The Buzzard King
by Kenneth Mark Hoover
Most everything I saw, steam engine and coal car, shattered trestles and twisted iron and dead men, lay in the bottom of the gorge.
The locomotive was a hulk of shattered iron baking in the New Mexico sun. Black buzzards fought and clattered over scattered bits of pink and red.
"You need to dig those bodies out for burial," I said.
"What's the point, Marshal Marwood?" Cornelius Smythe owned the Red Rock & Western Amarillo Railroad. What was left of it.
I stared at him. "A man deserves to be buried proper. That's all."
Smythe had a florid face and grey muttonchops. His pale hands polished a gold pince-nez with a silk handkerchief.
"Marshal Marwood," he began, "anyone who survived that plunge is beyond caring now. We tried keeping the coyotes away last night, but you couldn't pick one off unless you hit a man in the dark."
He perched the pince-nez on the bridge of his nose. "It was something awful hearing their cries for help."
I imagined what it was like trapped under tons of scrap iron while wild animals tore you apart because Smythe didn't want to spend eight cents a cartridge to help save your life.
"Well," Smythe shook his head with a heavy sigh, "the shareholders aren't going to appreciate this misfortune."
He picked his way along the rocky ledge towards a horse-drawn buggy. I wondered if I should kick his ass into the narrow canyon. If he lived, he could fish eight cents from his coin purse and pay someone to help him.
He called over his shoulder. "Marshal, in the business of promoting railroads you always weigh cost against caution. But I'm not devoid of conscience." He waved in a vague direction. "We'll bring down the south face of that gorge and bury everything under a rock fall. Won't do for passengers to see a wrecked train on the main line. Might not buy tickets for the return trip." His laugh was dry and rusty. "There are fortunes to be made, Marshal. I aim to make them."
"I'm beginning to understand how you see things, Mr. Smythe."
He climbed into his buggy decorated with shiny brass scroll-work.
"This is a hard setback," he admitted. "But I'll rebuild that bridge and keep laying three miles of track every day until I reach Haxan. Meantime, you arrest Libby Creel for dynamiting my train and murdering twenty of my men."
This was a sore point between us. "We don't know that she did it."
He frowned with disappointment. "Come now, Marshal. Libby fought me the minute I had a court order to survey her land. Don't worry, though. I've got other irons in the fire to bring her down." He eyed me sharp. "No one gets in my way."
Most times I didn't like my job. "I can't arrest Libby on your suspicion, Smythe. I need proof."
He kicked the brake loose with his polished boot and took up the leather reins.
"Bring Libby in, Marwood. Find a way to make the proof stick. Do that, and I'll buy you a beer when she hangs."
He snapped the reins and trundled off in a rising cloud of red dust.
* * *
I have a dark past born of violent blood.
I am not alone. There are others like me. We are called through time to stand against that which must be faced. We survive because we know one fundamental truth.
All men must fall.
Only blood and dust and wind endures, scouring the colossal wrecks left by Man until they, too, disappear beneath the winds of time.
This is my world. I was called forth by a dying man to protect the town of Haxan. I mean to do it.
And if I must destroy all the stars in heaven so Haxan can survive one more day, one more hour, I will do that, too.
This is who we are. We have many names. Some are so old I can't remember them all. But if you call us anything call us that which survives.
We are Blood, and Wind, and Dust.
* * *
"Marshal, you just ride on and you won't get shot this fine Sunday morning."
Libby Creel stood on the veranda pointing a Henry rifle at me.
She was beautiful despite her hard years. You could see it in her slim figure, her yellow-white hair looped in a braid, and her steady brown eyes.
"Put the gun away, Libby. I'm here on official business."
"You mean railroad business."
I climbed off my horse and mounted the wooden steps of the veranda. The skin of my stomach crawled when I approached the big bore of her rifle.
"Libby, I don't like it when people point guns my way."
She laughed. "You going to serve papers on me again, Marshal? I'll throw them back in your face like last time."
"And I'll nail them to your door with a horseshoe, Libby. Just like last time."
She retreated a half-step back. "I can get you clean before you unleather that heavy Colt's Dragoon, so don't think it."
When people talk about dropping a hammer it's because they're scared. Professional killers don't brag.
I grabbed the barrel and removed the rifle from her hands. "That's enough, Libby." I jacked the shells out of the gun and leaned it against a railing.
Her eyes flashed. "Why are you here?" she demanded.
"We need to talk." I looked about. The place looked empty. "Where are your hands?"
"Doing what needs done," she said. "No moss gathers on my ranch. Not even the Sabbath."
I turned to face her. "Libby, I'm sworn to uphold the law. Judge Creighton says Smythe's railroad can come through your property. That means money and jobs for Sangre County. Smythe will give you a right fair price, too."
I remembered how Smythe was loathe to waste cartridges to keep the coyotes at bay. The thought made me sick.
Libby saw through my lie. "What about the sections of my land the railroad gets for every mile of track he puts down? I own half a million acres, Marshal. This is one of the largest ranches in the territory. I've got cattle, a dam and race for irrigation, and men and their families all working for me. Smythe will cut all that up and sell it for tripe."
I didn't have an answer to that. She was right.
"Anyway," she went on, "what do I care about Haxan? That no account town didn't help Jubal when he hacked this ranch out of the wilderness with his bleeding hands."
"No, you listen here, Marshal." She swallowed hard. Something private passed between us. "When Jubal died I swore I'd keep Short Creek Ranch together. I won't give up one acre to no railroad, or even Christ himself."
"Libby, someone dynamited the bridge over Buffalo Gorge yesterday. A lot of men got killed."
Her brown eyes darkened, like she was remembering something from so long ago it sucked the light out.
"You come to me about loss? Marshal, we pulled up stakes in New Orleans when the Yellow Fever hit. Jubal and me rode north through Kansas without any cover on our wagon. My little girl, Acacia, fell off one night and a wheel ran across't her neck. She's out there on the plains buried without a marker."
Libby put both hands on the rail of the veranda and watched the land shimmering on the horizon. The wind was hot and dry.
"My boy, Horace," she said low, "he got the dropsy and died in my arms. He was just a boy. Then the war came and Jubal got killed at Shiloh. My last boy, Joram, he up and ran off one night. I ain't seen him in so long I half forget what he looks like."
She turned to me. "Now you ride up on your big blue roan and say Libby let a railroad cut my ranch in two. Well, Marshal, I won't have it."
"Even to killing twenty men?" I asked.
Her face was scornful. "I didn't blow up that bridge. But you find out who did and he has a job for life on Short Creek Ranch."
She strode across the verandah with purpose and picked up a striker and rang an iron triangle hanging from the rafters.
Two dozen men thundered up in a storm cloud of white alkali dust. They had been hiding behind a bunkhouse in a grove of cottonwood trees. The man out front rode a tall claybank. He had two Navy Colts thrust in his saddle and another on his hip.
He pulled up and tugged a dusty neckerchief from the lower half of his face.
"Marshal," Libby said, "this here is Ned Plover, my new straw boss. I hired him last week out of Laredo."
"You hired yourself a gunman?"
"You heard her plain, Marshal." Plover had grey-blue eyes with long lashes and a heavy mustache. His hair lay coiled around his ears in lank, oily curls.
I stared at Plover. He looked like a bill-dodger. "Where were you when that bridge was dynamited?"
He leaned off his horse and spat and grinned "None of your nosey business, lawdog." The other men laughed.
"Go ahead, Ned," Libby ordered. "We've got nothing to hide."
"All right, Mrs. Creel." He shrugged. "We were watering the herd. We heard a rumble shaking the air and saw the smoke." His smile was strained. "We don't know who did it, but they got that train right enough."
Several circled the veranda on their cow ponies. Every one had his hand on a gun.
"There were men on that train," I said.
Plover's smile was like granite. "Men die everyday, Marshal. You and I both know the trick is staying alive through the dying of others."
I clumped down the stairs and pushed past the riders. I mounted my horse, saddle leather creaking, and kicked him around hard. He was a big, mean bastard and I had him trained. When he wanted room he made it. He kicked and bit at the other horses, even snapped at a man's arm like a dog.
The riders backed up, including Plover, while the dust rose under me in a spinning cloud.
I turned in my saddle. Libby had loaded the Henry rifle with a shell or two.
"Libby Creel," I told her, "if you dynamited that bridge I'll see you hang in Santa Fe. You know I don't bluff."
"Marshal, ride on my place again without leave and I'll have you shot dead."
Her thin voice cracked. "You hear that, boys?" she called. "One hundred double eagles to the man who gets him."
Plover whistled. "Two thousand dollars in gold. A man can live a high time on that."
I slowly walked my horse towards his and stopped. I held his gaze.
"Ned," I said low, "the day you try and collect on me will be the day you die. Remember that."
"Sure, Marshal." He grinned. He didn't believe me. They never do. "Sure."
I nudged my horse past his.
Ned and his men followed at a careful distance. When we reached Short Creek I forded it, the spray flying from my horse's legs and chest.
I rode another mile and pulled up. I tugged a spyglass from my saddle bag and watched Ned and his men disappear back over a hogback, leaving pickets behind.
I collapsed the spyglass and swung northeast, kicking hard for the railroad camp.
* * *
The engineer's shack was built against a rising limestone bluff. A rock overhang provided a sliver of shade. A hand-painted sign above the door read: Samuel Traub, Engineer.
I went inside.
A young man stood over a workbench piled with topography maps and papers. He had a bald head, rounded back, and calculating eyes behind steel-rimmed spectacles.
He looked up at my entrance. "Marshal," he said in greeting. "If you're looking for Mr. Smythe he's with the geologist. They're choosing a new place to cross Buffalo Gorge."
I liked Traub, somewhat. We had met when I first rode into camp from Haxan after a telegram informed me of the downed bridge.
"To be honest, Sam, I've had my fill of the good Mr. Smythe." I continued under my breath, "And Libby Creel, for that matter."
He let loose a sympathetic laugh. "They are rather like Scylla and Charybdis, aren't they?. Man gets caught between those two, he's done for. Anything I can do?"
I walked up to a yellow survey map tacked to the wall. It was filled with confusing lines and topographical information that made little sense to me. The railroad was marked in black and red. The black was where the track was complete. A long red snake wound through Libby Creel's ranch before turning for Haxan. Alternating land sections, sixty-four hundred acres for every mile of track laid, were marked in grease pencil on either side of the proposed right of way.
I tapped the map with a calloused knuckle. "Must you go through Creel ranch to reach Haxan?"
"Marshal, we've been over that with judges, the Secretary of the Interior in Washington, D.C., and various government officials. Some of whom we had to bribe twice."
"But not me," I said. "I was put on this case this morning. I can do my job better if I have more information."
Traub pursed his lips. "All right. See this here blue squiggle? That's Short Creek. It's not a lot of water, but it makes the land rich, especially where Libby has it dammed up. That's water steam engines must have, Marshal."
"But why can't you go around these mountains to the west? Get the water you need from Gila Creek, south of Haxan, or Broken Bow River up north?"
Traub shook his head. "People don't understand how much water these engines require. As a consequence you must lay track where there's available water. A railroad only goes where the water is, Marshal."
Traub approached the map closer. "I know you're trying to keep the peace, Marshal. You asked about going around Short Creek Ranch. Let me show you something."
Handling a pair of brass calipers he measured out the distance on the map.
"You see the problem? It's too far, and there's no water for the engine boiler. Not to mention the blasting and cutting, and, yes, the lives it would cost. That's awful dangerous work, tunneling through mountains. We can lay three miles of track a day across open plains. In the mountains you're down to hundreds of feet a day. That costs time and money to the railroad."
He tossed the brass calipers onto the workbench with a heavy thump.
"No, Marshal, when you're laying track into Sangre County you must have Short Creek water. I can't change the science of railroad engineering. I'm sorry."
I liked Traub better than Cornelius Smythe. At least he was human.
I used my forefinger to follow the projected course of the railroad on past Haxan.
"Hey. This swings north through Sangre Valley and cuts through the farmland and ranches up that way."
"That's right." Traub agreed. "Once we lay track into Haxan we're going north. It will open the territory up wide."
I looked at him. "But what happens when the railroad goes through Sangre Valley?"
"You know what happens, Marshal. We get all that good farm land. Government says so."
I felt like I was showered neck deep in frost. I pointed to a spot on the map.
"Sam, this is where the bridge was blown, right?"
He nodded. "Buffalo Gorge. Libby's property line is here. We're circling this mesa, and will angle 'cross the flat."
"Who was riding on that train?"
"The engineer, fireman, brakeman, and about twenty hired men. Chinese and some Indian, mostly."
"Smythe told me he's going to bring down that gorge and bury the wrecked train."
Traub's eyebrows arched. "Mighty foolish if he did. Like as not there's good cross-timber to salvage. We can ship the smashed trucks east to the ironwork foundries and melt them down. No need to bury it all, Marshal."
Even though Traub had a window open it was hot and airless inside the shack.
"Mayhap," I murmured, "Cornelius Smythe wants to bury something else."
"'Fraid I don't catch your meaning, Marshal."
I found pencil and paper. "Sam, do me a favor. Send this telegram. I'll pay the charges."
I scribbled the message on a spare sheet of yellow notepaper and handed it to him.
Traub read it. His face paled.
"Are you serious, Marshal?"
"I don't know." My mind raced. "Maybe I'm grasping at straws. But I can't think of no other reason that train was stopped, or why Smythe wants to hide it. Send that as soon as possible. Okay, Sam?"
"Well, sure." He held the message as if it were a scorpion. I guess maybe it was. If I was right it would sting in a lot of places.
"I'm trusting you to keep quiet on this, Sam."
"I know, I . . . " He glanced at the telegram a second time. He swallowed hard. "I'll do what you want, Marshal."
I buttoned up my duster and made ready to go. "Don't tell Smythe I was in camp. I'd rather him not know about my idea."
"I can't say I'm happy knowing either, Marshal. But, good luck."
"Thanks." I thought of the wrecked train at the bottom of the gorge. "I'll need it where I'm going."
* * *
When I reached Buffalo Gorge my horse was lathered bad. I stepped out of leather and walked him so he could blow.
We followed the deepening gouge in the desert floor until I spotted ar avine that fell all the way to the bottom. I walked down into it.
There was scrub and a few green shoots coming up between the stones. My horse snorted and kicked at the ground with his hoof.
I took a shovel from my saddle bag and dug until muddy water seeped between the rocks, about an inch deep. I removed the saddle and rubbed my horse down with sacking before I let him drink. I fed him oats, and let him drink some more.
There were coyote tracks and scat all around. But with any luck I'd be out of this gorge before nightfall.
I loaded all six chambers in my Colt's Dragoon and pulled my Sharps rifle from the saddle boot. Then I filled up my canteen and slung it across my shoulder, leaving my horse ground-tied.
I walked deeper into the gorge.
I told myself I was doing the right thing. Cornelius Smythe had the law on his side. He could take Libby's land for his railroad. But maybe he wanted some insurance, too. Someone, or something, on that train to force Libby from her property. But when the train went down Smythe realized he had to bury everything under a rock slide to hide what he was planning.
