The Green-Eyed Kid
by Dan Fields
Jake Pollard slipped away from himself for two blinks of an eye. He heard the Pacific surf crashing five hundred miles away. It was not a sound he had heard before, but he knew it just the same. A tide pool churned briefly in his mind before changing to the thunder of fast riders with long guns. He felt an anxious chill of certainty that some things could not be outrun.
Something shifted beneath his boot, and Pollard almost lost his footing on the neck of the prone station guard. He was a great broad son of a bitch. The guard, not Pollard. Pollard was a wiry old buzzard with a look of early winter about him. He had worried about getting the brute on the ground, but the shock of a scatter gun pushed between his shoulder blades, hard enough to bruise, had been plenty to make him drop. Big men feared for their lives too.
Pollard had not lost all the forceful nature of his youth, yet he did not let the guard's thrashing rile him overmuch. All he did was lean forward and mash the gun's muzzle a fraction deeper into the fleshy neck. He made a low soothing noise in his throat, the same he used to calm his mare in a storm. Pollard was an old hand with armed larceny and supposed that any of the others, Ames or Ansel or Coyote Joe or especially the green-eyed kid, might have taken the excuse to blow the stubborn captive's faculties to head cheese.
Being honest about it, Pollard reckoned a man his age no longer had the belly-fire to be as tough as the work demanded. When he looked at the kid guarding the door with the beat-up cavalry Schofield he had picked up God alone knew where, the fury of that green stare made Pollard's guts jump. The kid was coiled to fire, on the guard or anyone else in range, if Pollard gave the signal.
Long ago, when the kid was no more than a sinful notion in his daddy's loins, Pollard had moldered for ten days in a Grant County cell, sick with the drying-out shakes and waiting on a circuit judge with plenty more distinguished business. On his lowest day the outlaw had found a score of pest-eaten pages wedged in his cot frame. He read this material twenty times or more, to occupy his mind. It was a fragment of brightly painted adventure magazine, written by a Frenchman or some such, about men in the moon who fired hard green beams of light at rocket-driven ships, luring them to doom on the cold Selenian rocks. That was the kind of energy that came off the kid when he stared. Eerie was the only word for it. Pollard would not miss breaking bread in the company of that face.
"Rance!" Pollard barked Ansel's work name, though their real names and faces would be familiar to anyone who had read a newspaper in the last decade. "You, Rance. What's the holdup?"
In the far corner, Ansel fiddled and cussed over the antique locks on the safe. Pollard wondered why a newly installed telegraph office would not be outfitted with a brand new strongbox. A cracker like Ansel could have popped the latest model open in a flash, but the thirdhand relic before him was giving him fits. It forced him to recall obsolete methods. Previous generations of thieves had their own maddening arcana to suit the peculiar obstacles of bygone times. This was the sign of a world gone horribly modern. Ansel's burnt rawhide face burned a shade darker as he teased a bolt loose with maddening slowness.
"Like opening godburn Farrow's tomb, Cap," Ansel said through tight lips, "but I'm near enough through." A lofty phrase, but Ansel's pronunciation made Pollard feel sure he took Pharaoh for some famous dead Irishman, not a king of Egypt.
Pollard had nobody to cuss but himself for not bringing dynamite as a failsafe. Keen for a swift getaway without bloody traces, he had given stern orders against bloodshed and mayhem. That ruled explosives out, and on the point he had been deaf to all arguments.
"This one clean," was all he had said. How the gang chose to conduct business once he was gone would not concern him.
The telegraph clerk, a wispy fart of a man, rattled his papery throat like he had a suggestion. Perhaps he would appeal for the release of his fellow hostages, the quaking red-haired woman and the wizened trail scout. Maybe he had decided to remember the combination he claimed he had forgot. Pollard was in no mood for him either way. He had let the initial resistance pass, expecting Ansel to deal with the mechanism in less time than it would take to torture the information from the clerk, or force the junior clerk to cooperate once he returned from having his dinner. Now, burning precious time as the four forty-five closed in from Carson City, Pollard had a nest of reasons to kick himself.
"Keep quiet, damn you," he said to the clerk, throwing a dangerous look across the room for the others to see. He did not need the woman taking any encouragement to risk her life by crying for help. Let her squall later, once the bandits were clear away.
Ames, who guarded the hostages, gave a nod. Ames was a good sort, the only one Pollard would miss much. When he drank he claimed he was kin to Spanish nobles by the conquered Mojave women, although he was as black a man as Pollard ever saw.
"Hold fast there, Abrams," Pollard said.
"Aye, Cap," said Ames.
Ansel made a sound like "Ha!" The safe opened at last with a shriek of metallic agony. After that came the rustle of folding money shoved into a saddlebag. The clerk moaned into the floorboards. Pollard listened for a deeper sound, the rumble of the train drawing near the depot. The timing would have to be miraculous to work as Pollard had planned, but he damned well meant to see it through until it faltered. He muttered a prayer to whatever god would pay the postage that Coyote Joe could keep the horses ready without becoming a public spectacle.
It was wasted effort to worry. Everyone had been given the task that suited him best, except the kid who had plenty of energy but had not yet found his role in the cosmos. Coyote Joe understood dumb animals in a way he could never relate to his fellow man. He was capable in many ways but could not bear the strain of official questioning. Pollard prayed for him to stay invisible, ten minutes at most if providence could spare it.
"Cap, it's good." Ansel fought a tremor of excitement in his voice. If the haul was ordinary or less than expected, he was to use the code, "Cap, it's done." His choice of phrase meant the captured sum was more, maybe a lot more, than they had planned on taking. Pollard hoped he had brought a big enough saddlebag. He gave Ansel the countersign that he heard and understood.
"Mighty good, Ance . . . Rance." He flinched at the slip, not that it mattered except to himself. "Vamos," he said next, a command impossible to misinterpret. Each man had his instructions. Ansel took the side door out, hugging the stolen bundle under his dust coat and stuffing extra bills into pockets. He would attract notice unless he vanished quickly. Ames checked the horsehair binding the captives at the wrists and thence to the legs of the iron stove. It was not meant to hold them long, only to keep them on the floor out of sight for as many minutes as possible. While the gang mounted up and took a back route out of town through the hills, the commotion of the arriving train would drown out their shouts for help. Pollard and company were swift riders and would not need long to disappear, but there was no time to burn.
Reckoning the distance of the four forty-five, running by sweet merciful Moses almost on time, Pollard counted off seconds in his mind. Ames was out the door. Pollard heard the nicker of Ansel's horse followed by retreating hoofbeats. Ames followed on his mount a moment later. The plan was working. The scream of the braking train filled the depot, but something was out of place.
Pollard felt the cold sweep of green moonbeams and dread prickled his neck. The kid was off time. He had shoved a heavy file chest against the main office door to delay folks rushing to the scene, but rather than take the side exit he stood above the grizzled scout who lay stretched on the floor.
"I'll have that canvas," the kid almost whispered.
"You!" Pollard hissed. Bewildered and furious, he had forgotten the kid's work name. "You, get your by-god . . . "
"That canvas," the sullen youth repeated, nudging the scout's weathered knapsack with his boot. "What's in it? You give it up, I'll take it."
Pollard felt his mouth open. He had never before been dumbstruck, but seeing a man break formation at the day's crucial moment shocked him to stone. Had the kid planned all along to sandbag the operation for his own amusement, or was he crazy enough to covet an old beat-to-hell mail pouch off a stranger? The scout, still prone, rolled protectively against his cargo.
"I just reckon you'll get along without it," spat the toothless whiskered mouth. "You've no call to take it. Ain't you stole plenty from that safe to suit you?"
The woman warbled with vexation, only once. She had kept admirable composure throughout the robbery. In a cooler frame of mind Pollard would have regretted having no fit reward to present for such excellent behavior. They could give her nothing but the dubious gift of the rest of her life.
"Kid," said Pollard in his hellfire tone, "you ride with us or don't. Not in two seconds. Now." With a spark of his old violence, he clouted the guard unconscious with the stock of his gun, then raised the weapon to just above the kid's knee. It was not a full drawdown but the threat was clear. They both knew the rules of combat as well as any pair of dueling gentlemen. The kid moved, but not straight for the door. With the striking speed of a diamondback his toe stove in the old fellow's jaw. He grabbed the satchel, then whipped his boots across and out the door.
The train was in, the noise of steam and brakes already peaked and fading. Pollard had lost the beat, blinked twice to put himself right. There was nothing to do for the suffering scout. A blood halo bloomed around his poor downy head. If Pollard tarried he would be the last goat in the pen, ripe for the ax. He could shoot his way out, but clearing town would be long odds after that. He glanced at the woman, who studied him through mussed auburn tresses. Even with a wide crooked nose and flinty set mouth she was pretty enough. He had taken her for the fainting type who might recall them later as daring highwaymen, but the kid's brutality had broken any romantic spell. She trembled not with fear but with rage, perhaps made of tougher stuff than Pollard realized.
"I know your face," Pollard heard her say as he made for the door. "Your face and your voice. I've seen your photograph." Her disdain rattled him. It was time for old dogs like Pollard to deal themselves out.
On the street, Coyote Joe was fairly hopping with panic. Beady eyes flashed under his wide straw brim as he waved Pollard to his mare.
"Go, go!" he cried. "Wha's prollum, Cap?"
"Never mind," said Pollard, swinging into the saddle with energy he had not quite surrendered to the past. He gave the mare too much heel and was sorry when she hollered at him, but the near wreck of his plans had left him flustered. "That kid," he told the mare as they flew together out the back way from town, "best be dismounted and building me a fire all contrite-like when I see him, else I'm liable to shoot him off his by-god saddle."
Pollard and Coyote Joe had not made forty yards when they heard the angry shouts of the red-haired woman and the sound of men forcing the blocked door. Next time, Pollard told himself, they would have dynamite, or work under cover of night. As for the kid, Pollard would have him trussed and lowered down a well for good measure.
