February, 2020

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Issue #125

All The Tales

That Damn Mule
by Loretta Miles Tollefson

The new mule has already objected to the steep switchback trail of dirt and fist-size rock. This next section is really going to flatten her ears. Old Pete looks back at her, then leans forward and studies the path ahead as he absently pats the more experienced Hepzibah's gray shoulder.

A narrow rain-slicked shelf of fragment-covered black shale juts out of the mountainside over a precipitous drop and a tree-obscured ravine below. Old Pete grunts and glances to his right. A wall of granite and shale frowns back at him. He grimaces. The trail is narrow here and the section behind long and twisted. He has no choice but to move forward.

He slips off Hepzibah, works his way back to Sandy, and strokes her light brown neck consolingly. "We're almost out o' this," he says. "Just hang on a mite longer and then we'll be back on real dirt."

Well, not entirely dirt. But at least it won't be slick wet shale. Sandy jerks her muzzle at him and Pete chuckles. "Just a mite longer," he says again, as much to himself as the mule. He circles her, checking her pack load of supplies and beaver plews, then tightens the knot on her halter rope and maneuvers back to Hepzibah, playing out the rope as he goes.

He stands between the gray mule and the wall of rock and studies the ledge of shale. It's as wet now as it was ten minutes ago. Better not try riding across. Even Hepzibah's likely to object to crossing this with a man on her back. Old Pete shrugs and begins looping the end of Sandy's lead rope around the older mule's saddle horn. It's not an ideal arrangement, but he can't very well lead both animals at the same time. Hepzibah turns her head and nods at him.

Pete chuckles. "You just know what I'm thinkin', don't you?" he asks.

The mule twitches her gray ears, nickers, then turns her head to peer at the ledge. She snorts disparagingly.

"I know, I know," Old Pete says. "Don't you go naggin' me, too. That Sandy's bad enough."

He studies the looped rope, then thinks better of it and ties it properly with a bowline knot, just in case he needs to release it in a hurry. Then he touches the knife at his waist, confirming it's there, and makes sure his rifle is well seated in the scabbard lashed to Hepzibah's saddle.

He lifts the bridle reins over her head and holds them loosely as he steps out onto the ledge. The mule pulls back slightly, as if questioning his judgment, but when Pete clicks his tongue at her, she twitches her ears and steps gingerly onto the rock.

"Good girl," Old Pete says. "At least one of you's got some sense."

They're a quarter of the way across when Sandy's hooves click onto the wet shale. She balks and Hepzibah jerks to a stop. The bridle reins slide across Pete's palm and he tightens his grasp on them and half turns, painfully aware of the slick rock underfoot.

Sandy yanks backward and Hepzibah's metal shoes scrape the shelf as she braces against the younger mule's panic. Small pieces of shale skitter toward the drop.

"Take it easy now," Old Pete says soothingly. He steps back, positioning himself between the granite wall and the mule, and tugs on the reins, trying to angle her straight again. But Sandy's lead rope is pulling hard on Hepzibah's saddle horn, and the gray's head twists toward the drop.

Hepzibah's chest strains toward Old Pete and Sandy brays furiously. Her shoes ring against the rock as she tries to scramble to the perceived safety of the dirt track behind her.

"God damn it to hell!" Old Pete growls. He forces his voice calm. "Just take it easy now."

Neither mule responds. He stretches a soothing hand toward Hepzibah's neck. Her ears flick toward him, then toward the ravine. The rope is stretched tight. Sandy takes another step back, and Hepzibah's chest and front hooves are forced closer to the edge.

There's no help for it. He'll have to free the pack mule and hope for the best. Pete reaches to release the bowline knot.

But just as his fingers touch rope, the younger mule yanks on it again, and twists Hepzibah further toward the ravine. The knot moves out of Old Pete's grasp.

Hepzibah's shoes grate on the shale as she tries both to gain purchase on the rock and to reduce the rope's pressure. Her eyes are wild now, her breath huffing in fear.

Pete lunges, trying again for the knot, and grabs at Hepzibah's saddle with both hands. His feet slip on the wet shale, pulling him off balance, and he lurches into the mule's shoulder, pushing her sideways.

Hepzibah's front hooves scrape frantically and her shoes leave long pale grooves in the black rock as she and Old Pete slide toward the brink. Then man and mule are tumbling together, she braying in terror, he fighting to throw himself out of her way. Above them, Sandy hauls back on the rope, then screams in fury as she too is yanked over the side of the cliff.

Rock. Trees. Dirt. Mule. Pete forces his elbows to his sides and twists, trying to stay out of the way of his animals and their metal-clad hooves. Their legs flail wildly as they tumble. A tree branch whips across Pete's face as he arches around its trunk.

Finally, a sprawling half-dead juniper breaks his fall. Pete gasps, trying to get his breath. He wipes at the blood on his face, then grapples with the tree's broken branches and struggles into a sitting position. The old wood is thick with wet dust and reeks with the urine stench of the tree's crushed gray-green needles. Pete grabs a spiky branch, pulls himself awkwardly to his feet, and stares in horror at the far side of the ancient tree.

Hepzibah has landed chest first, impaling herself on one of the juniper's multiple trunks. Her eyes glaze as Pete watches. Gray mule, dead wood, and living branches are splattered with blood. Pete looks down at his hands and realizes that at least some of the red stickiness he's wiped from his face is the mule's, not his own.

He touches his waist, reflexively confirming that he still has his knife as his eyes move from the mule's gory chest to the saddle on her back. Sandy's lead rope is still attached to it. In fact, the bowline knot has tightened. The rope stretches like a freshly-strung bowstring across the bloody juniper and past Old Pete to the top of a craggy piece of sandstone on his right. From there, it cuts a narrow furrow across a rock-studded ridge of dirt that juts down the slope.

Pete can't see Sandy, but he can hear a wheezing sound from the opposite side of the ridge. He struggles out of the juniper's clutches and pitches himself toward the noise. His feet slip on wet rock and debris and send pieces tumbling into the ravine below. He reaches to steady himself on the rope, then thinks better of it.

When he peers over the stony ridge, he's glad he's kept his hands to himself. The mule lies on her side, feet toward the ravine, head pointing away from him. He can just see the rope, which is looped three times around her head and neck, clamping her muzzle shut and wedging up against her windpipe. The battered pack of furs and supplies is still on her back. She wheezes anxiously and her belly shivers, making the pack tremble.

Pete shakes his head. It's a wonder she can breathe at all. He clambers over the ridge, then works up the slope to come in above her, out of reach of her hooves. Sandy's ears flick when she realizes he's there, but she's already discovered the futility of trying to move her head. She snorts and rolls her eyes at him instead.

"There now," Old Pete says. "You did good. You just lay quiet there and I'll deal with that darn rope. Yessir, you did good." He kneels on the damp slope above her head and strokes her tan muzzle with his left hand as he pulls out his knife with his right. "Now you just lay still, and I'll cut this old rope and you can ease on up nice and slow," he says soothingly. "Real nice and slow now, you hear?"

He leans forward, settles his left hand firmly on the mule's forehead, slips the knife flat between the rope and her muzzle, twists it, and slices swiftly upward. Sandy twitches her ears and snorts at him, but she doesn't try to move.

"That's the way," Pete says. "You just take it real slow now." He slips the knife back into its sheath, then reaches around her head and begins to gingerly unwind the rope.

When he lifts his hands away, Sandy wheezes and staggers to her feet. She braces herself on the slope and shakes vigorously. The pack slews sideways over her right shoulder. She shakes again and it teeters precariously. Her belly expands and contracts as she sucks in loud mouthfuls of air. Then suddenly, she goes quiet.

Pete's eyes narrow. What now?

Sandy peers over her shoulder toward the rocky ridge. Her nostrils flare and she snorts anxiously. She maneuvers around to face the ridge, then snorts again and steps back, away from Old Pete and the rib of rock and dirt behind him.

"I'm afraid that's Hepzibah you're smellin," Pete tells her. He maneuvers across the slope, reaches for the section of rope still hanging from her halter, and strokes her tan shoulder. "Just settle on down now," he says.

But the mule's not interested in settling. Her eyes roll. She snorts impatiently and tries to back farther away from the ridge.

"I know it ain't a good smell," Old Pete says apologetically. "But I can't just leave her there. I've at least got to figure out how to get that saddle and gear off of her." He reaches to scratch the mule's forehead. "You're gonna have to settle on down now, so I can go tend to her."

Sandy huffs impatiently, her ears almost flat against her neck. Suddenly, her muzzle jerks up, then back, and pulls Pete's feet out from underneath him. He falls onto his rear end, drops the rope, and begins sliding down the slope. Only the surface of the soil is wet. His sliding feet tear into the dry rocks underneath and rocks and dirt rain into the ravine below as Sandy backs further away.

Pete makes a grab for the trunk of a small pine and stops his slide. "All right, if that's how you want it," he grumbles. The pine's needles are still coated with raindrops. He pushes himself to his feet and waves a wet hand at the mule, then the trees below. "Just go on down there a ways and find yourself some place to calm down a mite. I'll be down directly I deal with Hepzibah, poor thing."

Sandy snorts contemptuously and moves down the slope, her hooves sending more dirt and rock into the ravine.

Pete shakes his head, swipes at his face with his wet hands, and begins making his way back to the ridge. "Hell and damnation!" he mutters. "The only mule I've got left is the one that got me in this mess in the first place. Idiot animal. Though I reckon it couldn't get any worse than it is, 'less both of 'em were dead." He scowls. "And there's no tellin' where my rifle is. Sure as shootin' it ain't still in that scabbard."

He lunges onto the near side of the rib of gravel and dirt between him and the old juniper. "Damn that mule!" he grumbles.

Then he reaches the top and stops abruptly. "I'll be damned," he mutters. "No wonder she was in such an all-fired hurry."

A cinnamon-colored bear rears up from the far side of the juniper, its paws and muzzle black with Hepzibah's blood. The beast looks around blankly, as if puzzled by something. Pete drops sharply and rolls out of sight behind the ridge.

But it's too late. The bear has picked up his scent and Pete's drop has sent a noisy scatter of gravel down the slope. More rocks tumble as the bruin comes to investigate.

It may be brown, but the creature is a black bear, not a grizzly. It'll chase anything that moves, even up a tree. There's no point in Pete running. Pete flattens his back and legs against the damp slope, swipes his hands dry on his breeches, and reaches for his knife.

The bear's head and shoulders appear at the top of the ridge. Pete can smell its hot rancorous breath. Its bloody muzzle swings, investigating. As far as it's concerned, the man here and the dead mule behind are all part of the same carrion. The blood smells the same.

Pete grips his knife hilt in both hands and braces it against his chest, point straight up.

As the bear extends an investigating paw, there's an unearthly scream from the ravine below. It doesn't really register with Pete. He has other things on his mind. He bellows a challenge and slashes at the bear's paw.