The rock walls on either side of me were sheer. Cat's claw clung to the crevices. Blue sky wound like a river above. Sometimes it narrowed to a hands-width and I had to pick my way in the half-dark.
My march down into the earth was not an easy one. There were boulders to crawl over and loose spall spilled around my ankles. I froze when a big stone rolled along the slope, bringing sheets of gravel and thick dust with it until the air was choked.
I heard the buzzing of flies and smelled the carrion rotting and baking under bent scrap iron. I tied a bandana across my nose and mouth. The ground underfoot was covered with scattered lumps of coal along with other, more nameless, things.
Turkey buzzards clustered over an engineer and fireman thrown from the smashed locomotive. The birds hopped back and forth in their ungainly walk. Their naked heads were purplish red, and wrinkled, and they stank.
They were not afraid of my presence. This was a place of violent death. It was their kingdom, and they knew it.
I climbed past shattered wooden beams and wormed toward the train which lay smashed and broken among the splintered trestles. The caboose had landed on its side, one end crushed like paper. I kicked through a window and squeezed past the wrecked frame. The brakeman was inside. He was dead.
I crawled back out, scrambled over hot metal that blistered my palms, and slid down the far side.
When I hit the ground I fell to my hands and knees, yanked the bandana from my face, and was sick to my stomach.
There were too many bodies to count this side of the wrecked train. They had spilled off the flatbed like so much corn. They were so lacerated and torn you could never piece them together for separate graves.
Everyone lay under a mangled latticework of timbers, fractured metal, broken rock, and hot sand. Thick clouds of flies swarmed everywhere and the constant buzzing filled my head. Piles of black coal and a few thin shafts of light from above completed the hellish scene.
The birds couldn't reach these bodies easily. They had to work their way through the above maze, hopping and squirming from timber to timber, perch to perch, squeezing and jostling one another to get at the choicest bits. Thirty of these creatures were gathered in a single, stinking, cackling mass around me.
The biggest one, his feathered wings open in an eight-foot wingspan, reigned over the piles of rotting flesh and snarling flies with open beak and jerking tongue.
I grabbed a piece of upended ironwork and pulled myself to my feet.
The King Buzzard opened his ivory beak wide and hissed. I thought about shooting him through the head, but I didn't know how the others would react. I didn't like the thought of those coarse feathers brushing my face, and scratching claws, while the weight of the timbers and iron pressed from above with all those inexorable tons.
I tried to calm my nerves. Drew a deep breath. I knew if I started to run I would never stop.
This was death. You've been here before, Marwood.
But I wanted to see the sun again.
I already hated this Underworld of broken wood and cracked iron and rotting dead. The awful smell, the terrible clouds of black flies, and the press of stinking, squabbling buzzards. It was a place of overwhelming loss and futility. It wasn't a world where living people were meant to be.
To reach the final carriage I had to dig out some dirt with my hands and worm under a heavy beam. I wriggled between trestle and stone until I was looking through the shattered doorway of the only railway carriage.
The interior was in shambles.
It was dark inside, and stifling. I could hear buzzards squabbling over something outside. But I had reached the center of this Underworld. Even they couldn't come here.
The carriage rested upside down with its iron wheels in the air. Bent rails and wooden supports had fallen all around, forming somewhat of a dense cage.
The carriage windows were broken and the very walls buckled. I grabbed another ron railing and shouldered my way through the bent doorway. It was quiet inside, and dark and hot like an oven.
Two more dead men baking in the heat. Dressed in city clothes with money and Pinkerton badges in their pockets.
A cough sounded a ways up the carriage in all that hot and awful dark. I whirled, my gun drawn and the hammer pulled back. My heart beat hard as I walked the canted roof to the back of the car.
I found her under the remains of a wooden seat.
"Who are you?" I asked.
She was too weak to speak. Her face was bruised and she had dried blood on her gingham dress. She had torn the right sleeve of her dress to make a tourniquet where a metal rod punched through her lower thigh. She had done that with a broken arm.
"I'm going to get you out of here." I holstered my gun. "Hang on a while longer."
I opened my canteen and used my fingers to touch water to her cracked and blistered lips. Her dry and broken skin soaked it like a sponge. She grabbed for the canteen with her good hand.
"Don't founder," I warned. I wet my bandana and dabbed her face, neck and hands. I let her suck the damp cloth.
"I can't move." It took her a minute to say those three words.
I examined the crude bandage she had fashioned. The wound was red and had yellow pus. She had stanched the flow of blood and waited to die in the stifling dark while birds fought outside over the remains of the dead.
"God," I said, "there aren't many as tough as you."
She drank a cupful of water and kept it down. It was a good sign. I gave her more.
"There was grinding and screeching metal," she explained. "Then the bottom fell out. Our carriage hit a wooden trestle and the walls caved in. We slid down with all the noise of Hell toward the bottom. That's all I remember. Except my name." She paused. "I'm Acacia Creel."
For the first time things began to make sense.
"Acacia," I said. "Well, I guess I know who you are. Listen up. I'm going to carry you out of here. We're going to get out."
Her dark eyes widened at this. "How did you know to find me."
It wasn't a question. She had no questions left to ask in this life.
"I figured someone important might be on this train. Didn't know who, exactly, or what. Thing is, I never expected to find anyone alive."
"I felt most dead until you gave me that drink of water," she said.
I frowned. I wsa putting two and two together. "If you're Acacia, then Libby can't possibly be your mother."
"Her real name is Edwina Lankin. My mother died up in Kansas. A wagon wheel ran across her neck when she was drunk. She's buried in a grove of cottonwood trees by a buffalo wallow." I jerked my head at the two dead Pinks. "Who are they?"
"Smythe hired them. He wanted to use me against Edwina to steal her land." She closed her eyes and for a moment I thought she was asleep. She opened them. "That's what one of the detectives said one night when they were drinking whiskey and didn't think I was listening."
She studied my face. "I don't know why you're here, but I'm sorely grateful for it."
"My name is John Marwood. I'm a U.S. Marshal. I'm trying to find out who dynamited this bridge. But, I guess I know the answer to that, too. Somehow Libby, I mean, Edwina, found out Smythe was bringing you here. She had to stop you anyway she could. When Smhthe's plan curdled he figured he had to hide the evidence. Those Pinks, they kidnaped you?"
I wiped her face and neck. "Tell me, who is Edwina Lankin?"
"A straggler we picked up in Abilene. She saw Father was a widower and latched on him like a blue tick. After he was killed in the war she put on my mother's wedding ring and hired herself an El Paso lawyer. Edwina had herself declared the only living Creel left in the world. Joram and I were long gone, so we couldn't say different."
"Your brother. What happened to Joram?"
"Edwina thought we might cause trouble one day so she hired a killer to track us down. Joram bought himself a gun, but he wasn't any good with it. He was clerking in Denver when they shot him in the back. I knew they would come after me next. I went to California and hid out in a mining camp. I don't have to tell you what I did there to get on, do I?"
"No. But you must have heard how big a success Short Creek Ranch had become. Why didn't you claim what was yours by right?"
She looked disappointed in me. "My whole family was gone and buried. Edwina weren't no kin to me and what do I care about a ranch?"
"Acacia, if Edwina will go this far, and if Cornelius Smythe will kidnap an innocent girl . . . then they both need to be stopped."
She watched me. Presently, she said, "What you're saying, Marshal, is I need to live and help stop them, maybe."
"They'll keep hurting people who get between them if you don't." I was also thinking about Haxan.
"I can't walk nowhere with this here busted leg."
"I can make a harness and piggyback you out to my horse. We'll ride to Haxan and Doc Toland will set that leg up right. Then we'll find a judge and finish this bad business."
She spun the cap on the canteen and handed it back.
"I guess you'll need what's left of this more than me," she said.
* * *
She fainted on the way out, her arms limp around my neck. I had fashioned a harness out of rope and seat leather to support most of her weight.
It was slow going all the same. When we came upon King Buzzard he beat his wings and hissed. A foul wind buffeted my face.
"You can't have everybody," I told him. "This girl is going with me."
He pecked at my hand. His black claws clacked on his iron perch as he waddled back and forth with a temper.
Acacia didn't weigh much, but the sweat was flowing out of me when I reached open ground near the boiler. I stopped to catch my breath.
A shot rang out and the birds exploded into the air in a black frenzy. I dropped with Acacia into a hollow space under the boiler and partially broken smokestack. I burrowed backward as fast as I could, pulling the unconscious girl after me.
"I'm here to collect on that gold reward, Marshal," Plover called from above.
Another shot spanged metal. He had the range, but couldn't reach me through the tangled wreckage and confusing shadows of the flying birds. It didn't make me feel any better being shot at.
"Daylight's fading on you, lawman." The echoes of his voice bounced off the narrow rock walls in a baffling pattern. I couldn't place him. "Got maybe two hours left. When the coyotes finish you off I will still get paid."
Now I had him. Plover had chosen a good spot on the high ridge. The glare from the westering sun was behind. The buzzards wheeled in the sky above. Only one or two were left down here with me to hop and flap their way up into the blue. The ones below us, in that dank Underworld, had not been frightened enough to come out.
After a while the birds started to light on the wrecked train. They stalked up and down and with their wings outstretched, nervous and cackling.
"Marshal, I ain't going to ask you pretty like. I want that girl."
I fingered the trigger on my Sharps rifle. With the elevation he had on me I would never sight him in before he shot me through.
"How much is Smythe paying you?" I called.
Plover hesitated. "Okay, you're smart. Smythe wants shed of this mess. He can't risk having Acacia testify against him."
"So you collect two rewards with one bullet."
"Ain't life grand?" he laughed. "Sun's going fast, Marshal. Won't be too long before those coyotes come sniffing."
He was right about that. Acacia and I would never survive the night. When the sun set the birds would roost in the tangle of iron and wood while the coyotes slipped in to feast.
"This girl can't walk, Plover. She's got a hurt leg."
"Pull her out in the open then."
More buzzards alighted on the crossbeams and along the broken back of the train. They were falling out of the sky like rain. They started to squawk and fight among themselves over the engineer and fireman.
"Marshal, come tomorrow morning I walk down there and take what's left of her to Smythe before he dynamites that wall."
I tried to think.
It stunk with all these birds around and the rot of death.
I screwed open the canteen, shook out the last drops of water on Acacia's eyes and gently massaged them. Her eyelids fluttered. The ugly bruises were livid on her skin.
"We're pinned down," I whispered.
"Edwina's ranch foreman. A gunman out of Laredo. Smythe paid him to turn saddle."
"What can we do."
I took her face between my hands. I had to make her understand. "I'm going to let him have you."
* * *
"Okay, Marshal, drop your gun belt."
I stood in the open. Acacia lay under the boiler with my Sharps rifle and a handful of cartridges.
"Once you drop the gun you can pull her out and we'll call it a day," Plover said.
I moved to unbuckle my belt. I saw a shadow shift on the ridge. Plover was doing his final sight on me when the Sharps rifle boomed like a cannon in that enclosed space.
The buzzards leaped in the air grunting and hissing with panic. I pulled my yellow-bone handled revolver and went into a crouch behind what cover I could find.
Acacia had done her job well. The birds, and the frenzied confusion of their flight, afforded me the confusion I needed to stay alive out in the open like this. Now, maybe I could get off a shot or two and take Plover out.
Plover snapped off a shot in my direction, but I was already moving. The narrow gorge was thick with whirling black birds as the Sharps boomed a second time.
It was too much for the nervous turkey buzzards to brook. They lifted as one and boiled over the edge of the gorge toward safety in a black squawking mass.
That's when I heard a horrendous clatter coming up behind me. The big King Buzzard had clawed his way up through the tangled wreckage from the Underworld. With the kind of reverberating noise that Sharps buffalo gun was making, even he wanted out of there.
I fired a round in Plover's direction to keep his head down. I wasn't going to hit anything. I just wanted him to know I intended to go down fighting. The Sharps went off a third time.
The shadow on the rock rim above lengthened into the silhouette of a kneeling man. Plover had seen me and had raised up for a killing shot. He couldn't waste the chance with me standing in the open like a tethered lamb.
He fired, but the birds were thick before his face. A hot ball tugged my shirt collar. The King Buzzard left the maze of wood and iron behind me and beat his huge wings overhead in Plover's direction.
He was a smart bird. He knew the straightest path out of that place. Plover raised an arm to protect his face, offering a clear target. My Colt Dragoon kicked hard in my hand. Plover pitched over the rock ledge. His head smashed open against an upended sleeper when he hit bottom.
"Marshal Marwood!" Acacia screamed.
I lowered my gun. "I'm here, Acacia."
The King Buzzard banked around the gorge and fell like an arrow, alighting with a single powerful sweep of wings. A nauseating wind knocked the hat off my head as he braked.
He had claimed a new perch. He remained wary, his ivory beak open, powerful claws tearing sharp into what remained of Plover's face.
"That one you can have," I told him, and turned to help Acacia.
* * *
I carried Acacia the rest of the way to my horse and washed her face and hands with the muddy ground water. Did what I could.
"You were all right," I told her. "You fired the gun at the right time. We were mighty lucky."
Her breath came fast and shallow. "I have no strength left."
"I'll get you to Haxan quick as I can."
"I'll never leave this gorge, Marshal."
I let her drink all the water she could stand. "You've got a ranch to run, Acacia. I sent a telegram to Haxan saying I thought someone important was on that train. All that land is yours now, whether you want it or not."
"Let it be torn down." Her eyes were wide and dark in her pale face. She was looking at something inside her from long ago. "Blow up Short Creek dam. Let the water scour Edwina's tracks forever. Smythe, too. Let them disappear until nothing but grass and sky are left. The way God meant this land to be."
I tried to give her water. She turned her head.
I pressed my hand against her forehead. Her skin felt hot and feverish.
"You can't stop what's coming." She took my hand. "But I'm glad you're here."
"Acacia, you are the only proof any court will accept. If you want to die, fine. Die after I take you to Judge Creighton. Now drink this goddamn water."
"It would be near easy to hate you," she said, finally.
"A lot of people say that then they get married. Drink."
She took water and smiled. It was a real smile. "I guess it would be worth it to see them spavined." She yawned. "Can I sleep on the road?"
I licked my dry lips. I didn't like what was coming. She was right. I couldn't stop it. No man could. "Yes. I'll wake you when we reach Haxan."
"I'm going to sleep such a long time."
"I know." I wasn't a doctor. She had lost a lot of blood.
Her hand squeezed mine.
I stayed crouched beside her. When I looked up I was startled to see stars dusted the sky. I lifted her carefully onto my saddle and mounted my horse so I could hold her in my arms. I rode out slow.
Ten miles later we came on three wagons bedded down for the night. They had a fire going. A picket saw me riding past and shouted at me to stop.
I turned my horse toward their camp.
