by A. Elizabeth Herting
It was amazing to him that at a time like this, he should feel so completely and utterly alive.
Every sensation was heightened almost to the point of lunacy. The buzzing of flies around a pile of manure, the nicker of a random horse and low, menacing voices all ricocheted around the inside of his head like cannon shot.
The rope was rough and scratchy, causing a maddening tickle in the back of his throat. When he tried to clear it, a sound not unlike the bellow of a dying cow emanated from his painfully dry mouth, causing the assembly of wretched onlookers to shiver in anticipation.
These bastards just couldn't wait to see him swing.
He was to be this afternoon's entertainment, sandwiched in between the day's many bouts of drink and games of chance. Not a single one of them was any better or any worse than he was, they were simply more fortunate in the timing of their transgressions.
Of that, he was absolutely certain.
* * *
Percival Lancelot Cornwallis had, thus far, failed to live up to his illustrious name. His mother had suffered from the twin delusions of Arthurian and military glory when it came to her only child, perhaps due to the shameful circumstance of his birth. Nothing, but the resplendence of a great name, would help to erase the taint of a lowly circus performer's fatherless son.
He grew up under the big tent in every dusty, windswept stop along the circuit, crisscrossing the rugged roads of the western plains in every conceivable direction. There were many times, under the loving eye of Miranda, that young Percy would bless his existence as he watched her fly gracefully above his head like a gossamer angel.
Miranda was a magical creature. Dancing and twirling in heavenly abandon as he waited below, the whoosh of the trapeze and breathless sighs of the crowd teaching young Percy all he needed to know about human nature; the incredible high of a crowd's admiration interspersed with a haughty disdain for their profession.
Percy learned very early how to play all of it to his advantage—he was a natural. Up until the day he saw his mother's tiny body, broken and laid out upon the dirt like a fallen sparrow. A simple miss of a grasp had sent her careening to the earth, a final swan dive into eternity.
On that day Percy decided he would no longer be a victim of his circumstances. A fat lot of good that had apparently done him, with the noose wound tightly around his neck, but the point remained the same.
Of that, he was absolutely certain.
* * *
She hadn't told him she was married. Honestly, the subject had never been broached.
Percy had inherited his mother's fine countenance, with eyes the color of emeralds and a thick head of blue-black hair. Not many of the fairer sex could resist his charms, he was seldom without female company.
On this particular occasion, however, he regretfully considered that maybe he should have let this one pass. Not understanding, until way too late, that his latest paramour was the wife of the town's deputy sheriff. He might still have escaped this particular form of frontier justice if the gentleman hadn't caught him red-handed, fleeing her boudoir with a pair of golden ear bobs in his hastily pulled-on trousers.
A man had to eat, after all. As Percy well knew, a life on the road was one of immense freedom, but very little recompense.
Of that, he was absolutely certain.
* * *
He teetered precariously on the back of the wagon. The tree they had chosen for his demise was a sturdy old oak, immense and thick. It also held the distinction of being the only one of its kind around for a mile in each direction.
The perfect hanging tree.
The men stood around in groups, a bedraggled, surly assembly if ever he saw one. A short, rotund man in a filthy overcoat stood at the ready in front of an old nag hitched to the wagon, bridle held in anticipation of Percy's ignoble end. The hastily convened jury passed a bottle back and forth between them, taking turns spitting great black gobs into the dirt.
Looking aggrieved, the deputy sheriff glowered at Percy as the leader of the kangaroo court read aloud his sentence.
"To be hanged by the neck until dead!"
As if he wasn't painfully aware of that already. The words hanging heavily in the air, Percy swallowed deeply and gave himself up to fate.
* * *
Percy is five years old, giggling with delight as his mother glides through the air, upside down, and lifts him way up into the sky. They are flying together, higher and higher, before she flips off of the bar. Down they go in a joyful tumble, bouncing into the net below and Percy thinks that he is the luckiest boy in the whole wide world to have such a beautiful momma.
She brushes back a stray lock of his hair and kisses his brow. He is going to be just like her someday, the very best trapeze artist west of the Mississippi and he will buy her a pony. She leans over to him, smiles brightly and says . . .
"Percival Lancelot Cornwallis! Do you have any last words, you vile bastard!"
The deputy sheriff bellowed with impatience. Seeing no reaction from Percy, he ordered the man to lead the nag away. Percy had only precious seconds left.
The excess rope began to tighten as Percy turned his body toward the tree and began to run. His years of training had served him well, for his leg muscles were toned and powerful.
The man who fashioned his bonds had been rather the worse for drink, allowing Percy to easily free his hands from behind his back, grabbing onto the rope directly above the noose to relieve the pressure. He threw himself off of the wagon with abandon, adrenaline pulsating through his body like a second heartbeat. The reprobate holding the other end of the rope jumped back in alarm, dropping it to the ground as Percy launched.
He hit the trunk full on with both feet as the wagon disappeared underneath him, grabbing the nearest branch with both hands. He kicked off of the tree backwards, swinging himself around three times and rocketed high into the sky above the crowd. The frayed old rope wildly lassoed through the air before snapping off midway in a most dramatic fashion.
Visions of his mother floated across his mind as he came down, somersaulting gracefully through the air as he descended. He could almost hear the adoring crowd cheering him on in the sudden pandemonium that broke out below.
This was to be the biggest performance of his life and bystanders would later swear they saw Percy smiling as he landed, backward, onto the back of the deputy's mount, galloping away with the remainder of the rope trailing him in the dust.
Being the consummate performer, truly his mother's son in every regard, Percy gave them all a final, jaunty wave as he disappeared over the horizon and into legend.
* * *
She was a delectable creature.
Pink and soft with the scent of wildflowers clinging to her long, auburn hair. Percy stretched out languidly in the downy bed, being careful not to disturb her as she slept.
The scar around his neck was still angry and raw, all the more so once he remembered that he hadn't yet gotten around to inquiring about her marital status. Not that it would matter. It would only hasten the speed of his departure.
He had traveled many miles since his last spectacular performance. Far enough that he could actually hear the calming sounds of the Pacific Ocean drifting through her open window. Percy may have been temporarily forced into retirement, but the show, as they say, must go on.
It was fortunate, indeed, that he was a man of many passions. Passions just waiting to be discovered and revisited, such as the lovely example that now slumbered peacefully at his side.
Fortunate, that is, if he could avoid getting caught. It was definitely time to move.
He'd just managed to retrieve his shirt from the floor when he felt her warm body stir beside him. She reached out, gently raking his back with her long fingernails and Percy knew it was too late.
Just as his distinguished namesake before him had done, Cornwallis had no choice but to surrender. And he knew, without a doubt, that he would be surrendering again. And again.
Of that, he was absolutely certain.
A. Elizabeth Herting is an aspiring freelance writer and busy mother of three living in colorful Colorado. She has had short stories featured in Bewildering Stories, Cafe Aphra, Clumsy Quips, Dark Fire Fiction, Edify Fiction, Everyday Fiction, Fictive Dream, 50-Word Stories, Friday Fiction, Literally Stories, New Realm, Peacock Journal, Pilcrow&Dagger, Quail Bell Magazine, Scrutiny Journal, Speculative 66, Storyteller, The Flash Fiction Press and Under the Bed. She has also published non-fiction work in Denver Pieces Magazine, bioStories, and completed a novel called "Wet Birds Don't Fly at Night" that she is hoping to find a home for. For more of her work/contact her at sites.google.com/site/aehertingwriter
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Long Time Coming
by Brenton D. Stewart
Even her moccasins would not quiet her footsteps when the fall came. The fresh fallen leaves would turn to crackling eggshells when they died. The cold of winter would only bring more problems. Nighttime stalking would grow unbearably cold while the snow made the Rustboro gang's trail all the harder to track. The winter would require more provisions and more gear and she was accustomed to carrying as little as possible of both. She needed her revenge soon or risk hungering for it yet another year.
She weaved her way downward through the mountainside trees, sliding where she felt safe and using all four limbs to grip the trunks around her when she didn't. Other than the gentle rustling of her movements the only sound she made was the gentle click of her tomahawks against one another, and she pressed them to her body for silence when needed.
Dawning sunlight needled through the canopy, burning larger and larger holes to light her way as she neared the forest's edge. When she reached level ground she steadied her tomahawks with one hand while clearing the foliage from her path with the other. She crouched low into the bushes and eased toward the border between the woods and the open prairie beyond. There was a man ahead sitting in the open grass leaned against a rock. His ragged breaths gusted across the golden stalks. When the stalks parted she could see that he held his side in pain.
The Rustboros were not above a trap if they were above anything at all. She swung the strap of her bow around her head and nocked an arrow from her quill. She left the bow undrawn, but the arrow at the ready as she stalked forward as far below the grass as she could stay. There were no other sounds save for the man's labored breaths. The rising sun beyond the cliff's edge dispelled all shadows. Even still her head swiveled on her shoulders to either side waiting for something to pounce as she closed in on the man.
The man would have towered over the girl if he stood. All strength and intimidation was drained from his crumpled form, his hand cupped at his side with blood leaking through the cracks in his fingers, his gray stringy hair hanging over grizzled cheeks. The man tilted his head back against the rock so that his hat did nothing to keep the sun out, his eyes fixed as near on the sun as they could get without burning.
