December, 2018

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Issue #111

All The Tales

A Western Christmas
by Tom Sheehan

It was lucky that the old mule, taken as a throw-in part of a deal, lasted long enough to haul in all the firewood from the side of the mountain and from the small, dark valley, before he fell dead in his tracks and was buried right where he fell. Time had caught up with the old mule, as it did with many things. And there was little chance that there'd be any presents for the children, two boys who really kept the spirits at a keen pitch. The snow had drifted in some places as high as 8-10 feet, and the path to the barn was treacherous when any wind was blowing. Gerard Fiddler knew he'd have to walk with a shovel to be sure he'd make it out and back, the snow drifts moving, falling, shutting off what was almost a tunnel at some points. He hoped he didn't have to try it again before the storm stopped.

At the stove his wife Muriel prepared another meal of venison and bread, the stove hot and keeping a sense of warmth about them, her and him and the two boys that were still tight under a mixed cover of blankets, old flour bags, winter coats, a few furs he'd traded for. They could stay there for the day if they wanted to, Christmas on the doorstep, one day away.

She had one wish.

Camden Prescott, Gerard's friend, had been here in late September, setting up the wood supply against one side of the cabin, covering much of it with a canvas from the old wagon buried by snow behind the barn. Good old Prescott, who had pulled Gerard wounded from the field at Gettysburg, making sure the doc fixed him, and who had journeyed out here on his own dream and heard Gerard's name in town and looked him up. Prescott would keep an eye on him and the family while he was in the area. Prescott was always on the way to someplace; as he'd say, "Over the rise, and down the skies."

The two days on the wood stacking and covering had been an exhaustive effort and Prescott had made Gerard do his regular chores while "this hired help" does the wood pile. He went at it with a ferocious energy, pausing only for water and a lunch of prairie chicken and beans and bread.

"Muriel," he'd said a few times, "you handle the skittle and the knife better than any woman I ever met, I swear and dare." She'd blushed each time, another man in the house for a short spell, a different outlook on things, her hoping that Gerard would make a good stand against the coming winter. The last one had been difficult. She had high hopes for the next one.

Now, in its ferocity, it was here, and she was as thankful as Gerard was about the wood piled against the side of the cabin, enough for the worst winter. She had wondered, at first, as Prescott took down a section of the side wall and put it back up, but knocked it in place from the inside, like another door.

"Why do that, Prescott, put those boards in backwards?"

She was all quizzical until Prescott said, "You can get to the wood right from here if you have to, if the winter is fierce you don't even have to go outside. That's why I'll cover the pile up with the canvas off the old wagon."

"The cold will come in as bad as ever," she had said, shivers running on her arms, Gerard nodding at the same time but saying nothing.

"I saw it done in a miner's place in Montana. It's a good trade-off for a day's worth of firewood, wouldn't you say, in a way?" He smiled that broad grin of his, his eyes lit up, asking for an agreeable answer.

Prescott was always thinking of people, of friends, and she decided he was a real good friend.

Now she knew, as the wind was kicking up again, that Gerard wouldn't have to venture outside for wood or anything . . . at least not too soon. They had flour and beans in the house and a bucket of oats and there was a cache of meat frozen in the box by a window. It was as simple as the access to the woodpile and offered a good trade-off, as Prescott had affirmed.

She only worried about Christmas and something she could make for the boys, but she'd been so busy with the storm on them and worries about Gerard and his state of mind. More than once, looking at the boys sleeping under a pile of whatever, Gerard had said, "What did I come out here for? Why'd I drag you, Muriel? You're the best woman I ever knew."

She worried about that part of Gerard, worried that it might break loose the small chink in his resolve. He was her man and she'd stick with him through it all . . . had done so on several occasions and was apparently at it again, the wind moaning again. But she gave thanks that the roof was covered with snow.

"It's part of winter protection," Prescott once explained, "like bears look for when they go to sleep for winter. Once I saw a bear go into a cave up there in Montana and pile up snow from the inside across the entrance to the cave, so nothing could get in there in the winter and disturb his sleep. That's the most natural protection from snow itself, using it against itself. The Eskimos way up in Canada make their little houses out of it, and crawl in deep and go to sleep."

For the few days Prescott was there, helping them out, he told stories about everything he had seen. The boys were in awe of him and the stories, coming to them from a man who they believed had been every place and seen everything there was to see. He'd been on the great river and two of the great lakes up north of them, and in the war with their father and had seen the oceans on both ends of the country and told it all . . . in two days, even as he worked like a beaver gnawing down a new home out of the forest and "taking the prize right under your eyes."

"Isn't there a woman in your life?" she dared to ask another time. Gerard was upset at that, but Prescott said, "So far, for me, it's been one woman, and that's Mother Nature at her best and at her worst and I figure I ain't been denied and she never lied."

Muriel looked up at that, the questionable look on her face, and he hurriedly replied, "Not that she. Not to me." And the chuckle touched them both.

Muriel loved how he'd rhyme things when finishing up a story. It pleased her mightily, and she soon realized, in the two days, that he knew it too. He was a most handsome man, with blond hair that sat like a ball of cotton tight and curly on his head, blue eyes that could not tell a lie to anybody on the face of the Earth, muscles that showed on him from wrists up to hidden bulges, and music in his voice every time he spoke. Muriel knew he must have been swayable with some women despite what he said.

But the two days of Camden Prescott were long over, winter was atop them with its week-long fury, and no stopping in view. The aroma of baking bread filled the room, and she looked up at her top shelf. She was measuring what she had put by, what she had used, what she had left. In turn she looked at the small cupboard they had settled in one corner and each visit there was like going to the general store in town; it held much of her hopes for the time being. That was like saying it wouldn't last forever, or for the whole winter. She tried to avoid further thoughts on the matter.

But Prescott was gone and Christmas was coming to sit empty at her doorstep. Sadness hit her and she brushed it off immediately just the way she'd brush away a cobweb or a spider web that drifted down from an upper reach.

The doubts fell away when she recalled Prescott's smile. It was always a pleasant sight. Her gaze fell on the boys still buried in deep covers, probably measuring the temperature and how it would feel on them as they rose to get dressed. Each was smiling at her from their warm covers, their smiles more pleasant than Prescott's, like Gerard's, full of thanks as well as love.

Christmas without presents for them bothered her until she smelled the bread again, and gave thanks for its promise, and the aroma of venison with a burnt edge all of them liked pushed her into quick thanks for her husband's hunting skills and his dogged manner, even if it had brought them here to this place without presents for her children. Gerard, she knew, never needed much more than her in his life. She gave thanks for that.

It was in that one thought, in that one minute, that she realized she had forgotten to mark off the last spent day. This was really a day later; this was really Christmas Day. Muriel Fiddler almost fainted. She had lost a day. This was Christmas Day. The boys, without saying a word, knew it. Gerard obviously knew it, and had not said a word about it.

She was crushed. The meal she was preparing they'd had for three days in a row. She had not prepared anything different, anything extra.

As she shook her head, she heard her two sons whispering under their covers. Were they talking about surprise Christmas presents? Was their mother playing a game with them, being so usual in her actions? Was Gerard saying little but thinking much?

She didn't know what to do. Best to continue her day, their day, the way she was going. What else could she do but be the mother of the brood? The mother in the apron, at the stove, at meal preparation, at the real important things in life.

"You two stay under the covers until I tell you to get dressed." Insistence was in her voice, and they did not move.

Spinning on one leg, the knife still in her hand, Gerard looking at her as if he had lost the day already, she said, "Might as well get some more of that wood in here, Gerard, while I have the stove nice and hot. Best bring in a couple of days' worth. We'll use it up. The stove's really hot. Best do it now."

She spun back to her work. The two boys sank deeper under covers because the section of wall would be taken down, wood drawn from the pile, the air coming in like a small blast from the far north.

Gerard Fiddler, dreamer, doer, believer in most things, especially in his wife and his children, thankful for at least one good friend and comrade in this life, hastened to do as bid by his wife.

The wall boards, fully vertical all the way, came loose when he took down the three cross bars that Prescott had put in place. He had done the trick once earlier, just to test it out. The task was easy, and he was thankful for it, thinking of the snow out there. He reached into the pile and extracted the cut logs one piece at a time, sometimes two at a time, his hands feeling the cold come on them with a thick and penetrating smoothness, but no snow coming in with the wood. He almost had a few days' worth piled on the side before he stacked them beside the stove, when his hand, in another reach into the pile, felt something softer than logs.

He withdrew his hand, then reached again, touched again, and made a sound of surprise in his throat that made Muriel jump, fearing he had been bitten by an incredible critter. The boys had come to sitting positions in their bed across the room, tossing off furs, old coats, and flour bags sewed into severe thickness, ready for whatever.

All of them, Gerard Fiddler, his wife Muriel and their two sons, were frozen in place as Christmas, long thought to be absent from this day, came into view as gaily wrapped packages, four of them, one after another, fell into the room at the feet of Gerard Fiddler. His wife looked on in absolute joy, his sons too, all of them realizing that Camden Prescott had done it again, remembered something else he had seen, some special happening that made Christmas the special day it was supposed to be, even as the wind whistled again atop them, winter with a full grip.

Muriel Fiddler had her wish come true and she was sure that Camden Prescott had wanted his wish to be found on Christmas Day, just the way he planned it.

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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Orphan Train
by Willy Whiskers, Constable of Calliope, NV.

Jocko took a few tentative steps towards the just closed front door of Our Blessed Mother Orphanage. Sister Beth stood behind him.

Tears streamed down his face in a silent cry over his mother's last words. "I'll always love you, but I just can't care for you and your three little sisters too. You're a good boy and strong. The church will take good care of you. Please forgive me." With a quick peck on the cheek, she was out the door.

Sister Beth guided him into the dining hall where all the other waifs sat at long tables behind bowls of oatmeal. Jocko looked at them and they all stared back. Tommy, a boy a couple of years older than Jocko, pointed at him and laughed, as if to say, "new meat." Other kids giggled, and Sister Mary Joan scowled as she smacked the table with the long wooden spoon bringing the orphans back to their sullen continence. Jocko took a place at the end of a bench as his food arrived.

With all that happened that day his stomach was not ready for food, but he had not eaten all day, so he picked up his spoon and dug into the gruel because he had no idea when he would eat again.

Days in the orphanage were much the same. Morning Mass before breakfast, bread and jam, then to classes where the Nuns taught the 3Rs. Afternoons were for work. The girls did things like making rosary beads, mending, and laundry. The boys were farmed out to local tradesmen to do menial work.

The orphanage was overcrowded, so Jocko had to share a bed with Tommy, who usually stole the covers. Even so, Jocko did not mind as Tommy took Jocko under his wing as a little brother.

After a few months a rumor burned though the orphanage, "Mercy Train," as the Catholic church called their orphan trains. The arrival of four new Nuns sent the whole place went into a tizzy. The Sisters made sure the children were washed especially clean. New clothes appeared that were better than the hand-me-down rags they usually wore, and meat accompanied the gruel.

Mother Superior stood before the assembled school and addressed the children. Behind her stood the four new Nuns. "As you have heard, the Bishop has granted Our Blessed Mother Orphanage forty seats on the next Mercy Train." The orphans buzzed with whispers about the train.

Mother Superior pointed to the four sisters and continued, "These are Sisters Joanne, Marie, Bridget and Margaret. They will be taking you on the train and placing you with your new families. Most of you have already been placed, but for the rest the Sisters will surely find good Catholic people to take you in."

Within a day each child got a small duffle. They lined up and walked to the train station eleven blocks away. For a few hours the Nuns herded them into a great gaggle until they boarded.

Tommy and Jocko stood together with a slight girl about four years old. The boys did not notice her at first, but wherever they went she was there, never saying a word. Jocko saw his little sisters in her face and Tommy schemed. "I heard that they like to keep families together. So, let's say we are brother and sister. The Nuns don't know the difference. We can say we must be placed together or not at all."

Jocko trusted Tommy's ideas and Grace knew no better, so it was set. They were the Calvin family—named after a Father Calvin who once befriended Tommy.

The train trip was exciting, with the kids running about as the Nuns tried to keep order. Tommy led them into every hidey hole on the train and even managed to visit the engineer and got to shovel coal.

