they are flung over, and my dog howls until they are all smashed on the rocks below. My body is a blur of movement still rolling forward, and I can't stop myself as I pitch over the edge. Instinctively, my hands reach up grasping frantically some brush and I stop, suspended 100 meters above the ravine.

I close my eyes and take some deep breaths. Nothing seems broken and I start kicking the rock hard, making footholds and start pulling myself up, centimeter by centimeter until I slide my body up and over the lip of the cliff and lay in the dirt, the rain lashing my aching body.

A lot of whys are running through my mind and I lie long enough for the rain to start puddling around my body. I realize I need to move in order to survive. This is bear country and they will be hunting in the evening. Suddenly, I hear the crack of a rifle and a sudden searing pain lashes my thigh. I scream and roll over on my back. My leg is throbbing and things start going dim around my periphery. A slap to my face forces me to focus.

A revolver's barrel pins me back into the ground. Michael pushes it hard into my cheek, his face a terrible grimace and he yells at me.

"At this range, your brains will be spread all over the county."

I'm helpless and I seethe at my losses. Michael pokes harder and grits his teeth spraying spittle. "I'm done for. Rosie spilled the beans. I'm running from the law, but before I go down, I'm gonna make damn sure that it's lights out for you!"

I see the look in his eyes and realize I need to do something. In the back of my mind a vision of Helen floats, her brown hair that curls at the ends, and the laugh that is easy and intelligent. I feint with my right hand, trying to push the gun away, and with my left hand, grab some soil and fling it into his face. He stumbles back and fires. I feel the bullet grazing the air and pinging harmlessly into the dirt. Pushing up onto my knees I lunge at him, the pain like a knife through my legs, and Michael falls. He drops the revolver, but kicks out with his leg, catching me flush on the jaw, and like lightning whips another revolver from his holster. He stumbles to his feet and waves the revolver at me. "Get over the edge, or I'll drill you with so many holes you'll float all the way to the bottom of the ravine." I swallow hard, the pain drumming my head, and consider my very limited options. What happens next is a blur of ferocious lethality.

A thunderous growl gives Michael seconds to comprehend what will become of him. A huge brown blur breaks cover from the forest behind him. I marvel at the muscular speed of the grizzly over the ground as it suddenly stops a meter from Michael and effortlessly lifts itself from its thick forelegs and a standing position, towering over its prey. I look around desperately for the revolver, just as Michael fires off a shot. In a furious downward thrust the grizzly's claws embed themselves deep into Michael's chest. I gape in absolute horror as, jelly like, he flops to the ground, and in seconds the bear is over him. The grizzly bites and worries the body and the attack is too frenzied for Michael to scream. He is like a doll, shaken and tipped by a tempestuous child, and a cold sweat drips down the back of my neck, as I realize the bear may start onto me. By the time he has finished with Michael, there is blood everywhere. Not a single part of his body hasn't been gouged or scratched. I can see the revolver and quickly consider using it, however the massive shoulders of the bear turn in my direction and I suddenly freeze.

I don't even dare to blink and I try to lower my breath, but my heart is thudding in my chest. The grizzly sniffs the air, swinging his enormous head backwards and forwards. He suddenly lets out another roar and I piss myself. The forest is silent, the rain has stopped and the high pitched caws of the vultures beginning to circle the pickings at the bottom of the ravine draw the attention of the grizzly. He then looks down at Michael, gives him one more vicious cuff and then saunters back into the forest. I breathe out suddenly. I grab the gun and point it in the direction of the grizzly. It makes me feel safer, although I realize, as my eyes are drawn to Michael's body, it will be of no help against the savage mammoth. To my right amongst the pine trees, Michael's horse whinnies and I know I must find the strength to ride out of this terrible place and down to Two Creeks, so that I can at least recount to Helen the dangers I have trod in order to win her over.

The End

Stephen O'Connor is a teacher hard at work teaching. In his spare time he writes short and flash fiction.

Back to Top
Back to Home

Deer Creek Lobo
by Mickey Bellman

Three-toes! One glance at the paw print told Hayes the crippled wolf was back in the Badlands. But how? He had followed the blood trail of the renegade wolf two years before. Although he never found a carcass, Hayes knew that no wolf could survive the loss of so much blood. Three-toes was dead, gone, his bones picked clean by magpies and buzzards. And yet, there in the January snow was the unmistakable track of the killer wolf.

It had been six years since Hayes first studied the track in Deer Creek Canyon. It had been a perfect set—the trap concealed near a lone clump of sagebrush and scented with female wolf urine. No wolf could resist leaving his own scent on the marker without stepping into the trap. When Hayes returned, however, he found only a piece of a wolf. The steel trap had severed one of the big wolf's toes and the legend of Three-toes was born.

From that day forward the black wolf began a legacy of livestock predation. Three-toes became a ghostly devil that plagued ranches with killing orgies and defiant wolf serenades in the night. He was seldom seen in the Montana scrub despite the best efforts of ranchers and government hunters. Hayes had been the only man in Powder River County to even get close to the wolf, and he blamed himself for this scourge that his trap created.

Hayes tipped back his dirty Stetson to survey the ridges around him. Gullies snaked across the landscape. Flats of sagebrush, pine and juniper were scattered across the stark panorama. Broad ridges ended in vertical cliffs where flash floods had eroded the centuries-old volcanic ash. Streaks of yellow, black and saffron dirt lay exposed like a grimy rainbow. The soil became gumbo mud in a light dew, turned powder-dry under the summer sun, and ice-hard in the bitter winters. It was old and barren country, brutal country for anything that dared inhabit it, a country where only the brutal could survive.

When Three-toes studied the movement below, he saw only the horse. A horse without a man was of little concern in a land of livestock, but the wolf had not survived nine years by being unconcerned. All his senses were directed at the horse—eyes strained, nostrils quivered and ears stood erect. The black wolf lay hidden in the shadows of a scrub juniper; he had carefully chosen the hiding place so he could watch for approaching danger. The horse shook itself in the frigid air throwing off a mantle of snow from its back. Only then did Three-toes see the man stand and stare in his direction. A man! A low growl rumbled deep in the throat of the renegade wolf.

Hayes studied the direction of the tracks, but he would have to cross a mile of open sagebrush. He realized the crafty lobo would be watching and would see him long before Hayes was within rifle range. But the tracks were fresh and there may be a chance to ambush the black devil in The Notch. He settled into the saddle atop his Morgan horse and again studied the barren hillsides. Perhaps he could make the wolf nervous and drive him back toward the high country through The Notch.

Three-toes stared at the horse and rider. He had watched men on horses before, but this cowboy touched some deep memory. When the wolf slowly stood up, he remembered. There was a dull pain in his chest where something hot had once stung him. It had been the one time when he had foolishly napped atop a warm rock. A near-miss bullet had shattered the rock on which he lay, sending stone shrapnel slicing into his chest. It stung like a nest of angry hornets. Three-toes lost blood in the hours that followed while the man on the horse tracked him. When he was too weak to run further, the wolf crawled deep into a rose thicket and lay still as death while the cowboy passed by less than twenty feet away. Only after the Big Sky night returned did Three-toes limp away into the refuge of the Rosebud Mountains. The image of a brown horse, the tan hat, the leather chaps and green Mackinaw jacket had been seared into the wolf's brain.

Despite the badger burrows half-hidden in the afternoon shadows, Hayes spurred Monty toward the ranch house. Another 20-below night was coming on as years of frustration, memories of mutilated calves and defiant wolf howls welled up inside Hayes. His fingers were freezing inside his leather gloves, but a little pain was a small price to pay if he could just kill the wolf in the morning.

After the stars appeared in the frigid sky, Three-toes continued trotting away from the man-encounter. Not until he had covered three miles did he slow his pace. In a secluded grove of pine trees the wolf crawled under a rock overhang to rest for the night. A surprised squeak came from beneath the mat of pine needles, and a back-footed mouse disappeared down the wolf's throat. This tidbit would have to do until bigger game could be found.

"Hayes, you can be married or you can hunt wolves, but you can't do both." The cowboy mulled over the words as he rode to the ranch house. His wife had been right, of course, even though the words still stung like the rock shrapnel in Three-toes' chest. He was hunting wolves, and he was without a wife.

