December, 2020

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Issue #135

Looking for free, tantalizing Tales of the Old West?
You're at the right place.


Read this month's Tales and vote for your favorite.
They'll appear in upcoming print volumes of The Best of Frontier Tales Anthologies!

Standing in a Dead Man's Boots
by Dave Crerand
He had tried to live right, now it was time to live wrong.

* * *

The Boy
by John Jones
He was at the age where he thought that he knew everything—rebelliousness was in him. He would go his own way and ignore his father's advice. Would it lead him to adventure and a good time or to a hangman's noose?

* * *

Run No More
by Robert Gilbert
Receiving a telegram from Sheriff Mays in Grover about three outlaws, Marshal Brothers heads to that town only to be told that Mays was killed earlier by the same trio in a bank robbery. Searching the Pawnee Buttes, Brothers finds one of the villains. But what about the other two?

* * *

Mitchell and the Po8
by Dick Derham
The most prolific highwaymen in Wells, Fargo history had eluded all efforts to apprehend him for eight years. Could Collins and Mitchell succeed where others had failed?

* * *

Horseshoe Nail Stew
by VT Dorchester
As the Civil War ends, five soldiers set out on a shortcut home, only to discover the way back is longer and less friendly than hoped. Short on rations, their de facto leader, John Aughtenbright, must devise a plan to fill their bellies without resorting to violence.

* * *

Double Jeopardy
by Dave Barr
Drifter Al Ramsey rode into Marimont, Texas, looking for a cool drink and some free lunch only to find himself locked up for another man's crimes! How can Al convince the town he isn't the outlaw they think he is?

* * *

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All the Tales

Horseshoe Nail Stew
by VT Dorchester

A Re-telling of the Stone Soup Folktale

Five soldiers were walking their way homeward back from the war.

The land they were crossing was hot and drying, and scarce early crops withered in the fields they passed.

They had not eaten for two days. They travelled this way:

First, John Aughtenbright, always straying a little ahead of the others, circling back, straying ahead again.

Last, the eldest, Daniel Byrne, called Preacher. His limp grew heavier with the passing of each day.

And the three who walked together.

Hyacinth Morrison, who when questioned about his name would say, my mother also gave me her life, so I would come to be in this world. I use the name she left me with pride.

His prickly companion, Shannon, would dare anyone to try and make something of that.

And young Rauck, least in size, who often would play a tune on his mouth harp, or start a song for all to sing as they marched. Which suited some more than others. Preacher joined them in song only very rarely.

These five men had not found anyone willing to give them food or shelter in the villages that lay behind them. Now, evening was falling.

And Shannon said, "We won the war, didn't we? But instead of being welcomed as heroes, we're looked down at as if we were tramps or dirty beggars."

"We look a bit like dirty beggars," Hyacinth said.

They had not shaved in several days, their clothes were dusty, and Rauck's jacket was missing buttons. Shannon's shoulder-length dark hair looked as if a sparrow had nested there, and perhaps never left. The bandage around Preacher's leg was dirty.

Shannon said, "Still, iffen I'm told there is nothing to be had again, I will break open the doors to dig it out."

Rauck said, "People say they have nothing to give or sell."

Scoffed Shannon, "How can you be so simple? They must still have food; they've still got old men. They're not that hungry, only mean."

"What have old men have to do with it?" Rauck asked.

"Old men starve first," Shannon said. "At least in half-civilized countries."

"Why would they not let us buy food, if they have it?"

"Its been a long war for the farms and villages as well as for soldiers," Preacher said, "this land has grown afraid to share a little for fear of losing all."

Shannon added to his complaints, "It's been a few days tramping on this so-called shortcut of yours, Aughtenbright, and I don't see any train. Don't even see any railway."

"I'm sorry," Aughtenbright said, "But I didn't order any of you to come along."

Shannon said, "You've gotten us lost."

"We're not lost," Aughtenbright said. "And perhaps we would have more luck buying food if you didn't always scowl."

