April, 2020

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Issue #127

All The Tales

Dust to Dussst
by Gary Kadlec

The hissing was maddening. And loud, as loud as the rattling. Rattlesnakes! Leroy Dust was surrounded by them, as he lay on his aching side in the endless dark. Then came the bites. Venomous fangs sank into his arms, his face, his fleshy neck. It was excruciatingly painful, and then some. Enough poison was pumping through his veins to kill a horse a thousand times over, yet they kept striking. And, somehow, the rattling got even louder.

Dust jolted awake on the couch where he'd leaned over in sleep. Heart pounding, adrenaline rushing, he jerked upright. Stay awake! Instinctively he felt his face and his neck, his fingers finding the scratches left by Mrs. Dudley. She had fought desperately, yet futilely, to escape his grasp and certain death.

The loud rattling continued. Tom Dudley was outside clattering at the gate where he kept his horses. Then came footfalls on the porch, cautious yet purposeful. The front door opened, Dudley barely looking surprised by the broken lock and unwelcome visitor. His face hardened as his gaze fell upon Leroy Dust, sitting on his couch just a few steps away.

"Well, howdy!" Dust said in mock joviality, beady eyes blinking in the low-lit room. He repositioned his Winchester rifle across his lap to point slightly to the left of the shadow Dudley's head cast on the wall. It wouldn't take anything close to a sharp shot to kill the man from this distance. The unwelcome intruder certainly wasn't a marksman, but his aim had been enough to kill once tonight, and he knew he wouldn't miss his target this time either.

Leroy Dust had been traveling westward for some time now, arriving in town as a nuisance, and leaving as a cheat, thief, killer, and coward. He passed himself off as a daring gunfighter in these small Texas towns where shootouts were the best way to settle disputes. Truth be told, he preferred to avoid gunplay. Partly because he was such a lousy shot, and mostly because fair play just wasn't in his nature. He left town suddenly and gutlessly when he could, and shot men down from the back when he couldn't.

His running had brought him to the tiny town of Stopover, Texas, where his soiled reputation had not preceded him. Dust had initially planned to settle there, maybe even look for something resembling honest work. Inevitably, though, his true nature came out, and he fell back on taking what wasn't his, whatever and whenever he wanted. Now Stopover knew his name, and it was time to move on. His welcome was as worn out as his ill-fitted boots.

Tom Dudley knew that death was here in his home. It had come for his wife, and now for him. He'd been aware of this possibility, or perhaps eventuality. Resigned to the reality in front of him, he closed the door, then lit the lamp. Dust shifted slightly on the couch, blinking and steadying his rifle. Dudley's chin dropped. Seeing the villain in front of him confirmed beyond doubt what the smell of death and gunpowder had alluded to. Any light left in his eyes was extinguished; all that remained was acknowledgement and resignation. He glanced to the left to the bedroom, where his Rebecca's body lay. Suddenly agitated, he blurted, "We were supposed—"

Dust cut him off. "We were supposed to settle all this tomorrow, that what you were gonna say? Yeah, it was. And I, I was SUPPOSED to leave your wife alone. Well, things don't always go the way they're supposed to. We're going to settle all this tonight."

Clearly with the upper hand, Dust took time to make it unpleasant, as he had Mrs. Dudley's departure. "I kissed the little woman goodbye for you." Spitting out of the corner of his mouth, he ordered, "Now you just stay where you are." He gestured with the rifle, a scant few yards from Dudley's head.

No way out, but still, Tom Dudley drew himself up tall, and raised his chin.

Easy target, Dust thought. But not just yet.

"So, you been putting in long hours at the graveyard, Dudley?" Leroy Dust mocked. Standing up to jab the rifle barrel at Dudley's filthy shirt, he added, "Just look at you, bringing your work home with you." He smirked. "How's it feel, bein' a gravedigger with hisself for a client? I hope you dug a nice big one today."

Tom met his eyes. He was not a proud man, but he was more man than Dust ever would be. Sadly, his demise had been in the offing, from the moment they'd crossed paths. It had been two nights prior, when the inebriated Leroy Dust had laid hands on Mrs. Dudley. Then, Mr. Dudley laid a large calloused hand on him. He'd knocked Dust squarely onto his rear, looked him squarely in the eye, and issued a challenge. It was the way things got handled here in Stopover.

Dust had been embarrassed, spat out venom and vulgarities and a couple front teeth. He accepted Tom Dudley's challenge, but it was all for show. There'd be no showdown, no duel, and certainly no bullet with Leroy Dust's name on it. He'd be well out of town on Friday when the clock struck high noon.

Leroy felt playful, like a cat before it kills. "How old are you, Dudley? Fifty-five? Sixty?" Tom said nothing, but the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth gave an approximate answer. "Yeah, I'll say sixty, old man! Well, you know what's good about being old? It means you ain't gonna die young." He watched the man's eyes track desperately across the room to the drawer where his pistol was. It may as well have been across the Rio Grande Valley.

Tom Dudley had no options. He'd lived as a man; he'd die as one too. He lunged at his violent intruder in a desperate, fatal decision. The gun that won the West bucked once. "Right between the eyebrows," Dust observed drily, over the rifle's echoing crack.

Both Dudleys lay dead in their home. Time to get the hell out of wherever the hell I am, Dust thought. He left the grisly scene without looking back. No conscience condemned him. The only thought he had was that he might oughta go back in and fix something to eat; killing always made him hungry. But no. Best to get on the road, and stop at the next town.

He left what had once been the Dudleys' happy home, Winchester slung over his shoulder. "In for a penny," he cackled, adding horse thief to his resume as he saddled Dudley's horse up and rode away. He guided the mount roughly through the gate; he figured to be in Sand Spurs by sunrise. Perhaps by then someone would be missing the Dudleys, but it would not be Leroy Dust.

* * *

Dudley's horse, Leroy's now, seemed to know the way out of town. It picked up speed on the darkened trail as Dust cruelly spurred it on. The moon hid behind the clouds, ashamed of Dust and his doings. No shame for the thieving murderer, though, who murmured, "Now leaving Stopover: Population 1543, no, make that 1541."

Then, he was flying through the darkness, as if in a dream. The nightmare began as he violently reached the bottom of a chasm; one he hadn't seen in the darkened road ahead. The horse had seen it, though. It appeared to look down at Dust before disappearing. Leroy Dust cursed the horse, his twisted leg, and his misfortune. It dawned on him that this was no accident. Tom Dudley had dug a big grave. A familiar sound interrupted his thought. Hissing. Rattling. A lot of each. And, just as in his nightmare, the rattlesnakes collected by the late Tom Dudley began to strike. They lashed out in a frenzy, infuriated by the intrusion of their lair. Dust had scarcely a moment to contemplate his fate. He might have prayed, if he thought there was any chance of being heard. There was no hope, no prayer, only screams of agony. The third death one night in Stopover was the least mourned. And most deserved.

The End

Gary Kadlec writes twist fiction, which, like life, has unexpected turns and rarely goes as planned. It's a wild read, and you never know exactly where you'll end up. You can find more works of Twist Fiction at www.garykadlec.com

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The Road to Silver Prairie
by Samuel Kennedy

A Dusty Road Somewhere in Texas—July 29, 1868

The stage driver pulled up short. Masked figures holding repeating rifles had appeared from behind the brush on either side of the road. Three more on horseback emerged behind him. And two additional riders waited on the trail ahead. He thought about whipping the horses onward and charging past, but one look at the rifles convinced him otherwise.

The guard riding beside him held his shotgun at the ready, leveled at one of the men on foot. Like the driver, he was unsure what to do next, but the sound of a revolver cocking less than a foot from his head decided for him.

"You hold that shotgun by the barrel and hand it to me real slow," said the rider beside him. Strangely enough, the voice behind the mask sounded like that of a woman. Her right hand held the reins, while her left held a Colt Dragoon.

He did as she asked, though, slowly handing the shotgun over. Once she had it, she returned revolver to her gunbelt and aimed the scattergun at his head instead. The moment he was unarmed, one of the men on foot pulled him down off the stage and the other climbed up to take his place. The one who had pulled him down now kept watch over him with a Sharps carbine, while the robber on top of the coach opened the hatch beneath the driver's bench and pulled out a heavy strongbox.

"Here it is," he exclaimed triumphantly. "On its way to a Yankee bank."

"Careful there," said the woman with the shotgun. "Don't forget your friend is a Yank." She nodded toward the man with the Sharps, who responded by tipping his broad-brimmed hat.

The man on top of the coach shrugged, then turned to poke the barrel of a Remington 1858 revolver into the driver's ribs. "Which one of you has the key?"

The driver swallowed, his face pale. He kept both hands on the reins. "My shirt pocket."

"Thanks a lot, friend."

The box was open a moment later. The masks hid the bandits' smiles, but not the gleam in their eyes as they saw the sacks of gold coin completely filling the box.

"Alright," said the leader, turning on her horse, "fill your saddle bags and let's move out."

The bandit on top of the stage chuckled as he put his revolver away. He was still chuckling as he started passing pouches full of gold to the other bandits.

  A Livery Stable in Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory—August 7, 1868

Wiping the perspiration from his brow, Eleazar Jessup studied the harness with his one good eye as the teamster hitched up the horses. He chewed his tobacco slowly. "This stage leaves in ten minutes. Think you can have her ready by then?"

The man cinched down the strap on the lead horse. "Ready and waiting, boss."

Jessup nodded in approval, turning to look through the open barn door at the Cantina Del Rey, where the passengers had already begun to gather for the trip to Silver Prairie. Three, no, four of them so far. The old driver leaned against the doorframe as he sized his passengers up. Of the four, two were what he would call dangerous.

The first—who'd come in on the Denver and Santa Fe Stage Line yesterday—was Bill Huxton. There was no mistaking him for anything other than a gunslinger. He looked to be about thirty, probably a veteran from the war. He was clean-shaven with a face tanned almost like leather, and deep blue eyes that seemed to take in everything in his surroundings at once.

The gunbelt on his waist was well-worn but also well-cared for, and the 1860 Army Colt sat ready in its holster. A second revolver rested in a cross-draw holster on his other hip. He was travelling light, with a single pack and a McClellan saddle, and a rifle wrapped in an Arapaho blanket.

Jessup chewed his tobacco thoughtfully as his eye drifted over the other figures sitting outside the cantina. Next to Huxton was Mr. Ulbricht, a Silver Prairie native Jessup had taken on the coach a few times before. Then there was Elizabeth Tulley, on her way to meet up with family in Silver Prairie. Her clothes and mannerisms showed she had grown up somewhere in the East.

The fourth passenger was another gun-hand, or at least he seemed to be. He had only just stepped out of the cantina and joined the others, leaning against the pueblo wall with a broad-brimmed hat shielding his eyes from the sun but allowing his red hair to flow down onto his shoulders. His buckskin jacket was decorated with fringes and beads, he wore white cavalry gloves, and had a saddlebag thrown over his shoulder. Probably a former scout. Definitely dangerous.