The first stop was Emporia, Kansas. The Nuns tied tags to the children's clothes with their names and other information. This included Grace. Good Catholic families, accompanied by the parish priest, waited on the platform of the station to claim their new children. The Nuns matched children with families, but Tommy cut Grace's tag off and hid her until the train pulled out. By the time the Nuns discovered her it was too late to return to Emporia, and it did not matter to them as they would place Grace at the next stop.

A similar event happened in Flagstaff, but Sister Marie kept track of Grace and she was placed with a family. Tommy and Jocko snuck off the train and kidnapped her back. It took two days before Sister Joanne discovered her. This time it took all four women to watch the trio.

When the train pulled into Kingman station there were only the three Calvin children left. On the platform were several families who hoped to take Grace home. However, the boys stood straight and tight together with Grace in front. Each boy had a hand on her shoulder as she pronounced the words Tommy taught her. "These are my brothers and I will not be placed without them." No matter how the Nuns tried to dissuade her, the tough New York street kid would not budge. One by one the prospective parents dispersed until there was a lone Mexican couple.

"We will take them," Mama Rojo said, and the deal was done.

The Rojos loaded their new charges into a donkey cart and set off. They were not from Arizona, but from Nevada. It took several days to reach their small piece of land outside Calliope, Neveda. As constable for the town, this is where I met the kids for the first time.

Life went well for a few years. The Rojos taught Spanish at home, but the children spoke English in school. Being bilingual in the southwest was an asset.

Orphan trains were controversial wherever they went. Conflicts with religion, culture, and the conduct of some children all upset a part of the local populace.

Buddy Worth was a rabble-rouser kind of guy, picking fights that did not need to be fought. He had an ear for anything to draw attention to himself. Rumblings persisted among some in town that it was not right for the Mexican Rojos to be raising three white children and taking them out of their proper culture. Buddy started his disruption routine and spoke against the Rojos to anyone within ear shot. Nothing would have come of this but for Tommy.

The boy dropped back into his hoodlum ways. A flagrant truant, he often pulled Jocko with him, running the streets with the other young toughs of the town. Stealing, vandalizing, and drinking, they lead Sheriff Billy a merry chase.

Tommy ended up in jail, without Jocko. Buddy Worth used this to rail up a dozen or so townsfolk to ride out to the Rojo's and forcibly take the children.

Papa Rojo met the mob in front of the adobe house with his shotgun cradled in his arms.

"We can't have those kids living with you anymore. You ain't raisin' them right," bellowed Worth.

"Off my land," Papa responded and pointed his shotgun at Worth. With that the mob brandished their weapons and Papa knew he was not going to win this Mexican standoff.

Several men went into the house and tore Jocko and Grace from Mama Rojo's arms. The kids were screaming and kicking as the men drug them out and threw them in a buckboard. Mama rushed to the wagon, but a cowboy pushed her to the ground and they rode off.

In town, Buddy brought the children to a saloon and sent for the Sheriff and the Mayor. When they arrived Worth puffed himself up, thinking he had done a great service to the community.

"Worth!" yelled Mayor Procell. "What the hell have you done?"

"By what authority did you think this was right?" added Sheriff Billy.

Not expecting the negative response, Worth was stunned. "We fixed the Rojo problem."

"There was no Rojo problem. They are as fine a citizens and as sweet a couple as you can find. They took in those kids when no one else would," continued the Mayor.

"Ya, well what about Tommy?" Worth spit back.

"He's no worse than half a dozen boys that run around here. He's a hell of a lot better than your nephew Pete who will likely end up at the end of a rope," said the sheriff.

Buddy Worth had a talent for causing problems, but never solved any. Porcell took the two kids in for the night and called a meeting in the church the next day. The pews were only half full when he stood to speak. The three Calvins sat behind him. No one responded to his pleas for a white family to take them in despite a consensus they should not be returned to the Rojos.

A rustling sound came from the back pew and everyone turned to look. Dressed all in black stood a formidable woman well known to the whole community. "You all know me," Mrs. Teasdale started. "And you know my late husband, who helped most of you buy your land, homes, and businesses through his bank. Well, today I'm ashamed of every last one of you for not acting like decent folk should. Shame on you all." She paused as she stared down many faces in the crowd. "I have a grand house and there is plenty of room for these young people. I will gladly take them as my own." So, the deal was done again.

Things went on fairly well for the next few years. Tommy calmed down and the children assimilated to town life attending fairs and dances. That was until the year Grace turned fourteen.

Sadly, Mrs. Teasdale passed away but left her house to the children. Grace graduated the 8th grade and was hired by Mrs. Dorothy McCallian, the school principal, as a teacher of the young students.

Tommy, now known as Tom Calvin, grew restless. His old habits called him, and he was out on his own. He was well known in the cattle rustling and horse stealing circles and several robberies were attributed to him and the bunch he ran with.

Jocko, now called Jack, took odd jobs in town and on local ranches for a few years until he became an armed guard for Wells Fargo. There he burnished his reputation by thwarting two stage robberies and killing five bandits.

Grace attracted suitors like bees to a flower. She dabbled with a few of them, but with Mrs. Teasdale gone the boys had to pass through Jack if they wanted any time with Grace. This became even more intense when Jack returned to the Teasdale house. Eventually she settled on Hip Charles, a cowboy and part time range detective from the KN ranch. Everyone knew it was just a matter of time before they were hitched.

Many ranches and livestock conglomerates formed extra-legal units called detectives to police the range in the interest of the large land owners. There were only two or three full time detectives around Calliope, but they employed regular cowboys to fill their ranks when needed.

Sherriff Billy had been in office for many years. He was well liked, respected, and had a tough reputation. However, time had taken its toll and he relied more and more on his deputies to handle the leg work. It was a natural fit for Jack to be asked to leave Wells Fargo and become a deputy. It did not take long for him to move up to Under Sheriff.

The Calvins never forgot what the Rojos had done for them and they returned to the adobe house many times during their growing up years. Mama and Papa were their family as blood could not improve.

It came to pass that Grace was spending a few days with Mama and Papa when Tom and several of his band arrived. No matter what Tom did, the old couple would take him in. "He's family," they would say.

Grace did not like Tom's life, but their relationship was strong and, like the Rojos, he was family.

Tom gathered his gang under a cottonwood tree behind the house to plan their next outing. "Old man Grayson's got this contract with the government to deliver fifty horses to the garrison in Carson City," Tom explained.

"And they're set to drive them to the rail yard in town on Thursday of next week. As soon as the boxcars arrive they are going to load them up," added Ace.

"We'll raid the ranch on Tuesday night. The moon won't be full, but there'll still be enough light for us," concluded Tom.

The horse thieves gathered behind the ridge overlooking the Grayson place and waited for moonrise. When it was right, they quietly rode over the ridge and down to the corral where fifty horses were softly whinnying and stomping around. There were no other sounds until the rifles roared.

From the barn, house, and outbuildings, muzzle flashes lit up the yard. The rustler's horses reared in disarray as the horse thieves pulled their pistols and returned fire as best they could. Several gang members fell right away as the crossfire ripped through them. Tom took a hit in the shoulder and another in his side but managed to escape by riding past the barn and out onto the road leading from the ranch.

The next morning the detectives told Sheriff Billy and his deputies about the raid and that Tom was on the run. All eyes fell on Jack.

"If you'd rather not ride out on this one, Jack," said Billy, "we'll understand."

"No," replied Jack. "I pretty much know where he's headed. I'll bring him in." With that Jack and two deputies mounted and road out to the Rojo's.

Papa Rojo met them in front of the house with his shotgun at the ready. He spoke in Spanish as he always did to the children. "What brings you out this morning Jack?"

"You know Papa," Jack returned sadly, in Spanish.

"This is family business, Jack"

"I wish it was Papa, and I hate putting you and Mama in the middle of this, but this is a matter for the law now."

Papa raised his shotgun, but Jack did not flinch. "Papa I'm going in the house now. I just hope you understand."

Jack dismounted and told his deputies to stand fast. He stepped though the door with Papa Rojo behind him. Mama was standing to his left by her stove, head down and weeping.

Moving through the main room, Jack arrived at a back bedroom where Tom was laid out on a cot, covered with a blood-stained blanket. His pistol was cocked and pointed at Jack. "You come to take me in, brother?"

"Eventually, once you've healed some. You're in no shape to travel." Jack was as calm as he could manage in light of the situation.

Tom continued. "Never thought it'd come to this, both my kin turning on me."

"Both, Tom? No one turned on you"

"You're a lawman, and my sister turned me in when she told Hip Chance and the detectives about my business."

"Grace wouldn't do that. Besides it was no secret that Grayson had those animals, almost anyone could have figured it out."

A long awkward silence passed between the brothers before Jack turned to leave. Tom pulled his trigger and the bullet pierced the extra bullets on Jack's gun belt, then through the leather into his hip. As he went down, he had the presence of mind to draw his gun and pivot. When he hit the ground, he was facing Tom.

Tom fired again but missed. They exchanged fire for a few more rounds. At the end, Jack was the brother still alive.

After Tom died, Grace lost interest in suitors and never married. She became a suffragette in her later years and was a confidant to all the women of Calliope. She lived in the Teasdale house until she passed in 1926.

Jack raised a family and became sheriff when Billy retired. He went back to New York to find his mother, but no one remembered her. He lost a son in WWI.

The End

Willy Whiskers, Constable of Calliope Nevada is an active Cowboy Action Shooter from Florida and a retired Physics teacher, but that's not who Willy really is . . .
Born in 1854 in Missouri, he found the answer to life in 1923 in Carson City Nevada. Starting out with the railroad, he becoming an engineer at the age of 21. Holding many jobs, like station agent in Fallon NV and railroad detective, he ended up as Constable of Calliope, Nevada, This is where we meet him through his stories in Frontier Tales.

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by Alexander Stanescu

As the sun shone down onto the earth and against Kristoffsen's face, he slowly opened his eyes. Another night over, another day to come. "Hope you slept tight," Tom warily said. "We got a big day ahead of us and least one of us should be fully alert."

Kristoffsen used his arms to lift his back off from the ground and support his body in the air. "Well," he lowly mumbled, reeling from the groggy, half-awake feeling he had in addition to the less than exquisite morning taste in his mouth, "I promise that tonight I'll be the one watching him." He slowly moved his eyes from the shotgun, which Tom was holding, to the captive it was aimed at. Always silent, always expressionless, in a pitiful sort of way that captive was. What was he always thinking about that left him in such a state?

Kristoffsen groaned as he stood up, scraping the dusty ground underneath him as he did. He looked at the mountains to the south of them that they were to head to and said to Tom, "They're like the Walls of Babylon. Those mountains I mean. They're an impossible obstacle to scale for a treasure and civilization that rivals no other."

"Well, don't worry," replied Tom. "We'll get to Phoenix soon enough. And think of the money we'll get too after this son of a bitch hangs. A whole 300 dollars! Imagine, just for the two of us!" he continued excitedly.

"Yeah. I guess so," Kristoffsen simply replied.

Tom then threw him the shotgun he was pointing to their prisoner and said, "Come on let's get a move on. We waste enough time and it'll be night before we know it." He then lifted their bound prisoner from the large rock, who was sitting in a way that seemed as if he was impatient to go to their destination, despite his impendent doom. Tom then put the prisoner on one of the horses as Kristoffsen was holding the shotgun. Tom then got on his own horse which was tied to the prisoner's horse with a rope, connecting the two, while Kristoffsen mounted the third one, always keeping his eyes and gun on the prisoner. The horses then began trotting slowly but surely towards the mountains and the Babylon that lay beyond them.

* * *

The sun shone hard as they rode, yet the air was bitterly cold. Kristoffsen could hear the clacking of the horse's hooves against the rock, red as if it was a newborn's tender skin caught and burned under the sun. Whenever he momentarily allowed his gaze to drift away from the men in front of him he would observe and admire the beautiful rock formations the mountains had to offer, jagged and pointing up yet at the same time strangely soothing to look at. The trees too were very beautiful. Unlike the great conifer trees of the north or the mighty oak trees of the east, they were small yet sturdy, rebellious in a way, particularly how thorny they were, despite their beauty. The cold wind blew against Kristoffsen's face feeling like a million little cuts made by a madman wielding a knife that held him hostage, much like how he himself held his prisoner hostage.

