June, 2020

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Issue #129

All The Tales

The Rebel Queen
by Samuel Kennedy

"The congress of the Confederate States of America do enact, That the president be, and he is hereby authorized to commission such officers as he may deem proper with authority to form bands of Partisan Rangers, in companies, battalions, or regiments, to be composed of such members as the President may approve."

Section 1 of the Partisan Ranger Act, passed by the Confederate Congress, April 21, 1862

The sky was still dark over the open plains of Kansas when the Cruzados Territoriales reached Mount Oread. Twenty-seven expert riders, armed to the teeth and led by a woman who'd already gained a reputation as one of the toughest and most cunning bushwhackers in the border wars. Charity North had travelled the 800 miles from New Mexico with only 12 men to fight Yankees, but her reputation quickly brought others under her command. Among the bushwhackers and jayhawkers of "Bleeding Kansas", the Cruzados Territoriales were among the most feared, and the most respected.

As they rode into the temporary camp of William Quantrill, dozens of guerrillas looked up and watched them pass by. Charity North was the only woman to command a troop in Kansas or Missouri, so there was no mistaking her group as they rode up to Quantrill's tent.

Quantrill looked up from his makeshift desk at the rows of snorting horses outside. The leader sat on a big black mare with head turned down. The broad-brimmed hat hid her face, the oversized gray coat disguised her physique, but there was no mistaking the jet-black hair reaching almost to her waist.

As William Quantrill stepped out of his tent, the man to Charity's right climbed down from his horse and took hold of her reins. The man stood at attention, staring straight ahead, directly through Quantrill.

The guerrilla chieftain felt himself stiffen, reaching across his chest to straighten the dusty gray uniform of a Confederate captain. Feeling more presentable now, he removed his hat to the lady.

Her right hand gripped the saddle horn as she swept her coattails back. Quantrill's eyes were drawn to the turquoise ring on her finger, as well as the pair of Colt Dragoon revolvers in pommel holsters on either side of the saddle horn. She swung her leg over the saddle. With a jingling of spurs, her boots came to rest in the grass.

Quantrill cleared his throat. "Welcome to Mount Oread. I'm Captain William Quantrill."

The turquoise ring flashed as she swept her hat off with a flourish. "Pleasure," she said in a silvery voice with a light Spanish accent. "My name is Charity North, commander of the Cruzados Territoriales, out of the New Mexico Territory. We heard you needed fighters."

Quantrill nodded. "We're proud to have you join us. Today we will strike a great blow for the Confederacy. In fact, I'm just about to address my officers in preparation for the battle." He motioned toward his tent, where several other guerrillas stood gathered around the desk, where Charity noticed a map of the area.

She turned to the man holding her horse, giving quick instructions in Spanish. He nodded and, remounting his horse, he turned and led the group in single file to the edge of the camp, where they dismounted and quietly prepared their breakfast, ignoring the more than 400 other bushwhackers in the camp.

Inside the tent, Quantrill pointed to an 'X' on the map. His other hand pointed northeast across the plain, where a few scattered lights glowed against the still-dark sky. "Lawrence sits less than two miles from us. We are gathered here to strike a blow against the stronghold of the Jayhawkers and Union sympathizers, the blue-coat oppressors. And we are here for revenge."

He looked around at the circle of faces. His commanders, George M. Todd and William Anderson, known as Bloody Bill for his ruthless effectiveness, Charity North and a half dozen others. All commanders of their own units, all gathered here to bring down destruction on the town that had brought so much trouble to their cause.

"Yes, revenge," he continued. "Revenge for the women unjustly imprisoned in Lawrence, merely for sympathizing with us. Women killed or maimed when the prison—which was known to be unsafe—collapsed and crushed those inside." He placed a hand on the shoulder of Bloody Bill. "Revenge for your sister Josephine. Only fifteen years old."

Charity, usually so calm, felt her blood boil as she thought of the injustice. The Jayhawkers would pay, that much was certain. Every last one of them.

Quantrill laid a sheet of paper over the map. Charity saw a long list of names. "These are the ringleaders of the Unionists," Quantrill continued. "These names take priority. Now, according to reports, there are 500 fighting men in the town. We have approximately 450, so we will be outnumbered, and they will have the defensive advantage. However, we will have the advantage of surprise, and—with God on our side—I am confident we can mete out justice."

Murmurs and nods met this declaration. Everyone there was ready to go to war. Quantrill smiled grimly as he looked around at the circle of eager faces. He was the oldest one here at 26 years old, with the majority of those under his command being even younger. Yet every last one was an experienced fighter, able to ride and shoot with the best soldiers on the frontier.

Quantrill folded the map and set his hat back on his head. "We ride out as soon as you can form up your troops."

* * *

Charity ate a piece of cold bacon slowly, turning a piece of cornbread over in her other hand as she squatted on the ground next to her horse. Her Springfield 1847 Musketoon lay on the ground in front of her. The gun was mostly useless, especially compared to her massive horse pistols, but she had poured in the powder and loaded the .69 caliber ball anyway. Finishing her breakfast, she stood up and slid the Musketoon back into its scabbard.

She still remembered the first time she had killed. In a mad rage, desperate for revenge, she had unleashed hell in New Mexico, killing a judge and seven deputies who had been sent to take her. Only 16 at the time, she had certainly gotten her revenge, but the blood she had spilled had eaten away at her soul ever since. Her actions had forced her to leave the territory and her younger sister behind, but what she had done had continued to haunt her.

The war had offered her some relief. Here was a chance to wash away her crimes. A chance to atone for her youthful mistakes. This was a cause she could fight for: the independence of the Confederacy. Every drop of blood she spilled now would have meaning beyond her own personal revenge. That was what she had told herself as she led her men across Kansas and Missouri, striking at Union soldiers and Northern guerrillas. This war had meaning.

Quantrill had spoken of taking revenge on Lawrence, but what did he know of revenge? Charity knew all too well, and this would not be revenge. This was justice. Murder had been committed, and not like hers, either. She had killed grown men—armed and in greater numbers. The people of Lawrence had imprisoned the helpless in harsh conditions that eventually led to their deaths. No, this wasn't revenge: it was justice.

Her horse was grazing peacefully. Charity smiled as she watched the grass disappear into the grinding teeth. If the black mare knew what was about to happen, she clearly didn't care. Charity ran a hand through the sleek black coat. Relampago was one of the finest horses on the frontier. Neither storms nor gunfire could frighten her.

Charity hefted her saddle onto the mare's back, silently cinching down the straps and checking her revolvers. The Musketoon in its scabbard rode on the left side, next to the saddlebags. Like the men she led, Charity traveled light: food, ammunition, and a canteen of water. Her powder horn hung over her shoulder, while a bandoleer across her chest held a long knife and a case of ammunition.

She looked to her men from beneath her black hat. Danger lurked in her brown eyes. Every man there—twenty-seven strong—watched her, waiting for the order. Each one was ready to kill or die for her. That knowledge filled her with confidence; that responsibility weighed on her heart.

The first dim rays of sunlight were just beginning to color the sky over Lawrence. Bloody Bill Anderson sat on his horse at the head of his men, a Spencer carbine in his hand. A broad smile lit up his face, as he ran his free hand through his wild black hair and placed his hat atop his head. The dim light cast long shadows over his features, and reflected off the gleam in his eyes.

Charity knew a killer when she saw one. She turned away and pulled her hat down lower over her eyes. They would need killers if they were to defeat the 500 men of Lawrence.

Quantrill climbed into the saddle and looked over the ranks of irregular troops. He smiled, anticipation and pride mingling in his boyish features. He turned first to Bloody Bill, then to Charity as she rode to the front of her men.

He took up the reins and waved forward. The assault on Lawrence, Kansas was about to begin.

Charity smiled as her horse broke into a trot. Dust rose into the air beneath the hooves of 450 horses as they rode into the early morning. She could see the roofs of Lawrence. She would be there soon enough, bringing justice to the enemy.

* * *

Smoke stung her nostrils; ash coated her face. The echoes of the dead and the cries of the dying filled her ears. Lawrence was in flames.

Charity sat on her horse, gazing around her in horrified silence. Her Dragoon revolvers were both empty in the holsters, but she held her backup guns—a pair of 1860 Army Colts—with white knuckles. Where were the 500 armed defenders she had been promised?

A guerrilla's horse charged wildly past her, minus a rider. At least someone was fighting back. But this still wasn't war, this wasn't the justice she wanted. This was exactly what Quantrill said it was: revenge.

There was a body on the porch of a once-beautiful home. The house was now riddled with bullets, and so was the body. Blood ran off the deck boards and into the street. A half-dressed man charged from the house next door as the fire spread from building to building. His eyes were wild, he yelled something Charity couldn't understand.

But she could understand the way his hands gripped the old musket as he pointed the bayonet at her, and she could see the uneven tread that carried him toward her. She wondered if the musket was even loaded. He charged toward her.

The revolver in her left hand leveled with his torso and fired, one gunshot in the chorus that echoed throughout the city. She could still see the man behind the burst of smoke, staggering toward her in spite of the hole in his chest. He pulled back the hammer on the musket, the flames reflecting off the long blade of the bayonet, off the wild look in his eyes.

The revolver in her right hand boomed.

The man fell to the ground, bayonet stabbing the dirt uselessly. He lay unmoving, mere feet in front of her. Blood ran from beneath him until it reached Relampago's hooves.

She turned, guiding the horse around the body and up the street. She still held both revolvers at the ready. This wasn't better than what she had done in New Mexico: it was far worse. The stories she'd read as a child had lied; there was no honor in war. War was so much worse than revenge. At least in New Mexico she had known who she killed—and why. This was a slaughter, surrounded by dead faces she didn't even know.

At the end of the street, she looked over and saw Jacob Turnbull, her right hand man. He had dismounted, and was crouched over the body of a young boy. Tears streamed down his face and onto that of the child, killed in his night clothes on the steps of his own home. By Quantrill's standards, the boy was old enough to hold a gun, and therefore old enough to die.

Turnbull looked up at her. He made no attempt to brush away his tears; for the first time in his life, his anguish was greater than his pride. His revolver lay on the ground beside him, and the body of a bushwhacker lay on the other side of the child. Charity recognized it as one of Bloody Bill's men. He had shot the boy, and Turnbull had killed him for it.

She stepped down from her horse, hands shaking as she held her guns. Turnbull had shot one of their own, a crime punishable by death. But what punishment would the other man have faced if not at Turnbull's hands? This was war then, killing the enemy before they had a chance to kill you.

She tucked one of the revolvers into her belt, and put a hand on Turnbull's shoulder. He was sobbing, his cries shaking his burly frame as if he were only a child himself. Charity pushed her own grief down, down deeper than she thought was possible. She chose to feel nothing as she let him cry.

"We need to leave, Jake," she said softly. "Vamanos."

He nodded, the tremor in his shoulders subsiding. With blood on his hand, he picked up his revolver and stood up. Charity looked him in the eyes for a moment. He seemed to regain his composure, standing up straight under her gaze.

"I'm ready, Captain."

* * *

Tension lay over the camp like a fog, or like the smoke cloud that hung over the remains of Lawrence. Charity wasn't the only one who had ridden in expecting a battle and found a bloodbath instead. Many were angry with the leaders for what they had been dragged into. On the opposite side, many of the raiders had participated wholesale in the slaughter and plundered the town for whatever they could find. They resented the fact that there hadn't been time to carry more loot away, and they resented the cold looks the others gave them.

Quantrill himself sat at his desk, unsure how to handle the rift he could see growing through the men under his command. Bloody Bill had led the worst of the carnage, but there was no way Quantrill could rebuke him for it. Anyone else maybe, but not Bloody Bill. He needed him, and he needed his men. Much as the others might not like their methods, they were effective. And there was still more fighting to be done.

Pushing the present discontent and the actions of the morning to the back of his mind, Quantrill turned his thoughts to the map laid open in front of him. There would be retaliation for this attack, of that much he was certain. They would have to move quickly, disappearing into the wild country to strike again another day.

The Cruzados Territoriales tended to their horses at the edge of camp. They were the only group among Quantrill's raiders that had abstained completely from taking any loot from the town, although they had seized a small number of weapons which they had turned over to the commanders. Their own commander was noticeably absent, riding around the city with Turnbull to survey the damage. Even in her absence, her men went about their business as usual, completely ignoring anyone else in the camp.

They all looked up and began collecting their gear suddenly.

Eyes in the camp turned to the plains between Mount Oread and Lawrence. Two figures on black horses were returning to the guerrillas' camp. It was Charity North and Jacob Turnbull. Their horses loped along as they leaned back in the saddle. A smile turned Charity's lips upward.

Seeing the smile, the Cruzados began saddling their mounts.

The two riders passed silently through the camp. Raiders moved to the side to let them through, all the way to Quantrill's desk. The tents had already been struck in preparation for the move, so the leader of the irregular army sat under the open sky, tinged red with the fires consuming Lawrence.

Charity stopped her horse and Turnbull took the reins. Just as she had done only a few hours before, she swept back her coattails and stepped down in front of Captain Quantrill.

He looked up. "Glad to see you back. How—"

"I'm here to collect my men. And to wish you the best of luck," she added.

Her black hat hid her eyes, but something in her tone sent chills down Quantrill's spine. As before, he found himself straightening his coat. Even if he couldn't see her eyes, he was certain he could feel them burning into him. "You're leaving?" he asked, doing his best to keep his voice steady.

She nodded. "You called us here to take Lawrence. Lawrence is taken."

He had to agree. "The Confederacy thanks you for your services today. This has been a great victory for . . . "

Charity looked up. Quantrill's voice faded away beneath her glare. "I want you to listen to me very carefully, Mr. Quantrill."

As she stepped forward, face to face with the commander, Bloody Bill put a hand on his .44. Turnbull immediately drew, pointing his own revolver at the bushwhacker's chest. A concerned murmur ran through the audience, followed by a hushed silence.

Charity kept her eyes locked on Quantrill as if nothing had happened. "You and your dogs have violated the ethics of true warriors. The world would be a better place without you."

Bloody Bill's fingers twitched near his revolver. Turnbull didn't even blink, his own gun still even with Anderson's chest. The crowd parted as the Cruzados rode up to the edge of the ring.

Charity waited for the commotion to subside before she continued. "However, I do have a sense of honor. Earned through hard work and sacrifice, and I won't blemish that honor by killing you and your men. You and I will both continue to serve the Confederacy. Separately. My men will never ride for you again, Mr. Quantrill."

She stepped back and remounted, taking the reins from Turnbull. Her men turned their horses, pushing Quantrill's raiders out of the way as they prepared to leave. Only when Charity had moved back and was flanked on either side by her followers did Turnbull re-holster his weapon and turn away from Bloody Bill.

Quantrill stood seemingly fixed to the earth as he watched Charity and her men ride out of the camp. He wanted to say something, to somehow remind everyone that he was the dominant commander. However, nothing came to mind. And before he knew it, the Cruzados Territoriales were gone.

* * *

Charity leaned back against her saddle. With red dirt beneath her, she looked up at the Texas stars. The war had been over for three years, but her thoughts still drifted back. Back to Lawrence, Kansas. She hadn't realized it then, but she could see it plainly now. She could never be the same after what had happened that day in August of '63. She had tried her hardest to be a soldier, but she wasn't. Still a warrior perhaps, but not a soldier. The defeat of the Confederacy had settled that once and for all. Her rank and uniform, the cause she had fought for . . . everything just gone. Meaningless.

So now, laying under these stars, she understood what she really was. The only thing she could ever be now. She was an outlaw. A renegade, with all pretense stripped away. There was nothing to fight for, but fight she would. She looked around at the men sleeping around the campfire, and the others keeping watch. She would never fight for a country again, or for a cause. But she would fight for them. The men who had stood by her through it all. Her brothers in arms, who had seen the same horrors she had seen, and come out alive. With their country gone, not one of them had a penny to their name. There was no legal way for them to survive in an occupied state. But they had all learned to live outside the law already.

Her sister lay on the ground next to her. Too young when the war began, but old enough to fight now. Charity had led her men on many missions since the war had ended, but this would be young Maria's first.

"Roth," she said suddenly. "Wake up the men. And that Yankee you brought along too. We ride out at daybreak."

