October, 2020

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Issue #133

All The Tales

Justice For None
by Darnell Cureton

Pastor Collins raised his sallow hands signaling pallbearers to lower Lester Smith's coffin in the marked grave of Bleakvilles cemetery. A smell of fresh soil waft through the air mixed with cut grass surrounding his interment. Craving booze, pastor Collins ignored his jaundice look and took a sip from a hidden flask. He watched as townsfolk made their way to the Community Negro Baptist Church. There they mourned Lester's death and ate comfort foods like fried chicken, dumplings, apple pie, and potato salad.

Mayor Edith Fowler dressed in a gray dixie hat, white blouse and black skirt for the occasion. She pulled a long stem rose out the pocket of her open vest and matching boots. A pricked finger drew blood, spotting the blouse near her heart. After buttoning the vest to conceal the blemish, she tossed the rose in the grave on top of the coffin she had specially built. Sealed before the ceremony, no one saw what was left of the colored man's body that was beaten and whipped by a mob two days ago.

"No peace in life. Have peace in death," she prayed.

Edith put on her octagon glasses with gold forged frames. When her eyes adjusted to clarity she looked at a family photo of the Smith's before tossing it in the hole as well. Lester's wife and two children fled town right after his body was found. The value of their lives was worth more than the possessions they left behind. A smell of retaliation ran through the air, putting fear in civilians. Bleakville lawmen stood on high alert. Sheriff Tuney spotted the mayor leaving the gravesite and called her out with urgency. Startled, she locked eyes on the briskly walking blond man coming towards her, stirring up dust as he approached.

"Mayor, I'm calling a meeting at the courthouse. I want Bleakville town heads to meet me there lickety-split. This is a matter of life and death for our town," he insisted, blue eyes staring her down. "You best show up too," he said, with contempt. Edith kept her head low and said nothing.

"Your colored life is on the line for what you did," she felt he wanted to say.

* * *

Bleakville town heads filed in the courtroom. Sheriff Tuney Moonbay, Marshal Pete Doyle, Pastor Steven Collins, General Store owner Ewald Bensen, Blacksmith Arnett Hedley, doctor, and mortician Ingram Wardell assembled. The men that kept her town running stood before the mayor, a woman, the only colored in the room. Her clammy hands clasped together to avoid shaking as her heart pounded and breath shortened.

"Did you disremember widow Norma Thorton, the owner of 90 acres and the 40 cattle heads that help feed our town?" Edith spat out before she could stop herself. The sarcasm she was famous for escaped her lips, unable to be reeled back in.

"She was the one that instigated a riot when her husband Sam was killed," said the sheriff. "Then she got the owner of the Rusty Spur to start a petition that got a white man hung and Lester killed. That colored gal is not welcomed here," he fumed. "Let's git started boys," he said while directing the men to maneuver tables and chairs together, deliberately cutting communication off with Edith.

She started to tell the sheriff "You're so weak north of ya ears that you couldn't lead a horse to water, no less a meeting," but thought better of it.

Sheriff Tuney took the front and center seat, a move to show he was now calling the shots. He passed a document around for the others to see. It was a proclamation for the arrest of Mayor Edith Fowler, signed by the governor of Pennsylvania. The paper reminded Edith of the petition her townsfolk signed a month ago requesting to have swift justice done to a man. The difference was this document contained a raised seal stamp and was signed by the governor himself.

As the sheriff started the meeting, someone knocked hard on the courtroom door just before entering. Florence, the Rusty Spur barmaid balanced a tray of glasses and several bottles of whiskey as she made her way to the court table. Brown, blue, and gray eyes ogled her hourglass shape and brunette hair. Lust turned to disgust when her long locks betrayed the woman, revealing a hideous scar on the right side of her face as she put the glasses down.

"Oblized Miss Florence. You may leave. I'll settle up with you after the meeting at the Rusty Spur," said Sheriff Tuney.

"But Miss Mcintyre requires I bring compensation back with the tray," she said diplomatically as Pastor Collins was the first to reach for a bottle, pouring a big gulp.

"Maybe you didn't hear right correctly," said the sheriff. He walked toward her with a menacing swagger and pointed a finger towards the door. "You best skedaddle. I'll settle up wit that painted hen boss of yours when I'm done," he urged, his voice growing louder with each word.

"Yes sheriff," Florence answered as she bolted through the door without looking back. She considered herself lucky those men only wanted booze and let her go. Satisfied watching her race away, the sheriff closed the door, filled a glass with whiskey and hovered over the seated businessmen and mayor.

"Let's weigh our options. We could git some money and personal things together and git her outta town quiet like. Or we wait for the governor's men to bring her to trial for dereliction of duty in another jurisdiction. Either way will be hard," Sheriff Tuney added.

"What do we do about the hanging crew coming up from New Jersey? They want justice now, not a trial. And they will be here in a few days," remarked Arnett.

"We could put her in jail for her own safety," said Doc Ingram.

"That dog won't hunt. She won't last a day in there," corrected Marshal Pete, remembering how he aided a mob removing Maverick from the same jail at gunpoint.

A high pitched screeching sound came from the mayor's chair when she suddenly pushed back, stood up, and pounded on the table. "SHE HAS A NAME!" the mayor yelled as her nostrils flared. Edith held tears in check but not the raw vocal emotion of everyone talking as if she weren't present. Everyone stared at the mayor, now standing over them.

"Edith," the sheriff said as he slowly stood up also. "The governor wants you arrested for the lynching of Maverick Lawson on your watching eye," he reminded. "We are hoping to keep you outta that situation. And there's the New Jersey storm coming our way in the form of a neck-tie mob. If we don't hand you over to them they will burn down the town in retaliation . . . so forgive us if we don't address you proper like," mocked the sheriff.

* * *

At the Rusty Spur, widow Thorton sat at the bar, exhausted from tending to her livestock. Norma's husband Sam, killed by Maverick, earned her the moniker. Her dirty denim overalls and blue cotton shirt looked out of place on the colored woman in the bar. She was grateful most patrons were at the church paying last respects to Lester Smith, one of the colored men that partook in the lynching of Maverick. Florence overhearing talk about the widow warned she best wait for the meeting to be over before trying to talk to the mayor.

"They been in there quite a spell," said Florence as she cleaned glasses behind the bar. "The mayor will fill us in when it's over," she continued.

"I hear they got a bounty on the mayor's head," chimed in Lucille Mcintyre, owner of the bar. She had bought the Rusty Spur with money earned spending time with men.

"If I had let matters be, the mayor wouldn't be in this spot," the widow said as she kicked the stool she sat on causing dried up mud on her boots to sprinkle the floor like sand. "But I have a plan. Something I learned from my grandma. I want to make things right, but the mayor must back me for it to work. As soon as that meeting ends, call her out, and Blacksmith Arnett. I'm gonna need him too."

* * *

Within 48 hours Bleakville came under siege. In the cover of the night, the Bleakville businessmen were tossed in jail with the marshall and wounded sheriff after a brief shootout. Several New Jersey henchmen stood guard and mocked the town heads standing in the overcrowded cell.

"I'd offer you boys some drink, but you only got one chamber pot to piss in," joked one of the Jersey men as the others laughed out loud.

Men ate, drank and caused a ruckus at the Rusty Spur. Several fought for a turn with Lucille's painted ladies. The demand for flesh was so high that Florence the barrister was forced to take up with men at half the price on account of her scarred face. Lucille tended the bar while Florence took on two out of towners. One of them left an upper bedroom and pranced down the stairs wearing just a wife beater and carried coins. He dropped them on the table.

"Whiskey, a full bottle this time," he said. "And let me borrow a hat for a spell."

"To cover yourself?" Lucille asked.

"No, to cover that heifer's face," he said as he went back up the stairs with a bottle and a 10-gallon hat.

More men came into the bar, this time with the New Jersey lynch mob leader, Vasil Huges, a name Lucille and her ladies were familiar with. Vasil was the man responsible for a mob beating Lester to death when he was questioned in Gold Rose County and had gotten away with it. He came up to the bar and sat down with three men. His brown eyes looked through her as she stared back at the unwanted patroon. Lucille didn't have any more women available if he wanted one for his boys. The ones she had were bruised up and worn out. Terrified, she envisioned herself on her back, with a line of men waiting a turn. His words snapped her back to reality.

"I was told you know the whereabouts of that colored mayor," Vasil said over the noise of the bar.

"I might know, If I can get that bounty on her head," Lucille suggested.

"I'll see you get the bounty. As long as I get to burn her alive," he declared.

"She's hiding in the Funeral Parlour, waiting for your men to leave town," Lucille revealed as she poured the four men each a shot of whiskey with shaky hands.

"If that's true, you'll have the coins as soon as I lynch her behind this nice establishment," he chuckled while he searched Lucille's demeanor for motives. Finding none, he asked: "Why you giving the mayor the little end of the horn?"

"When Edith became mayor, she gave the job a lick and some promises, but she didn't keep any. She caused all the trouble you see in town. All she had to do was wait for the sheriff and let justice be done," she lamented while pouring Vasil more whiskey.

"It's all 'cause Edith had a rough growing up. Got passed around a few slave owners that liked youngins. When she thought one of Bleakvilles boys was touched wrong she let Maverick swing. Truth be told, that kid was stretching the blanket. I'm sure he wasn't telling it right. But what's done is done and I want that bounty," she said without guilt. Vasil finished his second drink as his men pushed back what was left of their first. No one paid for the liquor.

"Let's take a walk over to the Parlour," Vasil told his men. He looked at Lucille. If I don't find what I'm looking for . . . me and the boys will pay you a not so friendly visit," he promised her as hard eyes undressed the voluptuous woman before they headed out.

* * *

Vasil's men surrounded the Funeral Parlour. He placed a man by the south side window and the back, even though there was no exit. He stood by the front door. More men had guns drawn, waiting for instructions.

"You, go fetch the mortician from jail. His name is Ingram. I want to know if he's in on hiding the mayor," Vasil told a blond henchman then turned to another."And you, go over to General merchandise and buy enough oil to burn the Parlour down if need be," he told a stockily built man."And you," he said to another, "go fetch that painted lady Lucille. Bring her to me," he directed the last man.

"If the mayor got away, I'll pass Lucille around to the boys, then burn down the Parlour for my troubles," Vasil promised himself as he loaded his gun, preparing to go inside the building.

He looked through the side window of the Funeral Parlour but a bloody smear on the glass hampered viewing. Frustrated, he kicked open the unlocked front door. A stench of death stopped him in his tracks.

"Good God!" Vasil said, holding his nose.

"Did she kill her fool self?" said a ponytailed man following behind Vasil. He covered his mouth and nose with a hand but kept his gun out. As they walked the smell of death became stronger, causing ponytail man to vomit. The only light inside came from the door kicked open. A buzzing sound like a thousand flies was heard but Vasil couldn't locate the source. Ponytail put his gun away and wiped spittle from his mouth as he swiped at flies swarming the room. They continued looking around.

As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they saw a row of chairs on the left and right side of the Funeral Parlour. Sitting in the chairs were several rotting corpses in various stages of decomposition, held together by deteriorating clothes. In the center of the floor was an octagon drawn in blood. Human skeletal bones connected two points like the hands of a clock. Flower arrangements made of intestines hung on a closed casket that sat on a wooden table in front of the circle.

"Dead coloreds . . . having service? Who's leading it?" Vasil stammered. Then he heard the coffin unlock. The top half of the specially built casket creaked and squeaked unused hinges as it opened. The contents were fully visible even in the dim light. Vasil and ponytail saw a body wearing a gray dixie hat, gold frames, and white blouse. It slowly sat up.

"She come alive!" yelled ponytail as both men fired at the body, fear causing them to miss the mark. Bullets bounced off the steel-reinforced casket hitting chairs, corpses, and the Parlour walls. The men backed out of the building still firing. The flash of gunfire illuminated the room enough to see the body lay back down.

"Burn it!" Vasil hollered at the men standing guard. "Burn it down! If anything comes out... shoot it!" he ordered as the men threw oil around the building, through the front door, and set it on fire.