It would be a fine day when he would see his prisoner die, Kristoffsen thought. Maybe. Maybe.

A nagging feeling was in Kristoffsen's head, how perhaps he and Tom may go their separate ways after this adventure. Tom was older than Kristoffsen by a few years and had recently talked of settling down with a wife and kids. This worried Kristoffsen, the aftermath of this event. Goodbyes had always been hard for him.

Doubt remained in his mind. Bounty-hunting was the only job Kristoffsen knew, yet at the same time he had always done it with Tom. His departure would mark great distress in the routine of Kristoffsen's life. Perhaps, he would consult Tom later about these sentiments he had. Perhaps.

Tom halted his horse, saying as he looked at the dimming sun, "I reckon it would be best if we start setting up camp now. It's getting mighty dark."

Kristoffsen nodded. Another day over, another night to come.

* * *

As the days and nights drifted away in the routine of waking up, riding the horses and guarding the prisoner, the three men happened upon a town in the later hours of one such day. It was a small town, homely and with only a few small buildings. "From the look of things, seems to be a mining town," Tom observed.

The men then made their slow descent down from the peak in which they first observed the small town, and entered it, attracting attention from the gruff-looking minor inhabitants. A man with a large gut came out of the saloon, followed by a large muscular man that had a hat covering his eyes. "Evening," the fat man said. "Name's Clark, mayor of this here town, Jerome. This fella right by me is the sheriff, Eugene. What brings y'all down here?"

Tom was quick to reply. "Well mayor," he began, "we're bounty-hunters bringing in this prisoner to Phoenix so he can hang. He be the Phoenix Ripper."

"The Phoenix Ripper?" the large man asked in surprise.

"Yep, killed 5 women he did. Tried to make a run by going north but we were able to catch him. Ain't that right Kris?" Tom said with a grim sort of pride.

"I reckon so," said Kristoffsen after a pause. His mind was elsewhere, thinking of life and its downsides. Its despair.

Tom looked over at Clark now with a sort of pleading face. "Now mayor, we're mighty tired and were hopin' for a place to stay the night while you kept our prisoner here."

"Well, we'd be glad to take y'all in for a night!" Clark said with a hefty smile. He then pointed to the lively building across from them and said, "You just hand your prisoner to us and we'll take care of him, while you go to the hotel and wash up."

"Mighty kind of you," Tom said with a smile. Kristoffsen was expressionless.

* * *

Kristoffsen woke up slowly the next morning, feeling that it was impossible for him to leave the bed. When he finally did, he splashed some cold water on his face in the hopes that it would liven him up, but to no avail. He looked at himself in the mirror and saw a battered man and a hole, a hole in his spirit.

Kristoffsen was never an overly-joyful fella, but realized when he looked in the mirror that recently he no longer had any happiness. He was never sociable, but before he could at least sit at the fire and occasionally joke and converse with Tom or another close comrade of his. Now though, he could no longer connect. He felt too different. He could no longer see the light in life. It was a lonely world, a cruel world and he wondered if he could live any longer in it.

* * *

And so, the bounty-hunters said their farewells to the fine inhabitants of Jerome and began their final stretch towards Phoenix. They rode many days and many nights, and slowly the red rock and thorny trees disappeared, gradually replaced by the dusty, barren ground and Saguaro Cactus. It had become warmer as they went further south, and the men were relieved they were able to embark from the mountains before they had the chance of catching snowfall.

It was the final night before they would reach Phoenix, just yonder over the slope and down into the valley. Tom slumbered while Kristoffsen kept watch on the prisoner. It was an eerie scene, the killer just sitting there, staring at Kristoffsen, unblinking and expressionless. At first it disturbed Kristoffsen, but soon the hours took their toll and Kristoffsen felt drowsy. He was losing the fight to keep his eyes open when he heard a cold voice, waking and alerting him. "Are you about to fall asleep?" the voice asked in a breathy and unsettling tone, one could mistake it for the undeads'. It belonged to the prisoner.

Kristoffsen gulped and tried to seem brave and courageous when he responded. "No. Not while you're here. You'd kill us all," he said, though in reality Kristoffsen did not care one way or the other if he was killed.

"Sleep, you know, is a temporary death. You leave the world for several hours, unaware of your surroundings. If we did not return to wake, it would be just like death," the prisoner emotionlessly said.

"So is that what you did to your victims? The ones you cut up? You put them to sleep?" Kristoffsen asked with half disgust, half puzzlement.

"Perhaps," replied the prisoner. "It is up for others to interpret what I did. I will not tell my own reasoning."

"Good. I don't want to know," Kristoffsen lied.

A long time passed before the prisoner continued the conversation. "I see through your eyes, you know. You may act your best to seem like these other men, trying to do good, but I know. I know you've lost your lust for life, your care for the world. You caught so-called 'bad men' because you thought you were bringing safety and respectability to the world, but now it has been too long and you are unsure if you have been any help and if you want to stay on this earth any longer."

Kristoffsen just looked at the prisoner, not saying anything for he knew it was true. The two men did not speak anymore for the rest of the night.

And the fire blazed on through the unending darkness, until it died out.

* * *

"May God have mercy on your soul," said the executioner as the platform beneath the prisoner's feet gave way, causing the prisoner to fall through. Mere feet before he hit the ground, the rope around the prisoner's neck went stiff, creating a huge crack that could be heard by the entire audience that gathered for the hanging.

The crowd dispersed soon after. A fun lively event a hanging was, but too quick. Shamefully too quick. Kristoffsen remained as the crowd left and took a few steps toward the dead killer. Tom had already left Phoenix to saddle up with his girl, going to some small-town which name Kristoffsen could not bother to remember. Tom seemed happy to start his new life but Kristoffsen was melancholic to see him go. Kristoffsen didn't think Tom noticed his melancholia. Now he was alone, alone with a dead man, and unsure of what to do. Maybe he would look for another bounty, the first he would do without Tom. Maybe he would head west to San Francisco, where he heard there were riches to be had. Kristoffsen then looked into the cold dead stare of his former prisoner's eyes and noticed the rope around his neck that trailed up. Maybe. Maybe not.

The End

Alexander Stanescu is currently a student at San Diego State University. He loves fiction in all sorts of mediums and genres and writes his own stories in his spare time. He currently lives in San Diego with his one dog.

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Seventy Times Seven
by Aren Lerner

Afternoon sunlight was slanting through the pine boughs in the yard for the last moments before the ranch fell behind the shadow of the mountain. It had been a hard day and I leaned against the doorjamb wearily, stealing one moment of rest before returning to the stove and the evening meal. It was on no prosperous spread that my eyes rested. Life had not been easy for me since my husband had been shot seven years back while rep-ing at a neighboring ranch, collecting missing cows that might have gotten mixed in with neighbors' herds. The guilty party had never been found, and I had been barely scraping by these last years, trying to keep my small ranch running with a few hundred head of cattle, the help of a couple loyal old cowboys who had worked for my husband, and my two young children, Quentin and Lola.

As I leaned there in the doorway, a faint swirl of dust rose from between the scrub oak lining the road that approached the ranch. Curious, I watched till I could discern the sound of hoof beats and a dark bay horse broke into view, ridden by the dusty figure of a cowboy. He reined up in front of the door and lifted his hat. "Is your man about, ma'am?" he inquired pleasantly.

I had the moment of confused hesitation that I always still felt when someone asked after my husband. "No, I run this ranch," I answered. "Is there something you need?"

"Work, ma'am," the cowboy grinned. "Might you be looking for an extra hand about the place?"

"I could use one," I acknowledged, "but the pay will be scarce."

The man nodded. "That's fine by me, so long's there's a roof over my head when snow flies and grub in my stomach. If you'll take me on, the deal's done." He held out his hand, a winning smile breaking over his tanned face. "The name's Ross."

I returned the handshake, my weariness momentarily forgotten under the spell of his smile. "Tabitha," I introduced myself in turn, "or Tabby."

At this juncture my children came careening in from the corrals, dirty and obviously hot on the trail of supper. They stopped short when they saw the stranger. "These are my children, Quentin and Lola," I said. "Children, this is Ross, he's going to be our new hand."

Ross shook hands seriously with ten-year-old Quentin and seven-year-old Lola. "A great pleasure to meet you, I'm sure," he said. They both giggled. Ross turned to me again. "Thank you very much for work, ma'am. I'll just take my pony down to the corrals and get him settled in, if you don't mind. Is the wagon out, or will the cook be in the bunkhouse?"

"The wagon's out," I answered. "You can eat with us tonight."

Over a tin plate piled high with baked beans, brisket, and applesauce, Quentin lost his shyness and pestered Ross shamelessly with endless questions. He had not yet learned the range law that one should never inquire about anyone's past, and he wanted to know everything that Ross had ever done and where he had been. Ross answered vaguely, but there was a good-natured twinkle in his gray eyes. I couldn't help but think, as I listened, that it would be nice to have a man around the house again, if only for my son's sake.

Lola soon warmed to Ross as well, and in the next weeks I could see her and Quentin often following Ross around his work, whether it be mending corral fences or raking hay for winter out in the pastureland. I got so used to his presence at the table that when the cowboys rode in to the ranch that fall after the roundup was over and the years' beef sold in town and Ross ate in the bunkhouse with them, the house actually felt lonely. I laughed at myself and tried to ignore the feeling. "Tabby," I told myself, "you're on the verge of wishing to marry again, like you always vowed that you wouldn't. Remember how often you've thought how you'd feel untrue to Es if you did? Yes," I'd counter then, "but for Quentin and Lola . . . "

The situation didn't last long, however, before Quentin took the reins. He went out one evening and came back pulling a protesting Ross by the hand. "It's no fun in the evenings without you," Quentin insisted, slamming the door and standing against it stubbornly. "You have to eat with us."

Ross shot me a sheepish glance. "I don't want to trouble your ma, sonny. She's got enough work to do without cooking for an extra mouth."

"That's all right," I stepped in quickly. "I would love to have you for supper."

Quentin whooped in triumph and Lola hugged Ross around the waist. He patted her dark hair, looking at me over their heads with an expression that made me feel uncomfortable. "Pull up a chair," I invited lightly, turning back to the stove.

After that Ross came to the house at least every Sunday evening, and slowly began to come on days in between as well. I thought that he came merely to please the children, but then he started to drop in when they were out playing after their lessons were finished, having snowball fights in the snow or following rabbit tracks. He would bring a newspaper perhaps, or a saddlery magazine, and sit before the stove with me, talking or just sitting quietly. I loved those times and I realized just how terribly lonely I had been since my husband died. I wasn't, perhaps, quite so old and sensible as I had told myself I was.

Christmas was approaching, and a few days before it came, one of my old-time cowboys rode into town and back to bring me the Christmas package that my family back East always sent me. This year the best thing in it for me was the photograph of my wedding to Es. I had wanted to bring it when we came West, but Es insisted on only bringing the necessities. He hated useless clutter. Now my mother wrote that she had found it again when looking in the attic for her old wedding veil for my younger sister to wear, and she thought that I would like to have it now. I nestled the photograph into the sprigs of evergreen on the shelf and smiled at it, gently caressing my husband's face with my fingertips. My children looked at it indifferently. They didn't remember their father.

Christmas morning was clear and cold, the icicles that hung from the roof glittering in the light from the rising sun. I sat in the rawhide chair, smiling as I watched my children squeal over the molasses candy and pennies in their stockings, and looked forward to the afternoon when Ross would come to have Christmas dinner with us.

He came in calling, "Merry Christmas!" heartily, and swept Lola up to kiss her rosy cheek, while Quentin tugged at his pant leg, wanting to show him his presents. I smiled as I set the roast beef on the table. This was the best Christmas we had had in seven years.

As we ate, I noticed that Ross was repeatedly looking at something behind me. I threw a quick glance over my shoulder and figured that it had to be the photograph that was drawing his attention. For some reason I blushed, realizing that he had no reason to think that it was a photograph of my husband and I, since it had just appeared in my house for the first time. "My mother sent me that. It's my old wedding photograph that she just found again," I explained. He nodded, embarrassed that I had noticed what he kept looking at. "My husband's name was Esmond," I continued, feeling it a relief to talk of him to someone. "We were married back East eleven years ago. It's been seven since he was killed, shot while out 'rep-ing'."

