July, 2019

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Issue #118

All The Tales

McPherson's Bunch
by Robert Chase

"How the hell you gonna' get him, Marshal Pike? Harry McPherson has ten men riding with him. They killed the bank manager and a deputy sheriff while robbing the bank in Lordsburg. He's leading ex-Confederate raiders and murdering half-breeds. The McPherson Bunch is made up of renegades: Telly Sumner, Long Sam Tobias, and Willy Peacock are riding with him. There's talk even Charlie Manx joined the group. All those guerrillas are sadistic killers," Lieutenant Cory, of the United States Fifth Cavalry, said to Jason.

Cory was a thin, young man from New England, Jason guessed from his accent, with freshly burnt skin from the Southwest's persistent, intense sun. He still wore an army-issue Kepi rather than the wide-brimmed slouch hats popular with the western cavalry units. Cory was West Point all the way; not a problem for Jason, who was used to the breed.

Cory wiped easy sweat—you didn't have to work hard to earn it—from his brow and shook his head back and forth. "No disrespect meant Marshal Pike, but this bunch is experienced fighters, and they know the ground. I don't think you have much of a chance of taking them alive or dead."

Sanders' station was on the trail just the other side of Apache Pass from Fort Bowie near the New Mexico/Arizona border. The whiskey at the station was raw and unsophisticated. It burned its way down Jason's throat and did keep the promise of numbing the ache in his back and flanks. But even the alcohol could do nothing against the heat of the Arizona sun after riding for four days to meet the cavalry troop and this negatively minded lieutenant.

During the summer of 1868, Arizona has contested territory. In 1862 Cochise, Mangas Coloradas, and Geronimo marshaled a force of 700 Apache warriors to defend Apache Pass from a Column of 126 California Unionists trying to enter New Mexico to confront Secessionists. The Union men were easily trapped by the Apaches in the narrow canyon, but the expedition had two, twelve-pound mountain howitzers. These cannons fired canisters that detonated above the heights the Indians occupied and shredded them with shrapnel. Cochise broke off the attack. Despite this show of industrial technology, the Apache wars were to last another twenty years.

Cochise broke his forces up into raiding parties and sent them far and wide to menace white settlers wherever they could. Mangas Coloradas, during a moment of weak judgment, surrendered and was murdered by vengeful whites. And Geronimo, he fought on for another generation, an exceptional zealot, amongst history's worthiest desert warriors; his passion to resist Anglo domination of his land is almost biblical.

But during Cochise's time, 1868, the Southwest was also where certain ex-Confederate guerrillas had a free hand to rob and murder. Or, at least they thought they had. A U.S. Marshal based in Denver was ordered to deal with the situation. He sent a deputy, Jason Pike, to deal with the outlaws, and with a letter to the military urging their cooperation.

Jason went to the window and looked out at the soldiers lounging in the sparse shade they could find outside the station. His eyes hurt from squinting from the sun off the desert and he was tired of the sharp, and bleak outlines of the Southwest's mountain ranges. Jason finished the whiskey, put the glass down, and went to talk to Sergeant Magee. Jason left the lieutenant's question for him to ponder. Cory had been ordered to do as Jason commanded whether he liked it or not.

"Hey Magee," Jason said to an old friend. He turned, and Jason knocked his hat off, dancing around him just out of his reach. His men laughed as the bulky sergeant chased Jason across the yard. Jason jumped over the water trough near the well, and Magee almost fell in. The troopers all smiled at their antics.

Then Jason saw a rider galloping hard to reach the station, his hat waving in his hand; he was one of Cory's pickets. There was a cloud of dust behind him growing fast from down the arroyo.

"Apaches," Jason shouted. "Form a skirmish line."

The lieutenant came outside and saw his scout approaching; he called out orders. Magee was already telling his men to get their weapons. The horses were moved behind the buildings, and a skirmish line of Springfield carbines and hard-faced Federal regulars stood ready before the onslaught of the desert riders. Jason had his Henry repeater and knelt by the water trough.

The Apaches came at the station and broke into two groups circling them. Cory's men fired, but the Apaches were staying out of effective range of the army carbines. The Indians were showing off. It would have been too costly for the Apache war party to engage a troop of seasoned cavalry holding buildings on the desert flats. But Jason's Henry rifle had a 24-inch barrel, and he was an excellent marksman, so he killed one Indian, and they rode off.

There had been about fifty of them, almost naked in the summer heat, with rifles and bows, in age from fifteen to fifty. They were the last generation of warriors of a proud people. The Apaches were short, dark-skinned men as tough as the desert, as splendid as the mountains they lived in, and the stars they lived under.

Reseated inside the station, with another drink Jason was forced to give his attention back to Cory. "What the hell about that, Pike. I don't know how I'm going to get back to the fort let alone go into those mountains and grab a dozen renegades. "You think those Apaches are gonna' let us out—

"Be quiet, lieutenant," Jason said in a calm, deadly voice. "You've got your orders, soldier. I'll set up McPherson's Bunch for you. If that Apache raiding party wants a piece of us, well, we'll give as good as we get."

Cory's tanned face went pale as Jason lectured. He swallowed several times even though he wasn't eating or drinking anything. Cory needed to be reminded army lieutenants, and US deputy marshals were expendable. Jason's plain talk shook Cory, he noticed, but Cory sat still as Jason explained his plan.

Jason rode out from the station just after the sunset, when the air started to cool and Jason felt a lonely chill of fear. Which was strange for him; he guessed it was fear of dying out here alone. Death encountered in the middle of a town street was no more attractive. "I suppose in bed when I'm eighty-four would be best," he muttered. Then he chuckled, not much chance of that, the way he chose to live his life, he surmised.

Jason started to find their tracks in the lower passes just after dawn. There were ten horses and five mules he guessed. Jason held up in a crag off a trail during the hot part of the day and moved on when the sun dropped below the western mountain range. They caught Jason an hour later. There was nothing for Jason to do. A mean looking character just popped up from behind a rock and pointed a shotgun at Jason. He directed Jason up the rocky gully to McPherson's camp.

The men were in dirty and ragged shape. A man about forty-five, medium height and build, rose and came forward. He had wrinkled, tired eyes, but seemed alert and curious. The same was true for most of his bunch. The nucleus of the group was made up of men over thirty-five that had been with McPherson since 62'. They were men who had not been able to gear down from the tension and excitement of the war or accept the surrender of the South. They were still at war, and it did not seem to matter with whom.

McPherson's men crowded around Jason. "My name is Joe Franks," Jason said.

"Franks, yeah, I heard of you," McPherson said, sitting down, a little bored. "supposed to be a smart crook and a good gun-hand. Are you smart and handy with a gun, Franks?" McPherson asked.

Some of them laughed. Jason waited till they were quiet. "I'm good enough with a gun. You thinking of trying me?" He flipped the leather thong back from the hammer of his Colt Army revolver.

"Nope, just asking. You looking for a place to hide I take it?" McPherson asked.

"And maybe some work," Jason answered.

"I'z' a wanna' kill im.' I'z ain't killed nobody all week." None of them chuckled at that. A big man, at least six and a half feet tall and two hundred and fifty pounds, came out of the shadows. His clothes, beard, and eyes were all coal black. He was a dirty and dangerous sight, with two Remington pistols tucked into his belt. When he smiled sadistically, Jason saw broken and green teeth. This was Charlie Manx; a simple-minded brute and prolific killer, a murderer of infamous proportion.

The men standing around Jason backed off away from him. Jason stretched his left arm straight down flexing tendons in arm and wrist. "Charlie, Franks is supposed to be a good man; we can use him," McPherson said.

"Shit! I'z don't like his looks. How'd he find us? I'z a gonna' kill im,'" Manx said.

Jason wanted to kill Manx. Not because his speech, mixing first and third tense was painful, but it would be a positive action for the rest of humanity. But would Joe Franks want to? Jason had captured Franks last week after he tried to rob a bank in Tombstone and left him with the sheriff with the request Franks be kept incommunicado and his arrest not processed for two weeks. That way Jason could use the criminal's identity as a cover. Jason knew even Franks wouldn't turn down a challenge from a creep like Manx. Jason stepped back and looked at all their faces, wondering if any of them would back his play, wondering if this was to be his last mistake.

McPherson stood up. "This is one on one. Charlie, you're on your own if you want him that bad."

Manx was upset, but for only a fraction of a second. Then he couldn't catch his breath because of the four holes Jason's pistol stitched across his chest. The big man took a step back, and they all heard death rattling its way out his throat. Then he pitched forward to the ground.

"Manx's old man used to beat him every day when he was a kid. Charlie never had a chance to turn out any different," McPherson explained.

In the early morning, McPherson walked off alone. Jason followed, then had to wait for McPherson to finish personal business. Jason told him about the gold shipment on the Carrollton stage this week. "Stay here; I'll have to get the others. Willy, Sam, and the Colonel need to hear this."

When McPherson returned with his lieutenants, Willy Peacock asked, "How do you know about this gold?" He was a slight, blond-haired man just under forty. His hollow cheeks and his pale blue eyes showed the suffering, hate, and the frustration of losing the War of Northern Aggression, and the experience had turned him to a life of crime.

"It's Chisum's gold. He's sending it east to a cattle broker to buy 20 Hereford bulls, the English cattle that weigh five to seven hundred pounds more than the Longhorns we breed now. I heard his foreman talking about it at a bar in Carrollton. If we intercept the stage at Sanders' Station, we can get supplies, horses, and the gold."

"What did you say Chisum's foreman's name was?" Sam Tobias asked. This tall, lanky, Texan rode off to the War with John Bell Hood's Brigade. He carried four revolvers, on his waist and in shoulder holsters, and fought from horseback. Tobias lost an eye and picked up a lengthy ragged scar across his face from a Yankee saber during the siege of Atlanta. After the war, when carpetbaggers stole his cattle ranch on the Rio Grande, Tobias took up with McPherson's Bunch.

"I didn't say," Jason said. "His men called him Captain Larsen."

"That's right. Larsen ran a Kentucky regiment of cavalry for John Hunt Morgan; now he runs cattle for Chisum." Tobias spat in the sand.

"I just wish I knew more about you, Franks," the Colonel said. He was Colonel Tellman Asbury Sumner, of Sumner County Georgia. Telly Sumner was a melancholy and unhappy man. His regiment, the 10th Georgia Cavalry, had been mauled in the Wilderness campaign by Custer's Michigan Brigade. Sumner was badly wounded and sent home to recover. Then his plantation was scorched by Sherman's merciless march to the sea. Scavengers murdered Sumner's wife and children as they crouched amongst the ruins of a house his grandfather had built before the American Revolution. Now Sumner rode with Captain McPherson, deferring command, just wishing to follow his destructive destiny out to the end, and be done with the unhappy life fate had handed him.

"I'm just the same as the rest of you," Jason lied and Sumner nodded.

McPherson easily sold Jason's scheme to his bunch, and they all rode the next morning and got to a bluff of sand and tumbleweed overlooking Sanders' Station. The stage was due here at noon, and hopefully, Cory's troop would be following and trap McPherson's Bunch. That was Jason's plan.

The stage rolled in at noon, moving quickly, weapons firing at the cloud of screaming, naked, horseman that was coming up fast. The coach pulled up at the station, and eight people ran into the adobe building. The station keeper came out with a long shotgun and fired at the Apache raiders. Two women, carrying small children, were amongst the group fleeing the stagecoach into the building.

"Well, that's the end of that," McPherson said and started down the slight slope where their horses were. "Let's get out of here. The Apaches will kill all of them, and take the gold." McPherson's men slid down the embankment and mounted up. Jason turned and sat there, on his horse, watching them.

Where was the Cory? Without the cavalry, there was just McPherson's Bunch to save those civilians. "Hey, listen to me!" Jason shouted at McPherson's Bunch. "There's women and little kids down there. Yaw'l know what Apaches do to women, and they'll keep the children," Jason said. "C'mon! I'm a white man and a soldier first, and a thief second. What about you, Captain McPherson?" Jason asked.

The only thing Jason saw that McPherson had that reminded him of his soldiering days was a belt-buckle with 'CSA' on it. Jason's eyes met with McPherson, and he wasn't happy about Jason using his old rank to remind him of the past. Jason supposed thinking about the noble cause he had fought for in the past made the present all the more unpalatable.

"There are fifty Apaches down there, Franks, you must be nuts," McPherson said.

"If we can make it to the station they'll run off rather than storm the building," Jason argued.

"You're not thinking straight, Franks," Long Sam said. "Half of us will be dead after a running fight to the station."

"Yeah, why should we die for nothing?" one of the young ones asked.

The old-timers were quiet. Jason looked at Telly Sumner trying to read his mind. He just stared at McPherson, trying to ignore Jason.

Jason dismounted and walked down the embankment till he was eye level with all them sitting on their horses. Jason addressed the veterans: "For nothing! Did you count your pay at Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville? Or did you fight for a higher ideal?"

Then Jason looked directly at McPherson. "We're a bunch of thieves and murderers. To die well for a noble cause seems an admiral goal at this point."

McPherson leaned forward in his saddle, "What's with you, Franks? Are you some suicidal hero?" Jason heard rifle fire from over the bluff. Damn, where the hell was the cavalry?

"There's gold coin down there and innocent lives to save," Jason said mounting his horse, "I'm riding in. I guess I won't be riding with yaw'l if you think too much of your hides not to do what any decent fighting man knows needs doing."

Jason rode to the top of the bluff and got his Henry repeater out from its scabbard. "Women and kids slaughtered by Apaches 200 yards away, and we do nothing to stop it. I can't live with that on my conscience. Right now all you have to look forward to, as thieves and killers, is a hangman who knows his business.

Jason saw they were starting to listen. "I'm sorry, but truth is truth, and there is no denying that we have a chance to something right for a change. If we ride over this bluff and engage those murderous bastards the least that awaits us is a meaningful and chivalrous death; at best we ride away with Chisum's gold and the last chance to be Southern Soldiers."

That was it; Jason was played out for arguments to convince these renegades to sacrifice themselves. The Bunch glanced at each other. Slowly one drew a rusty saber out. Another checked the action of his old hog-leg, a Walker Colt .44. Long Sam from Texas drew his 1858 Remington Army pistol to check the loads.

