He's Gonna Pay
by John Porter
As the sun rose on another godforsaken day, Judd Granger rode his horse through the Texas wilderness, staring straight ahead, knowing that at the age of twenty-seven he was a dead man.
He closed his eyes and remembered the last evening of his life, six months earlier, when he saddled his horse near the barn on his ranch, then glanced across the barnyard at the front door of his house.
The door opened, and Mathias, the most precious little boy in the whole wide world, ran through the doorway and stopped on the porch.
"Papa, Papa, Papa!" Mathias called.
Ellie, the most beautiful young woman in the whole wide world, moved through the doorway, stopped near Mathias, and smiled at him.
"Mathias," Judd said, "come love on your papa!"
Mathias took a step toward Judd, stumbled, and fell to his knees.
"Oh, lemme help you!" Ellie said, reaching for him.
"No!" Mathias said.
He struggled to his feet and ran to Judd, who picked him up and hugged him.
"Mama loves you," Judd said, "but she don't know you can stand up on your own two feet."
"I most certainly do, Judd Granger," Ellie said, putting her hands on her hips. "I know both of my men can . . . with a little help now and again."
"I gotta go, Mathias," he said. "But if you's good to your mama—"
"He always is," Ellie said, strolling across the barnyard.
"Well, then," Judd said, "if you keep on being good to your mama and feed the horses in the barn—"
"With a little help?" Ellie suggested, stopping beside Judd and Mathias.
"With a little help," Judd said, nodding, "I'll bring you back a surprise."
Mathias giggled, and Judd put him down.
Ellie embraced Judd.
"Just be sure to bring yourself back," she said.
"And the flour and sugar?"
"Don't you ever worry over flour or sugar or coffee or fatback or nothing else," she said. "We can get by without 'em." She kissed him. "We can't get by without you."
"And I can't get by without you, Ellie," Judd said, "you and Mathias . . . " He looked at the little boy. " . . . who's maybe gonna get a surprise tonight."
Mathias giggled again.
Riding his horse on that godforsaken day, Judd opened his eyes and stared straight ahead. From a pocket of his coat, he removed a wooden top and a piece of twine. He looked at them and remembered the first time he'd seen Ellie.
He was in Peterson's General Store. He picked up a salt block, turned, and saw her standing near the counter, looking down at a bolt of calico. She looked up, saw him, and smiled. He gazed at her.
An older man stomped over to him.
"Ain't you got nothing better to do than gawk at my little girl?" he growled.
For a moment longer, Judd gazed at Ellie. Then he looked at her father.
"I ain't gawking, sir," he said. "I'm admiring, and I'm trying to figure out how best to say howdy to her."
Her father scowled.
"Sayin' howdy leads to callin' on," he said. "Callin' on leads to courtin'. And courtin' leads to marryin'."
"And marryin'," her father continued, "means takin' care of."
Judd nodded again.
"Can you take care of my little girl?" her father growled again.
"I built me a house, a barn, and some decent corrals," Judd said. "I bought me some good heifers and a good bull. And now I got me a herd of good cattle, and they's bringing me some good money." He nodded. "And now I know who her pa is, I'm gonna ask him if I can say howdy to his daughter."
Ellie's father slowly smiled.
"You got gumption, young feller," he said. "Go on over and say howdy."
Judd smiled and took a step.
"Wait up," her father said.
"Yes, sir?" he asked.
Her father smiled.
"Why don't you put down the salt block first?" he said.
Saying howdy led to calling on, and everything else followed just the way Ellie's father had said it would. And everything was better than Judd could ever have imagined. Then Matthias came along, and everything was better still.
Riding his horse on that godforsaken day, Judd looked at the wooden top and the piece of twine and remembered riding his horse toward his house at night, six months earlier, when he was still alive, holding the top and the twine, smiling at them.
He remembered hearing a shot, remembered looking at the house, seeing a pinto near the front door, hearing another shot, seeing a young man wearing a white hat, a white shirt, and a black vest stagger to the pinto, mount it, and gallop away. He remembered galloping his own horse to the house, jumping off, running through the doorway.
Riding his horse on that godforsaken day, Judd looked at the top and the twine, and thought about the ways you could kill a man. An iron was the fastest. A knife was the bloodiest. Hands . . . maybe hands were the most satisfying because you could squeeze the life out of a man real slow and enjoy ever gasp and twitch and moan.
He put the top and twine into his pocket, stopped his horse, dismounted, and looked at the ground. He mounted his horse and continued riding.
The day passed, and the night fell.
Judd rode through a grove of yucca trees, stopped again, and saw a pinto grazing near a stream.
He dismounted and hesitated, then nodded and drew his pistol.
"Fastest," he whispered.
He breathed deeply.
"Help me, Ellie," he whispered again.
He crept forward.
He passed the pinto and saw a light shining through the window of a cabin.
He moved to the window.
Through it, he saw Samuel Taylor, a young man gazing at the wall, wearing a white hat, a white shirt, and a black vest.
Judd looked beyond the window and saw a door. He cocked his pistol, stepped to the door, and kicked it open.
He rushed into the cabin and pointed his pistol at Samuel, who didn't move.
"You killed my wife and son," Judd shouted, "and you's gonna pay!"
Slowly, Samuel turned to Judd and smiled radiantly.
"Thank God you come!" he said.
Judd narrowed his eyes.
"I been in unspeakable pain," Samuel said.
He stood and faced Judd.
"What you saying?" Judd asked.
"When I killed the woman and the baby, I killed all the good in me." Samuel raised his arms. "Kill what's left."
"I was on a drunk," Samuel said. "I run outa money. I busted into your house, looking for whiskey or money or both, ready to do anything to get 'em."
"I was knocking dishes off of shelves, breaking 'em, causing all kind of commotion. I heared someone come in. I pulled my iron, turned, and shot . . . the woman. Then the baby come in. I didn't think. I just . . . shot. I seen the two of 'em laying on the floor. I seen her reach out her hand for him, and I seen him reach out his little hand for her, and then . . . they just laid there. And I . . . I run out, jumped on Paint, and rode as fast and as far as I could."
He retched, lowered his arms, and leaned forward. He breathed deeply, then straightened.
"Thought if I kept drinking, I'd forget. Thought if I stopped drinking, I'd forget."
He shook his head.
"Then just afore you got here, I figured it out." He smiled. "The only way I can forget is to die. I was about to saddle up Paint and ride back to your place and beg you to deliver me. But you come here. You come here!"
He raised his arms again.
"Now kill me!"
"Why don't you take your own iron and blow your brains out?" Judd asked.
"You's the one I sinned against," Samuel said. "You's the only one can deliver me."
For a moment, Judd looked at him, then nodded.
"I believe you," he said. He uncocked his pistol and jammed it into his holster. "And I ain't gonna kill you."
Samuel stared at him.
"Like I say," Judd said, "you's gonna pay."
"I already paid!"
Frantically, Samuel grabbed his pistol, pointed it at Judd.
"If you don't kill me—"
"You gonna kill me?" Judd laughed. "I'm already dead." He paused. "But I can still stand up on my own two feet . . . with a little help."
He reached into the pocket of his coat and removed the top and the twine.
"This here's a surprise I got for my son. Can't give it to him so . . . "
He wound the twine around the top.
" . . . I'm giving it to you."
He tossed the top, which spun on the floor.
"If you ever start feeling good about yourself, spin the top, and remember that my son never got the chance to."
He dropped the twine on the floor.
"Remember that my wife never got the chance to see him spin it. And I didn't, neither."
He turned and walked out of the cabin.
Samuel lowered his pistol, then—with horror—watched the top spin on the floor.
John Porter manages his family's cattle ranch in California, where he also writes screenplays and stories. Twenty of his screenplays have been produced (thirteen of them are listed on the IMDb). In August, Two Gun Publishing published Your Typical Outlaw and Other Stories of the Old West, a collection of some of his Western stories. Next year, Two Gun Publishing will publish The Good Lawman and Other Western Stories, a second collection.
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A Requiem to Truth
by Dan Shades
He woke to the sound of the early morning birds and smell of the fresh dew in the air. Sleeping on the ground was getting more challenging at his age, the bedroll just wasn't as comfortable as it was 20 years ago. He lay for a few minutes enjoying the morning sounds as he saw the glow of the sun over the vertical rocks on the east horizon.
His bones creaked as he rose and called to his horse, Carl, a few yards away. "Good morning Carl" he said quietly. Carl answered his call by twitching his ears, he seemed eager to get going, and so was Bryce.
Bryce rolled up his bedroll as the coffee boiled. A few pieces of jerky would have to do for breakfast until he got to the Soap Lake settlement another 15 miles south at the end of the Grand Coulee. This area of the newly formed Washington state was grassy rolling hills, rock cliffs, and sage brush that was much different than the western part of the state where it was defined by forests. The rocky cliff overhangs made good shelter from the rain and allowed a person to get clear of the hot sun.
Grand Coulee was a large canyon that cut through the grasslands carved out by ancient glaciers millions of years ago. The glaciers were long gone but a series of lakes had formed at the bottom of the canyon full of clean, fresh water and were always as cold as a spring fed brook.
The coffee was hot although a little weak for his taste. He blew on the rim of the tin cup before taking a sip. The boiling hot coffee heated the rim of the tin cup and it pained his lips when he took a sip.
His coffee finished and after a few pieces of jerky, Bryce kicked the fire out and threw the saddle on Carl. He slid his trusty Henry rifle into the saddle and checked the loads on his Colt Navy revolver. The Colt was not the best pistol anymore but he had got it from a friend many years ago and treasured his friend's memory as well as the weight and feel of the gun in his big hands.
Bryce had been through the area many times but often kept shy of Soap Lake. It was a nice enough settlement but he steered clear of people in general. Just wasn't his way and he preferred the company of his horse. He was going there on business today.
The trail to Soap Lake from the Lake Lenore was steep and rocky. The basalt boulders sluffed off of the hillsides creating large piles of sharp rocks and uneven ground. He moved east away from the coulee to a trail allowing easier travel and he could see a man coming for at least a half mile. The lack of trees in the area could help prevent an ambush, but a determined man could hide within one of the many gullies that lay on his path to Soap Lake.
The Soap Lake settlement was located on the southern tip of the lake and its residents were just starting to carve out a good foothold for a future town. There were two saloons, a general store, and of course a church. There was also a sanitarium available for those seeking the reported healing powers of the mystical mineral rich water which filled the nearby lake.
The town was quiet as he arrived. It was active but not overly busy. The people hardly took notice of another man and a horse. Many people traveled to Soap Lake to visit the healing mineral waters at the nearby lake. The minerals in the water were said by the native peoples to have special healing powers but Bryce seriously doubted they actually did. If people wanted to go swim in acrid water that was their business, but he did not care to have anything to do with it.
Bryce rode up in front of a saloon that was open for business and tied Carl up to the rail outside. He walked through the swinging doors and several men glanced at him then looked away. A few cowboys were sitting at a table waiting impatiently for their orders and what appeared to be four visitors dressed in fancy clothes sitting at another table, probably planning to take the early stage to Ephrata and then on to Spokane. He picked a table in the corner and sat facing the door of the saloon.
After a few minutes a dark-haired woman of about 30 approached to take his order. She was dressed in a thread-bare light blue dress which had several food stains on the front. Her hair was somewhere between up and down as it looked like she gave up halfway between. She looked as though she had lived a hard life and her face reflected a life without joy or pleasantness.
"What can I get ya mister" she asked in a gravelly voice. Bryce could smell the old whiskey on her breath as she spoke. She did a poor job of disguising the obvious hangover from the previous night.
"I will take a couple of eggs and a piece of ham . . . and some information." Bryce looked up after he spoke and directly into her eyes. "But first some food, I am mighty hungry."
"Big fella like you should have more than that for a meal. Sure I couldn't get you some flapjacks to go with that?"
"That's all I need, thanks."
"As far as information goes mister, not sure I can help you there." She slowly turned around by wobbling back and forth on her feet and bumped into the backs of several empty chairs as she sauntered back to the kitchen.
Bryce was glad she walked away as the foul odor of her breath and body were beginning to become offensive. The saloon itself smelled of old beer, and musty wood with a touch of body odor. He had seen many like it in his frequent travels around the northwest.
The waitress brought his breakfast and he began to eat. He was hungry and the food was good, although his eggs were a little on the cold side. An old man with gray whiskers walked up to him from the back room. He had on well-worn pants and a dirty work shirt that was obviously homemade. It had been sewn together form several old shirts and the quality of the stitching was such that he may have done it himself.
"I was told that you are looking for some information about the area. I been around these parts for a while now and I know pretty much everything that goes on here. The names Jim Dorents, mind if I sit?"
"Have a seat Jim. Are you hungry?" said Bryce as he eyed the man when he sat down.
"I ate earlier so not much interested in food." Jim scooted up to the table and made himself at home. "Don't believe I caught your name mister."
Bryce continued eating and without looking up he replied, "That's right, you didn't."
