June, 2019

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Issue #117

All The Tales

Only Thunder in the Night
by Shay Swindlehurst

An old man and a young man step down from their stirrups. They are pursued, but lost their pursuers the day before by sending a pair of riderless horses south-west as they turned north. The spurs of their boots rattle as they step towards a tree where they tie up their horses for the night.

They say a few words. The young man wanders off towards a cluster of dead trees a short distance away, picking up branches and sticks as he moves along whistling a tune. The old man wipes his hands together a few times and finishes off with a loud clap, a cloud of dust and sand puffing out from his hands like from pages of an old, forgotten book.

He gathers stones and places them in a circle for the fire. He lashes a rope around two dead trees. The young man comes back with a big bundle of branches and sticks and lays them down with a crash to the side. The old man says, "We're gonna need more than that," so the young man turns right back around, picking up the tune where he had left off.

The sky in the west threatens rain. The old man walks over to his horse and takes down a bundled blanket of canvas from his saddle and throws it over the rope to make a sort of lean-to, to cover them as they sleep. He secures the corners to the ground with more rope and some wooden stakes that he hammers into the dry, cracked earth.

He walks back to the horses, reaching into a leather sack strung onto the side of his saddle, and pulls out two handfuls of grain that he feeds to them. He wraps his arm around their thick necks and rubs their long noses.

Later that night the old man and the young man sit by a fire. They pass back and forth a flask now half-filled with whisky that the old man had been saving, that he pulled out from deep within a pocket hidden inside of his duster. They carefully roll cigarettes with their big, calloused hands. They smoke them half way and stick them into the ground and roll more moments later.

The old man turns his stare from the stars into the fire, squinting, his whole face cracking with deep wrinkles from a lifetime of squinting into fires.

He talks once. It's the first thing he's said all day longer than just a few words, and from the length and the sound of it he's been mulling it over in his head the whole time.

"If you live out here, know this land, then I reckon you know a good deal more about yourself than most others." He pauses, takes another swig of whiskey.

"It's the same here as it is anywhere else, when it comes down to it. But more direct. Closer, somehow. Out here is the desert, the deadlands. This is what lies beneath all our towns, our cities, beneath nature itself even. Beneath your own flesh. It's been here longer than any of it.

"It's the end of the world, the inevitability. It's a fight for life, for yourself, and for whatever's inside you that's so stubborn as to keep you going on in a place like this. You've no more right to live than the rattlesnakes and the scorpions that'll kill you in your sleep, than any other man, outlaw or saint."

The old man takes a stick and stirs the fire. Sparks leap into the air, the flames rise and roar.

"But the ones that stay alive out here for as long as me—they know something the others don't. They understand the cruel truth that is law in this land."

The old man takes a big puff on his cigarette and holds it in. He turns his head in the direction from which they came, staring long and hard and carefully as smoke streams from his nose and from between his lips.

Each thinks to himself the same thing: "Your day will come, old man, like it does for anyone else. There's nothing on your side but your own quick draw, sharp eye, and steady aim if you can keep them up to snuff. Any day now someone could put a bullet through your heart from behind and no amount of talent for gun-slinging could do a thing about that. No, your days are numbered. And each time that sun rises to wake you from your sleep, the odds get a little slimmer. The close calls get a little closer. Don't they, old man."

The old man takes a long drink from the flask. He looks at the young man from the corner of his eye and his mouth curls into a smile. He laughs under his breath. He wipes his lips with his sleeve and passes the flask with a nod.

All the while the young man just sits and stares at the old man's face, takes another swig of whisky, and tries hard not to find himself somewhere deep underneath all those wrinkles, all those scars.

* * *

The young man sets out at dawn. The wind is quick and has a certain bite to it. It whistles in his ears, bringing with it the faint rustle of dry grass and a tumbleweed that slowly passes and eventually disappears across the plain. He looks back and sees the old man's brown duster on the ground, and his old hat on top of that with what just looks like a big dark stain on it from where the young man sits on his horse.

He continues on, the horses slowly plodding forward with their heads bowed down low. He keeps looking back until the dark speck has disappeared far behind him, and a few more times after that.

* * *

He reaches the next town by sunset. He slouches on his horse, tired from the day's ride. Gusts of wind carrying sand whip at his face and his hands that hold tightly to the reins. Far away across the endless plain of desert the sun begins to descend below the horizon. A blood red miasma breaks over the land and into the sky. The horses continue inevitably forward, lumbering at the same steady pace they've kept up all day without protest. The road empty, a row of wooden buildings on either side. The sound of sweeping, the sharp scrape a steady metronome coming from some shadow far down the road. An empty rocking chair creeks on an old man's front porch.

This, the desert, the deadlands. Wind howls through these wooden structures, already beginning to rot. A rickety outpost that waits to be reclaimed by the faceless timeless sands. Wood will rot, and all that will remain—silver coins, broken glass and rusted nails, dried bones bleached in desert sun—will tell little of what was. And the sand shall take them too. Blood will leave no stain. An old man's words turn to stone and they too will crumble in time.

The horses' hooves mark deep scars in the sand that the wind is quick to erase. The young man rides over to a railing and ties up the horses' reins. Obliging, they stand still. The young man feeds them and strokes their long noses and looks into their dark eyes, his lips parted as if to speak as they return blank stares and swat flies with their tails.

Dusk settles like smoke, creeping out from the distant mountain ranges that darkly cradle the setting sun, a golden pearl floating atop a sea of light and darkness. Shadows creep out from the woodwork, gathering in clusters upon the ground.

The young man walks toward a pair of swinging doors, through which the sound of voices and a piano float out into the dying day, the descending night, his footsteps heavy as he thinks to himself he does not feel so young. He hears the thud, scrape and rattle of his steps, the steady beet of the broom's stroke from down the road, and thinks to himself that it is a lonesome sound, and also that he might find a place, inside, a bar stool or a bed, where he might rest his bones. In the warm glow of lantern light with a warm heart of whiskey among the music and voices.

He pushes open the swinging doors and walks in. The hinges creek and the music of the piano stops. The voices lower and he can feel their eyes all turn to him. He stands there for a moment then walks forward, his head bowed to the ground as he follows the rough grain of the floorboards to an empty barstool. He sits down and orders a drink, glances in the direction of the others and tips his hat. He takes a sip and savors the burn and lets out a sigh.

Shadows flank the spaces outside the reach of lanterns hung from the ceiling. Soot flows from their flickering flames and mixes with the smoke of cheap cigars and cigarettes like darkness gathering in the rafters.

Slowly, after a few stray notes, the piano continues its gay song that now seems somehow artificial to the young man, out of place and unnatural inside the dark dingy bar with flickering lanterns, gruff, brutish men, cheap women with cheap virtues and homely faces. Voices rise to their previous clamor and they all continue on as before like he wasn't there.

From the corner of the bar he looks around him and sees the same people, the same faces he has seen in all the towns he has ever been, familiar yet unknown to him. A legion of eternal strangers that haunt the saloons and the streets he walks, that have followed him all his life, his only respite from them found in the wilderness in between, old cattle paths and open fields, the unnamed places where even at night the creatures of the dark do not disturb him and he is completely alone. Where he longs for them, the ghosts from which he fled, for the presence of any creature who could turn his thoughts from within. And yet when they return to him, here, he sees that they are not what he sought. To him they seem mere phantoms of men, with nothing more in them than actions and words, incomprehensible and impenetrable to his understanding, as if they came from a world from which he is apart and one he will never know.

Strangers all, to whom he is strange.

And he forever fugitive. Once escaped, longing again for their company. Once attained, longing again for escape.

His stare fixes upon the bar top. He hums tunes from his childhood, improvising forgotten words in his head.

Warm burn of whiskey soothe my soul, the day is hot but the nights are cold, I once knew a man but now I'm alone, take me back take me back to where old souls go.

Drink me down deep, deep, drink me down, fire of whiskey and comfort of sound. Oh I would sleep, sleep, I've not found, since my old lady left me and daddy skipped town.

He takes another drink, and another. The bartender avoids his eyes by feigning a deep concentration on the glass bottle that he pours into the young man's tumbler, again and again until the caramel-colored liquid is gone and he brings out another bottle from underneath the bar.

A tarnished silver mirror the young man hadn't noticed at first hangs before him behind the bar. For a moment he thinks he sees the old tired eyes of an old man he once knew staring back at him, grey as if drained of the color they may once have possessed. His heart quickens and he takes another drink. He realizes it is his own image in the mirror.

"You oughta clean that," he says, indicating the mirror with the empty glass he holds loosely in his hand as he continues to stare into his own distorted reflection. The bartender looks at him for a moment and then at the mirror, then walks to the other end of the bar, absentmindedly polishing a glass in his hand over and over.

He doesn't come back, so the young man leaves some money beside his empty glass and gets up to leave. He reaches the door and pauses, and looks to his right up at a staircase to the second floor, darkly lit by crimson candles held by wrought-iron fixtures.

He walks up the steps and hands a few silver coins to a well-dressed man who leads him to a door. He enters a small room and closes the door behind him.

The room is barely big enough for the bed, the only piece of furniture except for a side table and a lamp crammed against the opposite wall. On the bed lays a girl, stripped to her undergarments, staring up at him with vacant eyes like she wasn't looking at him at all but a point on the door behind him.

She is a girl but she has grown old and tired. Her skin has lost its tightness. Her eyelids droop, half open, and her mouth sags into a disinterested semi-frown. Her eyes are glazed and dim.

The young man walks around the bed to a window that looks out onto the street in front of the saloon. Night has fallen. Lanterns hang in front of the houses and stores, lighting the street at intervals. He follows them with his eyes to the land that lies outside of their light.

