August, 2020

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Issue #131

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They'll appear in upcoming print volumes of The Best of Frontier Tales Anthologies!

A Killing in Coyote Junction
by Victoria Randall
Alex Winter's brother Jake is in jail, accused of murdering the Yates, a young couple homesteading near Coyote Junction. Jake swears he didn't do it, but the townsfolk are thirsty for vengeance. Alex is searching for proof of Jake's innocence, but time is short, and the gallows nearly finished.

* * *

Blood of Abilene
by Samuel Kennedy
Civil war veterans return home, changed forever by their experiences. And a young boy grows into a man, learning to hold his own in the quickly-changing Wild West. But when the time comes for him to put his skills to the test, he finds the results aren't what he expected.

* * *

The Plains in Winter
by Arnold Johnston
Travelers inevitably bump up against those who stay put. The results aren't always pleasant. In this story, a tinker encounters the lone remaining citizen of a dying town. And that sets off events that lead to more death. A US Army troop picks up the pieces of the puzzle.

* * *

Ulyana
by Dawn DeBraal
In 1848 men outnumbered women, two hundred to one. Hadley Whittman's farm is two days ride from Grass Valley. He has chosen a wife from a photo in a mail-order bride magazine. Ulyana from Ukraine, who doesn't speak English. Will she be able to survive the rigors of frontier life?

* * *

Throttle Hogs
by Larry Flewin
Rufus and Abner were two old railroaders who thought they'd seen and done it all, until a baby put them to the test. Was there a doctor anywhere along the line?

* * *

The Damned of Bovee Draw
by Joe Jackson
Robbin' the Three Mile Ranch sounded like a good idea. "A whole wall full of cash," the Colonel said. But they find more than riches lurking at Three Mile. The rumors were a lie and their past resurfaces to remind them of the darkest of truths: The greedy are damned.

* * *

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All the Tales

A Killing in Coyote Junction
by Victoria Randall

The door was ajar. Alex Winter pushed it open slowly with his left hand, gun in his right. The late morning sunlight fell across the floor, lighting the dim interior, the simple pine table and chairs, the rough-hewn ladder to the sleeping loft above.

He grimaced at the blood spatter on the floor and stepped to one side of it. He kept his gun drawn, but there was no sign of occupants and no place to hide if anyone had wanted to. He crossed to the far wall, where he saw another pool of blood beside the table, and holstered the gun with a shake of his head.

The bodies were gone, taken away a couple of days ago for burial by the townsfolk. Alex turned slowly, looking for any hint of what might have happened or who might have been responsible. His brother Jake sat in the Coyote Junction jail, accused of the murders, and Alex was having a hard time wrapping his head around that. His brother was pretty much good for nothing, shiftless, self-centered, avoiding honest work like it was poison, but murder? That was another thing. He wasn't believing that.

It looked like the husband had been shot in the doorway, on the threshold, and the woman between the ladder stairway and the table. She had no doubt screamed, maybe begged for her life. What happened here was harsh. There was no sign of Indians, and the town had had no Indian problems for a decade. This was something else.

He found no footprints in the cabin; nobody had stepped in the blood. A chest in the corner was thrown open, the contents scattered—plates, utensils, a tablecloth. He doubted they'd found any money, if that's what they'd been looking for. The rough furniture had been built with care, a braided rag rug lay under the window; the general impression was of a hard-working, frugal couple. After another turn around the room, he shook his head and turned to go.

A sound from above halted him. He cocked his head and drew his pistol again, holding his breath. An animal? It was a faint wail, maybe a trapped cat. It came again, fainter this time.

He went to the ladder and climbed, pistol at the ready, glancing quickly around the loft before he climbed all the way up. Nobody in sight. A straw mattress filled most of the space and a carved wooden chest stood against the wall. The lid was propped open an inch or two with a Bible. Funny place to keep a Bible, he thought.

The faint wail came again, and this time he recognized the sound. He lifted the lid of the chest and stared down at the baby inside, red faced, waving clenched fists. "Hey," he said, and bent down to lift the baby up. "Looks like you got overlooked. Maybe a good thing for you."

