by Scott Harris
It seems my luck is changing. With almost two months—long, cold, hard months—having passed since I last slept in a bed, I stumbled across a Harris Ranch line shack. The Harris Ranch was famous, almost legendary, for their line shacks. They always seemed to be stocked with canned goods, plenty of fresh water, firewood and even blankets. They were never locked, and it seemed that even the outlaws respected the Harris Ranch rules, which were known throughout the Montana Territory—eat what you need, replace the water and firewood you use, hang the blankets to air out (outside in the summer, inside in the winter) and leave the place clean.
And lucky me, that's how I found it. The last man—or men—who visited even left a little kindling, so starting a fire was easy. The beans are beginning to boil, so I add in some chopped mountain lion. Some will tell you they don't care for mountain lion, but I'm partial to it and was able to take one a couple of days ago. It promises to be quite a stew. But the best part of all is the coffee. I'd been out for at least two weeks, and I was happy like a little kid at Christmas to find coffee on one of the shelves. A man can do without a lot of things, but coffee should not be one of them, especially in the middle of a Montana Territory winter. Over the years, I've stayed at some of the finest hotels from Helena to San Francisco, but I have never enjoyed a night's lodging as much as I'm starting to enjoy this one.
No sooner have I dished myself up a bowl of stew, poured a hot cup of coffee, laughing at myself for being momentarily upset there wasn't any sugar, and just started to sit down to a great midday meal—than I hear the shots, lots of them.
I take a moment and strap on my 1851 Colt Navy Revolver, checking to be sure it's loaded, and then grab my Sharps Carbine. By the time I get to the window, I can hear the pounding of horses running full out, along with rifle and pistol shots. As I look through the gun loop, I see two white men, racing ahead of about seven or eight Indians. Their horses seem spent, and I can hear the first man yelling to open the door. Figuring there is enough distance between the two men and the Indians that I can open the door, let them in and close it up before being shot, I open it up. The men surprise me, and save a bit of time, by ducking their heads and riding their horses straight into the line shack. I slam the door behind them, bolt it and go back to my gun loop.
A couple of well-placed shots with the Colt turn those Indians right around, one without his horse and one horse without his Indian. The Indians quickly settle in behind some rocks and trees, horses out of sight and just on the edge of what they think is effective rifle range. My guess is that these particular Indians haven't yet seen what a "Beecher's Bible" Sharps Carbine can do, but I aim to show them.
I turn around and see the first man through the door is off his horse, but the second man has his wrists tied together and then to his saddle, so he isn't going anywhere until he's turned loose.
"Not sure what's happening here, and it's none of my business, but I'm going to need one of you to cover that second window, preferably someone who's not tied up. There's no back door and no side windows, so these two front windows are it, but we'll need both covered in case they charge."
The first man in, without turning toward me, says, "Let me get him down off this horse, and I'll take the other window."
"You know who's out there?"
The same man answers. "We ran into some Crow about three miles from here. Caught 'em by surprise, so we were able to ride away, but our horses were already tired when it started and the Crow were gaining. Didn't have a mile left before they'd have caught us when I saw the smoke from this shack, so we headed here. There's eight of 'em."
Listening, but watching out the gun loop, I respond, "Seven."
The second man, wrists still bound, takes a seat at the table, while the first man takes a rifle from his scabbard, walks up to the second window, opens the small shutter and takes a look out of the gun loop. He seems to be splitting his time between watching the man at the table, who's yet to say a word, and the Crow.
After a couple of minutes, I introduce myself. "My name's Dusty Stevens. I mostly ride here in Montana."
The man at the window nods but doesn't answer. The man at the table starts to stand, until he's ordered to sit back down, but he does introduce himself as Matthew, "Matt," Bridges.
"Man at the window's not real talkative. I've been his prisoner since yesterday morning, and I still don't know his name. Gave up asking. Heck, gave up talking. Don't know anything about him, except he's a bounty hunter. He's got to be tired. Pretty sure he didn't close his eyes last night. Maybe he figured I could untie myself from the tree he tied me to and ride away. Mighta tried I guess, but every time I looked at him, he looked back, and he seems pretty good with knots. Don't know how long he'll be any good at that window though."
I turn away from Matt. "That true, mister? You tired?"
Still looking out the gun loop, he answers, "I'll be fine. You watch your window and your business."
"You're mighty unfriendly, mister, especially for a man whose hair would be hanging from a Crow horse 'bout now if I hadn't opened that door. Don't make me regret doing it."
No answer from the man at the window, but I do hear a small laugh from Matt. That's about it for conversation for almost an hour. I've never had a problem with quiet, so I'm in no hurry to start talking, which means the only noise is the occasional shot from the Crow, who, unless they get real lucky, don't present an immediate problem.
Taking stock of our situation, I note that this line shack, besides being stocked for comfort, is built for defense. The back wall is built into the hillside, and the roof has at least two feet of fire-preventing sod, in addition to the winter snow. Neither of the sides has a window, and the front door and windows are so thick they could probably even stop a shot from my Sharps, which not much can. Both windows have gun loops, easily covered with shutters, and the front door is solid and thick, tough to burn. The area out front has been cleared of all trees and most of the rocks for at least fifty yards out, so it's going to be hard—but not impossible—to sneak up on us.
We've got plenty of food and water, enough for at least three or four days, at least for the three of us. I'm not sure what we'll be feeding the horses, and we'll have to be careful about how much water we let them drink, but I think we'll be OK.
The afternoon is starting to turn from chilly to cold and from light to dark. I turn to Matt and ask him to throw some more wood on the fire. The bounty hunter turns to look at both of us, and Matt stops where he stands.
I look at the bounty hunter. "Mister, you can get it yourself, or let him do it, but I'm not leaving this window, and I'm not freezing to death. There's three of us here, and between these windows, heat, food and sleep, it's going to take all three of us if we plan on making it outta here—and I do."
The bounty hunter looks at Matt and nods, so Matt moves to get the wood. The bounty hunter moves back a bit from the window, so he can watch Matt and the window. Once Matt's done with the fire and seated again at the table, he moves back closer to the window.
The Crow keep firing, but now I'm starting to see a little movement. Since we couldn't see anything to shoot at, until now, and neither of us want to waste ammunition, we haven't fired back since they first took cover. I'm not sure what they make of that, but they have to be surprised. It seems they may want to try something before dark, though, and they still have the fallen Crow out front—and Indians hate to leave their dead.
They've been back in the trees a ways, but it appears they are trying to move toward the edge of the trees closest to the shack, maybe thinking about rushing us, or at least getting closer and behind a couple of those rocks. The rocks don't seem big enough to hide a full-grown man, but Indians have a way of making themselves smaller than any white man I know.
Just as I'm thinking that, four of them break from the trees, with the other three providing steady covering fire. I get off a single shot with my Sharps and hit one in the chest. Not dead center, but close enough he won't be getting up again. The bounty hunter also got off a shot and wounded one in the leg. I can't tell how badly. One of the others made it behind a rock, and the fourth one is behind the dead horse.
We've now killed two and probably taken a third out of the fight. That leaves five angry Crow, with two of them close enough to do some damage. We take turns wasting ammunition, as the bounty hunter and I chip away at the rock and make sure the dead horse stays dead. They keep firing at the shack, hoping to sneak a shot in through the gun loops. Night comes with no change.
Matt, hands still bound, stands and moves toward the shelves where the food is kept. I can see the bounty hunter start to say something, but then think better of it. We stay at the windows while Matt makes a pretty good, certainly filling, dinner.
I turn away from the window and look at both men. "I'm hoping these Crow, like many Indians, don't like fighting at night, but whether they do or don't, we have to keep up our guard. Mister, maybe it's time for you to get some rest."
Looking at Matt, not me, he says, "I'll stay."
Matt shakes his head, stands up and starts to walk toward the bunk. The bounty hunter starts to stand to, and Matt turns and faces him.
"Look, I've done what you've said since you picked me up. But I'm your prisoner, not your slave. I'll stand watch, or I'll sleep—that's your choice. But, if I'm going to sleep, there's no reason for me to do it sitting up at the table."
With that, Matt turns his back on the bounty hunter, walks to the bunk, lies down and stretches out. He's asleep before the bounty hunter has sat back down. I smile to myself and settle in. The moon is bright enough to be doing us a favor, so if the Crow try to cover the open ground behind their hiding spots and the shack, we should be able to see them.
Seems like the Crow are satisfied with things the way they are. They stop shooting, but hold their positions. We do the same. About three or four hours pass, without a word being said between me and the bounty hunter, when I notice his breathing is far too regular for a man who's awake and alert. I understand how a warm cabin, two days and almost two nights of no sleep, and then not moving or talking for hours can lead to a man falling asleep, but I don't care. I reach behind me, pick up a decent-sized stick, break it in half and toss it at the bounty hunter.
He moves instantly, but clearly was asleep. His hand drops instinctively to his pistol before he realizes where he is and what's happening. Neither of us say a word, and we both go back to watching. It might have been my imagination, but I thought I heard a muffled laugh from the bunk.
After a bit, I try to strike up a conversation. "What'd he do?"
Not looking away from the window, he answers, "I don't know. Poster says he killed a man in Arkansas."
"You didn't ask him about it?"
"Why not? I'd be curious if I was you. I'd want to know if he done it or not"
"Not my place to decide. I've got these wanted posters." He points to a pocket on his shirt. "And if they're on the poster, I bring 'em in. It's my job to catch 'em, not judge 'em."
"You been doing this for a while?"
"Yep. I don't catch all of 'em, but I've never lost one once I catch 'em. Take some pride in that, sin or not. Prefer to bring 'em in alive, but it doesn't always work out that way. Anyway, I just go by the posters."
There doesn't seem to be much to say after that, and the rest of the night passes without incident, except as it gets close to dawn, I find the bounty hunter nodding off again.
I hit him with the other half of the stick, waking him again. "Look, mister, we've got a problem. You're real tired, and I'm starting to get that way. I can make it through the day, but if they're still out there tonight, I'm going to need some sleep. And this is the second time you've fallen asleep, so you're not doing any of us any good."
"Now Matt here, he's had a full night's sleep and maybe even slept some the night before. I suggest you untie him and let him take a turn. You get some sleep."
I can tell by his face he knows I'm right, but naturally hates the idea of cutting his prisoner loose and hates even more the idea of sleeping while his prisoner is a few feet away, free and armed.
I keep going. "If you're worried about him killing you in your sleep, I'll see that he don't. If you're worried about him escaping, I'm guessing he'd rather take his chances with you and wherever you're going than walk out that front door and face six angry Crow."
The bounty hunter looks at Matt, who's now awake and sitting up in the bunk, and then back at me.
"Mr. Stevens, I'm going to cut him loose and do as you suggest, but if he does escape, I'm not going to look kindly on you for letting it happen."
"Mister, I've been pretty patient with you so far. But I'm not in your employ, I'm not your prisoner, and most important, I'm not tied up, so if you threaten me again, for any reason, I'm going to pick you up and toss you out that door—and what happens after that is between you and the Crow."
Without looking at me, he walks over to Matt and unties him. Matt walks to the bounty hunter's gear, picks up a rifle and Colt that I'm guessing were his before he got caught, checks to see that they're loaded, and moves over to the window. The bounty hunter takes his rifle with him, and without another word, crawls into the bunk.
As the sun starts to push the shadows back, I can see there are some changes. Both the dead Indians are gone, and while the dead horse remains, there are a couple of logs stacked on top of it. I can't see any of the Crow, but if I was a betting man, I'd bet on two behind the horse, one behind each of the two rocks and the other two, including the wounded man, in the first line of trees. None of their horses are in sight, so I assume they're far enough back to not get accidentally shot. I share my thoughts with Matt, who, without turning away, grunts his agreement.
The sun crests the hill in front of us, and as it does, since we're facing east, it makes it that much more difficult to see what's happening in front of us. The Crow must have been waiting for that, because at virtually the same time, they all start shooting. The only thing they can aim for is the gun loops, and their only hope is a lucky shot, but they keep firing away. Matt and I fire just often enough to let them know we're here and to keep them pinned down. At least for the two hiding behind the horse, they are as pinned down as we are. If they move in any direction, we'll have them. I wonder if they thought of that before they set up during the night.
The shooting starts to slow down and then trickles down to nothing. There's no change from when we started, and unless we got lucky, no one's been hit. After about a half hour without shooting or movement, Matt asks, "Any idea what they're going to do?"
"I've been thinking about that, and I can't see what their options are. They can't rush us without crossing that open ground, and they know now we'll cut them down if they do. Same thing if they try to steal my horse. They could try to burn us out, but with this thick roof and door, plus all the snow, not much chance of that. I guess they don't know how we're set for food and water, so maybe they plan to wait us out, but it's cold out there and they didn't seem prepared for a long wait."