McPherson spun his horse around and looked at all of them. He settled his glance on Telly Sumner, and the grizzled old man just barely nodded. Then McPherson glanced at Willy Peacock, who also reluctantly nodded, and drew his rifle.

"Is that the way you all want it? Are we of one mind? He asked.

The Colonel said, "I can't see as any of us have anything better to do than ride down there and save some poor pilgrims' lives and liberate a wealthy rancher's gold." Now the call to battle was infectious, and the younger bandits were drawn in.

Willy Peacock drew a saber and turned to look at two others. "Darryl, Virgil, you're with me. Follow and do as I do." The Crowder brothers nodded eagerly, and before Jason's eyes, a nasty mounted squad of three was created.

The tall Texan, Sam Tobias, looked over his shoulder at two others and they nodded agreement. "What flank you want us on, captain," Long Sam asked?

The others gathered around Sumner. Jason shook his head in amazement. A rabble of bandits had instantly metamorphosed to a military unit intent on a battle with Apache raiders. Peacock was on the right, Sumner in the middle, and the Texan, Tobias would handle the right.

McPherson urged his horse up the bluff, and the rest followed. He leaned over next to Jason. "You started this, so you and I are up front. Got any bright ideas, Franks?"

"Order a slow advance when we reach the flats. When the Apaches see us, they will send half their force to intercept us. The men with repeaters dismount, form a skirmish line, the others hold our horses. After we cut their numbers, we meet them in the saddle with sabers and pistols." "Alright, Franks, I don't have a better plan." McPherson to his men. "Form up, line abreast. The Tenth Georgia Cavalry will be heard from today." He descended the slight slope with his troop following.

They watched as the Indians were riding around the station. They were making a big show of it, as a cat does with a crippled mouse. And that angered the men sitting their horse behind Jason.

At a walk first, then a trot, a canter, a squad of horse-soldiers advanced across the desert flats, riding in a battle-line, and on toward the besieged Sanders' Station. When the Apaches saw them, a group broke away from the main party surrounding the station to intercept McPherson's Bunch.

McPherson's arm shot up, and they all pulled their horses to a stiff, dust-raising halt. Jason jumped down with his rifle and the others armed with repeaters. The other members of the group held the reins of their horses, as the skirmish line started to fire into the Apaches. After they had broken the impetus of the Apache charge, they remounted and spurred their horses to a gallop. The Southerners were shouting the old rebel battle cry and waving pistols in the air; some were ready with sabers.

The Bunch came together with the Apaches amidst billows of dust and howls of pain. Swords and lances lunged and clattered as dealing death was the only order of business. With his Winchester Jason fenced with several spears, then unhorsed two braves with point-blank shots in the close range of battle.

Then Jason saw five Apaches converge on Sam Tobias and he kept shooting, but the Indians kept coming till the last two impaled him on their war lances and forced him off his mount. Tobias fell to lay on his back still shooting up as the warriors jabbed their spears down, into his middle. As Tobias died Jason charged the braves, shooting them both with his pistol.

After a minute of harsh fighting McPherson broke out of the melee, and with a roar, "Follow me!" and a crimson blade held high, galloped for the station. Eight men were left to ride behind the captain.

The Bunch reached the station, running through and over the Apaches around the building. McPherson jumped from his horse to the porch of the adobe structure and motioned for his men to rally around him.

Jason and the others stood in front of the building as a group around McPherson, killing the Apache raiders as they brashly came at the Bunch. Sanders, the old man himself, came out to urge them inside, but McPherson shrugged him off. The Bunch couldn't have delivered a fraction of the damage to the desert raiders that they finally did if they had scampered inside right then. But McPherson's men were flesh too. Jason's ribs were red and sticky from where a war lance had creased his side. The Bunch died one by one as the Apaches continued their attack.

When a brave lunged with his spear at Willy Peacock, he jumped from the porch, grabbed the Apache and pulled him down, off his horse. The two circled each other with knives drawn and swiped back and forth. Finally, Peacock put the brave on the ground and stabbed him with his Bowie knife. As Peacock rose, two Apaches shot him in the chest with arrows. He grabbed each arrow and tried to pull them out. Another Indian shot him in the back with a third shaft. Peacock tried to reach for the third arrow but bent over coughing blood, fell down, and died.

There were four of them left alive when Captain McPherson stopped an arrow and Jason was closest, so he dragged him into the building. The others followed. Jason pulled McPherson to a corner and laid him down, the arrow still rising out of his chest. In the confined space the air was thick with the smell of battle: blood and gunsmoke.

Jason looked around the room at women tending the wounded and loading weapons for the men at the windows. Then Jason felt a weak hand pull at his arm. McPherson's face was chalky and pained. Jason found a pillow to put under McPherson's head, and the soldier turned thief could see the dark, busy room and the shaft embedded in his chest, pulling the life out of him.

"Franks, are you enjoying the glory? He asked, his desperate eyes taking in a woman huddled with two small children, their heads buried in the folds of her dress. He also saw the last of his men fighting at the windows and doorway.

"We did alright, Captain," Jason said. "The Apache raiding party is cut to a third. The frontier will be a little safer now thanks to you and yours." McPherson looked at Jason perplexed. The wrong thing to say to a dying brigand, Jason decided. "I'm Jason Pike, a Federal Marshal, I'm sorry I deceived you, Captain," Jason confessed quietly, right at his ear.

"Yeah, that's great," McPherson said and started to cough up blood. "You're a damn bastard, Pike. I'll be waiting for you to join me in Hell." Then he died.

A distant bugle sounded outside, but the door was forced open. One of McPherson's men rushed to meet the Apache that stood in the doorway. They fought with knives, and the Indian stabbed the outlaw, who collapsed. But then, before he could take a step, a gunshot exit wound opened in his chest. Someone had shot him in the back, and he also collapsed.

"Federals outside," Telly Sumner, at a window, shouted.

Sergeant Magee was first in the door, saw Jason and said, "Hey Pike, you look a little worn."

When the sun was low enough in the western sky for there to be a decent enough shadow on the east side of the building Jason went out there with a bottle, a glass, and a chair. He sat, put his feet up on a crate, and a glass of raw whiskey in his hand. His side was bandaged, and Jason felt tired and still queasy from the day's harsh work. Jason watched Cory's men burying the dead.

Telly Sumner walked to Jason along with the trooper Cory set to watching him. He was the only one of McPherson's men left alive unless of course, you considered Jason one of them.

"They told me you're a Federal, and I'm your prisoner."

"No, you've just been mustered out. Go home and start over. You can build a new family, Sumner. You can still grow old, and tell your children how McPherson's Bunch, the remnants of your cavalry regiment, destroyed this Apache raiding party as a favor for the US Army." Jason offered him the bottle, "Have a drink," and he took it.

Sumner shook his head. "Thanks for the whiskey and my freedom, Marshal Pike. I suppose that gives me a choice not to drink with you. You're a warrior," he said slowly, "but you're not a gentleman." Sumner walked away, with Jason's bottle too.

When the day was ending, Jason walked around the station to see the sunset. The wind moved the clouds, and a bright spot of the sun came to bear on Sanders' Station, casting a beam of brilliance, a fleeting memorial, on the site of a grim battle. Jason had talked a ragged band of rebels into a noble sacrifice, and they were with their warrior gods, but Jason was still here and feeling guilty for it. The sun traveled lower, and a sharp ridge of mountains was outlined in a bright amber rim of short-lived dying light, an aura on the horizon is bordering between Jason's heaven and hell.

Jason felt a loss, a sense of sorrow even for his enemies. The coming of the whites would mean the end of the American Indian way of life. Jason knew their tribal/communal traditions would not merge well with the private property culture of the invading Europeans. Then there would be no more Apache raiders or white renegades. Jason wondered what he would do when the sun finally set on his turbulent frontier.

The End

Author's website: thedoggytales.com, e-mail: bobchas1492@yahoo.com. Robert Chase has a BA in History from Florida International University where he also took a year of creative writing courses taught by James Jones.

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Hired Gun
by R. J. Gahen

Killing is easy once you get used to it. Trouble is, that's also when you step away from the human race. Joe Noble trained the sight of his Sharps .54 caliber rifle over Big John Nash's heart, took in the slack on the trigger, expelled his breath without breathing in, and gently squeezed the trigger. The gun jumped in his hands and Big John, owner of the Slash C ranch, staggered backwards a step, his hand over his heart, then crumpled. He was dead before he hit the ground.

Joe eased back from the hill crest, stood up and scrambled down to his horse. He slammed his rifle into the scabbard and mounted up. Turning his horse southbound, he rode easily for Waco, Texas. He took a circuitous route and after two days, rode slowly into town from the southwest. He pulled up at the Cactus Spike saloon. Taking a deep breath, he looked slowly around for any sign of danger. Stepping down from his horse, he tied it at the hitching rail and walked through the batwing doors. He stepped to the side and stopped, letting his eyes adjust to the dim bar.

Three men sat at a table playing cards and a bartender stood behind the bar. The bartender made eye contact with him, nodded once and poured a shot of whiskey. Joe walked to the bar, spurs jingling and collected the rye, along with the folded piece of paper and a leather pouch that the bartender slid him.

"Virgil got the same note," whispered the barkeep, "five hundred dollars extra to whoever gets him."

Joe nodded and strode to a table in the back corner of the bar. He sat down with his back to a wall. He took a small sip of the whiskey, winced at the taste, unfolded the paper and read the note.

Joe Noble killed for a living. He'd been in the business for twelve years and was very good at it, the best, as a matter of fact. If a man wanted someone to die, and had money to spend, the word and money got to Noble through his network of bartenders and a deal was made. Money was left with a whiskey slinger and it got to Noble through a series of deliveries to one of his trusted men. No matter how closely the Pinkertons and lawmen watched, they never found Noble. Within a month of receiving the money, the target died, usually from a bullet, but sometimes from a knife or a rope. Generally, the name of the intended target was included in the contract. Sometimes, as in this case, there was no name, just a title: Sheriff, Pecos, Texas.

He didn't like killing sheriffs, not out of a sense of right or wrong, but out of a sense of survival. Too often, sheriff killers were hunted down like dogs and killed in almost barbaric ways. Killing a sheriff took special skill, escaping afterward took exceptional skill. He took a sip of whiskey, wincing again as the trail of fire seeped down his throat and into his gut. He thought it over. Virgil Maddison was another paid assassin. Almost as good as Joe himself. He was also a man who took chances, liking to confront men in the open, testing his speed as a gunfighter.

The leather poke he received from the bartender contained five hundred dollars in gold coins. It rested on the table in front of him. He didn't need the money. He had plenty saved up in a Denver bank. He didn't like playing games either. Dealing death was dangerous enough without looking over your shoulder for another dealer. He thought he might take a pass on this one, send the money back and lay up for a rest right where he was. There were several comfortable hotels in Waco and the Blue Bell Café served up some pretty good grub.

He was contemplating whether the need for another drink outweighed the horrible tasting rotgut he'd been served when the sound of approaching horses flowed through the batwing doors. He looked out the window attentively, always interested in passers-by. It paid to know who was in town when you had a lot of enemies. He didn't recognize the four men riding up the street, but when they came abreast of him, he recognized the brands on their horses; the Slash C.

He didn't know what happened in the aftermath of the killing, but the appearance of those four men on Slash C horses was enough for him. For all he knew, they had somehow trailed him, an act that he had trouble believing. He wasn't a coward, but his first rule of survival was to always avoid a fight, if possible; it was a good rule to follow for a man in his business.

Standing, he pocketed the coins and decided he might as well take the job since he couldn't remain there. He slapped two bits on the bar and nodded to the bartender. The nod was the signal that he accepted the job. He turned and walked quickly out the back door.

The bartender watched Noble go, amazed at how insignificant the man was, average height and weight, curly brown hair . . . except for the eyes. They were the iciest blue eyes he'd ever seen. A chill ran down his back as he turned back to shining the never-ending supply of dirty glasses.

Noble's bay gelding stepped lively and he settled comfortably into the worn saddle. His eyes roamed left and right, always looking for the unseen enemy, a rifle barrel from a rooftop, a pistol extended from a window. Hell, he even half expected a bow and arrow to come from around the next corner. His life centered around death. He dealt it out and expected it to be dealt to him at any given moment. He wouldn't, however, make it easy for anyone. He learned to live with it by shutting off all emotion. He had no friends, no lovers, no feelings for anyone.

As the miles slowly fell into line behind him, he thought about his life and how he'd arrived at the present point. Twelve years before, he and Charlie Callahan were as close as brothers. They rode, worked and raised hell together. They were thick as thieves, closer than most brothers. Then Charlie had gone and married Ethel Morgan. Ethel. The girl he, Joe Noble, had fallen in love with and whom he had thought loved him back. After they married, Charlie took Ethel out to Arizona to start a ranch of their own, leaving Joe heart broken and alone. He went on a month long drunken spree. He felt empty, betrayed, deserted. He couldn't forgive either one. He hated them both.

A man approached him after he came out of that drunken melee. Joe was broke, jobless and friendless. He was also mad enough to kill Charlie and Ethel. So, when the man offered him fifty dollars to kill a rival for a young woman's affections, he took the job. It was messy. He'd just walked up to the man, asked him his name, palmed his Colt, and shot him dead in the street. He'd run to his horse, vaulted into the saddle and high-tailed it out of there. He rode hard for thirty minutes, then slowed to a walk, resting his horse. As he walked, it occurred to him that he only had twenty-five of the promised fifty dollars and hadn't figured out how to get the balance. He couldn't go back to town because he'd shot the fellow down in broad daylight in front of at least thirty people.

Queasiness filled his stomach at the thought of the killing, but it had been easy money, and had helped ease his anger a bit at Charlie and Ethel. He resolved to plan better if he ever got the opportunity again. Of course, word got around and sure enough, men started searching out his services. He didn't like the fact that people could recognize him, so he built a network of bartenders. News eventually got around that if Joe Noble's services were wanted, a few words with a bartender in any of fifty towns and a sack of gold coins would ensure the offer got to Noble. He paid the bartenders and their messengers well and they knew that if they ever crossed him, their's would be the next forehead centered in Noble's gun sights.

