October, 2018

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Issue #109

All The Tales

Roses in the Snow
by Maggie DeMay

She would always remember the roses in the snow.

The roses weren't real. Roses couldn't survive a Montana winter, with the wind howling like a banshee and the snow piling up in drifts taller than a man on horseback. The roses were red and made of silk, and each one had been left by one of the ranch hands.

Her name was Odalis Renata Sinclair. She was from New Orleans, educated by the Ursuline nuns to be the perfect wife of an affluent businessman. She had come to Montana to teach school, lured by the call of an adventure and a longing to see what lay across the Mississippi River. She had traveled by train over half the continent to a little town called Missoula. The school was on land donated by Colonel Henry Wilkes. His daughter, Melissa, would teach grades one through three and advanced mathematics to any child wanting to learn. Odalis would teach reading, grammar, history, and Latin to the older children.

Odalis had intended to teach for only a year, then return to Louisiana. But sometimes, well, life has other plans. She was met at the train station in Missoula by the Colonel Wilkes' ranch foreman. His name was James Bronson, a tall, dark haired, dark-eyed man from South Carolina. He was surprisingly well educated, extremely well mannered, and very much a gentleman. He had taken one look at the woman getting off the train and had fallen in love on the spot.

When school ended in June, instead of returning to New Orleans as she had planned, she eloped with the quiet man from South Carolina.

Every year the Colonel hosted a grand Christmas party. People would come from miles around; ranchers and their wives, cowhands, wranglers and every drifter who happened to be passing through. Candles glowed in every window and the house smelled of fresh cut pine boughs and good food accompanied by the sounds of music and laughter and people having a good time. As good wishes for the coming year were exchanged, the ranch foreman and the lady from New Orleans announced they would be expecting a visit from a little stranger. There were toasts of congratulations, kisses, and hugs and wishes for good health and happiness.

Except, for that time, it wasn't meant to be. Sometimes bad things can happen to good people, without rhyme or reason. Or maybe the reasons were lost in the snows of a Montana winter, to lie hidden in the snowdrifts until spring.

It was after midnight on the first of February. Snow lay thick and heavy on the ground. The potbellied stove glowed red in a futile attempt to heat the bunkhouse while the ranch hands were all bedded down under as many covers as they could find. Bronson woke his assistant and told him to go get the doctor, that something was wrong.

Beau didn't hesitate. He saddled the Colonel's stud horse, a black Arabian named Zeus, without bothering to ask permission and rode hell for leather into Missoula, the big horse's hooves throwing up showers of snow. Later, when the Colonel asked why he hadn't awakened him first, the man, known only as Beau, had answered without hesitation.

"I've seen Jim Bronson mad as hell, I've seen him worried, I've seen him drunk and acting a damn fool, I've seen him when he's been sick, when he's been hurt, and when he's been so tired from trailing a herd of hard-headed longhorns from Texas to Montana that he was falling asleep on his horse, but that night was the only time I've ever seen him scared. So, if you want to fire me for taking your horse, go ahead. I'd do it again if I had to."

Beau wasn't fired. The Colonel gave him a bonus and told him if he wanted to breed his mare with Zeus, he'd be happy to accommodate him.

Odalis had recovered, physically faster than emotionally. One Sunday afternoon around the middle of March, when it was cold but not unbearably so and the winter sun was shining bright, Bronson had carried her out to the front porch, hoping that the sun would put a little color back into her cheeks. He tucked a quilt around her and brought her a cup a tea, sitting quietly beside her as she sipped her tea and watched the ranch hands going about their chores.

The Colonel's wife had died some ten years before, and in his grief, he had declared that she would always have the roses she loved. Mrs. Wilkes had lovingly tended and nurtured her rose garden until it was famous throughout the area and people started calling the place Rosewood Ranch. After she had passed away, the Colonel had hired a Chinese gardener named Lo Chi who kept the roses blooming and beautiful. Every day, while the roses were in bloom, the Colonel would pluck one perfect blossom and lay it on his wife's grave.

No amount of forcing or hothouse pampering could make roses bloom in a Montana winter, and the Colonel, ever mindful of the promise he'd made his wife, would order silk roses from San Francisco, always more than enough to last through the long, snowy winter. The only time he missed a day was when the snow and the wind made it impossible to see the small burial ground on the hill overlooking the ranch. As soon as the snow quit blowing and the wind stopped howling, there would be a newly broken path, sometimes from the Colonel's boots, sometimes his horse's hooves, leading up the hill and a fresh silk rose would replace the one battered by the blizzard.

None of the ranch hands had seen Odalis in weeks. Word slowly began to make its way down to the bunkhouse that she and Bronson were sitting on the porch.

They were all tough men. They had to be to do what they did for a living. In the summer they rounded up cattle, branded the calves, and somehow managed to get them to market without losing too many to stampede, fire, flood, disease, or any number of the many interesting ways the bovine species could find to do itself in with. When they weren't herding cattle, they were fixing fences, mending harness, chopping wood, digging ditches and wells, and any of a thousand things the Colonel and Bronson could think up for them to do. They worked hard, played hard, and all too often, died too damned young. What they didn't know how to do was tell two people they respected and cared for that they were sorry.

Billy, one of the youngest in the crew came up with the idea first.

"Back home, when womenfolk was sick, my Ma would always take over some food and some flowers."

"Billy, you idiot, you lived in Texas," said Jake, a grizzled veteran of more cattle drives than he could remember. "Where you gone find flowers in Montana in the middle of winter? And Lo Chi has been bringing 'em food since it happened, only he says she ain't eatin' none of it."

Beau spoke up. "Billy's right, we need to do something. I doubt if Miss Odalis would appreciate any of our cooking. So that leaves flowers. All we have to do is find some."

"Where you plannin' on lookin'?" Jake asked. "Ain't even none blooming in the hothouse."

"There's the ones the Colonel has in his office," Billy said. "A whole bunch of 'em. Made out of silk. Pretty as the real ones and they don't care if'n it's cold."

"How we gone get 'em out of the Colonel's office?" asked Sam, a lanky wrangler from Oklahoma.

Everyone in the bunkhouse had ideas about flower stealing, everything from lowering Billy down the chimney with a rope (What if he's got a fire going, knuckleheads?) to luring the Colonel to the barn to check on one of the new foals and enlisting Lo Chi to create a diversion with a small kitchen fire.

Beau got tired of their bickering, slammed a tin cup on the table for order, pointed out the flaws in each of their ideas and said: "Or maybe we could just ask him. There's ten of us here. We ask him for ten roses. The worse that can happen is he tells us no, and if he does, Billy goes down the chimney. Head first."

The ranch hands all cleaned up for the ordeal. They washed up, broke out clean shirts, polished their boots, and generally put on their best Saturday night on the town dress. Usually, when they needed something from the ranch house they would go to the back door, not wanting to risk tracking in dirt or snow on the Brussels carpet in the entryway. Today they knocked on the front door and stood respectfully with hats in hand waiting for Lo Chi to usher them inside.

Lo Chi looked at the worried and embarrassed faces of the men standing in front of him and led them to the Colonel's study, bowing as he left.

"What can I do for you boys?" Colonel Wilkes asked. He could sense they wanted something, he just wasn't sure what.

Beau had been elected spokesman of the group.

"Well, sir, it's like this, and we hate to ask, but Miss Odalis is out on the porch getting some sun and we wanted to let her know we're sorry, you know, about what happened and all, and maybe bring her some flowers as a present." Beau was twisting the hat in his hands so tightly the Colonel was afraid he was going to twist the brim completely off.

"Where are you going to find flowers in Montana in the middle of winter?" he asked, knowing full well what was coming next.

