November, 2023

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Issue #170

All The Tales

Choctaw Nation
by Gary Clifton

"Barney, stand still." By pre-dawn lanternlight, Roberto Ortega was squeezed in a barn stall, repairing a loose shoe on his black gelding. As soon as Barney was fit to travel, they'd ride the five miles through the Northeast Texas tall pines and sultry heat into Paris where he'd work until dusk in his blacksmith shop.

Twenty-five years earlier, he'd been kidnapped by a Comanche war party from his family ranch in Parker County, his whole family massacred. Raised among the powerful Comanches in Southern Oklahoma, his demeanor and thoughts were as Comanche as the bravest chief. Although he spoke only the Comanche tongue for many years, he had never forgotten English nor did he lose the grip on his Hispanic name and identity.

At nineteen, he'd ridden out of Comanche territory and eventually drifted into Paris, Texas.

Paris, twelve miles south of the Red River, like Ft. Smith, Arkansas, and Muskogee, Oklahoma was the headquarters of a federal court. The Paris Court was assigned jurisdiction over the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indian nations in southern Oklahoma Territory. Valuable for his language of native tongues, Ortega had been a Deputy U.S. Marshall for several years.

Eventually, as a result of the low pay, the constant danger, the endless travel, and difficulty in wrangling his pay from the marshal's service, he resigned and took up blacksmithing.

Already held in low regard as an "injun" by residents of the area, the stoic demeanor he'd retained from his days with the Comanches enabled him to live comfortably within himself, even after his Choctaw wife had died a year earlier. A total loner, Ortega knew nearly everyone for miles around, but he could call few a friend. He was widely and incorrectly known as a product of one of the Nations. Few, if any knew he was actually Hispanic and not Native American, a distinction which did not seem to him worthy of discussion.

"Company comin' Barney." Ears long attuned for survival picked up the slight squeak of his front gate latch, faintly audible over the tapping of his farrier hammer. He dropped the hammer, grabbed his Winchester, and stepped outside. The July 1887 dawn air had retained yesterday's sticky heat making breathing a challenge. Soon, the temperature would crack one hundred degrees as it had daily for the past month.

In the semi dark, the man leading his horse across the yard was barely recognizable. "Lost, Low Card?" Ortega challenged. It was more words that he sometimes uttered in a day. The next few days would prove to be an exception.

The razor thin old man was the town character of sorts who survived in and around Paris by odd jobs, charity, and a bit of light-fingered theft when all else failed. "Uh . . . Mr. Ortega, Councilman Prescott and Sheriff Tyree is a wantin' you to come quick. That no good injun Charlie No Fish has done kidnapped the widder Johnson's daughter, Sara Agnes. He's headin' north toward the Nations." Low Card coughed. "Er, sorry, Mr. Ortega, I was a meanin' to say 'indian'."

Typically, Ortega made no reply. His years with the Comanches had taught that excess talk was unnecessary. He knew the widow Johnson and her daughter lived in a big house just off the town square, but the social structure of the era limited any conversation by a societal outsider like Ortega. Recently, he had pretended not to hear when two cowboys in his blacksmith shop described the daughter, Sara Agnes Johnson as a "pushover." He'd silently wagered however, that the men pursuing young Miss Johnson's favors waited until it was good and dark to avoid any light spilling onto her homely face.

"They's more, Mr. Ortega . . . and it's much worse."

Ortega waited without comment.

"No Fish murdered Deputy Sheriff Titus Cavness. Shot-gunned him deader 'n hell behind your blacksmith shop couple hours ago. All the noise woke Widder Johnson up. That's when she realized her daughter was kidnapped and her gray mare stoled. Mister Flack was a ridin' in to open his grocery store when he passed the pair of them, No Fish trottin' ahead, leadin' Sara Agnes Johnson on a gray mare along the railroad road tracks toward the Red River."

Ortega instantly knew the sheriff and the councilman wanted help in tracking a fugitive into the Nations, which should have been the job of the local Deputy U.S. Marshals. He stepped back into the barn and began saddling Barney and a pack mule. Ortega didn't want the assignment, but knew No Fish was a dead man if he didn't ride into Choctaw territory and intercede. No matter if the kidnapping was real or voluntary, No Fish had fled to avoid being lynched.

Low card, still out of breath from a hard ride, wheezed after him, "Sheriff Tyree says that that No Fish has been sleepin' 'round back of your place . . . right at the spot where they found the deputy sheriff."

Ortega studied Low Card's black gelding and wondered if the old drifter had stolen the animal.

* * *

By the time Ortega tied Barney and his pack mule to the hitch rail beside his blacksmith shop across from the Lamar County Courthouse, the slanting early sun confirmed another day of blazing heat. The square was abuzz with people.

Town Council President Mortimer J. Prescott, a fleshy man with a wispy goatee and a politician's bluster, leaned close to Ortega. Sheriff Horace Tyree stood nearby. "The Deputy U.S. Marshals are over in Red River County chasing an escapee. The District Attorney is at some convention down in Dallas."

Sheriff Tyree said angrily, "I got no jurisdiction in Oklahoma. I'm gonna have to hire you to run this murderin' savage down, Ortega. You hadn't let him sleep on your back porch, my deputy would be alive."

Ortega, had long earlier learned to show no reaction to remarks like the "murdern' savage." He had always hidden his dislike for the sharp-tongued politician in his quiet way, and saw no need to change. He knew No Fish had drifted down from the Choctaw Nation a month or so earlier. Ortega had paid him to rake up scrap and muck some stalls. Part of the deal was he'd told No Fish he could sleep on the blacksmith's covered back stoop.

Ortega's cold eyes caused Prescott to retreat a step or two. Prescott's family had operated the local funeral parlor since before Ortega moved into the territory. Tyree held his sheriff's commission as a result of Prescott family influence.

Ortega asked softly, "Shotgun . . . middle of the night?"

Low Card stepped closer. "Stole it from me. Won it in a poker game last week."

Ortega held the old man's gaze. A ranch hand said from the crowd, "I passed No Fish up north on the railroad trail at just breakin' daylight this morning . . . on foot leadin' a horse with a woman in the saddle. Still dark, but I could see he was packin' a double-barreled shotgun."

"He say anything?" Prescott asked.

"I wouldn't be askin' no Injun carryin' no shotgun no questions. He just trotted on past, headin' north, leadin' a gray horse with Sara Agnes Johnson in the saddle." Ortega noted the hand was one of the two he'd overheard discussing Sara Agnes Johnson's morals in his blacksmith shop.

He was also well aware the Choctaw could run further than most horses, although the afternoon heat might be a factor.

Prescott spat, "Twenty dollars plus a cent a mile, Ortega. Bring him back alive and we'll hang him straight away."

"We need to see about what happened before we start any hanging." Ortega mounted Barney and headed north.

* * *

The railroad trail paralleled the Paris and Great Northern Railroad the twelve miles through the tall pine trees and red soil to the Red River bridge into the Choctaw Nation.

No Fish had told him he lived with his people in the Potato Hills, north of the Kiamichi River. If No Fish stayed on the railroad trestle trying to lead a horse, Ortega would be hard pressed to find any sign, but fleeing would be slowed. The railroad trail followed the rail line all the way to Tuskahoma Junction, an almost totally Choctaw populated town about forty miles north of the Red River.

Before the sun was high, Ortega reached the bridge. The grizzled watchman in a railroader's cap said, "Injun carryin' a shotgun and leading a gray mare with a woman ridin' forded the river in a hell of a big hurry an hour or so after dawn. Didn't say nothin' and disappeared into the trees on the Oklahoma side."

Ortega forded the river, angling against the current in water shallow enough that Barney and the mule could mostly walk across. By midafternoon, he forded the Kiamichi twenty miles north of the Red River. Several times, he dismounted, tied his animals to a tall pine tree and inspected the railroad right of way. By tie-stepping, No Fish had left almost no trail nor had he left any sign of leaving the right of way. The ties were largely buried in cinder, allowing the horse No Fish was leading to walk without falling.

Ortega camped beside the rail tracks that night. He had learned from passersby that No Fish was still trotting north on the tracks leading a woman on a gray horse. By stopping, he knew No fish could gain distance, but his mule was exhausted, and he felt he had no choice. A man on foot would tire eventually, even a Choctaw.

By noon of the second day, he figured from witnesses along the way he was less than an hour behind. No Fish, already having walked and run approximately 40 miles, had to stop and rest overnight. Ortega calculated that if he stayed on the tracks to Tuskahoma Junction, twenty-five miles further north, the Choctaw population might assist the fugitive.

At sundown he tethered both animals and slept beneath the tall pines near the tracks. As dawn approached the next morning, Barney's snicker bolted him awake. Was a bobcat nosing about? Winchester in hand, he walked carefully to the tethered animals. A slender figure was running north along the trail. He had overtaken the fugitive who had just tried to steal his horse.

"No Fish, stand and surrender. I'm takin' you back to Paris. I guarantee no harm will come to you."

No Fish turned knelt on one knee, the shotgun pointed at Ortega from two hundred feet. "I ain't done nothin' Mr. Ortega. They gonna hang me. Sara come with me on her own. Come closer and I'll shoot." At that he left fly with one barrel. Several pellets kicked up red Oklahoma dust at Ortega's feet. No Fish raised the shotgun again.

Aiming low, Ortega snapped a round from his Winchester. The shot was a reflex which he instantly regretted. The shotgun blast had fallen short; the Winchester had not. No Fish went down in the dust, clawing at his left thigh. In stoic Choctaw fashion, he made no sound. Ortega approached the wounded man and kicked the shotgun away.

"Shoulda got closer, son." Ortega knelt. The wound was painful, but the only damage was a crease across the thigh.

"Shot was accident, Mr. Ortega."

Ortega found a spare bandanna and a pint of whiskey in his gear. He tied the bandana around the bleeding thigh and when he poured a stiff shot of liquor over the bandaged wound, No fish grimaced, but again made no sound. He offered the wounded man the bottle, but No fish shook his head.

Ortega stood and looked intently around.

"Sara is behind that live oak a hundred yards ahead there, Mr. Ortega. You can just barely see her mother's mare in the brush." He gestured.

"Charlie No Fish, if I don't take you back, the U.S. Marshals will come lookin' and you'll end up at the end of a noose. I won't let them lynch you. Back in Paris, they're sayin' you murdered Deputy Sheriff Cavnes."

No Fish sat upright. "No sir, but I saw who did and I know why."

"Call the girl down here and make sure she brings the horse."

From his mule, Ortega dug out a skillet, makings for a few biscuits, a slab of bacon, and a coffee pot. When he slid No Fish's shotgun into his saddle scabbard, he felt he seen it before. He was surprised only one barrel had been loaded. "We eat breakfast, son, and then we'll see if you can ride a mule fifty miles or so. Sara's mare looks like she can make the trip back . . . long as we only walk."