A man with a black beard strode forward. He saw the badge on my vest. "My name's Bill Scutt. I'm master for this outfit. We come out of Independence." His blue eyes shifted to Acacia in my arms. "Who've you got there, Marshal?"
I held her a little closer. "Just a girl."
"Where you headed?"
"We're pulling for Colorado Territory. But we've seen indications of good land around these here parts."
"Short Creek is a day's ride in that direction." I pointed. "Lots of good land to be had."
"Anyone own it?" Scutt asked.
"A railroad tried to steal it and a rancher tried to murder for it. This girl owns it all now and it's free for the taking. All five hundred thousand acres."
The wagon master whistled at this. "That's enough ground to put down roots, by God."
Yet another man loomed out of the dark, the wavering firelight backlighting his face and long frame. He was dressed in black. He might have been a preacher or an undertaker. They're in the same line of business.
He stared at the girl in my arms.
"Marshal," he spoke with studied concern, "are you sure she's all right?"
"Her name's Acacia. I'm taking her to Haxan. That's all."
"Why don't you come down off that horse and we'll take care of her for you."
"We're going to Haxan." One of the parked wagons was freighting stacked rolls of gleaming wire. "What's that stuff?"
"Barbed wire," Scutt answered. The other man looked too troubled to speak. "Ain't you seen none of it before?"
"Heard of it some."
"Why, Marshal, this whole country will be fenced off with wire. It's going to change this world like nothing you ever saw." Scutt leaned and spat. "West won't never be the same. Well, it never was, was it?"
I looked at him. I lifted the reins and slowly turned my horse.
"I say something wrong, Marshal?" Scutt called.
I off rode into the night with Acacia cradled in my arms.
Kenneth Mark Hoover is a professional writer who has sold over 60 short stories and articles. His latest novel in
the Haxan mythos entitled QUATERNITY was published by CZP in 2015. You can find it at
Amazon. Mr. Hoover currently lives and writes in
Dallas. You can find out more about his writing and his life on his website: KennethMarkHoover.me.
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The Hangman's Dance
by R. J. Gahen
Tommy stared through the barred windows at the gallows across the street. Grim humor filled his black eyes as he recalled the judge's words condemning him to "hang by the neck until dead." Noon was the time set for his exit from this world. He laughed darkly to himself.
"No Sir, Judge Perry," he said to himself, "I just ain't a gonna dance today. Maybe someday, but not today."
The opening and closing of the outer door to the jail startled him out of his thoughts. He turned back towards the front of the cell as the inner door opened. A huge, red-headed man entered the room carrying a plate of food. Easily six feet four inches tall, he was almost that wide. Thick corded muscles overflowing with incredible strength lay beneath even thicker layers of fat. He moved slowly towards the cell, an evil grin pasted to his face.
"Breakfast Tommy," he said and laughed wickedly, "I want you as full as you can get today. It'll help make your neck snap real quick. I take pride in my work, you know? Folks like to watch a hanged man's body jump and dance. You get that from a good snapped neck." He laughed again.
"Well thank you kindly Sheriff Abel, I truly appreciate that. I am pretty hungry. Let's see, what've we got here? Eggs, ham, biscuits and coffee, now that surely does make my belly stand up and take notice how empty it is. But truth of the matter is, I don't think it's enough to make my neck snap," Tommy replied with a wide grin.
Abel laughed, placed the large plate of food on the floor and roughly slid it under the bottom bar. "Laugh it up boy," his voice dropped an octave and he leered menacingly at Tommy. "I'm gonna take a bunch more pleasure in putting that rope round your neck than anybody else's I've ever done. You shouldn't have killed Hardy. He was my cousin you know."
"Well now, he shouldn't have been cheating at the cards."
"He wasn't packing iron Tommy," Abel growled.
Tommy just smiled good naturedly and started shoveling in the food. One of the two good things about this town was the food. 'Ole Smokey over at the café used to be a trail cook and he knew his business. It was some of the best food Johnny had eaten in his entire life.
Abel sneered at him then swung around to leave.
"Sheriff," Johnny called.
Abel turned back, glaring at Tommy, not offering any comment.
"I just wanna warn you so you ain't too disappointed," said Tommy, "I ain't a gonna dance the Hangman's Dance today. Just thought you might wanna know." Tommy smiled and kept attacking the food.
"The only way you ain't gonna dance for the folks Tommy," growled Abel, "is if one of God's own angels comes down and carries you off hisself. Tough luck boy, cuz there ain't no God. I hung him myself, six months ago." Laughing evilly, Abel turned and went back out to the office.
Tommy stopped chewing and stared at the retreating back of the monstrous man. "Just you wait Abel," he whispered.
He turned his attention back to the food. Taking half the biscuit, he sopped up the egg yolk and ham grease from the plate, shoving it in his mouth. He took the other half and dunked it in his coffee, eating it in two big bites. He tossed the empty tin plate and cup under the bars, then laid down on the thin, mangy, straw mattress. It sagged and creaked under his weight. Pulling his hat down over his eyes, he let out a long, loud burp and tried to get some sleep.
He'd only been lying down for a few minutes when the outer door to the jail opened again. He smiled to himself as he heard the only other good thing about the town begin talking in the outer room. Maria!
Tommy listened as Maria and Abel argued back and forth. Finally, he heard Abel yell loudly, "Three minutes woman! That's all I'll give you."
Tommy sat up as the inner door opened. Maria started to rush forward, but Abel threw an arm out, stopping her in her tracks. "Hold on," he growled, "Gotta make sure you got nothing to give him." Abel hungrily looked up and down Maria's body. Even the loose-fitting clothing she wore could not disguise the curves of her body, and those curves were all in the right places.
"You're a pig Sheriff!" she spat at him.
Abel's face changed to an apparent attitude of indifference, "You wanna see him or not?"
Maria stiffened her back and raised her arms out to the sides. Abel's eyes came alive with lust as he reached out and ran his hands roughly over Maria's body in a supposed search for concealed weapons.
"Abel," called Tommy, "You're a gonna pay for that."
Abel tore his eyes from Maria's beauty and looked at Tommy. "Then I'm a sure gonna get my money's worth," he laughed.
Tommy gripped the bars of his cell so hard his knuckles turned white. He glared at Abel, murder and hatred filled his eyes. Abel laughed again and turned Maria loose. She rushed to Tommy's cell, reaching through the bars and pulling him to her. Tommy put his arms around Maria, but continued to glare at Abel. Then he turned his full attention to Maria and hugged her as best he could through the bars. Maria put her mouth to his ear and whispered. Tommy closed his eyes, listening, smiling.
That was too much for Abel. Tommy was getting too much pleasure from the meeting with Maria. Striding angrily to the couple, he yelled, "That's enough! Visit's over." He grabbed Maria's arm and roughly pulled her back.
"No!" she cried desperately, "You said I could have more time!"
"Get out!" he shouted and continued pushing Maria towards the door.
Crying, Maria finally turned and fled. As Abel began closing the inner door, Tommy called out, "That's something else you're a gonna pay for Abel."
Abel grunted and slammed the door shut, turning the key in the lock.
Tommy laid back down on the cot, waiting for his date with the noose.
* * *
Abel shoved Tommy out the door of the jail. Tommy looked up and squinted at the sky, the brightness of the sunshine painful after the dark jail. His hands were tied behind his back and he stumbled as Abel pushed him again. He came to a stop once he caught his balance and took a good look around.
"Whoo Whee!" he exclaimed, "Looks like everyone from fifty miles around showed up to see me do the dance. Never knowed I was so popular."
Able just grunted and pushed him forward again. The crowd of towns people made a path for the two men, from the jail to the steps leading up to the gallows where a single noose hung loose and empty, waiting for an occupant.
The gallows. Tommy gulped, confident in the plan, but still . . . walking to your own hanging was spooky. The gallows stood on twelve stout, wooden legs. Thirteen steps . . . thirteen, unlucky. The steps led to the top where a wooden floor made of planks formed a large platform. The space from the ground to the bottom of the floor was open on all sides to provide a good view of the dance for all the spectators. Two beams rose from the north and south sides of the floorboards another ten feet in the air with a heavy beam connecting them. The hanging noose hung from that beam, positioned so its unlucky occupant faced East.
The people were mostly quiet as he made his way toward his future. He was well liked, always quick with a joke and a laugh, known as a good man and a good cattleman. They weren't happy that he was hanging, but the facts were facts. He had shot and killed an unarmed man and was now facing the consequences.
"Howdy Joe," Tommy said to the mercantile owner. He got a nod in return.
"Morning Mort," he said to the bartender.
"Tommy . . . I sure hate to see this happen boy," Mort commiserated with him. Tommy gave him a nod and a smile.
"Smokey, that was a mighty fine breakfast you made me. I appreciate it," he told the cranky old cook.
Smokey looked him in the eye and did something he never did. He smiled. Then said in a gruff old gravelly voice, "T'was my pleasure."
"Caleb, you 'ole coot!" Tommy laughed as he approached the blacksmith, "my horse threw a shoe two days after you shod him. I expect a free shoeing next time."
The big man nodded and tried to speak, but something in his throat froze up and he couldn't get a word out. Finally, he nodded and forced out a weak, "God be with you son."
Tommy mounted the steps, leaning forward slightly to keep his balance. Abel gave him an exceptionally rough push at the top of the stairs and he fell, landing hard on his shoulder and the side of his face.
"Here now!" said Judge Perry from where he stood on the gallows. "There's no call for that Sheriff."
Abel grabbed Tommy by the arm and hauled him to his feet. He dragged him to a spot directly beneath the empty noose and turned him to face the crowd. A slight breeze picked up from the east and ruffled Tommy's hair. Reaching up, Abel pulled the noose down and placed it over Tommy's head. As he tightened the noose around his neck, Tommy looked at him and said in a soft voice that only Abel could hear, "I finally figured it out. Hardy and me was playing cards late that night. Everybody had gone on home 'cept Mort the barkeep and he was sleeping down at the far end of the bar. I know Hardy had hisself a gun. He kept it tucked under his coat where he thought nobody could see it. I saw it when he stretched though. He drew first. I was just protecting myself. He landed on the gun when he fell and Mort never saw it. You showed up mighty quick after Mort ran for the Doc. You swiped the gun, didn't you?"
Abel looked Tommy in the eye, grinning, "Prove it boy," he whispered. Smugly he turned around and nodded to Judge Perry.
"Tommy Ray Simpson was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang. He will now hang by the neck 'til he's dead" Judge Perry said in the most officious voice he could muster. "Sheriff, you may proceed," he said to Abel, then moved to the back corner of the gallows.
Abel walked over to the release lever that would open the door beneath Tommy's feet and took hold of it with both hands. "See you in Hell boy," he said in a low voice.
"You'll be there long before me Abel," Tommy replied.
Abel laughed again and pulled back hard on the lever. The door fell from beneath Tommy and his body dropped straight down. The gathering of people let out a collective gasp, expecting to see the body come to an abrupt halt and begin the Hangman's Dance. They were surprised though. The gasp turned into one of astonishment as Tommy's body only slowed a fraction of a second before it continued its downward journey. Tommy landed on his feet, the noose still around his neck, the loose end falling to the dusty earth at his feet.
A figure darted out from an alleyway as Tommy began falling. Maria arrived beside Tommy at almost the instant his feet hit the ground. She reached out and grabbed his arm, helping him to maintain his balance. In her other hand she slashed down with a razor-sharp bowie knife, slicing through the rawhide string holding Tommy's hands together. As soon as his hands were free, she tugged a Colt .45 from the sash around her waist and shoved it into Tommy's hands. He turned it first on the crowd. No one moved. Maria ran for the alley.
Footsteps rang out from the floorboards of the gallows above Tommy's head. He looked up and saw Abel's ugly face appear in the opening. With a yell of frustration, Abel pulled a gun from the holster on his hip. Tommy rotated his gun upward and began firing before Abel could bring his to bear. Four quick shots were fired. Two of Tommy's slugs went through the floorboards, one missed completely, the other entered Abel's gut, down low on the left side. The other two went through the opening he'd fallen through, one striking Abel in the throat, the other catching him square in the mouth and going on through the back of his skull taking brain and bits of skull with it. Abel fell hard, dead before he hit the wooden planks.
Tommy turned back towards the stunned crowd. Still no one moved. There were two more rounds in Tommy's gun and nobody wanted to be receiving the same fate as Abel.
"I did kill Hardy," Tommy explained, "but I just figured out what happened. Hardy had a gun and drew first. He just wasn't fast enough. He fell on his gun when he died. Mort didn't see it. Our good-hearted sheriff there," nodding above him, "swiped it before anybody noticed. Y'all are good folks an I don't wanna hurt any of y'all. So just stay back and I'll be a going. Me and Maria got us a plan to start up a homestead far from here. You won't never see us again."
He backed away and entered the alley down which Maria had disappeared. A moment later the crowd heard the sound of two horses galloping away behind the buildings lining Main Street.
Judge Perry walked quickly down the gallows' steps to where Tommy had landed. Several of the local men gathered around him. He reached down and picked up the noose that Tommy had thrown to the ground and examined the loose end. It had been cut almost clean through, most likely by a razor-sharp bowie knife. When the weight of Tommy's body hit the end of the rope, it broke the few remaining strands.
"Maria must have snuck up there in the middle of the night and sawed most of the way through," said Smokey.
"Yep," said the Judge with a twinkle in his eye as he tried to hide a mischievous smile, "I reckon that's what happened."
"Kinda strange how that young girl figured out what to do, ain't it Judge," questioned Caleb, scratching his head.
"Well," said Judge Perry gruffly, studying the end of the rope and nodding, "I never did like Abel or Hardy very much. They were just too damn mean." The men in the crowd nodded in agreement. "I think I'll take a look through Abel's belongings and see if he had and extra pistol. If there is, we got ourselves a closed case."
The men laughed and slapped each other on the back as they walked away, marveling at how Maria had managed to cut the rope. The rest of the crowd also turned away, talking excitedly. Truth be told, they were proud of Tommy and how he'd gotten away.
A skinny old hound dog padded across the street to find a spot of shade. The sound of the galloping horses faded into the distance. The sun beat down heavily on the gallows. A dark puddle of blood slowly grew from beneath Abel's body and a small gust of wind tugged at the Hangman's thin red hair, making it dance.
R. J. Gahen enjoys a good western. He loves watching them and reading them, but mostly, writing them. It's
great for him to watch a character come to life on the page. He hopes you enjoy his characters as much as
he enjoys creating them.
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by John M. Williams
The woman stood motionless on the porch. Her Winchester was cocked. Her eyes never left the rider. Her finger was cemented to the trigger. She could see the rider was well mounted, and even from a distance of 50 yards she sensed he's a man's man.
The gap between the two people closed 50, 40, 30, 20, 10 and then five yards. His stopped his Appaloosa in front of her. He moved his right hand slowly to his hat's brim and removed it. He fixated his eyes on the Winchester. He knew a sudden move could force her to fire.
"Good morning, Ma'am! Is Ben Tobey here?"
