Salt Creek Range
by Shawn Pollock
Jed stopped chopping wood when he heard his sister's shout. He ran around to the front of their small log cabin, still gripping the axe. There was no mistaking the alarm in Sarah's voice, which was usually weak from coughing. "What is it?"
Jed had built a covered porch along the front of the crude cabin so Sarah could lie outside and enjoy the fresh Wyoming air. She pointed from her bed. "Rider coming."
The eastern mountains framed the approaching rider, little more than a speck among the sagebrush. Jed thought about going for his gun but decided to wait. It was nearby if he needed it and besides, in these parts, trouble always came from the south.
Gradually, the rider drew close enough for Jed to see him in detail. The stranger rode a black horse with a white blaze on its forehead and one white sock on its left hind leg. His saddle was black with silver trim and silver conchos. A Winchester rifle hung from the left side of the saddle.
The rider, tall and slender, wore a tan duster. Black boots, dull and scuffed, protruded from beneath it. A battered, sweat-stained hat slouched over his eyes and a bandanna hung around his neck. He hunched over his saddle horn.
"Who could that be?" Sarah asked.
"No idea," Jed said.
"You best make him some food."
Jed leaned on the axe handle. "Not just yet."
The stranger reined in his horse twenty-five yards from the cabin. Staying mounted, he straightened his back and pushed the hat off his forehead. "Afternoon."
"Afternoon, stranger," Jed said. "What can I do for you?" He watched for a threatening move, but the stranger looked leaden with exhaustion.
"Wonder if I could put in a few days' work on your spread."
"I can't afford a hired hand," Jed said. He motioned back the way the stranger had just come. A small herd of cattle grazed on the prairie grass. "I ain't a big operation."
"I'm just looking for a meal and some rest. I don't have money or anything to trade, but I can work."
Jed's eyes narrowed. "You from Tingey's?"
The stranger shook his head. Dirty stubble filled the hollows of his cheeks. "I don't know who that is."
"He's not from Tingey's," Sarah said. "Look how thin he is. He's been riding a long time." A coughing fit wracked her body, and she pressed a bloody rag to her mouth. She looked as exhausted as the man on the horse.
The stranger cast a questioning glance at the bed-ridden woman. "She has consumption," Jed said. "She has to spend some time every day on her back, taking the air."
The stranger nodded. "Good a cure as any, I guess."
"What's your name?" Jed asked.
The name stirred no warning in Jed's memory. He leaned the axe against a porch post. "Welcome, Ben Springs. Come down from there and let's get your horse watered."
* * *
Inside the one-room cabin, Ben pulled off his duster and hung it on a hook by the door. Jed studied the black-handled Colt .45 hanging from the gun belt around Ben's waist, but Ben unbuckled the belt and wrapped it around the holster. He caught Jed's eye and smiled.
"Don't like to wear guns in another man's home," he said. "It ain't good manners."
Jed nodded. "You a gunman?"
"Not unless it's necessary."
"Well," Jed said, turning to the stove, "I don't reckon you'll find any reason for gunplay here." He stoked the fire in the potbellied stove and placed a cast-iron skillet on top. "I become a fair cook since Sarah took ill, as long as you like steak. Take a seat."
Ben pulled a wooden stool from under a small, rough-hewn table and sat, leaning against the wall as though he could fall asleep there. Jed slapped a scoop of bacon grease into the skillet and laid two steaks down to cook. Their sizzle and smell filled the cabin.
Sarah tottered through the door, headed for a sheet hung on the far wall of the room. This she pushed aside to reveal a bed. Sinking into it, she pulled the curtain closed again. "What's going on in the world, Ben?" she asked.
"Let's see, I ain't seen a newspaper in some time, but last I heard, President Cleveland got married and Vancouver burned to the ground."
"Where you from, Ben?" Jed asked.
"Texas, around San Antonio."
"Yeah, I thought I heard it in your voice. We're from Louisiana."
"Little town on the coast called Salt Creek, after an inlet from the bay that runs up through the middle of town. I named my spread after it. Salt Creek Range."
"I guess we're all a long way from home," Ben said. "What brings you clear up here?"
Jed pointed at the sheet with a fork. "We needed to find a place with dry air for her lungs. And, truthfully, I always wanted my own place. A man can find those things up here."
"Looks like you're off to a good start."
Jed speared a steak from the skillet and dropped it on a plate. He added a square of cornbread cut from a pan and placed the plate in front of Ben. "Well, last winter nearly wiped us out, but we made it. I been rebuilding my herd, and nobody's going to take it away from me."
* * *
Ben slept nineteen hours that first night, rising only to eat the meals Jed cooked for him. He alternated between sleeping and eating for a couple of days, but by the third day he insisted he could work. Jed judged he looked strong enough, so he set Ben to rounding up the calves. "There ain't very many this year," he said, "so this shouldn't take long."
While Ben rode, Jed kindled a large fire, into which he placed two long metal rods, the letter "C" glowing orange-white at the ends. Branding was one of the most distasteful tasks on a ranch, and Jed watched to see how Ben would handle himself.
Ben said nothing when he saw the irons, only roped a calf by the hind feet and dragged it to the fire. While Jed knelt on the calf's forelegs and gripped its head, Ben pressed the brand to the animal's hindquarters. A cloud of stinking smoke rose with the calf's squall. Jed jumped aside, letting the calf go free, but Ben had already roped the next one.
At the end of the day, the stench of burnt hair thick in Jed's nose and mouth, he pulled off his leather gloves and flexed his sore hands. "You done branding before," he said to Ben.
Ben nodded and spat into the fire. "Never enjoyed it, though."
"Well, I thank you. That would've been twice as hard by myself." Jed turned to face the setting sun, gold and red across the horizon. "I'm planning to move my herd from the south pasture to the north this summer. Another job that would be easier with two."
"I allow I could stay on a couple more weeks," Ben said.
* * *
Days passed and, despite the tough work, regular meals returned a little bulk to Ben's frame. They camped out on the range some nights. On those occasions, as they talked over plates of beans and biscuits, Jed felt the isolation of Wyoming more acutely than he ever had working his spread alone. He had been on Salt Creek Range so long, no one to talk to but his invalid sister, living in fear of anyone who approached, that he had forgotten what a friendly conversation with another man felt like. He might make small talk with some of the other ranchers when he went into town for supplies, but Tingey's shadow hung over every conversation. Some of the men seemed leery of Jed's defiance toward the cattle baron and kept their distance. Actual companionship was like a dash of salt in a pot of beans, enhancing every flavor, even the bitter ones. He and Ben laughed, they told stories, but uneasiness gnawed at the back of Jed's mind. Don't enjoy it too much. This man came out of nowhere. He could return there just as fast.
When work took them close to the cabin, they ate their meals on the front porch so Sarah could join them. The curtain she slept behind was meant to protect the others from her disease, but no one worried about catching it in the open air.
On the porch, Jed noticed Sarah talked more to Ben than to him. When conversation lagged, she and Ben looked content in their silence, their eyes lingering on each other. Jed wondered if Ben awoke the same melancholy hope in Sarah, or if she felt something more for the tall stranger.
One day Sarah said, "Tell us about your folks, Ben. You never talk about them."
Ben looked at his plate. "There's not much to tell. It was just me and my Pa for a long time."
"Where's he now?"
"Well, you've both been so good to me all these weeks, I really should be straight with you about why I'm here. See, my Pa was murdered. I aim to find the man that done it."
"How does that bring you to our ranch?" Sarah asked.
"I hit nearly every ranch between Houston and here in the last couple of years. I'll keep going until I reach Montana, then loop back down through Utah Territory and head for Texas again. He's gotta be somewhere."
* * *
A few days later, as Jed and Ben rode south, rounding up strays, Jed said, "You notice Sarah don't cough so much anymore?"
"This air must be doing its work," Ben said.
"I think it's more than that. I think she's taken a fancy to you."
Ben blushed. "When there ain't no other choices, I guess an eyesore like me starts to look pretty good."
"She'd say you ain't half-bad as far as looks go," Jed said. "It's been good having you around, is what I'd say. You been a mighty big help to me, and I think it's helped you too. You don't look so wrung out anymore."
They crested a ridge. Below them, the range teemed with a herd that dwarfed Jed's. The sound of cattle lowing and men shouting drifted back up the ridge.
"This here's the southern border of Salt Creek Range, and that's the north pasture of the Triple T ranch," Jed said. "Owned by a man named John Tingey. He's the big cattle baron around here. Last winter was hard on him too and he's trying to regroup by buying up the small ranches in the area. He gave me the option to sell out or get out. I ain't about to do either."
"Hmm, Tingey," Ben said. He looked at the ground for a second. "Lots of men working for him?"
"Yeah, plenty of drovers, and I imagine a few gunmen too," Jed said. "If you're looking for your man, that's a good place to start."
Ben didn't say anything, only nodded.
* * *
The next day, as Jed, Sarah, and Ben sat on the porch finishing their breakfast, two riders approached from the south.
"Uh oh," Jed said. Running into the cabin, he threw open a wooden chest and retrieved a gun belt and Colt .45 revolver. He fastened the belt around his waist and hid the holster beneath his jacket. As he re-emerged, he leaned Ben's Winchester against the wall next to Sarah's bed.
"What's going on?" Ben asked.
"The one on the right's John Tingey," Sarah said. "If he's showing up himself, he means business."
"I don't want to provoke no one, but if things get ugly, you grab that Winchester and get Sarah inside the cabin," Jed said.
Tingey rode right up to the cabin. White muttonchops bristled on his jaws, and he glowered from beneath thick, dark brows. His companion wore a heavy beard, the brown hair streaked with gray. Jed noticed Ben studying the man.
Tingey pointed at the rifle. "You're right inhospitable, Jed Collins, greeting me with a gun."
"I felt it was in my interest to have it nearby, considering what you did to poor Waldrup last fall."
"Waldrup come at me," Tingey said. "I had to defend myself."
Jed sneered. "I'm sure."
"Well, you be reasonable and sell me your ranch, there won't be no violence." Tingey jerked his head toward Ben. "Who's this?"
"Ben Springs," Ben said.
"You playing cowhand for this fool, Ben Springs?"
"Just earning my meals."
"Don't get too comfortable here. This place'll be mine before long. Come down and see me about a job while I'm feeling generous."
"He'll do no such thing," Jed said. "And I ain't selling to you."
"You sell or I'll run you off."
"A man has a right to his own spread."
Sarah coughed, harder than she had in some time. "You're going to need money to bury this poor lady proper," Tingey said. "Otherwise, she'll just be something for the coyotes to dig up."
Jed clenched his jaw so hard his teeth hurt. He whipped his jacket back and his hand twitched near the Colt. "Get off my land. I ain't gonna say it twice."
The bearded man reached for his own gun, but Tingey caught his arm. "Easy. I don't want no shooting just yet. We delivered our notice, now let's give Collins a couple days to change his mind." With a final glare, he and the other man wheeled their horses around and rode back the way they had come.
"They're going to make trouble for us," Sarah said. "You can't defend yourself all alone."
Jed shrugged. "Ben and I can hold off an army." He looked at Ben and to his surprise, found his friend pale. "What is it, Ben?"
Ben seemed to stare right through Jed for a moment, then his eyes snapped into focus. "Nothing. It's just . . . " He drew a deep breath. "Something put me in mind of how my Pa died."
"What was it?" Jed asked. "You never told us the full story."
"He had some things to do in town one day, and he was headed for the bank when two men came running out of it. They had just robbed it, and they ran right into him. They went down, he went down, and before he could get up, one of the men cracked him in the head with something. Then they robbed him, too. Doctor got word to me as fast as he could, but Pa died before I could make it to town.