"We was kind of hoping that you'd let us have some of the silk ones you ordered from Frisco. We'll pay for them. Billy said that when womenfolk was sick his ma would bring over food and flowers, only we ain't cooks and you got the only flowers in Montana."

The Colonel gave his men a long, studious look, noticing they had all smartened themselves up for the visit. Billy had even attempted to subdue the cowlick at the back of his head with some sort of pomade that smelled suspiciously like saddle oil.

"Beau," the Colonel said, smiling at the men's discomfort, "you men have worked for me for some time now. I couldn't run this ranch without your help. The flowers are all yours, no charge." He knew they hated to ask anyone for anything. He had ridden with most of them for years. Without them, Rosewood Ranch would have been just another big house on barren acres. He went to the cupboard where he kept the roses, still in their long boxes from the shippers. "How many do you need?"

"We were hoping for one each, sir," Billy said, speaking for the first time.

The Colonel gave each man a flower. As he was leaving, Beau asked the Colonel if he wanted to go with them.

"No, son, I'll sit this one out. This is for you and the boys."

"Thank you, sir," he said, closing the door softly as he left.

They trooped down to the foreman's house, ten men, each carrying a red silk rose. They stopped at the front steps.

"Afternoon, Jim, Miss Odalis," Beau said, once again acting as spokesman for the crew.

"Afternoon, Beau," Bronson said. "What brings y'all out here this fine afternoon?" He glanced over at Odalis, hoping for at least a ghost of a smile.

"Well, we saw that you and Miss Odalis was out and thought we'd stop by and pay our respects. And to tell you how sorry we are about what happened. I know sometimes things don't make sense, and I guess there are some things we ain't supposed to figure out. We just wanted you to know we was sorry, and that we hope you get better soon."

Odalis, who had hardly spoken to anyone in the last few weeks, gave the boys a sad little smile. "Thank you," she said. "That is very kind of you. Would you like to come in for a cup of tea?"

"No, ma'am," Beau said. "We don't want to trouble you. We just wanted to bring you some flowers and then we'll be on our way." He gently placed the long-stemmed silk rose on the snow-covered walk. The ranch hands followed him, each one expressing his condolences and leaving a single red silk rose laying in the snow.

Bronson watched as they made their way back to the bunkhouse. Billy made a snowball to throw at Jake, who chased him around the yard, threatening to beat Billy like a red-headed stepchild when he finally caught up with him. He glanced over at Odalis. For the first time in ages, she didn't look sad. She was smiling at the crew's antics, and this time the smile reached her eyes.

"Feeling better?" he asked.

"I think so," she said. "They are good men, Jim. They just don't know it."

He gathered the roses from the snow. "I'll put these in a vase for you. At least you won't have to worry about keeping them watered."

"Roses in the snow. If I live to be a hundred I will never forget. Red roses and white snow." She paused for a moment, looking into the eyes of her husband. "I married a good man. Sometimes I wonder if he knows it."

"If I am," he said, "It's because I found a good woman." He kissed her softly as she smiled up at him.

The first robin of the year landed on the porch rail and started singing its heart out. Soon the trees were filled with the sound of birdsong as the robins staked out their nesting territory.

Bronson smiled, relieved. Odalis was getting better. It looked to be an early spring.

The End

Maggie is an Army veteran and an Old Cold Warrior. She has always wanted to write, except this thing called life kept getting in the way. After surviving Hurricane Katrina and the end of a 22-year marriage, she moved to the middle of the Sonoran Desert and started writing. She lives in Tombstone, Arizona with a fat rescued Pomeranian named Boo Boo Bear and a herd of friendly Mule Deer.

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The Baptism of Dirty Dan Smith
by Chris Jay Becker

Dirty Dan Smith.

The name had a certain ring to it.

They say that Daniel Webster Smith had lived more lives than a one-eyed, three-legged cat.

Dirty Dan died a few deaths, too.

And then there was that nickname . . . Dirty Dan. It stuck with him like, well, a bad smell.

Dirty Dan was what you might call the accidental founder of Spud Creek, Colorado.

I knew Dirty Dan well and had interviewed him a time or two for The Spud Creek Sentinel.

My name Benjamin Franklin Boswell, but you can call me Benjy. I'm the owner, editor, and sole reporter for the Sentinel.

Dirty Dan was an old fur trapper and Indian trader who came from Virginia. He built himself a cabin here on the banks of Spud Creek back in 1845. He lived there with his new wife, a Shoshone woman whose Shoshone name translates to Red Moon Woman. Dirty Dan called her Rebecca. Rebecca Red-Moon Smith died of typhus twenty years after she married Dirty Dan. That would have been in 1865, right when the War Between The States was winding down back East.

Dirty Dan sold his land to a pair of Eastern developers, Charles Portis and Theodore Van Ness. The partners platted-out Spud Creek City in 1860. They envisioned it as the Metropolis north of Denver and south of Cheyenne. Then, in 1875, a passing prospector struck gold in Spud Creek.

But back to my tale, which happened about the time of the 1875 Spud Creek Gold Rush.

Fair Spud Creek City is where we make our scene, as The Bard might say. That was the year that Dirty Dan Smith found religion. Or at least that's what he told the younger woman he married. Dirty Dan was 30 years old in 1845 when he built that first cabin on Spud Creek. In 1875, he'd have been 60 years old, and this new woman, Miss Margaret Simpkins, alias Methodist Maggie, was 40. Dirty Dan was in love. To please old Methodist Maggie, he was willing to sit through some sermons, sing a few hymns, and whatnot.

Methodist Maggie decided that Dirty Dan needed his sins washed away by the Saving Blood of Jesus. And by total immersion via the Holy Rite of Baptism, in Spud Creek, of course.

The Methodists don't stress baptism by immersion, nor do they teach that baptism washes away sins. But the pastor, the Rev. Malcolm Goodrich, was a former Baptist, who kept some of his old Baptist leanings.

On a warm Sunday in April, the Methodist Army of Spud Creek, Colorado Territory, marched to the creek. The creek was in full spring flood. Placer miners lined the creek in their hip-waders. They worked with pans, cradles, rockers, sluices, pickaxes, and shovels. They cursed as the Methodists marched by. The Faithful Flock sang a hymn composed by Charles Wesley, "Christ The Lord Is Risen Today."

"Christ the Lord is ris'n-to-day-ay . . . "

Bam, crash, "Get that shovel over here to the sluice."

" . . . A-a-a-a-all-lay-ay-loo-oo-yah . . . "

"Dig, you sons-of-bitches."

"Sons of men and angels say,"

"Who're you callin' a son-of-a . . . "

" . . . A-a-a-a-all-lay-ay-loo-oo-yah . . . "

"I'm callin' all you sons-of . . . "

"Raise your joys and triumphs high,"

"Aww, shut yer trap and dig, James!"

" . . . A-a-a-a-all-lay-ay-loo-oo-yah . . . "

"Tell me to shut up? I'll murder ya!

"Sing, ye heav'ns, and earth, reply,"

"You gonna kill me, Jimmy? Then try to explain it to our ma . . . "

" . . . A-a-a-a-all-lay-ay-loo-oo-yah . . . "

The baptismal party reached a wide pool downstream. The deep water formed a swimming hole of sorts and was too deep and wide for mining.

"I'd say this here's the spot, boys," Rev. Goodrich said.

The Reverend removed his gun belt from beneath his white baptismal robe. He motioned for Dirty Dan to do the same.

Dan unhitched his .44 Colt Army from around his hips.

They placed their gun-belts at the foot of Sister Rose Madigan.

"Brother Homer, Brother Earl," the Reverend said, "you boys keep your Colts at the ready. In case we're beset upon by ruffians or hostiles."

"We'll keep a weather eye out, Reverend," Brother Homer said.