The young man turns back around to her empty stare that silently followed him to the other side of the room. She blinks her eyes with a kind of indifferent consent. He takes off all of his clothes, gets on to the bed, and places himself over her.

She doesn't get into it much. She just stares away from him out the window with all expression gone from her face, clawing at the sheets with her hands. He finds himself aloof, distracted like he was somewhere else.

He doesn't finish. He pulls on his trousers and sits at the side of the bed and looks out the window. She agrees in silence. Soon there is a knock at the door. The young man yells "Alright" and puts on the rest of his clothes. Before walking out the door he turns to the girl and tips his hat.

"Pleasure," he says.

He doesn't realize his drunkenness until he stumbles through the hallway and down the dark stares. The world tips and turns around him, and it is only through a belligerent concentration that he is able to keep it level enough for him to walk. He pushes the bouncer to the side and walks out the doors. He hears the doors open again behind him and the heavy footsteps of two men. He stops. The footsteps go the other way. It is only after that he notices his hand at his revolver.

On the wall to his right there is a board with advertisements and notices posted across its face. As he walks by he rips off a wanted poster with a vague drawing of an old man and a reward promised at the bottom printed in red letters. He crumples it up in both hands and stuffs it into his jacket pocket. He doesn't take down his own.

He unties the horses and rides out of town under a sky radiant with stars. When the sun begins to rise he comes to a crossroad. He pulls on the reins and brings the horses to a standstill. He looks ahead at the road that shoots straight towards the horizon until it disappears beneath the curve of the earth. He looks behind at the road by which he came, then north and south respectively.

A short time later dawn has lit into day. The horses stand idly and huff and whinny and kick at the dirt. The young man sits on the ground beside the road smoking a cigarette, biting his lip, occasionally turning his squinty-eyed stare in another direction, looking long and hard and far then returning his gaze to the ground before his lap or the sky above him. He's been at it for a while now. He's lost track of time if he ever had it. Beside him there is a small pile of cigarette butts. He coughs a few times, clears his throat and spits, and adds one more to the monument of his lingering. In front of him there is a large spiral with close-nit equidistant lines, carefully carved into the earth with a stick.

The old man's horse whinnies and shakes its head.

"Alright, alright," the young man says.

He gets up slowly and brushes himself off. He takes one last look down each of the four roads.

"Guess those aren't our only choices," he says under his breath.

He walks the horses to where the road north meets the road going west. He mounts and sets out on the wild land in between. The land opens up the further he rides, as the roads grow further away. He brings the horse to full gallop. A cloud of dust billows from beneath the horses' feet. Ahead, far away, he can see ranges of green hills that rise into mountains.

He rides hard all through the day. Once he looks behind him and thinks he sees the black figure of another rider in the distance, but when he looks back again it is gone. For the rest of the day he finds himself looking over his shoulder expecting to see someone riding at his back, but there never is and he never finds any comfort in it.

He sets up camp in the shade of a large rock. There is no wood for a fire. When night comes the moon and the stars are bright and turn the earth silver. He feeds the horses and chews on a piece of leather-like jerky.

It takes him a long time to get to sleep. He finds it hard to keep his eyes closed. Throughout the night he wakes up suddenly with a start, not knowing where he is or why, lying there until it comes back to him and he closes his eyes to return to sleep.

He awakes just as the sun tips above the horizon, an orange burning ember glowing a radiant gold that spreads its touch over the land like a warm breeze. The night was cold. His joints feel as if they had frozen over, and a tiredness still weighs on his mind like frost. He feeds the horses again and sips on a canteen of water, then, stiffly, he mounts his horse and rides ahead.

The same black specter from the first day lurks out of sight behind him and disappears each time he turns around. He can feel its presence behind him, and sometimes he even thinks he can hear the faint rumble of another horse's hooves, but only for a moment and he can never tell from where they came.

It is as if he has been in a trance, like something has been burning at the back of his heals driving him foreword. He stares straight ahead with a concentration that leaves him unconscious of everything but his flight.

Night comes and goes. This time he gets no sleep, just stares up at the sky mulling something over in his head that even he is not wholly conscious of.

On the third day he comes to a riverbed, dried up mostly except for a few dark, stagnant pools, and though the water doesn't flow the earth is soft and rich. Here the grass waves in the breeze like green fire. Leaves cackle on the branches of trees and here and there a few flowers bloom pink and sweet. He has only been riding for a few hours but he decides to make camp at the small oasis where his horses can feed on the grass and where he feels the urgent need to run lessened, if only slightly. He feels looser, somehow, more present.

He whistles as he sets up camp at a dry spot by the riverbed where a large rock rises from the earth, flanked by a wiry bush and a few trees. He strings up a blanket of canvas for shade from the burning sun.

A rattlesnake nearly bites him as he gathers wood for a fire but he pulls himself back just as the white slivers of its fangs fly through the air. He pins its head to the ground with a long stick then gets in close to cut off its head with his knife. Its body lashes like a whip, its eyes wide with inhuman fury. He pushes the blade through. The body continues to rage and the fangs still drip with poison. He stomps the head into the dirt and puts the rest in his jacket pocket. He can feel it writhe for a moment longer before finally giving in to death.

The night comes with a chill but his fire is warm. Its heat warms the wall of the rock and bounces back to him. Storm clouds gather in the distance blotting out an expanse of sky, but above him it is open and starry. He drinks whisky from a flask and leans up against the rock to ease the burden of his own weight. The horses grazed all day and now stand silent and content, eyes glimmering in the firelight like stars. The snake is skewered, splayed open and crackling over the fire.

As he sleeps he has nightmares, while thunderous black clouds roll out across the sky above him. They rumble and brood, white fires burst within their darkness.

He awakes to the peel of thunder and the flash of lightning. The fire beside him has burned down to smoldering embers. The air is still, lightning scorched with the acid smell of vaporized space. The heavens crack and thunder, lightning scurries across the sky, briefly lighting the earth like the first sputtering blinks of a struck match.

For a moment—just a moment—the lightning stops and the thunder is hushed. There is absolute silence and darkness except for the jewel-like embers glowing beside him. The stillness is something palpable; it cradles the earth in its trembling grip. Time seems frozen in place as the dark silence pours into him.

Perhaps he heard something in the brief silence, or saw something out of place in the illumination of a lightning bolt.

Some would call it luck, others instinct. He does not have time to think which it is.

The darkness is immense around him. Something pulls his senses ahead, over the embers out to a point in the black distance. Without knowing what or why he draws his gun from its holster and aims it ahead of him.

The boom and flash of his revolver are swallowed by the storm. He fires again, thunder and lightning exploding above him, sundering open the sky and unleashing a wave of rain.

Recoil shudders down his arm. A segment of the boulder at his back bursts into shards that bite into the side of his face. He fires a third time as a single streak of lightning strikes out like a snake and cuts the sky down the center, lighting up all the world and burning out, leaving the earth in darkness.

He lies still for a moment, propped on his elbow with his other arm extended, aiming his revolver into the darkness ahead of him. Rain pours down. The wind swirls around him. The dark red embers sizzle and hiss.

He gets up and walks through the darkness. It is as if all the earth had split open and fallen away beneath him. He does not feel his footsteps. The sky and the earth are black, a deep roaring rumble sounds from the blackness and fills him.

Before him, revealed in a split second of pale light, two men lie, their death-masks frozen in a moment of life, unknowing and unsuspecting of death, their guns and badges gleaming silver in the same light that plays in their eyes. Marshals, both of them.

He goes into a fury that rivals the storm. Thunder shakes the earth, wind howls and tears at his rain-drenched clothes. He screams and shouts and curses but his voice is swallowed by the storm, so he rages all the more furiously.

He rushes to where the horses whinny and buck in the rain. He strikes at their flanks with all of the strength he has.

"Get! Get on!"

At first they just whine and buck in protest. He strikes at them again with an open palm.


They run frenzied into the darkness, kicking and crying until they are swallowed into the storm.

He screams to the sky and falls to his knees. He digs at the earth with his fingers and takes a crumpled piece of paper out from the pocket of his jacket, places it in the hole he's dug out, and buries it.

"You bastard. You son of a bitch. You old bitter man you were right. I thought I could kill you, kill that voice in my head that started and didn't stop since I first met you. You were lucky to live as long as you did. You're nothing, you never were. The best you ever became was a few thousand dollars and I'm not interested in that any more. You're dead. Go on, die. What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do when you won't die and leave me alone?"

He gets up to his feet and points his revolver at the mound of disturbed earth. One, two, three. Crackle of lightning, quaking thunder.

"I swear, I'll kill you again old man. Once and for all. I swear it."

He reaches into the pocket of his jacket to find a bullet with the tips of his fingers.

He loads the bullet into the revolver. He spins the cylinder. He places the barrel to his head.

The desert, the deadlands, for dead men. No more than the damned and the hand that deals and the steel that sings quickly to sleep. Oh I would sleep, oh sleep I've not found since the sky first touched ground, oh I could weep, weep I would weep till they put me in the ground, oh, in the ground to sleep.

He pulls the trigger.

The steel hammer clucks against steel, unfulfilled.

The young man roars, raises his revolver into the air. The storm pauses its wrath. He pulls the trigger and a bullet explodes from the chamber.

His cries are lost in thunder. His tears are lost in rain.

* * *

A silvery bullet travels blindly, irrevocably through the night, through rain and electric-charged air and black storm clouds. It whistles as it goes, so fast and so far, cutting a path through space. Occasionally it glints silver in the night by way of a renegade shaft of starlight or a bolt of lightning. Most of its flight is spent vaulting through a thick, impenetrable darkness.