"I can cook, Mr. Ortega," Sara said.

Ortega thought she looked remarkably calm for a kidnap victim.

* * *

Ortega leading, they forded the Kiamichi by nightfall and kept riding, snacking on cold biscuit as they rode. The well-worn railroad trail was visible in the dark. In pre-dawn twilight the following morning, they crossed the Red River into Texas. On the long ride, No Fish told Ortega an interesting story.

Dawn was breaking when Ortega led the strange, bedraggled procession through Paris to the Lamar County Courthouse. Ortega ordered No Fish and Sara to wait by a hitchrack north of the town square and rode on down to the Lamar County Courthouse. A crowd began to gather, several calling out to lynch No Fish.

Sara's mother appeared and demanded custody of Sara Agnes. Ortega ordered her to stand down and be quiet. She was one of the most vocal in calling for the immediate execution of No Fish. Ortega knew why but held his tongue. Turning to face the crowd, he warned bystanders to leave the pair unmolested. Councilman Prescott, eyes heavy with sleep barged up, dressed but with his shirttail hanging out. Low Card appeared at edge of the crowd behind Prescott.

"Low Card, come here," Ortega ordered.

The old drunk shuffled closer.

"Won that shotgun in a poker game, you say? Where'd you get the stake to play?"

"Uh, saved up, Mr. Ortega." He was studying his scruffy boots again. Ortega had hit pay dirt. Low Card couldn't save time, let alone money to play poker.

"As I recall, you'd been sleepin' in the little enclosed porch behind the Prescott family's funeralizin' parlor." He gestured behind him at No Fish. "Johnny No fish tells me he was asleep on the stoop behind my blacksmith shop. He heard Deputy Sheriff Cavness arresting you for breaking into the city hall office two doors down from my place. Says he saw you take advantage of the night darkness to gun down the deputy. You dug in Cavness' pockets and was re-loading whey Johnny No Fish took the gun away from you. That's why No fish only had one round in the shotgun."

"No, no, hell no, Mr. Ortega. Won that gun from a drifter last week. Been keepin' it with my stuff in the back of Prescott's funeral place. You'd take that savage's word over mine?"

Ortega eyes narrowed. "Yep. And funny thing, I recall that shotgun hanging in Prescott's office long before you showed up in these parts. What did Prescott pay you to murder the deputy?"

Prescott snorted, "Now just a damned minute, Ortega. I ain't havin' to take no ruffduff from some damned injun . . . coverin' up for another savage. You ain't the law no more and I don't have to stand here and–"

"Prescott, Deputy Cavness 'n me shared a jug of shine last week in my shop. He got drunk and told me himself he was investigatin' you and Sheriff Tyree for theft of city funds. I reckon he figured that since I'm not inclined to run my mouth, his activities would remain secret with me. "Y'all hadn't a murdered him, he woulda been correct. Then, you sent ol' Low Card to steal papers and other evidence from city hall, hopin' the theft would hide records of your involvement. By chance, Cavness was makin' rounds at the same time and caught the old man. Low Card panicked and murdered him . . . an unexpected bonus for you."

Prescott, perspiring in the early morning swealter, spat, "That's a lie, Ortega. You can't prove–"

Ortega leveled his Winchester at Low Card. "Empty your pockets." The old man wilted and nearly collapsed. Prominent in the meager contents of his pockets was a gold ring with the Masonic symbol imbedded in red stone shining on the worn boardwalk.

Low Card stammered, "Uh . . . Mr. Ortega, I tuck it off the deputy's hand after that other Injun, No Fish, murdered him and run off. He was already dead 'n all."

Ortega said softly, "Suddenly, I realize that yesterday morning, I saw an unfired shotgun shell laying in the alley near the deputy's body. You gave Cavness both barrels. Like I just said, No Fish got the shotgun away from you as you tried to reload and murder him too. Cavness always carried a little Derringer in his belt." He pushed Low Card down on the boardwalk. "Is that little gun hid in your boot?"

Ortega manhandled the old man's boots off. The Derringer was not there. The old man looked backwards at Prescott, who avoided eye contact.

Sheriff Tyree tried to gradually melt into the crowd. Ortega pointed a finger at him motioning him forward. Tyree stepped forward like a bass on the hook.

"Tyree . . . Prescott, I heard another interesting tale on the back down Oklahoma." In the crowd, he spotted the cowhand who'd made the comment about Sara Agnes Johnson's loose habits, and who had also said forty-eight hours earlier he'd seen No Fish leading Sara Agnes on a horse.

"Cowboy, dunno your name, but I suggest you was one of several town toughs who took advantage of Sara's mother selling her favors . . . with Sheriff Tyree and Councilman ignoring the forced prostitution in return for free turns with the poor girl."

Prescott shirked away. Tyree fingered the Colt on his hip. Ortega leveled his Winchester at Tyree's chest. "You've made enough mistakes for one day, Tyree. Toss that six gun on the boardwalk."

The pistol hit heavily on the wooden walk.

He turned back to the cowhand. "What say, partner?"

The cowhand's voice quivered. "Ortega, I only visited her once. Never had the fifty cents again."

Ortega said, "Cowboy, I recognize you from the Bar X out east. We'll need you as a witness. I let you walk away, and you flee the territory, I'll find you and you ain't gonna like what happens then."

The cowhand looked up into Ortega's cold face. "Goin' no place, Mr. Ortega. Please don't shoot me . . . or stick me in that jail. I ain't be a goin' no place."

Prescott dug under his belt and came out with a small pistol.

"Looks like we found Deputy Cavness's Derringer." Ortega leveled the Winchester at Prescott's stomach. "Wanna try your luck with that little popper, Prescott?"

Prescott hesitated, studying Ortega's angry eyes, then shook his head like a dog working on a blacksnake.

"Then lay it on the boardwalk . . . and don't drop it. It's likely to go off and we wouldn't want you gettin' shot. I'd enjoy it too much."

Prescott snarled, "It ain't no proof, Ortega."

Ortega eyed the quivering undertaker turned political thief at length. "That a fact? That little pistol just hatch in your pocket?"

"Uh, found it on my back porch where this old fool hid it." Still clutching the Derringer, he gestured at Low Card.

"Ain't true!" bootless Low Card wailed. "Ain't by grab gonna hang over no two bucks Prescott paid me to break into the city building and steal some ledgers. Loaned me that double barrel. I was hid out behind your blacksmith shop, waitin' when the deputy walked up on me . . . scared me. I didn't mean to shoot him. You're right, the injun . . . uh . . . No Fish was asleep back a' your place and he took the shotgun away from me afore I could get it full reloaded and kill him, too. But I don't know nuthin' 'bout no forced whorin' by the widder Johnson."

Prescott said, "Lyin' old fool. You still got nothin' Ortega, you sorry redskin."

"Prescott, as bad as I'd like to let the air outta you, that could mean ol' Low card . . . and hopefully this damned sheriff, would hang alone. I'd rather wait to see those city account ledgers in a court of law. Maybe examine the safe in your funeral home to see what kinda wad of stolen city cash you've got rat holed. Lay that Derringer in the dirt. Don't drop it."

Breathing in short gasps, Prescott carefully laid the little gun in the dust of the street. "You still got no proof against a white man, you dumb savage."

Ortega nodded. "In the absence of the U.S. Marshall being present, I'm making a dumb savage citizen's arrest, Prescott and Tyree for stealing city funds and for hirin' this bum Low Card to break into city hall. Low Card, you're under arrest for stealing the dead deputy's ring and suspicion of murder. Y'all know where the jail is. Start walkin'."

All three prisoners, prodded by the Winchester, raised their hands and started across the town square.

Ortega said, "And oh, Mrs. Johnson, you get in line, too. You're under arrest for pimping out your sixteen-year-old daughter."

Mrs. Johnson wailed like a wolf in heat and appeared ready to faint.

Ortega said, "Good grief, Tyree, help the lady to jail. It can be your last good deed as sheriff . . . assuming you ever did anyone a solid to begin with."

The dreary procession marched toward the jail. Ortega turned and waved the Winchester to the north at No Fish, leaning on the hitchrail with Sara Agnes still mounted on the gray mare.

With No Fish leading on foot, they trotted off toward the Red River and the Choctaw Nation. Neither looked back. Ortega watched them move rapidly away. He figured the wiry little man and Sara Agnes were smiling.

The End

Gary Clifton, nearly forty years a cop has been shot at, stabbed, sued, lied to and about, and often misunderstood. He is currently retired to a dusty North Texas Ranch where he doesn't care if school keeps or not. His published works: Nights on Fire, Murdering Homer, Dragon Marks Eight (Crossroads Press) and Echoes of Distant Shadows, Henry Paul Brannigan - Stories Worth Telling, Never on Monday (Mannison Press) are available from Amazon and other outlets.

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Market Day
by Barry Johnson

Evan rode along the dirt trail until his horse reared, almost throwing him. High overhead, moonlight cast the trees in a silver tinge. He was returning home after selling another few dozen cattle at the market. Only a handful of starving cows remained on the farm.

"What's wrong, Silver?" Evan asked.

The night was emptied of life during this drought. The dark silence didn't rile him, but something had spooked Silver. Evan scanned the treeline.

They would have been home hours ago if the butchers offered a fair price for his cattle. The townsfolk were suffering, and they did not offer a fair price without a long negotiation. Soon there would be no more cows and no more harvests. Only Evan and his horse would be left on this dead piece of land.

Silver shook her head and edged backward a few steps.

Evan released the reins and patted her neck. "I trust you, girl. What's wrong?"

Silver dragged her hoof along the dirt and shook her head again.

An unnatural quiet coated a landscape that ought to be alive with animals hunting for a meal. Wildlife had fled months ago to places with flowing rivers instead of parched, crusty creek beds. Dry leaves crunched under Evan's boots.

The farm had spooked Evan long ago after Pa had spotted a wolf at the fence. Father and son took turns keeping watch through the night. The next day, Evan worked the farm with heavy eyelids. At dusk, they found the wolf's lair. Pa warned Evan that a wounded predator is a dangerous creature. They cornered the angry wolf, and Pa fired the fatal shot. That loud blast echoed in Evan's memory until he shot the next invading wolf.

Evan shivered now because he was so close to home. After Pa died, he lived alone on the farm. The place belonged to him, and he belonged in this place. His dog, Duke, should alert him to any danger, but for some strange reason, the last half mile of the journey home always teased Evan's nerves. Maybe those violent memories were fuelling his imagination the closer he got to home.

Duke always eased those nerves when he ran to greet Evan. Silver was right to be edgy. Evan wanted to call for Duke, but that would betray his presence to whoever else waited for him. The damnable silence endured.

Evan stayed out of the saddle. The earth was dry and hard, but he needed to feel it under his boots. He tied Silver's reins to a tree and slid a Winchester rifle from the saddle scabbard.