When the girl stood above the grass the man's eyes turned in their skull to meet her and he smiled. "Well I'll be damned," he said. "Thought I'd seen everything I was ever gonna see when a white girl comes amblin' up dressed head to toe like a native." Seeing that the girl was still wary and held her bow at the ready the man scoffed and turned his gaze back to the horizon. "Like I'm gonna hurt ya. Like I could if I wanted. I ain't heeled. They took everything." His next breath was deeper than the last and tears collected in his eyes. "Everything."
The girl placed her arrow back in its quiver and put the strap of her bow back around her head as she stepped forward. She unhooked a water skein from her belt on the side opposite the tomahawks. The man responded to her without looking at the skein. "Save that for yourself. I won't be needin' it where I'm goin'."
The girl bent down to look at the wound and the man did not fight her as she pried his hand away. "I can tend to the wound," she said, her voice smoky like a crackling fire. She saw a large knife sheathed at the man's ankle and drew it out slowly, saying "I can get the bullet out. Dress it up. Leave you with enough to make your way."
"Oh," the man said, "I'm makin' my way as it is. We're miles from the next town. Them men might a not shot me had they been closer to provisions elsewhere. Not that I gave 'em much." The man whimpered. "Just a cartload a whiskey an' a good horse. All I had in this world."
The girl turned her attention from the wound to the surroundings. She could see the tracks from the Rustboros' horses and where they encircled the cart. The wheels of the cart left deep grooves in the earth and the cart itself bent a path through the grass that travelled along the edge where the prairie met the cliffside. The only blood present was the bleeding man's and its trail told of his path from the stolen cart to the rock he leaned against. The girl stood up and leaned next to the man against the rock, watching the sunlight play along the blade in her hand. "I'll kill them for you," she said. "I was going to kill them for my parents, but I can kill them for you, too."
"That ain't necessary. Ain't no one should live for blood. I lived for whiskey, myself, and I lived a happy man. Made me happy to make other folks happy."
"You don't have any whiskey left. What would make you happy now?"
The man's lips quivered with his breath before his brows knit, more determined to look at the new day as ever. "I just want to take my mind off it. Have some distraction so I don't see the end comin'. Can you do that for me, young lady?"
The girl flicked her thumb along the blade and spoke barely above a whisper, her voice a smolder. "My second father called me Little Coyote. He fed me and taught me how to feed myself. He taught me a great many things, but I never killed a person before."
"Heh," the old man let out. "I ain't never died before. This second father the reason you dressed the way you is? He the reason you out here on your ownsome?"
Cartilage cracked as she drew the knife across his throat. The sun died in his eyes even as it grew new life in the horizon. Her hand shook yet her grip was tight as she drew the knife toward her, watching the blood consume his shirt and greet its kin beneath his hand. She tried to discern contentment from his drawn back lips, but his expression was as simple as a live thing turned dead.
Little Coyote never killed a person before and the elders were not there to tell her if this counted. She judged that it did and knew what she had to do, looking about the scene once more and estimating how old the tracks were that the Rustboro gang carved through the grasslands. She did the arithmetic in her head as she took the knife's sheath from the dead man's leg and strapped it to her own ankle, sliding the knife into its place. She found nothing else on the dead man, but decided to take his black hat, placing it on her own head before she set out to find water.
There was a stream not far from the prairie that ate its way down the canyons. She judged the grooves in the Rustboro trail to follow about perpendicular to the stream and followed both until she found the right spot. There was a clearing at the foot of the hill where the water gathered in a pool before continuing on its way. The clay of the earth was packed in tightly enough not to dirty the water, and Little Coyote found a spot where she could see her reflection in a puddle while she filled her skein in the pool. She drank thirstily as she stared back at herself from the puddle. Once her thirst was quenched and her skein was filled and her hands were washed she knew there was no putting it off any longer. She drew the knife that she took from the dead man.
Her hair was golden like her mother's, and she watched as the pieces of her mom fell to the clay below with each shear. All the while she watched herself, the puddle rippling with the wind and alternating the reflection between that of a teenage girl about to anoint herself a warrior and that of a child trapped beneath her mother's bleeding corpse.
Once the bulk of the hair was out of the way she held the blade at an angle along her scalp and shaved it back with care. The warrior in the puddle held a stony resolve and the child a trembling puzzlement. The child's eyes, blinking away blood and tears, asked a dozen questions. Would it ever be safe to leave the wagon? Would mother ever get up? Was father just outside? Were those the hoofbeats of the whooping demons coming back to finish her off?
Her head was now half bald and she stopped to whet the blade for a few moments as she thought back to the blood-soaked girl in the blood-soaked wagon. The growing hoofbeats were different from the gang that left her. With time she would learn to tell their difference, to hear how the clop of an unshod hoof had no ring to it. That child would learn so much.
A sprinkle started that distorted the reflection before altogether erasing it. The raindrops were soft and unburdensome, and Little Coyote did not need her reflection anyways. She finished scraping off the other half of her hair still crouched over the puddle, watching as the golden locks were gathered up in little streams and carried away to the canyon's pool. When she was finished she ran her hands over her scalp, the rain washing away the blood from the knicks here and there that she left.
For the next part, the last part, she put on the hat that she took from the old man and reached into the satchel that hung by her skein. She watched her fingers closely as they picked apart the pockets, leaving the yellowed mushrooms undisturbed in their own pocket and selecting instead a handful of berries. The red berries she crushed in the fingers of one hand and drew a line from between her eyes up to the top of her forehead. In her other hand she crushed the blueberries into a fine pulp that she smeared beneath each eye.
She held her hands out into the rain and let the water wash them clean. Newly anointed, she found her way back to the Rustboro trail and followed it through the rain sparkling in daylight.
The size of their cargo made the men's progress slow, and as the ground softened with mud the wheels of the cart were all the harder to pull. Now with more whiskey than they could drink in a week, the men were eager to make camp and enjoy their spoils. The eldest Rustboro would push them forward, but the younger two and the other men would outvote him when it came to it. Finally they'd find a spot up on a hill somewhere they felt safe, somewhere with a vantage to the landscape around and with only one way from which to expect oncomers.
They found such a spot on a piece of land jutting up in the sky, a steady climb up one side that lead to a dead drop off the other. The incline was so steady that the tracks that the horse pulling the cart left showed no great effort in getting the luggage up the cliffside, although Little Coyote could only inspect them so closely from the confines of the trees at the cliff's base. As ever, the eldest Rustboro set up men outside their camp, sitting on horses with their rifles at the ready, their eyes keen to the glitter of a golden badge while blind to the tanned hide of a practiced huntress.
With time now her ally, Little Coyote climbed a tree at the edge of the woods and set to tying the branches together. Every so often she would peek out to ensure the watchmen were not second guessing the wind that swayed the trees, and soon enough she had her hammock. She eased herself into the groove of the hammock and, finding that it would hold, settled into a restful sleep. That was the way of things in the year since she left the tribe. She followed the men, she caught up to the men, and she slept until she could do it again the next day. Their rhythms were her rhythms, their sweat her sweat. It had been that way for so long that Little Coyote found herself wondering, in the fog of a growing sleep, what she would do when they were gone. Before the men there was the tribe, and before the tribe her parents. There was little else and nothing before her parents.
She drifted in and out of sleep for a while when the daylight faded. The hoots and hollers of the men on the hill would rock her awake, but she would remember that she was safe in her hammock of branches and suddenly the men might as well have been on Olympus for all they could bother her.
It was not until the hoots and the hollers stopped that she disallowed herself from drifting off. The night was silent, and that meant it was hers.
The watchmen were too far up the hill to reach from the treeline. She readied her bow and crouched as she stalked up the hill. The men were torch blind, their ward against wolves maintained at the cost of their night vision. There were two of them and they clustered together, sharing a cigar and talking in useless whispers.
One man puffed away at the cigar and it billowed into his face. The smoke rolled out from under the wide brim of his hat as he looked up, handing the cigar to his partner as his stinging eyes watched the treeline below. "You reckon we far off from somewheres we can sell the liquor?" he pondered.
His partner grunted, picking the tobacco from his teeth before puffing on the cigar. "Another day's ride. Two days tops. Don't figure the younger Rustboros will much want to part with the whiskey though." Some embers fell from the cigar as he puffed it and started to eat their way into the crotch of his pants. "Dadgummit," the man said, patting away at the embers with one hand while holding the reins and the cigar with the other. He fussed at the burns as he spoke. "'Course if we have that whiskey much longer Rustboro the elder is much likely to wring the necks of the youngers outta sheer irritation." He took two ponderous puffs of the cigar. "Say, are we still the Rustboro gang if—"
He looked up to find his partner wheezing and convulsing, the wooden shaft of an arrow jutting from his esophagus. The cigar fell to the grass below as the second man sprouted an arrow from his eye socket, his spine collapsing all at once and letting him drop from his horse.
Little Coyote pattered up through the grass toward the men. The man with the arrow in his throat wasn't dying fast enough, and was fumbling for his revolver even while he held his rifle stupidly in the other hand. The girl let another arrow go into his heart and the man was quiet at last, falling to the ground to join his partner.