Jim frowned at being put off by the stranger, "I like to know who I am talking to if I am going to provide information, I am sure you can understand that."
"Bryce Grissom if it makes a difference."
Jim looked a little surprised and then let his eyes roam around the room. "Say, you aren't that U.S. Marshal from Omak I heard about?'
"I wouldn't know if you have heard of me or not. Besides, I am a deputy marshal and from Waterville." Bryce continued finishing his breakfast as he spoke.
The man looked at Bryce's clothing and noted that there was no badge visible. He thought he may have been wrong about who this stranger was and wondered if he should just politely go on his way to avoid possible trouble. "I notice you are not wearing a badge mister, you sure you are with the U.S. Marshals?"
"I am a deputy marshal alright. I just don't like to wear the badge because it catches on things then tears my shirt." Bryce finished the last of his breakfast and as he was chewing, he reached into his shirt pocket and threw his badge on the table.
The man saw the badge and became much more at ease. He gave Jim a big smile and asked, "Well now, what kind of information are you looking for? Maybe hunting down an outlaw around these parts? Maybe a murderer? I like to do my part to help as an upstanding citizen."
"I am looking for a man by the name of Donnie Gerster. I heard he was seen in these parts with some of his kin the past few weeks." Bryce looked at the man straight in his eyes to test his reaction to the name and saw that the man quickly glanced away and his smile disappeared.
"Yeah, Donnie is around these parts along with his no-account pappy and brother. I think his pappy goes by Warden and his brother is called Wendell. They got a camp on the north edge of town by the lake and come in here now and then to raise hell. They are all no accounts if you ask me." The old man rubbed his chin and thought for a moment then glanced back at Bryce. "I ain't surprised you are lookin' for them fellas. What did they do anyway?"
"I was sent down here by Marshal Meade to bring him in for murdering a young lady up in Omak. I don't know much of the details but him and his folk were staying up there and had some kind of run-in with a saloon girl and she ended up dead. I have a warrant for his arrest and subpoenas for his dad and brother as witnesses."
The man moved back from the table with a start and squinted his eyes at Bryce. "Murder? The one named Donnie? You sure you got the right one because I don't think that man is quite right. He is real slow and just follows the other two around. Why hell, I don't even think that young man is smart enough to harm anyone not to mention he always seems to be quite friendly, in a childlike dumb way."
Bryce wiped his mouth with the napkin and reached into his vest pocket to retrieve money to pay for the meal. He dropped the money on the table and shrugged his shoulders. "Look mister, I ain't no judge or jury and it is not for me to decide who did what or to who. I just bring 'em in. The marshal said to bring him in so that is what I am going to do. The prosecutor and judge both got together to issue a warrant for his arrest so I guess that's good enough for me." Bryce stood up and picked up his worn hat. "Thanks for the information Jim, if I can ever help you with something let me know."
Bryce began walking out of the saloon with his belly full for the first time in a few days and was eager to get back outside in the sunshine. He did not care for the sights and smells of the dank saloon. The waitress who had taken his order was standing behind the bar watching him walk out. Bryce glanced her direction and tipped his hat out of gentlemanly courtesy as was his normal demeanor. She responded with a wink and by softly running her tongue over her upper lip while squinting her eyes. Bryce quickly turned his gaze to his boots and gently shook his head. The last thing he needed was that kind of trouble and felt himself shudder from deep down.
Bryce led Carl to the north edge of town, thinking he just wanted to finish the job and get his pay from the Marshal. He missed his wife, Clara, and his young daughter Elaine. He always missed them terribly but the pay was good and they could hold down the farm for a few days while he was away.
Bryce was not a full-time Deputy Marshal but only got called upon when Marshal Tom Meade needed someone brought in on warrants. Bryce had a reputation for being a tough hand when dealing with the more unsavory characters who were dodging the law. He had a knack for getting the job done, and besides, Marshal Meade had more important affairs to deal with in town. Marshal Meade rarely left town in pursuit of dangerous criminals. He was more adept at dealing with the petty thieves and rowdy cowboys, as long as they were not too rowdy.
He reached the north edge of town and saw an area of camps consisting of old tarps, tents, and a few wagons to provide makeshift shelters. Several score of people were going about their business and Bryce thought to himself that most of the folks were probably good people but a few looked like troublemakers. Many would move on when the farm work ran out while others would return to petty crime to get by the best they could. A man had to survive he supposed, but there was nothing wrong with hard work to get a man through lean times.
A man dressed in dirty, worn overalls was sitting near a campfire rubbing an iron skillet with salt and water in an attempt to scour it clean. "Can I help you mister?" he asked through tobacco-stained teeth while squinting his eyes. "I am looking for work if you got any. I can work hard and gots lots of experience doing all kinds of work." He gave Bryce a gratuitous smile.
Bryce turned and studied the man for a short period of time. "I am not looking to hire anyone, sorry." Bryce turned to walk away and made it a few steps.
"You are welcome to some coffee if you like. I don't have much else to offer" the man added with a welcoming smile.
"I am just looking for a man. Maybe you can help me" Bryce replied as he once again turned to face the man.
"I have been here a few months, know most of the people here. I could probably point you in the right direction."
"I am looking for Donnie Gerster. Heavier set man in his mid 20's. Probably been here just a few days."
"Oh, yeah nice fella. Can't say too much for those other two no-goods he came in with. Donnie and I have had coffee a few times. Kinda dumb but real likeable guy. Lives over on the west edge of the camp." The man pointed with a dirty finger, "Over there by those two mules."
"Thank you mister. Maybe I can buy you a cup of coffee sometime." Bryce turned and started walking away and heard the man call after him, "Be careful of those two bastards he's with, they are up to no good."
Bryce turned and smiled at the man once again as he walked to the west side of the camp. The camp smelled of smoke, horses, and damp grass. Most people attempted to make eye contact as he made his way around the camps. He avoided walking directly through the imaginary lines defining each camp's border. To cross the imaginary lines could demonstrate disrespect and stir up trouble. He did not have time to mess with a squabble so menial in nature.
Bryce approached the small camp where the two mules were located. The camp consisted of a tattered tarp thrown over a triangle of poles. There was not room to stand in the tent and a person had to crawl in and out of it somehow without hitting his head on the frame. It was barely big enough to hold two grown men.
A low campfire had been started and two men were standing next to it watching him approach. They were dirty, wearing worn clothing and had not shaved in several days. They were giving Bryce a wary look. They did not look like the type one could turn your back on and walk away with your health.
"Hello the camp!" Bryce announced in a medium voice to symbolize a request to cross the imaginary border. He did not see any weapons on the men as he approached.
The men narrowed their gaze at him and the older one croaked, "We ain't looking for no work if that's whut this shit's about."
Bryce smiled and continued toward the imaginary line. "No sir, I am not here to offer you work. The only compensation I have to offer is a few minutes of good conversation."
"Well I guess come on then. You got on some decent clothes so I don't reckon you are part of the camp unless you just came into town." The man held his narrow gaze and turned down the corners of his mouth.
"No sir, you are right about that much." Bryce continued toward the men and stuck his hand out in greeting as he approached them at a slow pace. He was trying to be friendly but maintained his vigilance as he had done many times with men like these. Neither man extended their hands to him to reciprocate his greeting.
"Well, I'm not much for shaking hands myself," Bryce withdrew his hand and gave them a smile in return. "My name is Bryce Grissom."
The younger man turned his head and spit a mouthful of tobacco juice on the ground. "Who the hell cares who you are? You can just go the hell back the way you came." He dropped his hands to his side and squared his shoulders to Bryce.
The older man half turned to the younger. "Now hold on, Wendell. Let's see what the man wants before we go to beatin his ass. No sense in being unfriendly right off."
Bryce let go a small laugh and slightly shook his head. "I can see you fellas are direct and to the point. I like that because I don't have much time for introductions or conversations anyway. Ok then, I am a U.S. Deputy Marshal and I am looking for Donnie. I got a warrant for him out of Waterville."
Bryce kept a close eye on their reactions and was ready to protect himself if needed. He had been in these situations many times before and was confident these men would not be much of a problem if they decided to give him trouble.
The men looked at each other as they changed their posture to be less intimidating. It was clear that they wanted no problems with the law. Bryce's face suddenly became serious as he looked at the older man. "Warden, I am taking him in with or without your help. If you just tell me where he is, I will be on my way and you two men can go back to doing nothing. If you don't, well, I will just have to visit with you two until he shows up."
Warden smiled and nodded behind Bryce. "He is down playing in the creek and you can just go take him. Damn boy is dumb and is a pain in both our asses so just go get him. He ain't right in the head so whatever it is he did it was because he can't think straight. What the hell did he do this time anyway?'
"He is wanted for the murder of a woman up in Omak a few weeks ago, don't know the particulars. My job is to just bring him in, he will get a fair trial. Not my place to judge the man but he has to go."
The two men looked at each other with a quick glance and Bryce could tell they knew much more than they would ever say. Warden returned his gaze to Bryce hoping he did not pick up on his knowing look at Wendell. "I told you where he was so go get the dumb boy and get the hell out of here. We will be better off without him anyway, always having to take care of him like some kind of damn kid."
"Thank you Warden. If you want to look him up he will be in the jail at the Waterville Courthouse. The judge usually doesn't set bail for men wanted for murder so not sure if you can get him out. You are still allowed to visit once a week."
Warden shook his head and as he turned away from Bryce he said, "We don't want to visit him and we won't be going to Waterville. Keep 'em. Come on Wendell, lets go find something to eat."
Bryce placed two pieces of paper on the woodpile nearby. "By the way gentlemen. Those papers are subpoenas for the both of you. This is notice that you have been served and must appear in court in front of the judge on the date indicated. Enjoy your day."
Bryce watched them walk away and after they had moved on a good distance, he turned to walk in the direction Wendell had indicated. He looked over his shoulder a few times until they were out of sight.
As Bryce approached the creek, he saw a man wading in the slow-moving water. The creek was maybe 20 feet across and appeared to be about two feet deep at the most. The man had his pant legs rolled up and was running barefooted splashing in the water as he looked down at something he was trying to catch. The man was in his early 20's with his shirt unbuttoned and was giggling and laughing out loud.
Bryce continued to watch the man for a time to learn more about his nature and what exactly it was that he was doing. The man ran from one side of the creek to the other and appeared to be chasing fish or some other type of creatures in the water. After Bryce determined the man demonstrated no immediate aggressiveness, he walked around his cover and approached the man.
He put on a big friendly smile as he walked slowly toward him and the man did not appear to take notice of his approach. Bryce finally said, "Well, hello there. Looks like you sure are having a time enjoying this nice day and cooling off in the water."
The man stopped suddenly and was somewhat startled by the unexpected greeting. He put forth a tense smile and finally said, "Hi." Water dripped from his clothing and one pant leg had become unrolled and fallen into the water.
"My name is Bryce, how are you?"
"I'm okay, not doin' anything I'm not supposed to. My Pa looking for me or somethin'?"
"No, no. I just talked to him and he knows where you are and did not seem to mind one bit."
"Oh good, he gets mad at me sometimes. On account of he thinks I am dumb and not good at things. I am good at some things but the things I am good at he don't care about none."
"I see. Well, I bet you are plenty smart enough Donnie."
"How you know my name? We ain't never met or nothin."
"Like I said, your Pa told me where you were so I just figured it was you when I walked up here."
Donnie relaxed slightly and walked closer to Bryce. He suddenly lit up his face with a big smile and stuck out his hand. "My name is Donnie Gerster and I am glad to see you again. I like to shake hands. My kin always said that is what I am supposed to say but I can't always remember the exact words to use."
Bryce reached out his hand and gave Donnie a big smile and a handshake. "We have never met Donnie but you seem like a nice fella."
"I can't remember people sometimes, so that's just what I say. I was trying to catch a crawdad but the dang fish keep going by and then I gotta chase them too. Pa says its dumb-play so I just do it when he ain't lookin and it's okay."
"I am sure it is. Say, listen Donnie, I am a marshal from up at Waterville and I was sent down here to talk to you about something."
"Are you really? I like lawmen. They do fun stuff all the time. Chasing bad guys and riding nice horses. And they got badges, I wish I had a badge. Say, do you have one of those badges?"
"Why, sure I do Donnie and I bet you would like to see it too."
"I sure would, I like badges. Ma made me one out of an old shirt once when she was around."
Bryce pulled the badge out and pinned it to his shirt. "There you go, one genuine U.S. Marshal badge."
Donnie looked at it in awe and stepped closer to get a better look. "Now Donnie I have to talk to you about a little problem you were involved in up in Omak recently."
Donnie stepped back so quickly he stumbled and fell to the ground. He made no attempt to get up and just starred at Bryce. "That nice lady, it was so sad she had to go away. It was a bad thing." Donnie began to tear up and looked away from Bryce. "She was pretty and I liked her, she was nice to me too. Nobody is ever much nice to me."