"I'm not so much concerned about hostiles," the Reverend said, "as I am about the armed band of thieves. There's been a band of roughs robbing the miners at gunpoint, taking their nuggets and gold-dust and such."

"What's this world coming to?" Brother Earl said.

The Reverend led Dirty Dan Smith out to the deep water. The creek was about waist deep on the Reverend, and about chest high on the shorter Dirty Dan.

The Reverend straightened up. "Daniel Webster Smith, do you renounce the works of Satan and turn away from your sins?"

"Yes, sir, Reverend," Dan said, "I repent of all my abominations and my iniquities."

"Well, then, with that confession of faith, I hereby baptize you . . . in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost!"

And he dunked him clean under. And I do mean clean under.

Dirty Dan was Dirty Dan no more.

Right about then, there was a ruckus upstream. Miners yelled, there was shooting, and there was a great crash.

The deacons and elders on the creek bank pulled their Colt .45s. They pointed them upstream toward the fracas.

Then a rocker went sliding by as Dan Smith came out of the water, and it was the dangdest thing, the water began to sparkle.

Dan Smith came out of the baptismal water all glittery.

Dirty Dan Smith was washed by the Blood of the Lamb. He was also covered in gold dust.

Not enough to make him rich, mind you, but enough to cause the parishioners to declare it a bonafide miracle.

The Miracle of Dirty Dan Smith's Baptism in Gold.

Daniel Webster Smith donated that gold dust, worth about $16, to the First Methodist Church.

No one called him Dirty Dan again. He's remembered as Immaculate Dan Smith. He was long-time Deacon of the First Methodist Church of Idaho Creek, Colorado.

The town shed the Spud Creek moniker and incorporated in 1890 as Idaho Creek, Colorado.

I changed the name of my paper from the Spud Creek Sentinel to the Idaho Creek Intelligencer.

The Intelligencer.

The name had a certain ring to it.

The End

Chris Jay Becker is a 59-year-old native Californian, from a pioneer family. He now lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He has published one Crime novel and a few short stories. He studied the Old West since he was a child. His Western writing influences include Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Elmore Leonard, and Dusty Richards. Chris is currently writing his first Western novel.

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White Revenge
by Mickey Bellman

The morning sun offered little warmth to the backside of the cowboy as he leaned against Monty. He stood resting his elbows on the horse's saddle holding the binoculars tight against his weathered eyes. Culver stared at the high mountain meadows across the shallow valley. He figured he was close to his quarry. The White Wolf might be within rifle range if he could only spot her. Culver had been following the hand-sized paw prints for days, and these tracks were still oozing water from the melting snow.

Groves of aspen, thickets of spruce and pine, slabs of granite, sparse meadows and remnants of winter blizzards covered the valley. The cattle-killing wolf might be anywhere watching Culver at that very moment. He glanced up the draw and took notice of another spring squall curling over the high ridge of the Bitterroots. It could be snowing hard in just a few minutes and Culver did not want to lose this chance. April snowstorms seldom lasted long in Montana, but it could last long enough for White Wolf to slip away unseen. Culver breathed a soft curse and continued to glass the far meadows. That was Culver's job-to catch and kill any wolf that dared survive on the open range. White Wolf had become an evil threat to all livestock. The ranchers petitioned the government and the government sent Culver to eliminate the problem.

Culver was the best wolfer money could buy. He seldom returned from his hunts without the hide of a killer. For White Wolf he held a special hatred: it was his No.4 Newhouse trap that severed three of her toes and left her crippled. She went rogue after that and her bloody carnage was often evident at dawn. Herefords were left hamstrung, unable to walk and bawling in pain. The rancher was forced to end the cow's misery with a bullet to the brain. Sheep were an especially easy target as White Wolf raced among them, slashing their throats with a single snap of her jaws. Ranch house dogs and cats disappeared whenever White Wolf hunted near isolated ranch houses. Once she even killed a mare as it stood in its barn stall. Such was her hatred for the men who hated and crippled her.

Not even Culver's horse was aware of a pair of white ears barely showing above the rock ledge behind Culver. Less than thirty feet separated White Wolf from her stalker. She lay silently, watching the back of the man watching the wrong hillside. She studied the ground and knew that just a few leaps would be needed before she sunk her fangs into the man's throat and ripped it open.

Culver tensed as he felt an uneasiness wash over him. Something was watching him, something close. He knew any sudden movement could invite an attack. His rifle was still in its scabbard on the far side of the saddle. Culver slowly inched his hand towards its stock as Monty grew nervous from the long wait.

A few snowflakes floated down from the steel-gray sky, and then the few became many. The squall hit with full fury and a raging blizzard engulfed the mountainside. White Wolf continued to stare but was startled when the brief blizzard lifted and only the cowboy's horse remained. There was no man to be seen and no rifle in the scabbard. Culver had disappeared behind the shroud of white. Old wolfers, if they were good—and Culver was very good—learned to trust their instincts.

Hunted. Hunter. Hunted again—White Wolf knew fate had betrayed her. She could not run across an open hillside, so close to a man and his rifle. That would invite a barrage of rifle fire and a quick death. She might attack the man if she knew where he lay hidden, or continue to lie on the rock ledge until the man lost patience.

Culver lay in a fold of the granite listening for the slightest sound that might betray the wolf. He waited for a clatter of stones as a nervous wolf darted away. Instead, his ears detected only the rush of errant winds as they crashed and eddied against the unyielding rock. After several minutes Culver slowly raised his head and scanned the hillsides. Nothing had moved. Nothing had changed except for the white blanket the squall left behind. Snow could make for good tracking and offer White Wolf the perfect camouflage.

The wolfer still felt uneasy and confused. He knew something had been—was still—watching him, but he could not locate the wolf. He slowly stood up to survey all 360 directions around him. Monty was the only thing that moved searching for a few sprigs of frozen grass.

White Wolf could not see Culver stand because she herself had slunk low to the ledge. Her keen ears did detect the creaking leather of boots and chaps, even the crunch of small pebbles as the man stood. An eddy of the wind brought her the scent of the horse, the smells of a campfire and sweat in the man's clothes. It was too dangerous to run and attack was out of the question. She lay still and unmoving, like the drifted remnant of a winter blizzard.

Culver's nose might have picked up the wolf's scent had he been another wolf. His ears and eyes were keen despite 58 years of usage. He knew he was close to the white devil, but his rifle was useless without a target. He glanced down at the Winchester he cradled in his arms and half opened the breech to check the brass cartridge in the chamber.

There was movement across the valley. Culver heard the clatter of stone against stone and strained to find the source of the sound. White Wolf heard the sound, too, and lifted her head to focus on an animal walking across the distant hillside. It was Chub, her mate. The gray-mottled male had blundered into the valley searching for ground squirrels. So intense was his hunger that he had forgotten he could also become the hunted.

Culver studied the gray wolf. It wasn't White Wolf but it was a wolf. He knew his .30-30 would be hard pressed to kill any wolf at that range, but maybe. Maybe if Monty did not move, or maybe if Monty moved just enough to attract the hungry wolf in close . . . Culver settled behind the rock and trained rifle sights on the meandering target.

White Wolf stared at the ambush. It was the perfect chance to slink away while Culver was preoccupied with Chub. It was also the perfect chance to attack the hated man from behind.

Monty suddenly shook himself to throw off the melting snow on his back. The unexpected movement instantly riveted three sets of eyes on the chestnut horse. When Culver shifted his stare back towards Chub, White Wolf knew what to do. She coiled her body and sprang from her ledge. In two bounds she was slashing at the horse's throat, her fangs just grazing the skin of the horse. Her jaws snapped shut again and again with an audible clack as the terrified horse jerked backwards to escape the deadly fangs.