He caught himself, squinting against Coyote Joe's dust as his resentful mare veered up a hidden pass in the hills. Next time, hell. That was the point. For Pollard, no next time. Despite their devilish run of luck, Jake Pollard's boys were a breed of outlaw all but extinct. Desperadoes thrive in peacetime, but the big war had been over long enough that Pollard reckoned the nation due for another. He had lived to the see the Confederacy rise and fall. Now there were all manner of Spaniards and Prussians and the like who needed keeping down. That or the moon men would invade. The American outlaw would go without friendly harbor for a long while. His options were to perish in glory, to fall like a dog in dirt, or to vanish without tracks into the west.
Ansel had wits, but his narrow skills might shut him out from honest work. Pollard had never known the man to apply himself to anything but theft, graft and misappropriation. If he had references outside the criminal set, he might make a bank manager, though Pollard did not reckon his formal education would measure up. Ansel claimed to have a wife and child stashed in Texas, but never hinted that a reunion was in the family's interest.
Ames could go several ways. He was a free-born son of former slaves. Even after the say-so of old dead Lincoln and the butcher's tide of war, the nation could not make up its mind about men like him. Ames had chosen to kick and buck and push back all his living days in reply. If society ever offered him a fair shake, he might stop his ears on plain cussed principle. He had picked up the outlaw knack without its attendant vices. That would give him a start in anything productive he took it in mind to do. He would make a fine rancher—hell, a senator if that star ever shone his way—but to go straight he would have to strike soon while land and resources could still be got. Ames was a man born out of his proper time. Pollard wished him long life and longer luck. No man deserved it better; no man was more prone to test it if he got it.
Coyote Joe had the likeliest prospects for happiness. He would cling to the wild life awhile out of sentiment or habit, then some hot afternoon he would get too drunk and go drifting. His place was among the adobe hovels of Mexico, where he could sit and reflect like a pickled oracle nobody thought to bother. Pollard pictured him with disciples, perhaps a harem of village girls too homely to marry ambitious men. They would roam the earth alongside him, doing for him with cheerful hearts to make his old age comfortable.
That left the kid. Len Shirley was his name and it must have been baptized onto him. Pollard could not see a person inventing such a handle for himself. He came from Las Cruces. That was where Pollard had found him, anyway. He had slipped into the gang with the ease of a ghost. At first light on the morning they left Las Cruces, Pollard's companions found the taciturn youth saddling up alongside their boss.
Pollard introduced the kid as a card player he had met in a late-night game. It was the truth, as far as it went. At the table there had also been a bitter player who took after Pollard over a crooked deal. Pollard had ignored the old souse, privately judging him unworthy of a straight deal, but the slighted man had gone for a derringer in his waistcoat and nearly caught Pollard by surprise. Without a word, the kid had leaned across the armed man and punched a boot knife between his ribs, just deep enough to put the man in a cold sweat. He lurched forward in the kid's grip, wheezing with pain but unable to cry out with the table's edge compressing his paunch. Pollard had expected a brawl to ensue, but the kid swept his green moonlight eyes across the half-dozen folks in the room. All held their peace. That was Shirley's power, no proof at all against his being a devil in the flesh. The wounded man, clutching a seven-high busted straight against his oozing belly, rose from the table and tottered in silence out of the room. Without a full deck to play with, all of them finished their drinks and waited. When no lawman appeared or seemed likely to, the men withdrew one by one into the night. Not once was courtesy broken. Pollard stayed to buy the kid a whiskey and talk in low voices. Not merely grateful, he had taken Shirley's prompt and ruthless action as a bid for the favor of a respected elder. Damned if it had not touched Pollard's heart. At the time he did not consider that the boy might have taken any chance to stab a man for the sheer fun of it.
Adding a member to the gang meant figuring an extra share of future spoils, but Pollard's boys were more or less content to accept the kid on their leader's word. Shirley never mastered easy conversation, but he made himself understood. Had he not been so undergrown he would have looked as dangerous as he was. He had the physical presence of a scarecrow built in lean times, lacking the straw needed to fill him out. His face had a tallowy sheen that no desert sun could bake away. It made his eyes look unnaturally large and heightened their alarming greenness. Pollard had heard Shirley give his age as seventeen, nineteen and twenty-two in different places, all of which were plausible. Pollard took him for a highly developed fifteen or sixteen, a prodigal son whose people were glad to have him stay gone. Natural cunning, hard experience or both gave him a vaguely satanic composure. Pollard never asked for his personal history, afraid his darkest guesses might be accurate. The boy's lip snarled whenever someone addressed him as Len, like the name embarrassed him, but he never took offense to being called Shirley. From their first meeting Pollard had marked him as an able-bodied eccentric, the type that bore watching when he was not kept busy.
Despite his unsettling temperament, Shirley had made a competent member of the party. His mind was restless but not simple. Once he had proven whatever he reckoned needed proving to the world, he might grow into a mighty big man. When he spoke, his voice had soft persuasive music in it. Without Pollard cutting a fatherly figure among them, Shirley would almost definitely make a bid to boss the gang. Ames and Ansel would object, but unless they got shut of him quick he might convince them to draw lots for the chief spot. It was the way buccaneers chose their captains. If the lot went against him, the kid might make mutiny. With his sly speed behind a boot knife it was apt to turn bloody. Pollard reminded himself that it was no longer his worry, but still it worried him.
Pollard's aim was retirement, better late than not. For five months he had dreamed every night of crouching by a fetid lake of blood. He was motionless in the dream, both arms plunged into the stagnant pool up to his elbows, the stink of corruption fairly choking him. Flies chewed him ragged and found new acreage by burrowing under his skin, yet he could not move because a long shadow over his shoulder let him know a rifle was trained on his backbone, ready to shear it in two if he did so much as swivel his head. No matter how much whiskey Pollard used to put himself down at night, sleep cursed him with visions of himself hunkered down at gunpoint in that sun-punished hell, knowing his only reprieve lay in drinking down every sip of the blood, filling himself up with the unholy reservoir of his own sin. He always awoke the instant before he touched the rancid clotted tide with his lips. Morning after morning he came out of sleep with a copper stench in his nose.
Not long after the dreams began, Pollard had barely stopped an Arizona barber from cutting his throat to claim a paltry bounty of silver. It had been six or seven pieces at most in the coinage of Judas, not that Pollard would count himself worth all thirty. Had the barber not been a timid son of a bitch, dripping sweat from his yellow nose on Pollard's lathered face as he chose his moment to slash, the outlaw might not have been warned in time. Pollard gripped the man's razor hand hard enough to break it. At that moment Shirley had appeared in the shop with Coyote Joe, and they would have kicked the man to death had Pollard not shouted at them to get the horses ready.
Pollard broke the barber's teeth with a bottle of scalp tonic, seized the razor and made two short gashes in his would-be assassin's face. The cuts met in a cross on the lower jaw. It would show that a man had dealt the scar, not some accident. Pollard was careful not to cut an eye or an artery. Had he wanted the barber killed, one look at Shirley's face let him know how fast it could be done.
Spoiling a man's visage gave Pollard a queer feeling, but to murder the barber in the heat of anger would have signified nothing. Pollard wanted a living example to others that he was not a mad dog to be shot on sight, but rather a serious man to be left alone. Since then he trusted no barber. His beard grew wild like scotch broom over pocked and pitted skin. He gave up trying to shave himself; his best edge was too blunt, and typically he had not so much as a puddle of piss for a looking-glass. Once he had let a long-limbed whore at Maricopa Wells bathe him. Whether from kindliness or to spare herself the brunt of his bristles, the woman had offered him a shave. Seeing what a flighty giggling thing she was, prone to hitch up and scream with laughter at the slightest pleasantry, Pollard feared she would bleed him out of plain clumsiness. He paid her extra to let his ragged face alone. She turned out just as ticklish as expected, no thanks to the whiskers.
Now Pollard meant to get away as clean as he could, dividing whatever shares were sufficient to keep the others from following him, and push west to the ocean alone. He had no interest in loafing around San Francisco, like a dandy in some god-blinded parlor song. He might as well hop a train to Chicago or St. Louis to get himself strung up, for all the comfort the Frisco sea air would bring him. Monterey would do, or a smaller town if he could manage it. He was resigned to any place where his reputation was not posted publicly, and where nobody would think to track him. Pollard coveted nothing much beyond liquor and a cheaply let bed. He could afford to drink himself to death in modest comfort, provided he made it last no more than six months. First he would have a proper shave in some friendly parlor where he was a stranger. Then all he wanted was to swill freely and play cards and split tail when he felt like it, no longer minding whether the spirits were good, the games were fair or the shakes were sweet-smelling and delicately freckled as in youth. He would give the full measure of his love to any female with the compassion not to hold it against him the day he perished between her knees.
Pollard got lost again on the Pacific shore in his mind, his mare overtaking Coyote Joe on the last of the hard switchbacks. His imagination could no longer form the ocean's murmur properly. It sounded more than ever like hooves and blazing gunfire, a vengeful host on his trail. He checked over his shoulder but there was only Coyote Joe, no sign of the shouting mob that dogged his thoughts. The thunder of ugly fate, visible or not, was real enough.
By the time he sighted the camp, with Coyote Joe straggling behind as winded as his horse, Pollard had cooled from murderous rage to dull disapproval. Shirley had a destructive streak that would bring the world some grief, but underneath his awful face he was only a raw kid, swinging his prick to show the world what a bad piece of news he was. So had Pollard been. It was the oldest act in history. Pollard's theory was that Cain never meant to slay Abel, only to show a little muscle and grit. The fight got out of hand as fights often did, and the brother who bucked fortune went bust for his trouble. For Pollard that was the true lesson in scripture: Providence never dealt any man straight.