* * *

An hour before daylight Hayes saddled Monty in the corral. From the ranch house door, Culver watched the horse and vengeful cowboy. Hayes fumbled with the frozen leather straps.

"Good hunting, Hayes. I hope you get him this time. There'll be a job here when you get back." Culver shivered in the predawn darkness.

"I won't be back till I get him this time, and then I'll stretch his hide on your barn door. He's just a wolf, ain't he?" Hayes threw a smirk at Culver and tied on the saddlebags.

"You're a good man, Hayes. Maybe you can finally get all this behind you."

"Thanks, Culver. I'll see ya when I ride in here with that black devil." With that Hayes swung into the saddle and spurred Monty toward the ranch gate.

Culver watched as horse and rider were swallowed up by the night, listening to the staccato of hoof beats on the frozen ground. He wondered which was worse—a crippled old wolf or a paranoid old wolf hunter.

The heavy tail served its purpose well. Eons of evolution had spawned a tail that protected the wolf like a heavy blanket in the coldest weather. Three-toes snapped awake when a chickadee scratched for its breakfast in the nearby brush. He stretched his legs and rose to his feet, the crippled paw protesting with pain. Except for the small mouse, the wolf had not eaten in ten days.

The January sun had just cleared the horizon when a familiar smell halted the wolf in mid stride. Frozen in the morning air was the faint scent of a cow. He sniffed at the air and quickened his pace toward a white mound. Three-toes quickly uncovered a reddish piece of hide and hair; a winter-killed Hereford lay under a blanket of snow. The famished wolf began tearing at the hide to get at the frozen meat.

Hayes returned to the tracks he had studied the previous day, then stared at the distant Rosebud Mountains. The Notch was the only mountain pass used by man or beast during the winter. Perhaps if he kept the old lobo moving toward the pass, the wolf might get nervous and careless. He jerked the .30-30 from the rifle scabbard and fired two shots into the air, then spurred Mont towards the trail in Deer Creek. The trail would lead him to The Notch. It would take some hard riding but Hayes had to get there before Three-toes.

The black wolf was gnawing on the frozen underbelly when he heard the distant rifle shots roll over the ridges. His head snapped toward the sound while a strip of meat hung from his jaws. He realized danger stalked not far behind. Instinct told him to flee but he chewed frantically at the carcass. If he could only fill his belly and get through The Notch, he would find refuge in the wilderness beyond.

Hayes continued to spur Monty up another steep hillside. Despite the sub-zero atmosphere, Monty was sweating hard and gasping for breath. The big Morgan responded to the spurs in his ribs while the frigid air froze his lungs. Hayes took no notice; the wolf was all that mattered.

Horse and rider entered the pine timber that covered the higher slopes. Droplets of blood oozed from Monty's hide where the steel spurs had cruelly raked the skin. They were near The Notch where Hayes could ambush the rogue wolf, center his sights on the last timber wolf in Powder River County and squeeze the trigger. The wolf would die and this vendetta would end.

Hayes saw the pine deadfall half-buried in the snow. No time to detour around it, he spurred Monty to jump over the log. The weakened horse was exhausted and obeyed the sharp spurs, but he could not clear the fallen tree with its sharp and broken limbs. Blood gushed from the Morgan's chest and stained the snow crimson-he was impaled on one of the sharp spikes. Monty responded in terror and reeled backwards, thrashing wildly to escape the deep pain in its chest. Hayes had no time to kick free of the saddle.

The cowboy's left foot was entangled in the stirrup as the screaming horse began a wild, tumbling fall down the steep hillside. Hayes was thrown around like a rag doll on a string, alternately under and then above the rolling, kicking horse. Screams of a dying horse and a terrified cowboy echoed through Deer Creek Canyon. The mangled horse and rider rolled down the mountainside and smashed against a large yellow pine tree. A foreboding silence returned to the forest.

Three-toes was just nearing The Notch when he heard the terrified screams beyond the ridge crest. The noise rose and fell in volume, muffled by the deep snow. His curiosity aroused, the wolf started toward the sound.

No sound greeted Hayes when he awoke. He had lain unconscious for nearly half an hour. The deep cold had mercifully numbed some of his broken body parts. He was face down in the snow with a dead horse pinning him to the ground. His right arm was free but his left arm was twisted in unnatural angles. Hayes tried to dig himself free and crawl away but he collapsed with a loud groan as shattered leg bones rasped against one another.

The wolf heard the loud groan and was torn between his instinct to run for safety and his curiosity. He warily began stalking down the hill toward the sound.

Hayes drifted between the soothing blanket of shock and the cold reality of consciousness. The mountainside had become a white tomb without sound, without movement. The sun offered its brilliance to the frigid landscape, but there was no warmth in it. Hayes thought of his cowgirl wife of long ago, of the two sons he had fathered, of the rifle in the saddle scabbard with which he might fire signal shots. But all those things were out of reach, separated by years and inches.

Three-toes sniffed the heavy blood trail leading from the windfall to the dead horse. His body tensed like a coiled spring as he slowly stalked down the hillside and circled the carcass.

The wary wolf heard the faint scraping sound of something in the snow before he saw Hayes pinned beneath the horse. The man! Three-toes cowered in the snow fearing he had blundered into some trap. He stared at the feeble movements of the man's hand; it was Hayes futile attempt to drag himself free.

Hayes awoke with a start, but there was only dull pain as the cold and shock engulfed him. When his eyes focused, he was staring directly into the eyes of his black curse. Three-toes! Hayes gasped and tried to yell when he saw the white fangs of the wolf. Tales of men ripped to shreds erupted in his brain. He feebly threw handfuls of snow at the wolf to keep it at bay, but the wolf only sat there staring deep into the hated man.

Three-toes watched the man awaken. He could see the confusion, then the recognition, and finally the terror in the man's eyes. The man was dying, and Three-toes lifted his lips to show his great teeth and massive jaws. It was not a snarl of rage or fear; it was a wolfish smile, an expression of satisfaction.

Hayes collapsed again and for the last time, still staring into the yellow eyes of this black devil. It was the last image he would see.

Three-toes listened to the death-rattle in the man's throat. Cautiously, he stretched forward and sniffed the outstretched hand. The cowboy had been destroyed, but not by the wolf. Hayes' own obsession had done that. Three-toes lifted a hind leg on the pine tree, leaving a liberal dose of his scent to mark his territory. It was time to return to the Rosebud Mountains.

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.

Back to Top
Back to Home

The Black Coin, Part 2 of 3
by David Armand

On the other side of the hitching rail, where Billy's father stood smoking and looking up at the sun again, the horses' tails flickered like frayed ropes, swatting away black lethargic flies that hovered around them like tiny carrion birds.

"Come on. Let's get inside," the old man said.

Billy followed his father over the hardpan between the porch and the hitching rails, on which wires of horsehair were caught in the splintered wood and twitched in the breeze. Then they went up the wooden stairs, the loose planks creaking under their boots, and then on into the saloon, where just beneath the high ceilings and jutting down from the exposed wooden beams, several slow-moving fans uselessly whispered into the stagnant air above them. The place was mostly empty, the few customers who were sitting at the counter had cups of hour-old coffee or perhaps whiskey in front of them, a small local newspaper—three or four days old most likely—folded in their laps as they talked to the barman or otherwise to each other.

Billy and his father went over to an empty table and sat down in two wooden ladder-backed chairs, the creak of their weight sounding much like sitting in a freshly-oiled saddle. It was a sound the boy loved to hear: the creaking of old, well-worn leather or the protestations of wood as it took on weight it wasn't meant to hold. The barman approached them. Without asking, he placed an empty ceramic cup in front of the boy's father and then tilted the decanter he was holding until Thomas Ketchum's cup was filled with dark and steaming coffee.

"Looked like you could use that," the barman said.

"I thank you for it," Thomas said back.

Then the barman looked over at Billy. "Can I get you something, young man?" he said.

"Yes, sir. I'll have one of them birch beers, if y'all got 'em, please."

"We do. Y'all gonna need a menu?"

"Two," the boy's father said.

"All right then. Be right back."

Thomas Ketchum sipped from his coffee and smoked the rest of his cigarette, tipping the gray ashes off into a little tin coffee can in the center of the table. You could see the black and brown saucers where the tips of countless cigarettes had burned the wooden tabletop as they made their careless descent toward the coffee can, ultimately missing. Billy just looked around. Took everything in like he always did. He thought he might sketch the inside of this place later when they were sitting out by the fire and when he had nothing else better to do.