They were in the saddle less than a half hour later. There were seven of them riding that day; the others Charity had sent on ahead to New Mexico. This was to be their last mission in Texas. She rode in the lead, Turnbull on her right, Maria on her left. Nigel Roth rode directly behind them, with Jonas Farragut beside him. Apart from Maria, Farragut was the only one who hadn't served under Charity's command in the war. In fact, he was actually a Yankee, but he was a good hand with a Sharps or a revolver, and Charity had come to trust him. Bringing up the rear were Reb O'Lory and Bill Destry, both steady hands.

A few hours later, a stagecoach pulled to an abrupt halt as masked figures appeared from all sides, holding rifles. With a Colt Dragoon to his head, the driver gave up the strongbox. Not a shot was fired that day. But the seven outlaws left the stage with their saddlebags full of gold that had been claimed by the carpetbaggers. They rode out under Charity's command, heading west. Westward to new opportunities, and new frontiers.

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:


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The Warpath
by James Burke

David Cullen stopped dead in his tracks as he reached the charred remains of his estate. Point Bruce, he had named it; in honor of the great Scottish King Robert the Bruce. Now it was only ashes and blackened splinters, like much of Scotland during the reign Edward Longshanks. White puffs burst from his mouth into the frigid air, steam of a Highlander's rage. He strained every nerve to keep composure, accepting the agony of his ruin legacy with dignity. His sons soon caught up, only to fall to their knees in despair. David steeled himself, forcing a stoic face as his last living sons, Solomon and Joseph, sniffled and wept.

"Dry your eyes, lads," David said softly but firmly. "The traitorous barbarians who've done this will have none of our tears."

"Why would the Cherokee do this?" Joseph growled, masking his weakness. "We have been loyal to crown!"

"There's no reasoning with them once they're on the warpath," Solomon snapped, as if it should have been obvious. "His Majesty's men cannot be bothered to accompany every war party. Some elegant English gentleman pointed them down this side of the mountains and told them to attack. How were they to know who to spare and who to slay?"

"We never bothered them before! Bloody hell! We traded with the buggers!" Joseph ranted, teetering once again on the verge of tears.

"You think they care?" Solomon snapped. "We've always been a thorn in their sides! And King George has been content to appease them all these years! He had to know this would happen! HE JUST DIDN'T BLOODY CARE!"

"ENOUGH!" David roared. Both teenaged boys silently submitted to their father's wrath. He hated to be a tyrant but knew exactly where the conversation was going. Solomon had always been partial to the Continentals, even with their outspoken distain for Catholics, such as the Cullens. Solomon, the oldest, had often quarreled with his brothers over the merits of independence from Britain, often resorting to curses and fists. Privately, David had sympathized with the Continentals too, but the outbreak of the war changed all that. Even if he could forget centuries of loyal service to the crown, he could never wage war against his brothers in faith. Scottish Catholics of the Carolinas had dutifully answered the King's call to arms. Point Bruce had stood in safety for years atop the lowest peak of the range, just above the foothills. Now, alas, his loyalty was rewarded with betrayal.

"Save your anger for those who've wronged us, lads," David softened his voice as he stepped closer to the crumbled, charred ruins. The war had already taken a heavy toll on the Cullen family. John, the youngest son, had died early on in the war. Barely old enough to hold a musket, he had ridden along as a bugler until he fell to a Continental marksman while sounding retreat. James had died nearly two years ago at the Battle of Hanging Rock. The rest of Cullen's mounted militia ran off as winter set in, for which David could hardly blame them. Food was so scarce his sons and him had slaughtered their own horses for food and made their way home on foot. Now here they stood in the infernal aftermath of the Cherokee warpath.

Joseph rushed past his father to desperately sift through the ashes of their home. David hesitated to cry out and beg him to stop, having no desire to see his wife Sharon's blackened bones, nor those of his daughters Elizabeth, Margret, and Mary. Bowing his head in sorrow, his keen eyes picked out faint tracks in the dirt, couldn't have been more than a day old. Moments later Solomon was kneeling beside him. Soon they exchanged glances and nods. The Cherokee had dragged the women out of the house!

"Joseph! This way!" David called out as Solomon and he unslung their rifles and followed the tracks north of the ruins. Joseph cried out in question, but quickly followed. Years of roaming the Piedmonts had made the Cullens skilled trackers. It was the Cherokee themselves who had instructed them. Now in the most bitter of ironies, they used these skills in pursuit of their native neighbors-turned-enemies.

The dead quiet of winter made their own footsteps deafening as they stomped after the footprints in the snow. The trail made a sharp turn at the edge of a cliff, David looked down into the gorge and immediately wished he hadn't. He could no longer hold back the tears, not looking down at the frozen body of his love.

"MOTHER!" both boys cried in unison as they followed their father's gaze. Both dashed off to where the cliff's edge gave way to a gentle slope into the gulley. David followed slowly, his muscles frozen in misery. The rest of his strength he focused on slowing the flow of his tears. Now more than ever he needed to display strength. By the time he reached the boys they were openly weeping over the woman who birthed them. Her hair long and silver, but her face barely touched by wrinkles. Sharon had been his first love. Of all David's riches and treasures, she was his most precious. He fell to his knees and joined his sons in embracing the Lady of the House. After several minutes of tearful grief, David reached down to softly shut her eyes and cover her face; frozen in her last horrible moments of life. Soon his sons' hands fell over his and they all said the Lord's Prayer.

After what felt like hours, father and sons stood, sniffled away their tears and covered Lady Cullen with snow. They had no picks or shovels and even if they did the ground was frozen solid. With a final prayer they promised aloud to return and bury her properly. Staggered footsteps shuffled through the snow above. Snapping out of their grief, David and his sons readied their rifles and rushed for the nearby slope. As they reached the top, they met the sickly face of a young man. He stood tall and proud, albeit trembling and desperately keeping balance with his rifle as a cane. His brown hair had grown thick as a lion's mane and his face was red as an apple with fever. The young man's eyes blazed with bloodlust and steely determination, the eyes of a man viciously refusing to let go of the last thread binding him to life. David liked him already.

"Where are they?" his trembling voice growled.

"Easy, lad," David said calmly as he stepped closer. In the blink of an eye the young man's rifle was up and at the ready. David held his rifle high above his head and raised his free hand in submission, equally to calm the stranger as to keep his sons from firing. "We mean you no harm, lad," he gently insisted. The stranger's eyes didn't soften, nor did his rifle lower, even as he lost balance and toppled over in the snow.

Stepping gingerly up to the young man, David deduced that he had succumb to his fever, but was still alive. Without a word he hefted the lad up on his back and ordered Joseph to carry his weapon. In minutes they found the Cherokee's trail and followed it until evening tinged the snow-covered hills and trees red. The young stranger laid silent against an old hickory tree as the others made camp, lit a fire and began roasting some horse meat. The sun vanished bellow the horizon and the moon rose high, casting a silvery sheen on the snow. David had taken his first bite of the stringy meat when the lad shot up from his slumber, glanced around in terrified confusion and felt frantically for his rifle and pistol, the latter David discovered has he set him down against the tree.

"Looking for these?" Joseph asked holding up the lad's weapons. The stranger fixed him with a glare that would melt iron.

"First a bite of this, lad," David held out a cut of meat impaled on his dagger. "Without food in your belly you'd hardly have the strength to hold a weapon, let alone shoot your rescuers," he finished with a smirk. The lad's glare softened to a gaze of mild contempt as he carefully snatched the seared meat from the dagger and ate ravenously. David turned to shake his head at Solomon for his disapproving grimace at their guest's table manners, or lack thereof. The lad clearly hadn't eaten in some time and David suspected the coming conversation would reveal greater disagreements than etiquette.

Once the lad finished scarfing down his dinner, David offered him his water skin, which he accepted with as much gratitude as he'd shown for the food, graciously returning the skin only half empty. David sighed with relief that he didn't drink as greedily as he ate. "So what's your name, lad?" he asked, only to be fixed with another piercing glare. "Come, come lad! You're among friends now!"

"Those kilts," the lad hissed at the Cullens' traditional attire. "You're Scots, Tories!" he spat venomously.

"As I suspected then, you are a rebel," David said thoughtfully. "Aye, lad, we are Scots. And what are you? Irish?"

"I'm American!" he snapped. David gazed softly back at him, waiting for a proper answer. "My mother and father were Irish though," he grunted sullenly.

"I thought so," David nodded. The lad seemed to calm slightly, likely recalling that most Irish were at least part Scottish, likewise the reverse. "So you were after the Cherokee who burned my land, murdered my wife, and stole my daughters?" The lad looked up in surprise. "The dogs of war know neither friend nor foe, lad. His majesty let them slip and now they wreak havoc on all in their path. I take it you're chasing them whilst still battling a fever has something to do with all that as well?" David paused, the young stranger nodded.

"They broke into my . . . my mother's cabin," the lad said. "My brother was dead, small pox, they took his scalp and they LAUGHED!" he briefly roared before going into a coughing fit. "They ransacked the house while I laid helpless in bed, stole everything my mother had to leave me, even her . . . " he paused to scowl at an unpleasant thought. "She died months ago onboard one of your King's prison ships. Those SAVAGES stole everything I had left," he finished.

David and his sons kept quiet a moment before exchanging glances and all nodding in agreement. "Our sympathies for your trouble's, lad. As you can see, his majesty has not been very grateful to his loyal servants, setting the Cherokee loose on us. Whatever our loyalties may be, it seems we now have a common enemy. We might benefit from combining forces. Besides, your own army seems a bit small compared with mine," David motioned to his sons with a smile. The lad's expression softened as he paused to think for a moment then nodded.

"Good, man!" David said jovially. "I am David Cullen, these are my sons Solomon and Joseph. What is your name?"

The buckskinned patriot hesitated a moment, did not return David's smile but soon answered, "Jackson, Andrew Jackson."

"Well, Mr. Jackson," David addressed the lad with a slight bow. "You best try to get some more sleep, we set out after the enemy at dawn. Keep close to the fire, I will keep it lit. And, God willing, tomorrow we will run the buggers down and reclaim what is rightly ours." Jackson quickly did as instructed and huddled close to the fire before graciously accepting his rifle back. David offered him another cut of meat, which he accepted eagerly. Jackson proved more talkative with a full belly, having been cooped up in a cabin with fever for months. He was pleased to learn of Washington's recent victory at Yorktown, the primary reason David saw fit to leave His Majesty's service and see to his home. The war raged on, but such a devastating defeat spelled doom for the loyalists. It was only a matter of time before the King pulled out the last of his troops. David had been certain he would have to sell Point Bruce and return the family to Scotland, or perhaps Canada. Unless he could beg the pardon of his rebellious neighbors, unlikely. Not that it mattered anymore.

Soon tiredness closed all but David's eyes and the night passed in blissful silence, save the crackling of the wood and Jackson's occasional coughs. Father and sons took the watch in shifts, waking their reliever every hour and keeping the fire lit with pine branches. At the first rays of dawn, the band of former enemies awoke, snuffed the last of the fire, and set off hot on the enemy's trail. David thanked God there had been no snowfall, leaving the Cherokee's tracks plain to see.

They followed the trail, carefully trampling up and down the wooded mountains. David scanned their surroundings intensely as they strode, keeping a watchful eye out for any signs of an ambush. If not for the cold and the sickly young man with them, David might have kept after the Cherokee all through the night. Thankfully wisdom had prevailed over impulse. Tracking them through the night would have made it impossible to bring along their fourth man. A Cherokee war party is bad enough with the support of an army, David would take as many as he could get. What's more the cold would be as insufferable to the Cherokee as to them, no doubt they made camp too. At this last thought David gripped his rifle tightly, willing himself not to think of what a night in their camp might entail for his daughters.

At noon the snow shimmered blindingly in the sun. Even the shade of the pine trees did little to block the furious sun rays. David squinted, shook his head and kept focused on the tracks. It would take more than sunlight and shiny snow to stop him. As afternoon dragged on, they neared a taller peak, just before the range grew even higher. Recognizing it as a likely spot for a Cherokee camp, David turned to his men and ordered there be no more talking above a whisper. His sons and Jackson all nodded, the sickly lad desperately muffled his coughs with his coat. David wondered for a moment if he had made a mistake bringing Jackson along, his coughing sure to give them away. The highlander shook the thought from his mind. He couldn't turn away another armed man, especially with a score of his own to settle. What's more, without companions the lad would surely die. David's honor would not allow him to abandon a teenaged boy in these frozen mountains any more than he could leave his daughters to their fate.

The sky began to redden as evening approached. A stream of smoke billowed up from the wooded peak. David smiled, found them! He turned to his lads, whose gazes shone brightly at the smoke in the twilight. The four of them crept carefully through the snow and up the mountain. Darkness had long since fallen by the time they came within eyeshot of the camp. Peering from behind a pine trunk, David breathed a sigh of relief as he spotted his daughters. Elizabeth, Margret, and Mary were all tied together to a wooden pole in the ground. A grouchy old Cherokee woman roughly shoved venison into their mouths. The warriors pointed and laughed at the girls' indignation as they carved their own shares of meat from a deer roasting on a spit. They cheered and whooped loudly as they guzzled whole bottles of wine. David cringed in disgust as he recognized the bottles. A fine vintage he imported annually from France for Sharon's birthday.

David's fury softened as he realized their fortune. His daughters were fully clothed and hardly a mark on their faces. Could have been they were saving them for later, or as trophies to flaunt before rival chiefs, perhaps even to give as gifts to other tribes. No matter, they had sown the seeds of their own demise. All the men and most of the women were drinking, soon to be fast asleep. The over confident fools hadn't even posted sentries, no doubt lulled into sloth by the frozen, lifeless wilderness. David was surprised they had even managed to find a deer. Now there was nothing but to wait until the wine dragged the last of their senses into inebriated oblivion.

In a soft voice, barely even a whisper, David shared his plan with the others. Once they were all asleep and the fire burned out, Joseph and Solomon would creep out of the trees and into the camp. They would go as slow and silent as they could, even if the savages did awake it would only be to slump back into their drunken dreams in the darkness. They were to silently wake the girls, cut them free and deliver them safely from the camp. David and Jackson would hide in the tree line to cover their retreat if the worst should happen.

"What about the Cherokee!" Jackson demanded in a soft hiss. "We can't just leave them! They'll be up at first light!"

"At first light, they'll stumble awake with throbbing heads and aching tummies," David chuckled with a wink. "Then we'll open fire, and with three more guns to support us!" Jackson blinked in confusion. "The girls, lad! You don't think I'd teach me daughters to take care of themselves? The girls will fire with our pistols, then it will be seven attacking them rather than four! Those we who manage to flee will think twice before walking the warpath here again!" he finished with a smile.

Jackson managed a smirk before turning his head to muffle another cough. He suddenly froze as his gaze locked on the Cherokee camp. His body stiffened, a fiery glare blazed from his eyes. David followed his gaze to a Cherokee girl wearing a dress, likely looted from a white settler's home. Another hastily muffled coughing fit snapped Jackson out of his trance and back into focus. "Let's just kill as many of them as we can!" Jackson growled. David gave a firm nod and held his finger to his lips, a clear message, not another word.

The Cherokee took longer to fall asleep than David thought. And a few of the women who hadn't drunk of David's fine wine stock stayed awake to prod the fire long past midnight. Among the sober girls was the one in the dress that Jackson took so keen and interest in. David watched as the lad silently seethed in the girl's direction, thankfully Jackson held his patience. The last girl fell asleep with the last spark of the once roaring fire. Joseph and Solomon crept forth.

Jackson and David laid prone in the trees, watching for movement among the sleeping foe. David's aging heart skipped several beats as his sons carefully stepped over and around sleeping Cherokee at a snail's pace. Sure enough, they made their way to their captive sisters. Solomon carefully grasped Elizabeth's mouth, she awoke with a muffled whimper of confusion before immediately going quiet. This process repeated twice for the others, then the ropes were cut and the sisters followed their brothers carefully out of the camp.

David strained himself not to sniffle and whimper as his beloved daughters embraced him in the snow. Shaking all emotion from his mind, David quickly explained the plan to his daughters. The girls eagerly accepted the pistols from their father and brothers and dutifully moved into positons at the tree line. Jackson approached to propose he and Joseph move to the opposite side of the clearing to cut off their escape. At first David hesitated to divide their forces, then considered the Cherokee might think themselves surrounded by a larger force. He granted Jackson his blessing, but urged them to stay together. The two nodded and were off. David also spaced his daughters and remaining son further apart and made certain they were well stocked in ammunition.