Shannon said, "Oh, it's my fault? Maybe I do only have myself to blame. I should have known better then join your band of merry men. We've got a stupid kid that doesn't know enough to duck, with medals to prove it. An apostate preacher with no faith in his heretics, and a man who calls himself a flower. And you, lawyer Aughtenbright. Who made you President?"

"We are not lost," Rauck said.

"Then where are we, stupid?"

"Right  . . .  here," Rauck said somewhat tremulously.

"Ha!" shouted Shannon.

Preacher could speak with a voice like the first drops of rain on a parched land, soft, but catching to the ear. "Leave the boy be," said he.

Aughtenbright was quite worried for a moment that Shannon wouldn't. But instead Shannon threw up his hands and snarled, "Fine."

They marched on steadily, having learned how to measure their energy over a long way.

"Perhaps we could gather purslane," Aughtenbright eventually suggested, "to eat."

"I don't want to eat weeds," Hyacinth said, "I want to get home."

"I want to get home too," Rauck said.

"What fer?" Shannon demanded.

"What do you mean, what for? Because it is home. My father needs help with the farm. Do you not have something waiting for you?"

"I've work guaranteed," Shannon said.

"My wife is going to have another baby." Hyacinth said. "I haven't seen any of them right new yet, what with one thing or another. Sorta would like to see one within its first hour. As I remember, you have a fiancé you write to, Aughtenbright."

"I do."

"When did you get her a letter last?"

"Not that long ago. A month. Or two."

"Or three?" suggested Shannon.

Aughtenbright sighed.

"What's waiting for you at home, Preacher?" Rauck asked.

Preacher said nothing, and then he said, "There was a cat. Half-wild thing, wouldn't let anyone touch it. It would come mewling around every so often. I would feed it."

They walked on, looking for a place to spend the night.

* * *

Eventually, they came upon a small copse of trees around a spring and there made camp.

The men drew up logs and rocks to sit around a fire, the fire crackling as the evening gloaming grew around them.

Preacher had his pocketknife and a piece of wood and began to whittle.

Slowly the piece of wood was being shaped, and Shannon couldn't help himself from saying, "What's the purpose of it? You only throw the things you make away."

Preacher continued slivering off wood from the stick.

"Something to do with my hands," he said, "I suppose it's fretwork."

Shannon, of course, said, "No, it's not. That isn't fretwork."

"Oh?" Preacher said, "Then what is?"

"Well, it's  . . .  fretwork is  . . .  patterns carved into wood, or onto it  . . .  designs for  . . .  fancy buildings, like  . . .  it's different. That's not fretwork."

"Mmm," said Preacher.

Hyacinth yawned and went to lay down away from the others, as he snored.

The fire crackled and the moon came out, a bird flew over with a cry.

Aughtenbright frowned. There was an idea tickling him behind his nose  . . .  something someone had once said  . . .  a story from his grandmother?

"How about a story?" Rauck said.

A little time passed and Preacher looked up to see six eyes on him.

"What about the story of Jonah and the whale?" asked Rauck.

Preacher said, "Why look to me? I might still know the words of faith, but  . . . "

Rauck said, "You tell stories best."

"As long as I can remember the words, perhaps," Preacher said, "But it's Aughtenbright who comes up with the new stories."

"I don't want a new one," Rauck said, "I want the one about the whale."

Sometimes it was easy to remember that despite his heroics at fifteen years of age, Rauck was still a child. At night it was easiest to remember.

"Very well," Preacher said, and he spun the story long.

When it was over Shannon was yawning and scratching and dropped into his bed quickly. Rauck got up and walked past the firelight for a few moments of privacy.

Aughtenbright slowly came out of a reverie. Preacher placed the small whale shape he had whittled on a log beside himself.

"I have an idea," Aughtenbright murmured, "Yes, I think it just might work."

He added, "How do you feel?"

"All right," Preacher said.

Aughtenbright did not entirely believe him.

"I am sorry," Aughtenbright said, "about leading you off the main road. I was certain this way would be shorter, that we would get to the railway faster than we have."

Preacher said, "If she hasn't waited, she's not worthy of heartache."

