January, 2024

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Issue #172

All The Tales

Hunting Liberty
by Alexander Edmondson

The mountain air was still in March, and as he rode along the winding trail, he kept a close eye on the marks in the snow. It was near impossible to tell where the path was or wasn't without them. The firs and pines stuck from the ground like the hairs off an old man, leading to bald summits with smooth white caps. Some of the mountain rims looked like the creases and folds of a loose sleeve, and it seemed that he was riding down the arm and into the hand of an iron grip. He leaned forward, urging his horse every second to ride faster. He was yearning for their arrival at the next town—Cessation.

As he rode, he found a figure down the distant slope, just walking ahead of the trees lining the road. "Hya!" he shouted, urging his horse once more into a tiring run that it so desperately didn't want but that he so desperately needed. The man held the reigns with one hand and clutched his revolver with the other. He slowed his steed as he approached the man, wrapped in a fur coat. The figure waved, and once he was in earshot, he shouted, "Slow down! Slow down!"

The traveler pulled his horse to a stop, and the animal panted and drooled as its head hung low. "Your horse looks tired," said the man in an American accent. He was a big man with gray hair on his chin and brown hairs that wrapped around his cheeks. His hair was greasy with pomade—slicked back with no part.

The man's attention was altogether diverted from the horse when he heard the click of a hammer, and he pulled his gaze to the barrel of a gun pointed right between his eyes. The man knew all too well to stay still and slowly move his hands high above his head.

"What's your name?" said the traveler.

He gulped. "Monroe," said the man. "William Monroe. Call me Bill if you'd like."

The traveler paused and put the gun back in his holster. "Where'd you come from?"

"Durango, sir," said Bill. "But I just came from Meyers this morning, looking for a place to build my hunting cabin. My Quarter Horse was spooked and rode off somewhere I can't find him."

The traveler looked down at him, his dusty and tired face showing no emotion, and then looked on at the road ahead. "Seen anyone else?" asked the traveler. "Especially any nasty folk."

"There was someone about an hour ago who wouldn't glance at me—rode with a Shire. I shouted at him to stop, and he didn't take two looks. I'd reckon he's either deaf or a no-gooder. I shouted, 'Why won't you stop for me, Shireman!'"

"What'd he look like?" asked the traveler.

"He had a mean look about him. You can tell those things about people by their looks—if they're good or bad. He was definitely a bad one."

"Did he have a pair of golden spurs?" asked the traveler.

Bill paused, but then he started nodding his head anxiously and saying, "Yes, yes, I think he did. I remember they were strange because I've seen nobody with such a wild choice of fashion."

The traveler paused. "That's him, alright."

"Who?" asked Bill. But Bill quickly stopped the traveler from saying anything else and asked again, "Could you take me to Cessation? My family's there, and I'd rather go there than back to Meyers."

"Sure," said the traveler. "Get on."

* * *

The horse's trot was slowed, and it became even more tired on the trail. Bill rubbed his hands together, saying, "I'm very, very thankful for this kindness, sir. You'd better let your Morgan eat and sleep in Cessation. It looks pretty tired. It's a Morgan, right?"

The traveler nodded his head.

"Oh my goodness!" Bill said, shaking his head and patting the traveler on his back, "I never got your name, sir."

"Johnnie Leaden," he responded. "Johnnie's fine, then."

Bill seemed to never have a content expression. He always shook his head nervously and had his mouth cracked open. "Where you from, Mr. Leaden? You sound like you're from the South, I'd reckon. Not Louisiana for sure, but somewhere south."

"Eden, Texas," said Johnnie.

"Texas! God, that would've been my first guess if we were guessing. Why's a Texan all the way out here in the Rockies with nothing but a horse and iron?"

"Is it your business?" said Johnnie.

"No, I suppose not. Well, maybe it is. I want to know who's taking me to town, especially if they're being chased by the law. It'd look real rotten for me to be on the horse of a criminal when the sheriff shows up."

"Your fine," said Johnnie, still talking in a monotonous and tired-like fashion. "I'm looking for someone."

"Ah, I see," said Bill. After a few moments of silence, he continued, "Well, you've hooked me, Mr. Leaden. I got to know who this fella is, you're finding."

Johnnie murmured, made tired noises a tired man would make, and said, "Ever heard of a man named Liberty Callum?"

"No, I don't reckon I have. What'd he do to you?" Then Bill threw his hands in the air and shouted, "Oh! I know! You're a bounty hunter, ain't ya? This fella's got a big bounty on his head, doesn't he? Is he the fella who robbed that train in Reno?"

Johnnie was silent for a moment and said, "Nope, haven't seen a bounty yet."

"Huh, then why are you chasing him?"

Johnnie was once again silent, but then he spouted, accentuating each word, "He killed my brother. Kindest man you'd ever meet. That son of a bitch killed my brother, and he's going to get what's coming to him." His hand went to the grip of his pistol, and Bill could hear (and see) his breath. He was steaming mad.

Now Bill was silent, and his mouth was as wide open as ever, gawking at the angry man. Johnnie looked back at Bill, his belt and buttons shaking, and then looked back at the road. "Sorry," said Johnnie. "Always a burden to hear another man's troubles."

"No, no, no," Bill responded quickly. "Don't be like that, Mr. Leaden. Hell, I tell my troubles too much. You ought to tell 'em. It's only human."

Johnnie was quiet but, in a hesitant fashion, said, "Oh, alright. It isn't too much to explain. My brother came back from his first cattle drive and had a good stash of money. He went to the store to buy my daddy and me some tobacco. I went from the watering hole to go find him, and in front of the general store, I saw my dead brother with a man standing over him. I've been hot on his heels ever since—and those damn spurs of his."

"Damn!" shouted back Bill. "What a tale! How'd you learn his name?"

"An old timer told me. He was old and tiresome and burdened by worries. He said he had been chasing Liberty Callum, that he was hot on his heels, and that he was the meanest son of a bitch in Columbia. He said he was the refuse of Hell and that Satan himself threw him out."

"Damn!" shouted Bill again. "This sounds like something my Paw would tell me! Mr. Leaden, you think you're going to get him today?"

"I can only hope," said Johnnie. "I've seen him once after the incident in Eden when he was struggling with those spurs of his after killing a man in Phoenix."

"What'd he look like?" said Bill with his mouth gaping.

"Like the meanest son of a bitch in America," he responded, his teeth gritting like a grindstone. "The refuse of Hell. The shit that Satan didn't even want. Stretched from ear to ear was spotted bristle, and his face was loosely bespeckled. He was calm and collected, chewing on a toothpick when he saw me. Took him half a second to pull his iron, and he missed the hairs on my head by an inch when I saw the bullet in my hat later that night."

"What happened to him?"

"Absconded as quickly as he drew."

"Well, you oughta find him today," said Bill. "It's that kind of day—I can tell—the day to get revenge on—" Bill's words trailed off into a winter silence that only the wind filled.

Johnnie had seen what he'd seen, furrowing his brow and pulling his revolver out. "Do you have an iron, Bill?" he asked.

"No, my Paw said killing's for God and the devil. Though, this fella seems to be asking for it. I have a tomahawk, though. An Injun fella gave it to me. A cayuse horse he was riding," Bill smiled as he said that and shuffled through his big fur coat, trying to find the thing.

"That'll do." Johnnie whipped the horse. "Hya!" The beast released a howling yelp and lifted itself from the ground. Bill had to grip his hat as he held onto the saddle. Then the beast galloped down a fork in the road—not to Cessation—but to a pillar of awful smoke that the deep woods emitted. It reminded Johnnie of the pillar of smoke he saw in a town called Blythe. It was Liberty—burning folks.

Johnnie imagined seeing that bastard Liberty. He imagined pressing the heel of his boot against his dry and weary palms. He imagined resting his iron between the two eyes of Liberty. He imagined asking the rotten fool if he remembered his brother and if he remembered shooting him in the back and stealing his money. Johnnie imagined taking the tobacco his brother had bought—shoving it in Liberty's mouth with his black teeth uselessly chewing on it as it slid down his throat and choked him.

