January, 2020

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Issue #124

All The Tales

Dying Wish
by William S. Hubbartt

"Do you think he'll make it? He was shot up real bad."

"Got 'im settled in my back room behind the store. Shot twice . . . in the thigh and in the chest, purty close to the heart," said Clem, the general store proprietor. "Doc's makin' 'im comfortable. Don't give 'im much hope though. "

Kevin O'Leary wiped the bar with his bar towel, and shook his head as if he were trying to erase the memory. "Them Corrigan brothers were a bad bunch. It started right here in the saloon." A muscular man with bull-like shoulders and tree trunk arms, Kevin walked with a limp, due to an injured leg acquired in charge at Shiloh, and earning him an early discharge. Lumbering out to the center of the saloon, he righted two chairs that lay scattered on the floor from the barroom tussle moments before.

Kevin continued, "The mean one, Colin, refused to pay Gerti, here, after she brought drinks to their table. I came around the bar, but Sheriff Robertson must have been passing outside, because he came in and dragged Colin out by his ear to the street. Course, the others followed."

"Scared the livin' daylights out of me," Gerti shuddered, still trembling in her fear. Now pale as a ghost, her rouge was streaked from tears and her blue taffeta dress now torn, exposing a white petticoat below, bore evidence of the altercation.

"Then, I heard the ruckus and looked out the door of the store," added Clem, trying to add his bit to the story. "Sheriff Robertson stood up to the three of them, out there on the street, told them to get out of town. Well Colin, he's near 250 pounds, he gets up like he's going to swing at the Sheriff, and then he just freezes, you know, a stalemate. Well, the others, they froze too."

Kevin picked up the story. "And then that hotheaded one, Darrell, he goes for his gun, and then there's a fast flurry of shots and there's the four of them, lying there bleeding in the street. Just smoke, 'n' dust, 'n' four bodies right there."

Four red circles could be clearly seen out the window. Drag marks showed which way the bodies were removed. The undertaker's wagon moved slowly down the street.

"Oh my, oh my," Gerti gasped, still unable to control her emotions as her friends relived the shootout. Her eyes glistened and tears dribbled down her cheeks again.

"Gerti, love, get that bottle and pour another round, on the house. It's been a tough day. Then I need you to wash those glasses in the sink," said Kevin, trying to keep his saloon girl busy so that her emotions would keep in check.

In the late 1860's after the end of the civil war, communities were trying to get back to the way it was before the war. And the people in the community of Uvalde, Texas, like those in other southern towns yearned to return to the old days. Trouble was, the south had lost the war and the union had imposed its rule, by sending northerners in to manage law and order. Carpetbaggers and profiteers had followed, disrupting the order of things in southern life. But, the western areas like Uvalde didn't experience as much of the reconstruction interference as the communities in the old deep south.

The regional military commander had appointed former Union army sergeant Chris Robertson to be sheriff of Uvalde. Robertson didn't talk much about his military experience, but it was known that he had a commendable record with the cavalry under General Sherman at Chattanooga and then promotion to sergeant and a leadership role in the march through Georgia to Atlanta and on to the sea.

A person of small stature, Sheriff Robertson quickly gained acceptance through a firm but even handed control of the disruptive elements that plagued western towns in the 1860s. Most problems centered on disputes and fights that seemed to begin after a hard day of drinking in the local saloon, and the tracking down of horse or cattle thieves. Robertson's cavalry experience was apparent to all in this little town. Though handy with a navy colt and the breech loading Spencer carbine, Robertson was more than likely to resolve problems with wits and common sense.

Clem's wife, Martha, a portly woman, had now arrived. Martha was clearly emotional as well, but trying hard to maintain control as she sat at the table with the men. The small group in the saloon began to regale each other with their memories of Sheriff Robertson.

"Ya know," said Kevin, "Chris wasn't a big man, but he sure made his presence known, and got the troublemakers to settle down. I never saw a lawman so quick with that navy colt, but didn't seem to have to use the gun. He'd say a couple of words, ya know . . . sharp insightful words . . . to put those boys in their place. Brings to mind how mother O'Leary used to keep her 8 children in line, even when we was growed up."

"When you're fast with the gun, it does the talking for you, I guess," added Clem, as he slugged down the last of his whiskey. "He was a crack shot with that Spencer, even while riding. I guess it was that cavalry experience showing through."

"For a man out here in the west," added Martha, "Sheriff Robertson was mighty kind to the tribulations of us ladies. More than just tippin' his hat and saying howdy ma'am. One time I was upset about a . . . a lady issue, I won't bore you gentlemen with inappropriate details, but Sheriff Robertson seemed to have observed the situation and understood my problem, and offered a practical suggestion."

Gerti had returned from behind the bar, calmer now, poured another round of drinks, and then joined into the discussion. "I agree with you Martha. Sherriff Chris was a special man . . . Oh dear! Listen to me. Speaking like he's already gone. I mean to say he is special, he understood the issues I deal with, you know, frisky men sparking at me. He offered some sure-fire ways on how to put a misbehaving man in his place."

The group laughed with Gerti, all recognizing that, as a saloon girl, she was often the object of overzealous affection by drunken cowboys. Gerti's husband had died the Siege at Vicksburg, and she now struggled as a single woman to make a living on her own.

"But, that Sheriff Robertson was a man I could cotton to," added Gerti, fingering the whiskey bottle as she talked. Her finger dabbed a drop of whiskey from the lip of the bottle and she put it to her lip, and then her tongue swished across her lips. An attractive woman of 38, the language of her body spoke silently and with greater clarity than the words from her lips. The others watched, in anticipation, knowing that Gerti had more to say.

"I mean, he was a protector and all. And not afraid of those big men, even when they're drunk. They scare me sometimes. But Sheriff Robertson, he just stood up to them, and put them in their place." Gerti paused again, and her finger seemed to find another errant drop of whiskey which was dabbed to her lips.

The others patiently smiled, as Gerti continued. "Ya know, I asked Sheriff Robertson to come back to my place one night . . . " Gerti blushed bright red as this secret was revealed. Clem glanced at Kevin and winked, as these two men silently observed Gerti's surprising disclosure.

Gerti's hand quickly covered her lips as if to try to pull the words back into her mouth. "But he was a gentleman and he turned me down," she said and then quickly turned and ran to the back room in embarrassment.

Embarrassed as well, Martha sought an exit from the discussion. "I'm going over to the store to see if there's anything I can do to help Doc."

Moments later, Martha returned to the saloon, her face ashen, tears on her cheeks. "Chris is dead. But, there was one final request. I . . . I don't know how to say this. Chris had a final wish, asked to be buried in the . . . the red gingham dress hanging in the window of the store . . . "

"What! What did you say?" asked Clem in amazement.

"It's true. Can't deny a person their last request," said Doc as he appeared at the door of the saloon, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, with his hands and apron stained red with blood. "You see, Chris was short for Christine, not Christopher. I knew Chris during the war. Family lived in Gettysburg. Lee came through. Some Confederate soldiers, drunk, killed Christine's husband and child. After they was buried, Christine put on Yankee blue, fighting as a man, hunting Confederates until she found the ones that killed her husband and child."

"I'll be durned," said Kevin as he dried a shot glass and placed it on the shelf.

"Funny thing," added Doc. "Today, Chris settled that score. Corrigans were the ones what killed her family."

"Good to know I ain't lost it . . . never been turned down by a man before," deadpanned Gerti.

The End

William S. Hubbartt is author of Justice for Abraham (2019) Six Bullet Justice, Death on the Santa Fe Trail, and The Last Score (Outlaws Publishing 2018), and eight non-fiction books. Short story fiction includes placements in Frontier Tales, Rope and Wire.com, Zimbell House No Trace Anthology (2018), the Ghost Stories Anthology (2017), Storyteller Anthology Magazine, Mondays are Murder, Heater—Fiction Magazine, and Wilderness House Literary Review.

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The Man from Wyoming
by Dino Hanks

As Jim Laramy turned toward the stable doors, he glimpsed a coiled rope on the nearby empty stall. Jim swung his Winchester under his opposite arm to clench its barrel close to his ribs, then he lifted the coiled rope, and started to feather the rope's thickness between his callused fingers, while he slowly walked in the direction of the barn's door.

"Yea," he voiced lowly, considering this new-feeling rope. Jim shook out a loop—Liked it fine—He tested the rope against the closed door, to see how its loop might lay when thrown. "That's right," he told himself, liking it better. Then Jim lifted his eyes—thought only of retribution—thought only of true hate for rustlers.

Men make their own reputations. Nobody gives it to 'em. They earn it, then they wear it. Horse-thieves, rustlers, robbers, even cowards—Jim's little brother was in these mountains, too, somewhere. Budd Laramy was riding under an alias name, Print Rivers. After he gets back his horses, Jim wanted to then try and find Budd—else, soon, he knew, it was going to be too late to try and save that boy.

Jim was hearing steady gunfire now coming from outside the livery stable. He heard steady laughter by men outside, too. He heard a woman's voice shouting her primal anger at them.

With cold calculation, Jim pushed both doors all the way open, and he headed outside, and he strode up-slope into full sunlight. He tramped across the hardpan of red stone, in chinking spurs, determinedly walking. He headed for the commotion, and directly at the four men whom were shooting off their pistols. He saw the four Pottebaum punchers were drunk and reckless. He saw one gunman shoot at, then kill, one more of Amanda's terrified chickens.

Swinging his rope in one hand, carrying his Winchester rifle in the other, Jim Laramy stalked toward the four riders—and he took wide, deliberate, and angry steps—all the way up the sloped ground of that mountain stagecoach station.

Up-slope from the stable barn, and out on the hardpan in front of the stagecoach station's small cabin, Deke's voice hooted lively. Sitting his horse, drunkenly, Deke shot his pistol at the scurrying chickens until the gun barrel was empty. As Deke then started to re-load, he faintly noticed the other three punchers had gotten quiet, and something seemed wrong to Deke— There was something strange here, he thought drunkenly—But Deke kept his mind on trying to load his six-gun while he sat his saddle.

When Deke glanced up again, at his friends, everyone's eyes were staring straight at him. Or were they looking past him? Deke noticed that both Tony and Ty Sash sat their saddles proper. Tony held the old man at gun point, who was seated on the wagon seat of the buckboard. Yet, Deke saw bemused looks on their faces. Millade, as well, held an odd sort of expression, he saw. The small woman who was station agent, Amanda Grayson, seemed to level out her darkened staring at Deke, and the young, slim girl showed true bafflement on her trim face. Deke could see Amanda was thinking.

Deke knew something had changed . . . something . . . what's the reason?

Then Deke was about to ask Millade his question, but a lasso's whirring grew above Deke's head. Abruptly, Deke found himself beneath a lasso of stiff rope that dropped around his hatted head. The rope landed against his hat's front brim, then it slipped down over Deke's shoulders, and around both his arms. Deke started to snake off the rope's lasso, but the rope tightened suddenly around him. Who was playing? He wondered. The rope soon locked-down both of Deke's arms to his sides, as Deke realized the rope was tugged around his body from behind. Perplexed, he watched his six-gun tumble onto the hardpan below his horse. Deke looked up, quizzically. But his arms were tightly bound. He was in the saddle. "What the hell is this?" he asked.

Standing behind Deke's horse, Jim Laramy had swung the stiff rope in the air into a whirring noise. Then he threw the loop over Deke. The lasso circled Deke's shoulders. When Jim had the loop drawn tight around the gunman, from behind, he quickly snubbed the rope onto the corral's corner-post, which had been built for strength to hold the stage-line's many horses. The corner-post to the corral lay firmly anchored in stones piled from the mountain rock where the Stone's Crossing Stage Station set on the wide floor of Utah's huge red canyon.

After tying-off—from behind Deke—Jim Laramy swiftly yanked a hold of his nearby Winchester rifle. Almost at once, Jim fired off several bullets that ricocheted off the hardpan under Deke's horse's feet. Jim felt grudging pleasure then, as he watched Deke's horse bolt out across the hardpan. Like a shot from a Yankee cannon. Deke rode helplessly in the saddle until the rope's coiled line drew its tight breath, then Deke's body was yanked violently backwards off the back of the fleeing horse. As the gunman's legs kicked out from the stirrups, his bound body spun in mid-air, a full-twisted turn.

After, Deke's tightly bound body landed violently, and his prone figure splatted smartly on the stone's hardpan. Deke hit so awkwardly, and hard, on his right side, his shoulder broke on impact. One side of his drunken, bearded face, too, cracked against the stone ground. While Deke's frightened horse continued on its run, Deke writhed on the ground in scorching, new pains.

At the sound of bullets ricocheting, Deke's horse had shot out across the hardpan. The frightened animal darted past Amanda's staring down from her station porch. The boogered horse turned the corner and promptly slipped its iron shoes on the scrabble of loose rock there, however, it soon found its footing again, righted itself, then the rider-less horse, dragging reins, abruptly ran off in the direction of sunlight and the scrub junipers growing on the canyon floor.

His mind unruly, his clothes still filthy, Jim Laramy's fierce hands gripped his Winchester's gun stock. He firmly pointed his angry rifle at the three remaining Pottebaum riders who were still upright: two were sitting horseback, with surprised expressions in their eyes, while one shorter fella stood alongside a pinto horse by the rein. Jim Laramy's dirty face and beard looked grave, his legs spread wide apart. It got his back up to meet them all again. He liked this moment. He liked it a lot now.

Jim met their staring with a lot behind him for a range man. He had been stolen from. His ponies had been rustled away from him, thereby cheating him out of what was rightfully his property. The stolen ponies he'd broke last spring in his round corral, which he'd built into the mountain meadows alongside the headwaters of the Green River, in Wyoming Territory. There the Green River meanders away from the heavens, and out of a great stone mountain, called Square Top. Nestled way back inside such country, there flowed a snow-white waterfall, higher above the meadows. Many springs flow out of that ground in that mountain country. Rich in water, a sizeable creek flowed nearby at the base of that waterfall, called Cascade Creek, and there is a long box-canyon, named Cascade Canyon, where the water rushes swift and white, pure water which was sure of its own strong flow, because the land there drops so quickly in elevation. A man can't hardly not catch trout when he dangled a line. Up there, up in that scenic mountain country, at the headwaters of the Green River, at the north end of the Wind River Mountains, a man lives free from liars, and cheats, and ornery bastards. This way, any man who lives his life solemn—who gives his word for his bond, and who takes extra-special care to mind other people's rights, and other people's property, and other people's respect—will take might exception to any human being who tries to lie and cheat for the sole purpose of trying to put the fool somebody. To get away with something! To steal! Such familiarity against corruption, and against these notions, was a firm belief in Jim Laramy. He knows which way the wind blows.

Seated on the buckboard wagon, Gil Grayson's furled brows were firmly questioning what his old eyes were seeing transpiring in front of him. Gil stared hard at the four Pottebaum riders. Then, in full-blown curiosity, old Gil Grayson swung his bearded face to take in the lean stranger, Laramy.

Gil wondered: Who in thunder is this man? Then Gil realized the grubby stranger came walking out of his station's stable barn below, and that the lean man now held an angry rifle on the four Pottebaum riders— Damned if he ain't! Gil thought, feeling pleased to see it. Gil eyed his daughter, Amanda. She, too, held her staring at the stranger.

Gil Grayson was ruddy-faced. He wore a grey beard and a slouch hat. With crinkled eyes slanted at the corners, Gil started to appraise the stranger holding an angry rifle under two hands. Gil saw enough anger in this lean, grubby stranger that Gil thought the lean stranger was almost reckless. It looked to him like the stranger was about to shoot every one of these Pottebaum men. Gil tried to understand it now, but couldn't yet.

All the Pottebaum riders stared steadily at the lean stranger holding his angry rifle in his hands. Each saw the stranger's body was tense enough to start shooting at them.

