by Gary L. Breezeel
At the pinnacle of the ridge, Buck Horn raised a weary hand, removed his hat, and wiped his brow. Whew! Another long day's ride. He picked up his canteen and shook it. Empty. "Sorry, old fella." He patted his stallion's neck. "Looks like we'll both have to hold out until we get to the next waterhole."
The breeze blew Buck's hair into his eyes but provided no relief from the scorching heat. He twisted in his saddle and surveyed the scene behind him. Beyond the wide valley, the snow-capped Capitan Mountains rose with majestic splendor. Amid the darkening shadows, the sage still managed to turn the floor of the basin a soft purple. The sage's minty scent helped to dispel the too-familiar odors of dust and sweat and horse.
Any other time, he'd have loved nothing more than to sit here and bask in the grandeur. But not now. No time for such trivialities. He refocused his eyes on his backtrail. Sure enough, a dust cloud rose about two miles back, but smaller than the day before. Most of the posse must have given up and gone home. But not Sheriff Zeb McClaine. He never quit. Not until he got his man, one way or the other. After ten years as a lawman in Snakebite, he'd earned his reputation. The townspeople called him Old Relentless. It was easier to escape an Apache on the warpath than to shake Zeb off your trail.
Buck sighed and eased Paint into a canter. Two days on the run with scarcely any rest got old. He shifted in the saddle and rubbed his back. Despite his fatigue, he could keep up this grueling pace, but his faithful mount wouldn't make it much farther. The chestnut stallion had borne the brunt of the punishment. He ought to reach the Rio Hondo early tomorrow. Then, he'd circle back through the stream and head for a hidden valley he'd discovered last summer. If he could keep Paint moving for another day and a half, he'd hole up there, rest up awhile, and let his horse graze. Surely, with enough sleep, he could devise a plan to elude Zeb.
* * *
Buck awoke after a restless night. Had some sound awakened him? Confounded posse might have found his tracks. And have eyes on him even now. He scanned his surroundings. Nothing moved. The sun stood high in the sky, far above the canyon's walls. He should have cleared out at sunup. He whistled for Paint, gathered his bedroll, and broke camp. If only he hadn't overslept. He'd have reached his valley by noon, and they'd never have found him.
No time for breakfast. He'd have to make do with jerky while he rode. Good thing he'd filled his canteen before he bedded down.
Buck guided Paint onto an antelope trail he'd spotted the evening before. In response to a slight tug on the reins, Paint followed the track up and over the canyon's rim. A shot rang out and kicked up dust ten feet behind him. Heavy caliber. Had to be the buffalo gun carried by Shep Butler, the best tracker in New Mexico Territory. Zeb's right-hand man on a manhunt.
Too bad Buck didn't have a dog to kick. His ten-mile trek through the river hadn't fooled Old Relentless, at least not for long, even though he'd ridden out of the water onto solid rock. Nobody could track over solid rock. Yet, somehow, he and Paint still had company. Were those guys human? He sighed. No hope now to hide out in his valley and let Paint rest.
At Buck's kick, the faithful mount leaped into a gallop. Before Shep would have time to reload the single-shot Sharps, they rounded a mammoth boulder, safe for the moment. Good thing Buck hadn't bothered with breakfast. He'd have been a goner for sure. Shep, the bloodthirsty cuss, shot first and asked questions later, regardless of Zeb's orders.
Buck slowed Paint, gave him his head, and allowed the horse to pick his way down the rocky slope. But when they reached the level floor of the next canyon, they raced on.
Buck needed to put more distance between himself and the posse. He hadn't dreamed up an escape plan that made sense, except to try to stay ahead of Zeb until he reached the border in three or four days. Not his best-thought-out strategy. The overnight stop had given Paint a needed respite but hardly enough for a days-long run for the border.
How unfair that Buck had to go on the run. All his life, he'd been snakebit. He couldn't help that his mother died giving birth to him in the Buckhorn Saloon. Or that they'd named him after the disreputable joint, since nobody knew Goldie's last name. At least, Blackjack O'Leary let the other girls raise him when the good citizens of Snakebite wanted no part of him. Still didn't after all this time. So, at twenty-three, Buck still worked at the Buckhorn. Until this mess. Cursed luck. Even the rundown saloon seemed like paradise after this.
* * *
After another full day's ride, Buck reached the south slope of Blanco Pass, the landscape as barren and desolate as any place he'd ever seen. With his bandanna, he wiped sweat from his face. Both he and his horse had about reached the end of their rope. Paint's chest heaved with each breath, while Buck slumped in the saddle.
He gave Paint a gentle kick, and the valiant steed began his descent. About a third of the way down, the horse stumbled and slid sideways. Buck jerked up straight. Confound it.
In his fatigued state, he hadn't noticed the loose shale on the slope. Paint lost his footing, fell to his knees, and rolled onto one side. Buck jumped clear, but when he hit the ground, a sharp pain smacked the side of his head. Then, everything went black.
When Buck came to, night had fallen. A half-moon hovered above the ridge. He pushed himself to a seated position. Everything spun round and round. As the world slowed to a stop, the cry of an animal in pain rang out from below. He struggled to his feet, then alternately staggered and slid toward the sound. No easy feat on a forty-five-degree slope. Paint lay on one side, head tossing to and fro.
"Easy, boy, let me check you out." The stallion settled enough to let Buck approach. He ran his hands over Paint's forelegs. Both broken. Just as he expected. "Sorry, old pard, I can't risk a gunshot." With tears in his eyes, he slid his buck knife from its sheath and with one quick thrust sliced his best friend's jugular.
* * *
Noon found Buck well on his way down the mountainside. He'd left behind everything except his rifle, canteen, and his last two strips of jerky. His weariness after days on horseback paled by comparison to the fatigue of a half-day's hike in the blazing sun. He'd stopped often for rest and to quench his thirst. For all the good it did him.
He gazed behind him. No sign of the posse, but they couldn't be far behind. Long before dusk, his last hope of escape fled. Yet, he refused to give up and let them hang him for a crime he didn't commit. He'd die of exhaustion first—he licked his cracked lips—or thirst. As the sun set, he stumbled on a small spring that bubbled out of a cleft in the rock face. He drank his fill and plunged his head into the pool below. Cool and refreshing. Too exhausted even to fill his canteen, he slogged over to a nearby patch of grass and dropped to the ground. Before full dark, he lay down where he sat and passed out.
* * *
At a sharp pain in his side, Buck jerked awake. He rubbed his ribs and opened his eyes to the gray light of early morning. Beneath a battered gray Stetson, piercing blue eyes in a leathery, sunburned face stared down at him. A face he knew all too well. But the six-gun pointed between his eyes captured and held his attention.
Zeb kicked him with the pointed toe of his boot. In the same place. "Wake up, kid. You've led me a merry chase. It's a rough trip back to Snakebite. Longer, since we'll be ridin' double."
Buck sat up and glanced around. "Where's Shep?"
"Sent him home. Don't cotton to killin' a man when it ain't necessary. Besides, I didn't need a tracker no more. Since you lit out t'other day after gettin' shot at, you left a trail a blind tenderfoot could follow."
"Zeb, why not let me go? No one would know."
"Cain't do it. I always liked you, boy, but I've gotta take you back to stand trial."
"But they'll hang me for sure. And I didn't kill Blackjack."
"You'll get a chance to tell your story."
"Who'll listen to a nobody who grew up in a saloon?"
"I cain't do nothin' 'bout that." Zeb reached down to help Buck to his feet. "Come on. Let's git goin'."
* * *
Two nights later, the two sat beside a campfire. Crickets chirped. The nearby creek gurgled. A coyote howled in the distance. The scent of wood smoke filled the air. With a bright canopy of stars overhead, the night would have been restful but for the circumstances. Zeb held out a tin cup. "Coffee hits the spot. Sure you don't want some?"
Buck shook his head, eyes downcast. "I just want you to let me go. I'll leave the territory and never come back. I promise."
"Nope. I've got a duty to them that elected me."
"But you'll be helping them hang an innocent man."
"I'll do what I can, boy, but the evidence is agin' you." He glanced at the fire. "I'll have to tie you up again before I bed down. Take it easy now while I rustle up some more firewood." He stood and disappeared into the darkness.
Moments later, a telltale rattle sounded, followed by a curse and a gunshot. A moment later, Zeb returned, shaking his left hand. "Hurts like blazes. Bent over to pick up a log. Blasted rattler got me."
Buck clambered to his feet. "Come over by the fire." He took Zeb's hand and held it near the flame. Sure enough, two puncture marks dotted the back of his hand. "He got you, all right."
"Well, boy, you sure got yore wish. I cain't bring myself to shoot you in cold blood. So, I guess all you gotta do is wait around 'til I die. Then, you'll be free."
Buck stared into the fire. As Zeb said, this might be his last chance to escape the noose. But if he let Zeb die when he had the ability to help him, he'd become a murderer for real. And deserve to hang. No time to dither. Every minute counted. If he hesitated, Zeb would meet his maker.
"Sit here by the fire, so I can see what I'm doing." Buck removed his bandana and wrapped it around Zeb's wrist. Then, he picked up a small stick from the stack of firewood, tied the loose ends of the bandana around it, and twisted it tight. "Now, give me the knife on your belt."
Zeb removed the blade from its sheath and handed it to Buck, who made an X-shaped incision over the bite marks, placed his mouth over the cut, sucked as hard as he could, and spit the poison into the fire. He repeated this procedure over and over. By the time he finished, Zeb's hand had begun to swell.
Next, Buck searched Zeb's saddlebags. He took out Zeb's dirty shirt, washed it in the stream, and spread it out near the fire. "When it's dry, I'll make bandages to cover your wound. Wouldn't want it to get infected."
For four days and nights, Zeb raved with fever. His hand and forearm swelled to twice their normal size. Buck nursed him as best he could. Compresses of cool water on the injured sheriff's forehead helped keep his temperature down. Buck killed a rabbit with Zeb's Winchester, made broth, and spoon-fed his patient to get some nourishment into him.
At dawn of the fifth day, Zeb's brow had cooled to the touch. With Buck's help, he managed to sit up and spoon a small helping of beans into his own mouth. By the following morning, his color had returned.
Zeb rolled over and faced the campfire. "Buck, thank you for savin' my life."
"You'd have done the same for me."
"True, but you had good reason not to. A murderer would never have done what you did. What happened? Tell me your side of the story. You know witnesses saw you leanin' over Blackjack's body."
Buck stared into the fire. "I cleaned up the saloon after closing and left by the side door, as usual. When I started down the alley toward the street, I found Blackjack lying curled up on one side. Kneeled beside him to see if he needed help, but it was too late. Blood had soaked his clothes and pooled all around. I didn't see a knife until later when I ran past it in the alley."
"Where we found it." Zeb's head tilted to one side. "Why'd you run if you didn't do it?"
"Somebody took a shot at me. I had to vamoose or get killed. Bullets don't take the time to ask questions."
Zeb nodded. "Makes sense. I heard a gunshot before I got there." His penetrating gaze bored into Buck's eyes, the way he studied his opponents at a poker table to detect a bluff. "Do you have any evidence you didn't do it?"
"He had a stab wound in his chest. With so much blood, the killer couldn't keep from getting it all over him. I still have on what I wore the night of the murder. Do you see any bloodstains on my clothes?"
"No, but how can I be sure you didn't change?"
"No time. You saw me run down the street, jump on my horse, and hightail it out of town. Took only what I'd packed in my saddlebags. Left my spare shirt behind when I had to hoof it. You found it, didn't you? With my horse?"