"Who's askin?" Her eyes never left him, and her finger was still cemented to the trigger.
"Coulter. Josh Coulter. And you, Ma'am?"
"Becca Tobey," she answered. Her eyes never left him and his magnificent stallion. "I expect you got proof saying you are who you say."
"I got a letter in my pocket from Ben."
"Show it to me and be careful. A sudden, wrong move, and I'll gut shoot you."
He pulled the letter rout of his shirt pocket and handed it to her. She recognized Ben's handwriting. She returned the letter and said, "One more. One more thing, I gotta ask. What did Ben call you when you were young uns?"
"Ben's been expectin you for weeks. Get down and come into the house. Your room's ready."
Coulter dismounted slowly. The gun was still pointed at his gut. He tied his horse's reins to the hitch rail in front of him.
"Mrs. Tobey. I'm wearing a hundred miles of wind, sand and trail dust. Before I enter, I want a bath and shave. And I need to feed and water U.S. Grant. Will you point me to the tub so I can enter your house smelling like a man and not a skunk?"
"Ben said you'd ask for a bath first before entering." She lowered the Winchester and released the trigger.
"You'll find two barrel tubs behind the far side of the second barn. Randy will boil hot water and give you as much as you need. There's toilet water in the room near the tubs. I'll have lunch ready in an hour and half."
"Thank you, Ma'am."
"Becca. Everyone calls me Becca. Since you'll be here for a time then call me Becca."
"Becca. I'll call you, Becca."
He tipped his hat and said, "Until later, Ma'am."
"Becca. Call me Becca." She put the rifle down, turned and went into the house.
He led his horse to the stable where U.S. Grant was unsaddled, fed, groomed, watered and turned loose in the corral behind the stable. Then Coulter bathed, shaved, changed clothes, put toilet water on and walked to the house carrying his repeating rifle, saddlebags and bed roll. He wore a Colt 45 on his right leg and a Bowie knife strapped to his left leg. He carried a whip on his right hip. He knocked on the screen door.
"Come in, Coulter," Becca said.
He entered with his spurs jingling.
"Leave your spurs on the porch. I don't want my floor dug into."
Coulter exited the house, took off his spears and re-entered the house.
Facing Becca, she said, "Your room's at the end of the hall on the right. You can put your clothes in the drawers and your rifle in the gun case. Hang your gun on the gun rack. I don't hold with guns being everywhere. There's fine Irish whiskey on the bar. Tobey had it shipped from San Francisco. "
Coulter dropped his bed roll and saddlebags on the bed in his room, placed his rifle and gun belt in their proper racks and then poured himself a huge glass of Irish whiskey. He slowly walked to the table and sat down for lunch.
"I sent Miguel to tell Tobey and Little Samuel you've arrived. I expect both will be happy to see you. Little Samuel recalls he caught his first fish and coon with ya," Becca said. Since she didn't know when Tobey would be home, and she and Coulter started lunch. Becca said grace before eating. Coulter joined her.
"Would you mind if we talk? I don't often get a chance to talk to people other than Tobey and little Samuel and that's only when they're home," Becca said as she sliced the ham.
Coulter grinned. Except for U.S. Grant, he hadn't talk to anyone in nearly a week. He wanted to talk.
"Ben said you two were raised in Boston by Noel and Maria Duel. He says Mr. Duel worked you every day."
"We were white slaves. When he worked us we got up before sunrise and bedded hours after sunset. We ate two meals a day. We got a whipping when we did not meet his demands."
"Ben got whipped more than you. So he says."
"He speaks Gospel."
Becca served hot ham, fried potatoes, blueberry jam, corn bread and apple pie with hot coffee. She had the strangest feeling they had met before, but she did not pursue her feeling.
Becca continued asking questions about the past. "Why'd Ben get more whippings than you?"
"He was bigger and older than me. Duel expected more from him."
Coulter finished his meal and grabbed the coffee pot.
"It's true then that one day when Ben was around 15 and you 12 that the two of you walked out and no one chased you?"
"It is. We left with two days' food, the clothes on us and twenty U.S. dollars."
"You came west."
"You worked on the railroads."
"You hunted buffalo,"
"You lived with the Sioux."
"For a time. Nothing long."
"You were in the War between the States together. Tobey says he saved your life and you his. Tobey says you scouted for General Grant. And you were there when General Lee surrendered. And he says you shook Mr. Lincoln's hand."
"I was there when General Lee surrendered. Soon after General Grant introduced me to President Lincoln. He was the noblest man I've ever met."
Coulter was starting his pie when he said, "Ma'am. I don't want to remember the war. Let's talk about you not me."
"Coulter! For the last time call me Becca." There was anger in her tone.
"One more question." Becca was silent for a while and said. "Tobey says you married. Is your wife coming? It will be pleasant to have another woman to talk to."
"No ma'am! She and Michael died from the fever two years ago. " Tears rolled down his cheeks as he spoke,
"And you? Where did Tobey meet you?"
"On the stagecoach going from Tucson to San Francisco."
"You married in San Francisco."
"We did! At St. Francis Church. Five years ago last month."
"How old was little Samuel when you married?
"Near eight, I think."
"I'm happy for both of you,"
"Thanks. I'm a lucky woman to marry such a man."
"Yes. You are."
As he finished his pie, the front door opened and Ben Tobey followed by Little Samuel burst into the house.
It had been six years since Coulter had seen Ben and little Samuel. Coulter. Ben was older with shades of gray along his temples. He was thinner and browner. His face seemed longer. His ever present smile was still there. His eyes seemed colder, bluer and more focused then Coulter remembered.
"Coulter! Coulter! God damn! It's so good to see you!" Tobey said as he bear hugged his life-long friend.
"Put me down. Put me down. You overgrown bear," Coulter shouted.
Little Samuel, being 13-years-old, stood quietly behind his dad. He waved at Coulter who waved back. When Ben released Coulter from his bear grip, Little Samuel was quickly pulled into Coulter's strong chest.
Coulter hugged little Samuel ever so tightily. Little Samuel hugged him back. Coulter released little Samuel ever so slowly. As he did, tears rolled down his wind burned cheeks. Without saying a word to Coulter, Ben and little Samuel went into the washroom to clean up. During the meal little Samuel sat across from Coulter.
"God damn! It's good to see you. Damn it Colt! What have you been doing? Where you been these last six years. No wait. Before Little Samuel and I start eating Let's have a double whiskey. Emma can join us," Tobey said
"Little Sam, your uncle Coulter is your baptized Godfather. Damn it! You know that all ready."
It was obvious to Coulter from the look on Emma's face when she looked at the boy that she loved him.
The three drank their whiskies and sat down. Tobey served himself and little Samuel lunch, while Emma cleared away her dishes and Coulter's. Tobey, Little Samuel and Emma learned that Coulter had lost a wife and son to small pox in 1873. Bitter, he drifted from job-to-job. He prospected for gold, scouted for a wagon train, punched cattle in the Dakotas, broke wild horses for the U.S. Army, was a deputy sheriff in Deadwood and was a shotgun guard for Wells Fargo. Hell! He even tried his hand at prize fighting. He stopped with an 0-3 record.
Coulter was emotionless as he talked. He said everything he had to in an hour and then asked, "Tobey! What's the deal? Why am I here?"
Tobey poured the two of them a double Irish whiskey. Emma shook her head no at the offer of another glass. Then Tobey said, "This ranch is too damn big for one man to run. Jesus Christ! I got eight thousand head of cattle to get to market. I got a hundred horses to break and sell to the army and other ranchers. I'm getting into the hog business. Two geologists found oil on my land. I'm getting richer each day."
Coulter raised his hand and motioned for Tobey to stop talking. Tobey did.
"I see the picture. What's in it for me?"
"Twenty percent ownership."
"Thirty," Coulter said as he finished his whiskey.
"Twenty two," Tobey said as he finished his whiskey.
Coulter shook his head and said, "Thirty."
"Damn it Colt! I ain't bargaining. Twenty five and no more," Tobey said sternly. "I didn't ask you here to haggle with me. Take the offer or settle elsewhere."
Coulter knew it was Tobey's final offer.
"My hand on it under one condition," Coulter said.
"Speak your mind."
"Five or six miles from here there is a grove of walnut trees, a lake and a clearing large enough for a house, barn and corral. Two years from today, I'll give you a thousand dollars for the land."
"Fifteen hundred, and it's yours today. I'll draw up the papers myself," Tobey said. "And tomorrow night we celebrate. I'll send some men out to invite the neighbors to meet my Prodigal brother and partner. Damn it Coulter I prayed for this day. Alleluia!"
They shook hands, hugged one another They were partners for life.
One lonely night while camping under the stars Coulter recalled the last six years. The years were hard on everyone. There were two years of the driest seasons that the old timers could remember. Cattle, horses, mules, antelope, hogs, coyotes, coons, dogs, cats, deer and bears died for want of water. Coulter organized a wagon train of 12 wagons. They went to rivers and hauled water in scores of barrels in wagons. When the drought ended, the torrential floods came, went and came again. The very religious believed Armageddon was arriving. When it did not happen they continued waiting.
Coulter loved living here. Tobey, Becca and Little Samuel were his family. He loved the ranch and the work. He had his own home. He worked four days a week for Tobey and three days for himself. He was seeing the widow Barbara Adams. He decided ro ask her to marry him.
The ranch prospered. Colt's Appaloosa stallion US Grant sired many, fine colts and mares. His off spring sired others. The ranch grew. It was shipping 10,000 head of cattle a year. The army, ranchers and townspeople bought the Bar TC horses The hog business grew. The rains came back. The railroad came within 20 miles of the ranch so the cattle drives were 3 days rather than 10 weeks or longer. Coulter had his land and built a house, barn and corral on it.
The six years yielded personnel losses. Men were lost to dastardly winters, scorching summers, bears, cougars, fevers, rustlers and Indians. They were lost during the trail drives when the cattle stampeded. Coulter went down during a stampede He broke a leg and an arm.. While recovering he came down with the fever. While trying to break a stallion he was thrown and broke four ribs. Beca went down with the fever and twice lost children as they came out of her womb. The deaths of the two children shook Emma and Tobey in ways Coulter had never seen. Emma sat quiet for months each time. Ben worked non-stop in those months, and so did Coulter.
Coulter and Tobey were good business partners.. They argued many times over ways to operate the ranch. Emma sometimes stepped in to remind them to be civil. They always finished their verbal altercations with a glass or more of the Irish whiskey.
Coulter taught little Samuel to shoot a rifle and pistol. Colt was better and faster with a handgun than Ben. They were equals with rifles. No one was better with a bull whip than Coulter. He could use it like a weapon to disarm foes or drunks. He never cracked his whip unless he had a reason.
On Little Samuel's18th birthday, he had a change of life experience Coulter took him to the Belle de Pari for his first piece of tail. From that night's experience Little Samuel considered himself a man. He dreamed about getting his next piece of tail. I
It was a hellish night. It was Little Samuel's 19th birthday. The rain was harsh and heavy. Lightning was a frequent as the rain drops. The thunder's cannonous roar came as often as the rain. Four or five degrees lower in temperature and it would be snowing. The heavy rain produced sink holes in the street. For everyone and every animal out that night it was a Herculean effort to reach a destination.
Little Samuel stopped his huge sorrel horse in front of the Belles de Paris. It was the best whore house in 100 miles. Coulter agreed to meet him here at 8:00. It was7:30. Little Sanuel decided not to wait for Coulter. It was clean, huge, noisy inside. Little Samuel opened the door and walked slowly to the gun rack. He took his Colt 45 out of his holster and put it on a hook. He hung up his long, heavy rain soaked duster and placed his rain logged hat on the hook with it. A bucket directly underneath his slicker caught the rain running off the coat.
He was cocky and confident as he walked over to Sarah Josephine Bell, the proprietor. She was 42, but looked younger. She had shiny, sparkling red hair and rich, enticing green eyes. She gave herself to few men. Those who had her never forgot her. She ran a tight ship. Her 22 girls were professionals. Very few got pregnant. They came and went when they wanted. She had been duped into getting into prostitution by her one and only husband. She developed prostitution into a thriving business.
Little Samuel sized her up, and she gave him the twice over look. His youthfulness did not mean anything to her. If he could pay, he could get serviced.
"Hello Little Samuel. Happy 19th birthday. Coulter said you'd be here tonight. I expected him".
"I'm half hour early."
"That will be ten dollars for the night and 10 dollars more for champagne or whiskey and another three dollars for a bath. You stink worse than a dying skunk. "
As Sarah accepted two $10 bills and three silver dollars, she asked, "How's Becca?"
"Do you know ma?"
"I met her years ago," she said smiling. "Ms. Darlene's with someone. Get your bath and then wait in the sitting parlor. She'll be out in 30 minutes."
Little Samuel bathed and then walked into the sitting parlor. It was a big room painted in a light brown. There were a dozen large chairs, four couches that seated three, four circular tables for poker with five chairs around them. There was a lighted fireplace in the extreme left hand corner of the room. The room reeked of tobacco, various whiskeys and dozens of perfumes. A self playing piano playing Dixie could be heard from another room.
Little Samuel sat down in a corner chair. He recognized the barber, undertaker, baker, two lawyers, stable owner and stable hand, some ranchers, ranch workers, deputy marshal and his father's accountant He refused to buy a whiskey for himself, remembering Coulter's advice, "whiskey and a first time tail don't blend well."
Little Samuel was listening to the thunder and harsh rain. He checked his watch. Still five minutes. He put it back into his pocket, folded his arms and closed his eyes. They were not closed long when he heard the door open. A big man dressed in all black entered. A black heavy beard covered most of this face. There was an aura of evil circling him. He hung up his pistol, his water logged black coat and black hat and brushed the rain off his face with a black scarf he took from his pocket. He ran his huge hands through his black thick, wavy hair. A close examination of his pistol showed four notches on the black handle. He was the devil incarnate. He would beat up people who just looked at him. He had a foul mouth. He didn't care who heard him. He was the tallesr and ugliest man in all of Texas. He walked over to the proprietress, laid down 20 dollars and said, "I want Miss Darlene, Get me that whore now!"
"Good evening Moss. She's with a client and someone has all ready paid to be with her beyond that. Actually, she's been bought for the entire night ," Sarah said defiantly.
"I want that whore tonight. No one's stopping me. Get her out here now. Wait. If she's in room 11. I'll go thar now. "
An unafraid Sarah said. God damn it Moss behave yourself or I'll have Brutus and Big Jim toss you out. I can give you, Lou. She's firmer and has more meat on her breasts than Darlene. And she's done a lot more tricks. She'll be ready by nine. And there's a tub in her room. Are you in or out?"
Sarah waved to the bouncers who started toward Moss. Before they reached him, Moss waved them back. "I'll behave. Honest. Let me sit in the parlor. Holler when Lou's ready?"
"I will. Now go sit down in the parlor. And damn it behave yourself," a cocky Sarah said.
In the parlor, Moss sat near Little Samuel who could smell the cow dung and whiskey on Moss. The smells nauseated Little Samuel.
