by Elliott Capon
Carter smirked as he felt the change come upon him. Sheriff by day—and a damn good sheriff, too. He almost singlehandedly kept Rancho de Dios County the safest, most law-abiding county in the entire Republic of Texas. No cattle rustler or stagecoach robber would dare cross into Rancho de Dios, lest he join the three dozen or so whose necks had already been stretched by the man the Austin Chronicler newspaper had called the "One-Man Anti-Crime Machine."
But, ah, when the full moon arose, and the change came upon him . . . Carter had given up long ago deciding whether this was a curse or a blessing, a horror or a joy that every month for two or three nights he would turn into a four-legged hunting and killing machine, the power and senses of a wolf combined with the cunning of a man.
And now the change. Oh, the sense of coiled energy, of power! But moreso, the hunger. The hunger, sharp, agonizing, as if his human form hadn't fed in a month. The actual killing was fun, the bloodlust enjoyable, but it was the sating of the physical hunger, the absolute need to devour warm, twitching flesh, that drove him on these nights.
And so this night the hunt began. Food was sometimes difficult to find, though far from impossible; the Texas hill country was sparsely populated, and his hunts frequently took hours. Cattle were the food he usually had to settle for, but he preferred to satiate his hunger on the odd human. It was a relatively safe menu, because, well, wild animal attacks were not unknown out here, were one of the risks one took in pioneering the west.
But suddenly as he topped a small hill, his mouth began to water almost before his brain realized what it had seen: two men on horseback, sauntering past him on a barely-discernable dirt trail at the bottom of the hill. One was on a big white horse—ohh, Carter thought, what a TASTY white horse that would be! Killing the two men would be easy . . . then a quick chase and the white horse was his. The other horse, the small dark one, would wander around masterless all the following day and would be Carter's dinner the next night.
His man-brain bade him be quiet, but his wolf-brain could not suppress the growl of satisfaction as he leapt from the hillock down toward the two men.
The man on the white horse spun in the saddle, drew his pistol and fired with a speed that Carter, in all his years of both being a gunslinger and having faced the best gunslingers, had never seen. There was a burning sensation, and in the fraction of a second before all went black he felt his body hit the ground. There was one last millisecond of wonder—in his wolf-form he was immu . . .
The two men looked down from their horses at the body which, as they stared, changed in the weird moonlight from a wolf to that of a man.
"I've never seen anything like that in my life," the man on the white horse muttered. "Have you?"
"Mmm," said Tonto. "My people call it 'wujaka.'"
Elliott Capon (elliottcapon.weebly.com) is the author
of three published novels (one horror, two tongue-in-cheek whodunits) and another novel (black-comedy murder mystery)
due out in May 2020, and a collection of 101 "shaggy dog" stories. He has many short stories in print, with several
anthology reprints. He is happy to add Frontier Tales to his list of conquests.
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by Steve Carr
Standing on an overlook above a stretch of prairie, wind whipped Leila's dress, causing the material to make
noises like fingers being snapped. She tightened the knot of the chinstrap to her hat and adjusted her gun belt.
Squinting from the glare of the sun, she watched as a small herd of bison made their way through tall brown
prairie grass. As bits of dirt battered her face, she turned her head toward the sun-bleached rock formations
that rose from the prairie in the far distance like mountains that had been stepped on and broken into pieces
by the foot of God.
"Are we close?" Sarah asked from the seat of the wagon, holding the reins to the two horses. There was a rigidity
to the way she sat, as if her spine had been replaced with a column of stone. In her face there was none of the
freshness of a girl of nineteen. She had the haggard and wary look of an aging coyote.
"Very close," Leila said. She took another look toward the bison. They had disappeared, camouflaged by the colors
of the dry earth and sunburnt grass. Familiar with how the landscape could play tricks on an untrained pair of eyes,
she kept her focus on where they had last been seen. Within minutes their movement was detected even before she made
out their hulking brown forms, as if they had been swallowed by the prairie and were being spit up from it. She got
back in the seat of the wagon and took the reins from Sarah's hands. She lightly slapped the reins on the sides of
the horses' necks.
"Giddyup there," she called.
As the horses began to trot through the grass, their hooves kicking up small clouds of dirt, Sarah removed her bandana
releasing her long, dark brown, oily hair that hung down the sides of her face like dirty thread. "I remember none of
this," she said.
"You were very young," Leila said raspily. She spit soil from her mouth over the side of the wagon. A small brown streak
of it dribbled down her chin. "I remember almost every blade of grass."
Sarah leaned back and looked up at the scattered balls of snow-white clouds in the baby blue sky. "It hasn't rained since
we left Kansas City. What I wouldn't give for a bath."
"That's how it is on the plains," Leila said. "You could have stayed home."
"I could have," Sarah said. She put the bandana back on her head and tied the two ends together under her chin. "Sixteen
years is a long time to be away from a place. You think it's changed much?"
"Places change, but the people in them rarely do," Leila said.
As the horses stepped out of the grass and onto a dirt road, Leila said, "We'll be there shortly. Get in the wagon and
change into something more respectable looking. I'll stop the wagon just before entering town and you can get out the back."
"Okay," Sarah said. Before climbing under the white canvas cover she said, "It's been nice knowing you."
* * *
Bliss Atkins put a glowing red horseshoe on the anvil with the tongs, lifted a hammer and brought it down on the shoe. The
smashing of metal on metal rang out discordantly, reverberating in the stable. White sparks sprung up from where the hammer
struck the shoe. He hit the shoe again, lifted it with the tongs and examined both sides, then tossed the shoe into a bucket
of water. Wisps of steam rose out of the water accompanied by hissing like that of an angry snake. He leaned against a beam
that held up the roof and tried to ignore the rivulet of hot sweat that was running down his back.
Leila pulled her wagon to a stop at the open front door of the stable. She watched him for a minute as he wiped sweat from his
forehead and eyes with a bandana before saying anything. His appearance hadn't changed since the last time she saw him. He was
the definition of brute strength and ugliness. "Where can I tie up my wagon and stable my horses?" she asked.
Bliss removed the bandana from his eyes and ran his knuckles down the long, thin red scar on his cheek that ran from below his
right eye to his chin. "Where's your man?" he asked. He eyed her in the way a coyote eyes a rabbit.
"I have to have a man to take care of my wagon and horses?" she replied.
He flashed a smile that quickly vanished. "I just don't get many women who come here on their own pulling a wagon," he said. He
placed the tongs on the anvil, stepped out of the stable and stood beside the wagon looking up at her. He laid his massive hand
on the wagon floorboard perilously close to her boot. "You look kinda familiar. You been here before?"
"No," Leila said. "I'm just passing through and heading west." In her head she was hearing the breaking of his fingers as she
crushed them beneath her heel.
"All alone? With Indians still on the loose?" he asked. Despite his looks, he wasn't a stupid man. He pulled his hand from the
floorboard and momentarily let it hang in the air like a wounded hawk before dropping it to his side.
She put her hand on the handle of her gun. "I can take care of myself." She hadn't seen an Indian since leaving Kansas City and
half-wondered if they had mostly been driven from the open plains just like the buffalo.
"That gun ain't going to save you if you're being chased by a dozen of them savages," he said.
"That's my concern, isn't it?"
He scratched his scar again. "I guess it is. You can pull your wagon into the paddock behind my stable and I have room for your
horses." He stepped back from the wagon while staring at her face. He knew he had been lied to, that they had met before, but he
couldn't place when or where. He saw so few new faces that the ones he had seen were seared into his brain as if branded there.
"You sure we haven't met before?"
"Certain of it."
* * *
Standing in the doorway of the drygoods store, Lizzy fanned her face with the lid from a tin of crackers. An eddy of dirt
whirled across the street, falling apart just as it hit the wood walkway a few feet in front of her. She brushed from her
apron the flour that had spilled onto it causing a white cloud that was blown back into her face. She wiped her face with
her hand and turned facing the dimly lit interior of the store. Dan Blevins, the store owner, was behind the counter, his
head bowed over a ledger as he mumbled numbers aloud. His bent shoulders reminded her of those of a turkey vulture. He
looked up from the ledger and looked at her over the tops of wire rim glasses that rested on the end of his nose.
"You done with your work?" he asked.
His face fascinated her. It had the look of a man who was born with wrinkles; like he came out of his mother's womb old.
Although only about twice her age, whatever youth there may have once been in him had dried up long ago. With the light
from the oil lamp cast on the ledger and one half of his face, the wrinkles hidden in the shadows were like dry gullies.
"Yes, all done except for sweeping the floor," she said.
"Get to it," he said. "I don't pay you to stand around gawking."
She took one more look out the door. Walking down the middle of the street carrying a threadbare purple carpetbag was her
twin sister, Sarah.
She grabbed the broom beside the door and quickly swept the dirt and flour in the doorway out onto the walkway where the
hot wind caught it and spread it across the walkway's boards like drifting sand. At the railing, Lizzy looked over her
shoulder to make sure Dan wasn't watching her and tapped the broom handle against the wood rail three times.
Sarah casually turned her head and without pausing in her steps, imperceptibly nodded.
Lizzy lazily brushed the straw of the broom over the boards as peripherally she watched Sarah leave the street, step up
onto the walkway and enter the hotel.
"This store won't sweep itself," Dan called out from inside.
Lizzy carried the broom inside.
* * *
At the counter of the High Winds Hotel, Leila slapped the palm of her hand down on the small upside-down bowl-shaped bell.
The bell chimed like an empty tin can being struck with a wooden shoe horn, but it was surprisingly loud and echoed in the
lobby. Painted a pale rose color and simply furnished with one chair and a large mirror on one wall, other than the counter
where guests checked in, the lobby served no purpose and was almost never used. Because of its paint, it was the prettiest
place in High Winds. Within a minute, Hurse Margrove opened the door behind the counter and stepped out, pulling the door
closed behind him. He hastily shoved his arms into the sleeves of his ill-fitting coat and smiled wanly at Leila. Remnants
of the charred beef he had been eating in the back room coated his teeth.
"Can I help you, Madam," he asked.
"I'll be needing a room," Leila said.
He rubbed his coat sleeve across his lips and unsuccessfully tried to hold back a belch. It came out sounding more like a squeak.
"Excuse me," he said sheepishly. He locked eyes with hers as if trying to recall something. "Is this your first time in High Winds?"
"Yes," Leila said. "I'm heading west."
"The stagecoach isn't due until tomorrow. "How did you get here?"
"Dangerous way to travel. Your husband handy with a rifle?"
"I'm not married. I'm traveling alone."
Hurse tilted his bald head and stared at her appraisingly. He had seen many strangers check into the hotel over the years and
few of them who came through High Winds were model citizens wherever they had left. "If the law is after you, it's better to
let them catch you than risk being alone going across the prairie."
"They're not," she said. "May I have a room?"
He flipped a page in the ledger on the counter, dipped a pen in the inkwell and handed it to her. As she signed her name he
leaned over the counter and peered down at her small brown leather suitcase sitting by her feet. "You travel light," he said.
"I'm a woman of simple tastes."
Hurse turned and took a key out of the box numbered "5" and handed it to her. He was about to offer to carry her bag up the
stairs for her when the front door opened and the bell above it tinkled. A young woman carrying a purple carpet bag entered.
He turned to see Leila going up the stairs carrying her suitcase. Before the young woman got to the counter he looked at the ledger.
"Leila Prescott" was written in bold lettering on the top line of the otherwise blank page.