The blow misses its mark. The bear snuffs at him again, then rears back, gathers itself, and pounces off the ridge, straddling Pete's chest and pinning his upper arms to his sides.

The oily bruin smell is overwhelming. Pete holds his breath and tightens his grip on the knife. His upward thrust is hampered by the bear's weight on his biceps, but he tries anyway, aiming for the chest. The beast only grunts and shifts a little, positioning itself for the kill.

As the dirty yellow claw lifts from Pete's right arm, the scream comes again. It's closer this time, more deadly in intent, and mingled with a mule's terrified bray. But the bear's shift has given Pete more freedom of movement. He shoves upward awkwardly, aiming as best he can for the heart. But again the beast shifts. The blade does nothing but nick its thick pelt.

Something moves on the slope to Pete's left. Old Pete and the bear both glance sideways. Sandy, blood on her flank and braying in terror, tears across the slope. The pack on her back is split wide open now, and cooking equipment and beaver pelts scatter behind her and down the slope.

Then the bear's left paw crashes into the right side of Pete's face. Five blades of excruciating pain. Blood flooding his nostrils and eyes. Pete swallows the metallic taste desperately, fighting the suffocation, the blackness, and the roaring in his head, trying to sense whether his hands still clutch the knife. Just one more try. Just one more chance to give this bastard a taste of its own medicine.

But then suddenly the bear lifts away and is gone. Blood surges through Pete's nostrils, choking off his breath, but when he tries to gulp it away, the slight movement in his throat triggers excruciating pain. The wet rocky slope beneath him tilts wildly away from the mountainside, then a roaring blackness overwhelms him.

After a long while, the blackness dims slightly. As Pete comes to, he's aware of flies buzzing around his head and the rustle of wings settling in a nearby tree. The ground under his breeches and shirt is rain damp, but the moisture under his skull is far thicker than mere water.

Somewhere to his left, a slurry of rock clatters down the slope. Pete's heart jerks in panic but his limbs don't respond as they should. When he tries to turn his head, pain sears through his skull.

It's worst on the right. He forces his hand to his face. Loose skin where his right eye should be. Wet slickness of blood. And pain beyond belief or description.

He fights back the nausea that burns in his throat, then gingerly touches his left cheek. There's blood there too, but the flesh is still firm. He cautiously squints that eye open. A buzzard studies him greedily from the top of a nearby ponderosa.

Then the pain cuts through Pete's skull again and the black waves crash over him.

The slope is in shadows when he once again becomes aware of the slant of dirt and rock under his back and legs. The ground is dry now. Even the blood beneath his head has drained off.

A raven caws from the treetops. To Pete's left, there's a shuffling sound, then the huff of expelled breath. For one brief terrible moment, he thinks the bear has returned. Then a leathery nostril tentatively touches his left cheek.

Pete cautiously squints his left eye open as a mule's chin whiskers brush across his forehead. A chuckle rises in his throat, then pain ricochets through his skull and cuts off his amusement.

Sandy blows softly into his face. The heat of her breath ratchets the pain higher and nausea clutches him again. Pete raises his hand and feebly waves her away.

The mule steps back, but she doesn't leave. Pete takes a deep breath and heaves himself into a sitting position. A red-hot knife jabs his skull and his stomach heaves. He makes a mighty effort, forces the bile down, then opens his lips slightly, just enough to take in the cool mountain air without triggering another, higher, surge of the pain.

Then he waits, trying to breathe shallowly, forcing himself to stay awake, letting a shaky strength seep into his limbs.

When the sun begins to set and shadows creep across the slope toward him, Pete knows he's out of time. He mutters, "Alrighty now," and heaves himself upward. Rock and dirt slip under his feet, sending rivulets toward the ravine. The effort to stand throbs through his skull and he staggers drunkenly against it.

Then Sandy limps toward him. Her neck is bloodstained and a hunk of pink flesh hangs loosely from her rump. What's left of the pack dangles precariously beneath her belly. She noses Old Pete's shoulder. This time, he doesn't wave her away.

* * *

"Damn mule," Old Pete mutters as the curandera places yet another poultice on the right side of his face. "Lost me my outfit, my rifle, and my eye."

The woman pulls back and gives him an impatient look, then says something in Spanish to the American man who's sitting next to the adobe fireplace in the opposite corner, smoking a pipe.

The man takes the pipe from his mouth. "Coulda been worse."

"Hunh," Pete grunts. The curandera's plaster is beginning to work. He tightens his muscles against the prickling, then breathes out. "Could of been better."

The woman moves to the roughhewn table in the far corner and goes back to crushing herbs in her black stone bowl.

Pete slews his eyes toward the man who found him three days before, clinging deliriously to Sandy's neck beside the rough track to Taos. "That mountain lion gave that damn mule one helluva mauling," Pete says. He moves his head slightly, trying to see past the poultice, then gives up and closes his good eye. "From what little I could see of her, that is," he says. "She gonna make it all right?"

The End

Loretta Miles Tollefson grew up in the American West in a log cabin built by her grandfather. She lives in New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo mountains, where she researches the region's history and imagines what it would have been like to actually experience it. She is the author of the Old New Mexico series.

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Quick Draw
by William Nadeau

As soon as the cowboy could see his home he spurred his brown gelding into loping. He quickly reached the hitching post.

He dismounted and tied the horse up to it.

The cowboy rushed through the front door. In the living room he yelled, "Honey I made it back."

The cowboy did not find his wife sitting there reading by the candle like she usually does. He shrugged his shoulders.

The cowboy went into the kitchen. It was also empty.

He yelled, "Honey I'm tired of that chuck wagon."

The cowboy checked the only bedroom. It was neatly taken care of.

He yelled, "Honey long cattle drives up to Kansas City pay better than local herding."

The cowboy checked out the rest of his house. He could not find his wife anywhere he looked.

He said, "I wonder where she's at."

The cowboy went out to the hitching post.

He told the horse, "We gotta go hunting."

The cowboy untied the horse. The horse nosed the ground looking for something to graze.

The cowboy jerked on he reins. He said, "You'll get some grain first."

The cowboy led his horse to the small brown shed by the horse corral. A small wagon was right next to it.

The cowboy led the horse by it. The horse sucked back towards the shed.

The cowboy said, "Whoa. Not going to have you pull it."

He led his horse over to the shed. He fed him a cup of grain in the grain bucket.

The cowboy said, "Ain't no way she's walking into town for any shopping. Wonder if her friend Martha is taking her in her wagon."

After the horse raised his head the cowboy put away the grain bucket. He looked at the trail that goes north to town.

He said, "No wagon wheel tracks. I just see some hoof prints heading that way."

The cowboy quickly got into the saddle.

He said, "Come on it's deer hunting time."

The cowboy spurred the horse into loping on the trail heading to town. When they reached the midway arroyo he slowed him down to walking.

The horse took the narrow trail down to the creek.

The cowboy dismounted. The cowboy petted the mane as the horse quenched his thirst.

When the gelding raised his head the cowboy mounted him.

The cowboy said, "I guess this really is deer hunting season,"

As the cowboy reined his horse up out of the arroyo a gentleman came riding down to the creek. They both said whoa to their horse and stopped.

The cowboy said, "Mark I'm kinda lost. Did you see Cindy riding in as you left Clayton?"

The gentleman shrugged his shoulders as he said, "Yes Bill I saw her. This is strange. I wonder what is going on with her today."

The cowboy said, "Huh, doesn't just about every cowboy's wife go into Clayton to get some shopping done?"

The gentleman shrugged his shoulders and said, "I usually don't see them going to town like that."

The cowboy said, "Like what?"

The gentleman said, "I saw Gray-jack, the gunfighter, riding double towards town. He had Cindy sitting in the saddle in front of him."

The cowboy said, "Mark was that my blond headed wife?"

The gentleman said, "Yes, Gray-jack had both his arms around her so she would never fall from the saddle."

The cowboy said, "Really Gray-jack? I thought that gunfighter got shot and killed over in Boise City."

The gentleman said, "No he is so quick at drawing his pistol he probably will never lose a gunfight."

The cowboy took a deep breath then said, "That gunfighter has got my wife. I got no choice but to gun him down."

The gentleman frowned and said, "Gray-jack carries a Colt 45. He is known for quick draw. Many men back in town will not face him."

The cowboy shrugged his shoulders and said, "Ha, I still got the Colt 44 Army I got on active duty. I never could afford one of them new Colts like the Peacemaker."

The gentleman said, "That long barreled cap and ball pistol cannot beat a smokeless powder revolver out of the holster. It is going to get you shot dead."

The cowboy said, "I got the front of the trigger guard cut off. The long barrel no longer slows it down. I just have to make sure the hammer is set between caps so it will never go off if it drops out of the quick-draw holster when I swing my leg up over the saddle mounting my horse."

The gentleman couldn't help shrugging his shoulders. He said, "With all the slime around that are afraid of him one must really watch out."

The Cowboy reined his horse around the gentleman's horse and spurred him up hill. When the horse reached level ground the cowboy spurred him again and yelled, "Giddy-up and go."

The cowboy loped his horse all the way to town. When he reached the outskirts he slowed him down to trot. The cowboy trotted the gelding all the way downtown. He jerked back on the reins and yelled, "Whoa," right in front of the Eklund hotel.

The cowboy quickly dismounted. He tied the reins around the hitching rail.

He patted the manes and said, "Hang loose it's the only saloon in town."

He went in through the swinging doors.

The bartender yelled, "Cowboy Bill what you need."

The cowboy saw some others at a round table playing poker.

He said, "Tom I'm here to gamble."

The bartender smiled and said, "I guess that means whiskey."

Bill frowned and said, "Nope not today. I'm here to gamble with Gray-jack. My ace of hearts over his ace of spades."

The gunfighter's name hit the saloon like a rattlesnake. Everyone there feared gunfight crossfire.

The bartender said, "He's not here. I saw him over at the horseshoer getting his horse shod."

One of the poker players said, "What? I saw him at the blacksmith getting a double barrel shotgun sawed off."

The saloon girl by the stairs frowned as she said, "Liars, liars, mules kick hard. I saw him at our dressmaker. He's getting one for someone else."

A lumberjack at the bar set his whiskey glass down. He said, "Gray-jack ain't no jackrabbit. He don't run. He kills."

Bill glanced around. He said, "A skunk like Gray-jack smells like horse manure. The coward will be easy to track down."

The dealer at the poker table watched Bill closely as he went out the swinging doors. He whispered, "We can't have no cattle driver screwing things up."

He layed the cards down and sneaked out behind the bar to exit the saloon.

The dealer rushed across the street to the gunsmith shop. Once inside he hollered, "Grey-jack, Bill is here to shoot you down for his wife."

Grey-jack stopped spinning his Colt on his forefinger. He grinned and holstered it. The gunfighter said, "My pistol just got cleaned. That Yankee ain't got a chance. I'll get his sweetheart."

The dealer said, "Wish I could take any young blond headed girl myself."

Grey-jack said, "Let me kill him out on main street. That will show you how."