* * *

The trees stood straight like they were at gunpoint, and they barely blocked the campsite that the smoke billowed from. Bill and Johnnie were as quiet as mountain predators, taking each careful step into consideration as they scanned each break in the tree line for the dreadful figure of Liberty Callum.

They saw him standing in the shade, with his back turned to them. Fifteen feet from the devil, they stood in the protection of the trees. Johnnie held his revolver up, pulling back the hammer as he turned the corner to the camp. He sprinted, with Bill following, anxious and surprised-like, with his tomahawk in hand.

"Liberty! It's time for you to die, Liberty!" Johnnie shouted, shooting at the shoes of the man at camp. He shot thrice, his arm jolting with each pull of the trigger. The campfire reflected into his eyes, and the man turned around to see his rage.

"Remember me, Shireman!" shouted Bill as Johnnie shot the ground, missing the man's feet.

"God dammit, kid!" shouted another on a horse who was out of sight. He pulled back the hammer of his shotgun. "Hold it right there."

The man twitched in a frightened and all-around terrified motion, facing Johnnie with his hands high in the air. Johnnie turned to the man with the shotgun. He was an old folk with a star pinned to his chest. "Who are you?" questioned the old sheriff. "What are you doing out here?"

"Trying to find this one!" shouted Johnnie, sounding more like Bill than anyone else. "Liberty Callum!"

"Liberty Callum is horse shit," said a goateed deputy who was standing behind the criminal. "Just a load of horse shit."

The sheriff lowered his shotgun and dismounted, looking at the deputy with a wise air about him. "Now, now," he went on, "don't be so rash, Millet. What do you know about this Liberty guy? I've never heard of him before."

"This is him!" Johnnie interrupted, pointing his pistol at the man with the golden spurs. "He killed my brother in Eden, Texas! Remember!"

"I ain't never been to Texas," said the man with the golden spurs. "Honest, I swear. That train was the first crime I've ever done!"

"Liberty Callum's what old folks tell to get pity," said the deputy to the sheriff, holding his rifle to the ground as his alert and angry eyes darted back and forth. "I heard it from a coot in Pheonix. Knew it was horse shit the moment I heard it."

The sheriff looked up, contemplating, "Is that the one who only kills wives or the one who Satan sent out of hell?"

"The second one," said the deputy.

"Yeah, yeah, 'meanest son of a bitch, ' right?" asked the sheriff.

"Right again."

"Yeah, buddy, that's just tall talk. Liberty Callum isn't real," said the sheriff. "Now, are you ready for the court?"

"Naw, send me to jail, please. I don't wanna get the noose."

"You killed a man," said the sheriff. "I'm sorry, but that's the way."

"Wait, wait, I know this is Liberty," interjected Johnnie. "Liberty has those same golden spurs, and I've seen them before twice—once in Eden and the other in Phoenix."

"I ain't ever been to Phoenix either!" said the man, who was cleanly shaven and more distressed than anyone else.

"Now, wait," said the sheriff. "You said your brother's murderer had these same spurs, and you saw them again in Phoenix?"

Johnnie nodded.

The sheriff looked up again in contemplation. "Well, I'm thinking," he said. "If you shot someone dead, wouldn't you take their valuables, especially if you were robbing them?"

"Yessum, yessum," cried the criminal. "I saw these on a drunk man in Meyers and slipped them off him. That's how I have 'em. I've had 'em since yesterday."

"Liar!" shouted Johnnie as he shot once more at the ground where the criminal stood.

"Will I have to take that pistol away?" shouted the sheriff angrily. "Please, sir, control yourself! What I see here is a sad spout of mourning. The man who killed your brother in Eden was shot somewhere west, and then his spurs were stolen, and that man went west. The spurs were stolen again, where you saw then in Phoenix, no doubt, and the spurs went west once more, or twice, or thrice, or however many times to here. They've been nothing but a burden to the poor fools who've had them.

"Now, mister, I suggest you reach Cessation and sleep. Maybe your friend can help you with that. I also suggest that you stop this Liberty nonsense. This man is not Liberty, and neither was the man who killed your brother. He might've not existed anyhow. Go along, mister, because there are better things to spend your time on."

The sheriff mounted his horse and tipped his hat, moving along with the criminal behind him and the deputy following. "Here, crazy," said the criminal, kicking the spurs to the side. "Keep 'em. They won't help me."

The deputy walked past. "The frontier hasn't helped you, has it? That's the frontier for you." Then they all trotted away, leaving Johnnie and Bill in their dust.

"What are you going to do now?" asked Bill, with his lips barely touching.

Johnnie was trembling and stayed silent.

"You're always welcome to stay with me and my folks. We might not have much, but you'll be welcomed with open arms and cornbread."

Johnnie sat down on the ground in front of a smoldering fire that had but faint glowing sparks. Gazing at the golden spurs, he took a tin of old chewing tobacco out of his coat and put a slip in his mouth. It tasted worst than ever, but at least it was something to occupy his mind.

The End

My name is Alexander Edmondson. I'm a historical fiction writer living in the Southwest. All I want to do is write entertaining fiction that'll make people happy.

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The Bisbee Giant
by George Hirvela

I heard about my friend's marker, that an ungrateful town left him. The town almost burnt to the ground and all its people were nearly killed but for the actions of my friend and all they could think of to put on his marker was "BEN – DIED FOR THE LOVE OF AN OLD WHORE." He did indeed love that old whore but you would have thought they'd mentioned that he saved the town in the process. The way they treated him was dreadful.

I remember first hearing about the so-called Bisbee giant. As I rode my territorial assignment as U.S. Marshal for the Arizona District, I kept hearing of a giant miner outside of Bisbee, the tales seemed so exaggerated that I had to see for myself. Finally, I found myself in the area and decided to ride over and have a look for myself. I expected to see a big man but nothing to validate the ridiculous rumors I'd been hearing.

* * *

I rode up on my well-lathered black mare that was more than happy to lap up a little water from the trough outside the worker's accommodations.

Looking down the brim of my hat I could see a fat man hurrying over in a waddling gait; I was guess'n he was the foreman, too fat to do any real work. This is a private mine mister he said as he presented himself. At the time I was leaning over dipping my neck rag in the water to cool off. I straightened up in my saddle and the badge caught his eye.

"Oh sorry, Marshall, I didn't see your badge. What can I help you with?"

"I came to see that big fella you got working here."

"Oh, you mean Ben."

The Irish mine workers called him Ben, short for Benandonnar, a giant of their folklore. He knew very little of the world outside the mine. His tongue was a mixture of Gaelic and broken American English. The mine foreman called on him to meet Me, and as he stepped into the light, my good steady mare wanted nothing to do with that situation and was so flustered I had to slide off and pull her head to my face and tell her to relax. I could not blame her. He was frightening in size and caused me to rest my hand on my colt, my natural reaction to danger. Without realizing it, I found myself leaning back and losing my footing a little. He was shielding his eyes from the bright Arizona sun as he gazed in my direction. I never dreamed such a being existed in these times, the bible spoke of Giants but seeing Ben for the first time, it felt a little biblical. I was so astounded that I began to ask dozens of questions all at once.

"Where did he come from, how did he get so big, how much does he weigh, how tall is he?"

The Foreman told me "He was bought for seventy dollars as a boy and he just kept on growing, as for his weight, they never scale-weighed him but figured him close to the pounds of a good stud horse and so tall, he has to bend over near halfway to enter the mine."

"Is he dangerous?" I said.

"No." said the Foreman.

"Then why do you have a crew with clubs guarding him?"

"So he doesn't escape."

"Escape, This is a free country, you can't keep him here if doesn't want to be here!"

"He's indentured." Said the Foreman.

"For how long?" I asked.

"I'm not sure but he's not done."

"I'm gonna have to see his contract," I said.

"What for?" Said the Foreman.

"Just show me the contract!"

The Forman took me up to the office to meet the Bossman, another person living a life of abundance; his neck was so fat his head nearly disappeared. "He wants to see Ben's contract."

"That's none of your business, Marshal." The Bossman said.

I quickly drew two 44s, one for the Bossman and one for the Foreman. "It sure is," I said.

The Bossman opened his safe and handed me the contract.