* * *

Somewhere, in some house made of hand lathed lumber with dark, clouded glass in the windows, a child stirs in his bed, in the darkness that is interrupted only by the pale lightning-light that strikes into his bedroom, in the silence beneath which a rumbling thunder roars.

The boy's heart jumps with each burst. He is afraid of something monstrous that lurks beyond the walls of his small house. He does not know its name or its shape but he can feel its presence. He lays still, wild-eyed.

The door to his small room opens, letting in a shaft of warm golden light. His mother's face appears lit up in gold, surrounded by shadow. Her face is calm and soothing. She speaks to him softly.

"It's okay, it's just thunder and lightning, go to sleep."

She lingers for a moment, looking at him deeply, silently, then turns away and closes the door.

The boy, soothed, turns on his side and lets out a sigh and closes his eyes for sleep. As if there was any comfort in her words.

The storm settles briefly to rain that whispers across the roof and upon the ground. The faint crack of a gunshot sounds from the distance. The child dismisses it for thunder in his half-sleep.

Do not worry. It is only thunder in the night.

* * *

He awakes somewhere with his face in the dirt. He rises slowly, joints crackling, mud caked to his face and clothes. He is not where he set up camp and the rain from last night has washed away his trail. He checks his pockets to see what he has: his canteen, cigarettes, a couple pieces of dry jerky, his flask, a knife, and the revolver in its holster. No bullets. The horses have run off, perhaps returning to the stables from which they were stolen. He searches the horizon until he finds the hills toward which he had been riding. Far off in the distance that seems to never diminish. The sun beats down hot and fiery, the air trembling with heat. He walks forward, for the hills.

He will never make it. Not that far in this land, with half a canteen, no horse, and no bullet in the chamber.

The wind blows against him, slowing his progress. Vultures soar above, lazily sweeping circles through the air, silently disappointed in the persistence of their prey.

Not that far. Not here.

He walks until sundown.

The End

Shay graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a Bachelors in English. He has work forthcoming in Everyday Fiction, and hopefully elsewhere. He lives and writes in Lenox, MA, the small town where he grew up, not far from the former homes of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.

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The Legend of Bear-with-Wings, Kiowa
by Tom Sheehan

A lone rider, Parker Cartbridge, on his way home from visiting a comrade wounded during the Civil War that ended three years earlier, came up out of a wadi and saw the column of smoke far down the river. The smoke rose almost arrow-straight, not an extra breath of air to be known coming down from the mountain or across the river. He closed down on the source, riding in an easy manner, alert, his horse Big Jip enjoying the leisurely moves.

Rugged as stone in his features, Cartbridge was broad at the brows that were thick as maize, alert of eyes and ears with slight movements of his head and sat the saddle as if he was born in it. His alertness on the trail was a sign of the times; readiness was the first requirement, and demand, of any man on the move. Brigands and road agents and renegades had been around for a long time, but in this part of Wyoming they had thinned out in recent years, as well as Indian surprises.

But fate works in lonely ways at times, and in lonely hours.

"Easy, Jip, slow and easy. You tell me if anything's around, anything alive." The man was looking at the burning remains of a small Indian village, most of the tepees down and gone to ash, embers still smoldering, nothing else moving. Cartbridge worked for extra air, drawing some of it deeply into his lungs, knowing the taste of death in it. The smell of a Vicksburg field came back to him swift as a shot, for beyond the smell of death there came comrade Leroy Palmer stretching his hand to him one last time, death making itself known to both of them.

Cartbridge wondered what kind of memories lingered out in front of him now, in the remnants of the village, trying to imagine what had set off the scene, which came to him as pure annihilation. Such things he had seen before.

He shook off comrade Palmer's last image just as Big Jip stopped in his tracks, his ears standing at attention on the magnificent black head. The horse pawed the ground as if he was using sign language.

The man heard nothing, saw nothing, but understood the basic message. "You sure, Jip?" he said. His voice was low and without alarm. Patting the horse, Cartbridge sent his own message of trust in return.

The horse stood his ground, his ears working, but his tail hanging still. One leg was held in the raised position, the way a comma works in a sentence, or a breath is held. Jip slowly placed that hoof on the ground.

At that moment Cartbridge heard, faint as the traces of a forgotten breeze from a day earlier, an infant's whimpers. The cries seemed to come from a blow-down that had fallen across the remains of another blow-down. The tangled mass, like night at its core, conveyed secrets in the thick shadows.

The cries came again, a little stronger, yet plaintive, like loon he heard once across a lake, as though the cries were calling for help.

Dismounting, dropping a rein on a bare limb and retrieving his rifle from its saddle sling, Cartbridge poked the rifle bore-first into the clutter of dead leaves and branches. A surprise came into his vision; an Indian infant was lying on its mother's chest. The mother's eyes were wide open, stuck with fright and locked into death. He closed her lids and withdrew the infant who was wearing a single buckskin garment adorned with some type of drawing burned on it, perhaps an animal. The baby was only months old, he could tell, with black hair already thick with promise. The gray eyes looked up at him. The infant whimpered again, and then fell asleep in the crook of the man's left arm. His right hand was free beside his holster, as it always was out on the trail.

On the trail back to his ranch, Jip moving comfortably under him, the man looked down at the baby who continued to asleep. He admired the dark hair, the bright complexion as if the sun had shone on the face for long hours, and the curve at the child's lips. A personality, he assured himself, was being developed.

"Oh," he said as Big Jip lengthened stride, smelling water at the ranch's dammed creek, "Cybil will love this one." He was not sure if he should say her or him, not daring to check now that he was on the move, afraid he would drop the precious cargo. He drew the little one closer. "Oh, my," he said, "this will be Cybil's birthday present."

It all flashed back at him, the way Leroy Palmer had entered his mind, coming home to Cybil after the war was over, his release from the hospital, and her rushing out of the ranch house as he rode up along the fence line in his dark blue uniform. "My childless wife," he had muttered. "How do I tell her what's happened to me?"

That puzzle was lost in their excitement that day as she almost pulled him from his horse.

Only later had he told her that he would not be able to give her the child she wanted so much. "We'll do with what we have," she assured him that night. "We'll find a way to get along. We always have. This war has been a hell for us, but we are here, and it is now."

She smiled the smile he had carried in the back of his head for three long years, through a dozen battles, only sharing some of its being with Leroy Palmer on the last day of his life. The spark of her being was still evident and he knew why he had fallen in love with her when they were young as pups, and why Palmer had also smiled a one-time smile saying he understood his comrade's luck.

Now, again, Cartbridge rode along the fence line, carrying the infant who had just awakened as if the smell of an apple pie had been shared. The aroma wove itself through the air, the baby cried, and Cybil was standing on the porch, her hands on her hips, the white apron halving her green outfit. The evening sun played about her. The grass was rich and green. He was home again.

"Parker Cartbridge," Cybil said, her hands out in front of her as she heard the cries again, "what do you have in your arms? Cartbridge knew she was half afraid of the answer, and half expectant of a major surprise. Cybil Cartbridge always had a special way about her.

"It's an Indian baby I found out there at the great bend of the river where the mountains meet. It looks like a small village of Indians was surprised by a raiding party and this little one is all that's left, far as I know."

He handed the infant to its new mother, who took a look under the buckskin garment. "It's a boy," she said, and hugged him to her breast. Her face was as glorious as a morning sunrise, her eyes as compassionate as Cartbridge had ever seen them. Warmth kindled itself within him.

In a quick decision, that came out as a question, she said, "What do we call him?"

"You have the honor, Cybil. You give him a name. From this moment, he belongs to you. You tell me how you want it handled, what I tell people. You make the decision."

"The honest truth, that's all. He's an orphan that came to us. That's it." And as part of her quick decision, she added, "and his name will be Roy, in honor of your comrade Leroy Palmer."

"Roy Cartbridge?" he said.

"From now on, little sweetheart," she said to the bundled infant, "you are Roy Cartbridge."

She turned on her heels and rushed off into the next part of her life.

* * *

Roy Cartbridge was taught much in his early years, learned about all of it, and grew into a fine young man coming up on his fifteenth year. He was as dark-haired as his father, said people who did not know of the boy's start in life, and carried himself with the same kind of confidence that Parker Cartbridge was noted for. Often, they worked in tandem at a single chore, as good as any two ranch hands in the whole of Wyoming.

Roy said one day when the pair was working on a new corral section, "Pa, you notice that old Indian that comes around once in a while? I've seen him twice or three times in the last year or so, but yesterday, when I was skinning some of these poles, I saw him closer than any time before. I don't see many Indians around here since the army moved up to new place on the river."

Parker Cartbridge, aware for a lot longer than young Roy about the old Indian, said, "I've seen the old buck for a lot of years. Many times, on an old sorrel, and then on foot a number of times. I figure he lives somewhere in the mountains and stretches his legs once in a while. Too old to cause any trouble, I'd bet. He's probably a hundred years old and knows everything he ever learned."

"I bet he'd be interesting to talk to," Roy said. "I can just imagine what he's learned over the years. Lot more than I have. Heck, I just learned how to skin a deer last year. He must have done that when he was a lot younger than me."

Cartbridge digested the logic in Roy's words, and then said, as if in self-defense, "He doesn't know how to brand a cow, I'd think."

"What for, Pa? Why'd they want to brand a cow? They don't keep a herd, but probably eat what they want only when they need it."

"I'd say you were right on that point, Roy. Why don't we ask him in the next time we see him? That would be a good idea. Your mother would have the same feelings, I'm sure."

So, it was, a few weeks later, that the only two survivors of the massacred Indian village, at the great bend of the river, came together on a foothill of the mountain range near the Cartbridge ranch. And fifteen years after the sad event.