"Well, I set out with the posse chasing those men, and I kept going long after the posse gave up. I caught up with one of them in Omaha about three months ago. Name of Scythe McGraff. He was set to hang for another murder, but I had a chance to talk to him first. Claimed he wasn't the one that hit and robbed my Pa, but that makes no difference to me. He also said he didn't know where his partner was but thought he might have gone to Wyoming. Said the man went by Mort Rutter, but that's probably not his real name." Ben crossed his arms as though a chill had seized him. "I stayed to watch McGraff hang, then I kept going."
"You got a description of this Rutter?" Jed asked.
"Not a good one. Middle-aged, brown hair, which is about half the country. He had a beard when he killed my Pa."
"What did they steal from him?" Jed asked.
"He had sold a couple of hogs. They took that money."
Sarah put a hand on Ben's shoulder, and he placed his own over it. Jed shook his head. "I'm sorry, Ben. That must've been hard news."
"It was the worst day of my life." Ben kept his hand over Sarah's. With the other, he motioned toward Jed's holster. "That's a nice gun. Is that a cherry wood handle?"
Jed pulled the gun free and hefted it. "Yeah. Plum weapon, this is."
"Where'd you get it?"
Jed met Ben's eyes and held them. "I bought it in Little Rock, Arkansas."
"I see." Ben let go of Sarah's hand. "You know, Tingey's brought things to a head around here. I think I'll go down to his place tomorrow, see if I can smooth over some of this mess. I'll see if Rutter's on his spread, too."
"That's a good idea," Jed said.
* * *
Early the next morning, Ben hugged Sarah, shook hands with Jed, and mounted his horse. "Don't know when I'll be back," he said. "Soon as I can."
"Be careful," Sarah said.
Jed watched Ben disappear in the distance, then said, "I reckon I'll head down to the south pasture, see if Tingey's causing any trouble."
"But the herd's in the north pasture," Sarah said.
"Still, you never know what he's up to."
Jed rode south until the cabin was out of sight, then cut east until he met the dirt road leading to Tingey's ranch.
Before long, he saw the familiar shape of the duster-clad rider on the black and white horse. Spurring his own mount, he raced to catch up.
Ben turned as Jed approached, no surprise in his face, only sadness. "Jed."
"Where you really going, Ben?"
Ben hooked his thumb into the waistband of his denims, above his Colt's handle. "Pa didn't just lose his hog money. He lost his cherry-handled Colt, too. I keep that detail to myself in case it ever turns up."
"I saw it in your face yesterday," Jed said. "You don't believe I bought my gun in Little Rock, do you? You going to Tingey's to raise a posse?"
"First thing I wanted to see was if you'd follow me out here. That tells me what I hoped wasn't true."
"Did you ever stop to think there's more than one cherry-handled Colt in the world?"
Ben nodded. "There's one way to tell for sure. Pa had those cherry grips made special. But first, he had his initials etched in the Colt's handle, right into the metal. W.S. for William Springs. Said he could always prove it was his gun that way. Let's take those grips off and have a look."
Jed glanced at the gun. "I can't believe you'd think that about me."
"I don't want to think it, but I've come so far that I have to check everything."
"I took you in, I fed you, I gave you work. All the talking we done out on the range . . . good friends are hard to come by around here." He motioned back in the direction of the cabin. "You and Sarah . . . let's just go back to her and forget about this."
Ben held out a hand. It trembled, but his voice was firm. "Give it to me."
"You ain't gonna let this go, are you?"
"Okay, if that's how you want it." Jed pulled the Colt free of the holster. He held it in his palm a second, as if weighing something more than its heaviness. Then he pointed the Colt at Ben and fired.
Ben jerked in his saddle, but he pulled his own pistol and fired several shots. Three bullets slammed into Jed's body. Both men slid from their horses, Jed collapsing on the ground.
He gasped; every breath drew fire. Blood coated his left forearm. Worst, however, was his leg. His right boot canted at an unnatural angle and his knee wouldn't bend. It felt numb.
Ben staggered up beside him. Jed tried to point the Colt again, but Ben pried it from his hand. Blood soaked Ben's shirt at the shoulder. "Why, Jed?"
Jed gritted his teeth against the hot nails of pain working into his body. Ben's face swam before him. "Leave me be," he said.
"Not until I get my answers. Why'd you kill my Pa?"
Jed closed his eyes, hoping the man standing over him would disappear.
Ben grabbed Jed's hair and shook his head. "Answer me, you coward!"
"He seen me rob that bank. Couldn't leave him to talk to the sheriff. I didn't want to kill him, I swear. I just hit him in the head to give him something else to think about."
"You beat an old man and robbed him. That's right lowdown of you." Ben crouched next to Jed. He placed the muzzle of his pistol against Jed's left temple and thumbed the hammer back.
Jed's heartbeat pounded in his ears. His breath caught in his throat, yet he spoke faster than he ever had in his life.
"You gotta listen to me, Ben. I ain't a bad man. You gotta believe me, I ain't. It was McGraff. He killed your Pa and you seen justice done." Jed saw only immovable anger in Ben's eyes. "I robbed them banks for Sarah. I needed a place for her to get well. You kill me and she'll hate you for it."
"I'll tell her Tingey did it. Tell her he shot me too."
The last of Jed's strength drained away. He had nothing left to put between himself and Ben's wrath. "I just wanted my own spread. You gonna take that from me, then put me out of my misery."
Ben pressed the pistol barrel to Jed's head a second longer. Then he withdrew it, sighing. "I been in my misery a long time. No reason why I shouldn't leave you in yours." He rose to his feet, groaning, shaky. The blood in his shirt had crawled to his waist. "Sarah and me, we're leaving. Far as she knows, Tingey's after us. He'll take your ranch. But I'm gonna leave it up to the Almighty whether you live through this. You do, don't try to find us because I will kill you on sight next time I see you."
Ben pulled himself onto his horse, holding the reins with his teeth, cradling his wounded arm in his lap. He took Jed's horse by the reins with his good arm and rode away, back toward Salt Creek Range.
"Ben!" Jed shouted. "Ben, don't leave me here!" Even through the burning in his ribs and the mounting pain in his knee, he kept screaming well after Ben was out of sight.
* * *
Jack Lauridsen shivered as his shop door opened and a blast of frigid air pummeled him. Plump Father Morgan, sitting in the chair next to the apple barrel, pulled his black coat closed over his clerical collar. April was nearly over, but winter died hard in Kalispell.
When Jack saw who stood in his doorway, dark against the cold spring sunshine, he stifled a groan. He recognized the old man's sagging shoulders, the long, dirty beard, and worst, the wooden peg that jutted from the tattered, muddy pants cuff. That peg leg filled the store with a hollow thump as the man headed for the stove in the corner. Ignoring Jack and the Father, he hunched over the glowing metal, clutching his threadbare coat to his sides. Satisfied the old cripple was only there to warm himself, Jack returned to filling the candy jars in their rows on the shelf behind the counter.
Another man entered the shop a few minutes later. Blowing on his hands, he said, "Don't spring ever come here?"
"New, huh?" Jack said. "Well, spring's one of them 'blink-and-you-miss-it' things in Montana."
Father Morgan glanced at the newspaper under the man's arm. "What's the latest on the Titanic?"
"They're recovering the bodies."
Father Morgan frowned. "Shame. Been lighting candles for those poor souls all week. Mind if I have a look?"
The man handed his paper over and gave Jack his order. While Jack set about filling it, a low mumbling rose from the old man at the stove.
"Speaking of poor souls, who's that?" the man asked.
Jack shrugged. "Folks around here call him Ol' Stump. Wanders around town."
"Ain't he got no folks?"
"Couldn't say. He ain't been around that long."
Father Morgan lowered the newspaper. "I'm told he was haunting Missoula a couple of years ago. Seems to be drifting north."
As if he knew the other men were discussing him, Stump left the stove and approached the counter. Jack winced at the sound of that peg leg, wood on wood. He knew miners and lumberjacks who had lost legs, arms, fingers, toes, eyes, but there was something unnatural in the asymmetry of this wretched man.
The customer stared with open curiosity at Stump's crinkled skin, moldering yellow-white hair, and dull, lifeless eyes. Father Morgan folded the paper in his lap and rested his hands on top of it.
"We hear right, Stump?" Jack asked. "You heading north?"
"Headin' north to get a spread of my own," the old man said. "Get a few head of cattle together. A man can find those things up north."
"Sure thing, Stump," Jack said. "Ain't seen you in a while. Thought maybe winter drove you off."
"Bad winter," the old man mumbled. "Lost most of my herd. Find more up north."
Jack finished putting the customer's order into a brown paper sack. "Here you go, mister."
Stump looked at the customer, and some hidden, silent wind blew the clouds from the rheumy eyes. A maniacal gleam replaced them. "Are you Ben Springs?"
The customer took a step back. "My name's Winfield."
"Lookin' for Ben Springs."
"I don't know him."
"Maybe he's outside, Stump," Jack said.
Stump stared beyond Jack, as though he had caught sight of some phantom behind the counter, then shuffled away. He stopped when Father Morgan called to him.
"Here, take this." The Father pressed a can of sardines into the old man's hand.
Stump regarded the can a moment. The light in his eyes had snuffed out, dark as a burnt wick once more. "I'm obliged. Pay you when I get my herd."
"Tell you what, Jack'll charge it to the parish."
Winfield dug a box of crackers from his bag and handed them to Stump. The old man accepted them with a nod and made his halting way out into the chill spring.
Still staring at the door, Winfield said, "That's the saddest thing I ever saw."
"That it is," Father Morgan said.
"Can't you help him, Father?"
"We do what we can, feed him and take him in when we can find him, but we can't keep him prisoner. He insists on roaming."
"He ever tell you who Ben Springs is, or how he lost his leg?" Jack asked.
Father Morgan stood, handing Winfield back his newspaper. "He told me a story once. I don't know what was true and where he might've been drifting, but regardless, I'm treating it as a confession. Just let me say that the frontier is big enough to hide some men, and wide enough to lay some men's sins bare."
"Well, I don't think he's long for this world." Jack shook his head. "The frontier just ain't the place for some people."
Shawn Pollock grew up in Cache Valley, Utah, and graduated from Utah State University with degrees in Professional
Writing and Instructional Technology. He works as an instructional designer in the software industry. He is a hybrid
author, publishing his novel The Road to Freedom traditionally and his novelette A KO for Christmas independently.
Back to Top
Back to Home
Going to Hell
by Richard McGee
I may die today.
I look in the mirror as I shave. It's Tuesday and I normally only shave on Saturday, but it's an important day. Maybe I should wear my suit. No, if it's covered with blood, they'll have nothing to bury me in.
Lilly called, "Sam, breakfast is almost ready."
I smell bacon cooking. I put on my work clothes and walk to the kitchen. Lilly is putting my plate on the table as I sit down. Three slices of bacon, four fried eggs, two biscuits, and a bowl of grits. Normally, I wolf all this down and run out the door to work.
I eat one slice of bacon and part of one of the biscuits, but I just can't face the eggs or grits. My nerves are strung tight and my stomach feels like it's on a galloping horse.
Lilly looks at me strangely when I get up and give her a quick peck on the cheek before going out the door. If she knew, she'd try to stop me. Not because I might die. She would beg me not to sentence myself to hell.
Lilly believes in heaven and hell and is always telling me how to behave, to go to the former and not the latter. I'm not sure I believe in heaven, but I believe in hell. There are too many people headed that way. Hell is going to be a crowded place.
