August, 2019

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Issue #119

All The Tales


This is a story of drama and adventure in the great American Northwest. The year was 1893 and the country was just over one-hundred years along. President Grover Cleveland was beginning his second term and the country was trying to become adjusted to something called the modern age. Historians portray America in that era as a combination of large, smoky industrial cities and hundreds of small towns which were incorporated here and there along rivers and railroad routes. Every so often a new-fangled contraption called a horseless carriage could be seen putt-putting along busy center-city streets and in front of picket-fenced Queen Anne and bungalow styled homes and powered by a recently introduced and slightly hazardous chemical called gasoline. On May 1st the Chicago Worlds Fair opened its gates and the modern age really began. The fair, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' first voyage to the New World, was to be a showcase for Chicago where twenty two years earlier Patrick and Catherine O'Leary's cow supposedly set the town's heart afire. Meanwhile, our setting, Montana, had become a state four years earlier and if you could quiz a select number of passengers on the Northern Pacific Express #4 after August 26th of that year, it was still the Wild West.

  Chapter 1

It was a dark cloud of desperate and irredeemable thoughts that disarranged Sam Shermer's mind

on this fateful summer day. Previously arrested in Big Timber, Montana for an Ohio post

office robbery a jury had found him not guilty and he had returned to Montana. Lately, he had been riding his horse from town-to-town, working little as possible and, generally, being a good-for-nothing ne'er do well. Still, Shermer had a magnetic persona, a palpable presence not gifted to other cowboys. Just under six feet, somewhere in his twenties, muscular and square-jawed, women turned when he entered a bar or restaurant with his tan canvas duster coat that reached almost to the heel of his boots. Underneath he wore brown cotton duck pants and vest over a white shirt. A faded wide-brimmed cowboy hat, that sat low just above his broad forehead, completed the ensemble. On his right hip he wore a California leather holster holding a Colt 45 single action army first generation pearl handled revolver. A dark leather cartridge belt surrounded his slim physique. It was automatic that the self-esteem of other men dropped lower than the depths of their brass spittoons when he entered a bar.

* * *

Sam was waiting for a train at the tracks. He sat on his horse, one knee high against the saddle horn. It was here, just east of Grey Cliff, where his next life's chapter would most likely spin out of control. As he sat, he reminisced over the badlands of his past life, the post office robbery, other troubles with the law and an affair. It had happened two weeks ago to the day.

* * *

"Hey, boy, welcome to Butte." It was a tall, young Englishman standing at the bar of the nastiest looking watering hole he had ever been in. Sam could hardly hear the man given the plink-plank of an old man thumping You Are My Sunshine on the piano and a bevy of girls screeching on-stage performing some kind of song and dance routine. Add to that at least a hundred men of every size and stripe milling about playing cards, talking, drinking and generally making a lot of busy noise and you had one raucous establishment.

"Come here old chap and I'll buy you a drink. You look drier than an Arizona saguaro."

"You look like something out of a Walter Scott novel," said Sam.

"I'll take that as a compliment, old boy. Are you another one of those daft, loathsome and barmy old copper miners this town is so full of?"

"Nope, just passing through," said Sam. "I am a bit shy of cash. No chance I can buy you a second drink."

"No need sir. My name is Chipman . . . Jack Chipman."

The Englishman was an inch taller than Sam. He wore a below the waist gray jacket, a bit much for an August day, and mid-calf low heeled black leather boots. His face was a pale white, much in line with the English lack of sun. Wire rimmed glasses spread across his nose ala Ben Franklin.

"Well, Chipman, old boy. What can I do for you? You didn't buy me this drink cause I'm so damn good lookin."

"I'm looking for someone full of beans and in need of cash like yourself and he doesn't care how he gets it, if you know what I mean," said Chipman.

"Not my cup of tea, Chipman if I get your meanin.' You couldn't make enough money to pay for my time," said Sam.

"Not so fast, mate. Just give me a minute to tell you about our plan and if you still don't like it you can chivvy along. First of all, I want you to meet my partner. Like you, he's a bit dodgy, but he's one of the best in what he does."

"And just what does he do?" asked Sam.

"Here. I'll let him tell you. Hey, Charley, come over here," said Chipman. "I want you to meet somebody."

Chipman turned to Sam. "What was your name again?"

"Shermer, Sam Shermer."

Charley Jones, alias Charles Kinkaid, alias John Charles, rose from a nearby poker table. Jones was heavy set, scruffy hair and beard and looked as if he had been on a dusty trail for weeks.

"Budge up, Shermer. Make way for the best fixer in the territory. Charley, this is Sam Shermer and he's in need of a few quid. Do you think he would be a fit?" said Chipman.

"You're not a lawman, are you?" asked Charley.

"Yeah, I'm Wyatt Earp and you're under arrest," said Sam.

"Ha, ha. I like this guy, Chipman. Where did you come up with him?"

"He just wandered in here looking like the cracking gunfighter we need," said Chipman.

"Well, Sam Shermer. Meet me and Chipman at the livery stable at eight o'clock tomorrow morning and I'll spell out the plan," said Charley. "Be on time."

"So you want me to join your little band of outlaws, eh, Chipman?" said Sam.

"My boy, someone once said the difference between inlaws and outlaws is that outlaws are wanted," said Chipman.

"Ha, ha," laughed Sam. "I'll see what you've got in mind tomorrow. See you later."

* * *

"Hey, Shermer. Get ready the train's due here any minute," said Charley.

Sam woke from his daydream with a start. He threw his leg over the saddle and waited for the sound of the locomotive. It was getting dark.

* * *

Two lean and dusty cowboys had already settled in opposite leather seats as the Northern Pacific Express pulled out of Big Timber, a small community about a three hour ride from Helena the starting point of the train.

"Don't get settled in too much, Chipman. We'll be at the rendezvous point in about fifteen minutes," said Jack White, a man shorter than has companion, sporting a brown bearded face and grubby hair under a wide brim faded white hat.

"Don't get antsy, White. You'd better rest while you can. We've got a long ride ahead of us," said Chipman, who, as usual, stood out from the typical cowboy crowd. Someone had lately dubbed him, "dude cowboy."

"Tickets, boys." It was the conductor.

"Here you are sir," said White. "What do you have in those lunch boxes over there?"

"Beans, cornbread, salt pork and an apple. We'll hand them out later," said the conductor.

Following along behind the conductor the pair spotted a young boy about eight years old. He wore a white shirt with a sailor collar and blue knickerbockers. On top of his head he sported a flat blue cap.

"Hey there, young man, What's up?" said Chipman. "What's your name?"

"Bobby. You talk funny mister."

"I'm from England," said Chipman. "Have you ever heard of England?'

"Oh, yes sir. Me and my mommy and daddy have traveled a lot. My mommy and me are going to meet my daddy in Chicago. We're going to the World's Fair."

"The World's Fair," said Chipman. "Hmmm, I heard about such an event in London back in 1851. It was called the Great Exhibition. It was in a huge Crystal Palace and had all kinds of fancy new things like a printing machine, some beautiful horse carriages and new-fangled farm machinery."

"Mommy said the Chicago Fair has Cream of Wheat that you eat for breakfast," said Bobby. "They've got something called Juicy Fruit gum and Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, too. I don't think mommy would let me drink beer though."

"Can the conversation," said White. "We've got to move."

"See you later Bobby," said Chipman. "Probably sooner than you know."

  Chapter 2

Sam waited with nervous anticipation near the tracks straddling a horse and a go, no-go decision as Charley held a lantern, a sign for Chipman and White to stop the train. He thought back to the events that morning two weeks ago at the livery stable in Butte.

Opening a side door to the livery Sam spied three men huddling in a far corner.

"Come over here, Sherman," said Chipman.

"Shermer, not Sherman, Chipman."

"You're a blinkered bloke, you are," said Chipman. "Here, I want you to meet our last man for the job. This is Jack White. Up until now Jack's been working the ranches."

"Glad to meet you White," said Sam. "I hear you and Charley go back aways."

"Yeah, I've known Charley since we worked for the "79" outfit along the Yellowstone."

White was a short man. Time, sun and wind had done a number on his face far beyond his 28 years. He looked 58.

"Okay, guys, here's the plan," said Charley, who now appeared to be the self-appointed leader of the group. "In two weeks we're gonna stop a train in the south part of the state. I hear it's got a safe on board with a lot of cash being transferred to a number of banks along the line. It could be in the thousands. Chipman and White will stop the train as it slows for Thompson's Grade about a mile east of Grey Cliff. Then Shermer and I will hop aboard and we'll crack the safe. It's a simple matter. Any questions?"

All three were silent.

"Okay, here are three envelopes. Each one has enough money to tide you over for two weeks plus train fare money for Chipman and White. I want Sam to go with me, cause I don't really know you. Do I Shermer?"

"Nope. I guess not," said Sam."

"You two can leave now or later. But watch for my lantern at Thompson's Grade just about dark two weeks from today."

* * *

Andie Hardin was walking on Mercury Street later that morning. Rain started to fall and mud began accumulating in the street. As she stepped off the wooden sidewalk in front of the Dumas Building she went plop right into the mud! Just at that moment Sam ran up to pull her to her feet.

Miss Andie was tall for a young lady of twenty-two years. Her legs, long and slim, stretched out, toes pointing straight upward toward the clouds as she wallowed in the mud. Lustrous black hair enveloped a dark complexion that highlighted her part Spanish, part Irish heritage. She wore a brown suede riding skirt and pink ruffled blouse. Her black cowboy boots were now more brown than black.

"Thank you, mister. I guess I wasn't watchin' where I was going."

"Don't mention it. Do you need to go back into the Dumas to change?" asked Sam.

"How dare you, sir? That is a building of ill repute. I would never go into that building!"

"I'm sorry. Here, I'm Sam. Let me scrape the mud off your boots."

"Unhand me, Sir! I will take care of myself, if you please."

"Okay . . . okay. Then, let me buy you a drink or a cup of coffee or something."

Andie took quick stock of her rescuer. She liked the look of this broad-shouldered cowboy.

"Well, I guess it wouldn't hurt to go into the general store for a sarsaparilla. They have a place where I can sit while I get my composure."

Sam watched the young lady sip her sarsaparilla.

"I am at your service, milady," said Sam.

Andie laughed.

"No one has ever called me milady. Andie. Andie Hardin is my name, Mr. Sam."

"Are you any relation to John Wesley Hardin?"

"Yep, he's my uncle on my dad's side. He's due to be let out of prison next year."

"That man killed over thirty people," said Sam. "I hear he killed a man just for snorin'. Did you know that?"

"Yes, you don't have to remind me of it."

"I want to see you again," said Sam.

"You work quick, Sam. We'll see."

* * *

Two days later Sam walked out of the new Thornton Hotel on East Broadway when he spied Andie getting off a one-horse carriage across the street.

"Hey, Andie. How have you been?"

"Sorry, Sam. I'm in a hurry."

"Why so fast? I've been asking around about you. I didn't know where you lived. Come on, have a cup of coffee with me in the hotel."

"Well, okay. But, just for a few minutes," said Andie.

Andie sat without speaking, eyeing her coffee. It was if she were miles away.

"Are you okay?" asked Sam.

"Sam, I'm in need of money. Would you be interested in helping me get it?"

"Well, I guess," said Sam. "What do I have to do?"

"I know about you and your gang, Sam. Charley Jones is my friend. He told me about your plans."

"And he didn't trust me," said Sam.

"Look Sam, before you go south I need you to help me. I have a client at the Dumas tonight and I want you to come in at a certain time and put him out. I'll make it worth your while."

"Ah, so you are a procurer at the Dumas. You're a chip off the old family Hardin block."

"Okay, so I lied. What do you say? Will you do it?"

"How do I know when it's time?" asked Sam.

"I'll leave the door open a crack. You can peek in and do the job when you think the time is right."

"All right. But, you will owe me one, young lady."

At that time Sam would have done about anything for Andie, prostitute or not. He was in love.

* * *

"Why don't you make yourself comfortable Mr. Kincaid. I'll be right back after I refresh myself a bit," said Andie.

Sam peeked into the room and saw Andie's client sitting on the bed with his back to the door. Sam quietly entered the room and struck the man on the head with the handle of his gun. Andie ran into the room, took out his massive billfold and ordered Sam to drag him out into the alley. She knew Kincaid was a married man and wouldn't tell a soul.

"Okay, Andie. The job is done, now what?' asked Sam.

"I want to go south with you Sam," said Andie. "Take me with you."

"Well, maybe. Problem is, can I trust you?"

"Sammy, dear. I like you, maybe a lot. I think we can do big things together. What do you say?"

"Pack up, lady. Let's get out of here."

* * *

As they opened the train's passenger car door a rush of air greeted the two Jacks, Chipman and White, as they proceeded onto the coal tender and made their way to the engine. Holding their guns on John Brown, the engineer and Alex Wilson the fireman, they ordered the train to stop. Sam, sitting on his horse, awoke from his reverie. He heard the clickety-click of the train making its approach to Thompson's Grade. Charley swung the lantern to and fro. He had tethered two extra horses nearby. As the swoosch of the engine died off the quartet forced the engineer and fireman to walk to the baggage car.

"Did you bring the dynamite, Charley?" asked White.

"Yeah, in my back pocket," said Charley." Hey, you inside, baggage man. Open the door or these two gets it."

The huge baggage car door slid sideways and the four jumped into the car. After rifling through the mails and a few boxes, Chipman spied the safe.

"Charley, that safe's a monster. That little stick you got won't even make a dent."

"Crap," said Charley. "Okay, let's see what we can get from the passengers."

It was a tight fit in the passenger car as the four forced their way down the aisle.

"Ladies and Gentleman. This is a holdup," announced Charley. "Put all your money and valuables in this bag and you will be safely on your way. Don't give us any trouble."

Reluctantly, the passengers complied, men giving up cash and gold watches, the women, their jewelry, with the exception of one lady.

"I will not give you my money," she exclaimed.

Jack White said, "Shell out," and raised his gun as if to hit her when Chipman yelled, "Stop it Jack. That's Bobby's mom. We're not going to bother her. You got that?"

White lowered his pistol muttering to himself.

"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen," said Charley Jones. "Now if you don't mind we'll be taking four of those tasty looking lunches and we'll be on our way."

Less than concerned, as if the holdup was a daily occurrence, the four got on their horses and rode north.

  Chapter 3

The quartet rode at a slow gallop for most of the night. Riding over rolling meadows and rocky foothills they used the Crazy Mountains off to the west as a guide against a dim sky. Streaks of clouds covered the moon. Since Charley Jones had made an earlier trip from Judith Gap to Big Timber to originally case a bank, he knew the route very well. They were headed to a relay point near the Musselshell River where he had stashed fresh horses. As they rode Sam ruminated on their failure to rob the baggage car's safe. Who knows how much that haul could have been? He and Andie could have really celebrated. Maybe they could have gone to California. Now a bunch of Montana bankers wouldn't lose a dime. He remembered a quote from Mark Twain his dad had told him when he was young. "A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain."

"I hate bankers," said Sam aloud.

"What's that?" asked Chipman.

"I hate bankers."

"Me too, Sam. Bankers have provoked more wars in Europe than politicians ever could. They are society's dead flesh. It is our job to bleed them dry. Hey, Charley. How much further?"

"About another five miles," said Charley. "We've got it made boys."

"Yeah, and a pitiful reward for all our work," said White.

Sam reminisced about his dad again. A veteran, he recounted to Sam some of his Civil War exploits, incidents that, no doubt, caused his son to elect his life of crime. Eden Shermer once told Sam how he had met a Johnny Reb named Josiah in North Carolina. The rebel became separated from his unit and was shot during a brief skirmish. Meanwhile, both men found their way to an old cabin. Since the southern soldier was in no shape to give Eden any trouble it seems they decided on a truce right then and there. Eden dressed the soldier's wounds and helped him recuperate for a couple of days. Then they went their respective ways to reunite after the war and marry a couple of German girls who were also first cousins. Eden said his brother-in-law Josiah Cox always felt indebted to him.

"And well he should," thought Sam.

"Hey, Sam, old boy. Where did you stash that chippy you met in Butte?" asked Chipman.

"I left her in Dillon on my way down," said Sam. "And don't call her a chippy."

Upon reaching the relay camp the men continued northwest until they reached the Little Belt Mountains.

* * *

John Ramsey was the Yellowstone County sheriff. On the day of the robbery Ramsey was visiting friends in Stillwater. When word came down about the holdup, Ramsey quickly put together a posse of thirteen men, loaded them, horses and all, in a box car and steamed to Grey Cliff. Park County Sheriff John Conrow met Ramsey at the depot with his own posse of fifteen and the force steamed to the location of the crime. Along with the group was Deputy Sheriff Sam Jackson from Livingston who was an expert bounty hunter. A big man with a red beard, Jackson was deputized in Park, Yellowstone and Meagher counties and soon got on the outlaw trail. One set of tracks caught his eye right away, that of Jack Chipman's horse that had "plated or running shoes." Such horseshoes were primarily used for horse racing.