"Wait here, girl. Maybe it's only the wind playing tricks."

Silver nudged Evan's chest.

"You're right. It ain't the wind." Evan cocked the hammer and stepped toward the house.

A grey trail rose from the chimney of the timber homestead. Dirty smoke tarnished the hovering moon. Evan's fireplace was cold when he left. Someone was enjoying its warmth. Someone uninvited.

Evan's shoulders tensed as he crouched to scan his home for movement. The Winchester's polished brass was cold in his hands.

Two horses were tied to a wagon loaded with hessian sacks. Objects that had been inside the house now littered the ground. Books lay spilled open, beside shattered pieces of clay bowls his ma had sculpted. A cool breeze teased the pages of the books, occasionally turning them as though ghosts were enjoying new tales.

The door flung open, and a man dropped two more bags into the wagon. Warm orange light stretched from the fireplace along the ground, touching the chestnut horse and its jet-black partner.

Evan crouched in shadow to peer inside the open doorway. Two men stalked through the rooms, sweeping items from shelves. Some tumbled to the floor, and others slid into sacks. The clatter of so much damage was jarring. He stared at a tall, elegant vase, still untouched.

While the older man kicked aside the items he had broken, his companion bent to sniff tiny flowers poking from the vase. Evan had picked those flowers from the garden Ma had planted so many years ago. Somehow, her garden clung to life, shaded by the house to escape the worst of the day's heat. The younger man smiled, and an innocence washed over his face. At that moment, he appeared to be a respectful guest instead of a vile intruder.

Evan knew the scent, still vivid in his memory. His ma had a green thumb, but Evan could never grow new flowers. The touch of fragrant color must be special to survive all these years since her passing.

Duke lay dead beside the trail. He bore a gunshot to the head and a fresh brand on his rump. Evan bent down and touched Duke's shoulder. The body was still warm. He squeezed the rifle and stalked toward the men who had killed his dog.

The older man inside the house scowled and smacked the vase from the table. It smashed on the stone floor, loud enough to startle the younger man.

Evan winced from the shock at its loss. The older man had carelessly destroyed another object touched by Evan's ma.

"Why did you do that? Them flowers were pretty," the younger man said.

"Pretty don't pay, unless you're a woman. Are you a woman, Virgil?"

"Of course I ain't. But they smell like a woman, sweet like perfume."

"If you like 'em so much, marry 'em. Cause we can't sell them."

"Why do we got to sell anything, Mark? We could live here."

Mark flicked through a book, then tore out a clump of pages and dropped them on the fire. He shook another, perhaps expecting banknotes to drop from its pages. Maybe Mark was literate, but he did not bother to read the knowledge in his hands, instead tossing the books out the door. His clothes, from his hat down to his boots, were black. Slick black hair and a mustache completed his cold portrait. The man was an idiot. If only he would read those books instead of tossing them, he would not need to trash another man's home.

Another clump of pages fell into the fire, and Evan stepped closer. The fire pushed his shadow onto the porch and into the night. He stood still, waiting for the intruders to turn.

Virgil was the first to react. Perhaps he heard Evan's slow breath amid the commotion of Mark's violent search. With luck, he also felt a heavy unease in his gut.

The sharp end of the Winchester captured Virgil's attention. He crouched with his hands well clear of the gun on his hip and stepped backward until he bumped into Mark.

"Watch where you're walkin', idiot." Mark turned. The annoyance on his face shifted to amusement. He grabbed his gun.

"Don't do it." Evan pointed the Winchester at Mark's chest. The room was stifling from the fire's heat, and the hair on the back of Evan's neck tingled, as it always did in anticipation of a shot.

Mark chewed a wad of tobacco. The room was silent apart from his chomping and the fire's crackle. He spat brown juice onto the floor at Evan's feet.

"Why did you shoot my dog?"

"Go easy, mister. We ain't trespassing. We're ransacking. Besides, it's quieter without that hound's barking." Mark crossed his arms over his chest as though the black sleeves might shield him from a bullet. Perhaps he had survived many gunfights and gambled that Evan was not a killer.

"Why? You don't look short of money." Evan nodded toward Mark's expensive outfit. "Unless you robbed a tailor."

Virgil stepped behind Mark. They looked like brothers, though in stature, Virgil must be the youngest. His gaze locked on the Winchester. "We're mighty sorry we had to shoot your dog, but thieving and murder happen all the time back east. Lower the Yellow Boy, and we'll let you be."

The crooked thinking of this pair made no sense to Evan. It was late, and he did not want to argue with these gunmen any longer.

"The West has laws. The marshal will decide your fate."

"Forget the marshal. More men are coming for this entire valley. It's a new migration. First, it was the farmers and ranchers headed west for riches. Now it's my turn." Mark had edged closer to the table that stood him and Evan, with Virgil close behind. He ducked under the Winchester and kicked a chair, striking Evan in the shin.

The rifle discharged. It missed Mark but took a chunk from the timber wall. Mark knocked the barrel aside and jammed a revolver against Evan's temple.

"What was you saying about laws?" Mark asked.

The room shrank while the stench of Mark's grime clung under Evan's nose. With wide eyes and sweaty faces, Mark and Virgil had the wild demeanor of caged animals.

Evan felt a similar rush while hunting for feral animals. Time raced during those hunts, as he scanned for the flash of a wolf's eyes in the darkness.

The two men were close enough for a proper fistfight. If Evan could turn the gun away from his skull, he would disable Mark with a swift knee, but how would Virgil react? Evan truly did not want to kill this pair. He opened his palms in surrender.

"I'm surprised you found enough to fill one of those sacks. This place ain't so green anymore. Have you ever worked a farm?"

A farmer's life was full of firsts. The first green shoots of a new crop. The first harvest. The first meal from that harvest. The first sale at market. It was nature's miracle, day after day, but those were long ago.

Virgil coughed, then nodded. "I farmed a little when I was a kid. Hard work."

"Shut up, Virgil. Do we look like farmers? We take what we want instead of waiting for the seasons. Mother Nature is more fickle than the ladies in town."

"She's looked out for me in the past. Now, I've been choking on dust, but . . . ," Evan said.

Mark smacked Evan across the face. The thief's ring clipped the side of Evan's eye, broke the skin, and drew tears.

"She didn't see that coming. Neither did you, farmer. But the drought's over."

Evan dabbed at his eye and looked down at the moisture on his finger. It was red.

This room had hosted arguments between husband and wife, father and son. Evan's parents had debated what to plant, how to feed their cattle, and where to find more water. None of those arguments ended in blood. Those disputes were about real life, the farm, and their future. This confrontation was ugly, with two strangers picking through Evan's possessions. They were no better than vultures, but they were still men that must have some hint of human reason, something Evan could connect to.

Mark shoved Evan against the wall, then gestured to the upturned chair.

"Take a seat before you fall down."

Evan righted the chair, and the rigid wooden legs scraped on the floor. He sat with arms crossed while a bloody teardrop fell from his cheek.

"It'll be dawn in a few hours. The sunlight reveals plenty," Evan said.

"After I fed the fireplace with pages from your worthless books, the flames lit up the room. There ain't much worth stealing," Mark said.

"As I said, light reveals all."

The fire cast Mark and Virgil's shadows on the wall. Black shapes flickered like ghouls.

"Your shadows are as vague as your souls. I thought the earth was barren. Now that it's spat you from its depths, it will sprout green again."

Mark surged forward and punched Evan in the cheek. The blow knocked Evan's head backward, and he tasted blood.

The room fell quiet again, apart from Mark's raspy breathing. He spat more tobacco juice into the fire.

Evan felt a little of the fear that was in every man, but other feelings were stronger in him now. He inhaled deeply, then looked up at both men.

Virgil turned to the window as though unable to endure the glare of his victim.

"It's stuffy in here." Mark hurled a mug through the same window. The glass shattered, and the sound was as loud as the Winchester shot in this tight space.

"Why did you do that?" Virgil asked.

"'Cause whether you're admiring your reflection or trying to see what this farmer is talking about, you're wasting your time."

Evan bent to pick up a branding iron that had fallen at his feet, but Mark stood on it and shoved Evan back against the chair.

"Why are you burning books? Because you can't read, or are you scared of what you might learn?" Evan asked.

Mark grabbed another book and held it over the fire. It was a collection of ancient fables, fragile from frequent use. Evan's ma had taught him to read with that book.

"I never needed a reason. No one has stopped me from doing whatever makes me smile," Mark said.

The flames tickled the book's spine, and black smoke spread over the leather cover, staining it with chalky soot.

Virgil had a familiar vacant stare. He holstered his gun and snatched the book away from the flames.

"Explain what you mean," Virgil said.

"Idiot. There's nothing to explain," Mark said.

"Between those pages is something more valuable than anything you've stolen from this house." Evan pointed to his skull. "The stories become real in your mind."

Mark pointed the gun at the floor casually, matching his smirk. He pressed the branding iron's tip against the heart of the fire. The black metal smoldered, and burning dog hair smoked on its tip while he looked back at Evan. As the brand glowed red, Mark's rage seemed to cool at the same rate.

Evan sat with crossed arms, his eyes closed. The fire crackled. He felt a sudden heat near his face.

"Hey. Wake up. Tell us a story, or you get the brand. It ought to stop the bleeding."

Evan opened his eyes and leaned away from the molten orange metal. Mark also pointed his gun at Evan while Virgil leaned against the wall, as though settled in his new home.

There were so many tales in those burning books. Evan would gladly share stories with folks in town when they asked him. He remembered his ma's sweet voice as she read him tales when he was a kid. She always recited them with love regardless of how often she had turned the same pages.

"Somewhere in these parts, there was a farmer and a rancher. They were good neighbors until they had eyes for the same plot of land," Evan said.

"Why? Did they find gold? Silver?" Mark asked.

"Nothing so shiny, but it did hold rich soil and lay near the river. Starting out, the men shared this prime patch that ran beside their properties."

The fire crackled while the intruders stood silent. Evan leaned back and drew his hands together, interlocking the fingers.

"A few of the rancher's cattle died, then the farmer's crops were burned. No one believed it was a coincidence. The pair fought until one of them was dead. The survivor buried his neighbor and headed west to start over. There were no lawmen in those days to hunt him. The land was abandoned. After a time, it returned to wilderness."

Virgil stepped closer. "Which one of 'em died? Why didn't the victor stay?"

"It don't matter. I'd have settled it if they paid me well enough," Mark said.

"The folks that knew those men were ashamed to speak their names. The killer was too proud to stay so close to his former friend's grave. This could be the land they fought over and that you are trying to steal. The fight should never be between sodbusters and ranchers. The fight should be against you. Gutless, murdering thieves. Do you reckon your troubles will end if you kill me the way you killed Duke? If I die here, this cursed land will swallow you."