Lucille and Ingram, tied to a pole, gasped at the burning Parlour. Vasil cut the two loose and helped Lucille to her feet as townspeople came out from their homes to put out the fire. Vasil's men prevented them from starting a bucket brigade, so all just stood by and watched it burn.

"Is the mayor in there, Vasil?" asked Lucille, terrified as the Parlour burned.

"She is," he answered. He thought about those gold frames and the body laying back down in the casket. A sight he would never forget. "She's in there with four corpses, having some kinda . . . something."

"Oh, God!" Lucille cried out, hugging Ingram tightly as flames engulfed the whole building, turning the beginning of dusk into a bright orange night.

"God had nothing to do with what I saw in there," Vasil remarked. "And . . . I'm a man of my word. I'll go over to General and fetch the bounty I promised," he told Lucille, still looking at the burning Parlour.

"Won't be anything left when that fire is out," Ingram rambled as the heat and flying ash pushed everyone back.

* * *

A horse and buggy rode away from Bleakville. Looking back briefly, she saw an amber light of something ablaze. Edith, wearing dirty denim overalls and an old blue cotton shirt carried food, water, and a gun in a wood chest in the back of the buggy.

"Judging by the fire, I'd say all went well . . . or to hell," she said to herself.

"I'll have to give thanks to widow Thorton one day. She knew Vasil was a superstitious fool and would be scared of the bodies we set up in the Funeral Parlour. When I get further away I'll stop and say a prayer for the bodies I had dug up to make Vasil and his Jersey men think I was coming to life, leading the dead. One day I'll thank Arnett too. That blacksmith fixed the casket with springs making Lester's body in my clothes and glasses stir up and down. Bless that man and Lucille with her ladies keeping the men off-kilter. Everyone will think Lucille turned against me but she played a part in the plan too.

"I have to make it to Gold Rose County. Then take a train using the widow's name out to another state. I will start a fund to build another town with my cut of the bounty Lucille will send to me. I will not fail this time. There will be justice for every color man and woman in my new town . . . or there will be justice for none."

Edith continued on the dirt trail using the clear moonlit sky to guide her, thinking only about the 4-day journey to Gold Rose County.

"Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions."
~ T.S. Eliot

The End

Darnell Cureton was born and raised in New Jersey, the Garden State. He is currently working in IT support connecting users to devices in a corporate environment. In his spare time, he enjoys writing flash fiction and provides writing encouragement to authors on his blog Fictionista. His writing diary and latest work can be found at DarnellCureton.Com.

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Mexican Standoff
by J. D. Ray

Pecker heard a noise behind him and turned swiftly, bringing his Henry to bear. He was fairly certain he'd racked a cartridge in the chamber earlier, and without looking let his thumb drift to suss out whether the hammer was back. The edge of a torn callus caught on the corner of the cold iron, and Pecker resisted the urge to react. He ended up gritting his teeth and narrowing his eyes some, which he hoped made him look tough and ready, and not like some tenderfoot who'd just got stuck with a thorn in the chaparral. The hammer was in fact back, though that didn't relax him none, given that he was staring at a vaquero who had brought his six gun to bear in Pecker's direction, not a dozen feet away.

Pecker had found himself opposing the business end of a six gun more than once, and always marveled at how big the hole in its end looked from that position. Rifles, the business end of which he was also familiar with, looked less imposing, even in the same caliber. As he stared at the end of the Mexican's hog leg, he felt that familiar and unwanted falling sensation in his gut and forcibly drew his attention to the face of the man instead.

That face, Pecker noted, was clean-shaven. The man's skin tone was lighter than most residing in the north reaches of Mexico, and his features were more slight. The eyes staring back from beneath a broad-brimmed hat were curious, steady, and didn't show the slightest bit of fear. Those eyes were also bright blue, putting finality to Pecker's conclusion that his opponent was high-born, by blood at least, if not by station.

Pecker adjusted his grip on the Henry slightly, more to assure himself that he hadn't become lax during his moments of musing. "We seem to have found ourselves in a situation," he said. He squinted one eye slightly to indicate his study of their standoff.

"Indeed we do," said the man in clear, though accented English. Pecker understood enough Mexican to hold simple conversations, mostly about food, sex, and working cattle, a list of subjects that took up most of Pecker's world. He could have come up with enough words to distract the average peasant sufficient to gain the upper hand and shoot without getting shot himself. This Mexican, however, was not that sort of man, and Pecker found himself re-calculating his odds of getting home.

"What're you thinkin'?" asked Pecker. He liked the direct approach to most things. It took less effort in deciding options.

"I am thinking," said the man, "that if I shoot you, you will get a shot off before dying and likely kill me as well. Your people will hear the shots and come to see what has happened, as will mine. Seeing the two of us dead, they will start shooting at each other. Anyone who survives will return home to gather more men, and there will be more shooting. Eventually soldiers will be involved, and a war will start. Many will die."

Pecker allowed as how the man had done a fair bit of thinking in the short period of time they'd been pointing guns at one another. More for sure than Pecker had done himself. "You got any other ideas?" he asked.

"Perhaps," the man said, which Pecker knew to mean maybe. He tipped his head slightly to indicate interest and reaffirmed his grip on the Henry. This was a lot of talking for a gunfight. "Can you tell me why you and your men are stealing our cattle?"

"We ain't got none on our own spread, on acount of a bunch of you Mexicans come up and stole 'em." Pecker was pleased to have a ready answer to the question at hand.

This appeared to bring the man up short. He cocked his head slightly and pressed his lips together, then pooched them out some like he was going to kiss a whore, then drew them back and pressed them together again. Pecker didn't know what to think about this level of animation.

During the silence, he thought about introducing himself, perhaps as a way to soften the situation some. But he wasn't sure he wanted to explain how he'd come by his nickname, which he'd had so long he hardly remembered what his mama had called him. Secretly he hated the name, because of its obvious association with his private parts. It got the ladies interested, sure, but then there was disappointment when they discovered that he weren't nothing special, 'least not in that way. He'd come by the name partly for the size and shape of his nose, and partly for a habit, since broken, of bobbing his head when he walked. Folks said it made him look like a cockerel scratching for gravel in the yard.

Finally the Mexican spoke. "So you think everyone in Mexico is a cattle thief that you can steal from because they stole from you?" The man sounded genuinely curious, not indignant at all. If he was calling Pecker stupid, he hid it well in the even tone of his words.

Pecker thought a moment before answering, an uncommon thing for him to do that belied the gravity of the situation. "I don't suppose e'ryone down there is a cattle thief, no. But outside of a couple a' ladies an' a cook we had once, e'ry Mexican I e'er met was shifty in one manner or 'nother."

"I see," said the man, and then stopped talking. Pecker didn't know how to respond, so stood there staring. He noted that, during the whole exchange, the man's gun hadn't moved an inch. Pecker flexed his fingers, which were gripping the Henry too tight for comfort. He'd never had to point a rifle in one direction this long before.

In desperation to fill the silence, Pecker blurted out, "We stole some cattle once from some Mexicans that had our neighbor's brand on them, and had been stole the year prior." In the echoes of his hurried statement, Pecker heard the confession of a regular cattle rustler and wished he'd said things different. Regret was another thing uncommon for him.

"I suppose," said the man after an intolerable long time, "that I could be generous and send you home with a few heifers and a bull calf with which to re-start your herd. We could spare a few cattle more than we could spare men."

Pecker paused for a moment himself, partly to think, but partly to show that he was thinking, so's to let the Mexican know he weren't no pup too stupid to do more'n chase sticks. "But that don't exactly make a herd," he said. "An' we'd have to kill one to get through the winter, cuttin' into the number of calves in the spring. And a bull calf ain't gonna be ready to do his thing until next winter, meanin' we won't have new calves until the following spring. Do y'see my struggle?" Pecker wasn't confident in his knowledge of the world, but he did know ranching, particularly cattle. He felt good about being able to make his case to this man who asked more questions than he should.

The man nodded, as if understanding. "I see. Well, that does present a problem." He paused again, then said, "Perhaps we could—"

Pecker shot him, having figured that to be the most direct way to resolve the issue, and having arrived at the limits of his tolerance and boredom. Well, maybe "figured" was a strong term. Thing was, Pecker wasn't much for problem solving, which earned him whacks in all three years of his schooling. And it's not like he planned to shoot the man, but he didn't know what else to do. The Mexican kept talking, like doing that would somehow resolve the situation. Talking just led to more talking, and Pecker didn't care for any of it. Pecker didn't solve all his problems with shooting, but a far sight more than he did by talking for sure.

A shocked look appeared on the man's previously placid face, then a grimace. Before Pecker could move, the man squeezed off a shot of his own. Pecker felt something hit him in the chest like a boulder as he registered the cloud of smoke that rushed out of the gun pointed in his direction. He lost his breath and fell to the ground—watched the man who'd shot him fall at the same time. Pecker laid on the ground with darkness closing about him. As it did, he heard voices grow louder, some in English, others in Mexican. The last thing he heard was gunfire, shot after shot as the two groups killed each other. Turned out, Pecker thought his last thought, that dern Mexican had been right.

The End

J.D. Ray lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes fiction in what little spare time he's allowed by the rest of life. His typical genres, if he's produced enough to have a type, are contemporary fiction and sci-fi. Part of his job is technical writing, and he finds writing fiction to be a less-structured outlet for his creativity.

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Requiem for a Working Man
by Dick Derham

The yellow summer sunshine's warmth spreading across his hard-muscled back brought a rush of energy as Griff Brady stripped off his faded flannel shirt. He draped the shirt over the top rail of the corral next to his gun belt and, bracing two hands on the top rail of the corral, he lithely swung his legs up and over. A big man, near six feet without his riding boots, two months' work swinging the axe and digging with the spade had sculpted Brady's muscles, and now a man could be forgiven for thinking that ranching was his regular job. His strong blue eyes met and could transfix a man's attention when needed. The firm set to his jaw declared his confidence in himself and his powers, an impression only partly softened by the jet-black beard, customarily trimmed neatly to the style made popular by old President Garfield, but scuzzy now that he had kept close to his cabin since his last visit to his favorite Laramie barber before his spring trip north.

Brady's near thirty years of living, his knowledge of the West and its ways, his experience, earned him respect from the men he worked with. No, he corrected himself, it wasn't just that he had been on the team the longest; it was something deeper: the aura of competence that fit him like the soft well-worn shirt he had just removed. His job performance demonstrated to all the superior quality of his workmanship. Even in a competitive business, younger men sought assignments with him, to learn the trade from him, to bask in the warmth of his approval, and he'd been unsparing of his time, teaching, training, helping each of the youngsters grew in their shared profession. In return, they looked to him as the model of what they might aspire to become themselves. In short, everything Westerners meant by the word "man."

In the corral he admired the effects of his recent labors. His idleness, unwelcome at first, had been spent to good effect. Now, a steady flow from the creek at the edge of his holding followed the ditch his muscles had sunk into the earth and filled the two water troughs embedded in the ground, one inside the corral for his horse, the other outside—upstream of course—for his own convenience. The outflow then spread downslope where it irrigated the bunch grass now growing vigorously despite the heat of summer.

Brady crossed the small corral to the barn and swung back the weather-beaten door. Inside, as his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, he moved slowly past the stored ranching equipment, the hoes and spades, the pitchfork, the tongs, the Rafter B iron for the branding fire, to his destination, the stall in the rear where "Rusty," his roan mare, snorted a morning welcome.

He led Rusty into the sunshine and let her muzzle into the water trough to drink her fill, then he worked the wire brush over the mare's coat, removing the tangles, grooming her, letting her stand proud as an animal worth the tending of her owner. Finally, he forked some hay into the manger so she could feed, then turned aside to appraise his land.

His cattle, just a small herd of fifty or so, enough to give him the name of rancher but not too much to distract him from his work, grazed down in the creek bed where the July grass was still green and juicy. The cabin, corral and outbuildings sat on higher ground, above the drifts of a High Plains winter snow but still nestled under the western ridge and the grove of ponderosa pine that broke the afternoon heat.