Over the next twelve years, Joe Noble got better and better at planning his kills and escapes. He also got better at staying out of public view. Only two trusted bartenders knew him. They ensured the messenger network functioned smoothly and efficiently. They hired the other bartenders and messengers. They saw to it that the rules were followed. In the early days, a few of the rye dealers were a little too casual with their tongues. Noble's trusted barkeeps delivered a solid whipping and a promise of a visit by Noble if there were any more slips. There were no more loose tongues and the network remained intact and secure.

Noble traveled easily. The weather wasn't too hot yet, so he camped when there wasn't lodging nearby. He carefully scouted each town before and as he entered, always keeping an eye out for enemies. If he had any doubts or didn't feel right about a town, he simply rode around it and continued on. In Fort Worth, he decided to ride the rails the rest of the way. He loaded his horse on a stock car and studied each passenger. He breathed a sigh of relief when he didn't recognize any of them. He chose a seat at the back of the car where no one could sit behind him. He settled back and pulled his beat up, old, gray hat down over his eyes. His ears stayed attuned to all that was going on around him and his eyes snapped open whenever a footstep sounded nearby. Joe Noble was accustomed to living carefully.

The train pulled into Pecos and no sign of the brilliant orange and red sky remained when he stepped down at the station. He stepped to a corner, boots sounding hollowly on the walk, staying in the dark shadows as he surveyed his surroundings. Two cowboys entered a saloon half-way down the street and a dozen horses stood, tied at hitching rails. No one else moved on the street. Tinny music from an out-of-tune piano played from the saloon.

Satisfied, he walked to the stock car and retrieved his horse. The station master told him the livery stable was one street over on the other end of town. He decided to walk there and get a feel for things. He passed three hotels and four saloons, all open, and four eating houses, only one of which was still open. He tied his horse in front, and went in. The waitress's smile was pretty, so were her bright, blue eyes.

"You got here just in time mister. I was about to lock the door, but I can get you the last of the stew and I know there's a piece of apple pie left. Will that do for you?"

Joe nodded. "That'll be just fine, and coffee too if you have any?"

"Mister, coffee's the first thing we make in the morning and we keep brewing it until closing time. I'll make sure your cup stays full." She smiled at Noble, enjoying the chance to give a lone man her undivided attention. Usually she dealt with at least half a dozen hungry men at a time. This one was handsome, in an odd way, although he did seem a bit aloof and he had the most curious eyes she had ever seen, light blue, almost like ice. She gave him an extra smile as she turned to fetch his food.

Joe's heart softened. He suddenly recalled the strong feelings he'd felt for Ethel and wished for the millionth time that she would have chosen him. That it could have been him to take off with her to Arizona, to start a ranch and raise a family. For a moment he imagined that wishful life with the pretty young waitress.

Joe, you got no business paying that young girl attention. You know you can't have a wife and family in your line of business.

He shook his head angrily and moved to a table in the back of the room where no one could come up from behind. He was the lone customer, but old habits like that kept him alive.

"Here's your coffee mister," she said as she entered the room from the kitchen. She looked him over good as she approached the table trying to decide if she liked what she saw. She couldn't place her finger on what attracted her to him, but there was something intriguing. Those eyes, they looked cold and ancient, as though they'd seen a lifetime of death and tragedy. She shivered, but still, somehow, felt drawn to him.

Noble gratefully sipped the coffee and was mildly surprised at how good it was. He heard boots on the boardwalk approaching the café as the waitress came out of the kitchen with his food. She placed the bowl of stew and plate of pie in front of him.

"That coffee is about the best I've ever tasted Miss."

Molly's eyes lit up with pleasure at the comment and her smile grew even larger.

"Well thank you Mister. My name's Molly. If you need something else, just holler, and I'll keep your cup full." She turned and started back, adding an extra little swing to her hips and blushing at the thought that she would flirt so brazenly with the man.

The approaching footsteps came abreast of the café window. Light from the café flooded the walking man's chest and reflected briefly on the silver star. His face came into view. Noble's hand froze half-way to his mouth. The slow methodical footsteps continued past the window.

"Molly?" his voice was suddenly hoarse.

Molly twirled back towards him, a hopeful smile glowed on her face. "Yes?"

"What's the sheriff's name?"

Her smile lessened noticeably. "Oh. Charlie. Charlie Callahan. He got elected about two years ago now. He seems like a good man. He came from out west somewhere. Arizona, I think."

Joe's hand sank slowly back to the dish. He set the spoon down quietly. His face flushed red and his breath came in short bursts. For twelve years he'd wanted the chance to kill Charlie and now it was there in front of him. He wanted to jump up and shoot him down in the street, but slowly, he regained control of his emotions. Emotion had no place in his business. He would do it the right way and not let his feelings blur the lines.

"Mister? Are you okay?"

Noble looked at Molly. "Yes. Yes, I'm just fine," he said and finished the meal without tasting a single bite. He left four bits on the table and left.

Molly frowned and pouted, then locked the door and went back to finish cleaning up. She'd thought there was a possibility with that one. She sighed when she realized she hadn't even found out his name.

* * *

The next morning, Noble was up early. A coldness crept through his stomach as he stepped into the street. A hollow cavern grew where his heart should be. When he walked through the door of the restaurant, Molly was there. She smiled at him, determined to make an impression. It surprised him. Something fluttered in his stomach.

What the hell?

He shook it off and took a seat next to the window in the corner with a wall at his back. He needed to see Charlie when he came down the street.

"What'll you have this morning mister?"

He glanced up into those smiling eyes and felt his stomach flop again and his cheeks flush.

Molly's smile grew even bigger when she recognized the mutual attraction.

He looked down and said, "just coffee this morning Molly. Thanks."

He was confused by his feelings. He'd never gotten fluttery over a woman since Ethel, and this was definitely not the time to start. He kept his eyes on the street when he heard her approach again. She set the coffee on the table.

"Thanks," he nodded, his eyes averted. He heard her heavy sigh as she turned and left.

Noble stiffened. They were a block away, but he recognized them easily enough. Ethel was still attractive, but thin, too thin. Like she'd missed more than one meal recently. A boy of about eleven years, the spitting image of his father, walked between them, eyes wide, taking in everything on the street. Noble stood and strode to the door. He stepped onto the walk, braced for this long-awaited revenge.

Just as Noble was about to draw and shoot, Charlie stopped, kissed Ethel on the cheek and turned to the boy.

"Joe, you take care of your Ma today and make sure you get all your chores done before I get home. You hear?" he said with a smile.

"Yes Sir."

Noble's heart switched on. Twelve years of emotion erupted from way down deep in his gut. Hatred, jealousy, loneliness, and anger flowed out through his fingertips, toes and the ends of his hair. They were replaced by wonderment and awe. Charlie had named his kid after him, Joe Noble.

A shout rang out, loud and clear.

"Time's up Sheriff! I gave you fair warning to leave. You should've taken it."

Noble saw Charlie turn toward the opposite side of the street, keeping his family behind him. Two men stood in front of Rosie's Saloon. One of them Noble knew instantly, Virgil Maddison. Virgil's hand swept downward.

The whole scene moved in slow motion. Joey was squirming around his father to get a better look at what was happening. Ethel screamed and pushed forward to protect her son, knocking Charlie slightly to the left. Virgil's gun came up blazing, his first bullet went true to the spot where Charlie had been, but was now occupied by Ethel. She went down instantly with a bullet through her heart. Charlie drew his gun awkwardly, trying to pull Joey to safety, but he wasn't quick enough. Virgil shifted his aim and fired again. A bloody rose blossomed on Charlie's white shirt.

Noble yelled in fury and leaped into the street, drawing his gun as he went. Surprised, Virgil turned to meet the new threat, but couldn't bring his gun to bear in time. Charlie fired three times, each bullet tearing through Virgil's heart. He dropped limply to the ground. Noble shifted his aim to the man who had shouted the challenge. His hands were up, face ashen.

"Now wait a minute Mister! This ain't no affair of yours. I'm Matt Douglas. I own the biggest spread around here and was just taking care of some private business. Just back off now and stay out of this if you know what's good for you!"

Noble's eyes darted to Virgil, then back up to Douglas. He glanced at the bodies of Charlie and Ethel, and saw Joey sobbing over them, trying to get them to stand up. He turned back to Douglas who was regaining his color and confidence, seeing that Noble hadn't done anything."

"You're a Sheriff killer Douglas. Plus, you got his wife killed. You don't deserve to live."

"Wait a min—"

But Noble's bullet couldn't be stopped as it bored its way between Douglas's eyes, through his skull and ripped through the brain. Douglas fell to the ground twitching as his brain sent out stray signals to his nerves.

Noble reloaded then holstered his pistol and turned towards Joey. He walked to the boy and gently helped him up.

"It's all right son. I'm your Uncle Joe. If you'll let me, I'd be proud to take care of you now."

Straightening, he led the crying boy back to the hotel. As he stepped up on the boardwalk, Molly stepped forward and put her arm around Joey. Noble's icy blue eyes met Molly's bright blue eyes. He smiled at her and nodded. He accepted her deal. Together the three walked into the hotel.

The End

R. J. Gahen loves writing. He's read westerns his whole life and now thoroughly enjoys putting his own ideas on paper/the screen. Standby for a link to his blog, it's in the final stages of development. Thanks for reading. Enjoy!

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Mourning Mordecai
by Joe Kilgore

There were three and a half people at the funeral. If you don't count the undertaker and gravediggers. You can't count the corpse. Even though he was there, he wasn't really there, was he? I don't count myself. I was only there because I had to be. I'm Sheriff of Concho County. Security at funerals is one of my duties.

Like I said, there were three and a half people at the funeral. One was the widow, Lucinda Hays. Another was the Hays's neighbor, Tom Canter. The third was Reverend Ogilvy. I count him because, in truth, he's not at every funeral. Some people ask him to say a few words. Some don't. So he gets counted. The half—and the reason I call him half is because he's no bigger than gun belt high—was Billie Palmer. He's the orphan the Hays adopted after Comanche Bob killed his mother and father. We hanged Bob, and Billie got adopted. Some said it was because Mrs. Hays couldn't conceive. Gossip is the same everywhere, I guess.

Reckon I ought to say something about the deceased and how we came to be plantin' him today. Mordecai Hays was a former supply sergeant turned dirt farmer. He had a small place a few miles from Paint Rock, the county seat where I abide. It didn't amount to no more than a house, a barn, some livestock and a passable crop of broomcorn or two. But I guess it was his castle just because it was his.

Unfortunately, two nights ago, Mrs. Hays found Mordecai behind the barn in a state, the likes of which, no human ought to find another. He was on his side in the scrub grass. There was a knife wound in his neck that might or might not have been the one that finished him. But the really unpleasant part was that his pants were around his ankles and some of his privates were in his mouth, with the rest of them wedged up his backside. Lucinda—I'll use her Christian name just to keep this from being so formal—hitched the mare to the buckboard, pulled the boy out of bed, and hurried into town to tell me what happened. She said she felt sure the Indians got him.

That's possible, I guess. The Lipan Apache still raid around these parts. But frankly, it struck me as odd. If it was the Lipan, why were Lucinda and the boy not harmed? Or taken? I couldn't keep that question out of my head as I rode out to see for myself what was left of Mordecai Hays.

It was still dark when I got there. There would be another hour before the sun came up. The body was behind the barn where she said it was. And seein' it was a damn site more gruesome than hearin' about it. But I needed to look for more than a person can spot in the dark. So I walked my roan gelding into the barn. Then I sat down on a hay bale, rolled a smoke, and waited for the morning light.

Okay, I'll admit it. I dozed a bit. But the sun hadn't been up long when I was bending down, holdin' my nose with one hand and runnin' my other over the thin and stony soil around the late Mordecai Hays. There was lots of blood on the ground, an empty, overturned jug of corn liquor, but no tracks. No hint of hooves that would indicate a raiding party. If an Apache did this, he did it alone. Which was definitely possible. But it was also possible that Apaches had nothin' whatsoever to do with it.

I determined I'd withhold my doubts about the widow Hays's story until after the funeral. If she was tellin' the truth there was no point in me addin' to her grief by questionin' her. If her story was bogus, I'd find out soon enough.

When Reverend Ogilvy said all he had to say, and it appeared everyone was gonna leave the gravesite, I watched Tom Canter step over and say somethin' to the widow before he walked away. Apparently it comforted her because she smiled, and even from the distance, I could see her lips forming the words "Thank you." After she and the boy got into the buckboard, I approached them.

"Mrs. Hays, a word if you don't mind."

"Certainly, Sheriff. And thank you for coming."

"No need to thank me ma'am, it's one of my duties.

"I see."

"I just wanted to let you know ma'am, I didn't find any tracks out at your place, you know. Nothin' to indicate a Lipan raidin' party was there."

"Well, then I assume it must have been just one Apache. A renegade perhaps."

"That could be, ma'am. But even if it was only one, it seems kind of strange that he didn't try to get into the house."

"Maybe he didn't know there was anyone else there, Sheriff. All the lights were out. Mr. Hays usually did his drinking after the boy and I retired."

"That's probably it, ma'am. I just didn't want you to be concerned about any raidin' party comin' back or anything."

"I appreciate your concern Sheriff. But I have a rifle at home. And I know how to use it."

"Glad to hear it, ma'am. But if it was a renegade, he'll keep movin' south. No need to worry yourself."

"Thank you for your concern, Sheriff. Good-bye."

As I watched her and the boy leave, I realized the biggest concern I had was finding out who really killed Mordecai Hays. So I decided to spend a minute or two with Reverend Ogilvy. Though I must admit I didn't look forward to it. Piety and me have never been on a first-name basis.

"Reverend, can I walk with you for a minute?"

"Certainly, Sheriff. In times like these, we all need one another's support."

"Well, I don't know about that, but I'm sure they all appreciated your words."

"Yes, the 23rd Psalm always seems to provide both strength and comfort."

"I guess so, Reverend, but frankly if I was gonna walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I'd just want to be sure I had a full load and one in the chamber."

"Bullets won't be of any help to you Sheriff when it's your time to go. We all are called eventually."