The horses around the camp slept with bowed heads tied to the scant trees at the hilltop. The weathered tents brought their own musty smell to the environment to join that of the dying campfire and the burning whiskey in the air. Little Coyote stepped over an empty glass bottle carefully as she made her way toward the fire at the camp's center.
A man sat before the fire, but his shoulders rose and fell with the steadiness of a tide. Little Coyote distantly remembered her father calling snoring "sawing logs" and this man brought the expression to life. Her every movement became deliberate and grew only more so as she counted more logs sawing from each tent. She was like a ghost blending into the fog of the night, floating about the camp. Atop the dying fire, mere feet from the snoozing man, laid a grill with a cooking pot and a kettle. Leaned against the rocks that formed the perimeter of the campfire were bags of beans and oats. Little Coyote was careful with the mushrooms from her satchel, pouring water over her hands each time she handled them.
The fog was her comfort, her companion amidst the sleeping men who rested with their guns, each one ready to wake up at a moment's notice and raise the alarm. She already came too close with the watchman down the hill. The Rustboro gang numbered too many, and she was in no rush anyhow. The patient tree outlived the anxious hummingbird a thousand times over, her second father taught her.
By morning the girl was gone, but the fog remained. It was a morning mist that licked dew onto each blade of grass, and when the man sleeping by the campfire stirred he cursed the moisture that made his hands feel sticky. It was the eldest Rustboro who stirred him.
"You didn't fall asleep, did you McGaffey?" he asked, clapping a hand on the man's shoulder as McGaffey rubbed his fingers together.
"No, sir, of course not! Just restin' the ol' eyes a spell. No harm there."
Rustboro knelt down to grab the steaming kettle, pouring the brown liquid out into a tin cup. "You get my coffee ready on time you can rest your eyes all you want," Rustboro said. His face was as canyonous as their surroundings, the two prongs of a dusty brown and grey mustache hanging off his chin. He was already dressed, his duster guarding him from the morning mist and his guns clattering at his side as he stood up.
MCGaffey blinked at the burning fire several times, then blinked again when he noticed the bubbling pot. He leaned forward to sniff at it, poking at the boiling oatmeal with a wooden spoon. "I, uh, I got some oatmeal goin' here too, boss," McGaffey said.
"Someone say breakfast?" said a man poking his scrawny head from his tent. The rest of the man, just as scrawny, followed suit and he fixed his straw hat onto his head as he eyeballed the meal.
"Knew I smelt somethin'!" another man said, emerging from his tent.
Soon the whole camp was gathered around the fire, just short of a dozen men ladling the oatmeal into wooden bowls and splashing coffee into their cups. The oldest Rustboro stood outside the ring of men, inspecting the land over the cliff side as best he could through the fog.
"Someone should go check on Larry and Westin," he mentioned over his shoulder.
"Ah, hell, I don't think there's enough to go around," one man said, grabbing the cooking pot itself with some rags and using the wooden spoon as his personal utensil. "Least not for them. Can't we wait? Ain't you want some for your own self, boss?"
"Eli says oats is for horses. Says you be just as likely to find him chewin' on oats as hay," said one man digging his fingers into his bowl and licking them. Twice the girth of any of the other men, he was one of the younger Rustboro brothers. The other, the scrawny one with the straw hat, spoke up next.
"Hell, if hay was all we had to soak up the drunk from last night I'd take it."
The men laughed at that, some of them nursing their heads at the reminder of their hangover. Eli Rustboro looked them over with a scowl. "You're all a bunch of drunks. There won't be such debauchery another night in a row, I'll say that right now." He turned his gaze to survey the other way down the hill, trying to find his watchmen through the fog.
"Ah, you ain't no fun," said the fat Rustboro.
"Better be we can sell off the remainder and buy twice what we had in the first place," said the scrawny Rustboro. He sucked his teeth and stood up, watching the concern grow on Eli's face. "Oh, Eli, would you settle down a damn minute? The boys have earned a peaceful breakfast. Ain't no dang . . . danger . . . " His sentence trailed off and he began to sway in place. "Hey, I'm not feelin' too—"
Vomit spilled out of his mouth before he could finish his sentence. Bowls and spoons clattered from some of the men's hands and still others fell forward. A cacophony of vomiting erupted from the campgrounds as the men all started grabbing their stomachs and dropping to their knees and lurching forward.
All except Eli Rustboro. Startled, he looked around at each of them. "How much did you all drink last night? I'd think you could hold your liquor a little . . . by God, get yourselves together!" Eli's voice strained as he knelt down to pat his scrawny brother's back, the bones in the brother's back popping as he heaved forward again. Spirals of blood spun into the vomit, his eyes bulging from his head. Eli stood up, all of his men now down. "What in the hell . . . who made that oatmeal? McGaffey! McGaffey!"
McGaffey was clawing at his neck rolling in the dirt, a pink froth at the corners of his lips. Now wild-eyed, Eli drew both his pistols and cast his gaze in every direction around him.
His fat brother managed to stand up, clutching at his side. "There was somethin' in that oatmeal, Eli. We got any medicine? Can we get to a doctor, Eli?"
"Damnit, get your gun out! We're not going to make it to a doctor if someone has the notion to—"
There was a thunk and the fat brother fell forward, an axe in the back of his head. Now visible from behind the fallen brother was Little Coyote, shrouded in mist and holding her remaining tomahawk.
Rustboro's hands pounced upwards, but the remaining tomahawk landed in his left shoulder so that he could only fire with his right. His shot took the girl down and she cried out in pain, clutching her own shoulder. Rustboro walked toward her, gritting his teeth and pulling the tomahawk from his side. He stepped over his brother and aimed his revolver at the writhing girl.
"What?" he demanded. "What in the hell did I do to you, exactly?" The girl turned from nursing her shoulder to stare up at the man, rage burning through the blue markings on her eyes. Rustboro motioned to all the fallen men around the camp with his gun before returning it to her. "These were my brothers! My kin!"
The girl's voice trembled. "I . . . had kin."
Rustboro's eyes narrowed. He knelt down over the girl and tipped his hat back. "And what? I bet I shot them fair and square and they weren't a fast enough gun to stop me. That's fair and square. That's the man's way. But you poison my oatmeal? You mongrel little bitch." He leveled the gun at her glare, the end of the pistol inches from the red mark on her forehead.
His hand began to tremble. In shock, he stared at it as his fingers went limp and the gun fell from his hand. The girl stood up as Rustboro spilled backwards. He clutched at his heart, blowing out deep breaths that made his mustache bounce.
Little Coyote's voice burned. "I didn't just poison the oatmeal."
She drew the knife from the sheath on her ankle. Rustboro's mouth gaped open but only a strained squeal came out. She stabbed, and she stabbed, and she stabbed. When it was over he was tatters, and she was covered in blood, and the mist cleared away to reveal the new day around her.
She grabbed what supplies she found and cleaned off what she could. She dressed her wound and spit on the body of Eli Rustboro one last time before climbing into the horse cart between the cases of whiskey. She ushered the horse on and wondered what she would do next for only a moment. The life of blood was behind her, and the life of whiskey ahead.
Brenton grew up in Kansas fascinated by the stories of the region's gunslingers and righteous lawmen. Looking
for more excitement in the present day, he moved to Chicago where he received an extensive education in the
Great Books of the Western World at Shimer College. He still resides in Chicago, but thinks of Kansas often
and enjoys bringing its history alive in his stories. Feel free to follow him on Twitter at @BrentonStewart6,
just don't challenge him to any duels.
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The Corn Crib
by Sharon Frame Gay
~ from the journal of Elizabeth Cuthbert
"The day the Sioux attacked our farm, I was in the hog pen with my mother, tossing scraps to the pigs from last night's supper. Mama grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the small corn crib in the corner of the pen. She shoved me in, covered my body with cobs.
"Indians are coming. Don't you move even one bit, Izzy. Lie still and don't come out, no matter what you hear until me or Papa call your name."
Before I could blink, she closed the door and ran off, skirt rustling against her legs like the corn husks in the field behind us. Through a small crack in the slats, I saw her boots heading for the barn.
She shouted for my father and older brother. "Jake! Isaac!"
Our horses bolted in the corral, kicking up dust and galloping round and round, whinnying at the Indian ponies as they thundered towards the farm.
Shots rang out right away. I could tell from the boom that it was Papa's rifle, and right behind it the tinnier sound of Isaac's old repeater. There was a storm of gunfire. Then silence, sudden and final. I figured Papa and Isaac were already dead because they would never give up so easy.
Then there were noises everywhere—the Sioux calling to each other, horses snorting and stomping. The sound of feet pounding from one building to the next. The sudden whoop when they found Mama hiding in the barn.
I huddled deeper in the corn. The hogs panicked, pushing at the small crib as they tried to run away. Down by my leg, I felt movement as a snake slithered over my knee and spun up through the cobs, poking its head into a shaft of sunlight.
I don't know how many Indians there were. From the noise they were making, they were ransacking the house and rustling through the barn, looking for hooch and food and whatever else they might find. Lately there had been a Sioux uprising. Renegades were attacking farms and ranches here in Nebraska, and travelers up and down the Oregon Trail. I hoped they would take what they needed, then leave Mama and me alone.