A forkful froze midway to Ross's mouth. "Seven?" he repeated, a peculiar look coming over his face.

"That's how old I am!" Lola interjected proudly. "That's a lot of years to be alive, isn't it?"

Ross and I laughed and the subject was dropped. But as I cleaned the table and the children went back to their stockings, Ross went to the shelf and stood with his back to me, looking closely at the photo. "That was your husband," he said finally, his voice queer.

"Yes," I said, pausing beside him, a tray in my hands. "We were very happy in those four years before the incident. It has been difficult for me, going on without him, raising the children on my own, keeping the ranch running. Your being here has been a nice help, especially for Quentin."

Ross looked at me strangely. He cleared his throat and turned on his heel abruptly. "Well, thank you for dinner, I've . . . got some . . . things to attend to." He pulled on his coat and left before the children had even time to look up from their pennies. I stood there with the tray in my hands, looking after him in surprise, and wondering wretchedly what I had said that had been so wrong. I had hoped for a cozy afternoon conversing around the stove while the children played. But apparently for some unknown reason I had offended Ross.

That was the last time Ross came for supper that winter. Whenever I extended as invitation he had some excuse for why he couldn't, the bogged down cattle needed pulling, or the pasture needed to be dragged so the horses could reach grass. The children had no better success for all their wheedling and pleading. None of us could understand it and all of us missed him. I hadn't realized until then how much I had looked forward to talking with him, and what a vast empty space in my life he had been coming to fill.

So I was surprised, when one day in early spring a few weeks before the roundup started, I glanced up from reading to see Ross coming to the door. "Are the children gone?" he asked, looking around, his hat making nervous circles in his hands, first one way, then the other.

"Yes, they finished their lessons for the day and have gone off to play, enjoying the liberty after being closed in the house all winter," I smiled, putting aside my book and pushing out a chair invitingly with my toe.

Ross sat down and put his hat on the table. "Well, I . . . ." he began, then focused on his hat again for a moment. "I have something to confess," he blurted finally.

"Confess?" I echoed, surprised by a word I had not expected.

"Yes, I've been wrestling with it these last months, and I've concluded that I have to tell you up front and ask your forgiveness. You see, I had a spread in the next county some years ago, when I had my own land for the first time. I'd come to the range and bought me a spread and a little herd with the last of my wages. It wasn't much of a spread, and like most cowboys, I thought it wouldn't hurt to use the long rope a little. Ya know, do some rustlin' and pull in a few strays from the bigger ranches once in awhile, slap my brand on 'em and expand my holdings some. Well, it didn't hurt nobody . . .  not at first. Then I started getting bolder, and lassoed in more, seeing that nothing came of it. Then one day the reps from the neighboring ranches rode in. I'd got the critters with the newest worked-over brands hidden away up a canyon, but they was still suspicious and looked over my herd mighty close and critical. It made me feel jumpy, I can tell you, and I was leery of pulling in more for a time, but the thing had taken hold pretty strong by now, and when I come across a good bunch of yearlings browsing in a cottonwood thicket, I couldn't resist the takings. I'd got the second one throwed and was just about to slap my brand on 'er when a rider came around the bush on me. I saw the barrel of a gun and the leather thong of a rep, and I didn't stop to think. I made a fast draw and fired quick as lightning. Soon as I'd seen what I'd done, I was scared and didn't think. I lit out of the area and left my place to my partner, telling him my mother was dying and needed me, and I've only just came back. By the photograph on your shelf, Tabby, that man I shot was your husband."

A shock, cold as ice, had gone through me, and I was shaking violently all over. I sprang to my feet. I couldn't find my voice for a moment, but then it came, bitter, hoarse, hateful. "You!" I choked. "You did this? Leave! Leave at once and never let me see you again!" I turned and made a blind dash for the door, stumbling over my chair and knocking it over with a clatter. I rushed through the yard and up the barren slope of the mountain to the lonely grave there, half buried among the rocks and dry grass. I collapsed on the frozen ground, panting for breath and trembling, wild sobs raking my body. Through the anger, the hurt, the hatred, came a scorching reproach on myself. How could I have been learning to love my husband's murderer? How could the man who had caused all our suffering and pain have been the one who had been able, these past months, to take that suffering and pain away? That was over for good, I vowed silently, as the wind off the mountain tore at my threadbare dress and stung in my tear-filled eyes. Let the man so much as try to speak to me ever again, and I would report him to the sheriff and watch gladly at his gallows! The moment I thought it, I felt sick. After all, he had been kind, and Quentin and Lola . . .  conflicting emotions wrenched my heart as I knelt there on my husband's grave in the cold, spring wind. I hated Ross, and yet  . . . . I loved him.

My solitude was broken by the appearance of Quentin, furious, flushed, wildly indignant. "Why did you tell Ross to leave?" he screamed at me. "You can't do that! It would be horrible without him, just horrible! I hate you! If you don't let him stay, I'm going with him!"

"Quentin," I snapped, "I can't let him stay. He was the man who shot your father."

"I don't care!" Quentin shouted. "You can't make him leave!" He stormed away down the slope, and I was left, my heart twisting in pain. My son, my own son, didn't care who had killed his father. He didn't remember him, but he knew and loved Ross. My mind felt blank from confusion. I couldn't think coherently, all I wanted was to find a hole somewhere and pull it in behind me.

Sometime later Quentin appeared again beside me, as I sat on the cold ground, staring vacantly into space. "I went after Ross," Quentin told me stubbornly. "He told me to ask you if he stayed away from the house and kept away from you, if you would let him stay and try to make up to you the wrong he did. Please, mama," he added, his slight boyish face tipped up pleadingly. I could see that he was close to tears. "Please say that he can stay, please."

I felt my heart breaking at his wistful face. How could I send away the man who had loved my son and been like a father to him? Ross wouldn't hurt my children, and if he really would try to make up to me what he had done . . .  maybe my children could have a chance in life, maybe I could afford to send them to school, to give them something to start out in life with, give them a life beyond scraping by with barely enough. A tear rolled down Quentin's nose. I looked away, and I heard my own voice say brokenly, "Tell him to stay."

Quentin gave a gleeful shout and started off down the mountain with a leap. I could hear him calling, "Ross! Ross!" His voice was full of happy relief.

I could not feel the same. I couldn't see Es's gravestone through my stinging tears. "What else could I have done?" I whispered into the silence. "But, oh, Es, how will I endure?"

At first it was very difficult, despite Ross's efforts to stay out of my way. He went out for the spring roundup and was gone for several weeks, but strangely I did not find those weeks any easier. I felt as if all my energy and willpower had dissolved into the atmosphere. I dragged around doing the necessary chores, and as soon as I could, I'd drop into a chair and stare into space for hours at a time. Nights were no better; bad dreams haunted me, and the loneliness was crushing in the hours I would lie awake, thinking thoughts that led nowhere. Summer came, and Quentin and Lola spent many happy days following Ross around, going riding with him on their little ponies, or chatting gaily with him while perching on the corral fence. Brooding in the house, I felt sometimes as if I hated even my own children. They didn't care about their father, they were just mad at me for refusing to let Ross come to the house anymore. Even Lola, who I had expected to be afraid of Ross once she heard what he had done, just rolled her little eyes at me and went her merry way. I felt abandoned by the whole world. All I wanted was to either pay Ross back for all the pain he had caused me or to lie down and die myself. Something had to change, but for a while, nothing did. Only gradually, so gradually that at first I didn't notice, as the months went by I got used to seeing Ross around the ranch and could watch from the window as he played with the children without the stifling feeling of anger and hatred overpowering me. Only a bitter resentment and an aching feeling of loneliness and confusion came now.

Finally one night I had a dream that set me on the path to reconciliation. In it I seemed to be watching Es branding calves in some hidden gulley—alert, watching, casting a wary eye on the ridges above. I knew somehow that they were not our calves, and I remembered once Es admitting to me, when I had commented on how fast our herd was growing, that he had used the long rope a little—"not much, Tabby, but a little, just a little." As I watched, a rider appeared up the washout, a strangely familiar rider with a black moustache and gray eyes. Es turned, his hand going to his belt. A shot cracked, echoing over the still landscape. The rider slumped, slipping from his horse into the sand, and suddenly I knew who it was . . .  it was Ross.

I jerked awake in the darkness. My heart was pounding. My dream was right, I realized. If Es had been in Ross's place . . . if the roles were reversed . . . I would have forgiven Es. Without a question I would have forgiven Es. There, safe, hidden in the dark with only the sounds of my children's soft breathing and an occasional yelp of a coyote from the night outside, I admitted to myself for the first time that I wanted to forgive Ross. If only for my own sake I wanted to forgive Ross. I knew it wouldn't be easy, but at least I knew that I needed to try.

To the rest of the world, nothing had changed, but inside myself everything had. I was no longer succumbing to and being overpowered by my anger. I was battling it, and even merely the battle gave me energy. I didn't sit looking off into space anymore. I sat reading my Bible. Over and over I read, "I tell you, forgive not your brother seven times, but seventy times seven times." I said that to myself everyday as I went about my work, cleaning the house, kneading bread, or hanging out laundry. But I still couldn't do it, and I finally realized that it was impossible for such forgiveness to come by my will only, so I prayed, every night I prayed, for God to grant me His forgiveness of Ross. I thought it would never come, but one day, when the leaves on the aspens were unbroken gold and the first snow lay dusted on the mountain peaks, I knew I was ready.

All morning I kept my eye on the window as I made the beds, cut the vegetables for the day's stew and sliced sides of beef to dry for jerky. In the afternoon Quentin and Lola got out their ponies and left for a ride in the beautiful golden woods, and I seized my chance. I took off my smudged apron, smoothed my hair, and went out to look for Ross. I tried to ignore my clammy palms and dry mouth as I approached the corrals. I prayed silently for God to help me, repeating desperately, "Seventy times seven," to myself as I walked.

Ross was just freeing a snorting mustang from the snubbing post as I came up to the fence. He glanced up and saw me, quickly sent the horse shying out the gate into the pasture, picked up the saddle and headed for the barn. I had to try twice before I managed to get the word out, "Ross!" He looked back at me. I waited, fighting to calm the pounding of my heart and the urge to turn away and run. Slowly Ross let the saddle down into the dust and came walking across the corral toward me. There was apprehension in his gray eyes, and a wistfully hopeful look that he was trying to squash. That look did something to me, and the words came easier than I had expected.

"Ross," I said breathlessly, looking up at him over the corral fence between us, "I need to tell you . . . I forgive you."

There was a long silence. Ross's lips trembled against his will and he blinked away a sudden mist of tears. I had to look away. His voice was low and choked when finally he said, "Tabby, you can't know what it means to me to hear you say it. I thank you."

"It hasn't been easy," I confessed. "My hatred and anger were destroying me. I still have some way to go before I can . . . forget. But I realized that my husband probably would have done the same as you if he had been in your place. He used his long rope and was quick on his trigger too, and I realized that it was unfair to hold something against you that I wouldn't have held against him. I can't forget, but I'm trying to forgive, I'm trying to let go."

"I understand," Ross said quietly. "Such a thing as I've done can't be forgotten, but to know that you don't completely despise me is enough, much more than I thought could ever be."

"More than I thought could be either. But, it's so, and . . . .the children would love to see you at supper," I managed, though I confess it took some effort to say.

Quentin and Lola stopped short, their hands full of quivering yellow aspen leaves, when they saw Ross sitting waiting for them at the dinner table. Then they let out something between a shout and a sob, flinging themselves across the room to pounce on him joyously. I caught his eye over their heads and smiled weakly. "Seventy times seven," I thought to myself once again, turning back to the stove. After all, it was possible, and how light I felt with the load of hatred and anger gone from me! And, deep down where I refused to look, I was glad to have Ross back.