Mark pointed the gun at Evan's head, jerked it sideways, and fired. The bullet slammed into the wall. Its loud blast echoed through the modest cabin.

The air became stifling as burning books fell apart in the fireplace. No breeze entered through the broken window.

Evan's eardrums screamed while he wiped the side of his face. His palm was stained only with sweat. The cut near his eye must have stopped bleeding, though it still ached when he blinked.

"Is this where I throw down my gun and get a red neck from sodbusting, or the stink of manure from cowpunching?" Mark asked.

While Virgil and Evan sweated, Mark's face looked as cold as his black clothes. He stood with his back to the fire, surrounded by an orange and red aura from the flames.

The ringing in Evan's ears softened to a low buzz.

"There are good, honest jobs on this new frontier. Barkeep, barber, banker. Hell, you could be a lawman. Plenty of outlaws have changed sides and helped build towns all along the border instead of wrecking 'em."

Mark smirked at the back-handed compliment. It was easy to be smug when your victim was unarmed.

"I'm parched after all this excitement. Offer me some whiskey to prove the meaning of my tale didn't fly over your head," Evan said.

"This is the Wild West, with no real lawmen. An outlaw's paradise," Mark said.

"And yet, fine towns are growing here. A few outlaws can't stop that."

"Your fairy stories only work on the simple-minded. Whiskey costs money. What are you offering for a glass of this fine alcohol you once owned?" Mark drank from the bottle, then leaned back with one leg bent to press his boot against the timber wall.

Virgil had a thoughtful, faraway stare. He snatched the bottle and handed it to Evan before Mark could react.

While the liquid sloshed inside the half-empty bottle, Evan held it in his palm to look at the label. Besides Mark, Pa was the last man to drink the golden liquid, but in his final days, Pa stayed sober and endured all the pain and fear of dying without the numbing liquid. Regardless of what Evan had told Mark, he could never drink this or any other alcohol. It would be an insult to his pa's memory.

"What are you doing, dummy?" Mark pointed at Virgil.

Virgil retreated to the other side of the table. "I likes the idea of working our own place instead of lookin' over my shoulder all the time."

Mark pushed from the wall and reached for the bottle. "Give it here. You ain't paid for it yet."

Evan tightened his grip with both hands and looked up at Virgil.

"Thank you, Virgil. This bottle is a symbol. It's worth more than money. It can set you free."

Mark laughed, then sat on the table with his boots on a chair. He now had sweat on his upper lip.

"I'm already free on my new farm."

"You said this was our farm." Virgil stepped between him and Evan.

"I know what I said, but someone will be in charge."

Evan coughed. "Your freedom sounds complicated, Mark. Virgil can't be free if you're ordering him around all day."

Evan ran his finger over the label with its embossed drawing of a wide oak tree. He once dreamed of the tree growing in the middle of their field. It grew to block the sun. Evan climbed to its peak, hoping to glimpse the entire world from atop its thick, leafy branches. In the dream, he looked down from a great height, and his stomach felt heavy as stone. The branches shook, his fingers slipped, and he fell. He woke before his dream self hit the ground.

In few words, Pa's tiny handwriting on the label explained when to sow, how to kill pests before they ravaged the plants, how to tend the soil and find groundwater, and finally, when to harvest. The sweat on Evan's brow reminded him of his first harvest. Under the summer sun, nature's miracle gifted him food from the brown earth.

A successful harvest sometimes took years on a new farm, a patience these intruders might never understand. If he lived to see the morning, he would remember the steps to defeat human pests.

Evan had buried his parents on this farm, but there was no one to bury him. He pressed his fingers against the embossed image until it left an impression on his skin.

"I'm sorry," Evan said.

Mark nodded as though the apology was for him. His gun was out of the holster but pointed at the stone floor.

Virgil leaned forward with a strained expression. "Sorry for what?"

Evan burst from the chair and smashed the bottle over Mark's head. In the small room, the crash of glass against bone was as loud as a gunshot. The bottle splintered, and tiny shards sprayed in a cloud, colliding with the wall. Some dug into Virgil's jacket. The stink of whiskey replaced the subtle fragrance from the flowers and the dirty smell of burning paper.

A nasty gash opened along Mark's scalp. Blood dribbled through his black hair. The broken, heavy base of the bottle hit the floor. Mark followed it, crumpling in a dark heap. His legs had turned to rubber.

The jagged glass edges of the bottle's throat extended between Evan's fingers.

Virgil's face betrayed concern for his brother. He had a lazy grip on his gun. For some men, a gun was a prop to scare folks. It must work on folks back east, but too many men in these parts had fought in wars.

Evan rushed at Virgil, then held the sharp edge of the bottle against the rough skin of the intruder's throat.

Glass brushed against blond stubble. Virgil's eyes were wide, the fear poured into them. He leaned back, but the glass pressed against his throbbing artery. An ugly grey scar ran from ear to ear across his throat. The mark of a rope. This man had survived a hanging.

"Pity about your friend, but don't make me do more, Virgil. This place has been in my family for decades. It ain't yours to take."

Virgil leaned back to allow speech without the glass puncturing his throat. "I didn't come here to die. I've been too damn close to the other side. Mark promised this could be our place, somewhere to live in peace."

The fear in his eyes turned to sadness. Perhaps he had seen the same bright light that Evan's ma spoke of as she passed.

"Drop the gun, and you won't die tonight," Evan said.

Virgil stared at Evan with frantic eyes. Wild animals were the same as outlaws, both terrified to die alone.

There had been enough death in this house. Pa died while the farm was dying. Rain had stopped, fields had turned barren, and cattle had starved. Every longhorn Evan had killed to end its suffering added to his hate for the farm. After so much struggle, there was no reward and no end. Mark's invasion was a curse and a blessing. The threat of losing the farm caused Evan to hold on to it even tighter.

Evan snatched the gun from Virgil, turned it on him, then threw the broken glass into the fire.

"Get down on your belly."

"What are you going to do?" Virgil flinched at the shattering glass.

"Get down." Evan pressed the gun against Virgil's head, driving him to the floor. He grabbed a rope from a hook on the wall and tied Virgil's hands, then Mark's.

The heavy roof beam could easily support the weight of these men. Evan considered hanging them by their arms while he found help, but he dismissed the idea. Pa had warned never to turn your back on a wild animal. This pair would be as unpredictable. They would surely burn his home to ashes and escape if he left them alone. He already dreaded the dawn, when he would see the full toll of their damage.

Evan shook Mark's shoulder. "Wake up. Time to leave."

Mark stirred, then pulled at the ropes. "I can't get me balance to stand with my hands behind my back."

"Stand up, or I'll end you." Evan cocked the revolver.

Mark rolled onto his shoulder and pushed up to kneel.

"Damn you, farmer. Cut me loose."

Evan pulled on the slack. "Stand up."

"So you can hang me?"

Mark and Evan stared at each other, then Evan pulled hard on the rope.

"Answer me, filthy coward." Mark grimaced as he stood, dragged upright by the rope. His hands were busy clawing for the knot, but it was out of reach. He ran at Evan with arms still bound until a knee to the belly doubled him over.

Virgil could have exploited the moment while Evan turned his back, but he appeared too terrified to try anything. Evan pitied the younger brother, but not enough to untie the rope.

He pulled the ropes then gestured with the gun for the intruders to leave his home. The pair stumbled to the door.

Mark grabbed the door frame until Evan clipped his hand with the butt of the revolver.

"Get up on the wagon." Evan removed the sacks of his belongings from the wagon and grabbed the brothers by the elbows to help them aboard. While they shuffled to sit upright, Evan knotted the rope around Mark's ankles.

Mark kicked at Evan's hands, but missed. The ropes bound his hands to his feet.

"I'll burn this place with you in it. You'll never sleep easy again," Mark said.

Virgil shook his head. "That's enough. If I survive this day, we're through. I've cheated death too often 'cause of your schemes."

"Shut up, idiot. My plans kept us fed." Mark fiddled with the ropes, then gave up and kicked the wagon's side.

"I ain't been hungry for a long time, but my neck hurts. When the noose tightens, your neck will hurt too," Virgil said.

Evan hitched his horse beside the horses of his intruders. They pulled the wagon across the flat plain to town. The wheels rumbled over stones on the trail. Evan slowed every few minutes to check that the ropes were still tight.

"You'll rot in our jail until that mustache turns gray. If the judge is in a foul mood, the hangman will be the last face you see before the blindfold blacks out your world. Either way, folks will know your faces. We'll be watching."

At the edge of town, sunlight kissed the horizon. The black sky turned grey, then blue, then gold.

Outside the marshal's office, a Wanted poster for Mark looked fresh. The reward for his capture ought to feed Evan's remaining cattle for another year.

Evan buried Duke and promised never to leave this place.

With luck, the farm would endure until the rain. His toil ought to sway that luck for long enough to feel the rain from heaven once more.

The End

Barry Johnson is a frequent contributor to local history publications. His stories of the old West are inspired by the exploits of our legendary lawmen and the proud values that shaped our country. The Albatross is Barry's debut novel. Read more at

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All The Way Out West
by Tim Wehr

"You ever been this far out?"

"Na, I never made it this far."

"It's quiet, peaceful."

"Um-hum," George looked at me with The Grand Canyon between his eyebrows where he'd squished them together in concentration. He never had much of a poker face, I always knew what he was gona' say even before he said it.

I spoke before he could, "you're wondering if I'll even want to go back with you when we get out to Denver . . . Ain't ya?"

"Maybe, maybe not."

"I knew it! You were never any good at cards."

The campfire crackled and drew my eyes over, just in time to see the coffee almost boil over. I jumped up and snatched it off the grate.

"Coffee's ready." I said, handing George a cup. Then I poured my own, and sat down again, leaning my back against the saddle which I'd taken off old Tom. He was my horse and the best one I'd ever known. He was gona' take me all the way to The Rockies.

George took a sip and then spoke up, "You got any smokes left Bill? I had my last coming over that ridge this evening."

I reached into my shirt pocket and tossed the box of smokes over to him. He let them land on his lap, then he looked back at me and took a breath to speak. I cut in before him again "and the matches, don't worry I wouldn't leave ya with out," I tossed the match box over. Sometimes it bothered me, always knowing what he was gona' say next. It felt like I was having a conversation with myself. And as it turned out, I weren't much fun to talk to.

"That weren't it," he said, "that weren't what was gona' say." But I wasn't sure I believed him. I could see him fumbling with something then, and it turned out to be a bras match box which he threw over, "that's my lucky tin, you hang on to it till we get there."

He puffed and sipped gently, and rolled his head back a little, the way he always did when he'd start thinkin' about the 'big picture', as he called it. Tonight felt as good as any for it, we were almost there, almost to Denver.