The baby was soaking wet, his face squinched up in distress. Alex looked around, then thought of looking in the chest, but he found nothing there to use for a diaper. He set the baby on the straw mattress, gingerly untied the rag he wore and dropped it on the floor. Remembering that he had seen a rag downstairs, he hurried down, found it, and hurried up again. He wiped the baby off and tied the rag around him. Having no idea of how women did these things, he did his best to cover crucial spots.

He found a woolen shawl draped on a wall peg and wrapped it around the baby. The boy must have been there two or three days at least, since the bodies had been found Sunday and this was Tuesday. There was nothing in the cabin to feed a child.

"Come on, son. Let's get you to town." He climbed down the ladder, balancing the child carefully against his chest. He paused to rig a carrier out of the shawl, Indian style, so he could carry the child and ride.

He closed the door behind him to keep out varmints. No doubt neighbors would come eventually and clean up the cabin. He paused for a moment to look at the ground, marked with a confusion of hoofprints and boot prints. The boot marks had been scuffed out, by chance or design. He whistled to his horse. Grabbing the reins with one hand, he mounted swiftly, turned him, and set off for Coyote Junction.

* * *

Alex drew rein in front of the sheriff's office a little after noon. He nodded to an oldster leaning back on a chair outside the door. "Howdy," he said. "Roust out the sheriff for me, would you? I've got a young'un here." He nodded at the baby wrapped in the shawl, a bare foot sticking out.

The man brought his chair legs down, raised his eyebrows, and swiveled to the sheriff's door. "Harvey," he called inside. "Man here wants to see you."

The sheriff came to the door, frowning. "What is it, mister?" He wore a mustache and his paunch strained the buttons of his shirt and vest.

"Found this young'un at the Yates place," said Alex. "Can you point me to a woman might be able to help him out? He hasn't been fed for a few days."

"The Yates place!" The sheriff widened his eyes. "What were you doing around there? That's a crime scene."

"I'm Jake Winter's brother. I heard he was sitting in your jail, so I went to take a look, and found this kid that everyone seems to have overlooked."

"His brother, eh? We don't need anyone sticking their nose into this business—"

Alex shook his head. "We can hash all that out later. Where can I get this baby some milk? He can't wait all week."

"Right." The sheriff frowned in thought. "Take him up to the church. The pastor's wife, Mrs. Pilchuck, should be able to help. If not she'll know who can."

Alex nodded and wheeled his horse. The church, a white-washed frame building with a steeple, stood at the head of the street. He dismounted outside the house set beside it and knocked. He heard a trampling of small feet before a woman answered the door. She was stout, with a kindly face and two small children clinging to her skirts. "Can I help you?"

He took off his hat. "The sheriff sent me up here, ma'am. Found this baby—he's been on his own a few days. Any way you could help him out or point me to someone who could?"

She lifted the shawl from the baby, who gave a mewling sigh and began to cry. "Oh, the poor dear! Give him to me."

He untied the shawl and handed the baby to her. "Come on in," she said, turning away. As he entered, she was already unbuttoning her blouse and giving him the breast. With a gasp the baby latched on and drank as if he were starving. Which he probably was, Alex thought.

The room was clean and as neat as could be expected with five or six busy children. A couple of them came to peer at the baby as their mother settled into a rocking chair.

"Cassie, you and Peter go and play, let the baby drink. Have a seat, mister . . . "

"Winter," said Alex. "Thank you, ma'am. Reckon you saved his life."

"Oh, of course," she said. "What happened to his mother?"

"Killed."

She looked up from the baby, her mouth open. "No. Is that the poor couple I heard about, the Yates? Now I remember hearing they had a baby some time back. Those stupid men! They went out to recover the bodies, but never thought to look for the child."

Alex set his hat on his knee. "The mother hid him, probably when she realized trouble was coming. Most likely he was asleep when the posse came for his parents. Just a good thing he woke up when I was there."

"Yes. Thank you so much for bringing him here." She gave him a warm, motherly smile.

"Do you know if they had any folks in town? Any family?"

"I don't recall any. No, I think they came from back east, like a lot of the young settlers. But don't fret none. The Reverend and I will be happy to add this young 'un to our flock. He'll fit right in. Caleb there will be two in a couple of months." She pointed at a chubby boy who was teasing the cat with a length of string.