I walk into the blacksmith shop where Ben has the forge fire started and is laying out the tools. We've been working on making replacement leaf springs for Jess Jameson's wagon.
I throw myself into the work, trying to put the noon hour out of my mind. I surprise Ben by letting him do the master work today. As my son, he might be the master soon enough. He taps on the metal with the small hammer, indicating where I should hit it with the sledgehammer. I take big swings and pound out my anger/frustration/fear. Heat from the forge on this hot day combined with the heavy exertion soon has sweat flowing off my body.
At 11:15, I take off the heavy leather apron, towel off the sweat, and head out the door toward Main Street. It's hot early, going to be a scorcher today. Maybe I'm already in hell. I can't help but stare at the sheriff's office as I pass it and enter the bank next door.
I had thought about putting on my gun belt, but I haven't worn the thing in fifteen years, and I couldn't hit the side of a barn with a six-shooter.
It's 1894 and the county is civilized now, no Indians or bandits are likely to show up. The problem these days comes from within. The Texas Rangers came to town to stop an all-out civil war. They told us to arm ourselves for protection from Raynes, but it wouldn't help me.
I walk through the bank lobby and knock on the office door. The door cracks open and Silas Johnson peeks out. The door opens fully, allowing me to walk in. In the bank president's office are the three men I drew cards with. I drew low card.
Present are Silas, the town attorney, Jason Samuels, the owner of the general store, and Bradley Matthews, the bank president. The room is filled with smoke from Bradley's cigar.
Silas says, "Hot one today. Already as hot as a whorehouse on nickel night."
Bradley grabs four glasses from the shelf behind him and sets them on the desk. He pulls a bottle of whiskey out of a drawer and fills them.
We each grab one.
Bradley raises his, "Gentlemen, a toast to our success."
The others drink, but I look down at the liquid in my glass. The nervous stomach is back, that galloping horse is about to jump off the cliff. I take a deep swallow and hope I don't retch the liquid right back up.
Jason reaches behind him and picks up a shotgun leaning on the wall. He puts it in my hands, "It's loaded and ready to go."
I just nod. There's a lump in my throat and I don't think I can talk right now.
Silas puts a hand on my shoulder, "You can't miss with that."
I hit the top lever to open the barrels and verify two shells are in place. I close the gun and sit in a chair.
Silas says, "I'll watch and tell you when." He steps out the back door.
Bradley looks me in the eye, "You okay?"
I nod. "Yes, let's just get it over with."
Jason and Bradley are talking about something, but I don't even know what it is. At least my stomach has settled down. Somebody must do this, so why not me? I can do this.
After ten minutes or sixty minutes, I have no idea how long, Silas opens the door and steps in. "The deputy left for lunch."
Bradley stands up, "Today we bring justice back to this town."
I rise out of the chair holding the shotgun in my hands. Silas steps back out the door and looks up and down the alleyway. "Clear."
I step past him and walk across the alley toward the side door of the sheriff's office. I put a hand on the doorknob, take a deep breath, and open it.
I take two quick steps in and face Sheriff Raynes, sitting behind his desk. His mouth drops open and he scrambles for the gun at his waist. I point the shotgun at his chest, "See you in Hell," and pull both triggers.
The roar of the blast is deafening, and my shoulder is wrenched back by the recoil. I look at the devil, slumped in his chair with blood splattered on his desk and the wall behind him.
I guess I walked back to the bank, though I don't remember doing it. My three partners in crime are celebrating and patting me on the back. I hand the shotgun to Jason and walk out the office, through the bank, and onto the street. I ignore the crowd forming in front of the sheriff's office and head home.
I didn't die today.
Richard McGee spends his retirement years writing down the words he hears from the voices in his head. He enjoys telling about the common man doing extraordinary things.
Back to Top
Back to Home
Amidst the Effervescing Hemlock
by PG Lengsfelder
Banning, Montana had sprouted out of ambition, mud and dust. But without roots its hastily built structures were losing to the wind. Abraham watched the late afternoon squalls bounce skeleton tumbleweeds down Sprott Street whispering the town's precarious balance. He could imagine the town, maybe the entire Montana Territory, acceding back to the raw spruce, hemlock and lodgepole mountains, and to the rocky moraine that spilled into Banning Lake.
"Ya know," offered Bunny Sprott, "they're building warehouses, putting machines to making boots and shoes. Back east, Charles says."
The wind shot dust against the storefront. The sign above the cobblery groaned.
Abraham tightened his bark-stained fingers around the cowhide. Another shock of street grit stormed the shop's cracks and hung in the air. "You will hold still? Or maybe you wait another four-five weeks. Maybe more." His accent negligible but there. "I am not one of those machines."
Bunny's hands went up in retreat, palms so soft you could almost smell the lotion. "I'm just a messenger."
The hint of lotions nettled him. Her ruffles nettled him. Her porcelain skin and olive eyes did the same. He pulled the leather to her right foot. "Sewing machines . . . " He spit the words. "Goodyear Sewing Machines. Good luck. The rich rubber guy's son will turn craft into crap." Abraham tugged hard.
"Easy!" she said. "Who ya think you're handlin'?"
Abraham didn't know for sure and that irritated him. She was born Anna Louise—a rather cultivated name thought Abraham—yet her husband, Charles, insisted on calling her Bunny. Like some common jackrabbit. Still, Charles being Charles, it made sense for everyone else to do the same. But it was so unlike Charles to marginalize anything he possessed.
"Shoddy? That is what you want? Go for the machine." He reached for the pincer, then decided against it.
Bunny sniffed at the muggy walls, inhaled the scent of the large, warm barrels of tanning bark, the hanging strips of cured leather, and the damp workbench lined with awls, chisels and scrappers. Not unlike her father's workshop. Her shoulders fell, relaxing into the precious moisture. "Could put you out of business, dontcha think?" He didn't answer. She filled the space. "I like the smell of your place. Always have."
He pulled the leather off her flawless foot and slipped it onto the wooden last. "We are finished for now." He slid her dun-powdered boots back on, then blew on them, raising a burst of powder that joined the room's haze. He closed his eyes and dragged his fingers over each of the boot's vamps, searching for a clearing of pure hide, dowsing for some ancestral quality.
She flinched. "What're you doing?"
"I am reading." Then gruffly, "like a blind man."
"You read, Abraham?"
He pulled his hands off her boot. "Of course."
His chafed reaction obvious though she deflected it. "I thought so. What do you read?"
"On whatever I can get my hands." His jaw locked. "Why?"
"So, you know what's happening in Cleveland?"
He waved her from the stool. "They are getting electrical street lighting. Progress, they say." He wiped his hands on a rag and threw it down.
"Yes." She seemed surprised, and pleased. "What kind of books do you read?"
"Same. Whatever I can get my hands on. Step down, please."
She appeared to debate with herself, then asked, "You like humorous books?"
"I've got one for you. Rudder Grange." She slid off the stool.
He didn't know what to make of her. "Thank you."
She pulled on her shawl, black with lush red roses and plump yellow carnations—something she'd mail ordered from St. Louis. She brushed at the tassels. "You got a chip on that shoulder?"
"No chip," he said. "See you next week. They should be done."
She hesitated in the shop's doorway, inventorying the place. Abraham took the knob and ushered her out into the bright light and onto the wooden boardwalk. Her sage balm curled by him and the wind swept it away. Unnerving. "Next week," he said. He should have offered some pleasantry, something to pass on to Charles. But he didn't.
He turned to his workshop and, shoulder against the door, shut out the quarreling September gusts. The door shivered and rattled. He fingered the "Closed" sign. Then left it on the small hook.
He stepped between the benches—strewn with wooden molds and shoes and boots in transition. He moved directly to his workbench and opened a small drawer. It opened like warm butter, smooth, satisfying him. He pushed aside eyelets and small bronze tacks. He pulled a tattered piece of paper and unfolded it on the bench. He read the crudely handwritten leaflet again:
Meeting of the True Americans
This Saturday Sept. 13, 1879
Restore your community.
The White Knights
Down the street, several miners gathered around Curry's General Store, sharing stories and handling the arsenal of picks, sledges and borers that Frank Curry propped against his storefront.
Abraham tucked against the wind and turned into the Back Rows at the edge of town. For a mining settlement already so thin on polish, the Back Rows—with its maze of alleys, stench and thugs—exposed rovers to Banning's bleakest netherworld. And yet he came. But always on the lookout.
Mostly it had been the lack of female companionship that had first brought him here, after his Lillian didn't last the first winter. She just left. No note. No explanation. He tried to understand. He chose to accept that the raw nature of the land which freed him, was simply too much for her. In Banning you had to make do. And the Chinaman was at least gracious.
"So nice to see you again, Mister Abraham."
The sweet, welcoming smell of opium surrounded him. "And you, Min, as always." He rubbed against the leaflet in his pocket, his intention to warn Min no longer certain. Perhaps he was overreacting. The air softened around him. "Where is that darling daughter of yours?"
"Janey? She play by lake. This place too stuffy for six-year-old."
Abraham and Lillian had dreamt of children. "You are a lucky man."
"Thank you, she my gem." Min showed him through the beaded curtain to the dimly-lit room of straw mats, couches and beds. Men and a few women sprawled around in the haze. None bothered to look up and Abraham made no attempt to identify them, though he recognized William B's deformed leg and foot dangling from a settee—bent unnaturally skyward from a mine accident—and Benjamin, the livery boy, suckled to Florence the whore, his narrow foot sliding up and down her robust thigh.
"This room is okay?" said Min, offering him a pipe. "Or you prefer the Green Lady Room in the back?" His lack of pretense always a salve to Abraham, a gratitude Abraham didn't know how to express.
Abraham found an open spot close to William B and took the long pipe. "This will be fine, Min. Thank you."
Min lit the pipe.
* * *
Charles Sprott had the benefit of circumference, which made up for his lack of height and hair. But the way he swung his ivory walking stick was his true calling card. Some would say it was a club, and there were several stories to corroborate its use in that manner.
"You ever considered selling your shop, Abraham?" Sprott brought less dust with him than most. He made himself comfortable on the cobbler's stool, swinging his walking stick like a pendulum. "Maybe get yourself out of this dreary place." Sprott stuck out his heavily waxed, oak-tanned Spanish leather boots; a demand for immediate service.
Abraham stopped stirring the vat of lime. "What do you need, Mr. Sprott?"
"Need 'em shined."
"I am busy. Can you leave them here?"
Sprott looked around the shop. "Don't look busy."
"I have shoes and boots on order for seven people. I have another twelve for repair."
"Yes, well I'm here now," said Sprott. "Maybe you could do me a favor."
Abraham placed the lid on the tub of lime, wiped his hands on a cloth. "Mrs. Sprott is one of the customers ahead of you."
Sprott smiled. "Bunny would want you to put me ahead of her."
"Sorry, Mr. Sprott, but if you come back—"
"I think you should sell me your shop, Abraham. There's talk of a railroad in a couple years and a Philadelphia machine that stitches sixty-four to the inch. It's going to wipe you out soon enough. Get out while you can."
For all of Sprott's pomp, Abraham wanted to remind him that he'd seen his tiny feet, his hairy foot knuckles, his ape-like metatarsal phalangeals. But he resisted. "No machine is doing that," said Abraham. "And this is what I do. What makes you think you will do better? You are going to bring fancy machines to Banning?"
"Ben Potts is a friend of mine."
Abraham raised an eyebrow. "The Territorial Governor is good with leather?"
"You might not understand," said Sprott standing and stretching himself. "But I come from pretty clean, pretty smart stock."
"See, I didn't think you'd understand. Never mind. But think about it. Think about moving on."
