Bullets Don't Lie
by Bill Epps
Henry Collins stared hard at the man standing twenty feet away whose hands were splayed over the big Colt that hung at his hip. Somewhere a door slammed, but he barely heard it, as he concentrated on the burly gunman who now faced him in the middle of the dusty Texas street.
Collins licked his suddenly dry lips. He was no gun fighter, but nevertheless here he was standing in the middle of the street getting ready for a gun fight.
The big man took a step towards him and his hand dipped to the Colt on his hip and came up spouting fire. Collins was amazed at the speed the other man got his pistol into action. He was even more amazed at seeing a crimson stain spread across the big man's chest. He had beaten the man to the draw! Collins side-stepped to his right and fired another shot. The big man fell to his knees with a look of shock on his face as he tried desperately to bring his heavy pistol to bear on Collins. Henry Collins snapped one more shot at the man. The .45 slug caught him in the throat and flipped him over to lay still on the dusty street.
"Did you see that? He just kilt Dutch Adams!" a voice rang out from the crowd watching from the boardwalk.
"Of course he did. That's Jack McEwin, the Cactus Kid! I'd know him anywhere." Another man said.
Henry felt a little shaky as the group of men were now walking towards him.
He holstered his pistol just as the first man got to him and grabbed his hand and pumped it up and down. "Glad to meet you Mister McEwin, or can I call you Kid?" A man wearing a vest and gold watch chain said excitedly.
The rest of the men started clamoring around him. "I knew all along you could beat Adams," said another.
"How long you in town for, Kid?" another asked.
Henry's head was still spinning from the shoot-out and it took him a moment to realize that the crowd had mistaken him for the famous gunfighter Jack McEwin or, as he was better known, The Cactus Kid.
The Cactus Kid was a gunfighter from the Uvalde area. He was that rare breed of gunman, where little was known about him as he rarely stayed in one spot very long. McEwin wasn't a glory seeker or trouble maker. Many times he tried sidestepping fights, but had too often been forced to draw against some would-be bad man who was looking for a reputation. Usually after beating his adversary, he would quietly leave town with no word to anyone. Because of that, most people weren't even sure what he looked like.
Collins shook the man's hand and turned to leave, when someone called out. "Come to the saloon, Mister McEwin, and I'll buy ya a drink."
Suddenly others started clamoring that they would buy him a drink as well. Before he knew it, Collins was being swept away by the crowd towards the saloon.
The doors slammed open as the crowd surged through. "Jim," the man with the vest hollered at the bartender. "Set us up a round, willya? I'm buying a drink for my new friend, Jack McEwin."
Collins smiled to himself as he thought it wouldn't hurt to let them think he was the Cactus Kid for a minute. He certainly wasn't going to turn down free drinks.
He tossed down the drink that was handed to him and before he could say anything, another glass was stuck in his hand. This from a slight man with a huge walrus mustache. "Mister McEwin, ya shore did the town a good turn today. That Dutch Adams was a bad character, and had the womenfolk scared to go out by themselves."
Collins, sipped his second drink and asked. "Why didn't yore sheriff take care of him?"
"Adams done kilt him last week." A man in the back volunteered. "Yes sir, Dutch Adams was a bad one. But he was no match for you, Kid."
The mustachioed man cleared his throat. "Mister McEwin, my name is Ezra Jackson, the mayor of this burg, and I have a favor to ask, if I might."
Collins nodded his head as he was handed another drink from a man at his elbow.
"Would you be willing to be the town Sheriff, just until we find another one?"
The offer surprised Collins. He had never been a lawman and in fact operated outside the law when it suited him. He was a drifter, a cheat, and a petty thief. Until ten minutes ago he had never been in a gunfight with another man facing him.
He took a moment to survey the crowd that was looking at him expectantly, and then thought of how he could cash in on their mistake and his good fortune.
He downed his fourth drink and nodded. "Yep, I'll do it, but just 'til you hire another one."
The men around him cheered and clapped him on his back. "Thank you Kid. This will be the safest town west of the Pecos, with you as sheriff."
"You won't regret it," said another man.
Henry Collins smiled to himself as he thought, Nope, I sure won't.
* * *
Henry Collins sat on the porch of the hotel thinking what a sweet deal he had fallen into. Here he was, being celebrated by the townfolk. He never paid for a drink, meals, or even the best room in the hotel. He had even gone upstairs at the local bordello, and had sampled the 'wares' of several of the ladies, and simply walked out and told the madam, "put it on my tab."
He'd been making quite a bit of money for the last three weeks.
Collins had quietly gone to several business owners and asked for 'expense' money. At first most were happy to help the famous Cactus Kid. But, when he had returned on more than one occasion with his hand out, it started to wear thin with many of the owners.
In the back of his mind, Collins knew he might have to leave eventually, before someone got wise, but he was having too good a time to think of that now. He figured he'd give it one more week, make a quick score and then leave, before anyone was wiser of his true identity.
A week later, he killed his second man. A would-be bank robber had come out of the First Texas Bank with a sack of loot in his hand. Collins hadn't even given him a chance to surrender when he cut him down from behind as the robber had reached for his horse. Collins had scooped up the fallen sack. Several packets of greenbacks had fallen on the ground. He had reached down and pocketed the wads of cash, before taking the sack back inside and giving it to the bank teller.
* * *
Austin James was the local blacksmith. Working over a hot forge hammering out steel gave him plenty of time to think. He was thinking now. It had been three weeks since the killing of Dutch Adams by the Cactus Kid. Three weeks, and the Cactus Kid was still working as the temporary Sheriff. Granted, Mayor Jackson hadn't made any serious attempts at finding a replacement, but James had always heard that McEwin never stayed in one spot too long. He was curious as to why the change this time.
He stood up to wipe the sweat from his brow, when his sister, Marisa, walked in holding his lunch basket.
Marisa, who was three years younger than Austin's twenty-six, was single and still lived with her brother at their childhood home, left to them when their father had passed a couple years ago. Their mother had died of Cholera on their way west when Marisa was just a child. Even at the tender age of eleven, she had taken on the responsibilities of the woman of the house and taken care of her father and brother. In her mind, it was up to them to put a roof over their heads and food on the table and it was her job to make sure that their efforts weren't in vain. She knew her brother worried about her not marrying, not that she hadn't had plenty of suitors. She also knew that the townfolk thought of her as a man-hater who would die as a single old maid someday. She let neither of those things bother her. She knew when she met the right man, she would know.
She set down the basket and looked at her brother. She could see worry etched across his face.
"What's wrong, Austin?"
He shook his shaggy head. "Mebbe nothin', but I'm just thinking about our new 'sheriff.'"
Marisa had her own ideas about the Cactus Kid, but kept them to herself as she listened to her brother's thoughts on the matter.
"I can't put my finger on it, but it seems contrary from all we've heard about The Cactus Kid, staying on so long after killing Adams."
Marisa nodded, as she had been thinking the same thing. She had always thought of the Cactus Kid as being somewhat older and gallant. The new sheriff was anything but, as far as she could see.
She had watched the man saunter about town with a cockiness and arrogance she found repugnant.
As she continued to listen to her brother talk while they shared a lunch of fried chicken, her mind kept going back to their new sheriff. Much like her brother, she too thought it strange that McEwin would still be around after the gunfight with Dutch Adams.
A week or so ago she had witnessed first-hand McEwin asking for a hand out from Mr. Forrest, who owned the hardware store. It had struck her as strange that a gunman of McEwin's repute would put his hand out for charity, but she had decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he had rid the town of Dutch Adams, who was a notorious bad man who had made it hard for decent folk to walk the town in broad daylight. Still, there was something she didn't like about the town's new 'savior.'
Then, Marisa had bumped into him the other day as he was coming out of the mercantile store. He had grabbed her to keep her from falling. She still shivered at the memory of him boldly undressing her with his eyes. The next day, she had caught him following her as she brought her brother lunch. He had openly winked at her, and rubbed himself 'down there' suggestively. She had hurried on to her brother's shop. She had said nothing of what had transpired either time to him, fearing that Austin would look up the man and there would be trouble.
She sighed to herself and could only hope that Mayor Jackson found a replacement soon.