The gang had cut through a narrow pass mostly hidden to white men's eyes. The route had served them before. Anyone but a Paiute tracker would try the wider north road before testing the treacherous bends of the Carson Range. From his boyhood Pollard carried the rusty parable about how camels and rich men should avoid threading needles. To reach their hideout the five men had threaded several fine needles in succession, and would ride out rich indeed. Perhaps the trick was riding horseback rather than camelback. Whatever the reason, Pollard smiled at the perverse thrill of getting one over on the gospels.
The rough ride had exhausted the mounts. All would welcome a night's sleep in solitude. Riding up on the swiftly pitched camp, Pollard found the kid keeping a surly eye on the fire, picking without interest through the contents of the stolen knapsack. Ames was hobbling the horses while Ansel baled the money into packets with twine. Coyote Joe was off his horse, fiddling some biscuits together with as much flour and trail dust as he could find. Pollard was not inclined to eat. He regretted having drunk up his last bottle a week ago. He felt almost melancholy enough to collect his share, leave his companions to fate and embark on his dissolution at once. His heart chided him, though, and he elected to sleep on it. There would be time for proper farewells. He owed his mates one more night watch, if nothing else. Ever since their first ride together, Pollard had taken first watch.
The kid pulled odds and ends from the canvas pack, studied each one and dropped it back inside with a snort of distaste. He was vexed with his own plunder, as though a porter had delivered him the wrong luggage.
"What'd you reckon on finding?" Pollard called down. The sun had dropped with extra speed and firelight danced on the young man's face. Almost any light that fell on him accented the malevolent cast of his features.
Shirley said nothing at first, only spat. He fished out a watch that had been fine but was all broken and jangled with wear. "Damned old bastard," said the thin cold lips. "What'd he want to keep all this trash for?"
"What in hellfire did you want to take it for?" Pollard asked. They were not looking at each other, and Pollard's tone was milder than a rebuke. He knew the kid had no answer. Forty years on, Pollard had not forgotten the measure of thoughtless rage a young man could fling at the world, for no reason except he had the bad luck to be born. Bent spoons and sooty rags and Indian trinkets rustled around the sack, stirred by the kid's impatient paw. He unfurled a tangle of papers, all torn and eaten through but still folded to show the owner meant to keep them intact. From atop his mare Pollard could not see much, but the delicate lines made him sure the writer's hand was feminine. They were daughter's letters, or sweetheart's letters, or if Pollard guessed right by the age and profession of the man who had them, the fond words of a dead wife. He half expected the kid to take delight in having stolen items of sentimental value. Then it dawned on him that Shirley could no more grasp the meaning of sentiment than whistle the doxology out his dirthole. Taking one last look in the bottom of the pack, the disappointed young bandit pitched it on the fire to burn. The bundle was sweaty and coarse and made dark smoke as the flame tried to catch the fibers. Pollard steered his mare away to circle the camp in the falling dark. He spied Ames already catching winks, his head propped on a stone. Ansel lay nearby, bound in the filthy blanket he carried. Coyote Joe need not have bothered with biscuits. They were too tired to eat, although they would wake hungry enough. Stale biscuits, Pollard reflected, were to be the final breakfast of his infamous career.
He had managed to bite his tongue when Shirley cast his trophy away so lightly. The whelp had never wanted it to begin with, nor had it held any loot worth having. The indecency of taking it in the first place, never mind risking the safety of the gang, offended Pollard's sensibilities as a thief and as a man. It was all he could do to leave it alone, let the fool learn for himself about worthy thoughts and actions. Pollard was one watch away from freedom.
Cold wind piped through the pass, floating the mare's mane in pretty wisps. Pollard liked quiet nights in the wilderness, but even the open spaces of Nevada seemed to be losing substance. Better to find four friendly walls that stayed put rather than feel the desert close in on him, a little every day, until he smothered. He was wanted in six counties. His only wish was to end up someplace where he was welcome, but wanted by nobody. Could a man, he wondered, have two destinies lying in wait for him, one biding its time to overpower the other? He tried to conjure the ocean again but he could not hear the waves. The night's chill and the rock-strewn ground were too present. He saw no riders, heard no tumult of hoofbeats, yet at the edge of his heart he could feel them. There was no moon, and not likely to be one.
He was looking west with his back to camp when the first rifle shot tore the night. It seemed to Pollard that he wheeled the mare around slowly, a mounted man underwater, bewitched by the advent of his dreadful fancy. The blast was too near to be possible. In the fresh dark at least one encroaching rider should have been visible. Pollard flinched at a second crack of powder, felt the shot whine past his ear. Still he saw no stranger, heard no horse. A soundless ghost posse had taken the camp.
A firebrand sparked from a crouching shape, and Pollard recognized the bark of the pistol. Ames was at the ready, firing three purposeful shots at nothing Pollard could see. The clap of the phantom rifle came again. The shooter seemed to move in their midst and still did not appear. Pollard's eye caught a muzzle flash, so low to the ground that he thought the hellish avenger must be moving sidewinder-fashion in the dirt. As the shot's echo died he heard a scream of pain rise to meet it. The pitch was alien to Ansel's muttering throat but the cry had come from the safecracker, tangled in his blanket and rolling near the fire where he had been asleep. He wailed like a motherless child as a dark fountain spilled from his navel, dyeing the woolen bedroll the shade of Pollard's nightmares.
"Ames!" Pollard cried out to the one he hoped would make sense of things. He slid off his mare, hoping it would keep docile enough to use as a rampart. The mechanics of survival had taken over. Even with his gun drawn Pollard resolved not to fire unless a definite target materialized. Ames turned his head, distracted, and at the next rifle shot his pistol spat back, pure instinct. Pollard saw the white of Ames's eyes. Awful comprehension shone on the man's dark face.
It dawned on Pollard to search for the kid as Ames broke cover at a run. Shirley stood at the edge of camp, firing his pet Schofield into the dark at a slow, regular pace. It looked to Pollard like obscene dumbshow, a round of absurd target practice without targets. No enemy was out that way, and Pollard knew that Shirley knew it too. When the last chamber sounded, the green eyes turned to face camp. Steady hands reloaded. He had a second pistol in his belt, evidently taken off one of the sleepers. Pollard's felt his guts rumble with a feeling of doom.
Coyote Joe, across the fire from the gutshot Ansel, sat moaning in a sleepy daze. One eye scanned vainly about for deliverance. The other eye had been shot out of his head. He put up a mournful idiot sound until, without warning, his body jumped and his breath hitched. A scarlet flower opened on his breast. His hand pawed the iron skillet at his elbow, wanting it for a shield, unmindful that it was still hot from the fire.
Pollard drew on Shirley when he saw the youth fire directly into Coyote Joe. In the madness of that act, Pollard saw he had been wrong to indulge what he took for the restlessness of youth. A new and monstrous thing took shape in his view. Pollard snapped off a shot, too provoked by the violence against Coyote Joe for his best aim. The shot grazed Shirley high on the shoulder. Except for a small indignant noise the kid gave no sign of being hit. Pollard knelt, sighting more steadily from under the mare's belly, when a jolt and a scream from the animal shivered his blood. Rather than return fire at Pollard, the kid had shot the horse. The old bandit twisted too far at the waist, gasping at a creak of pain in his back. Had he not faltered he might have jumped clear before the dead weight of his mare with her poor bleeding head crushed him to the earth. Splintered ribs and a shattered knee strummed a chord of pain on the broken instrument that was Jake Pollard, desperado, recently retired.
Rolling his eyes up to their limit, Pollard spied Ames kicking at the fire, at a charred fibrous object tangled in the flaming wood. Something exploded under his boot and a wound opened high in his thigh. Ames hollered, grabbing his bloody haunch as he fell, barely out of the fire's reach. The kid had the drop on him, dealing a point-blank shot to his chest.
Pollard understood. He did not grasp the sense or the reason of it, but he saw the plain face of what had happened. Destruction had stolen up on them, true as the ghost legions riding at his heels, true as the phantom rifleman of his dreams. It had come in lunatic form, suited to a world whose origin and chief element was chaos. It was too late to tell, and not worth asking, whether Shirley had seen what lay in the bottom of the satchel before throwing it away. It was too haphazard for him to have planned, but Pollard's intuition told him the kid had been waiting a long time for a freak turn of chance. The whole of his short life might have led him here, poised for his moment.
Shirley was firing on anything that twitched, a boy shooting paper ducks on the midway. Pollard could almost hear the prize bell ring. Two points on three shots at Coyote Joe, a wild miss and a pair in the brisket. A point for Ansel, not a clean hit but enough to shut him up for good. Ames did not stir, might have dashed his head on a rock but the kid would make sure. That stung Pollard, the indignity of a prone man gunned to death. Not even the horses would escape execution. The kid toppled Coyote Joe with a final round and swiveled to Pollard like a weathercock, gun hand outstretched. Gone was any familiar sign from the moon-green eyes. Pollard had seen every flavor of rage and resentment on that hateful face. He was as accustomed to the stony cruelty of Shirley's features as any man could be, but the new light burning there pricked him all over with horror. What he saw coming off Shirley was joy.
Jake Pollard tried once more to outpace the present. Leaving his broken body he rode hard in his mind for the sea, letting out a roar fit to split the earth. He felt the shot go low in his back, but he never heard a sound.
Deputy Matt Bonneville and his sorry detachment of volunteers might never have found the hidden encampment if not for the carrion birds. The feathery shapes made dizzy kite circles over the spot, dipping now and then to sample the dwindling feast. Even then it had taken the advice of a thirsty roving hunter, who had heard the gunfire two nights prior, to put them on the right trail. The men pissed and moaned worse than Temperance Leaguers as they drove their mounts through the rocky passes. Bonneville himself had thought it a fool's chase, but was glad to be out of town awhile. He would not credit wild rumors about who had done the robbery until he saw the men face to face. If Pollard's gang was responsible, he knew better than to expect they would sit waiting to be caught. Bonneville reckoned they had shot a worn-out horse and left it to draw the buzzards. Even so, he bade the others be silent, swearing liberally for emphasis, as the company drew near the rank stench of death. When he stopped his mount, he swore again.