"This man has been here since he was ten years old and looks to be thirty or so. This contract is only for ten years"

"So what, he has no place to go." Said the Foreman.

"He's going to go wherever he wants to go," I said, nudging the end of my barrels up and down.

"Ok, mister Lawman he's all yours take him, I kinda felt bad keeping him all these years anyway."

"And, you owe him twenty years back pay and another ten for keeping him a slave, right?"

"Now wait a minute Marshal." Said the Bossman.

"Right!" I said as I cocked his hammers back on my colts.

"Sure Marshal, anything you say."

"And he'll need a wagon and a strong horse."

"Get him a wagon." Bossman gestured to the Foreman.

"Damn it, my best worker." Mumbled the Foreman as he walked away.

Ben had long exceeded his indentured servitude in the copper mines, the giant of man broke mountains of rock and ore over the years, and his strenuous existence only added great strength to his massive size. Twenty years of slavery on a contract that should not have gone beyond ten. Sold by his starving family, a boy not quite eleven years of age grew up to be something mythical.

The giant of a man was reluctant to leave, the mine was his home and he was shocked when the Foreman motioned him off.

"Go on Ben." Said the Foreman.

Years of stooping had rounded his shoulders and his apparent sadness at leaving added to it as he moped his way over to the wagon. I tied my unenthusiastic horse to the buckboard and told the giant to get in the back. The buckboard was near level with the back of his knees so he just sat down as the wagon moaned in compliance while my mare set about trying to kick everything in sight. He waved goodbye to the only family he really ever knew while we wound down the trail.

* * *

As we rode into Bisbee, the town folk were stunned, some gasped and ran away. "What do you say we get us a whiskey?" I said.

Ben knew about whiskey from the Irish miners he called friends and seemed to perk up a little at the idea. I walked into the saloon and the bartender said. "Afternoon Marshal, what'll it be, hot damn what'd you bring with you?" He said in an accelerated voice just as Ben crouched down to get through the door.

"His name is Ben and he'll need a whiskey, a bath, and a room."

Ben apprehensively walked over to the bar as the floorboards beneath him complained with every step. The barkeep poured two bottles of whiskey into a pitcher that his hand dwarfed. "Marshall, I don't have a tub big enough for your friend not to mention a bed."

"Figure something out, he's got plenty of money," I said.

The bartender whistled for young helpers, and quickly a couple of teenage boys showed up front and center. "Go clean out that pasture trough and roll it over to the back of the bar and fill every pot and pan you can find with water to put on the fire."

Town folk were gathering in front of the saloon peering through the windows to get a glimpse of Ben. I could tell almost everybody wanted to ask questions about this spectacle but didn't have the nerve. Ben didn't much like being gawked at so he stood there turned away from the windows.

"Marshal, the stable will have to do." Said the Barkeep.

Ben had drunk nearly a dozen men's worth of whiskey when the boys called him to bathe, Ben had never had a hot bath, he always just showered under the water chute at the mine. It was funny to see him dipping his big toe the size of a turnip in the water to see how hot it was. I bought him the biggest cigar I could find but it still looked like a twig in his hand, even so, he enjoyed every minute.

Later, the bartender sent some sportin' ladies to the barn but they all ran out screaming.

Flora Mae Winters was an old whore seldom called on, most felt she was worn out; she was poor those days and could barely make her way, so any opportunity to make some money was worth it. She laughed at the young girls as they cussed at the bartender for sending them out there. She'd seen it all and walked toward the barn whiskey bottles in hand and no fear on her face.

She peeked in the barn and her confidence waned, she quickly returned to the bar and told the keep. "I'm gonna need a lot more whiskey!"

All the young girls were shaking their heads and giggling as she stuffed additional bottles under her arms and walked out, chin held high.

Ben never had a woman before so the experience was like a young boy's first time. Flora Mae found him kind and gentle and managed to get through the arduous task of satisfying him but not without a yowl or two they could hear from the Saloon.

Ben fell in love and called on her frequently, mostly just to enjoy her company. He made sure she was well taken care of and bought her nice clothes. The town folk often asked about him and not in a kind way, she would always tell them. "Ask him yourself." Something they would never do.

* * *

The town was unkind to Ben and Flora Mae so I never understood why he did what he did other than someone had to do it. As I heard it, a bunch of Ruffians rode in and took over the town, killed the Sheriff, herded the townsfolk into the church, and chained up the doors, while they burned and looted. When Flora Mae heard the screams of children in the burning church she ran to Ben crying "The babies are screaming She said, Ben do something!"

The kids were always nice to Ben and made a habit of hanging around the barn and keeping him company when Flora wasn't around. Ben, in fear for his little friends, ran out to the street. Right away he garnered the attention of a few marauders and they shot him numerous times but he still managed to rip the chained doors from their hinges as the town folk ran for their lives, by then The other marauders joined in, laughing, and shooting him, but even with eighteen bullets lodged in the big man he managed to get to enough of them to cause the rest to flee.

Carrying one of their bodies to shield himself from additional gunfire he left a gruesome scene, what he did to them when he got a hold of them was nothing short of brutal. The dusty street lay quiet in the end with blood and severed body parts scattered like debris in a dry creek after a flood. Ben was spewing blood as he staggered his way back, Flora Mae was doing all she could to help him back to his straw bed in the barn. Not a single person ran to give help.

She lay down beside him weeping as he stroked her body. The giant man took his blood-filled last breath, wrapped his arms around her, and kissed her goodbye.

They say it took a six-mule team and a dozen blocks and tackles to hoist him into his wagon; they boarded it into a coffin and rolled him into his grave. No words, no flowers, no thanks. Flora Mae stood alone asking God to forgive his sins and take him into the kingdom of heaven which he deserved.

* * *

When I finally got back to town and walked my heavy heart up to where they bury you, I slowly shook my head holding my hat to my chest, and pondered my friend's demise and the ungrateful retches he saved as well as the pitiful gravestone they left, I handed the stone carver a dollar to add what I thought was a more appropriate epitaph.


The End

I never dreamed I'd write in the Western genre although my passion for Western culture would suggest otherwise. I've been a horseman for nearly 30 years and together with my wife, we navigate these times. I've written stories my whole life under the table and now find a few in print. This is only my second Western and I hope you enjoy it. Feel free to comment, I am far from a professional and could use all the feedback I can get. You can freely post comments or your work on my Facebook page, just message me.


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When You Have Everything . . . 
by John Porter

In the late afternoon, Lukas Williams looked into his corral and saw the bull, the cows, and the calves grazing on the hay he'd forked from the barn nearby. He looked beyond the barn and saw the horse grazing on the stubble in the field, which like the rest of his ranch and the whole of the county sure could use some rain. But his well was still filling the troughs, so things weren't desperate yet. He looked back at the cattle. He'd sell most of the calves next week and make the payment on his mortgage. Then he'd buy some lumber and shore up the west wall of the barn.

He turned and looked at his cabin.

As soon as he could, he'd put down a wooden plank floor so that Clara Jean and the little ones wouldn't have to stand and walk on dirt.

But even with the dirt floor, the cabin was good. Even with the drought and the mortgage, the ranch was good.

He smiled, took off his hat, and ran his hand through his hair. He put his hat back on and walked toward the cabin.

He stopped at the pump near the front door and washed his hands with just a little water.

He dried his hands on his shirt sleeves, walked into the cabin, and saw Clara Jean, his beautiful wife, who stood beside a table where Noah and Daisy, their beautiful children, sat with heads bowed, eyes closed, and hands folded.

Noah peeked at Daisy and reached for a slice of bread.

"What do we say first?" Clara Jean asked.

"Thank you," Daisy said.

"A very lot," Noah said, then looked up at Clara Jean and raised his eyebrows.

She nodded.

He grabbed the slice and took a big bite out of it.

Lukas smiled.

Life is good, he thought.

He heard hooves pounding on the ground.

He stepped outside.

Three riders galloped up to the cabin and reined in their horses.

"Mr. Donahue wants to see you," said Tommy Brannon, one of the riders. "He wants to see you now."

"Why?" Lukas asked.

"'Cuz he wants to," said Travis McIntire, another of the riders.