He had cleared out the brush that accumulated around the cabin during the two years of neglect since he moved in; he had spaded out the weeds on the south slope so nurturing grass would have no competition, and cleared a small fenced off area for the pretense of a vegetable garden. A lot of work, but looking at it now, a man could take pride in his own industry.

As he surveyed his property, new jobs came to his attention, things he had ignored. He ran his hand along the rough planking of the barn where paint was starting to flake off—several days of work there to repaint before the fall rains came. The cabin roof needed to be checked for leaks. Some of the fence posts down by the creek showed signs of rot. He laughed at himself. Thinking like a rancher, you are. For some reason, that brought a satisfied smile to his lips.

With all the work of the spring and summer, his claim now resembled the spread of a small but hard-working rancher were he to be visited by the sodbuster from a mile over the ridge. Nothing even would trouble the hostile scrutiny of any inquisitive deputy who might take it in his mind to wander by uninvited.

Perhaps like the horseman Brady now heard clumping through the gravel on the other side of the house? For a solitary man, caution always predominated. Brady swung back over the rail, landing within easy reach of his gun rig, draped seemingly casually, but with butt out, of course, and looked across the yard expectantly. Momentarily, a horse came around the corner of the cabin, on its back a certain stocky rider wearing a grin as wide as the handlebars of his blonde mustache and clad as every horseman across the West dressed: blue denim trousers stuffed into scuffed brown riding boots, maroon flannel shirt tucked into a serviceable leather gun belt, yellow calf-skin vest with the ever-present Bull Durham tag dangling from a pocket and blue plaid bandanna, topped off by a tan sweat-stained Stetson hat: a man who would pass without notice anywhere in cattle country.

"Dix!" Brady gave a hearty welcome to Dix Drucker, a reliable man to work with, an enjoyable man to drink with, a man he could chin with without needing to pick his words carefully. "Long way from the bright lights and hot women."

"How do, G-man," the newcomer said. "Range customs say, it 'd be good manners to ask a pard to stand down."

Brady knew better than to let his friend take charge. He grinned the challenge. "First, I got to know. You come to use up the whiskey supply of a lonesome cowman? Or you bring your own?"

Drucker's laugh was always infectious. "Know better than to count on you being supplied after all the time you been lollygagging on your summer vacation. Got me a bottle in my saddlebags."

"Stand down then." Brady strode across the twenty feet of hard-packed dirt yard separating them, his hand outstretched. Their clasp was solid and comforting. He hadn't realized how lonely a man could become in two months.

"Mr. Morford wanted someone to swing by to see you was spending a contented summer and I made sure I was Johnny-on-the-spot," Drucker said.

"What took you so long?" Brady asked. "Let's get out of the sun and do justice to that bottle you brought."

Inside, Brady quickly toweled off the sweat and fetched two glasses from a sideboard a prior occupant had nailed to the wall. Once the men were seated at the cabin's central plank table, Drucker uncorked the whiskey bottle, poured a generous four inches in each glass and raised his own in toast. "To the Lone Star State," he proposed.

"And them that was bred there," Brady replied.

The gossip from town was what Brady thirsted to hear. "The usual," Drucker replied. "Crenshaw's off to Idaho for a couple of weeks, so I had to do my drinking with Hensley, you being standoffish from us working men."

"How about that new kid, Lonny something?"

"Peters." Drucker made a sour face. "Green. Sometimes I wonder does he know the working end of his tool."

"Iowa hoe man." Brady said. "It's a wonder he even knows how to fork a saddle horse, but you'll break him in right."

"Morford should pay me double," Drucker groused. "You and me were never that green."

"Me? I never was, for sure," Brady agreed. "But I seem to remember a trip to The Dakotas—"

"I was testing you," Drucker interrupted. "Seeing if you was worth partnering with."

Drucker's boisterous banter always brought a grin to Brady's face. "We always made a good pair. You riding along with me to Crazy Woman Creek last spring would have turned the errand into a good romp."

The two men talked, the soft Texas Hill Country edges to their voices forming the bond that united them against the flat "twangers" of High Plains natives. Each had eaten trail dust behind someone else's herd, had nothing they cared to go back to, and, in the still-half-empty cattle country that was Wyoming Territory, each found his life's calling.

"Made a man out of me, those eighteen months in the territorial can at Laramie," Brady told Drucker. They knew each other's stories almost as well as their own, but a summer afternoon, and whiskey conviviality made it natural for Brady to reminisce. "Montana wasn't a bad place for a Texas boy not yet needing to dull his razor every day," he said. "All was fine until the year of the Big Die-Off when winter kill was so harsh the lucky brands found no more than half their herds feeding the crows come spring thaw. With so many hands paid their time and turned loose there was no jobs a man could write home about. Some of the boys I knew went in for stopping stage coaches for a living, but I liked the cattle business. So, I rode south with my lariat and started swinging my wide loop stealing syndicate beef."

"Not stealing, you weren't," Drucker insisted. "Just taking back money the Eastern carpetbaggers stole from us Texas boys after their invasion."

"Easy work. With all the cattle they had, wouldn't have thought they'd have noticed," Brady remembered. "But the Cheyenne Club cabal didn't have the Christian spirit of sharing, and set a range dick loose on me and some other free-thinking boys. One day, whilst I was just minding my business, their pet poodle bloodhounded me into my favorite Casper butcher with three freshly re-branded VX steers."

"Wolcott's brand," Drucker said.

"Seemed as good as any," Brady replied. "I didn't pay no favorites. I used my running iron on VX, TA, whatever stock I could get my loop around. But that day I found myself in the local hoosegow and soon as they could sober up some sleepy judge, I had bracelets on my wrists and leg irons on my ankles and I was bouncing on the bench of a prison wagon on my way to the lock-up at Laramie. Sitting on my bunk and staring at steel gray walls. I got me plenty of time to think through the errors of my ways. I come out determined to live my life so as never to go back."

"Become a regular Sunday-go-to-meeting 'thou shalt not steal' type, did you?" Drucker let his skepticism show.

"'Thou shalt not get caught,' that's the only Commandment I needed," Brady said. "Sitting by my lonesome, I thought of ways I could work cattle smarter and keep myself ahead of whoever they sent after me. So, when they clanked the steel door shut behind me, I figured them ranchers owed me a lot of back pay."

"Didn't work out that way," Drucker said.

"First night out," Brady continued, "I was bellied up to the bar at the Ten Gallon Saloon drowning my whiskey thirst, when this pushy older jasper shouldered in next to me like he bossed the whole town. Before I could stop him, he snatched the glass of rotgut I was working on right out of my hands and shoved it across the bar. 'Toss it out,' he ordered the barkeep. 'This man and me are drinking Double Anchor.'"

"Good whiskey," Drucker said. "Linc Hammond?"

"Just a townie for all I knew, dressed like some ribbon clerk, not even wearing gun leather that night," Brady said. "But listening to his silver clinking on the bar made him my best friend in all Wyoming. Didn't have much to say, he didn't, nor me neither. But it don't take much to size a fellow up. By the third night, he started talking business. Told me one of the screws in the lock-up passed the word that I was too good for the cattle business, tough, disciplined, that's what he said. When Hammond told me where I could get good paying work and still spend most of my nights in a warm bed. I listened close and four years now I've been working for Mr. Morford."

Brady knew Drucker's story too, but it was polite to listen how Stephen J. Drucker, if his birth name mattered, trailed a delivery herd north to get fat on Major Wolcott's rich Wyoming grass, and having no desire to go back to his family's dirt-scratching hovel, made his own way—never crossing the law, not that Sheriff could find proof of, nor Wells, Fargo neither. While Drucker was talking, Brady remembered back to the night he'd been waiting his turn to be serviced at his favorite cat house, and something about the next man in line hearkened him back to his salad days in old Dixie. Before long they were swapping good-natured lies in their soft Hill Country drawl. Not long after, Brady led his Lone Star compatriot on a routine run over to The Dakotas for Drucker's probationary trip.

"Mr. Morford's been a good man to work for," Brady said when Drucker finished his story. "Respects his men, took me from nothing, Dix, gave me the chance to prove what I could do, let me grow my skills, become a man who earns his keep."

"And he pays us good money for our fun," Drucker added. "You became his top hand."

"Sure beats rasslin' a six-hundred-pound steer that don't hanker to end up in someone's skillet."

Drucker raised his glass thoughtfully and looked around the cabin. "Ain't this where Hammond squatted back when he was working with us?"

"Before he started making eyes at that filly in the Third Street Diner," Brady replied.

"Old man like him," Drucker scoffed, "him being near forty, he should have known better. No room for a filly here."

"Guess he knew that," Brady said. "He started buying my whiskey again, picking up the gleanings of what I remembered from my riding days in Montana, about the ranching around Billings and Great Falls, places where a man might find good paying work. But when he asked straight out, I told him the best place for a working man to light himself down is the Missouri Breaks, it being just a spit and a holler to the Canadian border."

"Fellow wouldn't be worth much to Mr. Morford way up there," Drucker reflected. "Guess he learned what it's like." Drucker looked over at Brady with casual interest. "How'd he go?"

It was a natural question. Since language was invented, men have enjoyed sharing stories about their work, swapping yarns, discussing techniques, comparing thoughts about the latest equipment, always learning, always getting better. A man learns his craft by experience. But a true professional also listens to the experience of others and Brady was the best teacher Drucker knew. If the storytelling sometimes sounded like bragging, each knew he would get his turn.

Brady took another swallow of whiskey and settled back to tell his tale. "Got an early start from town that morning," he remembered. "Bellied down up on the ridge before his chimney started smoking with his breakfast cook fire. After he did his business in the outhouse, he went into the barn. When he come out, I was standing in the middle of the corral, my iron fisted and at full cock. I spoiled his shirt with two quick bucks of my wrist and watched him bounce off the corral fence and go down." Brady grinned across the table. "You'll be telling me I wasted a round when I stepped over and stopped the groaning."

"You always was a softy, Griff," Drucker scoffed. "He could have been fun for three hours. No one would have minded." The light-hearted chuckle was typical of a man who never took the world too seriously. "Me, I never liked the son-of-a-skunk."

The two friends continued talking through the afternoon as the level on the bottle went down, the way companions relax in each other's company: shop talk; discussion of articles Drucker had read in the latest Police Gazette; politics, whether the new statehood for Wyoming was bad for their business. "Politicians," Drucker said. "They only care what's good for them. Never think about hard-working men like us." No one could argue with that, and the talk went on. They chuckled over work they'd done together, trips to Brown's Park, to the Big Horn Country, to Medicine Bow, even all the way up to Deer Lodge, Montana to give a coming-out welcome for a convict who had paid his debt to Montana, but had other accounts needing to be settled.

"Man likes doing something important," Brady said, "throwing out the trash—rustlers, squatters, two-bit ranchers trying to hog the best water for their puny little herds, men who've earned their spot in the refuse heap."

"Targets, they all got it coming," Drucker cheerfully agreed. "Every last one of them. We always got the job done,"

"Too bad you wasn't along last spring up on Crazy Woman Creek," Brady said. "Maybe I wouldn't be cooling my gun barrel."

"Can't imagine a man like you needing my help."

"Shouldn't have. Just a typical 'one-man'er," Brady said. "Major Wolcott didn't take kindly to some squatter fencing the VX off from its usual and accustomed watering. In town, a sheriff I knew got his votes from the cattlemen told me where the fellow had his claim. The target went down smooth and I played firebug with the cabin so no new dirt-scraper would get the idea of squatting there. No problem. But when I come out of the cabin, I spotted a range rider just cresting the hogback half a mile away. Too far for me to go get him." Brady shrugged. "But too far for him to see much beyond my handsome hirsute adornment. Still, Mr. Morford told me to take some time off."

"Careless," Drucker said, more sharply than he intended. "Smarter to wait until nightfall." He quickly laughed off any offense and shrugged. "It happens. Let me tell you about what I had to haul Lonnie out of over Rawlins way." He told a tale only a charitable man could dismiss as a "newbie" mistake. "He had the wide-looper under the gun and couldn't pull the trigger. After I crooked my own finger to get the work done, Lonnie said he never seen it done before. Promised it wouldn't happen again."