That winter was the happiest time I had ever known, or dared to hope could ever come again, since Es had died. Laughter echoed in the little ranch house under its load of snow and icicles on the long, dark evenings, and delightful snowball fights were battled out under the pines in the yard. Ross came nearly every day, and the children and I anticipated his visits. The loneliness was gone, that horrible pressing loneliness that had haunted me for so long that I had forgotten what it was like to live without it. And so soon that I could scarcely believe the months had gone, the snow was melting in the valley and the chokecherries were blooming around the corrals. It was almost time for the spring branding.

I had just been thinking how empty it would be when Ross left for the roundup, when I looked up to see him standing in the doorway, my two children on either side, looking solemn and earnest. Quentin spoke first, "We've been talking, mama, and Lola and I decided that we think Ross would make a good father for us . . .  you know, for good . . . don't you agree?"

I stood up, baffled by the surprise of his sudden question. "Oh," I said, and blushed. I couldn't look at Ross. "What does he think?" I asked Quentin.

"Oh, he thinks so too. And he's awful kind and fun, and he makes us laugh," Lola answered for her brother, clutching Ross's hand desperately, her big brown eyes pleading with me.

I gave a nervous laugh. Seventy times seven, I thought. Does that equal this much forgiveness? To marry your husband's murderer? Is such a thing possible?

"He's the best man there ever was," Quentin threw out emphatically.

I looked at him silently, then up at Ross. Ross stepped forward and took my hands. "Tabby," he said quietly, his gray eyes searching my face, "I know this would take a lot from you, maybe more than is possible. But if you could, if you think maybe you could . . . "

I looked down. My mind was scrambling, a blush slowly crawling up my neck and into my face. What should I say? Good heavens, was ever a woman before me in such a terribly awkward situation as this? What should I say? Then I heard myself answer through the turmoil in my thoughts before I could think too hard and scare myself by logical reasoning. "Maybe," I whispered, "it wouldn't take so very much as you think."

The children screamed with joyful relief and jumped on Ross and me, bouncing on our feet and clutching at our sleeves, trying to get up high enough to hug us. Ross bent down and gave them each a tight hug as they clutched him around his neck until he could hardly free himself. I felt tears prickling at the back of my eyes watching them. Could this be happening, or was I dreaming? Surely I was dreaming. "Oh, mama, thank you, thank you!" Quentin cried, gleefully locking his arms around my waist and trying to crush me in his exuberance. Lola buried her face in my skirt.

I looked up at Ross, and for some reason I felt foolish, vastly foolish. He stepped closer, until the children were squeezed between us, and put his arms around me. "Tabby," he said against my hair, "thank you." I leaned my head into his shoulder and found that I was crying. I had thought that I would never feel this loved again. I forgot that he was Ross who had killed my husband. I forgot that he was Ross whom I had forgiven. I only knew that he was Ross. Ross whom I loved. I had at last found the product of seventy times seven—it equaled love, vast, crazy Love.

The End

Aren Lerner is author of Beneath Old Glory, a historical fiction series set in the American West. She holds an M.A. in History from the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Visit her book series website at:

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The Great Skinnerville Raid
by Kenneth Newton


"This is your chance to tell me why I shouldn't kill you on the spot." Bob Skinner lifted a nickeled Smith and Wesson American out of a drawer and laid it on his desk. His big leather-covered chair creaked as he leaned back. Two of his men stood at either end of the desk with guns trained on Doña Ana County deputy sheriff Matt Cutter, who stood across the desk from Skinner.

Skinner's army of border thugs had already killed the county sheriff and another deputy who, along with Cutter, had crossed the Mexican border and followed two of them back to Skinnerville following a bank robbery in Las Cruces. Skinner was going to kill him anyway, and Matt Cutter wasn't about to spend his last few moments on earth groveling to the cutthroat son-of-a-bitch. "Just do what you're gonna do," he said. "And give my regards to your brother, Dick."

Skinner tilted his head and arched one eyebrow. "Well, that will be hard to do, as I don't have a brother named Dick."

After a few seconds, the Mexican at the right end of the desk stepped around, leaned over and whispered something into Skinner's ear, then returned to his position at the end of the desk. Skinner's eyes narrowed, then he nodded and looked at Cutter as he picked up the revolver. "Suarez, here, tells me you're a funny boy. Dick Skinner, as in get your dick skinner off my tortilla. Trouble is, I don't like funny boys."

Skinner cocked the revolver. "But there is something I like even less than funny boys, and that is somebody that thinks I'm stupid, and he has to explain things to me. Pardon me a moment." He pointed his gun at Suarez, whose eyes were in the process of doubling in size when Skinner shot him. Suarez took a step backwards but didn't fall immediately, so Skinner shot him again and watched as he collapsed. The hallway door to Skinner's office flew open and three of his men rushed inside, guns in hand, glancing in bewilderment. Skinner turned the .44 on them and cocked the hammer. "Get out and stay out or you're next!" he bellowed. They hastily left and closed the door behind them.

The gun smoke hung heavy in the still air of the room, and Skinner waved at it with his left hand as he turned back to Cutter. "I'm so sorry. Now, where were we?"

Cutter shook his head. "I heard you were a crazy bastard."

"You heard right." The outlaw at the other end of the desk was the man who spoke, a Norte Americano dressed in Mexican garb. Skinner turned to him in amazement as the outlaw pulled the trigger. The chair creaked as Skinner fell against the back cushion and dropped his gun.

"Vic Carradine. Deputy U.S. Marshal. You just fouled-up six-months-worth of work."

Cutter glanced at the office door. "Don't worry about them," said Carradine. "They know he meant what he said. Let's get you out of here."

Cutter stared at Carradine. "You were in the fight. I saw you shoot one of your own men."

Carradine crossed the room, knelt down, and removed Suarez' gun belt. "One of their men, dumb ass. Three of them, in fact, when nobody was looking. Trying to make it an easier fight when the army comes." He shoved Suarez' pistol into the holster and handed the rig to Cutter. "This might fit."

"The army?" Cutter buckled on the gun belt. It fit. The weight on his hip was comforting. He drew the Colt to make sure it was loaded and took more comfort in the row of cartridges he felt on the belt.

Carradine spoke rapidly as he picked up Suarez' sombrero and motioned for Cutter to come with him to the window. "I've been down here gathering information about raids out of Skinnerville that went north of the border. Our government won't piss off the Mexican government over a few stolen cows, but they'll send the army if they have proof of repeated depredations, as they call it. I've got a list as long as your arm. I was about ready to high tail it back to Santa Fe when you shit birds showed up."

"The sheriff didn't know you were here."

"Nobody did." They were on the second floor of the hacienda. The rest of the buildings in Skinnerville were adobe, and consisted of barracks, store rooms, a handful of private dwellings, and the like. But the hacienda was a wood frame, airy, two-story house. The door behind Skinner's desk led to a balcony that featured a stairway down to the rear courtyard. No one was out and about in the midday heat.

Carradine pointed to three horses tied to a rail near the foot of the stairs. "The bay with the brass-jawed carbine in the scabbard is Suarez'," he said. "It's one of the fastest runners on the place. They're big on horse races around here." He put the sombrero on Cutter's head and opened the door.

"Won't they wonder why I didn't kill you too?"

"I'll think up a story, and they'll believe it." He nodded toward Skinner's body. "I married his sister a few weeks back."

"Well, you're damn sure dedicated. I hope she's not as crazy as he was."

"Borderline, but you ought to see her. Run that horse until it drops. With luck, you'll be close to the border, maybe even across. I think I can keep them off your tail."

Cutter started for the door, then stopped and turned a hard scowl on Carradine. "What if he hadn't shot that mex, and was getting ready to shoot me?"

Carradine gave back as hard a look as he got. "Just count your blessings and go. But before you do, take that pistol and give me a good lick."

"Well, I guess I don't mind if I do." Cutter wasn't fond of the notion that a federal lawman might have let Skinner kill him to protect his mission. He drew the Colt and delivered a satisfying backhanded blow across Carradine's forehead with the 7 - 1/2 inch barrel; it staggered the marshal but didn't draw blood.

"Again." This time Cutter dealt him a lick that opened a gash and sent him reeling against the back of Bob Skinner's leather chair. "God DAMN it, that will do! Get the hell out of here!"

The big bay was not only fast but game. Cutter ran him for a solid hour before slowing to a lope. Three hours later the horse was white with lather and wheezing loudly when they reached the water hole Cutter had hoped he'd be able to find. He drank his fill and filled Suarez' water bottle, and when he figured the horse had had enough to drink, he led him away from the spring and swung back into the saddle. The bay took only three or four steps before stumbling, and Cutter jumped off just in time to keep from being pinned beneath it.

Cutter knelt beside the dying horse in the gathering dusk. He patted the animal on the neck and scratched the white blaze above his nostrils. "I'm sure you've got a proper Mexican name, but I'll just call you Red, if that's OK. Red, you might not have saved my life just yet." He looked over his shoulder toward Chihuahua. "But you damn sure died trying." He unsheathed Suarez' belt knife and placed the tip of the blade against the horse's throat. "This is a hell of a way to say thanks, ain't it? But you and I both know you're not gonna make it, and I can't risk a gunshot. Vaya con Dios, Red."

He rinsed off the blood as best he could, and after tousling Red's mane one last time, he retrieved the Winchester and set out for Las Cruces, still a good forty miles distant across the desert.

Return to Santa Fe

Samantha Carradine sat at her late brother's desk and counted out 1,000 U.S. Dollars in ten-dollar gold coins, bagged it in two canvas bags, and handed it to her husband. "It looks like you were right about the law not coming back."

Carradine held up one of the bags. "And this is why. They know we've got the rurales in our pocket. Nobody up there wants a war." He put the money in a saddlebag that lay on the desk. "The three that came down here didn't know what they were getting into, and the one that got away isn't about to try his luck again." He rubbed at the scar on his forehead. "At least, he'd better not."

"Does that still hurt?"

"Nah, it just itches sometimes."

Samantha lit a thin cheroot and inhaled deeply. She was beautiful by any standard, with fair skin, light brown hair, and blue eyes. Her dress curved in the right direction in all the right places. And at the age of twenty, she was in charge of the largest criminal enterprise in Chihuahua. "Well," she sighed, exhaling the cigar smoke, "the sooner we get our 'taxes' to el Comandante at Ciudad Chihuahua the better I'll feel. I'll tell Jorge to be ready at first light."


"Yes, of course. The rurales know me, Victor, and they know him. They don't know you." Jorge De la Cruz was Samantha's personal bodyguard and companion, a position assigned to him ten years earlier by Bob Skinner, when Jorge was eighteen. Although Carradine was a relative newcomer to Skinnerville, Skinner had given him his blessing to court Samantha because he didn't want her to take up with a Mexican. Jorge wasn't a rival, but he and Carradine tolerated each other at best.

"I understand why you want to go, but it would be better if just the two of us went." Carradine wanted to level with Samantha, but not at Skinnerville, because he didn't know how she would react. She was a Skinner to the bone, and he had seen those pretty eyes burst into flames. Even so, he had hoped that once he got her away from Skinnerville he'd be able to convince her to go to the states with him. Jorge's presence would complicate matters.

"I can't think of a single reason why Jorge shouldn't make the trip. Give me one."

"Okay, first light it is."

The next night, thirty miles south of Skinnerville next to a smoldering camp fire, Jorge De la Cruz awoke with a start to see Vic Carradine sitting cross-legged next to his blanket. Jorge glanced furtively in the direction of Samantha's bedroll. "What the hell, amigo," he whispered. "You got a hermosa like that, and you're turnin' afeminado?"

Carradine shook his head. "No. I just . . . " He lowered his head for a moment, then looked back into Jorge's eyes. " . . . I just wanted to say I'm sorry."

"Sorry for what?" Jorge raised up on his elbows, then he saw the gun. "C'mon, amigo. Bob trusted me, and you can, too. I swear I never touched her."

"He never even tried." Samantha approached the two men with a Remington over-under in her hand. The hammer was back. "What are you doing, Victor?"