* * *
Marisa James was coming out of the door of the dress shop trying to balance a pile of packages and navigate the steps down into the street where her buckboard was hitched. Just as she reached the ground, the top package shifted and fell to the ground, bursting open and spilling out the material she had just bought to make herself some new dresses.
She sighed as she knelt to pick up her belongings when a pair of polished cowboy boots stopped in front of her. She lifted her eyes to see a handsome man, with sun-tanned face and piercing blue eyes, kneel down to help her.
He smiled a smile that reached his eyes and made him look even more handsome. "Here, let me help you, miss," he said as he they both reached for the split package on the ground. Their hands touched, and Marisa felt an odd tingle that she had yet to feel around any other man.
She could only stammer her thanks as he picked up the dress material and carefully folded it to put it back in the brown paper wrapping as best he could.
They stood at the same time and he kept the package in his hand. "Where are you going, miss? I'd shore be tickled if I could lend you a hand getting these packages there," he said in a slow drawl.
She could only point at her hitched wagon a few feet away. He took the other three smaller packages from her and strode over to the buckboard and slid the packages carefully under the seat.
He turned back to her and tipped his hat. "There you are, miss. I hope your goods didn't suffer. It would be a shame for that pretty material to get spoiled." He looked at her, and she felt none of the revulsion she had felt when McEwin had done so. Strangely, this time, she felt a charge go up her spine that left her a bit breathless.
She finally found her tongue. "Yes, thank you very much for your help."
"Yes ma'am, it was my pleasure. What's yore name?"
"Marisa. Marisa James." She answered. "What's yours sir?'
"That shore is a pretty name. And I'll bet a dollar to a doughnut, those dresses you make will look right pretty on you."
Marisa blushed and wondered why he made her feel like a school girl with her first crush.
The tall man asked. "Word has it, y'all have a new sheriff in town. Do you know where I might find him?"
At the thought of Sheriff McEwin, the spell was broken and her mood blackened. "You can probably find him at the local saloon down the street trying to drink all the free liquor he can," she replied in disgust.
He tipped his hat again. "Much obliged, ma'am," he said as he turned to go.
"Wait, you didn't tell me your name, kind sir."
The man stopped and looked back and hesitated. "Names are a funny thing. I always found a name is what you make of it, not the other way around. But, you can call me Jack." With that, he turned on his heel and strode down the street.
* * *
Henry Collins rose unsteadily from the stool at the end of the bar. He walked out back and went into the privy to relieve himself. As he pissed in the trench, he realized that he had worn out his welcome here in town. The bartender, instead of pouring him a drink at no charge, had demanded payment. Collins had been ready to argue, but decided against it when he saw hostile looks on the rest of the customers in the saloon. Oh well, he thought. He had made some serious money and he hadn't had to do anything other than pretend to be someone he was not. He had a tidy sum stuffed in his bedroll in the hotel. He would get it and leave first thing in the morning. But first, he wanted to see if he could get a taste of that pretty little brunette he had seen sauntering around town. He had bumped into her a week or so ago and she had been on his mind non-stop since then. He had found out she was the unmarried sister of the local blacksmith.
He buttoned up his britches and wiped his hands on his trousers. Yep, he decided, he would go find her, take her up to his room, have his way with her, then saddle up and ride away. It never occurred to him she might turn him down. After all, he was The Cactus Kid, he smiled to himself.
He walked back into the saloon, and stood for a moment to let his eyes get accustomed to the dim room after coming in from the bright mid-day sun.
As he stood there for a moment, he became aware of a tall stranger leaning against the bar, looking at him.
Collins scowled at the man. "You got a problem, mister?"
"Just one, Sheriff. You are the sheriff, right?"
Collins straightened himself a bit. "Yes. What do you want?"
The man pushed himself away from the bar. "It's not what I want, but what you need to do."
Collins didn't like where this was going. Something about the man's confidence and cool demeanor Collins found unsettling. "What do I need to do, stranger?"
"You need to quit parading around town using my name!"
Collins felt sweat break out on his forehead as he silently cursed himself for staying in this town so long. "Yeah, and just who are you and why do you think I'm using yore name?" he asked in a voice that was higher in pitch than he had intended.
"We both know what yore doing." The man drawled slowly with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Now the way I see it, sheriff, you got two choices."
Collins licked his suddenly dry lips and asked. "What's that?"
"You can tell all these nice folks who you really are, although frankly I don't care who you are, but you do need to tell them who you aren't"
"And the second choice?" Collins, spoke in a voice barely louder than a whisper.
The man pointed his left hand at the Colt hanging at Collins's hip. "It's right there."
The sound of chairs screeching as the others in the saloon got up to get out of the way of any stray bullets was the only sound.
Collins wiped his sweaty hands on the front of his trousers. He could hear his own heart beating it seemed, as he stood there.
"Well, what's it gonna be?"
Collins started to shake and thought, Hell, I beat Dutch Adams, I can beat this one too.
Suddenly, his right hand dipped towards his pistol. He had barely touched the wooden grip when a powerful blow hit him in the chest, knocking him back a step. What was that? he thought. Had the man thrown something at him? But, no, there he was, still standing twenty feet away, except now he held a smoking pistol in his hand.
He tried drawing his pistol. He got it about half way out of his holster. Strange, he didn't remember it being so heavy before. He got a better grip and pulled it out, when another blow struck him right above his belt buckle and he felt himself falling.
He rolled over and watched as the tall man strode over and stood over him.
"Well, I made a good try anyway." he croaked at the man.
"Shore, you were game, but you weren't even close, son."
With that, Henry Collins sighed and took his last breath and went limp on the dusty floor of a south Texas saloon.
The tall man stood up and looked around at the men behind him. "Here's something to help bury him with." He said as he laid a ten dollar gold piece on the bar. "Shame nobody knows his real name."
With that, the tall stranger strode out the door into the bright sunlight. He mounted his horse and reined it to head north out of town, when he spied the beautiful young woman he had helped earlier.
She stood looking at him, and he tipped his hat and said in an almost sad voice, "I'll shore bet you look mighty fetching in that new dress, ma'am"
And with that, he left town in a cloud of dust.
Bill Epps has two Western Novels under his belt. 'Law of the Gun' and its sequel 'Revenge of the Gun'.
A transplanted Georgian, now living in Nebraska, Bill is a jack of all trades. From surveying in South Georgia swamps to working on a horse farm in Nebraska to serving 21 years in the US Navy Seabees, Mr. Epps' life experiences are fodder for his writing.
He resides in Gretna, Nebraska with his wife, Debbie. She, their four children, and now four grandchildren keep him busy.
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by Red Charles
The woman's dress was ugly— splotchy brown fabric made dusty by the road hung too loose over her lean frame. The dress had no decorative embroidery or lace. It was just poorly-tailored fabric one step above a flour sack. The bonnet on her head was in no better shape.
None of that mattered to Heel, of course. Truth be told, he couldn't have identified embroidery (much less spelled it). All he saw that morning was a woman walking west along the side of the coach road. They were a good fifteen miles west of Bensonville but still almost twenty east of Muddy Well.
Heel had resolved to pass the woman by; he really had. Many years ago back in the coal country, Heel's ma had made him promise not to be like his pa—always sticking his nose into other people's affairs. And, she'd also made him promise to always keep his promises. The Butterfield stage ran this route regularly, and this part of the territory was pretty peaceful, so Heel figured that the woman was in no real danger anyway.
But, when the woman heard his buckboard's wheels rattling through the tracks, she set her very sturdy-looking valise down and stepped out in front of him. Heel hadn't anticipated this. He pulled back on the reins, slowing Old Scratch to a stop.
He could maybe have driven around the woman or shouted at her to clear the road, but either would be rude, and his pa had made him promise never to be rude to a lady.
"Sir! Sir?" the woman's voice snapped Heel to attention. Enormous shoulders worked under his waxed coat as he reached up to snatch the felt hat off of his head.
"Sorry, ma'am," he said. His voice was slow and loud and broad with the accent of the Pennsylvania Dutch. "I was thinking to myself."
"Of course," the woman said as she took a wide swing around Old Scratch to walk up toward Heel. "More people should do more of that. I am very glad that you stopped; I've been walking quite a while. Do you think that you could let me ride in your coach the rest of the way to Muddy Well?"