"My name is Roy Cartbridge," he said to the old Indian he came upon walking away from a small stream with a catch of trout over his shoulder, a rawhide line running through their mouths and out their gill slots. "My father and I have seen you a number of times out here. He said I should ask you to come to visit us at the ranch, either now or whenever you feel like it. Eat with us at the ranch. You have history all around you."

He liked the stately looks of the old Indian. Must have been a chief, he thought, as the old man held up his hand in a sign of friendship.

"I am Kiowa," the Indian said. "My name is Eagle One-claw. I live alone up there all warm weather and cold weather, in a cave." He pointed uphill. "I have many skins to keep me warm, many hides. I eat eggs, rabbit, goat, a lost cow in the ravines when it snows heavy. Sometimes a bear." There was a smile on his face, as if expecting the boy's next question.

"How do you catch a bear?" Roy Cartridge's eyes were wide open with contemplated wonder. His dark brows accented his wonder, gave his face a new look, a new esteem.

The old Indian let a smile make its way on his face, followed by a nod that carried many unsaid words. "I let bear chase me, then drop rocks on him I gather all summer. Big piles of rocks in many places. Try not to get caught alone by bear or puma. They chase me, I hurt them, make them bait or eat them."

Roy Cartbridge shook his head in awe. "You are a very smart and brave man, and so wise to be able to live alone with no relatives around you, no one from the tribe. My father will be pleased to meet you. My mother, too. She is a great cook. She bakes pies I can smell all the way out on the wide grass."

"All Indians are smart. You right when you say Indians, like Kiowa, have history with them all the time. We bring it to all the tribe to know. Indian born with it." The warm smile came again, and the accenting nod of his head. "I know smell of apples out on the grass. It is a warm smell that say apple. I have known it many times."

The fuzziest feeling Roy Cartbridge ever knew came rising in him, as if he was being immersed in a new river, a new body of water, in a ceremony. His skin tingled. His fingers trembled to touch something he had no knowledge about but could feel. There came the fleeting thought that asked how close the old Indian had come to the ranch house, as though more than apple pie aroma and curiosity might have pulled him. He didn't know the comfort of the gods had called on him.

At the ranch house, Eagle One-claw ate sparingly, taking his time, letting conversation control the time of the meal. He kept staring at Roy Cartbridge during the meal, which made Cybil say, on the spur of the moment, "Roy, our son, was given to us at the great bend in the river when some renegade whites destroyed his village. He was the only one left alive. Parker brought him home to me, as we could not have our own children. We have loved him ever since and have never hidden anything from him about his beginning. He knows he is a Kiowa Indian, like you."

Parker Cartbridge, aware of many sensations and feelings, said to Eagle One-claw, "Do I know why you have lived alone all these years in the mountains close by?"

Eagle One-claw, old as the hills, old as time as Roy phrased it in his mind, replied with an honest response. "For long time I know you know things Kiowa know. You kind to papoose for many years. Both of you." He nodded to Parker and Cybil Cartbridge as Roy Cartbridge began to feel again the fuzzy sensation sitting inside him, making way on him.

"We have done what we could," Cybil said, "and it's been a good job and a task we loved. He is a much-loved boy." One hand touched the arm of Roy sitting beside her at the table. "He is a good Indian boy, of that you can be assured."

"Do you have robe he was found in?" Eagle One-claw said.

Cybil, letting go of the only secret they had kept from Roy, said, "Yes. I have kept it aside all these years."

She left the room, as Roy's mouth hung open in surprise. When she returned, she was carrying the buckskin robe in which Roy was brought to her the many years ago. She handed it to Eagle One-claw as Roy Cartbridge looked at his first robe with complete surprise.

Eagle One-claw held it up, then showed it to Roy Cartbridge. "I give you name on first day. Bear-with-Wings. You take new name when you grow up, like now."

"Why Bear-with-Wings?" Roy said.

"Only bear with wings could escape our rock pile. Only bear with wings could fly up on the mountain and laugh at us. All Kiowa know about bear with wings. What name will you take now?" He handed the infant's robe to Roy Cartbridge. "I make the robe for you. I am grandfather to Bear-with-Wings."

"I will be Bear-with-Wings again," Roy said, "Bear-with-Wings, Kiowa. I will spend the winter with you in the mountains and you will teach me the Kiowa ways."

Cybil Cartbridge, knowing the letting-go time had come, nodded her agreement.

The two Indians, grandfather and grandson, separated only by a short distance for the long years, knew the bonding as it began in earnest, as the young man's mother and father looked on, as the legend of Bear-with-Wings began circulating once more.

The End

Bio note: Sheehan just celebrated his 90th birthday, served in 31st Infantry, Korea 1951-52, graduated Boston College 1956, has published 32 books, multiple works in Rosebud, Literally Stories, Linnet's Wings, Copperfield Review, Eastlit, Frontier Tales, DM du Jour, etc. Has 33 Pushcart nominations, 5 Best of Net nominations, other awards. Books include Beside the Broken Trail. Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short Spans; A Collection of Friends; and From the Quickening. Four books in Pocol Press production cycle (Between Mountain and River; Catch a Wagon to a Star; Alone, with the Good Graces; and Jock Poems and Reflections for Proper Bostonians; and a novel, The Keating Script, at Danse Macabre.)

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C'est La Vie
by Ryan Lee King

I leaned back in my chair, with my dusty boots propped up on the empty desk and held up the yellowing envelope that had arrived by messenger. It had the mayor's office stamp, and my name scrawled across the front. I had been expecting the letter, just not quite so soon. The world outside my office doors had been getting more dangerous, and unfortunately, I was getting older. The circulating whispers around Jessup Flats were about how long I could do the job, partly from what I imagine was seeing nearby towns with younger and younger sheriffs. But to me, it was less about my age and more about the fact La Vie was still causing havoc in these parts after an entire year, despite my best attempts to the contrary to stop him.

I already knew what the letter would say without having to open it, but I hoped I was wrong. With the flick of my belt knife, I slit the envelope open and shook out the folded letter. After scanning the contents, I balled them up and threw them into a corner beyond the two jail cells we had.

They wanted me to retire, turn in my badge after some 20 years of service so some younger blood could come in and take out La Vie for good. It stung, like a briar in the backside. The same people I spilled sweat and blood for were ready to turn me out to pasture. Jessup Flats wasn't big as towns went, with a population shy of 300, but it did have some wealthy folks living there. Most of them lived outside the city limits, but their wealth resided in the only bank in town, the same one La Vie kept targeting, and it made them mighty nervous each time he struck.

La Vie had a reputation for being tenacious and getting what he wanted. My deputies and I had foiled his only direct attempt on the bank, a rare accomplishment if the stories are right, but that hadn't stopped him from sticking up any stagecoach bound for the bank or leaving it. In the mayor's estimation, along with the wealthy townsfolk, they felt it was only a matter of time before he tried for the bank again. They were probably right. La Vie had been the only stain on my record, and it stuck in my craw. I suppose he felt the same way about me for that same reason.

I slid open the desk drawer to my right, pulled out the half empty bottle of whiskey and the shot glass I kept there. The label had since faded on the bottle but the burn that amber liquid produced never had. With the prospect of retirement, it was a burn I needed. I'd nearly lost my life more times than I could count doing this job, but I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else, especially with La Vie still on the loose. Could I turn in my badge and live with myself without catching him first? I didn't know, but retirement was coming, whether I liked it or not.

I pulled out the cork with my teeth and poured myself a shot. No sooner had that amber heat hit the back of my throat, my thin skeleton of a deputy threw open the front door all excited like holding his flat-topped Stetson hat to his head. Dust covered every portion of him, like everything in these parts.

"Boss! It's La Vie. He just robbed the bank and is high tailing it out of town."

Irritated, I slammed my fist down on the desk. "Damnation." In the past, I would have run out that door and chased after La Vie myself, but the letter from the mayor's office made me take pause. I didn't have to do this job anymore. They already thought I couldn't stop him so why try? I could tell the deputy to go after him, remain here and be safe, retire like they wanted me to do.

"Boss?" There was a frantic urgency to the deputy's voice.

My eyes shifted to the crumpled-up letter in the corner, and I frowned. They were getting in my head, and I didn't like it. What they wanted me to do didn't matter. I still had my badge, and so long as I had it, I had a duty to uphold. And by damn, I was going to do it.

"Get my horse! And round up the others, we got ourselves an outlaw to catch."

The deputy bobbed his head and tore out of sight. If I was going to be forced to retire, so be it. But by god, I was going to see that La Vie saw justice first or die trying. Who the hell wants to retire and die of old age anyway? I grabbed my hat off the wall next to the door, the same one where La Vie's wanted poster hung, strapped on my gun belt and stepped out into the empty street ready to face whatever my fate was going to be.

* * *

The trail of dust up ahead said we were catching up to La Vie. I could taste the anticipation like I could the thick dust in the air. The leather reins scrunched beneath white knuckles as I dug my hooks into my horse, trying to spur it to go faster. The boys were several horse lengths behind me, greenhorns the lot of them. Outside of town, there wasn't much to see. Except for a few cacti and dried up bushes, there was only flat sandy ground as far as the eye could see. The heat waves coming off that ground made everything in the distance look like it was moving. Without warning, the road in front of me exploded and rained down dirt in all directions.

My horse reared in the chaos, and I had a devil of a time regaining control of the beast. By the time I had, more explosions had gone off. "Hell-fire, he's got dynamite! Keep your eyes open!"

Between the debris and dust, the pits he made in the road were hard to spot. One by one those pits swallowed up my boys. My deputy and I were the only ones still riding. La Vie must have run out of dynamite because soon after the explosions stopped, bullets zitted by.