A Spencer carbine leaned against the wall next to him. There was a Remington 1858 in his gunbelt, and an ivory-handled Bowie knife on his opposite hip. His face was as tanned as Huxton's and—like Huxton—it was the eyes more than the weaponry that marked him as a gunslinger. Cool, intelligent, and constantly searching. His eyes were those of a man who expected danger to arise from any direction, but who also knew from harsh experience that he was up to most challenges.

Jessup grunted, spitting another mouthful of tobacco juice on the stable floor. They'd all paid their fare, and as long as they didn't cause any trouble along the way, he didn't care who they were or what they'd done. Eleazer Jessup was no saint either, as a warrant in New Orleans could confirm. He'd gone straight, though, and even given up drinking since coming out here, so he wasn't about to judge anyone else.


The fifth and final passenger for the Barlow and Sanderson stage tumbled unceremoniously from the cantina, where he'd likely spent the night. 'Turtle' Sweeney was the town drunk, never more than a dozen steps from Del Rey's front door. Why he had suddenly decided to book a trip to Silver Prairie was anyone's guess. Drunk as he now appeared, he would probably be passed out the better part of the trip.

"Ready to go, Mr. Jessup."

Jessup stood up and ran a hand through his beard. Turning his good eye to the horses, he went over the harness one last time before climbing up on the box. "Well . . . guess I'll head out then."

Clapping the reins lightly, he started the horses forward, turning the coach out onto the street and pulling up alongside the Cantina Del Rey.

  The Road to Silver Prairie, New Mexico Territory—93 Miles to Go

As the coach rattled down the road, Bill Huxton drew in a deep puff from his cigar and thumbed through the newspaper sitting in his lap. With the arrival of the telegraph in Santa Fe, the news was a lot more current. And there was certainly big news to be had. On the Great Plains, the war with Red Cloud had finally come to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Fort Laramie. General Sherman, Huxton's old commander, had overseen the treaty, and it had been signed by representatives of the Sioux, the Arapaho, and several smaller tribes. Red Cloud himself hadn't signed yet, but he was expected to before much longer.

Local Indian troubles seemed to be at an end as well: in June, the Treaty of Bosque Redondo had been signed with the Navajo, which ended fighting between the settlers and the tribe and allowed those of the tribe held in internment camps to return to their lands. It seemed the federal government was ready to treat the Navajo as a sovereign nation.

Bill Huxton shook his head, breathing out a light cloud of smoke. They must have realized there was nothing on the Navajo land they wanted. After five years in the Union Army, fighting Confederates and Indians alike, he knew better than to believe in the magnanimity of government.

A faint cough as the smoke from his cigar drifted throughout the coach reminded him that he was not alone.

"Apologies," he mumbled, glancing at the other passengers even as he stamped out his cigar and dropped it into his vest pocket.

Mr. Ulbricht nodded gratefully, pushing his glasses up on his nose. "Thank you, friend. Say, have you ever been to Silver Prairie before?"

"No," Huxton replied. "I've just come down from Denver."

"I think you'll love our little town," Ulbricht assured him. "Silver Prairie is growing rapidly. I'm quite eager to get back there myself and tend to my store and family."

"That's good to hear," said Roth, leaning forward to introduce himself to the shopkeeper. "I must say, I've missed New Mexico these last few years."

"So," Ulbricht asked, "you're from these parts?"

"Yes, indeed," Roth answered. "Grew up here in the territory. Moved to Texas, though, to join the army when the war broke out. After it was over, I stuck around there and in Kansas, doing odd jobs and watching the big cattle drives. Been a bounty-hunter too. Just got tired of it all, and decided to come back home."

"What about you, Mr. Huxton?" Miss Tulley asked suddenly. "What brings you to Silver Prairie?"

"Work, ma'am." He rode in silence for a moment before continuing, "I got a letter from the mayor asking me to be the new sheriff."

"Well, that's wonderful to hear," Ulbricht exclaimed. "We've had nothing but a citizen's committee to maintain the peace for quite a while now. I mean, it's a wonderful community like I said, but like all towns it has its problems. And there's a rumor going around that Charity North is back in the territory."

The soon-to-be-sheriff was curious. "Who's Charity North?"

"Well," Ulbricht began, "something of a local black sheep, you could say. It was rumored that she had killed a judge before the war, but there was no evidence that it was her. And when the war started, she went east—Kansas I think—and joined the irregular soldiers. Raiders."

Huxton was now even more curious. "A woman fighting in the war? Sounds like an interesting lady."

"She sounds absolutely horrifying," said Miss Tulley. "She killed a judge, you say?"

Ulbricht nodded. "That's the rumor. A judge and maybe seven other men."

Listening to the story, Roth grinned broadly. "I'll bet she made a hell of a soldier."

Ulbricht chuckled, not quite sure what to say. "Yes," he finally agreed, "I suppose she did."

  The Road to Silver Prairie—67 Miles to Go

Atop the coach, Jessup squinted his good eye and fumed at the hot afternoon sun. Wiping the perspiration from his face with a grimy bandana, he bellowed at the horses. "Come on, there! Keep moving!"

His good eye widened suddenly as he pulled back on the reins. A figure had appeared along the side of the trail, holding a long gun at their side.

"Whoa, easy there."

The coach pulled to a stop. Jessup looked down in surprise. A moment later, Roth and Miss Tulley both leaned out of the windows to see why the coach had stopped.

"What is it, driver?" Miss Tulley asked, concerned about bandits. Even as she spoke, however, her eyes fell on the reason for the delay.

Standing alongside the road was a young woman—no older than 18—in a blue homespun dress. A broad-brimmed hat shielded her face from the sun, and a tangle of blonde curls fell to her shoulders, framing bright green eyes and a cheerful smile. What the old driver noticed, however, was the sawed-off shotgun she held at her side, and the heavy Mexican saddle on the ground next to her.

She curtsied nervously to the driver. "I'm sorry to be a bother, but I wonder if you would be willing to take me the rest of the way to Silver Prairie." She looked down at the saddle, and her cheerful smile faded somewhat. "I'm afraid my horse went lame."

Jessup cleared his throat. "Well, uh . . . "

She followed his gaze to the shotgun at her side and laughed. "Oh, that." Spinning the weapon lightly so that the stock faced the driver, she held it out for him to take. "Silly thing; I don't actually know how to use it, but my sister says it will ward off desperados. My name is Maria Parker, by the way."

Jessup stowed the gun carefully amongst the other luggage on top of the coach. "Well, I reckon it wouldn't hardly be proper to leave you stranded out here. Climb aboard."

"Thank you so much." She beamed a wide smile, dragging her saddle toward the coach.

Roth stepped out of the coach and put a hand on the enormous saddle. "Allow me, Miss Parker."

"Why, thank you, sir." She locked eyes with him for a second. A moment later, he swung the saddle up atop the coach, then held the door for her to climb aboard.

Jessup shook his head as the door closed. Picking up strays wasn't something that happened every day. But, with a snap of the reins, he got the coach rolling again. They needed to get to water after all.

  Mendoza's Half-way House—54 Miles to Go

Jessup watched the moon climb higher in the sky as he played checkers with old Esteban Mendoza. Lately it seemed the darn game was all that kept his brain alive. Endless driving the coach through sagebrush. Nonstop monotony, the horses his only company day in and day out. Checkers was the one thing that occupied his time when he wasn't up on his box. At least, it was the only thing now that he had stopped drinking. One of these days, he thought, he would settle down completely. Maybe even have a house and a family. But he was probably too old to start any of that nonsense.

Ulbricht sat by the fire, and fell asleep reading a book he had brought along on the trip. 'Turtle', feeling the warning pangs of sobriety, opted to spend the night in the bar, regaining his normal equanimity. Miss Tulley retired to the room given her and Miss Parker as soon as supper was over. His mind too preoccupied for sleep just yet, Bill Huxton lit his cigar and stood on the porch. He could just see the old-timers' checker game from the corner of his eye, while his focus rested on the road that led southwest to Silver Prairie.

Old-timers? he thought. He laughed to himself. He was hardly a spring chicken either. At least, not in the way the West measured years. From the Army to the plains to the mountains of Colorado, it hadn't been an easy life, and he carried every mark and scar of it. He hoped silently that Ulbricht was right about Silver Prairie being a good town. Perhaps he could establish order quickly, then live peaceably for a while. He shook his head thinking of it. If he wanted a peaceful life, he should have found a peaceful job.

He looked up at the full moon overhead. He wished his life was different, alright: he just wasn't ready to change himself. He took another deep breath off his cigar. One of these days.

A gunshot pulled his thoughts back to the present.

Jessup and Mendoza leapt to their feet, scattering the checkers to the floor. The noise had come from the corral.

  Mendoza's Corral

Revolver in hand, Huxton raced around the house and toward the gunshot. When he reached the corral, he came to an abrupt halt. Jessup and Mendoza appeared beside him moments later, while the others were just emerging from inside the house.

There, facedown in the dirt, lay Nigel Roth. His Remington revolver was on the ground, inches from his outstretched hand. Facing him—still pointing a Colt Pocket Revolver—was Miss Maria Parker.

As she saw them arrive, she dropped the revolver to the ground and turned with a look of horror on her face. "He . . . " she began. "I had . . . "

Jessup darted forward, checking Roth for a pulse. When he shook his head, Huxton turned back to the shooter.

"What happened here?" he demanded.

Unable to speak, Miss Parker pointed to a saddlebag laying on the ground beside Roth's corpse. Huxton remembered seeing it earlier in the day, attached to Miss Parker's Mexican saddle.

Jessup now passed him the saddlebag, along with the revolver Miss Parker had dropped. Huxton looked at the diminutive weapon for a moment, then tucked it into his belt. It was essentially an older, smaller version of his own revolvers, and it had clearly just been fired. He held up the saddlebag next.

Miss Parker's gaze drifted anxiously from his face to the leather bag. Her fingers plucked at the fabric of her dress, and her eyes slowly lowered to the dead body on the ground.

Jessup scratched his beard. Things certainly hadn't gone how he expected. His good eye squinted up at Miss Parker. From his position squatting on the ground, the full moon made a halo behind her head. Who would have thought she could actually kill someone? And why was her saddlebag so heavy?

Huxton felt the weight of the bag, but he didn't open it. He recognized the clinking of coins even over the jingling of the decorative steel studs in the leather. Miss Parker was transporting money, a good bit of it. Enough to tempt Roth.

"So," Huxton asked, "you caught him trying to take your saddlebag?"

She nodded.

"Well, sheriff," said Ulbricht, speaking up now for the first time since arriving at the corral, "this seems like a pretty straightforward case of self-defense to me. After all, his gun was drawn."

Huxton thought for a moment without answering. He hadn't even been sworn in yet, and here he was cleaning up after a shoot-out at the half-way house.

Jessup noticed the look in his eyes. "Might I suggest," he said, "we move his body into the storeroom and figure out the rest tomorrow."

Huxton agreed that was a good plan. No one was going anywhere overnight. Things could be sorted out in the morning. He looked around. Everyone was watching him, waiting for an answer.

"Alright," he agreed. "Jessup, you and Mendoza carry the body in. Miss Parker, I'm going to have to ask you not to step outside until we leave tomorrow morning."