Bryce squatted down on his heels in an effort to not scare Donnie into running. He did not want to have to chase him and do him any harm to take him into custody. "Some people up there think you may have broken the law. They want you to go back so they can talk to you about it and figure out if you actually did it. That means I have to arrest you and take you back to the county seat at Waterville. Do you know what a warrant is?"
"A what?" Donnie appeared interested in what Bryce was explaining as he looked up and made eye contact.
"A warrant. It's a legal order by a judge written on a piece of paper requiring someone to do what he says. In this case, it is an arrest warrant for you to go back and appear before the judge."
Donnie lit up in another big smile that showed his cooked front teeth. "You mean I get to go back to Watertown with you?" His smile diminished then he asked, "Wait, does this mean Pa and Wendell are going too because I don't want to go there with them. I don't want to go anywhere with them anymore because they are mean and do mean stuff."
"It's called Waterville and no, it will just be you and me."
"Can we go now? I am ready to go now. How long will it take to get there?"
"If we leave this afternoon we should get there sometime tomorrow. Spend one night on the trail I reckon."
Donnie let out a loud "Wooohooo" and waved his dirty worn hat in the air so hard Bryce thought it would fall apart. "Let's go!"
Bryce did not see any reason to place Donnie in handcuffs as he appeared harmless enough for the moment. He would just keep a close eye on him for now. He had seen many men try to gain his trust only to try and knock him in the head at the first opportunity.
"I don't suppose you have a horse do you Donnie." Donnie shook his head and looked at his feet. "Well, I guess the first order of business will be to go over to the stable and see what we can do about that."
After making arrangements for a horse from the nearby stable, they set out for Waterville in the early afternoon. Bryce figured they would have an easy ride until suppertime then camp for the night after a good meal. Donnie seemed easy enough to get along with and Bryce anticipated an easy trip. He had transported many prisoners that were much ornerier than Donnie.
Donnie began to sing a few miles out of town. It wasn't any particular song, just something Donnie made up as he went along. It seemed to keep him occupied so Bryce didn't object even though he found it somewhat irritating after a time.
Finally, Donnie stopped singing and looked at Bryce. "Mr. Marshal, do you go to church?"
Bryce was caught somewhat off-guard and thought about it a few heartbeats before answering. "I go most Sundays. My wife likes it when I go with her and my daughter. She feels it is the proper thing to do and I suppose it is."
Donnie shifted in the saddle and scratched his face. "It is the right thing to do my Ma used to say but Pa and Wendell wouldn't let me go after Ma left. Always made me feel right when I went to church and when I left it was like I was a clean like after a fresh bath."
"It has that effect on some folks. Seemed like I could never make enough time to study the word, although I was never opposed to it."
"Do you think that girl that died went to church? Think maybe she went to heaven? My Ma says church folks go to heaven when they pass on." Donnie looked at Bryce with the inquisitive nature of a child.
"I don't know but I would like to think she did. I suppose there are many good people around that don't go to church because they don't have the means or opportunity. Probably a few people that go to church are meaner than most. Sometimes we just do the best we can and keep our faith Donnie."
"I reckon." Donnie responded disappointedly.
They continued riding on the open grasslands and rolling hills of central Washington. The wind felt good on their faces and helped keep them cool from the warm sunshine of the afternoon. The smell of the sun-dried grass and steady beat of the horses' hoofs filled the silence for a good period of time as they made their way to the northwest.
Bryce began letting his thoughts wander about getting home to his family when Donnie suddenly said, "I didn't hurt that lady none."
"You haven't been found guilty. You have to go to court and everybody tells their side of the story. A group of people will decide based on the evidence rather you did it or not."
"I know who did it and I tried to stop them but couldn't. She was a nice lady and it wasn't supposed to happen. I prayed for her the best I could Mr. Marshal but it didn't matter. It just didn't matter at all."
"It's not up to me Donnie. I have to take you back either way so just enjoy the afternoon. There will be plenty of time to think about it later."
They made camp later that evening near a small brook running through the prairie. There were no trees for miles so they took shelter at the base of the ravine cradling the brook. Bryce started a fire using some of the nearby sagebrush as fuel and cooked some cured ham allowing the sage smoke to flavor the meat. He also heated some beans he had left over from the previous night's meal.
They settled in after supper and watched the sun disappear beyond the distant mountains. Donnie was sitting upright with his legs crossed looking across the creek at the setting sun and Bryce was on his bedroll with his head propped on the saddle. Both were enjoying the sights and sounds of a summer evening as the heat began to dissipate and the insects began their nightly ritual.
Donnie unexpectedly turned to Bryce and said, "Mr. Marshal, they will probably kill the man that hurt that lady, won't they?"
"I suppose he will be hanged if he is found guilty."
"And not go to heaven too I bet."
"Like I say, I don't know Donnie. Maybe hanging is a way for a man to compensate for his misdeeds."
"You mean like the book says, paying for a sin?"
"Could be, I am not sure if anybody really knows."
Just then, Donnie jumped up and ran over near where Bryce was stretched out and grabbed something near his beadroll. He held it out away from him with his arm outstretched and Bryce recognized it as a rattlesnake as the snake rattled its tail in agitation.
"Jesus Donnie, drop it!"
The snake quickly struck several times before landing a bite on the side of Donnie's neck. Donnie threw the snake into the nearby brook and slapped his hand to the side of his neck. Bryce jumped up and escorted Donnie to the ground next to the fire.
"Keep still Donnie. Just keep still." Bryce tried to bleed the wounds to get as much poison out as possible but knew that a rattlesnake strike to the neck left little chance for survival. The poison would enter the blood stream and do its job quickly.
"I thought it was going to get you Mr. Marshal. I had to do something."
Bryce felt his stomach sink and said, "You did fine. Your Ma would be proud of you."
"Am I going to die? It is starting to hurt real bad."
"You will be fine. You did good."
"I guess my sin will be paid for like you said."
"I seriously doubt if you have many sins to pay for son."
"I hurt that nice lady Mr. Marshal, but I didn't mean to do it."
Bryce grimaced as he realized he had been wrong about this young man. Emotions boiled inside as he came to grips with the unexpected confession.
"I always wanted to be a lawman. Can I see your badge one more time?"
Despite the emotional chaos he was feeling, Bryce felt compassion for the man who had seldom known kindness in his short life. He unpinned his badge and put it on Donnie's shirt. Donnie smiled and said, "Thank you for everything. Not many people are nice to me like you are. I just want to watch the stars for a little while."
Bryce comforted Donnie as he lay dying on the rocky soil of the prairie. They listened to the sound of the coyotes in the distance and the constant chip of the crickets. Bryce felt a sense of peace he had seldom experienced and he realized that Donnie was one of the kindest men he ever met.
As Bryce sat by Donnie he looked into his swelling face, "Donnie did you really hurt that woman?"
Donnie's speech was beginning to become slurred as his tongue thickened. "It doesn't matter Marshal. The sin has been paid for in full."
An hour later Donnie was dead and Bryce found himself alone on the prairie once again.
Dan Shades is an armature writer from the Pacific Northwest. He writes stories associated with early settler life
in Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. Dan's short stories are based on actual locations within the Pacific Northwest
and provides an insight into the early history of these states.
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Coming of Age in Wide River
by Ralph S. Souders
It was a typical, summer afternoon as Jim Larson entered the Northern Lights Saloon, casually walking through its two swinging, front doors. Jim was the Sheriff of Wide River, a mining town in the Colorado highlands. The town was the main supply center for the silver and phosphate mines in the area as well as the many farms and cattle ranches that surrounded it. It was an economic center in the northwestern part of the territory and once Colorado became a state, many residents believed that it would be designated a county seat. Jim Larson had been the sheriff for almost eight years. He liked the town and planned on keeping his job well into the future.
As always, Jim quickly surveyed the barroom, noting to himself who was present and what they were doing. Five cowboys, local men, were playing poker at one of the round, wooden tables. The manager was in his office and the women were either upstairs or had not yet come to work. The bartender stood behind the bar and four men stood in front of it, drinking whiskey. Two of the men were miners who must have been in town that day on business. Another was a cowboy Jim did not know. The other was a young farmer, a fellow who he knew quite well. Jim had a pleasant smile on his face as he approached the young man, intending to engage him in conversation.
"Good afternoon, Jake," said the sheriff. The young man had seen Jim approaching and had turned his body toward him to greet him.
"Hi, Jim," replied Jake, also smiling. "It's nice to see you."
"It's nice to see you, too," said Jim. "How's your mother doing? And how are your sisters? I haven't seen them for a while."
"They're doing okay," Jake informed him. "You should come out to the farm and see us sometime."
"I will," promised Jim. "Please give them my best."
The sheriff noticed that young Jake was wearing a gun belt that afternoon with a six-shooter hanging in a holster against his hip. He recognized the gun. It was Jake's father's .36 caliber Colt handgun. Although it weighed only two pounds, nine ounces, the weight of the gun belt was dragging slightly on Jake's trousers. Jake had a very thin waist and the tail of his shirt had come out of the back of his pants. Jim was certain that the young man was unaware of this.
Jake Keegan was in town that day having been to the bank and then the general store. His buckboard was parked on the dirt street beside the saloon, loaded with the farm supplies that he had just purchased. As was his routine on the days he came to town, he visited the saloon before heading home. He always limited himself to one glass of whiskey, as he didn't have the money for anything more. Although Jake was sixteen years old and tall for his age, he sometimes seemed to be older than he actually was. Only the narrowness of his shoulders and the smoothness of his face gave him away. His family was well established in the area and the townsfolk considered them to be locals.
Jim Larson and Jake's father, Clem, had served in the Union Army together. They had become close friends. Jim was present when Clem fell during the Battle of Chattanooga in 1863 where he took a rebel's bayonet in the stomach on Missionary Ridge. Clem had died quickly without ever again speaking. Jim had decided that he would try and watch over his friend's family in the years ahead as best he could. Although he now had a wife and family of his own, he always made himself available to the Keegan's whenever they might need him. Jim sensed that today might be one of those occasions.
"Jake, do you have a few minutes before you head home?" Jim asked. "I'd like to speak with you about something."
Jim Larson had a serious tone in his voice that Jake Keegan did not miss. He assumed that whatever Jim wanted to discuss had to be important. He was immediately curious.
"Sure, Jim," he replied. "What is it that you want to say?"
"It's really not a discussion for a saloon," said Jim. "Finish your drink and we can go over to my office for a few minutes. There's more privacy there."
Jake lifted his glass and quickly drank the remaining whiskey. His facial expression revealed that he had not yet fully acquired his taste for whiskey. This would still take some time. Jake set the glass on the bar and motioned to the bartender that he was leaving. He had already paid.
"I'll see you later, Charlie," he said to the bartender. The bartender nodded in return.
Without saying another word, Jake followed Jim out the door and onto the wooden boardwalk outside. The unknown cowboy standing at the bar watched curiously as the two men left. Once outside, they crossed the dusty street and walked until they reached the Sheriff's Office. It was located down the street from the saloon, standing directly between the bank and the blacksmith shop. Upon reaching the front door, Jim opened it and invited Jake inside. As they entered the office, Jim took off his gray Stetson and hung it on a hook, revealing his balding head. Jake kept his hat on his head.
"Have a seat," invited Jim, motioning toward a couple of wooden chairs located against the front wall. Jake sat down as requested. Jim then took his own seat, sitting in the chair behind the sheriff's desk.
Jim left the front door open. It was warm in the office that afternoon as the sunlight shined into the room through the glass window on the front of the building. The room smelled musty due to the building's location on the busy, dirt street. By nature, Jim Larson was a very direct individual and he wasn't good at making small talk. As soon as he and Jake were situated, he began speaking to the young man.
"So, Jake," the sheriff began, "I noticed that you're wearing your daddy's gun belt today. When did you start wearing it?"
"A few weeks ago," explained Jake. "It's been hanging on a nail in the barn ever since he left. I've always known that it would be my gun some day. I finally decided to take it down, clean it and oil it, and begin wearing it. I like wearing it."
Jim nodded his head in understanding. "Of course, you do. It was your daddy's. Have you ever fired it?"
"Sure I have," replied Jake. "It fires really well."
"How often have you fired it?" Jim inquired inquisitively.
"Probably twenty or thirty times," said Jake. "I've got a pretty good feel for it."
"Have you?" asked Jim. "You know, Jake, carrying a handgun is a big responsibility. When a man wears a gun, he's telling the world that he's ready to use it. Do you really believe that firing that gun thirty times qualifies you to use it?"
Jake was quiet now, not knowing how to respond to the sheriff's question. The gun was his, no doubt about it. He had every legal right to carry it. He planned to practice with it at home when he had the time. He wondered if perhaps Jim was getting into an area that was really none of his business. Jim wasn't his father, just a family friend.
"Jake, listen to me," said the sheriff. "You may wear that gun for the next forty years and never have a problem. Who knows? Unfortunately, there are some bad characters out there and you may be tested at some time."