Dawn slogged lazily up the horizon, casting a reddish tint over the snow. David smiled grimly that the snow would soon grow redder. The braves began to stagger awake, thankfully Joseph and Jackson remembered his command that he should shoot first. More Cherokee groggily awoke, their speech and strides wobbly with the after effects of excess wine. One of them staggered into the now vacant pole, David sighted his rifle on the brave, pulling his trigger just as the man's jolting head gave away his realization that something was amiss.

A crash of lightning, a kick to David's shoulder, and the brave fell in a bloody heap. Whooping war cries were cut short as the rest of David's army opened fire from the trees. Cherokees fell in dead silence or agonized wails. Hung over braves stumbled to their feet to fire aimlessly into the surrounding forest, some shot their own tribesmen by mistake. David and his sons' Ferguson rifles reloaded much quicker than older models, keeping a steady chain of burning thunder on the panicked foe. David smirked that continuous fire would also exaggerate their number. His daughters coolly fired their pistols and reloaded again and again, the fire in their eyes blazed dark as they took revenge on their former captors. The Cherokee braves ducked low and quivered as they desperately reloaded. Some began firing arrows from bows, the medieval missiles harmlessly struck the pine trunks. Soon the two-dozen-strong war party was whittled down to less than ten.

The grouchy old crone of the party stood to wail like a banshee at her trembling young men. David's limited knowledge of the Cherokee language told him she was trying to urge the braves on, scolding them for cowardice. A rifle boomed and the old woman dropped dead. David blinked, having raised his sons to spare native women in battle when possible. But there was no time for victor's remorse, the victory was not yet won. With a shrill cry, one brave rose and made a dash for the trees at the far end of the camp. He was almost to the tree line when Jackson burst from the trees and downed him with a swing of his rifle. The feverish youth stood over his fallen foe, like a cat standing triumphant atop a mouse. He held his rifle high and brought it down hard with a lion's roar. A crack of bone caving to solid wood echoed. Jackson's face ablaze with carnal rage.

Musket balls and arrows flew past Jackson as his eyes blazed down upon his vanquished enemy. David and the others quickly took aim and downed the last of the braves. The shooting stopped, the only sound was Jackson's furious panting as he stomped laboriously towards the slaughtered camp. David stood and cautiously stepped out into the clearing, his children did the same. A soft shout went up and the Cherokee woman in the dress arose with her hands high, a frightened little boy clutching at her side. David tensed as Jackson's glare fell upon her. She turned at the sound of him cocking his pistol and froze in horror as he took aim at her.

"Andrew!" Joseph called out, rushing to intercept Jackson.

"STAY OUT OF THIS!" Jackson roared. The boy clung tightly to his mother's leg and began to cry. "TAKE OFF THAT DRESS!" the feverish lad demanded. David's heart raced, his pace quickened, closing the distance between them. "IT DOESN'T BELONG TO YOU!"

"NO!" Mary cried. "Father don't let him!"

"She was kind to us!" Margret begged.

"I SAID STAY OUT OF THIS!" Jackson snapped. "This is between me, and this thieving tramp!" he spat. "That was my mother's dress! It's all I have left of hers!" his voice began to break, tears trickled from his burning eyes. Joseph, Solomon, and Elizabeth all raised their weapons, shouting their objections.

"You've gone too far, Andrew!"

"She has no weapon!"

"Don't do this!"

"ENOUGH!" David thundered, silencing all. His children lowered their weapons at his sharp glances. With a deep breath he softened his face and slowly stepped closer to Jackson, coming within a yard of the raging youth. "Did your mother raise a gentleman or a savage?" he asked. Jackson blinked in silence, but held his aim. "That's what I thought, lad. And if that's not enough, I can give you three more reasons to let her have the dress. Firstly, without it she'll surely freeze to death, and in this wilderness, without his mother the lad is as good as dead. No child should die for the sins of the father, or mother. Second, she treated my daughters with mercy and I am obliged to do her the same. And thirdly, that dress was surely quite flattering on your mother, but it would look rather silly on you, lad," he finished with a gentle smile.

After a moment of thoughtful silence, Jackson slowly lowered his rifle, squeezing his eyes shut to dam the river flowing from his eyes. The young man lowered his head in shame, bringing his rifle down to steady himself as he stumbled. David fought the urge to put a hand on his shoulder, the lad was prideful, would only view such a gesture as patronizing. With a deep breath and a hard sniffle, Jackson raised his head with a snarling growl, desperate to hide his moment of weakness.

"Take your boy and go!" he grunted at the woman. "This war is over!" he turned to walk away, without looking at David or the others.

"It will NEVER be over!" the Cherokee woman snapped, glaring at Jackson in defiance. Jackson stopped but would not turn back to her.

"Then next time it will take more than a merciful Scotsman to save you," he growled before continuing back the way they came.

"Jackson," David called out, again he stopped but would not turn. "It'd be best to travel with us. We'll see you safely home."

"Thank you, Mr. Cullen, but I'll make my own way," he replied softly. "I'll need to from now on," he finished as he slowly struggled through the snow.

David nodded, seeing the futility in argument. "Godspeed to you then, lad," he said. Turning back to his children, he saw Joseph offering the woman a scrap of horse meat. Margret and Mary fetched deerskins from the camp for her and her son. The woman accepted the gifts with stoic gratitude before taking her boy by the arm and disappearing into the woods. David sighed, knowing she and her son would hate the Americans forever. But it was out of his hands now. His sons and daughters embraced each other with tears of joy. Chocking back his own tears, he warmly join their embraces.

After a moment, David broke away from their arms and cleared his throat loudly. "Now that the family is together again, we must also be on our way," he said. "Jackson was correct, this war is lost. And the Continentals will not forgive our loyalty to the Crown. We must make haste for the coast and board the first ship for England, or Canada. But wherever we go, we shall go as a family. We shall go as the House of Cullen." Tears streamed from his eyes as he finished. Soon there was not a dry eye to be seen in the clearing. The Cullens quickly composed themselves and followed David into the trees, slowly descending the Carolina hills.

The End

James Burke was born in Illinois in 1987. He served in the U.S. Navy and was honorably discharged in 2011. Graduated from University of Saint Francis in 2016 with a bachelor's degree in history. His fiction has been published in Frontier Tales Western Stories Online Magazine in November 2017 and May 2018 issues. He lives in South Carolina.

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by Jonathan Oosterhouse

The great inferno had followed the herd on the high plain south from the Colorado border-town of Gypsom, and into the New Mexico Territory. High walls of flame roared into the air, consuming the dry brush that littered the flat land, and spread furiously fast. Smoke, dark as pitch, swirled into the air and clouded over the sky in a dark shadow.

Shannon Wood rode the rear of the herd, keeping the slackers up to pace with the rest of the four hundred heads of beef. He had spent most of his earnings and time driving the herd from St. Louis to sell at Gypsom. The foreman, J.T. Hughs, refused Shannon's offer, insisting he sell them for a loss. The cattle were prime grade, top of the line cows. To Shannon, there could only be a profit by selling them out west. He knew exactly what type of man Hughs was; a cattle baron who always got what he wanted. Now, Shannon stood to lose it all as the wildfire encroached on them.

Deep down, he knew the fire wasn't a coincidence; and neither did the rest of the outfit. Six cowhands managed the herd. Daniel Hauker and Burt Edsfield took the left flank, while Ned Furlow and Roland Polks rode the right; Shannon and Cooper Dawson held the rear. Cooper had been the wagon driver, but the outfit had since abandoned the wagon to the fire as it only slowed them down.

It was quite the predicament, and it would soon get worse. The Rockies curved down through Colorado and a small wing cut into the New Mexico north; Shannon saw them rise up. Inevitably, they would run up into the alpine and would be trapped.

Shannon yelled to Cooper, "Hold the rear! I need to talk to Burt!"

Cooper acknowledged him with a stout nod and Shannon reined his tabiano paint to the right flank of the herd where he saw Burt Edsfield just on the outside of the sea of cattle. Burt was his second in command and a trusted friend. Many a trail had been driven with Burt as a companion. Whenever a decision had to be made, Shannon always consulted him for advice and input; and now was a time when advice was needed the most.

He rode up alongside him and brought the horse to a trot. Burt had been expecting him to come up and see him for a while now, ever since the mountains grew up out of the distance and gradually got bigger.

"We need to change course," Shannon said.

Burt said, "Steer them east toward the river. We'll find a place to cross and hopefully catch a break. That is if the fire don't jump it."

"That's what I was thinking. But we'll have to cross it again to get a heading back west." Shannon looked back behind them briefly. The wall of fire stayed at their heels like a pursuing wolf. Trees that populated the plain were torches now, charred black and burnt into ash.

"Send Dan up to scout the river for a crossing," Shannon said.


Shannon turned off and returned to the rear. Pine and spruce trees became common as they rose in elevation, and it was in these trees that Shannon thought he saw movement. He didn't have time to go and investigate, but he knew they were being followed. No doubt it was Hughs' men, perhaps even Hughs himself.

* * *

Every moment was precious, but the herd needed a quick break. While the cattle rested, Daniel Hauker rode off toward the river to scout a crossing. The rest of the cowhands convened.

Roland Polks, a veteran cowhand who'd seen it all, was a tough, weather-beaten man with a drooping mustache and light eyes. His woolly chaps were the same he had been wearing for years, and they'd been through everything. Roland drove horses, ponies, cattle, and everything there was to push across the west with expertise; this venture was no different. Shannon had hired him in Tulsa a few years back, and the two of them had drove together ever since.

Ned Furlow was the youngest in the outfit, being only twenty years old. His young attitude and excitable demeanor kept the rest of them entertained and in high spirits. Ned was a greenhorn, but he was quickly learning the hard ways of the trail. Ever since the whirlwind of flame began, his upbeat expressions turned sharply into fear and near uncontrollable panic.

Burt Edsfield was Shannon's best friend. They met back many years in 1872 as young cowpokes. Burt was loyal, steadfast, and above all calm. They had run-ins with Comanche in south Texas, fought off rustlers, and wolves and mountain lions in Wyoming. If the outfit they were in ever broke up, you could bet that Burt and Shannon would still be riding together.

Cooper Dawson was new to Shannon, this being their first drive together. Cooper was a confident and competent wagon driver and so far, Shannon had no reason to dislike him. He was quiet and solemn and never paid much attention to anyone during down time. Cooper did, however, always volunteer to take first watch on nights.

And lastly, Daniel Hauker, who was now riding his horse along the banks of the flowing water. He was young, older than Ned but younger than everyone else. Shannon had met him in Nebraska and witnessed his handiwork with a rifle. He hired him solely for his firearm expertise and tracking. Daniel was an expert marksman, fresh out of the cavalry scouts. He could shoot anything you put in his hand. But when you gave him a rifle, he could ward off a whole war party of Comanche by himself.

This group of six cowboys stood amidst the low alpine prairie, watching the cascading inferno come after them.

Shannon thought he could feel the heat, and he removed his salt-stained hat and rung it in his gloved hands.

"We're crossing the river," Shannon said, "It seems to be the only way to get out of the path of the blaze."

Roland said, "You think there's a crossing there?"

"I sent Dan ahead to look for one."

"And what if there's not a crossing?" Ned asked, visibly stressed and afraid, "what will we do then?"

Burt looked at Shannon and sighed.

Shannon knew what Burt had meant by that unusually loud exhale.

"If there's no crossing," Shannon said, "we'll have to drive them into that mountain."

Roland snorted, "It'll scatter the whole herd. These beef aren't meant for mountains."

"I know, Roland. We'll have to manage."

"Manage? How many heads will we lose? How many legs will break in the rocks, or head trampled?"

"I know, Roland." Shannon was irritated, after all he was paying for the endeavor and it would be his loss too. "What's the alternative?"

Cooper grunted and Roland gave him a hard look.

Several rifle reports thundered from the direction of the river. Their heads snapped over and they stared in silence. A growing howl was audible from the fire, like a low rumble.

"Could it be Dan?" Ned asked, face hanging in fear.

"No other," Burt said, then turned to Shannon, "if Hughs' men are following us, no doubt they would have seen the river as a point of escape. They'll try and cut us off."

Shannon reined his horse around. The fire was growing ever closer. Time was not on their side. He made his decision.

"I'm not going to wait for Dan to find the crossing. Ned, Roland, Cooper, push the herd toward the river. Burt and I will ride ahead and get a look-see of the situation. Move now!" He spurred his horse forward, with Burt at his heels.

Ned, Roland, and Cooper peeled off and took to their positions and began to slowly move the herd.

* * *

When Shannon and Burt made it to the ridge that looked over the river bank, they saw that the scenario was dire. Dan was off his horse and in the cover of a clump of pine trees with his Winchester. Guns thundered from the low-cut bank where four men were; Hughs'.

What caught Shannon and Burt's eye wasn't the skirmish, but the growing flames from dry brush that was scattered in and around the shrubs and trees near the river. Hughs' men were attempting to cut them off, and there was just one space left on the river bank that wasn't lit; they were fighting for it.

Shannon drew a Winchester from the saddle scabbard and aimed from horseback, firing down at the bank. Burt cut to the left and tracked down the ridge in the cover of the cottonwoods.

Dan looked up from his cover and hailed Shannon, then returned to slinging hot lead at the assailants. Shannon's heart raced as he barreled down the ridge to Dan, bullets whizzing by him, nearly taking him off the horse. He made the cover and jumped down.

"That's it!" Dan yelled above the booming, "that's the crossing!" He fired from the cover, hitting his target, but receiving a face full of splitters as a bullet smashed in the pine next to him. He rubbed his face and cleared the splinters.

Shannon shouted, ignoring Dan's pain, "keep up the fire, then! Burt's flanking them!"

Dan's eyes were watery and red as he blinked out little specks. He started pushing fresh cartridges into the loading gate of his Yellow Boy Winchester.

Shannon aimed and popped off several suppressing shots. He could see the top of Hughs' men's heads as they ducked down, then jumped back up and offered up their own gunfire. Then he saw two of them change the direction of their gunfire as Burt sprang from the cover of the trees which were now gathering flames. He let loose with a coach gun, cutting down two of them.

Shannon charged toward the bank and stepped over the top of it as the two remaining gunmen turned to Burt. He shot one, then stopped and held it on the last man. Burt had drawn his Colt Lightning revolver, but he never fired it.

The last man stood before a pile of pitch wood and grease wood shrubs, drier than could be. It spread along the whole of the crossing. In his hand was a fire brand, held close to the pile of tinder.

Shannon shook his head. "Don't do it." He noticed the man's eyes were red with tears.

"You want to throw your life away for Hughs?" Burt shouted.

The man spoke in a shaky voice, "I haven't anything left. You just killed my friends."

Shannon ignored it. "Throw that torch into the river, damn you."

The man broke down, sobbing uncontrollably. His arm lowered toward the tinder.

"No!" Shannon screamed. He shot the man in the chest several times, Burt joining in with the double action revolver. But it was no use. The man that was now a corpse fell slack into the pile of pitch wood and dry grease wood shrubs. Instantaneously, the flames grew and spread along the bank, catching the nearby cottonwoods and low spruce trees.

Shannon swore, turning and running back.

"Get back to the herd!" He yelled to Burt.

Shannon helped Dan up, who was still clearing his eyes. They mounted their horses and fled back to the herd which was now headed to the river.

* * *

Ned's already fearful look turned worse as he saw his boss riding hard towards them. Roland swore as he saw the black smoke rising from the direction of the river. Cooper, with a look of disappointment, grunted.

By now, the original fire that had been chasing them had gotten too close and started into the valley they were already in. They were completely trapped, the mountain being the only thing not ablaze with fire.

Shannon was waving his arms in the air while Burt rode alongside Daniel Hauker, trying to keep him on his horse.

"Turn them around! Turn them around!" Shannon screamed above the rumble of hoofbeats.

Roland stopped and drew his horse around and circled the herd, Ned followed and they pushed the herd back to the north; back toward the mountain. Shannon caught up to them.

"What happened?" Roland boomed.

"Four of Hughs' men were down there. Lit the river up." Shannon was out of breath. His eyes were wide and Roland could tell he was desperate. Roland had never seen that look on Shannon.

Roland nodded, "That's it?"

Shannon looked shocked at the questions, then rolled it over quick and answered, "There has to be a way."

Shannon broke off and moved to the left side of herd and funneled them into a straight path toward the mountain. His heart was racing with panic, he felt light headed, and now the low roaring of the fire had turned into a horrific howl.