"You ever think about why the sky turns pink just before the sun goes down?" George asked, with his head still pointed skyward, "or why the stars seem to twinkle and not hold their place?"

I piped up, "Well when the sun is setting it gets just a little further away and so some of the light can't get . . . "

"I know, I know but," George tried to stop me.

I kept up, "and the stars they . . . "

George cut in again, and rather sharply too, "you really got an answer for everything, don't ya Bill?"

I smiled at that, I knew George, he meant no insult by it. To him it would have been rude not to put me off, and let me go on yammering my sense to man who didn't want it. If George asked a question about the livestock we were driving or how my horse was doing, he'd want a straight answer, but if he asked about the sun or them stars? Well, it was 'big picture' stuff, and my guess ought to be as good as his. In truth, I liked George, even if he was plain as crackers.

"I think the pink is for those that got someone and the twinkling probably the same," George said lightning his tone again.

"You ever been married?" I asked.

"Yea once. That was a long time ago. A life time back by now," he trailed off in his words and I didn't want to follow, coz it seemed I'd find a deal of pain there. It just wasn't that kinda' night, bein' as George had asked that we drink the coffee and not the whisky.

So, I tired talking us into someplace else, "Tom was good today, I know you were worried about his leg n' all but he's fine, I kept an eye on it."

"This valley used to be a lake I think, I wonder if there were ever any fish right where I'm sitting now?" Back to the big picture, and it seemed that's where George wanted to stay.

"Yea, and I wonder if any of them sat around a camp fire drinking coffee and smokin' here too?"

I could see George smiled a little but kept his head leaned comfortably back, and I can't blame him. The stars were out something proper that night. Twilling and spinning just like George said, the clear black sky was jewelled with diamonds of cosmic light. I looked out west, to our destination and the great backdrop of the Rocky Mountains laid there, with their snowcapped peaks. They seemed like such a vast and insurmountable wall, I wondered how folks ever made it to California. I too leaned my head back, to take in the night sky.

"George? You've been drivin' cattle a long time ain't ya? How come you never made it this far?"

"Always one thing or another kept me where I was, or there enough abouts. I mean, I drifted around sure, but never made it further than Kansas."

"What made you take this run?" I asked. I was about to cut in before he could answer and tell him that I thought it was cuz the money was right, and there was promise of a similar run coming back this way after, but I didn't. George was right about me, I did always have an answer for everything, but those were my answers, not his. And I was glad that this time I kept quiet long enough to hear.

"Well, it was time I left some people behind that needed leaving, and it was time I moved on from those places that needed moving on from. Kansas and Oklahoma ain't all that bad but I'd done all I could do there. You see old Tom? You know if you'd keep him cooped up in a stable, he'd be alright for a while, but too long and he'd whine and give up, and die. I came to realize I ain't much different, things move on and so, I must as well. Life goes on, and on, and on, from Carolina to California, East to West, from one thing to the other. I am starting to learn -albeit later in the game then might have served me- that all life is a beautiful prairie and I am old Tom there, built to roam. Too long I'd been afraid of the wolves or caught with my leg stuck in a gofer hole. When this job came up, it reminded me well enough that I should be movin' on."

* * *

"We're all the way out west now."

Tom gave me a gently whinny to let me know he was still listening. We rode easy through the brush and came clear alongside the gently flowing water.

"What do you think he'd make of it?"

Tom was getting sick of me, but he kept on slow enough. He wasn't the race horse I knew him as in Kentucky, but just like he promised, he had taken me all the way to the Rockies, and then some. That leg of his held up, even if it made him a little slower now.

The late evening was drawing down over the vallie's ridge line, and the clouds had begun to blush their pink.

"He'd have liked that I'm sure, that big picture."

I hitched Tom to a tree where he'd have some cover for the night, just close enough so I could still talk to him. Lifting my things off from his saddle was painful now, and always reminded me of that loose rib swimming in my guts. I pushed that out of my mind and set about making camp at the river's edge. I got the fire going and hung over a pot for beans and one for coffee. I realized only then it was just me and decide it was gona' be a whiskey night instead.

The clouds blushed there last and then rolled off to let the stars have their turn. Out there on that river bank, I took in all those twinkling and spinning lights, and I drank long and slow.

"Is that you George?" I was bein' a fool, aint nothing else to it. But it felt good to say his name and try to hear him speak. "That you out there, spinning those stars?"

I had heard him, the last few nights, after a pint of whiskey. I heard him asking, if we were gona' make it west. If I could take him there. I heard the crack of rifle fire and the calls of those men. Their horses like thunder in the dirt all around. The bone knife in my gut. The end in sight but not in reach. George panicked and bleeding. I closed my eyes, took a breath and opened them again, I was back on the river bank.

We made it west in the end, one way or another, we'd all get here. I took George's lucky tin from my breast pocket and lit up a smoke. He was right, Tom and I would keep on, keep takin' runs till we ran clear into the sea at California. He was right about me too, and my having answers for everything, and those answers not often being right at all. But I remember him now, when I go making my assertions, or whenever I go thinking about that big picture of his.

The End

Tim is an amateur writer, currently working on a debut novella exploring issues of mental health. He has studied with the Irish Writers Centre and is a proud member of the Irish Writers Republic, a grassroots writer's circle.

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by Michael Adams-Preston

Oregon, 1864

Joey Storm heard the thud of hooves first. He wheeled toward the oncoming black stallion and its rider, recognizing Birdy Wolfe from the patch over his right eye—an injury given by the arrow of a Shoshone back at the beginning of the Snake War. He also recognized the barrel of Birdy's Colt Paterson between the pricked ears of the stallion, and Storm knew his old pal wouldn't think twice about using it. "I'm stoppin'," he called back over his shoulder. "Hold your fire—you hear me, Bird?

"What in the name of the devil's hot ass's got into you, boy?" Birdy Wolfe threw back. "You might bamboozle Jubal Gore and One Hand—you jus' might—but you ain't gonna get any goddamned lever on me. We fought under Cady at Harney Lake, fer Crissakes. We ain't gonna let two saddlebags of Idaho gold come between us."

"What you sayin', Bird?" Storm asked without turning toward his old army buddy.

"I'm sayin', boy, we both rat-runnin' deserters," came Wolfe's response, "and that gold you nabbed from Jubal, One Hand, and me is rightly to be split between us.'

Joey Storm flexed his fingers against the grip of his Colt Navy. "You reckon?"

"If'n you don't agree to me stickin' my thumb in the pie, boy," Wolfe responded, "then I jus' might have to—"

Joey spun on his heels and raised his Colt Navy and shot Birdy Wolfe twice—the first cartridge embedded itself in Wolfe's good eye whilst the second slammed square into his neck. "I ain't givin' up one ounce of this gold, Bird," he said.

Wolfe fell away from his rearing stallion like a bottle tumbling off a fencepost, his startled face painting a nearby rock with a sizable stripe of blood. "Goddamn you, boy," he managed to spit out.

"I ain't lookin' fer God," Storm threw back.

Then he made his final shot.

* * *

A curl of smoke drew Joey Storm's attention. It rose like a beckoning finger above the surrounding treetops and reminded him of warmth and food, of good and prosperous things. He'd ridden from early morning to dusk with no break, and he was beginning to grow saddle-sore crotchety—and that even though Birdy Wolfe's stallion was a better ride than his own lacklustre mare. He was a good distance from the Snake River Valley right now, and a stop-off would be no bad thing.

Looks righteous, he almost said as he rode along the off-road track. The lone pioneer-style house stood to one side of a cluster of trees and looked neat and tidy, with a single stone chimney, a thatched roof, and a well-disposed veranda. The sight of the accompanying barn and horse paddock made him smile as he fixed the preacher hat against his head—the 'saddlebag preacher' look was the most fitting cover when venturing into the domain of any emigrant settler.

"You!" a woman's voice called from somewhere up ahead. "Jus' hold it!"

Storm squinted toward the house and saw the woman's lone figure stationed behind a water butt. She wore a grey cotton dress with an apron tied across it, and her brown hair was worn pinned back beneath a straw hat. In her pale hands she held a Springfield rifle—and she holds it like she's meant to hold it, Storm thought.

"I don't take kindly to uninvited strangers," the woman called again.

Storm pulled back on the reins of Wolfe's stallion and raised his hands toward the crown of his wide-brimmed hat. "I'm evangelizing, ma'am, and my circuit riding brought me to you. I am Abel Crane of the Church of Latter-day Saints, and I bring you a wealth of joy from the holy empyrean. I bring—"

"Hang it," the woman interrupted.

"Beg your pardon, ma'am," Storm murmured in response.

The woman edged forward, limping slightly on her right leg, her rifle still held in front of her. "If you bringin' such wealth of joy, Reverend," she began, "then why we seein' so much darn trouble in the world right now? We got the War of Secession, the Snake War, an' emigrants gettin' their wagons all torn up by Indians. Then there's the Union an' the Confederacy—they sure as hell ain't got time for God these days. They got time for the Gattlin' gun, sure, but God, the Lord of Lords, the High an' Mighty—you kiddin' me, Reverend Crane?"

"I wouldn't kid you, ma'am," Storm said, and he began to lower his hands. Then, with a bow, he continued, "May I trouble you for a scoop of Adam's ale?"

"Reverend—do you believe in charity for nothing?" the woman responded. "I've got a whole barrowful of potatoes and cabbage plants out back. How 'bout you put 'em in for me? I offer you vittles, a bed in the barn, and all the water you need in return. Do we have a deal?"

Storm smiled and shifted his weight on the stallion. "Isn't the garden your good husband's domain, ma'am?"

The woman looked askance and then dropped her rifle to her side. "My husband, William Garrison, was killed in the Great Revolt."

"Sorry to hear it, ma'am," Storm said.

"That's as may be," came the response. "Do we have a deal, Reverend?"

Joey Storm tweaked the brim of his preacher hat between his fingers and made a slight bow. "We have a deal, ma'am."

* * *

The pieces of gold shone like bursts of sunlight on Joey Storm's palm, and he smiled as he tipped them back into the closest of the twin saddlebags and stowed the bags away behind a water trough, the latter unused and demoted to a junk-filled corner of Geneva Garrison's barn. The horses—Geneva's mare and Wolfe's stallion—were kept at the other end of the building. Nobody, not even a rat or a racoon, had ventured near the battered trough in an age. Satisfied, he left the barn with a spring in his step.

Geneva Garrison was waiting for him alongside the raised patch of soil in her garden. She'd positioned herself beside a plant-filled wheelbarrow and was holding on to a fork and a spade instead of a rifle. "When you finish up, Reverend," she began, "there'll be vittles waitin' for you inside the house."

He clamped his hat back on his head and nodded. "Fine, ma'am. Thank you."

Geneva Garrison edged forward and passed the fork and spade to him. Then, with a nod, she began to move away.