"Tested how?" asked Jake.
"Some guy, somewhere, may want to see for himself just how well you can handle it. He'll provoke you, trying to entice you to draw. He, of course, will be confident that his hand will be faster than yours. Otherwise, he'd leave you alone."
"I can ignore people like that," stated Jake. "I've always had thick skin. It's not easy to taunt me into a fight."
"Perhaps not," said Jim, "but if you aren't wearing a gun, you'll never be in that situation. You may have an occasional fistfight but that will be the end of it. A gun changes everything. When you wear a gun, any argument can quickly get out of hand. The other guy may decide to draw his gun and shoot you before you have a chance to shoot him. Only the most ruthless person will shoot an unarmed man. These are facts, Jake. That's just the way it is."
Jake didn't like how this conversation was going. He wished that he was already on his way home. He decided to bring the discussion to a conclusion.
"Did you know my daddy?" Jake asked Jim. He, of course, already knew the answer to his question.
"Yes, Jake," Jim replied. "You know I did. He was a good man, one of the best."
"Yeah, I know he was," responded Jake. "He was no coward. I'm his son and you know what? I'm no coward, either. My daddy wore this gun and I'm going to wear it, too. Don't worry about me, Jim. I appreciate your concern. I'll work hard on my shooting at home. I'm sure that I'll get a lot better."
Jim Larson had no intention of trying to dissuade young Jake from wearing the gun. He realized that there were many reasons why a man living in the rural west might need one. Nevertheless, he was pleased that Jake seemed to understand the message. If Jake was going to carry a gun, he needed to become proficient in using it. Jim believed that it was important for Jake to develop his gun handling skills as quickly as possible. Jim stood and walked to the shelves located behind his desk next to the rifle rack attached to the back wall. He removed a wooden box containing bullets from the middle shelf. Although Jim wore a lawman's Colt 45 handgun on duty, he also owned a couple of .36 caliber Colt handguns. He liked to use them for target practice. He stood from his chair, walked across the room and handed the box of bullets to Jake.
"Here, Jake," instructed Jim. "Take these. You need to practice with that gun. You're going to need ammo, lots of it. Owning a gun can get expensive."
Knowing that Jake was going to be wearing the gun, Jim wanted him to become confident in shooting it. He'd do his best to keep Jake supplied with bullets until the boy became a little older. This was the least he could do for the son of his good friend, Clem.
"Thanks, Jim," said Jake, standing as he extended his arm and shook hands with the sheriff. "You're a good guy. I'll be careful with this gun. And I'll work hard. I promise."
Jim trusted that Jake would do as he promised. However, his experience as a lawman told him that the unexpected could always happen. He patted Jake on the shoulder and again encouraged him to practice shooting the gun as often as possible. Meanwhile, he would just have to hope for the best.
Jim and Jake exited the sheriff's office together. Jim started to walk across the street to the Northern Lights where he intended to have his dinner. Jake walked beside him since his buckboard was parked on the street beside the saloon. Jake was anxious to be getting home. He still had some chores to do before dark. Suddenly, the two men were startled by the sound of a loud gunshot coming from inside the saloon. Immediately thereafter, they heard men's voices hollering and screaming. Something was wrong. Jim began to run toward the saloon, causing a horse and rider to abruptly halt on the street as he passed closely in front of them. Jake followed immediately behind. As Jim reached the front door, he quickly pulled his gun from its holster before carefully going inside. Following the sheriff's example, Jake set the wooden box of bullets on the boardwalk and drew his gun, holding it in his hand as he entered the barroom. He was unprepared for he was about to see.
The young cowboy was lying on his back in the sawdust on the floor in front of the bar. He had lost his hat and his pistol lay on the floor, a few feet away. He had a gunshot wound in his right leg, four inches or so above his knee. His brown pant leg was soaked with blood and he was suffering considerable pain.
"What happened?" demanded the sheriff.
"We were talking together," explained one of the miners. "He got mad about something we said and he went for his gun. I had to shoot him, sheriff. He was going to shoot me." Charlie, the bartender, and the other miner concurred with the shooter's statement.
Jim Larson knelt beside the injured cowboy, "Is that what happened, son?"
"No, sheriff," he replied through his gritted teeth. "I was leaving. I went to my pants pocket to get my money to pay for my drinks. That's when he shot me. If I'd gone for my gun, I would have shot him first, no doubt."
Sheriff Larson shook his head in dismay and looked closely at Jake Keegan. They had both already put their guns away. Although Jim spoke no words, the expression on his face said everything. He and Jake had just discussed the inherent danger of armed men getting into an argument. He'd seen this happen too many times. He hoped that Jake was taking a good look at what he was now seeing.
The cowboy's leg was bleeding badly. "Somebody go for the doctor," instructed Jim. "He needs to get here as soon as possible."
"I'll go," volunteered one of the cowboys who'd been playing poker. The closest doctor lived in the town of Millington, several miles away. Jim knew that it would be a couple of hours before the doctor could get there. The cowboy left the saloon and almost immediately, they could hear the sound of his horse galloping up the street and out of town.
The wounded cowboy was becoming increasingly pale and lethargic. He was losing a lot of blood. Jim was afraid that the boy wouldn't last until the doctor arrived. Jim had received some basic medical training while in the Union Army. He realized that he was going to have to put this training to use if the boy was to have any chance of surviving.
"Take off his boots," instructed Jim to the other men who were all now standing over the injured cowboy. "Then pull off his trousers. Be careful. His wound is painful. Try not to hurt him too much."
Two men did as requested and removed the boots and the trousers from the cowboy.
"Get me some hot water," said Jim as he began to examine the bullet wound. "My God, this is really bad."
Jim immediately pulled the bandana from around his own neck. He wound it lengthwise until it became somewhat stiff. Wrapping it around the cowboy's thigh, just above the wound, he pulled it tight and made a tourniquet. He had Jake pull one side of the bandana while he pulled the other, making the tourniquet even tighter, as tight as possible.
"That will have to do until the doctor gets here," declared Jim. "I don't know what else to do."
"Will the tourniquet save his life?" asked Jake, who felt quite shaken by what he was witnessing. Jim noticed the concern and fright in his eyes.
"Quite likely not," replied Jim. "We'll have to wait and see. At best, he's going to lose his leg. The tourniquet will kill it. Without the tourniquet, he won't last another five minutes."
The manager of the saloon allowed the men to put the young cowboy in one of the bedrooms upstairs. There they removed his remaining clothes and one of the women gave him a sponge bath with the hot water. Jim did his best to treat the wound and get it clean. Jim was certain that the bullet had hit a major artery in the leg, causing the heavy bleeding. When the woman and Jim were finished, they covered the boy with a sheet and a blanket to keep him warm. He had already lost consciousness while lying on the floor downstairs. His condition was extremely critical.
Jim needed to get back to the office. He would investigate the shooting further tomorrow. He went downstairs, ate quickly and then went back across the street. He would check on the boy later, hoping that the doctor would be coming before too long. Jake decided to stay in the room with the boy, not wanting him to be alone. He did take a couple of minutes to put the wooden box of bullets in the back of the buckboard still parked outside. The saloon downstairs had become busy as the afternoon became evening. The women would not have time to nurse the wounded patient. Jake knew nothing about medicine but he would try to help as best he could.
About eight o'clock, Jake heard the boy begin to breathe loudly with much difficulty. Immediately, he wet a cloth with the now cold water and held it against the boy's forehead. Jake sensed what was happening. He was certain that the boy was in the early throes of death. From that point, the boy went quickly. As Jake covered the cowboy's head with the sheet and the blanket, tears of pity filled his eyes. Although he hadn't known him and had paid little attention to him while they were drinking at the bar downstairs earlier in the afternoon, he felt grief for him. The cowboy had died away from home in the midst of strangers with no family or friends present. Jake was only about two or three years younger than the cowboy. He couldn't believe how such a young, vibrant life had been taken so suddenly and so violently.
Jake felt despondent as he left the dead cowboy alone in the room, buried beneath the sheet and the blanket on the bed. He walked down the stairs, through the saloon and out the front door. He only then realized as he stepped off the wooden boardwalk and into the street, just how warm it had been inside the building. The cool night air felt wonderful as he stood in the light breeze and allowed it to fill his lungs. Jake walked directly to his buckboard, deciding that he would go straight home without first saying good night to Jim Larson. The death of the young cowboy had been an emotional experience for him and he knew that if he was to see Jim again that evening, he would break down. He'd been trying to convince Jim earlier that he'd become a man, a man who was ready to handle a handgun. He would feel ashamed if Jim was to now see him crying.
As Jake reached the buckboard, he took off his gun belt and put it in the back with the farm supplies and his bullets, no longer feeling like wearing it. He then climbed aboard the wagon and began his drive home. If nothing unexpected happened, he would be back at the farm in forty-five minutes. About thirty minutes into his trip, he passed two riders in the dark who were traveling in the opposite direction back toward town. He recognized one rider as the cowboy who had left the saloon earlier that afternoon to get the doctor. He assumed that the other rider was the doctor. Jake made no attempt to stop the riders and inform them of the young cowboy's demise. He was certain that they would have proceeded to town anyway.
When Jake reached the farm, he parked the buckboard inside the barn. From there, he could see his mother looking for him from the farmhouse through a downstairs window. She obviously had been concerned because he was so late in returning from town. Jake waved to her and hollered that he'd be inside in about twenty minutes. Unhitching the horses from the buckboard, he led them to their stalls where he gave them hay and water. He quickly rubbed them down with a couple of towels as they were perspiring from the trip. He would leave the supplies on the buckboard and would put them away in the morning.
As Jake prepared to close the barn doors for the night, he saw the wall where his father's gun belt had hung for so many years. He knew immediately what he needed to do. Slowly, he walked back inside the barn and retrieved the gun belt from the buckboard. He hung it back on the wall. For the time being, at least, Jake knew that that was where it belonged. Until he would become proficient in using it, he would not wear it. For a brief moment, he thought about the dead boy in Wide River and he began to weep, feeling great sympathy for him. This was the emotional release that he needed. After a few minutes, unable to cry any longer, he dried his eyes on his shirtsleeve. Then convinced that he had himself back under control, he closed the doors of the barn and walked to the house to see his family. Still only a boy himself, he was the man of the house. He was pleased to be home for the night. He'd be getting up early in the morning. He planned on going back to town. He wanted to be present and if needed, to assist in the burial of the young cowboy.
Ralph S. Souders is an American author of suspense and literary fiction. He has written three novels, Hans Becker's Family, Ursula's Shadow and Lost in the Water. A native of the Chicago area, he has also lived in South and Central Florida, Upstate New York and East Tennessee. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida. After graduation, he worked almost exclusively in executive positions in the American subsidiaries of German manufacturing companies. There he wrote hundreds of business letters and this is how he believes he honed his writing skills. Today he is happily married to his wife of thirty-four years. They are now retired and live in Middle Tennessee.
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by George Hirvela
"We're a kind caring town Lord," said Preacher John. "I never thought I'd have to apologize for our town, but here lies the boy we as a town vowed to protect. A good boy, left to us by his wonderful parents when they were taken by the pox. We were negligent in that vow."
Having to take a moment to gather himself he continued.
"Expecting the Sheriff to be the only protection in town was a mistake, one that cost us, dear Billy. Bow your heads and let us pray, Lord we lay to rest Billy O'Donnell to take into your loving arms, please see to it he finds his parents, he missed them so. Lord if you looking for good boys then you have to look no further than Billy, his was the best of boys. We ask you to forgive us our sins and stupidity, in Christ's name we pray . . . amen."
"I should have realized that drifter was no good when he rode up to the bank," said the Sheriff
As they walked from the gravesite the Mayor tried to quell the Sheriff's self-judgments.
"Sheriff, if you rousted everyone that rode into town, no one would ever ride into our town," The Mayor said in a tone that chastised him for sounding absurd.
"I still feel like I let us . . . let him down."
"We all let him down," said the Mayor.
"What do we do now Mayor?" said, Josie the Schoolmarm, trying to keep up with the two men and their determined stride.
"We'll discuss that tomorrow at the town meeting but the first thing we're going to do is get rid of that stupid, no guns in town law."
* * *
The room was filled with furious town folk barking out suggestions as the meeting opens.
"Sheriff, are you going to track down that killer or not?" A resident said.
"I'm not a tracker and neither are any of you, we need someone who's a professional at this sort of thing," said the Sheriff.
"Do you mean a bounty hunter?"
"Let's come to order," shouted the Mayor as he repeatedly pounded the gavel.
The crowd slowly simmered down as the Mayor opened the meeting.
"As Mayor of Black Rock, I move to dissolve that damn gun law and suggest we hire a bounty hunter!"
The townsfolk leaped to their feet shouting their approval.
"That's the first time we all agreed to spend money," said the Mayor as he beat the gavel again.
"Who we gonna get?" Someone said.
Pointing at the door the Mayor said," Him."