At the top of the stairs, Leila stopped and watched as Sarah stepped up to the counter.
"I'll be needing a room," she said.
* * *
While leaning on the sill of the open window of his office, Sheriff McDill had watched Leila drive her wagon into town and down
the street. Thinking her husband was probably inside the wagon, he stopped watching as soon as the wagon had passed by. A half
hour later he watched Sarah stroll into town carrying the purple carpetbag. A young woman walking into town all alone made no
sense at all. High Winds was practically in the middle of nowhere. There wasn't a place within walking distance to walk from or
to. She carried the carpetbag as if she had been born with it attached to her hand—and he was certain that he had seen the bag before.
Leaving the window, he sat in the squeaking chair at his desk and thumbed through the "Wanted" posters that had been neglected for
weeks. In the stack there were only men on the run from the law. He leaned back, put his boots up on the desk and with his hands
behind his head stared up at the thin cracks in the gray ceiling, feeling his gut being twisted. In a town with sixty people there
wasn't much to worry about until strangers came to town who didn't come in by stagecoach.
When dust began to blow through the open window, he raised the bandana that had been tied around his neck up to his mouth, got up
and opened the office door.
Westward, a slightly curved wall of dust stretched across the horizon from the ground to the sky and it was barreling across the
plains headed straight for High Winds. The thunder from the storm rumbled like a thousand Indian drums.
* * *
Lizzy closed the shutters across the store's plate glass window then went inside and pulled the door closed. She brushed the dirt
and bits of prairie grass from her dress then took her bandana from her head and shook it. The lighter tin cans on the shelves
trembled with each roll of thunder. She dipped the metal ladle into the barrel of fresh water, and as she drank from the ladle,
she stared at Dan who was at the counter with the cash register drawer open and counting money. She dropped the ladle into the barrel.
"You knew my mother," she said.
He continued counting coins. They clanked as they were dropped from his hand into a small burlap bag.
Lizzy came nearer to the counter. "You knew my mother," she said again.
He stopped counting. "Your mother?" he asked. "You're not from here, so how could I have known your mother?"
Wind screeched through the spaces between the boards at the front of the store.
"My mother was Hannah Carson," she said.
"Hannah Carson? Never heard of her," he tied a piece of red yarn around the top of the bag.
"Sixteen years ago, my family was going to homestead on a piece of land not far from town. The western boundary was the overlook."
"What's it to me?" he asked, removing the glasses, holding them in his hand and running his fingertips across the glass.
"You and two other men raped and murdered her," Lizzy said.
"You're crazy," he said as he slammed the register drawer closed.
Lizzy pulled a .455 Webley from the pocket in her dress and aimed it at him. "A fourth man told my father what happened and who was involved."
As he started to grab the gun he kept on the shelf under the counter, Lizzy shot him in the right shoulder. He fell back against
shelves of tobacco and bottles of whiskey behind the counter.
"Let me explain," he pleaded.
"There's nothing to explain," she said.
The building shook as the wall of dust and dirt battered it. She shot him again, between the eyes.
He slid to the floor gripping onto his broken glasses.
* * *
The shutters over the hotel's lobby windows shook as the wind and dust smashed into them.
Standing behind the counter, Hurse slurped large spoonfuls of beef soup into his mouth. A thin layer of grease on the top of the
soup had the look of pond scum. After each spoonful he loudly smacked his lips with satisfaction. When Sarah came down the steps
and stood in front of the counter he didn't bother to stop eating.
"My sister let me know you were still in town," she said.
He swallowed a fatty chunk of beef. "Your sister?" he said.
"She arrived here a couple of weeks ago by stage," Sarah said. "I think she stayed here a couple of nights."
"Who's your sister?" he wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
"We're identical twins. I'm surprised you didn't mention her when I checked in."
"I don't really pay attention to what folks look like, although the woman who checked in just before you arrived looked somewhat familiar."
"She's a relative of ours," Sarah said. She raised her hand that she had been hiding in the folds of her skirt. In it was a Webley
Bull Dog Pocket Revolver. She aimed it at his head.
He slowly put the soup spoon into the bowl of soup. "Is this a holdup?" he stammered as his jowls wobbled.
"No, it's not. This is revenge for what you and two other men did to my mother," she said.
"Your mother?" Hurse asked. "Who was your mother?"
"Hannah Carson." She pulled the trigger. As the bullet struck him in the forehead he crashed back against the boxes with the room keys.
Leila came down the stairs carrying her suitcase and Sarah's purple carpetbag.
"Feel better?" she asked Sarah.
"A little," Sarah said.
Leila handed the purple bag to Sarah, then opened the door. The last of the storm blew dirt through the opened door.
* * *
As he slid open the door to the stable, Bliss saw the two women crossing the street heading his direction. Watching the way the
older woman walked, made him realize who she was. He thought about quickly closing the door and locking it, but they both raised
their hands and aimed their guns at him. The closed door wouldn't stop the bullets if they decided to shoot. He raised his hands over his head.
"Why'd you do it?" Leila asked.
"It wasn't me, it was them. They wanted to make sure that land along the overlook wasn't homesteaded," he said. "They planned
on building on it themselves as High Winds got bigger. They figured with Hannah out of the way, her husband would take the children and leave."
"It worked," Leila said.
"You have to believe me, I had nothing to do with it," he said as he backed up and they stepped into the stable.
"You could have stopped it," Leila said, pointing her Colt Walker revolver at his head.
"I tried," he said. "That's how I got this scar on my face. "Dan Blevins said he'd cut my throat if I interfered." He stared at
Leila. "You remember how mean Dan was back then."
"Hold it right there." It was Sheriff McDill. He was standing a few yards behind Leila and Sarah and had his rifle aimed at them.
"Either of you make a move and I won't hesitate to shoot you in the back. Now, turn around."
The two women slowly turned, facing the sheriff.
"What's this all about?" Sheriff McDill asked.
"Hannah," Bliss said. "They've come to settle the score."
"That so?" the sheriff said. "Who are you two?"
"Us three," Lizzy said as she stepped behind the sheriff and put the barrel of her pistol in the middle of his back. "Drop your rifle."
Sheriff McDill turned his head slightly to look at Lizzy. "Hannah had two sons," he said. He raised his rifle.
Just as Leila shot him in the lower back with her revolver, he instinctively pulled the trigger on the rifle. The bullet caught Bliss in the chest killing him instantly.
"Quickly, get the sheriff out of the street," Leila said.
Sarah and Lizzy each took one of his legs and dragged him into the stable and closed the door. He lay on his back, a trickle of blood running out of the side of his mouth.
"Get the hair scissors and our clothes out of the bags," Leila said as she pointed her pistol at his head. "Make sure to put your mother's carpetbag back in the wagon."
"Luke Carson?" Sheriff McDill mumbled looking up at Leila.
Leila nodded. "It took the boys and I six months to grow our hair and learn how to act and sound like females. No one between here and
Kansas City saw or met anyone who fit our real descriptions."
"What now?" the sheriff said.
"We continue on west, and from the look of things High Winds will probably turn to prairie dirt soon enough," Luke said. "What you did to my wife was all for nothing."
"If it's any consolation, Hannah fought like a wildcat the entire time," Sheriff McDill said.
Luke shot him in the head.
Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over
250 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies
since June, 2016. He has two collections of short stories, Sand and Rain, that have been
published by Clarendon House Publications. His third collection of short stories, Heat, was published
by Czykmate Productions. His YA collection of stories, The Tales of Talker Knock was published by
Clarendon House Publications. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His website is
https://www.stevecarr960.com/. He is on Twitter
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Back to Home
by R. J. Gahen
The boom of the gunshot jolted Sheriff Josiah Steele from his nap. He leapt to his feet and ran for the door, threw it open and jumped across the boardwalk to the dusty street. He paused, looking wildly about for the source of the gun fire. He didn't have to look for long.
Across the street and down two buildings, three men ran from the bank and vaulted onto three horses being held by a fourth man. The third man out of the bank began shooting wildly in all directions.
The .45 Colt bucked in Josiah's hand and the man fell from his horse to the street, unmoving, a puddle of blood growing in the dirt beneath him. Josiah didn't see that happen. He knew where his bullet had gone and had already shifted aim to the next outlaw. He winged that one in the arm, and then the three remaining outlaws were gone in a cloud of dust.
Sheriff Josiah Steele stood slowly, eyes sweeping the street for threats. Once he determined it was safe, he quickly shucked the spent cartridges from his Colt, reloaded and holstered the well-used gun. He strode quickly across the street to the bank and stepped into the big building. He squinted in the darkness. Two men stood slowly from a crumpled form on the ground.
"Is that Ben?" he asked.
One of the other men nodded slowly. "Yes sir, Sheriff. Ben came out of his office with a gun and they drilled him."
"Any idea who it was?"
"No sir. They all had kerchiefs over their faces and hats pulled down low. I didn't recognize any of them. Did you Mort?"
"No sir. I surely didn't," Mort said in a quavering voice. "Allen here was closest to them. I was over in the corner working on the records for Ben," he looked at the man lying on the floor, "I mean Mister Waterston." He hung his head and leaned against the counter.
Josiah spun on his heel and left the bank. Crossing the street, Harperville's prominent business men bombarded him. Mayor Harper led the way followed by Ollie Swenson the blacksmith, John Greenfield from the Harperville Mercantile, Doc Adams, Obadiah Jones from the Broken Spur Saloon, several other of the smaller shop owners and even a few ranchers who were in town.
"Sheriff! Sheriff Steele! They got away. You need to get after them immediately!" demanded the fat old Mayor.
Mayor Harper was a pompous man; Josiah detested him. He looked him carefully in the eye and held his gaze. The mayor dropped his eyes first.
"Now Sheriff, I realize we've had our differences in the past, but you were hired to protect this town and its property. As Mayor, I think it's only appropriate that you form a posse and get after them while their trail is still hot."
Josiah kept his gaze fixed on the Mayor. "Doc, one of them is lying over there by the hitchin' post. Why don't you see if he's still alive and if you recognize him."
Doc Adams mumbled something under his breath and moved to the body.
"Yes Sheriff," replied the owner of the President's Café.
"Rustle up some bacon, biscuits and coffee for the posse. Charge it to the town."
A mild grumble emanated from the crowd of men at the last comment.
Steele sighed with disgust. He detested these so-called good citizens of Harpervsville. Their greed and love of money was only one of their unsavory characteristics. Cowardice was the worst of their faults, as far as Josiah was concerned.
"Now do you boys want me to go after those outlaws and get your money back, or not?"
The men dropped their eyes and scuffed their boots in the dusty street.
"He's dead," called the doc, "and I've never seen him before."
Josiah nodded. "All right then. Get your horses and meet me in front of the jail. I'll be ready to ride as soon as Jasper brings the grub."
He stared at the men, animosity and loathing dripping from his eyes. They'd been his friends once, good friends. But that was before they stood by and did nothing while his wife was brutally raped and murdered. He hated them all now. Some of the men turned away and went back to their shops. A few of the more prominent ones stayed on.
"Now Sheriff, you know we're not fighters here. We might be able to gather a few men to go with you, but this is primarily your responsibility, you know," said the Mayor.
"Are you telling me that your money is not worth riding in a posse for?"
The men hemmed and hawed for a moment.
"You're right Sheriff," said Ollie. "Let's go boys. All I had was in that bank."