Two days had given the scavengers plenty of time, but enough remained of Pollard to identify him where he lay. Coyotes or something bigger had dragged the mare's hollow carcass halfway off him. The crooked arrangement of his limbs told a painful tale. Near the ashes of the fire lay a thin man shrouded in bloody wool, alongside a paunchy old wreck of a fellow who had bled out all his color onto the sand. A Negro and a second mare lay face down together. Not far away were the other horses, hobbled and unable to flee the carnage. Apart from Pollard, Bonneville did not recall any of the men's names.
With no signs of an Indian raid, they worked out that the robbers must have quarreled among themselves. Aside from two bank notes caught in some brush, none of the depot cash could be found. One man insisted that Pollard rode in a gang of five, not four, but nothing was known about the absent man. To get the better of Pollard, he was bound to be the sort that Bonneville would sooner leave to fortune. Four dead outlaws would bring bounty enough to suit him. If the town marshal cared to chase the telegraph money once he returned from meeting the president-elect in Carson, let him try.
Nobody ascribed much importance the ashen tatters of a knapsack, which in the confusion had been knocked atop the campfire and all but burned up. Bonneville gave the melted silver wad on the charred watch chain to his brother-in-law, the most desolate drunk in the posse, to do with as he pleased. The rest was left to blow away at the convenience of the east wind, including a black sheaf of spidery correspondence and a dozen spent paper cartridges. These last, if intact, would have been curiosities. They were made for an antique variety of breech rifle, not the sort of thing for well-heeled bandits to carry. Anyone mindful of their potency would have taken more care than to cast them into open flames.
That night, and for several nights after, an affable saloon keeper called Valdez left his lights burning an extra hour. His establishment was modest but clean, not far from Salinas and still a fair distance from the ocean. His pretty daughter Marisol, who kept the place with him, had gone to bed. He sat up alone with his favorite bottle and a deck of cards, curiously certain that a weary traveler would come along in need of rest and company. He could not account for the notion, nor explain the silence that rewarded his vigil. He would have done better to save his oil.
Dan Fields once absconded with a film degree from Northwestern University. He has recently published work with Sanitarium, Grotesque Quarterly Magazine and Alcyone. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and offspring.
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by Steve Myers
They waited there in the shade of that clump of cottonwoods by the creek that already in June was an outline or mere memory of a stream, now no more than a foot wide of shallow brown water, waited there, horses sniffing at the air and looking for grass worth eating. They were: Anson, because the Major had told him it was his duty because Callie, the major's daughter, was his niece, but more importantly his sister's daughter, the sister now gone for nearly fifteen years; the Major's foreman Jack Crawford, and four riders from the Major's spread, all of them carrying carbines. Parks, the tracker, had marked the trail they had followed for the last three days.
Now Anson pointed across the bare ground to the slope of the foothills. "That's him . . . there coming between the rocks. See him? He's leading two horses."
"Yeah," Crawford said. "It's Parks and something's on one of those horses."
"Looks like a body, Jack."
"Maybe. Yep. It better not be her."
"You don't think he'd do that?"
"Not Parks, not a girl, but . . . "
"Course not Parks, but not Miguel either. Hell, why would he do that?"
Crawford grunted, then: "Damn Mex crazy enough to do anything. Had to be crazy to pull that stunt—the Major's daughter."
"He's not much more'n a kid. I seen him dance that fandango this spring with different girls. One was the major's wife."
"Careful, Anse, don't say that too loud. Besides, it's just talk."
"All right, but you know yourself how she is and what she was before, and she's not much older than Callie."
Anson meant the Major's second wife, Lucy, the one the Major brought from St. Louis. She was young and pretty with long yellow hair and laughed a lot and liked parties. She made everything lively and she sang songs as she walked around, almost dancing from room to room and across the veranda. She was nothing like the first wife, Anson's sister, who was small, dark eyed with dark black hair and as quiet and soft as early morning.
Callie, the daughter, didn't like Lucy much. And it was Callie who'd run off with Miguel. She was missing at breakfast and nowhere around the ranch nor in town. It wasn't until that evening and after the Major twisted her arm that Maria, the cook, said Callie had gone with Miguel. The Major had Crawford whip Ramon, Miguel's father, put the man on a horse, slap its rump, and send him into the night. The next day he hired Parks to track the pair and bring back his daughter. By noon he sent Crawford, Anson, and the others to follow Parks. "You make sure my daughter comes back," the Major said. "And you make damn sure you bring me that bastard. He'll dance a fandango at the end of a rope."
The three horses—one carrying the tall hard man, one trailing easily behind, and one with a body—seemed to float dream-like in the bright sun. As they got closer, they could make out the body slung over the saddle, trousered legs bouncing some on one side and long black hair swinging on the other side.
"It's the girl," Anson said.
"Damn," Crawford said and rode out and after a moment everyone followed.
Parks stopped and waited, his hat tipped back and that hard stone look on his face.
Crawford jumped down from the saddle and ran to the body as he yelled, "You son of a bitch!"
Anson saw Crawford lift the girl's head and look over at Parks. "What the hell?" A red bandana was tied across the girl's mouth.
Parks said, "I got tired of her sass right quick. I don't plan to listen to her run off at the mouth for the next forty miles."
"Why'd you tie her hands and flop her over the saddle?"
"That way she's more pleasant and easier to handle."
"Becker," Crawford called, "Come here and help me put her right."
One of the riders dismounted and helped lift Callie and set her in the saddle. Crawford removed the bandana. Immediately, Callie let loose a string of curses straight at Parks. Than she told Crawford, "Cut these ropes." Crawford took out a knife and cut the ropes. "My horse, too, and give me the reins. Now shoot that bastard."
"Callie," I can't do that."
"Why not? I told you to. You do it or I'll have the Major whip your ass. I mean it."
Parks said, "I told you, Crawford. Better put the bandana back on. Here, toss it to me."
Callie yelled, "You're all bastards!" She kicked her horse in the ribs and headed toward the cottonwoods.
Crawford shook his head. "Always was like that."
Parks tied the bandana around his neck. "I'm not surprised."
Anson asked, "What about Miguel? You kill him."
"The kid? No need to. He don't have a weapon. He said she made him do it. Promised to give him some of what he wanted if he'd take her to Denver."
Parks shrugged. "I guess any place away from home would do. I left him the horse carrying the water and grub."
"Why didn't you grab him too?"
"I'm being paid for the girl, not him. You want him, then come up with more gold eagles."
Crawford said, "The Major wants him. Me and Becker and the others will chase him down. Anse, you go with Parks and get Callie home. We'll catch up with you." Then to Parks: "Which way is he headed?"
"I suppose that'd cost a gold eagle too?" Crawford said.
Parks didn't answer and started to the cottonwoods. Anson nodded to Crawford and then followed.
* * *
Callie, silent and sour-faced, rode ahead of Anson and Parks. No one spoke for nearly. an hour, then Parks asked, "I've been thinking—the Major, why does everyone call him that?"
"He was a major in the war. He was with Baylor at Mesilla in sixty-one."
"You with him?"
"Hell, no. I'm from Kansas, family's from Ohio. I only know him because of my sister. I come down in April from Wyoming to sell a string of horses to the Major and just stayed on, then this happened."
Parks was quiet, clearly going over something in his mind.
"He a slaver?"
"Changed to Mexicans now?"
Anson laughed. "I guess so, when you think of it."
"The kid, the Mexican, you know him?"
"Not well. Seems nice enough but maybe too much female on his mind."
"Comes with the age and the territory. The Major plan to hang him?"
Anson gave Parks a close look. "I reckon so. What are you getting at?"
"Nothing much," Parks said, then rode up to Callie and slapped her horse's rump. "Get going, girl, we aim to get you home quick. I got gold eagles waiting for me."
For the rest of the day and into the evening Parks pushed the girl to keep going. She complained and cursed and refused to go on, but Parks said he'd tie her to the back of the horse, and, besides, there were Indian signs.
She looked at Anson for help, but he only said, "He's right. Best we keep going." He wasn't sure why Parks was in such a hurry, but the sooner this was finished, the better.
They took a break at a small ravine, cottonwoods growing thick on one side, that had a shallow stream of clear water coming down from the hills, then went on, walking once in a while to ease the horses. The girl fell asleep in the saddle and Anson rode next to her to be certain she didn't fall off. The next day, just as the sun was setting behind them, they rode under the arch of "The Southern Star."
The Major jumped up from his chair on the veranda and stood there staring at them. His young wife slowly rose from her chair and said something to the Mexican woman servant holding the tray with the water pitcher, the bottle of whiskey, and two glasses.
Callie slipped off her horse and ran to the Major. She cried, "Daddy, he made me go and . . . and . . . he raped me."
"God damn! God damn bastard!"
The wife opened her arms and Callie ran to her. Callie sobbed and the Major stomped the wood floor. He turned to Parks and Anson, still mounted. "Where is he? Where?"
Anson said, "Crawford and the others are getting him."
The Major glared at Parks. "I sent you after him."
"You paid me to bring your daughter back. That's what I did. You owe ten eagles for that."
"I meant him too. I want that damn Mex bastard too."
Parks shrugged. "There's your daughter. Now I want my money."
"Parks, you're a damn no good son of a bitch."
"I won't argue that. Just pay me and I'll be on my way."
Anson said, "Crawford should be along in a day or two."
"If he catches the kid. He took off with a fresh horse and water and grub. Won't be easy to track in those hills," Parks said.
"Damn it," the Major shouted.
"Of course," Parks said, "pay me another ten eagles and I'll get him. I seen which way he went."
"You damn son of a bitch!"
"Up to you. Otherwise, pay me for the girl and I'm gone."
"I'll have your sorry ass horse whipped."
"You can try . . . and you just might live to tell about it."
The Major thought about that. "You bastard. All right, but not ten—maybe five."
"Well, the ten for your daughter and three now, in advance, for the kid. I will take that, although it's not enough. And fresh mounts, two plus one for me."