Culver whirled to face the melee while he thumbed back the hammer of his rifle. His first shot was poorly aimed and shattered a rock beneath White Wolf. A confused mass of horse and wolf flesh swirled on the slope as Culver levered a fresh cartridge into the breach.

Monty jerked sideways to escape the slashing teeth and the wolf again charged under the horse. There was a crimson explosion as a lead bullet tore open soft flesh and a ragged, red hole appeared in the neck muscle. White Wolf paid no attention to the blood as she dashed beyond the horse and across the open hillside. She was running for her life, never making more than five bounds in a straight line before zig-zagging and dodging behind another boulder.

There was a moment's lull behind the she-wolf, except for a screaming horse and the clank of frantic horseshoes on gray granite. Then there were more explosions as angry bullets splattered and ricocheted on nearby rocks. Culver was shooting wildly as fast as he could pull the trigger. White Wolf was soon out of range, pausing at the ridgeline to survey the bloody carnage she created.

Culver lowered his rifle when he realized both White Wolf and Chub were out of range. Monty was wheezing heavily from the bullet in his neck, desperately gasping for breath while blood pumped out the ragged hole. The great horse collapsed to the ground. Artery and windpipe had been shattered by a bullet and the horse was doomed.

Culver stared at the ridge while the two wolves stared back at him. There was nothing more he could do to the wolves, but there was still one thing to be done. He slowly walked over to where Monty struggled, levered a round into the rifle's chamber and touched the trigger. The little bullet bit deep into the horse's brain, ending its pain and misery. Culver had been forced to kill the only thing he still loved in the world. Now there was another reason to kill the Bitch of the Bitterroots.

White Wolf watched with satisfaction as the old wolfer pulled the trigger on his friend. The man who had crippled her and killed her first mate was now made to suffer. She and Chub were safe to retreat deep into the wilderness. Horseless on the prairie, Culver was no longer a threat.

Culver stared at his dead horse and relived those brief, frantic seconds. His hatred had blinded him and his dear horse had paid the price. He bent over the still warm horse and silently loosened the cinch of his saddle. It was twenty miles to the nearest ranch.

A few snowflakes floated down from the thickening sky. It was springtime in Montana.

The End

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

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Last Call at Fremont Hill
by Tom Sheehan

At the top of a hill outside Fremont Hill in the Montana Territory, Torby McDonough sat his mount as he looked down at a town he knew was dying. Back down the trail he'd heard the beer was gone in the Fremont Hill Saloon his kid brother had opened only a year earlier. Perhaps they had a few weeks left of the hard stuff, and perhaps enough folks had left town already to guarantee that it would probably last until last call, his last call.

Then the pair of brothers would part again, each time perhaps for the final time; every trail he had ever known always had a point of departure, but it might appear of a sudden, demanding attention.

Torby NcDonough also noticed the Crow Indians were not attacking people leaving Fremont Hill with all their goods piled on wagons and heading south, out of the territory, dreams heading south too, like a truce had been declared for them, the fierce Crows standing above trails heading out of Montana must have felt with each departure that a victory had been won, or knew the sense of victory.

Fremont Hill had been named in honor of the Great Pathfinder, John C. Fremont, whose maps and trail books had spurred many to the rich lands of the great plains and McDonough's kid brother, Tarpon, had been an inspired reader, but a poor businessman, plus he was caught in an interminable war with the natives, Crow and Cheyenne tribes in the mix, rifles the staple, rifles the target.

McDonough's throat was trying to master him and his taste buds and his promises to be sober until he had helped his kid brother finish his business in some order, in some sanity. The kid at times had a temper old men nodded at, young men stayed away from. One old gent back home had said, "That there boy walks with his finger on the trigger all the time."

McDonough suddenly became aware of a strange sensation filling him. It was known in his cavities and channels, in his bones and muscles, in all the important parts of his body. He labored to put a name on it, tried again, and finally realized it was loneliness; he was utterly alone, and a choosy, obstinate, hot-headed kid brother in the offing offered no change. To get him out of here, to get him another chance at a good chunk of the pie, would be a worldly struggle. Life out here, he had learned, depended on what was around the corner and who saw it first . . . you or it.

He could envision his brother saying about Fremont Hill, "Let's burn it down, every last damned building here. Leave nothing for someone else to walk into, to have without all the work that we had to do. You all started like I did and have to walk away like I'm doing, and we can't do anything about it."

Torby McDonough could hear every word of his brother's before he heard them. It was just like him, grab the hot hammer and throw it into the crowd, and duckers duck, runners run, others die in their own footprints.

There came to him a dash of reasoning that said an alliance had been formed between an unknown gun dealer and one of the Crow chiefs named Warrior with Stolen Rifle, leader of a rambunctious renegade band, as termed by the territorial Indian agent. When an army force showed up in the area, the Crow band fled into the Big Horn Mountains, where Warrior with Stolen Rifle recruited braves from several tribes into his band, including the Cheyenne.

Time, McDonough realized, was too important to sit and gawk, but he loved Montana and knew what had drawn his brother to it.

A sudden whiz came near him and an arrow from on high plowed into the ground beside him; his horse shied a bit and then stood still. The arrow had come from high overhead, somewhere along the rocky crest that towered above him and appeared to be more of a warning than an attempt to hit him, which would have been one of a million chances.

Leisurely he rode away from the signal danger, but he was being scouted by the Crows and they would not let go easily. They'd track him all through the mountains if need be, to see what a lone rider was up to, where was bound, who he'd meet.

He remembered his first encounter with the Crows, only that time it was a maiden, though not for long, whose name then was Cheeks of Dawn, whom he pulled from the rushing waters of a quick river following swiftly on a cloud burst. He wondered what her name was now. She had come to him, after a rest and a deep sleep, her eyes downcast, her mind asunder with fears and yet with gratitude, to give some life to the one who had saved her life. She had called him Man Who Beats Water. He wondered if he'd ever see her again, wondered what had befallen her after their encounter; the Crows, he knew, had eyes everywhere, like eagles work the daylight skies and the owls work the darkness.

And continually, puncturing his awareness, appeared the image of his brother standing behind the bar, his hand on a spigot that gave no response. It sent sadness down through him. The kid would be heart-broken and would try to hide it from his older brother, a most difficult task. He'd burn the place down for sure rather than leave it, any part of it, to anyone.

Without further incident, he rode over the last crest and saw Fremont Hill sitting on a slow rise above a stream that was dry as a desert skull. In the pale of evening he saw one slant of light, most likely a lantern in the saloon with the suds all gone and the good whiskey most likely watered for a mere extension of time, but not for taste. He tapped the jug he carried in his saddlebag; indeed, there would be a last call and he'd be there with his kid brother at the closing ceremony.

Suddenly, at or in that slash of lamplight, a shot rang out, then a door slammed and a horse rode toward him in a rush, followed by a scream: "Stop him! Stop him! He killed Kid McDonough! He killed Kid McDonough because he didn't have a drink for him! Stop him!"

Torby McDonough exploded at the screams, at the dread news. When the rider rushed up to him, McDonough knocked him from the saddle, not with a slug from his rifle, but from the rifle butt swung in a vicious arc, the impact sounding a large crunch. Catching the other horse, McDonough threw the unconscious killer of his kid brother across the saddle and finished his ride to the saloon.

There was no jail in Fremont Hill and no sheriff, so he lugged the killer into the saloon and tied him to a table he flipped over onto its top side. As he did so, he saw his brother still sprawled over the bar. There was not a single glass on the bar just his dead brother, blood seeping its way on the bar top.

One man leaning on one wall said, "Looks like you got the killer, mister."

McDonough said, "You see him do it?"

"Hell, yes," the man said. "We all saw it." He pointed to a dozen men, sober as judges, lounging about the room they had spent a lot of time in. "My name's Lenny Foote."