I heard a yelp behind me and knew what had happened before I looked back. My deputy laid sprawled on the ground, his horse down next to him. Part of me wanted to stop and check on him to see if it was fatal or not but if I did, I knew I'd lose my chance to get La Vie and that was something I couldn't let happen. I decided to use that trail of dust he kicked up to my advantage instead of his.

Using it to hide my approach, I pulled my horse alongside the wagon and saw La Vie sitting in the driver's seat wearing a black duster, hands whipping the reins. He occasionally kept looking back trying to spot me but hadn't yet. When he wasn't looking back, I climbed up onto my saddle and levered myself into the back of the wagon. It contained a now empty wooden crate that had held the dynamite and a slew of smaller chests about the length of my boot, presumably the small fortune he had stolen from the bank. As my horse pulled away from the wagon, I brandished my gun and thumbed the hammer back. "Pull it over, La Vie! I'm bringing you in!"

La Vie looked back at me; sweat rolled down his pitted face. "Lawman! How in Sam Hill did you—"

But before he finished his statement, he jerked the reins, and the wagon swerved causing my footing to go out from beneath me. I had to grab hold of the edge to keep from going over. The wagon veered again, this time the opposite way, but I held on. La Vie growled and pulled his six-shooter, firing a few stray shots in my direction.

I ducked away from his line of sight long enough to get closer to him before he squeezed off another shot. He got off two more shots before I finally reached him and pressed my gun into his back. "Drop it."

La Vie complied, and the gun fell from his hand, down to the moving ground below. "Now pull it over, La Vie." He stiffened as I pulled back the hammer. "Don't make me tell you again."

La Vie pulled back on the reins until the wagon came to a full stop.

"Now stand up slowly, hands to the sky."

The outlaw cracked his neck by tilting it side to side and did as instructed. Once standing he turned around to face me. La Vie spat a wad of tobacco juice and shook his head. "You don't think you can actually win this, do you, lawman?"

I motioned with my gun for him to jump down from the wagon. "It's not about winning. It's about keeping this town safe. We can't keep doing this, you and me. It's gone on far too long already."

His brown eyes went to my gun and my face as if judging what I'd do. "In that regard, I agree. It has gone on far too long for my taste. You just keep getting in my way, lawman and one day it's going to get you killed."

"Maybe so but while I still have this badge, I'm going to always be between you and my town. Step down, La Vie. Now." I motioned again with my gun once more.

La Vie scowled and spat again before finally jumping down to the ground below. As soon as he hit the ground, he went for his right boot. I didn't know if he had a gun or a knife there, but I knew I couldn't let him draw whatever it was. Shooting a man in the back wasn't my style, and there wasn't time to holster my weapon. I did the only thing I could do and jumped out of the wagon, tackling him to the ground. The small derringer pistol he had pulled from his boot skittered away as we both crashed into the sun-baked clay and sand below. He grunted from the impact but belted me with his fist before I could land one myself, causing my vision to swim. La Vie had one hell of a punch. We rolled in the sandy dirt, struggling against each other. He tried to pull the gun from my hand, but I wouldn't let him have it. We rolled again, this time with him ending up on top. With one hand trying the wrestle the gun away from me, he slammed his other fist into my shoulder, an attempt to force me to drop it. Pain shot up my arm, and my grip on the firearm faltered. He made a scramble for the gun as it fell, and I used that chance to roll him away from it. We exchanged a few more blows during our struggle, all the while vying for my dropped gun or his derringer that wasn't far away. Though it hurt like hell, when I saw my chance, I cracked my forehead against his and grabbed my gun. La Vie lunged for it, but it was too late. I struck him across the temple with the butt of the gun, and he dropped to the ground beside me. A thin spiderweb of blood trickled down from where I'd struck him. I waited for a few heartbeats to be sure he was out and let out a long breath. "Damn, that was harder than it had to be."

I got to my feet, collected his derringer and brushed myself off. As I didn't have any handcuffs on me, I used a little bit of the rope from the back of the wagon to tie up La Vie. I dragged him over to it by his boots, hefted him over my now sore shoulder and plopped him down into the back. After all this time, I had finally caught the man I'd been after. It felt better than I imagined it would. I'd almost go as far as to say I was downright happy.

I climbed up in the front seat of the wagon and turned it around. I wasn't too concerned about my horse, who had gone meandering off in the distance. He'd find his way back, and if not, I'd have someone come to look for him.

On the way back to town, I found my deputy in good spirits, though he sported a tied bandana around his arm where La Vie had shot him. His horse laid motionless nearby, and one of its legs was at an unnatural angle. It looked as if he had to put it down, the poor thing. "You alright, Emmett?"

"Yeah, boss. I'll have the doc look at it when we get back to town. What about you?"

I thumbed over my shoulder, and he peaked inside the wagon. "Woo-doggy. We finally got him. About dang time."

I understood how he felt. "My horse is up the road a bit. You think you can go collect him?"

My deputy tapped the front of his hat, giving a salute of sorts with his forefinger. "Oh, I sent the rest of the boys on back to town to get looked at. I think they only have bumps and bruises, but the doc will say for sure."

"That'll do. Make sure the doc looks at you too and then come to see me when you get done."

My deputy gave me another forefinger salute. "Yes, sir."

In no time at all, I had pulled the wagon to a stop in front of the bank. All the townsfolk on the streets had stopped to gawk, pointing fingers in my direction and talking to one another. I jumped down off the wagon and opened the back. All the chests were still there, but La Vie wasn't. "Damnation." I slammed my fists down on the wagon and shook my head. That devil had escaped again. I had been so close this time too. I wasn't sure what the town would think of me, money in hand but without the outlaw who took it. I guess it didn't matter. I would see him behind bars if it was the last thing I ever did, retirement be damned.

The End

Ryan Lee King is an eCommerce manager in Atlanta, Georgia, and is a member of the Atlanta Writer's Club. He spends most days working on websites for a major telecommunications company and shooing a cat off his keyboard. Ryan writes speculative fiction and quirky poetry that's from the heart. In his free time, he enjoys reading, spending time with his wife and son, building creations made of LEGO bricks and drinking abnormal amounts of tea. You can visit him at https://ryanleeking.com.

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Be of Good Cheer
by Billie Holladay Skelley

My name is Abigale Cavendish. I am 64 years old. I will tell you everything just as I remember it.

* * *

The last day I spent with my sister, Josephine, we were dressed entirely in black and holding hands in Hannibal, Missouri. It was 1872. She was six, and I was ten. We were walking behind a horse-drawn carriage decorated with epitaphs. Neither of us made any attempt to read the commemorative inscriptions. Our eyes were glued to the black-draped coffin resting in the wagon. When we approached the entrance to St. Mary's Cemetery, Josephine, or Jo as I always called her, had a coughing spasm. As it subsided, she whispered to me.

"What will happen to us, Abigale?"

"I don't know," I told her, and I didn't.

Our world had been turned upside down. We were so grief-stricken we were in shock.

* * *

Our parents, James and Margaret Carmody, came to Hannibal in 1851 seeking a better life after the blight in Ireland. Father found employment at the North Missouri Courier newspaper, and Mother, worked as a seamstress. I was born in 1862, and Josephine in 1866. We attended Hannibal's Catholic school, and while we were not rich, there was always food on the table. Life was good.

Then, like lightning, tragedy struck. While adjusting a new printing press, Father's leg got caught in the press and was crushed. He lost a great amount of blood and died during the operation to amputate his leg.

Mother, overcome with grief and weakened by illness, did not attend his funeral. She asked me and Jo to accompany Father's coffin to the cemetery. When we returned home, we found Mother in a much-deteriorated state. She passed away two days after Father's interment. The doctor attributed her death to consumption, but Jo and I believed she died of a broken heart.

For the second time in four days, Jo and I walked behind a funeral wagon to the cemetery. A freshly dug grave waited for Mother. We watched her coffin lowered into the ground.

When we arrived home, Father Stewart from the Blessed Sacrament Parish was there. He said our landlord had contacted him about vacating our home. The landlord already had new renters waiting to take up residence. Father Stewart had met with members of our church, and May and Henry Flynn were willing to take Jo to live with them. They had always wanted a little girl, but they could only take one child because they were reluctant to expand their family to more mouths than they could safely feed. The leaders of the church felt Jo should stay with the Flynns because she had been ill with a persistent cough. They did not feel Jo was well-suited to traveling a great distance.

"Traveling?" I asked him.

"Yes," he answered. "A Methodist preacher and his wife, Reverend James and Martha Weber, arrived in Hannibal yesterday. They are on their way to Arizona. They also have longed for a daughter, and they believe you are God's answer to their prayers. They promise to treat you as their own child. Since you have no relatives in Hannibal and there is no orphanage, we believe this is the best solution."

I started to cry, but Father Stewart stopped me.

"Now, Abigale," he said. "You are older and need to act your age. This is the best solution, and in time, you will see its merits."

Within minutes, a horse-drawn wagon arrived in front of our house. A man and woman were seated behind the horses.

I knew I had to do something quickly. I ran to the cupboard and grabbed Mother's bone china tea cup and saucer. This set originally belonged to my grandmother. Mother had carried the cup and saucer all the way from Ireland. Over the years, a small hairline crack had developed in the cup, but Mother had still used it daily. It was her favorite possession. The delicate blue flowers surrounding the lip of the cup and the edge of the saucer were beautiful, and I felt they should stay in the family.

"Take this cup," I told Jo. "You know how much it meant to Mother. Keep it with you always. I'll take the saucer, and someday, I promise, we will meet again. Don't cry, you must be brave. Remember what Mother always said: 'Be of good cheer. God will show you the way'."

These words had hardly escaped my lips when Reverend Weber entered the house, introduced himself, and escorted me to his wagon.