The hogs squealed and snorted, shoved at the crib again. Somebody was here in the pen with them. Squeezing my eyes shut, I bit my lip to keep from crying, stayed as still as could be. Counted the seconds, and prayed he'd leave.
A hog screamed in agony. I heard a knife ripping into flesh, the smell of blood running copper on the air until my head spun with fear. Tears leaked out, ran into my neck.
Then the latch to the crib opened, cool air rushed in. A hand grabbed my leg. Fingernails scratched at me as the cobs were yanked back. I looked straight up into his face, the last light of day piercing a white feather woven into his black hair, and opened my mouth to scream. He put his hand over my lips and shook his head.
He shoved me back, hard, and I winced. Then he pulled corn cobs back over me, latched the door and walked away.
Later that night after the sun went down, I heard Mama screaming. Her cries went on and on until I wanted to cover my ears and jump out of the crib and run as far away as I could, but I dare not move. The snake was somewhere in here with me, and I hoped it wasn't a rattler. I wasn't about to find out, so I kept as still as I could. The Indian had latched the door from the outside, so I was a trapped. What if he left me here in the corn crib and just rode off? Nobody would ever find me.
My mother stopped screaming. I prayed she had fainted, but I feared the worst.
I was fourteen, almost a woman, and old enough to understand what the Sioux probably did to Mama. I knew they would likely do the same to me. The Indian who found me might be saving me for himself, or bring me up to the house later, after they finished with my poor mother. I willed myself to take just one breath, then another, chest tight and heart racing like a spring thaw creek.
The Indians were whooping it up in the house. Once in a while a shot rang out, then laughter. The air was thick with the smell of roasting pig.
As the night wore on, even the Sioux got quiet. All I heard was the stomping of the horses, and the frightened grunts of the hogs. I thought about kicking out a board in the corn crib, try to squeeze my way out and run away. I was afraid that any noise I made would wake those Indians and stir up the snake. Maybe it was best to wait until morning. They might leave when the sun comes up and I could escape then.
It was deep night now, hours had gone by, my body cold and aching. I thought I heard something outside the corn crib. A footstep. The hogs grunted, moved around the pen. I strained to listen but my heart beat so hard, it was all I could hear.
The latch opened, the cobs parted, and an arm dragged me up and out so quick all I could do was swallow my scream. It was the same Indian. He shoved his hand against my mouth again, dragged me out of the pen towards the back of the barn. He put his finger to his lips, shook his head, like he was telling me to be quiet.
I nodded, my whole body quaking like one of those preachers in a traveling tent.
He threw me up in front of him on his pinto and we trotted away, as slow and quiet as a ride to church, only his muscles felt tight as a war drum and the horse was all a-quiver. I looked around, but didn't see any of the other Sioux with us.
Once we broke over the rise, he nudged the pony into a lope and we covered the prairie in hungry bites, hoof beats the only sound under the night sky. I leaned forward, afraid to touch him, clutched the pony's mane. There was a three quarter moon in the sky, just enough light to make out trees, rock outcroppings. My shoulders ached as I was jolted across the rough ground, the pinto's head bobbing up and down, the Indian's arm around my waist.
He slowed down when the sky blushed with morning, then headed into a forest that bordered the foothills. The pony picked its way over brush and roots. Inside the stand of trees, it was quiet as death. A few birds called out to each other that strangers were around, turning silent as we brushed by. I kept thinking this was a dream, and prayed the sun would wake me, set me back on the farm with my family.
The Indian stopped in a small clearing and jumped off, pulled me from the pony and set me down hard on the ground. He looped a rope around my wrist and tied the other end to a belt at his waist.
I got a good look at him then. He had a thick scar that ran from forehead to chin, so deep that it pulled one side of his mouth down, a bit of spittle trickling out. He swiped at it with a hand, turned angry eyes to me. There was blood spattered all over his deerskin shirt. I wondered who it belonged to and prayed it was the hog and not Mama. Around his neck was a small wooden figure on a piece of rawhide. It looked like a child's toy. There was a knife in a sheath on a belt and a flintlock rifle in a buckskin sling across his back. Two red slashes of war paint stood out on each cheek. It seeped into the scar like blood. The white feather woven in his hair quivered when he moved like a living thing.
He took a small bit of jerky from a pouch with filthy fingernails, tossed me a piece. It landed in the dirt, and I dusted it off, popped it in my mouth. It tasted bad. I couldn't swallow, but was scared to spit it out, afraid he might slit my throat for acting rude, so I kept it in the side of my cheek for a while like a chipmunk. When he turned away I spit it in my hand, buried it under a leaf. He turned back towards me, pointed to his pony, yanked on the rope around my wrist.
"Why? Where we going?" I asked.
He scowled, dragged me up by an arm, tossed me back on the pony, then jumped up behind me.
All day long we drifted through the trees slow and easy. I figured we were hiding from something or someone and waiting for nightfall in these woods. I wondered where the others were, if we were meeting them somewhere. Small rays of sunlight broke through the pines and the pinto's mane glistened when the light caught it. I felt the warmth of the Indian's legs on either side of me. His foul breath fluttered against the back of my neck. My stomach rumbled with hunger, though I was sick with fear. I had a headache, and the heat from the pony made my thighs sweat.
I'd been thinking for hours. Thinking about everything. Every step we took away from the farm was a step away from my family. Finally I gathered all my courage, because I had to know the truth. Even if I died right then and there. I took a breath, braced myself for what might happen next.
"Did you kill my family?" I asked, my heart beating so hard I thought it might rip through my dress. The words cut through the forest so loud I swear it echoed. I didn't know if he talked English or could even talk at all, with that big scar and spittle running down his chin.
Did he understand what I asked? I figured that silence was as good as admitting it if he knew what I was saying, and if he didn't talk English, I'll never know for sure what happened while I was in that corn crib. I was scared that my family was dead. Or maybe somehow they survived, and it was just me who was going to die.
I started to cry. Tears slid down my cheek and landed on his hand in front of me as he guided the pony. It pooled up on his skin like a tiny pond but he didn't flick it off. It just sat there until the heat from his body dried it up, leaving a silvery trail of heartache along his wrist.
We stopped again by some fallen logs. The Indian jumped off, pulled me down with him. He turned his back, peed against a tree, then gestured for me to squat behind a log. Shaking, I pulled down my drawers, watched him look away as I relieved myself. When I finished, he threw me another piece of jerky. This time I chewed it up and swallowed, even though it tasted like the devil. He led me over to a stream, and I cupped my hands, drank in thirsty gulps. I saw his reflection in the water. Our eyes met.
I hated him. I wanted to grab the knife from the belt, plunge it deep in his belly, gallop back to the corn crib and that snake, jump in, and pretend that it was yesterday and nothing had happened yet.
I touched the rope around my wrist. It was tight, holding me captive, helpless. When I stood up, my head barely reached his chest. He shoved me ahead of him back to where the pony stood in a clearing.
We mounted up, climbing higher into the hills, hooves ringing out against the rocks, tree line falling away to higher ground. The path narrowed, shrubs scratching at my legs.
The pinto stumbled, and I was thrown back against his chest. His arm tightened across my breasts and lingered there. Fear shot up all the way to my heart.
"Are you going to hurt me now, too? Tell me so I can pray to my Lord and set things straight."
More silence. I dug my nails into the pony's hide. He tossed his head, snorted, stepped sideways.
The Sioux loosened his arm from my chest, but kept me tight against him. His deerskin shirt rubbed against my back. After a time, I figured that if he wanted to rape and kill me, he would have taken his pleasure right there in the hog pen and left it at that, so maybe I was safe for a while. Maybe I could escape. I thought about the farm, the corn crib, and my family.
I started to shiver again, only this time it wouldn't stop. The shakes just kept coming like geese in a November sky until I was limp as laundry.
Then I did the strangest thing. Something I will never figure out, no matter how long I live. Scared as I was, I fell asleep, just like that. It was almost like I wanted to run away in my mind, so my body just closed up on me, and I collapsed.
When I woke up, it was pitch dark and the pinto was stepping out of the thick woods and into a moonlit field. A coyote howled off in the distance. An owl swooped by on its way back to roost, a sign that morning was coming.
Dawn was breaking when we came to a halt on top of a knoll. Trees lined the soft rim of the hills, the sun seeping over and spilling across the fields.
In the distance was the small settlement of Florence. The pony nickered softly as we started down the rise.
We got closer to the village, then the Indian reined in, and with a swift motion grabbed me around my waist with one arm, lowered me to the ground. I stumbled, fell, got up and brushed off my skirt. Stared up at him.
He leaned down and cut the rope off my wrist with his knife. Then jerked his chin towards Florence, swatted at the air like he wanted me to run from him. I just stood there like I was nailed to the ground. He glared at me, motioned again, brushed some drool off his chin.
I nodded, took one step, then two. Turned back, peered up in his face one more time. Knew I would remember it forever. Then I lifted my skirts and ran like Satan himself was after me.
Something brushed against my leg, tore through my skirt.
"Get down!" somebody hollered. I took to the ground as a hail of bullets sailed over my head.
It ended as fast as it began. The smell of gunfire was everywhere, then the sound of footsteps.
"You okay, girl?"