The dealer grinned as he left. He said, "I can't wait in line. Better hit the Eklund brothel and get some now."

The saloon girl caught the dealer sneaking in. She frowned and shook her head. When he made it past the bartender she dodged upstairs into one of the whorehouse rooms. The bar-maid whispered, "Cindy your husband is here to kick some ass."

Cindy was amazed. She said, "How did my cowboy husband track us down? I hope he don't get shot and killed."

The saloon girl frowned and said, "I wish some man had enough balls to save me from Grey-jack, take me home and marry me."

Cindy said, "There are all kinds of cowboys around here. Why hasn't one of them out drawn Grey-jack for you?"

The door opened and the dealer rushed in. His fear of Grey-jack kept him from grabbing Cindy. His lust made it easy to change his mind and grab the saloon girl.

The saloon girl struggled for freedom.

The dealer said, "Stop it whore. It's my turn."

He dragged her next door to her room.

Cindy kept silent. She quickly moved over to the porch door and started watching for her husband.

Grey-jack walked proudly out of the gunsmith shop. He stopped right across the street from the swinging doors into the Eklund hotel.

Cindy had to stay hidden so Grey-jack wouldn't catch sight of her.

Grey-jack hollered, "Billy boy come on out. Let me teach you a lesson."

Cindy thought the sun was shining just right for her. She grabbed the small mirror right off the room desk and got closer to the hotel room porch.

Bill came out of the hardware store on Grey-jack's right side. He said, "You are a dead grizzly bear."

Grey-jack turned towards Bill. He said, "This will be in self defense."

Cindy held the mirror up into the sun light so it reflected back down into Grey-jacks face blinding him.

Bill cocked the Colt 44 Army as it was drawn out of the holster and pulled the trigger. He shot Grey-jack in the chest before he could start drawing his pistol.

The End

No bio information provided.

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Off the B-10 Path
by James Hold

The Yegua Kid, with the setting sun at his back, made a picture-perfect silhouette perched atop his chestnut stallion on the shady hill overlooking a ranch road. Gazing idly down the dirt trail, he pushed his hat back from his head, freeing a floppy mop of sandy hair, and enjoyed the feel of a cool breeze on his forehead. He let the hat dangle between his shoulder blades, held there by the strap beneath his chin, and closed his eyes. The Kid, spare of build and lean of frame, possessed a stamina to match that of his mount, but it had been a long ride on a scorching day, and even horses needed to rest sometime.

The Kid dismounted, took a sip of water from his canteen, and then cupped a handful for the Yegua Horse, all the while thinking this was as good a place as any to bed for the night. From his vantage point atop the hill he could see, vaguely in the distance, the outlines of the B-10 Ranch. Western hospitality would doubtless give him a meal and a place to bunk should he ask; only this was one of those times when the Kid did not feel in the mood for company or questions.

His desire for solitude, however, was not to be as he noticed a cloud of distant dust make its way toward him. As it drew near, he made out a one-horse buggy with a lone woman in the front seat. The horse was going full gallop and the Kid could see the driver was not in control.

Hopping back atop his horse, the Yegua Kid spurred his steed to ground level. Drawing alongside the runaway horse, he took hold of the reins and brought the speeding carriage to a halt. The woman, a lovely brunette about twenty years of age, flashed him a smile. Then, in the same instant, she seemed to remember a pressing need to be underway.

"Whoa, ma'am," the Kid cautioned her. "Why the rush?"

"I'm sorry," she apologized, hurriedly. "My name's Emma Barton. My father owns the B-10 Ranch. Poloma and I were on our way there when we were attacked by Lo Mein. He dragged Poloma from the buggy but I managed to get away."

The Kid looked perplexed. "You were attacked by a dish of noodles?"

"No, no," Emma Barton flustered. "Lo Mein is our Chinese cook. Last night he went mad and tried to kill one of the house servants. He got away and now all our hands are out looking for him."

"And who is Poloma?"

"She's my friend, a Choctaw girl. We think Lo Mein meant to attack her, but got the wrong girl by mistake. Now I really must get to the ranch for help."

The Yegua Kid stopped her. "If all your ranch hands are off hunting, who do you expect to help you?"

"Oh," Emma Barton hesitated. "I didn't think of that."

"Then let me help. Tell me where it happened."

"You'd never find it. It's in a wooded clearing off the path. I'd have to take you there."

Riding swiftly, Emma Barton still found time to fill the Yegua Kid in on what happened. Poloma had come to them a little over a year ago. She and Emma became instant friends, more like sisters than mistress and servant. One day, exploring the countryside, they found a clearing, which had once been a ceremonial Indian site, at the middle of which stood a tall totem pole. Poloma was immediately attracted to the place and from that time onward made frequent visits there with offerings to the Great Spirit. Such was Emma's affection for the Indian girl that she went along with it, often driving her there in her buggy. "After all," she explained, "it seemed an innocent thing, and it harmed no one." Then, three months ago, a Chinese-Malaysian showed up at the B-10, applying for a job as a cook. The first dish he served them was vegetables with Lo Mein noodles. Emma's father loved it, and thus the new cook was christened from then on. Poloma however seemed to fear the Chinaman and refused to be alone in his presence. Then came last night's attack, the other girl being saved by the fortunate appearance of one of the ranch hands courting her, and the chase was on.

"Poloma was frightened out of her wits and insisted on going to the ceremonial ground to pray for protection," Emma Barton wrapped up. "I refused to let her go alone so I drove her. We were on our way back when Lo Mein ambushed us."

Having meandered off the path from the B-10 Ranch, girl, buggy, horse, and rider eventually came to an opening in the woods. Through the trees, the Yegua Kid saw the ancient totem pole. He judged it about ten feet tall and it had many fierce faces carved onto its sides. Motioning Emma Barton to stay put, he got down from his horse and crept forward. From the shelter of a tree trunk, he saw a fantastic sight: a Chinaman in black clothing, his pigtail held down by a round pillbox hat, standing over a helpless Indian girl, with a solid steel meat cleaver clutched overhead, ready to strike. The Indian girl, clad in buckskin, was tied spread-eagle on the ground, her staked hands circling the totem pole. Her arms and legs showed many bruises and she held her eyes tightly shut, moving her lips in silent supplication.

"Pray to Great Spirit; maybe he save you," the Chinaman taunted. "Ty Ming no think so."

"Stop!" The Yegua Kid leaped into view, drawing his gun with blurring speed. "Lo Mein! Drop that cleaver!"

The Chinaman turned his head in the Kid's direction. His hate-filled eyes blazed with fury and he did not lower his weapon. "No, no!" he cried angrily. "Name not Lo Mein! Name Ty Ming! Boss call me that. Think it funny. Ty Ming hate boss. Ty Ming hate everyone." He looked down at the cringing girl. "Poloma work same house in Austin; know who I am. Me follow so she no tell."

As Lo Mein spoke, Emma Barton raced to the Kid's side. "What do you mean, she knows who you are?"

The Indian girl, Poloma, lying at the foot of the totem pole, had continued to mouth her silent prayers up to this point. Dark clouds gathered above them as she opened her eyes and spoke. "Lo Mein is a killer. Newspapers call him 'Annihilator'."

"Not Lo Mein!" the Chinaman screamed. "Ty Ming! Ty Ming!"

A rumble of thunder sounded as Poloma went on. "He killed many girls, mostly servants. I suspected him, but there was no proof so I fled. That's why he followed me here."

Emma Barton touched the Yegua Kid's arm. "The Annihilator. I read about him. A serial killer responsible for the deaths of ten girls around Austin. The police had several suspects; one was a Chinese-Malaysian cook. He was never apprehended, though. Rumor was he fled to Galveston and from there, sailed to England."

"Looks like those rumors were wrong," the Kid clicked his tongue dryly. A flash of lightening blazed from a dark cloud. The Kid waited for the thunder to pass, then addressed the Chinaman once more. "C'mon now, Lo Mein. Or Ty Ming, whatever your name is. It ain't safe standing here in open ground with a storm coming on. Throw down that hatchet and give yourself up."

Lo Mein however was beyond reason. He looked at the Colt in the Kid's hand, then at the girl at the base of the totem. He chose the girl. With a wild, insane laugh, he raised the cleaver. The Kid acted fast. He did not dare shoot the man for fear he drop the knife-edged cleaver on the girl. He needed him to turn away from her. A single bullet left the chamber of his Colt 45. It struck the pigtail at the back of the Chinaman's head, snipping it off neatly as might a razor. It worked. The Kid once heard some Chinese so value their pigtails that to tamper with it was a major insult. So it was with Lo Mein. The crazed Chinaman rushed with manic speed and threw himself at the Yegua Kid. His attack, so unexpected, took the Kid off guard. The single cleaver became like a hundred blades, the flattened side striking like a hammer, knocking the gun from the Kid's hand, and then landing a stunning blow to the side of his head.

Lo Mein rose to his feet, spat at the Kid's prone body, then stared down the girl from the buggy. Emma Barton fell to her knees, cowering in fear, helpless to move. "Later," he leered. "Indian girl first."

Again, he gave his attention to Poloma. He raised the metal cleaver high overhead, holding it with both hands.

The girl, in terror, cried out, "Oh Great Spirit, save me!"

And from the sky a bolt of brilliant light struck the cleaver. Lo Mein froze in place, a black pattern outlined by a glowing aura of luminescence. The aura crackled and sizzled, eating through the bodily mass of the Chinaman until all the blackness disappeared and only a blinding blue-white arc remained. The arc spun itself in a circle, entered the ground at the foot of the totem pole, and all was still.

The Yegua Kid staggered to his feet, unsure of what he had witnessed. The girl from the buggy was still on her knees, her face covered. The Kid patted her shoulder to say all was well, and went to aid the Indian girl. He cut the cords from her wrists and ankles and helped her up. She slumped against him, weak from the ordeal. Meanwhile the dark clouds overhead dissipated, allowing Nature's clean twilight to peek through once more.

Emma Barton back on her feet, took Poloma in her arms and led her to the buggy. She looked back at the Kid and voiced a soft "Thank you" before driving off. The Kid, left alone, scratched his head, wondering what exactly had happened. It was one of those "if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes" situations; only the Kid could not be certain if he had seen it or not. All he knew for sure was the Indian girl had called to the Great Spirit to save her, and now, etched into the bottom of the totem pole, was a snarling image the very likeness of the murderous Malaysian.

He shook his head once more, and then went to fetch his horse.

Many things happen in the old west, some that can be explained and others that cannot. In any event, the Annihilator would not be the first person to, because of an error in Ty Ming, end up Lo Mein on the totem pole.

The End

Historical Note

The "Servant Girl Annihilator" was a serial killer active around Austin, TX from 1884 to 1885. There were several suspects in the case, one of whom, a Malay cook, fled to England. Three years later the Jack the Ripper murders occurred in London. Some believe they were the same person.