"Abigale, climb up in the back of the wagon," he said.

As soon as I sat down, the wagon started to move. I looked back at Jo. There were tears flowing down her cheeks. I waved, but I was too confused to speak. Everything happened so fast. With a few turns of the wagon's wheels, my sister and the only home I had ever known were out of sight.

* * *

Reverend James and Martha Weber did not really want a child. It took me a few months to appreciate this fact, but by that time, we were in Arizona. They actually wanted a hired hand to help with their "evangelical work." This work, I came to understand, had little to do with the preaching of the gospel.

Reverend Weber could recite Bible verses and spout the benefits of Christianity as loudly as anyone, but Mother would have called him a "flim-flam man." In time, I discovered he wasn't a real minister, and Martha Weber was not his wife. She was his sister.

Month after month, James and Martha Weber traveled across Arizona spreading "the word of God" and passing the offering plate. They were careful not to stay in any town, settlement, fort, mine, or camp too long. It was the money they were after, and as long as it kept coming in, they were happy. Martha made me set up benches for meetings and post fliers about revivals. My most important job, however, was to pass the collection plate. James told folks the offering was for the poor and he only took enough to feed his "wife" and "daughter." It was all a lie. James and Martha took it all.

I knew what they were doing—what we were doing—was wrong, but I felt trapped. We never stayed in one location long enough for me to get to know anyone or to feel comfortable telling someone what they were doing. James also threatened me on several occasions. He told me if he caught me talking to any "locals," he'd make sure I never got back to Missouri.

I kept quiet, but I was miserable. There was barely enough to eat, and my clothes were dirty and ragged. James always said "the Lord will provide," but that meant he'd ask folks at our next stop for food and clothing donations for the poor—which, if there was anything, would then be given to me.

I missed Jo terribly, and I missed being able to go to school. I was often sad and upset, and I learned to lie and steal. You see, I did not always post all of Martha's fliers. I told her I did, but often I used the back side of the paper to write letters to Jo. Rarely were we near a post office, but when we were, I needed three cents for postage. I took the coins from the collection plate. Both were sins, but I had to write to Jo.

I never got any response. Since James and Martha moved around so much, there was no address to provide for a return post. Still, I wrote to Jo every chance I got.

For five years, I put up with Reverend James' ruse and meanderings, but on my fifteenth birthday, I decided to run away. That night, while James and Martha were busy counting their money, I left.

* * *

I went to Tucson. It took me five days—walking and hitching rides with folks. When I got there, I was delighted to find houses, stores, and a Catholic church. There was also a stage line that carried mail. Back then, mail delivery was informal and sporadic, but I was excited with just the possibility of being able to post letters to Jo more regularly.

One of the first houses I passed in Tucson had sign in the window stating "Seamstress Wanted." Mother had taught me to sew many years earlier, so I went inside and asked for the job. Mrs. Rachel Miller owned the home. She was a seamstress, but she was getting on in years and needed help. When I proved I could follow a pattern and hem an apron, I was hired.

For the next two years, I worked as a seamstress. Mrs. Miller let me sleep on a cot at the back of her house. I was never particularly fond of sewing, but it did feel wonderful to earn a little money honestly and to stay in one place.

I wrote letters to Jo in Hannibal every week. One day I was thrilled because I actually received a response. My joy was short-lived, however, because the letter was from the Hannibal postmaster. He indicated my letters were undeliverable as addressed. He wrote that the Flynn family, including their adopted daughter Josephine Flynn, had moved to Arkansas several years ago. He had no forwarding address.

When I got that letter, I felt like my link to the world was severed. I'd promised Jo we would be together, but now that seemed unlikely. It was a very discouraging time, but I tried not to give up hope.

"It is difficult to be of good cheer," I told myself, "but if I can, maybe God will show me a way."

One day, shortly after my seventeenth birthday, a tall man with wavy, black hair and the bluest eyes I'd ever seen knocked on Mrs. Miller's door. His eyes were the color of the sky. He identified himself as Adam Cavendish, a cattle rancher, and he wanted two new shirts made. As I measured his chest, neck, and sleeve length, I could hardly take my eyes off his face. I felt an immediate attraction, and I believe Mr. Cavendish did, too.

During the next eighteen months, Adam Cavendish stopped by often. Our relationship grew, and one day he asked me to be his wife. It had never been my ambition to be a "slave of the needle," so I gladly accepted his offer.

* * *

Adam owned a ranch north of Holbrook, and I fell in love with the place the first time I saw it. The raw beauty of the desert, the magnificent rock formations, and the distant mountains conveyed strength, fortitude, and endurance—all qualities I value.

The beauty and serenity of the land, however, contrasted sharply with lawlessness and violence in the area. Reports of ranches ravaged by outlaws and rustlers stealing cattle were frequent. There was little law, courtesy, or civility in the area. Holbrook had no schools or churches, and Adam told me the town was no place for a woman. Gunfights were common, and suspected wrongdoers were executed on the spot—without benefit of a judge, jury, or trial. Justice came from the barrel of a pistol or the end of a rope, but Adam and I were not discouraged. We were young, happy, and in love.

Adam was an honest man and a hard worker. I loved him more each day. He was so kind and thoughtful. Every time he sold cattle, he bought me a gift, and one day, he brought home a mahogany china hutch for my little saucer with the blue flowers. I'd almost lost hope of ever finding its mate, but it was wonderful to see my saucer at the front of that cabinet.

During the next ten years, with our hard work, the ranch grew significantly. It was an arduous life, but a fulfilling one. I found it easy to be of good cheer when I was with Adam. I loved him immensely.

One day, Adam brought home six baby lambs to keep me company when he was busy branding cattle or managing the ranch. I loved these sweet creatures, and in a few years, I had fifty sheep in my flock. As I cared for these innocent animals, I thought about having a child, but since the ranch took so much time and effort, I doubted there would be sufficient time to devote to a child. Besides, as the lawlessness in the area increased, I worried for Adam and my own safety. It seemed irresponsible to put an innocent child in this unreligious and uncivilized place.

Increasingly, the cattle ranchers, sheepherders, and farmers were competing for the land. Turf battles were common, and eventually an all-out range war ensued. One faction in this battle was the Hashknife Outfit—a group of rough, lawless, and unruly cowboys. These hired guns altered brands and shot rustlers without concern. They also harassed local farmers and ranchers over property, water, and grazing rights. The Hashknife cowboys saw everyone as competition. They especially hated sheepherders because when sheep grazed the range, there was nothing left for their cattle.

One night, while Adam and I were sleeping, I heard a lamb bleating fervently and sat up to listen. My movement roused Adam, but he heard nothing, so we went back to sleep.

The next morning, we were horrified to find all my sheep dead and floating in a nearby river. They had been herded into the flowing water where they drowned. To see those puffy, white-cloud creatures dotting the river was a surreal scene. I was heartbroken. At first, I was so upset I couldn't cry, and then so distraught, I couldn't stop.

Adam knew it was most likely the Hashknife cowboys, and he rode off to confront them. I begged him not to go, but there was no stopping him.

"You have to stand up for what is yours," Adam said, "or you don't deserve to have it."

Adam did stand up to the ruthless cowboys, but there were six of them and only one of him. He killed two and wounded two others, but the remaining two put four bullets in his chest. He died alone on the dusty ground, with his sky-blue eyes focused on the blue sky of Arizona.

The ranch was an empty place without Adam. Every plant, animal, fence, and building on the property reminded me of him. I no longer liked the view. I thought about what Adam had said about standing up for what is yours, but I felt, without him, I didn't deserve the ranch.

In a gunfight, there are no winners. Only mourners and survivors are left. I mourned. I survived, but after five years, I could not be of good cheer. I decided to leave

* * *

After selling the ranch, I returned to Tucson in 1896. The only furniture I brought with me was my mahogany china hutch. I couldn't leave it behind.

When I arrived, Tucson was bustling. There were rail lines, a hospital, a library, and even a newspaper. I knew my father would like me living in a place that had a newspaper.

With the money from the sale of the ranch, I opened "Mrs. Cavendish's Boarding House." There were only four rooms to rent, but because my house was near the rail station, the rooms were always in demand.

For thirty years, I've managed this house. I cannot say I was always happy, but I did my best to be of good cheer.

Then, last week, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kendrick came to my door asking if I had an available room. I did, and I invited them in to see it. After they agreed to take the room, I made coffee and suggested we share a cup in the dining room.

"Are you in Tucson for business or pleasure?" I asked Mr. Kendrick.

"My wife has been a patient at St. Mary's Sanatorium, Mrs. Cavendish, but her condition has sufficiently improved for her to be released. The arid climate of Arizona has been so beneficial. I am a teacher at Saint Joseph's Academy. Are you familiar with the school?"

"Yes. My family was Catholic, and I attended a Catholic school as a child. I have been to St. Joseph's Academy many times. May I pour you a cup of coffee, Mrs. Kendrick?"

"Yes. Thank you, Mrs. Cavendish."

When I reached for the pot, Mrs. Kendrick took a handkerchief-wrapped object from her bag. She removed the handkerchief and placed a white bone china cup on the table. It had a small hairline crack on one side and delicate blue flowers surrounding its lip.

I stared at the cup. My body stiffened. My hand was frozen to the coffee pot.

Concerned at my state, Mr. Kendrick addressed me.

"Please forgive my wife, Mrs. Cavendish. She always uses that cup. She takes it with her wherever she goes. It is a family heirloom. I assure you, she means no disrespect."

Slowly, I forced my eyes from the cup to Mrs. Kendrick's face. Even though I was looking through the veil of time, I saw Jo's eyes.

I got up from the table and opened my mahogany china hutch. Taking out my little saucer, I placed it on the table next to Mrs. Kendrick's cup.