Jim Laramy lashed out, "The lady said you're scaring her chickens! Did ya hear me? Or, ain't it plain enough yet?"

Jim quickly shot off five more harsh rounds from his loud gun. Each bullet he deposited at the feet of the horses that the Pottebaum men rode. Two horses went to pitching and bucking. One horse humped its back and stomped, snorting and kicking, its hind legs breaking the mountain air. The riders immediately went to sawing on tightened reins to the bucking broncs. Millade's pinto got skittish itself, and Millade, while on foot, hurriedly ran his horse out by trying to keep its short legs running in a tight circle. Then, feeling angry, a scolding Millade threw an I-don't-know-what-the-hell-you're-doinglook at Jim Laramy.

Jim asked roughly, "How's it feel to be scared? Do you like it any?" Jim kept a firm hold of his pointing rifle at the Pottebaum men. Jim wanted to know, "Do you aim to quit now? Or, what'll be?"

Confused, Millade tried to sort Jim out. He stood beside the station's porch steps, and in front of Amanda Grayson, who stood small, attractive on the raised porch floor behind the short gunman. Millade demanded, "Just who hell are you, mister? Coming in here like you are G-o-d-Almighty!"

Jim blasted at Millade, "Name's Laramy!"

"That don't mean no nothing to me!" shouted Millade, unfriendly.

Jim blasted again. "I come from Wyoming!" Jim pointed the rifle at Millade so the shorter man could feel its cold threat. Jim meant his threat. "I'm about ready to kill you, mister. I'm ready to kill all of ya. You hear me now?"

All three upright Pottebaum riders showed this stranger their questioning stares. Amanda and Gil did the same. Confused, puzzled, both Gil and Amanda acted unsure of the lean and bearded stranger. For a moment, Amanda felt even a little more scared. She regarded Jim warily now, and her eyes grew narrow on her trim face. Amanda stared out at Jim. Hot winds lifted auburn curls from her small, square shoulders. Her eyes blinked, and she was a minute more in thinking. Amanda wore a solemn expression. Her face, modeled in her mother's beauty, was trim. She lifted her chin.

Finally, Ty Sash recognized Jim, because Ty saw through the grisly, dark beard. Ty said sourly, "So, it's you. You again! I thought you would have left this territory by now. Laramy, you should have. Hell, a lot of men would have." Ty wondered something.

"You know who I am, huh?" Jim considered the damn rustler now. He kept his staring rigid, not blinking. Jim coldly answered, "Naw, there is still a little matter of finding those rustlers who are responsible for stealing my horses." Jim waited. A hard, unforgiving look in his mountain eyes.

Ty asked him. "Your horses, huh, Laramy? Do you think you'll find them?"

"I'll find my horses." Jim's voice dropped. "You can count on that."

Ty said, his voice sounding sure. "You might live long enough. But you won't find your horses any."

Jim sensed something. "Oh?"

"I say those horses are a long ways from here, Laramy."

Jim answered, confident. "Well, it sounds like you might be the man who knows something about it."

Ty answered, "Call it a hunch. Laramy, the horses you say you lost—Were they wearing any brands?"

Jim's anger felt a notion to want to wring Ty Sash's crooked neck. He glared, angrily said, "Not a one. They were Army horses. I was taking them horses to sell to the Army. And, I didn't lose 'em!"

"But you ain't got 'em now."

"No. they were stolen from me after I met you, and your friends, and Pottebaum, over on the pass. Maybe you people don't understand what stealing means to a man," said Jim, barely keeping himself under control.

"Why don't you tell me."

Ty Sash and Millade only smiled. This told Jim what he wanted to know. It was all the proof he needed.

Millade raised his voice, put in, "Why don't you come out to Mr. Pottebaum's ranch? Have a look-see for yourself?"

"Now, I just might have to do that," said Jim, coolly.

Millade let in, "We're headed to the ranch now, mister. Why not ride along with us?"

"It'll wait," replied Jim. "But you tell old man Pottebaum this for me—That if he seen any of my stolen horses—That I aim to get 'em back! Every one of 'em."

Ty Sash questioned, "What makes you think Pottebaum took your horses, Laramy?"

Jim stared, just said, "It wasn't Indians. Now, was it?"

Millade smiled. "E.Y. mentioned a man might come out to the ranch. I guess he meant it was you now."

Ty Sash harshly stared over at Millade, and groused, "Shut up, Millade. You talk too much."

But the smiling Millade then asked, "What do you aim to do to the rustlers when ya catch up to them? If you catch them, that is?"

Jim asked Millade, at the point of his rifle. "What would you do?" Then, "You're a new fella. Ain't seen you before."

Millade smiled, replied, "I ain't seen you before neither." Millade was a short man with a smart-aleck grin, and lighter hair, and a sharp nose. He wore a gun belt, slung low, an unbuttoned vest, denims, boots, no spurs. He stood holding the rein to the black and white pinto. Amanda Grayson stood on the porch over Millade's right shoulder. She kept a firm hold of her rifle in her small hands.

Jim squared, asked the shorter Millade. "Now I'll ask you. Did you have anything to do with stealing my horses? No answer, huh? Fella, if I ever ask you again, you'll know why."

Millade said, in a smart-aleck voice, "Maybe it is I don't like that kind of talk, mister."

"Oh, ya don't? Well, maybe it is I don't care." Jim's eyes didn't waver as he spoke his harsh answer at the shorter Millade. By it, Millade then knew he had no choice but to weigh and take notice.

Millade shouted. "Damn, yer a sight! You must be living in a hole in the ground!"

Jim only nodded, gruffly said, "Yea, sure."

Jim scraped his boot sole on the hardpan when he turned. He faced Ty Sash now, still mounted. Jim considered carefully when he looked over each outlaw face. "Say, you're missin' a couple more fellas. Where's that man who rode that fancy bay mare? The one with the long tail. He wore two guns strapped to him. Had a beard, low-crowned hat, no mustache. Quiet fella."

Ty answered, "Rooster quit."

Jim questioned, "Rooster? Is that his name? He quit, did he? Quit working for Pottebaum? Or, quit rustling? Or, maybe there's no difference between the two at all?"

Ty groaned. "You're a persistent cuss."

"So I am." Jim spoke it lowly.

Jim became aware how mad he felt. His stomach clenched. He stood gripping his rifle in his right hand. Then he walked several more steps toward the four men. Only two of the four riders remained on horseback. Deke lay writhing in pain on his back, his left hand holding his shoulder. Jim walked all the way up to Deke and put his spurred boot on Deke's broken shoulder. Jim stepped on the man then, and he ground his heel down hard on the writhing man beneath his boot's sole. Deke cried out so hard in his sharp pain that he had to spit out his chaw of tobacco so that he could cry out even more from excruciating pain. His face was twisting red, but his skin began turning white now. His voice loud. "Yea, good," Jim crowed, grimacing anger. "Good! Good! Feels right! Don't it! Don't it feel right! You damn crooked!"

Ty Sash shot a hot glance at their hurt comrade. Deke was lying on the ground and holding a badly broken right shoulder. Jim Laramy's boot sole was still mashed against Deke's shoulder, holding him down, grinding his heel into the crying gunman. Deke was yelping and kicking like a damn lamed dog. Deke stomped his own foot against the hardpan. Jim backed off a few steps. Then Ty's stare fired across at an Jim Laramy.

Ty cursed. "Might be you find yerself a bullet soon, Laramy, if you stay around here much longer. I heard you killed a lot of good men at that stagecoach holdup. You made a lot of graves that day, boy. Friends of theirs might be after you."

Amanda heard such news for the first time, and her awakened staring shot towards Jim Laramy now. For a moment, Amanda's trim woman's face went suddenly bland. Then, becoming more puzzled over the news, she frowned her eyes hard.

Amanda quickly wondered about that last stagecoach holdup. She had circled the date on her calendar for the stage line so that she could report it in the paperwork. That holdup was almost three weeks in the past now. Amanda tried recollecting that terrible news-day:

A lone rider, they said . . . From Wyoming . . . They said a man had helped the passengers when he intervened on their behalf . . . They said he shot and killed several of the would-be robbers . . . Bob Dutton and Wil Wilson, the stage driver and the guard of the coach, were wounded in the robbery-attempt . . . It had all occurred at Rustler's Gap . . . Amanda remembered her father, Gil, treated the wounded guard at their station cabin.

Amanda then realized brightly, as she studied the lean, bearded stranger whom she knew only as—a Mr. Laramy: So! He's the man from Wyoming!

Surprise touched Amanda Grayson's parted lips. Mr. Laramy acted sure of himself, she thought. He was booted and spurred, and wearing those dark leather leggings. Gloves had been folded behind his thick gun belt and shoved down inside his dirty trousers. Dark-skinned from mountain sun, Mr. Laramy now wore his brown Stetson low like he meant his business. He had led two jack mules into her station this morning, and now here he stood strongly, aiming his rifle like he knew how to use it on a man.

While Amanda stood on the cabin porch, she briefly nodded her chin, understanding him now. Yes, he was sure of himself, and he was still angry! Not three hours ago, the man was angry when she drank coffee with him. And, he was still showing his worth. He was the man from Wyoming whom they had all heard stories about. For weeks, all the ranchers and the homesteaders wondered about this man—They heard of the news regarding that stagecoach holdup, and of the shooting during the robbery-attempt. Selmont Gint himself had asked Amanda whether she had seen that Wyoming man at her station. No, she hadn't. Now, however, Amanda can tell Selmont that she saw Mr. Laramy: that he slept in her barn, and that she trusted him. She shall tell Selmont Gint the man from Wyoming rode a beautiful grey horse, named Bear. And he was an angry, angry man . . . 

Amanda blinked her eyes now as she wondered something. Her interests watched him carefully, and she kept listening. She had been watching the confrontation between these men at her stagecoach station. Now she understood about the rustled horses that Mr. Laramy told her he had been hoping to find.

Gil Grayson studied the situation, and he watched the four gunmen. Gil was seated in the buckboard's bench-seat. Then Gil's own callused hands abruptly reached into the floorboards of the buckboard, and he quickly brought up the twin-barreled shotgun. He pulled back both hammers on the twin barrels. Then Gil braced the shooting-iron in his lap, from the buckboard wagon, feeling sort of happy about it. He planted both barrels directly at Tony's back. Gil's finger curled around the first trigger on the shotgun. Gil told Tony, "Hold her dirty soap, son. Stay right where you breathe."

Tony heard the old man behind him, and heard the twin hammers on the shotgun barrels as they were being cocked-back. Tony caught his breath. He slowly raised his gun-hand. His other hand held the horse rein.

Ty Sash spoke to Jim Laramy harshly. "There's some riders yet that you ain't killed from that stagecoach holdup, Laramy. I'd say they must be feeling pretty low-down mad at you now. Ain't you afraid of that gang? They might come muss your hair some." Ty almost laughed by it, a gleam in his outlaw's eye.

Jim angrily said, "Afraid? Of what? Crooked scum that won't work for their pay so they have to steal at the point of a gun? That's what is so good about having guns in this territory. We can all carry one." Jim's eyes held Ty's gaze, which was filled with fury for the Wyoming man.

Then Jim gave a short nod. "There's something I learned a hun'red years ago."

"What's that now?" Ty asked, his voice mean.

"That right and wrong are the only two sides of the law," Jim told him, frankly.

"So? What of it, Laramy?"

"So, don't ever cross my law." Jim said it now like he meant it—And there fell a moment of uneasy quiet that went through the Pottebaum men.

"So, you're stayin'?" Ty asked, savagely.

"Yea, I'm stayin', mister." Jim raised his head, aware.

"And you're going to keep lookin' for them horses?" Ty asked.

Jim assured him he would, nodding. "Just as sure as I'm standin' here. You can count on it."

Ty caught the warning in Jim Laramy's eyes and he knew he couldn't put the run on the bearded stranger. Ty told him, "Pottebaum offered to buy those damn horses from you, Laramy, but you wouldn't meet his price. Now what do you got? You got no horses and no money out of the deal, because you're too damn stubborn! But you don't belong here, either. You're lurking around these mountains like some dern fool on a wild hunch about finding someone else's gold. No-o-o! You don't belong here at all, Laramy."

Jim agreed, nodded. "You know, I think you're right. But those stolen horses were my gold, mister, and I aim to find them, and I aim to find the men that stole them from me. I come a long ways."

Ty Sash snarled, "Good luck with that." Turning to look, Ty saw Tony was collecting Deke off the hardpan. Deke wore a grimace on his face, and they were preparing to ride-double out of there. Then Millade and Ty began to gather their own mounts.

"Come on, dammit," Ty told his comrades, before he started to rein a way. "He's just buckin' and kickin'."

The four Potttebaum riders heard enough from Laramy, and the gang started to pull out of Stone's Crossing Station. Yet, Jim knew they'd all be back some day, too.

Amanda called out, harshly, from her cabin porch, "Don't ever come back here! All of ya! You ain't welcomed here."

Jim ordered, "Hold it!" He glanced across at Amanda, as he now strode over to the two men riding double, Tony and Deke. His spurs jangled loudly over the hardpan because he walked angrily and firmly. At the side of their horse, Jim pulled out the two men's pistols from their leather holsters. He tossed them to the stony ground where they clattered.

Backing away a few steps, Jim told them, "There's the simple matter of having to pay something for these chickens you men kilt." Then he made Ty Sash and Millade drop their guns, too.

Jim directed them to lose the belts. "And the cartridge belts."

Millade became livid. "You mean for us to pay for a bunch of damn ole chickens with our guns?" Millade, being a shorter man, he liked having his gun with him at all times.

Jim answered, "That's right. Sounds fair, don't it? You was shootin' them chickens like sport. Well, in sport, rules have a way of changing."

During this moment, Gil Grayson walked up-slope, using a cane and a limp. He carried the double-barreled shotgun at waist-high. Gil pointing his attack at Tony and Deke, the nearest gunmen sitting double on the saddle horse. Gil said, in angry tone, "You fellas wronged us, didn't ya? You set out to hurt people here."

"Good people," muttered Jim quietly.

Gil caught his ragged breath, getting himself worked-up. He gave a hostile staring. "If you boys ever want to settle this score again, then all either of yous will have to do is let me know. Do you understand me?"

Both gunmen—although sore and mad—nodded anyway. Tony didn't like having to leave his gun belt behind, and he was glancing down at its laying quietly on the hardpan under his horse.

Gil saw this contemplation. He added, "That's right, son. If yer gonna dance, ya gotta pay the fiddle-player. Now git out of my sight." Gil eased the twin hammers to his shotgun back down. Yet, Gil's fiery, old eyes kept staring from full-blown hate.

Jim ordered, "Now you four punchers do as the lady says. Ride out of here and don't come back to Stone's Crossing Station. Now go on!" He yanked his head, waved them along with his rifle barrel.

Millade, the shorter fella that did so much of the talking to Amanda at first, only stared at Amanda Grayson now. Her eyes glowered back at him. Amanda defiantly held the rifle in both her hands. She raised her chin at his staring. Millade observed the scold in her pretty face. Still, even then, she was young and pretty, for a small woman. Hot wind danced through her auburn curls.

Jim asked Millade, "You, fella? Have you got somethin' more to say? Or, what'll it be?"

Millade turned his eyes down. "Naw, I haven't at this time."

Jim nodded, ordered, "Then ride out of here. On your horse."

Millade mounted the black and white pinto and hastily reined its head around. He eyed Jim Laramy. "I want my gun belt, dammit!"

Jim laid back his head, said nothing for a moment. "How much ya willin' to pay for it?"

Millade winced. "Damn you! You're a damn cuss!"

Jim agreed. "I am, now ain't I? I will be the next time I see ya, too. Just you think about that."

Millade clamped his mouth shut.

The four rode up the curvy stone road. But there were two more Pottebaum riders waiting for them on the rim above the canyon station, and they were surveying the fracas from horseback. Gil sidled in and stood next to Jim Laramy, and together they both took a critical staring at those two additional riders up on top. The two riders were far from the station, sitting horseback at the top of the rim.