The barman made his way back behind the counter and poured Billy's drink as Billy listened at the sounds of forks scraping against plates, the old men scooping up the last of their beans onto a piece of white soggy bread, some of it dripping back down onto their plates like thick candle wax.

As the barman started to make his way back to the table where Billy and his father were sitting, grabbing two stained menus off the counter on his way, the slatted batwing doors creaked loudly on their gudgeons and everyone's heads turned to see who was coming in now. Billy looked too. He saw the outline of what seemed to be the tallest man he had ever seen. It was the same man who had been watching them from the other side of the train tracks just a minute ago, but Billy nor his father knew this. How could they? Billy had been busy watching his father roll a cigarette. And then his father had been busy smoking said cigarette and looking up at the sun, contemplating something Billy would never fathom for as long as he would live.

The man who had just walked into the saloon had an outline that nearly filled the threshold of the doorway, eclipsing what little sun was leaning in from where it sat poised in the uppermost part of the sky. It was high noon, as they said around here. And now the older men at the counter stopped talking and you could hear their coffee cups clink into their saucers as they put them down and turned toward the opening to see who had just come in. The batwing doors creaked shut and tapped the tall man's back, but he didn't budge. He stood still against the glare behind him, affording no look at his otherwise featureless appearance.

"I need everyone to stay put," his voice said, emanating low and heavy from his shadow, which continued to fill the doorway as though it were the bole of a large tree suddenly sprouted up from the wooden porch outside. It was as if the voice and the figure were two separate things—the figure outlined in the door like a black cardboard cutout of some giant man. Billy couldn't make out the man's face or what he was wearing even. Just that large black outline. Then the shadow started to move farther in toward the inside of the saloon, the door still slowly swinging in and out behind him, the rusted-out little bell tinkering just beside his shoulder one last time as he passed it. As Billy's vision adjusted to the change in light, he could see that the man who had just come in was holding a gun, pointing it in the general vicinity of the barman now.

The boy looked across the table at his father, whose back had been facing the shadowed man when he first came in, but now his father had his head craned in such a way so that he could see him, too, this stranger. This shadowman. This was suddenly how the boy thought of him now. Billy caught his father's eye for a second and then he too looked back toward the man with the gun.

"I need all y'all to stay put," the shadowman said, cleaving the silence with his low bass voice.

The barman with the two menus and the boy's birch beer stood between a couple of tables, holding the drink but letting the menus slip from his fingers. When the menus hit the wooden floor, they stirred up the wood shavings that were sprinkled there to catch the tobacco juice that didn't make it into the brass spittoons at either end of the bar, and the shadowman looked down for a moment but then he turned and pointed the gun back at the bartender.

"I done told you to stay put," he said.

"I'm sorry," said the barman. "I ain't movin no more. Let's just calm down now."

At this Billy could sense his father tense up. Thomas Ketchum's elbow had moved the faintest bit, bumping the table, and the boy could see his father's coffee twitch in the ceramic cup as a result. And now the shadowman was moving again, this time toward the cash register. And Billy watched as the robber scanned the room with his gun, yet Billy could still barely make him out, see who he was.

He was wearing a black bandanna—Billy could make that out at least—and it was wrapped across the lower half of the shadowman's face, the top half eclipsed by the brim of a yellowed Stetson. His white but slightly-dingy shirt was tight fitting and tucked into his pants so that you could see his thick leather belt and the silver-plated buckle that held it shut around his waist, scrimshawed and with little turquoise stones outlining some scene from this man's life perhaps. Or maybe from someone else's.

And it was as though everything were moving through a scrim of gauze now and the boy was able to see and record each tiny detail so that later that night, when he sat among the chaparral in the shadow of his father's campfire, holding his father's gun as the old man slept in a deep whiskey fog, he would recall all of this as though seeing it flicker across a piece of stretched canvas, a magic lantern reeling out strips of film and clicking out the story like a picture show in an empty theater. But at this moment, it wasn't a show. It was all really happening.

"Now I'm gonna need you to open that register," the shadowman said.

"Okay, just put the gun down first. We can talk about this. Like gentlemen, can't we?"

"I don't think so, hoss."

And then Thomas Ketchum twitched again. Just a twitch. Barely noticeable. His son looked at him, and then the old man moved, just a little bit more, finally standing and then reaching for his gun in what seemed a single motion and then pointing it at the other, much taller man. Time had started to collapse now and sink in on itself as though everything were being sucked into a dark mine shaft and the boy watched as his father rushed the shadowman, knocking over a chair, then a table, and then the shadowman aiming his gun at the boy's father and squeezing the trigger but the gun only clicking and then clicking again and then again and then the boy's father now on top of the shadowman, hitting him with the butt of his gun right near the temple and everyone else not moving as all of this happened, the passage of time unfurling slow and river-like. Like it does in dreams.

Then it had all stopped. Everything. The filmstrip clicked across the final frame and now spun around the reel, the last bit of film like a tail flapping against the machinery of the camera, the light and the dust spackled throughout it the only thing left to see, for the situation had seemingly been diffused. And it was the boy's father who had stopped it. Just like when Billy had stood before that anonymous window, looking in at that beautiful woman as she dressed and powdered herself and his father had struck Billy with his leather belt. But this time was different. This time the old man had used his gun.

Billy watched from where he was still sitting at the table as his father took the pistol from the shadowman's hand and kicked it across the wooden floor, leaving a crooked trail in the aspersion of sawdust that coated the oiled planks like snow. Then the old man put his knee in the shadowman's throat and pulled down his bandanna. His hat had already come off during his fall but from where Billy was sitting, he still couldn't get a good look at the shadowman's face. If he had, Billy would've seen the grizzled cheeks and the scarred chin, the milky right eye, the sun-dried nose as though it had been baked in a clay-hewn stove. Squarish, gapped teeth stained dark brown by tobacco.

The barman had put the boy's drink down on one of the tables and had started to make his way back behind the counter—presumably for his own gun—when Thomas Ketchum told him to stop.

"Ain't nobody told you to move, old timer," he said, his knee still pressing down hard on the shadowman's throat, his gun hand slowly rising until the barman was now standing at the wrong end of Thomas Ketchum's Colt .45. This was a place you did not want to be.

The barman turned and looked down at Ketchum. Then he looked back up at Billy, who was still sitting in the ladder-backed chair. Watching. Billy was just as confused by all of this as the bartender seemed to be. The boy watched then as his father stood, releasing the pressure on the shadowman's neck, checking with his ungloved hand to make sure the other man was still unconscious and then getting up and moving slowly toward the bartender, the Colt still pointed at his head.

"Now I know you have a smokewagon under that bar there, but I ain't gonna let you get to it. What I want you to do, old timer, is real slow-like open that register and then move around to the front of the bar where I can see you. Keep your hands in front of you and I ain't gonna hurt no one."

Then to the other men in the saloon: "All you old timers just put your hands on the bar so I can see you ain't gonna do nothin' stupid neither. I promise you ain't no amount of money is worth gettin' kilt over."

This was probably the most the boy had ever heard his father say in one sitting. It really was as if he were watching another man do these things, the boy squinting incomprehensibly as his father choreographed the room with his gun. No one moved. A fly landed next to Billy's arm on the table. He didn't even flick it away.

Eventually Billy's father took all of the money from the cash register, the bartender tightlipped and hardfaced as he handed it over, and then Ketchum made his way down the length of the bar and took what money he could from each of the old men perched there. They handed over dull gray coins and folded bills. Pesos even from a couple of them. Billy watched his father's reflection in the greasy backbar mirror now as he took the money and stuffed his tight pockets with it. And he could see the old men and their eyes watching his father too. Angry, but they all kept their hands on the countertop as instructed. No one moved for their weapons. There were apparently no heroes here.

On the wooden and sawdust sprinkled floor still lay the shadowman, breathing deeply and unconscious, a dark bruise blooming just in the place where Ketchum had hit him. Billy watched to see if the shadowman would rise but he never did.