Mr Hold is a retired systems analyst with 40 years experience in the Information Technology field. He is the author of the on-going OUT OF TEXAS ebook series available from Amazon. His poems have been published at ESKIMO PIE and he has several stories slated to appear at DOWN IN THE DIRT magazine.

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Arena Roja
by Justin Deming

Dust kicked up around the boy as he rode into the canyon. The red noon sun blazed down on him as the horizon simmered, baking in the heat.


At the sound of the gunshot, the horse whinnied and reared, bucking the boy. He landed on the hard-packed ground as his mount galloped off in the opposite direction. The boy clawed toward the cover of a nearby boulder.

KOOOOOF! the Winchester bellowed again, a thunderclap that tore through stillness. The shot ricocheted wide. The boy reached for the revolver at his side before he was another pile of bones without a story, but it was to no avail. The third bullet ripped through his right bicep. He howled on the ground and seized his blood-soaked arm.

"Had enough yet?" a smoky voice called out from the bluffs, echoing off canyon wall to wall.

"I'm leaving!" the boy cried in hysterics. "I'm leavin' your town behind me!"

"Well, now you have a parting gift," the voice yelled in response. "And if you ever come back, I swear I'll blow your head clean off!"

A scorpion scuttled toward the boy. He swatted it away. Tears streaked down his face and scarlet swam between his fingers.

"You hear me, dammit? I was savin' her, you son of a bitch!" A flock of birds flew overhead. "Did you think I was just goin' to let you go?"

The boy choked on dust. He wiped his nose with his sleeve and gritted his teeth.

"Enjoy the vultures . . . they'll be peckin' out your eyes soon enough."

The boy didn't dare look at the vicious man whom he'd come to know all too well this past month. Hooves clattered over the reddened earth. When silence settled, he knew he was safe: Roy Olsen was gone.

The boy stood up and kicked a nearby rock, cursing himself. "Damn it, Jamie. You fool." Then, he whistled for Mae.

* * *

Love had blinded Jamie. He had meant to simply pass through Arena Roja, but when he first laid eyes on the girl, he knew his plan would have to be put on hold.

Her name was Maricela Ortega and she had stolen his heart. She was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. Her hair was dark as obsidian and so thick you could get tangled up in it, lost in a world of lilac. The r's rolled off her tongue like a gentle river—the way water tickled stones and flirted with the banks.

Jamie stayed in town longer than he intended to. Much longer. He ended up working alongside a rancher named Mr. Roy Olsen who at the time seemed desperate for a hand. But time always revealed the inner workings of a man's mind and his intentions.

Maricela knew not of her family. She was an orphan girl who lived with an elderly, wrinkled woman whom everyone called Nana (or Baba, depending on who you talked to). Nana looked after several girls, all displaced for one reason or another. Her residence was the ramshackle dwelling on the outskirts of town, beyond the well.

Maricela spoke a few dozen words in English, but it didn't matter. Eyes spoke deeper and truer than words ever could. Besides, body language was universal. Maricela proved this true.

As Jamie tightly wrapped his wound with a piece of cloth from his bindle, he thought about the way she had first looked at him. Sure, she was only fifteen and he only a couple years older, but he knew that her unwavering eyes, her penetrating gaze, was one of love—and lust.

Several days before the incident in the canyon, the two hid out in a hovel—a work shed used to store harnesses, saddles, and the like—for the better part of an hour, exploring every inch of each other's bodies. They inhaled and exhaled the same air, taking in dust and each other's stale breath. The world could have ended and they would have been the last to know.

After they made love atop a pile of straw, they plotted out their future together: what they would do, where they would go, and how they would live. Jamie pantomimed when Maricela couldn't understand, and she the same for him. Jamie drew a map in the dirt with a broom handle as Maricela wiped her inner thighs with a tattered cloth that lay discarded on the floor.

"Leave. Run away with me."

Maricela cocked an eyebrow.

Jamie smiled, leaned in, and kissed her. He stood and pretended to run toward the door. She giggled and tilted her head.

"No entiendo," she murmured, shrugging.

Jamie pointed at her, then himself. He nodded at the door and galloped around the rickety, run-down room as if he was riding a horse. Dust followed him where he went, swirling in the rays of light that crept in from the cracks in the flimsy wooden walls.

Her eyes widened. "Ohhh." She laughed and stood up to join him. "Ahora?"

It was Jamie's turn to cock an eyebrow and tilt his head. "Huh?"

Maricela threw her head back and laughed.

* * *

"Here, Mae. Good girl." Jamie patted his horse on her hindquarters and then rubbed her mane. She was spooked for a good five or ten minutes after the gunshots, but she eventually found her way back to him. Roy Olsen was halfway to town, he presumed.

The mare nuzzled into Jamie.

"We're going back," he said matter-of-factly. Sweat dribbled from his forehead and down the bridge of his nose.

Mae gazed into his eyes. Her muscles rippled with every breath she drew in.

"What? You think that's a bad idea?"

Mae snorted.

Jamie hesitated for a moment. "Hell with it." With his good arm, good hand, he gripped the reins and hoisted himself up into the saddle. He swung his leg around Mae, then slid his feet into the stirrups.

He knew he was lucky that the bullet had missed his major arteries. The blood still seeped from the hole in his arm, but it would congeal in time—he hoped. He'd have to get it treated soon, but there were more pressing matters to attend to.

Adrenaline flowed through his veins as he spurred Mae toward Arena Roja. His arm throbbed, but his heart was shattered: he couldn't believe he almost left her behind. He didn't know if he'd ever get her back, but he knew he had to try.

"Come on, Mae," Jamie said as he drove his heels into her sides. She picked up speed as they raced toward town, slicing through the lonely wind.

"Better shoot sharper, Roy." His breaths were steady despite his hammering heart. In his gut, he knew that more than one person would be waiting for him.

He checked the bandage on his right arm a final time to make sure it was secure, then patted the revolver at his hip.

Luckily, he shot with his left.

* * *

A memory played in Jamie's mind, almost like the splotchy motion picture he had watched before venturing toward Mexico.

Not twelve hours ago, Jamie was crouched behind a pile of split wood, waiting for the lights to go out in the dwelling. It's what he did most nights while in Arena Roja.

Eventually, once Nana was fast asleep, Maricela would sneak out a back window and the two tiptoed toward the stable for Mae. They'd ride up into the mountains, make love, and count falling stars, all while dreaming up their lives together.

Last night was different.

The lights didn't go out—at least, not for a long while—Nana never went to sleep, and Maricela remained inside. Jamie waited for what felt like hours, hoping to at least spend a few minutes with her. When he was about to leave, the lights were extinguished. He waited in silent solitude, yet nothing came of it. Temptation almost lured him to the back window to have a glance inside, but he thought better of it. He desperately wanted to hear her melodic voice, run his hands through her hair, and trace her slight curves with his fingertips. But as the minutes crept past, he knew his chances plummeted. His stomach turned.

Jamie decided to wait it out. On and off he dozed through the night, curled up behind the wood pile. Mosquitoes hummed harmonies and coyotes howled from the canyon. Before dawn broke and the town came to life, a horse and rider could be heard in the distance. As the clatter of hooves drew closer, Jamie peeked over the top of his hideout, rubbing sleep from his eyes.

It was Roy Olsen.

Jamie could tell it was him because he spotted his Winchester underneath a pile of burlap. Plus, nobody else wore a bowler hat in town—he was the only one.

Roy Olsen pulled up beside Nana's home and tied his horse to a wooden post in the ground. Jamie watched as the tall, lean man removed one of the burlap sacks from atop his saddlebag and rapped on the front door. There was a nervous air about him as he glanced from side to side.

The door creaked open, ever so slightly.

Roy Olsen and Nana engaged in a brief, hushed conversation, then Nana disappeared inside the dwelling. Roy slid beside the door, back against the wall. Jamie watched from his vantage point as the rancher's chest heaved up and down in quick bursts. He fiddled at his side with something, but Jamie couldn't tell what it was. When Roy looked up, Jamie could've sworn he spotted him.

When the door opened again, Nana stepped outside with one of the younger girls—Eliza, maybe. Without a moment's hesitation, Roy snatched her up into his arms and stuffed a handful of cloth into her mouth. The girl lashed out and tried to yell, but it was hopeless. The man doubled her in size and strength. Nana shut the door quickly and retreated inside as Roy bound the girl's hands and feet. Then, he tied the sack over her head, scooped her up, and was gone—nothing more than bad dream, a shadow, a phantom in the night.

* * *

Before the town came into sight, Jamie plotted out his course of action. He steered Mae toward the home near the well.

He heard Roy Olsen's voice in his head—the conniving bastard: "What's more important? Your life or the girl?"

The scene came into view in Jamie's mind. The two stood outside the rancher's abode, not six hours ago. Dawn had just opened her eyes.

Roy Olsen chuckled. "Well, I'll let you in on a little secret . . . Maricela ain't nothing. Hell, none of them are. This is a man's world, son, our world."

Jamie stood in silence, staring at his feet and grimacing at what he'd been called.

Roy put a hand on Jamie's shoulder. "I knew you was with her. I knew all along. You thought you was clever, but boy, I knew." He cracked a smile, revealing yellowed teeth. "And I've got to tell you, I ain't happy about what you've done. You might've cost me a small fortune."

Jamie looked up at him.

"Look . . . I ain't proud of who I am, of what I do. But a man's got to make a livin' somehow. You'll figure this out sooner or later. And that's why I called you here to talk this mornin'."

"About what?" Jamie asked.

Roy stepped closer and spoke in a hushed tone, a breath above a whisper. "About last night. A few hours ago. You see anything you didn't like?"

Jamie's heart stopped.

Roy smiled. "You see me hightail it out of here with that little girl?"

Jamie didn't dare break away from the man's gaze. His eyes were cold, blue steel.

Roy turned his head and spat. "I'll take that as a yes. Thought that was you." He wrapped an arm around Jamie and walked with him, the scent of tobacco and whiskey stronger with each word. "Work with me. And I don't mean tendin' no horses or muckin' stalls. There's good money here in this business. More people involved in it than you might think."

Jamie shuddered and tried to shy away from Roy.

"If you don't want to . . . well, problem is I might have to kill you." Roy winked, then let Jamie go.

Once he was out of the man's sight, Jamie bolted toward the stable, mounted Mae, and fled toward the canyon.

* * *

Jamie saw black spots when he blinked. His head was heavy. A steady flow of blood streamed down his arm.

The dwelling came into view. Nana was alone outside hanging some clothes on the line. When a slight breeze passed through, they waved.

No one else was around, and that was probably for the best.

Jamie pulled up beside her. When she turned to say hello, he shot her in the chest. The impact of the bullet sent her reeling backward into a basket of dirty linens. She held the hole in her chest and then reached for Jamie. He fired another round for safe measure before he rode off to find Roy.

Jamie steered Mae toward the rancher's home. He passed a few townspeople, all of whom shot him obscure looks. Some trailed after him while others broke off in the opposite direction—possibly to investigate the sound of the gunshots.