Miss Parker nodded, suppressing a sniffle. "I understand."

Mr. Ulbricht accompanied her inside, while Mendoza and Jessup carried Roth along after them. Huxton stood for a moment, thinking about what had happened. He looked down at the saddlebag still in his hand. Then, shaking his head, he followed Mr. Roth's funeral procession into the house.

  The Road to Silver Prairie—August 8, 1868—48 Miles to Go

Huxton rode up on the box today, Miss Parker's sawed-off shotgun in his lap. Somehow he didn't feel like riding in the coach this time. Instead, he kept his eyes on the road ahead, thinking about last night's events. Senor Mendoza would bring Roth's body to Silver Prairie in his wagon. The dead man's father could bury him where he chose.

And what of Roth's family? The bounty-hunter was far from a good man, but if there was one thing Huxton had learned—often the hard way—was that even bad men had people who cared about them. People who wouldn't react well to their death.

Jessup took a swig from his canteen. "You thinkin' about Roth or Parker?"

"Both, I reckon."

"I've never met the Parkers, but Samson Roth is a respected merchant in Silver Prairie. He'll grieve for his son, but I don't think he'll retaliate. Younger Roth's friends might be a different story, though."

Huxton scowled. "What do you know about them?"

"Not much. After all, he's new to the territory. But I hear he ran with a tough bunch over in Kansas. Bill Destry, Reb O'Lory, Jonas Farragut. They move around a lot, and it's hard to say how they'll react to the news. They may come here looking to find out what happened."

Huxton sighed. "Everybody's got friends, I reckon."

Inside the coach, Maria Parker watched the sagebrush and rough brown grass roll by. She had never planned to kill the bounty-hunter. Then again, she had never planned for her horse to go lame either. If that hadn't happened, she never would have ended up on the stage with Roth. This entire situation could have been avoided. He would have arrived in Silver Prairie on the stage, and gone on about his business. She would have finished the trip on the stage and met up with her sister.

For that matter, she couldn't help wondering what her sister would think of what she had done. After all, her sister was far more accustomed to the wild frontier life than she was. Had Roth tried to steal from her, she probably would have killed him and felt no guilt whatsoever. But that didn't mean she would approve of what she had done. Maria shook her head, silently fuming at Roth. Why did he have to go for the saddlebag?

He could still be alive if he hadn't been so greedy. This whole situation could have been avoided, and now it interfered with her plans. But at least she was still on her way to Silver Prairie, even if she arrived later than she had intended. Whatever happened next would have to sort itself out.

  A Ridge Above the Road to Silver Prairie

Three riders reined in their horses atop the ridge. It was late afternoon, and they had ridden hard since mid-morning. The leader—a black-haired woman in her late twenties—shifted in her saddle and watched the road below. Her right hand held the reins, and the other rested on the Colt Dragoon in her belt.

"Are you sure about this, Reb?" she asked quietly.

The man to her left nodded. "That was definitely her horse. The stage would be the only way for her to get to Silver Prairie."

The leader nodded. "Turnbull, tell me again what Mendoza said when you rode through this morning."

The other rider on her left leaned forward on his saddle horn. "He said the stage stopped in last night on schedule. A blonde girl calling herself Maria Parker was on the stage, and she killed Nigel Roth."

"Hm." The woman lowered her gaze, thinking for a moment. "That must be her. Too bad about Roth. Good man with a gun, but he did have a way of finding trouble."

"Hey, captain . . . "

The woman saw it a moment later: dust rising on the trail northeast of their position. The Barlow and Sanderson stage was coming.

"How do you want to play this, captain?"

The two men held their reins ready, waiting for her command. Her eyes narrowed as she watched the coach pulling closer. By now she could see the driver, and another man riding shotgun with him. She came to a decision, taking up the slack in the reins.

"Above board. If anything starts, let them start it."

They nodded. Then, putting heels to their horses' sides, they started toward the stagecoach, expertly guiding their horses down the slope. Riding in front, the black-haired woman smiled as she approached the coach. But her hand still rested on the revolver in her belt.

  The Road to Silver Prairie—12 Miles to Go

Huxton noticed the three riders coming down the ridge, and gently turned the shotgun in his lap. Not enough to be taken as a threat, but enough to be ready as they rode up to the stage. There had already been a killing on this trip; he certainly wasn't in the mood for a hold-up as well. Jessup looked over at him as the riders approached. When Huxton nodded, he pulled to a stop. The horses snorted at the chance to rest.

The woman leading the riders was smiling, and she waved in greeting as she came alongside the coach. "Howdy there."

Huxton noticed the casual way her hand dropped to her revolver as she finished waving. The two men flanking her were silent, as if waiting for an order. Jessup chewed his tobacco, watching them.

"Howdy," Huxton answered. "Can we help you?"

By now, the faces of both Mr. Ulbricht and Miss Tulley had appeared at the window openings. The woman tipped her hat to them before turning her smile back to Huxton.

"I certainly hope so, Mister . . . "

He pushed his hat back on his head with his free hand. "Huxton," he answered.

She pulled her hat off with a flourish. "Pleasure. My name's Charity North."

Huxton heard a gasp from Mr. Ulbricht.

Charity North chuckled. "Now that the introductions are out of the way, I don't suppose you've seen my sister? Gold hair, blue dress, baby Colt?" She tapped her own enormous revolver for emphasis.

The door of the stage opened suddenly, and Maria stepped out. "Hola, Charity."

A relieved smirk appeared on the older sister's face. "Hola, hermana." She turned back to Huxton, but continued talking to her sister. "Did you really shoot Nigel Roth, Marisol?"

Maria North, alias Parker, looked down at her feet. "Si."

Looking up, she saw a frown cross Charity's face. "He pushed you? He had it coming?"

"He tried to take my saddle-bag."

Charity's eyes widened. "You still have it with you?"

"I was bringing it out to the ranch. Sorry, hermana."

Charity didn't answer, addressing Huxton instead. "Was it legal?"

"Near as I can tell," he admitted. "It looked like self-defense from—"

"Excellent," she interrupted. "I'd like to take her back to the family ranch with me then."

Huxton shook his head. "Just so you know, I'm on my way to be sheriff of Silver Prairie."

"Really? Congratulations." Charity leaned back in the saddle, her hand still on her revolver. "As I see it, my sister acted in self-defense. I can almost guarantee the judge will let her off."

She chuckled, and Huxton remembered what Ulbricht had said about the judge Charity had supposedly killed before the war.

"If you do decide you need to arrest her," she continued, "anyone can tell you where our ranch is. So . . . how do you want to play this, sheriff?"

Huxton shook his head. So this was how it was going to be in Silver Prairie. He had never met Charity North before, but he had met gunslingers like her. She surrounded herself with dangerous men and commanded their loyalty. Not the kind of person Huxton wanted to make an enemy of until he knew how things were in the town itself. How did he want to play it?

Finally he shrugged, remembering the last person he'd killed. Maria was every bit as justified as he had been. But what about the money she had with her. Hard currency, as much as she could fit in her saddlebag. Gold, most likely. Stolen, quite probably. But stolen from whom? When? Charity North and her gunmen had just arrived in the territory. Figuring out what had happened and bringing charges against them would be impossible.

He should have known better than take this job. But he had taken it, and now it was his duty to uphold the law. And he had been through too much to be afraid of Charity North. But he was tired. So, he made a decision.

"It's outside my jurisdiction anyway," he said. "She's all yours."

Charity smiled. "Thanks, sheriff. I'll remember that. By the way, you can deliver that saddle to Mr. Douglas at the livery stable. I'll take the saddlebag, though."

Huxton grinned, reaching back and grabbing the bag without breaking eye contact. One move, and he could expose the money he knew was inside. He knew it was stolen. He could feel Jessup's eyes on him. The shotgun was still ready in his other hand.

He passed the saddlebag to the other rider as he brought his horse alongside the coach. He handed the shotgun down to Maria North.

"Thank you, sheriff. You're a good man." She climbed up behind her sister and tipped her hat to those still in the coach. And without another word, all three horses turned and loped away from the stage.

Jessup heaved a sigh of relief, wiping the sweat from his forehead. He turned to Huxton. "For a minute, I thought you were gonna get both of us killed. Who would drive the stagecoach then?"

Huxton thought about the choice he had made. Jessup's simple question summed up the logic behind his final decision. He knew it wasn't the right choice, strictly speaking. But he also knew that it was the best choice under the circumstances. It wasn't his job to do the right thing. It was his job to keep the peace and keep everyone alive.

And when it came to keeping the peace, he would rather have the North sisters as friends than enemies.

"It'll be dark in a couple hours," he said, lighting his cigar. "Let's get to Silver Prairie."

Jessup shook his head, chuckling softly. He clapped the reins, sending the horses forward again. The sheriff was right. Things hadn't gone according to anyone's plan, but they each still had their own jobs to do. One mile after the other, one day at a time, on the road to Silver Prairie.

The End

Samuel Kennedy is a blogger, author, and unapologetic fan of the Western genre. His stories of the Wild West are meant to present 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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Hiram Settles Down
by D.J. Platt

Libertyville appeared through a heat haze about two miles away. It was a typical western town with a Saloon, general store, livery stable and small assortment of other businesses fronting the main street with a couple of dozen houses scattered hither and yon on either side. It took Hiram Carson and his mule about an hour to cover the distance on foot. He was dressed like most of the other prospectors that occasionally wandered through the area searching for the mother lode. He wore a flat-brimmed hat and long-sleeved shirt for protection against the sun. Flat-heeled boots were better for walking than the cowboy style sported by most western men. He stood about 5'6" tall and weighed about 135 lbs after a good meal. An exceptionally well cared for mule, called Harriet by her owner, as were all her predecessors, carried a pack with Hiram's supplies. A well-used but clean Sharps .50 caliber rifle was carried in a scabbard attached to the forward edge of the pack frame. Appearances to the contrary however, Hiram was a little different from the other prospectors. He was done looking for the mother lode.

Hiram had been in the west since the late forties. He had wandered the west from Idaho to Texas, trapping with mountain men, living with Indians, hunting Buffalo, herding cows, and prospecting. He had taken up prospecting in the latter part of his western career after deciding that both hunting buffalo and herding cows were occupations not to his liking. Hiram had been blessed with an excellent memory. Once he had learned what to look for, he was able to reference the map of the west he had acquired through his years of wandering the plains and mountains and now carried in his head, to remember where and when he had seen promising streams and return to them. The result was that after 7 years of prospecting Hiram had found gold—a lot of gold. In an even more unlikely scenario, unlike most his few contemporaries who had struck it rich, he had not blown the money on whores and liquor. Hiram didn't have anything against whores and liquor. He just believed in moderation and, as a result, found himself a relatively rich man with deposits in various banks across the west.

Having no desire to flaunt his wealth, Hiram, who believed he was somewhere in the latter half of his sixties, had decided to try that one thing he had not yet done—settle down. To that end, he had decided to purchase a business. A livery stable had become available in Libertyville and Hiram had decided to buy it. He had always been good with animals and a livery stable was a business he thought he could understand and run. It would allow him the opportunity to keep busy and put down roots in one place. He looked forward to waking up in the same place every day. He even looked forward to the prospect of forming stable relationships.