Now, it was Mrs. Kendrick's turn to stare. She looked at the saucer and then at me. Her hand shook as she reached out to touch the saucer. Tears swelled in her eyes.

"Oh, Abigale," she cried, "at long last."

We embraced. Tears flowed freely.

"What is it?" Mr. Kendrick asked me. "What has happened? Are you ill?"

"We are fine, Mr. Kendrick. Do not concern yourself. These are tears of joy and good cheer. Very good cheer indeed."

* * *

This is my story. It is true. You may print it in your newspaper as you see fit.

The End

Billie Holladay Skelley, a retired clinical nurse specialist, earned her bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A mother of four and grandmother of two, she lives in Missouri with her husband and two cats. Crossing several different genres, her writing has appeared in various journals, magazines, and anthologies in print and online—ranging from the American Journal of Nursing to Harvard Magazine. An award-winning author, she also has written books for children and teens. She spends her non-writing time reading, gardening, and traveling. Connect with Billie at www.bhskelley.com.

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The Ugly Outlaw
by Sam Kissinger

The outlaw was alone.

"$200 cash!! What kinda jewels ya gimme?" He held up a ring in the firelight, "A diamond! AAAhaha! A goddamn diamond."

His laughter roared like his fire, reverberating through the canyon, sending coyotes fleeing in terror and setting mountain lions on edge. He recounted the cash from the plundered stage coach, and the scalps he took to throw off anyone stupid enough to come looking for him. He was an outlaw—a good one at that—and a bandit couldn't live to be his age making greenhorn mistakes. He'd made one, and he had the missing fingers, ear and powder burns to show it. He clumsily piled the cash to one side and took another long drag on his cigarette. He made a note to himself that his tobacco was getting low, he'd have to re-up soon.

"A diamond. I musta got it offa that ol' bitch with the shotgun. Ha! Looked like she was aimin' fer a cloud!"

He was a real highwayman and though the drivers all knew his name, that Well Fargo coach never saw him coming. He had got the drop on them, keeping behind them and just below the ridge line. Always trailing that cloud of dust the driver loathed to kick up, but which the coaches couldn't avoid. He knew the Indians were just as hungry for them as he was, and he knew that the drivers and passengers were more afraid of those savages than even the grizzliest yarn that had been spun about him. So he had let them hit the bottleneck of the canyon, scurry through cautiously and quickly, and, with the ease of mind that comes with comfort and false security, he came in hell's bells, shooting up a storm the Devil himself would shy from.

He shot the leading left horse first, and watched the back left one topple over the dying beast. That sent the other two crashing down, their jaws making a smacking sound that must've raised a rattler from slumber. Tipping the coach wasn't hard after that, especially after taking out a wheel with his Winchester. The passengers were terrified. He laughed when he saw a woman in a Buffalo Robe let a shot from the Sharps go. She looked like she was aiming for a cloud. After he took out the driver and the conductor, the rest of the job was pretty much over. It was a blood bath from there on out. He let a woman run a hundred yards into the empty desert before he calmly took her down like he was hunting a fleeing deer. The six passengers and two coachmen lay mangled in the wreckage. He scalped them all.

As he collected his earnings a wild feeling of rage overcame him. But it wasn't of anger. It was of joy. The joy of his deed. His eyes widened. A smile crept across his face. He found that stupid old lady that tried to take aim at him. Standing over her, he pulled out his Colt and let off all six into that damned lady's head. He howled in horrible happiness, beneath the circling shadows of the carrion birds. That lady's head looked like a smashed melon. He packed up and lit out till his horse nearly dropped.

That was how he ended up where he was. Underneath a rising 3rd quarter moon, somewhere northwest of Horsethief Basin. He meant to lay low there, before he headed to Whisky Row up in Prescott.

He recalled the gore of before. He wondered at that joyful rage. The memory didn't stay with him but for a minute, and he laughed as he thought of that bitch's blood splattering his face. The fire reflected off his teeth.

He pulled his hat low, and leaned back against his saddle, and put his hands behind his head. He'd find another coach. And another. Until he could afford to buy a ranch and live a new life under a new name.

He chuckled again at his handiwork. It was one for the ages. The one that would put him in the books. He'd even make the Phoenix Gazette. Smiling, he stared up at the starry canopy and closed his eyes.

He didn't hear the report of the Marlin until the bullet ripped though the back of his neck and spat out of his throat. His blood sprayed out and sizzled on a hot rock near the fire. His upper body was propelled forward but with his legs straight out, he didn't go anywhere. He slumped forward at an awkward angle. From his neck down, he couldn't feel a thing. The ringing in his ears though, he felt acutely.

A man stepped into the orange glow of his dying fire. It was a man he recognized, but couldn't remember where from. The man chuckled. With his foot, the man shoved the paralyzed bandit back up against the saddle. His head rolled back, his eyes to the sky.

"Ain't this some shit," the man said. "It's Hayes."

"Who?" another voice replied.

The man searched Hayes' pockets and grabbed his saddle bags. He heard the shuffling of his horse as it was hastily haltered and led away.

"We did that sorry sack of shit a favor. Camping alone, with no cover? A damned cocky, greenhorn son of a bitch. Grab his cash, his horse and let's light outta here."

Hayes heard the rumble of horses' feet and the steady beat of their galloping into the night. He sat there, slowly dying an agonizing death. If he could, he'd cry. All alone like this. In the middle of nowhere. Not even a grave or marker. The coyote would get him first. Then the birds. He'd seen it before. He knew that this time tomorrow he'd be bones, bleached white by the steady burn of the sun, until the wind-driven dirt slowly ground his last earthly remains into powder. An ugly, unnoticed reminder of his ugly, unnoticed existence.

He had never done anything beautiful. He had never added anything to the world but fear and pain. He had only taken. And men like himself, men he must have pulled jobs with, took from him what he had taken from so many others. He couldn't even summon the anger, it wasn't worth it anyway. He knew that by high noon, he'd be forgotten in the dust devil of time.

He couldn't speak but, as he stared up at the blanket of stars, the comforting glow of the fire warmed his face against the cool desert night, and he mouthed these words:

As I lay beside the dying fire

Smoke, like my spirit, billows skyward

On its long trek toward dissipation

Slowly swirling and spiraling as if

Remembering the solid earth and

Longing for the heat of the flame.

It is as it should be,

That I die alone in the dark.

Let this be my contribution to beauty,

Let my evil deeds highlight what is good

In this world.

From my back I watch the smoke

Veil the moon, like heavy eye lids

The stars flickering like a dying . . 

A dying . . 

Dying fire . . 

The End

Born and raised in New Jersey, Sam Kissinger lit out for the West to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a cowboy. He is now a fulltime elementary school Special Education teacher. He lives in New River, AZ with his wife on their own Funny Farm. He writes Westerns, Science-Fiction, Fantasy and combinations of the three.

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Hangman's Noose
by Mark K. Ryan

I woke lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling. Cobwebs spread from the center light fixture to the windows. Turning a bit to my side, I felt my achy bones as dust and dirt fell off my arms and legs. I tried sitting up but my back gave way, so I rolled to the side.

Trying to stand, I wondered how I got here in this room and how long I had been here. With my throat parched, I said "Where the hell am I?" I was surprised to hear a distant giggle and laugh as it wobbled in the air around the room. Looking around, there was no one there.

As I crawled over to the window with its broken panes, sunlight penetrated the dirty glass. Holding on to the window frame, I lifted myself off the floor as boards beneath my feet creaked and began to break. Gently sliding my weight over a few inches to a safer footing, I held on to the window and looked out.

I was on the second floor of an old building and looked out to an empty dirt street. I could see ruts in the dirt left by wagon wheels and horse hoofs made over the years. As I looked up and down the street there was no sign of life. However, when I blinked again I thought I saw two cowboys approaching each other from opposite ends of the street. They looked as if they were about to have a gunfight.

The images became clearer as the rays of sunlight peaked around the distant church steeple. Along the sides of the street, crowds of people hid behind posts, parked wagons and at the corner of windows trying to sneak a look while staying out of harm's way. There was a loud murmur from the crowd cheering-on the two combatants and shouting. "Shoot him dead for stealing your horse", and "Don't let him get away with that."

Suddenly the images disappeared as a cloud blocked the sun and the street was empty again. The wind picked up and tumbleweed began swirling around. I blinked and wiped my eyes to refocus but just saw the empty street. Again, I spoke out loud to myself, "I must be dreaming, where did everyone go? Am I hallucinating?" Another giggle and laugh echoed and wobbled in the air around the room. My head spun left and right looking for the source of the sounds. "Is this place haunted and is this a Ghost Town?", I mumbled.

Not seeing anyone, I shouted "Where are you, show yourself and stop this nonsense." I heard another giggle but no one appeared. I remembered hearing stories of Ghost Towns in the west magically coming to life and then disappearing. It's funny how legends and folklore become believable stories, I thought.

Still holding on to the window to steady myself, a bullet came through the pane shattering the glass and nicking my right ear. I flinched from the sting and felt my ear as blood dribbled on my hand. I quickly fell to the floor to shield myself from another bullet, but there was none.

Raising my head ever so slightly over the window sill, I looked down at the street and again saw the two cowboys. But this time they were looking up toward my window and began shooting. Glass shards splattered all over the floor, as bullets ricocheted around the room.

I couldn't believe it. "Why are they shooting at me?", I screamed out loud.

Suddenly I heard one gunman shout, "Come out and show yourself. We found the horse you stole in front of the hotel with our branding mark on its left hind quarter."

The other gunman shouted, "You can't get away, we have the hotel surrounded."

I responded to myself, "I'm no horse thief. The last thing I remember, I was reading a comic book and the dust on the book made me sneeze."