Dan was able to ride in the rear with Burt and Cooper rode at Shannon's side. It took Shannon a few moments to realize what Cooper was pointing toward. Shannon looked up to the northwest and saw the clouds; big black-gray clouds. Streaks of lightning crackled through them and streaked across the sky. The thunder came a few moments later.

Shannon saw hope, and he gripped it hard and didn't let go. He was sure the rest of them had seen the clouds and they double-timed the herd, at the verge of stampeding. The ground had by now sloped upward and they were starting to meet the low-growing pines and the rockier terrain. This slowed the herd, but it didn't slow the fire. It existed to consume, leaping from one source of fuel to the next. And it leaped at the pines and shrubs and wildflowers, whithering them to ash.

The thunder clouds were now over top of the mountain, and the herd was slowing down to a crawl as the elevation rose sharply. Large rocks and boulders halted their progress. Outcroppings and sheer cliff walls brought them to an abrupt stop.

Shannon motioned for Burt and Dan in the rear to hold. The clouds hung over and boomed terrifically, challenging the howling of the fire.

Shannon and Cooper calmly waited at the front as the other four trotted up and met them. Sullen looks were on their faces.

"This is it," Shannon said, wiping his glove across his sweaty forehead. He took a gulp of water from his canteen and sighed. They waited for him to say more, even though they knew the situation.

"We can't move the cattle anymore. The fire is at our heels and we are treed. We can hope those clouds drop their load of rain, but it's doubtful."

"What do we do?" Ned asked, "I mean, we."

Burt answered, "Our horses can make it over the mountain."

Shannon nodded with agreement, "We can escape it."

Cooper grunted, looking back over the herd. The cows started to bellow, and a few of the bulls snorted and tried getting further up the mountain. The base of the mountain was completely lit.

"We can't leave them," Ned said, eyes starting to redden.

Shannon was resolved, and he knew he couldn't save them; It was a loss.

Roland said, "It's our lives, or nothing. You stay with the cattle, you die with them. There's nothing we can do."

"No," Ned said, "I ain't giving up. I'm not going to leave them."

Shannon furrowed his brow and ignored him. "We'll cut up into the mountain and circle back down when it looks safe. I'll stay back and wait to survey the losses. You boys will have to find help."

Burt snorted, "If you stay behind, then I will too."

Ned was nearly crying, "I won't leave. I'll stay down by the animals if I have to."

Roland nudged his horse over next to Burt and Ned.

Shannon scoffed. "Somebody has to go for help, and get Dan out of here at that. His eyes are full of splinters."

Dan, eyes watering, said, "Ain't bad. Just need to wash water over them."

"I'll hear none of it." Shannon turned to Cooper. "Coop, take Dan and move over the mountain and head back to Gypsom."

"Fort Union is close," Dan said.

"Then head to Fort Union and get help."

Cooper grunted and grabbed Daniel's horse by the reins and led them up the mountain and they soon disappeared from sight.

Shannon stepped off his horse and patted her neck as he watched the wall of fire grow tighter and tighter. Roland leaned over the saddle horn and rolled a cigarette. Burt was silent and Ned was sobbing.

The bellowing of the cattle had grown so loud, even the bulls had quit their snorting and began to bellow in fear. They bunched up and began forcing each other against the mountain side; panic running through them.

Shannon couldn't bear to watch as the fire began to overcome the first of the cattle, sweeping across them like any other fuel source. Bellows turned to shear screams. Smoke clouded over the valley.

Horror had seized Ned, and he was unable to sob anymore. He just sat in his saddle looking down with wide eyes and a drooped jaw. Burt was tight-lipped, not a quiver was seen. Shannon knew what Burt was feeling. Of course he felt for the beasts, but it was mostly hatred that burned in him. Roland smoked his cigarette, his own eyes beginning to glaze over and redden.

Soon the heat from the inferno became too much, even at the height of the mountain. But then, the thundering clouds birthed their water and rain plummeted, rain drops bigger and heavier than Shannon had ever seen. A small sliver of hope shined inside him, but he knew the rain wouldn't be enough to save the cattle.

* * *

They had camped near the peak of the low mountain and were still exposed to the smoke that blew in. The rain helped dampen it and push it away. Thunder continued its low growling as lightning crackled.

The four cowboys sat crouched beneath their saddle blankets with their slickers on. All the same, they were soaking wet. No food was cooked or coffee boiled; all provisions having been abandoned in the supply wagon. Roland was generous and shared his tobacco and cigarette paper. An evening smoke was the smallest comfort they had available.

It had been a while since the bellowing of the cattle had ceased. A part of Shannon felt as if it had withered and fallen off of him, as if he didn't have any obligation anymore.

Ned had cried himself to sleep and was set up in the crotch of a pine, just as wet as any one of them. Burt had his arm around the kid and held him as he slept.

No words were shared and no one kept watch, and no one slept aside from Ned. The three stood awake and watched the raging fire meet the mountain and start to lessen in strength. Water started trickling down from the mountain and hissed at the fire as it glowed against the backdrop of smoke. It held the same light as a sunset and was just as beautiful.

* * *

Early morning light shone to the east in pale blue. The night flashed by, almost literally, as lightning and fire battled it out.

What little sleep was had was now over and Shannon had waited long enough. He started down the mountain by himself and stopped in a rock fall that would be truly treacherous to navigate. He looked over the valley and was amazed.

The whole of the valley was black with char and soot. Trees were burned down to stalks and stubby branches. Grasses were nothing more than fields of ash. Some of the low rocks were blackened by smoke and still steamed hot. Water continued to run down the slope and flow into small creek beds.

What truly amazed, and sickened, Shannon was the remains of the cattle. The air smelled of steak, food that Shannon would regularly eat, but now sounded sour. Black bones littered the valley, flesh incinerated completely. The horns of the bulls remained, sticking out of the ground like cairns memorializing the lives that were lost.

Shannon didn't just lose the herd, he lost all he'd invested in them; it was all he had. It was all taken from him. His fists clenched and relaxed and clenched into fists again. He heard footfalls behind him and found Roland moving down the rocks toward him.

"Something, isn't it?" Roland said solemnly.

Shannon nodded, "It is. Sure is something."

Roland's face was sagged into a mournful gaze as he looked over the valley.

"Thank you, Roland, for riding with me."

Roland smiled, "of course, pard. I've yet to meet a better trail boss."

They stood quietly for a while, listening to the silence that the fire had brought. Then they heard the low cries from down the slope. Soft at first, then more pronounced. Shannon and Roland looked at each other, then bolted down the grade as quickly and carefully as they could.

At the base of the mountain was a cutout that was sheared into the side of the rockfall, creating a small cave and cliff edge. Rainwater poured over side of it from a stream that was made from the storm. Shannon bent over and tried to see down without falling over top of it.

Down in the cutout was a calf with its mother, and ten other heads of cows bellowing and calling for their wranglers. Shannon was truly astonished. He did not wait a second before he tore down the rest of the slope and moved into the cutout to the rest of the cattle that had miraculously survived.

"Impossible," Roland said, standing next to Shannon.

The cows' hoofs had been singed, but that aside, they were perfectly fine. The mother and calf ran up to Shannon and stood just next to him, the other ten came over and they paraded into the valley.

"Roland, go wake the others and get the horses."

Roland obeyed and went back up to the others.

The remnants of the herd mingled around Shannon as he waited there. The calf was licking the raindrops that ran off his slicker. A night spent in the cave surrounded by fire and smoke was sure to make them thirsty, and the water that ran off the overhang was quickly lost in the sooty ground. He started to walk out from the cutout and into the open. His stomach turned sour at the burnt flesh and blackened bones.

Shannon's surprise at finding the twelve left was quickly overwritten by the horror that met the rest of the herd. It would still be a complete loss and he realized he would have to hire in with another outfit to recoup his losses; he couldn't imagine doing anything other than cattle work.

As he was meandering over the ravaged plain, he heard the snorts and whinnies of multiple horses. At first it was obvious to him it was his companions descending the mountain, but it was not. It came from the far tree line, or what was left of it. Six mounted figures trotted through the burnt stalks; more of Hughs' men.

Shannon crouched low, and realized he didn't have his pistol on him. He watched the riders mingle in the trees, unsure of what they were doing. Then he saw the big man. He rode a black mustang and wore a large tan hat and gray suit. Even at this distance, Shannon could tell the chaps were brand new; it was Hughs himself. Shannon's heart leaped in his chest and his ribs began to hurt. But there was nothing he could do about it. He took his chances and ran back toward the mountain and jumped up the rocks, hoping they wouldn't see or notice him. The twelve heads stayed there in the open and scrounged for food among the bones of their fellow cows.

Shannon was out of breath as he ran up the slope, tripping once. He sat behind a large white rock and caught his breath looking back over to observe the riders. They'd begun to emerge from the tree line, but only slowly. Roland and the others started their way down and Shannon waved to them. Burt's eyes went wide and he looked around for a threat. Shannon pointed down at the far tree line. Burt, Roland, and Ned dismounted and hid the four horses behind the cover of a large spruce tree. Burt grabbed his shotgun and Shannon's Winchester and gunbelt and a box of cartridges from the saddlebags and met Shannon behind the rock, handing him his rifle.

"Hughs himself," Shannon said, "black mustang, giant hat."

Roland answered, "I see him."

"We can't take them," Ned whined, "there's eight of them and four of us."

"There's six," Shannon corrected, but Ned insisted, pointing down.

"No, eight," Ned said.

Shannon looked down; there were eight now. He swore and started feeding shells into his rifle. Burt was silent as he shoved two shells into his coach gun, ejected the spent casings from his revolver from the last shootout, and replaced them with fresh cartridges.

"Need to get close with that scattergun," Roland said to Burt.

"Of course," Burt said, "I'll move down the grade and hide in them low rocks."

Shannon levered a shell into his rifle and stopped, thinking out a plan. He looked sternly at Ned.

"Are you in this, Ned?" He asked.

Ned gulped, shaking visibly. He looked around as if weighing it in his head. But in the end, he nodded.

Shannon said, "Okay. Burt, I want to talk to Hughs before any gunshots let out. Give me that scattergun and you take my rifle." Burt shrugged and swapped guns with him and gave him a few extra shells.

"I want you boys to move down a little and settle yourselves in the low rocks and trees. Lay low and stay in cover. Hold your fire until I open up. I have a few choice words for Hughs."

No one said anything.

"Alright," Shannon said, "let's set to moving."

They stayed low as they crept down the slope, careful not to knock any stones or dried brush loose. Shannon couldn't believe that Hughs would come out after him, but there he was in the open. He could just pick him off when he stepped within rifle range, but that wouldn't do. Shannon had to resolve this dispute up close.

The now eight riders had noticed the twelve cows wandering into the wide valley and began to move on them. What they didn't notice was the four cowboys hidden amongst the rocks and trees on the low end of the mountain with the barrels of their guns trained down on them.

Shannon was back at the cutout waiting patiently in cover. He checked his Colt revolver one last time, and then the shotgun. The cows had moved out of shotgun range and the riders were just about on top of them.

Shannon yelled out to them, "Hughs!"

This stopped the riders in their tracks. Their heads looked around as they conversed, then they came toward Shannon, leaving two riders with the cows.

Hughs' drooping mustache was visible now, sagging greasily from his top lip and circling his mouth. Shannon stroked his stubble and held the shotgun at his side. He stood at the edge of the cutout and the rock overhang just behind him. If he needed to, he could retreat into the small cave.

"Mr. Wood," Hughs belched in his deep voice, "I suspected you to have moved on." He looked around the valley. "Fire did in all your cattle. I'm sorry to see that." A wry smile curled up on his face like a coiling rattler.

"Mr. Hughs," Shannon said, "I didn't think you capable of riding far from your ranch. I suspected you to have damaged your legs by sitting on that god-awful chair the whole of your days. No wonder you hire cattle hands to do your driving, you couldn't do it if you tried. Hell, you couldn't wrestle a calf to the dirt even if it was already tied and laying down waiting for you."

Shannon had spent his insults rather quick, and ended up staring at Hughs as he registered them. His five gunhands were restless and angered by the looks of their contorted faces.

"Amusing," Hughs proclaimed, resting over his saddle horn.

"I'm not finished, Hughs. I spent the rest of my long-earned money on those prime heads. Four hundred. No, that's not the biggest herd. But they were desirable, pure-bred Angus. Finest stock if there were ever one. And they're gone aside from the last twelve that you put yourself between. Mr. Hughs, I ain't a fool, I know you started that blaze. Too much of a coincidence.

"You took every last thing from me, Mr. Hughs. You took my cattle, thereby taking my money, and my livelihood. I have not a thing left but those twelve head. It's because of your selfish greed and always getting your way."

Hughs' smile was still greased across his face and it burned inside Shannon.

"Well," Hughs said, "you're right," he paused, "but you have one thing left I haven't taken." Hughs reached toward his gunbelt, but Shannon was quicker, lifting the barrels of the shotgun up and blasting Hughs from his horse. With the second barrel, he aimed between two of the gunhands and winged both with one shot. He threw down the shotgun and pulled his Colt. Before he could get a shot off, he felt hot lead cut through his leg and side. Finally, the rifles sang from the slope and picked off two of the gunhands.

Shannon, having fallen to the ground, aimed his revolver and shot the last rider from his horse. He looked to the cows as the last two assailants began to herd them off. The rifles clapped angrily after them and Shannon saw the puff of red and one rider falling from the horse. The last one stopped and threw his hands in the air.

Pain screaming through his side, Shannon eased himself up on his good leg and waddled over to Hughs' body. Two of the gunhands were still alive having been winged by the shotgun.

"Don't go for your pieces," Shannon barked, "I've had enough killing for the time being."

Both were younger men, and both obeyed as they rolled over on their sides and groaned, feeling for the many holes that were left in their wounded shoulders.

One of them spat, "You'll hang us anyway." and started to crawl away.

Shannon nodded. "But not presently, so don't move."

He stopped and lay flat in the ash and dirt.

The sound of hooves clopped from behind and Shannon turned to see his outfit descending the hill. Burt looked all around the valley, to the bodies and to the ash they lay on, then to the survivors. Roland spurred his horse over to the cows, holding his rifle on the man who had surrendered. Ned's face looked ever concerned as he saw the dead lay before him.

"Excellent shooting, boys," Shannon said, clutching his side where the bullet had passed.

"Looks like you got yourself some," Burt said with a sly smile as he got down from his horse.

"Ain't funny. I'm bleeding to death."

Burt observed his leg and side, seeing that both bullets had passed through.

"Just got to plug up those holes."

"Sorry I pitched your coach gun into the dirt."

Burt shrugged and picked it up, shucking the empty shells.

"What are we going to do about these low individuals?"

One of the wounded men swore at Burt. Burt laughed.

"Tie them up and bring them with us. Have them hanged by the nearest sheriff I suppose."

"Hanged?" Ned asked.

"Yes, boy, hanged. You know, for being accomplices in destroying our entire livelihood," Shannon's face was beet red as he sauntered over to the wounded men. "I hope your necks don't break right away, and you're left there hanging and choking on every last breath."

Ned was shocked by the graphic description. His eyes beginning to water up. Burt saw him and shook his head.

"It's what happens kid," Burt said, "they take from you, and you take from them."

"I don't like it," Ned said.

Burt shook his head and remounted his horse.

Roland was coming back with the third prisoner, cattle following rather than being herded.

A fury growled up from within Shannon, rekindling his hate for the three men, but as he remounted his horse an idea popped into his head, and it bothered him all the way back to Gypsom.

* * *

The four cattlemen and three prisoners rode into Gypsom covered in smoke and ash and trail dust. Bystanders looked curiously at the cowboys, especially the wounded ones.

Gypsom was a small trading outpost, with a hotel and a few stores. It looked like a town, and it was in some ways. But the amount of cattle traffic and cowboys roaming around the place offset the town-like feeling with a more business appearance.

The sheriff's office was a small shack-like building with two holding cells in the back that were primarily used to hold drunk cowboys. They were empty when Shannon limped in there.

The sheriff, a short and stocky man with a ragged beard and tired eyes greeted Shannon at a table that acted as a desk.

"How may I assist you, sir?" The Sheriff asked.

"I have three prisoners in need of a tight rope around their necks." Roland and Burt came in with the men at gunpoint.

"And why is that?" The sheriff said.