Heel gave a slow nod while unconsciously crushing his hat in his thick-fingered, powerful hands. "Yes, ma'am," he said eventually. "I can't say that it will be a comfortable ride with this road the way it is, but I suppose it will be better than walking."
She smiled and clapped her hands—locks of golden hair fell out from her grimy bonnet. Heel thought she was probably a few years older than his own twenty-three, but just a few. "I'll get my valise," she said.
"No, ma'am, I'll be happy to fetch it," Heel said quickly. "Please just get yourself settled on the bench. I don't have a cushion, but there is an old blanket in the back that you are welcome to sit on."
He stepped off the buckboard, expecting her to give up a step to give him space. She did not, so Heel's hurry brought the two of them in very close proximity—close enough to make Heel anxious. The woman looked up at him and said: "Charity. Charity Greene is my name."
Heel took a step to the side to get some space. "I go by Heel," he said as he gestured to the seat and then turned to gather the woman's bag.
The buckboard's bench was made to seat two, but Heel was one-and-a-half all by himself. Settling in while trying to maintain some sort of propriety was a challenge. Eventually, Heel gave up on the notion that he was going to be able to avoid encroaching on the woman, stopped fidgeting, and snapped the reins to get Old Scratch moving again.
"So," Charity said, "Heel? That's an uncommon name."
"That's just what I go by. My given name is Monongahela Heinrich Siegenthaler. People started calling me 'Heel' when I was a kid, so I just kept it up. Easier for everybody."
"Mon-on-heela?" Charity asked.
"Monongahela," Heel said a bit slowly. "It's the name of a river back in Pennsylvania."
Charity looked at Heel and smiled. "Well, I think that's a fine name," she said.
Heel was not a man who commonly provoked smiles from women. He fidgeted on the bench again, trying to gain a little space.
Introductions complete, the two sat in silence for a time as the morning sun continued its rise across the sky. They passed one rider heading in the other direction, but a hat tipped from the dusty man to Charity was the only interaction.
Eventually, Charity broke the quiet: "What has you out for Muddy Well?"
Heel tilted his head toward the crates in the back of the buckboard. "I've got a shipment of catalog-ordered goods for the general store. They were supposed to be on the last stage, but they didn't make it on."
"Is that what you do?" Charity asked. "Deliveries?"
Heel just nodded.
Several minutes passed with no further conversation. Then, Charity: "You haven't asked me why I was out walking the road alone. I want to thank you for your discretion."
Heel shrugged. The rough hem of his coat pulled at the sleeve of Charity's dress, so close were the two still. Truth be told, it had never occurred to him to ask.
* * *
Muddy Well began its life as a stage stop at the confluence of three roads. Over the course of a few years, other services and residents accreted around the stop. By the time that Heel and Charity arrived, the slouching road house had been torn down and a prosperous crossroad town sprawled across the prairie. Heel navigated his buckboard down the dusty streets between whitewashed, false-fronted buildings. Their arrival was unheralded and unremarkable: just another transient arriving in a transient town.
Passing the city limits sign, Charity spoke: "I want to thank you again for helping me along. I know it's been an imposition."
Heel made a start at the socially required denial, but Charity continued without a pause: "And I truly hate to do it, but I wonder if I might ask to make another. I've never been here before, and it looks a bit rough. As a woman alone, I'm sure you'll understand that I have some concerns. Could you see your way clear to escorting me until I'm able to board a stage to Denver? I have family there."
Heel turned to face forward, looking over the town. His jaw worked for a few seconds. "Yes. I could do that."
The line offices for the three stage companies that passed through town were located in the rough triangles formed by the intersection of the three roads that give Muddy Water its purpose.
A few minutes' maneuvering brought them to the nearest. Heel dismounted the buckboard and then walked around to help Charity down. When Heel reached out an arm to steady her, Charity took his hand and gave it a soft squeeze. Heel was too taken aback to notice the contrast between her soft fingers and the hard life implied by her clothing.
"I'll need to get into my valise," she said. "I have some money." Heel nodded and unstrapped the heavy case from the back. He kept an eye out toward the town while Charity sorted through it, but couldn't help but notice that the case contained what appeared to be men's clothing.
* * *
Heel stood with his back against the front wall of the stage office while Charity conducted her business. As he looked down Main Street (Muddy Well's name for the coach road that had brought him and Charity to town), Heel noticed a trio of heavily-armed men evidently headed for the town building that served as both City Hall and the Town Marshal's office. Even more than the guns, it was their hurry that marked them out. Someone wearing a badge—maybe the marshal, maybe just a deputy—emerged from the office and braced the men.
Heel was pulled away from watching the drama by Charity's emergence from the office. "They do have a stage to Denver," she said, holding up a ticket, "but it doesn't leave until the morning. Could you help me find some suitable accommodations for tonight?"
"I do need to deliver this stuff to Eddington's first," Heel said.
"Oh, of course," Charity said. "I appreciate all that you've done already and I don't mean to interfere with your affairs more than necessary." She reached out and touched his forearm. "Let's go see Mr. Eddington!"
* * *
Eddington was a gangly man in sleeve garters and a shopkeeper's apron. His left ear was carved out of wood and attached to his head by means of a thin leather strap. The quality of the carving was amazing, but Heel couldn't help but wonder if it didn't just draw more attention to the situation.
And he had plenty of time to wonder about Eddington's choices as the shopkeeper painstakingly compared the contents of the shipping crates to his customers' orders. Charity spent the time in the back corner of Eddington's shop. Heel didn't know what she found so fascinating about the various cooking implements there, particularly when it was so dark in that part of the building, being so far from the entrance and front windows.
"Is this what the company calls pink?" Eddington asked over his shoulder, holding up a bolt of fabric.
Heel, from behind him, said, "I guess it must be, sir. I just haul them."
"Well, I think this is red. Mrs. Pasternak may not accept it, and then where will we be?"
Heel was just getting started on a response when the armed-and-badged man that he had seen earlier came clumping down the boardwalk. Seeing him closer, Heel realized that the man was even younger than he was; little more than just a kid, really. The Schofield on his right hip was polished to a high sheen and the heavily-tooled holster must have cost a month's wages. He carried a small bundle of papers in his left hand. "Mr. Eddington!" he shouted from ten yards away.
Eddington set down the bolt of maybe-slightly-off-color fabric that was causing him such grief and turned around. "Deputy Shivers, what brings you by?"
Shivers gave Heel a nod of acknowledgement, which his body language made clear was all Heel was going to get out of him at the moment. "Murder," the young peace officer fairly shouted, puntcuating it by slapping the roll of papers against his leg.
"Here?" Eddington asked. "Who was it?"
"No, not here. Back in St. Louis." If anything, the young man sounded disappointed. "But the murderer might be coming here. And it's a woman!"
"Hmm." Eddington said. "Tell Daughtry to get his press oiled. This will fill the pages of the Examiner for a week."
"It sure will," Shivers said. He pulled one sheet from the roll and set it down on Heel's buckboard. "Please post this up in your shop." The Wanted poster was smudged, but the text was mostly legible. It named the murderer as Ellie O'Kinney and the victim as Joseph O'Kinney, her husband. Ellie was described to be 25 or 26 years of age, medium height, pleasing of face, well-formed, and with blonde hair. The reward amount was $5,000—O'Kinney must have been an important man in St. Louis.
Heel looked at the poster to be polite, but the extent of his letters was the ability to sign his name.
"Quite the scandal," Eddington said after reading the poster. "A wealthy woman, at that."
Shivers nodded, "Though not anymore. She can hardly lay claim to the family money now. Anyway, I've got more posters to deliver. Good day to you both."
"You and your wife should be careful," Eddington said to Heel as the young man sprang off, "there's all sorts on the roads these days."
Heel started, "That is true. But she's not . . . "
"So about this fabric," Eddington said, talking over whatever else Heel intended to say, "I'll accept it for now, but I want you to sign a receipt saying that I'm doing so under protest."
* * *
"Did you murder a man in St. Louis?" Heel asked Charity once the two of them were back in the buckboard seat, riding toward a tall building with the word "HOTEL" painted on the facade.
"I . . . no, of course not," Charity said.
Heel nodded. "They're looking for a woman who did. You've got a bushel of paper money and a man's suit of clothes in your valise. You're alone, like you might be on the lam, and are trying to get all the way to Denver. And you were coming from the direction that the woman who did the murdering would be coming from."