Two days after the robbery, the posse came upon the relay camp south of Merino. As they walked around, Sheriff Ramsey spotted a torn letter near the campfire. Putting it together it revealed the name of the owner, Jack Chipman. The next day they came upon another cold campfire and found a watch fob belonging to the train conductor. In total, the posse followed the gang for a week until they arrived near the town of Uber where they gave up the chase. Since the posse only traveled during daylight hours and the bandits rode day and night it soon became obvious the chase was futile.

  Chapter 4

On September 10, the outlaws purchased supplies in Belt and pitched camp outside of town. The nights were getting cooler and the four huddled around a campfire. Charley Jones lay on his bedroll across the fire from Sam. Charley, a short man who had reached his weatherworn mid- thirties working horses and cattle, filled a cigarette paper with tobacco poured from a Bull Durham sack. He licked the paper and lit the limp roll-your-own with a match.

As he blew smoke rings into the fire he said, "It's a good thing you pulled me out of that poker game back in Butte, Sam."

"Why is that?" asked Sam.

"Didn't you check out those two I was playing with? One was cheatin.' I just know it. We coulda had some real trouble there."

"All I remember is one wore a weird, what do you call it . . . a Bowler Hat? Looked outta place to me."

"That's the key to cheatin,' Sam. You gotta look good. That's number one. Second, what I think he was doin' was that he was waitin' for a good hand. Then, he takes this one card and hides it underneath his leg. He keeps the rest of his cards together by placing them down on the table in a pile so you don't notice. He remembers the card under his leg and goes on playing like nothings goin' on. But, soon he switches that card with another one when he needs it. He does this by acting sorta stumped or something and lowers his hand by his leg in an ordinary gesture. Then, when he wants to stop cheatin' he just pulls up the card and folds."

"Who were they Charley?" asked Sam.

"One was Bob Parker. The other was Harry Longabaugh?Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

* * *

Deputy Sam Jackson took on the job alone. He not only was made a special agent for the Northern Pacific Railroad, but was promised a commission as a Deputy U.S. Marshal. Anticipating the four men were on their way to Canada, Jackson took a train to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation where he contacted the Indian agent who was in the process of relocating his office to Willow Creek, near Browning, Montana. The agent told Jackson he had seen four cowhands who fit the outlaws' descriptions. In fact, he had ordered them off the reservation as they appeared up to no good. Quietly, Jackson enlisted the agent's help in gathering a number of Indian police. The new posse soon took a train to Midvale. Unknown to the outlaws, two of Jackson's men had followed them to Midvale and then to a cabin two miles east of town on Two Medicine Creek. Previously, back in Midvale, a hanger-on had become part of the gang. Eighteen-year-old Jimmy Moots was impressed by Charley Jones' quiet composure while holding two deuces in a winning poker game in the Two-Gun Saloon. Later, outside the general store, Jones leaned his stocky physique against a supporting pole.

"You say you got a cabin near here, Moots?" asked Jones.

"Yes, sir. I sure do," said Moots. "I can put you guys up for a spell should you take a mind."

Upon arriving at the cabin, as the five unloaded their supplies, they were unaware of two men sneaking in the brush nearby.

  Chapter 5

The cabin wasn't much. The one room shed-like affair had a dirt floor and no ceiling to speak of. The exterior was a combination of squared-off logs and quartered log pieces held together by mud plaster. There were no windows. It was a close-quartered shut-in with no escape. At 10 a.m. on the dot Deputy Jackson, having arrived with a combination of ten Indian police and a number of volunteers, shouted out?"You there, in the house. Put up your hands and come out!"

"We gotta get outta here!" screamed young Moots.

Automatically the four outlaws positioned themselves toward the front of the house, broke chinking out of the mud plaster and began firing their pistols. Immediately one of the Indian police called Duck Head was shot in the shoulder. The posse quickly drew back but kept firing. The gun battle lasted for what seemed an eternity for all involved. It was actually about thirty minutes. Then, another member of the posse named Henry Schubert was shot and died later on the posse's ride to Midvale. During the half hour of firing Jones and Chipman used small shovels they had purchased earlier and began digging their way out of back wall of the cabin. Soon they had dug a space large enough for all five to crawl out and escape on foot. Due to their hasty departure they left hundreds of rounds of ammunition, coats, blankets, a huge meat supply of ham and beef, extra saddles and eight horses penned up outside.

On foot the crooks made slow time as they trudged through lodge pole forests, down aspen glades, running and falling down in various snow depths all the while heading toward Marias Pass that straddles the Continental Divide. The posse now increased in number to around sixty. They followed their snow tracks, spotting them at times, but hesitated to close in on them in the thick forests staying close to the railroad that ran through the pass. Then, one of the sheriffs named Gangner put a few men on a special set of train cars and steamed through the Pass. Night fell as Gangner and his men got off the train and walked upward on the tracks toward the crest of a mountain. As coincidence would have it, both sets of men began walking toward each other in the darkness. Each group could hear whispering. Within a few feet of each other the posse began firing, killing Jack Chipman and wounding Sam in the hip. Jimmy Moots surrendered on the spot. Jack White and Charley Jones slipped away into the darkness. The cold night was too much for Jones as the next morning he walked into the Java section house and surrendered to a railroad employee who turned him over to Sheriff Gangner. White subsequently got away, but was shot and killed a few days later by a former neighbor named Gensman who was after a $500 reward.

* * *

Kalispell, Montana was chosen to be the county seat the year Sam Shermer became a wounded prisoner in its jail. Even though the town had a hospital he lay dying on a jail bunk. On the third day following the shootout a young lady walked into the jail to see her lover. As Sam looked up he barely recognized his Andie.

"Hello girl. I hoped to see you. I fear I'm not in the best of shape."

"Shh, Sam. Let me do the talking. I love you Sam. I will always love you. Let me get you to the hospital."

"It's too late girl. Always remember me. Tell them all. Tell them I was Sam Shermer, famous outlaw of the West. Keep my name alive, girl."

With that utterance, Sam Shermer expired. Andie slowly walked out the door never to be seen again. Sam and Jack Chipman were buried in Kalispell later that day in unmarked graves, perhaps fitting for their discreditable notoriety.


It was the same year of the Great Grey Cliff train robbery that America went into its worst economic depression up until that time. Some call it the Panic of 1893, a period marked by the overbuilding and shaky financing of America's railroads. The panic resulted in a series of bank failures and a run on the gold supply. Nearby to our story many western silver mines closed, of which a large number never re-opened. A significant number of western mountain narrow-gauge railroads, which had been built to serve the mines, also went out of business. By 1897 the nation's economy began to recover following the election of Republican William McKinley. Then, in July of 1897, a far more interesting event took precedence over stories of the bad boys of the Old West. It was the Klondike Gold Rush.

The End

Author Ray Shermer is a second cousin of one gang member, Sam Shermer. In 2016 Ray physically retraced the train robbery incident with his son Chris from the initial holdup to the final shootout location and visited the grave of his ancestor to give flavor to the tale.

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The Ace of Jacks
by Tom Sheehan

John Bevans Tailback came on the scene in lower Wyoming Territory when he was 15 years old, riding into the town of Looping Wells, looking for the two men who murdered his mother and father in cold blood over the last loaf of bread in her oven. He told the sheriff what had happened, all the details including the descriptions of the two men he had seen on that unforgettable day four years earlier.

He had grown well.

"I have not forgotten their faces, their deeds, or their hunger at eating my mother's last loaf of bread while she and my father lay dead on the floor and I was under the curtain on the sink where my mother had shoved me when she saw one of the men sneak up on my father from inside the barn, hit him on the head and drag him into our cabin."

The sheriff studied the boy, saw him a determined, though young man who had been range-bred. He had sturdiness about him, and a good deal of confidence. His eyes, the sheriff additionally thought, were a serious matter, appearing as though they held the answer to many questions before they were asked. He was sure that was true of some searches, this current one to be resolved by the young one most likely on his own. He was as dark-haired as the ace of spades, with blue-green eyes that might toy with a girl, or even a lady, and two walnut-handle pistols hung loose on his belt.

To the sheriff, on a second look, Jack Tailback emerged older than he gave evidence.

"Son," the sheriff said, "you leave this to the law. I'll try to have some kind of poster made up and have it hung proper and move it around the territory. I want you to go off and let us work on it. Tell me where you'll be so I can contact you." Then sipped at his beer, shrugged his shoulders with either disdain or futility. The boy was sure his words had fallen on the deaf ears of a man too busy to pay him any mind.

"Well," said Tailback, "if you're about chasing them gents, you're bound to come across me 'cause I'm starting now to really look for them. I'll travel the whole territory for them, inside and outside, making the great circle of towns around Looping Wells until they're dead, hanged, shot or run down by a cattle stampede, whatever comes first. If I'm there first, they'll be dead."

"You go killing anybody without a trial and we'll rig one on you, son. You be careful."

"They'll draw on me first, sheriff," he said, "so it'll be self-defense." With that no sooner out of his mouth, he whipped one of his guns from its holster and fired a round the full length of the saloon and hit smack dead in the middle of a picture of a singer scheduled to come into town in a few weeks.

The law was impressed, and the young man left Looping Wells, heading west.

Tailback, en route to the next town on his list, reflected on the things he had told the sheriff and those that he hadn't even mentioned, letting them sit back there in his mind like secrets of the dead. One of them came at him often. Unmistakably he kept hearing the words, "Clean sleeves, clean sleeves," and wondered why they were so important and yet so irregular an expression in cow country where every horseman worked long and hard and unworried about clean sleeves except when coming out of a mountain spring as the year warmed up. Those men were the drovers, ranch owners, stage drivers, freighters, sheriffs, marshals and just about every deputy they might have dropped a swearing-in ceremony on. Others, like bank tellers, whose hands and wrists were constantly in sight of customers, like gentle women, ladies of a town, perhaps would be the only ones who cared for "clean sleeves."

One other sign struck his eyes on a boot no more than a foot from his face as he tried not to breathe too heavily under the sink where his mother had hidden him. It was on one boot, no spur attached, but a small quarter moon with an arrow through it. That sign he burned itself into his mind.

"Things to lead me," he said as he rode. "Things to lead me, to keep in mind." He'd slap his gun at such moments, feeling the shot of energy and revenge as it flashed through him. His mother's face he had seen often, but such times as these, with the revenge running amuck inside him, his hand slapping the butt of his pistol, he saw, almost clearly, the full face of his father; the stitched, curved lip where a cow had kicked him, the slight mound over one eye from another accident, the wide ears that seemed to shoot out under his sombrero, the near-flat ridge on his nose, and the kindest, warmest and saddest eyes he had ever seen on a man.

He wondered why and could not figure it out.

In Benton's Mark, a small settlement on his route, he stayed a full day, right through to when the quiet hours came around at last in the Gray Dog Saloon. That stay included a talk with the sheriff that revealed nothing but a "Good luck, kid."

After a decent sleep in the livery, courtesy of the owner, he started anew on his search. The next in line, Wilford Springs, sat on the widening circle of towns he had marked out. The little town sat pretty as a picture as he looked down from a good-sized hill that broke up the trail. The sun, well before noon, sat on the town like an embrace, pulling all its parts into the one golden sweep of the sun. Light glistened on some windows, shot away on others at different angles, almost said hello to him from others.

From his view he saw a single rider alone on the wide grass, not too far from the town, like a daily ride for exercise. After watching the rider, he sensed it was a girl from some unexplainable quarter telling him it was obvious. She rode lightly, now and then spurred the horse into a flat-out stretch of speed, and seeming satisfied with some exhilaration, like waving her hat and letting out a yell, she'd rein the horse to a slow trot.

She looked like she was having herself a fun day. She drew his curiosity.

Slowly he rode down toward her, and kept waving his hat to get her attention. He did so and she drew her horse to a stand-still, eyeing him all the way, but not showing any fright . . . not in the peak of the day, in the middle of the grass, the sun behaving too good for her, the breeze as tender as new buds, her horse able to run with full speed to evade any problems on such a nice day.

"Hi," he said, quickly adding, "you look like you're having a whole bale of fun so early in the day, and that horse goes pretty fast when you want him to, doesn't he?"

"Sure does," she said, her face a beauty of a face with full-up blue eyes, lips so pretty like they were begging for a kiss, and her complexion not a beaten-down, wind-worn, sunburned layer of flesh. She appeared slim, young, of his age, friendly, but could bolt seriously if she had to in a second. "Where are you coming from? You going to Wilford Springs? "she said and quickly added, "'cause if you ain't, you're sure going to bump into it."

Her smile lit up the prairie even brighter than he had first determined it to be.

He decided not to hold back anything because he did not want to spend it uselessly. He had no time for romance, or its approach he had decided earlier, though she had started a warm buzz inside him.

"Well, my name's Jack Tailback and I'm on a search for two murderers, and I aim to sweep the whole territory for the next ten years, or forever, looking for them but it's not going to take that long, I just feel it."

"What did they do?" There was real interest in her voice, and her eyes said the same thing.

"They killed my Mom and Dad about four years ago. My Mom hid me under the sink and told me to keep quiet and not move. Next thing one of them brings my pa inside and drops him on the floor, my ma screams and they shoot her and eat the last loaf of bread she had in the oven, stuffing themselves and going off and leaving my folks on the floor. I haven't forgotten it. Not for one minute, though I feel guilty as hell about not doing anything then, that's why I'm doing it now."

"What could you do when you were so young? How old are you?" Her face stood forth as the saddest he had seen since he began telling his own sad tale.

"I'm going on 16, in a few weeks."

"Oh," she said, "I'll be 16, too, in about three weeks. My name is Eva Valley Phillips. That's horrid what they did. I hope you catch them and see them strung up by the neck."

She dwelled a moment on his lashes; curling and black as the ace of spades, she thought.

"I might shoot them first, if I run into them. Only reason I'm out here is to look for them. Find one at a time or both at once."

"So, you must know what they look like, if you peeked out from under that curtain your Ma had around the sink."

"I know them right to some of their scars, what they wear, stuff like that. How one's eyes are set on the side of his nose like they were dropped from someplace up high in a close grip, but not heaven, for sure." He paused, looked at her with a tender look, and asked, "What do you do out here alone besides running around and having fun?"

"I like to get some of the good air, get some exercise for me and my horse, and see nice things growing out here. The nice scenery. So, I'm always looking for a nice scene or a nice flower to sketch. I really like to sketch. I can fill up a book with some things. My Pa says I'm a natural and can't imagine where it comes from." She laughed at some inside joke she did not share.

"That sounds like fun," he said. "I'd like to see some of that sometime."

"I'll show you if you really want to see them." She was pink in the face as she said it.

Then a single thought must have hit both of them.

Tailback asked, "Do you draw faces?"

She said, "Oh, I've done my folks several times. My father always says that's how he looks, but my mom says she looks different than I sketch her. Says she's younger looking, and I think she says that to please my father, and my father says what he says to please me."

And her face widened in sudden amazement as she said, "Oh, my goodness, I just had the same thought you did. You tell me what they look like and I'll sketch them, both of them, those horrid men, until you're sure I've done them right."

She shivered slightly, closed her eyes, and uttered slowly, "I'd love to do it. I really really would." She looked at his black lashes again, but not so as he could notice.

A bond had been impressed on young souls.

Eva's parents, as part of their western code, invited to dinner the young man when their daughter explained all the circumstances.

Eva's father, Barney Phillips, said, "If you met up with either one of those scoundrels, Jack, could you handle the situation?"

"Yes, sir," said Jack. "Both of them together or one at a time, makes no difference to me."

"But it might to them," Eva said, and Tailback knew exactly how she meant that observation. He felt warm all over all over again.

There came some discussion of his problems in life, but the parents managed to skirt much of the murder, only hoping the fiends would be caught and be treated as the had acted. After dinner, the two young ones sat on the front porch, Eva with a board in her lap, pencils at hand, and a bubble of energy to get on with the task.

"Tell me again, Jack," she said, "about the one with the eyes dropped from on high." She added a humorous look to her countenance and let it speak for her knowledge that it did not issue from a holy throne. "Tell me what else they looked like, and the color of the pupils and the eyelashes and eyebrows and every single thing you can remember. If we get the eyes down right, I think all the rest will come after a few different views, and mostly about nose and chin and how the lips looked when he made a face or cursed or whatever."

They sat on the porch for a few hours, by themselves, her father coming out only once to bring a lamp as evening thickened, but never once looking at what his daughter so far had sketched.

Once, in the middle of things, he said, "Make this happen in the sketch; make his sleeves clean or neat or how they might bother a gunman if his sleeves are messy or his cuffs might get tangled in his gun play. I don't know why I remember that, but he kept saying he had to get another shirt, his sleeves were messy. He looked in my father's clothes and there weren't any with sleeves clean enough to steal. It might mean something and it might not, but I'll keep my eyes open."