One man's name up there was Alva, from Kansas. From the canyon rim, Alva saw it all happen down below at the station. Alva, and Rooster, who sat a fancy bay mare. Jim eyed both men now, too. Since they were watching him, he had to figure them. And he wondered about their future-actions now.

Uh-huh, Jim thought. His eyes hardened a bit. He took satisfaction from this little fracas today, now that he'd found the miserable scum he'd been searching for all along. Uh-huh.

The End

Dino Hanks is currently seeking literary representation for his latest Historical Western-Romance, called A Sadness for Love. He writes from Iowa. The above short story is an excerpt from his Western-Romance, called Stone's Crossing Station.

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A Walk to the Gallows
by Jon Pickering

Two coffins carried between eight men exited the white-washed church being mournfully chased by a procession. As the men carried the dead, the living followed the pallbearers to the crest of the hill, marked by weather worn empty gravesites waiting to be filled. It was a hot and arid day, the noon sun was set high in the clear blue sky, which beat down upon the tired mule that Miguel Pulido led into town. Behind the mule was a poorly made cart which carried the few tradeable goods that had been harvested or manufactured at his small family farm.

Miguel stopped the cart out of respect for the dead and removed his wide brimmed hat. He waited until the coffins passed, then crossed himself and said a quiet prayer. Reaching into the cart, he withdrew a clay bottle and uncorked it, giving himself a drink of warm water that would do little to quench his thirst or clear the dust that continually tried to choke him.

Traditionally, the preacher of the church would lead the procession into the graveyard to commit their bodies to the Earth. Today he did no such thing. As the last of the crowd slowly passed, the preacher stood at the entryway of the church looking at Miguel and his cart. He held Miguel's gaze as he took the steps onto the dry ground and only broke the stare when Miguel nodded at him. It was a normal response that Miguel now expected from the güeros of the area and so he ignored it.

"Mis simpatías a los muertos," Miguel said quietly as the preacher walked past.

"Los muertos no te preocupas por simpatía, están muertos."

Miguel watched the hunched back of the preacher, encased in a black jacket, as he walked away from him and up the hill. The grind of gravel into dry earth was the only sound left between them. Miguel pulled on the mule's lead and started into the town proper.

An argument was made between Miguel and the mule as to which entrance to use at the General Store. The mule pulled for the front to have access to the water trough, while Miguel steered him to the back to conduct negotiations.

It took a strong shoulder to urge the mule into the alley towards the rear entrance, but Miguel prevailed and considered that a win in a constant battle against the stubborn animal. As he rounded the corner, he caught sight of the shopkeeper's horse, a tall Palomino mare, which was an encouraging sign for Miguel. A horse such as this was only owned by those who could afford them. A shopkeeper owning a Palomino meant he was successful and had the means to purchase the goods from the cart behind the mule. Perhaps luck was finally looking down on Miguel. The Palomino was tied to a hitching post with access to a second trough, specially placed there by the owner for his horse alone. The mule found his way over to it and started taking long pulls. Miguel wrapped the reins around the post to keep him settled until he returned. He wiped his face with his sleeve and removed his hat before entering the rear door of the shop.

The general store in Hondo was owned and operated Martin McCue, one of the first people to both establish a residence and secure a business in the immediate area. While settlement was far from a city in size and still behind Roswell in terms of population, the community was close-knit and growing quickly. As the people straggled in at a random pace, they needed food, building materials, and supplies to survive. McCue's store was the only place around that could meet the demand. Therefore, his business boomed and in short order, he became one of the wealthier residents of Hondo.

He stood behind the counter of the otherwise empty store, slowly cleaning the gun that he kept behind the counter for security reasons alone. Rows of canned goods, hand tools, and cooking supplies filled the shop, along with a limited selection of produce, only that which could be locally grown. Flour and the rare sugar were kept behind the counter, along with other limited supplies that were hard to come by. Miguel walked into the store from the rear entrance, giving McCue a start. He fumbled with the gun momentarily, snapping the empty pistol closed in order to demonstrate the ability of self-defense, but was disarmed by the innocent smile and open hands of the Mexican laborer that walked gently towards him. It wasn't hard to pick up on the universal signals that Miguel was using to understand that he wanted to make a sale to the shop keeper. McCue tucked the revolver into his vest pocket and gestured towards the back, where the cart was waiting for them both.

Neither man expected the explosion of noise when they stepped into the sun, nor the blonde man waiting for them. McCue momentarily thought that the Mexican had set him up, but as he fell to the ground and the pistol that had found its way into his hand slipped from his grasp, he watched the Mexican pick it up in self-defense. Pain and fluid choked him as he pulled himself backwards, into the doorway of the shop, unable to understand what had happened. Yelling escorted the darkness around him as he slipped into unconsciousness.

* * *

One hour after the two men exited the store to negotiate prices for the sale, Miguel sat on the only bench in the jail. He tried controlling the pressure in his head by squeezing it between his worn hands. The odor of sweat and blood did not help with the nausea, and worked his stomach into a knot, trying to force itself out through his throat. He glanced around the room, fighting through the dancing colors of purple and blue and found the Marshal, who was sitting in a chair, keeping busy by working on a broken wagon wheel. Miguel vomited into the bucket in front of him but the knot wouldn't release so easily. The last hour started to appear in flashes to him and he was attempting to decipher the images when the front door opened. Another man walked in backwards from the street, turning just enough to allow a glimpse of the dull metal pinned to his chest. He was talking to a teenage boy that held a large black and white ram by a rope around its neck. Miguel couldn't understand what was being said, but listened anyway.

"Take that ram to the O'Dell farm so they can use him for studding, then get back to the house and help your sisters with the chores."

The deputy turned from the boy and closed the door behind him, causing the marshal to look up from the work in front of him.

"You want to tell me what the hell happened so bad that I needed to break away from my own work?"

The Marshal was a large man, at least a head taller than Miguel and had a wide girth.

His tan colored hat had been set upon the small desk in front of him. "As it is, I had to bring this wheel down here to continue working on it, waiting while you two go around thumping Mexicans. So please enlighten me as to what is so important that you had to send your youngest to my house on my day off?" He was an older man, not elderly, but no longer holding the light of youth.

"Marshal, Martin McCue is dead. That's the man that shot him." His deputy, one of three, was a middle-aged man, with sharp, hawkish features and the three-day growth of a beard. His dark features were visible with the removal of his gray hat. The Marshal stopped what he was doing and looked up sharply, halting the advance of the deputy.

"What do you mean Martin McCue is dead? When did this happen?"

"A little over an hour ago, you didn't hear the shots?"

"This is Hondo, Earl, everybody is shooting all hours of the day."

The Marshal looked at Miguel through the bars and caught his eye. They held the gaze together. He studied Miguel slowly, from head to toe and back again.

"That is unfortunate, isn't it? What's your name, son?"

"He ain't said two words since we grabbed him neither."

The Marshal gave Miguel a moment to answer him before redirecting to the deputy.

"Earl, there are three possibilities as to why this man isn't speaking. Either you hit him on the head too hard, he's mute, or he's a Mexican. Considering that he's sitting up and looking at us, I would rule out the first two. No matter how hard you hit him, he still looks Mexican to me. Therefore, he probably only speaks Mexican and cannot understand us."

"Do you know how to speak Mexican?"

"Only a little." Then to Miguel, "¿Cuál es tu nombre?"

"Mi nombre es Miguel Pulido. Solo intentaba ayudar al tendero."

The Marshal held up his hand to stop him, "That's about the limit of my abilities, friend. I'll work on a translator for you."

"What did he say?"

"Earl, meet the accused, Mr. Miguel Pulido. Now, please tell me everything that happened that I missed and I mean every detail. Once you're done, go get the preacher and bring him here."

"Why the preacher? Did he ask for him?"

"Did you goddamn hear him say that? The preacher is the only one in town that is fluent in Mexican. Get one of your ankle biters to fetch him, just like you did with me. You got enough of 'em. Then please, please, tell me what happened before I lose my patience."

"I will. I'll get my kid to run for me. And I apologize for being a little slow. I just feel so bad for Mr. McCue."

"Don't you think about Mr. McCue none. He's dead and the dead don't need sympathy. They're just dead."

* * *

Miguel stood on the bench and grasped the window bars of the jail in both hands. His face was pressed between them, looking for his cart and mule in the side yard, but the only animal present was the one that the Marshal used to pull the wagon that carried the broken wheel. Past the yard, he could see the hill that was marked by headstones with the final mourners making a trail like ants to a dinner setting, winding their way through the markers and off the hill. A large raven landed on the building opposite of him and perched itself on the edge of the flat roof. Miguel closed his eyes and prayed for the breeze to start up, if only to provide him with some comfort, but nothing answered. Instead, his ear picked up the sound of an approaching horse, taking its time before rounding the corner of the building that held the raven and slowly trotting into view. On the back of the pale Palomino, the very same horse that belonged to the shopkeeper, now sat the preacher, his black suit juxtaposed with the pale horse itself.

Miguel climbed down from the bars and sat on the bench. His attention was brought to the front door when the preacher stepped over the threshold. The Marshal looked up from his wheel at him and briefly saw the horse tied to the hitching post before the door shut.

"That's a fancy horse you have there, Preacher."

"The widow McCue donated it to the church. I was sitting with her when she was notified of her husband's death. I plan to sell it to provide food for the church pantry but in the meantime . . . "

The Marshal nodded thoughtfully. "Well, I guess that's her decision to make. The reason I called you down was to act as an interpreter for Mr. Pulido here, as he only speaks Mexican."

"Spanish. He only speaks Spanish." To Miguel, "Yo soy el predicador en la cuidad. Puedo ayudarte a hablar con la policía si quieres."

Miguel felt relief at hearing his own language. He quickly responded in Spanish, "Thank you, Preacher. It has been so hard being unable to explain to them what happened." The Marshal was waiting patiently, unable to understand the words passing between the two men.

The Preacher held his hand up to stop Miguel, "Tell me what happened and I'll translate for the Marshal."

Miguel took a deep breath and gave his statement. "I was going sell my goods to the shopkeeper and was walking out the back door with him, when we came across a thief trying to steal his horse."

The Preacher translated for him, switching quickly between English and Spanish and pausing when the Marshal slowed him so he could keep up.

"The thief turned at us with a gun in his hands. The shopkeeper tried pulling his own weapon from his vest and the man shot him in the throat. He yelled at me, but I didn't know what was happening. I saw the small gun that the shopkeeper dropped and I picked it up to stop the man. He shot at me as well, but missed. I tried to shoot back, but the gun was empty. I don't know why the shopkeeper would carry an empty pistol. The man started running away when I pointed it at him, but stopped when the gun wouldn't fire. I could see that he was going kill me, so I had to get out of there as fast as I could. The shopkeeper was blocking the door to inside, so I jumped on his horse and rode him away to save my own life. I swear I didn't steal the horse. On the main street, somebody hit me with a shovel and I passed out. I woke here and I don't know why."

Once he was finished, the Marshal gave Miguel a pen to sign his statement, to which he marked. His family waited for him and him for them.

"Now I can go? They understand I was trying to help?"

The Preacher provided a cold smile. "No. You can't go. Let me ask you, have you ever been to the mouth of the Rio Hondo? Around any of the settlements up there?"

Miguel shook his head, "No, Preacher, I came north to build my farm and raise my family. I've never been that way before."

"When I younger, I moved west with my family. My wife and two girls. My farm was raided by pistoleros, about ten years ago. They beat me until I could not defend myself any longer. Then they beat my family as well. I was forced to watch them be raped and killed." The Preacher took a finger and pulled his collar down to reveal a scar around his neck from an old rope burn. "They hung me in the tree outside of my house. As I was hanging, those pistoleros that killed my little girls took practice at trying to shoot the rope that was strangling me. It wasn't one of their shots that cut the rope, but time instead had weakened it so it would break under my weight. They laughed as I fell to the ground. They set fire to my home, with my family inside and left me for dead."

Miguel hadn't noticed before, but the Preacher's eyes were dead and hard.

"I am sorry that happened to you. But I am just a farmer, trying to get home. I swear that I am innocent."

"Just because you're Mexican doesn't mean that I'm accusing you personally for their deaths. But I am accusing your kind for it. You can't be saved. Sin is in your blood, all of you. If you haven't sinned yet, you eventually will."

Miguel gripped the bars and pressed his face close to them, trying to reach the Preacher in an attempt to convince him of his innocence.

"I have a family. I have a wife and two little ones, please." His voice cracked.

The Preacher smiled, "I'll make sure to let them know that you thought of them." He pointed at the document that the marshal had just finished signing and was now folding up. "You just signed your confession to the crimes they arrested you for. I may not be able avenge the deaths of my girls, but at least I can make sure that another Mexican pay for it. Your kind only bring pain and death."

* * *

The wheel had been fixed and the raven left shortly before sundown. The sentencing was made by a Justice of the Peace in lieu of the County Judge, who had left town a week prior and wasn't expected back for another month or two. A dead mule and an overturned cart was found after the hanging, about a mile away. As Miguel was walked up the steps of the gallows, he saw that the platform held half a dozen people. He looked at the Preacher with a mix of disparagement and helpless disappointment.

"No me maldigas por los crímenes de otra persona."

The hangman rushed towards him and placed gag in his mouth while a deputy behind him tied it.

The Preacher replied, "Fuiste maldito cuando naciste con la piel de tu padre."

That was when Miguel saw a blonde man standing at the left shoulder of the Preacher. He had a face that could not be forgotten. The man whispered something into the Preacher's ear and they smiled in unison. Miguel tried yelling from behind the gag, but he was ignored and forcefully placed into position over the trap door. The noose was placed over his neck and tightened.

Words were said that Miguel did not understand. He felt his feet drop as the trap opened.

The End

Jon Pickering writes speculative fiction and horror stories. In his off-time, he chases two kids, feeds various pets, and resides with the entity in his house also known as Wife. Aside from writing, he also works as an emergency dispatcher. You can find him stalking around on Twitter and Goodreads, or on his blog, The Angry Introvert. Visit http://jspickering.com to subscribe to his newsletter for updates and reviews.

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Strange Tale of Husk Gentry
by Jack Hill

A noise in the darkness brought Billy Wilson and Homer Grey to full alert. Billy jumped up, unholstered his gun, and pointed it toward the sound. Homer rolled to his knees and put his hand on his weapon. A branch broke under the weight of a person or animal. At the sound, Homer was on his feet in a flash; both men stood at the ready.

"Wh-Who goes there?" yelled Billy. His hand was shaking, and his heart was pounding so hard it was about to leap out of his chest.

"Don't be messing with us. T-There's two guns pointed in yer direction," said Homer with a quivering voice. He struggle to keep his weapon on an even keel. And now he had to pee . . . Real bad too. Excitement always affected him this way.

A stringy voice called back. "Lower your weapons, partners. Just a weary traveler seeking rest and something to drink and eat if'n ya can spare it."

"Come into the light of the campfire wheres we can see ya good," said Billy.

"Okay but don't shoot."

"We won't."

The stranger staggered into the campsite and stood by the fire.

In the light, Billy could see that he was tall and broad shouldered but looked as if he hadn't been eating square meals that often; he had long scraggly blonde hair and a beard; his clothes were tattered and soiled; and he needed a bath.

"Where ya come from, mister?" asked Billy.

"Been hiding out there in the Sonoran for some time—lost track of how long—living on whatever I could catch to eat, and whatever I could find to drink."

"Who you been hiding from?" Homer asked.

"That's a long story. But first, that there coffee smells mighty good."

"I hate to be unsociable, mister, but you need a bath, inna a bad way. So could you avail yourself of that there stream whiles we get something ready for you to eat and drink. We don't mean no offence."

"No offence taken."