It was 9:04 when Bell came into the parlor. All eyes turned to her. She spoke with authority as she said, "Jones go to room 1. Carlos go to 3. Matson goes to 5. The baker goes to 7. The barber goes to 9, and the young man to 11. The constable is in 15. Moss is in 16. The rest of you wait your turn."
The men got up and headed to their rooms. As Little Samuel got up, Moss blocked his way.
"You the runt whose got my Miss Darlene?" Moss was inches taller and 70 pounds heavier than Little Samuel.
"I got who I got," a defiant reply was heard. "Now move out of my way."
Little Samuel tried to move forward, but Moss was immovable. Before he said another word, Moss gave Little Samuel a harsh knee in the groin. The boy immediately dropped to the floor and screamed repeatedly. Moss then backhanded the boy across the face, sending two teeth flying across the floor. Next he kicked the boy in the ribs, breaking two of them. He kicked him in the right leg. And then he stomped on Little Samuel's right hand. His spurs cut deep into the boy's hand. As the crowd looked on, Moss was about to kick Little Samuel again when what sounded like a gun being fired exploded. Moss stopped his kick when his back received the first whip lash, tearing his shirt and bloodying his back. Before Moss could turn around, a second, third and fourth lashes took flesh from his broad back and took more of his shirt off. A fifth lash landed below his belt. A sixth and seventh lash brought him to his knees. Three more lashes brought him to the floor. An 11th and then a 12th lash produced an inhuman cry for leniency. The whipper stood over Moss and in a voice that was loud enough to hear every word throughout the building, the message was plain, "You bastard. I'll kill you if you made my nephew a crippled. Do you hear me, you stupid pig!"
Moss nodded yes. He was then struck across the face with the handle of the whip. He screamed as his cheekbone split.
"Somebody run for a doctor immediately for Little Samuel," Coulter shouted. Tears ran down his face as he effortlessly picked the unconscious boy up.
"Which room is his?" Coulter asked.
"Eleven," said Miss Darlene.
The crowd dispersed. As he was leaving the room, Coulter shouted, "Leave that piece of crud alone. I'll do the same whipping to anyone who doctors Moss."
Coulter's words put fear in almost everyone there. Sarah was the exception. Also in a defiant mood, she sent someone for another doctor. No one was going to tell her how to run her place. It was bad for business to have a nearly dead man lay silently in the middle of her business parlor. When the first doctor arrived she sent him to room 11. Moss was taken care of by the second doctor.
The following afternoon a buckboard stopped outside Les Belles de Paris. The two horses were heavily lathered. so much that it was difficult to tell their color. An irate Becca Tobey practically flew out of the carriage. She had driven the team hard and fast into town.
Becca went straight up to the door and went inside. Half a dozen men were inside. She walked past them. She recognized all. She proceeded to the bar.
"Where's room 11?" She asked Sarah.
"Follow me, Becca. It's been a while."
Shoulder-to-shoulder they walked to room 11. A very weary Coulter and an equally exhausted Miss Darlene were coming out of the room. Becca asked both, "How is he?"
"He's getting better. I ain't never seen one so young so tough," Miss Darlene said. "You can go in, but he just went to sleep."
"Thank you so much for caring," Becca said.
"I like Little Samuel," Miss Darlene said. "It ain't no trouble caring for him."
Sarah added, "He can leave here in four days. Doc Adams will be here at 4 to check him over. He's giving Little Samuel the best care."
Miss Darlene and Sarah walked down the hall.
Coulter, who had turned around and was looking out a window, shaking his head said stone faced. "A whore once told me, 'whores can't afford to care for their clients.'"
There was an instant look of fear and relief in Becca's eyes.
"Don't flatter yourself, Becca!"
"Do you think Tobey knows?"
"Your rare town visits. Never wanting guests at the ranch. Not wanting to travel to Dodge City. Tucson."
Becca was silent.
"You don't give him enough credit for how much Tobey loves you, Becca," Coulter said still staring out the window. "No man dare say anything about you to his face or behind his back, or Tobey would kill him. That's a powerful lot of love."
"I realize that now. I have always known he'd protect me," she said as she entered room 11.
John Williams has been a professional writer for 45 years with over 2,000 articles published. He is an award-winning,
weekly columnist for Business Week Online Magazine and Business Week Magazine(1997-2001). He has won 8 awards regarding disability.
He has interviewed former Texas Governor George Bush, former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore, Hillary Clinton,
Attorney General Janet Reno, Clint Eastwood, Governor Jesse Ventura, Newt Gingrich, Senator Max Cleland, Jesse Ventura, Vinton Cerf,
Country Western singer Mel Tillis, Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer.
The NY Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, People Magazine, Las Angeles Times have published his articles. His website is at
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by Bill Connor
All Tag needed was a little rain.
The moment dawn broke over the rim of the eastern ridge every living beast hunkered deep in its burrow. Waiting out the heat. Except Tag. With a decent glass you could see him miles away across the flat salt pan. Stooped. Falling every so often. A crippled spider on a sheet of paper. His tortured breath carried over the soft moan of the wind.
He looked back to spot the trackers. Six, three days ago. Down to two the last time he saw them, their spare horses gone. He looked back but was nearly blind from the searing sun reflecting off the salt.
The baby cried and he hushed her, tapping the basket strapped to his back. He'd wrapped her against the sun. She had a damp cloth to suck on, all the water they'd had for days.
There wasn't a cloud within a hundred miles. Tag figured if they were lucky, they had an hour to live.
* * *
A woman named Clare had found him at the station waiting for the train to Laredo.
"They took my baby." She stood tall and strong, not the kind of woman to cry. "They shot my husband dead and took Evangeline."
The train whistled in the distance as it cleared the pass and headed in.
"I'm going east," he'd explained.
"He was the mine superintendent and they took him for the ransom. Took Evangeline for good measure. He must have put up a fight. They found his body alongside two dead bandits. They took my baby, thinking I'd give them the mine's gold. I have one hundred dollars to my name. It's yours if you'll bring her back."
The train rumbled over the bridge. The engineer pulled the whistle. A team of bays hitched to a post skittered in place and every bird for five miles around took to the air.
"I've been all over this territory. They say you're the man to do it." She reminded him of a face he'd seen on a Greek coin in the museum in St. Louis. Her hair was the color of buttercups.
"I'm going to Laredo to get married," Tag said.
"And take up farming." She said it as though farming was a miserable occupation. Two steps down from what he'd been doing.
"Bring my Evangeline home and I'll give you the hundred dollars." She had a way of studying his face as though she was going to smile. "Then I'll marry you myself."
Tag kicked at the dirt. The train rushed in. Flags mounted on the engine rippled and snapped. Burning cinders fell around them like hail. The engineer vented the boiler. The escaping steam matched Tag's long sigh.
"Bandits won't keep a baby," he said. "They'll drop it on the trail and push home."
"That's what I thought. Till a man came with a note." She fished a piece of paper from the bosom of her dress and unfolded it. "Can you read?"
"You want to marry me and don't know if I can read?"
"I figured I could teach you." Clare handed him the note, warm from her flesh. It looked like it had traveled far.
"Send a thousand dollars in gold and they'll return Evangeline. You shouldn't give this any credence."
Passengers began to disembark, looking at the town, the mountains and the sky. Realizing they were in the middle of nowhere.
"She's my baby. I have to."
"They kidnapped your husband without disarming him. They took your baby. These are not intelligent people."
"Everyone I spoke to said you're the man to bring her back."
"I'm going to Laredo and get married on Sunday." He picked up his kit to board the train.
Clare stepped close and gripped his shoulders. She stood on her toes and kissed him the longest he'd ever been kissed. She smelled of mountain clover and tasted like honey. "Bring her back and that's what every day of your life will be like."
"I bought a gun. You can teach me to shoot on the way."
* * *
He wouldn't let her go with him, instead telling her where to wait.
A rifle fired in the distance, startling the baby. Out of range. Tag had driven cattle dead on their feet, calling desperately for water. Shooting over their heads to get them moving.
They wanted him up. The faster Tag moved, the sooner he'd die. He did his best to oblige, digging his fingers and toes into the salt. Pushing himself to his feet, careful not to tip the basket.
He'd stopped sweating yesterday and knew time was running out. He aimed for the mountains humped in the distance half-buried in the heat haze. They looked so dry if you put them to the match they'd go up like kindling. Though he staggered and fell, his course ran true.
A half mile ahead a black thumb of rocks rose out of the salt. Tag couldn't imagine how rocks had gotten there so far from the mountains. Who'd formed them into a pile.
He'd been seeing things since the water ran out, so the pile of rocks could be a petrified tree stump. Could be that one of the trackers had looped around to cut him off. Could be nothing at all. He'd given up believing his eyes or the voices that spoke to him. He trusted the weak sounds the baby made and his own muttered curses.
The salt made a noise as though he'd punched it with his fist. A moment later the rifle shot echoed. In range now.
Tag picked up his pace. He'd been known to cover a lot of ground. Long loping strides that went day and night without faltering. Now he shuffled. Bent over like an old man. Breathing as though he was in a race. He went a little left and a little right, crazy footed so he'd be a poor target.
He'd explained it to Evangeline when they stopped to rest in the night. She sucked on the cloth, nearly dry to the touch.
"We'll go until we can't. That's our way. I won't let those heathen bandits take you back. You'll stay with me until it's over. I can promise you won't die alone. Someday they'll find us curled together on the salt and understand there was a man and a child who didn't give up on each other." The baby never opened her eyes.
A rifle bullet struck the heel of Tag's boot, knocking his foot out from under him, burying his face in the salt. He pushed himself up, a hundred yards to the rocks. His leg started giving him hell.
The rock mound stood twenty feet high. Abraded into exotic shapes by the wind.
He shuffled, waiting for the rifle shot he wouldn't hear. He'd kept ahead of them all this way, pushing every mile. He wanted to be first to the rocks and claim them as his own.
Tag looped around the base and collapsed in a band of shade on a rock shaped like a chair. His breath rasped like a broken squeezebox. He was too dry to spit or cough.
The horse walked up, breathing as loud as Tag. It stopped in front of him, looking like a pencil sketch. Skin stretched as tight as a drumhead across knobs of bones and ribs. The line of shade cut across the bandit's face. An old scar started at his forehead, closed one eye, and ran down across his mouth to his chin. He moved the rifle and the saddle creaked.
"Just me and you," Tag said.
The bandit sat tall as though neither his thirst nor the heat could break him.
"I figure to wait here until it rains," Tag said, making a joke. It might not rain for a year.
"Me and Evangeline got a plan. We're going to stay right here." Tag was so dry it came out as a whisper.
The bandit leveled the rifle at Tag's face. "The baby."
Tag buried his face in his palms, grinding the course salt into his skin. "I promised her."
"I take the baby now."
"Her momma doesn't have a thousand dollars. She never will. Her husband ran the mine. He didn't own it."
The bandit's shoulders went up an inch and back down. "Mi jefe."
"He must be one smart fella."
"Is cruel." The bandit raised his left hand off the saddle's pommel. His two middle fingers were stumps.
"What happened to your amigos?"
The bandit tilted back the brim of his hat to look in the distance. "The salt."
The wheezing horse seemed to float above the salt and now looked like a dog.
"I hurt you before you die," the bandit said. "Or I leave you here."
"Hurt me how?"
The bandit carried a wicked looking knife on his belt. "Cut you open. Pull you inside out. Skin you."
"Since you're giving me a choice, I'd rather you leave me."
"Give me the baby. Time to go."
Tag worked the basket off his shoulders and cradled it in his arms. He kissed the cloth, feeling the baby's forehead underneath. It was all he could do to stand and hand the basket up to the bandit.
The bandit looped one arm through the straps.
Tag sat on his rock. Used up. "You know about babies?"
The bandit shrugged. "Is for mi jefe."
"She's dyin'. Another hour and she'll be gone."
The bandit lifted the cloth with his tortured hand. He licked his lips where the scar puckered them.
"She'll die without water."
The bandit wet the cloth from his canteen and touched it to the baby's mouth. She started sucking.
"Rub it across her face. She has a fever."
The bandit pulled the bandanna from his neck, wet it and washed the baby's face and head.
"You need to do that every hour. You have biscuit?"
The bandit tilted his head to see if Tag was joking. His skin was the color of his saddle. The salt had starved him down to bone. He opened his palm. "On the salt?"
"Break a biscuit into crumbs, wet it into a paste and she'll eat it off the tip of your finger. She needs to eat every hour."
The bandit looked at Tag like he wanted to skin him.
"Four days to get back. No. We started with fresh horses. Six days."
The bandit studied the horizon.
"Think you'll make it?"
The bandit nodded.
"She'll die," Tag said. "She's been dying since my water ran out."
"Then she dies."
"You make it back carrying a dead baby and what will your jefe say?"
The bandit shook his head. "Is cruel."
"You'll never make it back."
The bandit lifted his canteen. The water sloshed heavy inside.
"You don't have enough."
They'd both studied the calculus of the salt. How much water was left. How far there was to go.
"When you started out your saddle was heavy with water bags. Now they're all gone. That horse of yours hasn't seen water in days and is dead on its feet. Take a minute to think about it and you'll realize you're going to die crossing the salt."
"I'm not afraid," the bandit said.
"You tried to shoot me with that rifle from a hundred feet away. You aimed for my head and hit my boot heel." Tag lifted his ankle with both hands to show the bandit. "You're as blind as I am."
The bandit wiped his good eye with the bandana, leaving a wet smear across his face.
"I crossed the salt before," Tag said. "I know the way."
"You are dying."
"This is my marker. I guided you straight to it. I know the way."
The bandit studied the pile of stones. The horse shuddered as though it was going to collapse.
"There's a spring just before the mountains. I know the way."
The bandit turned in his saddle, stood tall on the stirrups and looked into the distance. "Far."
"We can be there before sun up."
The bandit sat still as a statue.
The baby made a noise in the basket.
"We go north. I know the way."
The bandit watched him, the rifle steady on Tag's face.
"We share the water," said Tag. "If the baby dies, there's no sense going on. If I die, you'll wander in circles and never leave the salt."
The horse sidestepped, nearly falling.
"There's help up ahead. Water and supplies."
"Waiting to kill me." The bandit drew a circle around his neck with his finger.
"I'll carry the rifle. They'll see us coming and know you're not a danger."
The bandit sat for so long Tag wondered if he'd gone to sleep. "Mi jefe."
"We'll rest up then head out to California. Your jefe won't ever know."
The wind moaned through the rocks. The hot air leached the moisture from their skin. Tag leaned back and closed his eyes. The truth was he never thought he'd make it this far.
The canteen clattered against the salt. Tag stooped to pick it up and took four deep swallows. The bandit handed down the rifle.
Bill Connor has an MFA from Seton Hill University.