"True enough. I just want to make sure it's the good Lord doin' the callin'. Not some yahoo with a belly full of liquor and a double-barrel full of buckshot."

"He works in mysterious ways, Sheriff. Mysterious ways."

"That he does, Reverend. But that's not what I wanted to talk to you about. I wanted to ask you if the Hays family was regular church goers."

"No. In fact, I can't say I ever recall them attending church on Sunday."

"That a fact? Well, don't you think it's kinda odd then that you would be asked to speak at the funeral?"

"Not really, Sheriff. When a beloved family member passes, it's not uncommon for those left behind to do what they can to pave the way for the departed's accent to glory."

"You pretty sure Mordecai was going to ascend and not descend, Reverend?

"Only the Lord knows, Sheriff. We're all sinners. I tend to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Even you."

"Well, it just seems to me that a couple who would adopt a child would look to the church to round out his upbringin'."

"Judge not, lest ye' be judged, Sheriff."

"I'm not judging, Reverend, just explorin'. That's what a lawman does in a murder case."

"But I heard Godless heathens were responsible, Sheriff. Is that not true?

"Probably, Reverend, probably so. I'm just doin' what is called due diligence. Duty requires it. I'll bid you good-day then."

"Good day, my son. Vaya con dios, as our brown brothers say."

When somethin' sticks in your craw, you gotta deal with it. That's why later that night I was camped on a steep slope overlookin' the Hays place. I didn't light a fire 'cause I didn't want to be seen. I wanted to do the seein'. Even though I was wrapped in a heavy poncho, the wind on the high plateau made the night downright uncomfortable. What was even worse, nothin' of note happened.

But there's something to be said for stubbornness. That's why I was there the next night too. The night I saw a lone rider walk his mount out of the mesquite trees west of the farm. He crossed the open ground in front of the house and took his horse inside the barn. Then he walked back and tapped lightly on the front door. No lights came on. But the door opened a crack and he stepped inside.

I could have gone down then, barged right in. But bad things can happen in the dark. Shots can go anywhere. Somebody innocent might get hurt. Though frankly, innocence didn't appear to be in attendance. Still, I decided to wait.

He left before sunrise. Seemed to be in no hurry. I followed him, staying out of sight by weaving through the live oaks and elms until he came to a clearing two hundred yards from his own spread.

In the clear coolness of the morning, sound carries. "Tom," was all I had to shout before he reigned in and turned my way. "Kind of early to be out for a ride, ain't it?"

"Calf got out last night. I've been looking for it."

"Calf get into the Hays house, did it?"

He just sat his horse. He looked like he was tryin' to talk, but it was obvious he didn't know what to say.

"Keepin' an eye on things is part of my job, Tom. Is comfortin' widows part of yours?"

"Sheriff, it's not what you think."

"Oh, I think I know what it is, Tom. Lucinda's a fine lookin' woman. And she is single now. But from what I saw, she didn't appear to be surprised to see you."

"I wanted to make sure she'd be okay. What with the Apaches and all."

"That's neighborly. But you didn't check on her the night before. The night of the funeral. Maybe you waited a day out of respect, is that it? Or maybe you thought that the next night the coast would be clear."

"Sheriff, I tell you it's not what you think. Lucinda—Mrs. Hays—is a good woman. A fine woman. It's complicated, that's all."

"Love, or lust, ain't all that complicated, Tom. Let me run it down for you. There was no raidin' party, and no single Apache. There were no unshod pony tracks. None. And even if it had been one lone renegade, he'd-a-been in that house and atop that white woman moments after dispatchin' Mordecai. The mutilation, though distasteful I'm sure, was done to make it look like Lipan work. A lazy peace officer might have bought that. But I'm a good bit more curious than I look, Tom."

Canter's lack of response told me all I needed to know.

"Suppose we amble on back to the Hays' place and see just how much of this Miss Lucinda is willing to confirm or deny."

Canter rose in his stirrups. "There's no need of that, Sheriff. She had nothing to do with it. I'm to blame. Me alone. You see, I'm in love with her. Have been for some time. I wanted her to leave him. Begged her to. I asked her to leave with me. Told her I was willing to pick up stakes and go wherever she wanted. I think she really wanted to. But she was too fine a person for that. She said she just couldn't do it as long as he was alive. Couldn't break her marriage vows and all. Well, I couldn't help it, Sheriff. I just had to be with her. So I killed him. And cut him up to make it look like Indians. She still thinks that's what really happened. She's not involved."

With my hand on my Colt, I said, "We'll head back to town then. You're not gonna give me any trouble, are you, Tom?"

He seemed to slump into his saddle as he said, "No Sheriff. You won't have any trouble from me."

Tom Canter was in a Paint Rock cell no more than a day and a half. That's how long it takes gossip to make the circuit in Concho County. That's how long it took for Lucinda Hays to turn up in my office.

"I hear you're holding Tom Canter."

"That's right. Holding him for the murder of your husband."

"Tom didn't kill Mordecai, Sheriff. Tom is the gentlest man I know. He could never do anything like that."

"Love makes good men do bad things, Mrs. Hays. He was smitten with you. Your husband was in the way. He was convinced that with Mordecai gone, you'd welcome his advances. I have to admit, from what I saw a couple of nights ago, he was probably right."

"You saw Tom at my place the other night?"

"Just part of my job, ma'am. In fact, I wondered for a bit . . . if the two of you weren't in on it together. But Tom set me straight. He said you knew nothin' about it."

"Tom Canter is lying, Sheriff. He's a sweet, wonderful, incredible man who's lying through his teeth."

"Murder's not something you lie about, ma'am. There's no future in it."

"He's lying Sheriff. That's not something I believe. That's something I know."

"Well, with respect ma'am, that's something you just can't really be sure of."

"Yes, I can, Sheriff. I can be sure Tom is innocent, because I killed Mordecai."

When you've been in the law enforcement business as long as I have, believe me the last thing you want or need is two different people confessin' to the same crime.

"Maybe you should have a seat, ma'am, and let's go over this whole thing from the beginnin'. Are you up to that?"

"Yes, Sheriff, I am. I'll tell you everything."

I'll spare you the word-by-word interview I conducted with Lucinda Hays because frankly, it was the kind of conversation I never expected to have with a woman, and one I most fervently hope I'll never have again. But I will summarize it for you. According to the widow, Mordecai Hays was an evil bastard. He kept his wife out on his farm and seldom, if ever, brought her with him into town because it would have been obvious someone had been beatin' the hell out of her. That someone was Mordecai. Not only was he a wife beater, but accordin' to Lucinda he was also a sodomite. She confessed to me that in all the years they were married, Mordecai never once engaged in sexual congress the way most normal people do. That was the real reason she never had children of her own. She allowed as how perhaps it was a holdover from his many years in the army. But that was cuttin' him a lot more slack than I cared to. Anyway, to make a long and sordid story short, she said she eventually had enough of the perversion and the whuppins', and stabbed the wretch in the neck. Then carved him up thinkin' it would look like Apaches did him.

Her story sounded plausible enough. But so had Tom Canter's. I thanked her for her confession and asked her if there might be someone who could look after her adopted boy for a while. She said she had left him with Reverend Ogilvy at the church, and he'd indicated the boy would be fine there until she came back to pick him up.

I deposited Lucinda Hays in one of our cleaner cells, out of sight of Tom Canter's, and told her I'd be back later. Then I saddled the roan and went for a ride.

I've found that a man can do some powerful thinkin' on the back of a horse. Least this man anyway. As I rode, I mulled over things in my mind. It appeared that Tom was lyin' to save Lucinda. Of course, maybe Lucinda was lyin' to save Tom. And there was always the chance that the two of them planned the whole thing together—the murder, and the two confessions, if nobody bought the Apache story.

Thinkin' eats up the miles. Before I knew it, I found myself back out at the Hays' farm. And since I was there, I thought I might as well look around and see if there was anything I might have missed the first time. I'm not what you'd call perfect. As you've probably gathered by now.

I hadn't looked inside the cabin when I was at the farm before. The front door was locked, but the side window wasn't. Since this was still a murder investigation, I crawled in through the window and didn't feel shameful about it.

The place was pretty clean. It looked like the kind of place a man, a woman and a child would inhabit. Some dishes had been left on the sideboard to dry, and there was a pile of clothes in one corner that hadn't been taken to the creek to wash yet. I used the toe of my boot to sift through them and to make sure they weren't piled there to hide somethin'. There was nothin' under them. But there was somethin' at the bottom of the pile that stopped me cold. Now, I'm not a man who shocks easily. But the more I looked, and the more I thought, the more I was sickened at what some men are capable of. Men like Mordecai Hays.

Returnin' to the jail, I took Mrs. Hays out of her cell and brought her back to the office.

"Mrs. Hays, I'm prone to believe part of your story."

She heard me. But chose not to comment.

"The part I'm not sure I believe . . . is that you killed your husband."

"But Sheriff, I swear—"

"Just hear me out before you say anything else. I went back to your place. Looked around inside your cabin. You locked the door, but not the window. That's neither here nor there. The point is, I saw the laundry you hadn't got around to washin' just yet. All the laundry. Includin' your boy's long johns. That's right, the white ones with the blood on the back-flap."

Her mouth opened, but I didn't give her a chance to speak.

"Let me postulate one other way this whole thing might have happened. Let's say Mordecai hit his jug pretty hard that night. So hard he passed out. Lets say your boy found him. Found him at the one time Mordecai was vulnerable. The one time he couldn't do anything more to the boy. And let's say the little fella realized this was his chance. Probably his only chance to make sure he'd never be hurt again."

Lucinda had started to cry silent tears that slowly left trails down her cheeks.

"Looked at that way, maybe the mutilation wasn't done to put the blame on marauding heathens. Maybe it was done to show everyone what he couldn't bring himself to talk about. Maybe it was done to show everyone the kind of monster Mordecai really was."

By now, she was whimpering out loud. Her legs were quivering and I was afraid she was gonna fall down. So I helped her into a chair.

"You know, good people sometimes do things they shouldn't . . . trying to help people they love. Maybe that's what Tom was doin.' Tryin' to help you. Maybe that's what you were doin.' Tryin' to help the boy. But me, I have to sort it all out. That's my cross to bear."

"Sheriff, please, I—"

Again, I cut her off. "Here's the way I practice the law, ma'am. I don't just go by what I think happened. I prove it to a dead certainty, or I don't charge anybody with anything. I can't prove Tom killed Mordecai. I can't prove you did. And I'm in no mood to browbeat a child who's gone through what your boy's gone through. So, I'm inclined to take the position that some Apache devil did do Modecai in. Doubt that we'll ever find him. Probably in Mexico by now."

Round about sundown, Tom and Lucinda gathered the boy from Reverend Ogilvy. On the way out of town, they looked my way. I tipped my hat in farewell.

Now some might think—when it comes to the exact letter of the law—that perhaps the deceased didn't really get his due. But I tell you what I think. I think Mordecai Hays got what we'll likely all get eventually—in one way or another—justice.

The End

Joe Kilgore's short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies, creative journals, and online literary publications. He's also the author of four published novels. You can read more about Joe and his fiction at his website: https://joekilgore.com

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Blue Fire
by James Martin

Looking at my watch it was only quarter till five but already daylight. It still amazed me how early daybreak came in these northern territories. Montana was the most beautiful place I had ever laid eyes on. The sun not even visible over the ridge of the mountains yet was revealing her colors. Rose, purple, orange and many shades of each shining through the high clouds beat everything else I had ever seen. God sure used a different palate when he painted this country .

The twenty-one jewel watch I held in my hand was pretty much the only possession I owned in this world. Hat, boots, two 44 cal. pistols and a Winchester rifle doesn't say much for twenty eight years of living. With a little luck that was all about to change. Luck was not the right word for Pa had raised us to depend on the Lord and hard work to get by in this world. Those Carolina mountains were a hard place to scratch out a living.

This mining was hard work but I was used to that. Plowing behind a mule, logging timber, a cattle drive from Texas to Gallatin Valley Montana will toughen up a soft man and make a seasoned man hard as a fire burnt oak limb. No, mining the blue gems wasn't the question. The question was could one man hold onto a claim, hundreds of miles from the nearest law against lawless men

They had their chance, when the old Indian had come wanting to trade the blue fire. He was just another old Indian to the cow hands, someone to be laughed at and despised. The Indians by this time, the 1880s, were pretty much a shell of what they had been when white men first came to the west. It was before my time but I had heard the stories of the raids and the fear early settlers had of the Sioux and the Blackfeet. Raiding parties still occasionally came but the white man had done his work; the relentless army, disease, and liquor had taken its toll on the Indian race. The Indian who had lived the same way for thousands of years was not equipped to handle these things and it was decimating them. Some were fighting, some were being moved to reservations, and some were reduced to begging from the white man to meet needs that he didn't even have before the white men came.

He came wanting to trade "blue fire" for some fire water . The old Indian had taken the small stones, the largest one as big as a pinto bean, and put them in his mouth then taken them out to show the other men. To them it was a wet rock, like all the rest that are everywhere else you go in Montana. I happened to know a little more though. Pa, who had knowledge of such things, had found a pocket of these very stones back in the North Carolina mountains while digging clay for medicine. Those had happened to be yellow but he explained to us boys how the color was affected by the type of minerals the stone was formed in. That's how you could have the same kind of gemstone but different colors. He had taken the stones, shaped them on a small man powered grinding wheel and made Ma a beautiful broach. We Fitzpatrick's didn't have much but we had received much in the way of strengths and talents. Here I was, 2500 miles from home and had run up on Sapphires just like back home.

Six months had passed since that day. Five days through the mountains to the area the Indian said the stones came from, a long hard winter, and a passel of trouble from lazy men who want to be rich. The country through which I traveled was just like it was described by Shooteni the blackfeet Indian I had met in the Gallatin valley. Dry sagebrush filled valleys, high mountains with huge exposed boulders that looked like a pack of giant children had been playing with them and had suddenly just left. Huge stacks, mounds, spires, some stacked standing straight up some laying down but no stone standing alone. Then another valley but the soil had a different look to it, changing from a dry silty grey powder to gem soil. Gem soil is a crumbly type of material that looks like clay until you touch it. Crumbling easily in the hand it is like a rotten type of limestone and no matter where you are this is where a man is apt to find gemstones of all kinds. Small loose gems are sometimes found but the real prize in this type of area are small pockets of large gems clumped together in formations. Loose gems are found on creeks and rivers as they have been washed.