"Just one thing," said Alex. "Maybe you want to keep it quiet that he's here, for now. In case whoever came after his parents decides to finish the job."

She frowned in horror. "But you don't think—who would want to hurt a baby?"

He shook his head. "Just to be on the safe side. Because nobody knows why his parents got shot yet."

"But I heard they have a drifter in jail—a Jake Winter—oh. Are you a relative?"

"Jake's my brother." He hardened his mouth. "He's a rapscallion and a lazy son of a gun, but no murderer. I know him."

"Well, I'll surely pray for him, and that they catch whoever did it."

"Thank you, ma'am. Appreciate it." He rose, settling his hat back on his head. "I'm glad the baby's in good hands."

"You don't happen to know his name, do you?" she asked. She rose, pulling her blouse closed. The baby had fallen into a blissful milk-smeared sleep.

"I wish I'd thought to look in the Bible, but no, I don't."

She nodded. "I'll ask around. Someone will know. But I'll wait, as you said. No sense in stirring up trouble."

* * *

Leaves skittered across the street, and a couple of dust devils whirled in his path before they petered out as Alex led his horse back to the sheriff's office. The last time he had talked to his brother had been a couple of years ago, and it had ended in hard words. Jake had ridden away and had been avoiding him, seemed like, since then. Alex wasn't looking forward to this conversation, but Jake was blood. He couldn't just walk away, especially not with the gallows the townsfolk were busy constructing at the end of the street.

The sheriff wasn't in his office. A deputy lounged with feet up on his desk, cleaning his fingernails with a knife. He lunged to his feet. "Hey, you can't go in there!" he said as Alex passed him.

"Relax. I'm just going to talk to him."

The light in the cells was dim. Alex could just make out someone on the bench against the wall, head in his hands. "Jake?" he said.

The man looked up and got to his feet. "Alex?" he asked. "Is that you?"

Alex folded his arms. "What have you gotten yourself into now?"

Jake came to the bars and grabbed them. His beard was scruffy, the whites of his eyes shining with fear. He was only nineteen, but he looked to have aged five years since Alex had seen him last. "I didn't do what they say, I swear! I would never do anything like that. They're tryin' to frame me."

"Why do they think you did it?"

"They found the man's horse—I was minding my own business, making camp near town, and this horse wandered in. No saddle, no way to know whose it was. I figured to turn it in in the morning. But they rode up on me before dawn, said I was a murderer and I shot a couple the other side of the valley. But I didn't! It wasn't me. Alex, you gotta believe me."

Alex regarded him in silence. Slowly he nodded. "I believe you. Next question is, who did it?"

Jake spread his hands. "No idea. I've just been hanging around the town, doing odd jobs here and there. I worked on Eastman's ranch for a while, but I don't know the people in town."

"No closer to settling down than you ever were," said Alex.

"I'm not a saint, Alex, God knows. But I'm not a killer! You know me better'n that."

"I do. But that kind of shiftless life'll end you up in trouble sooner or later. Like now."

"What do you expect me to do, become a banker? Buy a feed store and stand behind a counter all day? I can't do that."

"No." Alex sighed. "Guess I don't expect nothing from you but what you've always done. Get in trouble and expect me to get you out."

Jake bit his lip, tears in his eyes. Alex hated to see that. "Can you help me or not?"

"I'll see what I can do."

The deputy came to the door. "Sheriff wants to talk to you."

"All right," Alex said. "I'll think on it, Jake. Don't give up yet."

"They want to hang me, Alex. I'm counting on you."

* * *

The sheriff sat behind his desk puffing on a cigar. As Alex came in, the street door opened and a group of men entered. First came a thin man with a genial grin in a dark suit and a bowler hat. He was followed by a short man with a no-nonsense expression and a string tie, and after him swaggered a stolid looking rancher with a silver belt buckle and a show-off Stetson. A couple of ranch hands slouched in behind him.

Alex hooked his thumbs in his belt and nodded to the sheriff. The nameplate on the desk read Nate Rodgers. "Sheriff Rodgers," Alex said. "You wanted to see me?"

"Just want to make sure you're not interferin' with my prisoner."