Clara Jean came out of the cabin and stopped beside Lukas.

Bert Tanner, the third rider, whistled softly at her.

Lukas looked at him.

"And what Mr. Donahue wants," Brannon said, "he gets."

Lukas looked back at him.

"Tell Mr. Donahue I'll come in the morning," Lukas said.

"That wouldn't be a good thing to tell him," Brannon said.

"No," McIntire said, "it wouldn't be."

Tanner whistled again at Clara Jean.

Lukas looked back at him.

"Go on, Lukas," she said.

"I ain't getting too far away from our ranch at night," Lukas said, staring at Tanner. "You never know who's gonna come by and make trouble."

"Don't you worry, Lukas," Clara Jean said.

He turned to her.

"The Dear Lord's looking after us," she said.

* * *

In the early evening, Lukas, Brannon, McIntire, and Tanner stopped their horses near an immense house with lights shining through the windows, slate tiles covering the roof, white paint glistening on the walls, and a wide porch leading to a burnished mahogany door.

Lukas dismounted, climbed the steps to the porch, moved to the door, and knocked on it.

The door opened. Jonathan Montgomery, an elderly man in a tuxedo, stood in the doorway.

"What do you want?" he asked.

"Nothin'," Lukas answered.

"Then why are you here?"

"'Cuz Mr. Donahue wants something from me."

"What could you have that Mr. Donahue might want?"

Lukas shrugged.

"Who are you?" Montgomery asked.

"Lukas Williams."

"Wait here."

Montgomery closed the door.

Lukas turned and looked at the garden surrounding the house, a garden full of flowers, shrubs, and trees that didn't bear fruit, that just looked pretty. He shook his head. Mr. Donahue must have a deep well to put so much water on a garden that wasn't even growing food for the family.

The door opened.

Lukas turned to it and saw Montgomery, who looked at Lukas's boots.

"Clean them," Montgomery said and pointed to a boot scraper beside the door.

"Ain't no mud where I been," Lukas said.

"Clean them," Montgomery repeated.

Lukas scraped his boots.

Montgomery stepped back.

Lukas entered a long hallway with a polished oak floor, and Montgomery closed the door.

"Follow me," he said.

Montgomery led Lukas past a doorway leading into a magnificent dining room full of polished oak furniture, then past another doorway leading into an elegant parlor where three young women in satin gowns held silver goblets and sprawled on silk brocade couches.

Montgomery led Lukas to a door, where they stopped.

"Mr. Donahue will see you in the library," Montgomery said, reaching for the doorknob, then pausing and scowling. "Take off your hat."

Lukas removed his hat, Montgomery opened the door, and Lukas entered a dimly lighted room.

Montgomery closed the door.

Lukas looked around the room. Bookcases full of books lined three walls. A huge painting decorated the fourth wall. A crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling. A Persian carpet lay on the floor.

Someone struck a match in the middle of the room. Lukas saw a man holding the match and sitting behind a desk.

"Lukas Williams," the man said, "I am Mr. Donahue."

He lighted a candle on the desk, then blew out the match.

"They say you wanna see me," Lucas said.

"At first, you might wonder why," Donahue said. "My finances are secure, my women are ravishing, my liquor cabinet is full. May I offer you a drink? Whiskey, champagne?"


"Henri Abele."

Lukas shook his head.

"My education is impeccable," Donahue continued, "and my lands are vast."

"Looks like you got everything," Lukas said.

"Almost," Donahue said. "I want your ranch. I'll pay whatever you ask."

"Why do you want it?"

"Name your price."

"Why do you want it?"

Donahue leaned forward.

"Because I don't have it," he said.

"Well," Lukas said, "I do have it. And I don't wanna lose it."

"You will lose it, sir, one way or another."

"You saying if I don't sell it to you, you're gonna take it from me?"

"I'm saying I'll get it . . . one way or another. And I'm also suggesting that you profit by my acquisition, which is inevitable."

For a moment, Lukas looked at him, then put on his hat and turned to the door.

* * *

Lukas entered his cabin and saw Noah and Daisy sleeping in bedrolls near a fire in the fireplace. He saw Clara Jean sitting at the table, mending Noah's shirt.

"Ever get tired of pushing a needle through that old cloth?" he asked.

She looked at him.

"No," she said.

"How about we get you some new calico at Peterson's?"

"How about you tell me what you're thinking?"

"I'm thinking maybe you want something."

"What could I want?"

"What would you like?" He moved to the table and sat beside her. "If you could have anything in the world, what would it be? Maybe one of them machines that does the stitching for you."

She laughed.

He put his elbow on the table, which wobbled.

"Maybe a new table," he said. "Maybe . . . something else."

"Nothing I can think of," she said.

"You better start thinking," he said. "I'm gonna sell some of the calves next week. I gotta spend most of the money on the ranch, but I'll be holding back some good heifers. That bull, he's a worker. And next year, we're gonna have a better calf crop. And the year after, even better. And soon I won't have to spend so much on fixing up the ranch. And—"

"Lukas," she said, "we got what we need."

"I'm talking about what you might want. I already promised you a floor. It ain't gonna be oak, but Doug fir'll do for a while. I'll get to it after the barn." He paused. "Or maybe I'll hold off on the barn for another year. Maybe I'll get to the floor first, and then—"

She touched his hand and smiled.

"Lukas," she said, "we got what we need. So I got what I want: you, Noah, Daisy, and the Dear Lord, who's looking after us. And even when troubles come along . . . and you know they will . . . He's still gonna be looking after us."


"Lukas," she said, "have some supper. Then let's go to bed."

* * *

The next morning, Lukas washed his hands at the pump, then washed his face. He crinkled his nose, tasted the water, and frowned.

He removed the cover from the well and saw three dead rats floating in the water.

He hurried into the cabin, where Clara Jean placed bowls in front of the children, who sat at the table.

"Don't use none of the water without boiling the hell out of it!" he shouted.

Frightened, Clara Jean and the children looked at him.

An animal bellowed.

Lukas ran to the corral, where the bull lay twitching on the ground. He pulled open the gate, ran to the bull, and saw blood in the dirt under him.

The bull had been castrated.

Clara Jean screamed in the cabin.

* * *

"They come in and took Noah and Daisy," Clara Jean sobbed while Lukas held her beside the table. "I couldn't . . . couldn't stop 'em!"

"Who?" he asked.

"The men that was here yesterday."

"Where'd they go?"

"Toward the hills."

* * *

Lukas galloped past hills and into a gully. He jumped from his horse and ran to Noah and Daisy, who lay beside some rocks. They were dead.

* * *

"I'm gonna see the sheriff," Lukas said, grabbing a rifle and stuffing shells into his pockets.

Clara Jean sat at the table, her head bowed.

"You stay here," he said.

He moved over to her and touched her shoulder.

"And take this."

She raised her head and saw the pistol he held.

"I ain't gonna shoot them men," she said.

"Take it."

He handed her the pistol.

"And use it if you have to," he said.

He left.

She looked at the pistol.

* * *

"Well, now, Lukas," Sheriff Martin Crowell said, leaning back in his chair, "I sure am sorry to hear that."

"Whatcha gonna do about it?" Lukas shouted.

"Not much I can do," the sheriff said. "You didn't see them men, did you?"

"My wife saw 'em."

"But you didn't."

"I know who they are. They come by my place yesterday. They ride for Donahue."

"Mr. Donahue is a big man in this county," the sheriff said. "I just can't see him hiring men to do something like what you told me about."


"And maybe you seen some men yesterday," the sheriff continued, "but you didn't see 'em today."

"But my wife—"

"You know how women are, Lukas," the sheriff said. "They're hysterical most of the time."

"Her children . . . our children have been killed!"

"Like I say," the sheriff said, "I sure am sorry to hear that." He nodded, then shook his head. "I sure am."

* * *

In the evening, Lukas rode to his cabin. He dismounted, dropped the reins of his horse beside the pump, trudged to the front door, and opened it.

The cabin was empty.

* * *

Near a campfire, Brannon, McIntire, and Tanner stood, leering at Clara Jean, who lay on the ground.