McDonough, looking around, asked, "Who wants to be judge? I know you don't have a sheriff and no judge'll come up here these days, so name a judge amongst you and we'll have you all as jury and witnesses, and I'll be the prosecutor. That's my kid brother he killed. When it's all done and over with, we'll have a memorial service for him with a last call, then we'll bury him the morning and we can all go our own way. But don't go alone and go south, like out of here, 'cause the Crows are out there all over Hell."

"How will we have a last call, Mister? There ain't a drop in the house." He looked about him, at the shanty it really was, and shrugged his shoulders. Several other prospective jurors did the same thing.

"I'll take care of last call," McDonough said, "according to how quick and how sure we get a verdict."

The man who had spoken up first volunteered. "I'll be the judge. Once, back in Kansas Territory, I saw Judge Spearing hold court on a killer and got him hung before supper that same day. Said, 'No sense letting him get a night's sleep at our expense.' Like it was clockwork, as they say. Good and proper they hung him."

When the killer came to, on trial but not yet convicted, so to speak, McDonough said, "What's your name?"

"He cheated me," the gent said as he stood up, shaking his head, looking at the line-up of men in the room, perhaps noting the mood. "I asked for a drink and he said, 'Okay, you get the last one,' and he put a jug over the glass and nothing came out. He was cheating me." His anger was still like a wounded and cornered critter

"I said, what's your name?" McDonough was looking at him curiously, at one point leaning over to study his face. He pushed his hat back so he could get a better look.

"My name's Bert Herring and he cheated me. I hadn't had a drink for a month and came down here just to get a drink and he said, 'Okay.' That's cheating."

McDonough, still staring at him, said, "You ever been in a bank in Peoria?"

Herring snapped his head up to get a close look at McDonough. "Never been in Peoria in my life."

"You're a liar!" McDonough said. "I saw you lolling around, like you had a whole day off from work and didn't know what to do with yourself, asking the teller a bunch of silly questions he didn't have answers to. Next day the bank was robbed and the teller was killed. Tell me you didn't have anything to do with that robbery or that killing."

"Well, maybe I was in Peoria, but I ain't no bank robber and I ain't no killer."

"I suppose you ain't no killer here either." McDonough, the prosecutor and the victim's brother, stuck his face in Herring's face.

Herring jumped back. "He cheated me. He promised what he couldn't deliver so that's cheating."

"And cause for killing a man? For killing my brother?"

"You're speaking from one side of the wagon. I bet none of these other gents are like you."

Lenny Foote said, "Don't bet on it, mister. Not a penny's worth." Then he gathered the jurors in a huddle, spoke a piece, asked a few unheard questions, got his answers, and said, "We're all settled and agreed here, Mr. Prosecutor. We find him damned guilty of murder and ought to be hung before we get last call."

"You all agree?" McDonough said, nodding himself.

The jurors all nodded, raised their hands, and looked parched.

Bert Herring, murderer, was hanged before full darkness descended into Fremont Hill. When all the jury gathered again in the saloon, McDonough poured each man a drink from the jug he carried in his saddlebag, the last call at Fremont Hill.

He said, "In the morning I will bury my brother and his killer on the back slope, and then I'll light out of here. I'm heading south."

In the morning, at about the same place where the single arrow had landed close to him, another arrow landed a few feet from him.

"Damn," he said, "I bet that's her calling me on."

He changed direction and headed into the hills. If he was the last of one family, maybe he could start another one.

The End

Sheehan (31st Infantry, Korea 1951-52; Boston College 1952-56) has published 32 books, has multiple works in Rosebud, Linnet's Wings, Serving House Journal, Literally Stories, TQR (Total Quality Reading), Copperfield Review, Frontier Tales, East of the Web, Faith-Hope and Fiction, Rope & Wire Magazine, Green Silk Journal, 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), a novel, The Keating Script, and a poetry collection, Jock Poems for Proper Bostonians. He was 2016 Writer-in-Residence at Danse Macabre in Las Vegas. His latest book, Beside the Broken Trail, was released in December 2017 by Pocol Press.

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The Chestnut Kid and the Mail Order Bride
by Jim Weeks

Emma Clark wiped the last breakfast dish and put down her towel. She shook her long brown hair, took off her new apron, and hung it from the hook David had put up for her. He had planned so carefully for her arrival a week ago and had been so thoughtful. It hardly seemed possible they had been married only six days. Already she was learning where everything was in the general store in front of their living quarters. A month ago she had been living in North Carolina, with little money and few choices since her mother's death. Zeb Church had wanted to marry her, but he was a thief, and she decided to escape the town. In Asheville she had seen a poster seeking mail-order brides for the Utah frontier and with four dollars left in her purse, Emma had signed on.

Interrupting her reverie, David called, "Customers." Emma smoothed her dress over her slim form and hurried out to join him. Outside the store, two men were dismounting and tying their horses. They were dressed in dirty clothes and both had dark beards. Emma thought they were in their twenties, and both wore pistols, as most men in the area did. As they came in the open door, she stepped back behind David.

"Good morning, gents," said David. "What can I get for you?"

"Here's our list," one of the men said. He handed David a sheet of paper.

"Food and bullets," the other man said, glancing at Emma. He smiled. "You a hired girl?"

"Emma's my wife," David said, smiling at her. She glanced at the list and started piling the food needed on the counter. David pulled out several boxes of ammunition and put them on the counter as well.

"That's the last of it," said Emma, putting down a bag of coffee. David started adding up the bill as the men glanced at each other.

"You happen to have a horse for sale?" The taller of the men stepped to the counter.

"No, I don't," said David. "Just have one out back, but we need her for our wagon."

"Afraid we need it," said the shorter man. "Gotta have a horse for your wife to ride." He leered at Emma. "We're heading up into the high country," he said. "It's too far to make her walk."

"That's enough," said David. "People around here don't cotton to such talk. I have to ask you to pay up and to leave pronto."

"We do talk rude," said the taller man. "We act rude, too. And we need your wife." He nodded at Emma. "Are you ready to leave?"

"Get out," Emma said. She backed up a step. She saw David reaching under the counter to bring his pistol up.

"Don't be stupid," said the shorter man. "There are two of us. One of us will shoot you and then take your wife and horse. There's an easier way."

"What?" said David, aiming the gun at him.

"This," said the taller man. David glanced at him, but the man raised his pistol and fired once, hitting David in the chest.

"No!" cried Emma as her husband fell. But the shorter man reached out and grabbed her arm. "You'll like Capitol Reef," he smiled. "Lots of privacy there. Now let's go get your horse." He yanked her to the door, as the taller man grabbed the food and bullets, put them in a grain sack, and followed them out.

* * *

The next morning a white horse trotted quickly along a trail near Sand Creek. It was an isolated spot, but he was familiar with the area and turned up a path towards a log house in a pine grove. He tied his horse to a rail outside the house, but waited beside it until the front door opened and a man stepped out. He was tall, over six feet, solidly built, clean shaven with grey flecked brown hair.

"Hey Ridge," he said "Come on up. I just brewed some coffee."

The rider climbed up the steps and shook hands. He took off his hat and smiled. "It's good to see you, Lurt."

They went inside and settled in front of the fireplace with mugs of coffee.

"What brings you out of town?" asked Lurt, blowing on his coffee to cool it down. "I don't normally see anyone unless I ride in. Is the blacksmith business slowing down?"

"Not at all," said Ridge. "But I gotta be honest, Lurt. There's a problem and we need your help." He put down his coffee mug. "Brent got a wire last night from the marshall. Yesterday two strangers up in Teasdale stopped in David Clark's new store."

"Dave just got a new bride, I hear."