"It's a long time to wait," Aughtenbright said.

"You've waited."

Aughtenbright said, "Yes, well, the  . . .  camp  . . .  options  . . .  haven't really appealed to me."

"They do to some."

Aughtenbright thought about Shannon. And of the women who followed the armies. Some of them really were seamstresses.

"Anyway, I don't want to keep you too long from your alley cat," Aughtenbright said.

Preacher shifted his shoulders and made no response, and Aughtenbright looked at the man's face in the firelight. They had marched alongside each other for almost two years, but were they friends? Aughtenbright was not yet sure.

* * *

The first meeting between Aughtenbright and Preacher was on the night Aughtenbright's brother was killed. The soldier-preacher was dragged forth by young Rauck to perform ministrations, but Aughtenbright had met him with curses. Preacher had simply responded "I'm sorry," and walked away.

Only he had never been far away since.

There were rumours about Preacher, of acts of viciousness and kindnesses. Of madness. Preacher hardly spoke of himself at all.

A log in the fire split with a crack and Aughtenbright flinched.

The two men sat quietly beside each other for a moment longer.

Then, Rauck returning, Aughtenbright nodded a few times.

"Thank you," he said to Preacher, and went to lay on the other side of the fire.

* * *

Rauck only woke them once with muffled cries come through his nightmare recollections. Shannon, first awake the next morning, saw Preacher's arm thrown around Rauck's shoulder as they slept side by side.

About this, at least, Shannon held his tongue. He picked up the whittled whale and tucked it into a pocket, before the others woke.

* * *

Before they returned to the road the next morning, Aughtenbright insisted that they wash.

"And now," said Aughtenbright, as they started down the road again, "I want each of you to pick a stone, as we go along, and give it to me."

Said Shannon, "You do need a few more rocks for your head."

Aughtenbright said, "I have a plan."

Shannon said, "Is this plan better than the plan to take a shortcut to the railway?"

"Yes," said Aughtenbright, fingers crossed.

Rauck said. "As long as we keep heading east, we will get home eventually." And Rauck picked up a dusty stone. "Would this do?"

"As long as we keep heading east, we'll run into sea eventually," Shannon said.

The others ignored this.

"If you like it," Aughtenbright said, "you can use that stone. But you'll have most of the day. Choose a stone you like, something unusual or well coloured. Something special."

Hyacinth kicked at the path. "A special stone?"

"Yes," Aughtenbright said. "Five special stones, one each. And I will see that we eat tonight."

"You're a wizard?" Shannon said.

"Play along," Hyacinth said. "What harm?"

Rauck looked at the stone he held and then threw it down.

The men walked down the road. Once and awhile, one or the other would stop and stoop.

Aughtenbright was yet a little more eager this day. And Preacher was a little slower a little earlier.

* * *

The men continued to walk east.

Aughtenbright found himself ahead by quite a piece and stopped to wait, sitting on what was left of someone's split-rail fence.

His fiancé hadn't written  . . .  no, he corrected himself, he hadn't received a letter from her, which wasn't really the same thing at all, for five months. At first, he had been getting letters once a week.

He wasn't as upset about this as perhaps he should have been. The truth was he was having a hard time imagining being at home again at all.

Aughtenbright contemplated his choice of stone while he waited.

Aughtenbright had chosen, from the firepit this morning, a black stone, which had at first looked like shiny charcoal.

* * *

When Hyacinth and Shannon and Rauck caught up to Aughtenbright, Hyacinth gave him his choice of stone, a rough piece of granite with pink spots. Then, waiting only to see that Preacher was still coming, they went on.

Rauck was feeling his hunger so he began to sing:

Bile them cabbage down
Turn them hoecakes round
The only song that I can sing,
Is bile them cabbage down!

Hyacinth began to pelt him with pebbles.

* * *

Aughtenbright called a halt late afternoon as the next village came into view, down the bottom of a gentle-sloped valley.

To his surprise, Shannon gave him a clear quartz stone along with his customary scowl. It looked like a bit of fogged river ice.