"I searched your saddlebags. Found your clean shirt." Zeb rubbed his chin. "Doggone it. I reckon you're right."
"Does that mean you'll let me go?"
Zeb laid a hand on Buck's shoulder. "No, son, I've still gotta take you back. It's my duty. But I'll do whatever I can to clear you. Make sure the judge and jury understand what we just discussed. I think I can convince 'em. You'll have to trust me."
"I do trust you." Buck nodded and swallowed hard. "You've always been a straight shooter."
"Good. I need another day's rest, but bed down early. We leave at sunup."
Gary L. Breezeel is a former attorney, minister, and government accountant. After retirement from his position with the U. S. Department of Defense, he fulfilled his dream of becoming a writer. His short stories, essays, memoirs, and poems have won numerous local contests. His work has been published in Christmas Moments, Grace Publishing, 2014, and White County Creative Writers Anthology 2018, Raven's Inn Press, 2018. He has completed two novels, as yet unpublished.
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Gus and Bess
by M.D. Smith, IV
"You rotten son-of-a-bitch. You cheated me. You double-dealing horse turd."
Those were fighting words I heard in a Dodge City saloon in the summer of 1870. Somebody was about to get shot.
Here's what led up to the confrontation.
The love of my life that I'd follow anywhere was Gamblin' Gus Grayson. He got that name because of his trade. He was plain Gus to me.
We came to Dodge City 'bout a year ago. We rode up from Texas, where they didn't take kindly to a man defending himself over a game of cards and killin' somebody. Gus had a sixth sense about the game and sore losers. It was time to move on to Kansas. The day we arrived, Gus picked some daisies on the way in for me.
"I love it when you give me flowers."
"Bessie, they're pretty as you, my love." He filled his lungs. "You know, I think we're gonna like this place. With all these bars and gambling spots, we oughta' do real good here."
I followed Gus into one of the more prosperous-looking saloons so we could both get a shot of redeye. That coffin-varnish Rye doubled as paint-remover, but it burned good all the way down.
I took a seat at a table while Gus, at the bar, ordered a bottle for us with two glasses. Propping my elbows on the table and my chin in my hands, I recalled my past, growing up in Tennessee as a Doctor's daughter. My father went into the Confederate Army as a doctor and was murdered in Virginia. A Yankee raid killed everyone in a small town where the wounded were cared for. When the war came to Tennessee, I served as a nurse, and because of shortages, I cared for the horribly wounded fresh out of battle. I learned to extract a mini-ball out of a chest. I learned how to cut off a lower gangrenous leg of a soldier, saving skin below the joint, so when we severed the leg, we'd have some skin to wrap around and sew together for a stump and later fitted for a wooden leg. I only fainted the first time.
I had my own .36 caliber black powder revolver and learned to shoot even better than when I was a kid. I'd rather die fighting than be captured by a Yankee if it ever came to that. When the war ended, I came west, and that's where I met Gus at my first job in a dance hall. But all that's in the past. I shook my head to get back to the present.
Looked again at Gus. He was standing next to some bullwhacker who smelled like the Ox team he drove on the freight wagons.
"Hey, you're Gamblin' Gus, ain'tcha? And over there's your girl, Big Butt Bessie, ain't it?"
They didn't know I heard 'em. Yeah, I'd let some of my weight gravitate to my rear side, but it wasn't polite pointin' it out.
"She goes by Bessie. Better be careful what you call her. She's damn near as good a shot as me." Gus looked at the guy from his dusty boots to the ratty cowboy hat he wore. "You know me?"
"Naw, we ain't never met. I'm Pete. I hear'd about you two from other towns I drive my wagon through."
The ox-driver smiled. "You dealin' cards here?"
"That'd be my intention, Pete." Gus grabbed his bottle. "Here, want a neighborly shot of redeye from my bottle?"
The dusty old driver nodded. "Mighty fine of you. I'm a pretty good poker player. Might look you up the next time I'm in town—on my way out today."
After a quick, friendly drink, Pete shook Gus's hand and walked to the end of the bar where another obvious friend waited. They shook hands, gave each other a shoulder slap, and Pete left.
* * *
To the cowpokes, he was smooth-talkin and could crack a joke that not all of 'em could understand. Didn't matter. In his younger days, he mighta' palmed an Ace, but these days he was good enough to win way more times than losin' playing fair and square.
And he was generous—could afford to be. He even donated money to help buy the bell in the local church.
We settled in with a room over the Silver Dollar Saloon, and Gus set up business. He'd gamble way past midnight, and then we'd make love till daylight. He was all man and made me feel good down to my toes.
Didn't mean we never argued. Our strong wills brought us to near blows more'n a few times. But it was better'n ever when we sobered up and made love again.
"Damn, I hate you sometimes, Bess, but I don't think I could live without you." That's what he said when we'd make up. I felt the same way. I think we were made for each other.
* * *
The fall came, and we enjoyed long rides to places where the green tree leaves turned golden. Gus and I would set up empty bottles, and both of us practice shooting. While Gus was a whole lot faster on the draw than I was out of my purse, my .38 broke as many bottles as he did.
"I swear, Bess, you're a better shot with your pistol than I am at those tiny bottles."
Mighta' been true, and I loved how he respected me when he wasn't drunk.
One time we rented a buggy instead of riding our horses. I wore a dress. We set up bottles and shot as usual. Then, nearin' lunchtime, when the cartridges ran low, I suggested we have the sandwiches and apples I'd brought in the picnic basket to eat.
"Why don't we walk the horse a short ways down the trail with us? I think there's a little stream, and we can all get some fresh water and eat," Gus said.
We walked on either side of the horse's head with Gus holding the bridle. Just when we could see a tad of water pokin' through the trees, the horse whinnied, and front hooves went up in the air. He backed up a few steps.
"This ain't good," Gus said. He looked all around. I saw the movement in the leaves on a large limb. We both saw the fur move at the same time. The mountain lion's eye locked on me.
"Look out, Bess," Gus shouted. At the exact moment the cat sprang, Gus jumped in front of me, and the cat landed square on Gus' chest and knocked him to the ground. The horse dashed off, and I fell to the ground when his reins tore from my hand.
Gus struggled with both his hands and tried to keep the big cat's mouth away from his head and neck. One paw was already digging in his right shoulder. Blood turned his white shirt crimson.
Sitting upright on my natural center of gravity, I snatched my gun from my handbag on my wrist. I didn't reload, but I knew it wasn't empty-two or three shots, maybe. So I aimed and followed the action less than five feet from my eyes, I couldn't hit Gus, but I had to shoot.
BLAM-BLAM-CLICK as it hit on the empty cylinder. I was aiming for the big cat's head, and it worked. The cat stilled and collapsed partially on Gus, who shoved it off of his bleeding chest with his good left arm.
"You got him, Bess, good shootin' for sure. One behind the jaw and the other in his ear."
"I guess I did," I said and rushed to his side.
"Yeah, that old cat scratched my arm and shoulder up a bit."
"A bit? You saved my life, you old coot. But you got slashes wide as the Colorado River and gushing blood like a spring flood. We gotta get you bandaged up in a hurry and get you to town and the doc." My heart pounded like a bass drum and was tryin' to leap outta my chest. I didn't want to tell him I was worried he'd bleed to death long before we could reach the town. I had to try to save him.
We gingerly managed to get his jacket off. Then, with the tablecloth from the lunch we didn't eat and the two cloth napkins, I was able to stop the beet-red flow for the most part. Once loaded in the carriage, Gus hunched over and leaned against me as we started for town.
"I guess holdin' off that wildcat took a bit of strength outta me."
"Giddy-up, horse," I said and whipped the reins.
"Ow," he said as we went over a bump.
Torn between racing to town at full speed and the bumps that'd make the bleeding worse, I put the horse in a trot—a good steady pace to minimize the jolts.
"Hang on, my love. Don't you even think about leaving me here without you, or I'll haunt you in Heaven forever."
"Don't you mean the other place? Down . . . "
"Where ever, you just keep-a breathin' ya hear?"
It was the shortest ride to town possible. It was the longest ride I ever took.
We did make it to town, and I got him to the doc, who was amazed he was still alive. The doc's office smelled like a dead animal with a sprinkle of alcohol. Not the cleanest place, either. On the table and after cutting his shirt off, I saw all of the gashes and slices in his right shoulder, arm, and chest-even a couple on his right upper leg. Pressure had stopped most of the bleeding. The doc got his stitching kit out.
The doc shook his head."Wow, Gus, that cat really worked you over. You're gonna look like a lady's cross-stitched pillow cover when I get through pulling you back together in all these places."
Gus moaned. "Just get it over with quick, Doc."
I spoke up. "I've done plenty of stitching in the war, Doc. How 'bout I lend a hand?" He looked at me with a bit of surprise and a raised eyebrow. Then he tightened his smile and nodded.
We put a round wooden stick in Gus' teeth to bite down on cause it was gonna hurt. We'd do occasional rests and let Gus have some gulps of whisky.
After nearly two hours, the old sawbones and I finished. He wiped Gus' brow and then his own. He looked at my stitches in the rib and belly area and two short slashes in his leg. "You do a very neat job and line the skin up well. And you never went to medical school?"
"Nope, but lots of field practice."
"Well, you're good. Say, come with me back here to wash up and let me have a word."
I looked at Gus, nearly passed out and resting easy, so I followed him out.
"Gus's had a good bit of shoulder muscle and tendon torn, and likely he'll have very little use of that right arm again."
I shuddered, thinking that his fast right hand with a gun had saved him more than once when challenged to draw. He shot fine with the left but not a quick draw like the right. I told the doc to keep it real quiet about the shoulder. The doc understood.
* * *
We lived like hermits most of the fall in Dodge City while Gus healed. We both got bored with the four walls and a window for scenery. To keep us occupied, we played cards. I was already good, but with Gus carefully talking about reading people's faces and listening to the voice changes and how they did or didn't look at their cards, he made me nearly as good as him.
"Damn, Bess," he smiled and said to me. "Depending on luck, you could beat me in poker, and certainly those overconfident cowboys."
I smiled both at the compliment and because I knew he was right.
* * *
What wasn't so fine—he passed the time drinking while dealin' hands. I laid low so's not to start anything. I'd hate to tear up that shoulder of his more'n it was.
He didn't want nobody to know, but his best gun arm would never be what it was before.
Through December into the new year, he spent time over at the blacksmith's shop. He worked at some kind of thing and wouldn't tell me what it was. He only said it was an idea of his.
When Gus' accident happened, I kinda lost my appetite and 'bout 40 pounds in the process—slimmed way down in the right place, as well. Maybe my nickname would be forgotten. Gus liked my looks too, and we got friskier in bed, being careful of his shoulder. Life was lookin' up.
We'd always been travelers, itchin' to see other places, and it was only a matter of time before Gus would want to be movin' on to greener pastures.
He went back to playing cards full time in the saloon. He looked like his old self under the black long-tailed coat but moved his arms slow, often propped on the table to avoid letting on about the bad shoulder. He worried about news about his arm getting out.
* * *
A few more months passed and summer blew in like a hot blast from the blacksmith's forge. Gus thought the time had come to try out a wild new town. His self-defense killin' in Texas was catching up with us.
"It's where the railroad ends and waiting for a bridge that'll be years getting' built. It's called Diablo Canyon in Arizona. I hear they got fourteen saloons and ten gambling halls . . . and no law."