No response from Matt, so maybe he's thinking about what I said, or trying to figure out what he'd do if he were out there. I continue to be impressed and thankful for the well-thought-out and well-stocked Harris Ranch line shack. It's what stands between us and what would probably be a very painful death.
Another hour or so goes by without conversation or gunfire. I notice Matt keeps looking back at the bounty hunter. Without looking away from my window, I say, "Please don't. I gave my word 'bout him being able to sleep without you bothering him, and as long as those Crow are out there, you wouldn't live along enough to close the door if you tried walking or riding away."
"They're gonna hang me if he gets me back to Arkansas."
"Did you do what the poster says you did?"
He hesitates and lowers his voice. "I did."
I notice the light snoring from the bunk has stopped, but I don't turn, and I don't say anything.
Not much time passes before Matt speaks up. "You wanna know what happened?"
"Only if you want to tell me," I say, though I am curious and certainly have the time.
"About four months ago, Tony Barr raped my sister. Our folks died last winter, and it was just the two of us. He'd always wanted her, but she had no interest. I came home from work one day—I rode for the Circle Bar B—and found her on her bed, bleeding. I got her fixed up, but it wasn't until the next day she could tell me what happened.
"I rode into town and went straight to the sheriff's office. The sheriff is Barr's cousin, so I didn't think it would do much good, but I didn't know what else to do. They arrested him and put him in jail for the night, with the trial the next day. I went home and told my sister, but she said she couldn't come to town to testify. She didn't know if she could ever come back to town, after what happened.
"I rode back the next day. Half the men on the jury rode for Barr's daddy, and he and the judge went way back. Judge swore in the jury and Barr took an oath. He sat in that chair, looked right at me and swore he didn't do it. Judge asked for any witnesses. I stood, but before I could even go forward, he asked if I was there when the alleged incident took place. When I said no, he told me to sit down."
Matt goes quiet for a bit, and since the Crow aren't firing and the bounty hunter isn't snoring, it's deep quiet. After a minute, he starts again. "Judge asked if there was anybody else who might be a witness, and when no one came forward, he dismissed the case.
"I watched half the jury congratulate Barr for getting off and watched his daddy shake the judge's hand. I walked out the front door and rode home. She must have known what was going to happen, and I guess she couldn't live with it. I found her in the barn, her little single shot derringer lying in the hay next to her. It took me the rest of the day to dig her a proper grave, right next to our parents.
"When I was done, I saddled up and rode back into town. Maybe I shouldn't have, but I didn't know what else to do. Without even thinking about it, I found myself walking into the 12 Gauge, which was his daddy's saloon and where I knew I'd find him. And I did. He'd been drinking, celebrating I guess, and when he turned and saw me, he laughed. I lost it. Told him he could draw first, or not, but when I got to five, I was going to kill him.
"I'd never shot another man, and I'm sure he knew that. But I'd worked on drawing a bit, and I guess he didn't know that, or maybe he thought his daddy's protection would extend right down into his holster. Anyway, he went for his gun, and I killed him. That saloon went stone quiet. I was the only one with a drawn gun, so I suggested to everyone it stay that way, and I backed out of that saloon, jumped on my horse and started riding. I didn't stop until I got to Montana, but I guess it wasn't far enough.
"And now, when he brings me back, the same man will be judge and the same men will be on the jury. I'll hang the day after I get back."
I've never liked being shot at and certainly not by angry Crow, but about now they open up again, and I have to admit, I'm grateful. I have no idea what to say to Matt. We're both quiet as we focus on keeping them pinned down and not letting them get any closer to the shack. As long as we do that and their patience runs out before our food and water, we should be OK. I still don't know what they intend to do, but it's getting late in the afternoon again and nothing's changed since morning.
The gunfire seems to have woken the bounty hunter, or maybe he's just had his fill of sleep, but he's up. Without a word, he starts stoking the fire, and suddenly I remember that I'm hungry. I'm also tired, having been up now since yesterday morning and pretty much stuck sitting at this window, staring outside.
The bounty hunter makes food for all of us, and while it's not as good as what Matt made, it is filling. When we're done, I turn to both of them.
"My turn at that bunk. We've still got a good moon, so you oughta be able to see if they try anything. I can't figure out what they're waiting for, or what they think is going to happen, but this shack's getting a little small. When I wake up in the morning, we're going to have to start thinking about some ways of getting out of here."
Neither respond, probably both thinking about how they'll do without me in the middle. Matt stays at his window, and the bounty hunter takes my seat. I bring my rifle with me, make sure my Colt is loose and fall asleep about the same time my head hits the blankets.
I guess I was more tired than I thought, or I'm a sounder sleeper than I always imagined myself to be, but when I wake up, about the same time as the sun, I can see there are some changes that should have woken me.
The first thing I notice is the bounty hunter is asleep, again. Next, I notice that one of the horses—and Matt—are missing. The door's closed, but not latched, so I wonder how long it's been like that. I get up, latch the front door and wake the bounty hunter, expecting him to be furious.
He looks around and doesn't seem nearly as surprised as I thought he would be. I thought about what he said yesterday, how if they're on a poster, he catches 'em, and if he catches 'em, they don't get away.
While I wait to see what happens, I open and look out the gun loop, which Matt had closed up. I half feared I'd see Matt and his horse, both dead, somewhere between the shack and the trees. But nothing. Matt wasn't the only one who pulled out sometime last night—the Crow are gone too.
The bounty hunter looks out and sees the same thing. He turns, none too fast, and walks over to his gear, starting to pack it up. I don't see much reason to stay here any longer, so I do the same thing. When we've packed our gear, I walk out to the tiny barn on the side of the shack and bring in some firewood to replace what we used. While I'm doing that, the bounty hunter straightens up a little and hangs the blankets on a peg set in the back wall. I notice a piece of paper on the table that hadn't been there before and pick it up as I grab the last couple of dishes.
After a few more minutes—and no conversation—we're done cleaning up and both saddled up. We head across the clearing and through the trees and find the trail. It's easy to see the Crow just kept going across the trail, heading east. It is equally easy to see that Matt reached the trail and turned south.
We both sit for a minute, while I light up a cigar. I offer one to the bounty hunter, but he declines. After a bit, knowing he knows, I say, "Looks like your man went south."
He looks down at the tracks and back up at me and simply says, "Yep." And without another word, he turns and starts riding north.
I sit there for a bit, thinking about this last surprise in a couple of days filled with surprises. As I do, I remember how the snoring stopped as Matt told his story, and then I remember the crumpled paper I picked up off the table. I pull it out of my pocket, smooth it out and see it's the wanted poster for Matt Bridges.
Scott Harris is the author of the acclaimed Brock Clemons Westerns; Coyote Courage, Coyote Creek, Coyote
Canyon, Battle on the Plateau, and Mojave Massacre, as well as two collections of short stories;
Tales from Dry Springs and Tales from the Grand Canyon.
Harris has also published two non-fiction books; 52 Weeks * 52 Western Novels and 52 Weeks * 52 Western
Movies. His short stories have been in a variety of anthologies. Additionally, he wrote and curated The Shot
Rang Out and A Dark & Stormy Night, both anthologies where 52 different writers wrote a micro short story
based on a shared prompt.
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The Quick and the Deed
by James Hold
They buried Speedy Winters at sundown, this despite said corpse's objections.
"Now quit yer fussin'," his friend Jess Passin told him, as he plopped another spade of dirt on Speedy's coffin. "Lightnin' Hoskins outdrew yuh fair and square and th' undertaker pronounced yuh dead, so just settle down and accept it."
Misery City did not have a regular doctor, or a regular undertaker for that matter. The town undertaker was actually a carpenter. Still, it did not require either a doctor or an undertaker to declare Speedy Winters dead after Lightnin' Hoskins put three slugs of lead through his heart.
None of that seemed to matter to Speedy though as rumbling noises continued to emanate from his coffin.
Jess paused to wipe the sweat from his brow; then went on talking. "Yuh might at least show a little gratitude seein' as I'm th' only one who cared enough to bring ya out here—in muh own buckboard, mind ya—and dig yore grave myself."
The rumbling from the coffin faded, growing fainter and fainter as more dirt piled atop it until, finally, the hole was covered and all noises ceased.
"There," Jess tamped the dirt with his shovel. "You rest in peace now. After all, everybody's gotta go sometime, and yore time was now."
With that for an epitaph, Jess climbed into his buckboard and headed for home as the darkening sky focused the last rays of the setting sun on the little spot of earth that marked the final resting place of Speedy Winters, gunfighter.
* * *
The Yegua Kid eased his meandering mount to a halt and rose in his stirrups. Yonder, in the distance, sat a small house with a light burning in a window. The Kid patted the horse's neck. "Maybe some kind soul can put us up in his barn for the night," he told it as he urged the steed forward.
* * *
As it happened, the house the Kid spotted belonged to the same Jess Passin who had just buried his friend, Speedy Winters. It was a dismal affair, more a shack than a home, set amid a wide-open range with a few scraggy head of cattle. All the way back from the cemetery the creaking noise of the buckboard on the rutted road reminded Jess of the rumbling noises from Speedy's coffin.
"Cut it out," he chided himself. "It's just yore imagination. Speedy's dead under six feet of dirt and that's th' end of it."
Now, having washed his hands and cooked up some beans and potatoes in the fireplace, he felt a bit better. Still, a pang of regret touched Jess' conscience as he stared down at the table where lay the pile of money he had won by betting against Speedy. That and the worn leather holster housing his friend's Colt .45 pistol—the one that Jess had loaded with blanks.
"I hated to do it, Speedy, but muh note was due at the bank and . . . well, this was th' only way."
It all happened quite unexpectedly. Jess and Speedy were drinking in the Misery City saloon when the stagecoach to Abilene pulled in for a stopover, and from it stepped Lightnin' Hoskins. Recognition was instantaneous, but guarded, as Hoskins sidled up to the bar and ordered whiskey. Exactly how things deteriorated from there is hard to say, but talk and insults got traded and soon the challenge was issued.
"I got twenty dollars says Speedy's fastest," someone shouted.
"Twenty?" another yelled back. "Heck, I'll make it fifty!"
And so it went, with the odds favoring the veteran Speedy over the young upstart Lightnin'.
And there Jess saw his opportunity.
"Now wait a minute, boys," he spoke up. "Let's not get ourselves in an all-fired hurry. Some of th' other cowhands might want a piece of the action. Let's wait an hour to get all the bets in. Besides, both men here've been drinkin' and it's only fair we give 'em some time to get their heads clear before they commence shootin'."
This seemed a good idea to everyone. Not so much the thought of letting Speedy and Lightnin' sober up, but of collecting more bets around town.
"And, to make sure nothing happens in th' meanwhile," Jess continued, "I'll hold onto both men's weapons in case temptation should prove too strong."
This was agreed to also.
The rest was soon done. Jess snuck off to another saloon, placed his money on Lightnin' Hoskins to win, and to assure that victory, replaced Speedy's ammunition with blank cartridges. One hour later, Speedy Winters lay dead in the street with three slugs through his heart. Speedy's draw had been quicker, but somehow Lightnin's aim was better.
Jess smiled ruefully. "Like I said, Speedy, I hated to do it but—"
Something like a footstep sounded on the dry gravel outside the shack. Jess became instantly alert. He had done his betting in secret so few knew of his winnings. Still, those few just might be ornery enough to try something.
"Who's out there?" Jess called out. "I got a gun so don't try nothin'." Of course, what he had was Speedy's Colt, the one with the blank cartridges, but nobody else knew that so maybe his bluff would work.
The sound died away and Jess breathed a sigh of relief. He poured himself a cup of coffee to settle his nerves. Then came a rattling at the door. It was the same sound he had heard from Speedy's coffin. The door opened, and in the darkness beyond Jess saw a pair of spectral hands approaching.
* * *
The Yegua Kid came to a sudden halt. The shack was quiet, but a sixth sense warned him something was amiss. Dismounting cautiously, he held his gun hand ready at his side as he approached the open doorway. He need not have bothered. No kind soul would be putting him up for the night. For there, sprawled lifelessly in a wooden chair, was the body of Jess Passin, which somehow contained three bullets fired silently from a blank pistol, along with a handful of cash smoldering in the fireplace.
James Hold is a retired systems analyst with 40 years experience in the IT field. He has posted stories at www.smashwords.com and would like to entertain a larger audience.