"Should have dumped him in a gully on the way back."

"Like you done that time in Dakota?"

"Different. You're a Texas boy. 'Course you'd measure up."

Drucker slid his revolver out of its holster and spun the cylinder thoughtfully. "Mr. Colt's new model, 1893 double action, just out this spring," he told Brady. "Laramie gunsmiths don't got it yet. Had to go to Warren's Emporium up to Cheyenne to find me one."

He slid it across the table so Brady could take a look. "Like the balance," Brady said. "How's the trigger action?"

"Still a bit stiff and I ain't filed it down yet, so it's a shade slower than I like. And I ain't got used to its pulling to the right either."

"Every piece has its own feel," Brady agreed as he passed the weapon back.

Drucker spun the cylinder again, by habit assuring that the hammer rested on the empty chamber. "Ain't been broken in yet," he said. They both knew what he meant. He looked thoughtfully at Brady, shrugged, and slipped the Colt back into its holster.

And so, it was time.

Drucker divided what was left in the bottle with Brady. "Drink up, Griff. I got me an hour's ride to town."

* * *

Outside, the shadows had stretched from the ridge to the corral, bringing a gentle cooling breeze. Brady breathed deep of the freshness of the Ponderosa. This was the best time to be alive in Wyoming. He took a few steps into the center of the yard, watching Drucker tighten the cinch straps. "It's been a good afternoon, Dix," he told his companion as Drucker tested the saddle and, satisfied that the cinches were set, stepped to Brady, his hand outstretched for a sturdy, farewell shake.

"The boys'll be glad to hear you may be an almighty cattleman now, tending your fifty head, but you ain't forgotten where you come from."

"Never will, Dix. Mr. Morford always treats me right." The two men released their handshake and Drucker turned back toward his horse. "Tell Mr. Morford to find some work for me," Brady appealed. "Colorado, Dakota, even Utah, it don't matter where. A man needs to feel useful."

In response, Drucker paused and turned back toward Brady. "Almost forgot," he said as his hand reached up and pulled something out of his shirt pocket. "Something come in last week the boys thought would give you a big belly laugh." His eyes crinkled with amusement as he handed Brady a folded document and retreated five steps toward his horse to watch Brady's reaction.

The first thing Brady saw were the large black letters, "Wanted—$150," forming a banner across the top. "Not much of a price," he said, "but he was just a sodbuster." He unfolded the second fold and staring up at him he saw a rough artist's sketch of a face sprouting a Garfield-style beard. "They'll need more than that to run me to ground," he scoffed. "Half the men in Wyoming wear bea . . . " Brady's voice trailed off as his eyes traveled down the page. "Hell. How'd they get my name?"

Drucker was chuckling lightly, a man who always enjoyed a good joke, as his revolver made its lazy upswing. No need to rush against a gun-naked target standing in the open at comfortable kill range. Just plant one in the gut, pull out the makings, and watch the show.

But Griff Brady was no pot-bellied homesteader. Even as Drucker fired, Brady was lunging for the corral, the first shot burning through the air where he had stood a second ago. Brady's hand closed around his gun belt and he took it with him as he rolled away just before Drucker's second shot splintered the corral rail. On the ground, Brady's working hand sought the grip as he rolled. Drucker's third shot searched for him, near claimed him, as it ripped at his trouser leg.

Brady's gun was fisted now, confidence flowing from its solid heft, as his finger slid inside the trigger guard. When he suddenly came to rest on his back, Drucker's fourth shot went wide off to the right, only spraying harmless dirt on Brady's chest.

Drucker had stopped chuckling. With four beans on his wheel spent, the game had turned deadly serious. He could see his prone target starting to elevate his revolver. Drucker urgently swung his gun into line. Make your last one count, he told himself, or face a full load incoming.

Two proven professionals, acting without wasted thought, each skilled in his trade, each working his target.

In the microsecond before guns would roar, Brady saw Drucker's gun searching toward him. His own gun barrel arced up. It was close, he knew, brutally close. Brady's finger began squeezing the trigger even before the barrel came into line, knowing a belly shot would do.

Brady's gun bucked against the palm of his hand, a muzzle flashed and another too close to tell apart. Brady gasped as the impact jostled his aim and a hot, sticky liquid began flowing down his side. Not done, Brady's mind insisted, not near done. He struggled against his sudden weakness to bring his gun back into play while Drucker dropped his now-useless weapon. It took will, not muscle, for Brady to swung his arm up toward the target jogging toward him. Finally, as the numbness in his hand began to wear off, his thumb worked the hammer and only one thing was left. Squeeze, dammit, squeeze.

Brady screamed as Drucker's boot smashed down on his gun arm, snapping the bone. Fighting through his pain, Brady knew he could still stretch his good arm across his body before Drucker could bend down to seize Brady's Colt. Then, even firing wrong-handed but at point-blank range, he would down his target. With all the desperate urgency he had ever brought to any task, Brady rolled. His fingers brushed the gunmetal and were already closing around the grip when Drucker made his own move, his boot twisting viciously, grinding the broken arm bones into inexpressible, debilitating agony.

Squirming helplessly, Brady saw his own revolver as it was roughly wrenched from his limp fingers, as it arced up toward his face, as the well-blackened borehole came into line, as the muzzle flashed, and—

The End

Dick Derham, a native of Seattle, has been reading Western history and fiction since his teenage years. A member of the Wild West Historical Association, he has written over a dozen stories for Frontier Tales.

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Rise of a Gunslinger
by John Layne

The noon Texas sun sizzled and scorched the land more in August than any other time of the year. The searing heat felt especially oppressive when trudging behind an ornery old mule and a less than razor-sharp plow blade milling through sunbaked Texas soil.

John Henry Case, a stout, sturdy man of forty-seven, snapped the rein and leaned into the plow with every sore muscle in his body. Sensing the effort of the boss, the mule dipped his head and pulled hard, allowing the curved steel blade to send a tubular flow of bottomland dirt over onto itself. After pushing through a row of three hundred feet, John Henry stopped to give his mule a much-deserved rest as he wiped his sweat-soaked brow with a dirtied red bandana. Pausing to look around his five-hundred acres, John Henry noticed three riders slowly make their way down the crest that marked the western edge of his farm. Thankful for a reason to prolong his break, John Henry pulled two bright orange carrots out of his faded blue coveralls and dangled each under his equine companion's nose. After a quick sniff, the mule quickly crunched the bribes into oblivion. As the riders drew closer, John Henry recognized each man and noted both pistol and rifle at each man's side.

It looks like Allen's men are going to make me an offer I can't refuse, John Henry thought.

"Good afternoon fellas," John Henry said, removing his wide-brimmed straw hat.

"Afternoon, Mr. Case," one of the riders answered as all three pulled up on their reins and remained in their saddles.

"What can I do for you fellas on this hot afternoon?" John Henry pleasantly asked.

"Well, Mr. Case, it's not what you can do for us, but what we can do for you," the big man wearing all black with shirt sleeves rolled up as far as they'd go on his muscular arms.

"Oh? Y'all here to help me plow?" John Henry asked with a snicker, knowing full well why the men were there.

The two other riders chuckled, but the big man in black showed no expression.

"Mr. Allen sent us to make you a good deal on your land. He's instructed me to offer you ten dollars an acre. That's a lot of money for open pasture," the man stated flatly.

John Henry's smile curled down into a frown, his face darkened, and his eyes narrowed. He placed his hat back on his head and folded his arms across his chest before leaning back on his boot heels.

"Ten dollars an acre? You must be mistaken. It's 1873, land is going for twice that much and more when it's good bottomland like this. Tell Allen I'm not interested in selling," John Henry barked before turning to get back to his plow.

"Mr. Allen don't care about bottomland. He don't plan on farm'n' it," the man in black called after John Henry.

John Henry stopped and turned back to his unwanted guests, slowly nodding his head. "That's right. Word is the railroad will be passing near here, ain't it?" John Henry asked.

"Don't know nuthin' 'bout that, but I'd take Mr. Allen's offer if I were you," the man in black said, rolling his shoulders back and palming his pistol. The other two men shifted in their saddles but remained silent.

"Don't you threaten me, mister. I know you're Allen's hired guns, and if I see you back on my land, you'll be look-in down the barrel of my scattergun. Now git!" John Henry ordered the riders. A ripple of fear crept down his spine as he spoke.

The three riders spun their horses around and kicked them into a gallop, leaving clouds of dust in their wake. John Henry watched as they clambered up the crest, then disappeared. He let out a sigh of relief and wiped the sweat that had once again soaked his brow. He'd recently heard a rumor about the railroad stretching from San Antonio south to Laredo, but with the panic over money these days, he'd figured the railroad companies might stop laying track for a bit. He glanced over to the west ridge but saw nothing. He decided he'd get back to his plow and worry about the visit later. He looped the leather harness strap over his broad shoulders and snapped the reins. The mule snorted in protest as the blade sliced into the stubborn ground.

* * *

John David Case, a lean young man of seventeen with short cropped russet hair and brown eyes to match, stepped down from his buckboard and tied his horse to the tattered hitching post strategically anchored on the side of the small front porch of the Cotulla General Store. Located on the north edge of town across the street from the Cotulla Hotel, only a narrow patch of weeds separated the saloon from the store. This meant nearly every drunk inevitably staggered over and passed out on the porch the storekeeper built for his customers. John David stepped past one such drunk already sprawled face down on a bench, snoring like an angry bull, and filling the entrance with the stench of stale whiskey and sweat A bell nailed to the back of the front door announced John David's arrival.

"Well, good afternoon J.D. What can I do for you today?" Theodore Perry asked through a pleasant grin from behind the counter. A thin older man in his fifties with white hair and spectacles, Perry, looked more like a doctor than a store proprietor.

"Hello, Mr. Perry. I've got a list here from Ma," J.D. announced, removing the crumpled paper from his trouser pocket. Because he possessed the same first name as his father, everyone had grown accustomed to calling the eldest son of John Henry Case by his initials.

Perry unfolded the paper and examined the list of supplies Abigale Case had prepared for her son.

"Everything looks fine here, J.D. I believe I have everything in stock. It'll take a few minutes. You have other business in town, or you going to wait?" Perry asked.

"I'll just wait. I'll head over to the stables and see if Pa's new harness is ready after I get the supplies. Do you have any ammunition?" J.D. asked, his face lighting up with excitement.

Perry smiled. "How's that leg-iron I sold you?" He asked.

"Fine. Been shootin' so much I'm out of cartridges, though," J.D. explained.

Perry looked to the ceiling and rubbed his clean-shaven chin. "Let's see; I sold you that Colt this spring. April, I believe," Perry recalled.

"Yes, sir. Been through four boxes of cartridges since," J.D. proudly declared. "Getting rather good with it too. Got me a jackrabbit on the run about a week ago. I brought it to Ma for dinner, but she said there wasn't enough left after I hit it with that forty-four!" J.D. laughed.

Perry laughed, then paused. "I can't sell you ammunition on credit though J.D. I've lost too much money selling bullets on credit."

"No problem. I have money to pay. I'll take two boxes," J.D. said.

"Is your Ma gonna grouse at me for selling you ammunition like she did when I sold you that Colt?" Perry asked with a chuckle.

"Naw, I don't think so. She's got over me having a gun. It took a while, but Pa told her I was a man now and could spend my money as I saw fit," J.D. explained.

Perry pulled two boxes from a top shelf and placed them on the counter. "There you go—two-hundred rounds of forty-four-forty. I'll be right back with the rest of the items on your Ma's list," Perry said before disappearing into the back storeroom. Fifteen minutes later, he returned with two bulging burlap sacks.

J.D. paid for the ammunition, then gathered up the two bulky burlap sacks of supplies and headed out to his buckboard. After a quick check at the livery stable confirmed his father's harness wasn't ready, J.D. guided the buckboard down the two-track road that led to the Case farm. The three o'clock sun leaned toward the west burning his right side. The trip south, with at least two more stops to rest his horse, would take close to two hours in a loaded wagon. With plenty of daylight left, J.D. did not need to rush in this heat. Armed with new ammunition, J.D. had strapped on his gun belt and loaded his Colt Frontier with six rounds. He didn't expect trouble but riding alone with a load of supplies made him a target for any carpetbagger or Indian band along the road.