And with the darkness descending on top of a series of descriptions of chin and mouth and lips and ears from Jack's memory, and how one scar made a left cheek stick out like a signboard all on its own, and one arm drawn under the face as it might have been folded, the sleeve of the shirt neat and trimmed, Jack suddenly leaped up and shouted, "Oh, Eva, Eva, that's him! That's him!"

He held the sketch out in front of him, admired it as if he was in a museum, and kept exclaiming, "You did it! You did it."

The shouting and commotion brought Eva's parents out to check on them.

Young Jack first showed Mrs. Phillips the sketch, which brought a vile look of hate across her face.

When Eva held out the sketch to her father, he sat down, studied it for a few serious minutes and then said, quite loudly and with definite affirmation, "Jack, I know him. I know him, I'm sure. He's a hand at Thornwell's ranch, the Daisy D. It's in the next valley. He's been there over a year that I know of. Jake Thornwell says he's a decent worker, but not social at all and hardly liked by the rest of the boys. His name is Bouncer Ditson. At least that's what they call him. Some of them said he's mean as hell. Had some trouble once, I remember, about not going into town with the boys. Doesn't drink with them, they say, but goes off with a fellow from another ranch, just a guy named Londo and no other name, to see some Indian girls in the hills any chance they get. I guess that doesn't set well with some of their pards who have fought off some wild renegade Indians on several drives."

Tailback, standing as if at attention in the ranks, said, "I want to thank you folks for giving me a hand and letting Eva sit around with a complete stranger after having had supper at your table." He talked as if he was suddenly a lot older than "nearly 16."

A bit of difficulty came into his voice, but it wasn't indecision. "This day is the finest thing that's happened to me in a long while. I can't thank you enough, but I'll be leaving now."

He stood tall, and Eva thought handsome as he turned to her and said, "I'm so happy that I met you. You're a great rider, a great drawer of faces and the prettiest thing I about ever saw."

He shook her hand.

She kissed him on the cheek.

Her mother smiled in memory.

Her father said, "I can send a few of my boys with you, Jack. This might be a tough swing for you."

"No, thank you, sir. I've been this long hating a few people so I have to take care of it all at once, and alone, as best I can. I would like to come back and say hello again before I go on to wherever."

There arose a distinctive pause, and pre-announcement in his voice, as he said, "I've got to get shuck of this feeling of hatred. It sure doesn't help me here."

Eva said, "Wherever you're headed sure is not going to be far from here."

Both women, at that moment, loved the boy-man, Jack Tailback, for different reasons, as they would be perceived to a regular on-looker.

In a short time, Tailback learned a few things:

He sat for two days in the hills above the Daisy-D Ranch in the next valley, and prepared to leave as the sun started to set when he saw two riders leave the ranch and proceed not toward town, but into the foothills on his side of the valley. He had chosen a fairly secure position to keep watch on the valley; his horse was tied up nearby, hidden from just about all other vantage points, and provided free passage for him to travel in different directions.

The two men rode directly up into the lower hills and Tailback was able to see the trail they had chosen. The trail was now known to him as he had familiarized himself with the trails leading into a few Indian dwellings spotted in the hills. His observation of the riders provided him a view of the bulging saddlebags slung on their horses. He figured the bags contained presents or pay-off goods for the squaws they were bent on visiting.

The men rode slowly but steadily and Tailback followed them at a discrete distance, keeping back at turns in the trail, avoiding rises now and then by slowing down, assuming at one point where the trail split, that they were going to one small group of tepees he had seen earlier. It was situated in a corner of a small canyon protected on three sides by high cliffs.

Tailback kept patting his horse on the neck, saying, "Good boy, Pancho. Nice and easy, boy." They had been partners in this affair and he felt bound and bidden to treat him well. His thoughts were interrupted by Eva and her talent; she had captured the characteristics of both men quicker than expected. He thought her to be a genius, able to plumb his mind in such short order.

More than four years of hate and immediate revenge were near at hand; he could feel them rising in him, just as strong as they had risen years before.

The two killers, seemingly at ease in the small gathering of tipis, tied their horses off on a small tree, removed the saddle bags and advanced to two of the tipis, each one entering one of them. Nothing moved around the tipis, but off on a corner he saw older squaws at work on furs or hides of one sort or another.

From a new vantage point, closer than he had ever been to his parents' killers, he sat on a rock and thought over the situation. Eva kept intruding, and he figured she was telling him to be careful, to be sure, to come back to her. It helped him with some of the decisions bound in his prospects.

The evening wore on, drinking noises and hell-raising sounds came to him from both tipis, and eventually the shrill cries of women being abused swept across the clearing. What saddlebag contents could pay for abuse? What were the trade-offs? He could not imagine, but there lingered the way these two men had gulped down his mother's last loaf of bread from her oven, and her and his father dead at their feet.

Bouncer Ditson and Londo, the pair of them, at last were at hand.

Young Jack Tailback walked into the small group of tipis, the noise still audible, nobody moving to help anybody in pain or in trouble, the names Bouncer Ditson and Londo sitting like poison in his throat, on his tongue, held back from his lips lest he be further cursed.

The weight of the names held him back only for a short time.

Then he let it all go:

"Hey, you murderers. Hey, Bouncer Ditson, hey Londo. You pokes remember you killed my parents and ate the last loaf of bread from her oven while her and my Pa lay dead on the floor, right at your feet?"

He waited, his hands loose, his heart eager.

No response reached him.

He stepped to the side, behind a rock, and the silence continued.

"Hey," he yelled. "You guys afraid of a kid? C'mon out and face me and my guns. C'mon cowards. C'mon" He had stepped forward, both guns in his hands.

Still no answer.

He walked deeper into the area, waiting for one or the other to make a move, shoot from one of the tipis, and try to slip out through an open flap while shooting all the way.

Nobody moved, so he shot at the top of one tipi. The bullet shattered the tip of a pole. Debris flew apart from the pole.

"No shoot! No shoot!" It was a female voice from one tipi, and was immediately followed by the same words from the second tipi.

"No shoot! No shoot!" came again from the first tipi. "They are dead. We have seen you. We know you are not friends. We have killed them. Both cruel. Both mean. It was time for death. This one here die changing his shirt, looking away from me."

Two young females, of rare beauty, slipped out of the tipis, their hands thrown out in front of them seeking supplication.

Tailback said, "Are they both dead?"

"They are dead," each one confirmed.

As though a kite was lifted on high, Jack Tailback felt a fierce energy leaving him, fleeing upward. And he discerned a note of freedom on the faces of the young Indians, two maidens finally cut loose from their terrors.

There was an undeniable understanding struck between the three of them, and with the two dead men hauled out of the tipis and identified by Jack Tailback as the killers of his parents without a single doubt: the faces he remembered, the half-donned shirt on one man telling a story, along with eyes so close to his nose they might have come from one place in one grasp. Each of his boots carried a small crescent moon with an arrow through it.

The signs all falling in place.

A sudden flare of intelligence hit him; since he met Eva, since she committed her talent and drawn the sketches, he no longer needed to clutch at bad memories.

In a twist of justice, he quietly ignored the apparent deep wounds that had killed the men and did not see the weapons of mercy that had been employed. Nor did he bother to search for them.

He couldn't wait to tell Eva what had happened. And he didn't have to tell the sheriff at Looping Wells where he was or what he was up to.

Not at all.

He might just say his search was over.

The End

Sheehan, in 91st year, has published 36 books and multiple works in Rosebud, Literally Stories, Linnet's Wings, Serving House Journal, Copperfield Review, Literary Orphans, Eastlit, Frontier Tales, TQR Total Quality Reading, Rope & Wire, etc. He's received 34 Pushcart nominations, 6 Best of Net nominations with one winner, other awards. He served as a sgt. in the 31st Infantry in Korea 1951-52, graduated from Boston College 1956. His most recent reading was about the First Iron Works in America for The Saugus Historical Society.

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Hate Turns Deadly at Silver Rock
by Jack Hill

Sheriff William Duggan, thirty-eight, bulky, medium height, and tanned from prolonged sun exposure, tilted his chair back and lit a slender cigar. Smoke curled above his head in the still air. From his vantage point in front of the jail, the streets of Silver Rock were quiet for a Friday night. Maybe it was the excessive heat and humidity, which was unusually oppressive for a late Oklahoma August. Or maybe, the stars were in proper alignment. Whatever the reason, Duggan was thankful.

When the sounds of boots on the wooden sidewalk came closer, they immediately caught Duggan's attention. Oil lanterns hanging outside some businesses provided the only illumination for the otherwise dark street. Whomever it was walking toward him remained hidden in the shadows. Unfortunately, the lantern above his head made Duggan an easy target. So he rocked his chair forward, and its front legs hit with a thud. Without having to think twice, he put his hand on his revolver.

Out of the darkness came a familiar voice. "Howdy, Sheriff," yelled Samuel Patterson, twenty-nine, tall, lanky, and not too bright, stepping into the light. "Hot enough fer ya?"

Duggan took off his hat and wiped his forehead. "For Pete's sake, Sam, don't ever sneak up on a person in the dark like that. Could get you killed. No questions asked."

"Sorry, Sheriff. Just thought ya'd like some company. But if yer not in the mood, I'll go someplace else." Sam started to turn.

Duggan beckoned with a wave of his hat. "No need to, Sam. Pull up a chair and enjoy the quiet evening. We don't get too many quiet Fridays when the trail herds are in town." He fanned himself with his hat. "Maybe it's too hot for trouble. It's the hottest August I can recollect."

"It sure be. I remember last year . . .  or was it the year before . . .  maybe it was before then . . . " Sam stared into the night sky with a puzzled look on his face.

"If you're gonna tell a story, what difference does it make exactly when it was?"

"Well . . . makes a lot of difference. It's what's called context. Gotta have the proper context of the story, or it don't make no sense."

"Where'd you learn 'bout that?"

"I was trying to tell Henry Barnes, over at the wainwright, a story, and he asked, 'What's the context?'"

"Did he explain what context means?"

"Sure, he did. That's why I'm a-tryin' ta be a-rememberin' the date of my story."

"Okay, Sam. I didn't mean to interrupt. Go ahead with your story."

"Forget it . . .  I can't remember when it 'twas, so the story won't mean the same."

"Suit yourself, Sam. Anyways, it's time I check the doin's at the saloons. Wanna come?" Duggan stood and pushed his chair against the building.

"Sure. Can't tell a story worth a darn, anyhows," mumbled Sam. "Context, or no context."

"Don't be so hard on yourself. Most people can't tell a good story."

"That don't help me feel better one bit, Sheriff," muttered Sam, spitting on the ground. "Not one bit at t'all."

* * *

As they moseyed up to the first saloon, Duggan said, "It always amazes me that a town of this size can support three saloons but only one church. And most Sundays the pews are near empty."

"You ever go?"

"Where, Sam?"

"To church."

"When I was a youngin but never here."

"I went once but didn't stay. I was the only one there. Preacher Tom was a-sittin' in front with his head in his hands. Don't know if he were a-prayin' or a-cryin', so's I skedaddled."

"Don't say."

"Yessirree. 'Twas like I said . . . "

"Hold that thought, Sam. Here's Sally's Lavender Rose saloon. Should see what's happening, seems quiet, enough."

Sheriff and Sam pushed through the swinging doors and looked around. Several cowpokes were drinking at the bar, two tables had poker games going, and Rusty was playing the piano off to the left side. A steady stream of customers were coming and going—visiting the outhouse, Duggan figured—since it did not take long for warm beer to pass through. He spied Sally sitting alone at a corner table, fanning herself.

"Have a beer on me, Sam," said Duggan, giving Sam some money.

"Why, thank you Sheriff. Don't mind if I do. Been mighty thirsty of late. It reminds me of the time . . . "

"Later, Sam."

Duggan strolled over to Sally's table and tipped his hat.

"Hi, Bill. Take a load off your feet."

"Don't mind if I do." Duggan pulled out a chair and sat. "You're looking fine this evening."

"I'm sweating like a stuck pig. Can't remember humidity like this so late into August. Can be hot, but humid? It's downright misery all around. And men have it so easy, being able to run around bareback if they want; womenfolk can't. I'm wearing enough cloth for a half dozen shirts. It's not fair."

"What's got a bee in your bonnet?"

"Don't mind me. I'm just hot. How's it going for you?"

"Unusually quiet. I expected trouble with it being so hot, tempers being short, and all. But so far, not so much as a fistfight."

"Shorty's sawed-off helps."

"Say again."

"Two cowpokes were stirring up trouble 'bout an hour ago. Shorty got 'Betsy'—his sawed-off shotgun—laid it on the bar, and everyone made up. Everybody's best of friends now."

Duggan chuckled. "That's one way of keeping the peace. Who were they?"

"Two drifters, Charlie McCarty and Henry O'Shannassy, tried to start a fight with an Italian emigrant."

"What were they arguing about?"

"Too many foreigners in town, taking jobs from able-bodied Americans."

"That doesn't make sense. Their folks are emigrants, foreigners themselves.

"You'll have a stroke tryin' to figure those two boys out. Lean back and have a beer with me?"

"As much as I'd like to, I can't tonight. Must check out the other watering holes."

"Some other time?"

"You bet." Duggan stood and walked over to Sam. "Gonna nurse that beer all night?'

"Might be a long time before I get another."

"Drink up if you want to follow along with me."

Sam gulped the last little bit. "I'm a-commin'"

* * *

Duggan and Sam walked along the mostly-empty street, keeping a watchful eye for trouble. Sam looked to Duggan a couple of times as if wanting to speak but didn't.

"What's bothering you, Sam? You've been acting like you wanna get something off your chest."

"Well . . . I do, Sheriff . . . So . . . I won't beat 'round the bush . . . .I'll come right out and say it . . . No use a-puttin' it off any longer . . . Been a-waitin' all day ta talk ta ya . . . So . . . I'll just . . . "

"For heaven's sake, Sam, will you just spit it out already?"

"Okay . . . I'll ask . . . .Do ya need a deputy?"

"Why you asking, Sam?"

"I could use a job. And . . . And I'd like a-workin' fer ya, Sheriff."

"Town can hardly support a sheriff let alone a deputy. Besides, I thought you had a job at Wilson's livery stable."

Well . . . I did . . . 'Til . . . That is, until last Tuesday . . . Maybe 'twas Monday."

"Forget about the context, Sam. Tell me what happened?"

"There I was a-muckin' stalls like I was told ta do. And it were hotter than blue blazes . . . And . . . And . . . Tuesday!"


"I just remembered it were Tuesday, 'cause Tuesday were the hottest day last week."

"Sam! Can you get on with your story? It'll be sunup in a few hours."

"Like I said, there I were a-muckin . . . Yesssiree, it were the hottest day ever . . . And all that heat brung on flies . . . Flies was everywhere and a-causin' them horses to get all riled up. So I led them to the corral out back of the barn where's they had a breeze, shade, and water. There was Hank Simpson's thoroughbred mare and two run-down stallions: a shaggy, graying mix-breed and an old swayback.

"And then, I went back ta work on them stalls. 'Twasn't long when I heared gunshots. So I run outside and seen Hank a-ridin' for all he's worth toward the corral, a-shootin' in the air, and a-shoutin'. Couldn't make out what he were a-yellin', but I sure could tell he were madder than a nest of hornets. And behind were Moses Bailey with his prize stallion in tow.

"Well, I'll tell ya, Sheriff, no amount of shootin' or no amount of yellin' was gonna deter those two old stallions before they was done a-doin' . . . Well . . . Ya get the picture, do ya?"

Duggan looked at Sam and chuckled. "Yes, I do, Sam. I sure do."

Flailing his arms about, Sam continued his story. "Nobody told me Hank's mare were in heat. And besides, who'd reckon those two old stallions . . . Theys a-bein' over-the-hill and all . . . Ya just never know, do ya, Sheriff?"

Duggan struggled to suppress an outburst of laughter. "N-N-No you don't, Sam."

"Anyways, Hank were so angry, I though he were gonna shoot me, but Mr. Wilson came a-runnin' and calmed him down. Then he said ta me, 'Take yer rake an' go. Yer fired!' But it didn't seem right."

Puzzled, Duggan asked, "What didn't seem right?"

"That weren't my rake; 'twas his. So I left it in a stall, gathered my things, and left. I didn't go back fer my pay neither and haven't even walked near the livery stable since then. If I run into Hank, I don't know what I'll do."

"Why didn't I hear about this until now?"

"You was out of town, Sheriff, and ya know Hank Simpson: he blows up, and his anger's over quick-like."

"That's Hank alright. I wish more people were like Hank in that way. Some hold a grudge for a lifetime, and let it smolder until it erupts into uncontrollable flames. They get a spark of hate from somewhere; they feed it and fan it, until it flares up—can take years. Like those two drifters in the Lavender Rose."