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Trying To Heal Old Wounds
by Charles McCormick
BW was sitting on his horse, Stupid. He was letting him walk as slow as he could, which was mighty slow. He'd seen Stupid walk slower but that was when he was sleeping. BW owned the only horse he knew of that walked in his sleep. It was a hot day and BW was about to drift off himself.
Suddenly, Stupid did a little dance and skipped sideways. BW found himself sitting on air. Hitting the ground knocked the breath out of him. He sat on the ground wheezing, trying to get some air back into his lungs. BW felt something hit him on the back of his head. Whatever it was spun him around hurting him. Hearing the gunshot he knew what it was. Someone shot him.
BW ducked as low as he could and touched the back of his head. Touching the spot caused more pain. Then he looked at his bloody hand. Somebody shot him but it only grazed his head. He felt the valley across his scalp. He wondered why someone shot him. The war was over, he wasn't wearing a uniform and didn't know anyone around here. He watched little puffs of dirt jumping up around him, realizing he was still being shot at. Ducking even lower, he crawled on hands and knees toward a rock by the the side of the trail. He wished the rock was bigger but it was the only one around.. He slipped behind the rock and rubbed his head again. He judged the wound was made by a .30-30 caliber bullet, The report of the rifle sounded like one also. He was glad the shooter didn't hit him with a .45-70 caliber rifle like the one he carried. "Probably would have blown my head off," he mumbled.
Somebody continued shooting at him. The rock barely had room for him behind it. He made himself as small as he could. The cactus behind the rock made it harder for him to do, but he was glad to have the rock, cactus and all. Besides he thought, cactus would be even harder to hide behind.
Stupid was doing what he was best at, standing there looking stupid. All BW had on him was an old .32 revolver he won in a poker game. The player thought BW was bluffing and all he left to call him with was this old .32 pistol. BW flipped his pair of queens over his pair of jacks and stuck the pistol in his belt. He asked the guy if he had any more ammo and he said he didn't, "but it shoots good," he said.
BW had never fired the pistol not wanting to waste the only bullets he had. If he wasn't able to convince Stupid to walk over to him, that would be all he had. In a scabbard on the back of his horse hung his Springfield .45-70 trapdoor. That'll even things up, he thought. BW called, "Stupid, come here", giving a little cluck. Stupid's ears went up and he looked at BW with a look that said, you come here. BW called again and reached into his shirt pocket like he was getting something out. Jiggling the two pebbles in his fist he said, "Come on boy, I got some sugar." Stupid perked up and walked over to him.
BW reached up and pulled his rifle out of the scabbard, then his canteen. He threw pebbles at Stupid to shoo him away. The look Stupid gave made him laugh. "You're the one who dumped me, I should shoot you," BW whispered to him.
Whoever was doing the shooting must have a lot of bullets, they sure were wasting them, BW thought. Pulling the hammer back, he got off a shot where he thought the shooter was hiding. He waited several minutes but no more shots were fired. "Must have scared them off", BW said to Stupid. Slowly getting up, BW moved from cover to cover making his way to the ledge the shooter was using for cover. Pulling out the old .32 pistol he yelled, "If you're in there, I'm gonna blow you out Dadgum it. Come on out."
When nothing stirred he went closer. BW could make out a pair of boots sticking out from under a Mesquite tree. He moved even closer, hoping his pistol would work if he needed it. When he was close enough, he saw the body. Dang, he thought, I must have hit him with a lucky shot.
Sure enough the bullet BW fired hit the cowboy on the top of his head and traveled downward. BW felt the body was lying on the ground firing down at him. That's why the bullet struck the top of his head. This boy never knew what hit him.
Not being the first man he killed didn't make it any easier. He lost track of the number of men during the war. He wasn't sure of the number anyway. The chaos of battle made any count guess work. BW fought for the South, being from Mississippi. He ran off to find his three brothers when he was sixteen years old. He told them he was older so they wouldn't send him back. He never found two of them and watched one brother die never knowing he was there.
BW searched the body, looking for anything that would tell him who he was. All he found was a cheap pocket watch inscribed "To Josh from Mom With Love". So this kid was probably Josh or Joshua, BW decided. He had no money, just a new Winchester '73. Probably cost him all he had, in more ways than one, BW thought.
BW's family didn't own any slaves because they were dirt poor. Even though cotton was grown around Jackson, slaves were too expensive for his family. Slaves were usually owned by wealthy plantation owners and rarely by everyday folks.
After the war he came west with his family. He was the youngest of four sons and the only one that survived the war. They lost their farm with no one to work it but BW. His Pop was older by the time BW was born and the loss of three sons took the life out of him. Coming by covered wagon was hard too. His Pop caught pneumonia and died along the trail. When he and his Mom reached Spring Ridge near the Louisiana/Texas line, his momma passed, BW thought with a broken heart. He sold the wagon and all they had, hoping for enough money to buy some land and stock. It wasn't, so he claimed a homestead in west Texas. Now, he was a cowboy and nothing else.
His spread was between San Angelo and Cristoval. It took 4 acres per cow and calf to keep them alive here. He caught Long Horns because they were mean and tough. They had to be to survive in this part of Texas. It was dry with little grass and even less water. He tried to drive cattle along the Chisolm Trail once and nearly died on the trail and again in Dodge City. Sickness on the trail, bullet hole in Dodge City.
BW wrapped the body in his saddle blanket and headed for the County seat in San Angelo and the sheriff's office there. He travelled all that day and night, reaching the sheriff's office at day-break. He and Stupid were worn out but he had to deliver the body quickly. It was summer and getting hot. A body would get ripe pretty quick this time of year.
BW waited until he could smell the coffee and hear the door being unlocked. The deputy saw the body and went wide eyed. He was new to the job. BW said, "Not seen too many dead men have you?"
The deputy shook his head no.
"Had to shoot him cause he was shooting at me," BW told the deputy.
When a young boy walked by the Deputy pulled him aside and said, "Go get the sheriff, tell him to come runnin," giving the boy a penny.
The boy looked at the penny and took off running.
When the Sheriff arrived it didn't look like he had done much running in a long time. With a belly that met you long before he did, he asked the deputy, "What we got?"
The deputy just pointed at the body, saying, "That's him, ain't it?"
The sheriff looked and said,"Dang sure is." Looking at BW he asked, "How'd you get him?"
"Who'd I get?" BW replied.
"You mean you don't know who that is?" said the Sheriff.
"Nope, don't have any idea. Just know he was shooting at me so I was shooting at him. Got a lucky shot and here he is," BW answered.
"Well, you just brought in the Waco Kid," said the Sheriff, while slapping BW on the shoulder. "You just made $500."
"For what?" BW asked.
"The reward," the Sheriff said.
BW never saw that much money in his life. $500, that was a fortune, he thought.
"You'll have to wait till the bank opens to get your money," the Sheriff said.
BW said he would wait a lot longer for that kind of money.
Now that he had a pocket full of Union greenbacks, he couldn't think of many things he needed. He did a little shopping before starting for home. He wished his Ma was alive. He'd buy her a new hat. Never seen her wear a hat, he thought, just bonnets. He did consider a new horse to replace Stupid, but he didn't. Remembering his run in with the kid, BW kicked his horse in the side to hurry him up. "Sorry," he told Stupid. "Need to get home before dark." Carrying this much money scared him. They got home before dark.
The next morning he woke with a start. He heard voices outside the cabin. Grabbing his rifle he made for the door thumbing the hammer back. He opened it to find three cowboys still on their horses. All carried six shooters on their belts and, by the looks of their horses, had been riding hard. "Morning," BW hollered. They went wide eyed. BW was standing there holding his new rifle, naked as a jaybird.
"Where's Billy?" the oldest looking one asked.
"Don't know him," BW replied.
"Well, this is his place," the cowboy said.
"Don't know about that either," said BW. "Bought this place from the bank in Angelo about a month ago," BW said.
"Oh, he must of died," the oldest replied.
"Don't know about that either," BW said, "You boys want some coffee?" he asked.
Looking at the others the oldest said, "Sure do."
Pointing to a water trough, BW told them to water their horses and he would put the coffee on. "Might want to put some pants on too," BW announced.
They didn't say a thing about that, just turned their ponies for the trough.
BW, chuckling to himself, went back into the cabin and started a fire in the cook stove. "Gets them every time," he laughed.
BW was dressed and the coffee boiling. He was frying bacon when they knocked. "Come in," BW hollered.
The oldest peeked in and then told the other it was OK. He said to BW, "Good to see you dressed."
BW answered, "Ever cook bacon without any clothes on?"
"No," the cowboy answered.
"Me either but it could get a little dicey with the grease poppin and all," BW said.
They quickly agreed.
BW apoligized he didn't have any eggs. "The coyotes ate up my chickens so I quit buying em. Ain't out here to feed coyotes them expensive chickens," he said.
They shook their heads in agreement while shoveling bacon and bread into their mouths.
"You boys look like you been on the road for a while," BW announced.
Swallowing his bite the oldest said, "I'm the marshall in Fredericksburg. Been chasing the Waco Kid for a week."
"Thought you was the law. Sorry to tell you but I killed him a couple days ago," BW said.
So BW told them the tale.
The marshall, after hearing the details, said they would continue to San Angelo to identify the body, then head back to the Hill Country. The bank set a $100.00 reward and once they verified the body, BW could ride back with them and claim it, they told him.
"No, you boys collect the reward, I already got mine. I'll write up a piece of paper and give it to you so they won't think you were cheating them. Besides, you earned it," BW concluded. They each thanked him. This added up to over $30 apiece, about a months' salary, BW thought.
He had the paper written when they finished eating. "Sheriff, give these boys the reward money as I got enough already." He signed it BW Smith. It wasn't his real last name but nobody would know that.
They thanked him heartily and headed North toward San Angelo. Last he ever saw of them.
When he finished his chores and cleaned the dishes, he sat in the shade on an old rocking chair, trying to decide what to do with all that money. He could use a new pair of pants, maybe new boots, a better pistol for sure. He had a new rifle, thanks to the "Kid." His tack was old, but in good shape. He owned Stupid and would keep him. He could buy more land because it was cheap, he thought. Maybe I will, he decided, if he could find water. That was the problem. West Texas was dry. It seldom rained and when it did, it was usually a deluge, then it would stop as quickly as it started. Next time he was in town he would ask about windmills.
This went on for days. When BW realized he was losing money sitting on his tail, day dreaming, he decided to restart the round-up he started before the shooting.
It was too late to hunt cows so he decided to stay busy gathering what he needed for the trip. Throwing his pack over a corral fence, he threw in extra rope, a bean pot, his large skillet, then the small one. Knowing he should make a list, he went for paper and a pencil. He was a man of substance now and from here on he would do things right.
He sat down on a hay bale and made notes about what went in his pack. This, he felt, would keep him organized because that's what rich men did, organize. He added bullets, salt, some chili peppers and coffee. He had some sugar and added that to the pack and a little bacon. Ordinarily, he wouldn't have added this much but remembering he was rich, he did. Then, an extra tarp, kerosene lamp, extra blanket. He stopped and decided he would buy some extra fitted horse shoes for Stupid. He would need some eventually. When he totaled what he thought the price would be, he started taking things back out. "I ain't that rich," he stammered. Paring things down to what he ordinarily took, all he needed was coffee and bullets. About $1 at most.
The next morning BW was up and about by sunup. He and Stupid could be seen riding along creek beds looking for cows and calves. By noon he added five cows
to the herd, three heifers and two calves. He found the third heifer but never did find her calf. BW was afraid wolves or coyotes got it.
Leading the pack mule, riding on Stupid, he left a few days later. They were heading for the railroad at Big Spring to sell his cows. He'd been there before. Never saw so many people at one time, he thought. Must have been 4,ooo people just to watch one man hang. He had never seen a hanging either. This one was pretty well messed up. He remembered they gave the man too much rope. When the trap door opened, the man fell almost to the ground before the rope ran out. He fell so far he got too much speed. When the rope stopped hard, it pulled his head off. Women screamed, some fainted. Men got sick watchin the fella jerk around on the ground with no head. BW heard they fired the hanging crew out of Dallas. The judge promised to jail the sheriff if this ever happened again. BW figured it didn't make the dead fella much difference, dead was dead. He probably never knew about his head.
It was a five days ride to Big Spring. BW was so mad at the calves he could have shot them all. If he wanted to go right they went left, their mommas chasing after them. He sold all fourteen head at the railroad junction. Later he heard the army post at Ft. Sill, where Geronimo was jailed, needed beef and was buying at a premium.
His cattle sold for $12 a piece, even the calves. They paid him $168.00 in Union script. He took the paper straight to the bank and changed it into gold and silver coin. He remembered what Confederate script was worth.