Rauck handed Aughtenbright a horseshoe nail.

"This is not a stone," Aughtenbright said, "this is a horseshoe nail."

Rauck said, "Maybe it is lucky. I have a stone too, if you want it."

"It's certainly shiny," Hyacinth said, "Can't have been laying out long."

Aughtenbright considered. "It might work. Yes, all right." And he added the nail to the collection in his palm. There were four objects in his hand:

His own coal-black pebble.

Hyacinth's pink granite.

Rauck's horseshoe nail.

And Shannon's clear quartz.

But there was one missing, until Preacher caught up to them, sweating.

"How do you feel?" Rauck asked.

"Like a sack full of drowned dead skunks," Preacher confessed. He handed Aughtenbright his contribution.

The dust-coloured pebble bore nothing at all to distinguish it from the others on the road.

"Spit on it," said Preacher.

Aughtenbright did.

The pebble transformed, from dust tan to chocolate - a thin black band around its middle. It was beautiful, although even as they watched its colours again faded.

Now there were five gifts, ready to be used in Aughtenbright's plan. He smiled and crossed his fingers again and said to Rauck, "Play something on your mouth box. The rest of you, look pleasant, please." And down they went into the valley village.

* * *

The people of the settlement of Sweetwell were beginning to shut their houses against the coming night. On the buildings, paint faded. The saloon was open, but the restaurant next to it was shuttered.

Outside of the general hardware store, an old man sat in a rocking chair. He wore nothing but red flannel underwear, which covered him from wrist to ankle to neck and, fortunately, everywhere in between.

"Good evening!" Aughtenbright said, loudly and cheerfully.

Two hens scratched in the dirt of the street.

"Nothing for strangers here," the old man said. "You best be moving on. We're all cleaned out. Cupboards bare."

Aughtenbright grabbed on to Shannon's arm before he could object.

Aughtenbright said, "Gather around! After long years faring here and away, I and my noble companions—stop picking your nose Hyacinth—have made a great discovery. That of a recipe that will always fill bellies, in bad times and good."

Aughtenbright kept talking. A second old man came out of the saloon. This one was fully clothed.

Aughtenbright turned to Hyacinth and asked, "Was it when we dined with General Carr that we last ate this stew? I seem to recall that it was."

"Wha  . . .  yes," Hyacinth replied.

The old men snorted in unison.

"We would be happy to share this recipe with you," Aughtenbright said, as a few passer-byers stopped to listen.

Sweetwell had in common with a great number of small towns that there was not a great deal of entertainment on offer of a Tuesday evening.

"Yes, we have discovered, through trial and tribulation, a recipe of plenty. A stew, gentlemen and dear ladies, that has a taste beyond all rival. Horseshoe Nail and Four Stone Stew. You, ma'am, have you heard of Horseshoe Nail Stew?" Aughtenbright directed his question at an older lady who was peering in his direction.

"No, I have not."

"Perhaps someone can lend us, for a short time, a large kettle of some kind?"

A small cat climbed down the steps of the saloon and joined the growing crowd around Aughtenbright.

"You can buy a new bathtub off'r me," red flannel man said.

A bathtub, thought Aughtenbright. Well, it's the only offer we've had in three days.

"I will purchase your bathtub," Aughtenbright said, "On the understanding that a fire be built, over which it will sit, here, in the street."

The store owner sold Aughtenbright the bath at an eye-watering price. Rauck went into the store and dragged the large tin tub, booming and thumping, into the street.

Next, Aughtenbright directed the creation of a long cooking fire, over which he propped the bathtub. The water from the livery stable pump was clear, and Hyacinth and Shannon (mostly Hyacinth) went to work filling the tub.

"Rauck, play us another tune," Aughtenbright suggested, and Rauck did.

Preacher, meanwhile, sat down on the edge of the town's short elevated sidewalk.

A woman, dressed in dark faded green and an outdated bonnet, retrieved the cat, shooting a glance in Preacher's direction.

Aughtenbright, meanwhile, smiled at a blonde woman.