"What two drifters?"

"McCarty and O'Shannassy. They got hate smoldering from somewhere, and it's gonna flame up some day. Yeah. I'd take more Hanks any day."

Duggan and Sam finished their round about town and called it a night. Sam bid Duggan a good evening and moseyed on home, while Duggan headed to the jail and a smoke before bed.

* * *

Next day broke cloudy with spotty rain and lower temperatures. After breakfast at the Rose's diner, Sheriff Duggan sat under the jail's overhang, trying not to get too wet. Most people dodged the showers by staying inside, which left the streets virtually deserted. Barely enough precipitation fell for a good mud puddle to form when the clouds parted and the relentless heat returned.

Duggan was moving his chair to the shade of a tree when Sam ran up all out of breath. "You'd better come, Sheriff. There's trouble brewin' down at the train depot."

"Hold on Sam, catch your breath and tell me what the trouble is."

"Well . . . See . . . Them two drifters got a Chinaman cornered at the depot, and they is gonna cut off his pigtail, sure as I am standing here. So you'd better come."

"Lead the way, Sam."

* * *

McCarty and O'Shannassy were laughing and cussing at a small, Asian man, dressed in an eastern three-piece business suit with Bollman hat, sporting a shaved top head and a three-foot long queue. The Asian man stood resolute with his back to a wall, unflinching in the barrage of insults.

McCarty stood to the right front of the Asian man with his feet planted wide, stooped, hands toward him. In his right hand, he held a hunting knife. O'Shannassy stood upright to the left of the man, rocking back and forth with laughter.

"We don't need no Chinamen in these parts," hissed McCarty. "Go back wheres ya comes from."

"Yeah," chimed in O'Shannassy. "You'ins don't speak the language too good, neither, do he, Charlie?"

"No they doesn't. And comin' here ta take our jobs. 'Tain't right. Ship 'em back, I say."

"I'll teach him a lesson. You grab 'im, Henry, and I'll cut off that pigtail of hair he's got hanging down."

O'Shannassy lunged toward the Asian man. When he was within arm's length, the man spun around and planted his foot alongside of his face, sending O'Shannassy sprawling in the dirt. The man turned to face McCarty.

"Why you little weasel," yelled McCarty as he raised his knife and charged at the man. At the last moment, the man sidestepped the attack. He grabbed the hand holding the knife, and bent it backward. He jabbed his thumb into the base of McCarty's thumb. McCarty dropped his knife and fell to his knees, yelling from pain. The Asian man never lost his hat or dirtied his suit.

"Ya see that, Sheriff?" asked Sam. "Ever see anyone fight like that before?"

"I saw the whole thing, and I'm having trouble believing what I just saw."

The Asian man released his grip on McCarty, picked up the knife, and stepped aside. McCarty grabbed his hand and rubbed his palm. When he stood, he looked toward Duggan.

"Sheriff, you seen what he's done did to Henry? Ain't there a law agin it?" asked McCarty, helping O'Shannassy to his feet.

Duggan shook his head. "Seems to me, you boys got what was coming to you. Now you and Henry git outta here before I decide to run you in and leave this gentleman alone."

"This ain't over, China . . . Man. This ain't over by a long shot."

McCarty helped O'Shannassy and the two of them staggered toward town.

"That was some mighty fine foot work, Mr. Uh . . . "

With a slight bow, the man said, "Wong. Oliver Wong at your service, sir." He extended his hand.

Duggan shook his hand. "Glad to meet you, Mr. Wong. I'm Sheriff Bill Duggan and this here's Sam Patterson. But Oliver doesn't sound Chinese to me."

"No, it's not Chinese, but my Chinese name is too hard to pronounce so I chose Oliver. I like the sound of it, don't you?"

"Sure. Oliver sounds okay by me."

"Me too," said Sam.

"What brings you to these parts? We don't see many fancy-dressed gents around here, let alone a Chinese one."

"My family owns an import-export business on the coast, and we are looking for a supply of beef for export to China. I'm here to establish a line of credit through your bank, forge deals with ranchers, and enjoy the local color."

"Local color?" Sam's face looked puzzled.

"Yes, your people, places, and customs."

"Oh. Ain't much to look at, if you ask me, but suit yourself."

"Sheriff, could you recommend a place to stay?"

"The Lavender Rose has a boarding house, diner, and saloon. Except for Friday and Saturday nights, it's quiet. Food's good, too."

"Thank you, sir. Where could I engage a horse, buckboard, and guide?"

"What's engage mean?" asked Sam.

"Hire," said Duggan. "You could be a guide for Mr. Wong and get a horse and buckboard from the livery stable."

"I dunna know. Mr. Wilson could still be mad at me."

"Pete Wilson never turned down a chance to make a dollar."

"What do you say, Mr. Wong? Sam'll be your guide."

"My friends call me Ollie. My father is Mr. Wong. I would be delighted to have Mr. Patterson escort me around your fine country."

* * *

"Well, Sam, how did the sightseeing trip go?"

"Not much sightseeing. Ollie wanted to visit each rancher and talk business."

"How'd that go?"

"Musta go'd alright. I waited outside, and each time, they shook hands, and we rode to the next ranch."

"If the ranchers sell their beef and ship it by rail to the coast, there'll be a boomtown in cows and work for every drifter for miles around."

"Kinda looks thata way. Maybe I can find work too."

"What kind of work could you do, Sam? What you know about cows?"

"Don't rightly know for sure, but I know them cows need feedin' and waterin' while they wait for the next train. Somebody's gotta do that."

"You're right, Sam. Somebody does."

"How soon you think Ollie . . . I mean, Mr. Wong will start buying and shipping cattle?"

"I suppose he has to meet with the bank, and it being Sunday, they won't be open 'til tomorrow."

"Kinda excitin' thinkin' 'bout it though."

"Yes, it is. This town needs an economic boost."

* * *

Sunday evening was quiet; it usually was. The sun had set, and the temperatures were bearable. Sheriff Duggan finished his after-dinner rounds and settled in his chair for a smoke. Glad that most of the cowboys were back on the ranges, he hoped the evening would remain uneventful. He lit a cigar and drew a puff of smoke deep into his lungs. As he exhaled, he noticed the Big Dipper seemed especially intense, not a cloud to hide its marvelous view. The moon had set, but the stars were bright and doing their best to illuminate the night.

While he was pondering and relaxing, Pete Hastings, still a ways off, yelled, "Sheriff. Shorty says he needs you at the Rose. Trouble's brewing, and he said come quick."

Duggan hopped up and hustled to meet Pete. "What seems to be the trouble that he and 'Betsy' can't put a stop too?"

"It's those two trouble makers, McCarty and O'Shannassy. They got that Chinaman cornered with guns drawn. They had too much to drink and won't listen to Shorty."

"We better hurry, then."

* * *

"Well, China . . . Man, are you gonna pick up the gun and fight like a real man? A red-blooded, American man?" shouted McCarty. He held onto the bar with his left hand while he waved his gun with the other. He leaned too far backward and almost fell.

"Charlie, it won't be a fair fight no how. So why don't you and Henry go sleep this off?" asked Shorty.

"Keep out of this, Shorty. This is between me and the China . . . Man . . . and . . . and anyone a-fearin' for jobs a-bein' taken by foreigners."

Oliver stood silent.

"He's yeller, a coward to boot," shouted O'Shannassy, stumbling and hanging on McCarty to keep from falling. "Give me another whiskey, barkeep. Gotta keep a steady hand."

"You've had enough. 'Betsy' says the bar's closed to you two."

"What'll we do with the C-China . . . Man, Henry, i-if he don't pick up the gun?"

"We'll shoot him wheres he stands, that's what we'll do."

"Now wait a minute. You can't shoot a man in cold blood," said Shorty.

"No they can't," said Duggan in a booming voice. "And they won't." Duggan pointed his weapon at McCarty and O'Shannassy. "Holster your guns or shoot it out with me, right here and now. You wouldn't stand a chance against me as pie-eyed drunk as you boys are."

"Okay, Sheriff," said McCarty. "You win this time, but this ain't over." He holstered his gun, fell backwards, and dragged O'Shannassy on top of him. "Get off me, you big dolt."

"Somebody help take these boys to the jail for a sleep-off."

After Duggan took their guns, a couple of men stepped forward, and helped carry them out the saloon's door.

"You okay, Oliver?"

Bowing, Oliver said, "Fine. No problem."

"These two won't give you any more trouble for a while."

"Thank you, Sheriff. Interesting culture, you have here. Very stimulating. Yes, very."

* * *

"You can't lock us up, Sheriff," said McCarty. "We wouldn't shoot the little man, just scare him so's he'd leave town, that's all. Ain't that right, Henry?"

O'Shannassy was snoring on the bunk next to him. "Henry, wake up and back me up here."

"Rumph . . . What you want, Charlie?"

"Tell the Sheriff we wasn't gonna hurt the little man, just scare him."

"Sure . . . Rumph . . . Plug him . . . in a fair fight. Can I get some sleep?"

"Henry, yer a real jackass at times."

"Okay, boys, sleep it off, and then you will ride out of town tomorrow and not come back." Duggan turned and walked away.

McCarty grabbed the bars with both hands and yelled, "You can't do this. We done nothing wrong, Sheriff. We was saving our town from them people, nothing more. Can't fault a man for that, can you?"

"Go to sleep!"


Duggan closed the door to back room and the cells, but he could still hear McCarty yelling. He figured it was going to be a long night.

* * *

He didn't remember when McCarty quit yelling, but it was late. Deprived of sleep, Duggan awoke in a grumpy mood. He checked on the boys in the cells—still asleep—and left for a quick coffee at the Rose. When he returned, McCarty was yelling again, but this time, he had to pee and bad. Duggan escorted him to the outhouse. By then, O'Shannassy was stirring and needed to relieve himself as well.

Once he had seen to their immediate needs, Duggan released the boys and gave them a warning. "You are free to go, but I don't want to see you in town until you can control yourselves. Understand?"

O'Shannassy stood mute, but McCarty protested. "But—"

"No ifs, ands, or buts . . . Get on your horses and ride. Or you can enjoy my hospitality a bit longer."

"No thanks, Sheriff. We're a-ridin'. Come on, Henry; let's go before the sheriff changes his mind."

* * *

Charlie McCarty and Henry O'Shannassy rode no farther than Whipple's Mill, an out-of-the-beaten-path crossroads, and its shoddy tavern. After purchasing grub and whiskey, they followed Crooked Creek as it meandered across the plateau, about two miles as the crow flies. Charlie chose a campsite under the only tree of any size and stretched out his bedroll. Henry followed suit and then, gathered wood for a fire. After a meal of cold beans, dried beef, and whiskey, Charlie reclined by the roaring fire, drinking heavily. Henry was dozing off with a half-empty bottle cradled in his arm.

"'Tain't right," shouted Charlie.

"Rumph . . . How's that, Charlie?"

"I said 'tain't right for that China . . . Man . . . ta be sleepin' inna warm bed, eatin' good food, and drinkin' fine liquor while we's cold and drinkin' rotgut whiskey. 'Tain't right them foreigners a-comin' here like that and shovin' us Americans out. Ain't that so, Henry?"

Henry was snoring.

Charlie kicked Henry's boot. "Wake up you idiot! Didn't ya hear a word I said?"

"Sure, I did. I ain't deef."

"We gotta do sumthin' 'bout that China Man."

"What, Charlie? That sheriff done ran us out of town."

"No tinhorn sheriff's ever run Charlie McCarty out of no town before, and no one ain't gonna start now. We's goin' back to settle the score with that China Man."

"How we's gonna do that?"

"We's gonna sneak into town and hide behind the Rose and wait fer him to use the outhouse. When he goes in, we jump him, and I cuts off his pigtail."

"That's yer plan?"

"What's yer objection?"

"Ain't the house kinda private-like, maybe even sacred?"

"Henry, it ain't no church in there. Ya don't pray, just do yer business, that's all."

"And we's could be a-waitin' fer a long time, and it smells."

"It don't matter what he's a-doin' in there as long as he goes in. So I figure after he has dinner he'll be a-wantin' to relieve himself, and it'll be dark. Perfect timin'."

"When, Charlie? When do we's start the outhouse vigil?"

"Tomorra evening.

* * *

McCarty and O'Shannassy found a hiding place behind a barrel and two boxes where they could observe everyone coming and going at the outhouse. Several cowpokes used the facility, but Oliver Wong did not. As the moon rose higher in the sky, fewer and fewer made a visitation.

"Ya think he's ever comin'?" Hank asked.

"He must have the constitution of a horse. Some of these wranglers been here three times. He'll hav'ta, eventually."

"How long we's gonna wait, Charlie? The smell ain't too good."

"We'll give it another hour, and then, we'll comes here tomorra."

"Ya sure this here plan of yers is gonna work?"

"If he's a-stayin' at the Rose, which he is, he's gotta use the house sometime, and we's gonna be a-waitin' fer him. We's comin' 'til we's git 'im."

"Okay, Charlie. Whatever ya say."

* * *

A couple of uneventful days passed, for which Duggan was much obliged. The sun had just set and the moon was rising. He lit a cigar, drew his first puff, and was lost in thought when Shorty, Sally's bartender, came running toward the jail.

"Sheriff. Sheriff, come quick. There's been a terrible fight and two's dead, another's wounded."

"Where? I didn't hear any gunshots."

"Behind the saloon with knives."

"Lead the way."

* * *

In the shadows near the outhouse lay two bodies. A small crowd had gathered around to see the gruesome sight.

"Somebody, get a lantern," shouted Duggan.

When the light fell on the first body, the slit in his throat was still trickling blood, though he was quite dead. Duggan recognized him: O'Shannassy. In his hand was two feet of the severed queue. Duggan swung the light to the other body, face down in the dirt, back of his skull bashed in, lower portion of his queue missing. Before he turned the body over, he knew whom it would be: Oliver Wong, hands covered in blood. "He put up a good fight to the end."

A cowpoke with another lantern yelled, "Sheriff, I found a trail of blood."

"Where's it go?"

"Behind the outhouse."

"Lemme see."

Duggan and the men followed the blood trail to the alley between the livery stable and the wainwright. Propped against a barrel behind a stack of boxes, McCarty was bleeding from a knife stuck in his chest and several open wounds on his face and arms.

"McCarty. I should've guessed with O'Shannassy dead. The Chinaman got you good. You ain't gonna last much longer. Why you do it?"

"Those foreigners comin' here and takin' our jobs." He coughed frothy blood. "A man's gotta fight fer what's rightfully his, ain't that so?"

"That foreigner was bringing more jobs than you could count to Silver Rock. Now that you've gone and done this, there won't be any, thanks to you. Chew on that with the time you got left."

"I . . . " Blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth. "I didn't know, Sheriff."

"And in your hate, you never thought to ask, neither." Duggan looked to those standing by. "When he goes, bury him and O'Shannassy somewhere where they'll be forgotten."

"Sheriff!" Gurgling as he tried to breathe. "Ain't . . . you got . . . no mercy?"

Duggan stood and stepped away, his back turned. "No more mercy than you showed him."

The End

Jack Hill is a retired computer programmer and medical database researcher who recently took up writing as a creative outlet. Still searching for his writing niche, he's tried poetry, scripts, and short stories. And he hasn't settled on a genre, although he especially enjoys writing westerns. Maybe it's because he grew up listening to Gunsmoke, Roy Rogers, etc. on the radio, and more recently, on the Internet. The original Gunsmoke scripts are available on-line, and he enjoys reading them, which influences what he writes.

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Winsome Boys With Ugly Guns
by Brett Tharp

Bill likes to say ain't nothin' as talked about as an outlaw since we was throwin' tea in the Boston harbor. Bill is a fool, but I followed him out here anyway. More fool you, Jack Dawlins.

William Wynsom, Handsome Bill, the Wynsom Kid, the Wynsom Gunslinger, the Snake Charmer. There are others. Bill likes to make up names for hisself and any time he gets someone to repeat one, it's like he were Billy The Kid come again. I don't got any name but my own. Ole Sean Mckenzie, Irish stock, calls me Grumpy Jack Dawlins sometimes and the others call me Papa Jack on occasion, on account o' my need to be their damn daddy sometimes when they get up to some foolishness, but I don't count them. I try not to complain too much either.

It is true that I'm too serious sometimes and Bill sure is "winsome" as he says, since he happens to know what that fancy ole word means. He says it's spelled different from his last name, but they sound the same and he tries to live up to it.