* * *

John Henry guided the plow blade along the perimeter of what would be the fall crop of corn when he caught a glimpse of J.D. bringing the buckboard around to the front of the house. He'd seen the dust cloud in the distance and hoped it was his son and not another visit from Denton Allen's henchmen. Despite his efforts to the contrary, the threat from Allen's men had banged around in John Henry's head for nearly five hours now, and he grew more anxious with each passing minute. He'd never shared a cross word with Denton Allen, but he'd only seen him a handful of times in Cotulla over the past three months. He knew Allen to be a wealthy man, having made his money in the railroad business, mainly by negotiating land deals for the railroad company up in San Antonio. An educated average size fella with a deep voice that boomed from beneath a drooping mustache, he was always togged up in fine business suits with matching hats.

John Henry didn't know the names of the men that accompanied Allen, but they were his constant companions any time Allen conducted business in or out of town. The recent financial panic caused by the rapid expansion of the railroads and the decline in demand for farm goods back east had stifled the talk of the railroad bringing prosperity to Cotulla and nearby Carrizo Springs.

Despite the early five o'clock hour, John Henry decided that was enough work for the day. He unhitched the mule and swatted the mule's back end, encouraging it to head to the stock pond for a much-needed drink. He then headed for the well near the barn to clean up before trying to enter the house. His wife had told him more than once to clean up before attempting to enter the house. At about the same time, J.D. brought the buckboard to a stop near the front door and jumped down from the bench. His stomping boots sent a cloud of dust up into the slight breeze pushing the grit toward the house where his mother let out a yell of disapproval at the front door.

"What have I told you about bringing that wagon too close to the house?" Abigale Case shouted through the screen door.

"Sorry, Ma, but these sacks are loaded up pretty heavy," J.D. attempted to defend his actions. He heard his father laugh behind him. The two men each grabbed a heavy burlap sack of supplies and made their way into the house where the aroma of freshly baked bread emanated from the kitchen. Father and son passed through the heavenly scent into the storage room next to the oven. After storing the supplies, John Henry tapped J.D. on the shoulder and pointed to the front door, indicating he wanted to speak to his son out of his mother's earshot. They remained silent while they guided the horse and buckboard to the barn where John Henry stopped his son. "I see you're wearing your gun. Any trouble on the road?" John Henry asked.

"No, Pa. Just wanted to be ready in case," J.D. explained.

John Henry nodded. "I heard the army went down to Mexico and riled up those raiding Apache. There's something else. I got a visit from Denton Allen's gunmen today. Allen wants to buy the farm for half what it's worth," John Henry reported wiping sweat from his face with his soaked bandana.

"No!" J.D. exclaimed.

John Henry gently squeezed his son's arm. "Don't worry, I told them I wasn't selling and ordered them off the land, but they gave me a warning . . . "

"What warning?" J.D. huffed, palming his Colt Frontier.

"It was nothing really, but I don't want to worry your mother with this."

"Who came here?" J.D. demanded, with a rush of anger rippling through him.

"It was those three gunmen that Allen always has around him when he's in town," John Henry reported.

J.D. nodded, looking past his father into the distance seeing everything and nothing at the same time. "I know who they are," J.D. answered.

"You know them?" John Henry asked with a hint of concern his son may be running with gunmen.

"I know of 'em, Pa. Don't need to know their names," J.D. clarified as he stood up straight and adjusted his gun belt.

"No son, no need for that. I can't worry about the farm and you all at the same time," John Henry pleaded before he began to sway back and forth. His head felt empty, and his vision failed him.

J.D. caught his father before he fell, guiding him to a stack of hay bales. Despite his normally scarlet sun-weathered face, John Henry went pale. He became short of breath. His chest heaved. He closed his eyes and tried to catch his breath, clutching J.D.'s arms with quivering hands.

"What is it, Pa? You hurt?" J.D. asked.

John Henry shook his head. He slowly began to breathe normally and opened his eyes, staring into his wide-eyed son's face. John Henry forced a smile and nodded. He didn't want his son to know of the strange feeling he had. It felt like a flock of quail were flying around inside his chest.

"Must've worked too long in the sun today," John Henry speculated. "I'll be alright after I get some supper, let's go," John Henry said.

* * *

The next morning, J.D. woke to the sounds of loud voices coming from the kitchen. His mother was crying.

"J.D.! J.D.! Come quick!" John Henry called to his son, who swung out of bed and rushed into the kitchen where he found his father covered in blood.

"What happened?" J.D. shouted, looking for wounds that would cause his father to bleed so much.

"I'm alright, son! It's the cows! Someone slaughtered all the cows! I found all four of 'em dead behind the barn!" John Henry reported in between gasps for breath.

J.D. rushed out of the house, reminded of his bare feet by the assorted rocks and thorns that punctured his skin. Undeterred, he ran around to the back of the barn and took in the horrific sight. Despite the hazy dawn light, he could see the shadowy carcasses of their four milk cows, which had been cut and sliced more times than J.D. could count. Blood splatter covered the pen's split rails, the back of the barn, and the feed trough. Even the water in the trough had turned crimson red. John Henry joined J.D. at the gruesome sight.

"This was done with a knife, Pa. No coyote or wolf did this," J.D. stated flatly. "Must have been Allen's men," he added.

"I'm afraid you're right. I never thought they'd resort to this, though," John Henry sighed in a weak voice. "I need to get back to the house son, I'm not feeling too good," he added before he turned and started walking back to the house.

J.D. remained, staring at the dead cows. His skin stung. His face and hands burned. Sweat poured out of him from head to toe. He gazed at the edge of the sun that had peeked over the horizon. They won't get away with this. I won't let them get away with this. Thoughts tumbled around in his head, crashing into each other. Pain shot through his temples. His eyes hurt from the pressure building up behind them—

"J.D!" The sound of his father's voice pierced his thoughts. He turned to see his father stumble, then fall to the ground. He raced to his father's side, kneeling before carefully turning him over. J.D. clutched his father's broad shoulders and slightly lifted him.

"I'll get you in the house then go get Doc," J.D. whispered.

"No, son. It's too late for that. This pain in my chest won't wait. Promise me you'll take care of your mother and brother," John Henry squeezed out the words as best he could in-between gasps for breath.

"You'll be alright; I'll fetch Doc and get back here quick!" J.D. blurted.

John Henry grasped J.D.'s arm. "Don't sell out to Allen," John Henry begged.

His father's body fell limp as J.D. helplessly watched his father die in his arms. J.D. closed his eyes, fought back the tears, and hugged his father. The door flung open, crashing against the wall. J.D. looked up and saw his mother and younger brother on the porch. The look of anguish on his mother's face told him she knew.

* * *

A few days later, Reverend Morrison stood at the head of the open grave and spoke words J.D. couldn't, nor wanted, to hear. He barely sensed the low weeping of his mother and young brother, who clutched each other next to the stoic Preacher. His attention fixated on the pine casket his father lay in at the bottom of a dirt hole. Thoughts of sorrow, anger, and revenge battled for victory in his mind. He felt numb, hollow inside. Two days ago, his family all sat at the table, listening to his father pray for rain before supper. Now, he didn't care if it ever rained again. His father had told him not to sell out to Denton Allen. He'd do more than that. He'd get the man and his gunmen who'd threatened his family, slaughtered their cows, and murdered his father. As far as J.D. was concerned, Allen had caused his father's death just as sure as if he'd shot him down. Revenge had won the battle. He had a mission now.

"Put an Amen to it!" J.D. shouted out before turning away from the Reverend and townsfolk, who'd come to show their respect. He didn't want to waste another minute.

"Please don't do this," his mother pleaded after they'd returned to the house. "I don't want to lose you too," she added.

J.D. strapped on his gun belt and kissed his mother on the forehead. He knelt in front of his brother. "You take care of Ma while I'm gone," he instructed his younger sibling who silently nodded.

J.D. stepped out onto the porch, where Reverend Morrison, Theodore Perry, and other friends gathered with pans of food to pay their respects. J.D.'s boyhood friend, Dusty Watson, a fellow lanky seventeen-year-old from a neighboring farm waited near J.D.'s horse.

"I'll go with ya," Dusty offered.

"No need," J.D. flatly responded.

"I heard them three bastards of Allen hightailed it over to Carrizo Springs right after your cows were killed. Ain't no doubt they did it," Watson reported.

"Nope," J.D. solemnly agreed, stepping into his stirrup, and swinging up into the saddle. His face held no expression.

"Marshal Duggan said he didn't have jurisdiction over in Carrizo Springs. Said you'd have to notify the Texas Rangers," Watson added.

"Won't need Rangers," J.D. advised before reining his horse and charging off toward Carrizo Springs.

"That boy's going to get himself killed," Reverend Morrison whispered, watching J.D. gallop down the road.

"Don't be so sure," Perry responded. "J.D.'s learned to handle that Colt damn good, and he's madder than a rabid coyote. I damn sure wouldn't want to go against him," Perry added.

"Sometimes anger clouds a man's mind," Reverend Morrison mused.

"Yes, sir, and sometimes it clears it," Theodore Perry retorted.

J.D. stared down the road, keeping his horse at a quick, steady pace. About halfway to Cotulla, he'd break off west on the two-track trail to Carrizo Springs. J.D. figured he'd need a long day, reaching Carrizo Springs around ten o'clock tonight. With any luck, he'd find Allen's gunmen in the saloon half-drunk with an inflated opinion of their skills.

After reining his horse left onto the Carrizo Springs trail, J.D. stopped at the edge of Salt Creek, where both he and his mount plunged muzzles into the cold water. Fed by abundant springs buried deep beneath the Texas surface, Salt Creek stretched west from Cotulla, well past Carrizo Springs, where it flowed into the Nueces River. J.D. filled his canteen, then chose to walk a bit, which his horse responded to with a long nicker of approval. He loosened the cinch and looped the reins over the horse's neck, knowing he'd not need to chase after his partner.

Thirty minutes later, J.D. secured his saddle, then poked a dirty boot toe into the stirrup and slid onto the saddle. The oppressive heat had beat down on the leather, making it feel like J.D. was sitting on top of a campfire. He stood in the stirrups for a moment, then settled back against the cantle and pushed onward.

* * *

Thirty miles away, the Carrizo Cantina bustled with activity. Smoke filled the air of the tiny tavern, mingling with the smell of stale beer and cheap whiskey. Two large, round, and worn hickory tables hosted boisterous poker games with five cowboys throwing cattle drive earnings onto the center of the tabletop. The Carrizo Cantina hadn't reached the level of piano entertainment yet, so a local old-timer picked away at an out-of-tune banjo near the front doors. The twangs were more noise than music, but the locals didn't seem to mind the distraction. At one poker table, three strangers wearing pistols and copiousness trail dust split their attention between their cards and the old-timer, mumbling displeasure with the pings of the banjo.

"Can't we play cards in peace around here?" One of the strangers shouted to the bartender, who peered back without a word. "Can't think with all that racket!" The stranger added.

"You don't think anyway!" another of the three strangers shouted to the delighted laughter of the other cowboys at the table.

"Oh, no! Three aces!" the first stranger barked, laying down his cards before swiping the pile of money from the center of the table.

"Shut up and deal! And you buy the next bottle!" another outsider grunted, throwing down his pair of fives.

The bartender, a short, thin fellow with a drooping black mustache too big for his face, snatched a bottle of whiskey, then strolled over to the table and set it down next to the stranger. After taking two bits, the bartender returned to his perch behind the battered bar top.

Daylight turned to darkness, and the three armed strangers remained at their table, exchanging money with two new players—the cantina filled with both locals and others passing through on their way to nowhere. The noise had increased with the level of intoxication, despite the old-timer stowing his monotonous banjo and joining in on draining a beer barrel. The lackluster scene erupted into a ruckus at the strangers' table.