The stranger went to the stream and began rubbing off weeks of sweat and grime. He rinsed out his clothing the best he could and returned to camp. Finding a comfortable spot, he sat, and Billy handed him a plate of hot beans and cold dried beef and a cup of hot coffee. The stranger wolfed down the meal as if he hadn't eaten for a while and savored the coffee as if were the finest Kentucky whiskey.

"How about yer story?" asked Billy.

The stranger held his cup in both hands and looked skyward. His face reflected the warm glow of the campfire and went blank. Every muscle in his face relaxed, and his eyes glassed over. After a big gulp of coffee, he began his story.

* * *

My name is Percival "Husk" Gentry. From my youth, I've had a husky build, so I got the nickname of "Husky," shortened to "Husk" when I aged. I came west at sixteen and took odd jobs wherever I could find one and bounced around from place to place, not setting roots down anywheres in particular.

Anyways, I was riding to Phoenix looking for work when I crossed a small stream and decided to follow it up a ways—don't know why, but I did to my regret. Around a bend, I encountered a fort-like structure made of adobe with watchtowers at the four corners and a wooden gate. Surrounding the fort were fields of wheat, corn, and vegetables. In a corral were several milk cows, couple of steers, a bull, and three horses.

When I reached a bridge, I rode up the embankment and onto its boards. A lead slug hit the bridge's planking just as the sound of a rifle-shot reached my ears. I pulled on the reigns, and my horse stopped dead in his tracks.

Then a female voice yelled, "What you want, mister?"

Right off, I couldn't see who was yelling. The watchtowers were unoccupied, no one was on the wall facing me, and the gate looked clear. But I answered anyways. "I need water for my horse and . . . "

The voice cut me off. "It can drink from the stream, mister, so move along."

"And he needs feed."

No one answered.

"And I could use drink and food too."

Still nothing.

"And a roof over my head for the night."

'Twas the longest five minutes. I didn't know if I should turn and high-tail it out of there or stand my ground. Looking back, I should've turned and run, but like a young fool full of adventure, I didn't. 'Twere stupid, I was.

"Come up closer where we can see you better."

I dug my heels into my horse's flanks, but he didn't move. He reared up and resisted. Thinking back, he had the better sense of the two of us, and I should have took heed. I nudged him again, but he wouldn't budge. Dismounting, I cussed him up one side and down the other. Then I yanked him by the reigns across the bridge onto the dusty trail leading toward the gate.

When I reached the gate, a tall dark-haired beauty of a woman stepped out of the shadows. "That's far enough, mister," she said. "Drop your gun belt and weapon."

Without resisting, I unbuckled and let them fall to the ground, since my jaw was already dropping to the ground, anyways—she was about the prettiest woman I'd ever seen. I began thinking that I was out of the frypan and into the fire for sure. Then three other beauties stepped out of the shadows: a freckled red-head and tall, shapely, twin blondes. "Follow us, mister," said the dark-haired one. "Don't try nothing funny 'cause we got ya covered."

I couldn't make out what the twins were saying behind my back, but they giggled all the way to the huge living-like room where eight women gathered: an old woman and an assortment of younger women ranging from early twenties to early thirties; I guessed their ages at the time. I was to find out their exact ages later.

"How'd ya find us?" asked the old woman.

I was scared and was standing neck-high in pig poo with no way out. In the calmest voice I could muster, I said, "Followed the stream."


Looking at the faces of the women, I saw mistrust and disbelief written across every one of them. I wet my dry lips and cleared my throat. "L-Looking for food for my horse."

The old woman nearly came out of her chair at me. "I don't believe you, mister. Who sent you?"

I stepped backwards, not expecting the old gal could move that fast. "I'm not lying, ma'am. And nobody sent me for nuthin'. I'm just passing through to Phoenix looking for work."

At my last answer, she settled back in her chair. "You got any kin 'round heres?"

I nervously shifted my weight from foot to foot. "Nope. Was orphaned at sixteen, so I came west and been on my own since then."

Her tone of voice changed. 'Twas no longer angry nor suspicious, almost motherly. "How old are you, son?"

I relaxed a bit when she called me son, but I remained on my guard. "Twenty-five. Why you ask?"

When I told my age, the old woman glanced at the others and nodded. Those I could see directly, nodded back. Then coyly she said, "No reason, son. No reason."

One of the twins said, "He might do, Mama."

The old woman raised her hand to cut off any further outbursts. "Hush up, children. We'll discuss this private-like."

The twin bowed her head and looked at the floor.

The old woman turned her attention back to me. "What's yer name, son?"

"Husk Gentry."

"Husk?" A look of puzzlement crossed her face. Several of the woman whispered among themselves, but I couldn't make out what they were saying.

"Hush up, everyone."

The power the old woman had over the others amazed me. I could've heard a pin drop. I waited a few moments and then spoke. "It's a long story. Short for 'Husky,' which I was as a youngin."

"Okay, Husk. Bessie and Annie will show you to the kitchen. Clara, make sure his horse has feed and water."

"Okay, Mama," said Clara, and she rushed out of the room.

Bessie and Annie grabbed an arm each and escorted me to the kitchen.

* * *

After a most delicious meal, the girls ushered me back to the large room, where the old woman was sitting in a large chair with a semicircle of chairs on either side. Each girl—starting with oldest to the youngest, I guessed—sat on either side of her. I stood in the center of the semicircle.

"Son, Husk, we have a family issue that you may help us with," said the old woman, on the edge of her plush chair.

I heard the words, kindly in tone, but nonetheless, I felt as if I were on trial. "What issue would that be?"

"You see before you a family of eight women—a mother and seven daughters—and no men."

I spoke without giving my words much thought. Clearly, they could have looked for husbands before my suggestion but something or reason had prevented it. Had I thought before I spoke, I wouldn't have incurred the old woman's ire, but I blurted out. "Couldn't the women just go to Phoenix and find husbands?"

I tell you straight . . . The fire in that old woman's eyes . . . 

"That won't due, son. Not at all. It ain't husbands we want. Few tried marriage, but they failed miserably."

I stepped back. "Then, what do you want of me?"

She settled back in her chair and paused. For the longest time, I waited for an answer. And then she said, "Offspring."

"What?" I couldn't believe what I was hearing; they wanted me for stud services.

She leaned on one arm of her big chair and nonchalantly said, "The girls and I have decided that with your looks and physique, you should make good babies. So we want your seed, plain and simple. In exchange, we'll keep you, feed you, and tend to your every need. And after each has given birth, you'll be free to go on your way."

Sweat beaded on my upper lip, and my knees felt weak. "And if I don't want to participate."

With a wave of her hand and with no more compassion than you'd have for a stray dog, she said, "Then we'll have no choice but to put you down as if you were a prized animal that's no longer of any use to us."

For several moments, I stood, stunned at what I'd heard. Service her daughters or be killed, some choice. I thought there's gotta be a way to escape but until then . . . 

The old woman was growing impatient. "The choice is yours, Husk. What'll be?"

I forced a smile. "Since you put it that way, I'd like to meet your daughters."

"I thought you'd see it our way." She stood. "Come here, Husk, I'd like to introduce you to my eldest, Bessie. She's thirty-one."

"Hi, Bessie." I extended my hand but she didn't extend hers in return. Bessie was tall, dark-haired, shapely, and never cracked a smile during the introductions. She was the one who held the rifle on me at the gate.

"This is Annie. She's twenty-nine."

"Hi, Annie." Annie was bubbly, black hair, plump, and grinned from ear to ear. She shook my hand robustly.

"This is Grace, twenty-eight."

"How do you do, Grace." Grace turned away, shyly. She had reddish hair, freckles, and a flat-chest yet quite beautiful. She was at the gate, as well.

"And this is Ella, twenty-six."

"Ella. Hi."

Ella, was short, medium build, busty, and jovial. She giggled when I extended my hand.

"This is Laura and Maura, the twins, twenty-four."

"Hi, Laura and Maura."

They were tall, shapely, and giddy. They giggled when I extended my hand. The twins held their rifles on me at the gate.

"Last but not least, Cora, twenty-one."

"Hi, Cora."

Cora was medium build and a cold fish. She didn't show any emotion when I shook her limp hand.

The old woman turned to her daughters with me by her side. "Well, what do you think of my little band of women?"

"Excellent. Quite lovely." I had my reservations, however. I wondered at the time how many were willing participants, and how many were coerced by the old woman, wanting grandbabies. My situation was tenuous: if I didn't produce, what would my fate be. When I got past the thought of a harem at my beckon call, the anxiety and pressure mounted. Sheepishly I asked, "When do we start?"

"Tonight, of course," said the old woman. She looked at me and grinned. I forced a smile in return, but I certainly wasn't in a smiley mood.

"Is there a schedule?"

I must've sounded like a schoolboy on his first day wanting to know what classes were when, because her face turned sour like an old-maid schoolmarm who hated snotty-nose children asking too many questions. "You don't have to worry about that. Just answer the knock at your door."

"Yes, ma'am." I was so apprehensive my knees were knocking, but I asked, "Where's my bedroom?"

"Cora will show you."

"This way, Mr. Husk," said Cora in a sweet little voice. She led me to a moderately sized room with several furniture pieces, a large down-filled bed, washbasin, and a south-facing window.

"Rest well", she said and closed the door.

I washed up and put on a nightshirt that someone had laid out for me. Once I opened the window, I reclined on the bed.

The moon slowly climbed in the night sky, and a cool breeze blew through the window. I'd just drifted off when a knock on the door awoke me. I hopped up, dashed to the door, and slowly cracked it open. It was Bessie.

I opened the door wide. Bessie was wearing a full-length grown and stood in the doorway without emotion, looking at me. Then she pushed past me and went over to the large chair alongside of the bed.

"Close the door, and let's get this over with." Her voice was cold, and with that pronouncement, she hiked up her gown and braced herself on the arms of the chair. "Do your duty."

I closed the door and stood looking at her for moment or two. She'd caught me so off my guard I couldn't react. I felt as if I were a stallion facing the business-end of a mare in-heat I was about to stud, devoid of emotion or feelings. I tried but couldn't deposit my seed.

"What's taking so long?" she asked in an angry, impatient tone. Then she commanded. "Hurry up."

With that last bit of encouragement, she took the 'toot' out of my whistle, and I gave up. "Done," I said and dropped my nightshirt to cover me.

"About time." She stood, adjusted her gown, and opened the door to leave. Before she closed the door behind her, she lobbed a departing shot. "You're the most incompetent lover I've ever encountered."

I was so glad for her to go as much for her attitude as for my ego. I knew she would discover I'd failed, and she'd probably return with a vengeance. But for now, I had to recover from the encounter: physically and emotionally. This wasn't at all what I'd expected or the paradise I'd envisioned.

It was about an hour when another knock came to my door. This time, Annie stood in in the doorway, wearing a similar nightgown. She was friendly and seemed delighted for the proceeding to commence; in fact, she helped. It was odd though, she too went directly for the chair. I wondered if the old woman had dictated the rules of engagement.

The next night brought a third knock: Grace. I had barely cracked the door when she pushed it open and went for the chair. Without uttering a word between us, I lifted her gown and did my duty. She stood and rushed out of the room, closing the door behind her.

Soon afterward, Ella knocked. When I opened the door, she beamed and came into the room. Before we began, she cast off her gown and stood in the moonlight, waiting for me. I threw my nightshirt on the bed and moved toward her. She reached out and touched me, tittering, and then she went right for the chair and giggled the whole time. When we were finished, she put on her gown and left.

I laid on the bed, thinking the evening was over when a gentle knock on my door caught my attention. Cracking the door open, I was startled to see Bessie. "Bessie?"

"I want to apologize for our last meeting. I was so angry at that old nanny goat, I could've killed her. And I took it out on you, Husk."

"Come in. Give me a moment to put on my nightshirt."

Bessie closed the door and sat on the edge of the bed. I sat next to her. "Tell me why you were so upset."

"Ma sat us all down and told us exactly how we were gonna interact with you and about the chair. She didn't want anyone of us becoming attached to you when the time came to put you down."

"What? She said if I fathered seven children, she'd let me go."

"She won't."

"Why you telling me this?"

"I want to leave too but first, you've got to your duty by me. When I went back to my room, I discovered you hadn't accomplished anything. I don't blame you with the way I was badgering you, but I was wondering if you still could manage . . . the old fashion way . . . in bed, I mean."

"I'll try." I leaned over and kissed her; she kissed me back.

Well . . . I don't have to paint a complete picture for you . . . Just let's say, 'I did manage,' with Bessie's help. After that, we developed quite a friendship and enjoyed many a night together.

The next evening, the twins arrived together. Seems they never did anything apart from the other, so one watched while the other went for the chair and vice versa. And then there was Cora, the cold fish. But when the bedroom door closed, she crawled all over me. She kissed me, hugged me, and grabbed me. After pushing me to the bed, she  . . . I'm sure you can picture what happened next. When we finished, she was a cold fish again and left. I laid on the bed, in a daze.

So ended my first go-round with the sisters. After three day's rest, the first knock came to my door. It was Annie. The order of sisters changed a bit, but I serviced each of them throughout the weeks ahead. By month's end, the sisters and I had settled into a routine without the chair, no giggling, no cold fish, and no shyness, just business with plenty of hugging and kissing, to boot. And good to her word, the old woman had her daughters tend to my every need. I guess that's why I never tried to escape. After all, it was paradise of every man's dreams.

* * *

It wasn't long before things took a bad turn, and my paradise started to show cracks in an otherwise perfect picture.

"Mama, I'm in a family way," yelled Cora. "I've missed two woman-day cycles, so I must have a baby growing in me."

All the women came running to hear the good news. The old woman lined them up and asked, "Is anyone else late for their woman days?"

"I am, Mama," said Ella but only three weeks.

"Me, too," said Grace. "Four weeks."

"Anybody else?"

The other women shook their heads. "Husk, my son, good work so far, but you can't let up now. We'll cut yer rest days to just two, since ya have less to service. Grace, Ela, and Cora, you'll be out of rotation till we know for sure."

By now, the girls had given up all pretense of following the old woman's instructions and were hell-bent on being next. Bessie was coming to my room every evening after her sisters left and on my rest days too and spending the entire night. It wasn't long before Bessie and Annie were in a family way as well. Only the twins were barren.

I thought part of the problem was one always watched, and it impeded my performance. I had to separate them. When they arrived for their next servicing, I told them flat out: one must stand outside the room and be quiet. Reluctantly, they agreed. It worked; within six weeks, both were in a family way.

* * *

My paradise finally became a true hell when I confronted the old woman about my release. "Okay, Mama. I've kept my side of the bargain, and all your daughters are with child. When can I leave?"

"Well . . . The babes ain't been born yet. If anything goes wrong, we'll need your services again. So, I can't let you go just yet."

"That wasn't part of the bargain. You're reneging."

"I don't see it thatta way, son. And what I see is what goes 'round here."

"Then, I'll take my horse and just up and leave."

"Can't. We done et your horse a few weeks ago."

"You what?"

"Yep. Figured you weren't needing him, so we et him. Tasty too."

"You're a crazy old bat!"

"Annie, Laura, Maura train yer rifles on him. Seems Husk's gettin' a bit roughty. Take him to the cellar and put him in chains."

"This ain't right, Ma," said Bessie.

"I know you've been sleeping with him since he arrived. So you can't be trusted when it comes to him."

"Still . . . This ain't right. You said he could leave if he impregnated all of us and he did."

"Hush up, daughter. You don't know nuthin' about nuthin'. I'm keeping him around as long as I think I'll need him. After that, we'll put him down."


"That was the plan all along. We ain't gonna deviate now."

* * *

After several weeks locked up in that dingy cellar with poor food and sanitation, I was getting sickly. Then I heard one of the twins got real sick and miscarried. It was Laura. So they hauled me out of that cellar, cleaned me up, and readied me for stud service again as soon as she had recovered.