I told him anything named after the Devil couldn't be an all bad place for us. So we decided we'd leave in a week or two with summer comin' on again. It was a long, long way to Arizona, and Gus' reputation would not have gone that far.
I moseyed over to the general store, and Ed, the shopkeeper, read a small newspaper.
"Lookie here, Miss Bessie, a picture of a young woman named Calamity Jane from up north. She's supposed to be pretty tough."
I looked at the fuzzy photo, but sure nuff, dressed head to toe in buckskin with buckskin gloves and a wide-brimmed hat, she was holdin' the biggest rifle I'd ever seen and had a knife strapped to her lower leg. She wore a sixgun on her hip as well.
"I bet if she got mad at you, she'd live up to her name," Ed said.
"I speck so." Humm, nice outfit, but her face could stop a stampede. I bet the men don't trifle with her.
* * *
That same day, Pete, the bullwhacker, came back to town, mighty dry and wanting to play cards. Gus was playin' with two other men when Pete came over. "Hey, Gamblin' Gus, remember me, Pete?"
Gus nodded. "Yep."
"Dressed all in black, you look like an undertaker," Pete said. "Mind if I sit in the game to play with you boys?"
Gus motioned him to sit in the empty chair. Pete had a roll of bills and his full bottle of Red-Eye. He drank generously.
A few hours later, the bottle was near empty, and so was Pete's roll of money. The next big hand was ending. It was late, a big pot on the table, and Pete didn't quite have enough to call the bet. He slid the remainder of his money in the pot—all in. The others folded their cards and were out. Only Gus remained. He nodded approval and watched Pete put his cards on the table. Smiling, the bullwhacker spread out a full house of three sevens and two kings. Pete leaned back, ready to sweep in the enormous pile.
Gus leaned forward and, one at a time, placed a queen, then another queen. Pete winced a tad, but it would take four queens to beat a full house. When the third card went down, it was a nine, and Pete relaxed. Gus continued to lay down nines until the table showed three of the nines and two queens. Gus won the pot with another full house and the triple nines being higher. Others at the table and standing around gasped at the good luck and clapped.
Pete was having none of it. He issued a string of cuss words that would melt ice in the Arctic and challenge any gambler to fight, ending with, "You double-dealing horse turd."
Woah! I instinctively felt the gun in my purse as I stood behind Gus.
With that, Pete's right hand went towards his belly, and his sixgun tucked in his belt. Both Gus's arms lay extended on the table.
Two shots, nearly together, exploded. Pete had his gun in his hand but not even pointed yet. Pete looked at two holes in the center of his chest, blood circles formed on his shirt, and gazed in wonder. "You sneaky cockeyed bastard . . . you . . . " His voice trailed off.
I looked at my Gus at the table. Both his arms were still on the table, but in his right hand was his derringer on a spring mechanism he'd perfected for an occasion like this. He fired both chambers that hit the mark. The crowd was quiet as Gus started to rake in the money.
I caught motion of a cowpoke at the bar, who drew his sixgun and rushed the table, Gus looked up, saw the danger, and reached for his shopkeeper revolver in his belt as he stood, but it was too late. A blast hit him in the chest, and another followed in the gut.
He turned to me as his legs crumpled under him. "I love you, Bessie, and I . . . " He never finished.
"That was my brother he killed," said the cowboy. "Now, justice is done." He looked around. Everyone was frozen. He pointed his still smoking sixgun upward, opened the loading gate, pulled the hammer back, and proceeded to dump the two empty shells from the chamber, and grinned like a possum.
His turd-eatin' smile turned my stomach inside out. I'd already put my hand in my purse, but that tilted my bucket over. I drew my revolver, stood, and pointed my gun at the same time I cocked it. The click caused the cowboy to look at me with surprise. I aimed for his crotch. He started to lower his gun and shut the gate when I nailed him where I knew it'd get his attention. As he bent forward, instinctively, both his hands went to the new vent in his pleasure zone. I tried not to show my grin of satisfaction, but I wasn't through.
With plenty of time to recock the single action, the next shot put a bullet right through his forehead, just like shooting a tiny laudanum bottle. He crumpled like an empty burlap bag.
It was so quiet that you coulda heard the cockroaches scamper on the wood floor. I held out my cocked gun with one hand and took the money and chips into my bag with the other.
"Somebody, go get the undertaker. He's got a big job ahead." I looked at Gus and felt tears filling my eyes. I evened the score for Gus, but it wouldn't bring him back. Later that night, I cried over his body in the undertaker's back room.
After I cried out, I got mad. I decided then and there that I wasn't ever going to be with a man anymore. This hurt too much, and no one would ever hold a candle to Gus, anyways. I was on my own, and as a woman in these times, I would change what folks thought about me. First, I was never gonna wear a dress again. I'd wear the color of my mood from now on-black. Yep, black hat, shirt, jacket, trousers, and boots. No more Bessie or Bess. The next town I went to, I would be known by the single letter, B, no last name and no history. I'd wear Gus' shoulder holster with my gun in it, I was keeping his derringer rig for my right arm, and I wasn't gonna take no bullshit off nobody. I'd carry a razor-sharp knife in my boot for backup and when I needed to skin my dinner. And, I was gonna make my livin' playing cards.
* * *
I stood over the pile of dirt in the local Boot Hill—dressed all in black: shirt, pants, jacket, boots, and hat. I got a big letter 'B' stitched on my jacket lapel and my shirt. I decided I was going to keep dressing this way. A cross marked the spot with my man's name: Gus Grayson. I took six daisies for the six years we were together out of the bunch in my hand, and pressed those in my notebook, as well as my memory. The rest I put on his grave. I put my book in the saddlebags on Gus's horse that would be my pack animal to lead behind me. Plenty of food, Red-Eye, and a canvas for shelter on the long trail ahead.
I returned and stood over him and said a few words. "Gus, I hoped for another bunch of flowers when we left this town. I never wanted to get them this way. These are for you, my love, and I'm movin' on to Diablo canyon. I'm gonna pick up your trade. Let's see what them cowboys think of a woman dealin' cards to 'em. And hell can't be worse than here 'cause there ain't no bad memories in the Devil's town."
Them tough cowboys in Arizona ain't seen nothing till they see the 'B' come to town.
M.D. Smith, IV lives in Huntsville, AL. He has written over 150 short non-fiction stories in the past 20 years for Old Huntsville Magazine. He's written over 200 fiction stories in the past three years. He has been nationally published in both Good Old Days and Reminisce Magazines (non-fiction) and a Halloween fiction piece in the upcoming anthology Like Sunshine After Rain. He's self-published seven books including Romance novels, Flash Fiction anthologies, and non-fiction short story collections.
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Five Days on the DH
by Peyton Ellas
Eugene and Otis found her on the eastern side of the range. The night before, they had been celebrating the turn of the new year and century, and they were a little rough.
"Let's make 1900 the best year South Dakota's ever seen," their boss, the owner of the DH Ranch, Edwin DeHOeven, had said, which was just about more words strung together than they'd ever heard him utter. He had given them all a cup of real whiskey, not the tarantula juice they could afford in town. Edwin's sister Lavinia had baked a cake. The alcohol and sugar was still swirling around in their brains and fingers when they rose at four to ride out and get back to work. DeHoeven was a good boss, but the only days off were half day on Christmas and if they were too sick or hurt. If they missed too many days that way they found themselves sent back to town to "live a soft life."
The cattle had eaten everything down to stubble before they were moved to the lower land on the west side of the ranch. A cold dry wind blew down from the east hills, and the two men were bundled thick against it. The wind had been blowing for a month, blowing dust but no rain. Eugene and Otis, two of Edwin DeHoeven's best boys, were looking for cuts in the barbed wire fencing they had strung the past spring, before they had moved the herd. All summer and fall the men of the neighboring ranch, Dementer's Double D, had been cutting the wire, and 16 cows had gone missing. The men had their guns ready laying over the saddle in front of them. They were sharp-eyed. Dementer wasn't above ordering his men to "shoot wild," as they called it. Pretending to be aiming at coyotes, wolves, prairie dogs.
At first the two cowboys thought the woman had tangled in the barbs. She was lying face down in the dirt, without a coat. Otis got down from his horse (slowly, his head ached), and turned her over. Her face was bruised, and dried blood showed from her nose and on her chin where it had come out from a corner of her mouth. Otis looked up at Eugene in a quick sharp way.
"You know who this is?" Otis said in a low voice, as if he didn't want to startle anything. But they both did know, as soon as they had seen her.
"She dead?" Eugene said from his horse. Otis leaned over and put his ear against the woman's face.
"She got a breath. Light, but there." Otis lifted the woman up to Eugene, who sat her slumping in front of him. She was small-framed and thin, more like a child than a grown woman. They were used to Lavinia, nearly as tall as Edwin, taller than most of the boys working the DH. Eugene shifted his eyes across the fence into Dementer's ranch. Otis scratched at his beard.
"You reckon we take her to town or back to the DH?" Otis said.
"We take her to town, we won't get back today. DeHoeven's likely to think we wanted the holiday. Plus, there's no telling which of Dementer's men are in town. I reckon DeHoeven'd want us to take her to the ranch."
Eugene nodded. Both men looked at the woman, as if she was going to tell them what to do.
"What do you think happened?" Otis finally said.
Eugene leaned over and spat tobacco juice into the dirt. "You know goddamn well what happened," he said.
Otis took his hat off and struck it against his leg. "Dementer's likely to burn us out to get her back."
Eugene was already turning his horse. "We'll let DeHoeven decide about that."
They took the woman up to the house. Lavinia came out on the porch as Eugene was handing the woman down to Otis.
"What you got there?" She asked sourly. But the men were used to her and not put off.
"We found her out in the dirt, unconscious," Eugene said. "Just along the east line. She's pretty bad off."
"Figured it had to be something important for you to come in when there's still daylight." Lavinia held the door open and Otis carried the woman in.
"She still alive?" Lavinia asked.
"I don't know for sure," Otis said. "She was when we picked her up."
From behind them, still out on the front porch, Eugene said, "It's Mrs. Dementer."
Lavinia whipped her head around and looked more closely at the woman bundled in Otis' arms. "And you brought her here," she said.
"Well, we—" Otis started, but when Lavinia's eyes shot to his and her brows twitched downward, he shut up. At Lavinia's direction, Otis carried the woman upstairs and to an unused bedroom. He felt badly laying the woman on the clean spread, but he did as he was told. He had never been in the house before, and he grabbed a couple of looks around at the simple wood furniture and framed pictures of scenery.
"I 'spect you boys will be riding back out," Lavinia said, following Otis back down the stairs.
"I 'spect so," Otis replied.
By the time DeHoeven got in for his dinner, which he ate with Lavinia in their dining room as was usual, Lavinia had cleaned the woman up, put her in one of Lavinia's own nightshirts, put her into the bed, cooked the dinners with the help of the Chinaman Su Li, and had the table set and the meal ready for serving to her brother and herself. She had also started up a bone broth for the woman if she woke. They were halfway through the meal before Lavinia spoke.
"Did Otis and Eugene talk to you?" she said.
DeHoeven spooned up his soup and swallowed before answering.
"Didn't talk to anyone," he said.
"They found a woman half dead out on the fence line."
DeHoeven looked up at his sister at the other end of the dining table.
"Our side or his?"
"Ours, I imagine."
They looked at one another a long time.
"It's Clara Dementer," Lavinia said.
DeHoeven stood up suddenly, as if he had heard a rifle shot. "Where's she now?"
"Sit down, Edwin. I got her up in the spare room. She's bad off, but I imagine she'll live."