"Just a few more chores to take care of for Mr. Donahue," Brannon said.

"Then we'll take care of us," McIntire said.

"But now," Tanner said, "we'll take care of this woman."

He removed his gun belt and dropped it on the ground.

Clara Jean sat up and took a pistol from her blouse.

Tanner laughed.

"There's three of us and one of you," he said.

"And you ain't gonna shoot anyway," McIntire said.

"'Cuz it's a sin to kill somebody," Brannon said.

"How do you know?" McIntire asked.

"I heared it in church."

"When was you last in church?" Tanner asked.

"Cain't quite remember," Brannon said. "But I heared it there. My pappy was a minister."

"What does he think of his son now?" McIntire asked.

"Don't know," Brannon said. "I killed the son of a bitch a while back."

He, McIntire, and Tanner laughed. Then they separated and moved in a circle around Clara Jean, who watched them.

"You might as well give in now, little lady," Tanner said. "We's gonna get you."

"One of us, anyway," McIntire said.

"Maybe Tanner," Brannon said.

"Maybe McIntire," Tanner said.

"Maybe me," Brannon said.

"Ain't nothing you can do to stop all of us," McIntire said.

"Ain't nothing you can say, neither," Tanner said.

"God bless you," she said.

She raised the pistol, pointed it at her chest, and fired.

The three men stopped and stared at her.

"I'll be damned!" Tanner said.

He looked at Brannon and McIntire, then grabbed his gun belt. The three men ran to their horses, mounted them, and rode away.

* * *

The campfire had almost burned out when Lukas rode up to it and saw Clara Jean lying on the ground.

"Oh, my God," he said.

"Lukas," she whispered.

He jumped from his horse and fell to his knees beside her.

"I'll kill them men, Clara Jean!" he cried. "I'll kill 'em, and I'll kill Donahue!"

She raised her hand and touched his face.

"They took my life away!" he cried again.

"It ain't gonna last," she whispered.

"Don't say nothing. I'll get you into town and—"

"It ain't."

"What ain't?" he asked, looking at her wound, then moaning softly.

"This life," she whispered. "You gotta remember what we're here for."

"What . . . what are we here for?" he asked.

"To be tested by the Dear Lord. He wants to give us the chance to do good."

"Don't He already know what we're gonna do—good or bad?

"Yes," she said, "but we don't. He's testing us so we'll find out."

She smiled and closed her eyes.

* * *

In the early morning, Lukas rode toward his ranch, his head down.

He raised his head and saw that the cattle were gone, the barn had been torn down, and the cabin had been burned nearly to the ground.

He saw Sheriff Crowell standing beside the pump, shaking his head.

He rode up to the sheriff.

"I sure am sorry to see this, Lukas," the sheriff said. "I sure am."

* * *

In Donahue's library, Brannon, McIntire, and Tanner stood on the Persian carpet in front of the desk, behind which Donahue sat.

"That rancher ain't gonna be able to pay his mortgage now," Brannon said.

"We done all the chores you hired us to do," McIntire said.

"So we ain't working for you no more," Tanner said.

"And you want me to compensate you for your labors," Donahue said.

He opened a drawer in the desk and reached into it.

"Well, now, Mr. Donahue," Brannon said, "we got our own ideas about how you can compensate us."

"Yeah," McIntire said, "we'll start with your house."

"Then go on with your cattle," Tanner said, "and your money and your whiskey."

"And we'll end up with your women," Brannon said.

"And don't go thinking the old guy that wears the fancy clothes is gonna help you any," McIntire said. "He ain't never gonna help nobody again."

"So you best come outside," Tanner said. "We don't wanna mess up your house."

"Our house," Brannon said.

"Your desires are far too modest," Donahue said. "Let me offer you what you truly deserve: mansions in a city whose streets are paved with gold, whose residents are clothed in garments of dazzling white linen, and whose never-ending feasts comprise aged wines—which unlike even our finest alcohol invigorate but never inebriate—and, of course, fat things full of marrow."

"Where the hell is this city?" Tanner asked.

"Yeah," McIntire said. "Where?"

"Wait," Brannon said, raising his head and squinting at the chandelier. "I remember something my pappy said."

"What?" McIntire and Tanner asked.

"Streets of gold," Brannon said, then frowned. "St. Peter . . . ?"

He looked at Donahue, who nodded.

"Beyond the Pearly Gates," Brannon shouted, quickly reaching for his pistol.

Donahue raised his own pistol.

* * *

In the evening, Lukas rode to Donahue's immense house.

Donahue stood on the porch, his hands behind his back.

"You should have sold me your ranch," Donahue said. "You had a wife and children. You would have had more money than you'd ever had in your life. And what do you have now?"

"Nothin'," Lukas said. "So I got nothin' to lose."

He paused.

"But you, Mr. Donahue," he continued, "you have everything."

For a moment, Lukas looked at Donahue, then rode away.

Donahue watched him, then brought his hands forward and looked at the pistol he held.

"And I'll keep everything," he said.

He thought of his possessions: his money, his land, his cattle, his house, his books, his paintings, his Persian carpets, his whiskey and champagne, his women.

Yvette, he thought, so submissive; Chantelle, so aggressive; Adriana, so . . . so hard to describe.

"But I shall continue to try to," he said, anticipating the next time he would lie with her.

He entered the house and moved to the doorway leading into the parlor, where the three women sprawled on the couches. He gazed at Adriana. Her hair was blonde, her eyes were blue, her lips were red, her breasts were voluptuous—firm, he knew, but also supple.

She closed her eyes, raised her head, and parted her lips.

He smiled.

She belched.

He frowned, then went into the library.

He looked at the carpet, which was stained.

"My Kashan," he said and sighed, then shrugged. "I have a Tabriz in storage."

He moved to the desk and put the pistol on it, then moved to a liquor cabinet beside the huge painting. He reached for a bottle, winced, and flexed his thumb.

He turned to the painting.

"My Tintoretto," he said and smiled, then noticed that paint had peeled from a corner of the canvas.

What will Lukas Williams do now? he wondered. Make his way toward the Pearly Gates?

Donahue laughed at all the fools who believed in such ludicrous fantasies, then winced and flexed his thumb again.

The End

John Porter manages his family's cattle ranch in California, where he also writes stories, essays, and screenplays. Twenty of his screenplays have been produced (thirteen of them are listed on the IMDb). In August 2021, Two Gun Publishing published Your Typical Outlaw and Other Stories of the Old West, a collection of some of his Western stories. In July 2022, the company published The Good Lawman and Other Western Stories, a second collection. Later this year, the company will publish On the Wrong Side of the Law, a third collection.

Here are the links to his sites:

John Porter - IMDb

Two Gun Publishing

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The Ranger with the Big Gun
by Tom Hale

I was saddling a guest's horse outside the barn one morning when I saw the Ranger ride into town. My parents ran the only hotel in McAllen, Texas that wasn't attached to a dance hall and I helped with the chores, mostly feeding and caring for the guests horses. I loved horses, though, so it never felt like work, much. This was in 1875 or '76, so I was ten or eleven.

I didn't know the Ranger was a Ranger, though, when I seen him. But he sure did look like a Ranger, a real life Texas Ranger. I watched him ride to the saloon and hitch his horse out front. Big, tall King Ranch horse, named for Richard King, the biggest rancher in our part of the country back then. She was brown all over with a splash of white on her nose and between her eyes. I liked horses, so I noticed stuff like that. But besides the big horse was the big gun the man carried on his hip, the biggest pistol I ever did see, God almighty.

That scared me, that gun. I thought at first he must've been part of Comanche Bill's gang, with a gun like that.

Comanche Bill was a half-breed, I guess, not a full blood Comanche but I think maybe his ma had been a kidnap. Weren't too sure on the details, but I doubt anyone was, really. For all I know he was just a dark skinned white man that wanted to scare people so he told everyone he was part Indian. He ran our town on his own, though, he was mean enough he didn't need a bunch of other outlaws backing him up.

Pa come out a little while later. He usually spent the mornings settling accounts with the guests after they'd had Ma's breakfast. Ma's biscuits were the star of our table, with plenty of homemade butter and blackberry jam to slather over them. Bacon was rare, seeing as how we didn't have land to raise hogs, but we had plenty of chickens to fry up, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sundays we'd have cornbread with the chicken after church.