The men turned and hurried off to gather their rifles and horses. Josiah watched them go contemptuously. His mind went back to that night, the worst night of his life.
He'd been out at the Bar M Ranch, looking into a rustling report, when two strangers rode into town. After a couple of drinks, they started shooting and raising hell. Then it got worse. They busted into the Harperville Mercantile and tore the place apart. Then they broke the bank windows, they couldn't rob it though, since Ben kept the money locked up in his vault overnight. They went up and down the streets yelling and shooting while the fine men of the town cowered behind their doors. Steele's wife, Edith, had gone into the street to see what the commotion was about. Seeing her, they grabbed her, forced her into the livery barn, had their way with her for a half-hour, then shot her, leaving her dead in the hay. They'd started back to the saloon then.
He'd heard the shot barely a quarter mile from town and spurred his horse into a run as more shots rang out. He arrived in the street just as the two strangers were approaching the saloon, pistols smoking, drunken laughter filling the air.
He'd stepped down from his horse, and tied him to the hitching rail. "What're you boys up to?"
Spying the star on Josiah's chest, the bigger one responded with a leering laugh. He had scratches on his cheek.
"Why Sheriff, we's jus' havin' a little fun. No need to get your skirts in a ruffle." They roared with laughter, holstered their guns and went into the saloon.
Josiah looked around carefully, noting the broken windows in the bank and store and the running figure of Ollie coming towards him.
"Sheriff, they killed her! They killed her, Josiah!"
"Ollie, settle down. Who's dead and who did the killin'?"
"Those two strangers have been raisin' hell, Sheriff. Breaking windows, they tore up the mercantile, and, and . . . "
Josiah sighed, thinking of the upcoming fight with the two drunks, then paused, letting his brain catch up.
"Ollie, you said someone was dead. What happened?" Dread filled his stomach and his heart instantly turned into a block of ice, already guessing the answer.
"It's Edith, Sheriff. They took her into the stables. She musta screamed for at least a half hour, and they—"
Josiah hadn't hung around for an answer. He ran down the street as fast as he could, rounded the corner of the open doorway and slid to a stop. Doc Adams knelt next to a still, small figure lying in the hay. The scene blurred and he blinked quickly. He stumbled to Doc's side and fell to his knees, reaching weakly for his wife's hand.
"I'm sorry, Sheriff. There wasn't anything I could do. She was gone before I could get here."
Josiah took in the scene, the bloody and bruised face, ripped dress and underclothes, the wide red stain on her blue blouse, the blood and skin under her fingernails. His whole world, shattered. His insides chilled and went numb while his heart pounded like Ollie's big base drum. Something started building up way down low in his gut. It grew and climbed up his body like a fury from Hell.
"Edith!" he screamed.
Doc Adams fell to his side as Josiah's arms flung out violently.
Josiah jumped to his feet, flames of hatred shooting from his eyes, and started out the barn. Mayor Harper had met him as he left the barn, struggling to keep up with Josiah's long strides.
"Now, Sheriff, remember, you are the law here. You cannot go in and kill those men. You must arrest them and let them face a judge. That's the law, boy. You must uphold justice."
"That's right Josiah. You just can't go in there a shootin'," added Ollie.
Josiah stopped and glared at the fat, old man and the thick-armed blacksmith. Something in the back of his mind was telling him they were correct. The bigger part of his brain, however, was screaming for revenge against the men who'd killed her . . . and against the men who'd let it happen. He continued the short walk to the saloon. As he stepped up on the walk, he checked that his pistol was loose in the holster. Despite the Mayor's and Ollie's panicked advice, he stepped through the door, grim determination written in his eyes. The two strangers stood at the bar, laughing drunkenly over something.
He'd struggled with himself right then. He wanted nothing more than to draw and shoot into their ugly faces. He couldn't move. He couldn't speak. He heard the doors open behind him and the sound of heavy bodies moving off to the side, out of the line of gunfire. The two strangers finally took note of him and turned to face him.
"Well, hey there, Sheriff. Come on over and join us for a drink," the big one said.
Josiah stood his ground, still struggling within himself. Then he'd carefully opened his mouth to speak, and nothing came out. He swallowed two or three times before he finally got the words out.
"You two are under arrest," he'd said hoarsely.
Laughing loudly, the two stepped away from the bar, facing him with their gun hands low, near their holsters.
"I don't think so, Sheriff. You don't know who we are, do you? We're Cain and Abel Marchant, and we don't get arrested," Cain snarled the last, an ugly look gleaming in his eyes.
An audible gasp came from the direction of the Mayor. The Marchant brothers were notorious gunmen. Rumor had it they were responsible for at least ten deaths over the past year. They were known for their violent tempers and bloodthirsty lust to kill.
"I said you're under arrest. Drop your gun belts with your left hands then put your hands in the air."
Both brothers dropped their hands quickly, their eyes gleaming with excitement. It was almost as if they were racing each other to see who would get the kill. They weren't fueled by revenge though; they hadn't just lost the love of their lives.
The Mayor swore later that Josiah's hand flashed quicker than a striking rattlesnake. His two shots rang as if they were a single shot. The two outlaws hit the ground dead. They were buried in the town cemetery that same night. Both the Mayor and Ollie testified it was self-defense on the Sheriff's part.
* * *
Josiah shook his head, chasing the terrible memory away. He walked to his office and stuffed ammunition in his saddle bags, along with several pairs of handcuffs while the Mayor watched.
"Now, Sheriff, I don't think I need to remind you, but try to bring them in alive. We need to uphold justice here and make sure they get a trial."
"Don't tell me my job Harper. I know how to respond to lawlessness."
He turned and stared at the old, fat man. Harper was unable to meet his eyes, so he nodded his head and stepped out the door, ready to shout valuable instructions to the gathering posse.
* * *
Two days passed and the posse's complaints went from sporadic to continuous, saying that they needed to get back to their businesses.
"Well, maybe you're right," said Josiah, "we should all just turn around and go home I guess."
"Now wait a minute, Sheriff," said Greenfield. "Our businesses are back in town, but your business is out there in the mountains somewhere. You need to stay on their trail and bring our money back." He ended with a curt nod just so Josiah would know he was serious. If the whole group of them weren't so pathetic, Steele would have laughed out loud.
"Aw, come on, fellas," he drawled, "I know it's your money, but that's all it is, just money. You'll earn it back in no time."
"Now just a minute, Sheriff. My life savings were in that that bank," said Ollie, "I could lose everything. I need that money!"
"You could lose everything, huh?" Josiah slowly looked them all in the eye. None returned his look. "Well, all right then. Y'all go ahead and go home. I'll catch'em and bring'em in, along with your money."
They all nodded gratefully, shook his hand, saying, "Thanks, Sheriff," and "You're a good man, Sheriff," then they mounted their horses and rode away.
Josiah waited until he no longer saw their dust trail, then climbed aboard his tall, bay horse and set out. He eyed the trail they'd been following. A grim smile crept across his face, then he turned away from the trail and rode towards Cole Canyon. He came down into the small canyon from a steep hillside. His horse stepped carefully, ears pricked forward as Josiah let him pick his own way down the grade. His eyes searched the north side of the canyon wall until he found the dark opening. He walked his horse slowly into a clump of trees nearby, then got down and tied him to one of the smaller saplings. He loosened his pistol in the holster and started towards the cave.
No one was around. He wrinkled his brow, wondering at the apparent lax security. He stepped into the cave and finally heard the sound of laughter and voices. He moved forward, careful to not make any noise. As he advanced, the voices grew louder and firelight bounced of the sides of the tunnel.
"Twenty-five thousand dollars! Who would've thought that dust bin of a town would have so much money in its bank? That's almost . . . almost . . . uh . . . three thousand each?" The comment was greeted with a roar of laughter.
"Yeah Dooley, that's right. Four thousand dollars for each," growled a deep voice. "I tell you what though, I'm thinking it might be a bit more. That damned sheriff killed Billy. I saw it myself and I'd be willin' to bet my share that he's the one that winged you, Frank."
"You really saw him shoot Billy? If that's so, then I wouldn't doubt it that he did shoot me. What you reckon we should do, Luke?"
"I'll tell you what we're gonna do, we're gonna gun that two-timing back-stabber down, that's what!"
Steele stayed put and let the conversation drift back to dividing the money and the planned route into Arkansas before he made his move.
"Hello boys," said Josiah as he stepped around the corner and saw the three men sitting around the fire, one with his left arm in a sling.
"What the . . . " came the startled expression from Luke, a huge, ugly man. He started up, his hand reaching for his pistol, but before it got there, he relaxed and smiled.
"Ah, it's you. That job came off just like you said it would, Steele. Now we have just one little change to make to the—"
Josiah palmed his gun and fired six shots, two for each man, so fast that it was one continuous roll of thunder. Surprise filled the bandits' eyes as they absorbed the .45 caliber slugs. Josiah's ears rang loudly from the gunfire and he didn't notice when the sound died away. He quickly reloaded then walked to the bodies strewn about the cave, checking for signs of life. There were none.
He gathered up the money and stuffed it back into the saddlebags lying next to Luke, then went outside. He threw the bags over his horse's rump and tied them down over his own bags. Walking around the horse, he opened his own saddlebag and dug something out and walked back to the cave opening. He entered again and came back out leading three unsaddled horses. He slipped their bridles off and slapped their hindquarters, yelling at the same time. The horses took off down the path, tails held high.
He turned to the cave and dug out a small hole next to the opening, just big enough to accept the stick of dynamite he'd taken from his bag. He reckoned he had a good two minutes of fuse, which he lit, then hurried to his own horse. He galloped back to the steep trail, started up the hill and had not gone far when the stillness of the canyon was rocked by the explosion. He paused and turned, looking at the smoke and dust rising into the sky.
"Well Dollar," he said to his horse, scratching the bay's neck, "looks like we upheld justice. We got rid of some no-good outlaws, plus the stinkin', greedy cowards in Harperville have paid, at least a little bit, for Edith."
As he nudged Dollar forward, he added, "I've always wondered what Montana was like. Let's head north and check it out."
Dollar wiggled his ears and continued up the slope.
R. J. Gahen is a retired Air Force pilot whose passions are flying, writing, and spending time with his kids,
grandkids and wife. He grew up reading westerns and enjoys spinning yarns of his own. He hopes you enjoy them
too. Look for his blog to be up and running soon with his frontier tales and other writings from all genres.
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Jed the Giant and the Fancy Dan
by Ben Fine
The fancy dan liked to gamble. Each night he sat at a poker table in the Brown Boot and won much more than he lost, The fancy dan was not one to be trifled with.
I saw the fancy dan kill with a gun and I saw him kill with a knife. Killing seemed to mean nothing to him and each time I saw him kill he hardly broke a sweat. Rowdy Cooper was a drunk cowboy who tried to palm an ace on the fancy dan, who then called him out as a cheater. Calling someone a cheater, even if he's caught dead to rights, was no small thing here in Blue Mesa and Rowdy jumped to his feet at the fancy dan's words. His hand went down to his gun belt. As quick as lightning the fancy dan's rattlesnake arms drew his beautiful colt revolver and fired before Rowdy could even move his own gun. The fancy dan's bullet caught Rowdy in the throat and Rowdy was dead by the time he hit the ground. The fancy dan then sat down back at his seat and waited for his game to restart while Marshall Smith was left to scrape up the cowboy's body.