Charity breathed in sharply, then paused. She turned to Heel and said: "So why didn't you turn me in already? If you think I'm a murderer."
Heel shrugged. "I figured on asking you first. Didn't seem right to assume. Plus, I promised to escort you. And now you say that you didn't do it. It's sort of a confusing situation."
Heel mulled over his thoughts—this situation caused him to have more than he was accustomed to—as they arrived at the hotel. Another man might have peppered her with questions. Most would have turned the buckboard to the town marshal's office. Heel did neither. He just drove on to the hotel, keeping his own counsel.
When he pulled the buckboard to a stop, Charity asked: "So, what are you going to do? Turn me in?"
The big man's face scrunched up. "Don't see that I have to decide that right now. A hasty decision is usually a bad one, as my ma used to say. You're not going anywhere until tomorrow's stage, so I've got until then to decide. And I promised I'd escort you until you got settled, so I figure to do that now."
Charity regarded him for a moment, and then patted his arm. "You're a good man, Heel. You'll do the right thing."
* * *
Charity had never seen one man hit another so hard. She was no naif as far as violence was concerned: she'd grown up with rough-and-tumble brothers, and then spent time in saloons, and, of course, had emptied a birding gun into her late husband. But Heel's punch—that boulder-like fist propelled forward with all of the big man's weight behind it—took the bounty hunter from a standing threat to a broken, leaking victim in an instant. The hotel clerk wasted no time in making for the back door.
The bounty hunters had appeared while Charity was negotiating for a room. There had been some confusion about Heel's role in her travels and the clerk was dead set against his room being used for any illicit business. Charity just about had the man convinced that Heel was not staying with her and wouldn't so much as enter the room when the three dust-covered gunmen had walked in seeking their own accommodations.
"O'Kinney!" the lead bounty hunter—a sunburned man with an almost comically-large hat—had shouted. This prompted another to quick-step across the hotel foyer to make a grab for Charity. The response to that was Heel's first punch. He still hadn't decided whether he thought the young woman was a murderer, and he wasn't about to let some saddle tramp lay a hand on her before he had.
Back in the fight, the second bounty hunter fared no better. In his haste, the southpaw had gotten the hammer of his pistol caught in a shirt button when he tried his cross-draw. In some contexts, the lost second would have been immaterial. Here, it meant that Heel had time to cover the distance between them, pin the bounty hunter's gun hand with his right, and use his left to propel the bounty hunter's head into the pine wall behind. The bounty hunter slumped, stunned.
Two were down, but there was still one to go. That one had enough distance to pull his Merwyn and Hulbert from its shoulder holster, cock it, and level it at Heel.
"No!" Charity shouted and quick-stepped around the fallen bounty hunters to place herself between Heel and the gun. "I'll go with you. I'll go with you."
Heel glared at the man over Charity's head. The bounty hunter returned the favor, but gave a slow nod. He kept the gun in his hand, but pointed it down and eased the hammer forward.
Charity turned back and gave Heel another smile as she smoothed and then gathered up her skirts.
"Let's go," the bounty hunter said and tilted his head toward the door. He shifted his gaze back toward Heel, worried that the big man would lunge when his back was turned. He was right to worry—Heel was considering it. The bounty hunter might get the gun back up and into play before Heel got his hands on him, but it wasn't a sure thing.
His attention was drawn back in Charity's direction by a sharp crack and the feeling of a hot pin driven into his chest. The bounty hunter saw the smoking Deringer in Charity's hand and then looked down to see the front of his vest beginning to stain with his life's blood. Charity didn't share his confusion. She reached forward, snatching the gun out of the bounty hunter's loosened grip.
"Come on!" Charity said, depositing her Deringer back into a slit in the waistline of her skirt.
Heel looked the woman in the eyes. "You stepped in front of that gun for me," he said. "Doesn't seem like a thing a murderer would do. But, you knew the bounty hunter was shouting for you before you saw him. And you killed him."
Charity stepped forward and laid her empty hand on Heel's arm. "Whatever people may accuse me of, I've never murdered anyone. But now, unless you're going to turn me in, we need to run."
The sound of boots thumping on the boardwalk gave the truth to Charity's analysis. Heel nodded, and then followed as she sprinted out the front door to where the bounty hunters' horses were still tied at the rail. She mounted the smallest, throwing her leg over the Western saddle with no heed to propriety. Heel pulled the lead off the hitching rail and then mounted the largest horse, which in the moment that his huge bulk squashed down on the saddle, would have wished it were smaller, had it the sense. Heel grabbed the lead to the third hunter's horse and tugged it along.
The two hurried out of town, the hue and cry of townsfolk fading behind them.
* * *
Deputy Shivers refused to let sundown stop his inevitable ascent to hero status. The rest of the pursuers had stopped to camp at full dark on the near-moonless night, at which time following Heel and Charity's tracks across the plain had become impossible. The young man had pressed on, however, swapping his blown-out horse with one from the remuda and continuing on the south-southwesterly course that Heel and Charity had set.
Nobody else would buy in, but Shivers figured that the two fugitives planned to hop a train on the steep grade just outside of Spruce Canyon, where a train would have to slow substantially but the forest was thick enough to make it tough for a bull to notice an interloper. As it turned out, he was right, which spoke well of the young man's perspicacity.
Unfortunately for Deputy Shivers, cleverness and impetuousness can be a powerfully dangerous combination for a young man. He was paused on a slight ridge—wondering whether it would be quicker to ride along it or cut across the draw to the other side—when he turned to look at a rustling noise to his right. An instant later, Heel grabbed him from his left.
The big Pennsylvanian lifted the small lawman bodily out of the saddle and slammed him to the hard prairie turf. Shivers lost his breath, but rolled over and tried to rise. The young man was game, but he was no match for Heel in this sort of fight. Heel dropped on top of Shivers, his enormous weight pinning the smaller man to the ground. He pulled the Schofield out of the deputy's holster and flung it away into the night. Shivers tried to shout—not that there was anyone who could hear—and Heel clouted him across the face. Not particularly hard, but certainly hard enough to let Shivers know what was coming if it tried again.
Charity hustled toward the two, a coil of rope from the bounty hunter's horse over one arm. Heel took it from her when she said, "Tie him up. I'll keep him covered." Which she did, with one of the bounty hunter's sixguns.
"I'm sorry about all this," Charity said to the Shivers once they were through binding him, "we'll set a fire for you so that the smoke will bring the rest of your posse in the morning. I may have killed Joseph, but I didn't murder him. I'd had enough of tasting the back of his hand just because he got on the whiskey and felt like taking something out on me. But there's no way to prove it, and I won't let them hang me for defending myself just because his family has money."
* * *
"So," Charity (lately known as Ellie O'Kinney) asked after they were settled on the freight car, "are you going to turn me in?"
"I'm still thinking about it." Heel said. "Don't want to make a hasty decision."
Red Charles grew up sleeping on a bed with a frame made of Zane Grey hardcovers, a mattress stuffed with
Louis L'Amour paperbacks, and a pillowcase sewn out of pages from Elmore Leonard short stories. This is
his first published Western story.
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by James A. Tweedie
"Don't 'member Pa at all," slurred the youngest of five men gathered around the night-time warmth of a late-spring Rocky Mountain campfire.
"I was jus' two when they shot him dead at Seven Oaks," the speaker continued as he took another sip of whiskey and passed the bottle to the man to his right, "and the next day the Red River Colony broke up with all the White folks headin' east and Ma and me heading north to Lake Manitoba and the Metis camp where I grew up tradin'—sometime with the Northern Fur Company what killed my Pa and sometime with the Hudson's Bay Company, the same outfit what brung me to this here rendezvous."
The other four men were more taciturn, quietly drinking whiskey and nodding every so often to let the beardless man know they were paying attention.
Other campfires stretched as far as they could see, each of them surrounded by men who had survived the previous winter trapping beaver, otter, and whatever else they could skin for fur.
Every so often rifle shots would crack the way lightning does when it strikes close by and overhead.
Sounds of men singing, laughing, arguing, and fighting could be heard coming from all directions and drunken trappers staggered lost in the dark, sometimes passing out so quick that they fell into nearby campfires like moths drawn to a flame.