"They lit a fire in the mountains about two days back, them and their cohorts. They aimed to trap me and my outfit and respective cattle. They succeeded in killing all four hundred head aside from twelve. A Mr. Hughs had hired them to do it, I gather."

The sheriff seemed perplexed, then his eyes went wide in realization.

"You're the man that had the prime Angus headed to the Arizona Territory. I know who you are. I heard you refused Mr. Hughs' offer and drove on."

"That's correct. I don't have my cattle anymore. They were taken by these, low, despicable, devils. And Mr. Hughs paid for them dearly. He shan't see another steer again." Shannon stared them in the eyes and then turned back to the sheriff.

"Mr. Hughs is dead?"

"That is correct."

"That's big news," The sheriff rubbed his hand through his greasy hair.

"Will you take these men?" Shannon said.

The sheriff nodded.

* * *

The four of them met in the small saloon and were joined later by Cooper. Dan was in great pain and a doctor attempted to pick splinters from his eyes, and thus, would not be joining them.

They sat at a large, round, table in the corner of the adobe saloon and sipped on cheap whiskey. Shannon had sold the last of the cows to a trader for top price, telling the man he had killed Mr. Hughs. He had the money in the middle of the table.

Hughs estate had caught wind of what had happened and were actively trying to take legal action, as far as legal action could go in a frontier town. A circuit judge that was coincidently passing through passed judgment on the estate and were ordered to compensate Shannon Wood for the damages caused against him.

Shannon nursed his whiskey. It helped with the pain in his leg and side, which were now bandaged.

Finally, he said, "I don't expect any of you to continue your ventures with me. After such a devastating loss of cattle, I don't expect any of you to have any heart left. I will pay you for your time and we can be done. I don't know when my money will come, but I will pay you."

Roland stood up and shook Shannon's hand.

"I will be around. But for now, I need a bed." Roland left, walking through the swinging doors of the saloon. Ned stood, about to say something, then closed his mouth and left. Cooper grunted, finished his whiskey and patted Shannon on the shoulder. He walked out.

Burt alone stayed seated with Shannon.

"As far as I am concerned, boss, you don't owe me anything. We're partners. I'll help you wrangle Hughs' cattle and we'll start again."

"I don't know if I have it in me after hearing those screams of the cows back in the valley. That's enough to kill anyone's spirit."

Burt sighed, "But yours isn't dead. I'm sure of it."

Shannon leaned back, folding his arms in his lap.

"Whether we were burned alive, or shot, it doesn't matter what would have happened in those mountains, that is if you quit. If you quit, it's as if the vile Mr. Hughs had won anyhow." Burt downed the rest of his whiskey and set it firmly on the tabletop. "The trail calls." He turned on his heel and went out the doors, heading to the hotel to sleep.

"So it does," Shannon said to himself, thinking over Burt's words. It made him all the more happy to have Burt as a friend.

The End

Jonathan Oosterhouse is an avid and young reader and writer of western and crime fiction. He has published two pieces of work in Frontier Tales Magazine under the titles of "The Dry White" and "Sickly Man."

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The Fortune Teller
by Peter Caffrey

Loretta learned to read the tarot cards in prison.

Her cell mate was a wild-eyed puritan from the edge of town, a deranged loner possessed by demons. Held on a charge of child murder, the crazed woman awaited the arrival of the hanging judge. She spent the days pacing the cell, wringing her hands and twitching as if devils danced around her, mocking and provoking her to react. At night her tormented sounds filled the air as she spoke in tongues, arms outstretched, supplicating some mysterious God. Loretta wished the judge would hurry; at least once they'd hanged the mad bitch, she could get some sleep.

The wardens were brutal, but left Loretta alone for no other reason than they hated the crazy woman more. No one in the prison could abide her, not the women on the wing, nor the men in the main jailhouse, nor the prison staff.

One stormy evening, after supper and lock-up, the wardens came to visit the child killer. They had news: the hanging judge had arrived in Copper Creek.

Mimicking someone with a noose around their neck, the wardens jerked their heads, eyeballs wide open and bulging, as they made strangulated sounds. The crazy woman screamed in fear and they set about her, beating her legs and arms and ribs with their truncheons.

Loretta kept her faced pressed into the stained pillow, making sure the wardens knew she wasn't watching them. The dull thumps of the clubs hitting flesh and bone stopped after a while, replaced by the sound of ripping cloth. The crazy woman howled in terror, a wail of violation. Loretta knew where one of the wardens was sticking their truncheon. The shrieking intensified as a second baton came into play, and the scream turned into a guttural gagging as a third truncheon entered her.

Loretta kept her eyes closed and her face buried until the crazy woman fell silent. The cell door clanked shut, the key turning in the lock marking the end of the evening's brutality. Only then did she raise her head.

Later that night, Loretta heard the mad woman sobbing. Ignoring her, she drifted off to sleep. As she floated in dream time, the crazy lady shook her awake and spoke in a vulnerable tone, the first time she'd displayed any humanity since arriving in the cell.

"Please Ma'am, take this and look after it, and remember me when I'm gone."

She handed over a bundle wrapped in a lace handkerchief. Tucking it under her pillow, Loretta went back to sleep, and the cell fell silent.

The next morning, Loretta awoke to see the crazy woman's feet drifting in mid-air, swaying to and fro. Rather than face the judge, she'd hanged herself in the night. Before raising the alarm, Loretta opened the bundle. It contained a pack of tarot cards.

The cards were ornate and highly decorated, the images so detailed they came to life in the half-light of the prison cell. They meant nothing to Loretta, but carried a certain something, a power she could sense. On the night the crazy woman decided to hang herself, she'd protected the tarot deck. Loretta was determined the cards wouldn't fall into the wrong hands.

During her remaining time in the jailhouse, Loretta sought the company of the elder women. She listened to their stories from the old times, when prophesies, divination and acts of witchery were commonplace. Never revealing the existence of the tarot cards, she absorbed everything the women had to say, filtering any nuggets of wisdom from the general nonsense and boasting.

Loretta spent time in the kitchen, helping scrub the cooking pots when it wasn't her duty, to pick up details which might help her understand the meaning of the cards. She'd manipulate conversations to learn about the deck. Cards of the Major Arcana showed significant events and changes, they told her, and those of the Minor Arcana added detail and circumstance. The suit of batons symbolised creativity and action-taking, coins related to material matters, cups were associated with love and relationship, and swords represented thought and intelligence.

The elder women unwittingly taught Loretta the basics: the symbolism of the suits, relationships between the cards and their positions, and interpretations. However, nothing taught her more than the cards themselves.

At night, alone in her cell, when the jailhouse fell silent, she'd take the deck and shuffle it until one card cried out for attention. Cradling it, she'd stare at the delicate etched image until the colours and shapes blurred and the card took on a life of its own, showing Loretta what it wanted her to see.

* * *

As the prison gates slammed shut behind Loretta, she headed into Copper Creek and made her way to the saloon. The owner erupted into a belly-laugh when she asked if she could pick up with her old job. His multiple chins wobbled as he guffawed, tears streaking his cheeks. Each fresh outburst of hilarity hit home like a knife to her guts.

"Loretta, you've been in the block for twenty years and you weren't too young nor pretty when they locked you up," he said, struggling to contain his laughter. "Let's be honest; most men only paid for your company so they could beat on you once they'd shot their load. Ain't nobody going to pay for a whore what's older than their grandmother, not one with more scars than teeth. I suppose I could find you a mop and bucket if you're happy to clean up the piss and puke. Otherwise, I got no need for you."

Every morning, Loretta cleaned the saloon, mopping and polishing and refreshing the sawdust on the floors. In the afternoons she prepared the upstairs rooms for the girls, laundering the bed sheets and using cheap perfume to cloak the stench of sweat and spunk and debauchery. In the evenings she'd sit at a table to the side of the bar, offering tarot readings to anyone who'd part with a few coins.

The customers were mostly copper miners. After finishing their shifts they'd trudge home, eat supper, kiss their wives and children good night and head to the saloon. They weren't interested in tarot readings. What fortunes awaited them? Another day of back-breaking work, not enough pay, and the possibility of injury or death. All they wanted was to drink, gamble, fuck and fight.

Loretta had empathy for the girls. She'd been in their place. Many years ago, four miners had taken her to an upstairs room. One by one they used her, leaving their muck in each of her holes. Then they beat her unconscious. They didn't even leave her money on the bedside table. The next morning, she took a knife from the saloon kitchen and waited outside the ringleader's house. When he set off to work, Loretta approached him.

She didn't conceal what she was doing. In the middle of the street, with a whole shift of men heading towards the mine, she announced he owed her, loud enough so everyone could hear.

"Fuck off," he hissed, "or you'll get more of what I gave you last night."

She produced the knife, and for a moment fear danced across his face. Then his bravado returned and he pushed her to the ground. She heard laughter, people mocking her plight.

Struggling to her feet, she lifted the blade, driving it in between his shoulders as he walked away. Contorting in pain, he collapsed, flipping over to protect his back. Loretta straddled his chest and plunged the blade into his eye, twisting it hard to ensure it hit his brain. Then she stabbed him in the other eye. The laughter had stopped, but no one came forward to help the miner. Climbing off, she fumbled with his trousers, opened them, and hacked off his penis. When the sheriff arrived, she was trying to push it down his throat.

If the judge hadn't been one of her regulars, she would have hanged. Instead, he sentenced her to twenty years in jail with no parole.

At the saloon, Loretta's income came from her cleaning duties; no one ever wanted a tarot reading. Sitting alone, ignored by the customers, she'd shuffle the cards and wait for one to stick in her hand. Turning it over, she'd gaze at the image until it came to life and revealed its message. Every day she learned more about the deck, and every day her wait grew shorter.

* * *

The stranger was out of place, standing at the saloon bar with the miners, ranch hands and deadbeats who survived by fetching and carrying for the townsfolk. Loretta watched from her table as he ordered a whisky. Clean shaven with hair trimmed and combed, clothes clean and pressed, shoes free of dust, he was the antithesis of the local men. As he paid, she watched his fingers, pale and elegant but not feminine. His dexterity was obvious, even from a distance.

Lifting his drink, he turned and looked straight at her. Loretta expected him to do so and nodded, a gentle head movement which most observers would have missed. He made his way across to her.

"May I?" he asked, pointing at the empty chair opposite her, and she smiled.

"You may."

As the stranger sat, he reached out a hand, soliciting a shake.

"I'm pleased to meet you, Ma'am. Elijah Black, and you are . . . ?"

"I'm Loretta, Mister Black," she said, taking his proffered hand and giving it a single shake.

"Please, call me Elijah," he said, a smile breaking across his face.

Without a further word, Loretta placed the tarot deck in front of him. He picked it up, shuffling the cards with a slow gentle motion. As his fingers manipulated the deck, his eyes never left Loretta's. Then he handed the deck back, and she laid out a spread of seven cards, face down.

Her hand hovered over the first card. Closing her eyes, she turned the card over, and opening them again, glanced downwards.

The card was the nine of cups.

"The wish card; that's what you have. I see contentment, an abundance of riches, a surplus which will fulfil your needs and desires."

Elijah Black lifted his glass and gestured a toast to Loretta, before sipping the whisky.

"I'm very sorry, Ma'am, but you couldn't be further from the truth," he said, placing his glass back on the table with precision. "Back home I trained and worked as an engineer, a specialist in mining and ore extraction. I liquidated my assets and bought passage on a ship to the New World. I wanted to build a career in the mining business, but when I arrived I saw bad practices, cost-cutting and companies putting profit over the safe management of their mines. They won't change, not while men will work for a pittance regardless of the danger. Less than a month after my arrival I find myself bereft, with no prospects but to seek manual labour in order to earn my passage home."

Loretta held up her hand to silence him, before turning over the second card: the wheel of fortune.

"Fortunes change, Mister Black. Yours was heading downwards, but now it will take an upward trajectory. Fear not; this is the beginning."

Again, her hand hovered, and she turned over the third card: the chariot.

"Be bold and you will succeed," she said with conviction. "Determination and perseverance are all you need to change your fortune. Hesitate, doubt yourself, even for one moment, and you'll lose everything."

Elijah Black sat back, a quizzical look on his face. Loretta waited, expecting a question, but he didn't speak.

Revealing the fourth card, the seven of swords, Loretta gasped and lowered her gaze, not meeting Elijah's eyes as she had done with every other card.

"I'm sorry, Mister Black, I truly am, but  . . . "

Saying nothing, he leaned forward in his chair.

"This is a nonsense," she sighed, reaching out to collect up the cards, but he took her hand, preventing her from doing so.

"What does it tell you?"

"It's wrong."

"What does it tell you?" he asked again with a greater insistence on an answer.

"You'll take your riches against the will of others."

"A robbery?" he asked with a mischievous grin.

Loretta turned over the fifth card: the magician.

"A deception," she muttered.

Elijah sat back and when Loretta looked up, he smiled and nodded, signalling her to continue. She turned over the sixth card: the two of batons.

"A partnership will be favourable to help you achieve the right outcome. With a little guidance, all is possible."

She turned over the final card: the fool.

"Trust," Loretta whispered. "You must have trust."

With that, she swept up the cards and wrapped the deck in the lace handkerchief. Holding the bundle up, clasped between her two palms, she said, "Remember, Elijah, there is always a friend willing to give you advice; you only need to ask."

* * *

The bank delivered Copper Creek mine's wages on the last working day of the month. There was no fixed time. If the wagon arrived at the mine office and no one was there, it continued into town, stopping in front of the saloon, across the street from the sheriff's office. The wagon's two armed guards protected the money while they sent an errand boy to find the mine manager. The driver waited in the saloon, quenching his thirst. On occasions when the manager was out, Loretta had seen the driver licking his heels for a few hours, sometimes longer. Elijah Black learned about this during another tarot reading.

Loretta suggested one of the saloon girls could visit the mine manager on the day of the delivery, ensuring he would be out when the wagon arrived. If someone bushwhacked the errand boy, a well-dressed stranger could easily be mistaken for a new mine manager and collect the wages.

In a further divination, Loretta mentioned the old fort outside town, at Black Rock. Legend had it the indigenous tribes attacked the fort and flayed the first settlers alive, dumping their children into its well. Nowadays folks avoided the place for fear of rousing ghosts. The well was dry. Someone could lower themselves down and hide at the bottom. Any posse might haul up the bucket, but their Christian fears meant none would be brave enough to climb inside the well itself. It was a perfect hiding place. Later, when the posse had given up the search, a partner, a trusted ally, could come and haul the fugitive up again.

On the penultimate day of the month, Elijah Black entered the saloon, bought a drink and settled down in front of Loretta. He took the deck without speaking, shuffled, and passed it back. Loretta place a single card on the table and turned it face upwards. It was the seven of swords.

"Act with speed and determination; take what you deserve," she said.

Elijah Black did not reply. Instead he stood, nodded to her and left the saloon.

* * *

The delivery arrived just before noon. The mine office was empty, the manager away in a nearby barn frolicking in the hay with Betsy-Lou. After rattling the locked door with no response, the driver headed into town. Pulling up outside the saloon, he climbed down, tethered the horses and went into the bar.

Clambering from inside the wagon, discomfort obvious as they stretched and shook their limbs, the guards appeared, rifles cradled in their arms. After a few moments, a young boy scampered from the saloon and ran up the street, heading for the Copper Creek mine office. As he cut down a side street, Elijah was waiting.

Killing the boy was the smart thing to do, but could he kill an innocent child? His panic over the planned deception was already pushing him close to the edge; he couldn't commit murder too. Sweat clung to every inch of his skin, but the day wasn't warm. His heart punched against his ribcage as if it wanted to escape his body and avoid participation in the planned crime.

"Boy, come here," he ordered with as much authority as he could muster.

The boy stopped, uneasy with the delay.

"What is it, Mister? I'm taking a message to the mine office and I've got to run."

"It's your lucky day," Elijah said, forcing a smile onto his face. "I'm the new mine manager, so tell me the message and then I have another job for you, an important one."

"But Mister Fletcher, the wagon driver, gave me two cents and said make sure I deliver the message to the man in the office."

"What's your name, boy?" Elijah asked, squatting.


"Well, Tommy, I'm the man from the office, and because I'm here, the office is closed. I've got a shiny silver dollar if you deliver my message, so you've got two choices. The first is you can walk to the mine office, stay there until I get back, and then give me your message. You'll have to wait because I need to find another errand boy to take my message and my dollar. The second choice is you tell me the message now and take my more important message and my dollar. Which is it to be?"