Anyhow, I don't really think we're cut out for this outlaw stuff, but here we are somewhere 'tween Kansas and Utah, no one seems to know exactly, with eyes pointed down yonder at the road. We are waitin' for a carriage to come through and when it does we're gonna ride on down and rob the damn thing. Fella in Dawson town, a mile or four back east, told us so when Bill paid him a half dollar. Said there was a few Pinkertons on it with ten thousand dollars cash. Real cash, not real Pinkertons, he says. Them Pinks is baby Pinks, new boys. They'll have guns, but not the guts to give us much fight so we gonna take that real cash from them fake Pinks and give it to Ugly Joe Walker, some bigshot outlaw out here. We give him the money and we get ourselves in with his gang instead o' havin' to fight 'em for it. I think we're gonna get shot personally, but you can't tell Bill Wynsom nothin' when he puts his mind on somethin'.

I'm layin' on the ground with my rifle laid 'cross a rock to steady it when Bill asks, "Hey Jack, you think that sumbitch back in Dawson lied to me?"

"Bout what?" The sumbitch did lie, for my money, but it's best to humor him.

"You think he was just makin' up the whole damn thing to get a half dollar outta' me?"

I turn to him with my Papa Jack face on. "This just now occurrin' to ya?"

He gets a little red in the face, the way he only gets with me sometimes. "Well no. I shoorly considered it before, just not so much as now. That carriage was s'posed to come through already, but I ain't seen shit with these things." He has a pair of binoculars he brought with him from home. They were his daddy's, who was a cavalry officer huntin' injuns a long time ago, who bought them from an Italian man even before that. It was a good idea to bring them 'em, but I don't tell him that. He has a big enough head already.

"Well what the hell we doin' then?" My hair is plastered to my forehead and I wipe the sweat off my face. One thing I ain't quite got used to out here is the sun. Damn thing burns hotter here'n anywhere else in the world, I figure.

He thinks on it a little while. His face scrunches up when he does and he squints down at the road some more. "Nothin' for right now." He has his six-shooter in hand and he clicks the hammer in an' out o' position, over and over. He's been doin' that for a few nights now, since we walked into Dawson. He ain't never used the damn thing, 'cept for shooting at squirrels or beer bottles.

Him and the other boys use pistols, but I like my rifle. I got iron on my hip o' course, but them hand cannons is for the close-up work. The boys like it 'cause it's the outlaw's tool, least in the tales. They wave it 'round and dream o' havin' quick draw duels at sunset. The rifle is the man's tool, says I, the reliable weapon o' war. If I aim to do any killin', I'm surely gonna look to my rifle first.

Sean Mckenzie and Jake West is up in the rocks on the other side o' the track. We figured it made more sense to flank them Pinks if it does come to a fight. Rowdy Rob Parker is set up further down afore the trail comes through the pass, but Bill gets antsy and tells him to ride up the track a ways and see if anyone's coming or not. Rob mumbles somethin', the way he does, but he goes.

I watch Bill play with his pistol some more. He's like a kid if you watch him close when nothin's happening and he's not payin' any attention. I know if that carriage does come through and them Pinks are made o' anythin' tough at all, I'm gonna need to be quick with my rifle, 'cause I don't know if Bill's ready for that sorta business yet.

Rob Parker soon comes ridin' back hollerin' that he seen the carriage comin'. Bill hoots and the two of us hop on our horses and ride on down to block the road. Rob stays there while Sean and Jake stay hid on the other side until we get a look at the Pinks.

When the carriage does come, we see there's just two men sittin' on top. One has a rifle and the other has a pistol on his hip. The driver is a old man, beard gone all white. The rifleman is just a boy, no older'n twenty. Me an' Bill ain't no older though and t'other three's even younger.

Bill calls for them to halt and they do. The old man is suspicious on the spot, but the boy is just confused. They both stay sittin', which tells me somethin' is up. Never seen a Pinkerton carriage with only one guard aside from the driver either. Sure as hell not one with ten thousand dollars on it.

"Out of the road sirs and let us on our way!" the boy calls, findin' some courage while the old man stares.

"No sir," says Bill. "I say the two of you get down off that carriage and throw us your shootin' irons afore we gun you down here and now."

"Sir, this is a federal carriage and will not be waylaid by the likes of you. I say again, make the way clear and let us on our way." He eyes my rifle nervously where I got it leaned against my shoulder. It's not pointed at him, but it ain't in my gun bag either so I can whip it down and shoot in a second. Bill's pistol stays holstered the whole time.

Bill whistles and Sean and Jake and Rob come running down to point their pistols at the Pinks from all sides. Bill draws his gun, but don't point it anywhere yet. The boy is all shook up, but the old man looks the same. "You boys is makin' a mistake," the old timer says.

"We are makin' ourselves rich," Bill replies. "The only mistake is yours if you don't do like I said and get down off that carriage."

"Look at 'em," the old man says, showin' a grin. "Just a buncha goddamn boys think they's outlaws." He spits.

As he spits, his hand jerks for his iron. I know without looking that Bill and the others ain't ready for it so I do what Papa Jack needs to do. I bring my rifle down and put a bullet 'tween that sumbitch's eyes.

The Pink boy flinches, but does nothing more. I'm thankful for that. The boys are shocked, but Bill at least pretends otherwise since there's business to be done. I never kilt no one before, but I always figured I was made o' tougher stuff.

Bill spurs his horse over so he can get close to the Pink, who is shaking in his seat. "Get down off the damn carriage!" he shouts, pointing his pistol at the Pink's face.

Turns out, yellin' at some kid with your pistol in his face and his buddy freshly deceased beside him weren't the smartest thing. That damn Pink jerked harder than anyone I ever saw when Bill yelled at him and accidentally shot off his rifle in the air. Bill weren't too prepared for that and blasted the poor bastard right then an' there.

The boys is surprised at first, but then Rob Parker gives a hoot and rides over to clap Bill on the back. Bill stares at the dead Pink a little while, then fakes a smile at the boys. I can see he's shook up by it, but he'd never tell them that. He's Bill Wynsom, a goddamn outlaw gunslinger and killin' Pinkertons is just business.

Sean checks inside the carriage and finds the chest we're lookin' for. Billy hangs back, fishin' through the dead boy's pockets for somethin', so me and the others head over to have ourselves a look at that ten thousand dollars.

Turns out, it weren't ten thousand dollars, not even close. What we did snatch were a bunch o' government bonds, whole damn stack of 'em. None of us knew how much they was worth exactly, but we knew it was a lot. Joe Walker'd take 'em anyhow, Billy figured. For once, I figured he was right.

We check the driver's pockets and cut the horses free, but the carriage and the corpses stay. Billy slashes his name in the side of the carriage, because he wants his name in the papers and a missin' carriage don't say so much as a robbed one with two dead men inside.

Sean breaks out some Irish whiskey he brought from home and the boys get proper soused 'round the campfire. Billy takes a few sips and I down enough to get dizzy, but that's it. "You alright?"

"Shoor," he says.

"You know where Joe Walker n' his gang hide out?"

He motions off to the west vaguely. "Place called Snake-Belly. Some damn crevice that bends this a way and that way, like a snake, see, just past the next river we're gonna come to."

"How many boys he got?" I been wonderin' if he even needs five more guns in the first place.

"That bastad back in Dawson said he got ten or fifteen. Janey, that whore from the other night, says he got a hunnerd. Guess I don't rightly know for sure."

"Big difference." Ten or fifteen men says Joe Walker could probably use a few more pistols. A hundred men and Joe Walker don't give a goddamn cow fart 'bout five city boys headed west lookin' for fortune.

"Don't matter," he insists. "We gonna give 'im them bonds as a gift and ask all nice and polite if he kin use us or not. With the kind o' money them bonds'll bring 'im, ain't no way he says no."

"Sure, Bill. Sounds like a good 'nuff plan to me." I'm lyin', but I never could just tell Billy Wynsom when he was bein' an idiot. We been runnin' together since we was kids and it's hard to call him out when you're used to letting him be for so long. I get tired o' havin' to be Papa Jack sometimes though.

I lay down and try to go to sleep, but the last thing I notice before I'm out is that Billy done took off his belt and laid it off to the side. I never seen him do that before. He likes to keep the thing close, usually he wears it all the way until he goes to bed and plays with it by the fire most nights. More than once I listened to him loadin' and unloadin' the blasted thing over n' over until I was fast asleep. Tonight, he just took off his gun belt and set it there and didn't touch it all night. Damn small thing, but damn strange thing to see when you run with Billy Wynsom long enough.

Next day we ride out for Snake-Belly and find it a helluva lot easier that I figured. Sure enough, we came up on a little ole river an hour and maybe fifteen minutes down the road, then Jake West says he seen a little thing off the path a ways. Damn thing was a sliver of a canyon sorta thing, only wide enough for one of us to go at a time and that was on foot. It were dark all down the sides, but the path were sun-bleached white as bone. We tie up our horses and walk down into that little canyon, not at all knowin' what was waitin' for us.

Billy goes first since he's the boss, then Sean, then Jake and Rob, and I got the rear with my rifle. They's all lookin' ahead o' course, but I'm eyein' the cliff edges above. The path starts bendin' and turnin' and we keep gettin' deeper below the earth as we go until I start gettin' nervous. "Hell oughta be pretty close," Rob says. They all laugh.

I don't see anyone 'cause the path is too tight to see or walk around anybody, but Billy's hands jerk up and I know we found Joe Walker's gang. "Easy now," Billy says. "We brung a gift to Joe Walker so don't go shootin' me now."

A voice, mean as hell, says, "Ugly Joe Walker don't want yer mammy's wedding ring so be on yer way."

"I can show ya, if you'll allow me to reach in my pocket here." He slowly drops a hand and fumbles in his front pocket before holdin' up one o' them bonds so the man can see. The fella takes it and gives it a good look, but I figure he can't read any better than I can.

"Hand yer guns over to them fellas there and you kin go on through," he finally says. One by one we pass through and hand over our pistols, plus my rifle. I feel naked without it, but I still got my buck knife in my boot. Big damn help it'll be if it comes to drawn iron though.

We're led into a wider cavern with a buncha caves along the sides where Walker's gang has tents and such thrown up. Men watch us from all sides, mean as you can imagine, pistols at their belts or rifles in their hands. A fella with grey hair and a patch of scars all across one side of his face steps up to us. He wears all black, but it's his stump of an ear and the nose that's missing a sizeable chunk that we see first. Yep, Ugly Joe Walker sure was one ugly sumbitch.

And there damn sure was more than fifteen of them boys in there. A lot more.

He lights up a cigarette and looks us over. "What the hell you boys want?"

Billy don't say anything. I wait for him to speak up, but he's clammed up or somethin' and it takes him a minute to get his throat clear. Finally, he says, "Mister Walker, my name is Bill Wynsom and with me is Sean Mckenzie, Jake West, Rob Parker, and Jack Dawlins. We come to join your gang."

Some men laugh. Joe don't. "What I want four city boys and a Irishman in my gang for?"

Sean looks like he wants to say somethin', but I nudge him and shake my head. The boy has an Irish temper, but Joe Walker surely has a worse one. "Sir, we come from the city, but we's outlaws now. Yesterday we robbed a Pinkerton carriage and snatched us a whole chest full o' federal bonds. They's surely worth a pretty penny and we coulda sold 'em ourselves, but we wanna be in a real gang, sir. So they're yours now and we'd appreciate it if you would consider us some since we just made you some money." His men have been lookin' at the bonds enough to know they're real.

"Did you?"

"Did we what?"

"Make me money?" Joe puffs out some smoke and throws his cigarette on the ground, watchin' us. My blood goes cold.

"You seen the bonds. They're real enough," Billy says, voice shaky.

"I seen 'em alright," Joe says. "Problem is, they was already mine."

Billy doesn't have anything to say to that so Joe continues. "You see, fella, that carriage you robbed was bein' drove by one o' my boys and the Pink on board was on my payroll. Them bonds was on their way here when you stopped it and them boys you kilt were mine. Way I see it, you stole my money, brung it right back to me in person, and lost me a couple men while you was doin' it."

The boys is confused and don't know what to do, 'bout the same as me. I know Billy done messed up good this time, but for once, I don't know how to get us out of it. I feel a strange sense of freedom knowing it's outta my power. Papa Jack is dead and gone. Unfortunately, Jack Dawlins is still here.

Joe seems amused by us. "You boys shoulda stayed home. Fellas!" A dozen men step up with pistols and rifles drawn on us.

Billy drops to his knees in front of Joe, hands clasped together in front of him. He's cryin' and I know that's another mistake. "Mister, I beg ya. We's just kids. We dreamed too damn big, we didn't know better. I beg ya, please just let us go and you'll never see us again. I swear. I got a momma. We all got mommas."

Joe considers it a moment, but that's it. His pistol comes out and he puts a bullet through Billy Wynsom's forehead.

I throw myself back just as the guns start shootin'. Sean and Jake and Rob hit the ground same as I do, but I know they're dead or near enough. I feel blood pourin' down my right shoulder, but I'm still breathin'. I hope I'm rolled over the right way so they can't see as I slip my knife out o' my boot. It takes everything I got not to move when I hear Jake West groan and then another gunshot after.

I hear Walker's gang checkin' the boy's pockets, but I wait. Pretty soon, one of 'em rolls me over and I stick my buck knife in his neck. Bastard spits blood in my face as he dies and I grab up his gun before it falls. I jump up and point the pistol at Joe Walker, who stares at me. His men have their guns on me, but they don't shoot.

"Well hell, boy, what was the point o' that?" he asks.

I shrug. "Just wanted to take one o' you sumbitches with me when I go." It's the damn truth. I weren't never one to go down easy.

"I'm guessin' was you that kilt my boys on the carriage? Don't figure any o' yer friends had the guts for it."

"Billy kilt the Pink by accident. The driver tried to draw on me so I put 'im down."

"Hell, you got some mean in ya, boy. I like that." He chuckles. "I'll give ya a choice. Shoot me now and get shot, or lower that gun and join a proper gang."

"I kilt two o' yer boys. What the hell you want me for?"

"I'm down three men 'cause o' you, but it always made sense to me to get the men that kilt my men to be my men, if ya follow. Cuz my men is some mean devils and it takes a meaner one to put 'em down."

I think it over for a while and lower my pistol. Joe's boys do the same and Joe walks over to me. "Sorry 'bout your friends, but, well . . . the west ain't no place for handsome young boys. It's a ugly place for ugly men with ugly guns. Out here's our place and when you step outta your place, you better at least know where yer steppin'."

Don't I know it, I think. Well I may kill you someday, Ugly Joe Walker, but today I feel like livin'.

The End

Brett Tharp is a recent graduate from Arkansas State University who specializes in various fiction genres: high fantasy, horror, western, etc. He's a lover of all things related to gaming, film, music, and of course, books. Until he gets his blog finished his preferred webpages are his twitter account ( or his temporary wattpad ( page where he's posted some of his work until he gets his blog done.

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The Long Walk
by Don A. Bouquet

I always hated walking, but for hating it I sure have been doing a lot of it lately, especially since Moonstone died. Quitting my job at the general store, hitting the trail and going wandering again seemed like a darn good idea at the time. Since I had a little silver in my pocket, and not owing anyone anything, and, if you were wondering, there was nothing missing from the till when I left, either; I just decided it was time to go. My horse pointed itself Southwest, so I went with her, maybe eighty miles to the next town, a few days ride, should be no difficulty.

Well, now there was a difficulty. Moonstone had been my only transportation for years, and she passed away in the night from what I do not know, they say horses will do that sometimes. With the journey not half over, and me not wanting to go back thataway at all, I started walking. A lone flower was growing beside my old horse's head where she fell, and I watered it. Sometimes, the smallest things a person does can have the bigger effects later on. Sometimes the biggest deeds don't amount to anything much. Maybe, like that flower, deeds need watering once in a while to keep them fresh. Not being able to carry much compared to a horse, I took a quick inventory: a canteen of water, some dried meat not readily identifiable, dried apples, and some coffee rounded out the consumables. The load, such as it was, being made heavier by my Sharp's .50-90 carbine carried on its strap over my shoulder, and inside my coat was a cross-draw holster of my own design, in which rode a short-barreled .41 Colt's revolver with the bird's head grips. The hammer had been carefully filed down for quick actuation, and ammunition for both added to the weight. The shorter hammer had another advantage of not easily catching on clothes. That Colt was the pick of a litter of twelve the store had got in, and had some careful attention paid to the mainspring and action. At least I had decent walking boots made by the Hyer Brothers of Kansas, as the rest of my outfit was certainly nothing to brag about.

After spending all day under the relentless glare of the harsh New Mexico sun, thirst was beginning to get to me, making this rocky part of the canyon a more difficult climb than it should have been. This land seems enchanted, another few inches of rain and it would be paradise.

Things got more difficult when a yearling black bear wandered out on the trail. Not thinking clearly, I simply stood staring at it until I realized that the much larger mama bear was in the locust bushes right near me, making a loud huffing sound. I grabbed up a handful of pebbles and flung them towards the cub, and it not being familiar with stones raining down from the sky, well, that set it off running. That event caused its gigantic parent to burst forth from the bushes, and with a dour glance at me, it set off after its only heir. The bear was so large it seemed to leave a hollow place in the air as it moved away from me.