I opened my eyes and stared at a pair of white man boots by my face and nodded. He hauled me up and walked me over to a group of men, all of them talking at once.
"God damned Indian. Good thing we saw him coming down the hill. We got him good. Don't know what he planned to do with this girl here. What's your name, child? What the hell happened?"
I babbled then, looking like one of those rag dolls whose head bobs around cause it's not been properly sewed. I told them about Papa and Isaac and Mama, and the snake in the corn crib.
Sobbing, I said "thank you" over and over again, but it wasn't aimed at them.
I talked on and on and then fell silent. All my words had left my lips and my throat closed up and wouldn't let any more come out.
That day I quit talking for good.
Folks were coming out of their houses now, walking up to the field to see what happened. Women fussed over me, straightened my dress, picked bits of corn husk out of my hair.
Several men took off on horses with their rifles, headed towards our farm. I feared they would find nothing there but death, and the Sioux likely vanished like any hope.
They tied a rope around the Indian's feet and dragged his body through town behind a horse. Everybody cheered. His head bumped along the ruts in the road like he was riding a bronco. Up and down, up and down, hard, and with each bounce, people clapped. The white feather fell out of his hair into the road and fluttered in the breeze, filthy and torn, streaked with blood. I picked it up, put it in my pocket.
The pinto waited up on the hill all that day, head down and reins dragging. I kept peering out the window of the boarding house, wondering if he was standing guard until the other Sioux would come looking for revenge and kill all of us in town, one by one, as we slept. I slid under the bed and kept still all night long, as if there was a snake under there with me.
The next morning the pony was gone. I could breathe free again, only taking my air never was the same after that. I felt each breath, each heart beat, and kept thinking it was all going to stop, just like it did for Mama and Papa and Isaac, and wondered what that might feel like.
I should have died back there with all of them. I don't know why that Sioux spared me, and I'm still not sure it was the right thing to do. Some days I feel so scared and lonely that I wish I had perished that day, too.
A week later, right after the sun came up, I climbed the hill outside of town. I dug a small hole under a cottonwood tree, and buried the white feather. Placed four wildflowers on top. A light breeze ruffled the petals, brushed against my face like a sad goodbye. Far up in the sky, a hawk circled the field, crying out like it was calling someone home, then flew away.
God stored all my words in my heart now instead of my mouth. So now I write it all down. The pen scratches at the paper and it reminds me of the dry husks in the corn crib. The ink flows out like blood and dries but won't disappear, no matter how much I wish it could change things."
Izzy Cuthbert, Nebraska, 1864
Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, playing by the side of the road. Her work can be found in
several anthologies, as well as BioStories, Mid American Fiction and Photography, Gravel Magazine, Fiction
on the Web, Halcyon Days, Literally stories, among others. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee.
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The Preacher Played Poker
by Geno Lawrenzi Jr.
It's a historical fact that many churches, as well as colleges,a in the Southwest were built on money contributed by gamblers.
Circuit-riding ministers would often ride into a trail town with three necessary provisions in their saddlebags—a revolver, a Bible, and a deck of cards. Following the Biblical advice, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," they would walk into a gambling saloon, introduce themselves to the patrons, announce their plans to build a church, and ask for donations.
Gamblers were a superstitious lot. Not wishing to offend the Almighty, they generally dug into their pockets and came up with a sizable contribution to the fund. Some even became members of the church and gave up their gambling (and often thieving) ways.
But gamblers were a tough breed who had learned the art of survival. Some refused to be sweet-talked into giving up their ill-gotten cash. They would listen to the pitch of the stranger holding the Bible, sneer, and go back to the game.
The Rev. Endicott Peabody ambled into a gambling hall in Tombstone, Arizona, which had a reputation as the "town too tough to die." He wore a long black coat which was similar to the black frocks often worn by professional gamblers.
He cheerfully identified himself as a preacher and pulled a well-worn Bible out of his pocket. He was Episcopalian and wanted to build a fence around his church. The gamblers listened and contributed to the fund.
Such was not always the case. Preacher Brown was a reformed gambler who had once been one of the best poker players in Nevada. He had a winning personality and wanted to build churches to serve his Lord.
He entered a saloon that sported a poker table, roulette wheel and faro games. The place was filled with men drinking whiskey, smoking, and bucking the tiger with their chips and cash.
In a loud commanding voice, Preacher Brown announced who he was and asked for contributions to start his church.
One gambler wearing a long-barreled six-shooter looked up from the poker table and threw down his cards.
"Why don't you take up a hand, Preacher?" he said. "Maybe you'd win enough to build your Godforsaken church." The other gamblers snickered and some burst into laughter.
The scorn didn't bother Preacher Brown who had encountered rougher times than this.
Encouraged by the laughter, the gambler continued. "Assuming you know how to play," he said, winking.
That did it. Preacher Brown gave him a cold look and said, "Mock not, lest ye be smitten hip and thigh." He sat down at the table, reached into his pocket for cash, and ordered some chips.
The other gamblers gathered around the table as the preacher was dealt his cards. The atmosphere grew tense, but Preacher Brown didn't seem to be affected by it. He ordered a drink from a scantily clad cocktail waitress and added, "No alcohol, please."
The waitress grinned and bowed. "Anything you say, Parson," she said.
The gambler who had goaded the minister was seething.
"Come on and smite, Preacher," he said. "Make room for the old fool, boys."
Preacher Brown cocked an eyebrow at him. In a thundering voice he said, "Let it not be said that I failed to rebuke a sinner. Verily there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." He glanced at his hand, saw it was a flush, and said, "I open for fifty dollars."
The onlookers gasped. The gambler looked at his cards, decided the preacher was bluffing, and raised him. Preacher Brown re-raised and the out-of-control gambler raised him back.
Preacher Brown won the pot.
"Woe, woe, woe," he said as he raked in the chips. "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away."
The crowd around the table roared with laughter and applause. Even the losing gambler had to smile. He nodded and complimented the minister on his play.
Preacher Brown not only won enough money to start building his church, the next morning many of the gamblers from the saloon showed up to start chopping logs.
There was another recorded case of a man who was not as sincere or selfless as Preacher Brown. A gambler disguised himself as a minister at the Lady Gay Saloon and Dance Hall in Dodge City, Kansas.
He intoned that gambling was a way that "God punished sinners and rewarded the virtuous." He removed his black smock, folded it on the back of his chair and began playing poker.
The game went on for more than two hours and the preacher seemed unbeatable. Then a sharp-eyed patron shouted, "He's got an ace up his sleeve!"
The false preacher tried to explain that it must have been a miracle and said the Lord must have placed it there, but the gamblers weren't fooled. They didn't give him the usual harsh treatment reserved for cheaters, but he never showed up at that saloon again.
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by Benjamin Cooper
I stood, solid and resolute, the posture of a perfect soldier. The first rays of morning sun were breaking through the treetops, illuminating the faces of the silhouetted bodies surrounding me. My only companions on the frigid, miserable night march had been my worn leather shoes protecting my aching feet, and the glowing moon shrouded in clouds. Our force had wearily pushed into the darkness, emerging from the seemingly endless journey unscathed. But at daybreak I did not share in my comrades' relief. My thoughts were filled with philosophical questions; contemplating reason and purpose. No, you mustn't doubt yourself. I am supposed to be here. I am meant to be here. Essentially, I was just another youngster thrown to the wolves in the colonies, overlooked in the endless quest for land and power.
The Colonel strode down the line, scrutinizing each soldier as he passed. I shuffled nervously, maintaining the proper stance. I feared the Colonel's unrelenting stare more than the Indians who wanted my scalp. A breeze swirled through the column, taking with it the mysterious fog that had cloaked the army.
The regal Colonel Freely strode poignantly to the couriers at his disposal. His stoic face was mostly hidden by the looming shadows. I stared, entranced by the shiny brass buttons on his freshly pressed, vibrant red coat. Though his dress would've likely cost me a year's pay, I reminded myself not to be intimidated.
He tilted his head ever so slightly, eyeing me dubiously, as if searching for weakness. "Dismissed! All except for you, private." I swallowed hard as he eyed me. He came closer. The stench of stale sweat mixed with perfume was overpowering. He relayed orders with the composed manner of a seasoned officer.
"Private, you are the swiftest and most trustworthy of all my men." His lips curled as he spoke, every word heavy with importance.
"I call upon you to deliver this urgent message into the hands of Colonel Scott, and Colonel Scott only, at Fort Martin, just beyond these woods. According to our Indian scouts, the most direct route can be found through the brush to our east. Follow it until you reach a small brook, then head due south and you'll come upon a clearing. Atop a hill, Fort Martin stands like a grand cathedral. We will be right behind you, arriving late afternoon, if the weather is agreeable and the men march to their ability. I doubt Colonel Scott is expecting us," he snickered.
He seized my wrist and placed the letter in my palm, his piercing stare unwavering. Grasping my hand with both of his, he ordered in a low voice commanding of attention, "Go now, my most trustworthy runner. Use the talent God has blessed you with. Be swift and safe travels."
"I will deliver the message posthaste, sir!" I assured him with a high-spirited salute. The Colonel returned the salute apathetically before returning to his staff.