"Just chatting with him," said Alex, "seeing as he's my brother."

"Ah,' said the thin man, 'you're his brother. Allow me to introduce myself; I'm Morris Stadler. I'm sorry you find yourself embroiled in this miserable business, Mr. Winter." He held out a hand, and Alex shook it.

"Mr. Stadler," said the sheriff drily, "is Coyote Junction's undertaker."

Alex dropped his hand. "Don't expect any business from my brother, mister."

"No, no," said Stadler. "Nothing personal, I assure you. And this is Doc Jeffries, our medical man, and Carleton Eastman, who owns a spread north of town. We just stopped by to make sure everything's in order."

"That's fine," said Alex. "I've got the same thing in mind. Let me ask you, Sheriff, what have you done to find the culprits?"

The sheriff leaned his elbows on the desk and his gaze bored into Alex's, his gray eyes hard. "Seems to me we have the culprit in jail."

"Have you found any clues aside from a wandering horse?"

"Don't see that we need any more. You said 'culprits.' Do you think he had an accomplice?"

"I'm sure you checked the prints out at the house, and noticed that two of the men who left tracks were wearing boots. The ones who let the horse out of the corral. The townsfolk who recovered the bodies were wearing regular shoes, I'm betting."

"He has the right of that," put in the doc. "I went out with the folks to bring back the bodies, and we were all townsfolk. I don't recall anyone in boots."

"That's as may be, Mr. Winter," said the sheriff. "But your brother had the victim's horse."

"That's no kind of proof he killed those folks."

"It might be proof enough for the judge. We'll have to wait and see on that."

"Mr. Winter," put in the rancher. He had ruddy cheeks, bristling white eyebrows, and a cigar stuck in his mouth. "I'm Carlton Eastman, as Mr. Stadler mentioned. Your concern for your brother does you credit, and we all appreciate that. This is a hard thing to face up to. But it's not something you're responsible for, and it might be a good idea for you to distance yourself from the whole situation. Leave it in the hands of the law. Your brother will get a fair trial."

"Eastman," said Alex. "I think Jake said he worked for you for a while."

"Yes." Eastman took the cigar from his mouth and stared at it. "He helped with the branding last spring. A good worker, when he wasn't drunk. But face it, he's a drifter. Can't stay in one place for too long. And this crime, it's the kind of thing drifters tend to do."

Alex allowed himself a crooked smile. "That's some mighty twisted up thinking, Mr. Eastman. Sheriff, who gets the Yates' land, now that they're dead?"

"Well, now." Rodgers rubbed his head. "If they had any kin, it would go to them. We may end up writing back east, but I'm not sure who we'd write to. So then, it would go to whoever wants to buy it, I reckon. It's good land, down in the valley there, so it might be any number of folks."

"You ever make Yates an offer for that land, Mr. Eastman?" Alex asked.

"If I did or I didn't, it's neither here nor there, Mr. Winter. What are you implying?" Eastman gave Alex a hard stare. Behind him, a ranch hand with a squint shifted his gaze to his neighbor on his right and pursed his lips.

Alex shrugged. "Just a passing thought. Meaning no harm by it." He settled his hat back on his head. "Well, gentlemen, it's been a pleasure, but I'm heading over to the hotel to see about a room. Any idea when that judge is due in town?"

"Not for sure," said Rodgers. "Might be a couple of weeks."

Alex nodded. "No hurry then."

"As I suggested, Mr. Winter," Eastman said, "You might consider cutting your losses and going about your business. You can't do your brother any good by hanging around and sharing in his misery."

"Is that your general way of doing things, Eastman? Run out on family when they get in trouble?" Alex shook his head. "Don't strike me as the right way to go about things, but I'm a simple cowboy, not a high-powered rancher. Guess things look different from that exalted height. Adios."

* * *

Alex crossed the street and headed for the building which boasted a signboard labeled "Mesquite Hotel" over the door. Before he could reach for the handle, a young woman scurried up to him. "Are you a friend of Jake Winter's?" she asked in a whispery voice.

"I'm his brother," he said. "What—"

"He didn't do it!" she said. She glanced behind her and across the street as she spoke, then looked up at him in appeal. She had a pert nose and big brown eyes, and would have been pretty if she hadn't looked so frightened. "I know it for sure."