End Part 2

David Armand was born and raised in Louisiana. He now teaches at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he also serves as associate editor for Louisiana Literature Press. He has published three novels, a memoir, and collection of poetry. His website is:

Back to Top
Back to Home

Mitchell and the Denver Express
by Dick Derham

On the last day of his life, Walter Hancock was in good spirits as he kissed his wife, shook hands with his son Billy, at eight years too "growed-up" to accept "mushy stuff," and stepped out the door of the small house on Cedar Street which his wages from Wells Fargo allowed him to provide for his family. Hancock hummed contentedly on the three-quarter mile walk to the Raton depot, thinking of Billy, of the best pleasure a man could have: watching his own flesh grow to manhood.

As he crossed the lobby of the Southern Pacific stationhouse, Hancock waved at the stationmaster. "Running on time today, Zeb?"

"Ten minutes late out of Las Vegas, Wally. May make up some of that time."

In the Wells Fargo office, Hancock found Sherm Addison checking the schedule of express freight to be loaded. "Manifest shows a goodly cash shipment coming over from The Bank of Raton," he told Hancock. "But not much weight to be transferred."

"Easy day, then."

As Hancock and Addison prepared for their routine run, fifteen miles away, three gun-hung men rode toward Raton Pass with business of their own. The two older men, muscular of body and resolute of face, had slapped their saddle bags on the two spare mounts. Their younger associate's demeanor pretended to a hardness he hadn't earned and this morning his face was flushed with the excitement of a day that would make him set for life.

At the separation point, one of the men shrugged into his heavy knapsack. The youngest man grasped the reins of the two spare horses and watched his companions ride south before he turned up the trail toward the agreed meet-up point.

As the two senior men rode along the post road toward Raton, the younger voiced the notion he had been turning over in his mind. "Devlin," he said. "It don't seem right, us taking all the risk and the sprout getting a full share."

Devlin rested his hands on his pommel as he eyed Reynolds. "You know what you're saying, Butch?"

"Once we pick up the horses, all little Bobbie means to us is the cost of one grey bean." Reynolds laughed viciously. "What's a spent cartridge among friends?"

The unanticipated brutality lurking behind his partner's words reminded Devlin how little a man sometimes knows about the depth of his confederates. "Something to think about," Mitch Devlin agreed. "Money's all that matters."

* * *

Even as it slowed for the upgrade, the Denver Express moved at a deathly speed for any man foolish enough to try to swing aboard. Nor could a horse outrace the multiples of "horses" in the steam-powered engine. Still, as the train came around the bend, two men were up the right-of-way, sitting their saddles where the grade eased a bit, waiting for their chance. Devlin swung his roan's head parallel to the track and rammed in the spurs, Reynolds behind him, racing ahead of the train like many a carefree cowhand had done, would do, wherever iron rails crossed cattle country. Even as they punished their horses, the train closed the gap, inevitably overtook them and chugged by. As the engine pulled even, Devin kept his head down, away from any eyes that might glance his way from the cab. He struggled against the muscular gelding between his thighs as it fought to turn aside from the thundering, shaking iron beast spewing hot smoke at horse and rider from not three feet away.

Finally, the rear wheels of the tender passed Devlin and the express car drew near. Devlin kicked free of the stirrups and began to synchronize has body with the swaying motion of the train. Then, the most critical action, his hand closed around the grab bar of the express car. He hoisted himself from the saddle as the train's momentum slammed him hard against the car's wooden wall. But then his body was traveling at the same speed as the train and he began to mount the ladder. To his rear, Reynolds had begun his own climb.

Devlin eased himself over the top rung and crawled to the narrow center walkway, stood and braced himself spread-legged. When the rhythm of the train had become his own, he trotted forward to the car's mid-point. He unlimbered the pack from his back and swung out the two heavy weights to opposite sides of the roof's walkway where they held the pack steady. A quick scratch of a quirly along his pant leg, a touch of the flame to the one-minute fuse protruding from the pack, and he dodged back to his end of the car where he hunkered down for the explosion.

Reynolds sprang through the hole, feet first and gun blazing. While Addison staggered, Hancock's hands flashed up.

Reynolds's gun barrel motioned to the safe. "Open it," he ordered, as Devlin landed behind him, the canvas sacks in his hand.

The transfer was quickly made. "More money than we expected, Mitch," Reynolds said. "That ranch in Montana is in our hands."

Hancock wished the robber hadn't said those words. He wanted to see Billy again.

"Guess that's all they got for us," Devlin said as he finished emptying the safe. "Give me a boost." Using Reynolds's cupped hand as a stirrup, Devlin sprang up and clutched the edge of the roof. Quickly he hauled himself up and reached back through the hole as Reynolds handed up one canvas bag and then the other. Devlin balanced them for the ride to the upslope and the pickup point where Bob would have the horses.

In the express car, Reynolds was a thorough man. After he reholstered his smoking revolver, he bent at the knees and bounded upward. Both hands closed around the splintered edge of the hole in the roof and he hauled himself up.

As Reynolds's head cleared the edge of the roof, his eyes came level with the fire-blackened bore hole of Devlin's well-used pistol.

* * *

At Trinidad, the team of Wells Fargo agents moved forward to the cab of the Denver-Santa Fe Southbound where they received a less-than robust welcome.

"Station master told me, I got to put up with two men crowding in on me," the engineer complained. "Don't see what you expect to find out."

"Never know what we'll learn until we learn it," the time-tested Chet Collins axiom. "You drove the Northbound on the day of the robbery. We've read your statement to the sheriff—"

"Said all I saw," the engineer interrupted. "Couldn't see it helped any."

"We want to see the track the way you saw it that day."

"I got a train to run. Mister," the engineer snapped. "Not here to do chit-chat. Stay back and don't get in my way."

The hasty statement Farnum had given the sheriff had been sparse of details. "Everything was fine in Raton when the new express crew joined the train. Then when we slowed down for Trinidad, the brakeman found the blast hole in the roof. When we pulled in at the station, we found the dead men and empty safe."

"Don't try to tell us anything about the robbery," Collins said as the engineer prepared to open the throttle. "Just talk about anything that comes to mind as we roll along."

Two miles out of Trinidad, a mile after passing the last out-buildings of the town, the train began its descent through Raton Pass. "Like always, we labor on this long up-slope," Farnum told the agents. "Probably the slowest we go through the entire canyon. If I had to jump, this is where I'd do it."

Many miles down the Pass, Collins probed. "Must have heard the explosion when they blew the roof."

The engineer ignored him but Jasteen rested his muscles between two shovels of coal. "Somewhere along about here, I felt something jostle the train, but rattling along as we labor the upgrade, we're shaking all the time. As for hearing anything, I can barely hear myself shouting to you now."

The railroaders had little more to say until they neared the end of the journey when Jasteen gave a short laugh. "Remember a couple of cowhands lolling along the side of the tracks when we rounded the bend and started the upgrade. When they saw us, they spurred their horses into a gallop, thinking it fun to race the train, like even the fastest stallion could gallop along at over 40 miles an hour."

"What'd they look like?" Mitchell asked.

"Dirt-and-sweat cowhands all look alike," Farnum said. "Why would we pay any attention to them?" He turned away and began applying the air brakes as the train started to slow for Raton.

* * *

In Raton, the agents made the usual inquiries. Who would know of the bank shipment? Who had been checking the train schedule? They learned no more than they expected. If two unknown cowhands had appeared in Raton that day, they had remained invisible.

"We're looking for anything out of place," Collins said as the two agents began their trip north on horseback. "Maybe they left something behind."

Something had been left behind, as it turned out, but that was still miles ahead. Meanwhile the agents plodded along, slowing to search for hungry horses where the engineer had seen the racing cowhands. "Been two days," Mitchell suggested, "likely they wandered back down the right-of-way looking for company."

A few miles further up the Pass, they found some debris beside the tracks. Collins swung down to pick up a shard of lumber and examined it. "Blown planking from the explosion," he reported.

Late in the afternoon they neared the northern end of the canyon. "This is where the engineer thought the killer must have got off," Collins said. "See anything?"

Mitchell pointed to a clearing screened from the railroad by a fringe of brush. "Yonder looks like a good place to stash the horses out of sight." In a moment, they had found where Bobbie had hobbled the horses and let them graze while the robbers did their work.

"No doubt we found the right place," Mitchell said, extending his arm toward the sprawled form. "In the back. Dead center." He swung down and rolled the body over. "Not much more than a kid," he said. "Nineteen, maybe twenty." From the pocket of the dead outlaw's work shirt, Mitchell withdrew a much-read letter.