Hector Montoya was a wild ass Mexican who didn't appreciate that the fancy dan had relieved him of two week's wages. In a rage he pulled a large Bowie knife from his boot and lunged at the fancy dan. Again as slick as a snake protecting itself, the fancy dan pulled out the short saber that he carried on his left hip and sliced so deeply into Hector's arm that the blood started to spurt up. Despite the blood and the pain Hector kept coming at the fancy dan with the bowie knife until the fancy dan sliced his throat from ear to ear with that saber. The fancy dan calmly just sat down to keep playing while again Marshall Smith had to clean up the damage.
If anyone did challenge the fancy dan it was with a gun or a knife. No one would attempt to go after the gambler with just his fists. Not after what they had seen the fancy dan do to Jed the Giant.
Jedidiah Stone was the biggest man in the territory; in fact he was the biggest man I've ever seen. He stood six foot six and weighed over three hundred fat-free pounds. He had thick black hair that sat on top of a huge square head; his shoulders seemed to stretch a mile wide and his arms were like tree trunks finished off by scarred hands that looked like sledge hammers. Jeddie worked at Bill Foster's ranch and his coworkers marveled when he routinely tossed five hundred pound bales of hay all by himself onto a wagon. When Jed took off his shirt, his body and chest were covered by thick black hair and shirtless it was easy to mistake him for a small grizzly bear. Around Blue Mesa everyone called him Jed the Giant or Jeddie the Tree.
Jed was no gentle giant though. He was mean as an angry bear and loved to fight. Few challenged him though and no one had ever seen him even come close to losing a fight. If he got in close enough he could snap an opponent's arm like it was the branch of a young tree and if he hit someone with one of his hammock hands very few got up. Often he let an opponent hit him once or twice just to see their reaction as their fists bounced off his rock head or hard body. Clay Silverpool was a tough cowpoke from Texas who got into an argument with the giant. Clay hit Jeddie twice with everything he had and the Giant didn't budge. Jeddie then sent a huge right hand into Clay's head and Silverpool was down with his legs twitching. The next time Silverpool woke up was in the promised land.
Jeddie played cards each night at the Brown Boot and despite the impression that he was just a huge stupid oaf, he was a good card player and more than held his own.
No one thought much of the fancy dan when he walked into the Brown Boot. He impressed no one at first. He was too well dressed in a fancy jacket and polished boots. He was freshly shaved like he came right from the barber and he even smelled of witch hazel. When he sat down, he slipped off his jacket and one could see that he was heavily muscled. His arms were bent and not just hanging by his side. He was wearing a nice colt 45 slung low around his hips which told everyone that he knew how to draw and shoot. Around his other hip was a strange small saber announcing that he was no one to trifle with but there was nothing in his appearance to scare anyone.
The fancy dan sat down at a poker table with Jed the Giant and the Giant's boss, the rancher Bill Foster. Cyrus Pelt who ran the newspaper in Blue Mesa was also there, together with a neighbor of Foster, another rancher Dan Webber.
All of them looked skeptically at the fancy dan. Many professional gamblers passed through Blue Mesa hoping to take a bundle from the local yokels. Yet the players in Blue Mesa took cards and gambling very seriously and several of the professional gamblers never made it out of town alive and were now residing in our version of Boot Hill.
The others looked at the fancy dan as another one of these professional card players passing through and looked at each other with the knowing looks that we know how to handle him.
On the third hand sitting there, the deal passed to the fancy dan who did some impressive shuffling. Jed looked at Foster and rolled his eyes as if to say "here we go again." The fancy dan won more hands than he lost and after an hour he had a large pile of cash in front of him. Jed looked at him, pushed up to his huge size and said to him, "Stranger I hope you're on the level and not planning on cheating a bunch of yokels. We don't stand for that."
The fancy dan didn't look up at him but loud as day, so that everyone could hear, said "Mind what you say son or I'll have to thrash you."
There was an audible gasp from the crowd watching the game. Jed was clearly enraged as much by the threat of a thrashing as being called son like he was small boy.
Cyrus Pelt thought to warn the fancy dan. "You better not talk to him like that, stranger, That's Jed the Giant the toughest man in the territory."
The fancy dan shook his head and spoke up "I don't give a horse's behind who he is. If he keeps speaking I'll beat him senseless."
The angry Jed now pushed his chair away from the table and stood up to his full bear-like height. "Stranger you just signed your death warrant."
The fancy dan stood up at least eight inches shorter than the Giant. He had rolled up his sleeves exposing veiny arms that looked like cables. He stood up in a funny posture eye to eye looking up at Jed. Jed looked down at the gun that he wore and the saber on the other side. "I'm not armed," Jed said to the fancy dan. The fancy dan very calmly took off his gun belt and his saber and placed them on the poker table.
From his posture we thought that maybe the fancy dan was a ring fighter. We had seen many of these passing through Blue Mesa. They were strong and could fight. But they stood straight up with their big arms straight out. You couldn't charge a ring fighter; they would throw a straight punch with one of their powerful arms and usually hit you in the head. They trained their fists so they could hit your head without hurting their hands and one shot from a ring fighter usually dropped his opponent. In the ring a knockdown ended the round. If one did get inside, the ring fighters had a way of slipping away. Maybe the fancy dan was a ring fighter but that didn't worry the Giant. Some years before, the Giant got into a scrape with a ring fighter. A troop of them passed through Blue Mesa putting on exhibitions and one of them got into an argument with Jed. The ring fighter took the standard ring fighter's position while the Giant stood in front of him. Two straight punches from the ring fighter cracked into Jeddie's rock head and he didn't flinch. The Giant stepped inside grabbed the ring fighter by the wrist and then snapped his arm like a small piece of wood. So Jeddie was not concerned with anything the fancy dan did.
The fancy dan stood differently though than a standard ring fighter. His arms were placed at his sides and he stood on the balls of his feet and danced back and forth from left to right. As he moved Jeddie started to laugh "This ain't no dance you sissy. What are you, some sort of girl?"
The fancy dan continued his strange dance and took a step into the Giant. His right arm shot out like a bolt of lightning; like a rattlesnake shooting at his prey. The fancy dan's right fist crashed into the left side of the Giant's face and we heard the unmistakable sound of bone cracking. It was a sound we all knew well from rider's falling off a horse or someone getting kicked by a bull. Jed's cheek turned black and blue almost immediately and for the first time ever he backed up.
We all thought just wait until the Giant gets inside and gets a hold of the fancy dan. The Giant regrouped and stepped forward. His huge hand then caught the fancy dan by his forearm. Now it's over for the fancy dan, we all thought. The fancy dan though dipped low to his left and his left arm as fast as the right crashed into the Giant's ribcage. Jed gasped and to our common surprise, we heard the crack of bone again and a grimace of pain on the big man's face. A second shot from the fancy dan's left caught Jed in the throat and he immediately gasped for air and let go of the fancy dan's arms. As he backed up, the fancy dan's right arm crashed into Jed's nose and the nose exploded and blood spurted out. The fancy dan again moved to his left and fired a right just below the Giants' heart. To our amazement Jed doubled over and his knees seemed to be buckling. Before he could fall, the fancy dan hit him with a left hook square to the nose and the Giant toppled over onto his knees. A right hook followed and we heard that sickening sound of broken bone again as the Giant fell to the floor gasping for air.
"Better quit big fellow before you get hurt worse" the fancy dan told him.
Jed tried to get to his feet but fell over again and two of his friends held him down. The fancy dan calmly walked back to the poker table and sat down. He looked at Foster and the others "Are we still playing gentlemen?"
That was two years ago. The fancy dan moved into the Blue Mesa Hotel and plays every night at the Brown Boot. No one has the courage to ask him his story. He speaks very little and talks to almost no one. Occasionally he enjoys one of the fancy girls at the Brown Boot.
Jeddie's mystique was over. He didn't fight much after that and just went his own way. About a year later he moved up to Yuma where we hear that he's working and fighting again.
Dr. Ben Fine is a mathematician and professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut in the United States.
He is a graduate of the MFA program at Fairfield University and is the author of sixteen books (twelve in
mathematics, one on chess, one a political thriller and one a swashbuckler about pirates in 1560) as well
over 140 research articles, twenty-five short stories and a novella about Pirates. His story August 18,1969
published in the Green Silk Journal was nominated for a Pushcart prize. His story From the Dambovitsa to
Coney Island was an honorable mention winner in the Glimmer Train Literary Contest. He has completed a
memoir told in interwoven stories called Tales from Brighton Beach: A Boy Grows in Brooklyn. The stories
detail his growing up in Brighton Beach, a seaside neighborhood on the southern tip of Brooklyn, during
the 1950's and 1960's. Brighton Beach was unique and set apart from the rest of New York City both in
character and in time. His latest novel Out of Granada was released in 2017. His author website is
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Bert and the Bruin
by Mickey Bellman
To the south lay Helena; to the west Lolo Pass and Butte; to the east lay White Sulphur Springs. In Helena or Butte, Bert might be recognized and shot for the bounty on his head. In his vest pocket the young cowboy carried his Wanted poster, for what reason he was not sure; maybe it was to remember his lawman father up on the Highline. He still carried a letter and a $10 gold piece his brothel mother had willed him. A father's black Stetson, an old letter, a gold coin and the Wanted poster—that was Bert's past. With a sigh Bert reined Monty eastward, preferring the open sagebrush.
Ahead lay a barren landscape of sagebrush and meandering coulees that led north to the Missouri River. Few settlers inhabited these dry flats and barbed wire was still rare in this open range country. Wild and scrawny steers—mavericks escaped from the Texas herds coming up the Bozeman Trail—grazed on the sparse bunch grasses and sagebrush, warily watching the lone rider. Bert rode slowly, hoping his lonely ride would stay that way—lonely.
Snow water still trickled through a few draws; in another month these small streams would disappear. In each draw Bert allowed Monty to drink his fill, never knowing where they would find the next water. But it was the last coulee that sent a nervous chill up his spine. Bert reined Monty to a halt while he stared into the willows crowding the stream. There was a sharp cracking of branches and the willows shook violently. A growl and a desperate scream split the prairie atmosphere. In an instant he realized what was going on—a grizzly bear had ambushed some poor settler.
Bert slipped the Winchester from its scabbard and checked the cartridge in the breach. With his spurs he urged Monty forward towards the thicket, knowing an enraged bear might appear at any instant. Perhaps his .30-30 could at least discourage the bear from whatever might be left of the unlucky settler. Another scream shattered the air, and then all was quiet and still.
Monty winded the blood and the bear scent; the horse was plenty nervous as he edged closer to the wall of willows. Bert tried to stare a hole into the dense greenery but nothing moved until . . .
. . . until the willows crashed apart and a big silvertip was charging at them. Monty spun away in terror while Bert desperately pointed his rifle and pulled the trigger. It was just luck that the small bullet hit the enraged bear in the forehead, although it never penetrated the thick skull bone. But it was enough to turn the bear away. As suddenly as the bear appeared, it disappeared back into the willows and went roaring and crashing below.
Adrenalin and fear coursed through horse and rider. As they gulped in the dry air, a loud groan filtered through the brush. Someone was still alive in the willow thicket! Bert levered a fresh cartridge into the rifle and turned Monty towards the bottom of the draw.
Another groan, softer now like air escaping a balloon, and Bert saw what he thought was a boy lying on the ground in the shadows. He had once helped butcher steers but had never before seen such a shredded mass of flesh. A soft groan hissed from the boy.