"May I ask, ma'am," Joey Storm called after her, "how did you injure yourself—your leg?"

"Not that it's any of your business, Reverend," she answered, "but I had an army career. I enlisted in a Pennsylvania regiment with my husband at the beginning of the Civil War."

"But you're a woman, ma'am."

"I should hope so."

"But the Union don't allow the enlistment of women."

"My name was Tom Lawes."

"You disguised yourself, ma'am, that what you mean?"

She removed her straw hat and looked down at the ground a moment. "I disguised myself, Reverend. I was Tom Lawes, my husband's friend. I was born and raised in Susquehanna County."

"Jesus," Storm responded. Then he remembered himself, saying, "Forgive me, Lord."

"Thing is, Reverend," Geneva Garrison continued, "I was shot. The musket ball lacerated the kneecap on my right leg. I was lucky to avoid the Caitlin knife and the saw."

Storm had seen the piles of amputated limbs for himself. He'd heard the screams as the surgeons drew their bloody saws through the pale arms and legs of the unfortunate injured. He'd puked up his rations on seeing the broken, dismembered corpse of the Oregon Cavalry's commissary sergeant. He remembered, too, the way they'd cut off Chief One Arm's left arm after they'd taken him prisoner. Jubal Gore, he knew, was guilty over that one—it was Gore who had incited the men to do it. Worse, it was Private Storm who had held One Arm against the ground, an action that had driven him to negotiate One Arm's inclusion in the group when he, Gore, and Wolfe deserted for the Idaho gold mines.

"It's a bloody business," Geneva Garrison was saying now. "It's like I say, Reverend—if this land is God's land, then I do believe God is mightily upset with our doings on it."

"Amen to that, ma'am," he said, thinking: It's a strange thing, though, 'cos even guilt disappears when a man digs up a shining gold seam.

* * *

"Thank you, ma'am, for your hospitality," Joey Storm said. "It's a long time since I last sat to table."

Geneva Garrison smiled as she spooned coffee into the cast-iron saucepan on her range. "You worked for it, Reverend," she said.

Storm was thinking about the gold—seeing it on his palm, smelling it, tasting it. It was going to become all the things he'd never had since he'd slopped out into the unruly world, killing his mother—a brothel whore in Cheyenne—with his sudden birth. His life as a railroad worker's brat and a cavalry picket was all done. The war could rage all it liked. Joseph H. Storm was going to drink the finest whiskey, kiss the finest honeys in town, and wear the finest tailoring he could lay his hands on. What do you think about that, Reverend Crane?

"Where is the Church of Latter-day Saints taking you next?" Geneva asked after a while.

Storm looked up, his expression blank. Then he said, "Wherever God's work takes me, ma'am, I'll be there."

"What about a family—your wife?" she asked.

"My work is my family, ma'am. It is, if you like, reward in itself."

"You are a dedicated man, Reverend Crane."

He was about to answer when he heard whinnying and neighing sounds coming from the barn. It was, he knew, Birdy Wolfe's black stallion. Maybe a prairie dog or a bear had decided to look over Geneva Garrison's homestead. Or—goddamn it—maybe worse, he thought. "I'll go take a peek," he said.

"You sure?" Geneva responded.

"God is with us, ma'am," he said.

"You sure 'bout that, Reverend?" she responded again.

He edged outside without a reply. Then, with a sigh, he placed his hand against the grip of his Colt Navy and started toward the barn, pausing only to look across the yard and the neck of the narrow track. Everything seemed calm; there were no hoof prints in the dirt.

Then he saw it.

Blood. A dark, thick reel of it. In the dirt.

Wolfe's stallion lay in a useless heap on the ground. The beast's eyeballs were no longer in their sockets, Storm saw, and the shiny black napkin of flesh under the animal's throat showed a large slick of blood. "Jesus H. Christ," Storm whispered under his breath.

"He ain't gonna help none," a familiar voice answered from behind Storm's right shoulder as the nub of a revolver greeted his back.

Storm froze. "What d'you want, Jubal?"

"Easy," Jubal Gore said as he grabbed the Colt from Storm's hand and dipped his shoulder against the meat of Storm's back. "One Arm and me bin lookin' over every settler's place last twenty mile or more. Sumthin' told me that you'd go to ground. You's soft, see. You ain't got no core, Private. A good neighbour tol' me all about Miss Garrison's place." He paused and laughed. "One Arm, see, he smelled the sweat of that there horse." He laughed again. "What do I want? You's don't even need to ask, Private."

"Wolfe took it all," Storm threw back. "I ain't got no gold."

"Strange thing," Jubal responded, "you havin' Wolfe's horse an' all."

Storm narrowed his eyes and saw One Arm looking back at him from the recess of the barn. The long-haired Indian was cleaning the blade of his Bowie knife with a handful of straw. His lean face was spotted with blood from the dead stallion's jugular.

"I know you's think you's tough and your conscience been gouged outta you by the war an' all," Jubal Gore was saying now, "but I also know that's nothin' but a lie you's like to feed on. What we gonna do, Private, is get this whole mess sorted. I'm gonna get the truth outta you. You's ain't like me, Private, 'cos I cross lines you's never dreamed of."

Joey Storm didn't want to think about it—but he couldn't help thinking about it. He saw again the way Jubal Gore had carved his way through One Arm's flesh; saw again the crazy, lopsided smile on Gore's face; saw again the relish with which Gore approached the task; saw again—though he didn't want to see it—the blood.

* * *

Geneva Garrison had seen them through "the gap"—the slight hitch in the wood struts at the barn's rear. She'd met many men like them. The Pennsylvania regiment she'd served in didn't lack for its fair share of blood-lusting cutthroats. It was something to do with the way people responded to the battlefield. The sight of blood and the stink of death permeated the soul of a person. If you douse a sponge with poisoned water, she'd once thought, then the sponge—no matter how much you wring it out—will never be clean again. Sometimes, mainly in the middle of the night, she couldn't help thinking about her husband, his guts splattered across his Union uniform.

"Coming in," a voice called from the doorway.

Swallowing, she about-turned toward the sound and saw the man who'd called himself Reverend Crane as he tumbled into the room, his hands bound, his right trouser leg torn and blackened with a fresh bloodstain. The Indian and the beast-faced man—the man Crane had called Jubal—stepped into the space behind him. The one-armed Indian held the knife he'd used to kill Crane's horse whilst his partner toted a pair of Colt revolvers, one of which—as she'd seen through her peephole—was the gun taken from Crane.

"We ain't gonna keep you long, lady," the man called Jubal said as he pushed Crane toward a chair. Then he paused and looked at the Springfield rifle behind Geneva Garrison. "Get that there rifle, Chief, an' bring it to me."

She watched as the one-armed Indian pushed past her and retrieved the rifle from the windowsill and took it across to his partner. The man called Jubal bent forward and scanned the rifle's hammer; there was no musket cap beside it.

"Take it out, Chief," Jubal hissed, "an' throw it in the butt."

"It's not loaded," Geneva said.

"Did I ask you's?" Jubal threw back. Then, with a lopsided smile, he continued, "All polite-like, lady, I'm gonna ask you's to come sit down next to Private Storm here. I know he gave you a different name an' all, but his real name is Joseph Henry Storm. He's an army deserter, a no-good bastard thief, an' a liar. He kicks up more corral dust than any goddamn banker or governor in any state you's care to mention."

Geneva watched the one-armed Indian as he sauntered back into the room and positioned himself beside Joey Storm. She held herself in place as he raised his horse-killing knife and placed it against Storm's right ear.

"Over here, lady," Jubal said then. "I got questions to ask your new pal here."

She began to move toward them. She directed herself toward the right-hand side of the table—Joey and his chums being on the other side. It took her no more than a split second to lift the saucepan of hot water from the range and no more than another split second to fling the pan's contents into the faces of Joey Storm's captors.

"Goddamn bitch!" Jubal exclaimed, at the same time flinging back his head and firing off a gunshot. "I'll kill you's, you's goddamned bitch!"

The aimless shot, Geneva Garrison was glad to note, slammed into the floorboards, cussing up no more than a few splinters. One way or another, she was quick to dismiss it as she grabbed the table and switched it over—just in time for the top to deflect the glittering blade of the Indian's knife.

"You can have it, Jubal," Joey Storm moaned as he dropped forward, his chair going with him. "You can have the goddamned gold. I'll give it to you. You can have it all. It's in the barn. You can have—"

Geneva Garrison didn't hear him as she plucked apart the top of her dress and removed the single-action Paterson revolver from her chemise. She made two shots within the space of two seconds: the first bored a hole through Jubal Gore's forehead, and the second speared straight through the centre of Chief One Arm's right eye. They both fell to ground like kicked sacks of flour.

Another pair of shots followed. For good riddance.

* * *

"Forgive me, ma'am," Joey Storm said, his head sagging forward against his chest as Geneva Garrison eased his bodyweight back against the wall. "I didn't mean to bring this trouble to your doorstep."

"The war is not your fault," she interrupted him, "and it's the war that's brought us together. We're the scarred corn from Bull Run and Philippi." She paused and smiled. "We're the bad blood."

"I hear you," Storm whispered under his breath.

"You ever look at the ants under your feet?" she threw back. "War and killin' is in their nature. We ain't so different, I guess. We use words to justify our need to draw blood. The powerful folks call it 'politics' or 'religion' or 'Union' or 'Confederate.'"

"I hear, ma'am," Storm whispered again.

An' I watched you when you stashed your gold in my barn, she almost said. But she slammed the cast-iron pot against Joey Storm's head instead—with every ounce of strength she could muster—and followed this with two final shots from her revolver.

With her heart beating full for the first time since childhood, Geneva Garrison retrieved Storm's gold from beneath the old water trough in the barn and saddled her mare. Then she returned to her kitchen and sprinkled the floorboards—and Storm's and his partners' bodies—with gunpowder, leaving the powder keg and the attached paper-twist fuse at the door. Her final act was to retrieve an oil lamp from the barn, put a flame to the wick, then place the chimneyless lamp below the paper fuse.

It happened less than a minute or so later—


Geneva Garrison didn't flinch as she rode away from her blazing home. She didn't give a second thought to the burning bodies of Joseph Storm, Jubal Gore, and Chief One Arm. She'd seen enough bodies— just like them ants—to last a lifetime.

The End

I am a writer based in the UK. I have had two novels published under Michael G. Preston penname—Cull and Shifters—and several stories—Extreme Latitude, Blood for the Reaper, The Live-In Nightmare of Theo Shardlow. I love Westerns. J.T. Edson was born in the village next to where I live. I think I caught some of his enthusiasm!

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The Ramrod
by R.J. Gahen

Michael Carney groaned a bit as he shifted his weight in the saddle. At forty-one, he felt the aches and pains a lot more than he used to. He no longer broke the rough string, but he felt the pains of several broken ribs and a broken leg from the days when he broke young horses. He felt them especially on the cool fall mornings like the one he was currently half way through. He sighed a bit and wished yet again for another cup of Otto's coffee. That old man was cantankerous as an old mossy-horned cow, but he sure could cook.