"Fairest lady," Aughtenbright said, "would you care to assist us with this stew?"

"I would not," the lady said.

Aughtenbright nodded. With a flourish, he placed the four stones and nail into an almost clean handkerchief and tied it tight.

"The secret ingredients," he declared. He dropped the package into the tub now filled with warming water.

Shannon looked askance.

Some children came closer.

"Ah, how I look forward to making this stew again," Aughtenbright said, and, after just a little while, stirring the water, he inhaled deeply.

"Oh, I begin to smell the goodness. Come, Shannon, don't you smell it too? Come smell."

Shannon came and leaned over the bath tub.

"Yes," he said, "there is certainly something smelly going on."

Aughtenbright rolled his eyes. Then he grinned again. "I've just had a thought, an idea to improve the brew, although it is near divine already."

"What's that," a boy from the growing crowd asked.

"Well," said Aughtenbright, "I'm wondering if perhaps it wouldn't be even tastier if we added a few pinches of salt."

"But we do not have any salt," Rauck said.

"No," said Aughtenbright. And he looked at the boy who had spoken. "Would you happen to have any salt?"

"No," he said. "but maybe teacher does. Shall I ask her for you, mister?"

"That would be of great help," Aughtenbright said.

The little boy went to ask the teacher, who turned out to be the woman in green holding the cat, if she had any salt.

* * *

It went so quiet for a moment that the purring of the cat was all that could be heard.

Then, "I have some salt. I have a few old carrots too, if carrots might also be called for in your recipe."

Aughtenbright said most sincerely, "Dear lady, they would."

The teacher put the cat down and walked down the street to her home. She came back quickly with a small bunch of sad limp overwintered carrots and a cellar of salt.

As the teacher brought him the carrots and salt, she said under her breath to Aughtenbright, "I believe I know what you're doing."

Aughtenbright bowed, and cut the carrots into pieces into the pot. The teacher shook the contents of her small silver cellar into the water.

Then she turned and openly studied Preacher, who blushed.

The carrots began to cook. "Mmmmm," said Aughtenbright. "I can taste it already."

"I wonder," the teacher said, in a to-the-back-of-the-schoolhouse voice, "if perhaps a few potatoes are called for?"

"Potatoes improve anything," Hyacinth said.

"Sadly," the teacher said, "I do not have any potatoes. But I believe Mr. Alberts has."

Alberts, it transpired, was the older gentleman lounging in his flannel.

The schoolmarm said to him, "think how educational this will be for your grandchildren, to learn an entirely new way of making stew."

"For the girls, perhaps," said Mr. Alberts.

"And the boys," the schoolmarm said firmly.

"We would of course pay," Aughtenbright added.

Mr. Alberts went to the cold cellar underneath the general store and brought forth a small sack of small potatoes. Some were starting to sprout.

"Surely you're not going to charge these men for such pitiful specimens," the teacher said. "Have you no shame?"

Seeing his grandchildren watching him, Mr. Alberts gave Aughtenbright the potatoes to add to the stew. Aughtenbright was careful to remove any green from the potatoes before dropping them into the tub.

Preacher asked a student what the teacher's name was.

He was told, "Miss Ginny Johnson. She is an old maid."

"She looks to be a fine lady," Preacher said.

Aughtenbright continued to stir the pot. It takes a long time for a bathtub of water resting over a log fire in the middle of a street to start boiling, but this one was getting there.

"We have some squash," a girl said, "would they go well with your stew, mister?"

"They would."

Soon the people of Sweetwell were giving Aughtenbright parsnips, dry beans and peas. They gave him old onions, and herbs that had hung from window sills through the winter and were faded yet still had some flavour to impart to the world. All these things were, it seemed, included in the recipe for Horseshoe Nail stew.

"But what about cabbage?" Rauck said.

Mary Rattle, the midwife, produced a jar of sauerkraut. In it went, into the stew, as Rauck led into singing:

Bile them cabbage down
Turn them hoecakes round . . . 

Soon the stew was boiling, its warm scent lifting into the air.

Lanterns were lit along the street.