When I arrived at the creek the easy work began, finding and mining the gems. The hard work would come later, keeping them from no good thieves who were more than willing to kill a man for riches.

Gold was already being mined in this part of Montana but the treasures of gems was not yet widely known. Gold rushes has already begun and played out in places such as California. Men who left homes and families for the thought of striking it rich, men who had gold fever they called it. Easy money and an easy life they thought , but it seldom turned out that way. Hard work and some business sense is what it took to get rich at the gold fields and most didn't have either. The ones who did well were the ones who bought up claims and paid men to work their mines, not just individual claims. Those whose business it was to sell and provide the material needs of the miners also did well. Restaurant owners, mercantile owners, gold buyers all did well. It's hard not to do well selling your goods as fast as they come in at 1000 percent profit.

The average miner lost interest when the town settled down and the excitement waned. Hard work and investing money had no allure for these men so when things slowed down they would sell still valuable claims for pennies on the dollar and move on to the next strike. Fever is the right word, the love of gold interferes with right thinking.

First thing was to pan the creek for sapphires. The ones I was after would not be in the creek but the creek would tell where to find them. Rock creek happened to be the creek's name and it was fitting. Rocks of all sorts filled the creek, everything from boulders to marble sized rocks. The sapphires would be down in the pebbles in the bed of the stream. This creek, like most, basically had a bedrock foundation. The sapphires were denser and heavier than the gravel layer that held them. Rains and wind would batter the mountains and cliffs and as the rock and soil of the cliffs would give way the pockets of sapphires would be washed into the creek. They would then tumble along with the current and be busted into smaller pieces and polished by the never ending scouring action of the water until they settled into a quiet still place in the creek. There they took their place amidst the gravel finally settling down between the gravel and the bedrock bottom of the creek.

Panning for sapphires is similar to panning for gold. The main difference is the objective of gem panning is not to get the dirt and rocks out of the pan to get the gold but to agitate the gravel so the sapphires wind up in the middle of the screen down at the bottom. The gem screen is a box about four inches high and a foot square with a piece of hardware cloth for the bottom. Gravel is scooped into the box and the box is submerged in the creek until all the gravel is under water. The box is dropped slightly which suspends the gravel in the water then the box is picked up to catch the gravel again. Shaking the box from side to side loosens any dirt and allows it to leave with the water when the miner lifts the box. Several times of washing will remove clay or soil and if done properly the sapphires will be in the center of the box against the screen with the lighter rocks and gravel on top. Quickly dumping the box upside down will reveal sapphires on the top of the pile.

Rock creek ran through a tight valley, really more a cut than a valley. The orange, crumbly cliffs ran right down to the water in some places and was never more than a hundred yards or so away at its farthest point. The cliffs were worn and sloped so there was not much danger from slides but farther up trees clung to the mountain side. Trees that grew on such a steep slope that the trunks of the pines were almost parallel with ground that held their roots.

Working up both sides of the creek and keeping count of the number of sapphires found in each washing it didn't take long to locate where my mining should begin. Four, seven, nine, moving about 30 feet up stream with every washing it was easy to cover a lot of ground in a short time. Nine, nine, eight, fourteen sapphires in the outside bend of the creek but that didn't count for much as that's where most will naturally end up washing into anyway.

Two days of washings had allowed me to cover about a mile and a half of ground. Hard work, back breaking work, but good work. Cold creek water to drink, game to be had for food, cool nights with more stars in the sky than a man could imagine, and gems at the end of the trail. Then a box came up with twelve sapphires. Not many more than what I had been getting but the stones were much different. Large stones, one almost as big as the one I had got from the Indian. Cutting the distance down from thirty to twenty feet between washings the number steadily increased. Fourteen, fifteen, seventeen. For about two hundred yards the number increased and the size and quality of the stones stayed the same. Twenty two, Twenty three, SEVEN! There it was, the pocket I was looking for. Running five more washes to be sure, the number of stones stayed the same, around seven or eight small stones.

Backtracking to the place I had the washing with the most stones I started to carefully study the mountain side. Not much different than the rest of the creek: the cliff was about thirty yards from the creek, red soil that seemed to be hard like limestone but when picked up it could easily be crumbled in the hand. Scratching around on the sloping cliff face it soon became clear what was going on, a narrow band of white quartz rock running through the cliff. The band was about three feet wide and ran at about a forty-five degree angle out of sight both ways, up and under ground.

Two weeks and five pockets of crystals later the trip was proving to be worth my while. Large sapphires encrusted in other crystals: green, purple, and yellow crystals. I had been keeping a close eye out for any signs of people but so far I had seen only a small family band of Indians traveling down the creek who paid the "crazy" white man digging in the mountain no attention. But it was bound to happen then it did!

They saw me before I saw them and I scolded myself for my carelessness. Three men, dressed rough, fully loaded with pistols and rifles. The three looked down from their horses at me in the face of that cliff and I was just bringing out another pocket of crystal. I could see a sapphire cradled in the side of the purple crystal and what I could see exposed was at least thirty karats. Guess that's why I was distracted, riches had me not thinking right.

"Don't know what that is mister but I think we will be taking it. Been watching you for a week now, and didn't know what you were doing but any man working hard as you were had to be onto something."

It was a cool morning but sweat was trickling down the back of my neck. "I don't want any trouble so why don't you three just ride out and keep going where you was headed."

"No sir, we aim to have what you've been mining for and being that there is three of us and one of you I figure we are going to get it. Don't expect what you have is worth you dying for."

This was a rough country and not much law in it yet but If a man is willing to kill he better be prepared to be killed also. I figured talking time was over.

Two were up close but one of the men hung back a piece and I noticed he kept the man doing the talking between me and him. He was a cautious man, which many times—while not the leader—they are actually the most dangerous kind. I had the feeling these men would not let me ride out to tell the tale of how I was robbed.

The problem was solved for me when the second man up close reached for his pistol. Before he cleared leather I had dropped the crystal and put two .44 slugs into his chest. Pa always said, stay out of trouble but if a man forces you to shoot him put two into him for good measure. The leader was surprised by the second man drawing and this gave him an opportunity to do the right thing and sit pat. He wasn't that smart though. He drew and would have been dead in the saddle but for his horse rearing up. I am more inclined to shoot a bad man than a good horse so I waited for the horse to get his front feet on the ground before I put two into the front man.

This only left the cautious man. I had been fortunate this far. These three had found what they thought was a miner, who though were hard working men were often better with a pick than a pistol. They had assumed it was easy pickings so despite having time to plan had done no such thing. To fail to plan is to plan to fail. I had been shielded from the third man by his two friends but now that they were down I had to find some cover.

Diving back into the small cave I had made in the cliff I hunkered down into the small indenture in the floor my feet had made while working. It wasn't much, maybe six inches deep where the soft rock had been crumbled and packed down but it was sure better than being out in the open. The cliff was soft so there was no danger of him shooting into the cave walls hoping for a ricochet. Where was he?

Then I saw him. He had crossed the creek and was sitting on his horse about two hundred yards away just as casual as anything you have ever seen. He knew I only had a pistol and maybe could have hit him with a pot shot but it wasn't likely. I got the impression from him sitting there that he wasn't scared a bit, it just wasn't an advantageous situation for him. Then he did something that confirmed what I had been thinking about the man. He put a knuckle to his hat like I had done a thousand times to say I'll be seeing you later. There was no doubt I would. I just wondered would I see him before he saw me!

The End

James Martin was born at Ft. Riley Kansas October 9th 1972. Moving to North Carolina soon after, he lived there until the age of 44 when he and his family moved to Three Forks, MT. There his passion for western literature was reignited and he began his writing career. He has a wife, Dawn, and two children, Matthew and Sara Kathryn.

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by Timothy Dusenbury

A couple of boys found it shading under the schoolhouse. They threw rocks at it till it reared up and started rattling. Then that Twillich boy went and found a big stick and got it to strike, which was when the girls saw it and started screaming. Mr. Dorfbruder came strutting out of the schoolhouse with his round bottom and his small feet. When he saw what the trouble was his eyes got all big and his face blotched red.

He called all the children back into the schoolhouse though they'd just begun recess. And he closed the door, something they never do in September. After a while Katie Haley raised her hand and asked could they open the door. You can just imagine how hot it was. But he said no, they needed it shut for a little while longer.

He kept the three boys late, writing out some Latin quote one hundred times. But when they asked him what it meant, he declined to tell them.

"You would not heed it if I told you," he said. "But one day, I trust, you will understand."

Word got back to the parents about the snake and the closed door and all. Next Sunday Henry Keirn, one of the boys' father, saw Dorfbruder after church and asked what the Latin phrase meant.

"They are our enemies only because we make them so," Mr. Dorfbruder said. "Seneca the Younger."

"Was he talking about rattlesnakes?" Keirn asked.

Mr. Dorfbruder had a sort of milky face that blotched up red whenever he was feeling something. He was growing a goatee, maybe to help him hide this, but you could still always tell.

"Anyway, teacher," Keirn said, "next time couldn't you just whip them boys?"

"The world is already consumed with brute force," Mr. Dorfbruder said. "One of the few occupations that does not rely on it is the teacher's. I, for my part, intend to keep it so."

"Well, I'm pretty sure them Romans just whipped folks when they got out of line."

* * *

When young Tom Van Hout had married Theresa Carlisle the town had written off to her teacher"s college in Youngstown, OH, asking for a replacement at the schoolhouse. When the teacher's college replied that they were sending Matthais James Dorfbruder folks were surprised.

They'd always assumed that teacher's college was for young women who were smart or spirited or maybe just biding their time. Still, they said, a man with a name like that ought to be six feet tall and have some money. Then Dorfbruder had stepped off the train with one suit of clothes and a damp handshake, and folks had just swallowed and hoped for the best.

Among the first thing he'd mentioned was that his people were Anabaptists. He himself had left the Amish religion to pursue learning, he explained, but he remained a strict pacifist. Because of this, he assured them their children would not be whipped or subjected to competitive games.

Everyone was respectful, but Dorfbruder had a way of talking that made people not know what to say. Missie Burton had asked him how was his room.

"Oh, about the midparts of fortune," Dorfbruder said.

"That's good?" Missie asked.

"Yes, neither Spartan nor Epicurean for me."

Missie had smiled as if she'd understood. There was a lot of that with Dorfbruder.

After he'd been had to dinner folks didn't mind much about him. The children didn't speak ill of him and he sang loud at church.

Then there was Blanche Miller. She was Walt Miller's widow. After he'd passed, she'd sold their place and we all thought she'd move back east, but she'd moved into town and worked with the mail at the depot.

I guess she didn't have much family. She was taller than Dorfbruder and heavier too, by her looks. She was smart and read books and smiled a lot and always had a kind word.

She was the only person, man or woman, who seemed to be able to hold her own with him and what was more he looked happy around her. They were seen at the Sunday school picnic and again at a dance—Dorfbruder didn't dance himself, but had attended. Then one Sunday afternoon they were seen walking together. We all thought there was a wedding not far, then there was that business with the snake.

One Sunday around then Joe Bolson showed up at church with his hair combed back. He was a top hand on the Gossett place, a young man just shy of thirty. Joe was tall and lean and all the young girls sitting up front blushed and looked down when he walked by to take a seat.

After church he was outside talking with Blanche. He'd known her husband, and stood there smiling and conversing modestly, holding his hat in his hands.

About six that same day I was on my way somewhere.

"Good evening," said a thick voice behind me. I turned around and saw Dorfbruder. He was sitting on Ma Edel's back porch. His face was all blotched and his eyes were as dark as a snared rabbit's.

"Nice evening to be out," I said.

"Drunk," he said a little loudly.

"Well, it might be a nice evening for that too."

He looked at me as if waiting for me to say something.

"How's Miss Blanche?" I asked.

"Spurnful," he said. "Inaccessible," he added. "Unattained."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"Your sorrow makes no difference to my lot."

I thought that was pretty frank for a pacifist. So I said, "Why can't you get Miss Blanche? You're a young fellow with an education."

"Tell me," he said. "Do you think all pacifists are cowards?"

"I knew some cowards in the Army," I said. "Not many. But you're the only pacifist I've met to date."

"And what is your opinion of us, knowing me?"

"Oh, it's not mine to judge, Mr. Dorfbruder," I said.

He looked down at his shoes.

"I am not a coward, sir," he said without looking up. "I am small for a man and uncomely. I understand that. I love the noble Greeks and Romans. I love the learning of the pagans and I spared myself no pains in pursuit of them. Yet I retain my peoples' disdain for war." He looked up at me. "Violence begets only more violence."

I nodded. When you said it that way it wasn't difficult to think of examples.

"I have no money" he said. "And my manner makes people uneasy. In spite of all this, I am sometimes vain and I am ambitious. All of these things I grant, but I do not believe that I am a coward."

"No," I said.

"There was no need for anyone to kill that snake."

"No," I said. "I don't suppose there was."

He looked down, "But I am afraid of snakes."

"Oh yes?"

"I always have been," he said. "My brothers used to taunt me with them, used to pick them up by the tail. But does that make me a coward?"

That depends, I wanted to say but didn't. I nodded a couple of times, as if thinking.

"Goodnight, Mr. Dorfbruder," I said, thinking about that letter we'd be writing to Youngstown Teacher's College.

He didn't respond.

* * *

The next day, after he'd sent the children home for lunch, Dorfbruder was sitting on the schoolhouse steps, reading, when two horsemen walked into the yard and stood their horses. Dorfbruder looked up when their shadows crossed him. It was Joe Bolson and another hand. Joe had been in town on business. He had dressed well and made a point to stop by the depot and speak to Miss Blanche.

"Howdy," he said, smiling.

Dorfbruder sniffed and went back to his book.

"I hear you got a real troublesome snake living round here," Joe said.

Dorfbruder flipped a page.

"Well," Joe said, friendly as could be, "I'm here take care of it for you."

"It's over there," Dorfburder said without looking up.