Bert slipped from the saddle, rifle in hand, and tied Monty to a low branch. All was deathly quiet in the thicket, except for the moaning of the boy. Bert knelt close beside the boy and the kid locked a dull gaze on him, lifting his hand, begging for help.
Blood gushed from the bite marks covering the boy's head. The left leg was torn open clear to the bone. Bear claws had cruelly ripped the shirt from the boy's chest leaving deep, red furrows where skin had once grown. Bert knew the boy was doomed and reached out to grasp his hand.
"I was . . . just lookin' for my . . . cow." Another cough and wheeze shook the boy's mangled body. "He . . . help me . . . pl . . . please . . . "
"Hi kid. Sure, I'll help." Bert knew there was nothing that could help except gentle reassurance. "Doesn't really look too bad. A few stitches here and there. You might not be so pretty to look at though." This managed to evince a weak smile from the boy.
"My . . . folks are . . . up this . . . draw. Will you ta . . . take . . . me there . . . after . . . I die?"
Bert was shocked that the boy already realized his fate. "Don't talk like that. What's your name?"
The boy was getting weaker. He could barely whisper. "Eli. Eli Slo . . . "
A deathly silence followed as the last gasp of air escaped from Eli's lungs. The boy was no longer in pain.
A terrible danger stilled lurked nearby. They had to move quickly and get away from the draw. There was no time to wrap the boy in a tarp or gently carry him to the saddle. There was only a panic to get himself, his horse, and the boy far away from this place of death. Bert threw the body across the saddle, lashed it in place with a rawhide thong and nervously started up the hillside leading Monty. Eli's blood trickled down the saddle to drip on the ground leaving an unmistakable trail.
Lengthening shadows covered the landscape when Bert and his macabre cargo got back up on the open prairie. Ahead, he spied a thin wisp of smoke from the ramshackle cabin he assumed was Eli's home. On the open flats and out of the draw, Bert figured he was safe from the bear.
Stung by the bullet and deprived of its kill, the bear wanted more. The wounded silvertip was known to the homesteaders as Clubfoot—a lame bear that had once lost three toes to a #6 Newhouse bear trap. The crippled bruin became a marauder and often savaged the herds and flocks of the settlers, but Bert had been the only man to put a bullet into the bruin. The crippled, clever bear scented the blood trail and began to follow.
The sun had disappeared behind the Bitterroots when Bert reached the door of the cabin. "Hello in the cabin. Anybody there?"
The door cracked open just enough to reveal the business end of a double barrel shotgun pointed at Bert. "What you want? Answer me quick."
Bert was speechless. "I've . . . I got a boy here, kilt by a bear. Said his name is Eli . . . "
The door cracked open a bit more and the gnarled head of an old hag poked out. "Yeah, I see that. So what do you want me to do 'bout it?"
"You his kin?"
"Do I look like his kin? You come up here dripping blood all the way to my front door. I 'spect Clubfoot ain't far behind neither."
"I need some help . . . "
"Kid's beyond help. Go someplace else. Don't want no part of it."
"Where's his kin?"
The old woman motioned towards another wisp of smoke further up the draw. "Go on, git out of here. Never did like that snot-nosed kid anyhow." With that she disappeared inside the cabin and latched the door.
Bert had no choice but to continue. The old hag might be right—the bear could be following them.
Clubfoot appeared in front of the cabin just as Bert disappeared into a nearby coulee. With a frenzy of pain in his head and the scent of blood in his nose, Clubfoot knew what to do. The devious bear knew the area, knew the coulee led back down into the willows. It was there he would lie in wait for the cowboy.
Before Bert realized it, he was in the bottom of a steep-sided draw. Only one pathway seemed open—down into the willows. As he slowly groped his way down the dry gulch, the sound of clacking rocks carried far into the still night, a sound recognized by the enraged silvertip.
Clubfoot lay in the willow thicket, listening intently to the approaching horse. Bert was also listening, nerves as tight as a banjo string, but no sound revealed the bear's presence. But there was one sound neither bear nor Bert heard. A porcupine was foraging for its evening meal and blundered headlong into the snout of Clubfoot. Numb with pain and intent on the approaching cowboy, the bear had taken no notice of the bristling bundle of quills. The porcupine was surprised when it found itself confronted by the great bear and instinctively whirled about to slap Clubfoot with a full barrage of quills. A roar filled the air as the bruin swatted the porcupine. For his effort more quills became embedded in his paw and another growl echoed up the draw.
Alone in the gloomy moonlight Bert froze in his tracks. There were still six cartridges in the Winchester and Bert shouldered his rifle in the direction of the growl. As hazy moonlight returned Bert could barely make out the bruin's silhouette just thirty feet away.
The .30-30 cracked and flame belched out the muzzle. Bert wasn't exactly sure where he was aiming—just at the biggest piece of bear he could see. Three more times he levered and fired as the great bear turned towards him. Clubfoot reeled from each bullet, but he was far from dead. Bert could only stand there, frozen in fear, but firing as fast as he could. Another bullet hit the bear in the chest, but it was not enough and the bear charged. Bert knew he was down to his last cartridge. He carefully aimed one last time at the bear's head. This time 170-grains of lead did not strike bone but found the left eye, turning into shrapnel inside the bear's brain. Clubfoot fell, dead in its tracks, just ten feet from Bert.
Monty was frantically scrambling to escape up the near vertical walls of the coulee while Bert collapsed to the ground staring at the bear. The horse finally exhausted itself and quietly stood nearby trembling with fear. For long minutes only the breathing sounds of horse and cowboy drifted through the darkness.
Bert was only aroused by the sound of a voice and a lantern light flickering in the darkness. "Hellooo. Who's there? What's going on? What's all the shootin'?"
Bert gathered his shattered wits. "Over here." The yellow light and the sound of cracking branches drew closer. "Over here," and a man carrying a shotgun appeared out of the blackness.
"Good Gawd! What in the hell . . . "
Bert lifted his face to dully stare at the man. "You Eli's pa?"
The man was flustered and speechless. "Yeah, what of it? How'd you know?"
Bert motioned towards Monty. "Eli's tied across the saddle. Bear got him and there was nothin' I could do. I was bringin' him to you."
Seth stared at Bert, then at Monty and its gruesome load. In the dim light, he could see the grim outline and understood. "Um, did he . . . "
"I just heard the ruckus and the scream. When I got to him, it was pretty much over. He didn't last long, jus' enough to tell me his name. Asked me to bring him to you. The damn bear jus' wouldn't give up.
"You lead the way but take it slow. My horse got pretty spooked in all this."
In the soft glow of a Montana dawn, Seth buried his son and then turned to the job of skinning the bear and jerking all the bear meat he could filet off the carcass. So much meat could help the beleaguered settler survive another bitter winter.
Bert realized all this ruckus would cause a stir among the locals, perhaps bringing recognition and a bounty hunter to collect on his Wanted poster. It was time to head for White Sulphur Springs and the country beyond.
In the soft dawn light of morning a lonely cowboy could be seen riding through the Montana sagebrush.
Mickey Bellman is a semi-retired forester living in Salem for the last fifty years with his wife Ginny.
When not working in the forests of Oregon and Washington, he enjoys reading and writing amid his three
acres of Christmas trees. His short stories of work in the forests and hunting have appeared in numerous
magazines over the last five decades.
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Dead Man's Dust
by Chris Darlington
After several long years of travelling, Jake Strong found himself in a town he had been in before. Like most small towns it seemed be quiet on the surface, but had an undercurrent of menace just waiting to be awakened.
He remembered a shootout he had some near on twenty years ago in this town. There had been many shootouts in his life, but this one stood out in his memory. He hated it when innocent people got hurt, but that's what happens when guns come out to play and it isn't easy to fix a wrong that you've done accidently.
A young girl's granddad had been killed in the crossfire. Jake was reluctant to take his days' pay and offered Sarah, the dead man's granddaughter, his fee to cover the costs of burying him. The plucky young girl had spat in his face, swore, and thrown his money back at him. She said she would kill him if they ever crossed paths again. So Jake was waiting for fate to catch up with him for all those years. Maybe a bullet in his back was better than living on the edge all the time.
Jake took a chance and roomed at the same local boarding house he had last time. It was still the same owner. She didn't recognise him. He was just another dollar bill to her. He lay on his bed for a while, smoking and planning what to do next. Later as he stood at the window in the half moonlight he saw Sarah in the street below. He stepped away from the window into the darkness in order not to invite trouble sooner than he was ready for it.
Jake Strong felt in his old bones that his sixgun-toting days were fast coming to a close. Someday his number would be up and maybe his trigger finger would be a second or to too slow. Then the other guy would leave him bleeding in the street. The thought of his own imminent death didn't really scare him much these days. He'd lived with that threat all his life, it was what happened after it that worried him. There would be too many people with scores to settle.
He fell sound asleep and dreamed of the journeys he'd made in a lifetime of travelling. Every one of those journeys had ended in sadness for somebody and regret at what he had to do to earn a dollar.
He began to badly miss whiskey and the company of women and the gambling table and the mayhem that went with it. Life was all a gamble and you had to have the winning hand. He forgot why he had come to this town, time again. Sometimes you lose your way for a reason. Fate can deal you some strange hands.
The next morning, whilst having a stripped wash, he noticed Sarah in the street. She had changed a lot. She had filled out a mite as you might expect and grey hair had begun to sprout in her natural blond hair. Jake hoped she'd forgotten him or with luck wouldn't recognise him after all these years, but women had a way of remembering the bad times as much as the good and he could be walking right into a heap of trouble. He wondered if she had found herself a husband yet. She wasn't a bad looking woman now, even though you could tell she'd had a hard life.
The short walk to the stable was a tense one. He knew he would be spotted sometime, but hoped he would be able to saddle up quietly and slip out of town, before the town really woke up again. With luck he could leave unseen and without a bullet in his back. He mounted the horse and started to ride slowly out of town, trying not to attract attention. Just as he rounded a corner, a pair of eyes were soon glued on his face. He knew it was Sarah and she was angry that he'd come back.
She rushed out in to the middle of the street and shouted at him she had still recognised him after all those years
The terrible memories of that day came flooding back. "Murderer," she shouted. So that answered the question he had wondered about all those long years ago. There wasn't a mile he had travelled without regret at what had happened. He rode the horse at top speed, looking backwards to see if he was being followed. Sarah made as if to follow him in a covered wagon with a loaded rifle by her side, but was stopped in her tracks when her son shouted to her come back in. He didn't agree with killing women, that was a step too far, even for Jake. Luckily he made it out of town safely and the danger past, but it had made Jake's mind up for him. He was giving up on being a gun for hire and wanted to retire, but would they let him?
He could disappear in a dust storm that was blowing up and never be seen again. He had made a pact with the devil and that's all there was to it. Nobody can cheat the Devil, not even Jake strong.
* * *
Long days passed and wild desert storms raged across the entire territory. Jake decided to pull in to the nearest small town.
He was getting tired of the constant travelling from town to town. It was taking its toll. He didn't know how much longer he could keep on running away from trouble.
He soon came across some young guns in town all looking a little hungry and down trodden. They were waiting to make a fast buck. They eyed him up as possible payday. Jake Strong was killing well before most of them were even born. They were a scruffy looking bunch, loud and cocky. To them, being a hired killer was something to be proud of.
Killing didn't make Jake proud. He felt ashamed at times, but it was his only way of earning quick money and his only way of staying alive. Gunslinging was something that, once you started, it was hard to stop. Not unlike being a prostitute.