"Ever kill a bear?" one of the older men asked before answering his own question. "Killed one last month what was goin' at my grub. Shot her in the eye and dropped her dead—straight down like she was a dollop of griddle cake dough dropped onto a pan."
The fire flared up as one of the men added a fresh piece of wood.
"Traded her coat to Sublette for a new set of traps," he continued, "and smoked 'nough pemmican to last me through summer."
The man, whose grey, tangled beard was tucked into a foul-smelling wool shirt turned to the man on his left.
"Got more pemmican what I need," he said. "Trade you fer some of that dry powder you got in that keg of your'n."
"Two pound for half-a-pound," came the answer.
The old man said, "Done," and that was that.
"Never killed a grizz, yet," said the younger man, who went by the name of Philippe. "But up on the Athabasca I had one knock me twenty feet 'cross the camp with the back of his paw."
"Knows it," said the man with the keg of gunpower. "Seen the same thing happen to Sam Giliken near Big Hole two year ago, jus' before Pierre's Hole. Funny. Came through it nary a scratch but got shot through dead by one of them Gros Ventre during the fight what came after."
Philippe nodded, acknowledging the man's loss before continuing his story.
"Never been so skeered in my life, so I lay there on my back tryin' to look like I was dead—hopin' he'd get interested in somethin' else or jus' get bored and wander away. But he walks up to me slow like, sniffin' and gruntin' 'til he pokes his muzzle up against my face, bares his teeth, and starts growlin' like he was offering grace afore dinner.
"I knows I got to do somethin' and do it right quick, so I pull out my Green River and rake the blade 'cross his nose. Cut him so deep that he rears up and falls over backwards. Nothin' he could do 'bout it but run off howlin' into the trees, prob'ly lookin' to stick his bleedin' face into some cold water.
"But like I said," he added after taking another long pull of whiskey, "I never killed a bear, 'cept mebbe the one I shot that wandered off and we trailed her for two days but never found her. She might of died but can't know for sure."
That ended the conversation. So, after listening to the fire spark and sputter for another hour, the boy stood up, nodded, and wound his way through the maze of tents until he came to his own, which he entered and immediately fell to the ground in a deep sleep.
Philippe Girard was 20 years old and so drunk he didn't feel the full effect of the kick to his ribs until he woke up the next morning.
"Sacrebleu!" he winced as the sharp pain caused him to sit up and then drove him flat back to the floor.
The pain not only roused him from unconsciousness but forced him to face up to the worst hangover he had ever had.
The words entered his head and began pounding on the inside of his skull as if trying to get back out again.
"Damn you, Philippe!" shouted the voice. "I didn't drag you all the way down here to Ham's Fork so you could get drunk. Hell, you could have stayed at Pierre's Hole and gotten just as drunk without me havin' to coddle you like you were some mama's boy! Are you listening to me? Do you understand what I'm sayin'?"
Through the fog in his brain, Philippe slowly sifted through enough bits and pieces of displaced memory to recognize the voice.
"Oui, oui." he muttered as he forced himself to balance upright on his knees. "Pardonne-moi. Je suis un imbécile."
"From now on, no more parle Fran çais," growled the voice of Will Marquette, Philippe's Hudson's Bay Company superior. "First time we've been to one of these rendezvous, but even so, we've been feudin' with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company long enough. It's 1834, for God's sake, and time we buried the hatchet under a rock 'stead of into each other's brains. The fur's beginnin' to run low and we've got to stake our claim to get as much as we can out of what's left."
It had taken a lot of time and effort to round up enough HBC men and trade goods to make a show of strength at the Wyoming rendezvous and it was going to be Philippe's job to make sure all the folks that spoke French understood everything that was said in English.
Not that it mattered much, since just about everyone at the rendezvous spoke a passable amount of both, along with enough Blackfeet, Crow, and Shoshone to get by.
As the supply of beaver dried up the trappers kept moving further west, leaving Wyoming, Utah, and Montana and pushing past the Tetons into the disputed Oregon Territory through the Sawtooths, down the Snake, and beyond—down the Columbia to John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company in Astoria.
Philippe's head cleared enough to ask a question he'd been chewing on for several days.
"Look, why don't we just leave? We've already ground Sublette and them Rocky Mountain boys under heel by undercuttin' their trade goods. Everyone knows they're good as broke. And Wyeth and his crew got kicked up-river and since no one's buyin' their supplies they're good as broke too. And Astor's so old he's good as dead and you keep sayin' how he's plannin' to break up his company into bits and pieces. And Warren Ferris, he's obliged to us and the Company and he's heading south to the Uinta's and below . . . I mean, c'mon, Will, Hudson's Bay's goin' to run the table if'n we can set up them supply lines down the Snake."
"You might be right," Will answered, "but you might be wrong. It's Wyeth I'm worried about. If he can find folks willin' to trade furs for his goods there's no tellin' what he could do with all those boys he brought with him."
"Here me out, Will, and call it off—the meetin' with Sublette and Bridger and all. It's a waste of time and you know it. We've got more furs than we can carry. I've already had my fill of hootin' and hollerin' and, by God, I swear I got my ribs broken last night. What happened? Who did it? Tell me, Will, and I'll track 'em down and break somethin' that'll hurt 'em more than a busted rib!"
"Then try and break me," Will snarled, "'cause it was the toe of my boot that caught you in the ribs when you was snorin' louder than a hibernatin' grizz—keepin' us decent, sober folks wide awake and getting' everybody in the tent steamin' mad for it."
Philippe was beat, and he knew it.
"Will," he sighed, "for what you done, I'd break every bone in your body if I could get away with it. But since I can't then I hope one of them Gros Ventres sneaks up on you when you're not lookin' and does it for me, you hear—like they did in '32!"
Will took the threat and threw it straight back into Pierre's face.
"From what I heard it was Sublette's outfit that did the sneakin', and the Gros Ventre gave 'em what they deserved. Good men died that day—and some women and children on the Gros Ventre side, too."
Will glared at Philippe without blinking until he saw Philippe's own glare began to fade.
"And back in the day one of them children could have been you," Will continued. "Born and bred with Indians, I hear—and you a breed . . . "
Philippe began to blink back tears as Will continued his rant.
"So, now you say you want the Gros Ventre to do me in, and hearin' you talk like that gives me pause to wonder just whose side you're on."
A near-by rifle shot broke the icy silence that had grown between the two men.
"Well?" Will demanded.
"Well, what?" Pierre snapped back as he raised his eyes high enough to reconnect with Will's.
"I should have kicked you in the head," Will snorted, "'stead of wastin' my toe on your ribs, you no good . . . "
"Enough," Philippe whispered as two more rifle shots rang out. "I don't want nobody to do you in. I was just angry 'cause of my rib and all."
Philippe hesitated for a moment before reaching out his hand.
"I'm a breed, it's true. But, Will, I'm on your side and glad to call you my friend."
Will met Philippe's hand with his own, a gesture that caused Philippe to break into a grin.
"But I'd be even gladder if you hadn't gone off and kicked me last night!"
The men's hands held together long enough for Will to grin back.
"Pack your gear, friend," he said as he let go of Philippe's hand, "and tell the rest of the company to do the same. 'Cause you're right—we done what we came here to do and it's time to go afore one of them lead balls comes down and hits me on the head."
By midday, Will, Philippe and the Hudson's Bay Company had left Ham's Fork heading north and then west to Pierre's Hole and beyond.
As they entered the Oregon Territory the emerging track of the Oregon Trail and the future of the American West followed them like a shadow.
Although the annual Rocky Mountain rendezvous continued until 1840, the 1834 gathering at Ham's Fork was the last to meet on such a grand scale. That summer the Rocky Mountain Fur Company sold out even before they got their furs back to St. Louis, and the trading companies that came later never again enjoyed the prosperity of earlier, shining times.
As the summer of 1834 progressed, Nathaniel Wyeth traded enough gear to independent trappers to finance the building of Fort Hall just to the south of Pierre's Hole on the upper Snake River near modern-day Pocatello, Idaho.