The Raid

Captain Hiram Jackson crossed the border at the head of Troop D, 10th U.S. Cavalry. He and young Lieutenant Tompkins were the only white men on the expedition, save for the two "scouts" the Department had insisted he bring along, a deputy sheriff from Las Cruces and a deputy U.S. marshal out of Santa Fe. The 10th was a colored regiment; the forty-three non-coms and enlisted men in his command were negroes, seasoned Indian fighters all. Jackson was confident his troopers could handle the thirty or so banditos reputed to be at the outlaw stronghold. Based on what the deputy marshal had told him, it was the rurales he was worried about. He had his orders in his pocket to show he'd been sent to Mexico by the United States government, but he knew that piece of paper wouldn't impress a Mexican policeman with Skinnerville gold in his pocket.

The next evening, still a half-day's march from Skinnerville, a dozen small fires dotted the bivouac as the men of Troop D sat on the ground for their evening meal. Suddenly a gunshot rang out, the bullet tearing through the canvas fabric of Jackson's tent, narrowly missing Lt. Tompkins. That shot was followed in rapid succession by eight or ten more, seemingly sprayed randomly around the camp as men scrambled for their weapons and sergeants barked orders. Carradine kicked out their fire and flattened out next to Cutter on the sandy soil as a bullet hissed inches from his left ear.

Several troopers had seen muzzle flashes, and they returned a volley of carbine fire that produced a pained yelp from out there in the gathering darkness. The bullet that almost got Tompkins entered from the back of the tent, and Jackson and Tompkins were now out in front of the tent, both on one knee. "I need status," Jackson said. "And bring Sgt. Saunders back with you."

"Yes, sir!" Tompkins disappeared into the darkness, crouching low, and returned in three minutes with Sgt. Saunders. The two men knelt beside Jackson, and in a few seconds the lieutenant spoke. "Larson's got a minor wound, O'Hara's got a bad one. Barton's dead."

"Damn it!" Jackson stared briefly at the ground, then turned to Saunders. "Well," he said, "we don't know how many are out there, but we know at least one is hit. I don't want to wait for daylight. Pick some men and flank them. And send me Carradine and Cutter."

"Yes, sir!"

Sgt. Saunders disappeared, and shortly the two scouts came scampering to the front of the tent. "You two are the alleged experts," Jackson said. "You told me they would hunker down behind their adobe redoubt and defend the roost. What the hell just happened?"

"Lookouts, I guess," Carradine said. "Probably two of them. One to get word back to Skinnerville, and one to sacrifice."


"To hold us off as long as he could, make sure the messenger got away. They were loyal to Skinner, and rightfully scared of him. I know some still feel the same way about his sister."

"Your wife, you mean, whom you had in your sights and allowed to live?"

"That'd be the one. But in fairness, she passed on shooting me, too."

Jackson sighed. "Any insights, Cutter?"

"Well, I expect most of these forajidos had empty bellies when they signed on with Skinner. Now they have more wine, women, and food than they know what to do with. They'll fight hard to keep it."

"Cap'n, we bringin' one in." It had been barely ten minutes since Sgt. Saunders left the camp. He held a coal oil lantern aloft as he approached the officers' tent, and four of the six troopers he'd taken with him carried a wounded bandito by the arms and legs. They dropped him roughly to the ground at Jackson's feet as the outlaw cried out in pain. "I reckon that trap door bullet stings a mite, Cap'n."

Carradine took the lantern and illuminated the man's face. "Hello, Jorge," he said. "I thought it might be you."

Jorge looked up at the man standing over him. "Mr. Vic. I thought it might be you." He tried to laugh but only coughed up a mouthful of blood.

Carradine went to one knee. "Is she still there?"

"Sure she's there. Where's she gonna go? You worried about her all of a sudden? I'm the one that loves her, just in my way, is all."

Carradine moved the lantern closer to Jorge's belly. "You're killed, Jorge."

"'nuffa this shit." Sgt. Saunders stepped into the light. "I don't care how buddy-buddy y'all are. He kilt one of ours, might's well say two." He already had his revolver in hand, and without another word shot Jorge once in the chest and again in the forehead, snapped open the loading gate, and pushed out the spent cases. "The res' of the sum-bitches gonna git the same dose mighty soon."

The next afternoon Vic Carradine rode slowly into Skinnerville under a white flag. Capt. Jackson was happy to let him be the courier. Carradine was expendable; his troopers were not. Jackson half expected Carradine to be shot on the way in, but he entered the courtyard unmolested through a gauntlet of heavily armed banditos and dismounted at the foot of the stairs. Two men grabbed him, searched him for weapons, and roughly shoved him up the stairs and into the office.

Samantha was seated at the desk, the back of the big chair concealing everything but the top of her head. "Eso será todo. Gracias, muchacos."

The outlaws released Carradine and left, closing the balcony door behind them. Carradine walked around the desk and slumped into a chair across from his wife. "I can still get you out of this. You can go home to Waco. I'll testify that you had no part in any of this, and you'll walk out Scot-free." After a brief pause, he added, "And you can stay with me if you want to. That's what I'd like."

"This is home, Victor. There's nothing for me in Waco." She leaned back in the creaking chair and struck an eerily familiar pose. "You were my first, you know. My one and only. You still are, so far. But you killed my brother, and Jorge, too, I suppose. So why would I stay with you?"

"Just let me help you. Then you can go your own way." He took out his watch and snapped it open. "If I don't call it off, those soldiers are going to open up in about eight minutes."

"They'll wish they hadn't." She leaned forward, took a cheroot from a jar on the desk, and lit it. "I won't surrender to a bunch of darkies, and I won't ask anyone else to. I told them they could leave. They all stayed but one."

Carradine looked down and shook his head. "Remember the Alamo."

Samantha offered a wry smile. "Something like that."

Lt. Tompkins had the Hotchkiss revolving one-inch cannon loaded and positioned on a low rise about a quarter-mile north of Skinnerville. A gun crew and limber of ammunition was standing by. He lined up the sight as he spoke to Sgt. Saunders. "Carradine says the Gatling gun is in that thatch-roofed hut. It's carriage-mounted and they can shoot from any window they choose."

"Well," said Saunders, "let 'em do they wors' with that ol' cap 'n ball cranker. They 'bout to learn what crankin' all 'bout."

At 2:00 PM the destruction of Skinnerville commenced. Tompkins had ordered the Hotchkiss crew to empty the first ten-round magazine into the hut, which they did. The third round ignited the gunpowder stored inside. The final seven rounds served to completely destroy the hut.

The rest of the troopers were spread along the ridge and formed into skirmish lines, with every fourth man holding four horses on the back side of the rise. The rest knelt and poured a steady stream of heavy .45 caliber bullets into the compound as the Hotchkiss gun continued its gruesome work. A lone survivor stumbled out of the Gatling nest, badly wounded and disoriented. He was cut down in a hail of carbine bullets.

Spared for the time being, by design, was the hacienda. There were banditos firing from windows on both floors, but they were momentarily safe from both the Hotchkiss and the Springfield carbines. As the shooting and exploding cannon shells gradually tapered off to nothing, Carradine looked Samantha in the eye. "The only men you have left are in this building. If they'll put down their guns I think I can—"

"I told you, no."

"Jackson said I could have five minutes from the last shot, then they were coming in."

"Well, you didn't need it all. Jackson is in charge?"

"Yes. Captain Jackson."

In four minutes the end began. Tompkins emptied a full magazine into the first floor of the hacienda, and Carradine feared the building would collapse, but it held together, and the Hotchkiss cannon was finished for the day. But the troopers weren't. While half remained on the rise and rained carbine fire on the hacienda, Sgt. Saunders led 20 men down the slope in a cavalry charge. Each man controlled the reins with his weak hand. Half brandished a revolver in the strong hand, the others wielded a saber. Sgt. Saunders gave his horse its head. He had a revolver in his left hand and a saber in his right.

Samantha didn't flinch as bullets splintered wood and broke glass on both sides of her. The troopers were well disciplined, and no bullets pierced the wall or windows of the office at the head of the stairs, but adjoining upstairs rooms were riddled.

Paco Valenzuela appeared in the front doorway. He was as good a friend as Carradine had at Skinnerville. Each man held a cocked revolver trained on the other. "No, Paco," Samantha said, "por favor." Valenzuela nodded, lowered his gun, and walked away to meet his fate.

A panicked bandito ran across the courtyard in front of Saunders, apparently hoping to reach the stable and acquire a mount. He didn't make it. Saunders rode alongside him and slashed his shoulder with his saber. He stumbled and fell, crying out in pain, as Saunders finished him with his revolver.

As it had before, the shooting tapered off to sporadic gunshots, and then to nothing. Samantha and Carradine sat in silence for perhaps ten minutes before the back door opened. Tompkins and a trooper entered the office, followed by Capt. Jackson. Tompkins and the trooper had guns in hand. Jackson walked to the right end of the desk and addressed Carradine. "It's done. You may inform the Marshal's Service that Skinnerville and the depredations that emanated from it are no more. Our casualties are four wounded, none critically."

Carradine nodded as Jackson turned to Samantha. "Mrs. Carradine, I presume. Captain Hiram Jackson, United States Army, at your service. I don't believe I've had the pleasure."

"You have now." Samantha produced Bob Skinner's revolver and cocked the hammer. "God no, Samantha, don't!" Carradine shouted, but she shot Jackson three times before Tompkins and the trooper killed her.

"Be wary of the women and older children," Tompkins shouted. "They will extract revenge given the opportunity." Samantha had sent the families away, but now they were back, gathering what few belongings hadn't been blown to bits, and burying their dead. The gravedigging and anguished mourning had continued non-stop for a full day.

Carradine considered taking Samantha's body to Waco but decided to bury her where she felt at home. He didn't ask for help, but Cutter set to work gathering stones, and now both men were on their knees as they stacked them on her grave. "I see they gave Sheriff Hansen and Deputy Barnes decent burials," Cutter said.

"Samantha ordered it done."

Cutter sighed. "I'm real sorry about this," he said.

Carradine nodded. "You got a woman?"

"Did have. Been in the same boat as you about three years."

"Well," said Carradine, "I'm sorry, too." He extended his hand across Samantha's grave, and when Cutter hesitated, he said, "It doesn't mean we're friends."

"In that case . . . " Cutter and Carradine shook hands, stood up, and saw that Skinnerville was virtually surrounded by mounted rurales. The man next to the one who appeared to be the officer-in-charge waved a lance tipped with a white cloth. They apparently wanted to talk, at least for the time being. Tompkins noticed their predicament about the same time and joined the two men in the graveyard. "Carradine," he said, "they're going to want money. It's time for you to tell me where it is."

"Like I said, Lieutenant, there is no money. I showed you the empty safe. She must have given it to the women to take with them. If so it's out there in those hills somewhere." He looked to the courtyard, where troopers took defensive positions and manned the cannon. "But we do have the Hotchkiss gun."

"Yes, and we might win the fight, but most of us would die doing it. That looks like an entire corps of Rurales."

"I don't mean fight. I mean trade. Offer it to them—cannon, mules, limber, shells, all of it—if they'll let us leave."

"I can't just give away a valuable piece of government property."

"Well, I think it's either that, or your valuable government hide."

Tompkins read Jackson's orders to el comandante do los rurales, pausing after every sentence to allow the comandante's aide to translate. When that was done, the comandante nodded and asked to speak to el Capitan Jackson. "He's dead," said Tompkins. "The woman killed him." The comandante smiled as if he understood but turned to his aide to make sure. "Está muerto," said the young officer. "La mujer lo mató." El comandante threw back his head, bared his mouthful of yellow teeth, and laughed uproariously.

When he had composed himself, he toured the second floor of the hacienda. He knew his way around the office and went right to the empty safe. He kicked at the open door in disgust but seemed satisfied that the gringos weren't holding out on him. In less than an hour's time, Sgt. Saunders and the gun crew were reluctantly tutoring a squad of Mexican policemen in the proper care and feeding of a Hotchkiss one-inch revolving cannon. Tompkins and el comandante observed the process, and when it was done, el comandante turned unceremoniously to Tompkins. "Vete ahora. Y nunca vuelvas." "Go now," said the aide, "and never—"

Tompkins showed him the palm of his hand. "I get it."


Once they were safely across the border, Tompkins threatened to bring Carradine up on charges for not having disarmed Samantha. Nothing ever came of it. Tompkins was promoted to captain, and he and Sgt. Saunders were killed by Apaches at the Battle of the Salt River in 1890.