The unexpectedly silent meeting hall, startled as the door banged open. In walked a tall man, grizzled and dusty.
"James Kirker," he said with a thinning Scots/Irish accent as he stepped up to the podium spurs clanking against the floorboards.
Kirker was notorious as a hired Indian killer, a scoundrel for sure, but he was well known for tracking and killing men without caring who or where they came from. Kirker was a big man, quick to fight, agile, and skilled with knife and gun. The people of Black Rock rarely associated with the likes of Kirker, but were willing to make an exception in this case.
"We'll bring your child killer to justice," not that he really cared much about justice as long as there was a payday attached to it. Kirker tipped his hat and walked out tall and straight with a wink to an attractive gal standing at the door opening as he pass through.
Once outside the Mayor got face to face with Kirker, "you bring him back dead, I'm not going to have a hanging spectacle in this good town.
"Ok, dead it is," said Kirker. "Spybuck, let's go kill this guy," acknowledging his Shawnee tracker waiting on the stoop.
Spybuck shook his head up and down once and handed Kirker his reins. As the two rode through town they were confronted by a big-chested blacksmith, coal dirty and holding a horseshoe.
"Bounty hunter," He said. "That horse that outlaw is riding is my boy's, he stole it on his way out of town, it has a bar shoe like this (holding up the shoe), might help you some tracking, I'd like to get that horse back if I can, my boy is heartbroken and set afoot."
"Was there any water on that horse?"
"No," said that Blacksmith.
Kirker acknowledged the help with a nod and rode on.
After the meeting adjourned, the cemetery groundskeeper approached the Mayor.
"Mayor, what are we to do with the boy's animal? He's been lying on the boy's grave ever since we buried him, won't budge an inch."
"Poor guy, he sure loved that boy. Leave him alone, he'll get hungry and be looking for some scraps soon, make sure he gets all he can eat when he does."
"Sure thing Mayor."
* * *
"That bar shoe sure stands out Spybuck," said Kirker leaning off his mustang pointing at the tracks.
"He easy to follow Kirker," said, Spybuck.
"I don't think those folks would have hired us if it weren't for that little nipper getting caught in the crossfire, you get me close enough for my Hawkens and we'll make this a quick payday."
After a few days of tracking the outlaw, they began to notice wolf-like tracks following the outlaw.
"Looks like, we're not the only one following this guy. He has to be on the dodge somewhere up ahead," said Kirker.
The tracks lead them over a plateau and down in a valley heading toward an abandoned homestead when a shot rang out hitting the dirt fifty yards in front of them.
"Must be a pistol, it comes up short," said Spybuck.
Kirker showed little concern as he stepped off his mustang.
"Time for a little practice," Kirker said, as pulled his Hawkens from its scabbard, sprinkled some dirt in the air, and said.
"About three hundred yards, I'd say."
"Maybe more," said Spybuck.
Kirker pulled his horse's head around and dropped the reins. His shiny brass butt plate on his Hawkens rifle glistened in the early light as he laid it over his cavalry saddle.
"Shall we knock?" Kirker chuckled.
Spybuck smiled just before the big fifty caliber's boom echoed through the valley, shattering half the door of the homestead into pieces.
"Knock, knock," said Kirker.
* * *
Surprised by the blast from Kirker's rifle the outlaw rolled his shoulder away from the door and pulled the splinters from the gash in the side of his face. In a panic, he jumped out the window at the rear of the cabin and whipped his horse down a ravine and away for the onslaught.
"Who the hell are those guys?" The outlaw yelled as he fled the area. "How the hell did they find me so fast?" He grimaced.
Spybuck crept around the backside of the cabin as Kirker approached the front.
"Him gone," said Spybuck.
"There's a little blood here inside the door, we must have hurt him some." Kirker smelt his fingertips after touching some blood spots.
"Tracks lead down a ravine in back," Spybuck said as he pointed outback.
"Not very hospitable is he? And we came all this way to invite him to a funeral." Kirker said with a smile.
Kirker and Spybuck dropped down into the ravine behind the homestead as Spybuck pointed to the tracks.
"Spybuck, is that those wolf tracks again following him?"
"Not wolf, big dog," said Spybuck.
"Wolf . . . dog, whatever it is we may have to shoot it if gets in our way.
* * *
Hiding in a stand of trees, the outlaw peers down his escape path, hoping they aren't close enough to make him ride off again, exhausted and breathing hard, his heart beating loud in his ears. Still looking down the path he sees the dog.
"What the hell? Where'd that dog come from?" He said to himself.
The outlaw watched the big dog sniffing his way toward him.
"They must be using that damn dog to find me. I'm gonna shoot him if he gets close enough."
A few moments later the dog abruptly stops, sits down, and looks in the outlaw's direction.
"Come on you fleabag just a little closer . . . "
Seemingly privy to the outlaw's pistol range the dog began to pace back and forth never moving closer but drawing all of the outlaw's attention.
"How does he even know I'm here? I'm downwind, no way he could know, but there he is looking over here, staying just out of range."
Hurriedly traversing a rocky hillside in hopes of throwing off his pursuers the outlaw rode in the general direction of a well-known spring, he hadn't had water in days. When Kirker and Spybuck reached the tree stand, they couldn't help but notice the dog's pacing tracks.
"The dog waits," said, Spybuck.
"It seems like the dog is keeping his distance, smart dog," said Kirker.
"Look, the dog stops on the side of the hill," said, Spybuck
"You're right my friend, that's a big dog, and it seems we have a guide."
Spybuck motioned his pony toward the hill with Kirker in tow, when another shot rings out, this time falling just short of the dog.
"Damn, I missed." Said, the outlaw thoroughly disgusted at his inability to kill the dog.
The outlaw's horse was lathered in sweat and breathing heavily as he reached the crest of his escape route.
Kirker and Spybuck paused halfway up the hill so Kirker could tighten his saddle and talk about their next move.
Kirker flicked his head giving Spybuck direction. "Maybe you could drop down over there along that deer trail and come up the backside. If he's headed to Sanchez spring you'll be behind him and maybe get a shot if he's lying in wait," said, Kirker.
The outlaw was counting on a water source at the homestead but the well was dried up and now the autumn sun beat fiercely on horse and rider. The old pinto he stole during the bank robbery, never had to travel more than a couple of miles to town carrying a young boy, now had to carry a man and was now being whipped into days of drudging over difficult terrain with no water.
"Come on you nag get moving," said, the outlaw as he spurred bloody holes in the old mare's sides.
"I sure picked the wrong getaway horse."
As Kirker reached the top to be joined by Spybuck there was no longer any question, the outlaw was headed for Sanchez spring.
"He's eight days without water, I don't think he'll make it, not at this pace, it's still a three-day ride," said, Kirker
"Look here, the horse went down, must have whipped him back up, he's almost done," said Spybuck.
Kirker and Spybuck picked up the pace hoping to end it sooner than later. As they crossed the next meadow they could see the fallen mare just at the entrance to the badlands, an area of steep canyons and towering spires.
Kirker peeled back the pinto's lip for a look in her mouth when they reached her.
"She's gone, such a shame must have been a good horse to endure all that."
The mare knickered a last gasp before Spybuck put her out of her misery.
"The dog still follows" Said, Spybuck pointing.
"Let's be a little wary in these canyons, it's an easy place for an ambush."
"Off their horses now and watchfully making the way through the canyon, stopping periodically to listen and check tracks.
"He's wandering around in circles." Said Spybuck
"Yup, he's surely away in the mind now.
The outlaw, dizzy and delusional was wandering around aimlessly, incoherently babbling about the dog. He finally decided to tuck himself up under an outcropping to get out of the heat. He could hear the dog panting and circling his position, quickly jerking his pistol from head to toe and back again, hoping to get a shot at the dog.
"Come on you mutt, come and get me," he hollered. A low guttural growl seemingly emanated from every rock as the dog dashed back and forth.
Kirker and Spybuck could hear stones clicking down the canyon walls as they expelled from the dog's paws. An agonizing scream and three or four shots put them on alert. "Stop no!" screamed the outlaw. Slowly they advanced on the source of the scream. Expecting a firefight they approached with guns drawn only to find the outlaw ripped to shreds, even Spybuck seemed taken back at the sheer viciousness of the attack, the body lay in several pieces randomly flung around as if he'd been attacked by a bear.
"Our guide didn't seem to like him much," said, Kirker with a large amount of sarcasm.
"What do we do now?" said, Spybuck.
"Roll up the big pieces in that canvas and lash it to the mule. They said dead, he doesn't get much deader than that."
* * *
The church bell rang as they rode into town near dusk with seemingly everyone surrounding the bounty hunters as they cut the body from the mule.
"Let the party begin," said the Mayor.
Soon the whole town was dancing and drinking in the lantern-lit town square. Having split their bounty and drunk all the free beer and whiskey they could handle, the two relaxed in tilted back chairs when Spybuck pointed at a dog sitting not ten feet away that looked just like the killer dog that guided them.
"Who owns that dog? That's a vicious killer dog," Kirker said to the Mayor with a drunken slur.
"Viscous? That's little Billy's dog, the nicest dog you'd ever want to meet."
George Hirvela is a published short story/flash fiction author in Southern California
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Showdown at the Shady Lady
by Barry Wallace
I know you've heard about that shootout at the OK Corral down in Arizona. October twenty-sixth eighteen eighty-one, was the date. Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, along with Doc Holliday, faced off against the Ike Clanton gang in the Dust of Fremont Street—hell, every street in Tombstone was dusty in those days—and thirty shots were fired in as many seconds. When the black smoke cleared, three of the Clanton gang was dead, and two of the Earps, along with the Doc, were wounded. Only Wyatt stood untouched.
Those are the basic facts of the thing. They ain't in dispute, and the story has been told more times than a body can count. But before the Tombstone fracas, there was another showdown that was the talk of the old west, and had such legend that anyone who seen it was guaranteed free drinks the rest of their life just for tellin' the tale.
Of course, the story tended to grow with time right along with the free liquor. But this is the facts of what took place, five years earlier than the Tombstone affair, almost to the day, in Dodge City, Kansas. Strange enough, Wyatt Earp was there for that one, too, though in a more indirect fashion. This is the events as they've been passed down, and you can believe 'em or not.
In the spring of '76, Dodge City was so wild, that when Wyatt took the badge he immediately took on some deputies that was good with their guns, includin' Bill Tilghman, Charlie Basset, Neal Brown and Bat Masterson, as tough and straight-shootin' a bunch of lawmen as you could hope to find. Next thing they did was to create a deadline just north of the railroad yards on Front Street. North of that line, no guns was allowed, and the new lawmen in Dodge was just the ones who could enforce it. That way, the businesses north of the deadline remained respectable and peaceful. The Long Branch Saloon, case you was wonderin,' was and still is on the north side of the deadline.
South of the deadline, though, things stayed as wild as ever, and that's exactly where the second most famous showdown in the west took place, in October of eighteen seventy-six, right inside the Shady Lady Saloon. The Lady was the biggest and grandest place south of the deadline, even grander they say, than the Long Branch itself. It was big for sure, with a hundred tables more or less in the main room. It sparkled with green, blue, red, and gold paint, and lighting fixtures from Chicago.
The Lady's grand sign, hangin' right over the swingin' doors, was thirty-foot-wide and ten high, the name curvin' above a painting of the owner and shady lady herself, Hetty Lankford, reclinin' on the bar. She was a beauty, Hetty was, and in the painting she was wearin' a welcoming glass of whiskey in one hand and nothin' else. Long waves of her red hair fell over her shoulders to cover key parts of her female amplitude. Along with a bar towel, they was the only things that maintained decorum.
The Shady Lady also had the longest bar between St. Louis and San Francisco, a fifty-foot maple beauty made from a single tree trunk, varnished deep amber, and finished with a shellac that even rotgut whiskey couldn't penetrate. On an average day, they say, it took three bartenders to work it.
It was the first Saturday in October, and it'd been rainin' some. The streets was sort of just between dry and muddy. Gamblin' and drinkin'—lots of drinkin— and well, other business as you might imagine, was in full swing at the Lady, same as up and down the streets south of the line. The Lady's bar and hundred tables was almost full-up. Then, just as the sun poked a hole in the rain clouds, Sammy Hoover, who was a local handyman and, well, we'll just leave it at handyman, burst through the swingin' doors like a twister through a stand of saplings, yelling his head off.
"You ain't gonna believe what I just seen!' he hollered. He had to holler twice or three times before the place quieted down and everybody was lookin' at him.
"Hoover, ya drunken maniac, what in the hell are you yellin' about," said Wes Scraggs. Wes was the manager and chief bartender, workin' the maple with three others that day, includin' a pretty young lady name of Kathy somethin' or other, and he didn't take lightly to having the proceedings disturbed. Neither did his boss lady. South of the deadline or not, civilized proceedings was maintained inside her establishment. To make sure of it, Wes kept a sizeable Billy club made of hard maple under the bar, to enforce the peace, and a twin-barreled shotgun just in case anyone doubted his sincerity.