After that bit of excitement, I started off walking again—have I mentioned that I hate walking? Soon, growing tired under a dying sun, and watching a changing New Mexico sunset shot through with a spray of oranges and yellows and fingers of purple clouds, I made a meager fireless camp and drank a little water. Listening to the sounds of a mountain lion's call, I quickly drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

I ran out of water on the third day. Earlier this morning, I saw a scraggly line of Gambel oaks across the trail up ahead. I had heard back in town that there was water on this trail, and that had to be a river. Reaching the thin tree line, the river revealed itself to me. It was bone dry, a river of sand. That thing was seasonal, water only flowing there during the "monsoon" or the short rainy season out here, and that was still a month away. More than another day is too long, I thought. Remember that part where I was saying that the smallest actions sometimes have the larger effect? Well, watering Moonstone's flower seems like not such a good idea now, 'cause I used a good part of the canteen in doing it. It seemed like the right thing to do for some reason. I couldn't refill it then because the fancy waterskin I got back east, they said it was what the Indians used, well it held water, just not for very long. Must have been the hot sun and dry air acted together on it or something, and if I had enough water with me I would never have stopped at that camp later on. Nearing the end of that third day I was beyond thirst, so I concentrated on putting one boot in front of the other and staying upright. It was twilight, and that's when I saw the campfire ahead.

Thirst drove me forward and made me bold; I walked right up to their camp, didn't care. The two men around the fire pretended not to be surprised at my sudden presence, and the larger one said, "Come on in, ya look like you could use a drink," and proffered me a whiskey bottle, maybe two thirds full I thought. That much between two emboldens a certain type, makes others sluggish.

"Water, just some water, please," I croaked. Never was one for the ardent spirits anyway; Ma used to call whiskey coffin varnish.

The big one smiled and declared, "Ya don't hafta drink with us if ya don't want; Skinny, give the man over your canteen." The aptly named skinny one did so, and nothing had ever tasted so good, not warm beer, not cool milk, not anything. I must admit to swilling the better part of that container of water before I stopped and got a good look at my hosts for the night. The water had brought some sense back into me, and I surveyed my situation. I thanked them for the water to see how they reacted. The big one kinda worried me, as he had this permanent smile on his face, like he was forever amused no matter how bad things were, and from the looks of their dirty and ragged camp things must be trending down for them. I never trusted a man that showed so many teeth all the time.

The little man was just plain odd, seemed a bit addled or something, no particular expression showed, he just made this strange high-pitched humming sound on and off, tuneless, sort of like keening or some such, he being clearly not the brains of the two. Neither told me their names, nor asked mine, and that, too, made me vaguely uneasy.

I caught the thin one staring at my boots. I started to say the maker's name and town, but Smiley suddenly interrupted, "Why ya on foot, sumbody steal yer horse?" As I was still a bit foggy from the thirst, that question did not bother me none, although it should have, as if stealing was forever foremost on his mind.

I told him, "No, my horse died on me a ways back," and, illogically, I suddenly offered to make us all coffee. I really like coffee, can hardly do without it.

Smiley kept his grin nailed on and said, with a nod to his partner, "Well, tha'd be real neighborly of ya, mebbe make up for turnin' down our whiskey, huh?", I caught the wink he gave him, and I was feeling more like myself by the minute as I slowly recovered from the dehydration I had suffered. After a while, once again, Smiley took the lead in this one-sided conversation, and asked me, "Kin I see that rifle of yours?" and reaching for it anyways.

"Sure," I said, not wanting to be rude to my new-found acquaintances. He admired the gun, looked it over, sighted along it, and then, in a fit of coughing, he seemed to fumble with the action a bit and set the rifle back down. My mind now felt sharply focused, so I reached over to the fire, grabbed the coffee pot and filled my cup to the brim, and motioned to them with the pot. It turned out they did not even want any. They drank another slug of whiskey, the bottle half-gone now. I had one of those new-fangled tin cups with a rolled-over rim so the liquid won't burn you. It burned me anyway.

In the most regular manner, one that belied my growing uneasiness, I asked, "Friend, why did you take the bullet out of my carbine?" His coughing fit hadn't fooled me in the least.

Just for a second, a spark of pure rage blazed in him, and his eyes looked like a furnace door had been suddenly opened and then slammed shut. "I didn't think you'd be hunting at night around here," he calmly said, "and it's safer that way with it leaned up the way it is and all, ya know. Right, Skinny?" once more appealing to his partner for a sign of agreement.

Again, that high keening sound.

"Besides," Smiley went on after a minute, "I didn't think you'd ever need to shoot it again," all his teeth showing now. As I stared into the fire there was that one long beat of silence, a total stillness, forever compressed into the barest slice of a minute. In this slowed down interval, I understood in a flash all what my eyes had taken in earlier. Skinny had ragged boots, but a brand-new gun rig, and not just any rig, but a Smith & Wesson Model No. 3 Schofield .44 with some fancy carving on the leather. The smiling one had a new-looking .45 Colt Peacemaker with its long barrel showing at the bottom of his holster. Both had good riding horses, but Smiley's had a vaquero saddle with some fine conchos on it and he, with big silver rowels on his spurs, was sporting a hatband with hammered Mexican reales coins all around. It was dry around these parts, and him with muddy boots; that wasn't dried mud as I had thought earlier, it was dried blood—and these two weren't just robbers, they were stone killers. Like a fool, I had just walked up to them. In that final part of the long beat where time and the world held its breath, a twig in the fire popped loud. In a flash Smiley grabbed for his revolver, and in that same instant I flung the boiling hot cup of coffee right into his face. He yelled and jerked backwards. Quicker than you would smack a mosquito, I reached under my coat to my cross-draw holster and the Colt .41 was in my hand; two shots sounded nearly as one as I slip-hammered it, and both slugs caught Skinny in the chest not a thumb's width apart, spun him around, and he collapsed as if he were a marionette whose strings had been cut. In a split-second Smiley had stood up, pawed at his eyes, and lord, but he was fast and recovered quick. He had got his gun out now, barrel nearly level and pointing in my direction. I shot him in the throat.

The coffee is what had saved me. That's what I mean about the little things, offering them coffee and all. I took a long drink out of their whiskey bottle to calm me some. Then I said the only prayer I knew over them; they would need stronger medicine than that though.

Well, if last night's camp had been uncomfortable, then tonight's was going to be hellish, because I was too worn down to walk anywhere, what with dehydration, a close brush with death, the whiskey and little food to eat. I was beaten down, and would sleep here, fitfully, among the dead. I had never shot anyone before, never wanted to, and it weighed on me. Finally got to sleep but, oh, the dreams, bad ones. Dreamed of smoke. Dreamed that boots walked by themselves, and me walking mostly along a road lined with dead bodies on both sides, an endless road, and as I passed, each body would turn its lifeless head, tracking my movements with hollow, sightless black eyes.

At dawn, I awoke with a jolt staring into the hollow, sightless eyes of a ten-gauge scattergun. On the safe end of that shotgun was a tall, fit-looking man that was whipped-to-rawhide, wearing a no-nonsense expression and a nickel "star-within-a-wheel" on his dusty coat. Needless to say, I did not move nor blink.

After a minute, looking me over, the man said, "Mornin', name's Jesse Lee Hall, former Texas Ranger, presently Sheriff of Calico, that town there over the hill." He carried on, "I see you have a couple of dead friends camping with you."

"They weren't my friends," I protested, "They were bandits, killers I figure; they tried to kill me anyway."

"Is that so? And you stayed here with the bodies all night? Don't know as I coulda done that myself," Hall asked me that outright. So, I told him the short version of how I got here, on foot, running out of water, and leaving out any philosophy, as former Ranger types are usually not ones to philosophize much.

He looked over the scene some more and, still holding the shotgun in my direction, commenced to search the bigger bandit. "Here is the .50 caliber shell you said he took out of your gun; it was in his vest pocket," he exclaimed, "and that under-nourished one over there only got his pistol half-way out of his holster, while the big one had his peacemaker on full cock, but he didn't have time to fire it, you can tell from here, still dust all the way around the mouth of the barrel." He changed subjects. "You said you was a clerk?" the sheriff asked.

"Yep," I answered, always giving the shortest answer possible to the law.

Hall, sort of irritated now, asked as he squinted at me, "Just what the hell kinda clerk was you anyhow, killed these here before they got off even one shot?"

I said I was a general store clerk in charge of the gun counter and sales; I went on to tell him about customers that started bringing their guns in for minor fixes that I got good at. If I couldn't fix 'em, I sold them a new one. Pretty soon I was test-firing them, so I practiced shooting all the guns that came in. Practiced, practiced more, and practiced every day for a long time, for as long as I worked there.

Hall replied with the faintest trace of humor, "Well, looks like you practiced them two into eternity right efficient." I did not respond to that one. "Also, a ways back I found a dead Mexican that probably belonged to the hat the big fella was wearin' there. That Mexican was stripped of valuables, shot, cut up, and then burned. 'Bout as worse as anything I ever saw; these two was a bad pair alright, you was lucky." I certainly did not dispute that fact. Sheriff Jesse Lee Hall looked up at me, "No matter, it looks like it happened about like you said it did; it's your word against them, and they ain't talkin." He lowered the barrel of the scattergun, and seeing that, I allowed myself a sigh of relief. Then he told me, "Not far up the trail is Calico and it has a hotel where you can get a bath, a room for the night, and breakfast thrown in, all for a dollar."

For a minute there I had visions of buying the smoothest riding quarter-horse ever bred, and naming it Ginger, had some thoughts of getting me a sit-down job in a bank or another general store maybe, and never walking anywhere again, ever, walking nowhere further than the nearest saloon anyway, and riding that horse everywhere in comfort. Just then, the sheriff interrupted my reverie, and anticipating my needs with a fact that shook me. "There ain't no horses for sale in town neither, Army came through last week and bought 'em all up."

"Well, what about one of—" I started to ask, motioning towards the dead road agents.

Sheriff Hall cut me off with, "Nope, their property will be held by the sheriff's office for thirty days, then put up for auction. Oh, and one more thing."

I tilted my hat back and asked, "What's that?" Hoping he would not say it, but both knowing and dreading what was coming next.

The old ex-ranger spoke with flint in his voice, "Trouble is unwelcome in my town, I won't have a bit of it—won't tolerate it at all, so once you have that breakfast tomorrow mornin, . . ." he paused a bit to get his point across, "you just keep on walkin'."

At least the coffee was good.

The End

The author grew up riding horses and watching westerns on television and at the movies, and reading western novels. He has camped extensively in New Mexico and does his travelling generally west of the Mississippi. One of his hobbies is the care and feeding of his two 1860 Army Colt revolvers, and the shooting sports in general. He lives about 25 miles west of Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and three cats. "The Long Walk" is the author's first story.

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Ralph's War
by Ryan Gray

"Ah, I hate this!" The thick hand swatted a whiskey bottle down the bar, knocking over two other patron's drinks, and spilling rye onto their shirts and trousers.

"Not, again" The barkeep rolled his eyes, finished twisting a tan rag through a shot glass, and put the clean cup back onto a shelf. "What's wrong now, Ralph? Ain't our cheapest good enough for you anymore?"

"No!" Ralph slammed a fist onto the whiskey-soaked counter-top, "I's sick a all dis!" He waved a wobbly finger around the room and almost lost his balance, but then steadied himself. "I's sick a being sick all the time, sick of hurting all the time, sick of seeing this . . . stool." He stood and kicked the three legged chair over, "I'm sick of always feeling like I gotta make water and . . . "

"Ok, ok, big fella," The barkeep, or just "Keep" as those in town had nicknamed him, slid from behind the bar and wrapped a fatherly arm around the drunk's shoulder. He was a maestro of the misinformed, depressed, and over eager youngins looking for a good time. In his early days of pouring drinks, he hated dealing with such rebel rousers or doom and gloom. But as he aged, he discovered that those crazed, young men and depressed, sad men were more than just his meal ticket, but a bit of a calling. The keg-tapping counselor guided Ralph to a chair.

But, Ralph was not done. He snatched up the Keep's shirt with a vice-like grip and pulled the smaller man to his face. The drunk's eyes bulged and hot breath and saliva chased his words as he used his free hand to rap the side of his own skull. "What I's sick a da most, it's that no matter the booze, it will go after everything I am and own," tears streamed down his face, "'cept them blasted memories down deep . . . ." Ralph released the barkeep and dropped to his knees, "I shoulda gone after the right, I shoulda gone after the right . . . ."

"Oh, Ralph, it ain't your fault, there's a lot us that regret and think, what coulda happened."

Ralph looked up from his knees to the face of his friend, "No sir, you don't get it, I'm it, I'm the only one!"

"Well, I don't know about that, Ralph, we all lost loved ones, friends . . . "

"No, I'm the only one," The drunk slumped lower into his knees and repeated over and over, "I'm the only one", until he eventually collapsed to the wooden slat flooring.

It may have been minutes or hours, the buzzing in his left ear and the spinning room blocked his internal clock. I wonder why I haven't up-chucked yet? No matter, I'm sure it'll be soon, Ralph thought to himself. A long shadow slammed open the door to the saloon and strode to him.

The lanky figure squatted on his haunches and tipped his hat back. A silver colt hung from his hip and he sported a dark vest. Ralph felt as though he knew this guy, but through the white haze and double vision the drunk could not recall the name of this hombre. He did make out the tall figure saying. "It was Pickett's Charge, he was the only one to survive his platoon."

"His platoon!" The Keep exclaimed, "I heard tale of one out of a unit, but not an entire platoon".

The newcomer hoisted an arm under Ralph's "Here, help get him up, Keep, would ya?"

The two men struggled to get the huge drunk to the door.

Ralph's wobbly head grinned at the mixologist, "Did ya know, Keep, if I flanked, ya know, went after their right side, 'stead a pushing to the middle. But no . . . "

"Ah shut it, Ralph, you were just following orders, like the rest of us," The tall man grunted out as the trio hobbled its way down the boardwalk.

"Well Bill, hey your name's Bill!" Ralph smiled with pride and joy.

"Good job, Ralph, you just recalled your cousin's name." Keep groaned then said. "And it seems every time we do this, I have forgotten how massive you are, Ralph!"

"Anyways, as I was saying," Ralph raised a learned finger, feeling quite eloquent and ready for a debate. "Yes, I followed orders, and that was my . . . " Suddenly, his stomach took over and did the rest of the talking, right there in public and on the main street.

It could have been worse, however. The woman Ralph's vomit splattered toward mostly got it on her shoes. Plus, she was the vicar's wife, so her response would have to be measured. A few minutes after the minor uproar, Ralph again blacked out only to wake up the next morning in a strange bed . . . a jail bed.

"Bill! What in tarnations . . . " Ralph held his head and wanted to scream, but would not risk it. Even the slightest noise might actually make his brain pop like that "popped corn" he just tried for the first time a month ago.

Bill, on the other hand, walked into the cells pounding an empty tin coffee cup on the cell bars. "Clank, clank, clank."

"Quiet, please, quiet!" Ralph tried to wrap his ears with the grey wool blanket, from off the thin jail bed mattress.

"Consider this payback for getting so drunk that you forgot my name, cuz."

"Ya, but you know what day it was yesterday."

"Yep, I do, and I also know life goes on, and I still got folks ta care for."

"You may have been there, but you don't understand, you could never know."

"What, cause only half my guys got cut down, but not all of them, I should count my lucky stars?"

Ralph shook his head, "Nah, that ain't it."

Bill Balked, "Than what, enlighten me, Cuz."

"You was a 2nd lieutenant, I was a 1st. They was my men! It's my job to get as many home alive as possible, and I failed—I failed, couldn't even bring one man home!" The big man sobbed, "I failed."

Bill plopped down next to Ralph and rested a lanky arm on his pal.

Neither said much for a long while, finally when he spoke, Bill did not know exactly how to say what he felt. For the sake of his cousin, he would try. "Ya know, Ralph, been thinkin' bout the war lately, and askin', what did any of it mean. We all have to face it—we lost.

"Cause Richmond was a disaster? Maybe Lee wasn't as smart as we thought or all us in 'ole Army of northern Virginia were victims of our own success, thinking we couldn't be beat. Maybe if Stonewall hadn't got shot by that dult on the picket line or maybe it was that darned slavery issue those blasted Blue Bellies always harped on about, and God just couldn't be bothered to help, not with the way those miserable, rich plantation dandys was treat'n them poor folks. But now, it all seems to amount to a hill a beans, so I can't rightly say who's to blame for losing the war . . . cept you, Ralph." At that Bill stood and started out of the jail cell.

"Huh" Ralph snapped out of his stupor and eyed his cousin not sure he heard, what he thought he heard.

"That's right, Ralph, all your fault!" Bill turned and faced Ralph through the cell bars. "That's what you wanna hear, right?"

"Wait, I mean . . . no," Ralph stammered.