* * *

That's it, I was in the Comic Book and Magic Shop in downtown Tombstone, Arizona visiting my cousins who lived nearby. The proprietor looked like Gabby something, the old cowboy with a white beard that I use to see in old western movies. I told him I was a collector of old western comic books and he showed me to his collection in the backroom. He left me there to browse as he returned to the front of the store and said, "Take your time sonny. Time is all I have now."

As I looked around the backroom, there were hundreds of old comic books in plastic sleeves stacked on shelves. All the books had different titles but shared a similar picture on the front cover. The picture showed Gabby center stage and other cowboys in the background riding horses, herding cattle or fight Indians.

Continuing to look around the room, I saw old black and white photos in picture frames hanging on the walls. There were even the old fashion tin-types depicting Gabby with various cowhands. The poses were with Mexican Bandits, Gunfighters, U.S. Marshalls, Jails, Chain Gangs, Steam Locomotives, Old Cars, Wagon Trains and other landscapes including mountains, prairies, and cow herds. Some closeups were labelled with names like - Billy the Kid, Wild Bill, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and old Indians like Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Crazy Horse and others. If these were authentic pictures, Gabby must be over one hundred years old. Maybe these comic books are a true diary or history or autobiography of his life and adventures. But that is unbelievable, I thought.

I picked out one book and opened it to see a cowhand that looked just like me talking with Gabby at the Red Gulch Saloon and Hotel. We tied up our horses at hitching posts out front and walked through the swinging saloon doors. After playing cards and drinking heavily I passed out and they carried me upstairs to one of the rooms to sleep it off.

The next time I woke I was on the floor of the hotel room and now faced an angry crowd, shooting guns at me. Gabby was nowhere in sight. Speaking out loud, I said, "How did I get in this mess?"

My only escape was to crawl out the side window and jump to the adjoining buildings and work my way down the street, away from the angry crowd. As I climbed out the window, my boots slid on the slippery tin roof but luckily caught on a stove pipe jutting out from the slanted rooftop. Adjusting my balance, I began running and jumping from roof to roof, trying to be quiet as cat but making a thunderous noise like a herd of elephants, as my leather boots hit the loosely laid tin.

At the end of the line of old rickety shanties, I saw a porch with stairs and quickly jumped to the landing and ran down the steps.

Looking around, I saw a young boy walking a horse and he said, "Take my horse and return it later", as he eyed the angry crowd and tried to help. I jumped on a white palomino and began galloping out the back of town. Unfortunately, the angry mob saw me and shouted to the gunmen that I was escaping.

Within minutes a posse formed and the angry mob galloped after me down the trail into the hills. Since I had quite a distance on the gang, I periodically lost sight of them as I rounded turns in the dirt road. To my surprise, I saw a trail leading off into the woods and up a hillside and quickly followed it, hoping to lose the gang of adversaries. As I climbed higher up the hillside, the woods opened into a clearing exposing a cave entrance in the rocks, hidden by brush.

Dismounting, I held the reins and led the horse into the cave and covered the entrance with more loose branches. Bats flew off the ceiling as I went deeper into the cave but soon quieted down. A crack of light came in through the vaulted ceiling and I saw a stream of water oozing out of the rocks and filling a small quiet pool. The horse sniffed at the water and began drinking. Evidently the horse could tell from the smell that the water was good enough to drink. I fell to the ground and began gulping water and washing my face with a handkerchief dipped into the cool liquid.

After spending a night in the cave, I retraced my steps and moved toward the entrance. Not seeing anyone, I moved the branches which hid the cave entrance and walked out into the bright sunlight. The horse immediately found some grass and began chomping away. My stomach growled but I was too afraid to think of food before finding a safe way out of this dilemma.

* * *

My palomino was a dusty white compared to Roy Rogers' horse Trigger who was a true palomino and golden cream in color. Now that things were a bit calmer, I patted the horse's mane and thanked him for helping me escape. The horse recognized my affection and puffed his mouth and flapped his lips while raising his head up and down. I guess our gallop away from the angry mob bonded us in a man-beast friendship. Not knowing what the horse's name was, I just called him Snow Cap for his white color.

It was now time to climb down the hillside to the main trail and work my way to another town and find a safe place to hide. I grabbed the reins and began walking down the slope and saw a quite stream for Snow Cap to drink and pick some berries along the bank. As I got closer to the water, Snow Cap started to jump and made a loud snorting sound while backing up.

I quickly looked at the ground a saw a rattle snake hissing and ready to attack. Keeping my distance, I found a forked branch and luckily jabbed at the snake and eventually pinned it to the ground. I then picked up a rock and killed the viper before it did any damage to me or the horse.

As luck would have it, I now had my dinner and decided to start a fire and cook it on a stick. Fortunately, I had once taken survival lessons during my mountain climbing days. After cooking it, the snake meat wasn't half bad. They always say it tastes just like chicken if you close your eyes. In addition, I ate some berries that I found and Snow Cap ate the grass nearby.

After eating, we began walking down the slope again and came out on to the dirt road. I got on my horse and began riding in the opposite direction towards another town and safety, I hoped. Without notice, two of the posse men came out from behind a large rock and held out a gun, telling me to get off the horse and on my knees.

Before I knew it, Snow Cap jumped and knocked the gun out of one man's hand and I quickly took out my six-shooter and shot the gun out of the hand of the other. I couldn't believe that I even knew how to shoot an old six-gun but this is a comic book and I'm supposed to be a seasoned cowboy. Only in the movies they say, as I twirled the pistol and put it back in my holster.

I got off my horse and tied the two bad guys to a tree and quickly began to ride away from the area. Unfortunately, the gun shot alerted other members of the posse who had camped over-night nearby. As I came around a bend, I ran into the other bad guys who seem to come from all directions and I was trapped.

The posse quickly circled around me and told me to drop my guns and get down. The head bad guy, Ringo, told the others to tie my hands in back and asked the gang what they should do with a horse thief?

They all said hanging is the only punishment around these parts. I guess this is what they call a hung jury.

They put me back up on Snow Cap and walked me over to the nearest tree and threw a rope with a noose up over a large branch. Ringo then came up along side me and said, "Do you have any last words?"

I screamed, "YES! I didn't steal any horse. I tied my black horse up at the saloon and later that day, someone switched my saddle to the stolen horse. That's when you found it."

"I don't believe you," said Ringo.

Ringo looked at the posse members and said, "What do the rest of you think about his story?"

They all looked around and said, "Hang the stranger. He's just a wet nose runt and no one's going to care any ways."

With the crowd giving the OK, Ringo put the noose on my neck and said, "Say your last prays boy, cause it's time to meet your maker."

I said, "Stop, you are making a mistake. I didn't steal anyone's horse. I'm innocent".

Before Ringo could answer, there was a loud gunshot that hit the taught rope above my head and split the line in two causing it to drop limp over my shoulder, preventing the hanging. Everyone was stunned at the action and looked for the source.

Up on an adjacent hillside sitting high in a saddle were three cowboys. One I recognized as Gabby and the other looked like Wyatt Earp from the comic books. The third I didn't know but he was sitting on my black horse, Beauty.

Wyatt yelled down at the crowd and said, "The next one that moves I'll shoot dead between the eyes. The boy is telling the truth and Gabby and I have caught the real horse thief while he was trying to sell Johnny's horse to a traveller."

"Being the U.S. Marshal around these parts, I have arrested the thief and will bring him over to the county jail tomorrow."

"Now let Johnny go, untie him and let him ride up here with us."

Ringo said, "I know you Wyatt for being an honest man, but you are interfering with local justice and we think Johnny is guilt."

Wyatt answered, "I sure don't want to interfere with local justice but I have several witnesses at the saloon that saw the thief switch saddles and steal Johnny's black horse and leave the stolen one in its place."

Ringo said, "If that's true, you can take Johnny but we all better hear about the trial and punishment given to the horse thief in the local paper or else you will have to answer to the town folk later and you will have Hell to pay."

As I joined Wyatt, Gabby and the thief we all rode off into the sunset satisfied that justice had been done.

* * *

After riding off, I closed my eyes and awoke back in the Comic Book Shop backroom. I put the book down and walked out to the front of the store where I saw Gabby.

Gabby said, "Well, what did you think about that story? Was it believable? Did you feel like you were right there?"

I said, "I must have fallen asleep because I really thought I was in Tombstone in the last century, but that's impossible."

Gabby replied, "Oh, I forgot to tell you to just read the comic books and not sniff the magic dust. If you get a good whiff, it will transport you back to the old days and you will become part of the story."

I said, "That sounds impossible, but I think that is just what happened and I'm lucky to be alive."

Gabby continued, "An old Indian medicine man gave me the gift of longevity and a secret bag of dust. He said that the dust will make your dreams and imagination become real so you have to be ever so careful what you wish for."

"Now you tell me. Maybe you should put warning labels on your comic books," I commented.

Gabby said, "That's not a bad idea because I can be real clumsy. While writing my diary in a notebook, I wished that there were pictures to go along with my writing and I accidently spilled the dust. The next thing I saw was a pile of comic books with pictures to go along with my tales and some extra dust remained on each of the comic book pages, so you almost can't escape it.".

With that, I waved goodbye and walked out the front door and said, "Thanks for the visit and experience."

Gabby replied, "Come back again and you can read another story from Tombstone Tales. Have a great day sonny."

I left the store puzzled about what happened and mostly thinking that I was just dreaming. Looking for my car keys, I put my hand in my pocket and came out with the skull of a rattle snake. "What"?

The End

Mark Ryan is an author of fictional short stories published in magazines and books available on Amazon.com. You can see more info at his website http://markryanbooks.com

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