After a few games of poker and a few whiskeys, Jake began to make himself at home. That was until an old, gnarled, bar man stood whispering in a dark corner to a well-worn saloon girl. The town had a rundown feel about it. A town waiting for something big to happen, but it never did. The bar man and saloon girl never took their eyes off Jake. He still wore the fresh battle scars of a hard working gunslinger.
Jake soon realised his face may have been recognised by the old bar man. So he started to have misgivings already about staying too long. The old bar man couldn't remember his name, but Jake Strong's chiselled features stood out. Even as he got older, he was one of the few gunslingers who stood out on a wanted poster. He had killed over a hundred men.
Later on it seems the old bar man had whispered in a lot of ears that night until the rumour of Jake's arrival reached the owner of half the town. A certain Mr Wooldridge. He sent the town's only doctor over for a bottle of night-time whiskey to see if he could put a name to that familiar face. Doctor Grizzly had earned a steady living out of pulling bullets out of the victims or the few survivors of the shoot outs that happened in small towns.
Jake had to find out from the old saloon girl what the bar man knew, if anything .Jake wished if he had to kill anyone it would be one of the gossips that you find in every small town. This wouldn't have seemed like murder but more like doing a public service. The only way the old saloon girl was sure to talk was after he had bedded her. Later on in the saloon girl's bedroom she grilled him about himself and she told him the old bar man had recognised him on a wanted poster. So his secret was out. It was only a matter of time that the local newspaper would find an old wanted poster of him and his days would soon be numbered. Wanted posters always had a bad habit of hanging around for years.
As the early dawn broke, Jake started to load up his saddle bag, but soon felt the cold barrel of a gun pointing in his right ear. The old saloon girl had decided Jake was her way of getting rich quick and was going to turn him in to the sheriff. After a struggle he took the gun off her. She swore and spat at him and tried to bite him.
A bit later he got on his horse. As the sun rose, Jake spotted the glint of sun off a riffle pointing out of an open saloon window saloon window. He shot the old bar man who fell out of the top window dead as lead. The saloon girl screamed and the whole town came to life quickly. It was time Jake made his escape. Jake sped off; leaving only another trail of dust to remind him of that town and of many others he had visited over the years. Trouble always seemed to follow him around, just lucky I guess.
Over the years Chris has helped lots of local people to record their memories and brought them to life. Subjects
Chris has tackled over the past eight years have ranged from local sporting and industrial history, to true stories
of our local evacuees and war memories. During this time Chris has also helped many people find out about their own
family history and has brought together many long lost friends, including three evacuees who had lost touch for
nearly sixty years. Chris has found over the years that local people's memories are equally as important as the
famous people of our locality.
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Mixed Blood, Part 2 of 6
by Abe Dancer
Mel started to explain to Doc McLane. "I saw Church being crowded . . . figured there was too many for him," he said. "I told Miner that, but he wasn't impressed. I had to step in—stop the beating. The old man could only just about stand, but he made a break for it. An' that was the wrong move . . . the curious thing about it."
"What's so curious about what?" McLane asked.
"Well, he could . . . should have gotten clear, but he didn't. He stopped an' pulled a gun, he was so stirred up. I could see it in his eyes. He managed to get off a shot too. That's when Rourke killed him."
"Selwyn said something? Before he died?" McLane asked.
"He didn't have time to say much. He mumbled something though—something about him not being a cattle stealer." Mel turned thoughtfully toward McLane. "I guess you'd expect that. But I just got the feeling it meant more . . . don't know why or what That's about it. The sheriff arrived then. You can ask him what happened next."
McLane turned to Vaughn for an explanation, but before he had time to ask anything, Miles Beckman stepped into the jailhouse.
The Spool rider chinked some coin in his hand, placed it down carefully on Vaughn's desk. "Budge's been doing some figuring' . . . reckons he could be wrong, Sheriff," he said.
"That'll be a first," McLane answered back.
"Yeah, well as there's a doubt, he figures you won't be talking bail," Beckman replied. "So here's ten dollars for the inconvenience." Then he ran his eyes over Mel and, with the trace of a smirk, made for the open doorway.
As he was about to step onto the boardwalk, Vaughn yelled, "Not so fast, cowboy."
Beckman looked back insolently. "If ten ain't enough . . . too bad. Take it up with Budge. I done my bit."
Vaughn took a couple of steps toward the cowhand. "What about the charges he made?" he snapped. "We just forget, do we?"
Beckman shrugged. "Like I said. He reckons he could've been wrong. That's it." And with that, Beckman was gone.
While Vaughn was staring nonplussed out into the street, Mel removed his sash, smiled wryly and offered a key turning motion in response.
Doc McLane picked up the cell keys, called Vaughn's name and tossed him the keys. "You got no reason to hold him, Brett," he said. "At least you made ten dollars out of his board."
Vaughn caught the keys. He fidgeted with them a few moments, then unlocked Mel's cell. "No hard feelings son," he said. "I was just doing my job."Mel picked up his hat and tugged it back on his head. He collected his gun from the desk, checked the cylinder and quickly pushed it into his coat pocket. "I know it."
"There is one thing I'd like to know," the sheriff asked.
"What's that, Sheriff?"
"What do you intend to do now?"
"First off, I'm going to see my horse is OK. Then I'm going to get me some rib sticker an' wash it down with a bottle of whiskey. That'll be white man's of course," he added with a quick ironic look at McLane. "I need to wash the taste of this hog-pen out of my mouth. After that I don't know. I really don't."
"Yeah, well that's the part I'm interested in. I suggest you keep riding," Vaughn said. "Miner ain't fooling me with that could be wrong stuff. An' I don't want you tangling with him."
"I don't want me tangling with him either. But that's up to him," Mel said, and followed Beckman out onto the street.
* * *
Vaughn took a step forward, but McLane dropped a restraining hand on his arm. "Easy there, Brett. You've done your best by that boy. Now leave well enough alone."
"If he goes down to Marcella's an' Miner's there with the others, they'll bust him. Hell, you know that."
"Yeah, I know it. At least I know they'll try." McLane's eyes gleamed with the prospect.
Vaughn noticed and rumbled an oath. "Damn you, George. You had that in mind when you first came over. You spoke up for that 'breed drifter just to get him back out there . . . back on the street."
"Time Miner was pegged down, Brett. I haven't seen anyone much in the last few months who could do it . . . not until now. You want to move some checkers . . . fill in the time?"
"Did you see what young Cody did with that fancy binding he was wearing round his middle?"
"Yeah, he wound it up real neat-like an' put it in his pocket."
"What for? Why'd he do that?"
"Dunno. Perhaps he doesn't want to get it messed up. Why don't you go and ask him? You know where he's headed."
"Yeah I just might, by Christ. If them rough-stringers start cutting up again, I'll send 'em back to Spool short-handed. An' Cody along with 'em, if he answers their call." The lawman stomped to his desk. He buckled his gun belt back on and pushed his pipe into a top pocket, his mouth chewing over a fitting threat. He slammed his desk drawer closed, tossed the ring of cell keys at the wall peg, and cursed when they missed, clattering on the floor.
Doc McLane went out onto the boardwalk and squinted into the falling sun. A moment later he called back to Vaughn. "No need to hurry, Brett. Our boy's going where he said. He's looking out for that gray of his."
Vaughn pushed some papers into a heap on his desk. With a purposeful tug at the brim of his old Stetson he joined McLane on the boardwalk.
The doctor pointed to the land west of town where a trail ran in a thin line across the plain. It was late afternoon but heat still shimmered across the land. Dust was rising to make a low cloud between Polvo Gris and Buckskin Mountain's timbered slopes. "The stage's coming in. Be here in ten, fifteen minutes." he said. Then he laughed and started off across the street. "Should give you something else to worry about," he called out over his shoulder.
* * *
After Mel gave Bill Frater's boy instructions on how to tend his horse, he went out to the street. He stood a moment, listening to the low rolling rumble of wheels and the creak of harness above the day's afternoon stillness. He saw a coach bumping its way across the hard country, heard the driver yipping at the team in his final dash for town.
Townsfolk emerged from stores to stand expectantly along the boardwalks. There was no practical reason for them to meet the stage. They simply needed to see, to get touched by events and happenings distant from their own isolated frontier town.
Mel turned on his heel and walked toward the saloon. He allowed himself a moment's thought for Budge Miner and the sheriff's warning about retaliation. But he was too thankful to be away from his confinement to give time to Miner and his colleagues.
He was close to Marcella's Quarter when, ahead and to his right, a rider emerged from an alleyway. Mel recognized him as one of Miner's company—Beckman, one of the two who'd stood back while Selwyn Church was killed. But the man paid Mel no heed, turning out of the narrow lane and moving on along the street.
Mel stopped walking and took a step back beneath an overhang. Only when Beckman went on by did he step out again.
The noise of the stage was close, swelling in the street around him. Mel found a place with a good view and watched. His eyes glittered with anticipation as the racing coach horses raced round the final turn into town.
The break from his inborn watchfulness made Mel unprepared for the big loop of rope that suddenly dropped over his shoulders. For the briefest moment he was confused, then his hands jerked up, taking hold of the tightening rope as he heeled about. The drag by the rider in the street wrenched Mel from the boardwalk, but he caught sight of two more men as they rode from the alley. He was pulled off balance, falling when he recognized the leering face of Budge Miner. For the shortest moment he thought of rescue when Brett Vaughn yelled out from somewhere behind him.
He twisted his body as he landed, he, but the side of his face still slammed into the hard-packed surface of the street. He sucked in a mouthful of alkali dust, spat and grabbed up along the taut line of the rope. Miles Beckman brazenly wheeled his horse and kicked it into a lunging run.
Mel was dragged on his chest for several yards before a hard-baked runnel turned him over. He went with the movement, getting onto his back. After another twenty or thirty more yards, he drew up his legs, and dug his heels in. It was the sort of punishment he knew about, and could deal with. He'd heard other tales from his grandfather, Chief Josef Fish, learned how braves had tested themselves for strength and vision. But right now, and like a lot of things Indian, Mel only had the legend to go by.
With Beckman now whooping with excitement, Mel twisted over onto his chest again, making a desperate clutch up the rope's length to gain a grip higher up. He swung his legs around into an arc, pressing his knees into the ground and giving one tremendous jerk. Momentarily the rope slackened and, half-bent, he lumbered to his feet, staggering a few steps. He leaned back against the rope, and braced his legs. Then he hauled with all his angered strength. He looked up and, from the middle of the street, saw the stagecoach bearing down on him. Having thrown caution to the wind, Miner and another man were riding along the trail of his dust.
Sheriff Vaughn yelled, wildly, as he ran forward, and from the edge of his porch, Doc McLane, swore freely. The town's dog pack crouched in a semi-circle beneath the boardwalk. Their hackles were raised and they barked madly at the noise and disorder.
Mel saw everything fleetingly before he saw the alarmed eyes of the coach driver. The driver dragged frantically on the reins with one hand, the brake lever with the other. Beckman, meanwhile, to control his kicking, frightened mount, had eased off the rope and Mel dragged him from his saddle. As the coach veered around him, Mel moved forward. He pulled the slack rope from his upper body, closing in on the man who was scrambling to his knees.
Mel wasted no time. With both hands he grabbed Beckman's lank hair, and dragged him up. "That's a bad thing you just done. What have I ever done to you?" he rasped, staring into the man's craven eyes.