"We've got a name, an address and a return address."

* * *

The small farming community of Fair Play, Colorado sat nestled in the high grasslands of South Park under the shadows of the silver-rich Park Range, a town of barely 300 souls taking its sustenance from the trade of farmers, the surviving small-scale gold and silver mines, and, since the coming of the optimistically-named Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad, from the commerce of transshipment. Lying along the banks of the Middle Fork of the South Platte, Fair Play traced its history back to those first hopeful miners of the 1859 Gold Rush. Whether the town's adjudication of mining claims met the pretensions of its name, its more recent history had included violence as a preferred means of settling differences of opinion.

A squat square stone structure at the center of town served as the Park County Courthouse with brick steps leading up to a single courtroom which fully occupied the main floor, and above the steps, the window from which John Hoover had dangled the night the community showed it displeasure with the outcome of a certain murder trial. Collins ignored the steps and followed the path around to the basement door painted with the words "Sheriff of Park County." Sheriff Wiggins wore his badge easily over a faded woolen shirt whose two open buttons accommodated a comfortable curve around the waist. But Collins was not looking for a vigorous posse boss.

"You've got three men missing this past week or two," Collins told Wiggins after displaying his credentials. "Likely men you're as glad to have gone."

"Men come and go. Got any names?"

"Robert Stuart is one of them."

"Stuart!" Wiggins made a face. "Just a rambling no-account, not worth the sweat to run him out of town."

"But maybe a man you'd trust to hold your horses?"

Wiggins shrugged. "Got himself a big head after two of my real hard-cases took him under their wing. From that day on," Wiggins continued, "Stuart swaggered around Fair Play like the iron on his hip made him bigger than Samson with all his hair."

"Tell me about his partners?"

"Not sure they'd accept being called a partner of that drifter, whatever they let him think, but they're tough nuts. They'll kill as soon as not, you ask me. We've had some miners turn up dead in their shacks, their pokes missing, but all I got is guesses. Scorpions, both of them."

"Looks like Stuart felt the barb of their stingers." Collins told Wiggins what brought him to Fair Play. "Two men robbed the train, but one had a different idea about the split." He described the robber left behind on the train.

"So, I'll never see Butch Reynolds again. Good riddance." Collins took notes as Wiggins described Mitch Devlin. "He'll never see thirty again. Thick beard that can't hide the scowl he carries like it came from his mama's womb. Dark haired. Just shy of six feet. Bulky build. He'll use his fists when he needs to, but if you ask me, he finds guns quicker."

Fair Play had three small saloons, each attracting its own breed of men. Collins passed by the townie saloon and the cattleman's watering hole. The Nugget, Wiggins had assured him, was where Devlin and Reynolds hung out.

The bartender's eyes hooded over when Collins asked about Reynolds. "I sell whiskey, mister. If you want information, go read the Fair Play Flume."

A man down the bar spoke up. "I know Reynolds. Always good to stand a fellow for a drink or two."

Collins took the hint and the two men moved to a side table with a bottle of Double Anchor whiskey. "Not seen him for a week or more," Collins' new acquaintance told him. "Pals around with Mitch Devlin. Two men who know what they want in life and tell you they mean to get it."

"I been told to look him up for some action that may be in his line," Collins said. "Solid man, is he?" The gossip told him little, but kept coming, especially as the level in the whiskey bottle lowered.

"Reynolds grew up on a ranch," one of his new companions mentioned.

"Fancied himself a cattleman, him and his buddy Devlin. Talked about going into the ranching business," another drinker added. "Said we'd not see him again. But he always talked a bigger game than he played."

* * *

Mitchell dipped his coffee leisurely in a small diner in Sydney, Nebraska, waiting. When a young woman paused just inside the door, he got to his feet. She moved toward him with a determined step.

"Are you Mr. Mitchell?" she asked. "I got your note. What is this about?"

Mitchell tried to start with words of sympathy. "I didn't want to disturb your Mama by coming to your home, Miss Stuart. I know she's doing poorly."

"How do you know about my mother?" she demanded, instantly alert, suspicious, even more antagonistic than the presence of the gun belt strapped around his waist should mean to a resident of a peaceful farming town.

Grudgingly, she sat and waited stiffly while the waitress brought her a cup of coffee. "Your note claimed this was about Robert." By her posture, the strength of her voice, he knew that this Miss Stuart was not a simpering town maiden, but a strong-willed product of a frontier farm. And Mitchell lived in a world of men; he knew little of such a woman.

"In your letter, you told Robert to come home if he wanted to see your mother again." He paused.

"That was a personal letter," she snapped. "Why would Robert have you read—? Are you a friend of his? How did you get—?"

When she broke off, he saw a glimmer of realization begin to grow. "Robert . . . He's in trouble, isn't he?"

Mitchell waited. It would make his task easier.

Her voice dropped and he barely heard her words. "More than trouble?"

"I'm sorry." He let those words lie between them for a moment, letting her absorb its meaning. "I didn't know Robert, but I could tell you cared a great deal about him."

"He has a wild streak" she said. "But he's so young . . . Not bad, Mr. Mitchell. He just wants . . . wanted adventure. What . . . "


She recoiled at the harshness of the word.

"And you?" She demanded, suddenly suspicious again. "What is your part in all this? Is that how you got his letter?"

Her antagonism flooded across the table, as though she held him responsible for the news he delivered. But for reasons of his own that he didn't fully understand, it was vital to overcome the hostility of this strong woman. He placed his Wells Fargo badge on the table and eased it across to her. "I'm bound to find his killer."

Maybe that helped. She seemed less hostile. But through her grief, it was hard to tell. "His killer robbed the Denver-Santa Fe train, killed two Wells Fargo express men, then murdered his partner. We think Robert held the horses for their escape. The killer covered his tracks well. No way to know who he was."

"You think I know? I—"

"We identified Robert from your letter that he carried in his pocket. It must have meant a lot to him. I'm thinking he wrote to you, too."

"He said he made friends. He never mentioned names."

"But he said something about what he was doing, about his plans. Tell me about Robert."

He let her talk about her brother as a child. "So active, always into everything," she remembered. About how he resented farm chores, about how their father died and they had to move to town, about how he chafed at taking responsibility for the family. "He was still so young. He just craved excitement," she concluded. "He always talked about seeing big places, doing big things, even in his last letter he spoke of finding his big opportunity. But nothing specific. Nothing helps, I'm afraid."

Finally, she broke down in tears. "How will I tell Mamma that he went bad? He was her pride."

Mitchell felt drawn to reach across the table, to let his hand rest on hers, to comfort this strong but vulnerable woman, to let his unexamined feelings overcome a disciplined professionalism. As his eyes met hers, and he felt the depth of her sorrow, he struggled to find words to ease her pain.

"Maybe a story will help. A story about a Texas boy who trailed cattle to Arizona for excitement, who found he liked having money better than he liked having work. For three years, he robbed stages, thinking he was living a good, manly life. Five years in Yuma Penitentiary did nothing to point him to a different trail so he started robbing again. By accident he met a man. The first real man he ever met. That changed his life."

She waited for him to continue, then the meaning of the tale came to her. "You?"

Mitchell nodded. "Maybe all Robert needed was to meet that kind of man. I mean to find whoever took that chance from him."

Mitchell waited silently, letting her come to terms with her grief. Finally, she spoke.

"I remember something. His last letter said I should write in care of General Delivery, Billings. Does that help?"

Mitchell grinned. "They call Montana the Big Sky Country. Guess I'm going to find out what that means."

* * *

Spring had come to Montana when spring always comes. Late.

By the time the screeching brakes brought the Northern Pacific Express to a halt at Billings, range routines were shifting from the winter chores of moving cattle among patches of sparse grass that had survived the snows of January, of spreading hay, and of mending fences, tack and the like to the tasks that followed winter break-up, rounding-up heifers and branding their calves, and for men whose sprit of enterprise exceeded their commitment to "townie" ethics, mavericking any calves who could be separated from their branded mamas. Mitchell's second-hand range garb marked him as a rough man of the saddle, a man who would be at home in any cow camp.

Collins had arrived in Billings a week earlier, ensconced now in his room at The Billings House, credentials presented to the local law, but not the arrest warrant, not when it might leak out. Even an honest sheriff could unintentionally loosen his lips over a whiskey.