I spun around and peered to the east, scrutinizing the underbrush that led to the dense forest. The unforgiving wilderness loomed, and I shuddered with trepidation. I'm a soldier, I reminded myself sternly. I'm a runner. I will do my duty. I placed the prudent letter in my satchel.
With no time to waste, I set off. The sun, barely peeking over the horizon, cut through the towering trees, the dirt path dappled with light. I sped past companies of infantry. Some delivered looks of dismay or pity. Civilians viewed my role as brave, but many of my fellow soldiers took me for a fool. With nothing to protect myself but my wits, many undoubtedly thought I was doomed.
In a matter of minutes I was alone, my rhythmic breathing keeping my pace. I relished the solitude. Gliding across the terrain, the dew-covered grass grazing my ankles, I soon came to the path that led east, a shortcut through enemy territory teeming with savages, allies of the despicable French. My feet carried me quickly along the overgrown game trail, my focus sharpening as I entered a groove, devoid of aching muscles, soreness, and fear. The transition was exhilarating. I traversed the landscape, all the while scanning for landmarks, tracks, and signs of trouble.
Soon I fell deeper into my groove. Oddly, I began to feel as if I was no longer running, but levitating, my soul propelling me through the ancient wood. Continuing my rhythm was paramount to maintaining my precious reserves of energy.
I ran with a purpose, a passion, releasing pent up anxiety with every step. I tapped into deep-seeded emotion to fuel my run; anger towards my controlling father who had pushed me into the army, the stress of living in an unfamiliar land, and, mostly, my hatred for my wretched ex-fiancé who had broken off our engagement just before my ship had sailed. All of this filtered into my run, a perfect therapeutic outlet. Catharsis washed over me every time my soles struck the soft earth.
Gradually, my concentration waned, my thoughts drifting to my past life in London. Relenting to my father's wishes, I eventually volunteered for Her Majesty's Army. Unbeknownst to him, I had no intention of returning home. Secretly, I relished the chance to reinvent myself. No longer was I destined to be a lowly scribe's assistant, but instead a proud protector of the kingdom. I had shed my previous identity, a sheltered and conservative urbanite, and embraced the life of adventure and travel.
The army had whipped me into shape. I soon learned I had a talent and affinity for running. The swift-footed were always in high demand, especially in such treacherous lands in which horses were scarce. Over time I resented my former self, vowing never to return to the city that had shunned me. I thrived in my newfound career. All concern for self-preservation was lost to the greater good, resulting in a liberation of my soul that I hadn't known possible. At long last, I was content. I felt closer to God every time I ran. I had found my calling as a messenger.
Although I had spotted nothing out of the ordinary, my instincts warned me otherwise. I eased from my vigorous pace, slowing to a jog. Frantically, I assessed my surroundings, scanning every bush and tree like prey alerted to the presence of a dangerous predator. Months of practice allowed me to instantly control my breathing for optimal listening. The symphony of nature erupted; a Sparrow's chirp, a gentle rustling of leaves, a twig snapping. I was being hunted! The Indians knew this land well and would use that knowledge to their advantage, thus nullifying my speed. Any hesitation and I would quickly be surrounded, mercilessly scalped, and murdered.
A horrific, blood-curdling war cry echoed out, slicing through the peacefulness. My stomach dropped. The high pitched howl scared me like nothing had before. It was the call of death and its deliverer was near.
I sprinted. I took gigantic leaps, each step propelling me farther. I dared not look back, not wanting to give my pursuers the satisfaction. Sweat poured from my brow, stinging my eyes. Half-blind and racing at full speed, I pushed the intense pace. Eventually, the muscles in my legs began to burn. My lungs cried out for air, but I urged myself to continue. Surely, just a few more yards and I would be out of harm's way.
Then a meek inner voice echoed, You have found your one true love, your passion. The honor of your achievements cannot be taken from you. At last, you have found peace. Could this be the end? Was my subconscious coming to terms with my ultimate demise in this primitive land? I fully expected to be impaled by an arrow at any moment, but the cries of my pursuers drifted farther and farther away. I had done the impossible; I had outrun death.
My treacherous journey continued. Concern morphed to panic as I ventured deeper into the unknown without coming to the brook. Had I become disoriented in the heat of the chase? If I was lost, I was as good as dead. I was beginning to feel overcome with despair, until at last, I came to a babbling brook snaking through the tranquil forest. Every muscle ached and my lungs burned, cramps on both of my sides squeezed like a vice.
I collapsed in a heap on a soft patch of grass at the water's edge. Soaking in the serenity of the clearing, watching the fluttering butterflies, and listening to the trill of the crickets seemed to rejuvenate my resolve. I forced my weary body up and took a swig from my canteen. Thoughts of savages chasing me down and putting a tomahawk through my skull provided enough motivation to spur me on.
I traveled for what must have been miles, striding over fallen timber and high grasses, the bright foliage surrounding me streaking by in a blur. At last, I emerged from the wood to open grassland and rolling hills. Fort Martin stood in the distance, its magnificent wooden towers stretching toward the bright blue sky. My final destination in sight, I quickened my pace. The impressive structure grew more menacing as I approached. It beckoned me, a safe haven and oasis from my plight.
Two sentries spotted me, and called out. I ignored them; their incompetence would only delay my mission.
"Halt! Identify yourself!" the sentry demanded as I approached.
"Imperative message for the Colonel!" I muttered as I raced past the guard. The flustered soldier's reply was muffled by the wind whipping past my ears.
Once through the gaping entrance of the fort, I slowed to a brisk walk as I scanned for the door to the headquarters. I entered into the belly of the fort, passed the armory, and snapped at one of the Colonel's staff when he demanded I state my business. Reluctantly, he granted me entrance. I stumbled into the Colonel's office, exhausted yet relieved I had completed my mission.
The stately Colonel was studying some documents at his desk. He rose to greet me, but I had doubled over in agony, panting like a wild animal, my chest heaving. His youthful, freshly shaven face seemed out of place in the colonies.
"Good Lord boy, it looks like you've been through a war!" he declared with a hint of sarcasm. "Get this boy some drink!" he instructed a servant standing behind him in the shadows.
I shook my head, declining the offer. Gasping, I stood up straight, and managed a feeble salute.
"Your message, sir!"
I removed the letter from my satchel, and handed it to him. He broke the seal expeditiously and scanned the letter, his brow furrowed in thought. Would the message turn the tide of the war? How many lives had I saved by completing my perilous task? Suddenly, the Colonel tilted his head back, chuckled, then crumpled up the letter and tossed it over his shoulder indifferently.
"That bastard, Freely," the Colonel said under his breath. Regaining his composure, he remarked casually, "You'll have a room in which to rest until your unit arrives. Your services are no longer required today. You are dismissed." The Colonel hastily made his exit, and his obedient staff waiting outside the door followed him.
I was left alone, utterly bewildered. Where was his sense of urgency? The message had not spurred him into action but instead seemed to amuse him.
I eyed the crumpled paper warily. Curiosity overcame me. Briefly ignoring my soldierly duty, I went behind the desk, scooped up the letter, and flattened it out. I glanced quickly to the door to insure I was alone.
The honorable Colonel Scott,
My most sincere congratulations on your recent reassignment to Fort Martin. Being in close neighborhood, my men will be arriving by the eve. May I remind you of our wager in London? Regardless of your vexation, I trust you are a man of your word. 'Twas a fool's wager! Alas, your horse lost fairly, of which you have my pity, but you are still bound by honor to comply. My beloved wife and I expect the finest wine as we dine upon the colony's most delectable viands. Expect our arrival in due haste.
Your most obedient servant, Colonel Freely.
I had put my life in jeopardy for a personal correspondence? I stared at my mud-laden shoes, picturing my throbbing feet which had carried me on the improbable journey. Rage should have taken hold, flushing all common sense from my rational mind. But as suddenly as the anger had come, it subsided, suppressed by a soldier's mentality. There was no place for emotion in Her Majesty's Army.
I was relieved and thankful to simply be alive. I dared not speak to anyone of the letter, for fear of treason. A soldier's honor bound me to my duty, judgment be damned. Maintaining my composure, I swiped the letter from the desk. There was nothing more to be done but to focus on my next assignment, whatever it may be.
Amongst the long boxes of his comic book collection, aquariums, Civil War reenactment gear, and concert posters, published author Benjamin Cooper concocts his fantastic works of fiction. Having studied creative writing at the University of Iowa, he now aims to expose his creative mind to the world through the written word. You can find him at his home on the internet, MindofBenjaminCooper.com
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by Robert Gilbert
That part of the ride with my prisoner was long, uneventful, and damn scorching hot inside the north edge of
Angel Canyon, returning to Cheyenne River. Travis Stump and Quint Burns had a feud with Charlie Weiner near
Coles Mesa over a lady friend. Two shots were fired and Weiner lay dead. The lady friend, Blanche Tarr,
witnessed the skirmish and rode to Cheyenne River to tell me her story. It didn't take long to find Stump in
the shallow north end of the canyon, now arrested and handcuffed to his saddle when we entered through town.
I'm not the best of friends with the other side in a skirmish, especially when two of their guns are pointed
in my direction. Howard Taft is my deputy and we make sure this high plains town is kept peaceful like.