The Major cursed but nodded. Then he pointed to Anson. "He goes with you. I don't trust you as far as I can throw you."
Parks said, "I'll be gone before the sun drops below the horizon."
* * *
They rode toward a sky of pink, green, and yellow. Parks led the two spare horses, one carrying canteens of water. Anson rode up next to Parks and said, "You didn't think he'd send me along, did you."
"So what are you planning to do with me?"
Parks glanced at him. "I suppose you're not as dumb as the others."
"Maybe yes, maybe no. It took me a while to catch on. You figure Miguel don't deserve to hang and you got no use for the Major . . . or the girl."
"Now you have to figure what to do with me. I don't see you killing me, so it'll be tying me up and leaving me someplace along the trail."
"Yes, I considered that, but . . . "
"It would be easier with two of us."
"You want me to help you?"
"Of course, it would put you in bad with the Major."
Anson laughed. "It sure as hell would." He thought a second or two, then said, "You know, I don't give a damn about him."
"Good. Now we'll take two hours or so rest soon as it gets good and dark before we go on. I figure it had to take Crawford and that bunch most of the day, if not more, to catch the kid. I told him to head into the hills. So they won't get to the water at the ravine before tomorrow night. We can wait there. I got an idea that might work."
"Anything to do with Indian signs?"
"Could be Apaches here abouts."
* * *
It was night when Crawford and his crew reached the ravine. Both men and horses rushed to the stream. Crawford said, "We'll spend the night here. Becker tie Miguel to a tree."
"What do you think? With a rope."
"I mean which way."
"Hell, put his arms around it. Let him hug a tree for a night, rather than a young girl."
They removed saddles and tied the horses to a line stretched between two trees. Then, after eating cold canned beans, tired, they stretched out on the ground.
Parks waited over an hour before slipping between the trees and cutting Miguel loose. He whispered, "Quiet, kid. Stick next to me." He went by the horses and cut the line to set them free. He said to Miguel: "Keep going that way. Someone's waiting for you with a horse."
Miguel mumbled something. Parks pushed him. "Get going."
Miguel moved off and Parks waited. He heard the kid stumble a few times, then it was quiet. Suddenly he slapped the rumps of two horses and shouted a loud warbling Indian-like whoop. The horses ran between the trees, down the slope to the water, and raced away along the stream.
Crawford and his men jumped awake and someone shouted, "The horses! The horses!"
Parks ran to the edge of the trees, on the side toward the hills. Anson was there with Miguel. Parks said, "Fire a couple shots so they know we're serious."
Anson took out his carbine and sent a few rounds high into the trees. Then all three turned their horses and raced toward the hills rising to the dark outline of the mountains against the midnight sky.
* * *
The next morning Parks was awake at dawn. He shook Miguel, wrapped in a blanket, and said, "Time to get up, kid. You got to get out of here. You understand?"
Anson said, "Miguel, the Major was going to hang you."
"He sure as hell was. Callie said you raped her."
"No, no, I didn't. She said we'd marry in Denver. We couldn't do it before that."
Parks said, "Listen, you get on your horse and take a canteen and head west. You go west for twenty miles or so then—"
"All right, ride until tomorrow. Then cut south. In the morning the sun will be behind you, so turn left."
"I know north and south."
"Good. Keep going until you cross the border."
Anson said, "Find yourself a girl that does the fandango."
"Yes," Parks said, "should be plenty of senoritas who like to dance."
When Miguel was mounted, Anson shook his hand and wished him luck. Then Parks gave him two gold eagles and said, "A gift from the Major."
Miguel didn't understand.
Anson said, "A joke. It was money paid to capture you."
Miguel smiled and rode away.
As they watched him go, Anson said, "The Major paid you three, not two."
"Yeah, but I need to get something out of it."
"So where are you headed?"
"Not sure. What about you?"
"Well," Anson said, "not back to the Major. Most likely, I'll wind my way back to Wyoming. Maybe go into raising horses."
Parks indicated the spare horse he'd got. "Start with that one—another gift from the Major."
Anson smiled, nodded, and walked toward the horse.
"You know," Parks said, "I think I'll go aways with you before I turn off."
"Fine with me. You decided where you're going?"
"Yep," and he smiled, "Denver."
No bio info available.
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A Woodland Encounter
by Lawrence F. Bassett
The Anglais had a dispatch case slung across his back. It was what had brought him to this godforsaken country—not the case itself, of course, but the documents rolled inside the case, papers signed and sealed, that would solve this problem of the settlements once and for all.
Or so it was hoped.
God damn those people up here in their settlements, the Anglais thought, who had broken the King's law, after all, to settle there and then whinged that the King was not protecting them from the savages whose land they'd planted their damned settlements upon with their rude huts unfit, a good husbandman would think, to quarter livestock.
It wasn't documents the Anglais wanted to bring up here to enlighten them in the settlements. Better to come with a company from his regiment, use their bayonets to point out to the settlers the ignorant error of their stupid ways. The bayonet, the Anglais thought, was a wonderful device for explaining His Majesty's will to even the dullest of his subjects, God damn them all.
And the Anglais's dark mood was not lightened by the thought of the Indian back there who'd been following him for days, careful to keep out of the Anglais's sight. Or almost out of it. The Anglais would have been a fool to think that the Indian couldn't make himself invisible in these woods, couldn't creep as close as he wanted, unseen, and cut the Anglais's throat had he wanted to.
But the Anglais was no fool. The Indian wanted him to know that he was back there. The only real question for the Anglais, then, was why. He had been in this country long enough, the Anglais had, to know that those the settlers persisted in calling savages, barbarians, worse, comparing them to the forest's predatory beasts, its wolves and bear, were no one's fools, and the Anglais was sure that this fellow who was following him was less a fool than half the white men he had known. Three-quarters. Seven-eighths.
No matter now, though. The Anglais had his duty, as he was sure the Indian had his, and he would die to carry out that duty, assuming the Indian would do the same. Perhaps the Indian had not stood, barely more than a boy, on a garrison's parade ground, King's and regimental colors snapping sharply in a stiff breeze, and sworn his oath to the King, but the Anglais had no doubt that there was some oath the Indian had taken that he took as seriously as the Anglais took his. Don't doubt the other fellow's honor or his courage, an old regimental sergeant had told his boy lieutenant when he had first looked across a field at an opposing line of bayonets: if he's a scoundrel or a coward, he'll show you soon enough, and if he ain't, 'tis best to be prepared.
Prepared for what, though? the Anglais thought. For this, these endless mountains to toil across, this forest so dense that you could travel days in the shade of its trees, no sunlight filtering to the forest floor below through the leaves?
This was not new to him, though, of course. He would never be as adept in these woods as the Indian back there, but the Anglais had travelled country like this before for his King, had visited on the King's business settlements just like the one to which he went now, had dealt with settlers who were, he was sure, no different from those to whom he was going with their stubborn misplaced pride, always prattling on about their imagined rights as Englishmen, but no mention ever of what might be their responsibilities.
The King's law, the Anglais thought, extended only so far as the King's red coats could be seen, so I come here in my red coat, to be seen. And the Indian back there? When he saw the Anglais's red coat did he see the King's law, too, or just a splash of scarlet in the forest's green lke a bloody wound? There were treaties, yes, between tribes' chiefs and the King, stipulating whose lands were whose, chiefs' or King's, but weren't the hills the Anglais was now traversing the chiefs'? What did the Indian back there make of the Anglais being here, trespassing, as it were, on some chief's land?
The rest of the day, a night, and then half another day to the settlement where he was going, the Anglais thought. We'll know soon enough what the Indian thinks.
It was summer here in these mountains, warm enough even on the hills' highest summits for the Anglais to camp with no fire and the rations that he carried required no cooking—some crumbling biscuit, moldy cheese. He'd eaten worse crossing the ocean, gone without before campaigning on the Continent, and now, near the long day's end, the hollows already filling with darkness, the Anglais found a likely spot for his blanket—tangled wind-fallen timber with the roots of one downed tree rearing up like a bastion wall with a little open space before it to sleep.
He had water in his flask, taken from the last stream he had crossed, to wash down his biscuit and cheese. He spread his blanket on the forest floor, folded it, climbed in between the folds, a canvas sailcloth sheet drawn over him to keep off what damp it could. The lock of his musket wasn't primed. The damp of the night would make the powder useless, anyway. And if tonight was to be the night the Indian crept up and slit his throat, well then . . .
And then he slept, the Anglais did, hearing nothing in the forest's night sounds that seemed made by a man and not the wind or animals moving. Well, he must sleep, too, the Anglais thought, thinking of the Indian.
More water from his flask to rinse his mouth as dawn was barely breaking. The ritual of shaking the detritus from the forest floor from his blanket, rolling the blanket in the sailcloth sheet, slinging bedroll and musket and dispatch case over his shoulders, across his back.
No need to dress. He had slept in his clothes, his boots since first setting out. I must be a sight, he thought, seeing himself through the settlers' eyes—red coat wrinkled, buff trousers stained, stinking linen, shirt and stock stiff with dried sweat and grime. Some picture of a King's officer, he thought. A hot bath would be better, he thought, in a canvas tub outside a proper tent, and an orderly to clean and mend and press his things, black his boots, polish his brass and his sword. He wore no sword now, of course. Climbing up and down these hills, wading these streams, was hard enough without a sword banging at his side, tangling in his legs, getting in his way.
He climbed down from the ridge where he had slept, waded thigh-deep across the icy stream in the valley below, and had begun to labor up the next steep-sided ridge, wondering al the while where the Indian was, the Indian who should have been back there behind him, following his trail like a wolf stalking an elk or deer. For all these days he had been aware of the Indian's presence back there, that presence he had always assumed the Indian wanted him to sense. A presence he no longer felt. An absence, then, which was unsettling, for if the Indian had meant for the Anglais to sense his presence, he must have wanted his absence noted, too. But why?
