March, 2019

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Issue #114

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They'll appear in upcoming print volumes of The Best of Frontier Tales Anthologies!

The Buzzard King
by Kenneth Mark Hoover
Amidst the wreckage of a train and violent murder, a U.S. Marshal struggles to solve a decades-old crime. While fighting for his life, and that of a young woman, in a black and tortuous Underworld, the marshal must also face the inevitable death of the West.

* * *

The Hangman's Dance
by R. J. Gahen
Tommy is set to hang but swears he won't. Sheriff Abel is bound and determined to see the sentence carried out. Will justice prevail?

* * *

Coulter
by John Williams
Friends Sam Coulter and Ben Tobey own a ranch together. On his 19th birthday, Tobey's son, Little Samuel, decides he wants his first whore, but a local hardcase wants her too. Little Samuel is nearly killed before his godfather, Coulter, steps in. It's a dark time for the Tobey family as secrets are revealed.

* * *

Rainmaker
by Bill Connor
Tag risks his life to free a beautiful woman's kidnapped baby. Out of water and hope he crosses an endless salt pan with the bandits closing fast and the baby nearly dead.

* * *

The Long Ride
by Jack Hill
Three men planning to rob the bank in Prescott, Arizona, shot and left Dewey Gibson for dead. A woman and her two teenagers find Dewey and nurse him back to health. Dewey reckons the renegades will return by the same trail. Will Ma, her kids, and Dewey be enough to prevail?

* * *

A Special Assignment
by Dick Derham
His skills, reliability, and discretion had been proven over the years, earning hired gun Saunders a Cheyenne lawyer's most challenging assignments. Saunders figures this trip to Montana should produce a hefty bonus.

* * *

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All the Tales

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."

"Libby—"

"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.

"Marshal."

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?"

"Yes."

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.

"Who."

"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?"

"Haxan."

"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.

The End


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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