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The Long Ride
by Jack Hill
Dewey Gibson, a strapping young buck of twenty, left his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas during the gold rush of 1860 for Prescott Valley, Arizona, seeking his fortune. A few weeks later, he arrived in the gold-rush town, bursting at the seams with fortune seekers. Still full of hope, Dewey set out to find a grubstake and gold. But reality hit him right between his eyes: too many miners and too few grubstakes, or jobs of any worth.
The blistering heat of two summers and the biting cold of a winter were enough for Dewey. His dreams of getting rich faded with each setting of the sun. He heard of jobs—farm and cattle jobs—in Flagstaff, a week's ride north for anyone able to make the journey. So Dewey set out, leaving gold fever as far behind him as he could ride.
Dewey fixed a mess of beans and bacon and put them on the campfire to cook. He went to the steam for some water to make coffee. Walking back, he glanced at his horse. Good. She's found some grass. Dewey checked the beans, set the coffeepot in the coals, and stretched-out before the campfire.
The roaring fire was burning the beans, and the coffee was boiling over. Dewey was sleeping. He had drifted off for a minute or two, but the crack of a dry limb woke him. Rolling to one side, he pulled his Colt .45 and stood, facing the noise. "Who goes there?"
"Easy partner. Just a couple of weary travelers needing a place to bed down for the night," said a voice in the dark.
"Come into the light where's I can see ya."
"Careful with that hog pistol, mister. Don't wants it to go off accidental like, do we?"
Dewey lowered his revolver. "Coffee's boiling over and probably strong enough to grow hair on a toad."
The voice moved into the campfire's light. "Just the way we like it. I'm Hank." The others stayed in the shadows. "This here's my brother, Jamie, and the dumb blonde one, is my cousin, Josh."
"Where ya'll headin'?"
"Naw. Too hard awork," said Hank.
Josh stepped from the shadows and blurted, "We's gonna rob da bank."
"Can't you keep him shut up for one minute, Jamie?"
Stepping backwards, Dewey lifted his revolver toward the trio.
Jamie rushed forward and cupped his hand over Josh's mouth. "Sorry, Hank, what we do now?"
"Shut up . . . Lemme think."
"Tweren't gonna be any killin' but now, things have changed, Hank. Josh really screwed this up but good."
"Okay, mister, if you drop yer gun, we'll let ya go. This ain't worth gettin' kilt over."
"You crazy, Hank? He'll ride outta here and warn the bank we're acommin'. They'll be awaitin' fer us."
"Not if we takes his horse, he won't. He can't walk to Prescott in time; it's a four-day ride from here, more than a week on foot."
"What'd ya say, mister? We take yer horse, ride off, and nobody needs to get hurt."
"I guess it's better than dying over other people's money. People I don't even know," said Dewey.
"Okay, it's a deal. Now, ease that shooter of yours back in the holster, we'll have some coffee, and be on our way."
"Help yourself," Dewey said, easing his Colt into its cradle. While the men poured coffee, he moved opposite them and inched toward the stream.
"He's tryin' to get away," yelled Josh. He stood, pulled his revolver, and shot off a round, missing Dewey.
Dewey turned and flat-out ran into the darkness.
"What tha hell?" screamed Jamie, lunging for Josh's gun. But Josh fired again before Jamie could wrestle it out of his hand.
This last bullet pierced Dewey's trousers, below the belt, through his right fleshy cheek. It laid bare a wound, about three inches long and half an inch deep. He howled and fell face-first into the stream.
"Did I get him?"
"Josh, yer . . . a . . . blooming . . . idiot. Now, we're killers," said Hank, fuming with anger and stomping.
"How you know he's dead?" asked Jamie. "I'ma gonna check."
Dewey floated into a calm pool, protected from the main channel's flow, and circled around, and around. He held his breath as long as he could, rolled his head for a gulp of air, and continued floating.
"I see him. He's floatin' face down. If the bullet didn't get him, he drowned for sure."
Jamie returned to the campfire.
"What we do now, Hank?"
"Just as we planned. Take his horse, saddle, and whatever else worth taking; and we ride to Prescott and get us a bank."
"Yeah," said Jamie.
"Where's Prescott?" asked Josh.
"Good Lord, may I never have kids," said Hank.
"Where's his horse?" asked Jamie.
"I dunna know. Musta run off when the shootin' started."
"How we gonna carry his saddle?"
"Oh, crap. Leave it. Let's ride."
"I kilt him, so it's my sadda," said Josh.
"Can you shut that moron up?" said Hank, mounting his horse.
"Whatza moron?" asked Josh, missing the stirrup for the third time.
"Will you just shoot me ifn' I ever pregnate a woman," said Hank, riding into the darkness.
* * *
The clip-clops of horses' hooves faded, and when Dewey was sure they were gone, he swam to the stream's edge, and pulled himself onto dry land. The wound in his right cheek throbbed, but in the darkness, he couldn't tell how bad it was. If the pain was any indication, it must be bad, but he still could move his leg without difficulty. Hopefully, the bullet missed a major blood vessel; otherwise, he could lose a lot of blood. He'd seen bad infections from wounds, and they could kill too.
He once saw an old-timer take small hot coals from a fire and press them into a wound. Hurt the man so that he screamed, but no infection developed. If Dewey was to get out alive, he had to try something: he was midway between Prescott and Flagstaff, several day's hike either way.
Dewey crawled to the campfire, lowered his trousers, took his wet kerchief, and gathered burning coals. Feeling for the right spot, he gritted his teeth and pressed the coals into the wound. His screams echoed through the valley. His horse's ears turned toward the sound. Dewey passed out.
The morning sun's rays peeked over the mountains and fell on the campsite. Dewey awoke with a start, reached for his gun, and looked around for the source of the noise that aroused him. On the stream's bank was his horse, munching on some aquatic grasses. "Why you old nag. You're a sight for sore eyes."
Dewey checked his wound; the bleeding had stopped, but he winced when he touched it. With each tug on his boot, pain shot down his leg. After removing his boots, the pain of taking off his canvas trousers came next. Freed from the heavy garment, Dewey stood and tried to walk. Limping with each step, he walked around the camp. He reached behind and felt for blood. He examined the sticky, dull-red liquid on his fingers. Old blood, no new bleeding.
He checked the bullet holes in his trousers: a single pair, one entered, centered on the right, back pocket; the other exited, two inches to the right. Lucky it didn't hit my hipbone, just flesh. Standing barefooted and naked from the waist down, Dewey pondered his next move: Ride on—assuming he could ride—to Flagstaff, or return to Prescott. It was about the same distance and time, either way.
Dewey hobbled over to his saddle and bags. He figured that bunch had stripped him bare of anything valuable, and he was right. His food, rifle, and bedroll were gone. When his horse ran off, she saved his saddle but little else. If an infection didn't get him, he'd die from starvation, at least that's what kept running through his mind. He couldn't see any way out of his predicament.
The beans he left on the fire were dried-out and burnt around the edges, but Dewey managed to chisel a few bites from the middle of the pot. He didn't care what they tasted like, it was food, and his belly was happy to finally get some nourishment. The coffee was thick and cold, but he drank some, anyway, and sputtered when the strong, bitter liquid traversed his palate.
Dewey tried to sit, but the pain from the skin stretching around the wound was too great. Instead, he raised his right leg—bent at the knee—in small increments, stretching the skin a little at a time. He felt for fresh blood: none. Over the course of an hour, he raised his leg parallel with the ground. He tried to sit, again. This time, as long as he kept his weight on his left buttock, he could sit with minimal pain.
The stream that saved his life, yesterday, he hoped would save his life again. Dewey stripped and wadded into the cool waters to soak his wound and exercise his leg.
Dewey didn't hear three sets of hooves approaching. A crusty older woman, maybe fortyish, and her two youngsters—a boy, about twenty-one, and a daughter, about nineteen—stopped, overlooking the stream, and Dewey splashing in the water. "Howdy, mister. Havin' fun?"
"I . . . I'ma soakin' a wound."
"Come closer so we's can get a better look at ya."
"Ma'am, I ain't got no clothes on."
"Don't matter. Ya ain't got anything I ain't already seen. Now, come closer. I can't see far off. Billy, keep a rifle on him."
"I'ma comin', no need to point that rifle at me," said Dewey as he waded toward the shore. He stopped when he was waist-deep.
"I still can't see ya. Come closer. Billy, help him obey."
"No, ma'am, that ain't necessary. I'ma comin'. What about yer daughter?"
"Time she sees what varmints are made of."
"Varmints? I ain't no varmint. What ya mean?" asked Dewey, standing ankle-deep in the stream and covering his embarrassing parts.
"Is this the man that tried ta rape ya, Jeannie?"
"No, Ma, it ain't him. Too tall, wrong hair and muscles; it ain't him. Never saw the man fully naked. He was drunk and never got his pants all the way down."
"Sorry, mister. You can go back to whatever ya was doin' when we rode up. Come on, children, we's gonna keep lookin' till we find him."
"Wait a minute. I'm in dire straits. Three men came into camp last night and shot me when I tried to escape. They took my food, rifle, and left me for dead, and if don't find food or my wound gets infected, I'll be as good as dead inside a week or so."
"Never heard of anyone starving in a week, but the wound's another matter altogether." Ma dismounted and walked to the water's edge. "Lemme see."
Dewey bent over, exposing his backside. "How's it look?"
"This hurt? How about this spot?" asked Ma, poking him at various places around the wound.
Dewey winced. "That's sore a bit."
"Tell me straight. Do it hurt or not?"
"Ya got infection in the wound, son. When ya get shot?"
"I reckon it was an hour past sundown, or so."
"Twelve hours, too fast for infection to show, maybe just trauma. It looks as if a gnarly lookin' knife ripped yer backside open. Ya'll know tomorra about infection. Billy, Jeannie, we're makin' camp. What's yer name, fella?"
"Dewey. Dewey Gibson."
"Well, Dewey, don't just stand there all naked in front of God and everybody. Get some clothes on, son. Us women folk seen all we can take fer one day." Laughing, Ma turned to her kids and directed the layout of camp.
Dewey struggled but managed to dress. Billy gathered wood and started a fire. Jeannie took the coffeepot to the stream for fresh water. Ma prepared a meal of cornbread, dried beef, and beans.
"What was the man like that attacked yer daughter?"
"Kinda stocky, curly blonde hair, scraggly mustache, and acted dumb-like," said Ma.
"Yeah," said Jeannie. "He talked funny, like a child at times, and for a growed man, didn't know what he was doin', I mean, he didn't know how to be with a girl."
"How'd ya know?"
"Been raised on a farm, mister. I know what's for what, and what goes where. Seen the animals doin' lots of times, and I seen Billy's different from me, so I'ma knowin' without doin'."
"What ya insinuatin' about my youngin, mister?"
"Nothin', ma'am, just gatherin' facts about her attacker. So tell me what happened."
"Near sundown, Ma and Billy were awaitin' with the wagon at the general store, and I was acomin' ta meet them, when a man—the curly blonde man—grabbed my arm and pulled me between two buildings. He put a gun ta my throat and told me ta be quiet like while he had his way with me. He pushed me ta the ground, and tried ta unbuckle. His gun belt slipped around his ankles. When he unbuttoned his pants and stepped atowards me, he got all tangled and fell. Cursing, he crawled on top of me but never lifted my dress. He couldn't do nothing thata way. I knowed then, he didn't know how ta do what he was tryin' ta do. We heared voices comin' our way. So he jumped up, tried ta untangle his gun belt and pull up his pants all at once. He stumbled and fell again. Last I saw of him, he was hopping on one foot, his gun belt dangling from the other, makin' for the shadows. If I weren't so fearful, I woulda laughed myself silly."
"He sounds like the one who shot me. Name's Josh. He's the cousin of two brothers, Hank and Jamie, riding to Prescott to rob the bank. Chances are they'll come back this way, afterwards."
"Don't say. So if we wait fer them here, we'll get that no-good, low-life that attacked Jeannie."
"Yep, I reckon so."
* * *
Dewey awoke with first light, feverish and his wound was throbbing. "Ma . . . Ma," he whispered, after crawling to her bedroll.
She woke with a start. "What's the matter, Dewey?"
"I don't feel so good, and my wound's mighty sore."
"Probably got's infection but can't see in this light. Have ta wait till sunrise."
"Okay, Ma." Dewey crawled back to his bedroll, sweat dripping from his forehead. He drifted off the sleep.
At sunrise, Ma woke Dewey and told him to lower his trousers. She examined the wound. "It's infected. Puss draining in a couple of places. Gotta remove the scab, and it's gonna hurt a bit. Billy, get up and build a fire. Jeannie, get some water a boilin'."
Pulling down his trousers, Dewey gritted his teeth in anticipation. "Calm down, son. I haven't started yet. Billy, bring him some of the medicinal whiskey."
"Okay, Ma," said Billy, returning with a full bottle of Kentucky's finest.
"Where'd you get this, Ma," asked Dewey. "Ain't seen this since comin' west."
"Husband was a drunkard, but he liked the best and left a few bottles when he passed. Keep them for medicine's sake."
"I could sure use a good slug." Dewey chugged a couple of gulps, and on an empty stomach, the alcohol put him a stupor in short order. "Okay, Ma, dig . . . a . . . way."
"Jeannie, bring a boilin' hot cloth."
"Here it is."
"This'll burn a little, but it's what ya need."
"Yeeowl! Gimme another swig."
"We'll let that set a spell ta soften the scab . . . no too hot now, ain't it? Little longer . . . that's enough. Let's see what we got. Ummm . . . not as bad as I figured it'd be but gotta take off the scab. Billy, stick the knifepoint in the fire, get it white-hot, and bring it to me. Son, ya better take another swig."
Ma took the knife a poured some whisky on the hot tip to cool it. She slid the point under the scab's edge and lifted. Pus and blood gushed out, and Dewey let out a yelp that echoed through the valley. As she lifted more scabs. More pus and blood drained from the wound, and Dewey's screams sent the wildlife scurrying for cover. With the last of the scab removed, Ma could see where the infection sites were.
"You better bite on this," Ma said, handing Dewey his belt.
Ma poured whisky on the wound, and scraped all the pus that was visible. The wound was bleeding, and fresh blood pooled where Dewey lay. "Bring the salt, Jeannie."
Ma poured a generous helping on the wound. She took a boiled cloth, folded it, and pressed it on the wound. Dewey squirmed from the pain. "Need another swig, son?"
"Yeeeeeah, might say I do."
"Come here, girl. Press this tight. Yer ma's knees done give out."
Jeannie knelt next to Dewey and pressed against the bandage. She took a wet cloth in her other hand and wiped the blood from this right hip and upper leg. When she put the sopping wet cloth on his cheeks, water trickled between them and his legs. Dewey muscles tightened. "Relax, Mr. Gibson, I'm not gonna hurt you."
"I think I'm clean enough, missy."
"No hanky panky, the two of ya," said Ma. "Jeannie savin' herself for the right man."
"No worry, Ma. I'm waitin' for the right woman too."
Dewey thought he saw a twinkle in Ma's eyes when he said that, but he shrugged off the thought.