But everyone could see that Sam Hoover wasn't just dripping some rain, but sweatin' hard and out of breath. What with his age and fondness for liquor, it was impressive to some folks that he hadn't worked himself up right into a heart attack. He skidded to a stop right next to the table where Lester Sykes was about to win his fifth straight round of five-card stud, and the sudden halt caused water to dive off of his hat right onto the cards, raisin' a ruckus and stoppin' the game. It might have also saved Lester's life, on account of Myron Preston had come to be pretty sure Lester had more up his sleeves than his arms, but the commotion sorta drove everything else out of his mind, and by the time he got back to thinkin' about it, Lester's sleeves was empty of everything but skin and bone. Lester was a crook, but he weren't no fool.
Sam Hoover gathered his wits, caught his breath, and took a handful of heartbeats while he gloried in having the attention of the whole place. Then he said it.
"Bob Staley just rode into town."
"Aces Bob Staley?" somebody called out.
"You know any other Bob Staley what rides a stud pinto named Becky?" Sam called right back. "And you can damn well guess why he's moseyin' straight for the Lady."
There was a heavy quiet in the place for a handful of seconds. and heads turned to look at the stairway up to the second floor where the sleepin' rooms was. The whole place knew that Colorado Jack St. Claire was currently residin' in one of those rooms, and he weren't alone this day. Fact of the matter was, he was enjoyin' the company of the exact same woman both he and Bob Staley had been wooin' for nigh on a year.
Now, if you're thinkin' what I think you're thinkin,' and of course you'd naturally be thinkin' it, you would be wrong. It weren't Hetty Lankford. Hetty was still beautiful, but she was some twenty years or so older than she'd been when she posed for the artwork that adorned the front of her saloon. She was also rich, and moved among the wealthy elitists of Dodge, and was all but married to a banker on the respectable side of the deadline. Halfway 'tween forty and fifty, the Mistress of the Shady Lady had neither the need or the desire to be playin' slap 'n tickle games pittin' two of the territory's most deadly gunmen against each other.
And that's exactly who Bob Staley and Jack St. Claire were. Bob had got his nickname at a poker game in Wichita. Holding no less than three aces, he'd gone all in on the bet, only to see the dealer, a cardsharp name of Trey Easley, plop down three aces of his own. Easley was crooked, all right, but he weren't slow to react, recognizing the error of his ways as quick as Staley laid his cards down. Accordin' to the story, Easley grabbed a pistol from his coat pocket and had it pointed right at Bob, who upon seein' the gun pointin' at him, drew his forty-four and shot Easley under the table before the gambler could pull the trigger.
Folks said it was the fourth man Aces Bob Staley had outgunned, all fair fights, includin' one Frank McGraw, who had three notches—there was some who said it was seven, but those folks was fools who read the dime novels—on the grip of his Colt, and many thought was as quick as Johnny Ringo. But he weren't a match for Aces Bob that day in Abilene when Bob caught him beatin' on a bar girl. Aces Bob had lived a rough life as a cowboy, trail hand, shotgun messenger on stage coaches, sometime bounty hunter (which accounted for two of the men he killed), and occasional gambler. But his good Oklahoma upbringing as a preacher's son had imbued him with a strong respect for how women, of any ilk, should be treated. He'd got his education with a six-gun from none other than Josiah Cord, 'n surely you've heard of him.
Gentleman Jack St. Claire, now, he was a somewhat different story. Legend was that he'd put six men down, and folks who'd seen him swore his draw could make your eyes blur. He was from Georgia, you know, same as the Doc, an' the two of 'em wasn't too dissimilar in appearance, though Jack were a little taller, a few pounds heavier. Course, Jack didn't have the consumption. Like Holliday, he was a college man, who had studied engineering, and worked with the railroads as an engineer and sometime troubleshooter when he weren't gambling. The former paid more steady but the latter paid somewhat better. He had no formal education with gun play, but had always come natural to it. He usually carried two pistols, one in his coat pocket (he was always impeccable dressed), and an ivory-handled forty-four on his belt, right in front, tilted so the butt was in easy reach of his left hand, as he was left-handed. There were those who said he was as fast as Doc Holliday himself, and most folks'd give Jack the edge over Bob, but others wasn't at all sure about that. And gunfights was funny things, if you overlooked the killin.' There wasn't no referee nor anyone sayin' when to draw, 'n you never knew just how they'd go.
Wes Scraggs gave a nod to Kathy behind the bar as quick as Sam Hoover uttered the words Bob Staley, 'n she disappeared up the stairs. 'Twas only a handful of eternal seconds before Jack St. Claire appeared 'round the corner at the head of the stairs, as casual and relaxed as a kitten lappin' up cream. Clingin' to his right arm was the center of the ruckus, Miss Molly O'Day. Right behind 'em was Hetty, who ignored Jack's suggestion otherwise and stepped out in front of them.
Molly was of the same age Hetty had been when the painting was done. She was a wisp of a thing, as people used to say, barely over five feet tall, with a petite-type figure that you wouldn't hardly notice. But like Hetty, who was sorta like a mother to her, she had thick, flamin' red hair down to her shoulder blades, and a God-given beautiful pixie face with big green eyes that danced when she laughed, which seemed to be most of the time, and a sparky, mischievous personality that could infect a whole room. She also had an Irish temper worthy of someone twice her size, and those green eyes could flash and turn dark real quick with an anger that'd make the devil proud. At the moment, she was somewhere 'tween the two.
Well, it didn't take no genius to see what was shapin' up. The two hundred-or-so souls in the Shady Lady went from starin' to buzzin' and started makin' bets. Hetty and Molly watched the proceedings with a lot of unease and not a little disgust. Jack just gazed over the room with half-a-smile, the fingers of his left hand tappin' lightly on the butt of his pistol. Hetty, who hadn't got rich by not noticin' every little thing, looked at him sideways.
"Don't be a damn fool, Jack," she said, real quiet. "You're not plannin' on marryin' this girl. You don't need to be killin' or dyin' over her."
Jack's expression never changed.
"Up to him, Hetty," he said, so quiet only the two women could hear him.
It was just that moment when Bob Staley strolled through the swingin' doors, and stopped a few feet into the room. He stood there real easy-like, his thumbs hooked over his belt, his face hard-set, glancin' around while his eyes adjusted. The crowd got quieter, but the bettin' continued, just a little more prudent-like. After a couple of long moments, Bob looked right up at the three people at the top of the stairs.
Jack St. Claire moved away from the women and took a couple of steps down the stairs.
"Afternoon, Bob," Jack said just as normal as meetin' someone on the street.
"Afternoon, Jack," Bob said, in just the same way. But everyone could see his mood was dark as a tar pit. "I thought we talked before, 'bout Molly."
Now the commerce takin' place all around him dropped to whispers and folks took turns lookin' back and forth between the two men. Lots of 'em held their breath as Jack St. Claire kept walkin' down the stairs, real slow and relaxed, makin' no moves that might've started the shootin' right there. But someone said later, he didn't look like he cared one way or another. At the foot of the stairs, he tilted his head a little and scratched at it with his right hand, smilin' as he did it.
"Well, Bob," he said, friendly as you please, "here's the thing. You think Molly's your girl, and I respect that. Problem is, she says she isn't. I respect that a bit more. Seems to me she gets to say whether she's anybody's girl. She's a woman, not a horse. She gets to choose, don't you think?"
"Molly told you she ain't my girl?" Bob Staley's face got sorta crunched up, an' his eyes narrowed. Jack St. Claire spoke just as friendly and relaxed as always. He weren't called Gentleman Jack for nothin', and it was said he was most polite just before he commenced shootin'.
"Bob, she told me she ain't nobody's steady girl, that's all."
"You're lyin' Jack!" Staley blurted out, his eyes flarin'.
Gentleman Jack's smile didn't change, but he took a step toward Bob Staley and shifted a little to his left. They was now lined up straight at each other, no more than fifteen feet apart. Jack's fingertips started tappin' again, barely brushin' the butt of his pistol. He spoke so quiet that folks might not even have heard him, 'cept the room had suddenly gone as quiet as a graveyard.
"Bob," he said, "you tryin' to make this a less than civilized discussion?"
Right then and there, everybody knowed the thing could turn into shootin' faster than you could think it. Some folks held their breath. A few others, feeling they was in too much of a straight line behind the two men, stood up, real quiet-like, and moved to the side. A cowboy who started into the saloon saw the situation and edged away from the door.
It was a moment beggin' to be painted. Bob Staley was worked up and primed, and Jack St. Claire was as quiet and peaceful as a coiled rattlesnake. Nobody moved. The air in the Shady Lady stopped movin,' no more than half a breath from fillin' with gunsmoke.
And then the damndest thing happened. The kinda thing that only happens in storybooks and never in real life. Just when the whole place was near blowin' up from sheer tension, Molly O'Day's voice rang out like the peal of a church bell, a big one.
"Will you two cockamamie, jackass stupid, blusterin' mindless idiots just stop it!"
Every face in the room, includin' Bob Staley and Jack St. Claire, turned to watch Molly, her red hair bouncin' off her shoulders, storm down those stairs and head straight toward the two men, not stoppin' 'til she parked her five-foot one-and-a-half inches of no-nonsense Irish woman smack between 'em and set her eyes on Bob Staley. She was steamin' and sparkin' and spewin' righteous anger the whole way.
"Just who in smokin' blazes do you think you are, Robert Staley? What in damn perdition are you doin', comin' in here claimin' to own me and ready to kill a man for it. If you ain't dumb as a rock you're sure givin' a good impression of it."
Before Bob could mount an answer, Molly turned her flashin' eyes on Jack St. Claire.
"And what in damn creation are you doin', edgin' him on, all calm and easy-like. Goddamn it, Jack, just when I was thinkin' you was different than I heard, what with your manners and all, you stand here ready to kill this man, knowin' that in his worked-up state he ain't close to matchin' you!"
She paused to take a breath, lookin' between the two men, before turnin' back to Bob Staley.
"Bob, we had fun a couple of times, drinkin' and laughin' and kissin' a little. You asked me if I was your girl, 'n I said yes, 'cause I was your girl at that time. I only meant that I was your girl as long as I was with you. I never meant I wanted to marry you. Hell, Bob, did we even get under the covers together?"
Bob Staley blushed, showing his embarrassment.
"Well no, Molly, but . . . "
"But nothin', Bob. Hell, I ain't slept with any man in this town, includin' Jack. Ain't that right, Jack."
Jack St. Claire nodded, not smilin' exactly, but not frownin' either. Bob Staley was still havin' trouble puttin' the pieces together. He was awful good with a gun, and not slow of mind, but truth was he weren't much of a deep thinker, tendin' to reason in a straight line without worrying too much about the edges.
"But Molly, you was up there with—"
"Lookin' at stereoscopes, Bob. We was all in Hetty's parlor lookin' at stereoscopes she brought back from Kansas City. Hell, we was even eatin' cookies."
Well, Bob thought for awhile and finally nodded his head. He took a mighty big breath, 'n his chest rose and fell with the effort.
"I reckon I was outa line, Molly. I guess an apology is due. You too, Jack. I guess I'm six ways a fool."
Molly softened a bit when he said that.
"Well, nobody got killed," she said, lookin' back and forth. "And I do like the both of you. If I feel like being spoke for, I'll let you know. But right now, we got ourselves another problem."
Just when everyone in the Shady Lady had started to relax, they got all tensed up again. Molly turned around to address the room, with Jack on her left and Bob on her right.
"You may not have noticed, but a lot of these people had been staking bets on which of you'd kill the other one. I think some of them even bet you'd kill each other." Those green eyes surveyed the room.
"I think it's a low-down thing, bettin' on one man killin' another. Seems to me there oughta be a price to be paid for a thing like that. And I've got an idea for it."
All eyes watched as Molly told the fellas at a nearby table to vacate it, looked up at Hetty, who sensed where she was goin' and nodded, then turned back to the crowd. She folded her arms. There weren't no mistakin' her seriousness.
"Every one of you men needs to come up here and put twenty dollars on this table. I mean every single damn one of you. The two men you was hopin' to entertain you by dyin' are goin' to make sure you do." She looked to Jack St. Claire and then Bob Staley. Both men were smilin' now, and nodded. Hetty was smilin' too, sorta nasty-like.
"Wes, Mort, Lester, and you girls, make sure every one of these blood-thirsty dingbat critters is accounted for." Hetty called out from the stairs. "None of 'em gets out of here without paying up." She looked down over the crowd, and she didn't need no clubs or shotguns to convey her determination.
"If any sad sack of you doesn't have it, borrow it from Wes at the bar. He'll keep a record, and you'll damn well pay it back, if you ever want to see the inside of my saloon again. I'll split it between the Pastor at the church and Doc Newsome. And some to my people for having to put up with you vultures. Now get to paying."