Elijah took a silver dollar from his pocket and tossed it a few times. Tommy thought for a moment, his eyes following the coin.

"The wagon's arrived, from the bank," he said.

"Aha, the wages delivery; are there papers to sign?" Elijah asked.

"No, sir."

"You see, Tommy; that's the problem. Anyone could claim to be from the mine and walk off with the payroll. Do you see my point?"

"Yes sir," Tommy said, but he looked confused.

"That's why my message is so important. I want you to run over to the town of Redemption, to the bank there. Tell them from now on all business with the mine must have signed papers to prove its authenticity. Tell them it's the order of Mister . . . Carmichael, the new mine manager. How long will it take to get there?"

"About an hour, sir."

Elijah handed the boy the dollar.

"Get going," he said, and Tommy ran off into the afternoon sun.

Elijah sat in the shade, checking his pocket watch every few minutes. The hands moved at a crawling pace, and when a drawn-out twenty minutes had passed, he stood and strolled towards the saloon. Once the wagon was in sight, he picked up his pace and walked with an air of authority. One guard gestured to the other and pointed at Elijah. The pair relaxed a little, assuming they'd done their job.

Approaching the wagon, Elijah nodded towards the men, who returned the gesture.

"I'm Mister Carmichael, the new mine manager," he said. "Are you two regulars on this run?"

"We sure are," the taller of the guards replied.

"Well, from next month things will change. I'll be speaking to the bank. You'll make the payroll delivery to the mine office, and only to the office. You'll need signatures for the transaction too. I appreciate the way you've done things until now suits you, seeing as you can turn up whenever you see fit. From next month, you'll have to be here at a time set by my company. Think about it; anyone could pretend to be from the mine office. It'll be less convenient for you, but I'm putting the interests of the company first. Understand?"

"If you say so, Mister Carmichael. We just do what the bank tells us."

Elijah breathed a sigh of relief. His authoritative manner had put the guards on the back foot. One walked over to the wagon and, leaning his rifle against the wheel, reached inside and produced two leather bags.

"Like I say, we'll do whatever the bank tells us to do," he said, placing the bags on the ground.

Elijah thanked the men, picked up the bags and walked away.

* * *

There was no reason to believe the guards had seen through his ruse, or to suspect the errand boy had smelled a rat. Despite this, Elijah rode towards Black Rock like a man being chased by the devil. Occasionally he slowed, turning in the saddle to scan the horizon. He saw nothing, just heat haze rippling across the scrubland. A few plumes of dust hovered where his horse had kicked up the ground, but otherwise the air was clear. Flicking the reins, he switched his attention back to pushing on towards his hiding place.

Inside the old fort, shade blocked out the burning sun and the air was cooler. Dismounting, he gulped down a few mouthfuls of water before leading the horse back into the sunshine. Cracking the sweating animal with the reins, it galloped off, but soon stopped. The stupid animal didn't have the sense to enjoy its freedom. Taking out his pistol, a few shots placed near its feet got it running again. He watched until the beast was nothing more than a speck in the distance, and then the shimmering haze swallowed it.

Lowering himself into the well was a slow process. Arms trembling, shirt soaked in sweat, he reached the bottom. Clambering from the bucket, he settled on the floor, using the bags as a seat. Then he worked the rope, pulling the bucket back upwards, stopping when it was around two-thirds of the way to the top.

Sitting in the darkness, trying to slow his deep ragged breathing, concerns bubbled up through his buoyant mood. The elation at having pulled off the deception faded, and doubt stampeded into his head.

Would a posse not search the well? A few ghost stories wouldn't frighten them; someone wouldn't be scared by old wives' tales. Might someone wonder why the rope for the bucket dangled down into the well's depths? It seemed too obvious a clue. Had Loretta misled him somehow? Maybe he'd be better running. The posse would have to get lucky to catch him; there was a lot of scrub to search.

Before he could act on the growing urge to flee, he remembered his horse galloping off into the distance. Stuck in the fort, he had no choice but stay hidden. They would find him; they wouldn't ignore an obvious hiding place. He would hang; that much was obvious.

* * *

It started off low, a distant rumble of thunder, a sound reminiscent of a bruise spreading across the earth. The volume increased, a rhythmic pounding, fast-paced, encroaching on his solitude. It was the posse, horses racing into the wasteland, seeking the fugitive. The noise engulfed him in the well, and it built in intensity until it was so loud it almost drowned him. Then it stopped.

He heard footsteps, voices shouting, echoing down into the confined space of the well.

"Winch up the bucket!" someone above ordered.

The rope snaked. Above him, the halo of light between the edge of the bucket and the well walls shifted. Then a whole circle of daylight appeared. He felt exposed.

Silhouettes of two men appeared, looking down in the bowels of the well.

"It's as dark as the Devil's ass," one said. "You going down there?"

The other man spat.

"Nope. Fuck that."

Then they disappeared.

"Hold on one moment," a man shouted, his voice authoratitive. Elijah froze, a tingling wave of stress rushing through his body.

A silhouette appeared at the top of the well, holding a pistol. The gun pointed down and an ear-splitting explosion of powder echoed off the walls. A buzzing sound, like a hornet, hung in the air for a second and then something ricocheted off the wall near Elijah's head. Brick dust exploded into his face, his eyes burning as the grit coated their surface. He blinked hard, desperate to rub them but too frightened to move. Another bang, ricocheting above him, higher in the space. The dust fell like a fine rain. He jammed his eyes shut, tensed, waiting for a bullet to hit him. The shot never came.

The sound of thunder kicked back in, only now it was receding. He sat shaking, too afraid to move or make a sound. Maybe they hadn't all left; one might have stayed behind in case he emerged. He sat in silence, rigid, for what seemed like hours. The thunderous beating of hooves had long since died away. Pain spiked in his limbs until unable to bear the discomfort, he moved. He was wet through. He'd pissed his pants.

* * *

The posse had removed the rope and bucket from the well. Trapped, he had no choice but to wait for Loretta. Everything she'd said, everything the cards had showed her, was true. She'd asked for ten per cent of the payroll. Maybe he'd give her more. It was only right he gave her a bigger cut. All he had to do was wait.

The circle of light at the top of well changed to orange, then red, grey and finally black. The chill in the air grew more noticeable and took on a sharp edge, biting, mean. Somewhere a coyote howled. Elijah stood, his legs feeling weak and tired beneath him. Stretching, his back was tender and the muscles ached. Hungry, thirsty and sore, he wondered how long Loretta would be. She'd want to get her hands on her share of the money. She'd come before morning; she had to.

Elijah Black slept fitfully, a few times awaking with a start, but the night was silent. When he next awoke, the darkness was turning to a grey pre-dawn light; the calm disrupted by the sound of hooves, slow and plodding. There were several horses. Elijah panicked for a moment, but realised Loretta would bring a horse for him. If it was her.

Unsure, he remained quiet, even when he could hear muttering from the top of the shaft. The small disk of light above him disappeared, and the squeaking of an unoiled pulley told him the bucket was being lowered.

"Loretta?" he hissed.

"You'll be up here in two ticks," she whispered back.

Above he could hear Loretta talking to someone. She must have brought help; it'd be difficult for her pull him up without assistance. She deserved more than ten per cent. He'd split the money with her, half and half. It was only fair. He wouldn't tell her in front of whoever was helping her. They might want a bigger cut.

Progress was slow, the bucket creeping upwards a few inches at a time. As it moved closer to the top, Elijah could hear people breathing hard, puffing and blowing from the effort. Occasionally the bucket stopped while they rested, then it would inch up again, each jolting movement another exertion from those hauling the rope.

It was close to the top when Loretta leaned over the edge. Seeing Elijah, she smiled, and he smiled back.

"I can see him real good," she said to one of her helpers.

The bucket stopped its motion and Loretta disappeared for a moment, returning with something in her hands: a rifle.

The first steel ball hit Elijah in the chest, tearing a hole in his torso, shattering his ribs and smashing his heart to pieces. He'd entered the realm of darkness before the projectile ripped its way out through his upper back. As his thoracic cavity filled with blood, a second steel ball hit his stomach, punching through his flesh and tearing up his intestines. His abdomen filled with blood and shit and splintered bone from his spine where the ball had lodged.

Loretta nodded to her accomplices, and the bucket resumed its jerky journey up into the dawn light. When it reached the top, she removed the two leather bags and carried them to her horse. The men released the rope and let the bucket and Elijah's body crash back down into the darkness. An echoing thump of dead meat accompanied by splintering wood filled the air as it hit the bottom of the well.

Loretta knew the tarot cards had brought her wealth, riches she'd not even contemplated in her dreams. The cards had given her a new life, another chance. She didn't feel guilt for what had happened. The cards had shown her the way. Removing the bundle from her pocket, she glanced at the top card: the devil.

With a smile, she rewrapped the deck in the lace handkerchief, pushed it inside her coat, and spurred her horse into the early morning light.

The End

Peter Caffrey is a writer of fiction with an absurdist leaning. His work has appeared in Underbelly, Infernal Ink, Horror Sleaze Trash, Danse Macabre, Schlock!, Close to the Bone and Idle Ink, amongst others. His novel, The Devil's Hairball, was published earlier this year. He drinks too much, exercises too little and is unlikely to change.
Peter Caffrey website
Peter Caffrey Amazon Page (UK)
Peter Caffrey Amazon Page (US)

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The Relentless: Roadrunner
by John Eastlick

The cool autumn wind swept down over the rooftops creating a nice breeze. The clouds covered the sun and the air had just the right amount of chill. Mary sits on her porch with her woven blanket wrapped around her shoulders and a hot cup of tea with lemon. She takes in a deep breath of the streets and earth around her, she always loved the way it smelled after it rained.

With that she returns inside to her small abode, she didn't live in a large house, it was nice and quaint and just the right size for her. Exactly what she sought after when she left her home in Kentucky, but the longer she remained away the more she grew to miss her family. She missed her mother and father, and her brothers. Hell, she even came to miss the damned tick hound, Bo, who she had truly found to be a blundering and frankly disgusting creature.

She left to escape the emptiness, the complete void of purpose that came to own you more and more with each passing day. There was no future for her out there, or at least, none that she would have wanted. No, there was nothing out there but dead ends and broken people.

Here she could make a life for herself. She found a job teaching, shaping the minds of our future, there was a career, something she could feel proud of. And yet, as she stared over the assignments, grading and analyzing them, she still felt incomplete. A need for more despite achieving more than she even set out for.

It filled her deepest dreams and fueled her greatest nightmare, of dying without purpose and living without a cause. On this evening she found herself in desperate need of supplies and had made her way to the local store just as it approached dusk. As she was returning home she came across a carriage broken down to the side of the road. A large man was standing right offside of it holding a lantern as another man knelt beside it and examined the wheel axel.

"Are you in need of help, neighbors?" Mary asks pulling her carriage to a halt.

"Oh, nothing to trouble yourself with missus. We just—" The man holding the lantern begins to say before being interrupted by the man on the ground.

"Well hold on, we may have crossed state lines but these parts still ain't friendly. If someone's offerin' to help, maybe we should take it." The kneeling man says up to the large man with the lantern.

"We can get the wheel back . . . "

"No, we can't." The other man replies before looking to the woman, "Is there any chance we could get a ride miss?"

"Mary, Mary Ford, where do you need to go?"

"Near eleven miles due west of here, I'm Joseph and this here is my wheel-horse William."

"How do you do?" William asks removing his cap.

"Just fine and that shouldn't be too much trouble, hop on," Mary responds from atop her carriage.

"Just one moment, we just need to grab our things," Joseph says before they unload two large suitcases and climb up onto Mary's wagon.

Once they get seated, Mary cracks the whips and takes the west road towards the riverbanks.

"So what happened to your carriage?" Mary asks.

"Looked down for one second and hit a rock, knocked the damn wheel right off." Joseph hollers back from inside the wagon.

"That's a shame, so where are we heading?"

"Well, we just need a ride to the river from there we should be fine . . . "

"Alright," Mary replies staring into the star-filled sky.

She felt truly alive, carried off by the hands of fate to ends even she did not know. In a way, times like these, her destination unknown and her outcomes uncertain, were the only times she felt alive. The routine of life was too mundane, too predictable. There wasn't enough adventure in it, and she yearned for that adventure.

"So tell me, Missus Mary, do often find yourself giving rides to strangers in the dead of night?" William asks with a chuckle from out the door.

Joseph smacks William's leg, "Hush now!"

"No, never actually."

"Well then we are mighty lucky aren't we?" William replies through a chuckle returning inside to find Joseph agitated.

"Don't push it, we're close, we just need to stay focused."

With that William's candor becomes apologetic, "I'm sorry, you're right. Got caught up in the moment is all, she seems nice."

"We're fine, we just need to raise as little alarm as possible."

The next hour passed by mostly in silence aside from the occasional attempt at small-talk or passing observations. The moon was seated firmly in the middle of the sky by the time they approached the river.

"There it is." Mary says down to her passengers, "Where would you like me to take you?"

"Just up the road a ways . . . if you wouldn't mind."

"No bother at all. Tell me, what are you all doing out here?"

"Just meeting some friends," William replies quickly.

"Ah," Mary says continuing down the road.

"Here, ma'am, this should be fine," Joseph says leaning out the wagon.

Mary pulls the wagon over and waits for her two passengers to disembark. They exit the wagon and grab their things stepping down next to the horses.

"Thank you, Miss Mary, you did a fine thing for us . . . and we won't forget it."

With that, Joseph and William walk off down the road and Mary watches them disappear into the darkness from atop her carriage. And as they do she feels her joy fleeting with them. How many times does one get in their life to plunge into the great unknown? Mary ties her horses down and extinguishes her lantern's light as she climbs down from the wagon. She stumbles in the darkness trying to keep her footing on the slick, wet stones beneath her feet. Her heart was racing with excitement, her entire body felt cold and she was penetrated by a feeling like she was being watched. Her mind flooded with wonder of what she would find as she walked through the darkness. Part of her told her to turn back while the rest of her screamed to continue forward.

As Mary comes around a bend in the road she can see down from the overlook to her left a group of men speaking down by the river. They stand next to a barge tied down and floating just off the shore. On it, there were some thirty men, women and children all huddled together at its center. As the men spoke she could see the two standing in front of the man as her riding companions, Joseph and William. The other man she did not recognize. After another moment of speaking they hand the man their suitcases and he turns to examine them in the light.

Just then, Mary turns as she hears the sound of twigs snapping somewhere in the forest. She looks to see shadowy figures sneaking through the woods behind her with the sure glimmer of steel clutched in their hands. Even in the darkness, she can make out their white sack hoods. Mary looks back down to the men and then behind her again, she knew if she did nothing they would certainly die. It seemed as though they didn't notice her nestled in the trees in her dark black dress.

Mary climbs down over the edge of the sandbank and tries to find her footing in the side of the hill, she loses her grip and slides down the sand,

"There are men!" She yells out as she rolls and slides down the bank, "In the forest!"

"Missus Mary?" William asks helping her to her feet.

"There are men in the woods! They have guns!" She exclaims trying to catch her breath.

Suddenly gunfire erupts around them as men begin to yell out from above,

"There they are!"

They quickly board the barge and disembark the bank pushing off and sailing down the river. The bullets whiz around them tearing through the wooden beams and boards of the raft. After a few minutes, they seemed to have lost them to the current.

"Are they gone?" Mary asks, still reeling from the attack.

"Well, we seem to have given them the slip . . . at least for now." William says rolling himself a cigarette.

The barge-man steers at the back of the raft while Joseph sits up near the front staring into the darkness with a wary eye on the tree line. Mary looks around them seeing the other passengers all knelt terrified. They were dressed in little else than rags and were covered by damp blankets. A man lies on the deck still twitching and moaning as one of the women tends to his wounds. The others sit clutching their loved ones, not knowing what was to come next. A feeling she had reveled and been enticed by her entire life, she saw how for the first time for someone with everything to lose that same feeling of uncertainty could bring nothing but utter horror.

"So you mus' be wonderin' what you got yourself into by now, no?" William says from behind the glow of his cigarette.

"I am, who are all these people?"

"Slaves, or, they used to be . . . now they're in search of a new life, a free life."

"And who are you?"

"Smart one, huh?" William asks with a grin, "My frien's call me July, or Ol' July if ya like."