"Hell, you do!" shouted the tall stranger in the tan vest who had grumbled earlier about the banjo. He jumped to his feet and drew his pistol in one motion. One of the new gamblers froze with both hands on the table, his cards lying face up in-between.

"Just how the hell can you have three kings when I have two!" the stranger roared.

The cantina went silent. The faint sounds of men rustling in their chairs drifted through the room.

"Now I ain't cheat'n'. That means you are! Now stand up!" the stranger in the tan vest ordered the stoic gambler across the table.

The cowboy slowly began to stand. Halfway up, he jerked his right hand, sliding a derringer to his palm. Crack! The stranger's hammer dropped on his Colt, sending a slug into the gamblers' chest, knocking him backward over his chair onto the floor. A gray stream of smoke snaked its way up from the stranger's gun barrel to the edge of his hat, where it broke into pieces. The stranger quickly looked around the silent room.

"He went for a gun first," the stranger stated, pointing the barrel of his Colt toward the derringer lying next to the dead gambler.

The cantina doors swung open, and a man with a badge pinned to his shirt stepped in, gun in hand. He noted the gambler and derringer on the floor and the stranger still holding his Colt.

"Holster that leg-iron mister," the Carrizo town Marshal ordered, to which the stranger obliged.

"What happened here?" The Marshal asked the pint-size bartender.

"That dead fella got caught cheating. This stranger here drew on him, but the dead fella had a derringer up his sleeve. Looked like self-defense marshal," the bartender reported. Several of the men in the cantina nodded in agreement with the bartender's report.

"Anybody knows 'em?" the Marshal asked aloud, looking around the smokey saloon.

"Yes, sir. He was with me. We're part of the cattle drive camped outside of town," the other gambler at the strangers' table answered.

"Okay. Both of you follow me over to the office," the Marshal ordered the stranger and the cattle drive gambler before retrieving the derringer. "Get him over to the undertaker," the Marshal instructed the bartender who nodded.

The Marshal stepped down from the cantina's porch and walked past a young man who was tethering his horse to the hitching post. Not paying attention to the young man, the Marshal continued across the street to his office. The young man looked up and watched three men push through the swinging doors and step onto the street. The young man stepped back and squared his shoulders to the trio. In the glow of the oil lamps strung across the cantina's façade, he recognized Denton Allen's gunmen.

"You three!" the young man shouted at Allen's men, who stopped in unison and turned toward the would-be gunslinger.

The three gunmen spread out and faced the young gunslinger. "Who the hell are you?" One of the three gunmen asked from the shadows.

"Names J.D. Case. You three delivered a message to my father, John Henry Case, a couple of days ago, then slaughtered our cows. Now he's dead because of you and your boss Denton Allen," J.D. announced.

The three gunmen shifted their weight and quickly looked over at the Marshal who'd stopped halfway across the street.

"That true?" the Marshal asked the three gunmen while walking toward J.D.

"It's true we work for Mr. Allen, but we got nothin' to do with his old man dying," one of the gunmen said.

"You killed him all right, when you butchered our cows," J.D. grunted through nervous gritted teeth.

"Now son, this isn't the way to handle this," the Marshal stated. "Let's—"

Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack!

Before the Marshal could finish, the three gunmen drew, one getting off a wild shot. J.D. was too fast, drawing and firing three times, hitting each gunman with the thump of a fatal bullet. Before the Marshal cleared leather, the gunfight was over. The three gunmen lay dead. The Marshal stepped toward J.D., who flipped his Colt around and offered the pistol, stock-first to the Marshal.

"That won't be necessary, son. Go ahead and holster it," the Marshal ordered. "I saw them three draw first," he added.

Men rushed out of the cantina and crowded around the dead men, J.D., and the Marshal. Questions of what happened banged around the crowd like a canyon echo.

"Seems these three were Denton Allen's hired guns. This young fella says there're responsible for the death of his father and stock. I've heard about Allen and his henchmen forcing farmers near Cotulla to sell their land because of the railroad coming," the Marshal explained.

"He take all three himself?" a man asked the Marshal.

"Yep. Before I could draw my gun," the Marshal answered.

Shouts of who is he? rang through the crowd.

"I believe you said the name's J.D. Case?" the Marshal asked.

"Yes, sir," J.D. answered, his voice dithering.

"Well, J.D. Case. You best come with me over to the office so I can get all this down on paper," the Marshal said among queries of "who the hell is J.D. Case?" cascading from the crowd of onlookers.

The Marshal pointed to a rickety ladder back chair opposite his desk and instructed J.D. to sit. The Marshal took a seat behind his desk, then withdrew paper from the middle drawer and pushed it across to J.D.

"Can you write?" the Marshal asked.

"Yes sir," J.D. confirmed, reaching for the paper with trembling hands.

"You alright son?" the Marshal asked the young gunfighter.

"I'll be alright. Just never killed a man before, and now . . . "

"Write down what happened out there and include the business about your father. Take all the time you need. You said those three were responsible for your father's death?" the Marshal asked.

"Yes sir," J.D. answered.

"How'd your father die?" the Marshal asked, rubbing the whiskers on his chin. "One of them said they didn't know anything about your father dying," the Marshal stated.

"Doc said my father's heart failed. He died a day after those three tried to force him to sell our farm. Then after my father refused, he found our cows butchered in their pen the next morning. I reckon the worry was too much for my father," J.D. explained.

"You have any other kin?" the Marshal asked.

"Yes sir. My mother and twelve-year-old brother," J. D. said.

"And just how old are you?" the Marshal asked.

"I'm seventeen," J. D. admitted, then put his head down and began writing, tired of answering questions.

J.D. finished writing and stood to leave. The Marshal looked over the statement and nodded. "You heading back home now son?" the Marshal asked.

"Nope. Not finished yet," J.D. replied.

"Not finished?" the Marshal asked.

"I believe Denton Allen is up in San Antonio. I'll be head'n there," J.D. admitted.

"Now you watch yourself son. You can't just go on some wild vengeance ride you know," the Marshal advised.

"No?" J.D. asked as he walked out of the Marshal's office toward the crowd that had remained milling around in the front of the saloon.

The Marshal watched J. D. slowly walk through the crowd and step up onto his horse, then rein it around and gallop off into the night.

Seventeen, the Marshal thought, shaking his head.

The End

Articles and stories by John Layne have been widely published across multiple media platforms. His debut novel Gunslingers, published by Newman Springs Publishing was released in 2019 and its sequel Red River Reunion, published by Labrador Publishing in 2020. John lives in North Texas and is an avid sports fan and horse enthusiast. You can visit John at johnlaynefiction.com or labradorpublishing.com.

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Slowly Becoming Sioux
by Gary Ives

Post War United States 1870

They got off the train in St. Joe unsure whether they had been followed. Back at the Chicago meat packing house the cutting floor boss had discovered Krebs stashing a stolen hind quarter wrapped in burlap under the loading dock, and the bastard had gone for a constable. Krebs had quickly shucked his apron, gathered his knives, and had just grabbed the hind quarter from under the dock when he saw the floor boss running toward the loading dock with a constable. A whistle sounded as soon as they spotted him; they immediately gave chase. The copper slipped in offal on the loading docks, allowing Krebs a 20 yards lead. Hearing the shot, he cringed against the brick wall of this blind alley separating the slaughterhouse and the cutting floor. There was no way out. A second after the constable around the corner with his pistol in hand, Krebs smashed the flat side of his cleaver hard into the man's face and down he went. Krebs gave him a kick to his head and the man's lights went out. He picked up the dropped revolver and wrapped hind quarter and ran.

On his father's pig farm Caleb Krebs had led a solitary, lonely, lean life under a cruel, drunken father, his mother having escaped by way of consumption early in his life. Not long after the start of the war he was moved by a military parade in town. Smart blue military uniforms with gay stripes and brass buttons passing in step to the captivating beat of the snare drums and snapping flags. The next week the 18-year-old without a word to his father signed up. It would be a three years mèlange of boredom, raucous comradery, and horror. He served as a rifleman, company butcher and surgeon's assistant. He had assisted in the amputation of countless hands, arms, feet and legs. He had dressed beef critters, horses, goats, hogs, sheep, and fowl. He had killed men in battle. He had also learnt the occasional pleasures of an evening with whiskey and women. After a life of thankless hard work from sun-up to sundown on a farm where the odor of pig shit permeated everything, where nothing but the weather ever changed. War and the army imbued a sense of escape, albeit dampened by fear . He appreciated the depth of fellowship that united men at combat and the flavor of the mix of Chicago city boys and farm boys like himself, and the Irishmen and Dutchmen in his company, good men, scoundrels, weak, strong, smart and stupid, but men willing to die for one another even more than for The Union and Old Glory. Those nearly four years seasoned him. The Army had given him the feeling of a clump of salt that had finally loosened and could at last flow freely from the shaker. The war had instilled in him a recklessness. On foraging parties, he had learned how easy it is to take food or goods with a pistol from someone. He knew with profound certainty that he was never going back to farming.. He would rob and steal before he ever allowed himself to be yoked to any damned farm.

The affray with the law made returning to his boarding house too risky. He needed to get far away from Chicago fast. Within an hour he was in Molly's tiny room at Miss Spooner's explaining why they'd have to flee while she packed. He prayed that he hadn't killed the copper. Were he dead Krebs knew that within a day or two circulars would be posted to every train depot and police agency within 500 miles. He explained to Molly how they must quickly outdistance the telegraph wires and trains that could outrun them. With scissors and a razor, he quickly shaved his beard while instructing Molly. "We'll walk to the station and board the first train leaving, wherever it's headed." Molly finished packing the grip with the metal box holding the $52 they'd saved hoping for enough to strike out to the western plains. That hind quarter was the last payment to Miss Spooner and despite the confused emergency Molly was now free and his. Near the station he paid a gaunt, begging, one-legged veteran a dollar for his Union kepi which he wore low over his forehead to hide part of his face.. God knows that these days there were plenty of destitute wounded like this sorry veteran.

On the train he fretted bringing Molly. This had been a spur of the moment decision. She would present a real hindrance if the law began looking for a couple. But she was one good gal, and how he had grown to care for her. She was a loyal darlin' devoted and hadn't she clung to Krebs. At first meeting her in the sporting house she had presented a sorry sight. Had Miss Spooner taken this one out of pity? He felt sympathy for her. Skinny, frail and so new to the game she lacked any basic whorehouse skills. But he considered it a risk worthwhile because she was his, dammit, she now belonged to him. They did not leave the train until St. Joseph, sure by then that they had not been followed.

Molly, an orphan servant girl, had at16 had been pushed into marrying Jethro Mayfield, the Mayfield household's youngest son. His parents reckoning that their effeminate son would never be able to or even want to find a wife. The boy was an embarrassment to his father who had political aspirations. The way the weak sister of a boy sashayed rather than walk like a man, how he let his hands droop at the wrists, how he often bit his lower lip and that lilting effeminate speech. Frail and melancholy, and given to pouting fits, yes, Jethro Mayfield presented an acute embarrassment to his prominent family. His father feared that exposure of a sissy-boy son might ruin his image. He intended to place the couple on a sheep farm they owned far out of town, and more importantly out of sight.

Whatever the girl's feelings for the boy they were overridden by a strong desire to escape the drudgery of her servitude. Jethro had always been kind to her, if strange. Also, marrying him was an act of obedience, of her obedience owed to these people who held the power of protection, food, and shelter over her. She was a girl. She did what she was told to do. She resigned her young self to live with the consequences of marrying witless Jethro Mayfield. What else was she to do?

After the simple sham of a wedding ceremony held privately in the Mayfield's kitchen one morning, Jethro, as unwilling and naïve as his bride, disappeared within an hour of the nuptials. For two days searches were made. Weeks later the family learned by letter that Jethro had on the very afternoon of his wedding enlisted in the army which had borne the young husband hundreds of miles south to lay siege to Vicksburg. Two years later the boy was sent home from the war discharged, a screaming, weeping madman prone to fits of fantasy, and was shortly confined to the insane asylum in Bartonville. In order to erase traces of such a stain upon the family, the Mayfields now regarded Molly as a lingering embarrassing stigma of a bad event. They turned her out with two five-dollar gold pieces, effectively making her as much a war widow as those women whose men had fallen in battle, but with Jethro alive in the madhouse she qualified for no pension from the War Department. Where could she go? What place was there for such abandoned women?