With over a years wage in his pocket, he settled his bill at the saloon and boarding house, picked up his pack mule and headed home. Three days later found him asleep in his own bed.
Another knock on the door woke him up. It was just turning dawn, he could see the Eastern sky getting pink. What an ungracious time to wake a fellow up, he grumbled. Picking up his new Colt .45 and nothing else, he threw the door open. An African American woman stood there. They both screamed. He opened the door clothed like last time. Something she wasn't expecting and neither was he.
BW ducked back around the door while she jumped off the porch. Averting her eyes, she said, "Mister, we're broke down on the road. Can you help us?"
BW, red as a beet, asked, "What's the matter?"
"She answered, "We broke the axle and the mule went lame from pullin' a lopsided wagon. Don't have another axle or mule," she said, still averting her eyes.
BW said, "I'll be out in a minute."
"Take yore time, Mister," she said.
She was standing under the shade tree when he came back out. When she saw him dressed she breathed a sigh of relief and walked toward the cabin. She waited while he saddled Stupid and walked him to her.
BW said, "Ma'am, you ride and I'll follow. He's real gentle so you won't have any trouble."
"Thank you sir, but I'll walk. I never learned to ride," she said.
Apologizing, he decided they would both walk. He didn't feel right riding while she walked, he had better manners than that.
At the wagon she introduced her husband, Reverend Roman Washington. Under the wagon were two wide eyed children, a boy and a girl. She introduced her children, Lazarus and Rebecca Washington. The boy aound eight years old, the girl, six.
He asked "Where they going?"
The Reverend said El Paso.
BW shook his head saying, "Never make it in this wagon. It's finished."
The Reverend hung his head, his wife had tears in her eyes.
"All of you come up to the house. Carry what you can and I'll hitch your mule and bring mine back to get the rest," BW said.
"We got no money," she said.
"I'll keep that in mind," said BW with a smile.
At the cabin BW said, "I'll fix dinner. Hope you like it."
They started to protest so he jumped into the cabin, shutting the door. He handed out a water jug and dipper, telling them there was a clear, cold, spring just east of the cabin. "watch out for snakes", he said and ducked back in.
BW had a salted ham he had been saving. He decided this was as good a time to eat it as any. Building a better fire in the old stove, he washed the ham and doused it with
molasses. He knew this was the best he had to offer. When it was ready, he pushed it into the old oven hoping he wasn't going to ruin it. Taking 4 apples out of his root cellar he set them outside the door. Next time he looked, the apples were gone. Good, he thought.
Thinking, I'm using the oven, might as well take advantage of it. BW kneaded some dough for biscuits.. The entire cabin heated up even more. West Texas summers were bad enough. He couldn't see how women could do it. He wasn't a good cook, just adequate. Since he was a terrible gravy maker, he didn't make any. His biscuits were good, that, he could do. He learned from his Mom. She made great biscuits. He planned on several being on the table tonight. When everything was ready, BW called them in.
The two kids raced for the door, smelling the ham and biscuits. Their parents didn't run, but they walked pretty fast. When all were seated, BW dived in until he saw the family setting with hands folded. Looking sheepish, he put his fork down and folded his hands.
"Dear Lord, we are truly thankful for what you have provided," Reverend Washington prayed. He had a deep voice that carried throughout the cabin.
When he finished, BW thought, now that's a prayer, and dived back in.
After dinner, he heard Rebecca say, "There wasn't no gravy Ma." Her mother kicked her under the table.
BW couldn't help laughing saying, "You don't know how blessed you are girl. My gravy has been known to kill," and started laughing again.
After eating the family cleaned the table and dishes not letting BW do anything. They sent him outside, where he sat with the Reverend. It was cooling off, becoming a beautiful Texas night. The kids eventually came out and chased lightning bugs, giving everyone another laugh.
The Reverend asked, "Who'd you fight for?"
BW said, "The 8th. Mississippi."
The Reverend said, "We met you at Danners Pass. That was a bad one."
"Yep", BW replied.
"Took a mini-ball there. Didn't kill me though," said the Reverend. They both chuckled. He pulled up a pant leg to show BW that a hunk of his calf was gone. "They
wanted to cut it off," he said, "but, I wouldn't let them. They figured I'd get gangrene and die anyway. The Lord had other plans. Who did you lose during the war?"
"Three older brothers," BW replied. "Eventually my whole family," he added.
"You don't look old enough to fight." said the Reverend.
"I wasn't but I wanted to see my brothers so I lied. I watched one of them die but he didn't know who I was," BW replied.
"Damned bad war. Waste of too many good men," the Reverend said.
BW shook his head in agreement. BW asked where were they going to sleep?
The Reverend answered, "Under the wagon. We been sleeping there for the last three months."
"Not tonight," BW anounced. "Me and the kids will sleep in a little tent I got. You and the Missus get the cabin, at least for tonight." He smiled, giving the Reverend a wink.
He started to protest but BW walked away.
Stopping, BW turned around asking "What's her name?"
The Rev. Washington said, "Eve, just like in the Bible."
BW gathered the children and led them to the tack shed. Eve came back out asking, "Where are the kids?"
"In a tent tonight, you and me have the cabin all to ourselves, BW's staying with them," he grinned.
Next morning she looked outside asking, "What's that all about?" seeing her children wrapped in their blankets on the ground.
"Becka said they couldn't sleep for all the snoring." Rev. told her.
"Well I'll be", she said.
Eve cooked breakfast using the leftovers from the night before. No eggs, but she did make gravy for the biscuits and ham. They ate them all. BW showed Becka how to put molasses on one. She didn't like it, but Lazarus put enough on his to make it float.
"You are going to work that off helping Mr. BW," Eve said.
BW didn't know what to say, so he said nothing.
They worked on the wagon all day. BW had an old saw mill behind the barn. He put Reverend Washington in the wood lot telling him what was needed. He took off the old hubs, hoping they could be salvaged. Two could, two couldn't. BW went to work building new ones with Laz, his helper.
After lunch his Momma told Laz to fetch water for the afternoon. Laz caught Rebecca throwing scraps out the door and he kept after her until she agreed to fetch the water from the spring for him. Laz didn't remind her about snakes, afraid she wouldn't do it if he did. Grabbing the jug, off she went with Laz trailing behind, far behind. When Laz heard her scream he knew what happened. He ran to the barn telling the men "Rebecca screamed." The Rev. took off followed by the others.
When they arrived Eve was already there, she had heard the scream and recognized it as Becka's. She told them what happened. Becka went to the spring to fetch water because Laz was too afraid or lazy, she added. When Becka reached for the bucket snake laying next to it took exception to anyone moving his shade. It bit her hand and she had to shake it off.
Reverend Washington took her hand and examined it. He saw two puncture holes.
BW asked her what the snake looked like.
"It looked like a mean old snake," she said through her tears, "just like that one over there," she pointed.
BW acted first. Splashing through the water he grabbed the snake trying to hide in the grass. It was none too happy and tried to bite him. BW snapped it like a rope and the snake would never bite again.
Keeping the snake, BW climbed out. He held it to the light, opened its' jaw, even smelled it. Eve and the Rev. knew it was a diamond back until BW said, "It's OK, this one isn't poisonous."
The husband and wife walked over to him knowing better. When they informed him of that, BW started laughing.
"What was so funny?" the Reverend asked.
BW held up his free hand saying, "This is Texas, we have all kinds of critters here. This one is actually a Diamond Back water snake. They mimic the real snake to protect themselves. You can't see it now, but they can even form their heads into a triangle like a real one. They are mean and will attack if they feel threatened. If this doesn't work, they can give off a smell just like a skunk. Even smells the same. Smell it," he said, holding it out to them.
Eve shook her head no, but the Rev. went up closer to get a whiff. "It does smell like a skunk", he said.
Bw said, "Becka will be fine but watch for infection." Following him back to the barn, BW had Becka hold her hand out. He poured kerosene over it saying, "For infection." With the help of lanterns, they finished the repairs to the wagon. Calling it a day, they headed for supper.
The next morning BW made extra biscuits. They loaded the wagon to continue on their journey. BW harnessed his mule and brought it out. When they protested, he said, "Look, yours is crippled, but it will heal. I only use my mule once a month. Yours will be healed by the time I need it. You've got a long trip, I don't. Take the mule. When you get to your church say a prayer for me." Reverend Washington said they would.
He handed up the basket of biscuits saying, "These are for supper, not before." Slapping his mule on the rump they started. They waved, he waved back. Smiling, he said to himself, "Wait till they find that $20 gold piece."
Charles McCormick, whose work may be seen in Prairie Tales on their website, www.prairietales.com, is a
retired State Trooper, former city manager and newspaper publisher. He spends his time fishing and
practicing long range competitive shooting. He writes mainly about the West.
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The Ransom for Miss Lydia Weston
by Lara Alonso Corona
She knew that if she didn't play along she'd never find the girl.
"How much longer to your lair?" she asked, getting a kick to the knee and the consequential handful of dust into her mouth for her troubles.
The brother who administered the punishment, Marlin, was all twitchy, more so that his other villainous brothers. Middle son, Bennett understood, it's a hard job, and he was the one riding with a saw-off shotgun instead of a pistol. He was the one to break, then. The only one whose horse actually seemed to like.
Bennett glanced over her shoulder to the sun setting on the peaks. Lydia Weston had been gone, kidnapped by the Ward clan, some five hours ago. Which meant, they couldn't have her too far.
The three men went on to force Bennett back on her saddle and bind her hands. She tried her best impersonation of helpless and defeated. They made their way out of Matinas smoothly—despite its name (the place was founded by a hopeful Jesuit) the town was a ghost town this early in the morning.
"Why is it always brothers?" Bennett wondered out loud, taunting them. "Even in the stories I read as a kid, it was always bands of brothers who were the bad guys."
"You know how to read, Bennett?" the older brother, Denton, snarled, a tone of mock-friendliness.
Bennett made a grimace, forgetting her role for a moment. And my mother could read too, she thought. Just not in English. But that she better kept to herself, for she noticed a different kind of twitchiness in Denton. He was looking for any excuse. Bennett was not about to give him one.
Not until she had a gun within arm's reach.
"Why are we taking her with us? She's no use. Who's going to pay a ransom for . . . that?"
That was Rich. The charming kid brother. As handsome as the other two, twice as brutal, often unhinged. Miss Dahlia had barred him from her establishment, which was the beginning of the Brother's dislike for Bennett's hometown. That and the way Bennett enforced Dahlia's orders with a firm foot in Little Rich's rear.
Denton hadn't forgotten that picture, and had given his brother another beating for the family humiliation. Now he was throwing a judgemental look Rich's way—not because he minded the idea of Bennett dead, but because he resented anyone else taking such initiative.
"You can't go around killing sheriffs I suppose," Marlin cut through the tense moment.
"That's a sheriff?" Rich replied.
Bennett tensed up, and her mare blew a bit, mimicking her mood. She didn't balk, neither of them willing to blow their covers. Both knew that, if push came to shove, they could take on the Wards. Both Marlin and Rich were mediocre shots and Bennett knew she didn't have to worry about them; she'd be able to take them down without guns of her own. But Denton was another story.
There were other reasons why they wouldn't kill her. They wanted something clean. A ransom, no mess. That's why they chose Weston's daughter. The old man wouldn't put up resistance, he was as spineless as he looked.
"I hear you're moving east," Bennett commented, gaining speed on the younger brothers. Her hands might have been unbound but she still knew how to make a horse go where she wanted.
Denton side-eyed her for her approach.
"That's why you need the money," she added.
The older brother, wise, kept his peace.
"So what? Everybody knows that," Rich couldn't help but intervene, gaining a dirty look and a low growl from his big brother.
Silence fell as the sun reached its highest point—an uncomfortable itch on the back of Bennett's nape, where sweat pooled, that she couldn't scratch. She could tell her horse was getting nervous, she didn't like strangers and was an intelligent animal, probably knew something was up, and Bennett did her best to run her tied hands through her mane, to soothe her nerves.
So her theory was right: the Ward brothers needed quick, clean silver to move on to greener pastures. And for once the greener pastures thing was not just an expression folks used. The Ward brothers chasing that pinewood smell. They could have done a hit on a bank or a train, they had done those before. But they didn't want authorities involved, a trail that could follow them east. Even criminals want a clean slate when starting a new life. Mr Weston had the money to spare, and wouldn't risk the life of his only child for whatever meager ransom the unimaginative siblings had come up with.