"July? That's a strange name." Mary says still looking around them and trying to keep warm from the cool winds blowing off the water.

"I suppose it might seem so, but it's the only name I've ever owned."

"So, July, who are you?"

"Well, they call me a conductor, and this here is my cargo." July says pointing to those around them, "You should know, Missus Mary, by bein' here with us . . . you're breaking the law."

"Is that that what those men were? Lawmen?"

"No, they was slave catchers. Hired by those who used to own 'em, they've been on our tails since Virginia. We gave 'em the slip oh, some twenty miles back by splitting up on the waters . . . but it looks like they foun' us again."

"So they're just . . . hunting you?"

Ol' July draws in a deep breath of smoke from his cigarette lighting up his face as he stares back silently to Mary.

"That's awful. To what end?"

"Oh, might just be lookin' for a reward, or they might be fixin' to kill us."

Mary falls silent as she looks around her seeing all the people around her huddled in fear fighting for their very lives.

"So what can I do to help?"

July chuckles, "Well, I'd say you've done us quite enough help already."

Mary continues to stare to July.

"Alright, well, you could pass these out, they must be hungry," July says handing her a small sack of nuts and dried berries.

Mary walks from person to person pouring small handfuls of nuts and berries, most are hesitant to trust her, but their desperation outweighs their fears and they take them gratefully. She returns to July once the bag runs empty.

"I need more." Mary says walking up to July and handing the bag back to him.

"Ain't no more, not until we can stop and forage up s'more."

"So we will stop then?"

"Yes, Missus Mary, and I think that's where we should part ways."

"But . . . I don't understand, I want to help."

"Look, those folk ain't gonna pay you no mind if you run off from us . . . and you'll be safe." July says taking her hands, "You've helped us enough, you saved our lives tonight."

With that, he releases her hands and withdraws back to silence as he turns and stares out onto the waters. Mary then turns to Joseph, who still kneels to the side of the barge staring into the passing tree line.

"Have you seen anything?" Mary asks holding her arms tight to her chest from the cold.

Joseph continues to kneel without saying a word, just as Mary turns to walk away he responds in little more than a whisper, "No . . . but they're out there . . . somewhere."

"How do you know?"

"They're always out there."

"I'm sorry."

"What are you sorry for? You saved us." Joseph says finally turning and resting for just a moment.

"I'm sorry you have to live like this."

"Don't be sorry for us, they ain't gon' wake up and sleep at the beckoned call of others no more, they'll be free men and women now, free to live a life worth livin' . . . and me, well I get to help my brothers and sisters get that freedom. That's God's work if ya ask me."

At this Mary is surprised and, despite the atrocity of it, she saw hope. His words opened her eyes to the true nature of the world around her. There was no fair, there was no right and wrong, and there was no justice. Not unless we make it.

"So, is Joseph your real name?"


"May I know it?"


"How do you know July?"

"I did'n lie about that, we've been friends for a long time. Hell, we escaped the same plantation."

"So it's just you two?"

Samuel waits a while before responding, staring Mary up and down, "No, there's more of us, I'm sure you heard of the Underground Railroad."

"Is that where we are going?"

"No," Samuel replies with a smile before turning back and resuming his post.

She turns back to July and asks for a cigarette.

"You sure you wan' one of these?"

"Please, my nerves."

Ol' July smiles and agrees, rolling her a cigarette and lighting it for her. She takes the stick and draws a long puff before coughing out profusely, July begins to laugh.

"This isn't tobacco, is it?"

"No 'tis, mostly." July says smoking and looking up to the night sky, "Fo' all that's in it, this world is beautiful."

Mary continues to smoke her cigarette and joins him in savoring the view. It was another several hours before they made port, and not a moment too soon. The air had grown to carry a chilling frost and they all were beginning to feel it. They float into a bank at the end of the river-way and disembark the large barge, thanking the barge-man before he turns and leaves them.

"So where are we going?" Mary asks shivering, she was so cold her feet had begun to feel numb, it bit all the way down to her bones.

"We're close now," July says leading them through the forest.

The trees had started to frost over as a light shower of snow formed around them. They abandoned their blankets as they were damp and only worsened the cold. They walked as close as they could to combat the cold. But it did little good. Their hands and feet were beginning to grow frostbitten. They carried the children when they could no longer walk, as well as the elders. After what could have been an hour or an eternity to them they finally arrived at their destination. A small log cabin at the edge of the forest with a lantern-lit over the doorway.

"Alright, y'all stay here. I'll be back." July says to the group before walking out into the open and approaching the log cabin.

Mary goes to step forward before Samuel grabs her arms and shakes his head, she does not fight him and stands with the rest of the group behind the brush. Ol' July walks up to the front door and knocks five times, first knocking three, pausing and then knocking the remaining two. He is met with three knocks from the other side and he motions for the group to come forward just as the door unlocks and opens before him. An older man with pasty white skin and dark graying brown hair welcomes them in.

"Come, come. Please, warm yourselves by the fire." The man exclaims as they all step inside.

They all make their way inside and gather around the fire. Their host and his daughter pass out wool blankets and dry clothes as they prepare warm tea and bread and beans.

"Hello, stranger." The brown-haired man says before hugging July, "It's been a while, how have you been?"

"Gettin' by. Come, meet our new friend, this is Missus Mary Ford, Mary this is Donald Elliott."

"Pleasure to meet you," Donald says taking Mary's hand.

"And you."

"So July, how long will you all be staying for?"

"Not long."

"This was all rather rushed but I was able to secure some basic amenities. Should get you by for a while."

"Thank you, Donald."

Donald leaves and returns bringing several packed sacks full of food and supplies. As he begins distributing them there is a loud knock at the door.

"Open up! I know what you're hiding in there! We seen ya take in them slaves, mister! Them ain't your property!"

Their attention quickly turns to the door as Donald and Alice ensure the windows are secured and covered. Donald motions to his daughter and she walks to the center of the room, pulling back the rug and revealing a trap door. She opens the door and then walks over to a wooden chest and retrieves a gun belt and revolver which she fastens around her waist.

"Come on!" Alice says waving for the others to go down the stairs.

Once they are all down Mary stands with Samuel waiting for Ol' July and Donald to join them.

"Go on now," Donald says look to the door, flames abruptly appear from under the doorway.

"Come on out now! Give us what ya got and we may just let ya live!" The men yell from outside.

"What? No, they'll kill ya." Ol' July replies surprised.

"Do as I said July, I can talk my way out of harm, distract them maybe. The cellar leads to a dry well on the far side of the property. You all can make your way out through there."

"We'll see ya out there then," July replies, resistant to go.

Donald nods and July grabs the last sack and joins Mary and Samuel in the cellar. Donald shuts the trap door and covers it back over with the rug. Mary finds Alice already leading the remaining slaves through the small tunnel, hidden behind a bookcase. She looks to Mary, Samuel and July seeing her father is not with them.

"My father?"

"He said he'd buy us some time," Samuel responds before stepping past her down the tunnel.

Just then they hear the door break open above. Muffled voices yell back and forth before they hear the blasting of gunshots.

"Papa! No!" Alice cries out.

Mary and July grab her and prevent her from running back upstairs as she pleads and cries in desperation. But it was too late, the men above ransack the place entirely, it was only a matter of time before they found the cellar.

"Come on, we have to go," Mary says gently before grabbing Alice's hand and leading her down the tunnel.

They meet the rest of them at the end of the tunnel, still climbing up out of the well. As they peer up through the narrow tunnel above they hear a voice call down from the top of the well.

"How many more of ya down there!?"

Mary looks to Ol' July seeing the same look of fear in his eyes as well.

"Tell me! Or I start blowin' away every last fucker up here!"

"Not much more!" Samuel calls out.

A moment passes in silence as those still at the base of the well stand anxiously waiting to see what would happen next.

"Good! Come on up!"

Those remaining look to July and Samuel for guidance, July turns shooting his eyes from each face trying to find the words to say.

"It's all going to be alright, come on now, go on up." Mary says breaking the quiet.

They begin to climb out followed by Samuel and then Ol' July, finally it is just Mary and Alice left at the base of the dried out well. Mary looks down at the girl, the brim of her father's hat hanging over her face.

"Come on n—" Mary begins to say before being interrupted by Alice,

"Go." She says, her voice as cold and hard as raw iron.

Mary stands for a moment before resigning and climbing up out of the well. She is pulled out by one of the men, ripping the collar of her dress, and thrown into the arms of Ol' July. There are four men in white sack hoods standing armed with rifles and scatterguns.

"The hell you doin' with these runaways?" A man barks out holding his rifle up to her.

"Excuse me?" Mary asks.

"She is one of 'em, helpin' 'em." One of the men hollers out.

"Dirty bitch!" Another yells out.

"Alright! Enough!" One of the men exclaims, stepping forward and removing his hood revealing a middle-aged man with a crooked eye, "Got a good haul here, hell with what that fucker was gon' pay us we can get a hell of a lot more on the open market for all this!" He says while fixing his shotgun on them.

"Should I go get the others?" One of the men asks.

"Yeah, tell 'em to hurry the hell up! Now move!" The crooked eyed man yells.

They all get to their feet and begin to walk as they are marched through darkened woods, only lit by the glow of the raging fire now engulfing the cabin. Just as they start to move into the forest gunfire erupts behind them. They all stop and turn seeing the burning cabin in the distance through the trees. Suddenly the gunfire ceases and again the woods fall silent. The hooded men all stand nervously clutching their guns as they look onto the ominous threat behind them. They all begin firing recklessly in all directions at every noise made around them.

Again a shot rings out and then another and another, the hooded men all fall over dead until it is just the crooked eyed man left standing.

"Who are ya!? This here's my haul goddamn it!" He yells out.

Just then two shots ring out and the crooked eyed man's knees burst open sending him to the ground. Finally, the last man falls over dead as Alice walks up and blasts a hole through his head. She retrieves the crooked eyed man's shotgun and takes all the ammunition she can carry. Alice approaches the group handing a rifle to Samuel. They all stand, seeing it is over. Several men, women and children lie dying on the ground as they reach to their loved ones with bloodied hands, writhing in pain from bullet wounds.

Samuel looks over his shoulder and rushes back through the trees to find Ol' July lying on the ground behind them. Mary approaches them seeing Samuel holding July in his arms, crying.

"It's alright, I'm alright." July says through a pained mix of a grunt and chuckle, "Sa . . . Samuel, you gotta get 'em there . . . get 'em there, Samuel." And with that, July passes on.

Samuel closes his eyelids and lays him on the ground, he then stands and walks away, regrouping the others and getting them to their feet. Many are broken, crying out in desolation as they huddle over the cooling bodies of their loved ones. Samuel and Alice get them up, however, and before long they are again moving. The next miles were walked in silence, their hearts heavy with loss. And just as they approached the edge of the valley, snow began to fall.

It had been some time since they left the Elliott's cabin, yet death continued to follow them. The grounds were thick with snow and every day only seemed to grow colder. They were far from civilization with no end in sight. Only Samuel knew where they were going, and he had grown cold himself, withdrawn and angry, he had barely spoken a word since they left the woods that night. Several more fell to the frost as they made their way through the country.

They did not have time to bury their dead, instead, they removed what they could use and continued walking. The only thing Samuel would say to anyone when asked how much further was,

"We're close now."

However, as the weeks pressed on the others began to lose hope. There were only five of them left, including Mary, Alice and Samuel, and then there was a new mother and her young child. And they were growing less optimistic. Alice was quiet, but she was incredibly determined, every day at dawn, when the others were just barely waking, she was already out hunting and looking for food for the group. Mary was impressed at her will and her resourcefulness, but even that did not stop her from seeing the likely fate awaiting them all. It felt as though they were just waiting out the clock, seeing who would be the last to fall.

The days pass into night, they all sit huddled around a dim fire burning cold and dampened wood, shivering in the freezing cold as the snow falls around them. A young mother across the fire begins to mutter something just under her breath,

"Baby . . . gotta . . . care of . . . " She says before she stands and begins to walk off into the forest.

Mary watches as the woman takes several deep steps into the snow and then plummets to the ground holding her baby. Mary stands and rushes over to the young mother. As she approaches her, she reaches out up to Mary and pulls her in close with what little strength remained,

"Look after . . . my baby . . . please . . . pl . . . plea—" Just then she takes a final breath and falls over dead in the snow.

The snowflakes fall in a flurry around her, the dead silence of the forest made even stronger in its presence. All she could hear was the crackling of the embers as the baby begins to cry. Mary pries the child out of the young mother's arms and holds it close to her chest. She returns to the other side of the fire and stares at the body of the young mother across from her and then to the others who lie sleeping. All except for Alice who watches Mary closely and then looks back into the fire. She begins to sing, a low humming that is intended for the baby but honestly soothes every one of them. Mary thinks back to grading papers and drinking tea on her porch, she remembers feeling the futility in doing so. How naïve she was. Now, staring into the real nature of the world, she saw what truly mattered. All that mattered was life. She realized what her mother had tried explaining to her thousand times over back in Kentucky, but she had been too stubborn to listen. She thought that the meaning she was searching for was out there, but it was inside her all along. It was in the young mother doing everything she could to save her baby's life to her very last breath. It was in the way that your brothers might pick on you or your mother may nag at you or your father will discipline you. They do it from love. That love, it is life, it's what gives life meaning, and Mary finally understood that.

She stayed up through the night with the young babe clutched in her arms, making sure she was fed and cared for. The following morn they set out at first light. There were just the four of them now, Mary, Samuel, Alice, and the child. The days were growing bleak, their water had run out two days prior and their food supply was all but gone. The snow offered some reprieve from dehydration but did little for an empty stomach.

As they drag their legs through the thick piles of snow Mary asks once more, "Sam . . . Samuel, how much further?"

"We're close now." He says, using his rifle as a walking stick, forcing his way through the snow and creating a slight path for Mary and Alice to follow in.

Just as Mary contemplated collapsing into the snow, her legs so numb she could no longer feel them burning, Samuel says something from the front of the group,


Before them, just at the top of a lonesome hill covered by snow and ice, was a lodge with a lantern-lit hanging over the doorway. They press on through the snow, summoning all the strength they have left and make their way to the door.

Samuel knocks on the door three times, pauses, and then knocks another two. He is met with three knocks from the other side. The door opens revealing a young man and woman within, they greeted them with warmth and hospitality and cared for their wounds. Two of Samuel's toes had been lost to frostbite, his ribs were cracked and he had a broken wrist. They were all dehydrated and frostbitten, except for the baby which had been kept warm and fed as best they could.

"She's beautiful, does she have a name?" The young woman asks Mary who sits by the fire feeding the baby.

"What? Oh, no." Mary replies now withdrawing from her thoughts, "Maybe Caroline, Caroline Elliott, what do you think Alice?"

Alice stands to the left of the fireplace wrapped in a thick wool blanket silent, in her typical stoic nature. She nods still staring at the crackling fire. The young lady smiles and gently rubs Caroline's tiny head before walking away.

"Where will you go now?" Mary asks still looking at Alice.

"Out west, maybe. Things made more sense out there for me."

"You used to live out west?"

"Arkansas." Alice pauses before turning to Mary, "You're welcome to come with me, though I have no money."

"I have a house, a small amount of property in my name, more than enough to purchase a wagon and supplies."

Just then Samuel enters the room and joins them, covered in bandages and wrappings.

"And you Samuel? Where will you go now?"

"Keep doin' the Lord's work."

"So you'll stay here?"

"For a time," Samuel replies sitting close down to the fire.

And for a moment, just a moment, they all found peace in the warmth from the fireplace and amongst each other's company. It was a rare feeling for all three of them, one they did not let pass by lightly. They sat there for a while before they each went to bed for the night.

The next morning, Mary awoke to the repetitive banging of something outside. She checks young Caroline and Alice, who are both still fast asleep, and goes outside to find Samuel hammering a cross into the cold soil with a large rock.

"Is that for July?" Mary asks, her breath fogging out before her, wrapping herself tighter in her blanket to ward off the bitter early morning chill.

Samuel finishes hammering it down and drops the rock before standing silently for a moment, "It's for all of them," he says solemnly before returning inside.

Mary places a hand on Samuel's shoulder as he passes by and then takes a moment to remember their fallen. As she does, the clouds break above her in the sky revealing the sun and letting its rays fall and warm the earth. The heat of the sun bears down on Mary's face and she takes a deep breath in with a smile, the sky was finally clear.