"That's the problem," said Ridge, shaking his head, "These two outlaws shot and robbed David. The worst part is they took his wife with them."

"They took a woman?" Lurt stood up. "That just isn't tolerated in these parts. They'll be hunted down fast."

"The marshall is up near Salt Lake." said Ridge. "He can't get there fast enough, and he doesn't think he could catch them." Ridge stood up. "The marshall telegraphed and asked if you would try. You know Capitol Reef, and the men there will let you in."

"The outlaws," said Lurt. "But, how do you know they're headed that way?"

"David lived long enough to write 'reef' in his blood on the floor . A posse tried to follow, but the ride got too rough for guys who don't know the area."

"Damn," said Lurt. "David was a good man. I'll ride out as soon as I can. Wire the marshall that I'm happy to help."

"Thanks, Lurt. Those outlaws will not be happy when the Chestnut Kid catches them." Ridge picked up his hat. "Want some company?"

"You know, Ridge, I think you should stay in town. If those two should change direction, you can handle them. Besides, you have a wife and kids. Keep them, safe, ok?"

"Will do," said Ridge. They shook hands, and he headed back to his horse. Mounting up, he turned and started toward town at a canter. Two men would be no match for the kid. He smiled. Lurt had earned his name at seventeen, when he had ridden into the woods to practice shooting the old Colt his grandfather had left him. Coming home, he had heard shots from his family's property and spurred his horse to a gallop. He reached into his saddlebag and pulled out the old pistol, glad he had cleaned and loaded it.

Coming into the clearing, Lurt had seen his father lying in front of the house. One stranger stood on the porch, and four others sat on horses near his father's body. Without hesitating, Lurt had galloped at the house, firing his first shot at the man on the porch. As the man fell, Lurt swung the pistol to his right, and in two shots had knocked two men from their saddles. He swung his horse to the left, straight at the last riders. Their horses backed sharply, slowing their riders in their draws. Lurt did not hesitate, shooting each of the men with his last bullets. Lurt had gotten home to save his mother and sister, and the young gunman's reputation was born.

Ridge shook his head as he rode back towards town. Not everyone realized who the quiet man in the woods was, but the two kidnappers would soon find out.

Lurt Chestnut watched him ride away, then rinsed the coffee mugs in a bucket of clean well water. "Time to get back in the saddle," he said aloud. He headed for the small closet where his pistol waited, cleaned, oiled, and loaded Unlike some gunfighters, he didn't wear a second pistol. One was enough.

* * *

The ride was hot and dusty. Emma's reins were tied to the horse in front of her, keeping her from riding away. She kept her head down, not wanting to look at the men who had taken her. She had no hat to keep her from being sunburned, and dust was covering her face and hands. She felt like sobbing, but she would never let these men see any weakness. She had been living at home with her parents, working in their small store. It was why she'd answered the ad for a wife from the newspaper. Her father was sickly and had warned her that without her mother, he'd be giving up the store soon. This was the chance to start fresh, she thought. She was twenty-two years old, almost a spinster, with no romantic prospects in her area. So she had answered the ad and two months later was on her way to Utah by train and then stagecoach.

"Takin' a break," the man in front said to her. They stopped by a stream and dismounted. Emma slid off her horse quickly so neither of the men would touch her. The horses drank from the stream while the men chewed on some jerky. They offered Emma some, but she shook her head.

"Why did you make me come with you?" She looked at each man but didn't like how their eyes stared back.

"You're going to be our wife," said the taller man. "You'll cook and keep our cabin clean." He met her eyes. "I heard you called Emma back to the store, he said. "I'm Lucas. This here's Mark. He's my brother."

"Where are we going?" Emma looked from one to the other, and when Lucas answered, she realized he was the leader.

"We got a cabin up in the hills," he said. "Lawmen don't bother us up there, so don't be thinking about running away."

"No one will disturb us or hear you if you scream," said Mark. Emma shivered at the way he looked at her body.

"Got a few more hours," said Luke. "Let's get going."

"I'm not a very good cook," Emma said.

"You'll learn," said Mark. "Cooking ain't as important as keeping us happy." He smiled, and Emma noticed he was missing several teeth. Appearing in control of herself, she climbed onto her horse, not letting the men see her tears as they rode.

* * *

Lurt rode quickly, stopping only to water and to rest his horse. He fed it some grain from his saddlebag, then mounted and was moving again. He had thought about where the men would have entered the reef, and he took an old trail that would save him several hours. He watched the trail carefully, noticing fresh tracks as he approached a large boulder. He pulled up, waiting, until a man on a horse stepped out onto the trail. He was holding a rifle, but lowered it and smiled when he saw Lurt.

"Look who's here," he said. "You're not on the run, are you, Kid?"

"Not any more," said Kurt, taking off his hat. "How are you, Butch?"

"Can't complain," said the man. "As long as folks leave us alone up here."

"They will," said Lurt "The marshall came up with all kinds of reasons to send me up here instead of coming himself."

"After the gang?"

"I wouldn't have come for that," said Lurt."I'm after two strangers. They stole a woman after shooting her husband."

"They brought her up here?" asked Butch. "What's the world coming to? No one messes with women."

"That's how I know they're strangers," said Lurt. "Any man in his right mind would know you and your gang wouldn't put up with such nonsense."

"How can we help you, Lurt?"

"Just watch for them, in case I miss them. I think I can handle two."

"No doubt about that," said Butch. "Good luck to you, Lurt." Butch turned his horse and rode quietly into the boulders. Lurt started up again as well, knowing he had to hurry if the woman would have any hope of rescue.

* * *

An hour later Lurt saw the small cabin ahead, just off the trail. Two horses were tied near it, and a scruffy man stood outside, holding a rifle.

"Lookin' for something?" The man shifted the rifle slightly to point at Lurt.

"Just passing through," said Lurt. "Heading up to see my friends." He saw the rifle lower as the man relaxed.

"My brother just rode up that way, too," he said. "We got us a woman here boys will like." His smile widened. "You know, you could be the first for five dollars."

"What's she look like?" said Lurt, looking at the cabin.

"Get out here, girl," said the man. He nodded at the cabin as a young woman came to the doorway. Lurt saw the terror in her eyes and glanced back at the man.

"She looks good for five dollars," he said. With his hand on his pistol and his eyes on the man, he swung down from his horse and handed the man a five dollar coin.

"Take her into the back room," the man said. 'I'll keep watch out here."

Lurt stepped into the cabin and to the back room, where Emma huddled against the far wall, in terror.

"Lie down," Lurt whispered, moving to the side and away from the girl. He turned and faced the door as he heard the man's boots on the dirt floor.

"Time's up," said the man, coming through the door. He saw the girl on the floor, then saw Lurt facing him. His mouth opened in surprise, then closed as he raised the rifle.

Emma would remember what happened next for years. She saw the rifle come up and started to close her eyes, when the stranger moved in a blur. She saw his pistol suddenly stretch toward Lucas and boom twice. Through the smoke, she saw Lucas flung back, out of the room. Then the gun was back in the holster, and the man offered her his hand.

"Are you Emma?" He helped her up, smiling. "My name is Lurt, and I'm here to take you out of these hills and back to town."

Emma collapsed against him, sobbing. "His brother will be coming back," she said. "He has a gun, too."

"He won't be back to bother you," said Lurt. "You get whatever you need together, I'll bring you some water to wash up, and I'll take care of him." He nodded at the body beyond the doorway. He brought a bucket of water from the front room in for her, then left her alone.

Lurt emptied the man's pockets, keeping his five dollars, but setting aside what the men had taken from Emma and her husband. He pulled the body onto the pile of blankets along one wall, covering it with one of the larger blankets. He took a lamp from the table and poured oil onto the blanket and along the base of the walls.