And pay they did. One by one they filed by and the pile on that table growed. By the time it was all over, there was over three thousand dollars there. Hetty decided to give fifty to each of the folks working at the Lady, and true to her word, divided the rest of it between the church and the doc, who was owed money by most of the people in those parts, anyway.
That night the Shady Lady was full-up as usual, maybe a little more boisterous than normal. The events of that afternoon were already spreadin' like a wildfire, and creatin' a legend. Jack St. Claire and Bob Staley had shaken hands and looked on the way to being friends. The two of 'em, along with Hetty Lankford and Molly O'Day, was seen that evenin' having dinner above the deadline at the Dodge City Restaurant, along with Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. Word is, the four of them laughed an awful lot.
And that's the way things happened at the Shady Lady, just south of the deadline in Dodge City, Kansas, on October seventh, eighteen seventy-six, as they was passed down to me. You can believe 'em or not. Up to you. As to me? I believe it. Course, you probably won't put much stock in me, because my name is Becky, and I'm a horse.
Barry Wallace is a retired theatre teacher, and also worked as a radio news and sports director. He enjoys working in various genres, with preferences for science fiction, noir, social issues and things that go bump in the night. He likes writing surprise endings, and prefers the realm of short fiction. His short stories have appeared in "Heater," "Bewildering Stories," and "CafeLit."
His blog, "The Wallace Insight," can be found at www.musingsbw.com
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by James Burke
Lt. Miguel Castellanos tightened his grip on the reins and shuffled the sleeves of his thick blue coat. Thankfully his coat was big enough to cover his fingers, mostly. He turned with a stern face to the little girl at his side. The Navajo child was about ten years old and shivered slightly, even with her thick Navajo blanket as well as Castellanos' scarf and gloves. She returned his gaze with equal sternness. She didn't like him either, but knew he was all she had.
A week earlier the child and her mother had stumbled into Santa Fe. The woman's fingers and toes were blue from frostbite, having given up her own mittens and moccasins for her daughter's warmth. No doubt she was one of many scattered Navajo hold-outs who refused to turn themselves over to General Carson earlier that year. Castellanos was recovering in the local hospital himself when the mother and child arrived, both deathly ill and half-starved. The little one recovered but her mother passed within a day. If she shed any tears they were never seen and she never spoke a word in English or her own tongue.
"All this for petulant Indian stubbornness!" Castellanos had huffed from his bed as he watched the child sitting alone in silence. She ate the food that was brought to her but offered the young orderly who brought it no gratitude. "Prideful fools! All of them!" the Lieutenant had grumbled. Such were his sentiments of all Indians.
Born in Florida, Castellanos had lost his own parents and siblings to a rampaging Seminole war party. His family had lived in costal Florida ever since the 1760s. The Castellanos had never been a wealthy family, but a strong one; wood cutters and carpenters. All but him were wiped out in one night!
His mother had tried to make a run for it with his tiny frame in her arms. Though only a toddler at the time, Castellanos remembered that night vividly and often awoke from nightmares of it. He remembered a musket shot through a window, his father returned fire only to catch a ball in the chest and topple over in a bloody heap. A flaming arrow entered the shattered window. Smoke and flames from the roof above denoted even more incendiary missiles. His older brothers roared with fury and fired their own muskets and pistols. Mother scooped little Miquel up in her arms and dashed through the front door with frenzied whimpers. Castellanos remembered her arms clamped desperately around him, the terror in her panting voice as she sprinted towards the shadows of the forest. He heard the musket cracks and felt the balls whistling over them. Then another crack and he felt the impact of the ball, then his mother's weight as she tumbled atop him. The little toddler was too shocked and too frightened to cry out. The wounded mother was whimpering even harder than ever. Footfalls were approaching fast.
"Do not make a sound, my little darling! Please do not make a sound!" were the last coherent words the little child ever heard from his mother. And he obeyed. Even as her head was pulled back by a whooping warrior. Even as a knife cleaved flesh atop her head. Even as the warrior howled like a coyote and his mother wailed like a wounded beast before collapsing atop him. The little child remained silent through the night, even as the warmth left his mother's body and somehow he knew she would never wake up. He spoke not a word the next morning when a militiaman in buckskins turned her body over to reveal the trembling child. He could not even speak when the militiaman brought him to an Army officer. Castellano couldn't remember speaking for days, perhaps weeks.
He remembered the Army officer clearly though. A young officer, a lieutenant. His uniform was crisp and clean. His sandy blonde hair shone in the sun, his blue eyes were soft and friendly. He leaned down to gently clasp the toddler's shoulder.
"Be strong, child," he said in Spanish. "And have faith, today is Christmas," he finished with a sad smile.
Castellanos never forgot the officer, or his words. Even as a small child, he knew he wanted to be that man. He enlisted in the U.S. Army the moment he was old enough to successfully lie about his age. He rose through the ranks fast, and won a battlefield commission for bravery at the Battle of Val Verde. After riding with Carson in his reluctant campaign to inter the Navajo, Castellano fell ill at Fort Sumner. What began as a bout of digestive stress became a deathly sickness. Upon learning of Lt. Castellanos' ailment, Major General James H. Carleton, military governor of New Mexico, ordered he be moved to the more suitable hospital in Santa Fe, where he would receive the best treatment. Anything for the man who stood his ground alone in the face of a Confederate cavalry charge, firing two Colt pistols furiously into the onslaught of traitors!
The sickly Lieutenant arrived in Santa Fe in early November and was laid up for weeks. He was nearly recovered when the frostbitten Navajo woman and her shivering child arrived. Castellanos could find little pity for them. If they had surrendered and come to Fort Sumner with them they would have been better off, he told himself. Memories of the sickly Navajo, many struck by the same illness as he was burned at his mind every time he scorned the woman and child for their stubbornness. His anger grew stronger in defiance of the truth.
Castellanos loathed Indians. Had never forgiven them for what happened to his family. Refused to acknowledge his own pity for the little one as she sat silently in her bed for days after her mother's passing. In every Indian of every tribe he had encountered since joining the Army, all he ever saw was the violence and savagery of that night in Florida. His mother's wails after being skinned alive, his father's bloodied corpse, his brothers bravely fighting to the fiery end! He knew his mother would despise his hatred, and scorn his abandoning the faith of his fathers. But his heart was hardened. Even as November ended, his fever lifted, and Christmas fast approached. What little tenderness he could find for that lonely Navajo girl was crushed beneath years of scorn and contempt.
Five days before Christmas, General Carleton summoned Castellanos to his headquarters. He casually entered the large, stately building that had once been the mayor's manor, knocked respectfully on the office door, and entered when called. Stood firmly at attention before the desk of the most powerful man in the state and crisply saluted. The general returned his salute and commanded he stand at ease.
"How are you feeling, Lieutenant?" Carleton politely asked.
"Very well, sir," Castellanos answered. "I do believe I have made a full recovery. If the general wishes I will gladly return to my post at Fort Sumner." Carleton's face twisted in shame. Castellanos cursed himself for bringing it up. He had read the newspapers, knew what a nightmare the conditions had become at the internment camp. Some blamed the crops failing, others blamed the Comanche for raiding the supply wagons, but the cold truth was the camp was desperately low on food. Carleton had put out pleads for any food that could be spared to save the starving Navajo. Ironically, people who would not be starving had he left them alone. Even Castellanos couldn't help but feel the pangs of remorse, which at once ignited his defiance and contempt for the Indians. But he kept all this to himself.
"No," Carleton answered after a long silence. "That will not be necessary. In fact, the Army has need of you here, Lieutenant," the general went on, a degree of military bearing returned to his voice.
"Of course, sir," Castellanos stiffened. "Anything, sir."
"Good man," Carleton nodded. "You recall that orphan Navajo girl who has been staying in the hospital all this time?" Castellanos nodded. "After careful consideration I have decided not to send her to Fort Sumner. She will instead be sent to stay with the Sisters of Saint Claire, a convent outside Taos. They have generously agreed to take the child in. If you leave tomorrow you should reach them by sundown on Christmas Eve. I'm certain the Sisters won't mind putting you up for the night. And on that note, by way of thanks to the Sisters, you will also be delivering a turkey for them, a local business man gifted it to me in the spirit of the season but I find I have little stomach this season. The Sisters have already donated graciously to feed the Navajo, they will need that bird more than I do. You will deliver both the child and the turkey and then report back to me."
Castellanos stiffened to attention. "Yes, sir. It will be done."
"Good man, I knew I could count on you! You'll receive your official orders in the morning, a wagon will be waiting for you. It will already be loaded with the turkey. The orderly will also be waiting for you with the child. She still will not, or cannot, speak but she responds to the Indian sign language. It happens our orderly, Private Isaacs learned the sign language years ago as a child."
"I'm afraid I'm not familiar with the sign language, sir."
"Not to worry. Private Isaacs will instruct the girl to go with you and obey you. She has not been a problem, I'm sure she will behave for you. The poor girl," Carleton's voice trailed off in sorrow. Moments of silence later he cleared his throat. "Right then. You'll be off first thing in the morning so you'd best get some rest."
"Yes, sir," Castellanos snapped off a salute, then pivoted on his heel and exited the office.
The next morning went as planned. The wagon was hitched outside headquarters and loaded with the turkey and a sack of biscuits to sustain the two riders. Private Isaacs and the girl, still shivering in the same clothes and wrapped in the same blanket as the day she arrived, were waiting beside the wagon. The orderly handed him his official orders and hand-signed the girl instructions. The girl turned to Castellanos without a word. He returned her gaze for a few awkward moments then knelt to lift her up into the cart. She offered no resistance. Once she was loaded, Private Isaacs wished him luck.
"Thanks," Castellanos nodded. "Why hasn't she been given a scarf or proper gloves?" he asked.
"She was offered but wouldn't accept them." Isaacs answered. Castellanos turned to her with a sigh. She stared obstinately ahead, as if blind and deaf.
"Stubborn, foolish, prideful, Indians!" Castellanos grumbled. He climbed aboard the cart, returned Isaac's salute, snapped the reins and was off. The white horse trampled down the frozen road and out of the town. Ahead of them was three days travel through rough and hilly wilderness, with small villages to stop at each night.
The wind howled into Castellanos' ears, cutting right through his scarf. New Mexico, and much of the Southwest, was known for softer winters. This year was different. Even at Fort Sumner Castellanos had sensed it. A bitter sting in the chilled winds. Maybe it was the war. Reports from back east described General Grant's campaign against Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. The mounting casualties, the "perfect slaughter" at Cold Harbor, the chaos and carnage of "the Crater" at Petersburg. The war had gotten plenty bloody in the west, Castellanos had lost many good men at Val Verde. Then the campaigns against the Mescalero Apache and the Navajo. General Carson was still on the campaign trail against the Comanche even as the girl and he shivered in the cold. Hearts had grown cold. Why should the weather be any different?
A soft gasp came from his right and Castellanos turned to see the girl rubbing her thinly gloved hands together and pressing them to her ears. The lieutenant rolled his eyes and furiously unraveled his scarf. He quickly but gently wrapped it around the girl's neck and draped it over her ears once she removed her hands. She blinked up at him in apprehension.
"Shut up and wear it," he snapped at her. She stared blankly at him a moment then turned away. Castellanos smirked, his days as a sergeant before winning his commission had taught him how to get a point across regardless of language.
As the hours went by in tedium, Castellanos noticed her hands trembling beneath her thin buckskin mittens. He could feel the cold gnawing through his own gloves. His burning pride forbid him to give them up. Remembering some winters of the past he had managed without such fine gloves, compassion won over contempt. He removed his gloves and held them out in front of her. She looked at them blankly then turned to him, he returned her gaze sternly. Moments later she snatched the gloves and buried her hands in them without a word.
"You're welcome," Castellanos grumbled as he turned back to the road.
The next three days dragged on as the cart bounced and rattled over frozen dirt. Kindly cantina keepers allowed them rooms both nights of the journey. Adoring cantina keeper's wives took pity on the girl and fed her without charge. Word of the desperate plight of the Navajo had reached even the small Mexican villages. The local Senoras smiled and wished the girl "Feliz Navidad!" Some even treated her to sweets, which prompted rare smirks from the girl. The festive nature of the season evidently made the locals forget that her father and older brothers likely robbed them all in years past.
Both nights Castellanos was embarrassed to know so little Spanish. He had forsaken his native tongue along with the faith of his fathers. Maybe it was an urge to forget that night so many Christmases ago. Abandoning his former life in hopes of forgetting it all. But he never could forget and he never would.
* * *
On the third day, Christmas Eve, the hilltop convent was within sight by noon; about a mile away. In the distance Castellanos could make out the adobe walls and the bell tower. He turned to the girl who still stared blankly ahead, her hands in his gloves and her ears wrapped in his scarf. Still hadn't uttered a word to him. He found he was actually sad she would not even greet him in the morning. Castellanos nearly groaned in disgust at Indian stubbornness but found he could not say the words. Pity had managed a small crack in his hardened heart. Although she gave no indication she understood a word of English, he could not bring himself to curse or disparage her people anymore.