The cowboys looked and sure enough under the corner of the building lay the rattler, stretched three and a half feet in the warm sand.

"You two like to take the air together?" the other hand said.

Dorfbruder's face had started to blotch red and Joe chuckled. "No need to goad the schoolteacher here," he said. "He's had enough trouble and we're just here to kill that snake. We don't want to drive the man to drink."

The other cowboy snorted at this last line and Dorfbruder slammed his book closed.

He came off the step in big strides and made the corner of the schoolhouse before the horsemen could see quite what was happening.

Dorfbruder swung down in one motion and came up holding the rattler by its tail. Then he turned and walked towards the horses.

The snake writhed and spit, but it couldn't get Dorfbruder's right hand and every time it struck it fell back helpless. He walked at the horses.

"Here it is," he said. "You come to kill it. Here it is."

The horses whinnied and stamped.

"Whoa," Bolson said. "Now just hold on there, schoolteacher."

"Here it is," said Dorfbruder.

The horses strained, their mouths opened and their eyes rolled back.

"Are you crazy?" the cowboy shouted.

"Do what you've come to do, friend," said the schoolteacher.

"What're you—" the cowboy started but his horse threw him and bolted into the brush with a scream.

Bolson shouted something and took off after her. The cowboy scrambled to his feet and hobbled into the brush, cradling one arm. Dorfbruder stood there watching them go, still holding that snake like a shaman.

Then he swung it twice around his head like a boy playing a game with a bucket and let it go. He watched it land and when he turned back to the schoolhouse he saw that Josie Morritt and several of the older girls were already coming back from lunch.

After that, things changed. Folks couldn't help but love that story.

And though Dorfbruder never told it himself, he smiled and blotched up whenever they mentioned it. He and Blanche were married and lived here till he took a job at the teacher's college in Santa Fe. For his going away we bought him a copy of one of those philosophers he loved, Ovid, I think. Anyway, Not Walsh wrapped the book in a dried rattler skin for a joke.

"Leather bound," Dorfbruder said when they handed it to him.

Everybody laughed.

The End

Timothy Dusenbury (b.1982) studied music composition at Longy School of Music and St. John's University. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and two sons, where he teaches music and serves as a parish organist.

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Heart Of Goldenrod
by Marcus Lessard

It was Autumn now. That meant things like crunchy, yellow-brown leaves—like the ones that a feller' or missus might see falling from that lonely maple rooted miles to the east in Rogers County. It meant the arrival of corn harvest and the annual Corny Cob Festival. It meant the vigorous sewings-together of wool dresses and scarves. No less it meant shorter days, and young'ens back at the one-room schoolhouse to learn their ABC's and hone their coyote-cussin' skills. Yet, for the purposes of our present story, in particular, this remote corner of the American Midwest meant something a great deal more perpetuating: yellow stalks of goldenrod flowers, which canvassed the prairie that stretched out in every direction as far as the eye could see.

They trembled. Not the yellow flowers, which stood stock still in the autumn air, but the yellower-even townspeople of Fort Wood—all three hundred of them, who on this afternoon in mid-September they would not soon forget, stood shaking all the way down to their calfskin boots as the stranger, the hooligan, known far and wide for his quick draw and meaner attitude, reached for his holster.

It was time for the showdown. Time to see who was faster. Time for history to be made. Time for the epoch of despair and disillusionment to end and the age of enchantment and enlightenment to begin. Time for the Legend of Fort Wood to be born. Time for death. Time for resurrection from the dead. Time for that first goldenrod flower to be placed—much to the bewilderment of that world to which electricity had been first introduced, but to the elation of worlds like our own in which electricity is now as mainstay as the goldenrod flower itself.

It had all started back at the saloon.

One of the locals (Hap Greenfield, the town tanner, according to legend) set the hands of fate into motion when, stepping out from behind a barstool riddled with bullet-holes to address the stranger, the hooligan, known far and wide for his quick draw and meaner attitude, with wide eyes had said,

"Awful sorry we can't oblige ye, bub." Hap said. "It's just that, well, we's not fighters here so much as a buncha sons-a-guns that like to drink!"

Hap darted his eyes around the saloon in frenzied search of someone drunk and fool enough to relieve him of his duties as spokesperson. His heart rose within him when he heard a rustling sound over by the bar; then, sunk again when he noticed that it was just farmer Johnson, poking his nose overtop the counter as to allow his wide, watery eyes a quick peek at the action. That nose, those eyes, as quickly disappeared.

The hooligan got red-faced mad. Un-holstering his firearm, he resumed firing at random unwitting saloon-patrons. He fired off also a volley of barbarous taunts, which reverberated through the wafts of his own gun-smoke even as the tanner dove for his life behind one of the overturned tables.

Finally the shouting stopped, the smoke cleared, and the hooligan, his eyeballs dancing in their sockets like freed slaves at a cake walk, offered explanation finally as to why he had just shot to high hell their Lazy Saloon.

"Okay, yer bastards," he yammered. "It's duel time! Gimme yer fastest and yer best, so's I can shoots 'im in the 'ed faster than you can say 'Hey, Joe, our fastest an' our best just got hisself shots in the 'ed!"

All could hear a dripping sound, over by the piano. Someone was peeing their pants.

The hooligan lowered his firearm, but only for the sake of a reload. His game-plan was to continue firing until someone, anyone, grew unnerved enough to take him on. The hooligan attended to his firearm, slammed closed the cylinder and locked it. He wheeled his eyes around the room. "Duel time, gos dang it!" he hollered, jumping up and down. "C'mon, free hole in the 'ed for one a' you guyses!"

Not wanting anything to do with a hole in the head, as it might, if nothing else, minimize their ability to sip whiskey, the saloon patrons continued to hide behind barstools and tables and keep their pie-holes shut.

Finally, a stirring was heard over by the blackjack table.

Mayor Jenks, elected sheriff of Fort Wood after the de facto sheriff, Slim Jim Roberts, had ended up on the wrong side of a duel with the last stranger who had slithered into town—didn't want anything to do with a hole in the head, either. Still, Jenks's responsibilities as both acting-sheriff and mayor limited the opportunity he had to cower in corners. Mayor Jenks downed the last of his whiskey, narrowed his eyes. Blood hot with rage, he arose from his hiding spot behind the blackjack table . . . only to feel his legs wobble, then, give way, as he slumped back to the floor into a red-eyed slobbery heap. He lifted his head. "All our gunslingers are on errand right now, Mister." The mayor belched. "Or way too roostered!"

The hooligan wasn't interested in roosters, any more than he was in excuses. Chin up, he cited his exploits: 1) "Shots folk from Denver, Albuqurque, Hays, and everywheres in-between—in the 'ed!" 2) "Ability to shoots peoples in the 'ed;" 3) "Can sees like a 'awk (which helps my's ability to shoots peoples in the 'ed);" 4) Favorite hobby: "to shoots people in the 'ed!"

His own head throbbing, and now, spinning, Mayor Jenks rubbed his swollen red eyes. Finally, he was able to hoist himself off of the floor. "But, we like our heads just the way we got 'em, Mister!" he cried. Stumbling his way over, the mayor, in passing by the bar, curled his fingers around an unsuspecting cowhand's mug of suds. "Here, feller—" the mayor with congenial grin offered it to the hooligan "—courtesy of the fair-playin', peace-lovin' citizens of Fort Wood. Ya see, I'm the mayor—the head honcho like, he he—of this here burg, and which gives me the right to offer complimentary beers to folk like yourself on behalf of—"

With a single, hard shove the hooligan sent the Mayor of Fort Wood reeling, frothy suds to soak the mayor's leather vest and flow in streams down his acting-sheriff's badge. The hooligan raised his pistol, leveled it at the crouched and trembling figure on the floor. Tempting his finger against the trigger, the hooligan snarled, "Curtsy of the guy who's 'bout to shoots you in the 'ed . . . "

Lucky for the mayor, for them all, that an individual lurking in the shadows and known affectionately to the locals as Tin Can Toby, was just old enough to think he might know a thing or two about hooligans fresh off the high plains with crazy in their eyes, and just young enough to think that he could do something about it. Granted, it wasn't for the sake of mayors and spilt beer that Tin Can Toby would at that moment choose to call over, "Hey, beef-for brains!" (the hooligan lowered his firearm and eyed his now-decided next victim), would choose to with measured paces stride over, nose up to the hooligan, drop a big looger on the hooligan's excrement-stained excuse for a boot, turn his back on the hooligan; and then, arriving at the swinging-door exit, to holler over, "Shots to the 'ed are neither here nor there . . . and so messy, why not let's make it a shot to the heart, 'cause mine's fulla life and fulla love. Only a shot to the heart'll take me down . . . " The words echoed through the funereal silence of the saloon as Toby strutted his gangly frame through the swinging doors to step outside, there to holler out those immortal words, "C'mon, I haven't got all day!" No, not for the sake of mayors and spilt beer that Tin Can Toby would elect to tangle with the stranger, the hooligan, known far and wide for his quick draw and meaner attitude; and made all the meaner now with big looger on his shoe.

"They say, that he didn't do it for the mayor, nor for all those others. For myself, I'm thinkin' that he did it for you, and for me, and for these girls here (hugs shared with daughters Denise and Jamie)."

- Martha McDougal, speaking with interviewer at the 81st
annual Tin Can Celebration, 1974

The wily eyes of the hooligan gleamed dully as they trained their gaze on the still-swinging saloon doors. "So be it," he huffed as he stalked toward, then through those doors. "Shot in the 'art . . . comin' up."

"A showdown!" Toby could hear the pronouncement made from inside. They thronged out after him. Every sloshed, wild-steppin' Joe Bob, Jim Roy, and Leroy cut a path out of the saloon—

Into Main Street, the only street in town. And a street, where the blue-eyed and frilly-red-haired Hannah Anderson would over the minutes that followed, in like manner affect her search for a spot to view the powder-burnin' contest; she, along with the waves of humanity who with similar intent thronged out of the post office, the bank, the livery station, the schoolhouse . . . 

Toby loved Hannah Anderson. She was his answer to all the evils in the world, not the least of which was celibacy. Toby grew wistful. He closed his eyes.

Of course, standing there as he was, in the middle of Main Street, hands at his sides, waiting for his opponent to readjust his "gos dang gun-belt," and for the din of the townspeople to lower from the babel of three-hundred conversationalists to the cryings of the few toddlers on hand, Toby had, at the outset, no small difficulty. Then, came a gradual fading of the whole hue and cry of downtown as Toby, in his mind's eye, hearkened back to that Wednesday of the week previous—an afternoon of mixed sun and clouds in which a passing crow or emboldened squirrel might have witnessed Toby in the act of chopping wood, when Hannah had startled him.

"Whuh?" Toby had asked, trying to direct attention away from the massacred stump that his ax kept bouncing off of.

"I said—" his surprise visitor returned answer "—that I'm s-o-r-r-y, you know, 'bout the way I laughed my bonnet off at that, er . . . bouquet of flowers you'd sent me, one I thought would make me sneeze—but didn't, ones you gave me as invitation for that walk with you sometime . . . " Hannah took a step closer, "out in fields of gold." Hannah tempted a smile. "Goldenrods!" she exclaimed. "Not only are they beautiful, Tobe, but dare I say they're my absolute favorite-est weed of all time. Or at least now they are."

The combination of these words and the sight of the rise and fall of Hannah's bosom got Toby so excited that in trundling over to grab another log to smash with his ax he tripped and whacked the butt of the ax against his shin. "Ow!" Recovering, his hobbles less pronounced, Toby sputtered, "Does that mean you'll accept my invitation—to go for a walk out in fields of gold sometime?"

"What it means," Hannah smiled, as she began to walk away, "is that I'm still thinking about it."

Then Hannah Anderson winked.

Winked—was also what the hooligan then did (at the crowd, and in mockery of his blond-haired, green-horned opponent . . . whose wholesale attention remained fixed on his Wednesday afternoon reverie). The hooligan greased the handle of his Colt 44 single-action revolver. He aimed. He fired. He blew the tip of Toby's ear off.

"C'mon, you's. Draw!"

Toby came to.


His move. It was Toby's move—and Toby's, because even a character as reprehensible as this hooligan was wont to know and abide by the unwritten golden rule for all duelists north of the Rio Grande: The provoked party is always allowed to reach first.


The hooligan reddened. He spouted profanities that made the women-folk blush and the men folk clap hands over their young'ens' ears.

But Toby first had to see them . . . the townspeople, this audience of friends, neighbors, and kinsfolk who in the days to come would be either barraging him with a never-ending line of handshakes or would get busy burying him.

At the fore of Toby's vision stood the postal clerk, Ham Warren, all 6'5" of him, and who incidentally happened to be the firmest handshake in town. Tall as a cedar of Lebanon, Ham stood with arms crossed in front of his Pony Express station, eyeing Toby with the glare of one consigned to the putting down of a wounded horse. Toby gulped. He reoriented his gaze to hone in on subjects whom he reckoned more familiar with things like the story of David and Goliath; for example, like rosy-cheeked and cheery-eyed Pamela Hausenweter—Toby's second cousin, and renowned Bible thumper whose equally cheery outlook would, Toby mused, constrain her to see in Toby's holster not pistol, but sling. Robby Jenkins, his buddy from school, could no doubt see sling, as well. As might Old Mrs. Winthrop, Toby's next-door neighbor. These, and three-hundred or so others (all standing, none sitting, all charged up, none to calm-looking) cheered while praying, cheered while trembling and calling out things like, "Oh, please, Tobe, don't miss!" and "Shoot 'im, Tobe, right in the 'art!" and "Get yer roasters here . . . roast-ers . . . !"

Roasters: roast buffalo on a stick, an hors-dourve item exclusive to the American Midwest of the 1890's, and the town of Fort Wood's historically famous, and favorite, foodstuff:

"Tangy lean meat marinated in a stew of secret-recipe
spices lends a tasty reminder of the way that things used
to be—and still are, and forever will be,
here in timeless Fort Wood."