When he stopped before Roy Olsen's abode, the rancher was seated on his front porch. His feet were kicked up on a bale of hay, and the Winchester rested sideways on his lap. A box of shells sat on the small, crude table beside him, and a bottle of whiskey, three quarters empty, gleamed, waiting for its next pull.

"Thought you'd bleed out," Roy said as he shifted his bowler hat.

When Jamie dismounted, he noticed that a small crowd had gathered behind him, a safe distance back.

Roy chuckled, then used the butt-end of his gun to push himself up out of his chair. "Well, what—"

In one motion, Jamie slipped the revolver from its holster and let his weapon sing.

Roy staggered and fell back as the bullets rained all around him. Despite the storm, he managed to get a single shot off. The man crumpled to the ground beside his whiskey.

"Well, shit," Roy gurgled through a mouthful of blood. He reached for the bottle, but died before he touched it.

Jamie slumped to the ground, clutching at his stomach. When he pulled his hand away, he knew it was over.

He leaned back in a pool of red. A puffy cloud moved above him in the beautiful sky.

That's when Maricela came into focus.

"Jamie," she whispered, choking back tears.

"Get out of here. Take Mae. Go far . . . far away." Jamie nodded at the horse.

Before everything turned white, she kissed him: his forehead, cheeks, and mouth.

Jamie smiled a final time, then he was gone.

Within seconds, so was she: riding to the canyon, the mountains—somewhere—far away.

The End

Justin Deming lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley region of New York. His fiction has appeared in 50-Word Stories, Ripples in Space, and Spelk, and numerous nonfiction articles have been published in The Writing Cooperative. He can be found on Twitter @j_deming_ and Medium @justin.robert.deming.

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Thirty Days 'Til Freedom
by Samuel Kennedy

Jonas squinted in the harsh August sun. His long-handled hammer rung against the iron spike. Three blows per spike, ten spikes per rail, four hundred rails per mile. His hammer rung out again, driving the spike deeper into the timber. Thirty days until freedom. A third blow of the hammer; on to the next spike.

In the summer of 1866, the Nebraska territory was still wild Indian country. But the great Iron Horse, the mobile city of the Union Pacific Railroad, rolled westward, conquering the plains mile by mile, chaining it like a prisoner of war under iron rails. Four hundred rails per mile. Eighteen hundred miles to San Francisco. A skilled work crew—usually four or five men—could lay down one rail every thirty seconds. The men with the hammers came along behind, driving in the spikes to hold the rails in place. To hold a country together. Back-breaking, dangerous work in exchange for a bunk on the crowded train, three meals, and three dollars a day. Of course, Jonas didn't get three dollars a day; that was for free men.

The rail crew—three burly Irish men and an Irish boy barely old enough to shave—set the next rail as Jonas drove in the tenth spike. A man with a gauge checked the distance between the two rails. The standard was four feet eight and a half inches. Even the slightest variation would derail any train that tried to use the railroad. But the man gave a quick nod, and Jonas set the first spike in place for the new rail.

One, two, three strikes of the hammer. Another spike. One, two, three. Ten spikes to a rail, four hundred rails to a mile. Jonas had served ten days of the thirty. Thirty days for killing a man. That's what a life was worth to Boss Teague. Thirty days or he could take his chances with the law. As he drove yet another spike, he couldn't help wondering if he'd made the right choice. At least the law would have killed him quickly. But his throat tightened at the thought of the gallows. That was no way to go; not for a soldier. And so he swung the hammer again.

There was a cry of pain from further up the line. A bearded worker in a dusty blue uniform fell to the ground, screaming in agony as he clutched at his mangled foot. The iron rails weighed over six hundred pounds. They were carried by gangs of three or four, moving as fast as they could in a race to subdue a continent. Sometimes accidents happened. This time, a Yankee soldier who'd made it through the war without injury was hauled unceremoniously back to the train by a couple of Boss Teague's men. He would never walk on that foot again. Another worker, this one in a tattered gray uniform, was quickly brought up to take his place.

And so the Iron Horse moved forward. Three blows per spike, ten spikes per rail, four hundred rails per mile. Once again, Jonas brought his hammer down. He had twenty days left until he was a free man.

* * *

Boss Teague leaned back against the train car, bringing a match up to light his pipe. In the darkness of a waning moon, its dim glow flickered over a weather-beaten countenance, and a pale scar that ran from the corner of his mustache down to his chin. Tired yet vigilant eyes scanned the prairie ahead. While his men slept, Boss Teague silently watched the darkness. He couldn't sleep tonight. As happened often, his dreams were haunted by the dust of battle and the screams of dying men. He cursed under his breath.

Only three miles of track had been laid that day. He knew the crews could have laid more, just not with buffalo deciding to graze along the route. He drew in a deep puff of his pipe as he looked out into the night. There were still a few stragglers from the herd, their humpbacked silhouettes standing out against the moonlight. Boss Teague hated the buffalo. There were just so many of them, constantly blocking progress. And where there were buffalo, there were undoubtedly Indians.

The great native tribes of the plains resented the coming of the smoke-belching monstrosity. As he leaned against the hard iron of the train car, he reasoned that he couldn't really blame them. He wasn't that fond of the Iron Horse himself. Or of his job, for that matter. Every man under him was his responsibility, and he wasn't all that ready to lead men again.

It irked him to think how similar building the railroad was to a military operation. He'd had enough of those, more than enough. Years of blood that had torn North and South apart. Now sweat and blood was being spilled to bind the country together, East to West. Thousands of men who had been shooting at each other a year ago now carried rails and drove spikes together. They were no longer carrying rifles, but they were still placing their lives in the hands of their superiors, just like they had before. And that sat in Boss Teague's gut like the cannonballs he'd thrown at Confederates.

Just then, a shadow emerged from the darkness beyond the line, and Boss Teague rested a hand on his revolver as a man in a gray coat and hat came closer. It was only a moment, however, before he let his sidearm be. The gray outfit wasn't a uniform anymore: it was just the only clothes the impoverished ex-soldier had.

The man stopped a few paces from Teague and pulled a grubby cigarette from his pocket. "Got a match, Boss?"

Taking a step forward, Boss Teague pulled a match from the pocket of his duster and held it out to the Confederate. "How is the prairie, Maj. Tiller?"

The major took a deep pull of his cigarette, turning his eyes toward the hastily-constructed corral where he'd put up his horse moments before. "Pretty quiet tonight. Saw horse droppings day before yesterday, tracks in softer spots. Ten, twelve riders. Fifteen at most."


"Cheyenne most likely." Tiller put out his cigarette and dropped it back in his pocket, turning as if to leave. "Riding northeast," he added, almost as an afterthought.

Boss Teague watched him heading back toward the corral. "So, they won't be bothering us?"

A simple shrug. "Not tonight."

* * *

There were seventeen days left on Farragut's sentence. The blazing sun had given way to pouring rain overnight. The rain flowed like a river off his slouch hat and duster. Still he drove the spikes, throwing beads of icy water into the air with every stroke of the hammer. The Irish kept the rails coming, sloshing through the mud as the wet iron tried to slip from their hands. In between hammer strokes, Jonas watched the boy. Though they were wearing heavy raincoats, their hats were narrow-brimmed, and the rain ran off and into their coats. After an hour of rain, the boy was shivering so badly that his teeth clattered together, and Jonas noticed the men casting worried glances at him.

Jonas grit his teeth as he swung the hammer again. There were only seventeen days left, and then he was out of this hell. Seventeen days of swinging this infernal hammer; thousands of spikes. He could head further west, make his way to California. The gold mines had filled his dreams since even before the war. He was only 22, so there was still plenty of time for him to make his fortune. Or perhaps he would head south, to the booming cattle ranches of Texas. He would have all the time in the world in seventeen days.

The sound of coughing brought his thoughts back to the present. He lowered his hammer to watch the approaching rail crew. The boy's coughing increased in intensity, and he staggered forward, losing his grip on the rail.

Jonas took his place, pushing the boy aside before the iron could come down on his leg. Dropping to his knees in the mud, the boy continued coughing, his shoulders heaving with the effort. One of the Irishmen nodded in silent gratitude to Jonas; the boy's father, if Jonas had to guess. Without a word, they moved forward again, laying the rail on the track. His hands free, Jonas pulled off his broad-brimmed hat as they walked back toward the boy. He set the hat on the child's head without a word, and kept on to the pile of rails to help the Irishmen carry another. Someone else would have to pick up the hammer.

Boss Teague came down the line at this point, and noticed the shivering form kneeling in the mud. He also saw the hatless murderer, carrying the iron rails with the boy's crew. The scowl that had been resting on his face since the rain started deepened as he stomped toward the crew. With one less man driving spikes, construction would quickly fall behind schedule.

When he reached the boy, he stooped to grip him by the high collar of his rain coat and pulled him to his feet. The job must have meant a lot to the boy's family, since he did his best to stop the shaking and smothered his cough. Teague looked him in the eyes a moment. He'd seen those eyes before. Staring out of the faces of the wounded and dying in Virginia, Georgia, and every other state ravaged by war. They were boys, sent to do men's work.

Still holding the boy on his feet, Teague practically dragged him back to the train. As he passed by, he turned his attention to the rail crew, who had stopped their work to watch him with the boy. "What are you standing there for?" Boss Teague bellowed. "You're down a man: I suggest you get moving!"

Hoisting another rail, the crew got back to work as Teague hauled the boy inside the train car to dry off and get warm. The boss returned some minutes later, carrying Farragut's slouch hat with him. He thrust the hat out to Jonas as he walked by. Giving the hat to the boy hadn't gone unnoticed. There was almost a hint of newly-earned respect in the boss's eye as he regarded the murderer he'd pressed into service, but his tone was gruff as usual.

"If we don't lay another two miles of track before lunch, I'm doubling your sentence, Farragut."

Jonas was too tired to protest. But putting his hat back on his head, he wiped the rain from his face and returned to the stack of iron rails. Four hundred rails to a mile. Eight hundred rails before lunch.

Boss Teague watched from beneath his broad-brimmed cavalry hat as the crew got back to work. Then, rotating his arms to loosen up his shoulders, he lifted the hammer Jonas had dropped in the mud and went to work driving the spikes himself.

* * *

A cloud of dust was just faintly visible on the horizon, as the work crews of the Union Pacific sat around eating their lunches. Jonas Farragut chewed the slab of buffalo meat slowly, letting his hardtack soak in the tin coffee cup that sat on the ground beside him. He had reached the halfway point, with only fifteen days left working on the railroad. In fifteen days, he could saddle his horse and ride off in whatever direction he pleased.

He looked up, still shielding his eyes from the sun, as a figure sat down next to him. It was the young Irish lad, whose name Jonas had learned was Walter O'Bannon. He squinted at the dust cloud for a moment before turning to Jonas.

"Someone said yer not a worker like the rest of us. Yer a prisoner, or somethin'?"

Jonas could feel the boy's eyes searching his face to make sure the question hadn't offended. Scooping the hardtack biscuit from his cup, he took a gulp of the mud-like coffee before answering. "Yep."