"How do you know?" he asked. "Who are you?"

"I'm . . . his friend. I'm Clarissa. I've got to go. My father mustn't see me. Please help him." She hurried off down the boardwalk toward a buggy waiting some distance away.

Alex shoved his hat back and scratched his head, then opened the hotel door.

* * *

That evening as Alex headed for the saloon, he noticed several knots of people clustering along the sidewalk. He drifted unnoticed up behind the largest group and heard Eastman's drover with the squint making a speech. "Justice is what we want, not just letting a killer sit in the jail enjoyin' home cooked meals."

"When's the judge due to show up?" asked an elderly man.

"We don't know. Do we want to wait on that?

Alex said in a quiet voice to the man next to him, "What's that fella's name?"

"That's Lyle Higgins. He works for Eastman," said the man. Alex nodded and drifted away, back to the saloon.

When he sat down at a table, he noticed several men eyeing him, a couple of them with hostility. The cook set his order on the table with a noticeable lack of hospitality. Alex glanced up. "Somebody have a problem with me?" he asked.

"You're that killer's brother, aren't you?"

"Innocent until found guilty, is how I understand it."

"Maybe," said the cook with a sneer as he turned away. "And maybe you were in on it with him."

Alex ate his dinner, taking his time, but keeping an eye on the others at the tables. When he finished, he wandered out to the sidewalk and leaned against the building, staying in shadow. Within a quarter of an hour, the man named Higgins sauntered out in company with his partner who had also been in the sheriff's office. They went down the street, weaving between passersby, and Alex followed them at a discreet distance.

They meandered into the stable where he assumed their horses were tied. He slipped around behind the building and drew close to the back. Through chinks in the wall he could make out their voices.

"I don't like it," said the partner. "His bastard brother's nosing around too much."

"Relax," said Higgins. He spoke louder and sounded as if he'd had a little too much to drink. "You're too nervous, Rufus. There's nothing to connect us, and even if there was, we can get a crowd of the boss's men to swear we was at the ranch playing cards. Eastman's no dummy."

"I know he's not, but I don't want to end up his fall guy. He's not the one pulled the trigger."

"Stop being such a worrywart. Sheriff has that drifter in jail, and he'll take the drop. I guarantee it."

Alex leaned against the wall, gritting his teeth in frustration. He had half a mind to confront the two of them, even haul them at gunpoint down to the sheriff's office. Little good that would do: it would be their word against his. In silence he made his way back to the street and the hotel.

* * *

Alex went to see Jake the next day. His brother stood staring out the cell window into the alley. From his cell he couldn't see the gallows being constructed at the end of the street, but the sound of hammers rang loud.

"Jake," he said.

Jake turned and came to the door. His face was in shadow, but Alex could see the strain in it as he grabbed the bars. "Have you found out anything?" he asked.

"Yeah, I have. But I have a question. You're friends with Clarissa?"

Jake's hands tightened on the bars. "I know her. Told you I worked for Eastman. He's her father."

"Is he?" Alex chewed that over for a minute. "She says she has proof you didn't do the killings."

The muscles in Jake's jaw bunched. "She would say that. She's good-hearted, probably just wants to help out."

"So you don't think she has any real proof?"

"Doubt it. But you said you found out something."

"Yes, but keep your shirt on. I overheard Eastman's two hands talking about it. They as much as admitted they did it under orders from their boss."

"Higgins and Hawkins? Those two?"

"Yeah, if Hawkins's name is Rufus.'

"Then you've got them! And Eastman put them up to it? He must have wanted that land real bad. I can't believe it." Jake stared into the distance. "Well, maybe I can. He was a hard man to work for. Didn't cut anybody any slack. One of the men got hurt on the ranch—gored by a bull. Eastman just fired him, cut him off cold. Said, 'if he can't do the work, I've got no use for him.' Like we were all just tools. A tool breaks and you can't fix it, you just throw it away."

"That would account for his men being nervous he'd dump all the blame on them. And his daughter seems plenty scared of him," Alex said.

Jake's eyes lit up. "But you heard them admit to it! So they can let me off—"

"I said to keep your shirt on. I've got no proof. It's my word against theirs. And one of them said they can get a slew of cowpokes to swear they were both playing cards all that night."