After a moment, DeHoeven sat down, still looking at Lavinia. Finally, he nodded, and resumed his soup slurping.
"It was the Christian thing to do," Lavinia said, as if DeHoeven had said something, as if he had asked for an explanation or had thanked her. "But you know she'll have to go back, once she heals up."
"We'll see," DeHoeven answered. He started cutting up the meat, shoving it in. He looked tired. He had changed his clothes for dinner and washed up, but he still looked like he had been out all day in the dirt with cattle.
"She made her choices all them years ago. This doesn't change that," Lavinia said.
"We'll see," DeHoeven repeated.
"How's the herd?" Lavinia asked.
"Hungry," DeHoeven said. "That's what happens when it's too damn dry all summer and then winter comes and it's too damn cold too early."
They ate without speaking for several minutes. Lavinia wished she had poured her brother a glass of the cherry wine. She had meant to. It was New Year's Day. She cursed herself for forgetting. Too late now. It was Clara Dementer showing up, threw Lavinia off her stride.
"Word will get out," Lavinia said.
"Let it," DeHoeven answered.
Otis and Eugene told the others that night in the bunkhouse. It was a lot more interesting than the usual stories they had told each other a million times. Only thirteen-year-old Arthur, who was new to the DH, didn't know the history. Like half of them, Arthur had some African in him, but he didn't have parents he knew of and had been living in Minnesota as a kind of slave boy to a dentist's family until he had left in the middle of the night and found the DH. That's the story he told them, and they didn't care how much was true or not. They all enjoyed a good story more than almost anything else.
"When they was all younger," Eugene started, "Both of the men, the boss and Dementer, wanted to marry the lady upstairs whose name was Clara." Eugene said the name with the slight Irish accent he mostly had rid himself of, and the name came out sounding poetic and sentimental to the other men.
"Miss Lavinia was in love with Dementer in them days. But the lady, Clara, decided for Dementer. Both the boss and Miss Lavinia was left in the cold." The men were silent a moment.
"That's a heartbreaking tale," Arthur said, sitting on the edge of his top bunk, dirty-socked feet dangling over. "You think the boss is still sweet on the lady, Clara?" The men laughed and poked at Arthur good naturedly and he blushed.
"Romantic boy, ain't ya?" Eugene said, cuffing Arthur's head.
"Mrs. Dementer made the wrong choice," the one they called Tex said. He was a gnarly-haired dark-skinned African who had been with DeHoeven from the beginning.
"In them days, looked like Dementer was the catch, having his ranch already built up by his daddy and all. The boss didn't have more than a nickel. He was a cowboy much like you, Arthur. Just getting hisself going." Tex spat plug juice into a can and continued, "She's been paying for that bad choice ever since."
To Arthur's puzzled expression, Otis added, "Dementer can't hold his liquor, beats them up something fierce when he's on the drink."
"Them?" Arthur asked.
"Mrs. Dementer got a daughter, Sharron," Eugene said. "She's almost grown now. But Dementer won't let her get into town or anywhere to find a decent husband. He'll probably marry her off to one of his boys."
"She's a pretty one, that daughter," Otis said. The others nodded around. "About your age." He looked up at Arthur. The others started teasing him, saying things like he ought to see about that gal.
"I'm barely hanging on here, I ain't got no money. What do I want a wife for?" Arthur said.
"You'd be the hero, saving her from her father and whatever dreg of a dog he marries her off to," Eugene said.
"One of you all can be the hero," Arthur said. But none of them spoke up, and the conversation ended so they could get some sleep and be ready for work before the sun.
The next morning, Clara Dementer started rousing. Lavinia brought up the bone broth and parsnip tea. Clara's left eye was surrounded by bruises, but she blinked against the swelling and opened them both, clear and as blue as Lavinia remembered.
"You know where you are?" Lavinia asked. Clara nodded, turned her head aside. Tears dripped over onto the white pillowcase.
"I thought I was going to die," Clara said.
"You would have, the boys hadn't of found you before dark."
Clara didn't answer. Lavinia propped her up and fed her the broth and set the tea on the side table. Su Li came in and put fresh plasters on the worst of her wounds. Clara didn't object to any of it. They left her sitting up in bed.
When Lavinia returned in the afternoon, Clara had slumped down in bed again and fallen asleep. Lavinia watched her chest rise and fall, rise and fall. She didn't want to remember Clara's bruised body. Some of the marks looked days or even weeks old. There were red marks too, as if Clara had been tied up.
When Clara started rousing again, Lavinia shook her awake and helped her to a chair.
"I don't believe in coddling," Lavinia said.
"You never did," Clara said.
At dinner, DeHoeven said, "How's she doing?"
"Better," Lavinia answered and nothing more was said.
The next morning, Lavinia helped Clara down the stairs and sat her in a big chair on the wide porch that circled the house, bundling her in blankets they had gotten from the Indians.
"Don't go no further," Lavinia told her, as if she was a child. Clara Dementer nodded.
Lavinia went to town and bought food and supplies. She could have waited another few weeks, but she wanted to hear what was being said.
DeHoeven kept away from them both, coming and going through the kitchen door, working on the range, working with the boys, trying to keep the cattle fed and off the fences. They had another month before snow was expected. It should be raining, but the day was cold and clear, with a wind that came up and blew the soil off the range, towards the Double-D ranch.
"He knows she's here," Lavinia said to DeHoeven that night at dinner. "He's telling folks he's going to send some of the boys to get her back."
"They'll be trespassing," DeHoeven said. "I got a right to shoot them."
"You'll kill people over her?"
Her brother didn't answer. Lavinia pursed her lips. Clara was at the door.
"I'll go back," she said.
DeHoeven's head jerked up. Lavinia turned in her chair, scowling.
"He'll kill you," DeHoeven said. He and Clara looked long and hard at each other. Clara's face was still bruised. Her hair was pulled tight back into a tail. She had on Lavinia's old dress, old coat, old soft shoes. She was thinner than DeHoeven remembered. Lavinia was thin too, they came from that kind of stock, but Lavinia's clothes hung on Clara.
"I told you to stay upstairs. I would bring your dinner," Lavinia said.
"Where did you think you were going?" DeHoeven asked.
"Away," Clara said.
"Away," he repeated. "Away where?"
"Away from fists. Away from boots." Clara sighed. "I thought if I made it into town, I . . . " She turned and left them, walking carefully. It was painful watching her.
DeHoeven glanced at Lavinia and went back to eating.
"She was always a middling, nothing sort of girl," Lavinia said. "Blessed with prettiness and easy tears. She's got neither now." DeHoeven didn't look up.
"She'll let you take care of her, take all the risks, do all the work," Lavinia continued. "She's always been that sort. Part of the reason you always liked her. Part of the reason she thought Frank was the better choice."
DeHoeven continued eating, as if he hadn't heard.
The next day, riding on the east side, Eugene brought his horse up next to DeHoeven's. It only took the two of them to check these fences, but DeHoeven had eight of them out, too many for the job, but they all knew why.
"The boys were wondering how Mrs. Dementer's getting on," Eugene said.
"She's recovering," DeHoeven said.
"That's good to hear."
"Are you going to have trouble for bringing her here?" DeHoeven asked. "Trouble if she stays awhile longer?"
"From the boys?" Eugene said. "No. And they'll back you, whatever happens. They're not going to keep it a secret, though."
"I wouldn't expect them to."
"Me neither," Eugene said.
They heard a whistle. Otis was pointing. Two men on horseback were loping their way to them. DeHoeven and his crew, strung out along the barbed wire fence for two miles, watched them approach. The two men pulled their horses up on the other side of the fence.
"Dementer sent us," one of them said.
"I figured that," DeHoeven answered.
"Send Mrs. Dementer back home," the other man said.
"She's free to leave. I ain't keeping her prisoner."
"Send her back, or we'll take her back," the first man said.
"She's free to leave," DeHoeven repeated. The four of them stared at each other a moment longer, and then the two wheeled their horses and loped off towards the Double D.
Eugene leaned over and spat tobacco juice.
Clara spent her time on the front porch in a rocking chair, watching the far hills. Clouds scattered above but didn't drop rain. A half-feral grey tabby cat limped around the porch but wouldn't let Clara touch her. Lavinia came out with a pot of hot water.
"Coyote tore her up. Took the kittens," Lavinia said, putting the pot on a table next to Clara's chair. They both watched the cat, hunching itself in a blanket, looking miserable and swollen.
"Did you put the blanket down for her?" Clara asked. Lavinia shrugged. "That was kind."
"It's cold out here," Lavinia said, and went back inside the house.
The next morning, Clara watched smoke from her bedroom window. Lavinia came in with clean sheets.
"Fire started on the south range early this morning," Lavinia said. "Edwin and the boys have gone to put it out. That's the only range with any pasture left on it. They was going to put the herd down there just before the snow comes on. You know your husband started the fire, right? You know he wants you back home?"
Clara was silent, watching. Lavinia changed the bed sheets. When she was almost done, Clara turned.
"I'm sorry," Clara said. "I should have helped you."
Lavinia left the room with the sheets wadded in her arms. Clara watched the smoke awhile longer and then watched Lavinia and Su Li hang the sheets on the clothesline.
Clara heard a noise from inside the house. She hadn't seen Edwin return. Lavinia and Su Li were still down below in the yard hanging laundry. Clara's throat tightened. She listened to footsteps and felt frozen. With effort, she jerked herself into action. She dragged herself under the bed and shut her eyes tightly against the inevitable. How many times had she done this in her life? Thousands? Stay still, tremble and wait. It would be over soon, one way or other.
"Mama?" a girl's voice called out. The girl was in the room.
Clara pulled herself out from under the bed.
"Mama!" the girl said, rushing to Clara, then stopping suddenly just before her, noticing Clara's tense face, rigid body. "The men are waiting for us at the fence line. Come with me now. Quick." The girl was nearly grown, but small like her mother, same blue eyes.
"Did you have anything to do with this fire?" Clara said.
"Did you know they were setting it?"
"It was for you . . . we needed something . . . "
"Deceiver," Clara said. "Just like your pa."
"Don't start up, mama. That's what gets you into trouble."
"You're going to get me in trouble? He nearly killed me. That means nothing to you."
"Everything will be fine if you don't start anything. Pa forgives you. Everything will be all right."
Clara didn't answer.
"No, I won't start anything."
Lavinia appeared suddenly at the door. She looked from Clara to the girl. "You Clara's daughter? Sharron, if I remember."
"I came for my mama. Her husband wants her home."
"Does he now?" Lavinia said.
"Go home," Clara said to Sharron.
"Smoke's gone," Lavinia said. "The men will be back soon."
Sharron took Clara's arm. "We've got to hurry."
"You go on home, Sharron" Lavinia said. Clara looked sharply at Lavinia.
"Not without mama."
Clara shook her head, pulled her arm away. Her face was red and trembling with the effort not to cry. Sharron stared at her, eyes narrowing.
"You plan on living here? How does that look?"
Downstairs a door opened and shut. They heard horses outside, shouting men, cattle bellowing.
"The men are back," Lavinia said. "They brought the cows and calves in close. Expecting trouble."
"You can stay here too," Clara said to Sharron, with a quick glance to Lavinia and back. "I'm sure Edwin would let you."
"I wasn't invited," Sharron said, laughing in a harsh quick burst.
"I wasn't either," Clara said. "But he won't turn us out."
Lavinia turned away, looked out the window, chewing at her cheek from the inside.