Whores fall into two categories: those who have chosen the profession and those coerced into prostitution by evil men or by hard times. The war had filled the whore houses with the poor, the desperate, and plenty of unwilling war widows. Where in this weary nation were they to go, what else loomed for those women with no supporting families? Proof lay in the law of supply and demand. Before the war a frolic seldom went for less than $5. Now as little as $2 could satisfy a man's lust. Such lust had brought Caleb Krebs to Miss Spooner's whorehouse.

When Krebs had mustered out of the Army at Rock Island there had been much talk among soldiers about heading west to look for a fortune from gold or silver or in bountiful homesteads. He had fancied doing something out west even conjuring images of himself as a road agent or a gambler. But he needed work for a grub stake. He looked for work in Chicago. With the spate of job seeking veterans he was lucky to land a job as meat cutter at the meat packing house to earn enough to stake a move.

His genuine feelings for this wretched would-be whore tore at him. His memory had flashed to the capture of Jackson, Mississippi when his company had been assigned to patrol the surrounds of the city to capture fleeing rebs. Just beyond a destroyed Confederate barracks his squad came across a whorehouse that had suffered severe damage from Union artillery the night before. A mortar shell had set fire to the roof, exploding in the upstairs where the ladies had been preparing to evacuate. Among the charred and torn bodies was a lone survivor, a thin young thing badly burned. Combing through the house for food and loot Krebs had heard a faint moan and discovered her under the staircase. Incoherent, in the throes of death, she pleaded for water. He lifted her head to offer his canteen from which she gulped greedily. She had slowly opened her eyes and looked into Kreb's face, whispering "thank you, sir," then expelled a rattle from her chest that sounded like a rip saw biting into a plank, the end to her misery. He had seen men cut down and blown apart, some of whom he knew. He vividly remembered the rows beside the surgeons' tents of pitiable lines of wounded in bloodied still bright red bandages lying in fly-blown agony groaning and weeping under the sun. But the memory of this pitiful dying whore would remain the saddest experience of Caleb Kreb's war.

Perhaps because Molly's face and frame bore resemblance to this dead whore his heart had instantly overruled his head, and he vied to free the girl from her plight, to make her his. He bargained with the madam, Miss Spooner, for the girl's release. In truth the madam was pleased to be quit of her. The little fool had come to her a virgin, without the faintest idea of the varied pleasures demanded by paying clientele. Spooner knew a grossly fat banker willing to pay $100 gold for a virgin. Her first week was a living hell punctuated by the shock of hard slaps, shakings, blood and terror. Now no longer a virgin and as plain as hominy, the crying idiot held no value. She would be dead within a month Spooner predicted, she seen it before, but to the madam's surprising luck, this man Krebs had offered her a whole beef for the girl's release. So, she agreed to put Molly to work in the kitchen and emptying slops until this fool made good with the delivery of beef. Then he could have her. Men were such fools. And so, on the day of the confrontation with the police he had delivered the last stolen hind quarter on his flight from the packing house, completing the deal. Molly was his.

The West was the new promised land. Wide open with more space than a man could imagine and with so few people that a man could seemingly melt away from civilization. No further than a hundred miles beyond the Missouri River the few white men between a scattered Army posts lived rough. No law, no churches, no schools nor even roads. Newspapers proclaimed that the railroads would bring change. Soon, thousands of railroad leaflets depicted tall farmers standing with scythes amid limitless grain fields and boasted that with the railroads the prairies would soon bloom with fruit trees, fields of wheat and barley enriching legions of lucky land hungry homesteaders. Best of all for Krebs, the West was a place of anonymity, where whoever you were back East mattered not. Prince, pauper, war hero, coward, saint or rascal, nobody on the trail or grubbing in the dirt in some filthy mining camp gave a good goddamn who or what you were. The West was an answer to the horrors that had been the war and natural draw for the dreamers, the drifters, the respected, the lost souls, the dispossessed, the disrespected, the lawless, and the rogues, the perfect place to disappear. The misery of his youth and the feral nature of men at war had made Krebs anarchistic. Where else could he find such sanctuary.

Krebs and Molly hired on with a freight company as teamster and cook to drive wagons into west Kansas with hardware, whiskey, flour, bolts of canvas, calico for forts and trading posts. The treks were hard work and dangerous. Rough weather, breakdowns, and the threat of hostile Indians or road agents loomed. The company's route steered to the southwest into Sioux lands to avoid the more hostile Crow and Blackfoot.

The wagon master, Marcel Bergeron, a nasty, hard-headed French-Canadian, was a sour bad-tempered sonofabitch who wore a large gold earring and whose eyes could not stop undressing Molly. On their second trip deep into western Kansas and entering lands of the Sioux. Krebs noticed late one afternoon that they were being dogged by riders too far away to determine whether white men or Indians. If the riders were white they could be road agents. Either way trouble loomed. Krebs approached Bergeron who dismissed the idea of Indians or road agents. "We ain't close enough for to worry over no Indians, these riders are probably Army, just some soldiers, non? I see them two days already. Any Indians in this place is just looking for tobacco, coffee, sugar. Handouts, the beggars, or maybe for some horse to steal eh? Thieving beggars, harrumph." Bergeron then ordered Krebs to drive his wagon to a fur trading post 40 miles northwest on Canadian Creek then rejoin the group south at Ft. Kermit. Leaving two hours before dawn, by noon Krebs and Molly spotted on the horizon behind them billows of white smoke from the burning wagons.

Two days into this trek and now alone for the first time in many days Krebs grew frisky and suggested that Molly comfort him in a little stand of willows. She was compliant as she owed Krebs her life, but oh how she loathed his touch or that of any man, but she had learned to passively submit. At least Krebs did not demand the filthy indignities she had suffered in Miss Spooner's whorehouse.

Moments after this very short tryst they heard a moan. Rising, gripping his pistol he followed another sound to the body of an Indian curled in pain trying to lick from a seep of muddy spring water. He summoned Molly to fetch a canteen. His femur had snapped in two when thrown from the gelding he had stolen from the wagon train,. Krebs built a fire while Molly spooned water and then whiskey into the man's mouth. He placed a strip of whang leather into the man's mouth then set the broken femur while Molly held him down. Splints fashioned from shag bark hickory were tied to the leg. For two days they tended him and on the third morning his fever broke. The only effective communications were hand gestures. The Indian insistently and repeatedly pointed north excitedly where Krebs guessed his people were. His indicated that his name was Pishtawchi.

Krebs turned over ideas in his head. This Indian was probably Sioux, savages,, whose people were by now looking for him and it was only a matter of time before an encounter. If, however, he purposely drove deeper into Sioux territory to seek them out he had to take the risk that delivery of the young man could gain safe passage. They were sitting ducks. What else could he reasonably do?

Back at the depot it would be assumed that all wagons and mules had been lost. In that sense he considered the wagon, four mules, and goods now his property. This new-found wealth presented trade opportunity. With a complicated 15 minutes of made-up sign language he indicated to the Indian that they were attempting to deliver him to his people. He altered his course to due north. The Indian nodded emphatically showing understanding.

Less than ten miles into the northward progress a band of Sioux warriors thundered down upon the wagon but halted when their young man raised a hand and shouted in Sioux. The riders suspiciously circled until it became clear who Krebs' passenger was. Willy-nilly the braves dismounted and clambered onto the wagon ready to kill Krebs and Molly, halting only when Pishtawchi shouted that they had saved his life. The warriors escorted the wagon to a collection of 50 or 60 teepees. Krebs noticed mules standing among the camp's herd of ponies. As others carefully lifted their man from the wagon, a tall man wearing Bergeron's large gold earring on a cord around his neck led the Krebs to a teepee. In this band of Sioux no one spoke English.

A council was held that afternoon and it was decided that for the safety of the camp the pair must be forbidden to leave. This site had been carefully selected for winter quarters after the band had trekked south from the Dakota territory, and they would allow no possibility of compromise. They had suffered too many fatal encounters with whites to instantly trust Krebs despite his having saved a life. It was argued that he could lead soldiers to them. Mention was made of the usual course of action for prisoners, torture and death. Pishtawchi commented stridently on their genuine kindness and his belief that they were indeed attempting to return him as a matter of good will and at his direction. There was discussion that Krebs' wagon must have been part of the group of three other wagons their men had attacked and burned three days earlier. That war party had returned with rich loot: long-eared horses, several guns, blankets, and cooking pots. One man suggested they pillage this wagon too for goods, but Pishtawchi suggested trading instead. Then the question the kepi arose, why was he wearing of the hat of the enemy bluecoats? Discussion suggested he had perhaps killed a blue coat and taken the kepi as a prize. Or found it. All were puzzled about the presence of the woman and it was then agreed that no warrior blue-coat would be accompanied by a woman. This was followed by lighter comments and laughter on how ugly the woman was and how bad the pair of whites stank. The elders, skeptical, forbade the pair to leave. We will consider them slaves, rich slaves, and perhaps trade them to the Arapaho in the spring it was decided..

Their wagon was situated beside a teepee that housed a single crippled man. A young girl tended this man and brought them all jerked buffalo and squash and showed Krebs and Molly where to draw water, gather firewood, and places where it was proper to shit. The mules were unharnessed and mixed in with the band's herd. Krebs and Molly would sleep in the wagon and tend the crippled man's fire and would cook for the three of them in his teepee. Molly set up a black kettle and brought blankets into the man's teepee. This crippled man was called Ichidahscipah which means Good Bear. He held hero status as a great warrior, having been crippled from a clubbing during battle with a Cheyenne war party after having slain four enemy. His wife and two children had died of smallpox the previous year. With nothing to do Krebs endeavored to learn the Sioux tongue from this man and the girl who brought the food. The crippled warrior was delighted with such active company, despite the stink of this white man, something he and the girl endured and joked of with each other. The girl who was called Tshawa was an excellent teacher and within a fortnight he had learned enough essential nouns and verbs to express himself perhaps on the level of a five or six-year-old. As his vocabulary expanded he easily interacted with others, a few of whom grew friendly, particularly Pishtawchi. Molly too showed a flair for language and progressed even faster than Krebs.

Molly was pulled away most mornings for women's duty. She worked at various tasks, washing, gathering firewood, and smoking game as the fall hunt was on with the men daily bringing in much meat and fish, provisions for the coming winter. As it was the women's wont to talk endlessly while they worked throughout the day, within a month Molly was remarkably conversant with women in her crew and conversed easily if not perfectly. The Sioux women were curious as was she was about each other's culture. Her explanation of her relationship with Krebs the Sioux interpreted as one of master and slave. When an older woman had remarked that were not all of women slaves, everyone had laughed heartily. As she was by long habit a good, non-complaining worker who learned the Sioux tongue and customs so rapidly and with good heart, she gained wide acceptance among the women quickly. They gave her the name Kishwanawa, Strong Hands.

Krebs' progress in language and assimilation, though good, lagged behind Molly's as Sioux men talked far less. However, Krebs' generosity with tobacco and trade goods was seen as good reflection and atypical of whites they had dealt with. Krebs reasoned his largess with the wagon's trade goods to be the smart thing to do as the Sioux were steadily pilfering whatever they could anyway. Although as a precaution, he chained to the wagon the wooden crates with the four Spencer rifles and ammunition. Those rifles, the mules, and the wagon were too valuable to let go. He advised Molly to be generous likewise with needles, calico, and cooking pots.