The aching bones brought back memories of previous jobs and cattle drives. He'd pretty much seen it all, to include Indian raids, bushwhackers, and stampedes. He allowed a quick smile to penetrate his tough, leather-like face, grateful for his current job. He liked ramrodding an outfit and the Lazy KT was the best he'd ever worked for. He'd been there going on eight years and had the ranch producing nicely. That summer they'd made a round up and driven the cattle nine hundred miles to Dodge City. He'd sent out scouts and found the best trails with the most water and brought the herd in loaded with fat. That feat resulted in a prime payout of forty dollars a head which netted his boss 20,000 dollars. Tom Stone was sitting pretty as the owner of the richest ranch in the territory and he was extremely happy with Mike's work.

Mike smiled again as he rode along the creek bank, satisfied that a warm bunk belonged to him for the winter. He'd spent enough winters roughing it out in mining camps and cold line cabins. Life on the ranch suited him and as far as he was concerned, he was done moving around, except for maybe one more move that would take him to his own spread. Thoughts about raising his own family crept more and more into his mind lately. He planned to talk to Betsy over at the Cloverleaf Café about that prospect. He also wanted to talk to Tom and Karen Stone, owners of the Lazy KT, about buying a small 200-acre plot on the north side of their ranch. He had a few ideas and hoped to build the small ranch into a nice homestead for himself and Betsy.

One time, there had been another girl, Mary. He'd felt he was too young though, and wasn't ready to provide for a family at that time. Several times over the years he looked back and regretted that decision.

No more missed opportunities ole feller. No more. It's time to make something of yourself. More than just a sixty dollar a month ramrod.

He pulled up sharply when he heard a cow's panicked bellowing. It seemed to come from up ahead in a small grove of cottonwoods alongside the creek. The trees still held their leaves so he couldn't tell what the commotion was about. He feared rustlers were operating again and shucked his pistol as he moved his horse quietly ahead. His eyes roved around the shady clearing under the trees and he breathed a sigh of relief. No rustlers!

The cow lay on her side, struggling to stand. Mike's spirits sagged. Eyes searching the area for trouble, he rode to within a rope's throw of the cow. She was obviously exhausted. She lay half in and half out of the water. Foamy bubbles frothed around her mouth and her eyes held a wild, desperate look. It was Gertie.

Three years prior he'd rescued her when her mama abandoned her, which sometimes happened. Mike hand fed her, and generally babied her, spending extra time each night with the scrawny little heifer. She'd been a fighter though, and grown into a pretty little cow. She'd been like a pet during her first year of life. Now this.

Mike saw the problem immediately. Her left front leg was twisted badly and the broken bone poked through the skin, just below her knee. The poor beast must have slipped in the mud as she was climbing out of the creek bed and caught her hoof in the rocks.

Knowing what he had to do saddened him. It was almost like putting down a member of his family. Even if he could get her out of the water, he couldn't doctor her. She'd never let him get close and she'd never survive without being able to stand.

Looking around the clearing once again to make sure there were no other dangers nearby, he leveled his Colt at her head and thumbed back the hammer.

"Good bye, Gertie. I'm sorry to do this girl."

He fired the Colt. His horse shied and jumped nervously to the side, but Mike kept him under control. The gelding was fresh off the range and not yet completely broke. Gertie died instantly and once he calmed his horse down, Mike untied his rope and stepped down. Walking to the beast, he lifted her head and patted it. He then placed the loop around her neck and fashioned a hackamore by twisting the loop and placing another one around the cow's muzzle.

Climbing back into the saddle, Mike took a dally around the horn, turned his horse and took up the slack. Once the rope tightened, he gave the mustang the spur and urged him forward, slowly dragging the dead cow up onto the bank. She was heavy and by the time she was free of the water, his horse was blowing heavily. He backed it up, loosening the rope and dropping the end on the ground. Climbing down, he walked to the cow, pulled the rope from her head and began coiling it up.

He stood near the bank, enjoying the sight of the lazy water flowing by. Ripples appeared then disappeared across the clear surface. A few clouds reflected faintly on the water. Something moving through the water caught his eye and he froze. A pair of water moccasins approached the bank right in front of him. Slowly he stepped back, trying his best not to startle the snakes. They slid quickly through the mud and up the bank. He dropped his hand to the pistol butt.

The snakes stopped moving, darting their tongues out quickly, testing the air, searching for a threat. Mike drew his Colt slowly and took another step back. Just as he cocked the gun, his foot came down on the dead cow's leg. His ankle rolled and he went down in a heap, firing his pistol in the general direction of the snakes over and over again.

Mike let go with a wild yell, scrambling to get a foothold and move out of harm's way. Things happened quickly. His horse, still only green broke, screamed with fear and jumped away into a startled gallop. The snakes, sensing the wild movements, determined a threat and quickly struck out to defend themselves. One of them only found boot leather, but the other dug its fangs deep into Mike's thigh. He yelled again painfully as the snake disengaged itself and fled to the rushes to join its friend.

Mike lay on the ground, breathing heavily. He rolled over a bit to see his horse disappear down the trail, still running strong. He rolled back and quickly dug his knife from his pocket. He undid his belt and pulled his pants down. He slit his long johns near the bite and pulled them wide. Two small holes stared back at him.

He didn't have a fire or any whiskey to sterilize the blade, but he didn't stop. Gritting his teeth, he made a deep slice between the holes and started kneading his muscles, hopefully working the poison out of his leg. He had no idea if it was working, but he kept at it. Blood flowed freely from the ugly wound. He touched it with a finger then brought it to his lips, tasting it carefully. A strong bitter taste hit his tongue and he immediately spit it out. He went back to squeezing his leg and pushing towards the wound. He kept massaging the leg, but started feeling queasy and light headed. His breathing came in gasps and he felt his heart hammering in his chest.

He stopped to rest and drunkenly tasted the blood again, still bitter. He laid back against Gertie's side to rest a minute. He knew he had to keep working the wound, but was so tired.

The cow's body was still warm and a gentle breeze stirred the leaves. Multi-colored spots appeared on the blue sky above. Mike chuckled to himself.

"Well, old girl," he said as he patted her side, "it looks like we were both meant to go today. I sure wish I hadn't missed the opportunity to start a family way back then with Mary. Now I've gone and missed another one with Betsy. And I guess you're gonna miss tasting that fresh cut hay we just put up for ya. Missed opportunities. A hell of a way to leave this life, thinking about missed opportunities." Mike chuckled a bit, then sighed quietly. He noticed that his ribs and old broken leg didn't hurt anymore, and neither did the snake bite. His eyes stared at the sky and his hand convulsively gripped Gertie's leg.

"I guess I'll be seeing ya in a few minutes, girl. I sure hope there's plenty more opportunities for both of us up there."

The snakes swam lazily downstream and an hour later Mike's horse trotted into the ranch yard. Mike and Gertie lay still while the water gurgled quietly nearby.

The End

R.J. Gahen is a retired Air Force pilot and current airline pilot. He grew up reading westerns and loves creating his own. He loves spending time with his family and enjoying the outdoors. Find more of his works at

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by Ralph S. Souders

It was a typical Wednesday morning in Colchester. The summer sun was still low in the sky and a light breeze was blowing through the town. The morning temperature was cool with a chance of light rain later in the day. It had been a relatively dry summer and although the farmers were not yet too concerned, they were hoping to see an afternoon shower. Their crops in the fields were still healthy and they were anticipating a strong harvest come autumn.

Jack Barnett had traveled to town that morning to purchase supplies for his ranch located in the eastern end of the valley. It was his plan to stop at the bank, and then to visit the general store, the feed store and the blacksmith before heading back home. He had parked his buckboard outside the feed store since that is where he would be obtaining the largest and heaviest items. If time permitted, he would visit the saloon for a glass or two of whiskey. This would be his reward for doing the ranch's shopping again this month although such a reward was not necessary. He enjoyed coming into town and over time, he had become good friends with the banker and the storekeepers. He believed that they appreciated his business, and they always made him feel welcome in their establishments.

By late morning with his shopping complete, Jack was standing at the bar in the saloon, sipping his first glass of whiskey while making small talk with the bartender. Sensing somebody approaching the bar from behind him, Jack turned his body and faced the doorway. A pleasant smile encompassed his face as he immediately recognized the man walking toward him.

"Morning, Herb," said Jack. "This is sure unexpected. Do you have time for a drink? I'm just wettin' my whistle for a spell before headin' back to the ranch. I still have some chores to do this afternoon."

Herb Browning was a good friend. He and Jack were both from Missouri, having been born and raised in the same county. They had not known each other back home but upon relocating to Colorado, they had become acquainted and had quickly developed a close bond. Neither man had any kinfolk in the area and their relationship had become almost brotherlike. They trusted one another completely and each man could depend upon the support of the other whenever this might be needed.

"Yeah, I've probably got time for a quick one," said Herb in a serious tone of voice. "But Jack, I need to talk to you. Something came up last night that you should know. I was getting ready to head over to your place this morning to tell you about it."

"Really?" replied Jack inquisitively. "What's up?"

"Yesterday evening, a stranger rode into town on a grey mustang. He left it with George Baumeister at the livery stable. The horse had a rebrand on his left hip. Jack, we're pretty sure that he's Jericho."

Jack was astonished to hear this news. Jericho had been his favorite horse. He had been sired and foaled on Jack's ranch and had been Jack's primary mount for more than two years. Ten months earlier, Jericho had disappeared in Culverton, a town located about a day's ride to the north. Jack had gone there on business and had tied the horse to the hitching rail outside of the saloon before going inside. When he left the saloon thirty minutes later, Jericho was gone, obviously stolen. Nobody had witnessed the theft and the horse was never recovered. Jack had not expected to ever see him again.

"Is he still at the livery?" asked Jack, trying to contain his excitement.

"Yeah, he is," replied Herb. "Finish your whiskey and we can go over there and take a look."

Jack did not take the time to finish his drink. Leaving some money on the bar beside his half empty glass, he headed toward the wooden, swinging doors with Herb following closely behind. They headed directly toward the livery stable where they arrived in less than three minutes. George Baumeister had seen the men as they approached his business, and he met them just outside the open, barn door.

"Howdy, Jack," said George. "Come inside. He's in the last stall at the back of the building. He appears to be in very good shape."

The three men entered the barn and walked to the end stall. The grey mustang was quietly standing there, facing them as they stopped and gazed back at him. Jack knew him immediately. He entered the stall and began to examine the horse, gently stroking his mane and patting him on his shoulder. Jericho recognized Jack and happily nickered and began swinging his tail from side to side. Jack inspected the brand located on Jericho's hip and observed that it had been awkwardly altered in an amateurish fashion.