"You want the weight of the world on your shoulders, don't you? You want to roll round in shame like a pig in mud, and tell everyone around you that you deserve nothing but a slow, sickly death!"

"No, I don't wanna bother folks." Ralph reeled from this brutal assessment.

Bill wasn't done. "Fine, stay here!" He waved at the jail cell where Ralph still sat. "Live in the cell of yer own makin'. The doors always unlocked, but you can just keep 'em bars shut anyways, so you'll never have to think about leaving and trying to do something good again."

Ralph stared. The words stung worse than a bullwhip on a wet back. "Why are you saying this, Bill?" Ralph managed.

Bill exhaled and looked down at his feet, "Cause, I just want my friend back. But, don't rightly think he ever come back from the war."

Like a youngster avoiding a whoopin, Ralph avoided eye contact by looking the opposite way, but was open enough to hear what his cuz had to say. "What do you mean by that?"

"Don't know, really, 'cept maybe you never left the war, cause you're afraid to fight the next one. Fact is, we all gotta fight one war after another. You might think your problems come from failing at the "Charge" or maybe you think your battle's with the bottle. Fact is, the greatest war there is, is in here." Bill thumbed his chest with his fist and looked his pal in the eyes, "Buddy, you're still that soldier who led his men straight into the teeth of the Yanks on 12 separate occasions. You're still the guy who had my back when we was working that Ranch down in Missouri and those Kansas boys wanted to brace me over that pretty blonde, Mary-Sue. You're still a man, so it's time you step up and take on that next fight, cause now more than ever, this country needs men who are willing to fight and protect what's right." Bill paused and stiffened his back and almost spat out his final two cents. "Way I figure, the only way ta lose in this life is quittin'." Suddenly, Bill stopped, and felt stupid for talking so much. "Sorry for preachin', don't mean ta."

Ralph snorted at the expository sermon. The big cousin estimated that Bill had just used up his monthly quota of words, and it was only the 7th.

Neither men said anything else. Bill just awkwardly drifted off down the hall to the front door of the marshal's office and muttered something about the stage coming in with the payroll, so he had to go, but that he'd be back. The lawman snatched up a double barrel scattergun and stepped outside the door.

"I'm my own war? I have to fight a war of me? Haha! Bill's finally gone and lost it." Ouch, Ralph cradled his head in pain. "Darned head, always hurting . . . or should I blame you!" Ralph thumped his chest and looked down, "Is it really your fault? But, I just keep blaming my head?" Maybe it's a combination? Or maybe . . . "

Repeated gunshots and a woman's scream interrupted Ralph's internal debate. He rushed out the cells, to the front door and peered down the street about three blocks. Three masked men had boxed Bill up in an ally, while two more were unloading the local mine's payroll into smaller bags.

This is all bad, the sobering drunk thought to himself. Not only will the town lose its pay for at least a month, but the bars closed so Keep and his big Spencer rifle or any the other boys won't be handy. Then a terrifying thought hit Ralph square in the brain pan just as he spied his cousin popping out two spent shells from his shotgun, furiously reloading two more. I'm it, Ralph thought. He knew there was no choice now, he was in this fight, he had to be, it was Bill, his cousin.

Then it happened, like it did the last time Ralph braced a man who was pushing him, or the time he was gonna take up riding shotgun for the stage, or even the last time he tried to say he wouldn't touch a drink that day . . . flashes, images, unrestrained and uncontrolled hammered into his thoughts like a steam drill. Scenes from the "Great Charge" poured, uninvited, into his mind as a cold sweat and a thready pulse debilitated his body:

"Pop" He saw his 1st sergeant torn to pieces by an explosion—Failure.

"Pop," His flag bearer, went down with a blast from grapeshot—Failure.

"Pop" His 2nd lieutenant took three rifled bullets through the chest—Failure.

"Pop," Johnny, the sixteen year old "good luck charm", shot in the head—Failure.

"Pop, Pop, Pop."

"Ahh . . . Enough!" Ralph growled, "Both of you, head and heart," Ralph looked himself up and down, "are gonna find the sand to get back into the fight or I'm gonna gut you from my body!"

He grabbed a Colt from his cousin's desk and strapped it on. Loaded up a Henry repeater rifle and stepped out the door, ready to charge these fools and break up this ruckus, when a sudden thought grew a sober grin on his face, for the first time since July 1863.

Cousin Bill found himself sitting behind two shot up water barrels, being sprayed with water and bits of wood.

The shooting paused momentarily, "Stay down Marshal, no need ta get dead." One thief shouted.

"You ain't takin' the payroll, there's good folks relying on that money." Bill hollered back, but then looked down in the palm of his hand. Two shot gun shells stared back at him. Well, guess I finally gots ta earn my pay. The lawman sighed heavily, then loaded his two final defenders, and readied himself to charge the gang.

"Boom, boom, boom" Large rifle reports echoed from between the buildings, down the road a bit. Bill stopped and thought for a moment, That's my Henry, but how'd it get all the way over there?

Bill made out a voice echoing through the town, laying down an ultimatum, "Gentlemen, I just blew two holes into yer pals with this here big Henry rifle. Now, toss out yer guns and we'll walk to jail nice and easy."

"What a minute!" Exclaimed Bill, "That's my Cuz!" And the oft-drunken cousin sounded different, like the old Ralph! The one Bill had been missing for so many years.

The thieves did not care who this guys was, but felt they were too deep into the theft to quit now. One held back to keep the marshal pinned and the other two rushed Ralph, trying to get between him and the money. Most of the cash lay strewn in the dirt, next to the stage.

Ralph invited the rush. With a charge of his own, he stepped quickly forward, rapidly firing the Henry rifle at his adversary, finally catching the robber's thigh and taking him to the ground. From the other side of the stage, the robber's comrade stepped up to the job and drew on Ralph. Ralph didn't grab for his gun, or try to duck, his long quick stride was deceptively quick. Before the thief could complete his draw, Ralph was on him. The sober drunk popped him across the head with the butt of the big rifle and watched the smaller masked man crumble.

Shots fired down the alley, grabbed Ralph's attention, so he strolled up on the last bandit "holding off" his cousin Bill.

Ralph stopped fifteen feet away, but was still unnoticed. He chuckled to himself then shouted, "Hey, greenhorn!" The amateur turned to fire on Ralph. But Ralph was not a gunfighter in a duel with rules, he was an old savvy soldier. He shuffled to his left side, stepping away from the shooters aim. It forced the right-handed man to chase him in an awkward circle, shooting and missing again and again until he was empty. Then with deliberate purpose and controlled speed, it was Ralph's turn. He drew his weapon, and dropped the greenhorn thief with one bullet, straight into his left kneecap.

Ralph strode past the ailing "badman" but not before kicking the thief's Colt down the dirt alleyway and reloading his own pistol. "Cousin, you still with us?"

"Yep, surely am," Bill stood up from behind his cover, dripping with water and with wood chips strewn all over his clothes.

Ralph finished reloading and slid the Colt back into its holster, "So, you actually get paid ta deal with these low life greenhorns?"

"Yeah, they usually ain't too bright, but don't matter how good or smart a feller is, if it's five ta one!"

Ralph grinned, as they turned to stroll down and check on the other would-be thieves, moaning and rolling back and forth in pain on the dirt road.

As they walked, Bill casually mentioned, "Ya know you got a bullet in your left shoulder?"

"Huh?!" Ralph peered down at his shoulder, which was pumping out a small stream of blood. "Would you look at that, cuz, drinking one's self ta death does have its benefits. I don't feel a thing."

"You will in the mornin', Ralph. But, I have ta say, thanks, for getting back into the fight with me."

Ralph nodded, "It was overdue. Besides, thanks for talking me off the edge, Bill."

Bill, once again being challenged by such displays of emotion, nodded awkwardly, and started to walk back to the office to get some leg irons, but stopped with a thought. "Hey, cuz, how'd you know where to get the drop on these dudes?"

Ralph beamed with pride. "Simple, I finally flanked 'em on the right."

The End

Ryan's inspiration for story telling is to inspire men to live life with honor and fight for what's right—to become better men, fathers and husbands; His life's passion is mentoring men and training others to do the same. Ryan was raised in the Stanislaus National Forest, California and is blessed with an amazing wife and two beautiful children. He and his wife currently work together as social workers and missionaries in Southern Africa. Ryan is the Author of "Gunslinger's Guide to the Gospel" and "Moravian Mysteries"; the latter is a free E-Novel available at his website

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Mixed Blood, Part 1 of 6
by Abe Dancer

Chapter 1

Midway between Phoenix, Arizona and the Colorado River, the town of Polvo Gris was circled by hills that trapped heat and dust. The town had sprung up near the lower slopes of the Eagle Tail Mountains, not far from the timber-stands of pine and spruce from which some local folk gleaned a living.

Where dense agave and mescal filtered the breezes that would have otherwise brought relief to the bleak settlement, Melvin Cody's horse shifted anxiously under him. He checked it and held it quiet while he spared a thought for his father.

It was twenty-five years since a young and adventurous Hammond Cody had heard tell of the immense, bountiful territories that lay far to the north. From Polvo Gris, he'd travelled a thousand miles to the Canadian border. In Moose Jaw, he'd traded his cow pony and pack mule for a canoe and traps, paddled the Qu'Appelle until he made it to the shores of the Quill Lakes. That was near to where he'd meet Morning Sky, the Cree chieftain's daughter he'd later marry, who was to become Melvin's mother.

Melvin leaned forward and patted the neck of his mare, then recalled the cheerless, dying words of his father. "The company men . . . the fur traders are moving in, son. There's no room for the buckskinner any more. You ain't got your ma, so just go. If you ever make it back, take your time. Look over the country about—look in any direction. Make it your country."

So now Mel Cody had gotten here fully grown, and years later than he should have. Perhaps too late to make any part of it his own country. The mare shifted again, impatient to get moving, wearied by the heat and another day's ride. She wanted water and feed. Mel gave her free rein, and she ambled toward the rough trail that led to Polvo Gris.

Horse and rider flickered in the heat shimmer off the land. The horse was an iron-gray quarter horse, well-built. Despite her weariness she was sure of foot. Mel was tall and slim, and rode at ease in the saddle. He had the sun-burned skin of a mixed blood and his dark, deep set eyes looked around with the confidence of a man who'd seen much. He travelled in a mail order black suit. He knew it would be uncomfortable, but he'd decided that's what you probably wore when you travelled beyond Flat Stone.

Two miles out from Polvo Gris, Mel let his horse pick a solitary trail. When he finally rode into the town, he kept to the west side of the main street, where there was shade from the slanting sun. The gray nickered and crow-hopped excitedly on smelling the water in a nearby street trough. Mel let her go for the water.

Two townsmen walked across the street toward him. Mel nodded civilly. "Where can I get my horse taken care of?"

"Livery. Turn left past Marcella's. That's the place we go to drink, and there ain't no choice," one of the men said bluntly.

Mel said thanks, unsure of who 'no choice' applied to. He drew his horse from the tepid water and walked on, clasping one hand to the horn of his saddle. With his hat brim bent low, he looked along the main street. He glanced indifferently at the paint peeled store fronts and bleached boardwalks, the overall dried out decay. He passed Marcella's Quarter and considered buying a drink. He had little idea of how long he'd be staying in Polvo Gris or what it had to offer. Maybe he'd go back to the saloon a little later, after he'd taken care of his horse.

On the side of a building, an arrow pointed down a side street. Under it was a sign that read: FRATER'S LIVERY STABLE.

Mel turned down the muck-covered lane. With his usual caution, he pressed the palm of his left hand into the butt of his gun, a .44 Colt tucked snugly in the beaded sash around his waist.

The town was quiet in this near-to-noon hour, with only a small number of people on the move. But when Mel was in sight of the open doors of the livery stable, someone staggered in front of him. From one side of the street, Selwyn Church wavered then stopped, lurched forward and fell to his knees.

Church was an elder, with enough years to be venerated by a mixed-blood Cree. He was cowering, his pale eyes burning with fear.

A gun fired, roared twice in the narrowness of the street. The bullets buried themselves in the ground either side of the old man's knees and kept him from moving.

Mel pulled on his horse's mane and made some comforting sounds. He twisted slightly in the saddle as four men appeared from a pole-fronted stable yard. One stepped forward challengingly; two others held back. The fourth clung tightly to the halter of a bad-tempered chestnut gelding, trying to soothe it.

Budge Miner took a brief look at Mel. The man was big, but he hesitated a moment before waving Mel away. Then he smiled coldly, pulled back his fist and piled his knuckles down hard into the back of the man's neck.

Church didn't make a sound—just went down with his face driven hard into the dung-encrusted ground. He did cry out when Miner kicked him in the legs, ribs, and the side of his head.

But it wasn't Mel's affair. It wasn't like it was his town, and he didn't have his bearings. "Why don't you leave the old feller alone?" he asked, uneasily. "Looks to me, like he's had enough."

Miner waited while Mel's words sank in, then he turned on his heel. He bunched his fist and blew on his knuckles. "Back off," he threatened.

As Mel spared a quick look at the other two, Miner reached down and pulled Church from the dust. He held him with one hand and slapped his face with the other.

Mel, shaken, touched his horse's belly with his boot heels and the animal lunged forward. He swung the gray to the left. and the horse's shoulder smashed the tall man away.

Mel swung from the saddle and danced forward quickly. His right hand gripped Miner's, his left pistoned low into his midriff. The blow exploded the man's breath away, staggered him a step or two backwards. Mel turned quickly to see the expected advance of the other two men.

His left hand moved quickly to his waistband, drew his Colt. The two men stopped in their tracks. One was eyeing the big man behind Mel. Mel turned to find the man had drawn his own gun halfway from its holster. "That'd be real stupid. Me with my gun already pointed at your gut an' all."

Church, staggered to his feet and stood, wheezing and watching. He took a step back against a building. Then he pushed himself away from the wall, and drew his own gun.

His eyes were rheumy, but hate-filled when he pulled the trigger. His bony wrist bucked and the bullet whistled high above and between the two other men. They cursed in unison and stared hard at Mel. But then the man who'd been holding the fractious gelding dropped its headstall, drew a pistol from his belt and fired in one violent movement.

Church dropped his gun and clutched his knotty fingers to his shirt front. He let out a whisper of air, twisted futilely at his darkening shirtfront.

He sniffed at the air and smiled. But he wasn't smiling—he was saying something, grimacing as pain coursed through his gaunt frame. He was dying, crumpling to the ground, when Mel's shot ripped the horse minder's arm apart, sent the gelding rearing and bucking away down the side street.

"I never done them no harm . . . .never stole cattle," the old man croaked. Then his dry lips ceased to move against the hard-packed dirt. His legs jerked once, then he died.

Mel grabbed the big man roughly, hurled him at his two companions. He raised his Colt and set the action.

The big man rasped loudly. "In hell's name mister, I don't know who you are, but you just bought yourself a real load of trouble."

"Someone sure did." Mel looked past the men as someone turned into the side street. This man was different though. He carried a shotgun, and wore a star on the lapel of his short hickory coat.

  Chapter 2

Sheriff Brett Vaughn walked fast, taking notice of the stricken old man. He stopped just short of Mel, eyed him with professional judgment, then spoke to the big man. "Budge Miner . . . I might have known. Speak to me, and make it good."

The big man glared furiously at the lawman for a moment before he answered. "This weren't my play, Sheriff. We came in here after a damned cattle thief, an' we caught us one. It was Selwyn Church—him and this fellow here."

Vaughn looked sidelong at Church's pathetic body. He spat dryly and cursed.

"Make sure you aim your spitting an' cursing right." Miner pointed at Mel. "Him an' Church stole some of Casper Spool's stock . . . hid 'em up on Church's place. We followed their tracks into town. I figure they were planning for the stock auction: there'll be enough of them Phoenix buyers here. They're ain't too watchful about the brands they're buying. You know that, Sheriff."

Vaughn looked cautiously at Mel. "Well?"

"I don't know what they're talking about," Mel retorted. "I do know the big plug-ugly here's a liar. But I've never seen any o' the others before, an' that's the truth."

"How'd you get involved?" the sheriff asked.

"I just rode in . . . was following the livery stable sign. They came out . . . started bulldogging the old feller. He drew his gun all right, but he was beaten so bad he couldn't see proper. They weren't good odds, Sheriff. The one there with half an arm's a killer."

Vaughn turned his attention to the man Mel indicated. "What you got to say, Rourke? Is what he says right?"

Rourke was holding his shattered arm tight against his chest. Pain distorted his face and drained him of color.

"I need a doctor," he groaned. "Budge told it right. They must of been stealing Spool's cattle. Church went for his gun. I had to shoot. Now someone get me to McLane."

"You heard him. So get the 'breed in your jail, Sheriff," Miner said, still breathing hard. "An' you keep him there 'til Mr. Spool comes to take a look at him. Them tracks tell their own tale."