"I don't want to stay here," Sharron said. "I came for you." She turned to Lavinia. "Tell her to go home."
Lavinia opened her mouth but then closed it again.
"These are good people," Clara said. "We don't have to stay for long. We'll get ourselves together and then leave; find somewhere we can live in peace. I can do it if you go with me, Sharron."
"Lavinia?" Edwin's voice from downstairs.
"You'll start a war," Sharron said. "Pa will not let you go." They heard footsteps coming upstairs.
"I suppose I'm to be held prisoner here," Sharron said.
"Edwin and Lavinia will help us. They won't punish us for my past sins. I know them," Clara said.
"I'll walk you out myself," Lavinia answered. Sharron stared hard at Lavinia, then at Clara.
"We'll go somewhere new, far away," Clara said. "We can start over."
Sharron nodded to Lavinia, and Lavinia turned and left, Sharron following. Clara stood frozen in place, stiff bodied, dry-eyed. She heard Edwin and Lavinia's voices downstairs but could not make out the words. She did not go to the window, did not watch Sharron leave.
Later, Clara sat in the rocker on the porch, rocking gently. She threw a piece of her meat from lunch to the cat, who ate it greedily.
"You do that, she'll never go back to catching mice," Lavinia said. She was sitting in the next chair, mending socks.
"I don't care about her catching mice," Clara said.
"She's no use if she doesn't," Lavinia said.
"She is to me," Clara said. "I don't want her to go back to the barn." Lavinia made a grunting noise. "She'll go back, eventually. She'll come up here begging, and then she'll leave as soon as her stomach's full. No point in getting attached to a cat. They will break your heart, every time. Might as well make friends with a grizzly."
Towards evening three men on horseback rode up to the house. They brought along a fourth horse, saddled but riderless. The cows and calves were still in the near pasture, but the DH men were back out, fixing cut fences, in the last of the twilight, behind work because of the fire.
Lavinia came out to the porch, the way she had when Eugene and Otis had brought Clara. She recognized two of the men as working for Dementer. Arthur was on a horse between them, trussed and gagged, his horse's reins caught up in one of the other men's hands. Arthur had displayed a skill for carpentry that outshone his skill on horseback or with cattle, and so DeHoeven had put him onto repair jobs around the barn.
"We come for Mrs. Dementer," the one holding Arthur's horse said, the years of sun and wind written on his face.
"Hello, Abel. You thinking of kidnapping that boy?" Lavinia said.
"Looks like we already have," Abel answered. Clara appeared behind Lavinia. Both of Dementer's men tipped their hats to her.
"Mrs. Dementer, you know you got to come with us," the other man said. He was soft-cheeked, looked no older than Arthur. Lavinia put her hand out against Clara's skirt, but she pushed past, looking at Arthur, who looked back without moving. His eyes showed like a calf just before being branded, when it wasn't sure what was happening but knowing it was no good.
"Did you volunteer for this, or did Mr. Dementer threaten you?" Clara asked, looking at the soft cheeked man.
"I'm sorry," the soft-cheeked man said.
"Shut up," Abel said. To Clara he added, "Mrs. Dementer, you know it's gotta be this way. You're going back to the Double D. We'll let this here boy go at the property line. Otherwise, we take him with us."
"All right," Clara said quiet but firmly, still looking at Arthur. Lavinia stepped forward, then stopped, her face stiff.
Two shots fired. Arthur's horse jumped sideways. The soft-cheeked man fell first, sliding off his horse into Arthur, pushing the horses around, and then dropping to the ground at their feet. Abel's eyes locked onto Clara's a long moment as he wobbled on his horse, then he too toppled over and fell off his horse.
DeHoeven rode up, rifle still in hand. He cut Arthur's bindings.
"You got some digging to do," DeHoeven said.
"Yes sir," Arthur said, pulling the bandana gag off and then rubbing his wrists where the ropes had cut into the skin.
"And be quick on it," DeHoeven said. "Better put the horses in the barn, out of sight for now. You keep them in water and feed next few days."
"Yes, sir," Arthur repeated. He and DeHoeven draped Abel and the soft-cheeked man over their horses and tied them on. Arthur remounted, grabbed up the reins of the horses, including the riderless one, and rode off, the dead men's arms dangling over the saddles, bouncing against the sides of the horses.
"That your horse?" he asked Clara, pointing his chin at the saddled horse still left.
"You think he'd let me own a horse?" Clara answered in a high voice. After a moment, she added, her voice an octave lower, "It's the one I usually ride." They watched Arthur for a minute, then Clara pushed past Lavinia and went inside. DeHoeven remounted his horse.
"We killing for her now, then?" Lavinia said. DeHoeven looked hard at his sister.
"We aren't," he said. "You got nothing to do with it." He turned his horse, grabbed up the reins of the other horse and rode off at a lope with both horses, stirring up dust.
Later, dinner was silent as usual, but the air was electric with tension. Clara did not join them, telling Lavinia she was not feeling well. Lavinia had Su Li send up a tray of elk stew.
"Everything that happens here happens to all of us," Lavinia finally said. "All of us are in danger now. What happened today isn't the end. It'll keep on getting worse and worse—"
DeHoeven got up suddenly, threw his fork and knife onto the plate with a clatter, and left.
"How's it going to end, then?" Lavinia called after him. "Who's going to get killed next?"
The next morning, Lavinia went up to Clara's room to see why she hadn't come down for breakfast. She tapped on the door, then opened it. The room was empty, as if Clara had never been there. Lavinia looked through the house and out on the porch. She asked Su Li, who hadn't seen her. She went back out to the porch. The feral mother cat was chewing on a fresh mouse.
"I guess you're healed up then," Lavinia said. She watched the cat devour the mouse, then she walked out to the barn. She could see Arthur and DeHoeven talking. They both stopped and looked at her as she approached.
"She's gone," Lavinia said.
"I was just telling the boss, Mrs. Dementer's horse is gone," Arthur said. "I came out at dawn to feed them. She must've left in the middle of the night."
"God dammit," DeHoeven said, looking out across the range as if he thought he would be able to see Clara.
"She made her choice," Lavinia said. "Let her go. It's for the best."
DeHoeven looked at Arthur, then at his sister.
"God dammit," he said again.
Peyton Ellas lives in the foothills of Californa's Sierra Nevada mountains with rescued dogs, sheep, a steer named Quintas and thousands of plants. Their work has appeared or will appear in Copoperfield Review Quarterly, FiftyWordStories, Streetcake Magazine, Gihon River Review, OnTheBus, and elsewhere.
"If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." Thoreau
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Too Lonely for Dying
by Tom Sheehan
There was a special sight out in front of him as he rested near a small cave, the weight of his own body suddenly too much for him to carry on weak legs. The decision to stop and enjoy the sight came quickly, in touch with a rare sense of goodness finding its way in him. It was akin to the old days when Sally and he sat on the small porch he'd built for her mornings, the sun giving a grand start to her day. "Oh, Sal," he'd said a thousand times since then. A thousand times. Once, he had shrugged his head when he said it, as though belief was elsewhere, as Sally was but how long he couldn't remember.
That had become a problem.
Sun rays came swift as spears when clouds made gentle maneuvers above the peaks of a mountain range with a name he had forgotten too and could not bring back, not at the present time, as so many memorable things that had gone their way in his memory, floating off in the new way, in the middle of an exact image, its colors alive, its sounds as good as any music, now and then carrying aromas still alive on the air. The sudden losses had, in the beginning, shaken him to his roots, blaming himself first, and then realizing it was like stories other elders had told him "about the way it's going to happen."
He looked again at the peaks, somehow knowing he had been "up in there a dozen times or more," had told stories about critters met, finds made, losing a horse once but he'd now forgotten how that death had come. All the names had run away from him. Maybe they'd come back, he surmised, but not when he needed them, like an elfin spirit teasing him with useless information, too late for the matter, too late for the question.
The instant recovery about the lost horse came as fast as lightning: the mountain lion was in mid-air when he first saw it, and he leaped from his saddle in a move as fast as any he'd ever made. The horse, though it might have smelled the critter, went down and up and scrambled off and was down trail in an instant. His pistol, with a second natural move, came up and the shot killed the lion as it prepared to leap again, then it was gone, and then came the sound of his horse falling from a place he never found to a place he never found either. Not then, not now, as the image disappeared, as if it had gone behind a veil in his mind, out of sight, out of space, gone.
He trusted that it would come back, that image, in a week, a month, a year, if he managed to live that long, managing a bare second for him, if that.
He had serious doubts this particular time.
Bentley Collis was 70 years here on this day, not knowing he ought to be celebrating. "Bent" was the name Sally called him from the first night back in Peoria when they met outside the school where she taught. Early she had admitted, "You had this stare going, not a blink in it, no feigning or slippery maneuver, like you were definitely interested in me. No man had ever looked at me like that, like there was no quit in you, and never would be. I loved that in you."
That simple statement had provoked and sealed the next 45 years; they grew with the west, melded with the town.
There were times, recently, that he heard her first speech, every word of it, saw the yellow blouse she wore and how she could use the buttons, saw the sun dressing her hair and the sky comfortable in her eyes, and what lurked hazily in the background just past the school. There had been a name on the side of a coach, long gone again, not even a letter remaining of the name. In front of the cave he fished for it again, trying to bring back the whole picture. This time all he heard was Sally's sweet declaration, "I loved that in you."
It would be enough for now. It would do forever.
Earlier this day another horse of his was gone, taken by a thief as Collis slept by a remnant campfire, his body aching, his bones arguing with him, weariness in full charge. His rifle was taken too and a knife that sat on a rock so close he could hear the universe in it, but not the thief. His canteen was still there in the morning, a few bits of food, and his boots.
"I sure needed that sleep," Collis said to the morning air, then gathered what was left and began walking. "Town ought to be this way," he qualified as he set out. "Town" was Quinnipiac, along the Snake River, a small settlement tossed into being and place by travelers sometime in the past when they could go no further.
Collis loved the story because he was from Connecticut too. "What'll we call this place?" one of them said way back at the start.
"Call it what you will," another said, so Connecticut Willy, laughing as ever, half a giggle, jokingly said, "Quinnipiac. I think it means the Dawnland, like a new beginning for us all." A broad smile came with the name.
The name sufficed.
But it was in the opposite direction this sour day that Bent Collis moved in the morning, without horse, rifle or knife. He leaned over and picked up a stick, thick at one end so that he could use it as a club . . . for whatever.
The barkeep in the Great Rock Saloon, Hal McGrew, was talking to several townsfolk at their noon meal. "He's been out there four days now, not long for him if he was younger, but the edge is gone for Bent. It's been going downhill since Sally up and died on him right on the porch. But we have to do something."
"Like what, Hal? We don't even know where he was going? No idea, and we all admit that."
"But something!" said McGrew, "At least something. He's done so much for us, for the town."
"So name it, Hal. What? In what direction? What do we look for?"
One of them said, "We know old Bent's tuckered and tired and hazy, if I can say so. But we owe him. Here's what I suggest, two pair of us goes out to the road split and each pair goes off in different directions and looks for half a day. If we find nothing, then we turn around and come back. At least it's trying to help. I know we can't spend a week out there, where we might find nothing at all. He could be dead now for all we know. We can afford a half day out and a half day back. That's how I see it."
"You one of them going, Syl?"
"Sure as new shoes, I am," Sylvester Apps said.
Out in the maze of hill and rock and dale Bent Collis, plodding along in a manner not familiar to him, not having the old kick and push in it, spied three large birds off to his left in the high sky. By what name they were called did not come to him, but they had enormous wing spans almost motionless in the high blue.