The horse's saddle was sitting atop the wooden partition that separated his stall from the adjoining stall to the left. Jack lifted the saddle and examined it, turning it over and locating the initials burned into its underside. This was his saddle, no doubt about it. Jack could feel the excitement inside him slowly turning into anger.

"What are you going to do, Jack?" asked George. "This other fella's gonna' be coming back here for his horse before too long."

"It ain't his horse!" snapped Jack as he grabbed the bridle hanging on the wall beside the saddle. Jack expertly installed the bridle on the horse. Once this was done, he opened the gate of the stall and led the horse outside before slowly walking him toward the open, barn door.

"Can you carry the saddle for me, Herb? My buckboard's parked beside the feed store. I'm gonna' get the buckboard and then I'm gonna' stop by the sheriff's office. I'll let him handle the horse thief. There's laws on the books for dealing with outlaws like him."

As Herb grabbed the saddle, Jack handed George a two-dollar coin in payment of the overnight livery fee. He was certain that the thief would not be paying George this fee once he realized that the horse was gone. George was now worried, and he had an uncomfortable feeling as to how this was all going to go down. He watched as Jack and Herb walked with Jericho through the open barn door and into the street. They walked the short distance to the feed store where Jack tied Jericho's reins to the back of the buckboard. Herb placed the saddle behind the driver's seat, beside the items that Jack had purchased earlier that morning. Once the buckboard was loaded and with the horse walking immediately behind, Jack climbed onto the seat and drove it slowly up the street to the sheriff's office with Herb walking closely beside.

Jack was disappointed to find the sheriff out of the office that morning. The office was locked, and a handwritten note was tacked to the door:

Out until late afternoon. In an emergency, Jeb Smith at the General Store is Acting Deputy. Sheriff Sam Halvorsen

Jack and Herb were undecided about what to do. Jeb Smith was a capable man but not a very aggressive personality. His typical course of action would be to accumulate as much information as possible and to then present it to the sheriff upon his return. This procedure was probably effective in situations that were relatively simple and not urgent in nature. It would not be the best strategy for dealing with a horse thief. Jack impulsively decided that he would take Jericho home with him to the ranch that afternoon and would return to town in the morning to speak with the sheriff. Herb promised that upon the sheriff's return to his office, he would have George Baumeister inform the sheriff of Jack's plan.

"Thanks for your help this morning, Herb," said Jack. "I'm much obliged. Perhaps I'll see you tomorrow when I bring Jericho back to town. Be careful. The thief ain't gonna' be too happy when he finds out that you helped me retrieve my horse."

"Don't worry about me, Jack," replied Herb. "I can take care of myself."

"Yeah, I know you can," agreed Jack. "I just hate to involve you in this matter. It's my problem."

"It's no problem for me at all," replied Herb. "This is what friends do."

Jack smiled pleasantly and nodded his head in agreement. Then, casually saying goodbye to his friend, he prompted the team of horses, and they slowly began pulling the buckboard into the street with Jericho following behind. They were headed in an easterly direction toward the end of town. Jack estimated that they would arrive at the ranch in less than twenty minutes.

The buckboard had only traveled about one hundred yards when a gruff looking man suddenly jumped off the boardwalk near the general store and rushed into the street, impeding the forward progress of the slow-moving vehicle. The confused horses abruptly stopped as Jack pulled back on their reins.

"Hey, what the hell!" hollered Jack angrily.

"You've got my horse!" the stranger yelled loudly. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

The man looked like a drifter, perhaps an out-or-work cowboy, wearing worn, dark clothes and a black Stetson. His boots were old and needed replacing. He wore a gunslinger's holster on his hip, the bottom of which was tied to his leg with a leather strap. The holster contained a .38 caliber handgun. The man had a sinister aura about him. Jack suspected that he was either an outlaw or somebody who pushed the limits of the law very closely.

"What am I doing?" replied Jack incredulously. "I'm reclaiming my property, that's what. This horse was stolen from me ten months ago. I'm taking him home."

"No, you ain't," replied the man. "That's my horse! I bought him with cash money. You ain't takin' him nowhere."

"Really?" asked Jack in a confrontational tone of voice. "He's yours? I don't suppose you have a bill of sale."

"Bill of sale? No," said the stranger, "I paid cash. I didn't get no receipt."

"Yeah, well I have paperwork on this horse at my ranch," replied Jack. "He was born on my property. He was stolen from me. He's mine."

"No, he ain't yours," retorted the man. "He belongs to me, and I aim to keep him. Believe me, you don't want to force my hand."

The stranger's body language indicated that he would not be backing down. Jack sensed that the man was prepared to use his gun.

"Who are you, cowboy?" asked Jack. "I don't recall ever seeing you around here."

"Bill Lynch," the man replied. "I'm not a local. I live up Culverton way."

Herb Browning by now had walked up the street and had joined the small crowd assembled on the boardwalk, witnessing the commotion in the street. He could easily hear the argument between Jack and the cowboy. Herb was familiar with the name Bill Lynch, having heard it previously while visiting Culverton. Lynch was a ne'er-do-well in that region, and he had the reputation of a troublemaker and a wannabe gun fighter. He was not well known outside his own area although he fashioned himself to be a notorious figure.

"Look here, Lynch," said Jack, "you best get out of the way. I'm taking my horse. If you don't like it, go ahead and report me to the sheriff when he gets back in town. Jack Barnett's the name. The sheriff knows me well. You can tell him that I'll be back tomorrow, and I'll discuss this with him then."

"Yeah, except that you're takin' my horse! He ain't yours! What am I supposed to do without a horse in the meantime?" asked Bill Lynch.

"I don't know," replied Jack. "That's not my problem. What did you do for a horse before you took mine? If you ask me, you're getting off mighty easy, considering that horse thieving is a hanging offense in these parts. If I were you, I wouldn't be pushing my luck too far. It's bound to run out right quick."

Lynch's reaction was that of a man who did not appreciate being called a horse thief, especially while standing in front of a crowd of people. Lynch was insulted and embarrassed, even though neither emotion was justified as he very well knew. His immediate, gut reaction was to lash out at his accuser, and he did this by reaching for his gun. In one swift, natural motion, he pulled his gun from its holster, lifted it and pointed it at his accuser. His hand appeared steady although his face was red, and his head and neck shook slightly from his rage.

As Jack saw Lynch drawing his gun, he quickly reached for his own pistol as well. Unfortunately, Lynch had both the element of surprise and the momentum of his action in his favor. Jack's gun was barely out of its leather holster when Lynch pulled the trigger on his. Jack heard the weapon fire and instantaneously, he felt the bullet fly past his head, missing his right ear by inches. Jack instinctively followed through by raising his arm, pointing his gun at his adversary and pulling the trigger. To his immediate dismay, he felt the pistol jam in his hand, becoming useless.

Now, in a panic, Jack tossed his gun to the side, and heard it land on the dirt street next to the buckboard. He began to raise his hands in defeat. Simultaneously, he observed a sinister smile begin to encompass Bill Lynch's face. Terrified, Jack watched as the outlaw methodically took aim with his pistol. He heard the gunfire and instantly felt the intense pain of a metal bullet hitting his shoulder at a high rate of speed. The impact of the bullet caused him to jolt backward against the backrest of his seat. Clutching the wound with both hands, he leaned to his left before slumping face-first downward and lying flat on the wooden seat. The pain was excruciating. He felt light-headed and nauseous.

Herb Browning, still standing among the bystanders on the boardwalk, had watched in horror as Bill Lynch shot the unarmed man. Before Lynch could fire again, Herb reacted impulsively, drawing his weapon and shooting the outlaw, hitting him in the chest. This happened precisely as Lynch's gun was releasing its next shot at his helpless victim. The force of Herb's bullet striking Lynch caused the evil man to miss his target with his shot, hitting the wooden backrest of the buckboard seat instead. The bullet became embedded in the backrest approximately four inches above the injured man lying across the seat. Seconds after taking the bullet, Bill Lynch collapsed to the ground, critically wounded if not already dead. The bystanders were stunned by the event that they had just witnessed, just as they were amazed at the skill with which Herb Browning could handle a gun. This was a hidden talent that the townsfolk had not realized he possessed.

Within minutes, Acting Deputy Smith arrived on scene where he assumed control of the situation. Jack Barnett was assisted by two men to the town doctor to be treated for his wound. George Baumeister took control of the buckboard including Jack's three horses and the various supplies that Jack had purchased in town earlier that morning. George would keep everything safe and secure at the livery until Jack would be able to take possession of them. Bill Lynch was confirmed dead in the street and his body was carried to the cemetery at the edge of town where it would be buried before nightfall. Herb accompanied the acting deputy to the sheriff's office where he provided his official statement on the incident. There were numerous eyewitnesses whose statements would certainly be identical to his. Herb had no worries whatsoever of being accused of any wrongdoing in this matter. He had done what he had needed to do to protect his friend. He would do it again if circumstances should ever require him to do so.

The doctor examined Jack and determined that the bullet had missed most of his shoulder bones. The doctor was relieved that the clavicle had not been shattered or broken by the bullet as this would have required a difficult surgery that he was not confident in doing. Fortunately, with proper rest and without stressing the shoulder needlessly, the doctor believed that Jack would make a full recovery. Jack would need to delegate his major chores at the ranch to others in the near term, but considering the circumstances, this was something that he was prepared to do. Jack realized that he was extremely lucky. Bill Lynch's first shot had almost hit him in the head. The second shot had hit his shoulder, but it could have just as easily entered his chest. The third and final shot had missed his body by four inches, thanks to the timely intervention of his good friend, Herb. Having survived this ordeal, Jack would forever have a different outlook on life. He would cherish his wife, daughter, son-in-law and friends more than ever before. Every new day would be a gift, and he would always be thankful.

Late that afternoon, Jack finally headed home to the ranch. His family had earlier become worried when he was so late in returning from town. They had finally sent a couple of ranch hands to look for him. These men were astonished to discover what had happened in town that morning. Now, as they all left town together, Herb Browning was driving the buckboard with his own horse tied to the back. He would be spending the night at the ranch. The two ranch hands were following behind the buckboard, riding their horses. Alongside the buckboard near his friend, Jack rode atop Jericho, his long-lost horse, finally found and recovered. Jack's right arm and shoulder were in a sling and each bounce in the saddle caused his injuries to throb in pain. Jack did not mind the discomfort. Holding the reins in his left hand, he was ecstatic with happiness to be riding Jericho, his favorite horse, once again.

The End

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. He has also written a movie script and his short stories have appeared in Bewildering Stories, Frontier Tales, Gadfly Online and The Penmen Review magazines. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida. He is happily married to his wife of thirty-five years. They are now retired and reside in Middle Tennessee. His website is

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