* * *
On Saturday, from a hillside, Abraham watched the few town folk with religion file out of the makeshift church. The town's men greatly out-populated the women, but equal amounts wandered out this afternoon, shaking the hand of the pastor who stood tall and rooted. Abraham knew the pastor's feet, the biggest he'd seen in several years, except for that miner who only lived three months in town before he slipped into a pit and was covered alive in gravel. O'Halloran his name. Irish accent and all. So full of hope. Didn't do him much good. Buried in those size seventeens.
Down below, Henry Thomas wasn't wearing the modified Wellington boots Abraham had made for him, but his brother Louis was wearing his ankle high lace-ups. Louis bid his wife goodbye, and joined his brother and skinny Willie Warden, and Frank Curry. The four disappeared behind the weathered row of storefronts in animated conversation.
Abraham considered each man. Could a successful businessman like Frank Curry join a group like the White Knights? Or one of the Thomas brothers, one a skilled assayer and the other a busy mining claims recorder? Willie Warden was crude and uncouth, but did that mean he was hateful?
"You're not a praying man, are you Abraham?" Charles Sprott leaned against his walking stick.
Abraham startled. He turned away from his view of the church and gathered himself. "I pray."
"You do? And who might you pray to?"
Abraham assessed Sprott; it was none of his business. "Saint Crispin."
A kind of sporting indulgence spread across Sprott's unusually broad, plump pink lips. "Never heard of him. You're making him up."
Abraham steadied his breathing. "And I heard you were a well-read gentleman."
Sprott's smile collapsed.
Abraham lifted his head to the dust-yellowed sky. "I thought everyone knew the patron saint of shoemakers."
"There's no such thing."
"He was put to death for his beliefs. Can you imagine that?"
Sprott glared. He looked ready to raise his walking stick. "You know, Abraham, this life in the territory, it's just not right for some. They don't belong. Just look what happened to that Mick—"
"Yeah, him. And the Mexican Beaner."
"Good day, sir," said Abraham ambling off the hillock toward town. He resisted a look back. Instead, he surveyed the south-facing mountains and the slender lodgepole pines beginning to drop their needles and turn rusty—a sign that the bark beetles were attacking. Even dead, he knew, the trees would stand another hundred years unless cut down.
At the edge of town, he turned to The Back Rows, and made his way to the Chinaman's. If escape was all he desired, King's Saloon would do. But, ultimately, Abraham found liquor to be dispiriting; the Chinaman provided something more: civility and peace. If only for a few hours.
The Back Rows took winds from all sides. They slapped at the Chinaman's door, opening it a few inches, then clapping it shut, then opening it again. No voices leaked into the alley.
A single step in and the air lacked its usual sweetness. The lamps were not lit. Not even one. A dim light filtered from the Green Lady Room, a room Abraham had visited but twice; the only place in town that offered a notion of elegance.
To that room, Min had brought silks from afar, large luxurious ones, that Abraham found beautiful in ways he'd only imagined, and only then because his father had said such things existed—before his father placed Abraham on a ship and sent him away. The Chinaman arranged the fabrics against the Green Lady's walls and ceilings, a portal to Abraham, to the greater world. Places he could feel and taste though he'd never been, and might never.
And in that Green Lady Room, there was an ornate mint-colored bed that resembled a boat—perfect for sailing away—and a brass ceiling lamp lent calm protection, as the room lied about what roiled on the other side of its walls. And because of that evasion, Abraham often preferred the transition from the Common Room to the street to be easier. But there were times, like this, that Abraham welcomed the oncoming artifice of the Green Lady.
Buzzing horseflies caught his ear, sawing at the stillness. The light of the room darker, his eyes adjusting. He bumped against weight. Hanging from a rafter. A silhouette.
Before he even glanced at Min's contorted face, Min's nakedness—hanging like that—disoriented Abraham; he imagined for a moment that he'd already taken a puff of opium and was caught in one of its trade winds.
Min's emerald robe and ornate golden slippers lay on the floor below him. The room crowded with the demons previously unleashed by his customers. And as if pushed by them, Abraham fell against the Chinaman, breaking his fall by wrapping his arms around Min's legs, his thighs. With the crack of the rafter, the corpse rained down-all arms and legs and snapping head—onto Abraham's back, the Chinaman's chilled pale skin hanging over him in one last embrace. Abraham threw off the body.
Circled in iron-colored blood, a rusted nail punctured deep into Min's belly and skewered a handwritten note. The handwriting familiar.
Asians, Blacks, Catholics, Jews or Mexicans.
If you got color, take it out of here. We don't want it.
* * *
Two hours later, Abraham still twitched. He rocked from foot to foot. As if the balls of his feet were being violated by hemlock slivers. "See," he said, and turned to the bulky man brushing chalk from his canvas duster. "See, High Water?"
"Don't call me that." High Water tugged at his mustache, he examined the paper. His peak-to-broken-peak nose, its own history of run-ins.
Someone in the area had nicknamed the lawman "High Water." It got around and stuck. Each spring, he made "sporting trades" predicting high water marks for each of the area lakes. These transactions, like most transactions, usually included the exchange of money or property. Which he'd been prohibited to take given his position, and a slice of which always went to Charles Sprott.
Abraham pressed again. "Okay, sheriff, what are you going to do?"
"Not anymore." He handed the paper back to Abraham. "Not anymore. Go find Morgan Earp. He's the guy now. Or Timberlake. What you gonna do about the body?"
The horseflies swarmed Min's glassy eyes and took turns gnawing on them. Outside, the wind kicked up. Abraham drew his gaze back to High Water. "What?"
"The body," sighed High Water. "What you gonna do about it?"
"Who is going to get the people who did this?"
High Water shrugged. "Not my problem. And probably not yours either, I don't suppose."
"You can see what this is." He pointed to the leaflet in High Water's hands.
High Water handed the paper back to him. "Well, I see the old Chinaman at my feet. Don't really need no piece of a paper for that, now do I? Don't know who'd do this. Maybe you do."
Abraham shook his head. "I don't." He swore in a language foreign to the ex-sheriff. "Kurva! I do not. And where is the little girl? Who is going take care of her now? We have monsters in this town."
"Monsters? You smoke too much of that stuff." High Water waved his arm around the lifeless room. He cracked his knuckles. He regarded Min's cut and tortured face, one eyeball distracted from the other: one pegged to the ceiling, the other staring up at the two men-oozing a thick fluid. He winced. "Unless you got witnesses or proof of some sort, I'd let it go."
The cords in Abraham's neck grew taught. "Let it go?"
"Look, I'll help you with the body." High Water motioned to the corpse. "Or you want to leave it here?"
"This is like the Mexican," said Abraham.
"You could forget him? The short guy; always cracking jokes, hard to understand. Worked at the saloon cleaning up. A year ago. They found him by the creek, impaled on a lodgepole spike."
"Oh him," said High Water. "An accident. Mexicans don't understand these mountains. You want to leave it here?" He pointed to the Chinaman's body.
"Kurva!" Abraham threw Min's robe over his privates, motioned High Water to take Min's legs. Abraham grabbed his shoulders. The horseflies circled briefly then resumed their feasting. Min's head and broken neck slopped to its side onto Abraham's stomach, smearing the seeping eye across it. "This way."
* * *
Zerial Hall, Banning's scraggy undertaker, wanted nothing to do with the body; said it was bad for business. Abraham snorted at the absurdity. Zerial slammed the door in his face.
In a far corner of the cemetery, the wind moaned and the fallow sky faded, shrouding Abraham as he pulled the Chinaman's body from his buckboard and dug a shallow grave. Then set out looking for Min's daughter.
He asked everywhere—in the few stores that were still open, in King's Saloon, in the livery and by the lake shore. He even went to the church but it was locked. No one had seen her. He searched till Banning became one with the moonless night and the coyotes began howling. He dragged himself to his spare cottage behind the cobblery and fell asleep fully clothed.
"Min!" Abraham woke, wet and sticky with a sour pit in his stomach. Even in the filmy darkness he sought familiar objects; his eyes jumping from his small stove, sitting cold. The two unlit lanterns hanging by the door. His heart still thumping.
Then the sound, a kind of rustling. Not the autumn rodents nesting in the walls. Murmuring. Voices. Behind him. In the clearing behind the cottage. The small rear window flickered with light, daylight several hours away. Too far away. The light fractured, a moving mosaic. Abraham moved with it, to the back door.
He threw it open.
Surrounding him were seven figures, torches in hand; crude white hoods, long white robes stopping above their ankles.
They were of various sizes and girths. The tallest man took a half step toward him. "If you're a practical man, you'll go. You have one week, no more." The man rejoined the group.
Abraham didn't recognize the voice. Their torches spit at the night, crowding it out. Their whiteness towering. "Get in the house and start packing." The men lowered the torches and pointed them at him. Their eyes glistened like tombstones in the firelight. "Now!"
* * *
Abraham went feverishly about his daily schedule, like a man hoping to outpace wolves. There were vats to fill and heat: the water, the lime, the tanning bark. There were shoes to fabricate. There were boots to rehabilitate and relinquish.
Customers wandered in and out all day. Like Widow Cutcher, complaining about the weather and picking at the scabs on her cheeks. Until Albert Armstrong checked in about his cowboy boots—the newest vagary and an odd one for Albert who always presented himself as uninterested in vogue or whim. Skinny Willie Warden, never voluble or interested in Abraham, coming in like a stray, making chit-chat . . .
"Willie." Abraham barely glanced up from scraping a hide, intent on meeting his deadline. "What can I do you for?"
"Just stoppin' in." Willie picked tobacco from his rotting teeth.
"Need your boots mended?" He checked Willie's boots. "They look pretty respectable." Abraham laid the hide over the workbench and began scrubbing it with vinegar.
Willie looked around. Rubbed his stubble. "Yeah. No. Has Henry Thomas been in?"
"Last couple days?"
Abraham shook his head. "Have not seen him. Wait. Saw Henry Monday."
"He is thinking about new boots. Asking questions, if I have time to make them."
Willie tilted his head. "Do you?"
"I am not sure. Why?" He inspected Willie's boots more closely.
Willie frowned. He scanned the room again. "This place don't change much, do it?"
"What do you mean? Looks the same since I have been here."
"Yeah, it sure does." Willie spewed a glob of fecal brown chaw to the floor. "Sure does."
* * *
A couple days later, Frank Curry came in looking for Willie Warden.
"You seen him?" Curry peeked at the tools carefully aligned on the workbench, the organization of boots and shoes, the unruffled order of things.
"I did. Yesterday or the day before." Abraham stopped paddling the vat of lime and gave full attention to Frank.
Curry ran his hand over the tops of the villager's waiting shoes. "Say where he was going?"
"Not to me."
"Hmm. You see him, ask him to come by the store. I got Joseph running the counter and a load of inventory next few days. Tell him I'm in back."
* * *
On the sixth day, as Abraham stirred the tanning vat, Bunny shuffled into the shop holding the book she'd promised him. He'd been concentrating on the wake of hot liquid as it spiraled to the barrel's edges. Her arrival clashed with his thoughts. "Mrs. Sprott."
She came in tentatively, and with a queer look. "Have you seen Charles?" She raised the book and laid it on a bench.
"Thank you," he said acknowledging the gift. "No, not recently." Despite the hemlock cloud drifting from the vat, he could almost savor her clarifying sage aroma, and yet her eyes lacked their usual vibrancy.
"He didn't come by yesterday?"
"No. Not that I recall. Why?"
She carried a weariness so common for the women—and many of the men—of Banning, but so unnatural upon her shoulders. "He said he was planning on coming into town."