Matt Cutter was elected Sheriff of Doña Ana County and subsequently killed in the line of duty while collecting taxes.

Victor Carradine went on to be appointed U.S. Marshal for the Territory of New Mexico. Following a long career, he retired and lived out his remaining years in an old hacienda in rural Chihuahua, Mexico.

The End

Kenneth Newton is a many-time contributor to Frontier Tales. He has placed stories in Volumes I, II, and III of The Best of Frontier Tales, and is slated for inclusion in upcoming volumes. His post-Civil War novel, Passing Through Kansas, is available from Amazon. He is interested in hearing from fellow Old West buffs on Facebook or at

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Broken Pass
by Craig Sholl

Guy Jarret and his younger brother Carl had made it, thus, halfway without getting caught yet, although the law had been on their backs for some time and deftly approaching just miles away now while Carl aside his older outlaw brother Guy, lain away on his horse from the last robbery and bleeding in his side from his gunshot wound with his head drooping and tucked into his kerchief, but Guy mainly leading the pair up in front.

Guy and Carl as it was had been robbing and looting banks or others on their way, and up and down the whole western parts for a time but had botched the last robbery and were presently on the loose waiting for the law to capture them, either dead or alive, but Guy knowing he had to get to a Doctor soon before his brother would lose too much blood which he was now by the minute.

It was winter then in the Nevada territory they were residing although Guy knew the terrain well enough having worked in an old mining town during his younger days, and knew of an old Boom Dock town not too far off and that was still around, although the mining had already abated with just a few old Griff's or stray's about to hold up the tawdry man's drinking Saloon that was still about.

Shortly though even amid the cold and flurrying wind and snow coming down Guy could make out from a distance the town coming up, or what was left of it, hardly the appealing site he knew, but the chance of a Doctor being around, or either finding where one could be encouraging for him and hoping his younger brother could still be helped, as he would continue leading himself and Carl down the towns mudded road or to where the Saloon was at its far end.

Parking both Carl's and his horse in front then, he went on inside to ask around or see where a Doctor might be though leaving his brother on his horse even in the cold to do so knowing he could not get him down or up easily with his wound, as Guy upon coming through the saloon doors was met by a mellowing and lackluster bunch once inside, either smoking or drinking at their tables in the dim setting with one or two men up at the bar, and even a big old fat bartender behind it just then pouring himself a drink and seeing Guy standing there. Even he could recognize the outlaw though as he knew him to be Guy Jarrett, bank and side coach robber of the west without any sign of his brother anywhere but Guy promptly speaking up as he just stood there looking back.

"Any Doctor around, here?" he asked out loud while the bartender put down his bottle and some of the others took notice.

"Well, no . . . " he answered Guy after a moment, but the outlaw still not satisfied as he look around.

Suddenly though one of the old bar stools with his drink talked up looking over to the outlaw as he listened.

"I know of one . . . " he said. "A Doctor Wilhelm, way up on the Thomsen's Mountain near Sands Creek. Lives in some cabin, retired now."

Hearing this Guy without even paying any regard just went to turn around back through the pair saloon doors, though the bar stool talking up again shortly as Guy barely glanced back to listen.

"You'll have to get their quick though, if you want to make to the Doctor's cabin before the pass caves in this time of year." Guy though not even saying anything nor wasting any time just continued his way out, swinging through the saloon doors to where his brother was still up on his horse but further stooped over now as Guy mounted up on top of his own to get on with their journey, but knowing they would have to make it fast to the Doctors Cabin, or as he had just been told by the man inside.

After a good hour ride, however, but finally reaching the Sands Creek just where he had remembered it even in the blistering cold weather upon them and getting worse, Guy would make his way with Carl then up the steep mountain embankment and wend through whatever trees and obstructs looking out for the pass the whole time and hoping it had not already caved in, but proceeding on not only for help with his brother but to escape the law he knew was still on their backs, or head Marshal around those parts, gaining in on them no doubt with only the mountain and themselves separating one another.

Eventually as the two proceeded Carl's brother, or Guy, could spot the pass that he had been forewarned about as looked up around him and to the side of the mountain where a thick wall of heavy snow and tumbling ice had built up ready any moment to collapse in the harsh winds and snow still coming down upon them as he halted for a second with Carl to take a brief break before making the summit knowing he would not have much time to get across.

Taking hold, then, as he held Carl's reigns, though his brother was hardly even awake enough to see, he gathered what nerve inside him to make the pass as he shoveled through taking with him his younger brother and taking caution where he could to get on.

Suddenly a few pads of snow underneath his horse almost seemed to give way as the horse nearly stumbled, but then, hearing the sounding roar of the pass overhead he decided to make a quick and hurried dash for it with Carl taking the two across the ridge at a fast trollop until finally making it to the other side, and just as the thundering slope began to fall and crust off, nearly taking him and Carl down with it, but the two left intact, nonetheless, and the law who had been on their backs well out of their hands now, hardly within their grasp for the time being.

Guy though knew that there would most likely be no way of getting out or off the mountain from any other side, however, as his face could show a little tension and almost looking back to the now broken pass, or just before shoving off again with Carl to make their way to the Doctors home wherever it would pop up.

He knew that it could not be too far, however, as he continue leading Carl now further slumped over and soon to be on deaths door if not treated quickly, but Guy completing the journey, regardless, and determined just to get to the old Doctor's cabin. Shortly after beginning again though the image of a log built structure would come into view covered in a white sheet of snow on top and with a thin and slithery line of smoke coming out from its small tin capped chimney, while Guy signaled slightly to his younger outlaw brother in back and still holding onto his reigns.

As soon as reached the cabin, then, Guy would dismount from his horse and go to get Carl down from off his as Carl slavered onto him while Guy held him up and slung his arm over his shoulder though Carl fraying a bit as he did this, and limping with him as Guy opened the cabin door without any heed of warning, of course, but just going on in to get Carl inside.

Just then, the Doctor, a furrowed crinkly man with delicate sheet white hair and smoking a pipe of some sort had been sitting in his rocker near the heartily wood burning fire trying to get warmth, but seeing as he looked back the two burst in as he quickly got up and went over to the two not even bothering to ask of anything and seeing Carl badly in need of attention to his wound.

"Bring him in here, up on to the table," the old man said as Guy helped slab him on top of a solid oak table in the adjoining Cabin's room on the other side, while Doctor Wilhelm scrappily went over to get down a small lantern and match to see better at Carl's wound, Guy undoing his shirt and sweater to get to where he had been shot.

Bringing over a lantern then, the doctor would shine the apparatus around Carl's side and seeing the bullet hole that had gone in knowing he had to get the piece of round out before losing any more blood with not a moment to waste as he told Guy to keep holding the lantern for him while he went and got some of his medical tools, or whatever needed to pry out the bullet.

As to this he went to get his medical bag, an old black sack of a thing, from underneath where he had absolved the lantern and sitting on the shelf as he set it up on the chair next to Carl to begin the surgery while telling Guy to be careful with the light as he did his business, but without an anesthetic or any sedative for Carl, though he was out like a light by now and hardly conscious to even know it.

As for the Doctor he performed the procedure with his nimble older man's fingers and in the dimmer light of the lantern just as proficiently as any other Doctor could do around those parts, removing the cartridge from Carl's side with his pair of tweezers, and, thereafter, to see if it was intact by holding it to Carl's underclothes, though telling right off that it was and reassuring Guy that the bleeding would stop. After this he would stitch him up with some string he had and spare needle as Guy watched from the side.

It would not be certain, however, as he went on to say the possibility of Carl coming down with a fever in the duration, in which case they would have to wait it out to see if he would come through and that it would be fifty-fifty if he did, but that from the looks of it so far he was doing alright.

As for Guy he just reassured the Doctor that he would come through it insisting that he had been through tougher things before, but looking to his younger brother's face with hid vigilante outlaw face almost as if knowing Carl knew had to get better.

As they stood around some more the Doctor eventually checked Carl's forehead, though, and could feel an impending fever telling Guy aside him that his temperature was rising, but went ahead and got a wood bucket full of some spare water he had poured and just told Guy to keep wetting Carl's head to reduce the fever which after a little while seemed to work as old man Doctor Wilhelm stood by. Nevertheless, suspecting that the two had come to him by foul means he would speak up as Guy answered his questions to him, though not believing any of his answers despite, and having heard of the two brothers even himself at one time after having kept this to himself the whole time so far.

"You boys coming from somewhere?" he asked as Guy look to him.

"Yeah," he answered him. "My brother and I, matter of fact, just comin' in with a cattle drive supposed to be getting' in tomorrow far side of country. Just happens three or four guys ransacked takin' our cattle and shootin' at me and my brother tryin' to get em' back. My Brother here Carl got it the worst though." As the doctor glanced at him he would finish and say, "Almost got caught in the pass just before cavin' in comin' here."

Shortly after though the Doctor prompted Guy asking him to get some fresh snow from outside of all things, or which could be used to cool him down as they wet Carl still burning up, but Guy accepted the task without quiver of course and went out with the bucket to do this, now that nearly all the water had been used up for such.

After going out of the cabin door though, Guy could see his horse next to Carl's being blown about in the wind as he took both over to the other side where there less wind, although the snow continued to pour down with the intense and bitter winds as Guy went to fill the bucket with some sloshy snow that had fallen next to the cabin.

Looking out straight ahead then toward where they had approached the cabin Guy suddenly thought of the lawmen who had been chasing them prior, but knew they would have no way of getting to them although for the time being it would remain unsure or at least to himself how he and Carl would get off the mountain hardly confident that he could by other means, as his attention was shortly beamed on the money or loot he had stolen during the last robbery and that was still in his satchel as he eyed the saddle of his horse where it still was and without thinking twice decided he would bring in the money into the cabin for safe keeping.

Taking it in one hand then and the bucket in the other he went around the side to go in the Cabin opening the door after putting down the satchel to enter, but upon coming in was met with a nasty surprise as the Doctor was in back now holding up a double barrel shotgun to him and had been waiting for him to come in all the while only using the excuse before with the snow to get the upper hand knowing the outlaw he was.

"Put those things down . . . " he demanded unto Guy still holding the satchel of money and bucket as he had both arms slightly raised in the air. Pausing, though, for the briefest moment he suddenly began to put his arms down as he lowered both of what he had in hand to the cabin floor and setting them down like he had been told, but upon doing this in an abrupt motion he went for his gun just as he let go and turning around to fire as he shot off a hastened round from his gun just brazing the doctor nearly wounding him in his arm as the old Man plummeted to the Cabin Floor and dropping his shotgun while Guy stood there looking. He could tell though the Doctor had not been wounded, and instead, had just fainted to the Floor while Guy continued to stand there, although could hear then the faint and weakly sounds of Carl in the other room still up on the table where he had been left as Guy peeped down his head to listen.

"Stop it, Guy . . . " Carl told him in his sluggish speech though Guy kept concentrated down at his brother.

Suddenly then, standing in back from him was the Doctor up again and with his shotgun cocked like before pointing it at Guy as the outlaw could sense him up again. By then he had put his gun away back in his holster but before he could take it out to do whatever, his brother Carl spoke up again telling him not to.

"Stop," he said. "Told him everything before you went out."

To this Guy just sort of gave him a quizzical look as the Doctor kept his shotgun pointed at him, but trying only to appease his brother and knowing he didn't have much choice Guy turned around without saying anything and carefully took out his weapon to toss it over to the Doctor or onto the Cabin floor in front of him as the Doctor moved it out of the way with his foot while holding his gun.

"You don't have to worry 'bout me Doc," Guy said as the Doctor kept standing there.

"Alright," the Doctor replied as he went for the gun lying on the floor, and lowering the shotgun, finally, almost sure he knew Guy was telling the truth.

Just then Carl began to move again squirming in his face and sweating still though the fever had begun to break after all, as Guy looked down at him.

"You just keep wetting his head with the rag while I go get some more water," the Doctor said noticing Carl himself and hearing his moaning.

Going back over to where guy had set down the bucket and his satchel in front of the cabin door the Doctor stood a moment before taking the bucket, though deciding to peep in the satchel and seeing the luscious amount of money inside as Guy kept at his brothers side in the other room waiting for him to come back.