Villagers stood and sat around the bathtub, having nothing better to do than watch and feel their stomach's growl.

"All right," Shannon said to Aughtenbright, "So you have a bit of the Blarney in you."

Said Aughtenbright, "I am a lawyer."

He scooped a bit of the stew into his cup and tested it.

"Nearly ready," he pronounced. He tested his luck, "I wonder if anyone has some bread or  . . . hoe cakes?"

A big man who was missing his left arm stepped forward. "I have some bread," he said, "but I'm just learning how to bake. I was a blacksmith before the war and I'm afraid my bread tends to get a little . . . overdone."

"We can cut off the burnt bits," Aughtenbright said.

"I'm sure your bread'll be just grand," Shannon said.

The baker-blacksmith went and got his bread.

"Will the stew taste as good as it smells?" A boy's voice from the crowd asked. It was very dark now, except for the where the lanterns shone and the fire burned.

"I hope so," Aughtenbright said, and he added, "I thank you for allowing us to show you how to make Horseshoe Nail Stew."

"Four Stone and One Horseshoe Nail Stew," a girl's voice corrected him.

Aughtenbright scooped stew into Rauck's cup, and into Hyacinth's cup, and Shannon's cup, and Preacher limped over and his cup was filled too.

Aughtenbright slurped up a big mouthful of broth.

"Yum," Hyacinth said, and Shannon took a big bite out of a piece of bread.

It was not, in fact, the best stew ever tasted, but it was close.

After taking several more gulps, Aughtenbright realized that neither Rauck or Preacher were eating. And the crowd that had gathered was still there.

"What's the matter?" Aughtenbright asked.

"Is it really good?" a voice came from the shadows.

"It is," Aughtenbright said.

"It's been a long time since I had stew," a girl said.

Aughtenbright ate another mouthful, this one with carrot.

"Aughtenbright?" Rauck said.

Now Hyacinth wasn't eating either.

"Are we not sharing?" Rauck asked.

"Why would we?" Shannon said. "We made it. We never said we would share it."

* * *

Aughtenbright had been so busy thinking of how to get the stew made, he hadn't thought about sharing or not sharing, beyond his companions, at all. He looked at Rauck, and he looked at the stew in the bathtub. He looked at Preacher, who looked back at him.

Aughtenbright looked again at the bathtub of stew. There was a bathtub full of stew! He hadn't realized they had made so much.

"Of course we'll share," he said.

"What?" said Shannon, "Now hold on."

"Shannon . . . " Aughtenbright said.

Shannon said, "There are more people in this crowd than people who contributed to this stew."

"There's plenty."

"That's not the point."

"And what was it that you contributed, again?"

"I helped fill the tub," Shannon said. Which was true, to a point. "And I contributed one of the magic ingredients." Aughtenbright wouldn't argue that point, either.

"We'll want tables, and bowls and spoons," the blonde woman said. "Let's get the doors off the hinges and across the trestles, ladies."

"We won't eat on plain board," another lady said, "I'll fetch my tablecloths."

"And I'll get some pitchers so that we can have water at table," her friend said.

The deacon said, "I have some cider I could share." And he brought several jugs of fermented apples forth.

Soon, the road around the fire was all a jumble with tables, chairs and people.

The tables were covered with many different tablecloths. Some were plain, some checked, some fine, some rough, some embroidered only at the corners and some nearly all embroidery. One table was clothed with what looked quite a lot like window curtains.

Children added bouquets of early flowering weeds to the tables.

Mary Rattle added several dusty jars of preserves.

Two men brought out fiddles, and another an accordion.

Nearly everyone in the village now found some small way they could contribute to the feast. Those who didn't have any food or music to share helped by carrying and serving and keeping babies out of the fire.

There was one who did nothing at all but wait for food. It seems there is always one.

For now, Aughtenbright was ladling stew into bowls that the people of the village brought to him.

The deacon said a prayer. Then they all began to feast.

There was so much stew made from those four stones and that horseshoe nail that all who wanted second servings could have them, and even thirds.