"To see me?"
"Not specifically." She began to turn away.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
Head down, her eyes seemed to study the fissures in the floorboards. "It's not like him to be gone this long." She vacillated then grunted. "He sleeps with Florence the whore, doesn't he?" She raised her head and looked Abraham in the eye. "That's where he is."
"I wouldn't know."
"You're too much of a gentleman to say so. By now I should be used to it. He's a sonuvabitch. But you already know that." Bunny withdrew from Abraham's concern and explored the room. She settled into the space. Her anger came down a notch. "What're you doing?"
"At what? Can I see?"
"It is not so interesting."
"I want to see."
Abraham considered his options then motioned for her to come alongside him and the row of tubs, two of which were covered; the third bubbling a deep burgundy umber. "Color," said Abraham. "Hemlock. Much better than human brains, dung or urine for tanning."
She seemed to revive, chuckling at the eccentricity. "We don't always recognize the opportunities that change offers us."
"In some things," he said.
She watched her reflection expand in the vat of rippling dye. "This color, it's very soothing. But dangerous."
"Socrates died drinking hemlock," she said. "You know who that is?"
"Of course." Her prodding becoming a game. "But it was a different hemlock, you know?"
She blinked and softened in appreciation. "Really?"
"A plant, not the tree. He died for his beliefs drinking its tea. His choice."
Her lips parted. "Yes." She placed her hand on his arm. "You like plants and forests?"
It was if she'd thrown him into Banning's chilled lake. His breath caught. "I do."
"Beauty in common things."
"I have a book of nature drawings called that. I'll share it with you, too."
"I should get back to my work," he said. "I have very little time."
"Of course." She took one last look around and left him to his chores.
* * *
On the seventh day, Abraham closed the shop, but continued his agitated work. Every holler from the street and every thud from behind his building, raised heat on his brow and stiffened his shoulders. In the late afternoon the wind picked up, and the front door bickered against it. The rapping at the door came louder and more consistently. It wouldn't go away.
He raised the shade and found Bunny Sprott leaning against the wind and holding on to her round-crowned hat, the wide brim turned up on one side flapping in the bluster. Out of place and yet so refreshing in Banning.
He cracked open the door. "I'm closed."
She nudged forward, prying over his shoulder. "I'm looking for some hide, for my next pair of boots."
"I'm almost finished with the ones you ordered."
"I want to order another pair."
"Can it wait?" He clung to the door blocking her path.
"No. You've been tanning. You showed me yourself. I want to select from the new batch." She pushed past him into the shop. "Show me what you've got."
Abraham shut his eyes. He sighed.
"Well?" she said.
"Okay." And he led her to the strips of common fare hanging on the rear wall. Cow. Calf. Horse. Buffalo. "Dressy or work? I might have some oxen coming in."
"Don't know yet." She pressed him. "What else you got?"
"That's about it right now." He tried to walk her back to the front of the shop.
She pointed to a small door in the corner. "What's in there?"
"Not much. A few stragglers. Probably not enough for boots."
"I want to see them." She moved toward the door before he could intercept her. "Let me see." She opened it revealing a tight storeroom no more than six feet long, three feet wide with a low slanted ceiling, lit only from the main room windows. But even in the meager light she could see four or five hides hanging from hooks. "What are these?"
"Not as durable." He put his hand on the door. "Will not last like those others." He pointed to the main room. "Let us pick something out there."
She wavered, then followed his lead as he walked her back to the leathers. When he turned to her, she was standing by the vats. "How does this work?" she asked.
"I really need to keep moving, I have a time limit."
Her hands went to her hips, she stood her ground. "I'm a good customer, aren't I?"
"Okay," he said joining her. "And then you will let me finish my work?"
Bunny hedged for a moment, gauging his discomfort, before nodding.
"After salting the hide, I soak it in water until it is soft and any last pieces of flesh and fat are removed." He stepped to the next vat.
She started to lift the lid.
"No!" he said, slamming it closed. "It's lime, very caustic. You can burn yourself." Your beautiful skin.
"I'm sturdier than you think." But she backed off.
"I am sure you are, but this will dissolve your hair and epidermis. It causes the hide to swell. It opens the fiber bundles for better penetration."
She cackled. "Sounds fascinating."
The room felt warmer. Abraham tugged at his apron. "For tanning."
"This last vat," she said as she hovered over the last great cask, "it's like you showed me the other day?"
"Yes," he said trying to draw her away. "Let's get back to the hides."
She reached for the last lid. "I want to see the color again."
"No, I'm still working on something."
"Let's see." She lifted the lid; he reached for it, too late. Amidst the effervescing hemlock, a hide tumbled and pirouetted. "Can I see this one?" She bent over the barrel.
"It is not quite ready." Again, he signaled her to follow him.
"Even better." She didn't budge. Her chest began to heave. "I'm intrigued by your work, your craftsmanship."
"That is kind, but—"
"Please." Once more, she touched his arm and he caught a whiff of her purifying sage.
He reached for a large hook. "Very well." He dipped the hook into the vat and drew out the hide, hoisting it above the vat, letting the hemlock color drip back into the foam.
She studied the hide; admiration filled her eyes. "You are an artist."
He swallowed. "Thank you." Then began to lower the hide back into the churning cauldron.
"I'll bet you know every man and woman in this village by their boots and shoes."
Abraham cocked his head toward her. "I do."
"Funny," Bunny said, "this hide . . . with its pink oval there . . . They're like lips. Reminds me of Charles."
"Charles? Yes, it does I suppose." He replaced the cover on the vat. "Did he ever mention a group called The White Knights?"
She was clearly befuddled. "I can't say that he did. Why?"
"No matter," Abraham said. "I think we are rid of all of them now." His arm swept over the boots and shoes awaiting repair. "I better get back to work. I have lots to do; this town depends on me."
As a child, PG Lengsfelder thought he was destined to be a fireman or a forest ranger. But he started writing at age seven and has been writing ever since.
He co-authored the best-selling nonfiction book FILTHY RICH. His first psychological suspense novel BEAUTIFUL TO THE BONE (2016) met with critical acclaim, and he has written for numerous publications including Rocky Mountain Magazine, ArtLines magazine, and Patterns. His stories have been heard on National Public Radio and seen on CNN, Discovery Channel and other national television. After living ten years in Montana, he currently lives in Colorado. His new mystery novel OUR SONG, MEMENTO MORI just came out.
His website is http://www.pglengsfelder.com/
His Amazon author page is https://www.amazon.com/PG-Lengsfelder/e/B01EXKF6O2?ref_=dbs_p_pbk_r00_abau_000000
His Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/PG-Lengsfelder-595360567297422
Back to Top
Back to Home
Aces and Jacks
by Tom Sheehan
Jack Kirkness broke out of the Westfork Jail when he was 22 years old, jailed for a crime he did not commit, in a town he had never been in before. Sheriff Jake Slater, of questionable character, in a sudden move, had slammed him on the head in the saloon and announced to all present, "This is the same fellow I saw last month who killed Theron Francgon right in his own corral and got away from me before I could catch him. Now I caught up to him. We're gonna have a hangin' here, gents, soon as the judge comes back from Trailhead where he's sure to get hung the killer he's tryin' up there."
Kirkness, after his escape, headed back home to Tailgate, Texas to see his pals, knowing they'd all be back in Westfork before it was all done with.
He and his best pals, three towheads, were born in the same week within a mile of each other. The three of them, Jack Knowles, Jack Kendrick and Jack Kirkness, grew up in the same patch, played the same games, rode the same ponies on the swap, and ended up sweet on the same girl on more than one occasion, the way life pops over the daily horizon.
But they were different in some respects, aces at a choosing of their own.
Knowles was expert in and about horses from his first mount. Kendrick had a bit of the showman, actor, and circus man in him as he dallied on the art of the rope, becoming deft in its uses and manipulations. Alas for Kirkness, the gun came easiest and best to him, the swing of it to his aiming, the light touch of it in his hand, the deadliness it could affect when he squeezed the trigger with such intent.
Knowles and Kendrick, of course, the way time and the country was developing, moving on, often depended on Kirkness's abilities with weapons from their early days.
The way each one of them said, "Jack," the tone set as if his last name was also appended, was perfectly understood by one of the other two to know he alone was being addressed . . . or called upon for help. That last part happened many times in their growing years, before the horse was an escape, the rope was a joy, for the gun prowess came first because of its nature and its need in the early west, wild and wooly as it was in the heart of Texas.
At some point in adolescence, the trio was discussed several times by the only two educated men in Tailgate, the lone doctor and the lone lawyer. It was the doctor who said, "Those boys come promised with handsome looks, good height, broad shoulders, social and physical skills, and respect for those ahead of them who have cut a swath across Texas, as seen to by their parents and asked of them."
The lawyer simply said, "Saluda," for they were having their lunchtime drink in Tailgate's lone saloon.
And each one of the young trio improved his own specialty, constantly sharing it with each other.
An early incident is indicative of such an occasion: The three, at 13, were on a ride in the local foothills that swung away from the river and moved toward the mountains. Jack Kendrick saw a boulder sitting atop a mess of rocks, and from his saddle swung his lariat in a swirling arc to snag onto the boulder . . . "Just for the hell of it," he'd say later. For some reason his horse shied and Kendrick yanked at the rope. The boulder, at the yank, did not come his way but rolled off the other side and dragged at him still clutching the rope. He did not want to lose the rope and dismounted to retrieve it, when the boulder suddenly gathered momentum on the other side and yanked him with it, dragging him across a hole that he fell into.
Kendrick's scream brought Knowles to the site directly, who looked down into the hole and saw a bloody Kendrick frozen against the side of the hole with half a dozen rattlesnakes on the floor of the hole. Knowles didn't know what to do, but his cry for "Jack" brought Kirkness from way out on the grass to the edge of the hole into which he stared, made up his mind on the needed actions, and said to Kendrick, "Whatever you do, Jackie, don't move and don't scream again. Stay flat against that wall and don't jump when you hear any noise. Make sure of that. You have to."
The Colt at his hip came up fast and he killed 5 of the 6 snakes with 5 shots and the 6th snake slipped away and was lost from sight. Knowles leaped for the rope on his horse and threw it down to Kendrick and the other two pals hauled him out of the hole, full of thanks and full of a giddy sensation even as the blood ran down his face from the head cut he had suffered in the fall.
An hour later the incident had receded into the past and only came up years later when they began spinning boyhood tales in the local saloon having a beer. Such an occasion brought up a few other "rescues" by one of the others, mainly by the particular specialty that drove them.
It was at 15 that each one of the Jacks fell in love, or so they thought, with Elsie Whitmore, daughter of the town barber, a lovely redhead with daring blue eyes and many freckles, who had a fiery temper, firm stance on social etiquette and other thoughts common to girls her age, especially town girls who had a steady vision of the women who worked in the saloon or at the hotel. She wanted no part of such a role for woman and often proclaimed that she would prevent as much of it as she could in her life.
"Ain't she something, that Elsie girl," Kendrick was apt to say anyplace and anytime as if such statements were a sign of possession that Else Whitmore was his girl. The other Jacks understood what he meant and took their own turns at jabbing audible pokes at him, and held out, for about a year, their own feelings on the affair. Knowles and Kirkness were also enamored of the barber's daughter and all three would crowd around Elsie at barn dances and other local festivities.
When Elsie did not come home one night, having left a friend's house just after dark, her father woke the Tailgate sheriff and a search was started.
Jacks Kendrick heard about Elsie about midnight from ranch hands returning from town and alerted his two pals with a secret signal they'd used since early boyhood. They saw the scurrying about going on around town.