He hit the man in the stomach with his left hand, pushing his head back down with his right. He brought up his knee sharply, groaning in mutual torment as he sensed Beckman's teeth snapping through his tongue. Then he stepped back. The man stared at his boots as the blood dripped, making thick globules in the dirt between them.
Mel chopped swiftly at Beckman's neck with the side of his hand, watching impassively as he went down. "Now, you got an answer."
Mel turned to see the stage had slowed around him. He'd felt the air pulse as the big, iron-bound hubs of the wheels churned within inches of his lower back. The heavy vehicle had gone on another twenty yards, had torn out the boardwalk railings of Polvo Gris's boarding house before coming to rest with its near-side door only a few feet off the depot's landing stage. The driver, huffing and puffing, turned to look back at Mel as he approached. Two young ranch hands ran to control the frightened horses, hanging onto lead traces. while the driver swung himself down from his box. The rear off-side window blind unfurled and the face of a young woman looked out. She glanced quickly at Mel and the agitated crowd and pushed the knuckles of her fist against her chin. He had time to see the foreboding in her bright eyes.
Then the pounding of hooves bore down on him. He went into a crouch, turning in time to see Budge Miner swing himself from his horse. With one hand the big man was gripping his saddle horn ready to launch himself.
Mel braced his legs and raised his hands. As Miner crashed down on him, he grabbed at the man's leather coat. He swung the ox of a man around then let go. He darted back a yard before Miner's shoulder hit the ground. But the man was agile: he rolled with the impact and came up cursing to face Mel.
Mel braced himself as Miner came at him. The man was wild. He wanted a fight and lashed out with a flurry of blows. One smashed into the side of Mel's head and he went back on his heels. He dodged aside as Miner continued to swing at him.
Mel caught two more glancing blows before he regained his balance. He dipped under a wild swing and brought his clenched knuckles up under Miner's jaw. The heavy man was jolted, but he'd been ready. He set his thick neck, tucked his head in and bunched his shoulder muscles. He took the blow well—that blow and another that Mel shafted in at his meaty face. There was a flat splatter of noise, a split second's respite before Miner opened up, breaking into Mel's attack with machine-like ferocity.
Mel backed off, his senses working. As Miner pursued him, the two men fought their way across the street. A crowd milled around them, keeping wide in an expanding circle. Sheriff Vaughn yelled again, but this time it was close. Then he saw McLane pacing alongside the fight.
Mel thought he'd got the measure of his opponent. He could take a breath, pick his spot and consider the blow. He almost grinned as he ducked a great looping right. He stopped, then dashed forward and drove a straight right to Miner's forehead. As the man's head shook, Mel sent in another with the same hand. Pain stabbed through the bones of his fingers and wrist as he connected with teeth. Miner was done, but he lumbered on. His eyes glazed and spitting blood, he made low guttural noises from his smashed mouth.
"Goddamn you two. Cut it out," Vaughn shouted.
Mel heard the sheriff above the clamor of the excited crowd. But he didn't need to act on it—and Miner wasn't going to pay Vaughn any heed.
Mel breathed deep, bit his lip at the pain along his hand and forearm. He turned to have a look at the stagecoach. The girl was still looking from the window. Her eyes met his and he could see the troubled look in her color-drained face.
The stage driver was telling her something, but the girl's attention had been seized by what she was witnessing in the street.
Budge Miner had found the life to come back at Mel, and he was close. He roared in with both hands around Mel's neck, and bent him backwards. Mel brought up the heel of his boot, catching Miner full and hard. He felt the man's tough fingers loosen and he spun himself around fast. He was up close to the man's bloodied face and he didn't like it. He remembered his pa once telling him the big ones went down hardest. It just took them a bit longer.
Mel wrenched himself free, at the same time jabbing his left hand hard all over Miner's face, then his neck. Each time Miner's head came straight, he hit him again with a blow to the opposite side of his head. Hard against bone, the flesh of Miner's cheek split open and blood gushed, then an eyebrow was torn.
Both Mel's arms were hurting and he took a small step back to finish Miner off. He half turned away and swung up his foot to catch Miner hard around his back, deep in his kidneys; a blow that a one time Blackfoot friend had taught him many years before. This was the end for Miner and Mel knew it. He watched with satisfaction as the big man staggered around in a tight circle.
Miner caught sight of the coach and reached out for it. He got his hands on the window sill and looked up into the terrified face of the girl. She gasped and shrunk away. Miner laughed before his legs gave in and he crumpled heavily to the street.
* * *
Mel wiped the blood from the torn skin of his knuckles. His ribs and most of his body hurt, and he breathed in short shallow gasps. But his head cleared and he rubbed at his mouth with his coat sleeve.
The crowd had gone silent now. Most of the people were silently watching Mel. It was the first time they'd seen the like done to Budge Miner.
Vaughn angrily pushed two onlookers aside, as he stepped down from the boardwalk. In the yellow light of the late afternoon sun, he walked slowly toward the coach. "Okay, Cody," he growled. "We both know he had it coming. Now move away."
Mel looked tiredly at the lawman but said nothing. He looked to the window of the coach and his heart pounded. The girl was staring directly at him. Her lips moved and she shook her head.
Doc McLane called out anxiously. "Look out—" The sheriff and Mel swung around.
Wystan Rourke came reeling along the boardwalk. He was beyond the coach team, dragging a leg, his right arm hanging useless at his side. In his outstretched left he gripped a long-barreled Colt. He swung the barrel at Mel.
"Damn your hide, Rourke! Put the gun down," Vaughn yelled.
But Wystan Rourke had come too far to back off. He passed behind the coach and its team, pushed his back up against the wall of the stage-depot building. With his blood racing, he'd sucked recklessly at the laudanum. His eyes were red-rimmed, filled with hopeless loathing. He gasped, managed to hold his breath as he attempted a careful aim.
He bared his teeth and was ready to kill, when Mel went for his own Colt. He pulled the gun and actioned off one shot before Rourke had the chance to fire.
The roar split the pall of silence. A woman shrieked and the dogs opened up again with their barking. As echoes rebounded across the town, Mel's bullet hammered high into Rourke's chest. The man couldn't go back; he just slid down the clapped wall, sat cross-legged and died. His head lolled forward and the last of the day's light slanted sharp across his shirt front, partly hiding the spreading stain.
Mel looked at the coach. The girl was no longer watching from the window. Miner hadn't stirred, but Beckman, the man who'd started the fight with his thrown lariat, was moving forward.
Beckman's vindictive glare drilled into Mel. But the sheriff had been watching him and had seen him rise from the street where Mel had dumped him. He pulled his Colt and leveled it at Beckman.
"Don't, Beckman," he shouted. "Just get back."
Beckman thought for a second, then, dragging his hand across the blood that ran from his chin, he lowered his gun.
Mel stepped away from Vaughn's side. "They ain't ever going to give in, are they, Sheriff?"
Vaughn swore to himself. "Like hell they won't. This fight's over," he stated for the attention of everyone. "The next man, woman or child who goes for a gun will find themselves half full of buckshot an' laid out on George's bench, God help me." He walked toward Rourke and pushed at the body with his boot. "He must have wanted this real bad," he muttered before turning back to Beckman.
"You get Miner on his horse . . . get him out of my sight . . . out of this town. Tell Spool what happened here, an' make sure you tell him as it was. He can deal with any of Rourke's kin . . . not that any will own up to it.. That goes for both o' you. Now get out."
Beckman grumbled as he turned his attention to Miner. He dragged at the big man's clothing. As a dead weight, though, Miner was too much for him.
"Go get their horses," Vaughn ordered one of the youngsters who'd been holding on to the coach team's harness.
A few minutes later, he asked both boys to get Miner across the saddle of his horse. "The town'll take care of Rourke," he told Beckman when the man had painfully mounted his own horse. Beckman looked bitterly at Mel. He opened his mouth to spit out the last say when Vaughn snarled, "Remember, you're through here, Beckman. Now get out an' stay out. Ride."
Mel stood, undaunted and unmoved. He took his waistband from his pocket and thoughtfully looped it around his middle. Beckman watched as he turned his horse down the street and walked on, Miner's horse trailing nervously behind.
Vaughn watched silently until Beckman rode to the end of the main street, then turned to Mel. "Well what now? You finished the show or what? Perhaps another act to close with?"
"No, I ain't got any more. You saw what happened," Mel told him straight.
"Yeah. I saw. The whole goddamn town saw . . . got impressed too. But I'm thinking you and Polvo Gris ain't ideally suited. Might be for the best if you rode on as well."
Mel didn't answer. He looked away toward Eagle Tail Mountains. He thought maybe he should ride on, see if he could find which particular part of the country his pa meant him to make his.
* * *
Vaughn stepped past him and had another look at Rourke. He asked the two boys to carry the dead cowhand to Bill Frater's livery stable, then he started to get the street cleared, dispersing the crowd. He looked at the driver then to the girl. "To some of us this is all in a day's work. I guess you can carry on with your business."
The doc stood outside Scullys. He was smoking one of his cigaritos and holding a glass of whiskey. Vaughn, passing close by, noticed the doctor's satisfaction.
"There ain't going to be any more trouble out here, George," he growled."Why don't you get off the street, too?"
"All I've been doing is putting forward my opinion. The fact that it's evidence, isn't exactly my fault, or what ensued," he railed in good humor.
"You interfering old duffer. Don't try an' soft soap me," Vaughn retorted. "We both know who was ring-leading all this."
McLane shook his head, grinned mischievously as the sheriff started back along the street toward his jailhouse.
The stagecoach team was now standing quiet. After tying off the reins, and setting the hand brake, the driver went to the side door and opened it, almost immediately called out for the doc.
McLane put down his glass, threw his smoke aside and hurriedly crossed the street. The moment he saw the girl's stockinged legs, he shoved the driver out of the way, and climbed into the coach. He could see the girl was pale, but she appeared unhurt.
"Sitting in here's not ideal for anyone's constitution," he called out to Vaughn who'd returned to the coach on hearing the driver shout.
"Who is she?" Vaughn asked of the driver.
"Came from Yuma. Name's, R. Church," said the driver who was craning his neck for a look.
"Church?" Vaughn asked.
"R. Church. That's what it says on the passenger list, an' on the luggage tags," the driver answered. "You want that I should help, Doc?"
"No," McLane said simply. "Just move her luggage to the depot. I can send somebody for it later."
The doc eased the girl to her feet and into Vaughn's arms, then climbed down. "We'll take her to my place, poor kid. What a first sight this must have been for her. No wonder she headed for the floor."
As she came to, the two men helped her across the street, down to the end of town. They made her comfortable on a couch in McLane's front room, then after McLane lifted a window full open, they went out on to the porch.
"You hear that name, George?" Vaughn asked
"Yeah. You don't reckon . . . ?" he said, the question tailing off.
"Don't know. I got other things to take care of." Vaughn cast a jaundiced eye up and down the now quiet street. He lifted a hand in acknowledgement, and made off to administer the burying of Wystan Rourke.
Doctor George McLane was left muttering the girl's name to himself. "Church," he said. "Church. She's got his eyes. It's just got to be . . . goddamnit."
"Well, hello there. You feeling better young lady?"
In response to the voice, Reba Church raised herself from the couch. For a moment she considered the quiet and unfamiliar surroundings before easing herself back down again. "Who are you?" she asked, tiredly.