"Luke, you finish with them horses, go ahead and take a look at the hen house," he said. "Mr. Miller said he'd had some coyotes around and I don't want them running off with our hens." The chickens were our main source of meat, their eggs and themselves. "Now, I'm gonna put up some new shingles on the barn roof, you think you can handle the chicken coop wire?" I nodded. "Good. After that we'll go on and get supplies from Mr. Miller."

Mr. Miller ran the town's general store and was the hot spot for town gossip, all the men gathered there to exchange news quicker than any telegraph from New York or Washington ever could. More useful news, too. Pa was always good about taking me along, Ma didn't like it too much me hearing the men talk, said they didn't talk anything a boy my age should hear but Pa took me along anyway.

The chicken wire was fairly easy work and didn't take me long. I come back to the barn and Pa was getting down from the roof, he was already finished as well.

"Let's go on and clean up and we'll head on in," he said. We went inside, washed our hands and faces, and sat down for a quick lunch of biscuits and fried chicken. Ma was busy all morning with the wash, ours own clothes and the clothes of the boarders that were long term enough to need their clothes cleaned.

After lunch I hitched the wagon to Fred, Pa's red mare. I got to name her, I don't know why I settled on Fred but I did, and Pa thought it was a great joke so it stuck. While I was hitching the wagon Pa was collecting a couple dozen eggs from out back, Mr. Miller bought his eggs from us. Pa let me drive the wagon that day, he did occasionally, figured I had to learn sometime so might as well learn then.

It was a quick trip down to Mr. Miller's, we lived in town and all so it's not like it was a big expedition the way some families that lived out on farms and ranches had when they come into town, usually on Sundays for church. Sitting out in front of the store, on the boardwalk, was Mr. Miller with his clerk's apron on; Mr. Oswald, the town's only practicing attorney, he mostly spent his time drawing up deeds of sale and land transfer for the ranchers; and Mr. Muldoon, the town's barber. Mr. Muldoon was the best source of town gossip and I was glad to see him there. Maybe he would know who the man was that rode into town that morning.

"He's friends with Comanche Bill, is what I heard," said Mr. Oswald.

"Bill ain't got no friends," Mr. Miller said, "he's mean enough on his own, got no use for 'em. Why would he want to share what he's got, anyway?"

"Who's this, now?" We entered the conversation already going, and Pa hadn't seen the stranger that morning.

"We got another gunman in town," Mr. Muldoon said. "Rode in this morning. Big ol' horse with a big ol' gun on his hip."

"Lord, we don't need another gunman in this town," Pa said. I knew he and Ma worried about life in McAllen, about raising me there and all.

"Well, the sheriff certainly ain't gonna do nothin' about it," said Mr. Miller. "He's been cowed enough by Bill, ain't gonna even try to stand up to this new guy."

"Wonder what Bill will think about him, though," said Mr. Oswald. "Here comes Hawkins, maybe he's got something."

Mr. Hawkins walked over from his saloon, he was the owner of Sweet Cakes in the center of town. Mr. Muldoon got the most gossip as the barber, but Mr. Hawkins met the most visitors, people passing through with no need to visit the barber. Mr. Hawkins was a good listener, to the regular customers of Sweet Cakes he was a willing ear that reserved all judgment.

"I suppose there's nothing better to do than sit around a cracker barrel playing dominoes in the middle of the day," he said as he took his spot in the informal meeting.

"Do you prefer checkers?" Mr. Muldoon asked. "I'm sure we can set up a board for you, maybe Lucas here will play you a game or two." It always thrilled me when the older men noticed me. Pa never let me talk when he took me along to see his friends, said no one cared to hear the opinion of a kid anyway, and that I'd learn a lot more by listening than running my jaw.

"Not much else to do in heat like this," Mr. Hawkins said.

"You hear anything about that gunman rode in this morning?" asked Mr. Oswald. "He here to team up with Bill or what?"

"He might be," said Mr. Hawkins. "He sure did ask a lot of questions about him, that's for sure."

"You don't think he's here to run Bill out, do you?" Pa asked. "Lord, Comanche Bill's killed near twenty men already."

"Fastest gun this side of the Brazos," said Mr. Hawkins.

"The law ought to take notice of this," said Mr. Oswald.

"Ain't no law in McAllen gonna do that, and you know it," said Mr. Muldoon. "The sheriff's in Bill's pocket, and he's gonna stay there, unless he wants to find out what Comanche Bill does to those that buck him."

"Ya'll weren't here when Comanche Bill took over," said Mr. Miller. "Rode in one day, hitched his horse at Sweet Cakes, only 'twas called Clancy's back then. Sat down to a game of cards." Mr. Miller was talking to us but his eyes were staring down the street, but not at anything in particular. It was like his body was there but his mind was back then. "Bill was a cheat, still is, likely, but the kind of cheat that don't try to hide it 'cause he knows he'll just plug the dumb fool that'd call him on it.

"So, he cheated, and this young kid called him on it. Kid didn't know better, just some cowboy on his way to the next herd and thought he'd stop for a game of cards. Well, Bill was playing with an Ace up his sleeve and let it slide right on out so's people could see. Might be he wanted someone to call him on it. The kid obliged him, I guess, and called him a cheater. Bill told him to take it back but before the kid could say anything he'd shot him under the table. Had his gun out afore the kid even said anything, is my guess, just waiting and ready for it. Gut shot, too. Bad way to die. Young cowboy lay on the floor and took his time dyin', that's for sure.

"Well, that's all it took for Comanche Bill to get started, get his blood up. He turned and shot the piano player, said he didn't like pianos. He pulled a second gun, so's he could cover himself on the way out, then just started popping shots at whoever he saw outside. Men, women, kids. Didn't matter. Killed a lot of people that day."

"What'd the sheriff do?" I asked. Pa gave me a look but I couldn't help myself. I couldn't believe the sheriff would just let a mad dog like that run around killing.

That broke Mr. Miller's daze, but only for a moment. He looked at me then back off into space. "He come out, called Bill out in the street," he said, shaking his head. "He didn't know no better, I guess, than to call Comanche Bill out. If there's one thing you can't give a man like that is an even chance, a fair fight. Sheriff Collins, back then. Good man.

"Anyway, he comes out into the street and sees Bill blasting away at the people of McAllen. Probably thinks to hisself, 'these are my people, they pay me to protect them.' Something noble like that. So he calls Bill out, call him into the street to face him. 'You and me Bill, you got no call for this, now answer for it,' he yells down the street at him.

"Bill obliged him, though. He didn't take no pot shot or ambush, he come out into the street and faced Sheriff Collins. Fifty paces, just about. I never did see anything like it, afore or since. I came out to watch, a'course. Seemed the thing to do.

"And Sheriff moved first, I swear Comanche Bill let him, Collins drew first. Or tried to. He'd barely flinched, barely twitched his right hand, and Bill had him. Blew a hole clean through the sheriff's forehead. If I had aimed and took my time I couldn't have hit a cleaner shot than Comanche Bill did that day.

"So," Mr. Miller said, "that's when Comanche Bill took over McAllen. Drove out the law that day, all we had was Sheriff Collins, so deputies. Too small for that, I guess. But big enough for Comanche Bill to want to take over. Just took what he wanted from then on."

"I weren't here for that," Mr. Muldoon said. "We got Sheriff Haskins, I guess, every town needs a sheriff, but he ain't no trouble to Bill. 'Specially not since the last time the law tried to help."

"Now, that was a bad day," Mr. Oswald said.

"Three Texas Rangers rode in. Three. Met Comanche Bill in the middle of the street, same as Sheriff Collins did. I swear I don't know why lawmen kept trying to do that. 'Come on with us, Bill,' the one in the middle said. I guess he was the leader. 'We're to take you in, alive or dead. May as well be alive.' Well, Comanche Bill had something to say about that.

"Shot all three Rangers down before any of them cleared leather. Bang, bang, bang, faster than that, and all three dead before they hit the ground."