Hiram entered the town and made his way to the livery stable. He introduced himself to the livery stable's proprietor. The arrangements had already been made and he and the current owner went to the local lawyer's office and then to the bank to conclude the transaction. After a brief familiarization back at the stable, the previous owner wished him well, saddled a horse and was last seen as a cloud of dust heading east.

Hiram settled into a routine at the livery stable. He appropriated one of the of the horse boxes and turned it into living quarters. Although most people would have found the accommodations spartan, Hiram delighted in sleeping off the ground and under a roof. He did most of his cooking over a stone pit but occasionally splurged at one of Libertyville's three restaurants. Cleaning out the stables, caring for the stock and small repairs usually took up the morning. After lunch Hiram would collect his Sharps and wander down to the front of the hotel. With the Sharps leaned up against the hotel wall, he would sit on one of the chairs and engage in desultory conversation with the four or five men who congregated there most afternoons. The names occasionally changed as their various business interests waxed and waned but, generally, about 5 men would show up for companionship and gossip. Hiram usually found himself at one end of the row of seats. The venue provided a good view of potential customers for the livery stable as well as the approaches to the town from the East, South and West.

One sultry afternoon found Hiram with his cohort. Pooling their collective wisdom, they had concluded that it was hot as two rabbits screwing in a sack. Hiram had not heard that particular country metaphor before and mused on it for a bit. After this piece of semi-intelligence was shared, a companionable silence descended until three riders were spotted approaching through a heat haze from the west. This prompted a good deal of discussion among the group members. From the way they rode it was clear they were working cowboys. After some desultory conversation among the regulars it was determined that the cowboys were most likely from the Slash Bar ranch. This conclusion was arrived at because the Slash Bar was the only big outfit in that direction. After some more discussion, and as details of the riders became clearer, it was agreed that the lead rider was probably Bart Shannon, the owner of the aforementioned establishment. The other two riders were most likely Tex and Wiley. Still more desultory discussion ensued but no definite conclusions emerged concerning what business Bart and the boys might be transacting in town.

The three riders drew up their horses in front of the hotel. All three wore cowboy garb but Bart's was cleaner than Tex and Wiley's. Tex and Wiley's well cared for and tied down handguns suggested that they might be paid for more than their cow handling skills. After the proprieties had been observed and Hiram had been introduced, Bart addressed himself to Hiram. "I had been planning on buying that livery stable."

"Was you?" was Hiram's laconic reply.

"I'd still like to buy it."

"If I decide to sell I'll let you know. No plans to do that now though."

"Suppose I encouraged you?"

"Planning on killing me?"

Tex and Wiley exchanged glances. Bart smiled at that one. "Of course not . Thought I would make you a better offer. You walk away with a profit on the deal"

"Thanks for the offer but I reckon I'll just keep the stable."

"If you change your mind, let me know."

"I'll do that."

"Thank you kindly. Good to meet you Hiram. Good afternoon gentlemen." said Bart nodding to reining his horse in the direction of town. His two henchmen followed him.

"Some folks just got to own everything." observed Jed who eked out a living swamping out the saloon in the mornings. He followed up this succinct observation with a wad of tobacco ejected in the general direction of a spittoon.

"I have no problem with ambition but I do not hold with some of his methods." observed Blake the lawyer from the middle of the row.

"Reckon them two hands of his is hard cases?" came a question from the other end of the row of chairs.

"They got some bark on them." replied Jed.

* * *

A few hours later, while returning to his livery stable, he spotted a familiar figure entering a saloon. It can't be, he thought. Better check was his next thought.

Crossing the road and mounting the wooden sidewalk, he approached the bat wing doors. Stepping through and to one side to avoid silhouetting himself in the doorway he scanned the room. Spotting his man bellying up to the bar, he approached from the man's right side which, in the unlikely event that he tried to draw his weapon, would make it difficult to bring it to bear on Hiram.

"Thought I recognized you John," said Hiram to the forward facing figure at the bar.

The figure at the bar stiffened slightly at the sound of Hiram's voice. The head turned to the right. Hiram found himself looking at a familiar face. Familiar deep set eyes peered from under craggy brows. Shaggy hair curled over his collar.

"Hello, Hiram. I'd say I'm glad to see you but I ain't. Drink?"

'Don't mind if I do, John. Thank you kindly."

John signaled to the bartender who came over and served them both. Hiram saluted John and received a salute in return.

"What brings you to Libertyville, John?" Hiram opened up the conversation.

"Business. How about you."

"Business. I own the livery stable here. Hope your business ain't nothing to do with that bank across the street. I keep some money in there."

"I will take that back to Cleon and the boys. They ain't gonna be happy though."

"As you have no doubt gathered from our previous encounter, their happiness ain't my primary concern." The previous encounter Hiram was referring to involved a box canyon, a stolen mule, and Hiram's Sharps .50 caliber rifle. The mule was returned with an apology. "I got friends here that will be hurt if that bank goes under. Tomorrow?"

John winced. "Cleon is getting predictable ain't he?"

"I always liked you, John. Don't make me shoot you."

"I always liked you too, Hiram. I don't want nothing to do with this bank. Not sure I want much to do with Cleon no more neither. He never had a great grasp on reality but lately he is crazier than a shithouse rat. He shot down a settler family two weeks ago for nothing. Me telling him you don't want this bank robbed ain't going to change nothing. He is holed up to the north and planning to ride in tomorrow morning. Reckon I won't be seeing him again to deliver your message. I'll be riding south as soon as I finish this drink."

Hiram and John finished their drinks, shook hands, and parted ways. John mounted his horse and left town on the road to the south. Hiram headed to the sheriff's office.

The sheriff, a portly man with a large handlebar mustache, seemed bemused by the news of the impending bank robbery.

"You recognized this man from where?" he inquired.

"They had a hideout near where I was mining for about two months." replied Hiram

"They didn't try to rob you?" he asked.

"Of course they tried to rob me. They is thieves."

"How did you stop them?'

"I had the water under my gun. I only let one of them up the canyon at a time."

"Why didn't they sneak up you at night?"

"They tried."

"What happened?"

"I shot the closest one."

The sheriff, frustrated by Hiram's laconic responses, moved on to the main topic. "What makes you think there will be a robbery tomorrow?"

"I met their scout in town and dissuaded him from participating."

"You think they will still come if he doesn't show up?"


The next morning found Hiram on a chair outside the bank behind and slightly to the right of a filled water barrel with a Winchester across his lap. The water barrel would provide protection from a right handed shooter while still allowing Hiram to bring his weapon to bear. About 10:00 a cloud of dust approaching from the east could be seen as a group of about seven riders. The lead rider was Cleon Lamonte, a burly 6 footer whose air of command was sufficiently impressive to allow him to lead a group of criminal reprobates and bend them to his will. Next to him rode his Segundo, a smallish Mexican with two tied down guns on a showy black gelding. Five other disreputable looking riders followed the two leaders.

The group drew up in front of the bank. "Morning Hiram." said Cleon. "Surprised to see you here."

"I ain't surprised to see you."

"Met up with John did you?"

"Yup. Paco, there are three rifles on you right now. There are others on the rest of you boys but you can pull out any time. Take the road to the south like John did and you won't be bothered."

"Why three rifles on me?" asked Paco.

"You are the best gun hand here."

"How you know this?"

"Used to sneak up to your campfire sometimes at night. Seen you practice regular."

How you sneak up on campsite? We post sentry."

"Lived three years with the Crows. They is the best horse thieves on the plains. They can sneak into a herd of horses and the horses won't know they are there."

Paco, after noting that he was not on the list of those who would be allowed to ride out, decided that valor was better than discretion, caused his horse to hop two steps right, stood in his saddle and reached for his gun. Paco was extremely fast but three rifle shots sounded in a ragged volley before his handgun was leveled. He toppled out of the saddle with three holes in his chest.

"Them boys is better shots than I thought," observed Hiram. After a few moments and glances back and forth and a few glances at Paco, the five remaining riders filed out for the road to the south.

"Why am I still here?" asked Cleon.

"Small matter of that settler family over towards Dryden," replied Hiram. "We need to put a stop to that."

"Should I point out that most of your witnesses for that just left town?"

"I know that. Get off your horse and shuck your belt."

"You ain't taking me in."

"Never planned to."

Cleon gazed at Hiram and then reached for his gun. Hiram's Winchester described a short arc and his shot rang out before Cleon cleared leather. The first shot hit dead center in Cleon's chest. The second caught his head as he was falling from his horse.

A crowd formed as people emerged from their hiding places. Tex and Riley stood within earshot of Hiram.

"You get a shot off?" asked Tex of Riley.

"Nope. You?"

"Nope. Damn fine shooting too. Going up against a stone killer and he put one in the chest and one in the head while he was falling and before he hit the ground."

"And that ain't even his rifle. Hell a good man with a Sharps can hit out to 500 yards."

"Damn. I didn't like the sound of that sneaking around business neither. Have to sleep with one eye open."

"Don't make a man easy in his mind thinking about it. Reckon Bart is on his own on this one."

"Suits me. I been getting tired of this town anyhow."

The next afternoon, as Hiram took his usual seat on the porch in front of the hotel, he realized the atmosphere had changed subtly. Jed, who had been one of the riflemen charged with targeting Paco, greeted him like a long lost comrade in arms. The other greetings were more familiar and somewhat deferential. He wasn't a stranger any more. He was a man to be respected. Hiram had become part of the fabric of Libertyville.

The End

D.J. Platt took up writing after retiring from a career which included stints in agriculture, mining, carpentry and computer systems. He has had articles and photographs published in Cruising World, Small Craft Advisor, Canadian Yachting and Gam. He decided to try fiction, thinking it might be easier. This has proven not to be the case.

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Passing through Ogallala
by Jim Seals

  Nebraska Territory, August 1876

It was well past noon when the gunman strode into town.

Though exacting, his stride was measured. He walked with his back to the setting sun and in his wake was a trail of grit stretching 25 miles. His saddle was slung over his shoulder; around his waist, his Slim Jim was short two cartridges: One for his stricken horse, and one for the rattler that struck. Both cartridges—not to mention his horse—would need replacing if Hank Lockwood hoped to keep his appointment in Cheyenne.

First, he needed to reach the General Store.

Lockwood disliked Ogallala. Far as he was concerned, the place was less a town and more a railhead with airs. Founded in '68, Ogallala was located at the junction between the emigration trails of the Platte River valley, the Great Western Cattle Trail out of Texas and the transcontinental railroad. Still unincorporated, the town was little more than a smattering of stores with sundries aplenty and a water tower.

On principle, the gunman never concealed his livelihood. As he went through the town, Colts corralled in leather, Lockwood watched the residents take one look then become preoccupied with banalities—women drew their kin closer to their skirts, pretending to window shop; men stood taller in their boots, minding their step—least till he passed. Even the resident snake-oil salesman recoiled at his approach.