"Damn. You're right. What can we do?"

Alex looked away from the disappointment in his brother's face; it hurt to see it. "I'll figure out something. I'll go out to the Yates' place again. Bound to be some kind of proof somewhere."

"I 'preciate it, brother. But watch your back. If Eastman is behind this, he might not stop with the Yates."

"I will. And you're sure that girl doesn't know anything? Clarissa?"

Jake shrugged, turning away. "What could she know? Nah, she's just kind-hearted that way. Couldn't do cold-blooded murder herself, so figures I couldn't either."

"Well, somebody sure did." Alex watched Jake slump down on the bench again, and sighed. "Don't give up. I'll come back tonight."

* * *

It was nearly dusk when Alex rode back into town from the Yates' place. He felt bone tired after riding and searching for clues most of the day, but headed for the sheriff's office, meaning to ask whether he'd heard any more about when the judge would show up. When he got within sight of the office, he sensed an atmosphere of violence. A knot of men had gathered in front of the door. Some of the men carried torches that flared and guttered in the fading light, and he heard raised voices.

The sheriff stood in front of his office, arms folded, facing the milling crowd which was growing to resemble a mob. He raised a hand. "You folks go on about your business. If you got business with me, come back in the morning."

"We want justice!" yelled a man in front. "That murderer is just sitting in there taking it easy."

Alex hitched his horse to the post in front of the hotel and headed across the street, although he had no idea what he would do. He slowed his step as he noticed a buggy down the street in front of the feed and drygoods store. A couple was climbing into it. He recognized Mrs. Pilchuck, the pastor's wife, with the baby in her arms. He turned in their direction.

"Mr. Winter," she said as he reached the couple. 'I'd like you to meet my husband, Reverend Pilchuck. Charles, this is the man who rescued Noah."

"Pleased to meet you," said the Reverend. His handshake was firm; he struck Alex as a man who could weather storms and stay standing. "We're happy to have the little fella with us as long as he needs us. Do you know if any of his relatives have been located?"

"Not that I know of," Alex said. "Did you call him Noah?"

"I checked the church records, and he was baptized Noah Yates several months ago by my predecessor," said the Reverend.

"Good to know," said Alex slowly, thoughts stirring in his mind. "It may be time to let folks know that he's around. Would you mind coming down to the sheriff's office?"

The Reverend cast an eye at the crowd in front of the office and hesitated. Then he squared his shoulders. "Anything we can do to help. Do you mind, dear?"

"Of course not. The sheriff should know he survived," said his wife. "I do hope we can keep Noah, though. All our children love him."

They made their way down the street to the office. At the end of the street, the gallows cast a shadow in the moonlight, its noose dancing in the wind. Alex felt a chill run down his spine.

He pushed his way through the crowd outside. He heard a few angry comments, but the presence of the pastor and his wife seemed to put a damper on the worst of it. He edged into the crowded office, the couple behind him.

Carlton Eastman was leaning over the sheriff's desk, expostulating. "I don't see any reason for a hold up. I'd like to get the issue of the land squared away."

"Well now, Mr. Eastman," the sheriff said, "maybe the judge could weigh in on that. No need to hurry."

Eastman straightened up and scowled at Alex. "What do you want?"

"Are you talking about the Yates' property?" Alex asked.

"What if we are?" Eastman demanded. "It's got nothing to do with your no-good brother."

"Let me ask you, Mr. Eastman, did you make Yates an offer for his land, and he turned you down? Would that be why you sent your boys over to get him out of the way permanently?"

There was a shocked silence. "What did you say?" Eastman asked, a smile of disbelief on his face.

Alex nodded at the two ranch hands who stood against the wall, Higgins and his pal Rufus Hawkins. "I overheard those two jawing about their part in the murders, and how Eastman put them up to it. They're nervous because they don't trust him to have their backs if they get caught."

"That's an outrageous accusation," said Eastman. "You can't be serious."

"And it's a shame," went on Alex, "because it wouldn't work out anyway. The Yates land should by rights go to their son, Noah Yates here." He nodded at the baby in Mrs. Pilchuck's arms, who stared at him solemnly and blew a spit bubble.