As Emma came into the room, he escorted her to her horse, then stepped to the door and flicked a match into the cabin. As the flames caught, he looked at Emma.

"No one will come along to read over this man's body," he said. "And we don't have time to bury him." He led the way away from the cabin, pausing only when they heard a volley of shots from the canyon above.

"It's friends," he said, seeing the fear in Emma's eyes. "No one is left to come after you."

"They said there were outlaws up there," she said.

"Even outlaws have honor," said Lurt. "Women and children are treasured on the frontier. And whoever tries to hurt or take them is below contempt. Life is hard enough here, without men like that among us." He turned and led her down the trail.

"I have nothing to go back to," said Emma. "I "don't ever want to see that store again."

"We're not going back there," said Lurt. "We're going to find a fresh start for you, with friends and a new life, if you want it."

"I do," said Emma. "But I would like to know your name."

"Forgive me," he said, turning in his saddle and raising his hat. "I'm Lurt Chestnut."

"Thank you, Lurt Chestnut. It's an honor to meet you." She had seen the pale forehead when he raised his hat, in contrast with his deeply tanned face; Lurt Chestnut was a real westerner.

"We'll stop and water the horses in a bit," he said, turning back to watch the trail ahead. "I believe we'll get to town just after dark."

"Are you from Utah, Lurt?" He seemed so at home on this trail.

"No ma'am," said Lurt. "I was brought up in Colorado, up near Leadville. My family still lives there."

"Do you ever see them?"

"Not often," he said, "but they know where I am if they need me." He didn't seem to want to explain, so they rode in silence for a bit.

"Think you'll head back east?" Lurt asked, without turning in his saddle.

"No," she said, "This is where I want to be."

"The town we're headed to needs a store," he said. "Used to be one, but the owner got too old." He turned in his saddle. "It even has a place to live above the store. And this place is right in town. Lots of folks nearby."

"I don't have any money," said Emma. "That's a problem."

"But you will," said Lurt. "When your old store sells, you'll get that money. We could get the merchandise brought to town, since it's already yours." They rode in silence for a bit. At the foot of the trail they stopped to water the horses and stretch. Lurt built a small fire and brewed some coffee. They took turns drinking from his one cup, then mounted up as the afternoon wore on.

"We should get there just about dinner time," he said. "My friends will have a hot supper and fresh bed for you."

"I think I'd be interested in that store," she said. "It sounds like a nice place to settle."

"It is," he said. "If I was to live in a town, it would be my choice."

"Where do you live, then?" said Emma.

"Out in the woods," said Lurt. "I raise some horses and keep to myself." He turned in his saddle and looked at her. "When I'm in town too long, trouble comes along. So it's best if I'm out of sight." He saw her look of concern. "But I'll come be a customer at your store." He smiled and swung back to face the trail.

* * *

At six-thirty, they rode into town. Townspeople were at home, but the saloon was open for business. They rode on down the street, and Lurt pointed out the empty store. It was bigger than David's, but Emma thought it seemed in fine shape.

Then they reached Ridge's house and dismounted. Ridge came outside and welcomed them, followed by his wife Georgene and their two young sons. They offered to let Lurt spend the night, but he took the horses up the street to the livery stable and settled them in with grain and rubdowns. When he finished, it was dark, and he was too tired to eat, so he spread his blanket near his horse, settled onto the fresh hay, and fell asleep easily.

* * *

Lurt awoke the next morning just after eight. He brushed the hay from his clothes and pumped a basin of fresh water to wash his face and hands. He packed his belongings in his bedroll, left it with his saddle, then headed out to get some breakfast at the small cafe near the boarding house. It was down the main street, past the saloon, and on the way to Ridge's house.

As he walked past the saloon, Lurt saw a man move out from the saloon to the street.

"Hey," the man said, and then fired his pistol.

Lurt felt a sharp blow to his right hip and fell, turning his head as he hit the dusty street,so he could see his attacker. A young man wearing a buckskin shirt turned and stepped back into the saloon without looking to see if Lurt had survived. Lurt lay still for a moment, then slid his hand down his side to inspect the wound. His hip throbbed, but he found no blood. Instead, he found a hole in his holster where the bullet struck him. His pistol had been hit too. Slowly drawing it, Lurt saw the cylinder was dented and jammed, so his pistol wouldn't fire. He was lucky he rode with an empty chamber. It only gave him five shots, but in this case it saved him from serious injury.

Hot anger flooded him as he realized how close he had come to being murdered. He knew the feeling; it was what he had felt as a young man seeing his father lying in front of the house. The anger pulled him to his feet, taking control, and he walked to the saloon, sliding the broken gun into the holster.

He pushed the door open and stepped into the saloon, where the young man was at the bar, talking to the bartender. It was too early for any other customers. Even the elderly barflies stayed home until almost noon.

"I outdrew the fastest gun," the young man was saying.

"That only works when the other guy is looking at you," said Lurt, stepping forward. "Now I'm looking, so reach for your gun." Lurt walked slowly towards the bar, watching the young man closely. There was no cold hardness in his eyes, but fear. The bartender stepped away, reaching under the bar.

"This is your play," said Lurt. "Any last words?" He rested his hand near his pistol, staring at the young man, watching him muster his courage.

The moment came, and the young man grabbed for his pistol. But as his gun rose to the edge of the holster, he saw Lurt's pistol inches from his face. The muzzle looked huge.

The young man dropped his gun back into the holster and looked as though he might start crying.

"Where's your horse?" said Lurt.

"Tied just outside," the young man said.

"You tried to kill me," said Lurt. "I'll give you five minutes to get on your horse and ride. Don't come back to this town. If you do, I will shoot you."

The young man nodded. "Thank you," he said. He hurried from the saloon, and within minutes, Lurt heard a horse galloping down the street.

"Your pistol don't look so good," said the bartender. "I got a spare you can use if you want."

"Thank you, but no," said Lurt. "I have another one back in my saddlebag."

"You were decent to that young fool," said the bartender. "You're always welcome here." He reached a hand across the bar. "I'm the new bartender, Chuck."

"Good to meet you, sir. I'm, Lurt." As they shook hands, a thought came to Lurt. "Chuck, do you know why the old store is still closed?"

"Old man Richards won't sell to anyone he thinks is Mormon," said Chuck. "He made a lot of money selling coffee and such to settlers, and he knows Mormons don't hanker for that. Not too logical from my point of view. Mormons are moving in all around here, but folks still keep me busy."

"It takes all kinds" said Lurt. "Thanks, Chuck." He headed out the door and walked down to the cafe. After a breakfast and hot coffee, Lurt walked across the street to an attorney's office. He had helped Lurt buy his ranch quietly and could be trusted. An hour later, Lurt left the office and crossed over to the blacksmith shop. Ridge wasn't there yet, so Lurt headed further up the street to Ridge's house. Within minutes of knocking, he was seated in the parlor with a new cup of coffee. After his night on the hay, it was hot and energizing. Ridge, his wife Georgene, and Emma watched him take his first swallow.

"I've had a busy morning, but I have an idea for Emma," he said, putting down the coffee cup. "Just to be sure I understand your thoughts, you'd rather be here in town and working in a general store, instead of going back east or working in David's store."

"I couldn't go back there," she said. "And I have to find work to survive here."

"I just had a thought," said Georgene. "The general store is empty here in town. I've heard it's for sale."

"It was," said Lurt. "But the owner got an offer from a non-Mormon this morning and accepted. The new owner will want someone with experience helping out, so I know you can work there as much as you want."

Ridge looked at him, smiling. "So who bought the store?" he said.

"I did," said Lurt. "But I know nothing about stores, so I need a partner." He looked at Emma. "Interested?"