Well . . . I made up my mind I wasn't going back to that dungeon . . . No way, no how. So I planned my escape. I figured that with all the babies being born, and the excitement of Laura's impending motherhood—when it happened—the fracas should allow me to escape. My only concern was Bessie, but I discovered the old woman had shipped her off to Phoenix to keep her away until they disposed of me. At lease, she had escaped the old woman's clutches, and our child would be safe.

I worked double-time, and it wasn't long before Laura thought she was in a family way, again. Soon after she was sure, and the occasion seemed right, I climbed down from the window and made good my escape. As fast as my legs could carry me, I made a bee-line for the open desert, figuring they'd never imagine I'd go that way. I was wrong. At sunup, Cora and Grace were near the watering hole, checking for footprints. I doubted they'd stay long, having recently given birth and their youngins wanting fed, but it was nearly an hour before they gave up and rode off.

After that encounter, I spent the next several weeks dodging search parties and living off the land best I could, until I saw your campfire.

* * *

Husk stared into the burning embers. "Well . . . That's my story, the long and the short of it."

Homer tilted his hat back on his head. "That was the most fantastic story I've ever heard, Husk."

"It sure was." Billy glanced toward Homer and then to Husk. "More coffee, Husk?"

Husk shook his head. "Thanks, but I gotta be on my way. Those women most likely saw your campfire, too, and they'll come here, looking for me. That's for damn sure."

"So yer not staying the night?" asked Homer.

Husk was getting to his feet. "No, gotta keep on the move. Them girls will never give up until they bring me back."

"Before you go, I've got a question for you," said Billy.

"Ask away."

"Why do you suppose her daughters stayed cooped up with that old woman all those years? What power did she have over them?"

"I could never figure that out other than she'd brainwashed them and made them afraid of the outside world and of men."

"Maybe so. The old woman was crazy, wasn't she?"

"Yep. I always thought she was. Now, I gotta go."

"Suit yourself," said Homer.

"Thanks for your hospitality," said Husk as he disappeared into the shadows.

Billy turned to Homer. "What'd ya think 'bout Husk?"

"Odd sort of a fella. A might bit titched in the head if you ask me. "

"You believe his story?"

"Naw." Homer shook his head. "A story about a young buck finding a harem of seven young wanton women—sounded more like a dream than reality." Homer looked skyward and thought a bit more. "Naw, I don't believe it, but it's a great bedtime story. You believe him?"

"Can't say that I do. His story's every man's fantasy, so it can't be true." Billy stopped to ponder. "No. It can't be true . . . It just can't be . . . No . . . Can't . . . "

"Couple things don't make sense to me, though," said Homer.

"What's that?" asked Billy.

"Husk says he's been wandering in the wilderness for quite a while, so why hasn't he tried to get to Phoenix? Could've been there by now. And it seemed as though he could've escaped from them women's clutches sooner but didn't."

"Like you said: titched in the head."

"More like bats in the belfry if you ask me," said Homer. "I'm calling it a night."

"Me, too."

* * *

The first rays of sunlight peeked over the distant hills and fell on the campsite. The evening chill gave way to the warmth of morning. Billy was the first to stir, and he stood and stretched. Hooves against hard ground and stones brought Homer straight to a standing position with a hand on his revolver. Billy was ready for action, as well.

"Easy with those weapons, fellas," a shrill voice said.

Billy and Homer retreated to the backside of the campsite, weapons shaking in their hands. "Come closer and be recognized," yelled Billy.

Slowly, three horses picked their way through loose stones and clopped into sight. Three young women on horseback greeted them.

"Howdy, I'm Annie Purdue and these are my sisters, Grace and Cora." Grace and Cora nodded.

Homer and Billy lowered their weapons and tipped their hats. "How do, Miss Purdue? You gave us quite a start so early in the morning."

Annie shifted positions in her saddle and waved her hand in a westwardly direction. "We saw your campfire from afar and have been riding a while to get here before you rode on."

"What can we do for you?" asked Billy.

"We're looking for a man, an escaped man from the asylum a couple day's ride thatta ways." Annie pointed westward, again. "Calls himself Husk Gentry. Ever see or hear of him?"

Billy looked at Homer, and Homer looked back. "That name familiar to you, Homer?"

Homer cleared his throat. "N-No . . . Don't reckon I've ever heard a name like that before. I'd remember it, it being so strange."

Billy shook his head. "No, Miss Purdue, Husk Gentry is a stranger to us. Sorry we couldn't help."

Annie leaned forward in her saddle. "You seen anybody at all during your travels 'round these parts?"

Billy shook his head, again. "Nope. It's just been Homer and me and the horses."

Annie pulled on the reins.

"Before you go, Miss Purdue, do you have any more sisters?" asked Billy.

"Why you askin', mister?"

"Ain't never seen a prettier bunch than you three. Just wondering."

"If ya must know, I got six sisters," said Annie as she dug her heels in the flanks of her horse. "Sorry to disturb yer sleep. Come on, girls, let's keep searchin'."

When they rode out of sight, Homer took off his hat and wiped the sweat off his brow. "Why'd you ask her 'bout her sisters? I thought I was gonna pee my pants!"

"I had to know, that's all. You believe her story about an escaped man from an asylum?"

Homer spit on the ground. "Not in a pig's eye. I'm beginning to believe Husk's story, though. How about you?"

"Didn't believe a word of her story. But Husk's story's gaining credence by the minute. Three sisters of his story just paid us a visit, and there's four more just like them. How many youngins did he sire?"

"Seven," said Homer. "One to each sister. Not counting the miscarriage."

"The Seven Bastards of Husk Gentry. That's quite a title for a story. Think anyone would believe us if we retold it?"

"Naw, I don't think they would." Homer shook his head. "I barely believe it myself."

"Guess yer right on that one, Homer. Let's mount up and ride outta here. This place is giving me the creepy-crawlies."

"Me, too."

The End

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

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The Orange Grove
by Alfred Stifsim

"Go get your father, Luhui," Mae commanded.

She was a middle-aged woman whose facial lines didn't detract from her beauty, while at the same time gave her an appearance that kept anyone from questioning her serious manner.

Always one to heed her mother, her eldest daughter did as she was told. Dropping the basket, half full of oranges to the ground, the young teen hurriedly ran toward the house as the sight of dust kicked up by a posse of men on horseback appeared at the edge of the valley. She wouldn't have paid it any notice were it not for her mother's keen eyesight. Breathing heavily, she held up her dress as she ran through the rows of unpruned orange trees, her single long, dark braid dancing at her back.

"Papa!" Luhui shouted as she ran, "The Lorance boys are back!"

Climbing down from her ladder, Mae fiercely gripped her long fruit picker, its sharp prongs mangled and exposed through years of wear, and stormed out to meet the approaching men.

Their grove grew along the banks of a small, rocky river that winded freely through the floor of a desert valley. A lush oasis of vegetation, the smell of citrus clung to the air as insects and animals preyed on the oranges discarded by the trees; dropped to the ground before they could be harvested. Stopping where the river cut across at the edge of their trees, Mae stood tall holding the picker upright like a battle lance. She was prepared to defend her land.

The family had seen their share of hardships in the valley throughout the years—drought, blight, fire—Mae had even lost her first four children, two to sickness, two stillborn. She was not about to roll over after all they'd persevered through, but Miguel Lorance had pushed her as far as she could be pushed.

Miguel Lorance and his crew of vaqueros had been pressuring them to sell their land for years. The valley had an abundance of good grass as the river flowed year-round, and Lorance intended to use it for grazing cattle. When at first, they had turned him down, he suggested a lease of the land that would allow cattle to graze as they continued to grow their oranges.

Sampson, her husband, was keen on the idea. Mae refused. Cattle were dirty and destructive, and temperamental. She did not wish to submit her family to the dangers of such volatile creatures.

Disappointed they could not be persuaded, Lorence responded by instead buying a large amount of their fruit at a high price. For many months he was their best customer, and eventually purchased most of their yields. It was the most prosperous time the family had ever known. Their children no longer had to work the trees picking fruit, and they were able to hire hands and build improvements for their homestead. Then one day Miguel Lorence rode in and quickly proclaimed he would no longer buy from them unless the cost was cut by two-thirds of what he had been paying.

"You know it is not fair price," Mae said to him with anger, torn at the realization of his plot.

"I have paid you more than what is worth in the past" Miguel replied, "I have more men, more scurvy. This is my offer."

"Then we will go back and sell to villagers and the mines!"

"You could do that," he acknowledged with a sly smile, "or you could sell me all your land and be rid of it."

"You know we will not sell." Mae spat with contempt.

Deviously twisting at his goatee, he said, "I think a few weeks of peddling to your old customers might change your mind."

From then on, Lorence used his gang of vaqueros to scare the locals away from buying any of their oranges. No longer could they afford to pay their workers and Mae had to travel farther away from their valley to find customers willing to let her sell to them without fear. Sometimes she would be gone for days and Lorence's men would quickly ride in at night, whooping and hollering, raiding their trees until Sampson could fire enough shots to scare them off.

On her most recent trip out, Mae shamefully pleaded to a priest at the mission. It was her last resort. Had her Chumash father still been alive, it would have broken him. Living under the oppression of the Catholic missions for decades, their people had fought back against the Mexicans for equality. Her own father had led a group of the resistance during the great revolt. Many Chumash eventually returned to the missions after the conflict had ended, but not her father. He had always maintained the church sought to eradicate their existence. Now, she had gone to beg for their help.

Since her trip to the mission, they had scarcely seen any trouble. It had been weeks since Miguel's men had bothered them, but now the riders came with intent. She feared the worst. Lorence and his men rode hard and fast toward the grove. Their large knives and dark duds strapped with ammo pronounced their penchant for violence. They fired their guns in the air as they raced, their horses stampeding over the uneven terrain, unheeded. Large hats cast shadow over their faces blocking the sunlight from their eyes, but she could still make out Miguel's heavy black goatee from the distance. Mae took a lunging stance and pointed her fruit picker at them.

* * *

Luhui ran. The trees grew right up to their broad two-story grove house. So close that the latticework covering the front porch was the only barrier that kept one from reaching out to pick a fresh orange as they sat in the shade. Cutting through the rows, Luhui frantically swatted branches away from her face as she emerged onto the main path to the house.

"The Lorance boys are back!" She repeatedly shouted as she ran up the front steps."

"Grab the rifle and meet me outside!" Sampson Porter yelled to his daughter from the back of the house.

Dragging a wooden chair from the study to stand on, she carefully balanced on tip toes. Stretching out, her small, worked fingers brushed at where the rifle hung above the front doorframe but came up short.

"Hurry!" She heard her father yell as he fumbled through a drawer in the next room.

Luhui held her breath and desperately leapt for the rifle. Striking the stock with her palm, she sprung it loose, and together they clattered onto the floor. A quick taste of iron filled her mouth as the toppled chair and the rifle laid around her. Fueled by adrenaline she sprung up, ignoring the pain, and gathered the long gun. The heavy weapon in her arms, she scrambled to meet her father at the back of the house.

Sampson Porter carefully rolled his wheelchair down the long wooden ramp extending from the back veranda.

"Here," she eagerly handed him the rifle, wiping blood from her bottom lip.

"You know what to do," he replied. Taking the gun from her, he quickly loaded it. "Get your brother and sister upstairs and under the bed."

Cool headed, rifle sat across the arms of his chair, Sampson promptly moved to the front of the house, navigating the paths they had dedicated for accessibility. He laid eyes on the riders, white puffs of smoke emerging from their pistols as they fired into the blue sky, and Mae, standing firm at the edge of the river.

He loved his wife and knew how fully she was troubled since they'd been plagued by these men. Her shame as their grove verged on ruin, her guilt in pleading to the church. For what? To him it was not worth the safety of their family. Sampson had tried many times to convince his wife of this, and that they should sell, but she persisted, steadfast in her conviction.

"Maria!" He yelled at his wife as he rolled through a row of trees, "Get away from there!"

Undaunted, Mae stood focused, ready to sacrifice everything for her way of life as her people before her had done.

Picking a good vantage from under one of his trees, Sampson aimed his rifle at the oncoming raiders. Fearing he would never again see his wife alive, he made his rifle speak-CRACK!

The shot took the closest man, whose horse immediately slowed as its rider hit the ground. The body rolled, trampled in the dust drawn of hooves.

The vaqueros drew closer.

Sampson aimed again. Fired. Missed. He became frantic.

The rider's race toward the shallow river loomed, and as Mae stood at the opposite bank, Miguel Lorence leveled his pistol.

"NO!" Sampson yelled with tears in his eyes.

Mae stood like stone as a hail of gunfire erupted from within the rows of orange trees behind her and cut into Lorence's men. Hooves splashed as they entered the river, but no rider still mounted was without a gun wound. Another volley rolled into them. Not a single hoof reached the other bank.

The gunfire ceased, and Miguel sat bleeding, leaned backward over his horse in the middle of the river, pistol still in hand. Rushing into the water, Mae charged him.

"Don't!" Sampson yelled as he rolled forward out of the trees.

Slowly, Miguel lifted himself and his pistol and took aim, but before he could fire Mae thrust the prongs of her fruit picker into his side. Spooked, his horse reared, and Miguel fell to the water.

Standing over his body, she watched as his blood flowed in crimson red streaks along the smooth pebbles of the riverbed.

A man dressed in a modest robe strode from the trees and stood in the water next to her. "He now stands trial in front of his Holy Father."

"Gracias, Friar Rodrigo." She said looking up to see the rest of the soldiers exit from within the grove.

"Your husband may have once been one of the best gunfighters in California," the friar responded, "but it never hurts to have the church on your side."

The End

Alfred Stifsim is an aspiring writer and electrician from Indianapolis, Indiana. He graduated from IUPUI with a degree in American History, and is currently working on his first novel. He would love to hear from you and can be reached at alfredstifsim@gmail.com.

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by Dave Barr

The white-hot California sun filled the sky and pressed relentlessly down on Jack Raynes and his exhausted roan as they plodded across the salt flat. When they had started this desert crossing the man had looked backwards occasionally, and the horse had stepped forward lively enough, but that was when they had both been full of life-giving water. Now the horse was well passed thirsty, and the diminishing sloshing sounds coming from Raynes' canteen only infuriated the man instead of satisfying him.

Raynes swayed in the saddle, his mind wandering back over the events that had made him try this dangerous crossing. He had quit his job at the Bar D ranch on a whim, and started drifting north figuring to double the desert to the west in a day or so, then maybe head toward the ocean, or up to Oregon. That was when he had heard the three men arguing up in the pines, and had stopped in some deep shade to watch as they alternately yelled at one another and drank from a bottle of cheap whiskey.

From listening to the three men fuss, Raynes gathered that there was some sort of disagreement over the split from some theft, and the cowboy had promptly decided to move on, because these yahoos were certain to shoot anyone ease-dropping on their deliberations. But as Jack prepared to leave the argument seemed to reach a crescendo that was punctuated by first one gunshot, and then several more. Raynes paused and looked back at the suddenly quiet camp, knowing that the desperados had killed each other in a drunken rage.

Being a practical man, Raynes decided to explore a bit, after all, if the outlaws were dead, they wouldn't need the money or supplies, and he could put it all to good use. "Who knows," Jack thought, "there might even be enough there for me to ride clear to San Francisco and see some of those tall buildings folks talked about." And with that thought in mind, the cowboy set about collecting whatever he thought he could use from the dead men. Jack had just stuffed the money into his saddlebags when he heard horses approaching.

"Damn!" Jack thought, "someone else heard the shots!" He barely had time to conceal the roan and himself when six men armed to the teeth and sporting shiny badges rode into sight. Raynes hadn't figured on a posse following this close, now he had to slip away before he was seen, because these men would never believe his story, they would assume he had been in on the original robbery, and then had killed his partners. Jack thought for a moment, and then made his decision, he would head west out into the salt desert. It was open ground, but only a fool would try to cross that stretch of salt in the summertime, the posse would never look for him there.