And there were reasons why Bennett wouldn't face the brothers yet. She could have unarmed them, easily, right where she found them, but then there was a chance she would never find the girl. The brothers were vicious and proud, a bad combination in Bennett's eyes—who could tell they wouldn't be defeated and then let the girl rot in some barn. No, she couldn't risk that outcome. She had to play along. These men were miserable enough to believe it, and bigger guns had underestimated Bennett before today.
But she had to stop them, if they got the money they needed that was it, they were gone, before there could be a reckoning. Bennett wouldn't let the poor people of the east, unprepared for the Ward brothers, suffered the same terrors the county had seen at the hands of Denton and company.
Patience wasn't one of the virtues the ancient family gods had granted her all the way from China, but patience she would have to have now, so she kept her jaw in tension but her eyes blank, and she grabbed the saddle horn tightly, until her knuckles turned pale. And she waited.
They came to a territory of mostly-empty farms, small properties, well past the fancier haciendas of the Cattlemen's Association members. The people here were on the edge of everything, of normal life, of law. They kept to themselves and they were often friendly with the natives from beyond the hills, which singled them out as strange folk, even to habitants of such an absurd place as Matinas. Bennett liked the people living on the edge, being partial to inhabiting the outside of decent society herself. Still this was familiar terrain to Bennett, but she had to admit the intelligence of Denton Ward's plan, hiding a hostage in one of these farms.
She supposed they were near their destination, because even in the icy silence between kidnappers and victim (between the hunted and the hunter, though the brothers didn't know yet), she could feel a rumble of excitement among the brothers, like the song of a hungry stomach.
It was Denton who broke the silence, as they were almost upon a little farm in the shadow of the hills.
"I'm going to enjoy taming that half-breed mare of yours, Sheriff, once we are gone," he told Bennett.
The woman made an effort not to snort. Not that Jian would ever let herself be tamed, or that Bennett would allow anyone to try to take her horse from her and survive. But letting that show on her face would make her look cocky, and the brothers would wonder if there was some ace up her sleeve they didn't know about.
No ace, just her fist.
Bennett felt the horse reluctant to make those last few feet before the fence, like she could understand the words. She couldn't, but she could make out the menacing meaning from the tone of Denton's voice. Once more Bennett buried the tip of her fingers in the mare's black mane. There weren't many animals like Jian in these parts, with her Appaloosa blood in the mix, and her mean, still-wild, want-no-rider-but-my-mistress attitude. Sometimes she didn't even feel like letting Bennett ride her and that was it, no riding that day.
Half-breed was a word Bennett had heard often, and not particularly directed at her horse, no doubt Denton had that in mind too, the implications none that Bennett wanted to dwell on but sadly familiar.
Something changed in the air when they crossed into the ranch's property. Bennett couldn't quite remember the name of the owners, but she was pretty sure she knew them by sight; and elderly couple who kept out of town, and survived on their land and trading with the Yuhaviatam or the Palonies when need be. There was a humble house and a tiny barn.
The brothers slowed the pace and a feeling of unease overcame Bennett; she knew, goddamnit, she knew, even before the acrid smell, even before the ugly dark brown stains on the floodboards, before the rot in the air, before the noise of flies, before Denton Ward's grim smirk, before seeing the two corpses with her own two eyes.
She had been right, they were two old hands, their clothes—now the color of dried blood—old fashioned, their hands full of well-earned wrinkles. Bennett bit down on her lip, hard. The woman was half perched over the man's body, looking like she was gunned down when she was trying to help her husband.
They got killed—no, they got murdered, right on the front porch of their own home.
The caked red looked painted, and the position of the corpses too, like a sinister tableau, and though Bennett had seen many deaths in her time this was different, useless and malicious and enough to turn both your stomach and turn your hands into fists. The bodies were tense, even in death, limbs twisted in a funny-looking grimace. It reminded Bennett of that time in the mountains when she found a dead squirrel on a boulder, a solemn procession of ants already on the task of making its little body into fur carcass; what was disturbing was the way the squirrel's tail was all stiff, like the animal had died in alarm.
But this was no nature intended, this was people and the hurt they did to other people, and it was a right mess, which is why she could tell Rich had done the deed.
At first Bennett thought this turn of events contradicted her theory of the Wards wanting a clean especape from the state, but then she realized nobody was going to miss (or want justice for) an old couple from the edgelands. Bennett knew this country didn't place much value on her life but at least people would notice if she wasn't there, people would ask (hell, Miss Dahlia would probably invest all her savings in getting revenge). If Bennett hadn't seen the two dead bodies today they could have been rotting for months before anyone passed by.
"You can't kill me but you can kill them, uh," Bennett hissed, an ugly sour taste filling her stomach and her mouth.
The brothers got off their horses and made her dismount as well, in plain view of the bloody spectacle. They meant to scare her.
"We figured people'd think Indians did it," Denton said, bone-chilling reasonable and calm. And he was right too, that's how people were. Why look any further when they had the natives to blame?
Which meant the Weston girl probably saw nothing of the killing, a good thing for a fourteen year old. But it also meant the Wards were more desperate than she had initially thought.
The brothers dragged her along pass the porch—Denton's fingers around her arm made her slightly nauseous.
"The barn?" she said, almost skeptical, but eager to conjure the eeriness away with her words. "Very original. All those dime tales served you right."
The brothers ignored her.
Bennett took instant stock of the situation as soon as they were inside, a cursory glance on the Weston girl, enough to check she hadn't been physically harmed, or attacked by the gang.
She looked understandably terrified. And confused, once she saw Bennett cross the door, dragged in by the men. They had never exchanged a word—Mr Weston wouldn't have allowed it—but she clearly knew who Bennett was.
"Hands behind her back," Denton lost no time, instructed his brother. "And Marlin, tight. This one's a snake."
"Snake?" Bennett repeated. "Come on, Ward, you can do better than that. You have, in the past."
Marlin placed the rope around her wrists and she squirmed and hitched her breath and let them think she was uncomfortable. She made a little noise like she was surprised by how tight the bound was. They bought it. Villains really are that easy, she thought. Of course they'd be a bit more careful is she was a white man.
"We're going to ask in town if someone wants to pay ransom for you," Denton explained. "But don't go holding your breath."
They were leaving to meet Lydia's father, no doubt. And being able to tell him that Matinas's "sheriff" was out of the picture might be a good bargaining method. Without hopes of a third party intervention the big man would cough up the silver faster.
But she noticed the three of them ready to leave.
"You're not leaving us a guard?" Bennett protested. That would make her job significantly easier but she had to keep playing her part. "Not even the useless little brother? I'm offended."
Rich kicked the side of her knee in reply. It was a weak attempt, but Bennett stumbled sideways against the stone wall, hurling a disdain-dripping look at the man.
"So you can fight me," she said, in a low private voice. "So as long as I'm tied, right?"
She could smell the hesitation filling the air in the barn. The Ward brothers had no other associates, they did everything between them. They need each other for backup today.
"You must be scared of Mr Weston's hired guns," Bennett concluded, and out loud, keeping up her taunts.
"What was that? Who's afraid?"
This, predictably, riled Rich up again and she wondered if she was going to get another kick in the shin. Her words put Denton in a bind. Leaving a guard here would be admitting he thought the sheriff posed a real danger—and what hot blooded white cowboy would ever admit to such a thing? But likewise leaving the women alone would imply he was indeed worried on the matter of numbers as he went to speak to Mr Weston of the ransom.
In the end he'd rather underestimate Bennett than the town's richest man. His loss. He gagged both her and Lydia, more out of a desire to assert her power over them than caution, in case they'd shout and alert some passer by. There would be no passer bys.
The little barn was mostly empty, a few bales of hay in a corner, and it looked like it hadn't housed animals in years. Bennett noticed a shoeing hammer on a hook, that Denton promptly took with him, because he wasn't a fool like his brothers. Bennett let him be a fool in thinking the hammer was part of her plan and thus thwarted by Denton's quickness. He even smirked at her, self-satisfied. Lord was she going to slap that smile out of his face.
Once they were alone the Weston girl still did not speak, waiting for permission.
Bennett thought a demonstration was in order.
The so-called "tight" bound of rope around her wrists, right, that was first. She angled her shoulders just right, and her able (some would say naughty) fingers did the rest. The rope fell with a noise like a killed viper on a summer field.
The girl gasped through her gag. Bennett did away with the cloth in her mouth and rushed to Lydia's side to do the same for her.
"How-?" was the first word that came out of her mouth, once freed.
But she stopped herself. And stepped back, regarding Bennett with a glance not just of curiosity, but caution as well.
"Is it true you are a sheriff?" the girl asked, lifting her chin in the hopes of some reassuring authority.
"Ain't no law around these parts and all the better for it," Bennett told her, a tad too honestly. "But someone has to take care of the people, and the tin star don't look half bad on me."
The declaration seemed to upset Lydia more than anything else, and she broke into a soft, low sobbing.
"Don't cry," she gently coaxed the girl. "In a couple of hours you'll be back in Matinas, eating one of Miss Dahlia's salt pork dinners."
And I'll be needing something stiff to drink, she added only to herself, feeling a pool of cold sweat drying on the back of her neck.
Lydia blinked at the mention of the name.
"My father says I shouldn't talk to Miss Dahlia, that she's not really a—"
"Well, if it was just to help your father I wouldn't be here," Bennett declared, gritted teeth. It was credit to her nobility, she thought, that she was willing to risk her neck to save the life of someone of that bigot's bloodline.
The girl shivered. Bennett patted her wrist as she finished untying her, deciding to be gentler; it wasn't exactly the girl's fault to have been born into a family of corrupt rich people. She could still be taught out of their bad habits. And the idea of big man Weston owing something to her was delectable in itself.
"We'll both be eating salt pork soon, but you have to do exactly as I tell you," she told Lydia.
She looked at the girl closely, and smiled to reassure her. She didn't look like her father at all, or maybe that was the impression, because the old man had none of the kindness in Lydia's eyes. And that pretty round face. Bennett had heard her father complain about her plumpness. What a fool of a man, she thought again, thinking of Miss Dahlia's soft edges, wishing this whole kidnapping mess was all over and she could be back home.
She went over the plan again in her head.
"Have you ever played make believe with your friends?" she asked the kid, loosening her ropes just enough. "Pretend something that wasn't happening was happening? Cause I'm going to need you to do that now."
Miss Lydia was so perfectly naive and weak-looking that Bennett knew her plan would be a success.
And she wasn't dumb, Lydia wasn't, she understood what Bennett was trying, she didn't have to explain it all twice. It was an hour or so later that they heard the sound of distant hooves and put the plan in motion.
"This will be tight, but it has to look good," Bennett told her as she slipped the rag into her mouth and pulled on the knot. Lydia squirmed but didn't complain. Bennett touched her shoulder and spoke in the tone she had often heard Dahlia use on nervous horses. "Good girl."
The girl nodded, trying hard to be brave.
The steps toward the barn were heavier than before; the brothers must have gotten part of the reward already.
There was that general sense of joy when they opened the door to the barn, like they had just struck gold like back in '49.
Bennett was already kicking the floor with her heels and grunting alarmingly through the cloth of her gag, gesturing with her neck so the brothers would look at the figure lying on the ground besides her.
None of the brothers dared approach the child.
"What happened?" Denton asked.
Bennett let out a frustrated noise, wordless, pretending to fight against her ropes, until he nodded to Marlin to remove the gag.
"She passed out," she said to her understandably-suspicious audience. "You tied the gag too tight. She's a kid, not one of your horses."
They looked confused at those words—yes, even Denton looked like he was making room in his mind for the conceit that he might not know much about this. Obviously they weren't used to being around young girls, and the idea that these strange specimens might be more prone to axifysiation than their male counterparts was, at least, a possibility to their ignorant brains.
Still they didn't move, and Marlin and Rich were looking at Denton for a sign, for permission.
He was never going to give it, Bennett knew.
It was up to her to convince them.
"What? You think we have been plotting or something?" she said. "You think a lady girl like her would listen to someone like me, never mind obey my orders."
The risky move tugged at the men's inherent disdain for everything Bennett was, themselves unable to imagine fellow humans giving credit her words as they hardly considered Bennett to belong to the human category at all.
She kept making eye contact with Marlin, something that escaped Denton and his preparations, even though she wasn't being exactly subtle.
"Hell with it, Den, I'm not going to let a child die on me," the middle brother declared, to preempt his older sibling's protest. Surely the fact that this was a rich child and they were unlikely to get the rest of the money if she died a factor in his worry for the Weston girl.
Bennett didn't move at first, letting the man ungag Lydia and check if her faintness was for real. She trusted Lydia, she would give her enough time, and wouldn't be bullied by a couple of villains (Rich had, tentatively, almost unconsciously, stepped towards the girl as well, wanting to know what was going on) poking her face with their fingers and shaking her by the shoulders to see if she would wake. Denton kept one eye on the scene, and one eye on Bennett. That was all right with her, let him think he was so smart for not letting his guard down.