The boy chewed his food for a minute. "You killed somebody?"


Young O'Bannon looked down at his plate, thinking for a moment. Finally he asked, "Why did you help me out the other day if yer a killer?"

Jonas pushed his hat back and looked directly at the kid, who quickly turned away from his stare. "I've got no trouble with you," Jonas answered slowly. "The man I killed had it comin'."

With that, he finished his coffee and pulled his hat back over his eyes. Walter was silent for a while, but his eyes wandered over to the murderer every few moments. Finally Jonas shook his head, knowing the question the boy was too afraid to ask.

"Yes, it was murder. The man didn't have a gun." Jonas let out a sigh before continuing. "But he did have a knife, and I wasn't about to let him use it. You understand? I had to shoot him."

"That's what you said."

Walter O'Bannon was startled by the new voice. He hadn't heard Boss Teague approaching, but quickly scrambled to his feet on seeing the boss. Jonas never flinched, his eyes still hidden beneath his hat. Pushing his own hat back, Boss Teague squatted down in front of the murderer, but his words were directed at the boy.

"Mr. Farragut was a good soldier. Fought to protect the Union. I first met him just after Vicksburg. He was a good soldier, but even then I suspected something was off. And when he shot one of my workers in that gambling house three weeks back, I knew it. You see, kid, Mr. Farragut doesn't know the war's over." Teague stood up suddenly, with both hands resting on his gunbelt as he finished with, "He thinks he can still kill whoever he wants."

Jonas had ignored the boss's speech, but with the final verdict he turned his head up to glare at Teague. There was a rage behind his glare that sent a chill down young O'Bannon's spine, but Boss Teague seemed unfazed. He merely shook his head. There was no doubt in his mind that, if he'd still had his gun, Jonas would have drawn on him in that moment. And, to be completely fair, he wasn't entirely sure how that would have turned out. But Farragut's revolver was securely locked away in a safe aboard the train, so the gunman could only glare at his captor. But, after a few moments, the rage faded from his eyes, and he almost smiled.

Boss Teague shook his head again, then looked around at the other workers, who'd been watching the exchange in silent anticipation. "Well, what are you standing around for? Lunch time is over; let's lay some track!"

Jonas stood up and walked past Boss Teague without even a hint of animosity in his features. As young O'Bannon rejoined his countrymen hauling rails, Farragut picked up his hammer and went back to work. Teague watched him for a moment before turning his eyes back to the dust cloud in the distance. After all, he knew full well that the ex-soldier wasn't the only killer on the plains.

* * *

Maj. Asa Tiller rode out midafternoon to investigate the cloud that was already disappearing from view. Two days passed without word, and the railroad's construction continued without incident. Sixteen miles of track were put down; sixteen miles of Indian territory civilized under the wheels of the Union Pacific, and watered with the sweat of Yankees, Confederates, and Irishmen.

The Nebraska Territory had been prone to conflicts between the Indians and the new settlers from the beginning. In fact, the surveyors who had first mapped out the course for the Union Pacific rail line did so in direct violation of the Indian territories, risking their lives to conduct reconnaissance for what amounted to an invading army. Now, as that army moved west, waging a brutal war with the land itself, the Cheyenne and Sioux grew increasingly hostile. Raids against small, detached groups were relatively common, despite the increased security Union Pacific had provided their workers.

Part of that security was the use of scouts, usually former cavalrymen like Major Tiller. Tiller would ride out, a day or two at a time, and look for signs of any hostile groups coming too close to the construction site. If he encountered a war party, he would ride as fast as he could back to the railroad to warn them about the coming attack. So far, no attacks had been mounted on the train itself, but tensions still ran high. Two days without a sign of Tiller after everyone had seen that dust cloud set those tensions on edge.

On the morning of the third day, right after the crews had filed out of the train with their tools, someone spotted a rider on the horizon. It was Tiller, riding hard. There was something behind him, but the meager light of the early morning made it impossible to judge what it was.

Boss Teague brought out a spyglass to take a better look.

What he saw made him snap the telescope shut quickly and stride toward the train. "Hays! Bring out the rifles!"

The crews quickly dropped whatever they were doing and scrambled to find cover. Ducking behind a pile of iron rails, Farragut reached for his revolver, only to curse as he remembered he wasn't carrying it. He looked quickly toward the open door of the train, where Boss Teague, Gunner Hays, and Long Tom Coville had emerged, each carrying a bundle of rifles—Springfields, Henrys, and a few Spencers. The trio moved quickly down the line, handing out arms and munition to some of the better marksmen. The rest of the workers either crowded onto the train, or hunkered down to wait out the coming firefight.

By this point, everyone could see what was coming. Galloping behind Tiller—a dozen yards at most—was a Cheyenne war party, twenty to twenty-five riders strong. That was a larger war party than most of the men on the line had ever seen in person. Their numbers made them confident, but not stupid. As Tiller galloped up to the relative safety of the rail line, his pursuers pulled back on their reins, stopping short just out of rifle range. The Union Pacific men under Boss Teague's command had the advantage of numbers. The Cheyenne, though, were mobile. Each warrior an accomplished horseman, they could keep moving even while fighting, presenting a difficult target to the white men's guns and cutting around to prey on their flanks.

Jonas watched them circling just out of reach, like wolves eyeing a kill. What he wouldn't give for a rifle when the savage cavalry charged . . . 

Old Gunner Hays came back by, carrying a couple leftover rifles back toward the train. Jonas watched him pass with a mounting frustration. There was no way Hays would give him a gun, not with his reputation.

"Hold up, Hays," Boss Teague called. Both Hays and Jonas turned to the boss in some surprise, along with a half-dozen other men on the line. Teague was hunkered down behind a wheel of the train, ready to shoot under the car at the attackers. He nodded toward Jonas. "Give Farragut a Henry."

Gunner Hays scowled at Jonas through his gray muttonchops, but finally handed over a rifle and a box of cartridges before scurrying off to find shelter.

There was a spark in Farragut's eye that hadn't been seen since his sentence began. He worked the rifle's lever action, hearing the satisfying click of a .44 rimfire cartridge sliding into the chamber. The Henry rifle was a marvel of engineering, and the most advanced individual weapon on the market. Its 16-round tube magazine gave one soldier the firepower of an entire squad. Jonas could feel a grin spreading across his face as he looked down the sights.

Boss Teague looked his way again. "Let's see what you can do in a real fight, killer."

Jonas raised his hand in a mock salute before turning back to the war party. They were still circling warily, watching the invaders crouching around the Iron Horse. The employees of the Union Pacific waited in silent anticipation. Would the Cheyenne attack? Or would they just stalk the line, halting work until they decided to withdraw? There was really no way to know.

Until they charged.

The attack was sudden, without any sort of signal or a single moment where the die was irrevocably cast. One moment, the plains were calm, save for the snorting of a few horses. In the next instant, the sound of war cries and the thunder of hooves filled the air. The attacking warriors spread out in a wide arc, zig-zagging back and forth as they spurred their horses forward. Gunfire broke out all down the line, and the attackers answered with scattered gunshots of their own. The first volley had no effect on either side. But, as the Indians drew closer, their fire began to have an effect, picking off men here and there whenever they appeared from behind cover.

The gunfire from the rail workers, however, continued to be largely ineffective, due to the wild motions of the mounted attackers. While their shots were persistent enough and near-accurate enough to keep the Cheyenne from getting too bold in pressing their attack, they had yet to inflict any casualties.

As the riders came within fifteen yards of the railroad, they wheeled their horses suddenly and darted off to the side, galloping lengthwise along the line as they continued their barrage.

Jonas was surprised to see that many of the braves were armed with repeating rifles, either Spencer carbines or Henry rifles, while the remainder carried either single-shot Springfields or even large-bore Sharps. Jonas himself hadn't fired yet, but as the Cheyenne rode down the line, he peered across the top of the iron rails and took aim at a warrior on a speckled mare.

This particular warrior was relatively young, probably no older than Jonas himself, but like Jonas he certainly knew his way around a rifle. Jonas smiled as he watched the young man ride. He was a proud fighter, his bare chest covered in tribal paint and bold hues of the paint reaching up to his face. He rode high, his Spencer carbine belching smoke as he galloped along in defense of his ancestors' homeland. Jonas could certainly respect that.

Drawing in a deep breath, he squeezed the trigger.

The speckled mare reared up, snorting as the warrior slumped forward and slid off the horse's shoulder. His body hit the ground with a dull thud that was barely audible amidst the din of the battle.

A part of Jonas couldn't deny that he regretted being such a skilled marksman. He wondered if anyone would mourn the fallen warrior. For that matter, he couldn't help wondering who would mourn him if he fell today. Then he calmly worked the lever of his Henry, and took aim again.

The other riders wheeled their horses once more, retreating in order to circle around for another attack. As they turned, several more shots rang out from the railroad side, and another warrior dropped from his steed. The next instant brought a brief lull in the fighting as the horsemen slipped out of range.

Jonas took advantage of the calm to survey the losses on their own side. Despite their cover, the Union Pacific crews were clustered more closely together, and the attacking Cheyenne were excellent horse soldiers. Seven workers were down, and although two of them had only minor injuries, the others seemed more serious. From his position, Jonas couldn't see which were dead and which were alive.

The Cheyenne braves sat just outside rifle range. They held their rifles at the ready, as their horses skittered nervously back and forth. One warrior, who seemed to be the leader of the war party, scanned the faces of the men opposite. They were afraid, a few were even terrified. But most of the men of the Union Pacific—the veterans of a horrible war between North and South—seemed resolute, determined to fight in spite of their fear.

Prone behind the train car, Boss Teague clutched at the rail in front of him. He tried to control his breathing even as he watched the war party. Most of the braves were young, and seemed eager to fight. He wondered how many of them had actually seen death before. Two of the warriors were down, one wounded and one dead. But Teague knew that for every warrior that fell there were a dozen more that could take their place. This was their land, after all. The men of the Union Pacific were American citizens, on American land, but they were still the outsiders. And they were still outnumbered.

The chieftain scowled at the Iron Horse, and at the miles of track extending behind it. An iron road from the east, bringing death to his way of life. There was nothing he wouldn't do to stop the invasion, to protect the land where his ancestors were buried, the land the Great Spirits had given to him and his people. And yet, if he continued to attack here and now, his braves would die. And the Iron Horse would continue westward, rolling right over their corpses if it had to.

They had taken lives today. They had slowed the train down. There would be other days, other battles. For now, it was enough. Casting a final, hate-filled gaze at the Iron Horse, the chieftain turned his mount sharply, and galloped away from the white men. With angry glances over their shoulders, his warriors followed, promising themselves that they would strike the railroad again.