Raynes grinned sardonically at that thought and twisted around in his saddle to stare hard at the horizon behind him, he didn't see any movement, and that was reassuring. He had waited until the posse was busy burying the dead, and then had tried to slip away, but one of the deputies had heard him making his move, and Raynes knew the man had at least seen him from a distance as he headed out into the salt.

Now Jack looked westward, in the distance he could see the gray-green line of more mountains, and he realized that both he and the horse would need water long before they reached the coolness of those peaks. But where was he to find that life-giving liquid out here? There weren't any seeps or springs, no natural basins brimming with clear water, only miles of salt . . . and then the weary rider spotted a strange group of weathered grey buildings off to his right.

Buildings met people, and people had to have water! If the structures weren't a mirage perhaps Jack Raynes would make it out of this Hell after all. The roan seemed to agree, the horse actually picked up its pace when Raynes guided it toward the buildings. Perhaps the animal really did smell water there. Raynes hoped so, but the closer he got to the structures the more disappointing they seemed. Jack could see that the wooden siding on the buildings was cracked and split, and the few windows visible were empty of glass. No people seemed to be stirring, and Raynes began to think that the best he would get from this detour was a spot of shade for as long as he chose to rest here.

The place was even more disappointing when viewed from up close. There obviously wasn't any water around, and Jack realized that he had stumbled out of the desert, and into another type of Hell altogether. The white, dust-caked vats sitting under their sheds, next to the horse-power treadmill, and the piles of hard white nodes of minerals all pointed to the fact that this place had been a borax mine. Disgusted at his bad luck, Raynes decided to rest the roan in the shade of one of the sheds while he looked through the buildings, thinking that maybe there was something in one of them he could use.

But again, the cowboy was disappointed, the first two buildings looked as if they had been picked clean. There wasn't so much as a loose piece of paper on the floors, but the third building was different. When Raynes opened the door, he was greeted by an old-fashioned rag rug on the floor. A bed was made up against the opposite wall, and there was a ramshackle table and two chairs positioned under the window. On the table was a tin plate of still warm beans. Raynes rested his right hand on his gun, he didn't want to be surprised, and he had no idea how many people might be out here. "Hello?" He shouted. No answer. The cowboy pulled his pistol now and tried again, "Is anyone here?" He called out, but the only answer he got was the desert wind whipping across the salt.

Outside the roan suddenly whinnied, and Raynes knew he was in worse trouble than when he had been spotted by the posse. Cursing his own stupidity, Jack bolted out the door, only to see that the horse was gone. As he started to look around for the animal, he caught a flicker of motion out of the corner of his eye, and the world erupted into white-hot sparks as something crashed into his head, and Jack Raynes fell into darkness.

Time passed, and the sound of footsteps on the wooden floor woke the cowboy. Raynes opened his eyes and tried to focus on what seemed to be a set of wooden beams overhead, but the supports kept spinning, and he closed his eyes again. From somewhere off in the distance, a raspy voice spoke. "Ya' wake boy?" Jack didn't answer, but something hard poked his side, and the voice spoke again this time sounding more perturbed. "Hey boy, I axed ya' a question."

Raynes decided to risk opening one eye a bit and was gratified to see the face hovering above him wasn't spinning now, he groaned and started to sit up, but something poked his stomach, and the face grinned showing bad teeth between the ragged beard. "Ya' best stay put boy," the stranger said. "Ya know, yer lucky to be alive." There was a scrapping sound that Raynes recognized as a chair being dragged across the wooden floor. "Yer plenty lucky boy. Not many men would ever wake up from takin' a mule-billy upside their heads."

The stranger brandished a short heavy club whose end was wrapped in a grey metal that could only be lead. "Freighters use 'em to put an animal down that's pulled its last load." He eyed the man on the bed. "They's cheaper than a bullet." Here the stranger straddled the chair and rested his arms across the back before he continued. "Now let's get down to it boy," the man said as he leaned forward. "Where ya' headin' with all 'at money?"

Raynes groaned. Of course, the stranger had went through his saddle bags, and the first thing he found was all that cash. Jack tried to explain, but his jaw was swollen, and some of his teeth felt loose, there also seemed to be sticky caked blood matting his hair and beard. He attempted to raise a hand to his aching face, and discovered he was tied up. He glanced at the man in the chair, the stranger remained sitting there facing his prisoner, idly swinging the weighted club, and waiting for an answer.

"Water," Raynes whispered.

The stranger made a face, and dropped the club on the table and picked up Raynes' pistol. "Why don't ya' jus' axe fer yer damn gun back?" He hooted in delight at his own cleverness, then turned serious. "Ya' better listen boy, cause sure as I'm Bill Hawkins I'll plug ya if'n ya don' answer true!" He gestured with the gun. "Now where ya headin', and why is they a mess o' dollars in your saddlebags?" Hawkins suddenly cocked the pistol as he looked suspiciously at the man on the bed. "Ya' wanted boy?"

Raynes thoughts were still swirling from being slugged, but he managed to shake his head "no," a gesture Hawkins didn't care for. "Yer lyin'," he said. "Sure as I've been stranded out here fer the better part o' a year ya' is lyin!" And he switched the cocked pistol to his off-hand so he could pick up the club again and looked menacingly at the man on the bed.

"Hold it mister!" Raynes croaked, "I could answer your questions better if I had something to drink." It was only then that Jack noticed the stranger was wearing his clothes, leaving him in his cotton longjohns.

Hawkins noticed Rayne's look, and stood up fingering the shirt and pants he had stolen. "Hope ya don' mind boy, ma duds was a little threadbare, and we is of a size. I'm sure you won't mind tradin' me somethin' fer a drink or two." He backed away across the room keeping the pistol leveled at the man on the bed. "Now ya' gets ya' drink old son, but jus' memeber it comes out o' yer share o' water fer the day!" With that the man uncocked the pistol and jammed it into his belt before pouring a short shot of water from an earthware jug into a tin cup.

While the man was doing this Raynes managed to work his way to a sitting position on the bed, but when Jack held out his bound hands for the cup Hawkins pulled the pistol again, "Oh, no boy. Ol' Bill has waited too long fer a chance to leave this patch o' Hell." He sat the cup on the chair and took a long step back. "Ya' jus' figure a way to get to 'at cup an I'll watch." Raynes swung his legs to the floor realizing as he did so that his feet were shackled with a short length of rope. He had just enough line to take a short shuffling step, but not enough to get any sort of momentum.

The water was brackish and tasted like the inside of a barrel, but it was clear enough and Raynes swirled it around inside his parched mouth before he swallowed. As Jack set the cup down Hawkins prompted him with a gesture of the pistol, and Raynes started talking. He said he found the money, and decided to try to go see San Francisco with it. Jack didn't mention the posse though, and he concluded with a request. "Now how about untying me?"

Hawkins only hooted at this, so Raynes tried something else. "How come you're out here all alone anyway?"

Hawkins eyed his prisoner, and then looked out the window remembering the circumstances that had brought him here. "I had a contract to haul freight out ta this mine," he started. "Every month I brought a thousand-gallon water tanker, food and mail." He kicked the wall in anger, "But on my last trip I drove all the way out here, damn near a hundred miles across the salt, and find that the contract miners had all quit! The place was empty!"

He turned around and shook the pistol at his captive, "So's I turns the rig aroun' and start's back, but about a mile out I hit a soft patch o' sand and the mules went down. First up to the bellies, then the withers. I tried and tried to pull just one of the critters out so's I could get out o' here, but couldn't do it alone. When the last mule went under the salt I was stuck. I had plenty of food and water though, just no way out o' here!" Now he grinned. "Until you came along."

"So, what happens now?" Raynes asked.

"Happens?" Hawkins almost shouted the word. "When it gets dark, I's goin' to mount your horse, and ride out o' here wearin' ya' clothes an' carryin' ya' gun. Then I's goin' to the first town I can think of an' buy a bottle an' a bath!"

"That tells me what you want to do," Raynes said. "What happens to me?"

Hawkins laughed hysterically. "You! Why boy I's gonna give ya two choices!" He calmed down a bit and went on, "First I kin jus' leave ya what's left o' the food an water. Should last a while if you watch yourself. An ya never know when somebody else will come by." He looked at Raynes thoughtfully. "Or I can jus' kill ya now if'n ya want. Spare ya a heap of sufferin'," and he abruptly turned and left the room, leaving Raynes to wonder how he could keep the crazy man from either shooting him, or leaving him here to die.

Hawkins returned sometime later with two cans without labels which he began opening with a knife while he looked accusingly at Raynes, "At animal of yor'n is pretty wor' out. Serve ya' right if'n it just folded up on ya' and left ya stranded," he said.

"I was in a hurry," Jack managed to answer as he eyed the cans of food.

"Well, I'd leave it rest fer a couple of days," Hawkins grunted, as he eyed the contents of the cans, and placed one where Jack could reach it. "But I'm in a hurry too," he grinned, and sat back down on the chair before continuing. "Eat up boy, and make sure ya' suck all the juice out of whatever's in there." He stuck a spoon in his can. "Yours looks like tomatoes, although ya' can hardly tell anymore, all the damn labels came off long time ago."

Raynes awkwardly worked the chair around so he could spoon the food from the can. He decided to make a play. "There's a lot of money in those saddle bags isn't there?" he asked as he raised the spoon to his lips.

Hawkins looked at him. "Fair amount," he answered suspiciously.

"You want to make some more?" Jack asked as he raised a tomato to his parched lips.

Hawkins watched Raynes carefully as he sucked at the juice in his own can of food. Outside a fly banged itself against the rusted screen tacked over the door, the insect's buzzing accentuated the silence. Finally, Hawkins set the can down on the table and pointed his spoon at his prisoner. "How?" he said.

Raynes ate a tomato, squishing the food so that all of the juice ran out of it before answering. "I may have stretched the truth a bit when I said I wasn't wanted," he lied.

Hawkins' eyes squinted into slits. "I knew it! Nobody carries 'at much money round! How much ya worth boy?"

Raynes watched the man knowing he had to be careful here. If he claimed too much money Hawkins would figure he was lying. But if he named too low a price the ex-freighter might just figure it wasn't worth the effort. He took another bite of tomato, and sucked at the juice. "Six hundred dollars," he said.

"At's a powerful lot of money boy," Hawkins said as he ate a peach from his can. "What'd you do to get 'at price on yer head?"

Raynes had to think fast, whatever lie he told Hawkins had to be believable, but what would a crazy man stranded in the desert think was true? "It's a mis-understanding between me and the Union Pacific," he answered.

"Train robber!" Hawkins laughed gleefully, and took a large pull from his can of fruit. "So you got seen somewhere, and now yer on the run!" He cackled with glee. "Well, I'll tell ya what boy, I'll just trot yer ass back the way ya came from and we'll see who's interested in ya!" He leaned toward Raynes and looked at his feet. "Yo' boots look in good shape yet, I figure they should last the walk I got planned fer ya!"

At this Jack breathed a sigh of relief as he sagged back onto the bed. Hawkins had taken the bait, and Raynes had tricked the man into saving his life, at least until they got out of the salt flats. Now the prisoner needed to rest and recruit his strength, because if he was right, Hawkins was intending on marching him back across the desert.

As he rested, Raynes could hear the ex-freighter's frenzied preparations for leaving the mining camp. The man rushed about, cursing the sun and the heat as he grabbed up cans of food, and every stoppered container he could find. Then there was silence for a while as the madman hiked out to the stranded water tanker and filled everything. Raynes heard the freighter drop the containers on the porch when he returned, and then the screen door creaked open as the man walked back inside.

"We leave when the sun starts to go down boy. I ride, you walk," Hawkins announced. "Ya' better slip them overalls o' mine on afore we leave young feller, cause it gets coolish out here at night." He grinned. "Wouldn't want you to catch yer death 'fore I can collect my money!"

"I rode two days to get to this place," Raynes pointed out. "Walking back will take longer."

Hawkins grinned. "Nah, you'll do fine! We'll move at night, and rest up during the hot part o' the day. 'Sides, I figure the reward will be paid for ya' dead or alive." Here the crazy-man eyed his captive. "Course, I'd prefer you stayed alive fer a while yet. I hate totin' yer dead ass across the salt."

"Thanks for your consideration," Raynes sighed.

They started out at sundown. Hawkins had watered the horse, and allowed Raynes to drink as much water as he could get down before they left the mine. Then the pair headed east, Hawkins perched on the back of the roan, and Jack Raynes trying manfully to keep up as he was towed along on a lead line from the horse's saddle. Fortunately, Hawkins didn't push too hard, but even so, it was still all Jack could do to keep up. By midnight, the desert sky was swept clear by a cool wind blowing from the distant mountains in the west, and the man on foot was shivering as his sweat chilled his body.

"How ya' doin' down there boy?" Hawkins asked at one point as they started across a section of hard packed sand, and Jack, who was already too tired to get into an argument with his captor had mumbled some reply. They kept moving until the sun was well up, then Hawkins stopped, and built a little shelter for himself out of a saddle blanket and some sticks he had brought along, "This here shade's fer me. You'd do well ta cover up with a blanket til' we leave come dusk," he rasped. "You thirsty boy?" Jack's face and throat were coated in salt dust, and he could just nod his head as he held his hands out for the old ketchup bottle Hawkins handed him. "Now 'at's your'n share o' the water, don't be wastin' it," the man warned.

Jack poured some of the life-giving liquid on his mouth to wash the salt away before taking a deep drink. The water was brackish and tasted of the ketchup that had caked inside the container, but it seemed like the best liquor Raynes had ever had in his mouth. He used a tiny portion to wipe the salt from his eyes, and looked around. "Where are we?" he croaked.

"I figure we're just shy o' halfway across," Hawkins grinned as he pulled out a piece of rope, "How's yer legs doin?"

Raynes looked at Hawkins and didn't lie. "They hurt like Hell," he answered truthfully.

Hawkins hooted. "Well, they gonna be ached some more, cause I got to tie ya' up so's I can get some rest. But cheer up mister! Pain means you're still alive! So, be glad ya kin feel anything!" Then Hawkins suddenly sobered and looked around, "Wish there was some shade fer the animal though, it's gonna be a scorcher fer sure today." He turned his attention back to his prisoner, "Now you just sit there quiet, we start back out when the sun goes down."

So began one of the longest days in Jack Raynes life. He made a little shade for himself with the blanket as Hawkins suggested, and tried to sleep, but his legs were racked with cramps from lack of water, and the sun seemed to burn right through his clothes, making even the covered parts of his body seem like they were exposed. The roan stood stolidly nearby with its reins pegged to the ground while Hawkins snored in the shade. Briefly, Jack considered pummeling the crazy man in his sleep, but he realized that he was already too weak from thirst to overpower Hawkins, so he drifted off himself, and prayed he would survive this hike through Hell.

True to his word, Hawkins started marching Raynes eastward as soon as the sun went down. The desert changed from salt flats to low sand dunes, and Jack fell several times until Hawkins slowed their pace. At first Raynes thought this was out of consideration for him, but then he noticed that his captor was staring at the little clumps of grass and brittle brush like they were something he had never seen before.

The pair kept moving eastward even after the sun began to rise, and the ground continued to improve until there were small pinyon pines nestled in some of the sheltered rocks offering blobs of real shade. Gnats began to plague them and the horse began whipping his tail at the flies, but Hawkins remained silent, although more than once Jack caught the man looking at him strangely, until finally his captor yanked on the rope and asked sharply, "How far is it ta' the last spot where you camped?"

"That's it," Raynes thought. "He's thinking about water and figures I'd camp close to it." Jack looked around vaguely. He didn't remember crossing this piece of desert, but it didn't matter much at this point. He nodded toward the surrounding brush and gestured with his bound hands. "Look for a spring at the base of a rock wall," he croaked.