The "sheriff" faked concern for the girl in a tilt of the head, but in reality she was waiting for the perfect angle, the perfect opening. When it came she put on an almost bored expression, going from complete stillness to feline in the blink of an eye. Or less, because Denton wasn't blinking, yet he didn't see when she turned her body towards his younger brothers, once she saw they both had a knee on the floor.
She went first for Marlin, being closer to her and the intended main target, she grabbed his right arm and pulled backwards, hard, just at the right angle, until she heard a wet cracking sound. She took his Colt and pushed him to the ground, rolling his body against Little Rich's legs, so he would trip.
This last thing gave her just enough time to turn and take care of big brother over there.
Denton, true to his reputation, was quick, one of the quickest she's seen of late, it was almost exciting, but once there was a revolver in Bennett's hand there was little he could do about it.
A sound of metal against metal.
Drops of blood from Denton's hand falling over the thin layer of hay on the floor.
Marlin tried to get up but realized that doing so would aggravate the pain in his shoulder, as he would have to shake his younger brother off first.
Rich was the slowest to react, just like he had been the day Bennett kicked him out of the saloon. He was probably still trying to figure out how the woman had unbound her hands. Bennett—gun cocked on Denton the whole time, she only needed the corner of her eye for that—pulled him forward towards her body and just as he landed on the floor before her, she jumped and put her whole weight on the narrowest bit of the ankle.
She heard the crack of bones breaking under her, Rich's face turned tilted up in pain and surprise. She had left scars on all three brothers now. And why should they be surprised?
"You can open your eyes now, Lydia," she said, loud.
The girl stirred, like she was truly waking up. Without prompting she went to Bennett, hiding behind her back. Bennett knew her shoulders weren't the biggest, but she hoped they gave the girl some security.
Denton shook his head, he had been right all along not to trust the ruse. Bennett got closer and cocked the revolver, in case the tall man was getting any ideas.
"I'm smarter than you, faster than you, and I play dirtier," she reminded him.
Then she whipped the back of the Colt across Denton's face, drawing blood and unconsciousness, keeping the promise she'd made to herself.
The man fell with a loud thud on the wooden planks. His brothers' eyes, all four, widened at the same time, and Bennett could tell they had never seen their big brother take a defeat before. Marlin whimpered a bit, not just from the beating he himself had received, sounding like a scared rodent all alone in the dark. Bennett went on to gather the bag full of Mr Weston's money and two guns on the floor, including Denton's handsome Russian caliber, which she very much intended to keep.
"He's going to be out for a while," Bennett said, pointing at the oldest Ward brother but looking at the other two. "You're going to get started digging those graves for the Miltons now. I'll come back tomorrow and if you haven't given them proper burial you'll run out of east to escape to before I get you. Understood?"
Rich was still doubled over in pain and unable to register what was going on, but Marlin nodded, massaging his dislocated shoulder.
"Don't worry, I'll leave one horse," Bennett added.
She ungagged Lydia and ushered her out of the barn and the girl—good girl—didn't even look back.
But Bennett lingered, and remembering Rich Ward's behavior in Dahlia's salon months ago, she broke the other ankle. To make sure it'd be a while yet, until he could stand cocky and proud.
She did look back, and Denton's eyes spelled it for her: he was going to seek revenge.
Let him try, Bennett thought. This had been fun.
As she walked out of the building she could hear Rich beginning to scream in pain again, and the noise of some admonishment by his oldest brother, but she couldn't quite make out the words.
The air felt all new and crisp, blessed-like, just like after a thunderstorm, the kind she and Dahlia liked to watch go by from their room above the saloon, in their breeches, and with a big cup of coffee between them.
Bennett paused a moment there, to take a good gulp of that air. It didn't feel quite like a victory—she kept thinking about the murdered couple on the front steps—and justice was still a long ways away. But she had done what she had set out to do today, get the girl out, and alive, and that was not nothing.
Lydia stood by her side as she uncinched the saddle on the two stallions—leaving Marlin's gelding, slower, more of a buggy animal than a hot horse, anyway, behind—and got them to run away. Bennett wouldn't say the animals had much love for their masters, the way Denton and Rich liked to use the whip.
"I gather you can't ride," she said to Lydia.
The girl blushed a bit, and shook her head. Even though she was young, she knew she should have learned by now. Not entirely her fault, as her political-minded Pa did not approve of women riding on their own. Lydia's mother had passed from this world without ever touching a saddle with her own hands.
"We should fix that one of these days," Bennett said, kindly.
She could tell the teenager liked the idea. Not one to be imparting life lessons, Bennett refrained for telling Lydia girls should be rebellious, that was their duty.
"I'll take you with me," she said, taking Jian's saddle off as well, since it was too small for two people, and passing it to Lydia. "Hold this for a moment."
She mounted first and, once Lydia has given her the saddle to carry, she helped the girl up. Lydia only hesitated a bit, looking at the mare's big dark eyes. People used to say they looked a bit alike in this, Bennett and her steed. But it was her mother who gave Jian her name when she was just a foal. "Why did you give her a Chinese name?" Bennett asked her mother. Seemed like a strange choice for a horse. Bennett's mother looked very intently into her eyes and caressed Bennett's hair and said "So you'll know she's yours, and whenever you look at her, you'll remember you're mine."
It was only a little hesitation, and Lydia and the horse seemed to arrive at some understanding. She grabbed Bennett's hand and rode right in front of her.
"You know? I wouldn't half mind that salt pork dinner now, Sheriff Bennett," Lydia said. "I wouldn't."
Bennett laughed softly and squeezed her playfully as encouragement. It had been a trying day for the poor girl.
"Yeah? But let's not tell your father."
She felt Lydia nod against the back of her neck.
"Let's not," she repeated, sounding excited, like only a teenager would be, at having a secret from her parents.
The girls settled against Bennett, and Bennett settled on the saddle and soon they were out of the edgelands, away from the smell of villains and stale blood. They couldn't see Matinas yet, but they knew it was there, home, just within reach, behind that big horizon.
Lara Alonso Corona is a writer from the north of Spain. She studied Film and TV in Madrid before making the decision to write in a second language and move to London. Her fiction has appeared in venues like Literary Orphans, Whiskey Island, FIVE:2:ONE Magazine, Burning House Press and the noir anthology Betty Fedora, among others. She is the current reviews editor at the literary magazine Minor Literature(s). You can find her on Twitter at @lalonsocorona.
Back to Top
Back to Home
by Tom Sheehan
Harvey Walter, sixtyish, slightly bent, white beard as full as a good poke, was still wearing his outer coat, as the last juror in the last row in Elmer Gentil's Saloon, though it was warmer inside than outside. But his attention had not been lost for one minute in the on-going trial of Karl Rickert, a young man he had known a few years here in Daw's River. He fidgeted, squirmed and tormented himself with the nature, manner and intent of the murder trial. Everybody in the room had heard him gasp loudly several times at statements made by the sheriff, by one supposed witness (who was "nearby" when the commotion or crime was in progress), and even some legal folderol and ministrations tendered by the judge. And he knew everybody in the room but one big gent near the back wearing a Mexican-type sombrero and the sleazy looking fellow leaning on the bar as if he thought the bar would open in the middle of the trial.
Harvey Walter made all of them hear him, hawking deeply in his throat, gagging, as if he had spent the morning busy at the bar instead of at the trial setting. If someone vouched a lie in Walter's estimation, he'd let loose his foul reprobation and reproval of the statement.
He was clearly understood by jurist, jury, defendant, prosecutor ("If'n you can call him that," he'd say) and the sheriff who Harvey thought had always been as crooked as barbed wire after a stampede.
Finally, the judge, Hector Glandford, generally a saloon regular because Elmer Gentil's Saloon was in the territorial seat, stood up and pointed directly at Walter and said, "Any much more of that kind of comment, Harvey, whether I understand it or not, I promise I'm going to lock you up for the duration of the trial."
"Hector," Harvey Walter said as he stood by his chair, wild gestures now helping mark his main defense, "you might as well git this whole dang town in jail because they know what's happenin' right here in front of us. Don't try to tell me one minute that George Blaney hisself ain't here in this room as if he was here in his own person. Just put him in a jail cell with me and I'll get this trial on the straight 'n' narrow in a matter of minutes, way it belongs."
Glandford slammed his cane down on the bar top. "You keep getting after me, Harvey, and I'll see you don't see the inside of this room for a month a Sundays. That'd be enough punishment for you, as this is a court of law."
The undercurrent of laughter and snide snickering had not died down since Walter's first admonishment ran across the whole room, right to the door where everybody in the room could see George Blaney's foreman standing at attention, occasionally nodding at the judge's comments. He was big and mean and most people referred to him as "Him," George Blaney notwithstanding.
Every person in the saloon courtroom, sober or a bit in the drink so early in the day, knew the story about the crime, the murder of Charlie Chesley, making the rounds about town, the way some stories get a new push every time they get exercised, the way the wild story went on about the giraffe being stabled at Cal Tucker's livery "jest in case Cal's ladder was broke and he can't get up to bed in the loft the way he morm'ly does, which ain't hardly normal any time, bein' as him missin' for good his good leg which ain't hardly the one he's got left, bein' his right one."
The story, "The rumors," as Walter had yelled out earlier, "was pure made up to take care of George Blaney's interests by gettin' Karl Rickert out of possible romantic entanglements, if'n you can stretch your imagination thet far, with Pearl Whitestone in the mix, Pearly bein' about the prettiest thin' since old man Carter had the near-pink pony thet one year when all other thin's was bad or worser than thet."
"Hector, you bein' the best customer Elmer Gentil's ever had 'ceptin' me when I got a poke, which ought to make us legal and my word just as good as your'n in this here court. From where most of us sit it sort of gives me a leg up in this law-yer stuff, at least equal footin' different from Cal down the livery. I got a say and you got a listenin', way I see it."
"Harvey," Hector said, like he was talking to a fresh neighbor kid, "another minute or two and I'll lock you up, I swear it."
"You takin' the oath now, Judge. Beats me how you kin do it, but if'n I go to jail, I'm aswearin' others'll be wearin' their jail pants with me." He paused right then, gave the jury all a look square in their eyes, and added, "'n' all us gettin' fed by the territory to boot, meanin' some cook's gonna get her tail feathers all aruffle pretty damned quick."
The judge stood up and motioned to the sheriff across the room. "Harold," he said with all his authority, "you take that bigmouth off to jail and keep him there until this here trial is done and over. We got some convicting to do, as well as prosecuting, and I don't feature it to be compromised by a town drunk and his ne'er-do-well pals."
Two other jurors stood up and one said, "Well, Your Honor, just for that remark alone, I'm goin' with my pal Harvey. Harvey and me is of the same mind about how there's so much Blaney smoke floatin' right here in this room like there's a damned campfire just raisin' all kinds of signal."
"Me too," said the other juror, smaller in stature. He jammed his sombrero down atop his head. "I'm ready a minute, Your Honor." For all his noise and his wide sombrero, he was only as big as a pony.
The undercurrent of steady tittering and snide laughter continued, easily getting to the judge, now rolling his eyes every time one of the audience, or the jury, made an inroad on his courtroom control.
"Lock the three of them up, Harold," the judge said, changing his tone of voice once more, smacking the bar again with the heavy end of his cane, which most knew was a stylish prop of pseudo-elegance. The sound of that exuberant rap was lost in the shuffle of chairs and boots sliding on the floor, and the omen of legal exodus. The weight of the whole room seemed to be shifting, tipping off to one side.
At the back of the room four more men said in unison, "I aim to go too," sounding to some of the crowd like a barbershop quartet at the chorus of an old favorite song at a trailside campfire.
"Me too," said two more guys in the jury, not as musical, and then three additional men spread around the saloon raised their hands as though they were in school and looking to be excused. One of them said, "We made up our minds that George Blaney ain't the judge in this room no matter who's supposed to be wearin' the robe if there was one to be wore here."
The sheriff strode up to the judge and said, "I ain't got the room, Judge. You know that. I can't lock up half the town."
"It's gettin' to look like the whole town if'n you wuz to ask me," Harvey Walter said loudly, looking out over the crowd in the saloon, now full to the doorway as the late-sleepers slipped into the folds of justice.
"Hell, Harold," said Judge Hector Glandford, "lock them in the other end of the room, if there's room."
Another voice, from way in the back of the room, sounding like he was outside the building itself, said, "Will the bar be open, Judge, case we get thirsty, it bein' late for coffee at this hour?"