-- Rufus Brown, Mayor of Fort Wood,
in his interview with Time Magazine, June, 1956

Toby continued to course his sights over the hometown crowd. Of course, it wasn't merely Old Mrs. Winthrop and second and third cousins whom Toby had wanted to see as if for the last time. More than anyone else he wanted to see, obviously, Hannah. But then Toby noticed something peculiar. No, not the peculiar way that the sun rays boomeranged their brilliance off of the silver necklace dangling from the elegant neck of this same Hannah Anderson—Toby in the meantime having spotted Hannah over by the emporium, bearing in her arms a gunnysack of grain which drooped over folded arms like a pregnancy. Something even more peculiar than that.


About twenty of them. Galloping straight towards the town. On horses. On the wind!

Comanches. That's what they were all right, and with black paint streaked across their foreheads and shoulders. War, those streaks meant. WAR!

Tomahawks? Check. Buffalo helmets? Check. Bows and arrows? Check. Intent look upon Indians' faces . . . ? (Toby squinted). Check!

Fast-forward one-hundred-and-three years, at which time Jane Cashman, news reporter for the Kansas City World, in her July, 1997 front-page article entitled "Truths and Red Devil Lies about the Tin Can," would write:

"So, we're forced to endure all of this talk nowadays from pundits, self-appointed know-it-alls, and other riffraff items, who seek to revisit the question as to why it was that Tin Can Toby chose to tussle with that out-of-towner whom some historians believe to be the notorious outlaw himself, Oregon Don. No, Toby was not drunk, nor did Toby possess some cognition that by his accepting the stranger's challenge he would single-handedly transform the depressed state of the world he lived in into the hope-filled world that we know today. The enduring mystery of the goldenrods, and, of the grave, would come as result of that age-old cliché: boy meets girl."

Jane Cashman would conclude on page fourteen of her syndicated column:

"History was made that day when Toby tried to impress the girl, then he disregarded the girl as well as himself in order to play a high-stakes game which he knew that if he won, would save his hometown. Instead, Toby ended up saving his home planet.

With the hooligan still cackling at Toby's expense, and the Indians galloping closer, those stakes could not have been higher. Toby squinted the sun out of his eyes and in his mind's eye envisioned the following: three-hundred citizens . . . spotting the paint-streaked warriors; three-hundred citizens . . . forgetting the duel entirely; three-hundred citizens . . . rushing off to grab Winchesters then firing enough lead into the oncoming cavalcade to challenge the output even of the former Confederate army; three-hundred citizens . . . three hundred citizens . . . 

Many of whom, their hands clasped in prayer instead of clasping Winchesters, remained oblivious to the bloody fate which one might suppose awaited them. And—it was all because the bell wasn't tolling.

Panicking, the thought crossed Toby's mind: surely the boy up in the watchtower, the bell tower—the boy whose turn it was to be the town lookout, could see all a' them buffalo helmets by now. But the boy, Toby noticed, along with everyone else had his sights on the powder-burnin' contest, and not instead in the direction he had been sworn to uphold even in the event of a powder-burnin' contest: west!

The voice of his adversary: "Dagnabbit, les' go! DRAW!"

The vision faded. In his mind's eye, Toby could no longer see three-hundred fleet-footed citizens, nor a forest of rifles pointed in the direction of the Indians. Now, all that Toby could see was a flock of sitting ducks, their eyes upon himself, alone.

And upon the hooligan, of course.

"DRAW! I'll keel you like that bobcat I wrestled, like that bear I slaughtered with me can opener!"

Toby wanted to cry out, "Look! LOOK!" his finger pointed to the horizon. But he couldn't. He so much as moved, he'd get shot in the 'art. Guaranteed.

The hooligan spat. "Varmint, I'm a gonna give ye a tin count."

A ten count? Toby wondered, though, not aloud, lest his speech be misinterpreted for motion and he get waxed.

"That's right. A tin count." The hooligan paused, and then, "Tin . . . "

Wait, what do you mean, a ten count?

"Nine . . . "

Toby knew what it meant alright. It meant that his he and his zeal to prove himself to the woman of his dreams was about to jeopardize his entire hometown. It meant that the Lords of the Plains, the most clever, fearless warriors this side of Geronimo, would, along with their weapons of destruction, soon be here. To be sure, there would be more than just twenty of such warriors. There would be hundreds more. This was just the advance party, surely.

"Eight . . . "

Their horses trampling goldenrod blossoms which of the millions canopying the western horizon stood in their way—the Indians galloped closer still.

"Seven . . . "

Toby shook himself. Options! Need to run through some possible options here. He began to brainstorm.

"Six . . . "

Hmmm . . . nah, that won't work.

"Five . . . "

Wait, maybe if I . . . 

"Four . . . "

Hey, don't count so fast!

"Three . . . "

And so it was that Toby, on the brink of despair, and a two count, decided to take his chances. It was the only thing that he could think of that wouldn't spell wholesale disaster for the inhabitants of Fort Wood.

"Two . . . "

Toby felt his fingers grow warm even as he made the decision that would forever seal not only his fate, but the fate of Fort Wood, of goldenrods everywhere, of people everywhere, of the wide world itself.

He drew—and fired, three times.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

The redolent sound of lead ricocheting off of iron, ping, ping, ping, in reply.

Another shot rang out.

It was all over.

A body slumped. The winner celebrated. The townspeople gasped, sighed, and then, hearkened, to a sound which suggested that they had better, if they knew what was good for them, look west. With bated breath and livened pulse the townspeople looked west, even as the bell continued to toll.

Everyone saw.

The bell. The Indians!

"Hold it! Hold it!" a man hollered, throwing himself into the very mayhem and waving his arms. "They're not here to kill us . . . just to tell us we're all outdated!"

Neighbor nudged neighbor to quit hotfootin' it around like crazed steer, to lower that pitchfork, that hoe, that spatula, and look over. Everyone looked over.

The silence of a cemetery. Of the dead, if you will. The mass of citizens veiled their paranoia, shaded their eyes, as Mayor Jenks, a rueful look on his face, stepped forward to the podium that wasn't a podium only a patch of Main Street dirt, and turned up the microphone that wasn't a microphone only his nineteenth-century whiskey-soaked vocal chords.

"Attention . . . fellow citizens of Fort Wood!"

It wasn't a long speech, half the length maybe of the one delivered a year earlier at the christening of the new horse stables, but damned if it didn't stink any less! In between hiccups, the mayor began to put into words how he had forgotten, yes, quite forgotten, to tell everyone that fifteen diplomats, the governor among them, dressed incognito like Indians (so as not to get killed while crossing reservation lands) would be arriving today, "round about in fact, this very hour." The frenetic expressions on the faces of three-hundred townspeople fell off, gave way to three-hundred frowns. Mayor Jenks proceeded to lecture in praise of the merits and professional accomplishments of the "distinguished gentleman" standing to his left, Samuel Atkins III, who was the "no kidding, governor of our state!" The mayor squawked on about the governor's praiseworthy decision to esteem their very own—the mayor reared back, "Fort Wood!" to be included in his new and strategic "'Electricity Works: Even Better than Candles, Torches, and Lanterns' campaign." Hence, the reason for this unprecedented visit.

From off to the side, "Nice intro, Mayor!" a throaty voice bantered. Then, the voice enunciated "E-lec-tric-it-y;" pausing afterward as to allow the word to settle over the stunned gathering. Which it did, though like a thunderclap over a tea party. Inquired the voice, "Times are changin', right? And so isn't it high time that towns in my jurisdiction—like Fort Wood, change along with them?"

The mayor turned and asked if the half-naked, paint-streaked governor would be so pleased as to come up and grace the town of Fort Wood with "a few additional chestnuts of wisdom and fancy sayins' that'll set our hearts and minds aglow like so many of them lightbulb thing-a-ma-bobs."

A toothy grin. "My pleasure, Mayor Jenks."

The governor's broad, congenial grin was however not reciprocated by the townspeople, who were still frowning, their attentions since hijacked by a certain bigwig who was no more Injun than Queen Victoria and who was proceeding to step up to a podium that was no podium, only a parcel of Main Street dirt.

"Hey, where're you all going!" the governor hollered in the direction of the procession of townspeople which, over the minutes that followed, swelled to become the mass exodus of all of the townspeople, who, with turned backs and stalwart strides did as much as declare that speeches by politicians were maybe not their thing. A stretcher, borne at either end by a pair of brawny lads in coveralls, headed the advance of townspeople—whose marchers appeared to be the somberest that the governor had ever seen. The governor noticed in particular a young woman with red hair who was sobbing uncontrollably, and bear-hugging a gunnysack of grain to her bosom with all the torment of love lost.

"Where in the dickens is everyone goin'!" the governor flailed his flabby, paint-smeared arms into the air.

* * *

The young man in the Boston Red Sox shirt turned off his cell-phone, tucked it into the back pocket of his skinny jeans. He did this, not because his game of solitaire showcasing on the phone's touchscreen read "game over," but because it had suddenly dawned on him that he was not as bored as he thought he might be by the tour guide's ramblings on about people long dead. Frowning, the young man said, "So, I don't get it. Why did all the townspeople just diss the governor like that?"

Someone chuckled. A few others sighed, some even took the opportunity to move their legs around a bit. They had been standing a long time, lending their ears to this introduction part so that they might at length be allowed a glimpse of what each had waited a lifetime for.

The grave.

They had come to see the grave.

It was old. It was mythic. It had been featured on the Discovery Channel. The tour guide dismissed the young man's question. Instead of answering, he just smiled, spat out some of his tobacco.

The others in the group smiled too (they didn't spit though). Tom and Maggie, standing to the Red Sox guy's right, had flown in from Nova Scotia, Canada; John Stallins hailed from Des Moines; Ron and Lucinda Walker were from Chicago; Joni Harper described herself as a "southern girl" even though she lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Rita Martinez owned and operated a maid service in Reno; and from Albany, New York, there was Meghan Klein, who requested that everyone please call her as "Meg." Meg shared that she was on spring break and had traveled "over a thousand miles in a fourteen-year-old Chevy Sonata with no muffler" to come visit "this fairy tale land which ever since I was a little girl I've heard so many stories about."

It had been a day long in coming for them all. Forty years? Twenty? Ten? However long each of these vacationers had been resigned to forestall this trip of a lifetime, they all were at long last here.

Excepting the Red Sox guy, who in his mind was somewhere else entirely, and who was officially pissed off now because no one had as yet answered his question. He decided to pose another. "Okay, so I'm at the doctor's office, right, and flippin' through the pages of Newsweek. And I come across a headline that reads 'Number One Tourist Attraction in the Midwest.' And guess what? The article was about this place!"

A loud, rattling sound pierced the fresh country air and forestalled any attempt at rebuttal to the Red Sox guy's remark.

The tour guide waved everyone forward. "Sounds like a squirrel, dudn't it? Knocking its way around a bucket?"

"A tin bucket!" exclaimed Joni Harper from Pittsburgh, pumping her southern-girl fist into the air. "In commemoration of Tin Can Toby!"

"C'mon, I'll show yahs!"

Thankful to be moving again, the little band of "Moderners" followed their tour-guide escort and his cowboy hat down Main Street.

The only street in town.

"Good day, Dorothy," the tour guide waved.

"Good day, Dan," a woman with bonnet waved back. "Good day, everyone."

The visitors hesitated, in equal degrees fearful and not wanting to offend. Instead of waving back, answering, they snapped photos—of the woman, the general store, the barbershop, folks banging away at anvils, bowing, curtseying, loading sacks, leaning up against wood posts with hands stuffed in pockets. The tour guide reached into his own pocket to pull out something coppery: an Indian's Head penny, and which he as soon handed over to a cart-pushing vendor dressed in coveralls and straw hat. "Watch this," the tour guide winked at the group. The exchange was made: copper penny for skewered meat. "See, what I mean? No inflation. Nothing's changed here, not since 1893." The Moderners were likewise invited to try some roast buffalo on a stick.

" . . . rickety-rackety-rick . . . rickety-rackety-rick . . . "

The sound, the summonsing, of the tin can!

"Understand please, folks . . . " the tour guide again led the way, directing attention to the fields of gold that hemmed in the town on all sides and could be seen ever more clear now in-between some of the larger, public buildings and overtop not a few of the smaller homesteads and barns. "Understand—that that cowboy you see yonder, that milkmaid next to him, those non-mechanized oxen in that field o'er there . . . these aren't actors, and this is not a set. This is how these folks—and animals—actually live."

"Amish," scoffed the Red Sox guy. "They're backwards. Just like the Amish. Also let me say this: I wouldn't eat this janky-ass stuff-on-a-stick if my life depended on it!"

The tour guide halted in mid-stride. Neither pretentious nor easily offended, he at any event decided to entertain the sudden urge that he had to allow himself to sink to this Moderner's level. "Guess," he said, "I didn't mention to y'all that I had the privilege of showing around two summers ago—the Emir of Saudi Arabia? Then back in '87 . . . Princess Diana." The tour guide exhaled. "Tell me," over his shoulder he said, resuming his stride, his temptation toward sarcasm and braggadocio fading as his usual civility returned, "would any of you deny yourself, say, air conditioning . . . if you didn't have to? Shampoo, for no reason at all? Look, we Fort-Wooders are not unreasonable. It's not because we enjoy doin' without stuff like laundry detergent, Internet, these walkie-talkies that I hear so much about, rather it's 'cause—"

"Of religion?"

The tour guide pursed his lips. "How abouts we call it more along the lines of superstition. Ya see, when Toby shot that bell—"

"Oh, I get it. I get it now!" The Red Sox guy flushed his cheeks and flailed his arms even as feet and legs trundled onward. "So, Toby shoots the bell, right?" The Red Sox guy swallowed. "In an attempt to warn the townspeople, right? And so the townspeople, touched all the way to their bootheels or whatever, interpret the whole deal as some sort of omen. Now, even with this wicked lame governah guy galloping into town, everybody already by this point assumes—no, they know—that their very own Tin Can Toby couldn't've just shot that bell in vain, that he musta known something, and which I'm guessin' musta had something to do with that whole Electricity Works campaign of the governah's, that whole 'times are changing, we need to change along with them' rap. Heck, you can all but hear the townspeople say to one another, 'Electricity, and change, and walkie-talkies, are the very horrible things that Toby had meant to warn us about by shooting that bell!'" Toby's smile shown resplendent as he paused to allow the brilliance of his insight imprint itself upon all present. He continued, "Anyways, since that day way back in 1693, or whenever it was, and even, like, unto today—Governah Atkins's modernization proposal, and the governah-after-Atkins's modernization proposal, and the governah-after-after-Atkins's modernization proposal, have been straight-up turned down by the people of Fort Wood. They still," Toby lowered his gaze to consider the food item held in hand which had yet to cross paths with his mouth, "they still eat roast buffalo on a stick."