Hawkins nodded in agreement, and urged the roan on, with Jack finding it harder and harder to keep up with all the rocks and roots strewn across the ground. Finally, Hawkins stopped and Raynes could hear a sound that he thought came from Heaven itself. Birds chirping! They had to be close! Hawkins yanked on the rope again and brought Jack up beside the roan. "Now you listen sharp mister," he hissed. "You're a'goin' ta walk ahead o' me, I'm this close to a big payday, and I ain't letting ya' outta my sight."

Raynes nodded, he was too tired and thirsty to argue the point even if he could. Once Hawkins dismounted and tied the horse's reins the pair set off through the brush. Jack hoped like Hell there was water here, he could feel that he was nearing the end of his string. Hawkins prodded him with the pistol. "Keep movin' boy," he hissed.

The brush suddenly fell away revealing a small pool of clear water nestled in the shade of a jutting red rock wall. At the sight of the life-saving liquid Jack lurched forward, intent on getting some of the water into his mouth, but Hawkins stopped him. "Easy boy, you're way down on the list for drinkin' right now!" The former freighter looped the rope around a tree, "You just stand guard here while I see to our animal," and with that Hawkins brought up the horse and allowed it to drink before helping himself. Raynes stood there watching, hating the crazy fool with all his might, while his sweat dried into white stains on the ragged overalls Hawkins had traded him. Only after both the horse and captor had drank their fill did Hawkins allow Jack to come up to the pool.

"Get'cha some now boy, but don't be too long about it," he crackled.

"Why? What's the rush?" Raynes asked as he knelt down at the water's edge.

Hawkins grinned and raised the pistol, "Cause I got to shoot ya now boy," he gestured toward the horse where the pack with their supplies dangled emptily, "We're 'bout out of grub, and you've done your share as far as haulin' you ass across the salt, nearest town can't be too far away, so I'll jus' plug ya nice and quick, then toss ya over the saddle and trot ya in fer the reward!" He laughed and cocked the gun while Raynes stared up at him stupidly.

"HOLD IT RIGHT THERE, MISTER!" an authoritative voice shouted from the brush. "SHERIFF'S POSSE! DON'T MOVE OR WE SHOOT" Hawkins turned the pistol toward the sound of the voice. Someone shouted, "Watch it boys! He's goin' for it!" Shots echoed off the red rock wall and Hawkins stumbled backward onto Raynes, who could see the light fading from the dying madman's eyes.

Jack Raynes sat slumped in the mud, and watched dumbly as the posse appeared out of the brush. It was the same six men he had run from four days ago, led by a big burly Sheriff in a ragged linen duster, but now the sheriff extended his hand to help Jack up as he said, "Lucky for you mister, that we decided to stake out the waterholes around here." He nodded toward one of his deputies, "Ol' Titus there saw you comin' and recognized that roan horse. This fellow slipped out into the salt four days ago, and we figured he'd be getting thirsty about now."

"I recognized the horse he was riding and them clothes!" Titus chuckled gleefully, "Brought the sheriff first thing, and probably saved your ass too, partner!"

Someone handed Raynes a canteen and he gulped down his first real drink of water in four days. Once his throat was wet again the cowboy nodded toward the dead man. "He ambushed me out there at the borax mine. He acted plumb crazy the whole time we was together. Why was you chasing him?"

"The heat must'a got to him," Titus allowed, as he toed Hawkins's body.

"Hey Sheriff!" One of the other deputies said, "Here's the payroll from the stage hold-up! He's our man alright!"

Raynes took another drink from the canteen and sloshed the water around his mouth. He probed the teeth the mule-billy had knocked loose with his tongue, and asked quietly, "Is there a reward for the hombre?"

The Sheriff laughed and looked at his posse, "There sure is. Him and three other desperadoes robbed a stage out of Carlisle. They must have got into a fight over the split though. We heard the shots, but didn't see anyone else until we was burying the dead." He nodded toward Titus. "Old Eagle-eye there spotted our man as he took off into the salt." The sheriff looked Jack Raynes over and shook his head, "I reckon we can share the reward with this fellow don't you boys? He sure looks like he could use a hand."

"Give 'im the horse and pistol Sheriff," Titus said magnanimously.

The Sheriff nodded and watched as the deputies started to dig a hole for Hawkins's body. "Just as well we kilt him out here, saves the county the trouble of trying him."

"Yeah," one of the deputies laughed as he kicked at his spade, "The sombitch would'a got Life fer sure."

The End

In the past, Dave Barr has written several stories for both Frontier Tales and Outlaws Echo, and recently had a book length collection of tales posted on Amazon. He currently has another collection of stories ready for publishing. Dave lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he grows his own vegetables and plans his next trip west of the Mississippi.

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Mixed Blood, Part 6
by Abe Dancer

Chapter 16

Mel turned his horse from the yard and Spool followed. Together they rode off the home pastures and headed west.

Mel took the lead, and for two hours worked his way into the bare country. The deep red light of the setting sun was slanting into their eyes when they first found the lifeless, crushed ground of the drive.

"What the hell's going on?" Spool said. "There's no cattle on this side of the range other than Church's stock, and those blackjacks couldn't make it across Dog Creek, let alone to Yuma."

"You want we should go back?" Mel asked.

"Hell no," Spool barked and heeled his horse forward.

They travelled another ten miles before Mel pointed ahead. The herd was settled, heads down around a cluster of hog wallows. Five men were riding close, giving the cattle a lick of water before taking advantage of the rustler's moon, pushing on through the night.

Spool dragged his big rifle from its scabbard, but Mel blocked the other horse with his gray. "We don't know who we're shooting at," he said. "Best wait for morning. The rising sun'll give us the edge we need. Meantime you can decide what you're going to do."

"What I'm going to do?"

"Yeah. I figure they're your cattle." Mel swung down from his horse. He stretched out on the warm ground, pulled his hat over his eyes.

Spool slapped the barrel of his big rifle against his leg, "You figure to sleep, with them owl hoots making off with the herd?"

"Your herd!" Mel snapped back. "I'll hear 'em when they move out, which won't be long. For the minute, I ain't going nowhere. I've been doing work I ain't rightly used to . . . got aches in muscles I never knew I had."

Spool got down from his horse, let it mouth a tuft of cheat grass. "What work's that, Cody?"

"Fixing up the Church place. She's going to stay, you know . . . Miss Reba. She's like one of them Red River boats . . . got an oak keel, probably some of her uncle's stubbornness too." Mel lifted his hat away from his face, looked up at Spool. "What was your bellyache with old Selwyn? Must've been something besides creek water?"

Spool thought for a moment before he answered. "He left his fences to rot. His longhorns strayed onto my place an' mixed with my Herefords. He should've been more careful . . . should've moved on, but instead he hung on, stubborn as a mule."

"And that's why you branded him a cattle thief? Sent four of your men into town to beat up on him and kill him?"

"No, I never did that," Spool railed, not liking Mel's charge. "I've never sent anyone to do my work, Cody. Not that sort of work. Not so long ago I fought to keep every goddamn blade of grass. There was hardly a man for hire you could trust, and I saw off nesters and sheep men. I had to drive cattle all the way to Mexico to get me a fair deal. No mister, I never needed to send men to do my work."

Mel kept quiet. It was as close as he could get to letting Spool know he believed him without saying so.

Spool stared out to where the herd was still watering. He rubbed the gray stubble of his chin, kicked each foot as if trying to move trapped grit around. "It looks like they're getting ready to move them out," he said.

He went to his horse and Mel did the same. For the next few hours they rode beyond the herd's dust, pushing further west across the hostile, darkening country.

* * *

"Hold up," Mel called. He cut his horse across Spool's track, and the rancher drew rein.

"What is it?" Spool asked.

"There's Copa Gully up ahead. If we ride the higher ground we'll be looking down on 'em. Should be close enough for you to let me know if they're your riders."

Already the early light was good enough for Spool to see a mile ahead. But a thick cloud of yellow dust hung as a screen between him and the slow-moving herd, forcing him to ride with a neck cloth pulled high around his face.

Mel was working his way up a long sloping trail, and Spool reluctantly decided to follow him. They rode steadily higher for close to another hour, and then, with the sun beginning its long, daytime burn, they reached a plateau that flattened off beyond the gully.

Mel stopped there and climbed from the saddle. "We've got ahead of 'em," he said. "They got to come through here, but they won't see us. We'll wait up."

Spool compassed the country about him, then he hitched his horse back out of sight. He brought the Spencer and flattened himself on the ground beside Mel.

"By hell, if you are right about Miner, I want the treacherous dog all for myself," he said. "You hear me, Cody? He's mine."

Mel shrugged. "It'll be him that's going to make the play. An' when he does, I won't be waiting for you to take over. Sorry, Spool."

Spool studied him grimly for a moment but said nothing. Below them, the lead cattle were already moving into the head of the gully with the remainder of the herd in straggled lines behind. The five riders were bunched close, as if their lives were to be saved that way.

Mel lifted a hand and shaded his eyes. "Can you make 'em out yet?" he asked.

"I can't see a goddamn thing," Spool complained.

"Yeah. We'll see better when they're below us. We won't be looking into the light," Mel said.

* * *

They waited while the hot sun got higher, powered down onto their backs. A breeze drifted up into their faces, but it carried hot, peppery dust from the desert floor.

Slowly the herd came on. Spool continually rebuked one and all as he waited for the riders to move up close enough for naming. When the untidy spread began to bunch up directly below them, Spool raised himself to get a better view. Mel knew that anybody looking up couldn't see them against the high sun, and kneeled alongside him.

Spool hissed a curse as he pointed down to the first rider. "Miles Beckman," he growled. "And Felix Chelloe, damn his hide. I never did like the look of him. His eyes are set too close together."

Mel was smiling to himself as Spool jumped to his feet. The rancher hurried for his horse and was in the saddle before Mel had fully considered the situation. Mel shook his head, walked to his gray and gave chase. He wasn't overly concerned, even relieved that Spool took the trail that would bring him out at the head of the herd.

Spool had drawn fifty yards clear by the time Mel reached the bottom of the sloping trail. When Spool sensed he was caught, he slowed his horse to a trot. "This is my fight. They're my cattle, my men and they're on my land."

Mel drew alongside the fierce rancher. "I don't care a goddamn spit in hell about any of that, Spool. But no one's firing a gun at me because I made it easy, you hear?"

Spool cursed and swallowed his angry words. "OK, we let the herd go by," he snapped out. "But then I'm going for 'em. You got that?"

Even as they spoke, Mel was working his way across the gully. The lead steers trod wearily between them, tossing their heads uneasily as they continued. The bulk of the herd then crowded mindlessly past in their wake.

Shielded by an outcropping, Mel sat his horse. Across from him, Spool too, sat hunched forward in the saddle. He was seething with fury, peering into the low pall of dust and trying to stifle a thick cough.

Mel was looking for the last of the herd when he saw Spool kick his horse away from the gully wall. As the dust thinned he saw the old rancher riding straight for the drovers. The Spool men were all riding drag, picking up stragglers, when through the rolling carpet of dirt they saw their boss, Casper Spool, bearing down on them.

  Chapter 17

Miles Beckman shouted a warning. He wheeled his horse about and the others drew rein, staring ahead, unbelieving.

"Yeah, it's me, the one who pays you, you thieving scum. Prepare yourselves," Casper Spool yelled. Anger had got the better of him and he pulled a big Colt from his holster and took the centre ground, throwing shots ahead of him as he raced forward.

The stunned riders broke apart at Spool's wild offensive. Beckman swerved for a wall of the gully when he saw Mel Cody charging toward him and he fired. The gun roared in the steep rocky confines, the bullet slicing across Mel's left arm.

Mel issued a comforting word to his grey, and reined the horse 'til its flanks brushed the walls of the gully. He gritted his teeth and brought his Colt to bear on Beckman. The injury to his arm was bloody but slight. He recalled his father's words about being caught in a gun fight.

You've maybe learned about one trusty bullet being enough if right's on your side? Well, forget it, son. Go for the belly, an' put in three.

Two of Mel's bullets hit Beckman. One of them smashed into the man's side as he tried to swing his horse away. The other hit below his ear as he jerked forward in the saddle.

As its rider took the bullets, Beckman's horse whirled about and threw up its forelegs in an attempt to scale the gully walls. Then it slammed its hoofs back into the ground, and Beckman was pitched from the saddle. His body spread-eagled into the gully floor. Dust fell, and immediately crusted the broken flesh of his face. His horse squealed its terror and took wild flight.

Spool saw the shooting and cursed violently. He looked about as Felix Chelloe's bullet thumped into his upper leg. He groaned with the searing stab of pain, but he was a wronged man in a rage, and too hardy to falter. As Chelloe thundered toward him, he reined in, threw his handgun to the ground and pulled the Spencer rifle. He lifted the big gun over the shoulder of his horse and fired point blank range at the cowhand.

"Meet your maker, boy," he rasped.

Chelloe threw up his arms as the flat-nosed .52 bullet exploded into his chest. He went backwards and sideways, with one foot remaining trapped in its stirrup. Like Beckman's, his horse veered away in panic, heading back toward the end of the gully. Mel watched in heart-thumping disgust as the horse sped by, Chelloe's lifeless body rolling, leaving a twisting, thin trail of bloodied dust.

Mel patted his gray's neck and looked back to where the drover had ridden from. The other three riders had withdrawn. They were sitting their horses with their hands spread and away from their holstered guns.

He rode slowly down the gully to confront them. His eyes were wary, and he rested his gun hand across the horn of his saddle. Just ahead of him, Spool was moving too. The rancher was hurt and visibly shaken. He'd come too close to being killed by his own men.

"Don't know what in tarnation's going on here, Mr. Spool, but we been taking orders," one of the drovers spoke up hastily.

"Taking orders from who?" Spool demanded.

"Budge Miner. He said to get the herd onto the barrens through Copa Gully," the man said anxiously. "We didn't figure it was right, Mr. Spool. Me nor the boys here, an' that's the truth."

"It's a goddamn tale to keep me from stringing you up," Spool rasped. "What's your name, mister?"

"Jake Tanner," the man said. "We was hired by Miner a week ago."

Spool had a severe look at the two other men.

"Miner told us there was work if we wanted it. Never planned to rob the big house," Tanner said.

Spool glowered at him. "Another likely damn yarn," he said.

"Ain't no yarn, Mr. Spool. We never took from no one," said another man.

"I'll remember you said that, mister," Spool threatened.

"You can check our guns, they're cold. Anyhow, they'd probably blow up in our faces if we used 'em," the man offered as a further defense.

Mel reached out a hand to Tanner. The gun resembled Mel's own Colt, but was a cheap imitation of the real thing, making a harsh grating noise when he spun the cylinder. "Leave 'em be, Spool," he said. "It's Miner we both want."

Tanner pointed back along the trail. "He pulled back, mid-afternoon. Said he was going to check with Mr. Spool about pushing the herd through the night. He should have been back by now."

Mel worked his horse closer, looked at the doubtful Spool. "We're wasting time. Their story sits well with me."

Tanner tipped the brim of his hat and nodded obligingly. Then he looked straight at Spool. "Them cattle of yours'll be running 'emselves to bone," he said. "We best get after 'em . . . turn 'em back to pasture. What do you say Mr. Spool?"

Spool rubbed a gnarled hand across his face, looked back through the gully. "What about Beckman and Chelloe? You going to take care of them too?" "If we don't, them buzzards will," Tanner said, inclining his head to the clear blue sky.

A malevolent grin crossed Spool's face. "They're circling on an ill wind, sure enough."

"I'm interested in where you made the pick up," Mel said to Tanner.

"They were corralled on land beyond the creek. They been there for a couple of days," Tanner told him.

"Church's land," Mel confirmed. He'd not ridden that far in his exploration yet., If not for Miner's strike at the ranch, he'd have soon enough stumbled on the herd and known that trouble was in the wind.