One afternoon a group of men sat talking in a circle of a planned buffalo hunt. Krebs asked to join in this hunt telling them that he was an excellent shot. The next day he was brought to a pinto mare which he endeavored to ride bare back much to the amusement of the Sioux. Pishtawchi offered Krebs to ride double with him. Krebs fashioned a sling to a Spencer that night and was ready to hunt. The hunting party consisted of about two dozen men mostly armed with bows. Besides Krebs Spencer were three Sioux riflemen with one Spencer taken from the freighter attack and five old trade muskets. Krebs the night before had instructed Pishtawchi with the Spencer on its operation. Ammunition was too scarce for live fire practice, but Krebs showed the man loading, cocking, dry-firing, and reloading the state-of-the-art army rifle. He explained that if the lever action jammed on the hunt Krebs would be next to him to help him and for him to and to bring a dab of bear grease. The hunting party would flank both sides of the herd. It was understood that once the rifles began firing the bowmen located a league further would begin coursing the stampede. Everyone had high expectations remembering that the last big hunt had yielded tons of meat which had insured a happy winter.

The hunt astonished Krebs. When the dust had cleared, the rifles and muskets had brought down 18 of the huge critters, the bowmen another seven. All were amazed at the speed of the lever action Spencers firing with their magazines of seven .50 caliber bullets. All the men gathered around the Spencers eager to hold the weapons. It was a phenomenal hunt. There was much rejoicing back at camp as the hunters rode in with travois after travois bearing carcasses and hides, bountiful meat for the winter and skins for robes and teepees. There would be liver, tongues, and brains that night for everyone and a dance too. Pishtawchi told Krebs that they would be honored at the dance. Krebs was elated and could not remember ever feeling more pride and happiness.

Every girl and woman would spend the next nine days sunup to sundown skinning and smoking strips of meat, scraping and tenderizing hides, and tending the kettles of rich bone broth.

With autumn the weather grew cooler and the elders directed women to construct a teepee for Krebs and his woman,; however, Molly asserted to Krebs she wished to sleep elsewhere. She had been invited into the family of a woman she had befriended. Yes, she had strong feelings of gratitude for Krebs, he had saved her life, but did he not realize just how she was repelled by his touch?

"I thought you was just shy, Molly. You mean you don't like it when we're doin' it?"

"I care for you Caleb, but I hate it when you touch me. Even just sleepin' next to you makes me squirm sometimes. It ain't you, I'd feel that way with any man. Maybe I'm crazy but that's the way I feel. If you want to do it to me, I'll still do it, but I won't like it none. You understand?"

So, to the women's delight construction of a new teepee was cancelled and most of all Molly, a slave woman, had prevailed over a man.

Among the men there was much laughter behind Caleb's back. "Now the ugly one refuses to sleep with or pleasure him? How funny, how very funny," said one of the elders at council, chuckling. But Krebs had earned no small degree of respectability through his hunting prowess with the Spencer, his generosity with trade goods, and his good nature. At Good Bear's invitation Krebs moved into his teepee for the winter. Three different girls visited Good Bear regularly at night. One of them, Tishishawa, the girl who for months had brought Good Bear's food often slipped into the teepee at night to make love with him. Soon each night after pleasuring Good Bear she would slip under Kreb's blanket, this too at Good Bear's direction. Eventually she quit Good Bear for Krebs. After all Good Bear still had her two sisters for pleasure. But she liked Krebs who was affectionate and unlike Sioux men gentle and considerate of her feelings. By late winter she moved into the teepee permanently.

The winter was a happy one. No one starved. There was but little work to do and there was ample food, sleep, and storytelling. Krebs grew quite content with the Sioux. Life among them was in some respects like army life, but somewhat better in the matter of independence. Unlike the army, men did not labor, there were very few rules, no one ordered others around. Everything was shared without complaint. Everyone's voice was heard at council. But like soldiers, the Sioux played pranks on one another, wrestled, and shared stories and games and hunts and war. By winter's end he had grown to much admire the Sioux. Molly had told him that if he departed the band she would not go with him. She had found her home. The Sioux were free of the hypocrisy of the whites. No damned church services or stupid religious condemnation of everything pleasurable. There were, of course, taboos, but there was no sin. Many men, and women too, were promiscuous. Stealing was good—especially horses. Gluttony was expected when food was plentiful. In so many respects they were superior.

By early spring the band began work to move north to the Dakota Territory. Krebs was at a crossroads. He believed he had earned the confidence of the Sioux and that they would allow his departure with his mules, wagon, and what was left of trade goods. But he had to face the reality that he had come to appreciate this way of life. Too, Tishishawa was just beginning to show with child, presumably his child. Here they could live happily together. With the whites she would always be scored as a heathen savage, their child a half-breed.

Five years later Caleb Krebs drove into St. Joseph with a considerable amount of Black Hills gold taken by him and his band from raids on mining camps. In late summer, he would rendezvous with his band of Hunkpapa at the big early summer pow wow of Ogallala, Hunkpapa, and Lakota Sioux. There he would distribute the five cases of 1865 model Spencer repeating rifles that would be used so effectively on June 25 at a place the Sioux called Greasy Grass and the whites called the Little Big Horn. Fighting beside his adopted brother Good Bear, Caleb Krebs did not survive this glorious battle to share in the wild victory that followed..

The End

Gary Ives lives in the Ozarks where he grows apples and writes. He has published scores of short stories and one anthology of coming of age stories. garyives.wordpress.com

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The Snake
by John Jones

The sun shone on the man's face as he lay in the grass, unmoving. A bee buzzed lazily around his nose, alighting briefly, then buzzing away, searching for something more interesting. He began to be aware of the smell of the grass, the earth, the wildflowers around him. As his mind began to clear, the memory of what had happened started to come back to him.

He remembered riding through the meadow, on a quiet, peaceful morning. He had been heading for the mountains, back to his cabin after selling his pelts. He had been enjoying the solitude after the noise and smells of the settlement, glad to get back out away from people with all of their noise and confusion. He had heard the noise of the snake rattle, his horse had reared at the same instant as the shot had been fired. He had a brief glimpse of the Indian as he was falling from his horse, then he had lost consciousness. How long had he been out? Minutes? Seconds? Where was the Indian now?

He carefully and slowly pulled his knife and held it by his side, not daring to move. He strained to hear any sound of his assailant moving closer to him. He heard a slight sound in the grass close by, something moving a few stalks of grass. Was it the Indian? Then another thought hit him in the pit of the stomach. Was it the snake? He dared not move. If he did, he might reveal his position to the Indian. Or he might provoke the snake to strike. He lay there sweating, fighting panic. His only chance was to lay as still as possible and listen, waiting for any sound that might give him an indication of what to do.

As he lay there he considered what the attacker would do. He wouldn't know if he had been hit, or thrown from the horse. He would be waiting for a movement from him. If he didn't see him move, he would move in quietly to count coup and loot the body. Best thing to do would be to remain still and try to spot him first as he came in. The quieter he was, the more convinced the Indian would be that it was safe to come in close. Then he would have a chance to defend himself with the knife.

The snake was another matter. Virtually silent, if the snake got close, he didn't know what it might do. Would it strike at him when it got close and smelled him? Would lying still prevent him from being bitten? He had never been in a spot where he could not get away from a snake before, but if he tried to move and get away, he would reveal himself to the Indian. The only thing to do now was to stay still and try to determine the Indian's location.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see a couple of blades of grass move. The wind? No, a couple more in front of them moved. Then stillness. He tested the air. Indians smell different from whites. He would keep trying the air to try to spot his location by smell as well as sound. Which way was the wind blowing? Which way were the grass stems moving? There was very little wind, the grass was moving ever so slightly, so smell wasn't going to travel very far. So that would not be much help. But on the other hand, since the grass wasn't moving from the wind, any movement would reveal a presence. But only up very close to him, because from where he lay, he could not see far through the grass.

He concentrated on where he had seen the slight movement in the grass. Another slight movement! Getting a little closer to him! He tried to calm his heart beat. It seemed like it was beating so hard, that anyone or anything near him would hear it. He tried to regulate his breathing to calm himself, and that seemed to help. The sun was getting higher now. If it got directly overhead, it would be in his eyes and start to blind him. He dared not move his head from side to side too far. Any movement might make a sound or move some grass and give him away. Then more movement on his right side and he moved his eyes to see what it was.

The snake! Evil black expressionless eyes staring at him, tongue flicking in and out as it sought to identify the smell of the object in front of him. He dared not move, barely breathing. He focused his eyes on something else, so as not to appear aggressive to the snake. It just lay there looking, flicking it's tongue for what seemed an eternity. Then it slowly started to slither forward toward him. Closer, closer, inch by inch. Now it was near his leg. He remained absolutely still. It was only inches from the hand that held the knife. Could he use the knife to throw it away from him? This was a big snake. From the thickness of its body, he guessed it must be all of six feet long, if not longer. No, if it hadn't bitten him yet, he would wait. It hadn't coiled and rattled yet, so it must not yet feel threatened. When it got to his leg, it continued to test the air. His buckskin pants had all kinds of smells on them. Hard to tell if any of the smells it was picking up would make it feel threatened. Then it started to move slowly forward, onto his leg. Across one leg and onto the other. As it moved, he could feel the muscles of its belly undulating and flexing as it propelled itself forward. It hesitated as it got to the grass on the other side, then slid down onto the ground and moved into the grass with agonizing slowness. It seemed to take forever for that body to make its way over him. At last it was almost gone; all he could see were the rattles on the end of the tail, then it was gone.

He lay there breathing a sigh of relief. Now at least he knew where one of his two enemies were. As long as it didn't come back anyway. The sun was higher now. How long had that taken? Longer then he had thought, because the sun had moved quite a bit. The Indian would be moving in cautiously now. Quite a bit of time had passed since he had fallen. The more time that went by, the more confident the Indian would be that it was safe to come in.

A thought occurred to him that the snake had come in from his right. Which probably meant that the Indian was not over on his right. He must be in one of the other three directions. And he could only see to his left and over his feet. He could not see anything over his head; he was blind in that direction. All he could do was be as aware as he could. If he could make it until night, he could get away. Unless he stumbled into one of his two enemies in the dark. And the Indian wouldn't be likely to wait that long. Something was going to happen before that.

He lay motionless for what seemed an hour. His body was starting to stiffen from not moving. Suddenly he heard a scream. He sat up slightly and looked in that direction and saw the Indian limping away. Why? What had happened? Then he realized that was the direction that the snake had gone in. It must have bitten the Indian. He got to his feet and looked around. He saw his rifle laying in the grass, and picking it up, he started trailing his horse. A quarter of a mile away he found it grazing peacefully in the knee deep grass. He mounted and started riding home, back to the security of his cabin.

He stopped early for the night. He made a small fire, boiled his coffee, fried some side meat and made some pan bread. This was one of the most stressful days he had ever had. Worse than when a small band had him pinned down for two days before they gave up. Worse than when he had gotten caught in that blizzard storm and he had lost his horse. If there was one thing that he disliked more than Indians, it was snakes. Having one that close and slide over his legs like that had almost driven him out of his mind. It had been so close that he could see every mark on its body, could see into its eyes, could make out every rattle on its tail. He hoped never to be that close to one again. He hated snakes.

He heard the soft footfalls of a horse. Coming closer to his small fire. Stepping tentatively. Was it an Indian? He stepped back into the shadows. Cocking his rifle, he stepped behind a tree and leveled it in the direction the steps were coming from. Slowly a horse came forward, tentatively, snorting gently as it sought the safety of the light and the other horse. On its back was a rider hunched forward, lying on its neck. He walked cautiously up to it, keeping his rifle leveled on the figure on its back. It was the Indian. He reached up to his shoulder and as he did, the Indian fell to the ground. He was dead. One leg had a purple swollen area on it with two fang marks. He had died of snake bite.

Must have been a lot of venom in that snake to kill that quickly, he thought. That snake did me a favor, killed an enemy that was trying to kill me. He dragged the body off to the side, rolled up in his blankets and went to sleep. The next day, he took the Indian's weapons and horse and headed for his cabin.

"I guess snakes aren't so bad after all," he thought. "You just have to figure out how to get along with them."

The End

John Jones has done many things in his life. He always thought about writing, but never really knew how to pursue it. Then he realized, he could ride, he could handle a gun, he has spent lots of time outdoors hiking, hunting and had more trouble in his life than he cared to remember. He remembered reading that if you want to write a story, write about things and people that you know about. And weave a story around them. These are his efforts.

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