He didn't know what idea or thought was trying to kick itself loose in his head. The wide-brimmed hat came off in one sweep of his hand. Perhaps, he thought, with the change the idea could now kick loose. The birds did not alter their presence, it seemed, and remained higher than the mountains, and the thought stayed as still as their wide wings.
A half-moon had ridden thin, pale, sheerer than silk, atop one peak, as though it had really broken loose from wherever it had been. An image of Sally in a thin silky white nightgown, "her summer issue" she had called it, also came from wherever it had been. A sudden joy leaped on him, in spite of the weak legs in their constant torture and his trying to remember other things he knew, but sure didn't know at this moment.
Sally always kept control of things; all he had to do was work and be ready for anything that might endanger her.
A flash of knowledge at last broke free in him—the birds were vultures, waiting for him to die, but Sally was already there ahead of him . "It can't be bad at all. Not half as bad as being lonely out here in wherever."
His managed the words meekly.
One vulture drifted slowly apart from the other two. Was this a sign he should know? Was this the final separation of life and death? Would the final signal be so simple? The last query was accompanied by a new pain in his left thigh, one he had not known before this day, whatever day it was anyway. It didn't matter at all. Names, outside of Sally's, didn't matter.
So many things were attached to her; a hunger tantrum, also new, brought back from wherever her chicken pot roast in a big pan that'd last four days for them once it came off the iron hanger in the fireplace. The turtles of fresh-baked bread made their contributions with their own aroma.
Sally always had a way with the fireplace, the iron stove, the oven, the kitchen.
She owned the bedroom, too.
With the sun making a new demand on him, he turned off his apparent course and was heading south. He didn't know what he was looking at, if it was new or old, if he had been here before. Oh, what did it matter anyway?
But in one long-range glance he did recognize his horse coming along a trail out of a thick tree growth in the foothills. "Man knows his horse every time out," he said. Never was any doubt about his horse, wherever he left it.
The pinto was unmistakably his horse, the socks decisive, as well as the wide slash of black along the flank, the crescent moon someone had said of it.
The rider rode with no hurry in his manner, ambling, looking at the vultures overhead, smiling at his own interpretation of their hovering flight; the old man would be dead soon in spite of the water he'd left him, the bit of food sitting on the rock like toads. He did have some goodness left in him; it was an argument he'd managed at mean or dirty deeds that worked on his conscience; for a while anyway.
Syl Apps, with a looking glass and sitting his horse on a hilly viewpoint, recognized the horse too. "Kurt," he said to his riding pard in the search for old Bent Collis, "that's Bent's pinto, but it sure ain't Bent riding him. Let's amble down there and see what kind of story this fellow spins for us about riding Bent's horse and Bent been gone all this time from town and that way he's been lately."
Kurt Wergens, patting his sidearm, said, "I'm ready for settling any scores with him. I don't trust no man sitting another man's horse and that man ain't around." He patted his Colt again.
Collis saw everything out in front of him. A strange man was riding his horse. Two more riders were descending from another higher elevation. They probably wanted his horse too. That critter had served him almost as good as Sally had, and she loved his horse. Right now she'd say, "Get old Rebel back, Bent. Make sure of it." That's just how she'd say it. He could hear her from the end of the porch where she'd set a pie to cool.
"Hi, there," Syl Apps said as he hailed the man on Bent's pinto, "are you heading into Quinnipiac? If you are we'll ride along. We're heading that way too. Gonna visit my big brother for the first time in a few years. Sure have missed him. This here's my pal, Kurt."
"Yep," said the strange rider, "I been coming on from Morningside for a few days now. I heard it's a nice town up there. Figure I'll get my horse some rest, get him fed and took care of. He's been good to me." Then added a qualifier as he asked, "Any chance of work around the town, any kind of work?"
"Hell, yes, I'll bet there is. What brings me and Kurt this way. My brother says plenty of work local. You any good at breaking horses? Lots of that available he said, my brother. His name's Harry." He looked off, laughed, slapped his thigh, and said, "That's the way he is, the big brother taking care of the kid brother."
"Oh, I done my share of bronco busting," said the stranger. "Fact is, I broke this pinto in when we run a herd in from the hills. Had to break in the whole bunch. We lost only one with a broke leg." A sad look crossed his face.
None of the three men had seen Collis as he came out of a small cluster of trees and yelled out, "Hey, you found my Rebel! You found Rebel!" He was stumbling in his walk, a long stick in one hand. He waved his hat with the other hand and said again, "Hey, you found Rebel for me."
The three men on horseback stared at Collis.
The stranger on the pinto said, "Who the hell is that? What the hell is he talking about?"
Syl Apps had already seen the knife shining in the stranger's belt, the sun shooting off the blade, and he looked again at the black crescent moon on one side and the white socks. Rebel it was. And here was Collis shouting thanks for finding him.
But it was all right and all wrong for Apps and Wergens. They had found old Bent Collis. They had found his horse. The stranger, though, had said he had broken him in from a wild herd. Collis was thanking him for finding Rebel, the old man still moving toward them still waving his hat in the air.
It didn't match up. Of course, old Bent was slipping a lot, had been slipping for a while. It didn't get much further in the matching as Wergens said to the stranger, "You find his knife too? And that old Henry of his sitting there in the sheath?"
His name was Harry Grubbs, and he was in a sudden vise; between the old man he had robbed, who should be dead by now, as the vultures had told him, and two armed men who, it now appeared, knew the old man coming their way. One of them had spotted the knife in his belt and the Henry rifle in the saddle sheath.
He had to move now. His hand, dipping for a Colt, never got there, as Wergens drew faster and fired a round that hit Grubbs's holster just before his hand could touch it.
Rebel had not moved because of the shot, but he raised his head, a new, and old, scent on the air.
"Rebel!" Collis yelled. "Rebel"
The pinto turned in Collis's direction, nickered, and moved again, between the other two horses.
"Don't think about busting away, mister," Wergens said, his Colt still in hand, a smile on his face as though he wished the horse thief would try to make a break for it.
"How come you boys are out here?" Collis said, as Wergens made Grubbs dismount.
"Oh, the boys at the saloon thought it was a nice day to take a ride, see what you were up to out here for so long."
"You boys worried about me?"
"Hal McGrew at the saloon thought you might be in trouble, maybe got lost out here."
"Maybe dying too?" Collis said.
"Something like that," said Syl Apps. "Something like that."
Collis replied, "I think it's too lonely for dying out here. Got to get back home, see Sally." His eyes were searching, wandering in his new manner.
The two searchers saw Collis safely in the saddle and they headed to town, Grubbs trussed up and walking.
One week later, in the hour when the sun rose over Quinnipiac, Bentley Collis was found dead on his porch. He was still in the company of his wife Sally, her favored "thin silky white nightgown, her summer issue," wrapped tightly about his arms.
Sheehan, in his 94th year, (31st Infantry, Korea 1950-52; Boston College 1952-56), has published 53 books,
three with Taj Mahal Press, He has work in Rosebud, The Linnet's Wings (Ireland-100), Copperfield Review,
Literally Stories (UK-150), Green Silk Journal, Rope & Wire Magazine in Oregon. He has 18 Pushcart nominations,
6 Best of Net nominations (one winner). Later books released; The Grand Royal Stand-off; Small Victories for
the Soul VII; Jock Poems and Reflections for Proper Bostonians. His "The Tale of Trot and Dim Johnny," won
the Ageless Writers contest, and has articles in Boston Globe's Sunday Magazine Idea section.
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Coyotes and Thieves
by B. Craig Grafton
Frank dug the bullet out of the kid's hip. He had to stop and dig it out before the kid passed out from the pain and fell off his horse again.
"Look kid, I got it. See," he said, putting down his bloody knife and holding the bullet by the light of the campfire for the kid to see.
"Jesus it's big," said the kid staring at it.
The coyotes were staring at it too. They had been quiet during the operation so fascinated were they by one human being cutting on another that they forgot to howl. But now that the cutting was over they started up again.
Frank threw the bullet at the coyotes hoping to scare them away but they just dodged it and remained in place.
Frank finished dressing the kid's wound.
The kid laid on his right side, his wound being on his left hip.
"Yah lay like that and get some sleep now kid."
Frank threw some more brush on the fire causing it to flare up shooting sparks into the hot muggy summer night.
"There that ought to keep them coyotes away. Now if they'd just stay shut up we could get us some sleep."
"They're close aren't they Frank?"
"Yah they're close but don't worry. They won't bother us none. That's not the coyote way. They don't mess with ya til you're dead. Come morning I'll go get your mother and bring her and a wagon back and take you to a doctor. I don't think you should be riding any more. You might reopen the wound and I had a hard enough time getting the bleeding to stop. I don't know if I can do it again."
The ground around where the kid lay was soaked with his blood and the coyotes had picked up on it.
"It's all my fault isn't it Frank? If I hadn't got shot we'd be home by now wouldn't we?"
"Don't worry about it kid. These things happen when you're in the thieving business. You get shot sometimes or worse yet you get caught. Then they cage you up like a wild animal and you do hard time. Don't worry though. You'll be okay. Your Ma's spread ain't that far from here. It won't take all that long to get there and back. Just hold tight and ole Frank will get you outta here."
"Don't thank me kid. Thank your mother. If I didn't get her son back for her, she'd kill me that's for damn sure. You know how she is. Now if those damn coyotes would only clam up we could get us some shut eye. I'll wake you up before I leave in the morning. Should be back by noon. I'll be over by the horses if you need me. Night kid."
Frank disappeared into the darkness.
Exhausted from a day's hard riding, from always looking back over his shoulder to see if anyone was following them, from the constant fear of being caught, and from the constant pain in his hip, the kid was spent. Exhaustion overcame his pain, overcame the coyotes' howling, and he fell asleep.
He slept but only for a few minutes and then was woken up by someone licking his bloody bandage.
"Quit that and leave him alone," a voice in the darkness snarled.
It sounded like a female voice to the kid but whoever it was who had been licking him stopped and backed off.
He had taken his pistol belt off before he went to sleep so that it wasn't under him when he slept. He reached for where he had put it but it wasn't there.
"Don't bother looking for it, kid. I've taken it," the same voice growled. 'No sense in anybody getting needlessly killed here now is there?"
"Frank," shouted the kid.
No answer. He looked into the darkness where Frank had supposedly bedded down. The fire had gone out. It was pitch black and he couldn't see that far but what he did see were half a dozen pairs of burning bright red eyes with large glowing yellow pupils staring at him.
"He ain't a coming kid. He skedaddled right after you fell asleep. Took the money and your horse too. You been had kid, double crossed."
"No Frank wouldn't do that to me. Ma wouldn't let him."
"Your ma ain't here kid."
The half dozen pair of eyes began circling him like they were getting ready to move in for the kill.
"Don't worry kid, we ain't gonna kill you. Why if word got out that us coyotes were mankillers, we'd all be wiped out in a matter of weeks. We know how you humans are. How you overreact and handle things."
"You gonna just wait for me to die then?"
"You got it kid even though I should kill ya since you humans killed my husband and left me all alone with last year's and this year's kids to raise. But don't you worry your cute little head none. We won't kill ya. Us coyotes are above that revenge thing. We don't do that like you humans do. You humans are strange creatures. You'll kill for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes for no other reason at all than to prove you're a man. And there's no loyalty between you humans either like there is among us coyotes. Or should I say no honor among you thieves. Your father deserting you like that proves that now doesn't it? How old are you anyway kid, thirteen?"