"It's barely half hour past nine this morning, Glen," said the judge, to the tall man with the distant voice, who was about to start moving to a place in the line of business, and who replied, "I had my share of coffee today, Judge. I'm waitin' to get the real wake up stuff."
"Oh, hell," the judge said, as he hit the bar top again. "Let 'em be, Harold," and he waved the sheriff back to his chair. "Call the next witness."
Harvey Walter, waiting for the opening, jumped up again from his jury seat and said, "You ain't had any witnesses yet thet I can see, Your Honor, but just a couple out 'n' out liars 'n' hires aswearin' their oaths to George Blaney. Why ain't he here in his real person?"
He looked over at Blaney's foreman and said, to the big gent, "I guess you ain't important enough to get the really big man in here, are you?"
He smiled at the sleazy looking gent still leaning at the bar, figuring him to be another Blaney henchman. "You 'n' the other cahoots got some lessons comin' sooner 'n' you think. It ain't Karl Rickert gonna get hung for this. It's gonna be spread square 'n' fair to all the real guilty parties. Bet your pony on thet, I wuz you, and skedaddle 'fore it comes down like a whole avalanche itself."
The supposed Blaney hire, slight, wiry, with dark eyes and a healed slash, which could have been a knife wound thickly scarred above one eye, was still leaning on the bar, looking every bit the hired gun with his dark shirt, black vest with a red kerchief tied at his neck, and a hat that must have come from back east, as it looked entirely out of place in a saloon full of Stetsons and sombreros. He stared hard at Harvey Walter, his eyes bared with promise, as if he would, on a solitary cue, drop him with one shot. There was not the single sign of trail dust on him, no evidence of where he might have ridden in his days, no clues as to a personal trick or trade other than the shine on his guns and the sheen on his holster leather, the way drawing guns and replacing them hundreds of times leaves leather like old traces hanging in a barn, the silver light of day reflecting off them long as daylight lasted.
Harvey Walter said in his loudest voice, "If thet ain't the promise of a killer I ain't never seen one thet went unsaid like thet, from old Cut-eye there. You all here be witness to thet, as I'm aleanin' on you for it."
Blaney's foreman walked to the hired gun, spoke in his ear, and newly named Cut-eye, malevolence on the loose, walked out of the saloon as easy as going fishing.
"Where's the main witness, Harold?" the judge said. "I don't have all day." He took a sip of what he purported to be water but all knew he had started on his true day of what Walter called, with a smile at the edges of his eyes and a curl on his lips, "the judge's day of imbibery."
"Bring the Number One Eye Witness to the bar." When he realized what he had said, as the laughter again surged around the room, he corrected himself by saying, "Bring him to the witness chair." He banged the bar top again, imbroglio or no imbroglio, his mind racing to catch up to Harvey Walter, his true nemesis, the phonetics of words grasping him by the throat. Glasses rattled out of sight, bottles jiggled on a hidden shelf. Some of the throng and some of the jurors began their daily sweat of time, waiting for their first pour, their first sip. "After all," they might say, "we're in a house of drink." But it went without saying.
Time hung like a dead man in a forgotten noose.
From a side room of the saloon, the sheriff brought a nondescript, thin, poorly dressed man who dangled marionette-like in the sheriff's hands. One could look for the strings of the apparatus. Nervous twitches rode on his skin and pulsed plainly visible on his body. The man, it might be thought, could be caught up with spasms. Two prominent bruises decorated his face, on one cheek and on his jaw, as if he had been pummeled well with gloves or a leather mallet. Smaller marks, purplish in nature, dotted other areas of his face. Hair stood on its roots on the top of his head and heavy curls of it hung over his ears. Apparently he had not shaved in a week or more, but whisker growth was not heavy, which went with his general unhealthy appearance, saying some of his organs had gone neutral. He was a walking visit to the local doctor, who happened to be now caught up in jury duty.
The light from the slanting morning sun, bouncing off shiny objects in the saloon, bothered the witness's eyes, which he closed every few seconds, blinking into deep frowns, shielding his eyes from the reflections. It looked like he had been hidden in darkness pending an appearance before the court.
From the first moment since the Number One Eye Witness had been brought into the courtroom, Harvey Walter stared goggle-eyed at him, his mouth agape, recognition sitting in his eyes.
In a glorious moment of complete schedenfreude, Harvey Walter smiled a wide smile at Blaney's foreman, "Him," still standing at alert at the door of the saloon. With his smile still loaded and wide, the old crank of sorts shook his head in the popular negative fashion, saying "no" as positively as one could say it. Glee rode his frame as he stared at the Number One Eye Witness now taking a seat near the bar in Elmer Gentil's Saloon, of all the places he could end up in this world, this side of the Mississippi, wide as it was, and the whole of Missouri thrown in for kicks, his near-blind nephew from Missouri he thought would have died by this time from plain poor living.
"Him" read all the signs and signals Walter had thrown out for grabs in his moment of schedenfreude and bolted from the saloon.
In ten minutes, with not much happening in the saloon but a kind of drawn-out swearing in of the witness, waiting for "Him" to come back and attest to adroit handling of the witness, Judge Hector Glandford looked up to see "Him" and the bigger "Him," George Blaney himself , walk into Elmer Gentil's part-time courtroom. He had completely avoided looking at or listening to Walter on the dais in the jury seats lined against one wall in two rows and had missed the recognition that had lit up Walter's face when he first saw the witness.
Glandford did not, however, miss seeing the looks on George Blaney's face and that of his foreman, both showing serious concern for the first time in the trial and tribulation of the innocent Karl Rickert. Now, for the first time in his judicial career, a sense of foreboding came at the judge that he could not avoid. It came with the bite of a pick ax, deep and serious. Even then, in such throes of imagined pain, apprehension and trepidation now aswim on him, he could not remember a single man he had sent to the gallows, not a one; no names came to him, no faces, no widows standing forlornly at the end of his courtrooms across the territory, no children crying on the way out of court. Fright grabbed at him. He did not know the word schedenfreude but he knew the feeling, and what was coming at him was the opposite, the complete opposite. "On the target end," he might have said.
"The witness will give his name and make his statement of positive identification of the man and the circumstances so named as causing the death of the victim in this case." He pointed to the chair in front of the bar. The witness did not move.
"Sit down, sir, but say your name first and then make your statement as to what and who you saw shoot the dead man we mourn here." The victim's name, too, had run away from him.
The witness, still shaking, the bruises and body pains alive on him, sat in the chair with the assistance of the sheriff."
"Your name, sir," the judge said with a moment of mental stamina as he scratched for a semblance of propriety, as if he really did deserve a robe to wear here, even if it was a one-horse town. He wondered if his humor, at such times, would be appreciated.
"Conrad Bartlett," the witness said. He did not look at anybody in the room, not the judge, not the sheriff, not George Blaney, not a person in the jury. "I saw the defendant Rickert shoot the man in back of the livery. It was just before I went to bed. About 11 o'clock is when I always go to bed."
Harvey Walter stood up and said, "Your Honor, please, can we the jury ask a few questions of the witness so we don't make any mistakes here. Mistakes can ruin a man's whole day, and you and I know thet right from first handed experience. Your food sure don't taste as good, nor does the whiskey have the same bite thet we need always, 'specially on the law side of thin's."
The judge looked at Blaney and Blaney, shrugging his shoulders and not realizing what was in front of him, said, "Of course, Your Honor, sir, by all means do this up right and quick and get on with all good measures that you will deem fit for the coming judgment."
"Go ahead, Harvey," the judge said.
"What is your name, Mr. Witness."
"Why, it's like I said, Conrad Bartlett."
"Are you the Conrad Bartlett thet once lived in Missouri, on a farm outside of Liberty, in old Haystack County as what they called it in them days?"
"No, Conrad Bartlett never lived on any ranch in Liberty, Missouri." He stared at the area from where the question had come, apparently not knowing which juror had asked it.
"You're sure right on thet account, sir. Do you happen to know what I'm aholdin' here in my hands?" and Walter held up a holster he had taken off a fellow juror.
"It looks like a belt. A leather belt."
"Son, you can't see the side of a barn 'n' you can't see across this room 'n' you can't see in the dark any better 'n' you can see here in this mornin' light 'n' you have already forgotten your god-given name of Jacoby Bossler, bein' the son of Miriam and Joel Bossler of Liberty 'n' a nephew of an old man you ain't seen in ten or more years, though you couldn't see him if he wuz standin' right here in front of your pore eyes, 'n' we both know how pore them eyes is, don't we, Jacoby?"
"Uncle Harvey, is that you?"
"It shore is, Jacoby, and I'd give a barrelful of pickles to know how you got them marks all over your face. I don't suppose you just fell down on your face, did you?"
"No, I didn't fall down on my face, Uncle." Now, he knew, the bridge was crossed and he'd go with the flow of truth itself no matter the upshot. "Two big men beat me up and punched me all over and told me what to say when the judge asked me, and the sheriff was right there with them and I knew I'd be in Yuma in a flash if I didn't do what they said." He was staring hard at the area where George Blaney and his foreman were standing, as if trying to find a face he'd know.
And rising from the back of the room, a marshal's badge suddenly appearing on his vest from an inner pocket, the big man Walter had never known said, very officially, "This here trial is over. Me and my men are taking into our sworn custody George Blaney, his foreman, the gunsmith Tarbox we already have in irons out back, and the sheriff and the judge of this here court."
He turned to Harvey Walter and the other jurors and said, in very simple words, "Thank you for telling us all about these shenanigans going on here, Mr. Walter. We shore do 'preciate the advance warning." Then he said, with utmost honesty and a firmly official tone, "The jury is dismissed and the bar is open. The drinks are on the Territory."
There ensued all kinds of calamity and measurable approbation for the rest of the day at Elmer Gentil's Saloon, as a robe had finally been found for justice west of the Mississippi, beyond Tonto Creek, flush against Daw's River itself and the Mogollon Rim looking down from on high.
At the end of the day, as the last light went out, the last juror leaving the saloon was Harvey Walter, mighty pleased with his day, his arm across the shoulders of the innocent Karl Rickert who was actually supporting him and leading him to his night's sleep.
Once, in the darkness, Rickert heard the old man chuckle to himself as he whispered a single word, "Imbibery."
The young man didn't know the meaning of the word, but figured it would come to him sooner or later.
Sheehan currently has 4 books in the production run at Pocol Press (Catch a Wagon to a Star; Between
Mountain and River; Alone, with the Good Graces; and Jock Poems and Reflections for Proper Bostonians)
and a novel, The Keating Script, coming in the spring at another site.
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by Corinna German
I found him up the Elk's Fork Drainage with its red dirt and steaming sulphur, near the creek, hiding in the black and white aspens. As I approached he charged, face bloody from the kill. Fear fell on my rage but I fired and he dropped. I gathered his furs and rode out.
It was that simple. After days of searching, bodies laid to rest, and the white faces of motherless and fatherless children standing shoulder to shoulder in my dreams—there he was, naked, caked with mud and wilder than I imagined. When I fired he dropped quickly, in mid-pounce. He wasn't immortal—he was just a man—just as I knew him back then.
The only difference now is that his demons have gotten the better of him. Mine are locked up tight in a cage made of a futuristic material, a substance I imagine is harder than rock. I felt more disgust than pity that he couldn't keep his sanity. As I rode away, I looked back. His shape was sprawled out in the open, left to decompose under the Rocky Mountain sun. I had his furs, which are top-notch. A hell of a trapper, he was.
It was back in October when Sheriff Marquette contacted me. I stumbled out of the saloon, laughing at something Marianne was whispering in my ear and there he was, leaned up against a post next to my horse, Thunder, staring at me intently. He was waiting for me—for how long, I wondered? I straightened up and walked to him, leaving Marianne behind.
"Mr. Jesse Marsh, I hear you know your way around these hills", he said, pointing west.
Nodding, I replied, "Yes sir, I'd like to think so".
The sheriff explained, "We have a madman on the loose. He's killed for the third time last night and dragged one of my men off. The widow Lora Huckins who lives up Black Creek is the third victim. Strangled on her front step—and now two kids are without a mother." He shook his head and sighed. "I need someone like you to help us. I can promise you a good wage. We don't need him alive."
"Who is he?" I asked, looking back to see if Marianne was still there. She was gone. "Damn this sheriff," I thought.
I turned back to the sheriff to hear him say, " . . . a trapper, came out here from the north woods a few years back. Rarely comes to town. We were on his trail last night. He lives like an animal. He was up in a tree and jumped on Cal Jones as we passed and drug him off his horse and into the bush like a rabid animal. The other men won't go back", the Sheriff said, lowering his voice.