Several months after that, Hudson's Bay Company countered by building Fort Boise between the Sawtooth Mountains and the lower Snake, consolidating their control of the fur trade in the Oregon Territory to the point where two years later, in 1836, they bought out Wyeth and took possession of Fort Hall—the same year that Priscilla Whitman and Eliza Spalding, accompanying their missionary husbands Marcus and Henry, became the first White woman to cross the Rocky Mountains—over South Pass and in wagons.
Also, in 1834, John Jacob Astor sold off his interest in the Pacific coast branch of the American Fur Company, with headquarters at the mouth of the Columbia River in Astoria. In response, Hudson's Bay Company moved into Astoria and renamed it Fort George—while at the same time expanding Fort Vancouver (across the Columbia River from modern-day Portland, Oregon) and establishing it as the administration center for what remained of the Pacific Northwest fur trade, an industry doomed that same year as silk replaced fur as the European hat of choice.
In 1846, Hudson's Bay Company was forced to abandon the Oregon Territory and withdraw to the north after the British/American treaty was signed that drew the border between Canada and the United States along the 49th parallel.
With the departure of the Hudson's Bay Company, the fur trade and the mountain men who opened up the American west faded into history—and entered the realm of legend.
James A. Tweedie has published six novels, one short story collection, and three collections of poetry with
Dunecrest Press. He has lived in California, Scotland, Utah (in Cache Valley, five miles from the site of the
first Rocky Mountain Rendezvous), Australia, Hawaii, and presently in Long Beach, Washington (one mile from the
northernmost point on the Pacific Coast reached by the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805, and 20 miles across
the Columbia River from Astoria, Oregon, founded by John Jacob Astor in 1811 as the Pacific trade center for his
American Fur Company).
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by Alexander J. Richardson
Calm down. Stop it. Ain't no cause for squirmin'. You'll chafe your wrists somethin' fierce and still be tied good.
Pardon the dirty saddlebags on your floor. My horse's rode long and hard, and she needs a proper rest.
Oh, this is a real somethin' for me. My mama, daughter a' the famed Sheriff Poe hisself, tied up at my feet. What a day indeed this is. I think I will have myself a whiskey in celebration. Do you still keep it under the loose floorboard?
Well, that is vulgar talk for a lady. I won't be sharing a drop with you now.
Are you surprised to see me? A' course you is. What was your exact words when I left? Let me see if I recall.
You said—will you stop pickin' at them ropes? It does no cause but to upset me some. I'm no good to be upsettin' these days.
Where was I? Oh, yes. You said, and I do quote from the best a' my memory, that I was a no-good, hay-headed dummy who didn't hold the worth a' no mule and would be cursin' a child should I breed. That is what you said.
Yet here I am, with you tied up good at my feet, fresh off the heels a' a fame your daddy never knowed, And I am only just begun.
It is since I left that I have taken up with the Juan Rojas Gang.
That's right. Your hay-headed dummy son's been ridin' with the most-feareded outlaws this side a' Texas.
How do that make you feel, Mama?
Oh, those tears give me life, Mama! Perhaps I will cut my whiskey with them. What an idea that is. To drink a' your sadness would enliven my spirit.
Do you wonder how such a thing came to pass? It's quite the tale, I assure you.
Just hold still a moment.
Hold still, Mama.
Ha! As you will, then. There's more tears where those came from.
Where was I? Yes, I remember. It was just days after you cast me to the wind. The worry had me, Mama. I didn't know where I should hang my hat and lay my head. Other than the clothes on my back, the dollar in my pocket, I had nothing.
It did cross my mind that I might die.
I sat in the Hazleton saloon, thinking to drink that dollar away for its warmth, when who should sit next to me but Clay Delgado hisself.
Don't play the fool at me, Mama. How couldn't you know his name? He's the right-hand man a' the Juan Rojas Gang, and has a bounty a' twenty-five hundred dollars on his head alone! My God, the man is simply infamous!
And there he was, sittin' next to me sure as shit, orderin' a whiskey. He wore a poncho and had that signature eight gauge strapped to his back. I ain't never had been so glad to walk the Earth as I was in that moment.
When he left, I followed him out. And when that bounty hunter tried to get the jump on him as he was saddlin' up his horse, it was me who thumped him good over the back a' the head with a rock . . . oh, don't act so shocked, Mama. You, the woman who brang me into this world, is trussed up at my feet, but you think I wouldn't hit a stranger? C'mon now.
A lawman? Stop it, Mama. Being a bounty hunter didn't make him no lawman. You know the difference between bounty hunters and outlaws? One's paid a stack a' bills by the local sheriff for his trouble, and the other gets the rope. They're killers all the same.
Anyways, me and Clay Delgado ran off together and he introduced me to the gang. What a sight they was. Oliver Wright, Graham O'Grady, Dirty Debbie, the Andrews brothers. They took me back to their camp.
Hallowed ground, Mama.
They set upon me a task—goddamn this whiskey's good, Mama. Hits the spot.
You know who else drinks whiskey straight from the bottle? Clay Delgado. Me and him drink the same.
Anyways, they tasked me with holdin' up a stagecoach all on my lonesome. Easy as pie with a little plannin'. It's the small details that make all the difference. I wore my purple coat and vest—the ones you made for Pa—and that purple hankie with his name embroidered on the inside covered my face. Without so much as no warning shot, I held up that stage and took their cash. I—oh.
Oh, you're gettin' it. I can see it in your eyes. That dawn a' realization you read about in dime novels.
You're afraid you've figured it out, and you're right.
I'm the man from the papers, Mama.
I'm the man from the wanted posters.
I'm the Purple-Boy Bandit.
I have to tell you, Mama, that I—stop it. Oh, you stop that right this moment, Mama. This homestead a' yours may be well off the beaten path, but you're hurtin' my ears somethin' fierce with all that wailin'.
Anyways, I robbed that stagecoach good, and Clay Delgado was mighty pleased. They gived me a thirds share a' the cut, and I bought myself a fine horse. Named her Gentleman's Fancy, and many-a weary traveler's heard the beat a' her hooves comin' near 'fore they was robbed for all they got. She's hitched up outside, but you won't see her, Mama.
Outside a' this room, you won't be seein' nothin' ever again.
Oh, don't give me no shocked look. How could you? All the things you ever done, and you look at me that way. Callin' me dumb and short-sighted and lazy. Lazy? Me, the Purple-Boy Bandit? Was I lazy when I pistol-whipped that miner upriver to death and took his nuggets? Was I lazy when I robbed the rich patrons a' the Orchard Express? Do that sound like a lazy boy to you, Mama?
I done so many things, and I been a man. A man, Mama. Rougher and tougher than anybody you even knowed, including your goddamn, fool-head daddy. Why, he—
So help me Jesus, Mama. Quiet your screams, or I'll take some a' your under things and cram them down your fool throat.
Now, your daddy took such pride in stopping the Wolf Creek Bandits all those years ago, when they tried to rob the Susanville bank. Remember? Ha! I know you remember. You wouldn't shut up about it. The paper wouldn't shut up about it. He wouldn't shut up about it.
Think if he were here today, Mama. Think if he knowed a' his great failure. Think if—what?
What do you mean, what am I talking about?
Oh, hell, Mama! I ain't told you.
We done it, Mama.
The Juan Rojas Gang done robbed the Susanville bank!
We took it this mornin'. The Andrews brothers blew the vault open with dynamite while me and Clay held everybody at gunpoint.
The gang made off with ten-thousand dollars. Clay said I done so good, my cut's gonna be twenty-five percent! That's what your hay-headed dummy son's earned today, Mama. The hell have you done?
We gotta lay low for a bit, a' course. There was a bit a' shootin' as we made our way out a' town. Couple deputies got dead. Sheriff's spittin' mad and lookin' to give us the rope. Ha! He don't even know who I am. He don't stand a ch—
How I love them tears.
The company's been delightful, Mama—though it ain't nothin' compared to this fine whiskey—but I must be gettin' on my way.
I'm afraid livin' ain't gonna suit you good, but shootin' you like a goddamn dog don't sit right.
After all, bullets ain't free.
You know, I believe I got the perfect fix! You miss Pa so much, how 'bout I cram his bandana right down your throat?
That's an idea if I ever had one, Mama. Hold still while I—
Where's the bandana?
Where's Pa's monogrammed bandana?
It slipped off once me and Clay had ditched them deputies, but he picked it up and put it right in the saddlebag. He said so while I took a piss!