"Fifteen and he's not my father. He just lives with me and my mother. That's all."
"Well that explains it then doesn't it. No blood ties that bind like us coyotes got."
"So you just going to wait for me to die, then eat me. That it?" repeated the kid.
"You got it. Besides that's our job as coyotes. Clean up nature's debris by eating the dead. Take the nourishment from the dead and deposit it back to the good earth again. You'll be scat soon. That's Gaia's way of doing things ya know. All we have to do is wait you out.
The kid knew his mother's ranch wasn't that far away. That he could wait them out as his mother and Frank would be back by dawn. That must have been the reason why Frank left in the middle of the night like he did. To get his mother and a wagon here before he woke up. Didn't want to scare him none by telling him he was leaving him all alone out here in the desert.
"He'll be back. Run ya all off. I ain't worried none."
"Shut up and go to sleep kid. Maybe you'll get lucky and die in your sleep."
The kid went back to sleep confident of his rescue. He woke up the next morning and painfully propped himself up against a rock facing the direction from which Frank and his mother would be coming. But they didn't come. He sat there all day in the hot sun as the coyotes slept and took turns watching over him. He began to worry. Maybe Mama Coyote was right. Maybe Frank had double crossed him after all. Left him out here to die. Made up some story and told Ma he was killed during the heist.
But when sunset came he saw a wagon was rattling toward him with two people sitting up front, his mother and Frank, Frank doing the driving. The wagon came up to him and stopped. His mother, a woman as scrawny and scraggly as Mama Coyote herself, jumped down, ran over to her son, threw her arms around him, and started crying hysterically.
But the kid wasn't paying her any attention. Instead he was watching the coyotes run over into the brush and hide themselves.
"What about that now Mrs. Coyote?" he shouted angrily at them as they scurried away. "We humans don't desert each other after all, do we now?"
His mother released her son upon hearing that and studied his haggard face. She saw a far away demented deranged look in his eyes. He's delirious. That's all she thought. Just delirious seeing things after being out here in the hot sun all day. That plus the loss of blood and the fact that he hadn't eaten. He'd be fine again once she got him to a doctor, got him home, and got some food in him.
"Oh Timmy Timmy Timmy your mother will take care of you Sweetie. You'll be okay. Just you wait and see," she wailed as she so motherly, lovingly, ran her fingers through and straightened out her son's tousled ruffled hair.
But Timmy shrugged her off, shook his fist, and shouted at the coyotes, "See Mrs. Coyote. You were wrong."
"Timmy there's no Mrs. Coyote over there."
"Yes there is Ma, a mother coyote and her young. They were going to eat me but I told them you and Frank would save me."
She saw Frank roll his eyes, his hand on his pistol in its holster.
"Frank go over there, fire a couple of rounds, and chase the coyotes away for Timmy will ya."
"There's nothing there, woman. He's just seeing things. He's in shock. That's all."
She took Frank aside and growled in his ear. "Just humor the boy for me will ya Frank. I agree he's a little touched now having gone through all this but just do it so we can get him calmed down and get him home okay?"
"Okay," said Frank, "but I ain't gonna waste no bullets shooting at phantom coyotes."
"Fine. Just go."
Frank went over to the brush where the coyotes supposedly were and lo and behold to his surprise the coyotes were there. They took off.
"Oh she's got little ones," said Timmy's mother. "How cute."
"Ma," said Timmy, relieved now that the coyotes were gone, "We got us a pretty good haul didn't we? Five thousand apiece."
Timmy's mother was visibly shaken upon hearing that but she composed herself and kept her mouth shut. Frank had given her only twenty five hundred as their share. Said the take was five thousand.
"My horse okay?" asked Timmy.
"Yah your horse is okay," lied his mother. Frank hadn't brought his horse back. She was sure now that he had sold it saddle and all and pocketed that money too and that was the reason why he didn't get to her place until noon. He was off somewhere selling the horse and saddle.
Frank came back. She picked up on the nervous look in his eyes.
The coyotes had socially distanced themselves quite a ways away from the humans for now. But they stood their ground there, watching, waiting.
"Okay let's get Timmy loaded now Frank," she ordered her eyes glued on Frank.
Together they ever so carefully, gingerly, lifted Timmy up into the wagon, stuffed some blankets around him they had brought with them to make him as comfortable as possible, closed up the tailgate, and climbed back up front. Frank handed her the reins. "Here you drive."
"No, you drive. I may need to go back and attend to Timmy." She handed the reins back to Frank, her eyes shooting darts at him. He glared back at her and reluctantly took them. They headed out.
They hadn't gone all that far when Timmy heard the gunshot. The wagon kept going and as it did so it passed over the dead body of Frank. Timmy saw it from the back of the wagon all crumpled up there in the dust.
"Had to do it," said his mother without turning around and looking at her son as she drove the team onward. "He only gave me twenty five hundred. He lied to me. Said you only got five thousand. He kept the rest for himself. Sold your horse and kept that money too. His plan was to get us both out here all alone in the desert, kill us, and then dump us off somewhere where no one would find us but the coyotes. I had to shoot him first before he killed us."
The coyotes were on the body now, ripping it apart in a feeding frenzy.
"Besides, somebody had to feed those cute little coyote pups now didn't they."
B. Craig Grafton has been published by Frontier Tales before and had seven books published by Outlaws Publishing, three of which are about a West Texas Attorney. His latest book is with Two Guns Publishing and is entitled: Willard Wigleaf: West Texas Attorney. It is available on Amazon.
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Voices in the Wind
by Michael McLean
The world rapidly disappeared as thick, white, choking dust engulfed man and horse. Sliding out of the saddle, Bear Whitethorn did not have to urge the paint gelding to turn his rump to the wind. Sand driven by the fierce element bit into every exposed inch of skin. Salt in the air stung his lips and eyes as he collapsed onto the ground clutching the horse's reins in one hand. With effort, he pulled long legs to his chest and closed his eyes against the onslaught. Sticky wetness on his right side meant blood was still oozing. The only lucky part of the day was that the bullet had entered and exited between ribs without tearing up any vitals.
As he sat in pain, a desperate thirst overcame him, and his canteen hung around the saddle horn only a few feet away. Wind continued to shriek through taller yucca plants. There was no water to be had for a while, at least until he was able to stand. Hat secured by a buckskin string, it was an effort to pull the sweaty bandana from around his neck up and over his nose and mouth. There was nothing to do but wait out the dust storm and mull over events that brought him to this forsaken place.
Henry Wentworth Landis was dead with two bullets from Bear's Colt 1878 .44-40 pistol in his chest. Didn't matter much now that the most politically powerful rancher in southeastern New Mexico Territory had the biggest ranch, and was, Whitethorn figured, the biggest liar in the territory. What did matter was that two of the dead rancher's sons were ruthless killers who had escaped the noose more than once due to their father's influence. They led a gang of four no accounts that rode only for money. Landis had a third son who was away at school in the East becoming an attorney, but sadly, he shared the traits of the father.
The mistake he made was believing Landis was a man who respected the law. The U.S. Marshal's badge on his chest meant nothing to the man who wanted to be governor of the territory. Whitethorn explained that three of the men in the employ of the ranch were wanted for cattle rustling and murder in Texas. The rancher said they were not his men and ordered him off the ranch. When he refused to go Landis laughed at him and unexpectedly went for his pistol. The rancher got off one good shot before Whitethorn got off two of his own as he fell.
If there was anything good about the situation, it was that the two Landis boys, Seth and Zeke, and their men, including the three named in the arrest warrant, were bringing in a small herd of calf and cow pairs to brand and castrate the calves. Their dust indicated they were still a mile or so out. Unfortunately, the air was still, and despite the noise of moving cattle, the gunshots were loud enough to be heard by the men. Three cowboys split from the approaching herd and galloped toward the ranch house.
Whitethorn knew he was a dead man if they found the elder Landis dead and him there. Blood dripping from the wound, he got control of his gelding and struggled into the saddle. There would be no explaining to the boys or their men. His only chance was to run. Riding along the brackish Pecos River, he followed trails leading west until he hit the old Butterfield Stage trail. At Pine Springs he rested briefly, ate his last piece of jerky, refilled the canteen, and watered the horse. Darkness fell as they started down the old road headed toward El Paso two days distant—if he could stay in the saddle. Other lawmen would be there to offer help if the Landis gang didn't catch up to him first.
Bear was thankful that the gelding was tough. They plodded slowly on through the night with only stars and crescent moon to illuminate the steep, rocky road. Every so often he painfully turned to survey the trail behind for movement. Morning dawned hot and a stiff breeze blew out of the east with a promise of a storm moving in from the west. The temperature continued to increase as they set out across the salt flats and the wind grew in intensity. Dust devils whirled in a half dozen spots on the flat. Without warning a fierce gust of wind nearly toppled him out of the saddle. A dust devil swept sand, dirt, and bits of vegetation around and around man and horse.
Returning to the moment, Bear struggled for breath in the dirt-choked air, as he held the bandana over his face, breathing became easier. The wind was unrelenting, but the temperature was dropping. Unexpectedly, he thought he heard a distant voice, like someone calling—then nothing. A few moments later he was sure he heard voices, but he could not understand the words. He hoped it was not the Landis boys closing in. Time passed and there were more voices—then only the shriek of the wind.
Suddenly, the wind stopped, and the air cleared. He pulled the bandana down and gulped in good air. A gentle tug on the reins, and the gelding moved closer. Whitethorn struggled to stand using a stirrup and the saddle to pull himself upright. There was no sign of life except for the horse. He clutched the canteen and cautiously sipped warm, wonderful water. Looking around, he saw towering clouds of white dust formed an unmoving wall around him to the west. A cool breeze sprang up out of the east which struck him as odd. It carried pleasant aromas of pine and juniper from the high mountains. Maybe he was dead and in some kind of purgatory.
The bright, desolate world of white surrounding him forced him to squint as he looked to the east—in the distance he detected movement. Someone or something was approaching through heat wave ripples as if drifting in the breeze. Maybe it was them. A few minutes passed and a solitary figure drew closer. It was a man with a long walking stick.
The man was an Indian, no mistaking that—and the oldest person he remembered seeing. The walking stick was a beautiful reddish-brown wood with leather strips attached at the top that secured large bird feathers, maybe eagle. He wore a light-colored shirt open at the top to expose a leather string that looped around his neck from which hung a single, large piece of turquoise. A bag fashioned from some kind of animal leather was slung over his shoulder. Although his skin was weathered and looked like old leather, his eyes were what fascinated Whitethorn. They were a deep emerald green that seemed to flash fire at the center. Using only those eyes, the old man scrutinized Bear in silence. The scent of pine and juniper was everywhere.
"Hello!" Bear said, not knowing what else to do. The old man was obviously unarmed and showed no sign of aggression.
"Aho," the old man replied with a term of greeting used by people of different tribal origins. "What are you called?"
"My name is Bear . . . Bear Whitethorn. And yours?" It was curious that the man's voice had no accent although he was not sure what he expected.
"I am called Cloud."
"Pleased to meet you Mr. Cloud." Bear extended his hand. "Do you live around here?"
Cloud took Whitethorn's hand for a moment, then released it. "Travel to and from many places. Have many homes."
"Do you have a home near here?"
Ignoring Whitethorn's question, Cloud's eyes went from the man's face to his badge and then the blood-soaked shirt. He gestured to the dripping blood. "You are a man of the law and you are wounded."