"My cattle on Church land," Spool said quietly, as if to himself.

"They're still running, Mr. Spool," Tanner went on. He'd slowly lowered his hands, was twitching his reins.

Spool thought for a moment, looked hard at the riders. "OK, go get 'em," he ordered. "We'll talk everything out later."

Tanner and the other two turned their mounts and rode off. Mel sat his horse, flexed his fingers as the sting in his arm spread to his hand.

"You been elected? Cause you're sure losing a mess of blood," he said, seeing the dark wet spread down Spool's leg.

"I've been nominated, that's all. I'll live."

"Looks like Selwyn didn't die for nothing," Mel said tellingly.

"Looks like it," Spool accepted. "One day maybe I'll get to thank him. In the meantime, I'll just burn me a deeper brand into Miner's hide."

"Maybe Reba Church would like to hear something from you," Mel suggested.

"Don't get me wrong, Cody, I'm not rolling over. That land business isn't finished yet. I'm still aiming to get the girl to sell up. What's more, I'm not paying you any respect for today's work."

"That's all right Spool. I weren't looking for any," Mel retorted.

Spool grimaced, then swore thoughtfully. "I got to get back to the ranch. Get this goddamn leg seen to."

"Yeah, you do that," Mel said and hauled away.

As he rode south, Mel went over the past few days in his mind. None of what had happened mattered much to him, except Selwyn dying. After a while he climbed from the saddle, walked the gray a mile or so. Then he remounted and ran the horse toward where Reba Church would be.

  Chapter 18

Budge Miner reached the Spool ranch at first dark. Finding the other hands had eaten and retired to the bunkhouse, he walked across the yard and knocked on the big, white-painted door of the main house.

Miner wanted to stall, needing time for Beckman and Chelloe to get the cattle off Spool's land. He intended to spend most of the night jawing with his boss, while the herd got close to the sale pens outside Yuma. When there was no response to his knock, he turned the great latch ring and pushed open the door. He called Spool's name, then, slightly troubled at the quiet, he stepped back on to the terrace.

After thinking about it for a moment, he decided Spool had likely gone to town, but he was worried. The Spool ramrod sauntered back across the yard to the bunkhouse where some of the itinerant cowboys were playing blackjack.

"Anybody seen Mr. Spool?"

The men shook their heads without looking up. But Otto Ribb, a longtime hand, raised his eyes. "Maybe he's gone to town. What's up?"

"Seems there's a lot of help missing. Beckman, Chelloe and Tanner . . . one or two others that were working the bottom slopes. They should all have been back by now."

Ribb sniffed derisively. "Happen they run across that 'breed, that hair-lifter we heard so much about. People round here get real skittish when his name's mentioned. 'Cody,' ain't it . . . his white man's name? Seems he goes on the warpath when he's put out any."

"You don't know what you're talking about, Ribb," Miner snapped. "Just get yourself ready for tomorrow. You'll likely be riding all day." Knowing something had gone wrong, Miner angrily left the bunkhouse. He was uneasy as he saddled up a fresh horse.

As he rode, he was hoping that Spool had either gone to town or was paying the Church girl another visit. Either way, when the loss of the cattle was finally discovered, he hoped to have the herd money safely stashed and be riding back with Beckman and Chelloe.

For Casper Spool, Miner had his story all worked out. He'd tell how they'd trailed cattle thieves into the barren land, got ambushed in the gully, and lost three men as well as the herd. Maybe then, by using a crooked truth, he'd get some backup to take out the stumbling block called Mel Cody. Perhaps he'd call in on the Church girl himself, offer his deceitful commiserations and console her after having sold out to Spool.

He single-footed his horse west, into the night. There was no real hurry. He didn't much care about catching up with Beckman and the others, having to swallow trail dust for his trouble.

* * *

When he emerged from the timbered slopes, Miner almost crossed Casper Spool's way. He'd been escaping the full blast of the sun when he sighted the lone rider coming back from the direction of the gully.

At first he thought it was Beckman or one of the other hands riding back to meet up with him. But he drew back into the trees when he saw it was Spool who rode past.

Miner cursed. Spool was slumped forward, gripping the saddle horn. Then he saw the dark blood, thickly congealed across and down the man's leg. Spool's face was haggard, but determined, and his eyes were set straight ahead.

Miner was unnerved. His mind raced, but he sat the saddle very still. He watched the rancher until he was a long way past, half expecting him to fall heavily from his horse.

The old man was nearly a mile off before Miner decided to make a move. He kicked his own horse, spurring it fast across the open country. He was headed for the high ground that fell sharply down behind the Spool ranch house.

A good hour later he slipped from his horse and hitched it in the shade at the back of the spread. He walked cautiously around the outbuildings, then waited until he saw Spool making his way across the yard that fronted the big house.

Three men came running from assorted work sheds. They ran to Spool and helped him down from his horse, carried him toward the house and up the steps while Miner slunk quietly around to the back porch.

With his gun in his hand, Miner stood with his back hard-pressed against the rear wall of the house. He was breathing deeply and his heart thumped with the fear of what might have happened, the aftermath of Spool's misadventure.

From inside the house, he heard an excited voice.

"You going to tell us what happened, boss?" the old ranch hand, Otto Ribb was asking."You want me to send someone into town for the doc?"

"No, you see to it, Otto. It looks bad, but it ain't more'n a flesh wound. It's Miner I want. Where is he?" he asked savagely.

"He was here, asking the same of you, boss. Not more than a few hours ago."

Miner gripped the butt of his gun until his hand shook. He realized that Spool had caught up with the stolen herd; that's where he'd got his wounds from. And he must have spoken at some time with one of his riders, if not Beckman or Chelloe. But now Miner didn't know what state the herd was in, whether it had been pushed on to the Yuma cattle pens or not. Then he recalled that he'd only hired Jake Tanner and two other men to drive cattle. They weren't in on the deal. He was in a mess, and knowing he had to stay and find out more, he cursed his luck.

"Cody came through here. I think he was looking for Miner," Spool shouted angrily. "Told me about a herd being pushed Yuma way. So together, we went down to have a look. We found Beckman an' Chelloe all right. They had three new hands with 'em . . . driving my cattle through Copa Gully. Cody an' me, we just rode into the point, shot 'em dead."

Miner heard the startled voices of disbelief. He cursed and hissed for them to keep quiet, waited for the silence to settle again.

"An' that ain't the best part of it," Spool went on. "One of them others . . . Tanner. Said, it was Miner's plan they were hired to work to."

"What you want us to do boss?" Ribb asked.

"Get out an' help bring back them beeves. But not you, Otto. You got to help patch me up. Tie me to my saddle if you have to."

"You going after Miner, boss?"

"Yeah. An' it'll be a lot more'n that when I've figured out where he's gone."

Miner felt the cold shiver between his shoulder blades. He was about to back off when he heard Chick.

"What about him off the reservation . . . Mel Cody? Who's he riding with then, boss?" the man asked.

"Well, he ain't with us. But then again, he ain't against us, either. You men steer clear of him, you hear? I'll handle him when the time comes."

Miner didn't wait to hear more. He fast tracked back to his horse and heeled away up the slope. Frustration and anger burned through him now. His scheme was in ruins, and mostly due to the intervention of the 'breed called Mel Cody. He checked the cylinder of his Colt and, heading for Church country.

  Chapter 19

Reba Church heard the alarmed honking of the geese and rose, startled, from where she'd been sitting half asleep on the porch. She looked out at the yard and home pasture for sign of a horse, but saw none, and realized the sounds were from the back of the house. Perturbed, she reached for the door latch, but it suddenly opened away from her, catching her off-balance.

"Mister Cody? Mel?" But the words died in her throat when she saw Budge Miner standing in the shadows of her main room.

The man's face was pouring with sweat, still blotched and ugly from his encounter with Mel. Reba couldn't help thinking of a giant slice of pan fried chicken and she drew back in silent horror, her body tense.

Miner stepped quickly forward and grabbed her wrist. "No,' it ain't him," he sneered."Ain't that just too bad? Or maybe not, eh, pretty miss?"

"Get off me!" Reba shouted, but Miner pulled her close. She smelled his hot, muggy odor and clawed his face. He cursed and dragged her further into the house. Reba kicked out, but Miner's strength was too much. He hurled her down onto the couch.

"You little wolverine," he said, holding his fingers to the side of his face.

"Get out of my house!" Reba screamed, her mind flying through defenses and escapes.

"Shut your mouth," Miner told her. "You make another sound like that an' I'll mark you. I'll cut you so's your 'breed friend won't recognize you when he gets here."

All color drained from Reba's face and she started to tremble uncontrollably. All she could think of was Mel Cody.

Miner wiped blood across his face, on to his chin. "Seems you get yourself a front row seat when me an' him meet," he snarled. "Only this time the ending's going to be different, eh missy?"

Reba leaped to her feet and raced for the door. But Miner had seen it coming and was too quick. He placed himself in the doorway and as she lunged at him he gave a dead-bone grin.

"Yeah that's it missy," he said. "A man like me can take that an' more."

Reba lashed out with her foot and caught him low in the leg. Miner threw a punch at her head and she felt the hard, dark thud. Then she felt herself being grabbed, lifted bodily from the floor. There was a wild rush of air, then a smack of pain across her body.

Miner walked over to where he'd thrown her. He grabbed her by the hair and pulled her to her feet. He ripped the top of her blouse from her shoulders while Reba clawed at his face. She tore open his bottom lip and Miner smashed her down to the floor again.

Reba tried to rise, to stay awake and warn Mel. But her hands gripped at nothing and she collapsed with her cheek against the floorboards she'd so recently scrubbed. She sobbed just once, then lost her senses as the painful dark enveloped her.

* * *

Mel Cody rode into the yard of the Church ranch at mid afternoon. The whole place was quiet, and from the moment he'd started down the grassy slope, he'd felt an uneasy tension gripping his vitals. The geese were nipping at long grass in the orchard and there was no sign of Reba.

He watched the house closely, half expecting her to come out and greet him, curious to know what had happened. As he rode toward the house, he rehearsed just how he'd tell her how he'd resolved the trouble with her neighbor, Casper Spool.

He reined in at the hitch rail, but remained saddled. He lashed out with his boot as the geese came running and swore he'd kill them if Miner didn't get him first. Then he rolled stiffly from his horse, dropped the reins as he saw movement from behind the front window. He had only taken one step towards the stable when the window shutter was smashed open and a gun roared at him.

Mel felt the warm pulse of air as the bullet missed his left eye. He dropped to a crouch but held his fire, uncertain of Reba's whereabouts.

The gun roared again. This time the shot smashed his left shoulder and sent him twisting to the ground. "Miner," he said as he rolled with the impact. Another bullet came, spitting the hard packed yard dirt into his face. He continued to roll, seeking shelter below the low, planked veranda of the house. Each turn sent pain stabbing deep into his chest, up into his neck.

When he got to the relative safety of the corner of the house he got to his feet. His left arm was already unusable, his left hand rigid with pain. He worked his way down the side of the house to the water trough.. Then he heard the clump of boot steps from inside, as another bullet tore through the small side window. He grinned, mumbled, "Stupid, he's going to kill you," and doubled over.

He went on and turned across the rear of the house. He banged on the door, ran faster right the way around the building, until he came to the front corner. He took six quiet steps to the front door and stopped for a moment. Then he pushed his Colt back into his waistband, and called on his forebears for strength as he lifted the latch.

As he hoped, Miner was coming through the house from the back, where he'd heard Mel bang on the door. He fired on instinct, but Mel leaped to the side, throwing himself to the floor as he came in. Through the instant tear of pain, he saw Reba. She was looking at him. He held out his right hand, hoping she'd stay down.

But she was still dazed. She looked at him with scared, confused eyes. Mel could see the distress and a grimace bent his features.

He stepped up and looked toward Miner, grimaced when he saw the bloody mess of the man's face. He stood very still, dared Miner to fire because he'd been counting. But the closeness of certain death for one of them was too much for Miner. and a final, desperate bullet buried itself in the wall planks behind him.

"Stay down!" Mel yelled at Reba while staring into Miner's eyes. He'd got it right; Miner had to reload.

Mel felt like apologizing for using the advantage of thinking. Instead, he drew the Colt from his waistband with his right hand and with a cheerless shake of his head, steadied himself and fired. The first shot ripped low into Miner's neck, the second and third into his chest and belly. The man's legs buckled and he went down.

Miner was a big man and had a few moments of life left in him. He gurgled a curse and held his shattered neck with one hand, swung his gun up with the other. The empty chambers made their dull, empty clicks. He dropped the gun and raised his arm, twisting his fingers into the fabric of Reba's newly tacked up curtains.

Reba looked at the still smoking gun in Mel's hand as she started to raise herself from the floor. With one arm, Mel clumsily helped her to her feet and noticed the dark bruise high on the side of her face.

"I'm needing a moment," she said with a tight smile.

"Yeah, you an' me both," he returned.

He pushed the Colt back into his waistband and pulled off his coat, then blinked at the pain of his bloodied arm and shoulder. He turned away from Reba as he roughly twisted his shirt sleeve tight around the wound. The searing pain made him curse long and loud as he dragged the heavy body across the yard. But he didn't stop until he'd made the ground between the fruit trees. He let go his grip of Miner's sweat-stained collar and watched the man's meaty face press deep into the grass.

"Eat goddamn worms, you son-of-a-bitch," he said coldly.

* * *

Back in the house, the cloying heat and cordite fumes almost overcame him. He looked at his shoulder and his arm, ground his teeth with the pain. But now Reba saw the blood running to his fingers, and was already on her feet.

"Outside on the rocker," she said curtly. "Now I'm fully rested, I'll take control."

Twenty minutes later, after finishing the last of his forty-rod, Mel closed his eyes as Reba administered warm water, salve and a bandage.

"The bullet might still be in there," she said. "We'll have to get you into town, first thing. Doc McLane needs to see these wounds."

But Mel's mind was elsewhere. "I had a little animal once . . . never knew what it was. I kept it in a box," he said ruefully. "When it died, I poked it down a hole in the riverbank."

"With one hand, you're going to poke that giant down a hole?" Reba asked in disbelief.

"No, not really. I thought about it though. When Casper Spool gets here, as he surely will, he's going to feel real cheated when he finds Miner's body. So I'll leave the burying to him. A gesture of my good will."

"Well I'm glad I won't be here to see it," Reba said.

"You're going? Leaving the ranch? But I thought—"

"Then you thought wrong . . . like me," she interjected. "I loathe just about everything there is in Polvo Gris. Mr. Spool is welcome to all of it. Right now his money is as good as anyone else's."

Mel had himself a few moments of thought before he spoke. "I've had a look around, like my pa told me, an' he was right. But he only spoke about the richness of the land, not about those who own it." Mel relaxed a little as the salve began its work. "On the way down here from the north, I rode through Montana . . . along the Yellowstone. There's a lot of free country, Reba, an' not much in the way of killing. So perhaps now I'll try there. It looked like somewhere my ma would have spoke well of."

Reba looked Mel in the eye. "Sounds almost too good to be true. Perhaps I'll leave everyone a forwarding address for somewhere along the Yellowstone. What do you think?"

Mel opened one eye, nodded diffidently. "I think you'd be real good company ma'am . . . real good," he said quietly.

"Well that is good, then," Reba declared with a smile. "But right now, there's no rush to go anywhere. So perhaps you'd like something to eat? I can't go as far as asking what you'd really like, though. We don't have that much."

While he thought of an answer, Mel untied his sash. With one hand, he wrapped it around his Colt, and tossed the bundle across the veranda. "Oh there's enough," he said, with a slow, wicked grin. "I've had both them murderous geese plucked an' filled with apples. All you got to do is wring their necks an' cook 'em."

Reba didn't move for a moment, or create much of an expression. Then a smile broke across her face and she wagged a reproving finger as she grasped the joke.

The End

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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