With a sidelong glance, he passed the Ogallala House. The previous evening saw him held up there, where he ate alone in a crowded dining room and drank alone in an emptied hotel room. There he sardonically toasted the town after an Old Fashioned: "C'est la vie."

So long as there was gunwork to be done, gunmen would be welcomed in places like Ogallala; once that well dried up, best not tarry. Already a day behind, there was gunwork to be had in Cheyenne and Marshall J. H. Burdrick was not renowned for his patience. In time, Cheyenne would dry up, leaving him to seek gunwork elsewhere.

Amusingly, the Texan cowhands paid him no heed whatsoever. As was the case two nights ago, the town was overrun with their lot. Unlike then, they were now idle with not a single cow in sight. The gunman surmised that the train must have arrived in the interim, prompting the cowhands to load their charges into stock cars bound for eastern markets.

Further up the street, a raucous jubilee drew the gunman's sights. Outside the Crystal Palace was an exchequer doling out stipends to the gathered cowhands, soliciting hoots, hollers and the occasional celebratory gunfire.

Not since Honey Hill had Lockwood cursed, but curse he did. The last place he wanted to be stranded, short two cartridges and a horse, was a railhead with dozens of drunken cowhands. Such a situation was liable to see him plying his trade and no man, not even a Texan, deserved to die after a summer's hard work on account of imbibing more liquor than he had common sense to his name.

Resolute, the gunman approached the General Store.

* * *

Outside the General Store stood the cowhand, awestruck.

All of sixteen, Leslie Childs Jr., never knew his pa on account that Leslie Childs Sr. had died in '62 at Seven Pines, leaving his ma to rear him and his twin sisters on her lonesome. Learning as she went, Ma had done her best in teaching her son what it was to be a man. She taught him when to curse, where to hunt and how to shoot. Above all else, she had instilled in him Texan pride, to never let no slight go unanswered—least of all not one from no darn good Yankee. Just like Pa.

Earlier that summer, Childs had bolted with Ma's horse, Sarsaparilla, swearing he'd make amends soon enough. He found work as a cowhand riding north with Ms. Nicole Lawrence's cattle drive. That alone was a real distinction as back home Ms. Lawrence was a living legend, equal parts cattle baroness and trail boss.

Even with her in the saddle, the ride along the Western Trail was an arduous one: Childs had endured stampedes, survived Sioux raids and watched good Texans die. Still, ever the eager greenhorn, he had afforded himself well enough. So much so that Ms. Lawrence herself invited him to return to the ranch. "We can always use ourselves a sure hand," she had said, handing over Childs' stipend of $60.

Never had he been so grass-bellied with spot cash. What's more, it was all his and not Ma's. He had done the work, not her, and he could spend his cash as he darn well pleased and she had no say otherwise. Childs had counted out twelve dollars worth for himself before squirreling the rest away into his boot (buying his way back into Ma's good graces), then entered the General Store to make his purchase.

Afterward, he stole several moments to stand outside and marvel over his reward for a job well done: A Remington Model 1875 Single Action Army Revolver.

Now, he was a man-grown with his own gun.

Passing Childs on the street was their chuck wagon cook, Éibhear "Big Ed" Keesling. "Ain't she some pumpkins?" Childs called out.

Big Ed was an Irishman with a walrus mustache and a weakness for the chew. He paused to have him a look, chewed some, then spat. "M'boy, a gun's a gun," he said, unimpressed. "Matters less the quality of the gun's make and more the quality of the man's."

Big Ed punctuated his words in spit, then ambled on, as was his wont.

Unhitched at this, Childs staggered off the boardwalk in pursuit.

* * *

Now, here's where there is some dispute as to what transpired. According to Childs, the gunman shoved past him entering the General Store. According to Lockwood, the cowhand wandered straight into him. Either way, a collision occurred, bringing both men up short.

"Excuse me, ole man," Childs said, insincere as all get-out.

"You're excused, son," Lockwood said, deadpan. Then, without so much as another thought, the gunman continued into the store.

What is not in dispute is what happened next.

* * *

Inside, the Bostonian was in mid-transaction when the Texan returned with his dander riled up. On the countertop were Lockwood's saddle, a single dollar bill and two cartridges.

"You a'mockin' me?" the cowhand said.

Standing with his back to the Texan, Lockwood remained still, his gaze settling upon the teakwood mirror behind the storekeep; there the gunman took the cowhand's stock. If he had been a gambling man, Lockwood would have pegged the Texan's age as a third of his own. With iron already in hand, there was no mistaking that the boy had the drop on him. Yet, the iron was too clean, a recent purchase. His breath was erratic; his hand, unsure. He's never challenged a man to a gunfight before, Lockwood surmised. He doesn't know.

"Standing like that, a man could get the inclination that you were threatening him."

"Ahh ain't threatenin'. Ahh'mma callin' you out."

"That so? You liable to shoot a man in the back?"

"Ma ain't raised no coward: Ahh want you to draw."

"No. I can assure you, you don't."

"The hell Ahh don't," the Texan said, cocking the gun. "Now, draw!"

At that Lockwood laughed. "Say I do as you like, what then?"

"Liable to gun you down."

"Sure, let's ride with that: You gun me down," Lockwood said. "May even make a name for yourself. You like that? Bet you do. What then? You go back, settle down, marry that sage hen you fancy and tend some cattle?

"No. There's no going back, no settling down. You'll grow restless like gunmen do. Have to prove it wasn't some fluke. If not to anyone else, then to yourself. So, you'll hit the trail. Maybe come into honest gunwork, maybe not. You'll gun down another man, then another and perhaps another still. Know where that trail ends?

"With some greenhorn buck making a name for himself by gunning you down. Now, you tell me plain: That what you want, son?"

There was a pregnant pause. Lockwood watched as the cowhand wrangled with insights he never once considered. Sadly, for all concerned, those insights led him down the wrong path. "You calling me a 'coward,' ole man?"

Lockwood sighed.

To the storekeeper, he upheld two fingers, indicating he would need two more cartridges.

* * *

Once the dust had settled outside, the cowhand was laid up on hardscrabble plain staring into a starless night. He had been shot, twice.

Across some vast distance, he could hear the gunman's measured approach. He seemed almost sad as he tended to his own gun, ejecting the spent shells and replacing them in turn. He was not unkind when he said, "If it's any consolation, son, wished I'd listened too—back when I had no name."

And with that, Leslie Childs Jr. passed through Ogallala.

The End

Jim Seals is a writer of miscellaneous ephemeral, still seeking his voice. You can watch his quest on Twitter @JimSeals01.

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The Meadow of the Hawk
by Randal Schmidt

The little Indian pony stood on the far side of the river bend at the top of a lightly wooded cut bank and cropped the grass up there and watched me slyly across the water, and I'd have liked to have shot him then and there.

He was a bay and star marked in the center of his forehead, the little white of the mark irregularly shaped in a kind of comma curve that swept to the right as I faced him and looked not unlike talon of a hawk. He was, in truth, a pretty pony and I bore him no personal ill will. But I nonetheless stood for a long while meeting his shifty gaze and mulling his death. An Indian without a horse out here on the plain is as good as dead, and I guess I figured in a bit of a cowardly way that it would be easier to kill this animal than to kill the Indian what rode him. The pony grazed idly and looked down on me, completely exposed where he stood framed between two elms, and I'm a good shot with a rifle, and the Spencer carbine that I carried was chambered for a .56-56 round and could have laid the pony out flat, and I was sorely tempted to shoot the beast dead.

Yet I held my shot because the pony was saddled and I could not see his rider, who must be close, and I did not care to risk a rifle shot when somewhere within earshot there lurked an Indian or Indians I could not see. I crouched and rocked on my heels and then did a kind of duck waddle backwards into the shade of a cottonwood that stretched its wide canopy over my side of the river.

I scooted further and took cover behind the trunk. Now out of the pony's sight, I waited and I watched, and presently the beast lost interest in me and my side of the river and turned his head back to his grazing. My own horse was down the river a piece, a poor ragged animal, far out of sight, having a drink. I do not know how long I planned to wait, or what exactly I was waiting to see, for the whole thing was none of my business and I should have left well enough alone and gone on back the way I come. Why I should take it into my head that particular cloudy morning that I was made out to be an Indian killer, I do not rightly know. Perhaps it were that I had heard so much tell of it back in the east in furtive old wife whispers and in bold stories of old men whose words stoked the blood—of the vile and varied depredations promulgated by these plains Indians, of fear and fire visited upon the pleasant calico-wearing wives of farmers in the ghostly light of the prairie moon, and of those wild shrieking devils who from the incorporeal shadow metamorphosed into human form and then just as quickly dissolved back into that blackness eternal whence they'd sprung.

Or perhaps it were because I was bored.

I had been left alone on the prairie for too long and had wandered far in the morning time while a bleary sun crept unwillingly into the sky as if the horses who pulled the flaming chariot of Helios had wearied of their yoke and could only muster up enough strength to drag themselves lazily into the sky to stain the horizon with the pale imitation of a real sunrise. The eastern rim of the world was a weak, orange pastel behind the overcast, and on the dull undulating land-ocean of Kansas, wave upon wave of tallgrass, I had ridden up and down without aim. I think I had vaguely hoped to spy some game that morning and to make for myself a meal in the wide solitude and to eat in the peaceful quiet.

I was maddened, truth to say, and I was in a mean way. I had recently been mixed up in some doings of a most violent and confusing kind, and my erstwhile companion, a young man named Arthur Pike, of whom much will be said in later tales, had abandoned me to my fate, leaving me with nothing but my horse and saddle and rifle and various assorted articles of clothing in a sack, which he must have deemed not worth his trouble to steal.

Seeing how I was fixed, I had taken my bearings from the rising sun and set out in the direction which I assumed would give me the most opportunity to find game and not to strike a settled place too soon. I had no desire to go riding into some well-settled village with a prim schoolmarm in her school and a little old lady playing hymns on her piano in her parlor and the gossips chattering under the shade trees and the boardwalks in front of the shops all swept and clean, and the church bell ringing in the noontime, and me with nothing but the above-mentioned articles in my possession and no money and no prospects, to be arrested as a vagabond or at the very least to be drummed out of town in a most humiliating fashion.

A thing like that had happened to me more than once before and I had no desire to repeat it now. I was only ten the first time it happened. Think on that, if you will. Ten years old. A grown man wearing a badge and gun and having to use all the power of the Law to rid his town of a little bantam of a boy, rather than offering him a place and a bite to eat and a kind word. I have discovered in my short life that a kind word is hard to find, but a kick in the seat of your pants can be got with little effort just about anywhere you go, especially if your clothes are stained and ripped and your hair is dirty and you haven't a piece of silver nor a coin of gold jingling in your pockets.

I ain't never seen a man in a top hat and wearing a gold watch fob receive a kick in the pants. Though now that I think on it, I believe that to see such a sight would be the fulfillment of a wish that I have held in my heart for a very long time; I dearly would love to see a man in tails and a top hat receive a kick in the pants. I think the only thing that I would add to the wish would be that I might deliver the kick myself.