"Yes, a man shot me while I was doing my job. His sons are coming after me to get revenge."
"Was he a bad man?"
"I'm not sure, but two of his sons and their gang are killers. I was trying to bring in three of the men who worked for him."
Cloud said nothing but scrutinized Bear's face as he explained. "You sit now. I help you. They told me truth."
Whitethorn unceremoniously plopped down on the ground still clutching the gelding's reins. "Who told you truth?" he was confused.
"The others—spirits of the old ones. They found you and told me where you were. Let horse go free and remove shirt. Horse will not leave."
"I don't understand. Who are you . . . what are you?" Whitethorn let the reins drop to the ground but made no effort to remove his shirt.
"Some call me witch—some healer." The old man wasted no time pulling Whitethorn's saddle, saddlebags, and bedroll from the paint and placed the saddle for Whitethorn to rest against. The rectangle of bedroll canvas that protected its contents was quickly spread out on the ground and the thin blanket it contained set aside. He helped Whitethorn move onto the canvas. Finally, he sat on his knees, took the bag from around his neck, opened it, and studied its contents. Without looking up he ordered, "must remove shirt."
Whitehorn struggled to do as he was told and removed his shirt with difficulty and no little pain. He watched as the old man removed certain items from the bag and placed them on the edge of the canvas. A thin, flat rock from the pouch provided a working surface. Cloud ground and blended what looked like different leaves and colored, dried flowers. A small amount of water from the canteen was added to make a paste.
The old man pulled his shoulder to roll him onto his side. "Two wounds," he pronounced. "One on back is bad." Immediately he went to work washing the wounds with more canteen water and then spreading the paste over both wounds while softly murmuring a chant. Once the chant was finished, he spoke again. "Bear is strong name. Why you called that?"
Whitethorn obliged the shaman. "My pa told me a story that when I was a baby, a bear broke into our cabin in the mountains up north while he was out hunting. My mother tried to keep it away from me, but the bear swatted and knocked her down. She dropped me when she fell and it stood over me, sniffed me all over, and looked at me for a spell—then just turned and left. Pa said it was some kind of a sign, but I never gave it much thought." Whitethorn grimaced as greenish-yellow paste was pushed into his wounds.
"Hmm, I see. Your father was wise. The bear is powerful. It is a sign of strength and good medicine. To seek justice, protect, and heal make bear strong. It is good that you are man of the law."
A strange feeling washed over him—like he was suddenly disconnected from his body, from the real world. He shook his head and tried to remember. The voices in the wind seemed so real. The others Cloud said, what others? Spirits? Witch? His fingers tingled and unexpectedly he was floating like a leaf on water in a place he had never been before. Then all was darkness.
* * *
Whitethorn blinked as light bathed his face from the sun rising over the Guadalupe Mountains. Slowly, he elbowed himself up and away from the saddle and looked around. There was no sign of Cloud, but a hint of juniper and pine remained in the air. A scene that seemed impossible surrounded him. A few feet away the paint gelding munched on grasses emerging from a fairly wide mound of earth that had a thin trickle of water flowing from it. The water disappeared into the surrounding flat of white a few feet away. Odd, but there was a small, smokeless fire burning a few feet away.
The thin bedroll blanket that covered him was shoved aside as he examined the wound he could see. A scab had formed over the bullet's entry point. Gingerly, he felt for the exit wound. Same result, a firm scab—strangely, neither hurt.
Motion caught his eye. He looked to the south and reached for his revolver.
From a distance, the old man spoke. "Aho, lawman Bear."
"Aho, Cloud," Whitethorn responded, holstering the revolver.
"You hungry." It was not a question, but a statement. "Brother rabbit offer his flesh and spirit to us."
A few minutes later, the aroma of roasting rabbit revived Whitethorn even more. For the first time, he moved so he could see all around their small campsite. The huge billowing clouds of dust were gone, and except for their tiny oasis, the desert looked to be starting a normal day.
"You eat for strength." Cloud shoved a piece of roasted rabbit at him and sat down on the ground with a piece for himself.
It was the most delicious meat he remembered having. Whitethorn thanked the old shaman profusely and leaned back against the saddle. Suddenly he sat upright and a shadow came over his features.
"You are troubled?" Cloud asked. "Rabbit is bad?"
"Oh, no . . . no. It's just that the Landis gang is still out there coming for me. If they find you helped me they will kill you too."
Cloud looked at him for many moments and for the first time a smile came to his ancient face. He grasped the turquoise stone that hung around his neck. "Sky rock protect and give me power to heal. It is sacred to ancient ones, my people, and the spirits."
Whitethorn didn't know what to say, but Cloud spoke again so he didn't have to.
"You are good and strong man. I go now, have much work to do and must speak with brothers. Remember the power of the bear and sky rock."
Whitethorn nodded, "Thank you, I will. I will never forget you."
The old Indian stood, looked down at him, and clutched the turquoise again. "Be at peace, lawman Bear."
Suddenly, Whitethorn was exhausted. His eyes refused to stay open. The gelding nickered and all went black.
* * *
A strong gust of wind woke him, and he immediately noted that the sun was low above the western horizon. Everything was the same—but different. The scent of juniper and pine was gone. Cloud was gone. Inexplicably there was no pain from his wounds. The horse studied him as he got to his feet. He actually felt good, but examination of the area proved confusing. A small amount of grass remained for the horse, but the trickle of water was less. A circle of ash marked where the fire had been. Other than that, he was surrounded by desert.
Cloud had placed his saddlebags next to the saddle. He opened the one nearest and found a thin piece of leather that held more roasted bits of brother rabbit. The other bag yielded a spare shirt which he quickly slipped into. With grass, water, and the sun beginning to set he decided to partake of some rabbit and stay the night. First light and he would start for El Paso.
The desert night was invariably cold with nothing to hold the day's heat. A quarter moon rose over the mountains but failed to diminish the brilliance of the stars in the sky. Sleep came easily.
Morning broke cool, but he knew that wouldn't last. A few more bites of rabbit and he made ready to go. As he lifted the saddle from the ground he stopped and set it aside. Underneath was a beautiful piece of turquoise—sky rock Cloud had called it. Whitethorn examined it and thought it felt unnaturally cool to the touch. Nickering of the horse interrupted moments of silent reflection, and he slid the gift into his pocket.
Paint saddled, bedroll and saddlebags secured, he checked to confirm the wounds were intact. As he stepped into the stirrup and threw his leg over the horse he marveled at the absence of pain. Old man Cloud for sure had some kind of magical healing power.
Two hours later, Whitethorn pulled the gelding up and took a sip of water. The day was getting hot, but they were off the worst of the flats and headed west. The expanse of West Texas that spread out in front of him was just about as desolate as the flats, but with more vegetation. Glancing back to the east, he saw dust. Dust from riders moving quickly in his direction. Urging his mount forward at greater speed, he rode as fast as he dared. Another hour and the riders were almost on top of him. Why they had not caught up to him before now was a mystery.
The country had changed to rolling hills becoming steeper as he rode west. Suddenly the angry buzz of a bullet zinged by him. It was time to stop and make a stand—now or never. At the bottom of a swale, Whitethorn reined in the paint and urged him to lay down. A sure-footed, experienced mount, he went down tucking legs and feet under him. Whitethorn jerked his Winchester Model 73 from its scabbard and ripped the saddlebags containing extra ammo off the horse.
Running to the top of the knoll, he tossed the saddlebag on the ground and hunkered down as more bullets whined overhead. He placed his revolver on the ground and levered a round into the rifle's chamber. The first man in view was an easy target. Bear fired, watched the man pitch out of his saddle, and levered another round. The gang spread out. There were five of them remaining. Two riders were going to try to get behind him and trap him in a crossfire. The Winchester roared and missed what looked to be a son of Landis.
Bear fired and fired again, another man fell from his horse, but they were playing with him now. No time to reload, he picked up the revolver and fired again and again until the hammer clicked on an empty casing. Unexpectedly and unbelievably, the air was filled with the sound of a bugle. What remained of the Landis gang turned tail and rode as fast as they could away from his position. Immediately, the sound of hooves and galloping horses enveloped him. Soldiers—buffalo soldiers— swept by, chasing and shooting at the departing gang. One of the remaining riders dropped from his saddle as Whitethorn watched.
He turned and he saw his gelding push up off the ground—thankfully unharmed. Beyond the horse, a cavalry officer rode toward him. "Marshal Whitethorn?" he shouted and waved.
"That would be me." Bear returned the gesture.
The officer halted and dismounted. "Lieutenant Caleb Marsden, ninth cavalry from Ft. Bliss at your service."
"Much obliged for the help, lieutenant. You and your men got here in the nick of time, but I surely don't understand how you found me—and them," he motioned toward the fleeing riders.
"A group of freighters stopped at Pine Springs only to be attacked and robbed by that bunch. Two of the teamsters were killed and the gang lit out for El Paso figuring the others would turn back. But one of the freighters was a good horseman and rode fast to Ft. Bliss. What the outlaws didn't know was that those freighters were on the way to the fort with much needed supplies for the Army. Along their way, the freighters heard about trouble east of the Guadalupe Mountains—a big time rancher was dead, a U.S. Marshal named Whitethorn had been shot up, and a gang of the rancher's men were out to kill him.
"When that bunch got to El Paso, they started drinking hard and bragging about the freighters they attacked. At some point they got drunk enough to leave and head back this way, but not before telling some of their new saloon friends they had unfinished business with a U.S. Marshal. An off-duty deputy overheard what was said. The troopers and I were saddling up to go investigate the freighter incident and escort them in when we received word from the El Paso City Marshal that the gang was heading east—apparently to settle up with you.
"We rode yesterday and all night tracking that group. We halted only once to rest a bit and water the horses. Dust from riders and sounds of the fight led us straight to you. From all appearances, you're in better shape than I expected. You were said to be shot up by that rancher. That would have been five days ago."
"Bullet in and out between my ribs," Whitethorn said lifting his shirt and pointing at the nearly healed wounds. "There was this old Indian. He found me out on the salt flats, treated my wounds, and fed me." If possible, Whitethorn was even more confused. Five days? That couldn't be right. What happened to time . . . how could he heal so fast?
The sounds of returning troopers interrupted their conversation. A muscular sergeant rode up to the lieutenant and saluted. "Sir, Troopers Gaston and Blevins wounded and being tended to. Two civilians captured with minor wounds, four dead including the two the marshal shot."
"Very good, sergeant. Have Corporal Ellis form a detail to bury the dead, then have him escort the wounded and prisoners back to Ft. Bliss. The remainder of the Company will proceed with us on to Pine Springs with Marshal Whitethorn—if he is in agreement." The sergeant saluted smartly and turned to carry out his orders.
"You have a choice marshal—what is your pleasure?'
"I'm with you, lieutenant. I surely would enjoy your company and I still have a job to get back to." Abruptly a cool breeze washed over the two men. Bear Whitethorn reached into his pocket and clutched Cloud's turquoise gift as the scent of juniper and pine surrounded them.
A native of western Colorado's high country, Michael McLean has worked in and explored the mountains and deserts of the West. His work has been published in Saddlebag Dispatches, New Mexico Magazine, Rope and Wire and The Penmen Review. His story, "Backroads" was the winner of the 2012 Tony Hillerman Mystery Short Story Contest. McLean believes the less traveled and often lonely back roads of the West offer intimate access to the land, its people, and their stories. He lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with his wife, Sandie, and continues to explore the roads less traveled.
Facebook Author Page: https://www.facebook.com/michael1miner
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