"Gosh, of course I am," she said. "But you know I have no money to invest or even stock an empty store."

"By tomorrow the bank will have funds for you to use for whatever you need to stock the store. Ridge will help find someone to move the goods from your old store down here. You can also bring your furniture because the store has a second floor where you can live. Until then, we can get you a room at the boarding house."

Emma was trying to hide her tears, but without much luck. "How can I pay you back? This will cost you a fortune."

"After the move, you can sell the store you had with David. Pay me what you get from the sale, and we'll have papers drawn up listing you as owning fifty one percent of the store and its contents. Sound fair?

"More than fair," she said.

"One more detail," said Lurt. "I'll come to town and help out when I can. Instead of paying me, I'll accept a home-cooked meal for my services."

"Anytime," said Emma.

"And no more talk of the boarding house," said Georgene. "You stay with us until you have a bed and furniture in the store. That boarding house isn't as clean as a person would hope."

"Sounds good," said Lurt, "Now I want to head for home and get cleaned up a mite. I'll try to get into town in a few days"

"May I give you a hug?" said Emma, as Lurt stood to leave. She stepped close and wrapped her arms around him. Ridge smiled to see Lurt blush.

"You saved my life and gave me a new one," she said. "I will never forget that."

Before Lurt could answer, someone knocked loudly at the door. Ridge crossed the room and opened the door, finding an excited Brent, the local barber and Wells Fargo agent.

"Thank the Lord you're still here, Mr. Chestnut. This telegram just came in from Colorado for you. I saw your horse at the stable and hoped you'd be with Ridge." He handed the telegram to Lurt, who opened it at once.

"Damn," he said, showing them the message:"LURT COME HOME. MA NEEDS YOU."

"From my sister," said Lurt. "I'll stop at the cabin, get cleaned up, and head out on a fresh horse. But I'll be back as soon as I can."

Emma joined Ridge at the door as Lurt headed down the street to the stable

"I hope everything works out," said Emma.

"With Lurt Chestnut coming to help, it will," said Ridge. "We're lucky to call him a friend."

The End

Jim Weeks spent forty years teaching writing to high school and college students. He has spent summers exploring Utah, Montana, and Wyoming. He has published articles on teaching and education, but now turns to his true love, the Western.

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A Western Christmas Miracle
by Brandon Cracraft

I slowly poured myself a glass of cognac, as it was the most expensive liquor on the menu. I stared down at the brown liquid, uncertain if I was supposed it sip it like wine or down it like whiskey. After the dark brown taste nearly made me gag, I downed it. "Look at me, kids," I said; butchering an attempt at a New York accent, "I'm a big city guy."

Becky rolled her eyes. My daughter had entered the teenage years a month and a half ago, and she had decided that she was too smart for anything and anyone, especially her small town marshal father. Even though we didn't know anyone else on the train, she still looked around, terrified that one of her friends from school had snuck onto the train.

"I wish the train tracks went on forever, instead of stopping in San Diego, Daddy," Sean said, looking out the window at the landscape speeding by. "Wouldn't that be great, Daddy? Imagine if they just kept laying the track until we ended up right back in Arizona." My seven-year-old was always saying things like that, and I never knew how to answer.

The kids begged for a vacation every year, but they were both surprised when I told them that I was going to take them to the ocean. It sounded like the perfect Christmas vacation. The last time I was on the ocean, I was fighting in the Spanish-American War.

There was a sudden jerk in the train as it pulled to an emergency stop. Sean let out a scream, and my daughter gasped and then tried to act like she wasn't frightened. She brushed her auburn hair out of her face. "What was that, Daddy?"

Before I got a chance to investigate, a very skinny man in all black with a bandana over his face and a white cowboy hat entered the dining car. He carried a six-shot percussion revolver with his finger clutched on the trigger guard. When I saw the boy's eyes, I knew that beneath that bandana was a face that had yet to need a razor.

"Give me your cash," he said, his voice quivering from fear. Elsewhere in the train, more seasoned crooks were holding people up.

I shook my head. "You're alive for two reasons, young man." He flinched at those words. "The first and most important reason is that you are making damn sure not to point that pistol at my kids. You're pointing it at me alone. Well, pointing it to the right of my head, anyway, because you're afraid you're going to accidently shoot it."

Instead of arguing, the boy asked, "What's the second?"

"You're obviously not a professional. I'm pretty sure that pistol you're carrying is older than me." I laughed for emphasis. While he was distracted, I drew my brand new Browning Model 1903 and put it on the table. He took a step back. "Now, I'm willing to bet that you're what? Fourteen, maybe fifteen?" From the look in the boy's eyes, fourteen was correct. "I'll make it simple for you, son. You hand me that ancient flintlock monstrosity that you're carrying and sit down to a nice breakfast with my family, or I'll reach for my belt."

The boy's eyes narrowed. "But you ain't got a gun on your belt."

My smile faded. As a single father of two children, I had perfected the disapproving dad look. "Now, son, I'm willing to bet that you haven't had a lot of schooling, but you're smart enough to know what happens to a naughty boy when a man reaches for his belt." A lesson that I had learned early with outlaws was that they were far more terrified of humiliation than death. I could only kill them once, but shame would last forever.

"You ain't really going to whup me are ya, Mister?"

"The truth is; I'm not a violent man. I've never raised a hand to my children. But then, Becky and Sean never robbed a train before." I put my thumb in my belt, and he took a step back. "Besides, I won't need to take off my belt if you're a good boy."

The boy lowered his bandana and handed me his gun. "What are you going to do with me, Mister?"

"Marshal," Becky corrected. "Marshal William Walcott." She extended her hand to be shaken. For a girl obsessed with pretty dresses, she moved confidently like a man. My mother blamed it on her mother taking off when she was so little. "I'm Rebecca Walcott, and this is my little brother, Sean."

"Marshal?" the boy said with an audible gulp. "I'm going to jail, ain't I?"

"My daddy is the best lawman in Arizona," Sean said, with all the admiration only a little boy can have for his father. "He's better than Wyatt Earp. Daddy met him once. He said that he was crazy."

The Pinkertons entered the dining car. "Is everyone safe?" a hatchet-faced woman with a chrome pistol asked. "The Pinkerton agency is working hard to apprehend the criminals. They appear to have jumped from the train. You haven't seen anyone run through here, have you?" Two men followed her, silently pointing their guns too close to my children for my comfort. By instinct, I took the safety off my own gun.

"It's just me and my kids," I said, pointing to all three of them.

One of the male Pinkertons checked the tickets. "I thought you only had two children, Mister Walcott."

"Marshal Walcott," I corrected. There was no reason for the error because it was clearly written on the manifest in front of him. "My oldest was taking a nap earlier. He's been studying so hard, the conductor let him rest."

"Hi," the former outlaw said, standing up. His strawberry blond hair almost matched the auburn hair that I shared with my daughter, and he had the same blue eyes as my son. "I'll be Billy Walcott."

"Your namesake?" the male Pinkerton said. I recognized the smile. Somewhere there was a wife with a baby with his name waiting for him to get back for Christmas.

"Yes, sir," I said, knowing that men like him thrived on humility from their elders. "I'm just taking the kids to the beach for Christmas vacation."

When the Pinkertons left, Billy turned to me, his face twisted with confusion. "Why are you doing this for me? I'm an escapee from the orphan train. I don't even know if I'm a real orphan, because I never met my real father."

I shrugged and poured myself some red wine to kill the taste of the cognac. "Just consider it a Christmas miracle, son."

The End

Brandon Cracraft lives in Tucson, Arizona with his husband. He lived most of his life on the West in California, Oregon, and Arizona and has a great respect and love for the Old West. His horror novel, "Family Values," is available in e-book and paperback format. He is working on his second novel, a Western.

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