"Lemme see the wound, Jeannie . . . Looks good fer now. Bleedin's stopped. Ya can leave the bandage off. Let it air dry. I think it's breakfast time. Are ya hungry, son?"
"What about me? I'm hungry too," said Billy.
Jeannie smiled and went to get food from the supplies.
* * *
"Your wound looks good after two days of healin' . . . I don't see any infection, neither. You'll be good as new soon," said Ma. "Should try ridin' a bit."
"Okay, if ya think it's healed enough."
"I'll help saddle yer horse," said Jeannie, "if ya need any help."
"I can always use some help."
Jeannie handed him the blanket, and Dewey's hand touched hers. He put the blanket on the horse's back. Heaving the saddle into place, he reached under the horse's belly for the flank cinch. Jeannie handed it to him. He tightened it and the back cinch too.
Dewey turned, and Jeannie handed him the bridle. He laid the reins over the horse's neck, slipped the bit into its mouth, slid the crownpiece over its ears, and tightened the strap. Grasping the reins, he asked, "Do you wanna go for a ride?"
"Never thought you'd ask," said Jeannie.
Dewey lifted her onto the saddle and climb up behind her. The saddle's cantle jabbed his wound, and he suppressed a yelp. They started with a walk, followed by a trot, but with each bounce, pain shot through his buttock. He stopped. "Let's trade positions. I'll sit in front, and ya can sit behind the saddle."
Dewey dismounted and rubbed his behind. He helped Jeannie down, and he remounted. Reaching for her arm, he pulled Jeannie onto the horse's croup. This time, the horse could slow gallop without causing Dewey pain. All the while, Jeannie held tight to Dewey's chest.
"Whoa, easy girl," said Dewy, patting his horse on its neck. "That was fun, wasn't it?"
"I enjoyed ridin' with ya, holdin' tight ta ya, bein' so close ta ya."
"Me too, Jeannie. You're kinda special, different than any girl I ever met before."
"How was the ride?" asked Ma. "Oooh, did I interrupt somethin'?"
"No, Ma. Dewey and me was just talkin', nothin' more." Jeanie walked the horse to the stream.
"She's a right pretty young woman, don't ya think, Dewey? Gonna make the right man a perfect wife someday."
"Ma, yer as subtle as a mule kick, ya know?"
Ma walked away humming a tune.
Dewey glanced toward Jeanie. She does look right pretty at that. A man could do a lot worst and no better.
* * *
"It's been seven days since Hank and his kin left here ta rob the Prescott Bank. I figure four days ridin' ta Prescott, maybe spend a day in town, and three days back. So we got a day or more before they come up the trail."
"What ifn' they ride strait through?" asked Billy.
"Gotta give the horses time ta rest and feed, else they'll ride them into the ground and be on foot."
"They took my rifle, but I have my revolver with about twenty rounds. What else we got?"
"I got a rifle," said Billy, "And twenty-five bullets."
"This old single-shot relic won't be much good, but it has twelve shots," said Ma.
"I keep Pa's old handgun, but it only has six rounds," said Jeannie.
"I'ma fair marksman, not great, but can hold my own. How about you, Billy?" Dewey asked.
"I can shoot out the eye of a gnat, buzzing at fifty yards."
"Not quite as good as Billy, but don't challenge me to a rifle fight as long as we's up close."
"Close up, only."
"We've the makin's of a small but formidable army. Standin' watch and no fires will be our edge against these men. If we get the drop on them before they know what hit them, we can capture or kill them before they kill us. Billy, you stand the day watch, and I'll stand the night watch. That ledge and those boulders on either side of the campsite should be our best defensive positions."
* * *
"What ya doin' here? Ya should be sleepin'," Dewey said.
"I couldn't sleep thinkin' about ya and what could happen ta ya ifn' they sneeked up on ya during the night, so I comes ta watch with ya. Besides, I like bein' near ya."
"Okay, but be quiet."
"Dewey, whatcha gonna do when this is over?" whispered Jeannie.
"I mean . . . yer a young man . . . and I'ma young woman . . . never been kissed nor done nothin' . . . well . . . I was wonderin' . . . if ya ever . . . I mean . . . ever gave me as much as a thought. There I said it!"
"Jeannie, ya like me . . . don't ya?"
"Of course I do, ya dumb old ox."
"I like ya too, but this ain't the time ta do any courtin'."
"Dewey Gibson, yer just the—
Dewey kissed her. "Now will ya keep quiet and go back ta yer bedroll?"
"Sure, Dewey, anythin' ya say."
* * *
"Hank. Hey, Hank, we been riding these nags real hard," said Jamie. "They's about to drop under us if we don't give them a rest."
"We'll stop where Josh shot that feller. There's water and feed for the horses."
"Ya thinks his sadda still there?" asked Josh. "I kilt him, so his sadda's mine."
"Yer a perfect reaon against incest, Josh."
"What's this here incest?"
"It's when our brother and sister, yer ma and pa, gave life to ya. The seed don't grow right when the fertilizer's too much like the seed."
"Forget it, Hank. It's above him."
"My point is, Josh, yer different and difficult to deal with. Ya do things ya shouldn't, like killin' that stranger. Twas no need for it. That's what I mean. And ya shot up the bank. Twasn't necessary, neither. Yer plumb dangerous at times."
"I like shootin'. Makes people take notice. They don't call me dumb when hot lead is flying around them. I like shootin' a lot."
"We better get movin'. Close to sunup, we should be near to the clearin' where we met the stranger. We'll rest there for the day before headin' to Flagstaff."
* * *
Dewey's eyes hung heavy as the hours dragged on. His thoughts drifted back to what Jeannie said and the kiss. But horseshoes pawing against hard ground and rocks, echoed in the twilight. He slipped over and awakened Ma, Billy, and Jeannie. "They're acomin'. I reckon about a hundred yards up the trail. Take yer positions."
Each gathered their bedroll and stashed them behind a bush. Taking positions overlooking the campsite, they waited for the approaching men.
* * *
"Can we finally rest?" asked Jamie, dismounting. "My arse's near glued to my saddle." His horse strolled over to the stream for a drink. Jamie stretched and rubbed his backside.
Josh dismounted and looked around. "Where's my sadda? We left it here, but it's gone."
"Shut up about yer 'sadda'," shouted Hank. "Yer horse is more important than an old saddle. It needs water and feed."
"But I want my sadda," mumbled Josh while he unsaddled his horse. His horse walked over to the stream.
"Jamie, ya didn't take yer saddle off. Yer horse needs a rest too," yelled Hank.
"Okay. Okay, I'll get it." Jamie waded into the stream, uncinched the saddle, and plopped it on the bank.
Hank dismounted, took the saddlebags of money, and pitched them near the burnt-out campfire. He loosened the cinch and let the saddle drop to the ground. His horse wandered to the stream and took a long drink.
Josh said,"Lemme see the money, Hank."
"Yeah, I wanna see it too. How much you think we got?"
"I guess it's safe to count it. Doubt the posse's on our trail."
Jamie and Josh stood over Hank while he emptied the saddlebags on the ground.
"Put yer hands up. We gots ya covered," yelled Dewey.
Josh and Jamie hunkered down and searched for the direction of the voice. Hank gathered the money into the saddlebags and said, "Wait a minute, partner. We can talk this out."
"No talking to it. Drop yer guns."
"How many ya think there is?" whispered Jamie.
"At least two," said Hank, nodding toward Billy's position. "See the rifle on that boulder?"
"Got thirty seconds then we start shootin'," shouted Dewey.
"I like shootin'," said Josh, standing and firing toward the sound of Dewey's voice.
"Josh, ya crazy idiot. Yer pa shoulda buried ya with the afterbirth," screamed Hank.
Billy took aim on Jamie and fired. Jamie fell backward, dead, blood streaming from a hole in his forehead. Josh kept shooting wildly, missing his target. Hank shot two rounds toward Billy's position, but he had already ducked behind a boulder.
"Looky here," yelled Ma.
Hank pivoted and fired just as Ma's rifle sent a bullet screaming towards its target. Grabbing his shoulder where Ma's projectile shredded flesh and bone, the impact knocked Hank backward. He managed another shot at Ma's exposed left arm and shoulder. It found its mark, and Ma winced in pain as the bullet passed through the fleshy part of her upper arm.
"Hank, over here," shouted Dewey, standing and firing three shots of his revolver.
Hank didn't have time to turn before the slugs hit square in his chest. He paused, his revolver tumbled forward on his index finger, and he fell facedown with a thud.
Josh scrambled for cover, toward Jeannie's location. She backed against a boulder when she saw him coming. Holding the pistol with both hands, she pointed it at Josh. Her hands were shaking. She recognized him as the man who tried to molest her, and he was approaching, fast. He dove behind the boulder and looked straight into the barrel of a Colt Dragoon .44.
"Hi ya, missy. Ya ain't gonna hurt me, are ya?" Josh crawled closer.
"Yer the man who tried ta hurt me."
"Sorry, missy, I don't know ya." Josh inched forward.
"Ya grabbed me in Sedona, dragged me between two buildings, and tried to have yer way with me, but couldn't."
"I could've ifn' I wanted to." Josh raised up and extended his hand.
"Not from what I seen. Ya too dumb to knowed what ta do."
"I ain't dumb. I'll show ya I ain't," yelled Josh, lunging at Jeannie.
She squeezed the trigger, and the hammer struck the cartridge, propelling a ball of lead down the barrel. The shocked look on Josh's face froze in place when the bullet punched a hole between his eyes, and gunpowder residue splattered on his face. The exiting round exploded the back of his skull, and he slumped at Jeannie's feet.
Dewey ran toward her. "Are ya alright?" he shouted. "Are ya hurt?"
"Ma's been hit," yelled Billy, "Tain't bad though."
"Is Jeannie alright?" hollered Ma, getting to her feet. "Help me, Billy, gotta see my baby."
"She's safe and unharmed. The varmint never touched her. She got him right between the eyes, stopped him dead on the spot. She's quite a woman, Ma. She sure is."
"Stop it, Dewey," Jeannie said. "Stop talkin'. Can't ya see I'ma hurtin' inside? Never kilt anyone or anything before, and it don't feel good, like I did wrong, or somethin'."
"It was him or you. He hadda kilt ya for sure ifn' givin' the chance. Ya did right," Dewey told her.
"He be the one who attacked me in Sedona, so he deserved it, I guess."
"Yer right. So don't delve on it . . . How's yer wound, Ma?"
"I'll be okay, son. After we bury this bunch, what we gonna do with the bank's money?"
"Return it, of course. No use bein' robbers ourselves."
"That's what I wanted to hear. You take Jeannie along. She'll keep ya company ta Prescott, and you'll get ta know her better."
"What ya sayin', Ma?"
"Nothin', son, just lettin' nature take its course on the long ride ta Prescott and back."
Jack Hill is a retired medical database researcher and adjunct professor. Since retiring, he's tried his hand
at writing poems and short stories of different genres. He's posted many of them on:
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A Special Assignment
by Dick Derham
In the flickering light of the campfire, Mike Saunders read the single sheet of handwritten instructions one final time. Factual and concise, befitting a lawyer's words, Vanderman's letter clearly explained his assignment. Nothing to it, Saunders told himself; nothing more difficult than many of the errands he had run for the Cheyenne lawyer over the years. Oh, it had its special features, its complications, but to a man of his experience, they presented little challenge.
Holding the letter by its corner, Saunders touched it to the flame and watched the paper ignite and flare up. When the fire had consumed the letter, he secured the oilskin pouch containing the sealed envelope in his saddlebags where it would remain until needed.
The urgent summons from Vanderman had arrived at a good time. Work on his small ranch outside of Wheatland had quieted with the end of branding season, the cattle would graze the open range without his attention and other ranch chores could wait. So, he had caught, saddled and headed for Cheyenne.
"I have chosen you for a special assignment," Vanderman declared in the privacy of the lawyer's office. "The client and I have developed the scenario carefully. The operation must be performed exactly as planned." The broad smile Vanderman bestowed always made Saunders sit a bit taller in his chair. "As my top professional, you fit all my requirements."
As usual, Saunders didn't know the name of the man ultimately paying his wages. Nor did he know the reason behind the trip, an unnecessary detail. As a craftsman, expert at his trade, he needed to know no more than the contents of the paper he had just reduced to ash.
In his early years in the business, Saunders had craved the details Vanderman withheld, thirsting to know as much as he could about his work. Vanderman spoke of "compartmentalization of knowledge," flaunting his big lawyer words, but over the years Saunders had come to understand that Vanderman's secrecy formed the essential part of their arrangement and explained why the wad of greenbacks that ended in his pocket after each chore was so much thicker than in his freelancing days.
* * *
In the cattle town of Benton, Montana, asking around about hiring was natural for a roving cowhand, even one a bit long in the tooth for a range drifter. Spring came late to Montana north of the Missouri and round-up hiring was in full swing. Barkeeps agreed that the biggest spread near Benton was Rafter H, five miles up the road. Later, if anyone tried to think back about an outsider looking for Walt Harner, Saunders wouldn't stand out. He would be recalled, if at all, merely as one more shiftless drifter hungry for a few weeks' pay. That was the way he wanted it, the professional way.
Saunders spent the five days before round-up establishing himself with the other hands. Taking cards in evening games of bunkhouse poker, he displayed average skills but played to lose slightly. He joined in laughter at cowhand shenanigans but initiated none himself. He talked enough so that he would not be conspicuous for his silence, but nothing he said, about himself, his past, or about ranching, was remarkable. The men would forget the false name he used within a week of him drawing his time. After a month, they would forget about him completely, just another drifter no one noticed or remembered.
A professional looked after the small things as well as the big ones and took pride in delivering a polished performance. That's what Vanderman maintained, and Saunders believed it. The small things were what tripped a man up.
His playacting became easier once they moved into their first round-up camp. Gone were the days of preparation, the mending of tack, the camaraderie of the bunkhouse. For the next three weeks the sweaty chores of searching through the brush, scouring the side canyons, chousing out the hideouts, and manning the branding fire would fully occupy every hand's energy. Dawn to dusk were saddle hours. Dusk to dawn were for meals, for sleep, and for night herd.
Uncomplainingly, Saunders took to the saddle each morning and did his share of riding the scrub. If the foreman had been asked, he would have said Saunders didn't stand out, maybe an average itinerant hand, producing about as many head for the branding fire as others, sometimes more, sometimes less. That impression would be important, Saunders knew, in what lay ahead.
One day, after midmorning delivery of a dozen cows with their unbranded calves, Saunders turned his horse east. Riding round about to avoid other riders, he reached the ranch house unseen, finding it deserted as he expected. In five minutes, he had completed his business and was back in the saddle. His tally of cows that day was not his best, but anyone noticing it merely assumed he had drawn territory light on cattle. And this was not the critical day.