When the Wells Fargo men compared notes in Denver, they had determined on an approach that combined their strengths. Impatiently, they waited out what remained of winter, giving Devlin time to arrive in Billings, ready to use his blood money to buy an existing spread, or perhaps to drive a herd up from Wyoming. Somewhere the ambitious start-up cattle rancher would be found among the lands left open by the Great Die-Off of the harsh winter of 1887. A long search, perhaps, but two dead Wells Fargo men meant San Francisco gave them orders to take as long needed.

And so, an out-of-work saddle tramp named Dave Mitchell "rode the grub line" from one small ranch house to another, from one thrown-together cow camp to the next. "Looking for work," he told whoever would listen, whoever would trade at least a supper and breakfast for some chores on the woodpile, mucking out the damp-smelling straw in the barn, or whatever task gave welcome relief to the cowhands and earned him a supper, a place to toss his bedroll, a breakfast, and maybe a chance to hear range gossip.

"Any outfit around looking for hands?" he always asked as he saddled up in the morning. "Anyone new to the area still getting settled in and don't have his full crew yet?" "The Lone Star," he was told by one man. "New fellow using the Anchor brand", another told him. But Devlin hadn't been a Texan, and when he saw kids playing in front of the Anchor cook tent, he knew his search would go on.

"Double Ess drove some cattle in this spring," a homesteader named Warner told him. "Nice fellow like you don't seem like their sort, though."

The SS "ranch house" was canvas, stretched between the trunks of two lodgepole pines. The "kitchen" was a fire pit fifty feet upland from a burbling creek. Brush had been cut and dragged to build a small corral. Some land had been spaded level and a pile of fresh lumber lay stacked nearby for the first ranch building . . . bunk house? Cook shack? A sign the men here had only recently arrived but planned on staying.

Mitchell pasted a scowl on his jaw and timed his arrival to fit the supper schedule and force a range-courtesy meal if nothing else. As he approached the corral, a tall, clean-shaven, surly-looking cowhand strode forward. "Who do you think you're eyeballing, drifter?"

The contrast to western range courtesy told Mitchell that he was among dangerous men, the kind of men who would scorn a polite request to "trade some sweat for a supper." Here, a show of subservience would get him run off. It was not his scruffy range garb that declared him as one of their kind; it would be the edge on his voice.

"Saw me enough to know you're not the boss man of this outfit," Mitchell said as he swung down uninvited, matching discourtesy for discourtesy.

"He's got you spotted, Culver," one of the other hardcases said with a guffaw.

But Culver was a man with no back-down in him. "You're packing iron, mister. Let's see how much heft you got."

Mitchell could not back down either. Two brisk steps brought him nose-to-nose to Culver. "Fists, knives, or guns, bucko. How do you want it?"

"Put a cork in it, Culver." The voice of the man emerging from the tent didn't have enough weight to handle Culver, not by itself. Perhaps no man could handle this crew by voice alone. But under his beard, he scowled with the intensity of a man certain of his command.

Culver glared at Mitchell but reluctantly let his gun arm go slack and turned away. "We got plenty of time."

"Your business?" the man in charge demanded. Other men in Montana fit Devlin's general description, but not many overlorded a tough outlaw crew.

"Seen enough to know you need some real hands," Mitchell told the boss. "I can do most any range-riding work you got, herding cattle, breaking horses, making steers." He took a chance. "Handling quick branding fires when there's a need."

The boss studied Mitchell skeptically. "Range courtesy says you get your supper. Turn your horse into the corral." As Mitchell prepared himself for an evening of grilling, he knew he had found the Denver Express killer. He knew as well that if he failed to impress Devlin, he need never see Billings again.

A man learns many things in life if he tries. And Mitchell's first month in Yuma impressed upon him that a few words could substitute for a sentence, a grunt could substitute for words. Just as he could spot which of the SS hands had learned their lessons from brutal jailors, the men around the cook fire quickly recognized him as one of their kind.

For three days, Mitchell rode the range with the SS crew, once with the lanky Zeb Lyons, a man who made no effort to hide the three deep grooves scratched into his gunbutt, once with the knife-scarred breed, Johnny 'Pache, never with Owen Culver. On the third day he sided "Steve Slater" as the boss called himself. Duty didn't tax his skills. Cutting a calf's ear to show its hide had been scorched and claimed made it easy to spot a new SS addition from a distance. Maybe the heat of a quick branding fire didn't sear as deeply as range standard, maybe dragging a running iron to transform S-Bar into a sloppy SS wouldn't hold up if the hide were stripped by a range detective interfering with a free man's business, but such niceties were for settled ranges.

Mitchell had made a show of holding back his life story. "Done my work down south," he said, not bothering to mention which of the troubled ranges he had ridden. If he seemed reticent, if he left the impression of a man who rode the unfriendly side of the law, no one seemed to mind. When pressed for his reason for trying the cold north, he gave a vague explanation. "Got tired of being hassled with all the homesteaders crowding the range. Then I heard Montana was open and free and a man don't have to bow and scrape to them Eastern fat cats."

"They run the law down there, don't they," Slater mentioned, on the surface just making idle conversation.

Mitchell flashed a sidelong glance. "I'm not packing law trouble, if that's what you're asking." Then he dropped his voice confidentially. "Not that I know of anyway."

"You stay here, you're going to have to kill Culver sooner or later, you know that?"

"He thinks he's a red-tailed hawk, but some I cell-mated with make him look like a one-winged sparrow." Mitchell rode on in silence for a moment and then turned so his eyes met Slater's and held them. "Did I just hear an order?"

"I'll tell you when," Slater replied, satisfied he had learned what he needed about Dave Mitchell.

* * *

Two weeks had passed, a score or more calves had been separated from their mamas, and a dozen yearlings of diverse provenance had felt the SS brand burned into their shoulder. Then, one night, Slater announced: "We're not finding many more calves needing our iron. Time to do our riding on some of the fillies in Billings."

Established in 1882 when the Northern Pacific had chosen it as a western railhead, Billings was already a large town with several thousand souls clustered along the banks of the Yellowstone River, its prosperity based upon the railroad that served cattlemen throughout South Central Montana, with the attendant stockyards, rail maintenance yards, and commercial industriousness. It served as well as a shipment point for the Montana coal that provided energy not only to power the Northern Pacific steam engines but also the electrical plants of cities and towns throughout the Northwest.

From the livery stable, Slater led his crew down Grant Street and through the batwings of the Big Horn Saloon, a suitable watering spot that served the cowhand trade but stood nearly empty on this midweek day. After draining his first beer, Mitchell shoved back from the table. "Now that I got some coins jangling in my pocket, I'm going to see about getting rid of some of them."

Culver started to rise as well. "Guess I'll mosey along and make sure you don't get in trouble off by your lonesome." Culver's smile was as false as an alligator and maybe as hungry, but Mitchell played along.

"You can help me pick out a shirt that don't have a hole in it. You're welcome to watch the shearing down to the barber shop, if you like. And I'll not turn bashful when he takes me into his back room and tries to scald the hide off me. But when I'm prettied up, I'm off to a place where a man don't take kindly to gawkers." Mitchell paused, then provocatively showed Culver all his teeth. "But I always like some flunky to scrub my back. You'll find me a good tipper, if you do the job right."

Culver's hand swung toward his hip. "You can get your hot bath right here, cowboy."

"Do it on the range, you two," Slater barked. "Don't mess up my drinking."

Mitchell went about his business, letting anyone interested watch him pause as he wavered between a green plaid and a plain maroon shirt, picked the maroon and tossed in a pouch of Bull Durham, seemingly alone, though likely with eyes watching him from not far behind. The barber snipped away and then filled a tub for Mitchell's leisurely soak. Finally, Mitchell strode down a side street to a building the barber had mentioned. In the front, and out the back and on to work.

* * *

An hour later when Mitchell returned to the Big Horn Saloon, the crew sat listening as Slater proclaimed his philosophy of life. "It don't matter what a man does to get his start. Once you run enough cattle, they all truckle to you."

Mitchell waved over another beer from the barkeep. A long swallow and he eased back, settling himself into the gentle flow of the conversation, of boastful tale telling, that surrounded him.