Jonas exhaled slowly as the rumble of hooves drifted away. A few relieved cheers went up along the line, but most of the men simply bowed their heads or tended to their wounded, grateful the skirmish had ended so quickly. Jonas looked to Boss Teague. To his surprise, the gruff former colonel was standing bent over at the waist, looking as if he might vomit his breakfast onto the ground as he steadied himself with one hand against the train car. It was only a moment, though, before Teague stood up and straightened his hat. Color returned to his face, and his features hardened.

"Alright, then," he bellowed down the line, "let's get the wounded taken care of and the dead buried. Come on, move it!" his gaze turned to Jonas. "Mr. Hays, collect the rifles."

As Hays came by, Jonas surrendered his Henry rifle without a fuss, though his eyes did linger on its smooth octagon barrel, and the shiny brass receiver. At the same time, he couldn't help noticing that Teague avoided looking at the firearms, almost as if he resented them.

Jonas thought about that unguarded moment, when the unshakeable Boss Teague had nearly buckled as the Cheyenne war party rode away. Then he shrugged, as he looked around for his hammer.

War could do strange things to men.

* * *

The final day of Jonas Farragut's sentence was over. Jonas sat on his horse, holding the reins loosely in his calloused hands. He was leaving the Union Pacific and its Transcontinental Railroad behind. There were better opportunities and easier ways to make a living in the wild expanses that the railroad was opening up. He'd spent his teenage years with a rifle in hand, learning to march and ride, to go without sleep or food, and to live on his own terms. For a man like him, the wild west was a paradise in spite of the dangers.

Gunner Hays emerged from the back of the train, carrying a Sharps carbine, a saddlebag full of beans and bullets, and a gunbelt with a LeMat revolver. Jonas grinned as he looked at the weaponry. Hays thrust it toward him begrudgingly as Boss Teague approached.

Fastening his gunbelt around his waist, Jonas turned to the Boss. "Come to see me off, colonel?"

Boss Teague laid a hand on the shoulder of Jonas' mare. He decided to ignore the way Farragut stressed his title, as if to show that he didn't have to call him "boss" anymore. "Yep, I'm here to wish you luck, Farragut." He extended his hand to the gunslinger. After a moment, Jonas accepted his handshake, and Teague pulled him forward in the saddle to look directly in his eyes. "If you want your luck to last, I recommend you get out of the territory. You may have put in your thirty days, but you still killed a man. If it happens again, I won't be able to help you."

Jonas nodded, so Teague released the handshake and took a step back. Jonas Farragut straightened in the saddle and, with a subtle movement of his wrist, pointed his horse west. Several men along the line had stopped their work to watch the gunslinger ride out. Young O'Bannon, holding the hammer Jonas wouldn't be using anymore, gazed in almost reverential awe at the now fully-decked out figure on horseback. It was a sight like nothing he'd ever seen before, with the fringes on the buckskin coat, the broad-brimmed black hat, and the strange-looking revolver gleaming on the rider's hip.

"Farragut," Teague called out, just before the gunslinger set his spurs. Jonas turned to look at the rail boss over his shoulder, one hand on the reins, the other on his gun. Teague looked at him with what almost looked like sadness in his eyes. "The war is over," he said. "You should move on."

Jonas Farragut smiled at him for a moment. He looked back at the miles of track laid, and saluted the colonel in a final farewell. Then, with a soft laugh, he rode out. Heading west.

The End

Samuel Kennedy is a blogger, author, and unapologetic fan of the Western genre. His first published short story, Thirty Days 'Til Freedom is meant to be an honest look at the real difficulties of taming a frontier—and at the type of men it took to get the job done. Samuel Kennedy can be found online at: https://samuelkennedywritesstuff.home.blog/

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Clear Creek Bounty, Part 1 of 3
by Benjamin Thomas

Late afternoon shadows fell across the rickety wagon as it made its methodical way down the rough incline of Clear Creek Canyon. Leland Gordon shaded his eyes with one hand while holding the reins to the two mules with the other. Worn a little over the ears and parted near the middle, his hair was more gray than black these days. They were four days outside of Idaho Springs and he grunted to himself, satisfied at what he saw.

"Charlie, honey," he said over his shoulder. Charlene, his 18-year-old granddaughter, was supposed to be resting in the back of the wagon but was more likely to be sulking. She always liked to work the reins herself. "We've arrived. Time to start settin' up."

No response at first but then there came a low moan from the wagon followed by, "Alright Pops. I'll start getting dressed."

"Make sure you put on that new dress darlin'. You know the one I mean."

"Yes Pops."

Half an hour later, the wagon had been positioned strategically inside one of the largest mining camps on the South Platte River. It lay at the base of the Rocky Mountains, east of Golden City. Leland had researched the area in preparation for this job and knew that Clear Creek was originally named Cannonball Creek as early as 1820. The French hunters of the expedition of Stephen H. Long had named it so after the river rocks in its bed. In the 1830s it became known as Vasquez Fork or Vasquez River, after the fur trader Louis Vasquez, who had his fort at the mouth of the river. It had gained its present name from the gold rushers in 1859, almost two years ago.

Leland's wagon had gained little attention thus far, such was the nondescript nature of it. The inhabitants of the hectic camp were scurrying about and too busy to care about yet another mule-drawn wagon. Another half hour would see the setting of the lazy sun and everybody hustled to get their activities finished up while there was still light to see by. Some had their own light sources and prepared to strain and drain throughout the night hoping to wring one more shiny nugget from their efforts.

But satisfaction with the location settled on Leland's features. He had backed the wagon up next to a large clear area that was staked out for a building of some kind yet to be built. The jammed-together tents of miners and equipment suppliers surrounded it. From where he stood at the back of the wagon, he let his pale blue eyes scan across the tops of the tents. There were a number of rough buildings with signs for saloons, assayer's offices, chow halls, and so forth. The further the sun sank, he noted, the more whores appeared on the muddy pathways.

"Ready Charlie?" he asked. "I've got the lanterns in position."

His granddaughter poked her head out of the wagon and wrinkled her nose. "It sure does stink here."

"I suppose they get used to it." Leland glanced at her and then did a double-take. "Aren't you a little old for pig tails?"

"Oh, thanks. I forgot." She proceeded to remove the cloth wraps from her hair, allowing the soft curled locks to spring free and swirl about her head. The effect was like a churning ball of dancing fire.

"How's that?" Charlene smiled. Her flaming red hair was always cut short and never anything but wild. She couldn't tame it no matter what she tried so it was easier to let it do its thing. A liberal supply of freckles sprinkled across her cheeks only enhanced the effect.

"Honey, with that dress on I'm starting to rethink this approach." Leland winked at her, satisfied with the resulting blush. He had to be happy she still did that, given the nature of their lives these days.

"OK. Enough lolly-gagging," said Leland. He stomped one foot in the dirt like a bull preparing to charge. "Time to get this show started." He grabbed a coarse rope attached to the very top of the wagon and gave it a firm tug.

The wagon transformed like magic. Large pieces of wood slid down into place at the back of the wagon forming a raised platform. A rickety set of steps led up to it. Colorful painted leather signs unfurled on all sides reading:

  "Leland's Liniments and Miracle Elixirs!"

"Cures Disease, Smooths Wrinkles, Removes Stains, Prolongs Life!"

"Safe! Swift! Effective!"

Leland wasted no time in shuffling out several sample display cases. Then he jumped nimbly up to the platform, jamming a top hat on his head. At the same time, Charlene emerged from the confines of the wagon. She was careful to not let her long shimmering sleeveless golden dress drag through the mud. Her usual trousers always provided her with freedom of movement. Why did dresses always have to be so damned confining? This one had a slit in the side which made it easier. She hoped Pops wouldn't notice its extra length, a result of some swift work with scissors and thread last night. That slit along with her corset-boosted cleavage should attract and maintain plenty of attention. And that was the point, after all.

Charlene struck a lucifer match, lighting a short fuse that in turn set off a dozen or so firecrackers. All the bluster cut through the general cacophony of the camp. Heads swung toward the wagon, eyebrows raised in curiosity. Strange sights and odd noises, even the occasional discharge of a pistol, were commonplace but here was something new.

A small crowd gathered.

"Keep a look-out for Padgett," Leland reminded his granddaughter. "He may have shaved off his mustache since that wanted poster was printed. Course I doubt he'll give up his trademark suspenders. They say he made them from dried human skin."

Charlene rolled her eyes. "Talk about twisted. I know he uses them to intimidate people but that's plain crazy." She shook her head and added, "I'll watch for him Pops. You just do your thing." She grabbed a couple of bottled samples and then strode around to the assembling crowd. She made sure to keep her smile sweet but firm. A few whistles and catcalls rose from the men adding to the growing size of the cluster around the wagon.

"Come one, come all," came Leland's booming voice from atop the platform, a shade deeper than his normal tones. He had a marvelous ability to project his voice when necessary. "Step right up and hear of the miracle elixir from yours truly, the famous Leland Gordon. A cure-all for whatever ails you! You heard that right! It doesn't matter if you're suffering from coughs, boils, constipation or hemorrhoids. One bottle will cure it. Dysentery? Not to worry. Effluvium? It cures that too. What I want to offer you, my friends is no mere medicine. It's far more than that! It's a tonic, an elixir to purge the body and lift the spirits!"

Leland lifted a bottle in one hand while pointing at individuals in the crowd with the other. He was trying his best to affect a more New England tone than his Scottish heritage would allow.

"You sir. Could that be a case of lockjaw? Just ten dollars a bottle will take care of that overnight. I hear you can pull that much gold out of the ground in these parts in less than 20 minutes. Or you," he pointed at an older man near the back of the crowd. "I sure hope you aren't suffering from Scrofula but from here, it would appear so. Well, I'm here to tell you, sir, you should never have to suffer from such a skin disease as the King's Evil. No sir. One bottle of Leland's Miracle Elixir for just ten dollars will have the ladies swooning all over you in no time."

A low laughter rippled through the crowd.

"Or if you're a little down on your luck and feel the need to revive your sagging spirit. Well friends, my nostrum works twice as well as the rotgut whiskey you've been swimming in and without the head-splitting after-effects."

"I'll take two," came a call from near the front. Charlene took that as her cue and started passing out bottles in exchange for cash or even a bit of gold dust. Leland started jabbering on about other creams, ointments, and psychics. He made unbelievable claims that nevertheless had the gathered men rapt with attention. Charlene smiled at Leland's technique. He had a gift for playing this type of role. Forcing herself to tune it out, she circulated through the gathering. Frank Padgett was out there somewhere. To find him would be a difficult task though, she soon realized, due to the general conditions of the camp. The dirt these men wore was nothing if not consistent. Dull brown seemed to be the fashion for all. Faces and the hair upon them tended to look the same with so much dirt and dust ground into them.

After a while, the crowd started to grow a little restless and some began to wander off.

"How much for Red?" came a call from a younger man in the middle of the packed crowd. "She can cure what ails me in no time."

"In no time is right, Carmondy" came an answering call. "That's how long you'd last with a filly like her."

More laughter.