The tour guide leveled his brow. "Decided to sneak a peek at the brochure, have we?" He smiled. "That's right. They heeded the high call of Tin Can Toby's sacrifice."

The sound of puking, or of someone pretending to puke.

"Why—" Lucinda from Chicago placed her hands on her hips, "did you even travel yo'self out over here, then?"

"Vie?" The Red Sox guy unstuck his finger out of his mouth. "I'll tell you why. My coworkers, see, they surprised me with this ticket last month, saying, 'Hey, Red Sox guy, you need a vacation like the hah-bah needs fish that don't smell like chemicals.' At first I thought the ticket'd be one to get me into some wicked awesome place like Fenway Park." The Red Sox guy sighed. "But no, it was Legend of Fort Wood something or other. I had to come. For their sake."

"Ah, for their sake," echoed the tour guide. Then, after a long silence, and after clearing his throat, the tour guide placed what amounted to a lid on audience participation when with sermonizing tenor he resumed his discourse as concerning the sad fate of one Tin Can Toby. "And yet," the tour guide pointed out, "maybe not so sad a fate for our hero. For, was it not Tin Can Toby's sacrifice," the tour guide made askance of the clouds and sun above, and fields of gold on all sides, "which was to provide that key cosmic ingredient to that secret recipe which has since given rise to the Legend of Fort Wood?" The tour guide spoke of the townspeople, past and present; he spoke of magic, and miracles, of sunsets and sunrises, of washbasins and wheelbarrows, of carrying some kind of torch, of the inexplicable crossings over of the conscience and the metaphysical—

"Is that cow poop I smell?"

The Red Sox guy again.


Offered Joni from Pittsburgh, a bit snidely, "You think that it's for nothin' they call places like this cow-towns?"

The Red Sox guy pinched his nose. "Cows stink," he said.

The tour guide turned, pointed. "Look!"

It was shinier, more rotund than any of them had ever imagined.

The bell tower. The bell itself.

Everyone froze in their tracks. Flashing lights blinked with the radiance of a thousand fireflies from out of the Moderners' photo-encapturing devices.

"Oh how stupid!" a voice cried. The Red Sox guy again. "It's a giant tin can! Whoever heard of a bell in the shape of a tin can!"

 . . . rickety-rackety-rick . . . rickety-rackety-rick . . . 

"This is it, then. The very spot . . . " the tour guide lowered his head " . . . where Tin Can Toby stood, fired those three shots . . . where Tin Can Toby died." The tour guide's voice began to falter, as always it did at this point in the presentation. "The very spot where that first goldenrod was placed upon Toby's all-too-broken heart, by a young woman . . . named Hannah Anderson."

"I can't wait to see de goldenross!" cried the normally-reserved-because-her-English-was-not-so-good Rita from Reno.

The Red Sox guy shook his head. "Can't wait to see goldenrods?"

They went.

Around past the bell tower, over that hillcrest, through fields of goldenrod, all the way even to the middle of nowhere. It was a five-minute walk, which, notwithstanding the prickers, would introduce many of them to country fresh air and to what a real-life coyote looked like!

The little band of Moderners stopped, gathered round—in a field where not a single telephone pole could be seen.

"Okay, folks. Y'all ready?" The tour guide leaned forward. His eyes grew large. He shouted, "Go for the gold!"

It all happened so fast. The tour groupers bolted, singing, screaming, into nature's treasure chest of milkweed and pollen: the fields of gold surrounding them. The Red Sox guy just stood there, blinking. But then, he found the tour groupers right back on the pathway, away from the ticks and chiggers, flowers in hand, awaiting further instructions from their guide.

"Have we all got the gold? Okey-doke, off to the graveyard we go!"

"Wait." Everyone squinted over at the empty-handed Red Sox guy. "STOP. Please! What the hell just happened here?"

No less than three Moderners simultaneously slumped their shoulders, and sighed. John from Des Moines sneezed; apologizing, he put forth that not even a serious case of allergies was going to stop him from going for the gold.

Then, a young woman stepped forward. "I'll tell you—" the woman grinned "—what just happened here." However the grin appeared much to ardent to bode friendly, and not a few present wondered if the young woman had not all along been biding her time for this very moment, this very opportunity, to at last present itself.

Meg, from New York, had had a bittersweet taste in her mouth about this so-called Red Sox guy ever since their run-in back in the parking lot—and it wasn't because she was a diehard Yankees fan, either. Meg rolled up her sleeves, narrowed her eyes. Begging the tour guide's pardon, Meg proceeded to wonder aloud if this Red Sox guy maybe had not maybe devoured too many of those chemical-soaked Boston Harbor fish he had mentioned about—hence his "general cluelessness" about the matter at hand. Meg had a quiver-ful of additional barbs she would liked to have lanced this fellow with; and yet this wasn't because she disliked him. On the contrary, she found herself rather attracted to him. Meg had always imagined herself as having high standards when it came to men, and encouraging—by way of constructive criticisms—her would-be fellow to live up to his potential, wasn't so very bad, was it? Meg wet her lips. With a smile she asked if the Red Sox guy might wish to join her for coffee sometime, after they got back to the real world.

The real world, the others mused. Did it even exist anymore?

The Red Sox guy smiled in return all the while his mind's eye hearkened him back to that parking lot scene from earlier, and the surprise expression on the coffee chick's comely face after he had (maybe not so accidentally!) grazed the back bumper of her car with the front bumper of his.

Maggie from Nova Scotia nudged her husband. "Look, Tom—at the two love birds. Love at first sight. When was the last time you saw that happen?"

The tour guide nodded. "Happens all the time here, folks. The grave. Some strange power from outta the grave."

And with that, the tour groupers marched onward towards Long Trail Cemetery, located about a hundred yards "in thata direction." The gravelly path upon which the group tread gave way to a tarnished chrome archway which the tour guide expounded was of Victorian vintage, and whose iron-work flounces and leafy embellishments cast their shadows over the group's passing, in this way granting them entrance into cemetery proper.

That gravestone which they sought was not difficult to identify, situated at the very center of the cemetery amidst a forest of crosses.

The party encircled. Stood. Stared.

"Our point of contact—" the tour guide stilled himself "—with the world unseen."

A heart. The gravestone had been hewn into the shape of a heart upon which no name, no birthdate, no death date, had been chiseled.


No one dared stir.

Except for Meg.

"Here, I picked an extra one." She deposited a yellow-blossomed branch into the Red Sox guy's hand. "Just for you."

"Watch," the tour guide instructed.

The Red Sox guy was watching, and closely. He watched as the tour guide positioned his goldenrod sprig atop the grave. The others in like manner garnished the grave with their flower offerings.

"Um, I don't get it."

The tour guide hadn't failed to notice. "Mayhap so. Still, you did get a flower. And which you can place, if you'd like, alongside the others."

The Red Sox guy positioned his flower. Still he did not get it. Yet, not five minutes later, upon the gut-wrenching conclusion of "Thy Tin Can Runneth Over," a eulogy delivered by the tour guide and one strewn with explanation, the world would become then for this latest visitor to the number-one-tourist-attraction-in-the-Midwest, no longer the same place.

Everyone retrieved their goldenrod.

The Red Sox guy stood stock still. Then, ambling over, he retrieved his goldenrod.

In solemn procession the little group padded away from the gravesite. It was finished: each had attained what they waited a lifetime for.

The Red Sox guy moved not at all. The tour guide came over to him. "Why are you still here?" he asked.

The Red Sox guy raised eyes which tempted tears. "You mean, it won't die? Ever?"

"Well, this of course depends."

"Depends . . . " the Red Sox guy, as if in a trance, mouthed the word. He came to when he sighted out the corner of his eye the woman from the parking lot who was approaching.

Gliding over, Meg slipped a tab of paper upon which she had scribbled her name, phone number, and the word "coffee" inside of the Red Sox guy's back pocket.

"On you. It depends of course, on you. And me. And her . . . " Meg smiled at this reference to herself. The tour guide honed in on this individual who appeared to be having a bungle. "Do you . . . " the tour guide extended a finger " . . . you . . . ?"

"Red Sox guy?" offered the other man.

"Aye, thank you. Do you, Red Sox guy, fancy . . . that that flower you got there, will from henceforth live forever—" the Red Sox guy gulped "—never wither, never lose a petal, now that the magic—"


"—aye, magic, here at Fort Wood, has been found to confer its life-giving touch?"

Something inside of the Red Sox guy was ready to crack. Another something inside him however had a problem with that. "Um, I don't know." Then he remembered someone. "Wait, how about you? Do you—you're name's Meg?—do you believe?"

Meg took a deep breath. "I'm at least trying to believe."

The Red Sox guy relaxed, and was glad. The tour guide had sense enough to give place as Meg stepped over to place a soft hand on the Red Sox guy's shoulder. The other tour groupers had the presence of mind to return and gather round.

A brewing, a breeze, a rustle, a wind, a current of air, stirred to swaying the millions of yellow flowers out in yonder endless prairie as if a giant, gentle hand had at that moment passed across.

Silence reigned. It was the nothingness sound of eternity that they heard, of years gone by, of something beyond time, something bigger than the great wide world itself . . . 

* * *

Downtown Boston. 92nd Floor. A year later.

The man in the cubicle heard footsteps approach. Eyes on his computer screen, he darted a glance up—then as quickly looked back down again. "On the prowl again for a date, are we?" he quipped, returning to his typing. "Sorry, I'm already taken."

"Pshaw! You know that's not what I came here for." Arms crossed, feet planted, Becky stayed her place at the entryway of the cubicle.

Biting back a smile, the man looked up finally. "May I help you, Becky?"

Becky cleared her throat. "Um, well, and I know it'll be the third time in the last month that I've asked you this, but—"

The man in the cubicle swiveled his chair around. He pointed at something behind him.

"What?" Becky asked as she crossed the threshold into the cubicle. "Picture of that cow over there?" The man shook his head. "Picture of that other cow over there?" He shook his head. "Photo of that cow wearing the funny sunglasses inside the heart frame? That 'Life is Love is Cow' bumper sticker you've got on the side of your computer? Oh, I got it, that cow-and-heart collage over there that you and your homegirl Meg made on your honeymoon? What, I give up? There's heart and cows all over this office space!"

The man in the cubicle rose, pressed his finger against the square of paper which read "Viewing Sessions are BY APPOINTMENT ONLY."

Becky groaned, grew livid, tapped her toe on the carpeted floor in purgatorial frustration. But then she stopped tapping. She knew that the man in the cubicle could never be this mean—or at least not anymore. For, had it not been she, Becky, who had in the first place bequeathed to the man in the cubicle that ticket to Fort Wood?

"I know what you're thinking," Becky said, chancing a step forward. "You're thinking . . . how crazy I must've been not to have traveled out there myself last year. But, did you ever stop to think that maybe some of us have kids?" Becky struggled to keep her voice under control, as looking over, she said, "It was for their sake that I stayed put and donated, at the others' urgings, that ticket to you. It was for their sake that I didn't go. Can't you see that?" Becky's intense expression relaxed into a smile. "But of course, you see."

The man in the cubicle straightened in his chair. He quieted. "Thank you for that, Becky." The man opened his desk drawer, rooted around for something—a plastic bag he found. Extracting from out of the plastic bag some delicate item, the man with great care extended his arm toward Becky, opened his hand . . . 

"Ah, and there it is! Fresh, yellow, alive-looking as ever!"

Becky leaned in for a closer look.

"Hey, Beck, guess what?"

Becky didn't guess what. All of a sudden she couldn't even guess her own name. A warmth, full and tingly, raced up from her rubber-soled pumps all the way up even to another kind of pump—the one inside her chest, which began to put forth what she would later describe as "a concerto of positive vibes beating in time with the rhythms of the universe."

"Hey, Beck . . . " the man in the cubicle said, eyeing the camera that had in the meantime discovered its way out of Becky's briefcase. "Guess what? I don't have to water it—at all."

"Here—take this, know how to use it? It's an X170 model that I purchased for the very occasion. Just press that button on top. Can I pose with it like this, maybe, even, tucked behind my ear?"

They heard a sound out in the corridor.

"Ha, bet it's Jim from research again . . . " the man in the cubicle raised his voice to with unnatural loudness declare at the partition. Moments later, a bald head and two wide eyes peered around the partition into the cubicle. "Stop eavesdropping, you," the man in the cubicle warned, "either you get in, or you get out."

Jim began to stammer incoherently in defense of the fact that he wasn't eavesdropping—no, not at all, only going to the watercooler for a drink; also he feigned ask if he might be allowed to have a peek at—were it at all possible, seeing, especially, how the man in the cubicle had just let Becky see—a certain flower.

Becky rolled her eyes. "The waiting list's a mile long," she said, trying and failing to fight back a smirk. "Maybe we can pencil you in, though, for mid-April? Safety measures, is all. We don't want people breathing all over it and stuff. Right, Red Sox guy?"

The man in the cubicle reached over to lay hold of a stuffed-animal item reposing on the side of his desk. "Hugged a cow lately, Jim?"

"Moooo!" Becky laughed, and so hard that she began to keel over, at which point the goldenrod flower fell from behind her ear, at which point Jim's eyes popped out of his head as he moved to reach for the object of his deepest curiosity, at which point the man in the cubicle rose to remove Jim from the cubicle as it had become imminently clear that Jim had not sterilized his hands . . . 

"No, they're clean. I swear! Just let me have one look at it. Oh c'mon, pleeeeeeeease . . . .!"

The End

Marcus Lessard lives in Boulder, Colorado. He has one previous publication to his credit, in The Write Launch. Portions of this story Marcus wrote while he was in prison in western Colorado, his sights wandering out of his prison-cell window to take in the expanse of rugged, desert landscape with its scattering of rocky hills and mesas.

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