Billy Squire met me halfway to the Marshal's Office in the middle of Front Street. He was on the Confederate
side of the war and blinded from a wound he took at Vicksburg. We've been friends for a number of years and he
knew the sound of my horse.
A spray of dust kicked up around our entry.
"You get 'im, Marshal Brothers?" Billy asked, in his Alabama drawl.
"Just one, Billy," I said.
"What about t'other?"
"Saved for another day, Billy," I said. "At least I found one for now. Quint Burns can't run too far, especially
with a fresh bullet in his leg."
"Maybe you'll go out again tomorrow?" Billy said.
"There might be room in my schedule to run through Angel Canyon again," I said, "but I gotta make sure Cheyenne River
remains quiet. I have a duty and it is located right here in town. But I think Deputy Taft can take care of things
when I'm gone. He's damn trusted."
"Good luck, Marshal," Billy said. He momentarily stood still, breathing another scatter of dust, and then made his way
in the direction of Mule Creek Saloon.
At the same time my son, Oliver, came running in our direction from the Marshal's Office. He'll be ten next week, raised
by me and the Clauson family. They live at the edge of town in a big white house. Whenever I'm away on lengthy law
dealings that takes me from Cheyenne River for a period of time, George and Mary Clauson step in. They already have two
young'uns of their own, and make sure Oliver is given his studies, ample time to play, meals that are good and a bunk bed
to rest his head. Most important is getting his homework done on time, checking it over several times with the correct
answers. The Clausons are real good people, church going, and all around nice folks. Ain't nothing wrong with these
God-fearing good souls.
The sun was directly overhead when I eased into Cheyenne River and townspeople had spilled to the street. They knew I was
a hard lawman who always got his man, no matter how far I had to chase him.
It was getting to be the warm part of the day with a cloudless sky. Waves of heat danced in the distance. Sweat beaded my
brow, and I wiped it away using the length of my shirt sleeve. Sweat in the inner ring of my Stetson had darkened the frontal cloth.
"Warren Brothers," Stump said. He looked directly at me, as I helped him from the saddle. His handcuffs jingled and he was
eager to jaw. "You ain't as tough as what I hear." He was a big fellow, bigger than most I've reckoned with and Stump grunted
when he laughed. He was dressed in rugged mountain garb, with a grungy-looking beard, an equally grungy odd-shaped hat and
wearing two-inch aged suspenders.
"I won't lose any sleep tonight, Stump," I said. "Quint Burns is still in the canyon someplace and he'll be caught and dealt with
just like I'm now puttin' you away."
"Don't count on it, Brothers," he said. "Quint Burns ain't easy to locate and I'm sure about that."
"Move on, Stump," I said. "You're makin' too much commotion here in the street." My left hand pushed at his shoulder.
The door to the Marshal's Office swung open and Oliver ran inside ahead of us to watch our next move.
"Get away, boy," I said. "Do as you're told."
"Who's this one, Pa?" Oliver said.
"Must be your son," Stump said. He had a moment to look at Oliver. His smile increased showing rows of decayed teeth.
"My name is Travis Stump. Glad to meet ya!"
Inside the office I moved Stump to a rear jail cell. When the cell door locked in place, he brought his hands forward through
the steel bars and I removed the handcuffs.
Oliver stood at my side in the long hallway entrance that led to the four jail cells. Three were empty and Stump
was cozy in the fourth.
"What about the other one, Pa?" Oliver said. He turned and looked up at me.
"I figure he's still out in the canyon," I said. "Maybe as far as Ghost Ridge."
"He ain't no place you say he is, Marshal," Stump said, yelling from his cell to get our attention. A belly laugh
rumbled deep from his throat.
"Don't mess with him, Oliver," I said. "You hear me?"
"It's been a long ride from the canyon," I said. "I'm not in the mood to say things twice, Oliver. Keep your distance."
"He's just a boy, Marshal," Stump said. "He ain't never seen a more friendly person in all o' his life!"
"I've got horses to put away, Oliver," I said. "You stay right here until I get back and don't get interested in that man."
"Marshal," Stump pleaded, "he's a youngster. No harm in my keepin' company with your fine boy."
I pointed a finger at the prisoner. "Shut your mouth, Stump. What you have to say is between you and the judge. He'll
be here in a few days after I send a telegram off to Johns Station."
In leaving Oliver behind, I forcibly instructed my son to sit at my office desk, behave and touch nothing. I closed
the office door and walked across the boardwalk into a dusty street. After untying the horses from the hitch rail
and grasping the reins, I ambled over to the blacksmith at the other end of Cheyenne River.
Piano music and laughter echoed in the street from the Mule Creek Saloon. Suddenly there was increased noise when Seth
Briggs stumbled through the batten doors, clinging to a whiskey bottle, heading in my direction.
"Marshal," Seth said. "You only brought in Travis Stump?"
I turned to listen. The shadow from my Stetson covered my eyes.
"I'm here to release that man, Marshal Brothers."
"Seth, you're drunk again. Mind your own business."
"I can't, Marshal. Travis and me go way back, been knowin' each other a long time."
"Leave it be, Seth. Run your ass back into the saloon."
"Can't, Marshal." Seth had the whiskey bottle balanced in his left hand. His right hand was poised to touch the
butt of his .45 Colt.
On-lookers kept their distance after pushing out of the saloon doors to the boardwalk and dusty road. Town faces
from the various businesses there were looking and listening to the vendetta.
"Marshal, I'm not sure you understand."
"Seth, you know I'm not in the mood to out-gun you."
"No use, Marshal. It's time to set things straight."
"You're stupid drunk," I shouted, releasing the reins to the horses, facing Seth.
Seth's fingers gripped the Colt and he removed it from the holster, unloading one shot.
I answered back, defending myself, lifting my .44 and firing once. Seth staggered back, momentarily holding his
stance. He dropped to the street in front of me with a bullet to the gut.
The street began to fill with familiar faces.
I holstered the .44 and hastened over to Seth's body. Blood oozed out from the opening, forming a puddle.
"Fair fight, Warren," Lamar Hoyt said. He and his wife owned the mercantile and he was the first to stand next to me.
Others began to approach the dead man, murmuring in agreement.
"Ain't fair to you, Marshal," remarked a face in the crowd. "You just got back from the canyon and Seth comes after you."
"Damn drunk," I shouted to them all. "He was square on killing me."
"Somebody go after the undertaker." It was another voice.
"No," I said, glancing to those near me. "Somebody take my horses to the blacksmith and I'll find Doc Shelton.
He'll get the body ready for burial."
A townsman took the horses to the blacksmith and at the same time a faint breeze drifted through Cheyenne River.
Seth's body was removed from the street and taken to Doc Shelton's office two buildings beyond the saloon.
In the evening, after supper in Lubin's Cafe with my son, I was tired from the long day's journey into the canyon.
As darkness painted the town, Deputy Howard Taft and I walked the streets one more time to secure the town's safety.
Ending our walk at the office and entering, I said goodnight to him, making my way to my small home at the edge of
town. Within the Marshal's Office is a side room where a bed is located for Howard to spend the night. Not much of
a fancy room to sleep in, but it served its purpose and we never complained.
At home I made sure Oliver was in bed. After prayers, I extinguished the candle on an end table. Darkness filled his
room after I closed his door. Stepping to my room, I sat at the edge of the double bed and pulled off my worn boots.
I tossed them in the corner with the sound of a thud. Socks that were filthy and dirty I removed next. My muscular
hands eased around each foot to give myself a generous massage. The pleasure of my fingers squeezing and rubbing my
toes felt wonderful. A few nasty words escaped from my lips as I continued to massage, feeling gratified. It felt good
to finally relax. Thereafter I climbed into bed, sunk my head deep into the pillow and quickly fell asleep.
Light of day came early as I rolled out of bed, still weary from the ride back through Angel Canyon. I checked on
Oliver, letting him sleep a little longer, time enough for me to check on Howard and the prisoner. With boots on
and walking to the Marshal's Office, Howard was just getting out of bed and Stump was flat on his back, snoring heavy,
mumbling something from a happy dream. Stump's lips curled upward, the outlaw seemingly content with his fantasy.
I walked back to the house to get Oliver and together we crossed the boardwalk to Lubin's Cafe. It was the best eatery
in Cheyenne River, and their menu was even better than what's served in the hotel. Lubin's was just plain simple and
ordinary, but damn good. Mildred, the co-owner, was already busy with customers, but noticing us walk in, pointed to an
empty table. Frank, her husband, was cooking in the back room.
"Can't stay long," I said. "Just me and the boy."
She was standing next to me and her face was a perfect oval.
"You're leaving town again?"
"Gotta feed my prisoner first and then get into the canyon. Deputy Taft will be watchin' the town when I'm gone.
Howard's a good man."
"At least have a cup of coffee. And some fixin's for both of you."
"And some eggs along with biscuit gravy," I added.
She returned shortly with a hot cup of coffee, setting it in front of me.
"How long will you be gone?" she asked.
"'Til I find 'im." I said. "Shouldn't take more than a day, two at most. Already put a bullet in his leg and
I'm guessin' he ain't goin' too far."
Mildred turned to wait on other customers who had just arrived.
Breakfast was served quickly. She knew I was leaving town thereafter.