Why can't I—
Do you hear that ruckus outside?
I'm gonna check the window. Don't you make so much as a goddamn peep, Mama.
It's the goddamn sheriff and his goddamn posse.
I gotta get—don't you fiddle with them ropes, Mama!
That's right. Walk in front a' me. This here's what they call a hostage situation, Mama.
Move to the door.
Oh, those goddamn fools. Yellin' up a storm about me comin' quiet. Like they can drop no dime on me. I'm the sharpest shot south a' Laramie. Clay Delgado said it hisself!
'Sides, any shootin' from them's gonna catch you first and proper.
You wanna live, Mama?
Do as I say. Get us through that door and to my horse.
You manage that, I won't shoot you like no goddamn dog in the dirt. You got a son's promise on that, Mama.
Boy, that whiskey's hittin' hard.
I'm countin' to three, Mama. When I get there, you open the door.
You yellow bastards best step back 'fore I—
Alexander J. Richardson is a writer of speculative fiction, crime fiction, and westerns, with thirteen stories
published. His work's been distributed on five different websites, both long-standing (Fiction on the Web)
and newer (96th of October). Outside of his short stories, Alexander's working to have his debut novel
published. He currently resides in New Jersey.
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The Crossbow Incident
by Tom Sheehan
Kontiki Krill, now known as Anita Marie Coburn, wife of the General Store owner in Seven Hills, Colorado, saw the young boy, a transplanted Apache for sure, as she had been an Arapaho in her earlier time, while he studied some article in the window display and had not yet entered the store.
She suddenly remembered small bits of her beginning; in a scene of death and devastation, being scooped up by a soldier and hugged until blood rushed. out of his mouth and his eyes closed, at which time another soldier scooped her into his arms and rode a long way with her, at last swapping her for a crossbow with a woman who hugged her continuously and called her Anita Marie from that moment on, warmth eventually associated with the name and the hugs of the woman, evermore her mother, in exchange for a weapon.
Her memories fled quickly, leaving as fast as they had come upon her, seeing the young Apache still eyeing the crossbow in the window display, perhaps some kind or twist of memory coming to him involving a similar weapon of the long-standing war upon the natives of the land, him also brought out of death and devastation by a merciful soul long gone on his own journey elsewhere.
The two of them, thusly connected, gave them a beginning together, there at Seven Hills, the wars their connection from this time to a kind of forever, pals under the guns, in this case the conglomeration of a crossbow exciting the young Apache still caught up in wonder about himself, what he was doing here, called little Danny Kelly from the start by a man with stripes on his sleeves and a woman who stood beside him when day came or left them, now with a son to share it with them, also here at Seven Hills.
The crossbow was too heavy for the boy to handle with ease, but she let him hold it when nobody else was around them, her almost seeing what he might be imagining in the darkness of his mind, and one miner, Zeke Sattling, exclaiming, "Them two look like big sister and little brother if you ask me, which you won't, but I'm saying so anyway. Like big sister and little brother and now the twain has met. Best beware of what they cook up between them. It can't be ordinary, not if you ask me, which you won't anyhow you look at them, part of this ground before we ever got here and took it away from them, us knowing it wasn't no Seven Hills back before we come this way with all them guns firing away and all them shovels tossing the very earth aside in our hurries. That was in the 1830's Trail of Tears, covering over 5000 miles in 9 states or territories of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, forcefully moving the natives from their own historical lands to parks where us kind of folks could stare at them, then move on."
The fact was clear, few people listened to a word he said, even the "Trail of Tears" finding little sympathy among those who heard him, and so it was that Anita Marie and little Danny Kelly grew closer in belief, behavior, like small kindling promising a bigger fire, perhaps an inferno coming due.
So, it was, Anita Marie telling little Danny Kelly in his daily lessons, what was what, where they had come from. What other folks had done to them and their true people, escorting them off their long-held tribal properties, a sin of sins. She pulled no punches, blame falling at the feet of those in charge
She went so far back in time that he was mesmerized, including her views of Gungywamp an archaeological site in Connecticut, consisting of artifacts dating from 2000-770 BC, such as a stone circle, and the remains of both Native American and colonial structures. Among multiple structural remains of note is a stone chamber featuring an astronomical alignment during the equinoxes. Besides containing beehive chambers and petroglyphs, the Gungywamp site has a double circle of stones near its center, just north of two stone chambers. Two concentric circles of large quarried stones—21 large slabs laid end to end—are at the center of the site.
The origin and meaning of the name remain uncertain. Some researchers associate the name, 'Gungywamp' with Gaelic, Mohegan, Pequot, and Algonquin with meaning anything from the following; church of the people, place of ledges, swampy place; or all powerful and white, as proposed.
The boy wondered where and how she had learned such details that fell from her talks as if rehearsed in a long-established school of all the ages of man on the Earth, and maybe not on a star in the night sky.
She carried so much weight on others that recruits rushed to support her to do as summoned, commanded, and when the fiery night descended on them, they dispersed with oils and firesticks on a rainy and dark night and set fire to every structure in Seven Hills. The inferno spread rapidly in their first strike back at the enemies.
The flames went monumental, all across the skylines in each and every direction so that morning found nothing left of Seven Hills. Not a stick untouched by the native blazes that not even the army troops stationed at the reaches of Seven Hills dared rush to squash the many fires at total command of "supposed itinerants," but it was miner, Zeke Sattling, still with an audience, who carried on the argument the fire had started; "It's easy to see now that recourse has been made and Seven Hills, once our place of power, no longer exists and has earned its new place in history, being the last place to stand in our honor and is gone now and forever into history, like payback time I have spoken of over the years has come upon us from those hands and hearts that were hurt most by our interference, so help me by the powers that be.
He doffed his cap, and those looking on had to interpret the move as a salute to those who had made a statement, or a goodbye to the place that had been and no longer was.
Sheehan, half-way through his 94th year, has published 53 books, has work in Rosebud, The Linnet's Wings (100),
Copperfield Review, Literally Stories (150), Frontier Tales, Green Silk Journal. He's earned 18 Pushcart
nominations, and 6 Best of Net nominations, with one winner. Last year he won Ageless Writers story contest
with "The Tale of Trot and Dim Johnny," and has submitted other books including $20 Grand, In the Garden of
Long Shadows, Jehrico's the Collector's Collection, and Murder Down Canada Way
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by Gary Kadlec
One might have wagered a pretty pile of gold that Lyle Plagg would sooner wind up standing on the platform of a gallows on this fine Sunday afternoon than lining up to be baptized.
Even his mother back in Tuscaloosa would have taken that bet. And lost. Because right now, there he was, shirtless, wading through the shallow water of Mobile Bay to where the good Reverend Clancy Bent stood waiting.
The reverend was not alone by far, surrounded as he was by the gathered parishioners of the Baldwin County First Baptist Church. Each one of them just a quick splash from salvation. Applauding the as-of-yet sinners was a gowned group with wet hair and warm hearts. Piles of clothes littered the wood planks that led to water's edge. None present were too concerned with their belongings being stolen, after all, this was Sunday service. Besides that, their pockets had been lightened quite a bit, after much fervent encouragement from the man of God. Reverend Bent was keeping a steady eye on his overstuffed satchel of money, and an equally close eye on the pleasant aesthetics of Mr. Lowry's fine young wife.
Now, nearly all eyes were on Lyle Plagg; he was quite a sight. Skin as brown as his breeches, which were riding low and exposing a well-defined lower torso and the points of his hips. Rumor was he'd notched his belt with so many kills he'd cut entirely through it. Now, here he was, sans belt, the view giving more than a few penitent parishioners further thoughts to confess.
The still unbaptized decided their salvation could wait a mite longer and moved aside to let the rogue gunman to the front of the line. "Just like Noah parting the great waters," he said. Clancy opened his mouth to correct the outlaw and thought better of it.
Plagg was a lanky son of a Best not say it on Sunday, towering over the silver-haired Baptist. He removed his black hat with a flourish.
A gasp came unbidden from the gathered crowd. It was common knowledge that Lyle Plagg carried an "eight-gallon cannon under a ten-gallon hat." But the big Colt six-shooter didn't make an appearance. Instead, the man pulled out a thick heap of bank notes. Now a gasp came from the reverend.