I raised my eyebrows. "Why me, just because I know the hills? What makes you think I want anything to do with this madman?"
"I've spoken to a few people about you. Weren't you a deputy in Blaine County?"
I paused and looked at the dust swirling by on the street. This was starting to head in a direction I'd rather not go.
Studying me, the sheriff came from another angle, "Mike Grayson says when that grizzly charged up on Bald Mountain, you killed it and you didn't even move an inch, even when its head hit your foot. Is that true?"
Thinking about that day, I recalled how that sow grizzly turned and charged without hesitation or fear. Her eyes were a smoldering green, wild and deadly. I don't remember feeling fear or concern, just amazement that she would make the mistake of charging me. I simply raised my rifle, waited until she was close, then fired. It's as if my body took over and my mind or my soul, was above, watching.
The entire incident was over in seconds, but it felt like an eternity. I could hear meadowlarks calling as she charged. When I turned to look for my horse, there was Mike, behind a tree stump, shivering like crazy. He told many people in town about it later and a few had mocked me at saloons, calling me "Grizzly Man".
The sheriff was in the middle of rattling off names. "Jim Long said that you—"
Stopping him, as I didn't need to hear anymore, I said "Listen, ok, stop. I'll find him. But I want to go alone. I don't want any of these townspeople trailing along, making matters worse."
Sheriff Marquette nodded. "I'll fill you in on the details of where he was last seen, and I'll outfit you with everything you'll need—follow me back to the jail".
Wishing these townspeople would just keep their mouths shut, and this sheriff would take care of this business himself, I reluctantly jumped up on Thunder and followed the sheriff. Marianne would have to wait.
After spending over an hour with the sheriff, learning that the trapper was near White Bluffs and was last seen dragging Cal Jones into thick timber, I headed home, to rest and to think. Before I fell asleep, I vowed I would find and kill him quickly. The search would begin first thing in the morning.
Early the next morning, the wind blew through my cracked window, beckoning me to get up. The pale gray room, so still, except for that thin stream of air. "I'm coming", I said to the spider running up the wall. Grabbing my Colt .44 revolver and Winchester .45-70 rifle, I saddled Thunder and began the ride in the direction of White Bluffs.
It was overcast and just a sliver of bright peach shone on the horizon. I climbed higher elevations as the grassy valley turned to sage and cedar and abundant mule deer peeked at me from behind pines. The fine hairs on my arms and neck stood on end. As I continued on a well-worn trail, I saw the tracks of the men who had searched before me. Remembering the sheriff said the trapper had been in the trees, like a cougar, I continually scanned above.
Continuing up the trail about two miles, I stopped when I saw the blood. Turning east I saw the path of whoever—or whatever—left the blood trail, there, towards White Bluffs. Dismounting, I led Thunder along the blood trail—noting the blood was a dark red and dry. This had to be Cal Jones's trail from the night before.
It became harder to follow the trail into the timber, but I continued, weaving Thunder around and over the deadfall. The blood sign thinned out against the dark dirt floor, until I came upon him. There, under the fine mossy branches of the pines was Cal. He was on his back, eyes open as if gazing at the moss that wisped like spider-web from the trees. His throat was mangled—it struck me immediately as a cougar kill and there was an attempt to cover the body as light branches and dirt covered his lower body.
This was the trapper's kill number four. The prior three were seemingly random—two men and the last, a woman in her home. Each brutal. Cal was a ranch hand and a father just trying to help the sheriff. I couldn't figure out why these people were murdered. None had any kind of past that I was aware of and the sheriff mentioned that they weren't robbed or even had any money or valuables that he knew of. "Damn this trapper. Stick to trapping, you crazy bastard," I thought.
I wanted to get to a higher elevation. In the dark timber I felt helpless and claustrophobic. If I were high I can see what's moving below and watch the animal behavior that may signal that a person is nearby. Getting comfortable with the way the ground sits—the lay of the land—has served me well in many situations. I navigated Thunder up the steep west side of White Bluffs. Once on top, I knew I'd be able to see for miles.
Thunder climbed effortlessly. Small trails of rock fell as we climbed higher. Now on top, I surveyed the land laid out before me. Sunlight Peak's white top shined and Blackberry Gulch was shadowed and craggy below it. The bowl of the valley blazed orange and yellow as autumn touched the land. I stayed for hours, watching. It wasn't until the sun was slipping past Sunlight Peak and shadows started to appear that I saw the mule deer on the side of a hill—near the old Jimmeston homestead. The does were snorting and stomping and looking back toward the timber they had just come from.
My eyes focused on the edges of that timber. Nothing at first. Then, just as the last of the sun slipped under the horizon, I saw him. Lying flat against the cool rock of the bluff, I watched as he walked, heading east. It had to be him. I saw him pause and crouch down behind some sage brush.
It was a long, long, time before he appeared again. My eyes were wide in the dusk, trying to absorb every last ray of light and staring intently at that bush. It was his head that slowly appeared over the top as if he were peeking—looking my way. An ice cold chill enveloped me. As my heart thudded, he was lost to the darkness. Inching my body backwards, away from the edge of the bluff, I exhaled loudly and said "Get ahold of yourself!"
Heading back to Thunder in the trees, I prepared to make camp. There wouldn't be a fire tonight, I'd have to endure the chill. Burrowed deep in my bed roll, I stared up at the stars between the pines. Drowsiness finally arrived along with five children, standing near the edge of the bluff, looking at me. "Hey! It's dangerous there! Get back", I yelled. They just stood there, white-faced, staring at me. Hearing a small sound from behind me, I jerked around to face the dark forest. It was a dull, barely discernable snap of a stick or a twig. As I reached for my Colt, two eyes shone at me from about twenty yards away—then he was on me in a flash. Lurching forward, I woke, covered in sweat. It was a dream.
I did not sleep for the rest of the night. As light finally arrived, I set off down the bluff and headed across the valley, to where I had seen him last night. As I came to the edge of the timber he had scared the mule deer does from, I saw his tracks. They led to the sage bush and there were his heel imprints, where he'd hesitated so long behind the sagebrush. There, next to the base of the bush, a shiny round object caught my eye. I picked it up and my head started swimming—I recognized it instantly—I could not believe my eyes.
It was Martha Montgomery's brooch. It was given to the sheriff of Blaine County—when I was his deputy—by Martha's daughter, Melinda. A flood of emotions washed over me. I saw Melinda's face—haggard and desperate. Her mother had disappeared and she gave the sheriff the brooch, pleading with us to find her mother. We followed her captors for weeks but they slipped away and we lost so much of ourselves on that journey. We came close to death from dehydration in the desert and we had to shoot our horses. It was an arduous trip home, on foot, me with a gunshot wound to the arm and the sheriff, delirious and inconsolable.
Melinda's face haunts me to this day. Now to see this brooch, lying here under this brush—completely out of time and place is a pain I didn't expect to feel—not here, not now. I put it in my pocket. Lost for a moment in the past, I quickly composed myself and jumped up from the ground scanning the landscape. Something was not right. Feeling extremely uneasy, I knew I had walked into an ambush. There! On the horizon! On the very bluff I had spent the night on, there he was, watching me. A shot rang out and I howled, "GODDAMMIT"! I jumped on Thunder and rode back towards White Bluffs, straight into zinging bullets and hell, for all I knew. "Who are you?!" I yelled. He was no longer visible on the horizon, on top of the bluffs.
I navigated a galloping Thunder in a wide circle to the back-side of White Bluffs with Martha's brooch burning in my pocket. This was someone I knew, otherwise they would not have left that brooch under the sage for me to find. The only person I knew of in possession of the brooch was the Sheriff of Blaine County. Surely this madman could not be Mack. Someone must have gotten ahold of the brooch and is playing a game with me.
"Where are you, you sonofabitch?" I said out loud. Charging toward the bluffs was an impulsive move on my part and I admonished myself as I slowed Thunder down to watch the bluff from any angle possible. My instincts told me he was in the thick timber flowing down the backside of the bluff. I wanted to stay out of the timber as much as I could to avoid walking into an ambush. I headed south to the river. I'd go around and cut him off, as he came out of the timber.
I followed Green River until I was at a vantage point where the timber started to taper off. Both the left and right of the swath of timber running down White Bluffs were visible. The only thing wrong with this location was the river. The sound of the river was unnerving to me. I needed to hear the wind, bird calls—the river muffled all of that. Despite this, I waited, hunkered down in the cottonwoods and at times only my eyes moved, rifle across my lap. No sign of him. I sighed and stretched my legs. It was going to be a long night.
I had to get away from the sound of the river. There is no way I was going to stay near it without hearing what is going on around me—especially in the dark. I walked Thunder to the south through the cool, damp floor of the cottonwood grove. When we got to the edge I climbed on Thunder and rode up to higher elevation. There was more pine tree cover than I liked, but light was waning and I wanted to get a good look around before dark. Finding a decent spot in a clearing surrounded by trees, I had a good view to the east and north. High in the evening sky, turkey vultures soared in lazy circles. I walked in each direction, scanning the country below. Nothing unusual, until I walked east. I heard them before I saw them.
Magpies chattered loudly. As I walked to the edge of the hill, I saw the black and white birds, eating an animal down in the draw, and flying back and forth across a carcass. It was a bobcat. I could see that from the tawny fur and spots. Walking down to get a closer look, the magpies scolded me. There, the bobcat laid, caught in a trap. The trapper! Letting good fur go to waste while he was off killing people. What a shame. "Sonofabitch", I seethed. I must be right in his backyard, I thought. Right in his circle. My eyes sharpened and I climbed up the hill back to Thunder and my camp.
That night the owls hooted, the moon was full and bright, and I didn't sleep at all. I was right on the trapper's trap line. Faces flew at me from the night. Who was this murderous trapper? How did he know me? It was years ago I left Blaine County up north and my life as a deputy, but here I was doing the same damn thing—chasing fugitives. I vowed to myself that when this is over I would take Marianne away from here and we could start new.
Just as dawn peeked through the trees, I walked over to the side of the hill, to relieve myself and stretch. As I approached the edge my eye caught something moving in the draw. Grizzly bear, I thought and froze. The sun was just starting to stream into the draw, and the light caught his face. It was him. The trapper. I didn't have either of my guns with me. He walked up to the bobcat and crouched down. I dropped to the ground and peered through the tall grass. He crouched, then he immediately stood up, his long hair revealing his face. I knew he had seen my tracks in the mud, next to the bobcat. He looked around quickly and snarled. Then, I knew. It was my sheriff from Blaine County: Mack Mills.
"Mack, what the hell are you doing?" I thought. Glancing in all directions, he ran back down the draw. I stayed in the grass for quite some time. Could I reason with him? I thought back to the time we spent together, especially looking for Martha. Martha was the love of his life, though not many people knew this. I had to practically drag him back home after our long search into the desert almost killed both of us. He was anguished. We were defeated. He blamed me for not finding Martha and that is mostly why I left Blaine County. She was taken by a band of bad outlaws and whatever became of her was most likely horrendous. Mack cursed me over and over for making him turn back.
"She is dead because of you", he told me coldly the last time I saw him.
I drew in a deep breath, lying there in the grass. "I'm going to have to reason with him—talk some sense into him", I whispered. I got up and walked up the hill, back to camp. I saddled Thunder and set off slowly down the draw. Cautiously, I rode Thunder down—he couldn't be too far. I scanned the trees and squinted ahead. When the trees thinned out, I could see the valley below.
There was something under a tree that looked out of place—like a human form. Quickly, I jumped off of Thunder and moved behind a tree with my pistol. I continued closer, and the form didn't move. Running now, I was only a few feet away and then I saw the blue. The blue of her dress. She was partially covered, her throat was torn. It was my Marianne. It's her hand that my mind replays over and over again. So white—it looked as if it were reaching for me. My throat closed up, I could hardly breathe. I turned and ran back to Thunder.
I charged down to the bottom of the drainage and that's when I saw it—his camp. I raced toward it with purposeful fury. Now, on foot, I would search every rock and every tree for him. My heart pumped hot acid, the morning sun shone, and the young aspens rustled. A wild laugh rang out and echoed across the valley.
Corinna German writes with the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness of Wyoming and Montana over her shoulder. Her work
has appeared in Blood, Water, Wind, and Stone: An Anthology of Wyoming Writers (Sastrugi Press), Manifest West:
Women of the West (Western Press Books), NatureWriting magazine, High Plains Register, and Oakwood. When she's
not adventuring the backcountry, you can find her in Laurel, Montana, with her husband and four boys. Her Twitter
handle is @corinnawriter.
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