Knowles said to his pals, "Let's go see Brenda Grace. She was supposed to be the last one who talked to Elsie when she headed home."
The others agreed and they went to Brenda Grace's house at one end of town. Brenda was pretty level-headed and respected their line of questioning, which came at her like shots from an automatic rifle, and tried to give a short and honest answer to each question:
"What did she say when she left?"
"Goodnight, Brenda. See you tomorrow."
"Did she say what way she was going home?"
"Just the regular way, past the hotel and the livery and the barber shop and Cody Williams's widow's house."
"Was she going to see anybody else on the way?"
"No, I really don't think so." The tone of the answer did not sit well with Kirkness. It made him uneasy.
He said, "Does she have a secret boyfriend we don't know about?"
"I don't think that's any of your business," to which Kirkness said, "That means yes to us, so don't be stupid about it, Brenda, even if it hurts our feelings, but there's something here that's more important and you better spill the beans right now before all hell breaks loose."
"She'll kill me if I tell."
"Well, how would you feel if someone's kidnapped her and kills her while you keep a silly secret?"
"She likes the new deputy, Josh Randolph, but it's just a crush a lot of girl's have on him. He's just so good looking. That's all it is," to which Knowles said, "Do you think she went by the sheriff's office on the way home? That's in the other direction from her home."
"She didn't start that way. I watched her as she was about near the hotel. She crossed over from there. That's the last I saw of her."
"That's where we'll start," Kirkness said. At that, Kendrick had his eyes closed and was nodding his head.
Kirkness said, "You thinking of something, Jack?"
"Yep," he said. "There are three places open on that side of the street until about 9 o'clock. Let's shake 'em out and ask them if they saw Elsie or anything funny."
The storekeeper said he waved at Elsie as she passed outside his window the night before. "She waved back at me and kept walking. She was past the window in seconds." He shook his head, saying he had no more information and hoped he had offered something useful.
Harriet the dressmaker said Elsie had tapped at her window when she walked past her store window just as darkness set in the night before. "I knew she was heading home from Brenda's. She visits there a lot."
Three doors past Harriet's place, Korby Belfast said he'd been sitting in the entrance to the livery and Elsie had surely not walked past him. " That girl says hello to all the folks she knows all the time. And she didn't go past here last night."
"Did you have any customers last night? Knowles said. "About that time, just when it was getting dark?"
"The only one came in to get his horse was that new hand at the Smithers' place. The one they call Fast-Eddy, rides an appaloosa big as a house. Looks like they threw cans of paint at him. Had a shoe that got fixed at the blacksmith who brought him here to hold him for Fast-Eddy who come for him and left."
"That's all there is to it, Mr. Belfast? "
"Well, he took a loaner too, come to think of it. A quiet mare I loan out lots of time. Ain't too spirited, if you ask me."
"Was he headed back to the ranch, back to Smithers' Three Star spread?"
"I guess he was. Headed out that way through the north trail. Easiest way to get there."
The jacks had started out on the north trail and were heading toward the Three Star Spread, a new moon calling attention over the mountain range, and many stars at their night work. It was Kendrick who halted his mount, and said, "Listen and smell the air."
He turned his horse around and went back only a few feet, to where he saw the distant glow well off the trail and in among scraggy rocks of a landslide from the far past.
The three sat their mounts listening, smelling, and seeing the now-and-then flicker of flames from a fire.
"I smell the smoke now, Knowles said. It sure smells like it comes from up in there, in those rocks down in the half canyon where Jud Igoe got hurt that time."
Kirkness said, "We have to check this out, and quietly. Don't make any noise. Maybe Elsie's in there and in trouble.
With their horses tied off away from the trail, they proceeded toward the flickering flames until they got close enough to hear a deep voice say, "Don't bother none tryin' to scream with half your pretty shirt in your mouth. Nobody'll hear you out here. I saw you flirtin' with the deputy. Others must have saw it too. Now you can pay for flirtin' an' I figure he gets blamed for it if anythin' happens or goes wrong."
The pals heard a canteen on a rattle on a rock and the voice said, "I'm gettin' warmed up for a good night, girl. Just be comfortable and wait on me." The rattle came again, and moments later, again.
The young men crawled agonizingly closer to the pair at the fire, when they heard the heavy male voice say, "You really like that pretty kid deputy, don'tcha? Let's get them boots off'n yore feet now, sister. Don't want you kickin' me none."
The gruff-voiced man had his hand on one of Elsie's heel and did not see the wide-eyed look come across Elsie's face, but he did hear the click of Kirkness's Colt directly behind one ear, then heard Kirkness say, "One more move or one more word to Elsie and your three times dead in a hurry. Even before he could make the silly move to draw his gun, a rope sliced through the air and embraced him with a harsh grasp that took him off his feet and sat him directly in the fire.
On fire, disarmed, one voice said, "That ain't the worse coming your way, mister, and some of the worst is coming with you walking back to town with no boots on. Get 'em off!"
Kendrick untied Elsie Whitmore and pulled the piece of shirt from her mouth. She hugged him and began to cry.
Knowles said, "Why don't you shoot him where it's going to hurt him most, Jack?"
"Naw," Kirkness responded, "the boys at Plummerville Jail will sure take care of that when the word on him gets there."
The infatuation with Elsie Whitmore also receded into the past as fast as the rattlesnake killing had.
They went their ways for a while and when Kirkness came back into after his escape from jail, there was sumptuous joy and celebrating.
But that was short-lived, for soon there came the wanted poster on Jack Kirkness, "Wanted for the murder of Theron Francgon in Westfork, Texas on July 28, 1876 and witnessed by Sheriff Jake Slater of Westfork."
Of course, the Tailgate Sheriff, Carl Putnam, walked up the street and put his hand on Kirkness's shoulder as he stood at the saloon bar. "Jack," he said, "I got a wanted poster on you from Westfork and have to take you in." He showed the poster to Jack and his friends.
Kirkness, after studying it for a few minutes, turned to Knowles and said, "Jack, can you dispute this poster on any point?"
Nodding his head, poring over the poster, Knowles said, with a laugh, "It sure in Hell looks like you, Jack, but I know about 100 people who'll say it's all a trumped-up charge because that's the day you won the turkey shoot-out at Willow Springs and half of Tailgate was down there to see the whole show."
Then, tossing off the last of his beer, Kirkness said, "Are you going to come along with us to Westfork, Sheriff, 'cause we got some honest-to-goodness squaring away to do up there?"
"I sure am, Jack. Slater's got a poor reputation for a lawman and I want in on this. And there's nobody else I'd rather go with than you boys." There was an almost unconscious slap at his holster.
A day later the man in the wanted poster headed back to Westfork, with his two bosom buddies and a sheriff foresworn to uphold the law. Unseen by them, a fourth rider slipped in behind them when they were a few miles outside of Tailgate and stayed behind them, out of sight the whole way.
The three Jacks from Tailgate, as was mighty evident, thought their mission was going to be a simple task of righting a wrong, clearing the books for justice and going back home as soon as possible.
But Tailgate Sheriff Carl Putnam, a range officer of the law for a long time, the experience carved into his face, knew it was not going to be simple&bsp;. . . not where Jake Slater was involved.
Putnam primed himself for an encounter. He was not sure how that encounter would unfold, but somebody's life would hang in the balance.
He was dead sure of that.
On arrival in Westfork, the four men tied their mounts at the saloon rail. There was some scurrying at their arrival because several people recognized the wanted man who decorated the poster distributed to most of west Texas.
The four new arrivals were at the bar having a drink when the door swung open and Sheriff Jake Slater entered the room, a gun in his hand, but that hand behind his back. One of the town rag-mouths was with him, and behind the rag-mouth came the man who had followed them all the way from Tailgate. He was hardly noticed by the saloon patrons even though he comfortably carried two guns on his belt.
In quick steps Slater was behind Jack Kirkness and stuck the gun in his back, and yelled at Kirkness, "Don't you move one inch or yore dead. You got out of my jail once but not again." He turned to the crowd and made the same declaration he had made before, "This here fellow is the one that shot Theron Francgon right in his own corral and got away from me before I could catch him."
He jabbed the gun into Kirkness's back again. "We even got the judge right here and he's gonna have his trial right now, ain't you, Judge? You ain't got no other trial yore workin', have you, Judge?"
Tailgate Sheriff Putnam, with a wide grin working his face turned slowly to face Slater, and said, "Well, Jake, I see you're up to your old tricks again, coming up behind a man with your gun already drawn, accusing people of crimes they didn't do so you could claim an arrest and or a conviction for your own, or covering up some friend or pard in the business. You don't do anything with this man you got the drop on from behind, like I saw you do it before. We have proof he wasn't anywhere near the Francgon place when he was killed by a bushwhacker."
He turned to Kendrick and Knowles and said, for all to hear including Slater, "These boys were with him the day Francgon was killed and they weren't anywhere near here. It's lock-solid proof we got."
Slater said, "You ain't got any rights here, Carl. Yore badge don't mean nothin' up here, ain't that right, Judge?"
"Yes, Sheriff Slater," the judge said, "you have a legal point there alright, and tight as a drum from where I sit."
"You hear that, folks," Slater yelled out, and went for his gun . . . only to see Jack Kirkness whip his gun from his holster as quick as ever seen in that saloon in Westfork.
A gasp went through the crowd.
Slater leaped into the argument again. "See what he did, folks, drawed on a lawman, and the Judge is ready to run the trial to hang a killer regardless of what these liars are comin' up with." He turned to the judge sitting in the far corner and suggested the next move. "Why don't you come down here, Judge, and get a jury so we can hang this killer."
Kirkness's gun was still on Slater, the hand steady as a log in place.
The judge rose from his seat and started toward the bar, when a voice from near the saloon door said, "Hold it right there, Judge. There's going to be a trial, but you're not going to be in the big chair. You and Sheriff Slater are going to be on the wrong end this time."
He stepped forward, into the middle of the saloon.
Almost in unison the judge and Slater said, "Who the Hell are you?"
The rider who had trailed the four men from Tailgate to Westfork, who had received a telegraph message from his old pal, Sheriff Carl Putnam, flipped his vest aside to show a badge, and offered an explanation to one and all: "I'm John Orbison, Federal Marshal and I sure as Hell have jurisdiction in this area and in this case. And a federal judge will be here by morning time and we'll have a real trial."
At the bar, the three young life-long pals wanted to go back to the business of slow, pleasant drinks, when Jake Slater, measuring all the odds, and all the consequences, went for his gun.
He fell dead from three shots, each one could have killed him, and the smoking guns belonged to a Federal marshal, the Sheriff of Tailgate, Texas, and Jack Kirkness, said to be born of the gun.
Sheehan, in his 93rd year, has published 48 books, latest being Alone, with the Good Graces, and Jock Poems
and Reflections for Proper Bostonians (Pocol Press) and Small Victories for the Soul VII, (Wilderness
House Literary Review), and The Grand Royal Stand-off at Darby's Creek and Other stories. In submission process
are Beneath My Feet this Rare Earth Slips into the Far-side of Another's Telescope, Back Home in Saugus,
and Valor's Commission. He has multiple works in Rosebud, Literally Stories, Linnet's Wings, Serving House
Journal, Frontier Tales, Copperfield Review, Literary Orphans, etc. He was recently saluted in England for the
first writer with 100 pieces on the site, Literally Stories. He has 16 Pushcart nominations, 6 Best of Net
nominations with one winner, and other awards., He graduated from Boston College in 1956, served in Korea 1950-52
and retired from Raytheon Company in 1991.