I could hear the conversation throughout the café directed at me as I ate, as if I wasn't paying attention.
I had some townsfolk worried, not knowing if I'd return alive.
The last sip of coffee washed down my breakfast and Oliver looked like his gut was filled again. Nice folks run
this café and what's on the menu is always damn good with no complaints.
Crossing Front Street, Oliver and I had our hands full of food and coffee for the prisoner. I relieved Howard
long enough for him to eat before I saddled up.
Travis Stump didn't say a word at first when I pushed the wood food tray through the tiny cell bar opening. Like
he was testing me, ready to start an argument. I knew he was hungry as a chilly black silence surrounded us. He
took a sip of coffee, knowing my distance from him was close, and he spit the mouthful of brew in my direction.
Some splattered on the cell bars but the remainder caught part of my face and a ring of stain formed on my shirt.
His laughter was intended to let me know he was thoroughly amused. He stared blankly at me with an open mouth of
"I saw your son leave the office," Stump said, "and good for him that he did."
"What ya be meanin'?" I said.
"You're an old marshal," he said, "and all but washed up in the law business."
"Been happy with it over the last twenty years."
"You're gettin' too old to go up against anybody. Especially Quint Burns. He might have a slug in his leg, but
you'd better listen up. You're full o' shit if you think for one moment that he'll be found."
Curses fell from my mouth, but then I was never one to hold back my temper.
"Don't turn your back," Stump said. "Quint has eyes ever'where, like a eagle, and he's got the scent of a dog.
I'd suggest that you don't go huntin'. Stay here and mind the town like you've been doin'. Am I makin' sense
to you or am I just blowin' damn hot air?"
"One thing for sure, Stump," I said. "You'll still be here when I ride back, sittin' up in the saddle. I'll give
Quint his choice of belly over the saddle or sittin' straight up."
"Yer all wrong, Marshal," Stump said with a throaty laugh. "I got two bits that says you'll be belly down and
Quint will be long gone. Somethin' ta seriously thank about, especially with that boy of yours not havin' a
pa around to raise him like you wanted."
Stump showed no signs of relenting.
"Hug that boy real good before you leave," Stump said. "Might be your last kin reunion."
"Stump, just shut the fuck up. I'll be back with no worries. Why? Because I want to see you hang, just like Quint,
unless I get him first. That's for him to decide."
I walked away from the prisoner, listening to his belly laugh, pointing a finger at me, replying in nonsense to
whatever I said. He was the man with all the answers.
In the front office I reloaded my .44 and pushed fresh ammo into the Winchester. Oliver and Howard were already there.
I hugged my son goodbye, shook hands with Howard, and cut across the boardwalk as my spurs jingled, now standing at my
bay. I mounted and made a quiet exit into the arid plains that eventually became desert.
Five miles east was Canary Creek, flowing in a southeast direction until reaching the Saw-Tooth Stream. It had a ragged
bend at one point, leveling off into the open desert. At that location were two divided spiraling mountain tops separating
Sexton Pass. Beyond the Pass was another mountain range, lengthy in distance, disappearing into the horizon.
Sexton Pass was the only way in and out of Church Rock, once a religious community, now the biggest saloon town in the
territory. I remember when the Denver-Durango Railroad decided to put a station and freight office there years back,
bringing in some good-size revenue to this town. It also brought in trouble that my deputy and I would deal with until
everything calmed down and returned back to normal. The town finally got a decent sheriff who could handle the misfits,
ruffians and scum bags.
On the other side of Church Rock was the remains of the Hagger Shap mine, once deep with silver, keeping this town vibrant
with employment and panhandlers passing through. The shaft ran deep into Brazos Cliffs and was carved out until it went dry.
Its front office remained empty and ghostly, beckoning for a new day that would never arrive.
In another direction was the shallow Elephant Butte Stream, curling north into Indian land. Sometimes the water turned bad
when sizeable trail herds came through. Livestock were known to piss heavily, turning the stream into absolute filth. Before
the drovers arrived in Church Rock, since I was then City Marshal, it was my responsibility to ensure the people of this town
boiled the water to keep their drinking supply decent.
I had a distinct feeling that Quint Burns was to be found in this direction. He and Travis Stump were chased into canyon
country where they were met by me. Why would Quint remain there in hiding, knowing of my possible return? He was shot in
the leg all right, but my hunch told me that he high-tailed it from the mountain region into this area of mostly flatland.
With the clear blue sky overhead and the sun beaming down, sweat was beginning to build up under my Stetson and eventually
trickled down my face. This was open country, empty of shade, and all I could do was ease up on the reins and take a swig
from my canteen. The water was still cool as it bathed a thirsty throat. With another long swig, the canteen was near empty.
If memory served me right, what remained of the town of Graystone wasn't that far away. It was once a thriving community that
the railroad wanted to add as one of their stops before heading farther west to Meredosia. The rail route changed because of
political reasons and over time Graystone dwindled to a ghost town.
Making my way through Indian Pass, moving gradually downhill, I noted the sagebrush that had replaced Ute Creek on this side
of Graystone. Suddenly and without warning a swirling windstorm from the west kicked up, blowing through town in my direction.
The vicious gusts curled around me, spitting desert debris at my slow movement forward. With a storm violent as this, no
telling if Quint had made refuge in this empty setting. I eased my bay through town.
Trying to glance at both sides of a vacant street, I saw the building that was partially named Hardware. It was nothing but a
hollow shell. Next door was what looked to be a ladies apparel shop, empty except for a bullet-riddled cloth female manikin
still standing. Across the street was the remains of Dexter Hotel, burned to the ground with only the front exterior standing.
Alongside the hotel stood the Eagle Nest Saloon. The wind caused the batten doors to inch back and forth. Inside I could see
the long, teak bar. In back of that was my partial reflection from what remained of a broken mirror.
About to scan what were the next few buildings, I heard a sudden shot ring out, grazing my left shoulder. I ducked low in the
saddle, put spurs into the bay and paced a quick gait to the open livery door at the other end of town. Dismounting inside,
I checked myself to see if there was any bleeding from this scrape wound. At the same time my free hand was quick to remove
my .44 Colt from holster leather. I peeked around the left entry door and a second slug toward me bored into the hard wood.
The wind had subsided somewhat yet I could hear the sound of spurs approaching the side of the livery. Then silence, telling
me someone was on the outer wall. Suddenly I heard boot steps come even closer.
"Quint Burns," I yelled from my secluded location. "Took time to find ya."
"Yeah, Marshal," Quint said, "you best ride on out o' here, peaceful like, and let me be."
"You and Travis Stump had a feud recently and somebody got killed."
"Don't remember nothin' o' that. Bunch o' bull shit!"
"I found Travis and he's locked up in Cheyenne River."
"Sutpid sonsa-bitch for gettin' caught. Too bad about that."
"Travis says it was you that pulled the trigger twice, killin' that person."
"Bull shit!" Quint yelled. "He's a lyin' bastard and he knows it. We done it together."
"Then you're under arrest for murder, Quint. Show your face easy like."
"Ain't gonna happen, Marshal. I done what I done and it's time to move on south into Mexico."
"Not gonna happen that way," I said. "Give yourself up before I find ya."
"Fat chance that's gonna happen," Quint said. His determination didn't falter.
"I'm in the livery, Quint. Plenty o' room in here for me ta hide until you find me."
Quint moved forward, even closer to the front door, taking aim and firing in my direction.
It was a good shot, knocking my .44 from my good hand, leaving me now without a weapon. Right
now his advantage was better than mine. At the same time I heard the soft sound of spurs entering
the livery. I backed away into a shaded area near the front, completely hidden from view.
I quickly looked around in the dim light for anything to defend myself. There were tools of all
sorts, but this specific one instantly caught my attention.
"I'll tell you again, Quint," I said, "Give up. Make it easy on yourself and me."
"When I find ya, Marshal, I ain't gonna fear you one bit."
"You're wounded in the leg, Quint," I mentioned. "No doctor around here ta fix ya."
"Ain't too far from the next town. Couple miles away and they have a doctor."
"If you get that far before bleedin' to death."
"You worry too much, Marshal. You best tend to your business in Cheyenne River."
From his shadow on the floor, I could tell Quint was nearing my location. Just a few more steps
and I was ready to move in on him. I had my livery tool ready and waiting.
The closer he got, the better it was for me to surprise him. I was still hidden in darkness, my
hand tool ready, ready for his surprise.
Immediately, I picked up another heavy tool, threw it near him, letting my location be known. He
slowly walked my direction as the interior darkness began to spill over his tough look. I was holding
a three-prong pitchfork, hidden in shadow, awaiting his next move. Quint took one more step toward me
and instantly I turned facing him, jabbing the steel prongs deep into his mid-section. Screaming, he
fell back, grasping the pitchfork handle. Trickles of blood oozed over his lifeless body. It would be
a long ride to Cheyenne River with his remains in tow.
Robert Gilbert is an entertainment writer and author. His interest in writing cowboy stories developed when working in
Hollywood, California, often visiting the Western back lot of Warner Bros. studio. He has had nine stories published in
Frontier Tales and is the author of "Run with the Outlaws," Epic Western Tales. Gilbert lives northwest of Chicago.
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