I suppose while I crouched on my heels and watched the Indian pony, I was turning these things over in my mind and brooding on all the wrongs that had been done to me in my life. I will not share them all with you now, for the complete list would be over long, and many of them are related better in other tales later. I will share here only a telling sample.

Chief amongst them, I suppose, was the damnable fact that my father had orphaned me at a young age. I say orphaned in the active sense, because it weren't like it were caused by some unfortunate chance or a hidden part of Providence's plan. My father did it all himself. From what I have gathered in the years since, he received some kind of a payoff for giving me up as a ward, and then he took the money that selfsame night and drank himself into such a stupor that he fell asleep beneath a boxcar, lying crosswise over the rail just in front of the back wheel. How he slept like that, I do not know, but it was his last drunken sleep on this earth. In the morning, the train cut him in twain. My mother had died so far back in distant memory that I cannot recall her face nor the sound of her voice, and when that train rolled over my drunkard father, I was left alone in this world.

Or worse than alone.

For there was the house and the woman to whom I had been given, or sold as it were, she an old woman named Miss Agnes, full of more Bible than brains, and ordained with her mission in this life to redeem the poor heathen. She ran a kind of orphanage, but it weren't a regular kind. We weren't there for the adopting. Ain't a soul would have wanted a one of us lot.

It were a giant, rambling fresh-cream-colored house with large projecting eaves and decorative pediments above the windows, and it looked to my impoverished eye like a castle. It were Miss Agnes's own little kingdom of urchins, and in her mind I do believe that she saw it as a shining city upon a hill. While I was yet in her care, I was introduced to the idea that God speaks to us most clearly through a leather strap, and by God, if that is the case, I heard His voice more often than any soul in that house. Mostly I got that strap because I was an inveterate questioner, that is, I asked questions about everything under the sun, up to and including the Almighty Himself.

And for this I was wronged again. For my questioning was a trait that should have made me popular with my teachers in our little schoolhouse there, a curious mind like a dry sponge hoping for water being what every teacher desires, or so you might think. But I quickly found that it was not. What a teacher really desires is a quiet, docile, barely breathing creature preferably of the feminine persuasion. I weren't none of those things, and so I got the strap, both at school and again at home from Miss Agnes. I became mean, and meanness germinated down in my very soul. If there were a God, I believe I hated Him. But boy, at last, I heard clearly the voice of that hated God from that strap and it was telling me one thing: get the hell out of Miss Agnes's house.

So I run off. I believe if I had stayed I would have killed the old woman and I'd've hanged before I was eighteen.

Now when I run off, I was wronged yet again, for Miss Agnes put out the word to the local law that besides a runaway, I was also a thief. It is true that I stole from her, but the story that she told made out as if I had pilfered jewelry and money from that poor old maid and thus made the law more desirous to bring me in than they might have been had they known the truth of the matter.

What I stole from the woman, in fact, was every book in that commodious house. I done it in the night when the rest were at an evening worship, and I broke the glass on the locked bookcases that she kept and in which I found all the books that I had been forbidden from reading despite my fervent questioning. I piled up as many of these as I could in a crate and then dragged the thing into the woods and buried it.

In the following years, while I scavenged and begged and stole and assumed false names and took to neighboring states to work at what I could, such as sawmills and apple picking and plowing and other labor of this sort, I would return often to the spot in Pennsylvania where I had buried the books. By the time I came of age I had read every single book that I had stolen from that woman and more besides, many of which I had bought with my own wages later. It is how I come to be educated, despite my poverty, and how I come to have so much English in my brain that it spills itself out in a mostly learned diction and from time to time, unwillingly, as you will see in later tales.

Now, by the time I come of age, I believe I knew enough to attend university, had I been but able to manage it financially. Of course, I could not. This was about the time that the ruckus at Sumter happened, and secession was spreading like cankerwort in a flower garden and the union was falling apart, and blood welling up and soon to spill over.

This brings me to the last major wrong in my life that I suppose I was brooding over while I watched the Indian's pony. That is to say, my conscription. It were a couple of years into the war when I was asked to fight, nay told that I would fight by a real Billy Yank of an officer, that it was my duty to fight to preserve the Union from being torn apart by the secessionists. But I saw no duty in it. To hell with the Enrollment Act. What had the Union ever given me but hard words and hard masters and a Brimstone God and the strap? What did I care if reb tore the country apart? Let him have it and all the death and hell besides. I suffered my time in the army, but my heart were never in it. My eyes were to the west. I would go to Colorado or to Wyoming country or some other place like that, where neither Miss Agnes nor the Union nor the draft officer could reach me. But I was forced into service, and that was the wrong of it. How can the Republicans be against slavery when they make slaves of men through conscription? So I bided my time in the Grand Army of the Republic, so-called, and it was here that I met Arthur Pike, who straightway took a liking to me and I to him.

We each of us absconded with a horse, provisions, and a Spencer repeating rifle and a new Colt pistol with a revolving cylinder. Many other things had since come to pass that I shall relate by and by, how we fared and how I come to find myself on the side of the river watching this Indian pony and thinking of how to best kill its owner.

I could see the Indian now, though whether he were Cheyenne or Comanche or what have you, I had no way of knowing. I was not at that time much studied in the Indian, nor in his ways, nor in his dress, nor his tribalism. All I could tell was that this was a horse Indian and not one of the Civilized Tribes. Watching him approach his pony, I could see from the Indian's slight frame and his manner of walking that he lived most of his life on horseback.

Overhead the leaves of the cottonwood danced and whispered in the prairie wind, and the sound was like white breakers upon a shore. I had just leaned out from behind the tree to take aim at the pony, for now that the rider was in the open and accounted for, I was decided to kill the pony first and then, rather than run as I had first intended, I would take on the helpless Indian after, and the continent would be less one redskin and I maybe richer one scalp, which I had only recently heard could still fetch a good price from the right buyer. It was clear by his demeanor that the man was alone. But as I put him in my rifle sights, the gentle sound of the cottonwood above me lulled me into a kind of trance and it was so peaceful and sweet that I felt my anger evaporating from me like a mist of vapor and I thought I heard a voice somewhere say my name in a fair and lovely tone, and I found myself suddenly questioning why I meant to kill this man. What had he ever done to me? Who was I to end his life and send him to his judgment, and what would I say to that Maker, however hated, when I too stood in judgment before his great white throne?

I hesitated at these unbidden thoughts, and as I did, the Indian looked down across the river from his high place and saw me kneeling beside the tree. The result was immediate. He did not know but that I was a scout for a nearby Union detachment. He was fooled into thinking so by the crumpled blue forage cap I still wore on my head and he had no idea that I was alone, and he did not consider that he had the higher ground and all the other advantages besides.

He did what these kinds of Indians always do when caught unawares, and that was to light out of there as fast as he might. He at once leapt onto the back of the star-marked pony, but instead of sitting straight in the saddle as a white man would have done, he hooked a heel on the saddle and dropped himself over onto the far side so as to screen himself with the body of the horse from my shots.

The result in me was likewise immediate. Despite my hatred of the Union, truth be told, they had given me good training, for to drill and drill was the most common pastime in my short stint there, and my instincts have never been those of a dullard. I thought fast as I always do. I shot the Indian's pony out from under him. Killed it with a single shot. It were a fine animal. Now that the thing was done I could not shake the thought of what a fine animal it truly was. With it the Indian could have outrun any Kentucky Saddler. But now it had a ball in its brain.

I thought that maybe the Indian's leg crumpled beneath the body of the horse when it fell but I could not see up on to the cut bank to verify this. So I held my rifle above my head and waded up to my chest through the little river and out to the other side. I waited at the base of the cut bank and listened. There was not a sound. I was glad of it. And yet I was not. For if I had heard the Indian groaning and struggling beneath the weight of the horse, I would have known that I was safe, for though he was not dead, at least he was trapped. But the silence told me nothing but that the horse was dead, which I already knew. It told me nothing of the Indian.

By root and rock and projecting dirt, I climbed and clawed my way to the top of the cut bank and peeked over its lip. I could see the backside of the pony, motionless, but its collapsed form obscured anything beyond, and I could not tell if the Indian lay on the other side or if he had disentangled himself from the beast and was waiting now hidden to ambush me. I waited and tried not to breathe and willed the whole earth to be silent so that I could listen. There was nothing. No human sound. A few feet from me, the fat brown form of a rat wriggled from a hole and stared at me, and I smiled and nodded at him and touched the brim of my hat as if to say hello, and spying such a strange creature as me outside the front step of his little home, he scampered off through the tallgrass down his little rat road, and I listened so hard that I could hear the little footfalls of his rat feet on the dirt even when I lost sight of him. Still there was no human sound. I hazarded it and scrambled the rest of the way up on to the bank. There was even yet no motion and no sound. The Indian did not ambush me.

As I brought myself to standing, I beheld a wide meadow, the color of butter, with snake ripples of wind coursing through the tallgrass. Behind me the cottonwood leaves fluttered and sighed their forlorn song like the whisper of the sea, and the brown shape of the rat could still be seen to flit in and out of the meadow as it ran. Overhead somewhere I heard the steamwhistle cry of a red-tailed hawk, a sharp, defiant, rasping scream. His wings were spread out in shadow upon the tallgrass, dancing over the tops. I had never seen such a sight as I saw there, nor felt what suddenly crashed upon me like an epiphany, with the great prairie stretched out westward before me to the rim of the world, as far as the eye could stretch itself, land upon land, mile on mile, a meadow truly, in the truest sense a meadow, the greatest meadow there can be, one that never ended but stretched on and on across the entire continent, all virginal and good and so infinitely holy a land, so utterly God-blest, and I felt my sinner's heart shrink inside me, for the size of the earth dwarfed me and dwarfed all the works of man, all his hubristic posturing and his philosophies and his paltry reason, and the domes and obelisks that he builds, and this damned war that he fights, all these things meant nothing to this endless land, land forever. I found myself under the eye of God, and I shrank. I meant nothing, nothing, neither the Indian and you neither, and we none of us meant anything to these indifferent spaces which draw sustenance from the divine and which need not man now nor ever needed us.

Then the Indian sprang up from the grass, and I was ripped from my rapture, and in the golden meadow there was bloodwork to be done.

This I had started, this defilement. I could not now stop it. A thing like regret pulled me back towards the cut bank, and there was a part of me that wanted only to run and to get back to my own horse and to ride away and to leave this Indian here and see him no more. But this I could not do. I was powerless to stop the sin I had wrought. I must see it through.

I raised my rifle and lowered to a crouch and sidestepped so as not to offer my enemy such an easy target, and in that second I could see that he had a bow and a ready arrow notched for me and he was taking aim.

The time was short now, but each moment long in itself. The hawk screamed again. I could not see it. The Indian pulled the bowstring to his ear and I raised my carbine and put my sights as well as I could on the broadest part of his exposed torso.

His navel like a bulls-eye. His clenched jaw. The arrow on the taut string. The blood in my veins and in his. The pulse of my temple, and the temple of his body and of mine. The low twang of the bowstring. The ripping air. The rifle shot. The crack of the powder.

And the hawk scream.