The End

John Eastlick currently has one novel completed, The Relentless: Among the Willows, which you can find on Wattpad completely for free! The Relentless: Among the Willows

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The Judge Standeth at the Door
by J.R. Underdown

The still night broke with the wild rush of hooves. The rider turned his steed toward a section of trees outside the small town of Eagle's Nest and picked up speed. He had spent a month picking and practicing the proper route through the woods on the pretense of hunting or meandering for mere pleasure. He even practiced the path earlier that day so his horse would be familiar with it. The plan was to sneak out of town quietly, but a guard hailed him and the rider lost his nerve. He barreled past the sentry, knocking him sideways with a hoarse shout. Other yells immediately followed with some harmless shots fired. Soon a posse would be crashing through the thicket and foliage after him.

He traveled light, unarmed, and left his saddle behind. He needed speed for this errand. His body crouched low to the horse, avoiding low hanging branches. A couple gunshots fired behind him, but they were wide of their mark. A loud crash and a slew of curses told the rider his trail was well-picked for hindering his pursuers. The posse seemed to fall farther behind, but the rider still rode his steed as if he outran the apocalypse itself.

Finally, the trees thinned and a clearing loomed ahead. The rider barely perceived the silhouette of another mounted man. The fleeing man released two short, shrill whistles that were answered by three of the same kind. Before the waiting horseman even finished, the first rider pulled up beside him, tossing a satchel into the other's arms.

"Hurry!" the rider warned. "I was spotted. There's a posse coming! Go!"

The shadowed figure seemed to gaze at the rider. "You're a brave man, doing this."

The rider huffed. "It's worth it for justice. Now go or they'll catch you and this will be for nothing!"

"Your message will be delivered," the dark horseman vowed.

Without another word, he kicked his horse into a gallop and raced away into the night.

The rider sat watching for several precious seconds, surprised that the plan had succeeded thus far. It wasn't until he heard the shouts and cries of the posse that he realized he yet had hope of escape. He had wheeled his mount, aiming to reenter the wood by another route, when the flash of a gun appeared before him a few feet away. It was like the flash of a ghost revealing itself to a man about to die.

A bullet tore through the rider's right shoulder. With a groan he fell from his horse stunned. The shooter cantered up and called to the other men. The rider felt his shoulder throbbing and heard the gunman dismount. Soon other voices and beasts were heard until the fallen man was aware of a circle about him. Several kicks added to his pain and withheld him from answering their coarse queries.

Suddenly a voice called them to silence and the rider, curious even in his pain, looked toward the woods and heard the arrival of another horse. The small ember of a cigarette told how tall the newcomer sat on his mount. The tiny light disappeared momentarily as the man dismounted, and shone again as the figure approached the circle opening up to receive him.

"Who's this?" the man asked, his cigarette hanging above the rider like a red star.

"He's a townsman for sure," a voice answered. "Got past Chester and tore through the woods like a demon."

"That so? Why?"

When the rider failed to answer, a boot smashed his face and the examiner repeated his question.

The rider spit out blood and looked up to the cigarette. "I was praying."

The man snickered incredulously. "Yeah? Were your prayers heard?"

Now the rider sniggered. "Yes. And soon . . . I hope . . . the Judge will be here. Your days . . . are numbered . . . Reese."

The cigarette suddenly vanished as it was tossed away.

"Perkins, Sandy, search for that messenger. Don't come back 'til you found him."

Two shadows moved off immediately and galloped away. The rider prayed earnestly now that his contact traveled quickly and eluded capture. His attention soon turned back to the leader of the group, who spun on his heels and walked away.

"What about this rebel, Mr. Loger?" a voice asked.

"Don't ask stupid questions, Clint," the man answered without looking back.

A couple of the men laughed ominously and delivered more abuse upon the prostrate rider. As Reese Loger mounted and lit another cigarette, several gun blasts lit up the circle.

* * *

When Reese Loger first rolled in to Eagle's Nest five years' previous, the town was a small dusty point on the map. It clung to survival through its small farming community and good hunting country. It lay several miles from a main road and many miles more from the next city. But Reese saw potential in it. He saw his own personal kingdom with him wearing the crown.

He planned his coup with patience, spending his first year working at the lone saloon that sat at the center of town. Through his employment there, he befriended the men of ill-repute and won them over to his vision. After careful planning and thinking, Reese made his moves.

His first hurdle was the doting old sheriff who stood for morality, honor, and virtue, none of which resided in Reese and so he shot the man in the back. His young deputy would be the potentially bigger issue. But Reese liked to think himself a reasonable person and confronted the young man by divulging his plan and confessing to the murder of the sheriff. The deputy was understandably surprised and flustered for a moment. When he finally composed himself, he began a protest and went on about how he would stand against Reese in the name of the law. He would have undoubtedly gone on with a passionate speech if a hidden assassin in the shadows of the room hadn't put a bullet through his brain.

With the arm of the law broken in one dark hour, Loger and his men moved quick and rounded up the town leadership in the middle of the night, separating the men from their families. The families were kept at the stables and the men crowded into the jail. Reese drew the line in the sand for them and stated matters clearly: they either comply with his rule or their families would be killed. A clerk with fire and heart babbled at his captor and swore to see Reese hanged, to which Loger had the man's wife and child marched in and shot before his eyes. After that, any threat of rebellion was vanquished.

The following morning, which happened to be Sunday, Reese and his men stormed into the small church as the meeting began. The poor pastor was shot from the pulpit before he could understand the disturbance and Reese soon stood in his place. He gave the townspeople the same ultimatum and threat, but they were incredulous. Loger realized he couldn't kill everyone, so he had his men bring in the bodies of the clerk's family in a grotesque display. Silence reigned after that, more from mourning than from acquiescence, but Reese knew he won.

He ruled with an iron fist and kept a constant watch about town and even on the surrounding farms. No one was allowed to attempt a challenge of his authority. Some became martyrs in the first couple years but eventually there was peace; a cold, harsh peace with an abundance of wrath building up underneath like steaming water in a geyser.

The saloon where he once worked became the throne room of Reese Loger and here he sat the morning after the messenger's night run. He poked at a plate of bacon and eggs, which he had no appetite for, and thought the matter over. This was the first rebellious act for a while. Perhaps the citizens had mobilized underneath his nose. He was putting together his plan to root out this secret committee when Sandy and Perkins entered.

A quick glance told Reese they hadn't been successful. They looked dusty and forlorn, tired from a night of riding and searching.

"Well?" Reese opened.

The two exchanged glances and Sandy stepped forward.

"We looked all night, Mr. Loger, honest! That horseman plum vanished. We couldn't find a trace of 'im."

"It was dark last night," Perkins ventured. "By the time the sun rose, it was impossible to find his tracks."

Reese fought several angry urges at that moment. He wanted to swipe his plate off the table and then overturn the table. He wanted to grab his chair and smash Perkins over the head with it for failing and then shoot Sandy for adding superstition to his report. But he choked all this down and it caused more terror in the men's hearts than an outburst would have done.

In the heavy silence while Reese wrestled with anger, Sandy opened his mouth again.

"You're going to kill us, aren't you? Because we didn't find the man."

Now Loger lifted his eyes in a glare and thought for a moment more.

"No . . . no, I'm not going to kill you . . . yet. Go search the farms. Maybe he hid at one of them."

Reese knew this to be unlikely, as undoubtedly his two men figured, but it was a harsh punishment nonetheless. They had ridden and searched all night. They were saddle-sore and haggard. Visiting all the farms would take all morning and force them to ride many miles more. But they considered it a rare show of mercy and gladly left for their wild chase.

Part of the reason Reese spared them was for their value. Sandy was the best tracker among the gang and Perkins the best shot. If the Judge was real and if he would in fact come, Reese knew he'd need every tool he could use.

The rest of the morning Reese moped and skulked about the dim saloon until he was joined by his girl, Lucy Thorn, and his lieutenant, Ed Acacia. They pulled in Sam, the barkeep, for a game of poker, which told them Reese's mind was elsewhere due to his sloppy play. When Reese and Ed inevitably lost, the ruthless leader barely cared. For him, stakes were much higher if the Judge existed.

He was so engrossed in his thoughts his eyes gazed blankly at the table, as if he expected the scattered cards to start shuffling themselves together. Sam excused himself on the pretense of fixing lunch while Lucy shot Ed a concerned glance. The latter frowned and thought desperately for a moment. Finally he forced a smile and said,

"Say, Reese, you play like that again with me and I'm switching partners."

Drawn from the depths of his mind, Loger looked up in a glare.

Lucy couldn't handle it. "Reese, honey, what's the matter?"

"It's that vanishing messenger, ain't it?" Ed pushed, dropping any pretense of a smile.

"Yep," Reese finally answered.

"Look, Reese, we know the Judge ain't real," Ed argued. "They might as well send a message to the guardians of the fountain of youth asking for water. There's no help comin' for 'em!"

"And what if there is?"

"There ain't! There is no proof of the Judge's existence. There is only rumors and old wives' tales. He's like the headless horseman, a story to scare ya with. If you want to make preparations against a myth, go ahead! It'll probably scare any rebels out there. But for the love of the world, drop any notion of this guy being real and coming for you."

Reese sighed and looked out the window. It was true that all they knew of this mysterious Judge was hearsay. He had heard of this man while traveling, a man who some said was Law itself. A Judge without jurisdiction, he brought the full force of the law wherever he went. He scoffed at the existence of such a man at first. But with the power he accumulated, Loger developed an unhealthy paranoia with losing his prestige and even a rumor seemed as real as a threat of an approaching army.

"I guess you're right," Reese admitted at last. "But I am going to double our guards and put a watch on the road."

Ed nodded in approval and leaned back in his chair. "Whatever you say, Reese."

For three long, excruciating weeks, nothing notable happened in the town. Toward the end of the third week, however, a lone traveler straggled down the street. He looked like a tramp and was armed only with a gnarled walking stick. His wild beard added to his unique appearance. Everyone in town stopped and stared at this man, who took in the odd attention with considerable humor. He walked right up to the saloon where Reese stood at the top of the steps.

The traveler stopped before him and eyed the threatening men on either side of their leader. Finally, he looked Reese over like he was considering the man's worth.

"You Reese Loger?" he queried.


"Good. Now, Mr. Loger, my name is unimportant as I figure you'll kill me in a second, but you might call me a prophet."

The hard men, in spite of themselves, shot looks at Reese, who stiffened but remained silent.

"No comment, I see," continued the prophet. "Well, Mr. Loger, about three weeks ago some of the people of this little hamlet sent a message petitioning the Judge to come and take care of things here, specifically, you."

The men shifted uneasily. Reese bit his lip.

"It is my duty, Mr. Loger, to inform you that the Judge, who has been keeping an eye on this town for some time, has heard their request and is en route as I speak. You can either prepare to meet him in surrender or try to out-gun him. Should you choose the latter—"

A sudden shot from Reese's gun, which flashed forth like wind, silenced the prophet forever. Without another word, Reese turned on his heels and retired to the saloon.

Among Reese's followers, there was barely a moment to sleep. Feverishly Reese and Ed concocted plans to kill the Judge. They were as ready as they could possibly have been. The usually raucous saloon was silent like the grave. No merriment at all could be found in Eagle's Nest during those tense days. It was another four weeks before any sign of the Judge's arrival came. And it came suddenly.

In the twilight hours of a Sunday morning, Clint burst into the saloon panting for breath.

"Reese, he is coming!"

Loger, Ed, and Lucy all stood up white and silent.

"You saw him coming up the road?" Ed asked. "How far away is he?"

Clint's eyes grew wider and he stammered for words, as if appealing for mercy. "Well . . . I . . . didn't exactly see him coming up the road."

"Then what do you mean—"

"I swear I wasn't sleeping, Ed, I swear! I had just switched off with Chester, you can ask him. And I'm not drunk either! Heaven knows we're all dryer than the pilgrims lately.

"What happened, Clint?" Reese questioned in a cold voice that made the others' hair stand on end.

The watchman tried to compose himself, though he shivered as with cold.

"Like I said, I wasn't sleeping. I was sittin' my horse in the shadow of the rocks about a mile or so outside o' town. I looked down to check my watch and when I looked up again . . . well, there he was! The Judge, I mean. Sittin' on a horse so white it shone like the moon at midnight. And he sat there dressed in black but with a white hat on that you could see for miles."

"That you somehow missed," Ed put in.

Clint stammered again. "I have a thought about that, actually . . . "

"What happened, Clint?" Reese pressed again with a growing annoyance.

"Right, right, sorry, Mr. Loger. Well, the Judge—and I know it's the Judge, don't ask how, I just know—well he looks at me like he's staring at my soul and says, 'They're expecting me in the town, aren't they?' And my blood runs cold! I never been so scared. I thought he was killing me for sure. Well, when I didn't answer he sighed and sat upright and looked away in this direction. 'What you do, do quickly,' he said. Well, he didn't hafta tell me twice! I wheeled around and came here right away!"

Ed and Lucy looked anxiously at Reese, who stared down at the table.

"Get everyone into position," he said quietly but firmly. "Today that Judge will fade into nothing more than a legend of the times."

Ed obeyed immediately, grabbing Clint by the arm and leading him outside. Lucy, with a parting kiss, retreated with Sam to a back room. Slowly Reese walked out and stopped atop the steps.

The sun was rising now, and as it rose it unveiled a tall, dark figure upon a clean, white horse. He cantered as far as the stables, drew forth a rifle, and dismounted, leaving his steed tied there. With a steady, meditative gait he came down the street and seemed to eye all the places Reese's men lay in hiding. Reese noted this with some alarm. How did the Judge know so much about his plans? Whoever was the informant would be punished severely after this was over, Reese thought. But a nagging doubt followed—would he be there to administer the punishment?

The Judge stopped before the steps, like the prophet traveler before him. His face was clean cut and rugged and his eyes shone like fire, giving Reese the peculiar feeling that they saw more than the outward man. Two Colts were strapped to his legs on either side and a third pistol was tucked into his belt.

"Reese Loger," he began, his voice booming down the empty street like a cannon shot, "it's time."

Reese remained silent, unmovable.

"Come now, Reese, silence won't save you. 'The Judge standeth before the door.' For four years you've ruthlessly held this town and murdered its citizens. Now, it's time for retribution."

"If you knew all this was happening," Reese said suddenly, interrupting the Judge's speech, "why didn't you come sooner?"

"To give you a chance to repent. Even now you could repent and mercy will—"

But he never finished. As he talked, Reese lowered his crossed arms to his side, by his guns. This was the signal Ed waited for.

Now the explosion of gunfire filled the street. Reese instinctively stepped back to avoid crossfire. He also stepped back in surprise.

As soon as the first bullet whizzed past, the Judge, like lightning from heaven, spun and accurately picked off Sandy who had hidden atop the roof of the hotel opposite the saloon. Now, almost methodically, the Judge took out the rest of Reese's outfit. In horror, Loger saw Clint go down as he hid in the window of the mercantile shop. Perkins fell prostrate just beyond the corner. Even Ed, hiding on Reese's side behind a wagon, fell lifeless in the street.

What astounded the cold-hearted despot more than this was how every bullet from his men seemed to pass through the Judge without any harm. All the while the solitary figure wheeled about firing with deadly accuracy.

Before Reese comprehended it, the street was silent again and three smoking firearms lay at the Judge's feet. He drew his final gun from his belt and leveled it at Loger.

"There's still time," he warned.

But his voice recalled to Reese's mind his intense hatred at this Judge and foolishly he drew and fired. As his bullet left the chamber, the Judge shot too, and with truer aim. Reese Loger, tyrant of Eagle's Nest, now lay dead at the Judge's feet.

For a few moments, the Man of Law stood alone in the dusty avenue. But slowly, fearfully, the people who had hoped and prayed for his coming for so long crept from their hiding and into the glorious morning light. The Judge looked upon them and smiled, encouraging the little ones to rush forward and greet their savior. As he accepted their embrace, the word on his lips was, "Peace!"

The End

John Underdown is an up-and-coming writer living with his wife, Amy, and their son in Kansas City, MO. Enjoying Westerns with his father while growing up, his love for the genre has been re-awakened in recent years. He blogs weekly at https://jrunderdown.wordpress.com/, writes for Jesusfreakhideout.com, and has independently published a YA fantasy spoof novel, Plethora, and Seasons So Far, a collection of poetry, both on Amazon.

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