"I never seen anything like it," said Mr. Muldoon. "Now Comanche Bill has the run of the place. I wouldn't be surprised if the stage coach pulls out and doesn't run here anymore, Bill's had his way with robbing them this whole time."

"Hold on, here he comes now," said Mr. Hawkins. Sure enough, Comanche Bill was riding into town, right down the middle of the street, and passed us by. The bottom half of his face was covered in a dark stubbly beard. My friend Jimmy said he shaved with a Bowie knife, but I never did give that credence until I saw Bill riding by that day. He wore a wide Mexican sombrero, goat hair riding chaps, and jangly silver spurs that shone in the bright Texas afternoon sun.

He didn't even look at us, no need to, is probably what he thought. He had our town locked down, under his thumb, and no one would dare challenge him. He rode to Chester's, the other saloon in town, only Chester's had dance girls that Sweet Cakes wouldn't hire, for some reason. He tied his horse to the hitching rail in front of Chester's and strode on in.

"Well, we best be getting back home," Pa said to me. "Your Ma will be wondering where we got off to." He said goodbye to his friends and we got back into the wagon. Mr. Miller had bought our eggs and it was time to get back for chores. I had an afternoon of watering and feeding the horses, and picking stones out of their shoes that might make them split down the line. I didn't get paid extra for picking stones, it was just something I liked to do for them. I always felt a little sorry for horses. As big and powerful as they were, they couldn't really do much of anything for themselves.

There was a new horse hitched in front of our house when we pulled up. I recognized it right away, but Pa had been inside this morning and hadn't seen the gunman riding in. I just knew he was another killer like Comanche Bill, and him being at our house scared me more than just seeing Bill riding through town.

"We must have a new guest," Pa said as he climbed down from the wagon. "Go along and take his horse to the barn and get him some fresh oats, give him a good brushing, too." He studied the horse. "This is a mighty fine horse, too. Better take extra care of it."

"Pa," I said, "I know who that is, whose horse this is. It's another gunman, Pa, just like Comanche Bill!"

Pa just looked at me funny, like I was speaking in tongues like Reverend Holloway said the Apostles all did at Pentecost.

"What are you talking about, boy?"

"He rode in this morning, I saw him, he had a big gun on his hip that has to be an outlaw gun!"

Pa was never one to get excited. He told me to calm down and that he'd go on inside and make sure everything was alright. In the meantime I was to remember my job and take care of the new guest's horse, and not make trouble by accusing him of being an outlaw just because he carried a big gun.

I did as I was told, of course, and told myself I'd finish as quick as I could. But that was the best horse I'd ever worked with, and him just being such a fine horse made me forget about his owner. I took my time scrubbing him, feeding him, picking stones out of his shoes. I was almost proud, being able to work so close with such an animal. By the time I had given him his oats and put him in his stall it was almost dinner time.

Dinner meant fried chicken, and I could smell it before I got to the front door. I went inside to wash up and change and saw the gunman sitting in our parlor with Pa and Mr. Danner, the only other guest we had just then. Neither Pa nor Mr. Danworth looked concerned at all, both looked perfectly comfortable, so I figured I must have been wrong about who this stranger was.

"Well, there he is," said Pa when I came in. "Captain Armstrong, this is my son, Luke. Luke, meet Captain Armstrong." The man stood and shook my hand.

"Captain?" I asked.

"Texas Rangers," the big man said. A Texas Ranger, here in our house! I had never met one in real life, but I read all about them in the newspapers and dime novels I borrowed from my best friend Johnny.

The Ranger's voice was soft but hard. He didn't need to yell to be heard. Now that he was this close I got a good look at him. He was tall, with blonde hair that he parted on the right. His face was hard but handsome, only I didn't tell anyone that, and his nose pointed the wrong way and the left side of his jaw jutted out like he was grinding his teeth one day and it got stuck that way.

"Well, it's nice to meet you, Captain Armstrong," I said.

"Go on and clean up for dinner," Pa said. When I came back down Pa and Captain Armstrong were seated at the dinner table along with our other guest, a man named Joseph Donovan. Mr. Donovan was a traveling salesman, McAllen was the last town on his circuit so he was taking it easy for a couple days before heading back to Austin to start all over again.

"Let me help you with that, ma'am," Captain Armstrong said when Ma came through the swinging door that led to the kitchen. She was carrying a platter of fried chicken in one arm and a pitcher of buttermilk in the other.

"Oh, no, I have it, don't worry," she said, but Captain Armstrong wouldn't hear any protest.

"I'm strong enough I don't need to sit and be waited on," he said, "and my own Ma would belt me for letting you slave likes this for us without offering to help, being a guest and all." He took the platter and pitcher from her and sat them on the table. Ma accepted his help with grace and sat down.

After Pa said blessing she served a leg and a breast on a plate and began passing around, serving us all in this fashion. My plate came last, but that was alright. She had set out the bread basket before we came in and I helped myself to two or three rolls of cornbread with lots of butter to wash them down. Some people think cornbread is too dry but Ma's never was.

"What brings you to McAllen, Captain Armstrong?" Ma asked. She had not seen him ride in that morning, and Pa must not have told her what had been discussed at the store that day.

"Business, I guess you could say, Ma'am," Captain Armstrong said. "I'm here to arrest a man known as Comanche Bill. Real name's William Jensen, but I take it he don't like to go by that name around here."

Pa looked at me and Ma, then said to Captain Armstrong, "Comanche Bill's a tough man, there, Captain. I don't know that he'll be all that easy to arrest."

"Maybe, maybe not. I've got a way of convincing men like him that it's best just to listen to me, make it easier on everyone involved." The Ranger didn't seem too worried, but I thought he just didn't know who Comanche Bill really was. Still, no matter what I thought, I knew better than to say anything more than Pa had.

After dinner I started clearing the table and Captain Armstrong helped me just like he helped Ma. I liked that even though he was a paying guest he still felt like he had to do his part of the household chores. Once we were done, Ma went up to her and Pa's room and the men went to the parlor to smoke cigars and drink whiskey.

Pa didn't mind having me around when he visited his friends, like that afternoon, but he knew most guests wouldn't be too comfortable with a kid hanging around. Lucky for me my room was right over top of the parlor and I could listen in on what the grown-ups would talk about. Mostly boring, the price of cattle or maybe an election for statehouse or something like that. But I lay down on my floor and put my ear to my listening spot so's I could listen to Pa and Captain Armstrong.

"I appreciate you not talking more than necessary about your business in town, Captain," Pa said to Captain Armstrong once they and Mr. Donovan. Not being from these parts, Mr. Donovan had little to add to the subject, but he enjoyed cigars and whiskey in the evenings.

"Not much to say, as far as I'm concerned," Captain Armstrong said. "I have a job, and it's fairly straight forward. Inform William Jensen, or Comanche Bill, of his status as an outlaw and my intention to bring him in. Now, whether he comes willingly or not, is up to him."

Something in the Ranger's voice thrilled me. I felt he was saying more than his words could get across. I wondered if Captain Armstrong was the man to finally best Comanche Bill and save our town from the outlaw's grip.

"I reckon he won't come willingly," Pa said. "You ever run across a man like him before, in your line of work?"

"Come across a lot of kinds of men," Captain Armstrong said. "But deep down, men like Comanche Bill, they're all the same. They may run wild for awhile, but the Law always gets them in the end."

"How do you plan on even finding this man, Captain?" Mr. Donovan asked.

"I plan on him coming to find me," Captain Armstrong said. "I been asking around all day, letting people know I was looking for him. I figure word'll get back to him, and he'll come to find me next. And then we'll see how things go, I suppose."

I could tell Pa didn't like the conversation much because he asked Mr. Donovan a question about his job as a salesman. Mr. Donovan could talk all night about the medicines and elixirs he sold. He had some samples still and he offered them to Captain Armstrong, said they would help him sleep that night and get the rest he'd need for tomorrow. Captain Armstrong accepted a sample but I think just to be polite and make Mr. Donovan feel good, I doubt he actually took them before going to bed that night. I could tell any talk of Comanche Bill or the Captain's certain failure the next day was over and went to sleep.