No man looked up or noticed the new man who pushed through the batwings and strolled over to the bar. Nor did the fact that he turned his back to the mirror, hooked his elbows on the mahogany and idly scanned the room as he raised his glass to his lips cause apprehension. Just another lonesome horseman, or so Chet Collins seemed.

Nor did the entry of the sheriff attract notice. This was his town and none of the SS crew had trouble with the local law.

Slater was chaffing Lyons over an incident on the trail drive when the sheriff's voice rumbled authoritatively across the saloon. "I'm holding a warrant for Mitch Devlin, wanted for train robbery and murder."

At first no one seemed to pay attention. "Riding for the SS brand now," the sheriff continued. Devlin tensed, but still seemed confident that a single man, badge-toter or not, would be no problem against his curly crew.

"No Devlin at this table, Sheriff," he replied. "Go look somewhere else."

Collins had shifted sideways from the bar, and now triangulated the outlaw table. "Devlin's a burly, black-bearded gent, stands near six feet, that's what the Park County Sheriff told me. Wells Fargo doesn't take kindly to killing its men."

Devlin looked at Collins. "Not good odds, lawdog. Two of you against five."

That was Mitchell's cue. "Count again, Devlin." When the revolver resting in his lap clicked to full-cock, not even Culver sought to continue the discussion.

As soon as Devlin was properly ensconced in the Yellowstone County jail, Collins led Mitchell once again to the Big Horn Saloon.

"Back there?" Mitchell challenged. "They're a pack of wolves, sharp fangs and all."

"They're not thinking kindly of us, you especial. We can let them get their spirits up and make a move on their own time, or we can face them down now."

Mitchell and Collins took their beers to a corner table where they could watch the animated discussion of the SS crew. In moments, it seemed a decision had been reached. Culver asserted his dominance as he strode across the saloon with Lyons and 'Pache in his wake. "You bankers—"

"No gold watch on a chain across our broad bellies," Collins interrupted. "We're just men working for wages and doing our job."

"A blood-sucking job," Culver said. "You figure we'll let you take our boss south to hang just for taking some rich man's money?"

"Maybe a bit more than simple robbery," Mitchell told them. "Three robbers found the job smooth as silk, money packed in the saddlebags and then a couple of gunshots and the robbery was over."

Culver showed no concern for the killing of men paid to guard banker's money. "Man dumb enough to take a job like that knows what can happen." Beside him, Lyons shrugged indifferently. 'Pache, like others of his tribe, concealed his thoughts.

All but the most vicious of the men Mitchell had known over the years riding the dark side held to a core ethic of their trade. "Three men in the operation, but only one man rode away with the money."

"You accusing—"

"Two of his partners dead," Mitchell continued. And then the ultimate. "One of them in the back." Even Culver frowned at that.

"Still, it ain't good for a man's rep to let the law waltz in and take his boss away," Culver said. "You two'll pay hell getting him and the herd back to Denver."

"We came for a killer," Collins pointed out. He shrugged as though he hadn't thought about the cattle. "Don't know who'll take charge of the herd."

Mitchell saw the dollar signs flash in Lyons' eyes. Zeb had always seemed the smartest of the crew. He stuck his thumb in Culver's side and jerked his head. The three men withdrew across the room and conferred.

"I'd say the wolves are discussing their dinner," Mitchell commented. "I'm betting they got an appetite for beef on the hoof." Shortly, an agreement was reached. Culver and 'Pache turned toward the door. It was Lyons who braced the Wells Fargo men.

"A man double-crosses his partners, he's on his own," Lyons told Collins. "You keep your nose out of our cattle business and vamoose with your killer, pronto." He glowered at Mitchell. "You ever show your mug in Montana again, Texas boy, and you'll be feeding the coyotes."

As the two Wells Fargo agents watched Lyons leave, their job accomplished, Mitchell sipped his beer thoughtfully. "In the old days, I used to spend free-for-the-taking stage money for my whiskey," he told his partner. "But when a man works to earn it, saloon beer tastes mighty fine."

* * *

Two months later, at noon in the courthouse square at Trinidad, Dave Mitchell performed the most unwelcome duty of his Wells Fargo experience. The suits in San Francisco had decreed that respect to the two murdered Wells Fargo men required that the company be represented at the hanging. Mitchell felt no sympathy for Devlin, but witnessing a defenseless man mount the scaffold, seeing the noose pulled tight around the doomed man's neck, hearing the trap door bang open and finally watching a one-hundred-seventy-pound weight jerk the rope taut was an experience Mitchell could have done without.

* * *

Jostling north, riding free in the Wells Fargo express car, Mitchell tried to banish the constriction he had felt around his own neck as he watched the trap sprung. He blotted the image and looked ahead. He had some days off coming. A visit to Sydney, Nebraska would raise his spirits.

The End

Dick Derham, a native of Seattle, has been reading Western history and fiction since his teenage years. A member of the Wild West Historical Association, he seeks to bring to life the experiences of real people as they dealt with frontier challenges.

Back to Top
Back to Home

The Orphan from Ciudad verde pálido
by Tom Sheehan

"That kid ain't halfway to a cricket, you ask me, 'n' I hope he's small enough to crawl out of that mess." The miner Lew Osgood stood at the entrance to the old mine, dust from a collapsed tunnel pouring out into the valley and getting caught up by a steady wind. He saw the 7- year-old Chico Vestra finally walk through the cloud of dust, and Chico yelled out, "The fuse was lit from the other end of the tunnel. It was coming toward me all lit up and I had to run."

The blast had closed the entrance to the mine . . . behind Chico, by the Good Graces.

"Nobody was out here," Osgood said. "Not a soul but me."

Chico said, "Then he buried himself in there, Lew, or ducked out another way."

Even in the dusty air, Osgood noted the dark hair on Chico's neck had found new grounds cascading over the back of his neck like a still-waterfall. "Getting older in a hurry," Osgood thought, and seeing Chico's brown eyes steady as a stallion's.

He also knew Chico was the smartest kid in the valley (and maybe the only one), the place loaded with mines and dreamers who oftentimes could not hold onto reality, or even face up to it. That meant there was a whole cantankerous bunch of poor spirits and sour dispositions with enough docile dreamers to almost balance the scale, but few young dependents.

The explosion and tunnel collapse was the day's start for Osgood and Chico Vestra, an orphan, a wanderer in the mining camps, living off hand-outs, what he could steal, catch or find as a toss-out. In search he was energetic, thorough, and showed a good deal of ingenuity and derring-do to finish a task. If they wanted, a dozen men, the good ones of soft words and not salty tongues, dreaming of the big strike, could toss warm words after Chico, tell what he had done for them, what a survivor looked like in the very early stages: "Kid's a scrambler." "Chico checks the ins and outs all the way." "Ever see what he found and give back to Carter what he threw out one night when he was drunk. Honest as a good buck, the antlered kind." "Kid ought to have his own bunk to crawl into give it nighttime."

Osgood, 32, ex-sheriff, ex-train robber, ex-prisoner of the territorial jail, now a miner convinced gold was always underfoot, but never knowing how deep he'd have to go to find it, dig it, take it out, acknowledged a growing admiration for the youngster since he had started feeding him, finding odd little tasks to set his mind to.

Apt to talk out loud when no one was around, he'd mutter appreciation and a new clarity about Chico. "They did good for him down there in Mexico, for starters anyway; he shows it, but then they cut the kid loose. That's hard for me to understand." He'd shake his head entertain again the idea that the junk collector he'd heard about in Bola City, that Jehrico fellow up from Mexico, would make a great adoptive father for Chico: the warm-blooded indeed took to one another like bees to prairie flowers. His "I'll think on that," came up as a promise.

Osgood, only once, asked Chico where he called home, and never forgot the answer: "I am el huérfano desde Ciudad verde pálido," his eyes filled with a pale green memory of a place he might not see again. The grown man, with his own pale memories, imagined stories that might accompany Chico's response.

Neither one, at the time of that discussion, knew a pair of mine thieves had found an entrance to the old mine that Osgood had won in a poker game and started searching for gold and finding a little for expenses, the word of gold in a dead and once-deserted mine had grasped the attention of two thieves bent on living off others. Charlie Briscoe and Pete Sunderland were a pair of life's deadbeats, leaving cattle driving after a mere week on the trail . . . and never going back.