The question followed the Anglais to the top of one ridge and as he crossed another ridge and another until he had only the flat summit of this last ridge to cross and then he would climb down and be at the settlement. He could almost smell, the Anglais thought, the smoke of the settlers' fires.
"Will they go?" the Indian said, standing suddenly before the Anglais in a clearing on the ridge top where the Anglais might have blundered into him if he hadn't spoken—in English, the Anglais thought—so easily he blended into the trees that lined the clearing.
The Anglais's musket was slung over his shoulder, its lock not primed as, he assumed, the Indian's musket's was as he stood there, musket's stock resting on the forest floor between his moccasined feet, barrel held lightly in his hands before his chest.
"I have dispatches . . . " the Anglais said.
"Indeed," the Indian said. "But will they go?"
No, the Anglais thought. They wouldn't go, as stubborn as they were stupid. They would stay as if their wretched shacks, much the worse for two winters' wear, were castles their kin had claimed since Norman times.
"The King . . . " the Anglais said.
"Yes, the King, of course," the Indian said. "He wants them gone as much as the tribes here do, and he's sent you here to scold them back where they belong. But they won't go, and the tribes will come and kill them all, and then the King will send His redcoats in their hundreds here, make war."
"Well . . . " the Anglais said, knowing what the Indian said was surely true.
"You are not so eloquent that you can make them see the sense in leaving, and the tribes are not so many they can kill all the redcoats when they come."
"No, not so eloquent," the Anglais said.
"And will you stay and die with them now, or will you come back with the redcoats and help with the killing?"
"Either way there's dying," the Anglais said. And honor, he thought. And duty. The settlers had no honor, recognized no duty, but he, who'd sworn the King's oath had both—an honor to uphold, a duty to be done.
"Yes, either way," the Indian said. "But in the end . . . "
"In the end?"
"Those people down there," the Indian said, "in their settlement. They think there are so many of us, but we are no so many. I have seen your country, your cities. I have walked through your streets, seen your ships in harbor and at sea. It is you who are many, not we."
"But you will still . . . " the Anglais said.
"We will still fall upon those people down there and others like them we that find, and we will kill as many of your redcoats as we can, but we will never kill enough, and in the end all of us will die, except for a few, perhaps, spared as slaves, kept as pets or trophies to entertain the curious."
He regarded the Indian before him, the Anglais did, but try as he might could read nothing in his face. English he might speak, the Anglais thought, but his eyes speak a foreign language.
"Oh, well," the Indian said. "Go on down there with your papers."
"Very well," the Anglais said, and nodded, and the Indian took one step to the side, clearing, as it were, a path for him.
So the Anglais went, thinking as he left the clearing, the Indian there, and began his descent to the settlement below that neither the settlers there nor he nor any who came after them would know what this country had been like before they came, its beauty and its bounty. The Indian knew, though, the Anglais thought, and when he was gone what he had known would be gone with him, could never be reclaimed, no matter how desirable that might be.
Lawrence was born in a small Pennsylvania town just after the Second World War, and after an indelibly ordinary and uneventful childhood, he finished high school, went to college. Quite by accident he became a high school English teacher and moonlighted over the years as an electrician, a stagehand, a motion picture projectionist, a climbing and skiing instructor, a township road worker, an advertising copywriter and creative director, and a public-address sports announcer. He retired from teaching in another Pennsylvania town not fifty miles from where he started out, and now lives and writes in Williamsport, PA with his wife, cartoonist Karen Choate-Bassett, and three cats. (More information about Lawrence is available on his website: lawrencebassett.com.)
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by Scott Jessop
The morning frost lifted the mold from the canvas of Charlie Butler's Sibley tent and soaked the top of his wool blanket so that it smelled, as contradictory as it seemed, of dampness and dust. He rolled over on his army cot and looked at the face of his lover: Mary Cassady, a thin, sixteen year old prostitute who had fallen in with the Army of the Cumberland in northern Georgia and had been tagging along with the troops ever since. Her freckled face, thin lips and bright red hair beguiled Charlie and he had done all he could to have her nearly every night.
She opened her eyes and smiled. Charlie kissed her as he stroked her hair.
"What do we do today?" he asked her.
"We start with breakfast," she said standing up and pulling the blanket around her naked body. "How about stewed tomatoes and eggs with a rasher of bacon and a stack of cakes?"
"Why not make warm biscuits so I can slop up the grease at the bottom of the pan?"
"I'm serious," she cried.
"I know you are but all I've got are oats," he said rummaging through his pack. Fresh eggs were scarce and any chickens they came across went straight to the quartermaster who kept them for the officers or any enlisted man with a gold dollar. He fished out a small bag of oats and handed it to her.
"Oats," she said. "If all I wanted to eat was bloody oats I would have stayed in Ireland."
He smiled as she pulled her blue dress over her head and tossed her hair. From the other side of the tent his bunkmate Willy rolled over and blinked hard at Butler. He was in a foul mood. The grunting and panting from Charlie's bunk kept him up most of the night. Mary blew Willy a kiss, put on her boots, and then left to go find a pot and some water.
"If you want a roll, go to the whores' camp down the road. You keep bringing her here, and the sergeant is going to have your hide."
"Willy," Charlie said, "I'm in love."
Grinning, Willy shook his head. He was thirty-four and had been around. Willy Fleming had worked the Ohio and Missouri Rivers, driven mules down the Santa Fe and cut timber in the forests of northern Maine, and in all his travels, true love with a whore was as hard to find as an honest land speculator. "You just think you're in love cause she's giving you rides at half price."
Charlie laughed off Willy's insult being, as he was, deep in the blessed, naïve haze of passionate love, but he knew his friend was only looking after him. The two men had been together since he joined the Union Army two and a half years before, fought side-by-side at Stones River and lost too many friends at Chickamauga. For the both of them, the long winter of death wound on as they trudged their way through the leafy woods of the South. Georgia and Tennessee were miserable places with freezing rain in the winter and steaming heat in the summer. And as the war continued uniforms became moldy, boots thin and food rations hardly enough to fill their bellies.
Three years before, Charlie had worked a scam where he collected three hundred-fifty dollars to substitute for an Ohio railroad man's son caught by the draft. This was in addition to the two hundred-fifty he had accepted to substitute for a Maryland merchant's boy. At least the authorities knew about those two. The marshals caught him, whipped him, and a judge who had served in the Mexican-American War sentenced him to serve in the bloodiest of theaters. He could have bribed his way out, but he wanted the money to set up a business in Colorado or Oregon. His funds were ensconced in a Boston bank, but with each battle, he doubted he would live to see another year. His doldrums broke in the summer of 1864 when he met Mary.
Charlie and Willy went to Madam Langdon's camp looking to forget two days of burial detail following the Battle of Peachtree Creek. The Georgia heat had accelerated the decomposition of the corpses, and the gaping eyes and broken bodies left Charlie longing for a taste of life. Being only eighteen, the madam thought he might enjoy the pixie. And he did. When he returned to camp a day later he was whipped for being AWOL, but it wouldn't dampen his lust for Mary. Twice more he snuck out into the night and went to the madam's camp. General Thomas took the army north into Tennessee. Miss Langdon, and Mary, followed.
She stoked the fire and hung his dented black pot above the flames. Charlie slipped his arms around her and squeezed. "I couldn't find a spoon," she said with a hint of irritation in her voice.
Charlie glanced down and saw his wooden spoon lying in the ash and mud at the edge of the fire pit. "It's right there."
"I'll not be using such a filthy thing."
Charlie looked down at the spoon and shrugged.
"I swear," continued Mary, "you men never clean a thing. This pot is in need of a good scrub, but that spoon is a pathetic mess. Now take it down to the creek and wash it off."
"Yes, ma'am." Charlie said with sharp salute and a silly grin. Fishing the spoon from the gunk on the ground, he gave it a few shakes and then trudged off for the creek.
White tents and smoky fires lined the lanes of the Union encampment on the outskirts of Nashville. In the hickory wood, snow lay on the frozen earth but here in camp it was rivers of mud and clumps of steaming excrement. After thirty months, Charlie had grown accustomed to the harsh conditions. His nose no longer smelled the rotting flesh of wounded soldiers or the thick air of male sweat after a long march. He had forgotten the taste of fresh meat, and the only vegetables he had eaten were the rotted remains they looted from farms and gardens as they passed.
Mary's entrance into his life was like a summer poppy. Her smile could make him feel warm despite the leaking hole in his boot and the thin weave of his summer uniform. At night, Charlie would sleep with his leg pressed between the dampness of her thighs and his hand cupped beneath her tiny breasts. In the morning, she would greet him with a smile. Then the exchange of money because without it Miss Langdon would have her bedding other soldiers, and that he could not stand.
"I was thinking we could open a store. Out west somewhere," Charlie said to her one night.
She sat up and looked at him, "Charlie, ya don't want to be a farmer?"
"The money is made in dry goods, darling."
"Land," she said. "A man of wealth owns land."
He nodded. "We'll do both. I've nearly eight hundred fifty dollars, and with your money, we can easily get set up in a small store and maybe get a start on a ranch. Colorado has high plains grasslands, so it would be good for cattle. The way I got it figured after the war, this country is going to move, and folks are going to be hungry. Yep. Cattle. That's the only way to get a lot of meat to market at a cheap price."
She gently kissed the nape of his neck. With nearly four hundred dollars saved, she was thinking about California. He turned and kissed her. The West was starting to look good. Despite the passing of money and the whispers from the other men in the camp, Mary truly loved Charlie. He was a young man of some means and a lot of promise. After starving in Limerick and starving in Brooklyn and whoring her way across her new country, she was ready to be the wife of a small rancher with a dry goods store in the land of Colorado.
Down at the creek, Charlie washed the spoon while upstream other men washed their breakfast pans and dumped their chamber pots. He decided he should move further up the creek above the waste. As he made his way along the icy shore, he heard thunder to the south. His gaze shifted to the men along the creek. All had pricked up their ears, and they studied the fields to the south. Not now, he thought looking up at the clear sky. A gentle, cold wind blew and riding it, the faint and distant cries of men. Another clap of thunder and Charlie ran for the camp.