Back to Top
Back to Home
by John M. Floyd
"What did you do?" Lucy asked.
The young man in the seat across from her made no reply. He just sat there, staring out the window of the stagecoach.
A while ago, when Lucy Roberts climbed into the stage in Heritage, she stumbled a bit on the step, and he had leaned forward to take her hand. Their eyes met then, but he didn't speak—in fact he'd hardly looked at her since.
But she had looked at him. The truth was, she had scarcely taken her eyes off him. He was intriguing, Lucy thought—sandy hair, square chin, blue eyes. And about her age, nineteen or so. She found herself wondering if this feeling, this . . . fascination, almost . . . might be more than just a passing interest. If it was, there were two things here that could prove to be a little inconvenient. One was that she was already engaged to be married; the other was that he was wearing a pair of handcuffs.
Whatever the case, Lucy thought, he should have the courtesy to answer her question. But just as she opened her mouth to ask him again, he turned from the window and looked at her. She snapped her mouth shut.
"Did I miss something?" he asked. His voice was deep, his eyes tired.
Lucy cleared her throat. "I asked you a question."
"Would you care to repeat it?"
"I asked you," she said, with a glance at his handcuffs, "what it was that you did."
Another long pause. Then: "They say I robbed a railroad office." The tiredness in his face seemed to deepen, and he turned again to the window.
"What do you mean 'they say'? Did you or didn't you?"
Again, no response. They rode on in silence.
Finally the third passenger—the man sitting beside the prisoner—spoke up.
"His name's Charlie McCall," the man said. "He was outside, holding his two friends' horses, when the two run out of the office with the stolen money. They was both shot dead, and McCall here was charged as their accomplice." He paused, then added, "He said he hadn't known anything about a robbery."
Lucy studied the older man a moment. He was burly, with a red face and mustache. A sheriff's star was pinned to his vest.
"Are you telling me he's innocent?" she asked.
The sheriff shrugged. "Don't matter what I tell you. We're on our way to Dodge, to let the judge decide. It's what he'll tell us that matters."
Lucy nodded in Charlie McCall's direction. "I want to know what he would tell me."
The big sheriff chuckled. "He won't tell you nothing, less he's looking at you when you ask him."
"He's deaf," the sheriff said.
She blinked. She turned to the young man again, watching him watch the plains roll past outside the stage's long window. She remembered now: his eyes had been fixed on her lips as she spoke to him.
"His pa was killed in a mine blast, years ago," the sheriff said. "Young Charlie was with him at the time. The boy survived, but could never hear again. Came to live with his aunt outside Heritage." The sheriff squinted. "You're from Heritage yourself, ain't you? A clerk at the bank?"
She nodded, looking at the sheriff but still thinking about Charlie McCall. "Until it closed," she said. "Mr. Larrabee's opening a new bank in Dodge, and said I could work for him again. I'm on my way there now, with the last of his move."
She hesitated. "I'm bringing the rest of his gold. It's in a strongbox, up top." Lucy was aware that the young man had turned from the window and was watching her as she spoke. She found it hard not to look at him.
"You mean you're making the delivery yourself?" the sheriff said.
"Yes. Are you surprised?"
"Well, I don't know. It seems strange—"
"To have a woman doing a man's work?"
The sheriff scratched his chin. "Let's say I woulda thought you'd be happier at home somewhere, married, than escorting a gold shipment for Ben Larrabee."
Lucy Roberts felt her face grow warm. "I can do most anything a man can, Sheriff. Ride, plow, shoe a horse. When I was little, on my pa's farm, I could kill a prairie dog with a rock at forty yards, every time."
"Well, the kind of varmints I'm thinking of are a sight bigger than prairie dogs, missy."
Lucy set her jaw and forced a deep breath.
"I should mention," she said, "that my wedding is next week, in Dodge. So I'll soon be home, and married. Does that please you, Sheriff?"
"Does it please you?" Charlie McCall said, from out of nowhere.
She blinked and looked at him. "What do you mean?"
The young man shrugged. He hadn't intended to be rude, she could see that—he just appeared curious. "The way you looked just then," he said, "you don't seem too happy about it."
She felt herself flush again. "I'm perfectly happy. Billy Ray Feeny is a fine man, and he'll make a fine husband. Not that it's any of your business."
McCall lifted his manacled hands. "My problem's none of your business, either," he said. "But it felt nice to know you're interested."
She regarded him for a long moment, feeling her anger drain away. She hadn't really been all that upset anyway: McCall's comment had been too close to the truth. She'd been having doubts about Billy Ray—and about her feelings for him—for weeks now. What bothered her even more, at this instant, were her feelings for this mysterious stranger. Even the sheriff seemed to realize something unusual was afoot here, as she and the young man stared into each other's eyes.
Suddenly the window darkened. For the moment, the rolling countryside was blocked from view; the stage had entered a small and scarce grove of trees. Just before they broke into the open again, something THUMPed on the roof of the coach. All three passengers looked up.
"One of the boxes tipped over, I expect," the sheriff said, as the stage began to slow down.
When they came to a full stop, he rose and stepped through the door. Lucy heard voices outside. Thirty seconds later the sheriff returned to the doorway, his face pale as chalk. "You two best come outside," he said.
The handcuffed man rose first, stepped down, then turned and helped Lucy down behind him. As soon as her feet touched ground she froze. Two men in tan dusters stood in the road near the front of the stagecoach, guns drawn and bandannas pulled tight over their lower faces. One of the men, tall and dark-haired, stayed close to the sheriff, whose own gun was missing from its holster. Three saddled horses were tied nearby.
"Line up right here, folks," the tall man said, waving his gun barrel at the side of the stage. As they obeyed, Lucy noticed a third bandit, also masked. He wore a black hat and vest, and appeared to be unhitching the team from its traces.
The tall man—the leader, Lucy decided—was studying the three passengers. His gaze stopped on her. "We won't keep you long, Sheriff," he said, his eyes still fixed on Lucy. "All we want's the gold."
Lucy stiffened, which was apparently just what the tall man had been watching for. He looked at the second bandit and nodded. The second man climbed quickly past the driver's seat and onto the top of the stage. Lucy could hear him above and behind her as he rummaged through the bags and cases stored there. A minute later he stepped down again, carrying the banker's strongbox.
"Good," the leader said. "Tie it down and mount up." He then glanced at the bandit in the black vest, who was unhitching the last of the team. As everyone watched, Black Vest slapped the horse's rump and fired several shots into the air, sending all four horses thundering away into the hills north of the road. Within seconds they topped a rise and were gone.
"Where's our driver?" the sheriff asked. By now Lucy had figured out the noise they'd heard earlier—one of the thieves must have dropped from a tree limb onto the top of the coach. "I didn't hear a shot," he added.
The leader nodded to the east, the way the now-horseless stagecoach had come. "He got whacked on the head and fell off. He'll live, I imagine."
The sheriff's face hardened. "I'll find you, you know. Dodge City's no more'n twenty miles away. I can walk there by dark, and you'll be caught 'fore the week's out."
"Is that so," the tall man replied, amusement flickering in the eyes above his mask. Without saying more, he turned to Charlie McCall, and looked him up and down. The handcuffs were hard to miss. "Well, well. Seems we have a friend in the crowd."
McCall stared back at him.
"Hold out your hands, boy," the tall man ordered, cocking his pistol.
McCall's hands were clasped together in front of him, the insides of his wrists resting on his belt. When he made no move to obey, the bandit raised his gun and thrust its muzzle against the handcuff's chain—and McCall's beltbuckle.
"You want my help or don't you?" the tall man asked.
"He can't hear you," Lucy said, alarmed.
The gunman ignored her. The two men looked into each other's eyes a moment, then McCall seemed to understand. He held his hands out to one side and stretched them apart. The gun roared, the chain separated. Still watching the leader's eyes, McCall rubbed his chafed wrists.
"Go," the leader said, with another wave of the gun barrel. McCall gave him a final look, then turned and headed east, toward the grove of trees they had just passed through.
Once more, the tall man fixed his attention on the sheriff. The second bandit had secured the strongbox behind his horse's saddle and was mounted now, ready to leave. The third man—the one wearing the black vest—strolled over to the group and stood watching.
"You might walk out of here, sheriff," the leader said, "but not in half a day."
"What do you mean?" the lawman growled.
The leader nodded to Black Vest, who cocked his pistol and shot the toe off the sheriff's right boot. The big sheriff grunted once and fell heavily to the ground beside the stage. He lay still for a second or two, his eyes squeezed shut and both hands clutching his wounded foot. Though horrified, Lucy made no sound; she just knelt beside him and held him as he groaned through clenched teeth. She gave the black-vested man a glare of pure fury.
Without a word the bandit holstered his gun and backed away. The leader stepped forward and studied the fallen sheriff.
"That should slow you down a bit," he said. "I think a decent head start is only fair, don't you?" He glanced once at Lucy, then nodded to the others. The man with the gold spurred his horse south, and the leader swung into his saddle and followed. Black Vest stood where he was for a moment, watching Lucy and the sheriff with casual interest. He said, speaking for the first time, "Have a nice stroll, folks."
At the sound of his muffled voice, Lucy's narrowed eyes opened wide. Her face went slack.
"Billy Ray?" she said.
The black-vested gunman, who had already begun to turn away, froze where he stood. His eyes widened also, as he realized his mistake.
He and Lucy stared at each other for several long seconds. Finally he turned and almost ran to where his horse was tied. Behind him, Lucy rose unsteadily to her feet, pale with shock. He fumbled with untying the reins, and seemed to have trouble getting his foot in the stirrup. Once mounted, the bandit raced away in the direction his friends had gone.
He had covered only a short distance when Lucy's shout stopped him. Her face was flushed a fiery pink now, and she stood alone in the road twenty feet from the stage, one hand behind her back.
"Billy Ray!" she called.
He reined in, then wheeled his horse around so he could look back at her. He was between thirty and forty yards away.
She was ready. Her left arm was already extended, her right arm cocked back; in one smooth motion she snapped her upper body forward as hard as she could. The lemon-sized rock caught Billy Ray Feeny in the center of his forehead, and made a sound like an axe hitting the trunk of an oak. He flung both arms wide, opened his mouth in a perfect little O, and toppled backward out of the saddle. His riderless horse shied a step or two, then stopped.
Lucy watched the man fall and lie still. She was breathing hard, and barely heard Charlie McCall walk up behind her. He was half-carrying a dazed and bloodied old man she recognized as the stagecoach driver. Gently McCall propped the old-timer against one of the coach's wheels and gave the sheriff a glance. The big lawman had managed to get his boot off, and was tearing strips from his shirttail to use as bandages. Lucy blinked a few times, getting her bearings, then rushed to the sheriff to help him.
McCall said nothing to either of them. He started walking south, moving neither slowly nor quickly, toward the spot where Billy Ray Feeny's horse stood grazing beside his sprawled form.
"Where's he going?" the sheriff said, his face pale and sweating.
"Let me do that," Lucy said, kneeling beside him.
"Where's he going? McCall?"
This time Lucy raised her head. Charlie McCall was still striding away, the broken handcuff chains swinging from his wrists.
"He's getting away," the sheriff murmured, half to himself. "He's getting away." He turned to her, his eyes wild. "Get my rifle. It's up top, in a brown pack."
"Get it," he said, then shouted, "McCallllll . . . "
"He can't hear you," she said, staring after him, her mind whirling with a dozen disjointed thoughts.
Suddenly the sheriff pushed her away, and she sat down hard in the dirt. Muttering to himself, groaning with pain, he tried to hoist himself to his feet—
And then stopped. He was staring past her at McCall. She turned to look, and at first didn't understand what she was seeing.