Vaughn threw a worried look in Mel's direction. "You keep your big mouth to yourself, Budge, else I'll walk away and leave you to sort it out amongst yourselves. You really want that?"

But for the moment, Miner had the protection of a county sheriff. "You know how Mr. Spool deals with cattle thieves, Brett? If there ain't a cottonwood handy, he'll drag 'em 'til their skin turns red." With that, he licked his lips at his dark humor and looked hard at Mel.

Mel didn't like Miner's reference to his mixed blood. His eyes turned black and bored through the big man as he pushed his Colt back into his waistband.

Vaughn saw a look that told him Budge Miner was a dead man if he didn't step in.

Reluctantly, Vaughn swung his shotgun at Mel. "I know what you're thinking stranger. I'll take that Colt if you don't mind."

"What about one-arm?" Mel asked, even and slow.

"There ain't no doubt Selwyn drew a gun first. Much as I'd like, I'm not holding Rourke for anything. Anyway, leave him standing much longer, and he'll likely bleed to death."

"I told you, Sheriff, I just rode in. I was looking to get oats for the gray."

The sheriff looked as though he was getting bored. "Yeah, that's as may be," he said. "But there's this other matter of the stolen Spool cattle. I can't just turn you loose an' you know it." Vaughn drew back the twin hammers of his shotgun. "Now, last time, hand over your gun."

Mel took a short breath, then grumbled and huffed as he decided. He took a few steps toward the sheriff. "You take it," he said. "I don't give it to no one. There's a difference."

"Yeah, I just bet there is," Vaughn said as he lifted the Colt and admired the glass beaded waist band. "What tribe's that?"

"Cree. My ma," he added, knowing the sheriff was wondering.

"Well, that's a hell of a long ways off, son. I ain't ever been further north than Wolf Hole, myself," Vaughn said with a half smile.

Once Vaughn had Mel's gun, Miner grimaced sourly and his mouth started working again. "Now we'll see how if you've got a fork in your tongue. See how you holler when a loop of hemp starts squeezing your neck."

"Get out of my way," the sheriff snapped. "Any of you men make a move I don't like, an' I'll blast your goddamn hides. This is a lawful take now, an' I'm handling it. You'll do best to get your stories off pat, 'cause I'm warning you now: if there's any lying been done, you'll find little comfort in this town from now on."

Miner held up his hand in mock acceptance. "We got 'em all but branded, Sheriff. You see if we ain't."

Vaughn nudged Mel in the side and motioned for him to move on.

* * *

Mel held out his hand and waited for the gray to come to him. He led the mare back to the main street, muttering about having to wait for a rub down and feed. He turned alongside the dry, gray boardwalk, and headed for the jailhouse. The small crowd who'd gathered watched him in curious dumb silence. One of them stepped forward and spat at his feet and he stopped, but another nudge from Vaughn made him go on.

Mel carefully hitched his horse outside the jailhouse while staring back down the street. He pushed aside the half-open door and walked into the small, heat-choked building. He gasped and wondered why Vaughn had called it the cooler. Vaughn turned the key in the first of three cells. He took off his sweat-stained hat, cursed and wiped his gleaming forehead. Standing at his desk, he flicked and fumbled at some papers. "Right here ain't the best spot in town, mister. So you can start by telling me what I don't already know. What's your name?"

"Melvin Cody." Mel didn't think any sort of Cree name would help him much in the circumstances, or that now wasn't the time to go Injun.

"How did you meet up with Selwyn Church?"

"I already told you, Sheriff. The one called Miner was giving him a real beating. I suggested he leave him alone. Said I thought he'd taken enough."

"Seems a fair request. What happened then?"

"All four of 'em started to act real hostile. I think they wanted to kill the old 'un all on their own. What was his name . . . Selwyn?"

"Yeah, Selwyn Church." Vaughn looked hard at Mel. "An' you never seen him before? You're sticking to that story?"

"I'm just sticking to the truth, Sheriff. I'm hoping you're going to do the same. I ain't taking any of your bootleg justice for something I ain't done."

"It'll be the truth that gets its chance, mister," the sheriff said with a wry smile. "I know there's maybe others around here who'll tell it different, but right now you need a better excuse than taking your mount for a feed."

Mel looked through the bars at the bleak, featureless surroundings, remembered his pa telling him not to take much heed of them. "I never did make the stable. Can you take care of my horse?"

Vaughn nodded. "Yeah, I'll get it done. Now, you just rode in, Melvin Cody, so maybe you can tell me where you been the last few days . . . up 'til this mornin?"

Mel's shoulders slumped and he groaned inwardly at his misfortune. For the last two weeks, he'd rode from Lake Powell and the Utah border and made lone camps. He'd seen a cattle drive trailing south along the Colorado River toward Yuma, but he'd spoken to no one since leaving Salt Lake City.

When Mel didn't give an immediate answer, Vaughn laid out the full details of the circumstances. "If you haven't got a better answer, it don't improve matters. That outfit you just crossed? They're Spool men, an' Casper ain't exactly what you'd call a yearling, if you get my meaning. When Budge Miner tells him what happened here, he'll come down like a blue norther."

Mel wanted to ask where the Sheriff would be during all this but, decided he was in deep enough, and held his tongue again. He stretched out on the grimy crib and realized he was badly placed. If Casper Spool was that powerful, how would Vaughn stack up against him, what back-up did he have? Mel didn't intend to be hanged, that was for sure. He was a fast learner, and hadn't let another man best him for many years.

Vaughn placed his shotgun on top of the papers. Then he pulled his revolver, thoughtfully the checked the cylinder, and holstered it. He opened the sand-blasted window, blinked at the hot dusty breeze.

Ten minutes later, two men delivered Selwyn Church's body to the jailhouse. Vaughn thanked them, then asked them to take Mel's gray to the stable and have it looked after.

With a great deal of cursing and puffing, the sheriff laid out the dead man in the cell next to Mel. "Old goat," he muttered. "About as likely a cattle thief as Mary's boy child."

Mel silently watched the sheriff from under the brim of his hat. He was truly in two minds about a man dying or getting himself killed. The Cree in him believed there was a greater place to go to; the white man thought it was simply turning your toes to the daisies.

He pulled his hat over his face, clasped his fingers behind his head, and closed his eyes. He recalled the time when he'd first realized his own father was getting old.

Hammond Cody had taken him to an eerie, silent place that was the burial ground of Morning Sky. His father had explained how a hand-woven casket containing the body of Mel's mother had been lowered into a shallow grave. There had been ritual songs, and for her final journey she was buried with a pair of moccasins and a few personal belongings. Mel had watched intrigued, as his pa kneeled to place one of two bone effigies into the bower of branches. At the time, there was so much Mel had wanted to ask about medicine and spiritual meanings, but he was embarrassed and unsure, because he was a child. That was when he'd noticed the wolfy grayness of his pa's hair, the deeply etched lines of his aging.

The pieces of moose bone had been carved into small animals, and Mel still kept one of them deep in his pocket. Now, lying in his close darkness, he envisioned a cunning smirk across Budge Miner's face and shuddered. He shook himself from his daydream and pulled his hat away from his face. For a moment he reflected on allowing himself to be drawn into trouble. He'd only been in Polvo Gris an hour or so, but he swore that before he left, he'd have a go at shifting that look off Miner's face.

  Chapter 3

Except for childbirth, tooth-pulling and sickly calves, George McLane, MD didn't regard anything less than amputations as very serious. "I can take it off now. But if it's fixing up you're after, come back when the fighting stops," was a quoted truism from his sawbones days in the Civil War.

He pushed up out of his chair, flustered when the cowhand, Wystan Rourke, piled into his private room in back of his surgery. Through the door he could see Budge Miner waiting on the back porch with Miles Beckman and Felix Chelloe.

Rourke turned his bloodied arm toward him. "I been hit. This goddamn arm's falling apart. See to it, Doc."

McLane appraised the man's shattered limb. "Looks to me like someone's already done just that."

"Just get on with it," Rourke yelled. "Stop the pain an' the bleeding."

"We'll use the surgery," McLane said. He walked into the annexed room and rinsed his hands then slowly reached for a towel.

Rourke followed him, standing close by and cursing under his breath. He was blanched with pain, his face greasy-cold with sweat. "Goddamn you, McLane. You waiting for the gangrene?"

"That's what you'll get if I don't clean my hands," McLane said calmly. "There's plenty worse off than you today. Are you the one who killed Selwyn?"

"You know about that?"

"I knew he'd been shot dead . . . not who pulled the trigger."

Rourke took short, sharp breaths and glared at the doctor. "He drew on me. I just defended myself."

McLane took hold of the cuff of Rourke's shirt. He lifted it up for a closer look at the bullet wound between the man's wrist and elbow. Rourke let out a gasp of pain and staggered back a step.

"What the hell you doing, you idiot? The goddamn arm's broke! Been smashed with a bullet—anyone can see that. Give me something for the pain before you start meddling."

"You best remember, sonny, this meddling idiot's the only one around here who can do something for you." The doctor was upset and his smile showed it. "Anyway, a top ranny who's tough enough to take out Selwyn Church in a gun fight can endure a twinge or two. But if you want that help, it'll cost you ten dollars."

"Ten dollars?"

"Yep. The bones're busted, and need some fancy work. It's ten dollars, and I hope you're carrying it in your left pocket. Take it or leave it, mister; it ain't my body."

Rourke gasped. "Why you blood sucker. I'll—" But the man stopped short of his threat when Budge Miner strode into the surgery.

"I can hear you squealing on the street," he complained. "Sounds like a pig with a stick up its ass."

"He wants ten dollars for fixing my arm," Rourke rasped. "He ain't a doctor, he's an old army cut-throat."

"And I want it before I start," McLane said coolly, his manner matching Miner's.

Miner turned on Rourke. "Wash the wound yourself. We'll just take some painkilling stuff. Waste of time coming to this dude set-up. We should've gone to the livery for a saddle-stitch. He'd've charged five dollars for a lasting job."

McLane almost smiled. If only he knew. "I just told him. It looks like there's bad lesion trouble . . . all sorts of trauma, besides broken bone," he said instead.

Miner grabbed the lapels of McLane's coat and shoved him into a high-backed, chair.

"You shut your mouth," he said, and kicked the doctor's shin with the sharp toe of his boot. "We need something to clean his wound."

He went to a glass-fronted cabinet and looked at the labels on bottles. He opened the door and pulled out a bottle of laudanum. "We'll take this. Let's go Stan," he said, and tossed a silver dollar onto McLane's desk.

McLane glared defiantly. "A bully's always a coward, Miner. I've seen 'em all in my time. And there's one thing they all got in common. They die many times, and you ain't no different. Your time's coming. It's just a question of how far away."

Miner's jaw tightened. He hesitated, then went, shoving Rourke ahead of him.

* * *

Miner clumped down the steps of McLane's property and shouted at Felix Chelloe. "Get back to Mr. Spool. Tell him what's happened. We'll sort out the drifter. We'll bring the supply wagon in early tomorrow. Have the boys make a gather on the cattle."

Chelloe went off at a canter. Miner led Rourke and Miles Beckman down the street to Marcella's Quarter.

"We'll wait here an hour," he said. "Then, Miles, you go and bail out the 'breed."

Beckman grimaced, "Bail out the 'breed? I don't understand. Why are we bailing him out?"

"Because he's no good to us in Vaughn's jail." Miner beckoned the bartender and ordered beer. "You'll get your chance Nils. We'll bust him up some when he gets out. Then we'll get him back on that gray of his." Miner could see both Beckman and Rourke eying him intently, still not completely understanding. "We ain't got Church any more, remember? So we need someone else. Like the 'breed."

Beckman's mouth opened as he grasped Miner's plan. "We got ourselves a pigeon to take the blame. We pull the big job, and he's there, prime an' sassy," he said, tapping the side of his nose and grinning foxily.

Beer was placed on the bar in front of the three men who stood indifferent to the stares of the other customers. Not one of them doubted that the ill feeling in Polvo Gris was already running high against them. That had started from the time Casper Spool cut himself off from the range and the town to become his own law.

"You drink some of this," Miner said, pulling out the bottle of laudanum that he'd taken from Doc McLane's surgery. "When we get you back to the ranch, we'll get that arm seen to proper." he told Rourke with little obvious feeling

* * *

Doc McLane limped across the hot sandy street. He grimaced, his face tilted away from the low glare of the sun. His leg hurt from where Miner had kicked him.

Selwyn Church had been a friend, and it was crazy for anyone to believe he'd been involved in something to get shot for.

He stepped through the open door of the jailhouse to find Sheriff Vaughn seated behind his desk, an unlit corn-cob pipe in the corner of his mouth. The sheriff raised his eyes wearily. He held a dipping pen and had been concentrating on writing up a ledger.

"You took your time," he grumbled. "But before you say anything, George, there was nothing I could do about Rourke killing old Selwyn. It was done when I got there."

"Yeah, well, I guess our legs just don't carry their full, fast movement any more, Brett," McLane answered sardonically. He looked through to the cells at Mel. He'd seen Mel ride in, and been interested. Lone riders were rare in Polvo Gris. and a stranger who'd travelled so long and so far to get here was an added curiosity.

"You're not really a cattle rustler are you son?" he asked directly.

Mel lay still on the cot. Only his eyes moved as he took in the other man. "No, I ain't. Sheriff thinks otherwise though, an' that's what counts from in here."

"Ha," McLane laughed. "Even I know that Indians are only horse-thieves." He turned to confront the sheriff.

Vaughn got in first. "I can do without the smart remarks, George."

"You're a damn fool Brett, and most of this town knows it. A good sheriff? Yes. A damn fool, nonetheless. You really believe what them Spool hands are saying? They treat this town as if it's their own private robbers' roost. They're goddamn irritants at best, and never been far away from a killing at worst, and that's now."

"Close your chops, Brett, and listen to me for a bit," McLane cut in. "I was out front having myself a smoke when I saw old Selwyn ride into town. He came in past the chandlers . . . the other end of town. That's what he would have done if he'd been coming from his ranch. But I saw this stranger too, and there was a good half-hour between them. He comes in from the north though, where he would have if he'd come off the Colorado trail."

The sheriff quietly contemplated his desk top, rubbing his chin and inspecting the bowl of his pipe.

"Come on, Brett," Vaughn persisted. "You already heard him say he's no rustler. I believe him, why can't you? In fact, why don't you release him, let him get about his business? The only harm he's likely to do now will be to Spool's crew."

Mel rolled from his cot. He stepped up to the bars of his cell and looked intensely at Doc McLane. "I'm obliged for that."

McLane held out his hand. "Name's George McLane. For my sins, town MD."

"I'm Mel Cody." He pushed his own hand through the bars to shake hands. "Just tell me why."

"Always prided myself on having the measure of a man," McLane replied. "Sheriff knows it, too. He also knows I don't condone wasting town's money. That's what'll happen if there's a court case over this."

Vaughn dabbed at the sweaty sheen across his face. "Miner said he followed two sets of tracks into town from Selwyn's place. He said Cody here was in league with him."

"Budge Miner's about as wholesome as Injun whiskey, and we all know it." McLane turned casually to Mel. "Sorry son, no offence meant."

"None taken."

"If you want, I'll document those facts," McLane told Vaughn. "Whichever way it breaks, young Mel here doesn't deserve to be locked up for going to old Selwyn's aid. If it was you or me, Brett, we'd of done the same thing. Sure we'd be dead, but that's the only difference."

Undecided as to what action to take, Vaughn lifted his hands from Mel's gun, and gripped the edges of his desk. Aware of the lawman's dilemma, McLane stepped forward and pulled a ring of keys from a wall peg. But Vaughn grunted and clasped a big hand around the man's wrist.

"Goddamnit Doc. I'm sitting here willing to listen to you, not have you take over the jail."

McLane sighed wearily, and dropped the keys onto the end of the desk. "I was only wanting you to move. We've said all there is."

"There's more, Doc an' you know it. I got to put this side of things to Miner. Then, depending on what he says and what we work out, I'll either release Cody or keep him here for trial." Vaughn smiled patiently at McLane. "As a doctor, George, you'd make a decent bulldogger. Now leave me alone to get on with my work."

McLane grimaced exasperatedly as Vaughn hung the keys back on the wall hook. Then he turned to give Mel a friendly-like wink. "Tell me what happened, son. I suddenly got myself a bedside manner."

"I'll go lay down again then," Mel said wryly.

Continued next month

After 25 years work in London's higher education sector, Carl Bernard was familiar with the customs of saloon keepers, sodbusters, dudes and ranch hands who were up against institutional carpetbaggers, bank robbers, tinhorns and crooked sheriffs. It didn't take much to transpose the setting and era, put everyone on a horse and give 'em guns. When the end of the century approached and with a full cylinder of ready-made stories, Carl took an early retirement. Under the names of Abe Dancer and Caleb Rand he started to write the first of his fifty published titles.

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