Perhaps it was having seen and cared for her these past few days. Giving her swigs from his canteen, handing her biscuits from the bag, stopping the wagon and waiting after she'd tap his shoulder and point to her pelvis in the universal sign of needing the privy. Maybe it was knowing the state of her people at Fort Sumner. Suffering strict rations of food, indecent bargains made with lecherous troopers in exchange for extra rations, whole families trampling out of their shelters after loved ones died and refusing to reenter even once the corpses were removed; some superstitious fear of dead bodies that made it impossible for the Spanish Missionaries to make them kneel before the crucifix. Perhaps the Indians were just too different. Maybe General Carson was right, the Indians required separation from whites to survive, not Carleton's forced integration. A sigh escaped Castellanos' lips, it was out of his control.
The lieutenant tensed at the sight of another phenomenon he could not control. Seven figures on horseback emerged from atop a rise next to the upcoming bend in the road. A light mist of dust went up in the chilled air, sending a wave of foreboding dread through Castellanos. A quick glance at the girl showed her blink in surprise, then her eyes twitched in something Castellanos recognized as fear. His fingers tightened on the reins as paternal protectiveness boiled his blood for the first time in his life. He reined the horse to a halt and cast his cold glare at the oncoming interlopers.
His blood cooled and his breathing eased as he recognized the blue uniforms of the horsemen. Union soldiers. Perhaps a patrol sent out to the area. Castellanos wondered why Carleton hadn't mentioned them. Then the horsemen closed within ten yards and he saw the carnivorous leers on their unshaven faces, red stains, missing buttons, and holes worn into their unkempt uniforms. Grotesque necklaces lined with human ears, fingers, and toes adorned their necks. If they were Union men, they were the wrong kind of volunteers.
"Afternoon there, soldier!" the leader called out as they came to a stop in front of the wagon. A tall man with dark hair and a nose that reminded Castellanos of a hawk. The leader paused to squint at Castellanos for a moment then stiffened slightly to give a flimsy salute, his cohorts aped his moves. "Sorry, there, sir! We ain't got a spy glass, couldn't tell who you was from so far out." Castellanos returned their salute sharply. "Don't mind our asking, what brings you out here, Lieutenant?" Before Castellanos could answer, one of the men let out a whooping laugh and slowly drew nearer. Like the leader, he had dark hair but his face more resembled a slobbering dog.
"Looks like a Mexican, Reuben!" he snickered. "Must be a deserter! Them cowardly little Spaniards couldn't even whoop them Rebels who killed Joe and Judah year before last!" The leering horsemen put his hand his six-shooter.
"I'm no Mexican," Castellanos grunted. "I'm Lieutenant Miguel Castellanos, 1st Dragoons, and I was born in Florida." His voice carried the same country drawl most soldiers spoke. What little accent he had as a child vanished years ago. The dog-faced soldier rolled his eyes.
"My! What a pretty little accent you've got there, boy! And with a name like that!" the man went on with a howling laugh.
"Easy there, Levi!" the leader called out. "We're all on the same side here!" Levi snorted in disapproval but shut his mouth. "My younger brother speaks out of turn, Lieutenant, but he means well. Never know who you can trust these days. I'm Lieutenant Reuben Jacobson of the Third Colorado Cavalry Volunteers," he said, straightening himself as if to appear more distinguished. Only succeeded in look a greater madman with the grizzly decorations on his filthy uniform. "These here are my brothers, Levi, Gad, Asher, Dan, Ben, and Simeon," all the siblings nodded at the sound of their names. Castellanos gazed back at them in silent suspicion.
"Hell! There used to be twelve of us! Like the tribes of Israel! Ma and Pa named us all for them!" jeered Levi. "But them Johnny Rebs killed Joseph and Judah at Glorieta Pass! All the rest with them long and funny sounding names, they died fighting them godless Cheyenne!" Levi paused to spit over his shoulder. "But we got them back, measure for measure!" he finished with a hungry grin full of yellow teeth.
"He means we rode with Colonel Chivington at Sand Creek," Reuben clarified. "Hardly a month ago, all the death and destruction they inflicted on us and ours whilst we was heading off the Rebels down here, we repaid them ten-fold!" he paused to finger his nightmarish neckless. What made Castellanos' blood run cold was how naturally he did so, as if the practice was perfectly acceptable!
"Hell! Those ain't the only trophies we got us neither!" Levi chuckled like a chicken before pulling a small pouch from his pocket, what looked like a leather change purse. Looking closely Castellanos strained himself not to let his stomach heave! "Governor Evans tried to stop us too, but we followed Colonel Chivington; a fine man, a preacher. We showed them savages! Didn't we, brothers?" All grunted in agreement. "You ain't an Injun lover, are you?"
"Hardly," Castellano growled. Levi blinked in surprise.
"We is coming down to these parts to continue the holy work we started at Sand Creek," Reuben continued. "We hear-tell you got you some troubles with Navajo and Comanche."
"Navajo surrendered," Castellanos cut him off. "And Carson can handle the Comanche." Again Levi clucked like a chicken, equally obnoxious laughs came from every Jacobson brother but Reuben, whose face remained stoic.
"The hell with Carson!" Levi whooped. "We got Chivington! Ain't no Missouri backwoods Mexican-lover can compare with our 'Fighting Parson' after Sand Creek!" Castellanos resisted the urge to argue with the madman. Arrogant fools like him had tried to conquer the Navajo for centuries and failed, only Carson had ever been victorious!
"Again my brother speaks out of turn," Reuben grunted before ignoring Levi's scowl. "But we are on a holy mission, a crusade against the savages! I can see in your eyes, Lieutenant, you think us mad," he paused for Castellanos to deny it, he didn't. "But you will see in time, all shall," he finished with the soft certainty of a prophet. The horror-frozen blood in Castellanos' veins came to a boil. Even the loudest, vilest, most insufferable fire-and-brimstone preachers he had ever heard never spouted such insanity!
"Why bless me!" Levi gasped as he leaned towards the Navajo girl beside Castellanos. "We got a little red whelp here, brothers!" he cried. "I thought for sure she was a little Mexican pup, but lo and behold that there is a Navajo blanket if I ever saw one!" Castellanos stopped himself from sighing a long-winded curse.
"It is a Navajo!" gasped one of the other Jacobson brothers.
"As I live and breathe!" hissed another.
"Our first catch of the day!" another laughed.
"What you doing all the way out here with a little Injun whelp?" Levi giggled. Again his hand was on his gun.
"Orders!" Castellanos snapped. "General Carleton says she's to be entrusted to the Sisters of Saint Claire, at the convent just up yonder," he nodded ahead to the adobe building barely a mile away. Again Levi chuckled, Castellanos would have given anything to snap his poultry neck!
"Papists tramps!" his leering smile became a snarl. "You all remember the one thing our daddy hated more than Injuns?" he rhetorically asked his kin. "Papists! Is that what you are, Lieutenant Castellanos? A Papist?" The Jacobson brother's grip tightened on the butt of his pistol. Castellanos fixed his eyes with a glare that would melt iron.
"Once," he growled.
"Once a Papist, always a Papist," Levi sneered. The other Jacobson brothers readied to draw.
"So I've been told," Castellanos shrugged. "Is this what 'crusaders' do? Gun down soldiers and helpless half-frozen girls?"
"Aww," Levi cooed in mock-concern at the girl. "There, there little Philly! Your troubles will be over soon!" The girl's face was blank as a blackboard as his mouth curved into a disgusting leer.
"We came to rid this fine land of Injuns," Reuben cut his brother off with authority. "Hand the child over to us, and she won't be any Christian people's problem, not even Catholics."
"Orders, Lieutenant!" Castellanos snapped at Reuben. "General Carleton says she goes to the convent, she goes to the convent! He'll be very displeased with you disregarding his orders."
"Whoever says he's going to find out?" Levi chuckled.
"The last people who defied General Carleton are starving and freezing to death at Fort Sumner!" Castellanos sneered, still facing Reuben. "Brave his wrath at your own peril!" Reuben blinked.
"That being the case, he just might promote me for sparing those poor women the trouble," he replied coolly, prompting a round of chuckles from his siblings.
"Anyway, who's to stop us from taking the little tramp?" Levi clucked. "One little Florida soldier? Or you got you some Mexican friends around these parts?" Castellanos turned to him with a menacing smirk.
"Wouldn't under-estimate them, if I were you," he said. "Especially when they're twice your number." Levi blinked in confusion.
"Who's twice our number?" he demanded.
"The Mexican Volunteers coming up behind you," Castellanos nodded up the road beyond the Jacobsons. Levi's eyes widened.
"BEHIND US!" he needlessly wailed as his brothers and he reeled their horses around whilst drawing their revolvers. Levi and the others blinked through the kicked-up dust in confusion. No one was coming up behind them!
Levi was just spinning around to curse Castellanos when a bullet blew what little brains he had out the back of his skull. An instant later another Jacobson went down with a shot. The horses jumped and reared at the sudden cacophony. Giving Castellanos just enough time to grapple the girl and leap from the wagon. Crippling pain shot through his arms as he they hit the dirt. He was careful not to let his weight crush her.
Several curses and shots rang out as the Jacobson brothers reined in their horses. Castellanos stood quickly, thumbed back both hammers and downed two more deranged volunteers. Bullets grazed overhead as he ducked then fired twice more, killing another and downing a horse. The Jacobson brother wailed for help beneath the weight of his fallen mare. Reuben fired back wildly with a vengeful war cry then leapt from his horse just in time to dodge a bullet. Castellanos downed Reuben's horse with another shot then turned to scoop up the girl and lit out into the wilderness.
The dragoon officer's mind raced as he trampled over jagged rocks and weaved between cacti. He'd get to one of the bigger boulders for cover. Wait for them to come running. As far as those lunatics were concerned he was running scared. It would probably be at least a minute for Reuben to drag his brother free of that fallen mare. Then they'd be after him! Castellanos prayed he was right. A gunshot and crippling pain announced the rebuke of his prayer.
Lieutenant Castellanos dropped like a sack of potatoes in the dirt. He lay motionless as the last of the Jacobson clan approached. "Good shot, Dan," Reuben hissed as he grappled control of his temper.
"Hell! Looks like he's dead! I wanted to make him squeal like a pig for what he done to our brothers!" Dan huffed. "Think the Injun pup's alive?"
"Only one way to find out!" Reuben seethed. The maddened Colorado volunteer calmly kicked the downed dragoon over. Two gunshots thundered and the last two Jacobson brothers fell in the dirt. A gasped curse echoed amid the rocks and cacti.
Castellanos sat up in sluggish agony. The bullet had struck his back, slightly to the left. He had no trouble breathing, as was apparent by his painful moans. Nor was there an exist wound. He figured it was lodged between two ribs. Another sound caught his ear, sniffles coming from the trembling figure in his lap. He blinked at the Navajo girl, her tear-soaked eyes locked with his. Before he could say anything she threw her arms around him and buried her face in his torso. A wave of pain shot through Castellanos but he gave no objection. Seconds later his fingers went slack on the revolvers, dropping them to return her embrace.
Moments later his back was soaked with his own warm blood and he knew it was time to go. With growled curses he hoped the child couldn't understand, Castellanos struggled to his feet and staggered awkwardly back towards the wagon, the girls hand gasped his tightly all the way. He didn't even remember his pistols abandoned in the dirt until they were well on their way from the carnage. It didn't matter, pistols could be replaced. And for all he knew he wouldn't need them anymore. The girl clutched at his knee and sniffled up at her protector as he gripped the reins like a leaf clinging to a dying tree. He began to feel dizzy. With a curse he forced himself into focus. Finish the mission like a good soldier! Not much further.
Castellanos released the reins only after bringing the wagon to a halt outside the convent. He clambered painfully down and grasped the girl's hand as he stumbled toward the door. His vision blurred as he pounded the thick wooden door. He could barely understand his own shouts. Soon a brown face wrapped in a dark cloak emerged from the door. He stumbled back and nearly lost balance. The Sister's eyes widened at the sickly soldier.
Grasping the adobe wall for balance, Castellanos explained what had happened in barely coherent gasps. He felt himself fainting when the Sister swooped under his shoulder to support his weight.
"Come in, quickly, senior!" the Sister gasped. "Mother Superior is a doctor, she will help!" Castellano allowed himself to be led inside the convent and to a bed where he collapsed on his belly. Even as metal instruments painfully dug the bullet from his back, he still felt the girl's hand holding his tight.
Several hours in and out of consciousness and the delicious smell of roasting turkey entered his nostrils. Still the little hand grasped his. Castellanos couldn't help but smile, felt his strength beginning to return. All things considered, far from his worst Christmas.
James Burke was born in Illinois in 1987. He served four years in the Navy and graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in History from University of Saint Francis in 2016. His fiction has appeared in Frontier Tales Western Stories Online Magazine. And his e-book anthology The Warpath: American Tales of East, West, and Beyond was published on Kindle in September 2020.
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