And there suddenly the diving bird, the red-tailed hawk in a swift aerial plunge, its wings half-closed and tucked close to its side, its talons curved in deadly scythes, and the prey below it, the fat brown rat that I had watched, struck dumb and motionless in terror.

And here was Providence.

Not mere sentiment carried like a charm by old women and parsons, but this true thing, this Thing Itself, this thing I witnessed and which gave me my life and my soul back to me, both of which I had sought to throw away. For I do not doubt but that the Indian's arrow would have killed me and my rifle shot him, and I would have gone to death with murder fresh on my soul, and the fires of hell would have taken me.

But Providence sent a rat and a red-tailed hawk. For when the hawk dove, my bullet struck him in his left breast and in his right, the Indian's arrow buried itself up to the shaft. The hawk fell dead in the meadow.

I saw this. I could not comprehend it. That such a thing could happen. And the Indian, he saw it too, and said nothing, not in his own language nor in mine, and I saw holy numinous fear mirrored in his coal-colored eyes and I said nothing. But we both of us stood and looked at the hawk, dead in the meadow, its breasts torn open.

We did not fire at each other again. Our weapons fell to our sides. The Indian approached the hawk as a priest to the holiest of holies and he knelt beside it and was silent for a time and then he lifted the lifeless form and blood trickled over his forearms and he plucked from the hawk two feathers, two of the long primaries at the ends of each wing, crimson-colored with the blood.

One of these he took for himself, and one he gave to me. And that was it.

Then we turned and walked away without a word.

The End

Randal Schmidt is a graduate of Texas A&M University and currently teaches Creative Writing and Literature at a Catholic college preparatory school in Texas. He is the author of the fantasy novel The Lands Beyond the Moon. He lives in Texas with his wife and two children.

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Clear Creek Bounty, Part 3 of 3
by Benjamin Thomas

The light of the morning sun had already penetrated the burlap sack covering Charlene's head but when somebody wrenched it off, the golden brightness still blinded her to her immediate surroundings. She shook her head to clear it, feeling her hair swirling about her ears and the nape of her neck.

She had been unceremoniously dumped on a rough wooden floor. Safe to assume it was the ranch house that Pops had overheard Padgett talking about. Her hands and ankles were still tightly bound together and the constant chaffing during their short ride to the house was already causing pain to shoot up her extremities. At least she could see now. Still blinking against the brightness, she could make out that the room was larger than she had expected, with a high ceiling looking more like a converted barn than a house. The walls and ceiling had been constructed with a traditional timber frame, though the beams appeared to be sawed rather than hewn. Vertical board siding covered them, with battens over the cracks. Not wind-tight but evidence of a well-to-do ranch operation.

There was no ceiling, allowing her to see that the roof framing was a simple gable design with evenly spaced cross beams. Heavy oak-framed furniture with worn leather seats lay scattered about in disarray. Seemed the place had been vacant for a while. Plenty of signs of rats or other vermin now making their home there. Only two doors that she could see.

"Well, well, what do we have here?" came a low growl from a large beefy man with the face of an ox. An ox with a thick black mustache and lots of facial stubble. A pair of ugly suspenders, uneven in their width, strained to hold up his pants over a stained white shirt. This had to be Frank Padgett himself.

"Caught us a little red-headed birdie," said the man who had captured her on the trail. He with the Mexican accent that she had heard referred to as "Reymundo". "I say let us see how she chirps."

"We'll git to that in good time," said Padgett. "Any sign of the old man?"

"Sure. We saw 'eem just where you said and we let 'eem pass on by so we could take us the birdie."

"Good. We'll give him some time to make it back to the town site and then undertake our next ambush. Never hurts when your foes spread the word and help the good folks of Clear Creek understand what it means to go up against us. Good thing we got ourselves a little extry information." He winked at somebody behind Charlene and out of her sight. He had a rope with him which he started to coil over the front door latch. "We can string him up and let him swing from the rafters. We'll do justice for all the false claims he was sellin' to innocent folks last night." A rumble emerged from his chest which Charlene supposed was a laugh.

Carmondy stalked into her vision, bent down and cupped Charlene's chin in one of his dirty hands. "I've been waitin' long enough, boss. Ever since I seen her in that dress, I been wanting to see a lot more of her. I call first dibs." His other hand carried an enormous hunting knife with a keen edge. He started to move it toward her shirt front, evidently intent on cutting away the buttons.

"Aw, Car, we all know you spoil them for the rest of us," said another man, this one young and fleshy with a high-pitched, almost squeaky voice. "Let me have a go at 'er first." He stood up from a stone fireplace where he had been poking a small log, trying to build up the flames a bit more.

"Nate, you wouldn't know what to do with her." Carmondy's comment was greeted with amusement all around.

Now Charlene could see yet another man rise to his feet from where he had been sitting in the shadows along the north wall. This was "pony tail", the second man who had snatched her off her horse earlier. The room grew quiet as he glided toward her, movements smooth and quiet like the stories of Indian scalp hunters. His eyes focused directly on her own and for a moment it was as if nobody else was in the room, such was his intensity. He radiated malicious intent like a heat mirage in the sun-drenched desert.

"She's mine," was all he said in a dry, husky voice. Nobody disputed it, content to watch as if hypnotized.

Closing the distance decisively, he put a hand on either side of her shoulders and lifted her to her feet. Charlene felt the blood drain from her face, fearing what would come next. Courage, girl. She would be damned before she would let these men paw her without a fight.

But the man moved with slow purpose, letting his gaze flow over her face, as if studying it for later recall. He was patient and didn't seem worried that any of the others would interfere. He was so close now she could feel his breath and smell its smoky aroma. Remaining as still as possible, she couldn't repress a shiver when he reached up to push a loose bit of her hair behind an ear. Damn it. Got to treat him like he's nothing more than a mean old dog. Don't show fear.


The air was still as if there was nobody in the room but the two of them. Hers was not a mere feeling of being trapped but being snared like a rabbit with a hungry coyote slinking toward her.

"I have a better idea." came another voice from somewhere behind Charlene, breaking the tension.

A sense of dread flooded through Charlene, washing over her fear of Pony Tail and what he might do next. That voice. That easy southern drawl was unmistakable.


Still in character of Tandy Flint, the bounty hunter.

As if to prove her suspicions correct, Billy moved around in front of her so she could get a good look. There was no hint of recognition in his steely eyes, no sense of remorse evident in his features. Just pure business with a glint of evil.

Charlene seethed.

"I saw her in that dress too," he said to the other men in the room. "I think it would be a mighty nice treat if she were to dance for us."

"Oh yeah," said Carmondy, a statement echoed by the others. "That'll do nicely! She needs to get nice and warmed up before we sample her charms. Step back, Cat. Give her some room. Boy, I wish she had that dress on."

Reymundo dragged a table over to the center of the room and said, "Behold, a stage!"

Two of the men grabbed Charlene and thrust her up onto the table where she stood timidly looking down at the gleeful men. But then her eyes landed on Billy and his eyes met hers. Was that a nod? A bit of encouragement or at least understanding of her dire predicament? Hard to tell. She tried to pierce his stare but whatever might have been there was closed down, his lustful leer like all the rest. What did she really know about him anyway? Pops had hired an actor who looked the part but she wasn't aware of him checking into his background at all.

Got to clamp down on her anger at his betrayal. More fundamental worries were coming her way.

"Anybody seen a whip?" asked Padgett laughing. "We might need to get her started."

"I've got a gun," said Tandy. "Nobody will hear it way up here and it might urge her along a little bit to play her . . . role." On this last word, "role" he looked hard at Charlene.

"Role . . . "

This was just a role she had to play. Was that what Billy was trying to communicate? Merely play along and stall for time? Pops was out there somewhere and was mounting some sort of a rescue even now.


So Charlene pasted a big smile on her face and began to sway her hips from side to side. She started as slow as she dared, knowing the longer she could drag out a dance, the longer before things would turn bad.

Somebody started humming a risqué tune, was joined by another, while somebody else started slapping his hand against his thigh creating a steady rhythm.

Charlene kept a slow role of her hips going while raising her arms above her head, touching the beam that ran across the ceiling and slowly caressing it like a lover. She had seen dance hall girls and burlesque shows before so knew a little of what was expected. And she knew what these men wanted.

Some grunts and mumbles of interest emerged from her small audience but she knew she couldn't limit her dance to swaying hips. Already they wanted more and it wasn't until she stuck a foot out towards Padgett and motioned for him to remove her boot that the interest level raised to a cat call or two. Padgett wasted no time in yanking it off, peeling off her sock at the same time. The cool air tickled her bare foot and she could feel the tingle travel up her spine.

Have to stall, she thought. But she also realized that the more she teased these men, the greater their eagerness would grow. And their impatience.

She noticed Billy nudge Padgett, speak something into his ear. Padgett nodded absently, his focus on Charlene's pretty ankle. Billy quickly turned toward the door, putting his arm around Pony Tail, and guiding him out of the building. She wondered what that was all about but was certainly glad to see the evil Pony Tail leaving.

Was Billy helping? Or had he turned traitor in return for better pay . . . ? Were they even now, on their way to kill Pops?

* * *

Leland's mare stumbled slightly as the right fore-hoof sunk into a leaf-covered prairie dog hole but she recovered quickly. Leland pushed her hard in his anxiousness. He never liked uncertainty and the current situation definitely fit the definition.

What had happened to Charlene? The most likely answer was that somehow Padgett and his men had intercepted her instead of the intended target, himself. Had they taken her to their hideout? If so what would be their intentions? Did they kill her? He shook his head in consternation, fearful of his thoughts straying too much. For now, all he could do was follow the trail and see if he could come across a clue of some kind. Something that would tell of her fate.

To his left, Leland heard a twig snap.

It was an unnatural and unexpected noise and instantly, all his senses were on high alert. "Who's there?" he demanded, immediately wishing he hadn't. Giving away his location was stupid but the nervous quaver in his own voice bothered him more.

Amidst a rustle of branches, a wiry youngster with long brown hair tied back in a ponytail emerged onto the trail in front of him. "Hold it right there mister," he said. He held a gun in a gloved fist, trained on Leland's chest. "We got him, Tandy."

Billy's voice came from behind in that same southern drawl that Leland had come to admire so much when Billy was performing his Tandy persona. "That we do, Cat. That we do."

The young man named Cat got down off his horse, his movements sure and easy. He waved the gun at Leland and said, "Why don't you ease on off your horse, mister. You ain't goin' nowhere." He spoke with a cockiness that irked Leland's ears. He seemed hardly more than a boy.

Leland climbed down and followed Cat's unspoken motions to put his hands behind his back where Billy started to tie them together with a length of twine. "What's in this for you, Tandy?" he said guardedly. "Thought you had a bounty on Padgett."

Billy grunted and said "The pay was better to join him than it was to bring him in. Simple as that." He cinched the twine tighter and finished off the knot. Leland mentally kicked himself for ever getting involved with the smooth-talking actor in the first place. It had seemed a smart addition to their little team at the time but now that he thought back on it, the man seemed slick as snot.