"What brings you here today, son?" Clancy Bent said, looking hungry, and not for the salt pork sandwiches in the basket up on the riverbank.
"Bent, is it?" Lyle Plagg answered the question with one of his own. "'As the twig is bent, so grows the tree!' Which apostle said that?"
"Franklin," came the dry answer. Reverend Bent liked to claim that he had the patience of Job, but it often wore as thin as his veneer of piety. The outlaw Lyle Plagg was trying to steal the show, and First Baptist's finest had worked hard to reach this point. He'd poured sweat and spirit into his rousing "Lighthouse" sermon, and he'd done it right in front of the brand-new lighthouse. It was a stroke of genius, he thought to himself. It had certainly been persuasive; the newly enlightened had been compelled to open up their hearts and their pocketbooks. Now Clancy Bent just wanted to close the deal and go home. Or, perhaps, to Lowry's.
"I have questions, Bent," Plagg announced. He didn't call anyone Father that wasn't his father. His hand rubbed the black scruff on his chin thoughtfully, and the buckle-shaped scar on his cheek.
The reverend exhaled pure exasperation, looking heavenward as if for strength. "I'll do my best to answer your question."
"Questions," repeated Plagg, digging in his heels. "And, I'd prefer that the Good Book answer me. I can trust what it says."
Bent did his best to ignore the slight. "Of course, my son. Of course."
"You working here today, right? That don't need a Scriptural answer."
"I'm always working, with the Lord." He probably ought to have said "for the Lord," but the unexpected delay had his dander up a tad. Bent straightened up his back and puffed his chest.
"And does not the worker deserve his wage?" Plagg followed up.
"Yes. It is so written!" Bent's eyes lit up. "The worker deserves his wages," he emphasized the plural, "The first letter to Timothy, chapter five and verse eighteen!" He had regained his composure, his preacher voice, and, he noted to himself with pride, his audience.
"I thought as much. I aim to see to it that you get your full wages today." He whistled sharply through the Missouri-sized gap in his front teeth. "You there, hold on to these for me. I suspect that unlike souls, they lose value if they go under the water."
The reverend's eyes might well have bored holes in the bundle of money as the outlaw tossed it to a new convert drying out at water's edge. He licked his lips greedily. Then he caught the glance of young Ellen Lowry, and his reptilian tongue lingered before it darted back into his mouth.
"Now, you've got yourself a conundrum, haven't you, Bent," Plagg mocked. "Three things to stare at, and just two hungry eyes." He winked.
"The sun is not standing still in the sky for us as it did for Joshua," Bent prodded. "We ought to move along."
"I'll get to the point directly. Can I be baptized here today?"
Reverend Bent gave him a long look as if appraising the man's righteousness, or lack thereof. Took in the irreverent scowl, the multitude of scars from knives, bullets, barbed wire. So much blood on his hands it fairly dripped off into the bay. What was his angle?
"We welcome everyone," Bent said, raising his hands in a magnanimous gesture, as if he spoke for the gathered crowd, the Lord Himself, and His vast myriads of angels.
"And then, after my ablution, (he pantomimed washing himself, and several chuckles were stifled), I will be saved?"
"You shall," was the assurance, the reverend, again speaking for everyone from the Alpha to the Omega.
"Amen!" boomed across the water.
"But," Plagg protested, "I am a bad man." It was an understatement of Biblical proportions.
"I observed that you walked through the waters, not on top of them," Clancy Bent said. "As is true of all of us, isn't that so?"
"Amen!" Everyone testified.
"But . . . "
Clancy Bent grit his teeth; he was getting tired of "But's." When would the rambling interloper run out of interruptions, he wondered? Now he seemed to be bragging about his wickedness. "I've broken numerous laws. I've cheated. I've stolen." The reverend frowned. Usually confession was a separate liturgy for a separate fee, but he supposed he'd let the grievance pass. "I've even . . . " He stopped just then, and practically all in attendance were silently mouthing the word.
"Killed?" The reverend mainly just wanted to move this along. "I don't kill people!" the outlaw brayed, an unexpected and inexplicable laugh. Puzzled looks were on every face, so he explained: "My gun kills people, not me!" No one laughed but Lyle Plagg; his sense of humor was not for this crowd, nor for this era.
"Point is," he said finally, "I am unworthy. My path is far from the footsteps of your Exemplar."
The reverend saw his opening. "It sounds as if your heart is prepared to accept just how undeserved divine grace is. It is yours for the taking. Today, you will die as to your old way of life and be born again by spirit. Come, son. Come be washed clean." He reached out, clearing his throat to cover the sound of his suddenly growling stomach. He wasn't finished answering questions, though, it turned out.
"So, what do you think?" Plagg rubbed his chin thoughtfully some more. "Was I a bad man from birth? Did I wake up one morning wicked? Was I . . . Was I made this way?" Without leaving pause for an answer, he plodded forward. "Or, rather, would you not say it was many poor decisions, many wrong actions along the course I've chosen that made who I am?"
"I suspect that the latter would be the correct answer."
"I suspect as much myself. So. Wouldn't it make sense that this here one single action today in this river, in front of God and these damp people (the Reverend's eyebrow raised at that) will not in and of itself save my soul? Would it not also take many right decisions, many proper actions? Good deeds, charity, amends? Compensations?"
"Well, certainly, yes! Compensations!" Reverend Bent answered a bit too eagerly, eyeballing the parishioner holding the bundle of banknotes. 'Bear fruits worthy of repentance,' so saith Saint Paul."
"Amen!" it was confirmed by all.
Plagg still wasn't finished. "So, in fact, tellin' these folks that they go in sinners and come out saints, why, that's a bit of a taradiddle, now aint it?"
"Well? A fib?" The water was suddenly still, and the crowd even more so.
"I'd call it perhaps a part of the greater truth."
"And the part that ain't truth?" Seemed like Clancy Bent was trying to slither off, and the evildoer by his side was having none of it. "Look, I just want answers, not hemmin' and hawin', and these folks behind me, why their legs are starting to look like prunes. Some were to start with, I suppose," he corrected himself needlessly. "So, Bent. If the thing you said wasn't all true, then what was it?"
"Well, it's more of a little white lie, if anything." At this point he looked heavenward, for approval, or perhaps intervention. "You see—"
"A little white what?"
No one spoke. Even the birds and critters were silent, as if a gun had just fired. "I know you aren't all dumb," Plagg encouraged, "You were all shouting Amen unto the Lord just a moment ago."
"It was a. Lie." The reverend barely squeaked it, stiffening like the lizard he'd found out on his porch this past winter. Suddenly he was missing the safety of his personal domicile, the sprawling estate just down the street from the tiny church.
Everyone found themselves holding their breath as they watched for Lyle Plagg's reaction.
"Thank you!" he exclaimed, with a huge grin, and again doffing his hat theatrically.
Everyone exhaling at the same time sent a cool breeze rippling across the water's surface.
"So. Now are you ready, Son?" Bent said it like he was trying to put the man back in proper place, and it was surely what he intended. He didn't call anyone Son he wasn't trying to get the best of.
"Nearly," Plagg said. "Lying. It's a sin, I suppose?"
The Reverend was overheated, soaked, mosquito-bit, and more than a tad peevish. "Yes, young man. Lying, much like horse thieving, and the wasting of other people's precious time, is a sin."
"Coveting, too, ain't that right?" The outlaw nodded pointedly in the direction of Mrs. Lowry.
Reverend Bent looked about to spit fire and sulfur from his mouth. "Yes," he hissed. "AND envy."
"Can I ask one more question?"
"What might be the wages paid for sin?"
The reverend thundered his final answer it as if it were the words of the Almighty himself coming down from the heavens.
"Says Romans chapter the sixth, verse the twenty-third, 'The wages of sin is death!'" Onlookers swore that the water shook, so forcefully had he shouted the word "Death."
The loudest "Amen!" of the afternoon followed, and service was over. Nearly.
The reverend Clancy Bent had secretly been a gambler, at least when he wasn't condemning the vice. But in all of his days, he would never have wagered that he'd be plunging beneath the water's surface this fine Sunday afternoon.
Gary Kadlec lives out West—the West Coast of Florida, and enjoys writing short stories with unexpected endings.
You can find his "Twist Fiction" at www.garykadlec.com
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