"I'm Willow Legge, and you're not coming to any harm by staying right there, for a while longer, young lady. Your bags are outside in the hallway an' Doctor McLane's in the next room. This is his house."
The girl wanted her bearings and looked around her uneasily. But the warm, smile of Willow relaxed her a little.
"What happened?" she asked. "Where am I?"
"Nothing very much, except you passed out. I'll go fetch the Doc, but don't you go bothering to get up now."
Willow left and a minute or so later, a man came in. He smiled warmly, took her wrist, and checked her pulse rate.
"As I thought," he said. "You're going to live. I'm George McLane, but you can call me Doc. I'm guessing it was the heat inside that coach that made you pass out."
"I think it was a bit more than that," the girl said, taking her hand back from McLane's.
"Hmm, I guess you're talking about Budge Miner up close. Huh, he's no picture even from across the street. It was regrettable that you had to get such a ringside view. Miss Church isn't it?"
"Yes. Rebecca Church," the girl said. "But you can call me Reba," she added, with a glint in her eye. "I'm looking for my uncle Selwyn Church."
McLane turned slightly away and swallowed hard.
"Is there something wrong?" Reba asked. "Dr. McLane?"
When McLane finally turned back, his face was drawn. His eyes looked heavy under his gray brows. "Yes, I'm afraid there is," he said. "Your uncle's dead, Rebecca . . . Reba. He was killed today . . . just today here in town. There was another fight. I'm real sorry."
Reba shook her head. "Another fight?"
"Yes. What you saw was the aftermath of it, I guess. The one who's dead in the street? Well . . . he's the one . . . that . . . "
" . . . killed my uncle," Reba said, finishing the doc's sentence for him.
McLane nodded. "I am very sorry. Selwyn was a friend as well as a patient. Not close, but a friend nevertheless. He was a good man. There's more than a few people in this town who did know him well, and they'll miss him. Not one of them could've stopped what happened, though."
"Why not? What did happen?"
"He got involved in an argument with some cowhands from out of town, and went for his gun. He was killed for it."
"You said them. How many did it take?" Reba asked, the hurt and frailty obvious in her voice.
"It was just the one," McLane said quietly.
Reba blinked, but it was more shocked than tearful. "I wanted to tell him . . . ask him if I could help. There was nothing left for me up north." There was a short silence, then she added, "I knew I wasn't headed for the promised land but . . . " She shook her head and let the words trail away.
* * *
McLane felt her silent anguish. He was unable to come up with words that made sense of her arrival in town, the timing. "Well you're safe here," he said, and quietly left the room. He asked Willow look after her, to engage her in small talk, said he wanted to keep her in the house for a while. "I'm thinking this place was more peaceable when we arrived," he muttered dryly.
At Marcella's he ordered a beer and whiskey chaser. Mel Cody was standing at the end of the counter with Brett Vaughn, and he got a round for them too. He held the beer in his right hand and pushed the whiskeys along the counter with his left. "The girl's Selwyn's niece. I think she'll be staying for a while," he said, to ease their curiosity.
"His niece, eh? I did wonder on it. She's come a long way to find him dead," the sheriff replied.
"Yeah, ain't that just the hell of it?" McLane agreed in a raw manner. "She can't be more than twenty, and all I can do is take her pulse and tell her what a lot of friends Selwyn had in town. What sort of prattle-gob does that make me, eh?"
Mel had been studying the doctor's face. "Are you talking about the girl in the stage?"
"The very one. I reckon she saw most of the fight, if not all of it. That's why she blacked out . . . the horror of it all. And who's to blame her? She's likely never seen anything quite like the street show you put on out there."
Vaughn looked up from his whiskey and nodded. "Yeah, it's a cheerless story sure enough, but that's about all it is, eh, Doc? I don't see what we can do about it. Besides, I've got other stuff to take care of."
The doc gave him the beady eye. "Oh, yeah. You've got paperwork for a burial to take care of. Very tiresome."
"No I've taken care of that. I'm talking about young Mel here."
"I don't need taking care of," Mel told him with good humor.
The sheriff flicked a shrewd eye at the doctor. "Oh, yes you do, son. Oh, yes you do. Tell him, George. Tell him what Miner'll do when he gets his senses back."
"He'll rant some, make threats and get his drawers twisted," McLane mumbled casually.
"He'll buckle on his gun belt, that's what he'll do, goddamnit! He's soaked up a punishment here in town today. That's humiliation for Miner. He ramrods the biggest spread in the territory and keeps the hands in check 'cause they're scared of him . . . scared to hell. As sure as the sun comes up tomorrow he'll be back to save his face." The sheriff turned to Mel and poked him in the chest. "He'll come to town looking for you, an' it won't be to shoot the breeze. So you just sup that whiskey an' get that nice looking gray saddled. You hear me?"
"I hear you, Sheriff," Mel told him.
Doc McLane looked on curiously. "Where are you headed for?"
"I don't remember saying I was headed anywhere," Mel said, again with the good-humored smile.
Vaughn cracked the base of his glass against the counter. "Maybe you was too good for Rourke, son. But Miner with a gun's another proposition. I told you, he won't be looking to do you any favors. He's cunning. We'll never know he's there, 'til it's too late. You'll never know. I don't want any more trouble in town. Not while I'm still sheriff."
"There's half of me that makes it difficult for a man like Miner to gain much of an advantage, Sheriff," Mel said dryly.
"I bet I know which half," the doc added.
"A man shouldn't have to ride from anywhere for no reason," Mel continued.
Vaughn was getting exasperated. "You got a reason. I'm telling you . . . ain't asking."
Doc McLane saw the expression that set Mel's face and hardened his eyes. He was reminded again of the first time he'd seen the man ride into town. Since then, Mel Cody had bested Budge Miner and three of his cowboy cronies in a side street. Later, set upon by three of them, he'd got out of Beckman's roping, given Miner another beating and shot Wystan Rourke dead. McLane knew his instincts were right about Melvin Cody. The Indian part troubled him, the part that had re-tied the beaded sash, the fearless part.
"I rode hundreds of miles to reach Polvo Gris, Sheriff," Mel said. "It's my pa's homeland, an' he wanted me to see it. So far I can't see the attraction, but I promised him I'd have a look. You ain't going to change that. I haven't done anything wrong."
"Listen to me, son. Maybe you're right, maybe you ain't done nothing wrong. But all you're going to do is cause trouble by staying around. Let's face it, you ain't even got yourself a pot to piss in. Your only board was my jail. So, as it is . . . "
"As it is, you best clear the decks, Brett," McLane interjected. "The boy's not so much a drifter as you might think."
"Stay out of this, George. You've been dancing with enough trouble today already."
"Can't do that, Brett. Wouldn't be fair on Mel."
"What the hell's fair got to do with it?" the sheriff demanded, looking quizzically at Mel.
"He's got himself work," McLane continued. "The Church girl needs help out at Selwyn's place. At least 'til probate's done. I suggested she take on Mel."
Vaughn's jaw dropped. He indicated for the bartender to pour them another round of whiskies. "You joshing me?"
McLane ran some coin on to the counter for the whiskey. "No, I'm serious. I came looking for him. Him and Miss Church have got things to discuss. You don't think I came in here for your company do you, you old woosher?"
"You probably thought, 'here's where the next load of trouble's coming from,'" Vaughn grumbled.
The doctor studied his whiskey. "Seems to me you could be a tad more appreciative, Brett. Maybe get the town to award him one of them civic-duty badges. Rourke's not going to be missed, and Cody handed Miner nothing more than he's been asking for for a long time. You tell me what's so wrong with that? Look at it from the girl's point of view. She gets here to find herself in the middle of a gunfight, then finds out her uncle's been shot dead. She's no one to turn to. Putting young Mel to work's not such a dumb idea. Have you got a problem with that, eh Brett?"
"Selwyn's land rests smack-bang up against the Spool spread. In case you forgot, Budge Miner ramrods it. Have I got any problems with that? You out of your mind?"
Doc McLane grinned. "Yeah. Isn't that good?" he said, with a roguish twinkle in his eye.
"By hell, I could probably get you for disturbing the peace or something similar . . . toss you in a cell even, for that," Vaughn retorted.
"Wouldn't do any good, Brett. Least of all Cosmo Collins and his waterbelly trouble. The Fulpott woman's expecting to drop another child any day, and then there's Ma—"
"Gaaargh." Vaughn picked up his drink and finished it in one gulp. "To hell with everybody. Don't know why I bother to even try an' keep the peace in this hell-hole."
He glowered at Mel then back to McLane.
"I'll be glad when they call time on this day." The sheriff coughed, wiped his chin and walked dourly from the saloon.
McLane raised his eyebrows and took a sip of the remainder of his drink. "I know what you're thinking son. I'm ready when you are."
Mel finished his drink. "Is that the truth . . . what you just told the sheriff?"
McLane grinned. "The idea of it was. I got the notion you want to stick around. Sheriff Vaughn or Budge Miner notwithstanding."
Mel raised his chin, studied the doctor.
"If that means what I think it means, I need some more time here . . . roundabouts."
"Are you looking for something particular?" McLane asked.
"Don't rightly know. Did you know that girl . . . before today?"
"Rebecca Church? Never seen her before. I'm not so sure Old Selwyn had either. I guess he would have said something if he had." McLane was thoughtful for a few seconds, then said, "I got myself involved now, so I'm kind of obliged to help. If what those Spool men—"
"Hey. Hold up a second, Doc," Mel interrupted him. "You're roping me in. You got something else on your mind other than me being some sort of gopher for a white girl? A hay shaker?"
"Maybe, son. Maybe, " McLane said, smiling uneasily at Mel's belittling turn of phrase. "If there's trouble there, I'm sure you'll handle it."
Mel gave a twisted grin and shook his head. "Then it's no deal. I can find enough of that by just minding my own business."
"You're in too deep for the luxury of getting by on that son. Especially in this town. Besides, I've seen enough to know that running scared doesn't figure much in your life. So why not help out the Church girl while you're waiting up? Miner's going to come for you anyway."
Mel knew that some of what the doc said was true. He stared thoughtfully at the labels on the bottles of drink on the back bar. "I don't know quite why I came here," he said, "but I know it weren't for this."
McLane leaned across the counter, stood very close. "Hell son, if you want to look the ground over, what have you got to lose? No one else is going to employ you. They're too goddamn scared."
Mel wiped a hand tiredly across his face. "She sure had a nice face. Her eyes were the same color as her uncle's. I noticed that."
"Yeah, that's right, and Selwyn was a good ol' stick by all accounts. He wouldn't have stole a hair from the back of one of those mad dogs out front. From what you say, he was killed saying something to that effect. It wasn't your fault things got out of hand with him getting shot dead, was it? You went to help him."
"Yeah, that's right," Mel said falteringly. He wondered if in some curious way, the doc was implicating him, putting some guilt his way.
"And you can't just walk away now can you, as if nothing's happened?" McLane affirmed. "There's too much molasses sticking to your legs for that, son."
Mel gave a few Red River trapper curses. Very soon he would have to consider his next move. Most of his anguish would be caused by those who wanted to get close, side with the town's new champion. But he was a man unused to the press of a crowd, the brush of sudden notoriety.
"Let's go see Miss Church, then," he said. "I guess I owe her, 'specially if I'm to blame for the horror of what she's seen and heard so far," he added ironically.
"That's just fine. Something for us all to look forward to." McLane beamed and before Mel could change his mind, led the way from the saloon.
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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