With preserves to smear all over it, no one minded the bread was somewhat . . . dark.

Miss Johnson the teacher sat next to Mary Rattle and confided, "the oldest stranger reminds me of a man I once knew."

"That man is not well," Mary Rattle said.

"Yes, no," said Miss Johnson. "I wonder if I dare . . . "

Soon everyone was feeling much fuller and slightly sticky mouthed, and some were a little tipsy from the cider. There was talking and laughing. We won't mention again the state the deacon found himself in. Aughtenbright thought that perhaps Shannon even smiled, but it was more likely a trick of the light.

The light from the lanterns danced over the tables, and Sweetwell now looked a very merry town indeed, no longer the tired dusty thing it had been only an hour or two ago.

In the midst of this joy, a small boy toddled over to Preacher, wanting anyone to pick him up, as small children sometimes do.

* * *

Preacher gave a strangled gasp and scraped his chair back, lurched away into the dark up the street.

Ginny Johnson stood quickly, but Aughtenbright went after Preacher first.

As Aughtenbright came up alongside him, Preacher said, "He reminded me of my son."

Aughtenbright was glad of the darkness away from the party, because he was flushed with uncertainty, not knowing what was best to do. Preacher had never spoken of family before.

"Your son?" Aughtenbright asked.

"Tobias," Preacher said and his voice cracked his son's name in two. "One morning he was there in our yard, safe, and then he was gone. Just gone. How I looked for him! I still look for him. We never found a single sign. Not of man or beast. I . . .  I searched. Days. Nights. I couldn't stop. Not until I came down with brain fever.

"He would wrap his arms around my neck and squeeze so hard he'd near to choke me. It would frighten me and I would pry him off and put him down. Now I just want to hold him again. That is all I want."

Preacher shuddered, grabbed onto Aughtenbright's cambric shirt and leaned his face against Aughtenbright's shoulder.

Aughtenbright, somewhat unnerved, put his arms around Preacher awkwardly.

After a moment, Preacher stepped away, rubbed his face and gave Aughtenbright a little smile. "And I'd like to get back east, too."

Ginny came out from the gloom, took Preacher's hand and led him into her small house without a word.

He is my friend, Aughtenbright thought. I am glad, though not glad of this sorrow.

Aughtenbright returned to the party.

The men with fiddles and accordion got the people dancing. Aughtenbright, trying to shake off sentiment, was soon dancing with the blonde. He saw Rauck tripping over a pretty girl's limbs, as Hyacinth was caught up in a widow's glee. Shannon leaned close to speak with the baker.

The dancing and the music went on and on. A dog chased bread crumbs across one of the tables with its tongue.

Mr. Alberts, taking another quaff of cider, generously agreed to purchase the bath tub back from Aughtenbright for almost half its original selling price.

* * *

At last weariness settled over the town. At the end of the celebration, Rauck led them all in singing "Home Sweet Home." The notes and voices reached into the night, where Miss Johnson still held Preacher's hand.

All the five soldiers found a place to rest, all full and happy, more or less.

* * *

In the morning, not too early, five travelling soldiers bid goodbye to Sweetwell.

"Perhaps you could stay here, Mister Byrne," Ginny said to a freshly-bandaged Preacher as he stood on her porch, hat in hand.

"I started along a course, I'll do my best to see it through," Preacher said.

"Well go on then, if you're going," Ginny said. "See these boys safe home."

"Yes ma'am," Preacher said.

Ginny went back inside her house and closed the door.

Aughtenbright took Preacher's pack from him and transferred its contents amongst his and those of the other three, despite Preacher's objections.

"Thank you," Preacher said, eventually.

As they were leaving, the baker shouted after them, "Bless you!"

And the rest of Sweetwell joined in offering well wishes, as, with a wave, the five set out eastward once more.

The End

V.T. Dorchester is the buckskin-wearing alter ego of a millennial plains-city raised writer. They now live in a small valley town in British Columbia, Canada. Their work has been published in Running Wild Anthology of Stories - Volume 3; and Havik. Follow their digital trail on twitter @VtDorch.

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