"Mr. Carmondy, is it?" Charlene shouted over the hubbub. She had recognized that name as one of Padgett's gang. "No real need for me to examine your boneless pork to know Leland's elixir can cure even the most hopeless cases!"

The entire gathering roared with laughter. Charlene raised one bare arm high in the air, acknowledging their appreciation. Carmondy's smile disappeared from his lips and he stalked off in retreat. Leland smothered a grin of his own, knowing he needed to take back control.

"You there, mister. That's right, you in the black hat and the duster." Leland's outstretched arm pointed at a tall man who lurked at the edge of the crowd. "A Pinkerton man, if I'm not mistaken. Perhaps you could tell us what might be bothering you and I can proscribe an appropriate cure from my wagon."

The subject of Leland's question was a tall, rugged, broad-shouldered man who wore a dangerous look the way pumas looked at wounded mule deer. His eyes were steely-gray and he wore a full mustache that drooped over his upper lip. Beneath the long duster, his hips were narrow and one could easily see a Colt .45 Peacemaker nestled there. It wasn't hard to imagine a second on the opposite side, strung low for a quick draw.

Doffing his hat and revealing a full head of obsidian-black hair to match his mustache, the man smiled. He allowed his gaze to move away from Leland and towards the crowd. The quiet built as he massaged his hat, the color of a newborn fawn. It had a hand-rolled brim and a healthy pinch in the crown.

Finally, the man spoke in a deep baritone. "I'm afraid nothing from that wagon can help me in the slightest, unless, maybe you're hiding Frank Padgett and his gang inside."

A low murmur rippled through the gathered men.

Charlene could see a jagged scar over the man's right eyebrow. "Are you huntin' a bounty, sir?"

"I am. Edward Flint's my name but most folks call me Tandy."

More murmurs from the men this time accompanied by some shuffling of feet and more than one head bobbing down as if to avoid being seen. Whispers of 'It's Tandy Flint' and 'Tandy the Tracker" floated on the still air.

"Well sir," came a voice from somewhere in the thick of the throng. "I seen Carmondy there working with Padgett. Heard tell of that bunch working out of someplace up in the hills. They don't seem to be minin' though." Charlene tried to make out who had spoken but from her position on the ground, she couldn't see over the taller men's heads.

"Carmondy?" repeated Flint. "I would be pleased to make his acquaintance if anybody saw where he ran off to."

It seemed nobody had.

Except Leland. From his position on the platform at the back of the wagon, he had been able to see everything clearly. Carmondy had left after Charlene's timely quip had cut him down to size. He had stomped off past a newish-looking saloon with a hastily-painted sign over the door reading "Robby's Roost". From there he had been swallowed by a swarm of tents that advertised a host of gambling opportunities. The man had a distinctive gate, probably the result of an ankle injury at some point. He shouldn't be too hard to locate and that should then lead them to Padgett.

Time to wrap up the sales effort. The plan was working out just as he'd hoped.

* * *

"We cain't ignore this, Frank," Nate Remine said in his high-pitched voice. "If what Carmondy says is true, then we got Tandy Flint on our trail. That guy don't stop to let the clover grow under his boots."

Frank Padgett stared at Nate and let one hand play with his thick bristly mustache. It curled up on one side but not on the other. Light from the sole lantern in the tent cast playful shadows that contradicted the mood inside the small tent.

Finally, Padgett glanced around at the other four men and said, "We got a good thing going here. I'm not ready to vamoose." His deep voice was raspy like a trail drover fresh off a round-up. Pausing briefly and still playing with the one side of his mustache he seemed to consider for a moment before continuing. "If we pull up stakes now, we'll be leaving behind all we've built over the past month or so. And with the amount of color we've heard tell of, and the dust we've seen, the businesses around here are anxious to pay to secure their operations. And at a hefty price too. Who else would be able to provide that public service as good as us?" His grin was as wide as it was devious.

Some chuckles greeted that but more subdued than it might have been.

A stringy-haired thin man from Mexico named Reymundo Aguire spoke up, "I say we ambush heem. Don't let heem push us around."

"I don't know," started Cat Maes, a wiry youngster with long brown hair tied back in a ponytail. "You know Tandy's reputation, right? They say he can track a feller over bare stone for miles and tell you what he's had for breakfast, his shoe size, and whether or not he's married. He's a killer too. Never lost a gun battle and always brings in his quarry, man or beast. He wouldn't just stumble into no ambush."

"Easy there, Cat, said Padgett. "Let's not make him out to be some sort of mystical force of nature. He's a man like any other and he'll bleed like any other." One more stare down with each of his men as if to gauge their mettle.

All managed to meet his eye except for Nate who kept his glued to the glow of the lantern. He was a chubby man with a short wispy blonde beard and big round eyes that were always darting about. It gave him a look of perpetual nervousness that matched his demeanor.

Padgett frowned, grunted, and then reached across the narrow gap and slapped Nate hard across the cheek. "Wake up, man. We either take care of this Tandy problem or he'll take care of us."

"Yes sir!" Nate's left cheek glowed red from the force of the slap.

Padgett seemed content with that answer so settled back and started playing with his mustache once again.

"We'll ambush him all right. But we'll set him up for the fall first." He glanced over at Carmondy. "Tom, since you're the one who seen him, and let him see you, I want you to let it slip that we're going to be up at the ranch house. You know the one I mean? That one up in the hills west of here that we passed by on the way."

Carmondy looked glum but knew when to take orders. "That one up near Quartz Hill? Sure I know it. But why let Tandy know where we're going to be?"

"Because we won't be there. We're going to set up our ambush on the trail a smidge south of there."

Aguire spoke up again, "You do not think he would suspect an ambush?"

Padgett smiled a deep satisfied smile and let the questioning silence linger for a bit. Finally, he said, "I've seen men like Tandy all my life. They get a reputation like he has and they start to get comfortable. Too comfortable. They start to rely on their reputations and let that do all the work for 'em. No, he'll plan to ride right up to that ranch house and flush us out or some such plan he'll formulate. But he won't know that we know he's coming so he won't be expecting an ambush. It'll be quick and easy and then we can all get back to weighing down our pockets with little gold nuggets."

Nods and smiles came to the other four men in the tent; it was difficult to tell which ones were forced.

* * *

Charlene had completed the conversion of the wagon back to its original configuration by the time Leland returned and poked his head back inside.

"Did you find Carmondy?"

"Better than that," he grunted. "I found Padgett himself and the rest of his men." He heaved himself up into the back of the wagon and saw Billy Swain was already inside. He grinned at him.

"You did a fine job there, 'Tandy'", he winked.

"Thanks boss," replied the rough-looking man who had posed earlier as the Pinkerton Bounty Hunter, Tandy Flint. "It's pretty easy to play a role like that. Merely gotta let the reputation carry you through."

Charlene squirmed with impatience. "So what'd you find out, Pops?"

Leland told them how he had followed Carmondy, asking around and tracing his movements to one of the tents out near the edge of the large camp. Then it had only been a matter of positioning himself nearby, trying to filter out the rest of the rowdy camp noise so he could eavesdrop on Padgett's plan. For a moment, he had thought of trying to take them all right then and there but one against five, even with the element of surprise would have been foolish. "It seems Padgett's gang is running a bullying scheme of some kind. They're making the local saloons and other business owners pay for their protective services."

"Ah," said Billy. "I've seen that sort of thing before. One time, the theater troupe I belonged to up in Frisco had to pay a local gang to keep them from causing disturbances at our performances. That's low, if you ask me."

"Yes, and a not unexpected occupation for our Mr. Padgett," said Leland. "So now we know where they plan to ambush you, Billy. It should only be a matter of me riding up there in your place and springing their trap. They won't harm me because I'll be an innocent passer-by. They'll still have to take me back to their ranch house hide-out to keep me from alerting anybody."

"Or, they might just shoot you," said Charlene. "You know how these plans of yours never go exactly the way you say they will."

"No, I don't think they'll do that, at least not right away. They won't want to risk anybody investigating my disappearance, at least not yet. I told the crowd tonight that I'd be back to follow-up on their use of the elixirs we sold."

Charlene didn't seem convinced. "I suppose with Tandy Flint in town they won't be targeting anybody but him. But after that . . . "

"Yes, after that . . . well, they'll no doubt make me disappear for good as a way of letting everybody know they aren't to be trifled with. That would help their bullying business. It's a short term victory for them at best but based on what I overheard tonight, short-term is the way they think."

"So how does that get us any closer to capturing Padgett and his gang and collecting the bounty?" Billy looked pensive, a normal expression of his when he wasn't playing a role. "We'll be one man down. Won't that put us deeper in the hole?"

Leland grinned at him once again and then grabbed an old sackcloth from the side of the wagon where it hung from a rusty nail. "Behold my latest and greatest colic treatment," he said, pulling a small stoppered glass bottle filled with green-tinged liquid. "It's actually a sleep draught, guaranteed to knock out somebody for ten hours or more. Not even a buffalo stampede would rouse them." He shrugged and added, "Hell of a headache when they wake up though."

Charlene glanced across at Billy and said, "So the plan is for Pops to get captured, then get them to drink that stuff somehow. Then when they're dead to the world, you and I will be on hand to tie them up nice and tidy and prepare to cart 'em back to Denver to collect the bounty."

"Sounds easy." Billy cocked an eyebrow. "Maybe too easy. Remember I'm Billy Swain, not actually Tandy Flint. I've shot a gun only twice in my life and didn't hit nothing, either time."

"Don't worry about that," said Leland. "We only hired you for your acting talent, not your gunslinger skills. We just need you to get back out there now and be seen around camp as Tandy Flint. Keep up the swagger and dropping hints about looking for Padgett and his boys. Make sure folks know they're accused of robbing the stage from the Butterfield Overland Mail Company. Also that they're wanted for the murder of a sheriff's deputy in Taos. Folks like to know specifics and robbing a mail coach is nothing short of downright evil. It would be good if the miners here are on our side. Meantime, Charlie and I will get a couple of hours shut eye so we can be ready for the next step. I'll be riding out early to get caught up in their ambush while Charlie follows behind to find out the location of their hideout. It's somewhere up near a place called Quartz Hill."

Silence filled the wagon and there didn't seem to be any more questions. So Billy climbed back out of the wagon, instantly assuming the persona of the infamous Pinkerton bounty hunter and strode off toward the various saloons where revelry remained in full swing.

End Part 1 of 3

Benjamin Thomas is a retired US Air Force Medical Service Corps officer, having enjoyed medical assignments all over the US and in several hospital administrator positions in Germany and The Netherlands. He has also worked on the National Transplant program for Veteran's Affairs and in support of DoD medical services.

Benjamin is the author of several short stories in a variety of genres and is currently working on his first novel. He has been a lifelong voracious reader and respected reviewer of all forms of literature. Although he has been writing fiction stories in multiple genres for most of his life, this is his first short story in the Western realm.

A native of New Mexico, Benjamin has always been a "westerner" at heart and currently makes his home with his wife Mary in Colorado Springs at the foot of Pikes Peak.

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