"OK," said Cat. "Let's get back to the ranch before she finishes her dancin'. I don't cotton to all that twirling about too much but I'll be pleased to lead off the next part." His grin was devilish. "Hope she can last 'til we git back."

Leland's heart had dropped into his gullet at these words but at least he knew Charlene was still alive. He had to take some solace in that.

Cat started to move toward him as if to check his bonds, when suddenly, Billy shoved Leland forward roughly, colliding him into the slender outlaw and knocking both to the ground. Billy then leaped around Leland and bashed the prone Cat in the head with the grip end of his gun, right behind the ear. Cat lay still, a trickle of blood starting to flow down his neck and drip onto the dust of the trail.

"The man wouldn't shut up," he said, smiling at Leland. He moved back behind and began to untie the older man's wrists. Leland's evolving opinion of the actor took another jerk. Was he friend or foe? "Why didn't you just shoot him?"

Billy grinned again and said, "You know I can't hit the side of a mountain with a bullet. And besides, this way was more satisfactory."

Leland felt like he had to test the water a little. "I knew you hadn't swapped sides. There's no way in tarnation you would sell me out for a few more greenbacks."

Billy winked back at him. "Well, as you said before, Padgett only thinks short term. So when I came to him with the idea of telling him your plan in exchange for some cash, he was eager to offer me more than his bounty. How could I say no?"

"How much more?"

Billy grinned and said, "Never mind that now. They've got Charlene and they're holed up in their ranch house. She's stalling for time so I could get out here and find you. We need to rescue her before . . . " he trailed off.

"Understood," Leland replied. "At least we've got one less scoundrel to worry about," he said looking down at their victim. "And I have a new surprise cooked up, fresh as of this morning, that may help."

Together they tied the unconscious Cat to the trunk of a thick pine, jumped on their horses, and rode for the ranch house as swiftly as the narrow trail allowed.

* * *

Charlene wasn't sure how much time had passed but she was running out of it. And clothes. Only two pieces to go before she was completely exposed. She tried to slow things down even more but the tempo of the rhythm keeper had increased in pace. She could easily read the sheer longing in the men's faces. Padgett's tongue was running over his lips again and again like he was preparing for a feast. She swore there was a bit of drool leaking out.

Dancing from one corner of the table to another, back and forth, her breathing was much faster now. She had to admit, dancing without her corset was much easier than with it, free to move about with ease and contort in all sorts of ways. Sweat trickled down her neck and beneath her bust wrap, her flat tummy glistening. Typically, she wore her bloomers cut off shorter than most girls did. Above the knees allowed for easier movement and more comfort beneath her trousers. That had proven to be a poor decision now though since these men seemed especially intent on the thin white fabric that barely concealed her gyrating thighs. It stuck to her skin in places where her perspiration made it moist and Charlene was dismayed to think it was probably transparent there as well.

"Enough stalling little birdie!" Carmondy called out. "I need to use that hanky you're wearing over your twins. Give it here!"

Charlene had no choice. She slowed her dance back down to the same gentle sway of her hips that she had started with and began to loosen the knot holding the cloth wrapped around her breasts. That didn't take as long as she hoped either but she managed to keep the cloth in place with one hand while wiping a drop of sweat slaloming down her chin with the back of the other.

Like a gunshot, the door banged open. It let in a stream of bright daylight as well as her grandfather shambling in followed by Billy. The turncoat used one arm to pin Leland's arms behind him and the other to hold a sharp-looking knife to his throat.

"Oh good," said Padgett, turning toward the disturbance. "You're in time to enjoy the festivities." He yanked a thumb at the table where Charlene was trying desperately to keep the cloth up around her chest.

Billy's eyes went wide while Leland's grew narrow with rage. "What the . . . " he began. "What kind of perverts are you?" he demanded, eyes darting from one man to another. "Charlie, get your drawers back on and . . . "

Billy saw his chance. Taking advantage of the brief distraction he let go of his captive and tossed Leland's tin-lined box into the fireplace. Earlier, Leland had explained how he had wanted to make a black powder explosive but hadn't enough powder nor enough time to get gunpowder from bullets. So the tin box was, instead, merely a smoke bomb and the fuse would need to be lit somehow. Billy figured the flames of the fire ought to do the trick.

Nothing happened. Charlene and all the men in the room stared at the fire as if waiting for somebody to say or do something. But from the fireplace came . . . nothing. Padgett began to laugh, slowly at first and then rolling into a full-on gut-buster.

His laughter spread to the others but then, growing impatient, Padgett silenced the room with a shot into the ceiling from his pistol. "I guess we all know where your true loyalties lie, bounty hunter!" He lowered the gun, aiming at Billy's chest.

From out of the fireplace came an eerie whistle accompanied by a mournful hiss, building in a crescendo that began to hurt the ears. With a bang, the tin box burst apart and balls of smoldering pitch burst across the room, filling the space with dense smoke.

Billy was the first to react. He grabbed the rope that was hanging over the door latch and started tying a loop in the end. Leland dropped to his knees to avoid potential gunfire. He managed to grasp Billy's knife from the floor where it had dropped. He struck out blindly through the smoke. Aiming for where he had last seen one of the outlaws he felt solid contact with something fleshy. A high-pitched scream erupted from his target. At first Leland was horrified to think he might have stabbed Charlie. But no, he could see her through a thin spot in the smoke to his right where she had snatched a big hunting knife from Carmondy's belt. She reached forward to thrust it into the man's back but he twisted away at the last second. The knife's edge did bite him in the forearm before he batted it away, the blade skittering across the wooden floor.

Billy had taken full advantage of the smoke and clambered up to the overhead rafters, using the back of a chair to propel himself upwards. From there he spotted Reymundo, the stringy-haired Mexican with the bad breath. He dropped the noose-end of the rope around the man's scrawny neck and leapt off the beam to the floor. Reymundo was yanked off his feet and into midair, arms and legs flailing in all directions.

A frustrated Charlene had lost the hunting knife but she crawled in the direction Carmondy had knocked it. She had re-tied her bust wrap but hadn't had time to do a good job of it. Now it was loose and threatening to fall away completely. But she spared no thoughts for that at the moment. Reaching out across the floor, she felt her way through the smoke, hoping to stumble across the knife. Instead she found her discarded trousers.

Carmondy's voice came from near her ear, shouting something about how he was going to kill her for what she had done. But not until after he had seen her completely unshucked.

Charlene's eyebrows jutted inwards. What an empty-skulled idiot! She screwed up her courage, climbed to her feet, and came up behind Carmondy's position. She whipped the trousers around his neck like a calf lassoed for branding. Grabbing both sides, she heaved back with all her strength. They both fell to the floor where they struggled but Carmondy's strength was too much for her. He managed to free himself and move away, although doubled over and coughing severely.

A gunshot rang out and once again everybody froze in place. The smoke was beginning to dissipate now and Padgett could be seen with one arm raised in the air, his pistol aimed at the ceiling.

"I shoot the next person that moves!" he roared.

Leland glanced about, gathering his bearings. He saw one plumpish man writhing about on the floor trying desperately to remain still but failing. A stab wound was visible on his thigh and Leland realized this was his own recent victim. Another man was dangling from a rafter, his hands pulling at the rope that wound around his neck, trying to pull himself up and keep breathing. Billy was near the door where his hand was holding the other end of the rope, having tied it securely to the latch. Carmondy stood next to Leland, hunched over hacking, but Leland wasn't sure if this was from the smoke or some other cause.

"You, girl!" yelled Padgett pointing his pistol at Charlene now. "You git over here right now!"

Charlene glanced over at Leland, and then at Billy.

"Don't look at them, girl! They can't help you. Now, git!"

With one last look at Billy, she seemed resigned to her fate. She muttered, "Well, I suppose everybody has a role to play and this one's mine." She added a little emphasis on the word "role" just as Billy had earlier and gave him a penetrating stare. She nodded, turned and walked towards Padgett, fervently hoping Billy had gotten the message. His role was famous gunslinger bounty hunter. Could he play it when it counted?

"That's far enough," Padgett said, stopping her about three feet in front of him. "That smoke has cleared up enough now I think." He held the pistol steady, still pointed at Charlene's chest. "I want everybody to have a clear view of what's going to happen now. I have a great desire to add a hat band to match my suspenders and you, my lovely, are going to supply the raw materials."

He smirked once more, raised his gun arm to its full length, cocked the pistol, and prepared to squeeze the trigger.

Charlene wiggled just enough. Her bust wrap fell to the floor.

Padgett's eyes moved downwards, hesitated for a second, and then the sound of a gunshot all but deafened those in the enclosed room.

Leland cried out, "Charlie!" but then immediately saw that it was Padgett who had been thrown back by the shot. His pistol dropped, gun hand spurting blood. Swinging his head to the left he took in Billy's Colt .45 Peacemaker nestled in his right hand, smoke swirling from the barrel. Billy looked every inch the bounty hunter named Tandy. Hat pulled low on his brow. Long duster swirling around him. Steel-gray eyes bright with the significance of what he'd done.

"Huh?" Carmondy mumbled, hands till clasped about his own neck.

Leland, remembering the knife still in his hand, swung out back-handed. He allowed the blade to sink a full six inches into Carmondy's eye socket, killing him instantly. The outlaw fell straight back, his body slamming to the floor with a crash. Blood spurted from his head and began pooling around him, seeping into the cracks of the floorboards.

Charlene grabbed a burning log from the fireplace and whapped Padgett over the back of the head. He was knocked cold, putting an end to his pain-filled yells and curses.

* * *

Later, Leland, Billy, and Charlene sat on the floor of the ranch house, staring at the prone figures of four men. Padgett, Reymundo, and Nate lay next to each other, gagged and bound. Carmondy still lay where he had died in a pool of blood now dulled with dust.

"I reckon we ought to get going," said Leland, running a hand through his hair. "We need to collect Cat Maes from where we tied him up back on the trail. Then we get the whole parcel to Denver to collect the bounties."

"You got that right," added Billy. "And we want to be sure to get out of the area before all your tonic customers figure out the stuff don't work and decide to string you up."

Charlene, now fully dressed once again, smiled and shook her head. "Fact is Billy, it does work. At least for most folks. Pop's elixir is made from cocaine, morphine, and a touch of arsenic, among some other stuff to make it taste more like medicine. If it don't cure what ails you, you'll at least be happy for a time anyway."

Leland and Billy joined her in easy laughter and then Leland said, "Come to think of it, there might be more money in selling elixirs than in collecting bounties. Especially here in gold and silver country. Perhaps a change in occupation is in order . . . "

"Where's the fun in that?" said Charlene. "As long as we follow your plans, everything always goes just as it should." She smiled her sweet smile once again but then swiveled her head over to Billy, looking pointedly at him.

"That was some shot you made on Padgett's gun hand. I thought you said you couldn't shoot straight to save your life." She had one eyebrow raised in curious doubt.

Adopting an 'aw shucks' look on his face, Billy glanced at her shyly and answered, "I was actually aiming for his head. But something distracted me and my bullet swerved off course." His face grew even redder than before.

"Thank God for your poor aim . . . and being prone to distractions," said Leland. "Alive, he's worth twice what he is dead."

End Part 3 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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