The men were already beginning to muster. Frustrated officers gathered in the campaign tent to pore over maps and debate possible paths of enemy attack. As Charlie passed the big tent, he heard a captain holler for intelligence. It didn't take long. Men bivouacked in the fields south of the creek were running into camp. The Confederate Army was marching on their position they were calling out. The rebel artillery was taking shots to get range and direction. Before long, they would open fire with everything.
Still clutching the spoon, Charlie reached his tent but the fire was abandoned. Mary had left. He looked in the Sibley, but her things were gone. As he came out of the tent, he saw her running down the pike back to Miss Langdon's and toward the advancing insurgents. Mary ducked as another explosion from Hood's artillery fell close to the road and scattered clumps of dirt over her.
Grabbing her hand, Charlie pulled her toward the Union lines. "I should stay with the girls," she said looking back.
"Mary, Hood's army is coming, and they mean to take this city. It's not safe."
"Miss Langdon has always taken good care of us," she started.
"After the battle, I'll put you on a train for Kansas City. I get out in three months. Three months and then I'll join you. Three months and then we'll be married."
On his face, she saw her future: family, money, land and food. Without a glance at the coming storm over her shoulder, she went with him. They crossed into the camp as the Ohio regulars formed a skirmish line.
"Jesus, Butler," said Willy buckling his belt around his uniform. "You brought your whore? I guess you mean to die with your wick out."
Charlie seized him by the shirt and threw him aside. "She's no whore."
He turned back to her, "You'll be safe here." Above him, the atmosphere tore open, and Mary's eyes shifted from him to the sky. A tear formed on her left lid and sat suspended at the edge of her lash. The delicate drop mesmerized Charlie with its fragile beauty. He titled his head to the side to better see it just as a burning wind blew past. A millisecond later, he was covered in warm, red spray and falling. A Confederate shell had decapitated Mary, and the force of her head exploding had knocked him to the muddy ground.
Willy was yelling at him, but Charlie couldn't hear anything but a high-pitched ring. His friend turned to the front, ran into the smoke and disappeared forever. Charlie lifted Mary's dress and vainly soaked up the blood pouring from the top of her shoulder. Men ran past with their bayonets cutting the air as more shells fell and blasted their camp to bits.
He still was sobbing into his blood and brain covered hands when the captain ordered him to the Franklin Pike. An hour later when Hood shifted positions, he was there. The Confederates charged from across the road firing clouds of bullets. One of the missiles caught his buttocks nicking the sciatic nerve. Waves of hot, searing pain ran down his crippled limb. His escape ended in the trench he was digging. The rebels charged, and Charlie's thoughts turned to his dead love. He would be dead too but for the counterattack of William Jackson Palmer, a Pennsylvania Quaker, pacifist, and rabid abolitionist. Palmer's distaste for violence was forgotten in a red frenzy of sword and rifle shot.
A retreating soldier lifted Charlie from the battlefield and carried him to the surgeon's tent. The sour smell of cheese and burning meat mingled with the tang of spent ether. The blood from his wound had congealed in his pants, and while it had probably kept him from bleeding to death, the nurse could not tell where his uniform ended and flesh began.
Field hospitals functioned on speed, and the surgeon deftly cut away both flesh and wool to get to the wound. With a blood-crusted clamp, he dug into the young man's meaty butt and removed the slug of Confederate lead. The nurse then stitched him up like a torn shirt and covered his ass with the last of the clean bandages.
"I cleaned you up as best I could," said the nurse. "It'll be some time before those stains wear off."
He rubbed at the blots of blood, but the stains were set deep.
Scott Jessop lives in the 135-year old, Midland Railroad station in Manitou Springs, Colorado. He is a corporate video and TV commercial producer, author, poet, and spoken word performer. Jessop's work has appeared in more than a dozen publications including the Saturday Evening Post, The Red Earth Review, Penduline Press, Jitter Press, Bewildering Stories, 300 Days of Sun, and Weber-The Contemporary West.
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Bloody Trail, Bloody Ridge
by Mickey Bellman
Elza searched for warmth inside his tattered Mackinaw while a bitter wind sliced across Rabbit Ridge. Smothered by years of campfire smoke and ranch dirt, the blue plaid coloring of the coat was barely more than a smudge. His Stetson was covered with grease stains and water spots, except where a rangy mare had chewed out a piece. The old hat and old coat had protected Elza from the extremes of Montana weather for decades.
Elza dropped to one knee and studied the ground closely, more interested in the rocks than the snow squall that swirled about him. There, a red splash. Elza reached out a gloved hand and carefully touched the blood sign; his finger came away sticky. He unconsciously sucked in a gulp of winter air and realized they were getting close to the wounded grizzly.
"What'd ya find, old man?" The voice was as sharp and hard as the shrill wind. "More blood? More sign?"
Jim stood a few feet away, ignoring the snow pellets that shot by like white shrapnel. He was dressed much like Elza—droopy Stetson, dirty Mackinaw, leather chaps and old cowboy boots. He cradled a .50 Sharps in his arms and a Bowie knife hung on his hip. He was thirty years younger than Elza but thirty times more cocky.
"This is a bad 'un, Jim. We've tracked him for five hours, but he doesn't show any inclination of layin' up or slowin' down. He jes' keeps movin', like he knows we're back here, like he's leadin' us somewheres."
"Show me the blood!" Jim ordered. He moved closer, hunched over and studied the rocks till he saw the red splash. He touched the drop, stared at the blood on his glove and shifted his stare to the ridge above. Jagged rocks, slabs of boulders, cliffs and steep canyons stretched across bleak landscape. The mountain was a gray hash of granite, truly the Devil's Kitchen.
"We're gonna get that bear before dark, old man. I'm gonna shoot him in the guts and watch him die slow, just like he gutted my mare and started eatin' on her before she even quit kickin'."
Elza stared at Jim a moment, then let fly a long, brown stream of tobacco juice. "I say we turn back now and head for the ranch. Storm's comin' in and that bear is getting meaner by the minute. You got blood fever just 'cause it killed your damn horse that you should have put in the barn." Another brown stream arched through the air to emphasize Elza's disdain.
"Damn you, El. Just track the bear! The sooner you start tracking the sooner I'll kill it. Then we'll go back to the ranch!"
Elza squinted at his cocky nephew and turned up the ridge. He wondered who would kill whom when the time came.
The trail faded to solitary drops of blood and disturbed rocks. Elza studied the mountainside to imagine where a wounded grizzly bear might travel. They scurried over ledges, skirted rock outcrops and climbed up the narrow draws following the scant trail. Snow squalls enveloped the two hunters, cutting visibility to just a few yards. The white powder never rested, though, as the wind blasted it into Wolf Canyon far below.
Elza was skirting another outcrop when he found a drop of blood still flowing down a rock. He glanced up to see a rump of brown fur slip silently behind a boulder less than thirty yards away. He stared hard at the rock, ignoring the wind that stabbed at his eyes. Trailing behind, Jim sensed something and scrambled to catch up.
"There," Elza whispered. "Up the draw behind the big rock." Despite the freezing wind, he could feel beads of sweat on his forehead. Jim moved ahead two steps and pulled back the hammer of his buffalo gun.
"Don't see nuthin'. You sure?"
Elza wanted to knock some respect into Jim's cocky head, but there wasn't enough time. The bear was close, too close. Elza responded by flicking off the safety of his own rifle.
"He's there. Probably watching us right now."
There was no way to get around and above the wounded grizzly. They would have to follow the narrow draw. Jim's eyes met Elza's. "OK, I'll go first. You watch and holler if you see anything. Remember, I'm the one in the Mackinaw." Jim cracked a wicked smile at his little joke while Elza silently stared at him. God, Elza thought, he's actually enjoying this.
Jim began his climb up the rock chute. A single pebble ricocheted down the draw from above. Jim shot a knowing glance back at Elza, flashing his wicked little smile again. He continued climbing and swung out of sight atop a ledge thirty yards above. Elza held his own rifle to his shoulder searching for the slightest movement. He knew grizzlies often did the unexpected, especially wounded grizzlies.
There was a scream, barely audible above the howling wind. Elza listened again but could hear only the wind crashing against the rocks. A small avalanche of pebbles and stones cascaded down the draw.
"Jim! You there?" Only the howling wind and a few more cascading stones answered Elza. "I'm coming up." He began climbing as fast as his 62-year-old body would allow. "Jim! Answer me, damn you!"
Elza had nearly reached the ledge when he saw a cowboy boot slowly rocking back and forth. He shouldered his rifle and inched his way forward, all the while expecting to be charged by an enraged bear.
He did not recognize the bear at first. Elza was hypnotized by the bloody chunk of meat that had been Jim a few minutes earlier. The coat had been ripped off the body and Jim's back was raked with deep claw marks. Blood pumped out of the wounds on to the rock ledge. Jim's head had been crushed as though it were a fragile eggshell. Only then did Elza notice the great silvertip bear sitting on its haunches a few yards away. It was looking at something on its chest. Elza saw it, too, saw the handle of the Bowie knife sticking out of the bear's body.
Time froze on the mountain. Elza did not move, did not squeeze the trigger. Jim did not move, would never move again. The bear stared at the hilt of the knife in its chest. A dark silence settled over the mountain as the storm reigned in all its fury. The grizzly slowly rolled to its side and lay still; it would never move again.
The blood of the young man and the old bear flowed together in the crevice of the rock. It was all the same color, the same red liquid that had once meant life. The wind gusted again and ripped at El's face sending a tear down his cheek.
"Damn wind," Elza muttered. Only then was he aware of the second bear, another grizzly. Elza was conscious just long enough to feel the cruel teeth crush his neck, conscious long enough to smell the rancid breath of the silvertip. Then his own blood pooled in the rock crevice.
Mickey Bellman is a semi-retired forester with 50 years of forestry experiences in the Pacific Northwest.