Eastman looked at the baby in silence, his face growing thunderous. Higgins began to edge toward the door, but a glare from his boss stopped him.

"I have to object," said Mr. Stadler. "Jake Winter had Yates's horse, so it's clear he had to be there to commit the killings."

"That's not true!" shouted a new voice, a girl's voice. "I can prove he didn't do it."

Everyone turned to see who had spoken. A slight figure made her way through the crowd, who gave way before her.

"He didn't do it. I was with him that night." It was Clarissa, her face set with determination.

Eastman turned red. "What are you doing here?! You go home, girl! Higgins, see that she gets home."

"No, daddy,' she said. "We just talked all night, but I kept quiet because I knew you would be mad. He wasn't anywhere near the Yates' place. I was there when the horse wandered in."

"Get Jake Winter out here," the sheriff growled to his deputy. He hurried back to the cells, and a few minutes later Jake stumbled into the office. His hands were cuffed in front of him and he looked around as if dazed.

"What do you have to say for yourself," said the sheriff.

"Just . . . I didn't do it," he said.

"That's enough jawing," shouted a man from the crowd. "You've got the culprit. He needs his neck stretched."

"Just hold on." The sheriff stood up and raised a hand. "Is what this girl says true, Winter? Was she with you that night?"

Jake stared at the girl. "She . . . no, she's just trying to help me. I was alone."

Alex groaned in frustration. "You muttonhead. What's wrong with you? Do you want to swing for something you didn't do?"

Jake shook his head at the girl. "Clarissa, you didn't ought to get mixed up in this."

Tears were streaming down her face, but she bit her lip. "I care about you, Jake. I know you didn't do it."

"You can't know anything of the kind," said Eastman. "You are in deep trouble, girl. Just you go on home." He turned to Alex. "You've got no proof my men were involved in any of this."

"Oh, Mr. Winter," said Mrs. Pilchuck. "I meant to give you this. I washed it." She held out a square of folded cloth to Alex.

He took it and shook it open: a bright red neckerchief. Looking at Rufus, he said, "You lose your bandana, Rufus?"

Rufus's hand went to his neck. "Yeah, I wondered where that went."

Higgins elbowed him. "That's not yours," he hissed.

"Yeah, it is," Rufus said. "It's got that notch where I caught it . . . oh." He finally noticed Higgins' glare. "No, on second thoughts, I reckon it's not mine."

"I reckon it is," Alex said. He handed it to the sheriff. "I found it in the Yates' house." He could picture it: the hot day, Rufus sweating with the heat, nervous after shooting Mr. and Mrs. Yates. He had taken off his neckerchief to wipe his forehead, stuck it in his back pocket, and it had fallen out.

"This looks like proof to me," said the sheriff.

"No, no. We was just following orders!" Rufus said.

"Those boys are under arrest for murder," said the sheriff. "Mr. Eastman, we need to have a chat." He nodded at Jake. "You can take those cuffs off, deputy. The rest of you folks, go on home." He waved off the mob outside, but they had already begun to melt away.

"You featherbrain!" Alex said to Jake as the deputy unlocked his cuffs. "You could have hung if this little lady hadn't spoken up."

Jake looked at her with pride. "She's one in a million, for sure." He put his arm around her. "So are you, brother."

Alex nodded. "Well, maybe you're finally growing up, little brother."

"Just one thing," the sheriff said to Alex. "How did Mrs. Pilchuck end up with Rufus's bandana?"

"Oh, that," said Alex. "I used it for the baby's diaper. Didn't have nothing else."

The End


Victoria grew up in New York and Chicago, where her father was a well-known pin-up artist, creator of Bill Randall's Datebook. Her first job as a teen was working on a cattle ranch in South Dakota; later she worked as a waitress, fabric salesperson, mail sorter, social worker, and registered nurse. She attended Oberlin College. She has four children, including Keith Graham, an artist, and Brandon Graham, author of graphic novels King City and Escalator. She writes mostly science fiction and fantasy, but enjoys westerns. Her Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/victoriarandallauthor

Her Amazon author page is https://www.amazon.com/Victoria-Randall/e/B00DSD6IUW

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