Briscoe had said one evening to Sunderland as they stared out on the evening's assigned work, "I feel like I got nothin' but cow dust and cow dung in my mouth and I ain't here for long. I'm lookin' for a partner to ride on to other doin's, whatever comes our way."

Sunderland simply said, "I'm with you on that, Pal. My craw's full up too. Night watch tonight we can ride away from without a word."

The pair had bound themselves into a partnership, not for the good of anybody else. When they found gold leavings, no matter the location (pocket, saddlebag or claim), they took it as their own, for Briscoe had announced the new twist in their search; "We keep our eyes on the spenders, the poker players, the gents buyin' goods at stores, anybody who's forkin' over dust or coin that's more than what they need for themselves."

As usual, the way such partnerships develop, Sunderland fell into second place in the line of command; he was the follower and never the leader, finding it comfortable that way, and doted on and obeyed all that Briscoe pronounced for their ventures.

Such commands included the current situation: "It's a snap, Pete. Just go in there at night with a light, through the secret entrance the drunk told us about, and string a length of fuse to a few sticks of dynamite that'll collapse the tunnel. They'll never think there's another way in. We'll have the whole place to ourselves."

Sunderland, never an expert in any activity, only saw the ease of entering the mine at leisure, working at leisure, finding gold at leisure.

Fate had spoken from the mouth a youngster, when he had said, "Then he buried himself in there, Lew, or ducked out another way."

The words had hit Osgood as if spoken from some mount, never mind from the mouth of a child. "That's good thinking, Chico, 'cause I was out front and never saw anybody come out but you. So, like you say, he's buried or got out the way he most likely got in. Let's go look."

Chico was hoisted up onto the back of Osgood's horse and they went searching for an entrance to the mine they had not known about, and which did not prove difficult at all. When they found the remains of several small fires, and trash tossed indiscriminately around the area, they found the entrance. It lay behind a large chunk of rock that had sheared off the cliff face in the distant past.

The horse was hidden by Osgood and the pair entered the mine. With a torch they soon found the man known as Sunderland, fallen under a few rocks of size. The body was cold and stiff.

Osgood said, "I saw him around the saloon a few times, with another gent, and neither one of them looked overworked. Never got his name, though. We'll have to take him out and bury him. Maybe that other gent I've seen him with will come around again. We might get a chance to see what they were up to, but no good most likely."

He hauled the body out of the mine, dug a grave and buried the remains, with a few words said by Osgood, not in any hurry. With two boards with just "? 1868" scratched on the cross piece, the spot was marked.

"I'll have to go back, Chico, and get some tools and supplies. It'll take me a couple of trips, so I want you to hide up there on that ledge before dark and keep an eye out. If you see anybody around and I get close, toss a stone at me, but don't let him see you." Taking off his vest and handing it to Chico, he said, "This is all I got that you can keep warm with. I may not get back tonight, so it'll help against any chill that comes. Be careful." He patted Chico on the head and rode off.

But part way around the mountain, heading down a tight passage, a feeling of uneasiness came over him. It night have been a reaction to claustrophobia, he argued, but it didn't carry enough weight. At one time, he assented, he'd just plow on. This was different; it carried equal parts of doubt and danger and began to dig into him. Reining in his horse, he sought some mental reservation to bring about a decision . . . all that came to him was Chico at a point of peril. It was enough for him to turn about and head back, darkness not too far away. Chico, most obviously, was on the ledge, but he began to urge the horse on.

The sense of shadows came from wherever the slanting light found structures of any kind, and it happened at a sharp turn in the trail when a single shot rang off an upper part of a cliff face, and a spark of light from a resounding ricochet pinged away but released its sharp echo.

And a deep guttural voice broke out from a low shadow against the cliff: "I don't know who's up on that damned ledge, but you better show yourself, mister, 'cause you ain't goin' no place before sun up and I'll sure plug you quick once it comes. No way down from up there, but the one way I know."

As if for kicks, to test the courage of the person hidden on the ridge, or from his own uneasiness, another shot followed, the pinging echo followed the shot, and silence followed that.

Osgood heard the stone as it clattered on the rocky surface of the canyon floor.

Chico, he figured, was not hurt, was trying to alarm the shooter, or had become aware of Osgood's presence. Immediately he believed in his own sensibilities, and knew once again the uneasiness that had forced him to return to the site.

He dismounted, rifle in hand, and proceeded toward the source of the guttural voice, which released a new tirade. All the yeller got in response was a hail of stones from above.

The angry voice then screamed, "You son of a bitch, I'll kill you." Two side arms were emptied at the upper reaches of the canyon. "I got plenty more. Wait'll I load up."

That was followed most immediately by a single round not far from his feet, and it too had an eerie echo to its hit on a rocky surface and a spark that could set off flames.

In his most commanding voice, Osgood said, "Any more of that, mister, and you're damned dead where you stand. Drop all weapons now or the next slug catches you where it'll hurt you most."

Weapons fell in place, bumps and thumps and mutterings of half oaths, disarmament in its quickest form.

Osgood yelled out, "Chico, come on down and light us a new fire. We'll see who this hombre is, find out what he's been up to."

In a matter of minutes, Chico came out of the deep shadows at the base of the cliff.

The guttural voice said, "Is that a midget or a kid? Is that who I was shootin' at? Damned if it ain't a snotty-nosed kid."

The ex-sheriff said, "That snotty-nosed kid was in the mine when your pard set off the blast that killed him."

"What pard? I ain't got no pard. What mine you talkin' about?"

"The other hombre I saw you with in town a few times, the one we buried out yonder a ways, dead when we found him from the blast he set off. It almost killed Chico here."

"I sure don't know what the hell you're talkin' about. My name's Briscoe and I don't know nothin' about no mine and no pard that you may have killed, not me, and not any blast either."

Sensing nervousness coming on Briscoe, Osgood said, "We'll find out for sure when we talk to the sheriff and the fellow who runs the general store where they sell dynamite and if you happened to buy any recently that you ain't used up anywhere else but here . . . in our mine."

"Who says you own this mine?" Briscoe was now seen in the light of the fire Chico had going, the flames rising high as dry brush flared up.

"You know about this mine?"

"A drunk told us about it." Briscoe knew immediately he had stepped beyond his lies.

Chico said, "We buried a man who got killed in there. If you bought the dynamite, the sheriff will find out. I was lucky I got out. It chased me all the way, all the boom, all the shaking."

Feeling good about the revelations so far, Osgood said, "Briscoe, you got to know the snotty-nosed kid here figured the whole thing out. That's sure to get a laugh and a rise from a judge in court. Attempted murder of a child. Death of a gent you know. Stealing from a claim. Hell, they'll sentence you to the penitentiary in a second."

Briscoe, tied to his horse on the way to town, was left with the sheriff after Osgood and Chico told their stories. The pair went back to the mine, worked it for a few months, found but little gold and sold the mine to another miner for a small sum.

"What do we do now, Lew?" Chico asked Osgood as they sat in front of the mine's second entrance, night in its early switch of light and shadows.

Osgood was in a quandary, and kept thinking about Chico's start down in Mexico, and his getting cut loose for some reason unknown to both of them. "I think we have to see a man down in Bola City. His name is Jehrico and he's from Mexico. He's made a name for himself up this way. He salvages things that people throw away or lose on the trail. Makes money with a lot of things he comes across."

Chico nodded, a smile starting across his face, his eyes lighting up.

"I think he'll be glad to see you, Chico. Real glad. We'll leave in the morning, first light."

Both of them put out blankets and rolled into them, under a sky full of stars, night sounds keeping company with them for almost an hour, until sleep came all the way home to the ex-sheriff, ex-train robber, ex-prisoner of the territorial jail, and el huérfano desde Ciudad verde pálido.

The End

Sheehan (31st Infantry, Korea 1951-52; Boston College 1952-56) has published 32 books, has multiple works in Rosebud, Linnet's Wings, Literally Stories, TQR (Total Quality Reading) Copperfield Review, Frontier Tales, Faith-Hope and Fiction, Rope & Wire Magazine, and many others. He has 33 Pushcart nominations, 5 Best of the Net nominations (one winner). Back Home in Saugus (a collection) is being considered, as is Valor's Commission (a collection of war and post-war tales reflecting the impact of PTSD) and a novel, The Keating Script. His latest book, Beside the Broken Trail, was released December, 2017 by Pocol Press.

Back to Top
Back to Home