He is also a freelance writer with hundreds of forestry, hunting, fishing and guest columns published in
the past 40 years. Only recently has he begun writing some fictional westerns. One wife and 3 acres of
Christmas trees fill his remaining spare time.
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The Untimely Death of a Delicate Desert Flower
by Templeton Moss
High noon. The sun blazed in the sky above. Men, women and children lined the streets as the two unlikely combatants faced off against one another. On one side, Blake Taggert: the meanest, roughest, orneriest gunslinger in the territory. Even with one eye shot completely away, he had better aim than anyone these people had ever seen. He didn't even wear an eye patch to cover it up. He just kept his right eye shut all the time, putting people off with the hideous scar over half his face. Sometimes, if he really wanted to scare people, he'd open it and let them stare into the empty socket.
His fingers were twitching, which could mean only one thing: someone was about to die. When Blake's fingers started twitching that way, it was a sure sign that they hadn't pulled a trigger in a while. And the longer he went without pulling that trigger, the more likely it was to happen real soon. Blake didn't like to let a month go by without killing anyone. He preferred just to shoot people and get the whole thing over with, but he was willing to submit to the formalities of a showdown if it meant keeping the law off his back.
Not that the law was much of a problem for Blake Taggert as any lawman brave or tenacious enough to actually take him out found himself dead shortly thereafter. Blake never called marshals, sheriffs or deputies by their right names. He just called them "Coward." Because any lawman who was still alive when Blake Taggert was in town was either a coward or dead and anyone who took exception to Blake calling him the former would typically become the latter within about twenty-four hours.
Today's gunfight was virtually no different than the many others Blake Taggert had fought since he set up in the town of Tumbleweed Ridge two years ago. A day no one in the small, Arizona township would ever forget. His reputation had preceded him, of course, and most of the townsfolk already knew of his rather dubious record. He gunned down Bert Smith in front of his three small children, beat Gabby Wolversteen to death with a broken bottle, strangled Mayor Preston, and beat Sheriff Davis, Doctor Sweets and Pastor Stewart in gunfights by drawing so fast that none of them could even go for their guns.
Not surprisingly, most of the people of Tumbleweed Ridge were smart and/or cowardly enough to keep their distance, though even this wasn't enough to save them from his wrath if they inadvertently bumped into him at the saloon and caused a fraction of a drop of whisky to spill on his sleeve or talked too loud in his presence or stepped on his shadow without permission or any of the other flimsy excuses he gave for hurting people.
No, as I say, today's fight was almost entirely the same as the others. There was really only one major difference between today's bout and the one from two days ago and that was Blake's opponent.
The unfortunate person who Blake had in his sights on this day had come to town only a year and a half ago, but in that time had become somewhat beloved by the populace for being kind, gentle, clever, pretty, sweet, innocent and, incredibly for a girl her age, unmarried.
Her name was Becky Mills and no one could believe that this was really happening to her.
Shortly after coming to town, this poor, eighteen-year-old girl had won the hearts of the townspeople with a story of bandits taking her family farm and killing her father and brothers, leaving her completely alone. The owner of the local saloon, Abel Johnson, took pity on her and gave her a job as a waitress . . . and just a waitress! There were, of course, women working in the saloon in a different capacity, but if one man lay a hand on Becky, Abel himself would cut it off. He looked on her sort of as a daughter.
Indeed Becky had endeared herself to everyone. The fact that she was young and pretty didn't hurt any but, there again, there was a feeling of her being part of the family like a niece or a baby sister, so she didn't have many suitors and the ones she did have never lasted long. The blacksmith's son, Alvin, had taken a shine to her and they'd gone to a few barn dances together, but nothing ever came of it. Then it looked like the rancher, Edward, might have a chance, but Becky still wasn't interested. Many assumed that her failure to get a husband was because the men of Tumbleweed Ridge were too rough for such a frail desert flower. Maybe someday a school teacher or something like that would come to town and she'd finally find a man meek enough for her delicate sensibilities.
Blake Taggert, of course, was immune to her charms. Not being interested much in women, or, indeed, anything other than beans, whiskey and gun fighting, he had never paid her much heed. He grunted at her when she brought him drinks at the saloon, but that was about it. It seemed incredible to anyone that someone so sweet and innocent could even be capable of doing something to anger even someone as easy to annoy as Taggert.
And yet, here they were. Standing along the main thoroughfare of Tumbleweed Ridge as Blake Taggert stood, fingers twitching all-too-eagerly around the pearl handles of his favorite revolvers, glaring with his one good eye at the pretty little girl who had, just the night before, tripped over a rug in the saloon and upended an entire tray of beers over Taggert's head.
For a few seconds, there had been complete silence and stillness in the saloon, apart from the beer dripping off Taggert. No one had any idea what was going to happen next. And none of them were prepared for Taggert's next words:
"Tomorrow . . . high noon . . . don't be late." And he stomped off to change into some dryer clothes.
Of course, if it had been a man accidentally spilling beer on him, the people of Tumbleweed Ridge would have expected a challenge like this. But a girl? Surely, even a savage like Blake Taggert must have his limits. Who in their right mind would challenge a girl to a gunfight? Most women in Tumbleweed Ridge had never even touched a gun, much less knew how to fire one. And certainly not with the accuracy it would take to win a gunfight against Taggert. And even if you were low and heartless enough to challenge a girl to a gunfight, how could it possibly be someone as delicate and innocent as Becky Mills?
Some of the men got together and talked about whether they should go to Blake and ask him to call the whole thing off. Fear convinced them not to, so they focused their efforts on Becky instead. Get out of town, they had said. They offered her money, horses, anything to get her to not show up at noon the following day. They practically got down on their knees and begged the girl to ride away and never come back.
"No," she said, to the surprise of everyone. "I don't expect you all to understand, but I figure if I run away now, I'll be running for the rest of my life. No, facing Blake Taggert is just something I'm gonna have to do, whatever the consequences might be."
So, under the blazing hot noonday sun, with anxious spectators all around, Becky Mills, wearing her favorite dress and a pair of pistols she had borrowed from Abel Johnson for the occasion, stood her ground against the villain, Blake Taggert. She was trembling slightly, but only slightly. If nothing else, the people of Tumbleweed Ridge admired her guts.
"Surprised you showed up, girly," said Taggert.
"You said not to be late," said Becky, trying to sound casual. "What kind of lady would I be if I disappointed a gentleman?"
"Don't matter. You'll be dead in a few seconds either way. Ready?"
Taggert laughed. "I'm always ready to kill, little missy."
"I'm sure you are . . . I meant are you ready to die?"
Taggert didn't laugh. No one did. For a while no one said anything. Finally, Taggert called out. "Marshall Coward! You count three . . . then we draw."
"Y-y-y-yes sir, Taggert," said the Marshall who was living up to his name. "One . . . two . . . three . . . "
"DRAW!" said Becky and she drew her guns so fast no one even saw it happen.
She fired ten shots at Taggert. The first at his right hand, causing him to drop his gun. The second at his left, he dropped the other. Then to his shoulders, arms, legs, hips and every part of him except his heart or his head or any other vital organ. In less time than it takes to tell, Blake Taggert was on his knees, riddled with bullets and oozing blood from ten different wounds . . . but still breathing. And laughing.
"You're quick, girly," he said, struggling with every word. "But you ain't much of a shot. You ain't killed me!"
"No, not yet," said Becky. But she didn't sound like Becky. The woman who was speaking now, walking confidently
down the main street of Tumbleweed Ridge with both guns, each containing one bullet each, pointing at the most
dangerous gunman anyone had ever seen, was not the frail, fragile girl the people had come to know over the past
eighteen months. This was someone else entirely. "If I'd shot you in the head or heart you'd have died too quick
and you'd never know who it was that finally killed you.
"In the first place, my name ain't Mills. It's Smith. My daddy was Bert Smith, the man you gunned down right in front
of me and my big brothers. I was six years old when I watched my daddy die. He was just another notch on your gun handle,
but he was my whole world. So I learned how to shoot. I learned to be fast and accurate and I ain't missed in four years.
When I was sure I was ready, I asked around, found out you had set up here in Tumbleweed Ridge so I followed you here.
"Pretending to be weak and fragile all this time wasn't easy, but it worked. Nobody here had any idea what I was capable
of. You never even saw me, even when I brought you your food and drink over at the saloon. It ain't been easy waiting all
this time, but one of the first rules of marksmanship is patience. Waiting for exactly the right time to strike. And when
I knew that time had come, I dumped those beers over your head. Knew you'd challenge me and I knew you'd think I was an
easy target so you wouldn't be on your guard.
"So, here you are. Bleeding to death in front of all the people you terrorized all these years because someone was finally
man enough to stand up to you. Just so happens it was a nineteen-year-old girl. Now, I couldn't let you die without knowing
that, could I? But, now that you know . . . "
The first shot went through Taggert's heart, the second through his one good eye. And he was dead.
Nobody said anything or moved an inch. They simply couldn't believe what they had seen. They also couldn't believe it when
Becky Smith started digging through Taggert's pockets till she had a handful of money in her hand. Taking this, she strolled
up to a Mr. Thackery and thrust about half the cash into his hand. "Like to buy your horse," she said with a smile. "Time I
was moving on."
Thackery couldn't speak, so he just nodded. Becky returned the guns to Abel Johnson saying she'd buy her own when she hit a
new town, then mounted her new horse.
"So long, folks!" she said to the perplexed people of Tumbleweed Ridge. As she started to ride away, she passed Alvin and
Edward, standing together outside the saloon. "Sorry things didn't work out with us, boys . . . y'all
weren't quite rough enough for me."
She spurred her horse and rode away from Tumbleweed Ridge, never to return again.
Templeton was born and raised in San Diego County, California, which is where he first started writing. He moved to Kentucky to go to college, where two of his plays were produced. Since then he has been living and working in Louisville, self-publishing stories for kids of all ages. www.sixtysomethingtrees.com
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