Shortly though he would return, or the Doctor, but by then Carl had already gone out again and was well asleep with just him and Guy standing there although the Doctor told Guy they could wait now in the other room and that there was nothing left to do as Guy followed him in, even holding the shotgun and his sidearm the Doctor now had on him, but following him as the Doctor, or old man, sat down near the Fireplace where had had been earlier as Guy would wait there with him for the remainder of the night. Guy was nevertheless, his old cocky self but tried to be as honest with the Doc as he could as they would exchange a few words before the night was through while the Doctor sat in his rocker and smoking his pipe and listening for the most part.

* * *

"You don't have to by worryin' 'bout me," Guy said seeing Doctor Wilhelm with his shotgun laid on his lap.

"I owe it to you on savin' my brother's life, now," he finished as the Doctor blew out his smoke. Only turning then to him again as the light shined on his face from the Fire Guy spoke up again.

"There, uh, wouldn't be any way off this mountain, other than the way we came up?" he asked as the Doctor looked at him.

"Nope," the other said hardly thinking about it. "The way you came is the only way of gettin' here and off, as far as I reckon."

Guy's face just shined of the burning flames and grinning again trying not to show his fear.

"Well, that's what I thought  . . . " he said almost sure the Doctor knew what he was talking about, but knowing the law would be waiting for him on the other end just as certain.

Suddenly Guy's eye caught a book on the Fireplace mantle or just a sledge of wood as he took it in hand and opened it up to read it while the Doctor could see him.

"You read these books?" he said as the Doctor sat there not saying anything.

"Never learned to read myself really," Guy went on putting back the book onto the shelf as the Doctor lowered his expression slightly.

"Carl knows how to read though," he went on. "Some woman taught him after our mother and father got killed by Indians out here."

"I could teach you if you like," the Doctor spoke up again though Guy's face almost looking entertained by the proposition.

"Ah, wouldn't do me any good," he said almost dumbfounded. Sharpening up then, he spoke out, "Carl on the other hand is much smarter than me. I reckon save the readin' for him. Me on the other hand I'm just good for hold ups and gun draws," he went on strolling away sort of. "Never cared much for readin'."

"Uh huh," the doctor said without replying.

"Yep," Guy continued, "I reckon' the law be waitin' for us soon though as the snow melts up and they can get through.

The Doctor still did not say anything as Guy stood by having some apprehension in his face.

"The Law?" the Doctor asked from his seat. "They's were chasin' you' here?" he went on as Guy stood there in front.

"Chasin' us from here all the way up through Colorado and Nevada. Been chasin' us forever . . . "

The doctor did not say anything as Guy waited though turning soon to him to ask him something.

"Don't supposin' any of that money in that satchel interest you in helpin' us out?" he asked as the Doctor rock away in his chair.

"No, can't say it would," he said as Guy eyed it or the satchel from his standpoint.

To this Guy didn't say anything at first although sort of frustrated looking.

"Well, what about Carl in there," he said looking at Wilhelm but the Doc just sitting there.

"What d'you think they're going to do to him," he said as he continued to listen while guy turned away.

A moment went by but then the Doctor stood up as he put his shotgun against the side of the mantle and went to put more tobacco in his pipe from a pouch on top.

"Well, I don't know," he said as Guy turned to him while Doctor handled his pouch.

"Well, they'll just hang him up like they will of me," he said to Wilhelm as he put his pipe to his mouth and lit it from a splinter in the Fireplace.

"Seems to me you got two choices," he said sitting back down in his rocker as Guy listened to his slow paced voice.

"Yeah," he said almost sounding interested but wasn't sure.

"Well," the Doctor spoke up again, "Either you can turn yourselves in as you said."

Waiting a moment Guy asked, "Yeah?"

"Or," the Doctor went on almost, hesitatingly, "You could turn yourself in and let you brother stay here."

"What d'you mean?" he asked still unsure.

"Well," pausing, "Maybe say he went over in the avalanche," the Doctor went on as Guy kept listening.

Getting up then Guy looked back away from the Doctor as he spoke.

"And hand myself in?" he asked seeming amused by the idea. "Well, I'd never do that," he went on almost just as sure he was telling the truth.

The Doctor though just sat there saying nothing for a moment, but then would speak up again.

"Well, I reckon you wouldn't," he said looking down. "But, like you said Carl won't be gettin' off himself. They'll be hanging the both of yous then."

Guy looked out again away from the Doctor turning around sort of unsure of what to do.

"You sure none of that money be interestin' you," he said as the Doctor kept his same gaze. Getting up then he would answer. "No," he said going over to fire to light his pipe again, "Wouldn't do me much good now that I'm old and don't care too much."

Guy still looked perplexed but eyeing the satchel from his place where he stood.

"Well," he said, "I'll let you have the whole thing. The whole ten thousand dollars in there."

The Doctor still did not turn away from the fire to answer.

"No," he finally said. "Means nothin' to me," shaking his head.

"What d'you mean mean's nothing to you?" Guy went on rampantly.

The Doctor though just sat back in his chair seeing that Guy was getting agitated.

"Well," he said looking of thought before carrying on. "I've seen more men perish because of money than any other commodity so far. Yes, sir, I've seen a lot now and I know that no money will help me the way things are. So, I much obliged but I see no reason to take your money bein' I'm set in my ways."

Just then Carl could be heard moaning again in the other room as Guy turned to him and the Doctor could hear too. Going inside as the two did Carl kept on moaning but the Doctor went to cushion his head some more with some of the clothes they had taken off of him as Guy watched from the side while Wilhelm patted his head with some of the rag like earlier on.

"What's the matter?" Guy asked unsure of it.

"Oh, just a bad dream he's haven'," he said.

Guy just continued standing there as the Doctor did not look to say anything at first although would speak up shortly as he tended to Carl.

"Well, I don't know . . . But if you come to be thinking any differently about my idea it might be something to consider. Seemin' it looks like you care about 'em so much."

Guy did not give any hint of concern, but just went back to his own thoughts about how he would get away but knew that with the Doctor present and with the law on their backs the way they were and going to probably attempt the pass at the first signs that they could get through he would have no chance at making his escape.

For a moment he thought almost of going back in and getting the shotgun, but the Doctor seeing his resistance in his eyes just lamented, "Wouldn't do you know good poppin' me off if that's what you're thinking. Like I said the way you came is the only way off and up to this here's cabin. I would know. Been here seven eight years goin' on," he continued without distress.

To this Guy didn't try to say anything, but just lowered his expression and promptly went out of the cabin almost in a hurried way as the Doctor looked up and could hear the wind howling through the door, not knowing where he was going off to. Guy was only making it to his horse though trying not to believe the Doctors words and about to get on his saddle when then his common sense hit him that the Doctor would only be telling the truth as he headed back in after a moment's thought, although hardly as enthused he was affirmatively knowing now he wouldn't be able to get off any other way as the Doctor said.

Instead, for now he knew he would have consider the Doctor's notion if he was to help his brother and the alternative he was given.

Seeing though the Doctor resume his place at the Rocker with his pipe as he stood by again upon coming in he knew just as assuredly his days were few so long as the pass held up, but with a fear and anxiety now within he could not relieve himself of, although still angry as he came in to the Doctor who looked now with his eyes closed not paying him any mind.

"Well, hell!" he shouted. "I don't care what you say about that pass. Gotta be some other way me and Carl can get out a here."

The Doctor just kept at his lightly rock as Guy kept talking.

"Aren't you listenin'?" he asked although the Doctor kept his eyes shut and as he had but then would say over to him,

"Sure I'm listenin'. But, you'll be here till March when the pass begins to give. Then that law been on your back should start creepin' in. Until then, though, you'll be stuck here so I think you'd better get used to it."

Hearing this Guy didn't do anything for a moment except go back to looking cool and calm while the Doctor kept in his chair as he had.

"Alright, Doc . . . " Guy said as he curtly stopped his rampant disagreeableness. "Sure. Whatever you say," he went on and laughing a bit as the Doctor just opened his eyes to see while Guy stood there looking back and laughing.

The night would go by despite and Guy resting a bit aside the fire until Carl would sound again a while later when the Doctor would go over to him and try to resuscitate him as best he could or continue to pat his forehead with the rag as Guy was already sound and out for the rest of that night. It would not but until the next day or two when his brother Carl would be up and about and slightly staggering and walking round the cabin, although as there was no place to go it didn't matter, of course.

As for Guy he would just stand by silent and not saying anything mostly knowing what would await him soon, but with Carl shot and wounded he knew he could not even attempt to make a futile getaway but would, instead, just wait the next weeks to come staying in the cabin with his brother recuperating from his wound and the nonchalant old man and Doctor helping him as he could while Guy thought about everything and growing more tense by the passing day.

Finally, though, Guy one night with his brother and the Doctor in front of the fire became suddenly uneased after listening to the two speak and with only thoughts of the cash he had inside the satchel, but unable to fend off the certain dilemma that would come regardless of what reverence he had for Carl and what the Doctor had told him that first night he had been there prior.

Fed up with his own contempt just after Carl had spoken he would tell Carl what he had in mind to save him from the law on the other side soon to break through any day now, although Carl himself was hardly agreeable to the idea but Guy only telling him there would be no other way for them to get off the mountain though Carl had not been told of this thus far, as the Doctor sat in his chair while Guy and Carl went back and forth until the younger could no longer challenge Guy, but not taking no as answer to his older brothers plans.

At this Carl asked the Doctor, or Wilhelm if it was true about the mountain they were on, but he only concurred and smoking his pipe like usual as Guy stood off in his own bereavement as to the situation and the shadow upon his head of the penult that awaited him.

Nothing much would be said after this though as Carl would not talk back to his brother and Guy just in his own kind of fixation but the next morning would prove to be the true test of what his brother had spoken or after having gone out the door to tend to the horses though a shot was fired next to him almost as soon he opened the door to go out and do this.

"Hold up there now!" Ned Kelly, or the head Marshal shouted from his crotched position with his other lawmen standing by and with their rifles up and pointed.

Guy only raised his hands, though, to the lawmen at first as he could see nothing but familiar Ned Kelly's brown leathered hat sticking out and his rifle pointed at him in the distance.

"Who you got in there?" Ned shouted to him again as Guy just stood there looking back and silent. Suddenly he would speak.

"Got no one in there . . . " he uttered more casually voiced, although the Marshal knew better seeing the pair of horses on the side, but just proceeded to go on to tell him to throw his gun out in front of him. Guy would just stand there for a moment before doing anything, however, although he had no gun on him or ever since the Doctor had taken it from him that first night and having no need as he saw it to wear it.

After a moment more the old man inside could no longer hold Carl though as he pushed Wilhelm out of the way and went for the door still having his own sidearm on him as he came through the front of the door in sudden surprise and went to unload his weapon on the Marshall and his men just as Guy turned to him to stop it, but not even squeezing off a round Carl went to fire as he was shot down dead in front of Guy on the spot and lain in the late February and early March snow.

Just then Guy Jarret knelt down to his brother as the red stained blood poured from out his body onto the white slush in front of the cabin door without saying anything.

"Stand up now!" the Marshal spoke from his position though Guy did not look to move at first.

Suddenly, however, in a quickened motion he went for Carl's gun on the ground next to him and stood up to fire a shot which he actually achieved but not after being shot a few times in the chest by the Marshal's men as he fell dead down to the ground next to Carl as the two lay side by side.

After this the Marshal would come out with his pod of men simply knowing no one would be left inside to retaliate, but stood there looking down at his two dead outlaws and holding his rifle.

Inside the cabin though was still Wilhelm, of course, as suddenly after a noise heard by the others the old man would duck his head out the door and holding the satchel of money in his hands while the others could see him.

Looking on with the rest he would search down at the two and then give over the money they had stolen in the satchel; but only to hand it back to the lawmen who would and had finally apprehended the two after their fating robbing spree. And, upon the mountain that had come to claim both despite, even having escaped the clutches of the pass, but, finally, to be left to itself as the two would be for now on—Unbroken

The End

Craig Sholl lives on Long Island in NY. He has been writing for ten years, on and off. His book, No Gun's in Little Cavern, is available at Amazon.

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