Forty yards away, Charlie McCall had put on Billy Ray Feeny's black hat and vest and gunbelt and was mounting Feeny's horse. Without a single look back, he took off at a gallop, heading south across the rolling green hills.
"He's gone," the sheriff said, as if he found it impossible to believe. "He's gone with them."
Lucy stared into the distance until McCall had vanished from sight, then looked again at the sheriff. She didn't know what to think or believe anymore, after the events of the past twenty minutes. She could understand McCall's escape, and taking the gun, but why had he bothered with the hat and vest? He already had a hat.
She decided not to worry about it right now. What she did instead was help the sheriff scoot back into the shade of the coach and then tend to the gash on the old driver's head. After examining and cleaning the cut, she hurried to a gully she'd seen beside the road to get mud for a poultice for the sheriff's foot. Half an hour later both men were in considerably better shape, though she was half covered with dirt and blood and sweat.
And then, just as suddenly as he had left, Charlie McCall rode into sight. He was leading a saddled horse and carrying two extra pistols in his belt. And on the extra horse was the strongbox of Ben Larrabee's gold.
He dismounted and tied both horses to the rear of the stage. "How's the foot?" he said.
The sheriff was speechless, and so, for the moment, was Lucy Roberts. She stared at McCall as if he were an apparition.
"What . . . what happened?" she asked, finally.
He tipped his hat back. "With the other guy's horse and clothes, I was able to get close enough to get the jump on 'em. They thought I was him." He pointed with his thumb. "I left them tied to a big oak beside a pond, about three miles south. They'll be okay till we ride into Dodge and get help." He added, with a disgusted look, "The other horse got away."
The sheriff was still gawking at him. "I . . . I thought—"
"I'm no criminal, Sheriff," McCall said. "I'll go with you, like before, but I'm no criminal."
The sheriff swallowed and nodded.
McCall turned then to Lucy, and their eyes held for what seemed a long time. "There's one more thing to do," he said. "Get the rope off that saddle, would you?"
It took only a short while to drag Billy Ray Feeny's limp body back to the stage. He was still out cold, but he was alive, with a blue knot the size of a fist just above his eyes. "I saw you throw that rock," McCall said, when he finished tying the man's hands and feet. "Not bad."
"Well, he is a dog, and this is the prairie," she said. She managed to keep her tone light, but she was all too aware that this outlaw sprawled on the ground at her feet was the man who, until an hour ago, she had intended to marry. It was still a bit of a shock. She could see that the sheriff knew also. McCall, of course, didn't know. He had been down the road, attending to the driver, at the time she'd recognized Feeny, and of course couldn't have heard her call his name.
Lucy was also aware that she was at least partially responsible for this whole mess. She remembered now: Billy Ray Feeny had been in the bank, visiting with her, when Mr. Larrabee asked her to escort the gold to Dodge City for him. It didn't take a genius to figure out the rest.
Even so, she was secretly grateful it had happened. She had not only discovered, and corrected, what had almost been the biggest mistake of her life—she had also met a man totally unlike anyone she had ever known before.
"You probably saved our lives," she said. "And my job, and my boss's gold."
McCall looked surprised. "You knocked the guy off his horse," he reminded her. "I couldn't have done anything without the horse."
"I guess we make a good team, then." She smiled, searching his eyes.
To her delight, he blushed a little. "I guess so," he said.
The plan, such as it was, didn't take long. She and Charlie McCall would ride into town on one horse and the driver on the other. The sheriff would stay here, in the shade of the stagecoach, with the still-unconscious prisoner, until they could return with the local law and a doc. "Besides," the sheriff said, "I have to stay. If this guy wakes up I intend to shoot him in the foot."
Within ten minutes they were ready. With McCall's help, the stage driver was boosted onto the one horse, and he and Lucy climbed onto the other. Before leaving, while the sheriff was making himself comfortable and the driver had already started out down the road, McCall turned to Lucy and said to her, over his shoulder, "Guess you heard the sheriff say he'd speak for me? To the judge?"
She smiled and nodded. "He told me the charges were sure to be dropped."
McCall looked thoughtful. He didn't appear as happy about it as she thought he should be. "I suppose that means I'll soon be headed back home to Heritage, then," he said.
A silence passed. She just watched him, waiting.
"About your wedding . . . " he said, and swallowed. "When's it supposed to be, exactly?"
She hesitated, studying his face. From the direction of the stage, the sheriff was humming a tune. It occurred to her that Charlie McCall wasn't able to hear it.
Carefully, making sure he was watching her lips, she answered, "The wedding's off."
He blinked. "What?"
"It's off. I'm not getting married."
"Ain't that kind of sudden?"
"You have no idea," she said, with a smile.
He frowned and cleared his throat. "Does that mean . . . Could that mean you'd come back home too, then? To Heritage?"
Lucy felt a terrible weight on her heart. Just as she was about to speak, the driver called from up ahead, to see what the delay was. When she glanced ahead, past McCall's shoulder, he turned to follow her gaze.
"I'll have to stay in Dodge, Charlie," she answered, as he waved the old man on. "After all, my job's there."
But then she realized, as they faced each other again, that her words had gone unheard. He stared at her for a second, then asked, "Did I miss something?"
She swallowed. "I answered your question," she said.
But then something happened. The look in his eyes, at that moment, was so intense, so full of concern and expectation and emotion, it made her skin tingle. Suddenly the weight lifted, and Lucy knew for certain what this strange feeling in her heart was. She knew it as surely as she knew her own name. Out here in the middle of nowhere, sitting on a horse that had belonged to a man she thought she had known but hadn't known at all, sitting behind a man she had only just met, she realized she had finally found her gold, and it wasn't the kind you buy or steal or put in a strongbox.
"Would you care to repeat it?" McCall asked. He looked as if he might be holding his breath.
She reached up and brushed a wisp of hair off his forehead. "What I said was . . . I won't be staying in Dodge after all. I'm coming back home, to Heritage."
Slowly, both of them grinned.
Up ahead, the old-timer was still staring at them, waiting. McCall glanced at him, then turned again to Lucy.
"Guess it's time to go," he said, still smiling.
"Well, let's go then. You're driving."
John M. Floyd's work has appeared in more than 300 different publications, including Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery
Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and three editions
of The Best American Mystery Stories. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, John is also an
Edgar Award nominee, a four-time Derringer Award winner, a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and the 2018 recipient
of the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for lifetime achievement in short mystery fiction. His ninth
book is scheduled for release in late 2020.
Back to Top
Back to Home
One Hell of a Shot
by Harris Coverley
Eli Strakos looked in above the swing doors of the saloon and decided to risk it, not seeing any enemies in the morning gloom.
A thin and lanky figure, he swung them open and went up to the bar, placing his final dime on the counter, just enough for one shot of the cheapest and nastiest whiskey the place had.
"Good morning Mr. Fields," Strakos said to the barman, who was cleaning off a tankard. "A shot of the Kentucky Southern please."
The barman looked at the dime and then at Strakos in disgust, and carried on with his wiping.
"Mr. Fields," said Strakos, "I've cleared my debt with you. I just want some service."
"You're lucky I even let a nigger like you in here," grumbled Fields, and reluctantly scraped the dime into his hand.
"I ain't no nigger," protested Strakos feebly. "My father was Greek and my mother is Syrian . . . I already told you."
Fields, only half-listening, had got the Kentucky Southern out from a cupboard and was pouring it into a dirty shot glass.
"Sounds like a nigger to me . . . swarthier than some. Just drink and get out."
Strakos, having no energy to carry on the fight, accepted his soiled drink, and went to sit at a table near the back. The saloon was mostly empty, but Strakos wanted to be out of the light, away from anybody. He tilted his drink side to side, and considered his position.
Strakos liked to say that his friends called him "Eli the Greek", but that was a lie—he didn't even have any friends. Born in Boston just before the Civil War took his father at New Bern, the factory where he worked burning to the ground had been his inspiration to go out West to seek greater fortune. So far, it had been nothing but misfortune. He had lost what little money he had, with only a six shooter with three bullets he had procured back in Tennessee to his name, and despite only having been in Little Boulder, New Mexico Territory, for a mere two weeks he had already riled a lot of people up with his worsening drinking, gambling, and racking up of arrears.
By half past nine, Strakos had consumed only a half of the miniscule shot, and Mr Fields was giving him the stink eye. The whiskey had however not calmed his nerves, and the shakes were arriving. He put the glass down and tried to steady himself against the table. As he did so, he caught a glimpse of Big Redd Stevens walking by, which was enough to stop any shaking.
Big Redd? Strakos thought.
Strakos in his head added up what he owed him—one dollar, two dollar, five . . .
It made him sick just thinking about it. Redd had a gruesome temper—and he knew he was looking for him.
Strakos quietly cursed himself for not having skipped town already. But it was okay so far—Redd had gone past and not noticed him. He would drink up, sneak out through the back way, and go along the river, on to Arizona, if the Lord permitted it.
He felt his gun underneath his leather jacket—still there, the three bullets still loaded.
Strakos checked the time and grabbed his glass to down it and leave.
He then froze—Redd was coming in, up the steps!
Strakos panicked. He dropped the glass on the table with a loud clunk, and in sheer idiotic fright reached for his gun. He drew and fired as Redd swung the doors in—the pin hit air in an empty chamber. Before anyone had realised what was going on in the dimness, Strakos pulled back the hammer and fired again—just as another shake went through him.
The misguided bullet went over Redd's shoulder, across the sidewalk, and straight into a man getting off a horse. Redd went to the floor as screams and shouts filled the street.
Letting the gun fall, Strakos tipped his table over and ran out through the back way, into a group of sheds. He lay low for a couple of minutes before peeking his head out from behind an outhouse, only to have the sheriff meet him eye to eye, pistol drawn.
The rough and greying man, stout with muscle, grabbed Strakos by the shoulder and barked, "Come with me!"
He escorted Strakos from behind the row and through the gathered crowd to where his unintended victim had fallen.
Lying on his back, the bullet had gone through his right eye and lodged in his skull.
Standing above the corpse, dressed in the finest riding suit with a harsh and unforgiving face, Strakos felt a terrible remorse. The gallows were now waiting for him.
"You do know who you shot, right?" asked the sheriff, holstering his gun.
Strakos made no move as the name pulsed through the crowd: "Brutal Bill O'Riley."
The accidental vigilante at last grasped through his daze what had happened, and nodded meekly.
"Alive or dead," said the sheriff, taking off his hat. "And dead it is. That was one hell of a shot."
"Yes sir . . . " said Strakos, stunned that he had gotten away with it.
"I only got the poster last morning . . . how did you recognise him?"
"I just did . . . you don't forget a face like that."
"Why did you run?"
"Erm, I thought I might've missed."
Redd Stevens suddenly pushed through and grabbed Strakos' hand.
"How the hell did you know he was after me?" the big man asked, beaming. "He was surely 'bout to send me to the Almighty—I ain't got no shooter on me for any defendin'!"
"Don't mention it," Strakos uttered. "Say, sorry about that money . . . "
"Hey," said Redd, patting him on the back. "What's nine bucks to a man's life?"
The sheriff took Strakos around the shoulder and began to lead him to his office, speaking of a certain reward . . .
After that, Strakos gave himself a new nickname: the Lucky Greek (not that anyone used it).
Primarily an author of weird fiction, Harris Coverley has short stories appearing in Curiosities, Hypnos, Shotgun Honey, and Horla, amongst many others, and is also a Rhysling-nominated poet. He lives in Manchester, England.
Back to Top
Back to Home