* * *
Before hooking up with Vanderman, Saunders had been a young, fresh-faced no-account, willing to do a chore for fifty a pop, enough to keep him in drinking and whoring money, which pretty much summed up the ambitions of many a twenty-year old. Looking back over the intervening decade, he could see how much he had grown. Now folks considered him a solid, if small, rancher, established in the community, a serious man, a man with a future. Vanderman had done that for him, first by signing him on and showing him where the real money lay, then by patient development, each year teaching him something new: how to work fast, how to work quiet, the best spot to slip in a quick blade, tricks of the trade that made him a more versatile workman, a top professional who could be sent in to deal with the toughest assignments. The increased pay that accompanied his enhanced skills had combined with the regularity of Vanderman's errands to provide the down payment on his ranch. The work came less often now; he was called from his ranch only on tasks that needed top-rate talent, but Vanderman paid accordingly and the investment in his ranch continued to grow. When he told Vanderman the past winter that demands at his Diamond S fought for his time and he needed to ease out of field work, the lawyer had been effusive in his congratulations. Still, when Vanderman had sent word he was needed, he'd not hesitated.
Sure, life was sweet now, but when Vanderman had found him, his future looked blacker than a Comanchero's heart. The unwanted sodbuster on Crazy Woman Creek had gone down easy enough but an unseen witness stepped forward to swear that Saunders slapped iron unprovoked. As the trial neared, Saunders' throat stiffened with the bleak certainty that a jury would condemn him. Then, only days before the trial, a lawyer appeared to handle his defense, seemingly an inexplicable act of charity, for Saunders had no money to pay the lawyer, nor any prospects of surviving to earn any. After the witness stopped a bullet on the eve of trial, Vanderman told him how he could pay his legal bills.
He'd no objection; cartridges were cheap and a proud man always paid his debts. A couple of pops, he figured, and he'd be on his way. But he quickly learned that Vanderman extracted full value from his bargain. During the next six months, Saunders pounded leather incessantly from Montana to New Mexico, his wrist bucked five time and his legal fees had been paid. More importantly, he had demonstrated his worth to Vanderman. He hadn't been surprised when Vanderman signed him on for continued work at prime pay.
That was ten years ago. He'd worked for the lawyer ever since.
* * *
There were times when Saunders let himself wonder about Vanderman and his business. Did he have a network feeding him work? How big was his operation? How did he keep the wrong people from knowing about him? He never asked Vanderman. He knew the lawyer's answer: "Compartmentalization of knowledge." And as long as the work kept coming, it didn't matter.
How Vanderman lined up his crew was no mystery. Saunders had his own experience. And he knew Vanderman still added to his stable. The past fall, poor Mort down at the Wheatland general store had made the fatal mistake of being in the street to witness a rancher getting taken down. When Saunders knuckled on the rear door after closing, Mort was surprised, but Saunders was a friendly customer so Mort swung the door open to give admittance. He didn't see the knife until it arced upward. A brutal thrust, a savage twist and Saunders had earned his pay. He emptied the cash box and the sheriff figured a robber had done for Mort.
Next week, the Cheyenne Ledger reported that Vanderman had won another case.
Him being a rancher came in handy for Vanderman, too, Saunders reflected. They had a simple understanding. Five or six times over recent years, a gun-hung hardcase had ridden in, sent by Vanderman to lie low, so each told him. When they swaggered in, some young and arrogant as he'd been at their age, others more hard of face, they dismissed him for a no-account rancher. So, he welcomed each man, roused him before dawn, and rode him out in his long johns to be planted.
Vanderman himself was as plain to read as a one-hour trail. He worked his men hard, showed no sympathy for slackards or failures, and valued a man solely for the money he could make. And who could complain about that? Each time Saunders went into the field, he felt pride-driven to live up to Vanderman's exacting standards. For a top man, it was a satisfying job.
As to those that didn't measure up, what happened to them didn't bother Saunders. Vanderman paid well for the risks, and if he ever let the day come he couldn't do his job, he'd deserve to be another man's payday.
But Saunders didn't plan on tangling his spurs. Not this time. Not ever.
Ten days into round-up, tempers were getting short, as Harner's impatient arrogance belittled any human weakness. Saunders particularly noticed the increasingly frequent exchanges of harsh words between Harner and his son. The lad, coming on to twenty, pulled his weight so far as Saunders could see, but a man wouldn't know that to hear Harner rant. Saunders speculated, could the kid be the client? Still, Harner rode folks hard. No telling how many enemies he had made.
With round-up more than half over, Saunders' chance came. Ambling back for a second plate of sourdough flapjacks, he steered himself past where Harner and his foreman were palavering. When he heard the rancher say that he would be spending the day at the ranch, Saunders passed on seconds, saddled, and rode out first that day, eager to get his business accomplished.
To begin, he located several head and steered them to a hollow from which they could not drift far. By mid-morning, he had gathered another bunch and driven them to the branding fire. Then it was time to go to work.
The ranch door swung open noiselessly. Slipping inside, Saunders eased the door shut, careful to permit no betraying sound. As his visit had told him, Harner's office was off the carpeted hallway, a few yards beyond the parlor. He hoped Harner would be working at the oaken desk. He needed to work fast.
As Saunders' tall form filled the doorway, the change in light caused Harner to look up from the papers spread out before him. Harner's arrogant face flushed in anger as he set down the pen. "Why aren't you out on the range?" he barked.
Saunders smiled respectfully to the rancher. Some men needed to be angry before they could do their work, so Vanderman told him. Not Saunders. He felt no animosity toward Harner, no more than toward a horse needing to be put down.
"Come in to say goodbye, Mr. Harner." He slipped into the room.
"Damnation, no cowboy quits my spread during round-up." Harner scowled. "If you leave me short-handed, don't figure on drawing your time. You'll not get a penny from me."
Saunders shook his head, sad but not surprised at Harner's blustering fury. That's just the way the man was made. "No need to get riled up, Mr. Harner," he told the red-faced rancher. "I'm no quitter."
"Man tells me he's leaving, I'd call him a quitter."
"No," Saunders corrected gently. "I said I was saying goodbye."
Harner looked at Saunders without speaking. It took him a moment, but as Saunders stepped toward the desk, the rancher's puzzlement was replaced by incredulity. Saunders had seen it before. Arrogant cock-of-the-walk men never figure it could happen to them.
The rancher's hand dropped to slide open a desk drawer. "Looking for this, Mr. Harner?" From the small of his back, Saunders drew the revolver he had purloined on his first visit.
"Who?" the rancher demanded as Saunders stepped forward. "Not Rollie?" he asked in disbelief. "No," he snorted disgustedly. "He don't have the gumption."
Saunders dropped the parcel he carried on a side table and moved around the desk to Harner's right side. Calmly he thumb-cocked as he raised the gun.
Harner's mouth opened, to plead, or to promise, or likely to curse, Saunders didn't wait to find out. He rammed the gun barrel forward into Harner's open mouth, choking off the rancher's final words. As Harner jerked back in reflex, Saunders pressed forward, finger taking up the trigger slack. His free hand fended off Harner's futile efforts to grab the gun. The strangled protests of a target meant nothing to Saunders; his mind screened them out as he ran through his mental checklist.
Just in time, he realized his near mistake. Standing over the doomed man, as he was, the bullet trajectory would be put the lie to the story. Saunders dropped his wrist, changing the angle, and gently caressed the trigger. The explosion filled the room, the back of Harner's head erupted, and the wall behind him stained crimson and gray.
Saunders stood for a moment, inhaling as the cordite cleared. Then, he reached down and grasped the limp hand, wrapping it around the gun. When he released the hand, the gun slipped to the floor just beyond Harner's dangling fingers.
Saunders quickly finished his work, removing the papers Harner had spread across his desk, stacking them neatly to one side. The notes Harner had been making might put the lie to the story, so he shoved them inside his shirt for later destruction. Then he unwrapped the oilskin packet. The stiff cardboard backing had kept the envelope and its contents unwrinkled so they looked fresh and new as Saunders placed them at the center of the desk. He observed that the stationery seemed to match Harner's. Count on Vanderman to be thorough. Across the front of the envelope, in large block letters, someone had printed "To the Sheriff."
From the door, he examined the scene a final time. Everything seemed right and in its place. Neat and professional. Vanderman should approve.
On the trail back, he let his chest swell with the manly rush that always went with a clean pop. As for the slab of cooling beef that had been Harner, Saunders never gave it a thought. No man should count on living when he was worth good money dead. That was the way of the world and it suited Saunders fine for the work it brought him.
Part way back he swung down long enough to burn Harner's notes and scatter the ashes. Then he located the small cluster of cattle he had collected earlier and herded them toward the branding fire. No one doubted that he had been range-riding all the time.
Later Saunders seemed to share the shock of the others when they learned of Harner's suicide. After the round-up, he drew his time, joining the crew in town for a good blowout. Then he rode south to Wyoming, with the current issue of the Benton Chronicle in his saddlebags.
The newspaper report was succinct and only young Harner cried murder, but the sheriff dismissed Rollie's accusations because of the note. In that final act, it seemed, Harner had confessed the swindle that eliminated his partner from ownership of Rafter H and declared that his guilt had become intolerable. The lawyer for Harner's former partner, not Vanderman of course, announced that the courts would be asked to award the ranch to his client.
Never before had Saunders known the name of the man who hired him. In less proven hands, that would be dangerous knowledge. No wonder Vanderman had sent for him, even after he had declared he was hanging it up.
Hanging it up? Saunders gave a short laugh. Why not admit it. He liked the work. He'd let Vanderman know that he could find time for a trip now and then.
Saunders looped the reins of his mare around the hitching rail in front of Trail's End Saloon and strolled the three blocks to the lawyer's second story office where no nosy passer-by could look in the windows. Their business required privacy.
The glazed-glass door bearing the stenciled legend "Junius Vanderman, attorney-at-law" yielded as Saunders turned the knob. Inside the lawyer's waiting room, a young cowhand lounged in one of the straight-backed chairs, his gloved hands playing idly with a pegging rope, a cigarette dangling from his lips.
Saunders stifled his annoyance. Resigned to delay, he pulled out the makings, rolled a cigarette, and settled down to wait. The current edition of the Cheyenne Ledger lay on a side table. Saunders casually scanned the news, pausing briefly over the mention of the homesteader outside Rawlins, just a typical "starter" job by a gunman described as "young, slender of build with a scrubby blond moustache." Saunders' eyes flashed speculatively at the man across the room, a sallow-cheeked colt in faded range garb, barely twenty, sprouting a wannabe moustache and staring back at him with sullen animosity. The kid had nothing to make a man notice or remember, the kind of workman Vanderman liked but with a brashness of youth the lawyer hadn't yet tamed, all the arrogance of two-bit gun trash. Probably the client Mort's testimony would have condemned, waiting for his payoff for the Rawlins errand.
Over the years, Saunders only met another of Vanderman's stable of hands at chore time. Vanderman didn't slip up on security, so Saunders knew the kid had paid his legal fees, showed himself to be second-rate talent and needed to be moved on. Just a quick pop; hardly enough work to justify a fee. Few men expected it when their time came; the kid would be no different.
Saunders turned to the paper's ranch news section. Beef prices in Chicago were up; maybe he'd ship a few dozen steers this fall. He was halfway through a reprint from the National Stockman touting the potential of a new strain of alfalfa when the door to Vanderman's inner office swung open. The lawyer emerged, calm, deliberate as always, a tall graying man dressed in a professionally-tailored dark suit. His eyes spoke his self-assurance. Few men could intimidate Saunders; Vanderman did so without trying.
"Ah, Mr. Saunders," the lawyer began. "Sorry to keep you. Please come in." He smiled patronizingly toward the throw-away kid. "Mr. Waters won't mind."
Vanderman stepped aside with ostentatious courtesy to let Saunders precede him into the heavily carpeted office. The furnishings had little changed over the years. Shelves with legal tomes lined one wall, filing cabinets another, and a strong box sat on a table behind the lawyer's desk. Saunders stepped around the familiar steamer trunk that always reminded him of the Denver assignment when the banker's carcass wasn't to be found where it bled. Carting the steamer trunk through downtown Denver hadn't attracted notice. Saunders eased himself into the client chair facing the desk and waited while Vanderman brought the crystal decanter from the sidebar and set it down between them. Saunders selected a shot glass, poured himself four fingers of the lawyer's premium-quality Kentucky bourbon, settled back and began his detailed report on the operation.
"Congratulations!" The heartiness of Vanderman's response echoed through the room as he raised his own glass. "A superb performance," he declared. "Neat and efficient." It was Vanderman's highest praise and Saunders let himself bask in the lawyer's approbation. He tossed off the whisky and leaned forward to pour a refill as Vanderman extracted a thick bundle of greenbacks from the strong box.
Saunders let the whiskey relax him as Vanderman began placing bill upon bill on the desk between them. Soon the stack had surpassed even last year's double outside Las Vegas, six hundred dollars and still the lawyer was counting. Vanderman always treated him right. Mesmerized by the accumulating mound of greenbacks on the table before him, Saunders barely listened as the lawyer's sonorous voice droned on.
"Over the years, I used you to conclude several lucrative specials," Vanderman was saying. "This time, when our client's needs became clear, I knew you were ideal for the operational phase." The lawyer's faintly apologetic smile seemed to dismiss any minor inconvenience the summons had imposed on his retired agent. "Such are the imperatives of our business."
Business, Saunders repeated to himself. That described it. Making good pay just for tossing a man on the discard heap. "Never thought one carcass could be worth that much." He gestured toward the money before him. "Got any more specials that pay like this, Mr. Vanderman, and I'll come lickety-split."
Vanderman wore his usual bland smile. "You've seen the newspaper article?" Saunders nodded. "Inevitably, the client's driving concern was my assurance of my agent's complete discretion."
Saunders proudly grinned at the tribute. "Thirty times and more, and never a runny mouth," Saunders said as he refilled his glass.
"Our special service augments my guarantee of secrecy with convincing certitude." While Saunders let the usual fog of the lawyer's convoluted speech roll over him, Vanderman smiled broadly and leaned back in his chair. "Most find the investment prohibitive, but your status as my foremost profit center, made yours a record price."
He meant pay.
Suddenly, a fire bell clanged urgently through the whiskey haze.
He couldn't mean . . .
In a flash, his own dangerous knowledge, the kid's unexpected presence, and finally Vanderman's words clicked into place. "Certitude!" Christ, no! Already lurching from his chair, the gunman's hand stabbed toward his holster.
A strand of pegging cord flashed in front of Saunders' eyes. The taut cord dug deep into the soft flesh of his neck. His fingers clawed at his throat. His body writhed desperately. His lungs convulsed as they struggled for breath. The unyielding cord drew tighter by the second, choking off sound, choking off life. Finally, Saunders felt his throat crunch in on itself and the end neared.
His vision dimming, the doomed man's eyes fastened on Vanderman, placid and faintly amused. The lawyer seemed satisfied with his new talent.
And why not? He had been neat and efficient.
Dick Derham, a native of Seattle, has been reading Western history and fiction since his teenage years. A
member of the Wild West Historical Association, he has written over a dozen stories for Frontier Tales.
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