I woke up the next day feeling out of sorts. I had tossed and turned all night, worried for the certain death that day that the young Ranger faced. He seemed a nice enough man, but being nice would not cut it against Comanche Bill. Then I remembered the steel in his voice when he talked of convincing Comanche Bill and felt a little better.

I came downstairs to gather eggs for breakfast before Ma had to tell me, she hated reminding me of my chores. I went out to the chicken coop and passed the barn. Looking inside I saw Captain Armstrong's horse was gone, and the Captain must have left already. I was sad I had missed him, I had wanted to say goodbye and wish him luck. Lord knew he would need it, and if the town of McAllen were ever to see better days it needed some luck, too.

I gathered the eggs and brought them into the kitchen for Ma to fry up. She was already frying the bacon and had the coffee perking along. I said good morning, stifled a yawn, and went out to milk our cow, Winnie. I named her.

By the time I came back in breakfast was on the table. Biscuits, fried eggs, and bacon. I liked to make little sandwiches with the bacon and biscuits and sop up the egg yolk with them. I didn't drink coffee back then but the fresh milk washed it all down just fine.

"I'm headed to Muldoon's today," Pa said, "time for my shave, I reckon. You wanna come along, Luke?" Pa got his neck shaved once a month but kept his whiskers, he said he'd look like an ugly frog if he didn't have his whiskers to cover most of his face. I said I would, and he said we could leave after I finished my morning chores.

I was back in the barn brushing down the horses when Pa came out to fetch me. I put my brush away and went out to the yard where he had the wagon already hitched and ready to go and I climbed on in. Town didn't seem any busier than the day before, but people sure did act differently. Walking along fast like they were in a hurry. Looking all around but never making eye contact with anyone. There was an energy in the air and it didn't feel like a good energy. I saw Captain Armstrong's horse hitched in front of Chester's.

"There's the Captain's horse," I said to Pa, pointing at the big steed.

"Seems early to visit Chester's," Pa said.

"He must be looking for Comanche Bill," I said.

"Maybe," Pa said. He didn't seem like he wanted to talk about Captain Armstrong and Comanche Bill very much. He pulled up in front of the barbershop and tied the horse up to the hitching post. "Here's a quarter, go buy some flour for Ma. If there's leftover you can get some candy, too." Pa always let me get candy with the leftover change. He walked inside to see Mr. Muldoon and I turned to go to Mr. Miller's store.

I hadn't gotten very far, though, when I saw Comanche Bill ride down the center of Main Street. He was heading to Chester's after all, and I wondered if he knew Captain Armstrong was there looking for him. He reined in his horse next to Captain Armstrong's and slid out of the saddle. He was smooth, Bill was. He was a compact little man with no wasted movement, no energy wasted. He walked into Sweet Cakes, his spurs jangling with each step.

When Bill disappeared into Chester's, Captain Armstrong strode out of Sweet Cakes and into the street. Out in the open like that, he must have been brave, I thought. He walked towards Sweet Cakes, staying in the middle of the street. I remember wondering what he was thinking, what was going through his head just then. Was he scared? Did he regret even coming to McAllen? Or was his sense of duty so strong that he didn't take his fear into account? Maybe all three, all at once.

"William Mann, this is Captain Armstrong, Texas Rangers," the Captain called out, his voice clear and strong. "I have a warrant for your arrest, and aim to bring you in this very day." I never knew Comanche Bill's Christian name, I don't think many people in town knew his name was William Mann. The whole street stopped, everyone that was walking or working froze at the Captain's announcement. The air had been full of foreboding energy, but now it seemed as if that energy would explode.

I thought for sure Comanche Bill would take a shot at Captain Armstrong from inside Sweet Cakes. I decided Captain Armstrong must have been a bigger fool that I'd imagined, there was no way Comanche Bill was going to turn himself in to the Law.

But Comanche Bill didn't take a shot from the Sweet Cakes windows. Probably didn't think he had to, he'd faced down lawmen in the streets before, and had always come away the winner. He stepped out into the street and faced Captain Armstrong, stopping fifty paces from the Ranger. I was standing on the boardwalk, even with Comanche Bill's position in the street. I had never been so close to the man. Violence and death wafted off of his body. I could barely look at the man.

"I heard someone been askin' about me," Comanche Bill said. "So here I am. You wanna arrest me, Ranger?"

"It's got nothin' to do with what I want," Captain Armstrong said. "It's what's gonna happen. You're coming back to Austin with me, William Mann. How you go is up to you."

Comanche Bill's face cracked in a small smile. "I like you, Ranger. But I ain't goin' to Austin. I like McAllen, it's my home." He squared his feet and bent his knees. His right hand waggled as he flexed the fingers of his gun hand. "I ain't goin' no where, Ranger."

Captain Armstrong didn't need to square himself or set his feet or flex his fingers, because he'd already done all those things before Comanche Bill came out. Captain Armstrong was ready for the violence that was about to happen. He nodded at Comanche Bill, acknowledging his opponent.

I knew what was about to happen and was sad for Captain Armstrong. I looked around and everyone else on the boardwalk with me looked like they felt the same way. I couldn't watch, so I stared down at the ground and focused on Comanche Bill's shadow on the ground behind him. It was a clear outline of the outlaw. If I had known better I would have realized this meant the sun was directly in his face.

A shot rang out. Single, clear, and strong in the silent air. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them I saw a dot of sunlight on Comanche Bill's shadow right in the center of its head. I looked up. Comanche Bill was standing, but his gun had not cleared his holster. Suddenly he pitched backward, like he had been punched in the face. I watched him fall, then saw a trickle of blood begin to stream out of the center of his forehead.

Down the street, Captain Armstrong stood with his pistol in his hand. He twirled it twice then returned it to its holster. The town was still silent, no one could believe what had just happened. Comanche Bill, the source of all our fear and misery, the man who had killed and stolen whenever he wanted, was dead.

Once the shock passed the crowd erupted in cheers. I looked at Captain Armstrong, expecting to see happiness in his victory. Instead he had a sad look on his face, his mouth turned downward and his eyes squinting as if he had performed some distasteful task. The townsfolk surrounded him, clapping him on the shoulders and thanking him for what he'd done, but he didn't even reply. Instead he walked down to Comanche Bill's body, hoisted it onto the dead outlaw's horse, mounted his own, and led William Mann's horse out of town.

I never saw Captain Armstrong again, but I know I'll never forget the Ranger with the big gun that bested Comanche Bill that day.

The End

Tom Hale lives and writes in Dayton, Ohio with his lovely wife and two wonderful daughters. Tom is a retired Air Force veteran who writes stories that he would like to read. Follow him on Instagram to find more of his work and for updates on his current projects, @tomhale_books.

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by C.E. Williamson

The man expected death to be more absolute. One would think the line between the world of the flesh and the world of the damned to be more definite, more concrete. Yet no matter how hard his feverish brain tried to focus, it could not pinpoint the moment of his demise. He had to be dead though. Surely God would not make such a place on Earth. This had to be hell.

He limped silently along the badlands. The trail he left was that of a revenant's. Clear footprints on the right, a single long drag mark on the left. The blood that rolled down his leg hissed against the burning grains beneath him. His visage was that of a leper. No man, a wounded beast.

The left side of his face was gnashed and gnarled almost to the bone. The heat of this new injury mixed with the heat of the sun and the heat of his fevered brain to form an inferno of confusion. Flecks of lead shown from those wounds. Its dull cadence answering the sun's brilliant glow with its own muted shimmer. Below the ruined mask of flesh, he wore a ruined shirt. So blackened with sweat and dust and blood that it looked like the hide of a reptile. The left area above his hip was slick from a second wound, perhaps less grave, perhaps more.

He did not know how long he had been walking. Only that time passed. As the sun crept up to and eventually past its zenith, he became fairly sure that he was not dead. Despite this epiphany, his mind remained resolute in its blurred wandering. It would not travel to how he came to be here or even who he was. Instead, it roved and meandered in it's own limping gait. For a time he thought he was back East, at the country club with his father. He even turned to comment on the absurd heat but found his father absent. He started to look for him, to call out for him, but some slumbering, logical, area of his brain told him such an endeavor was useless.

As the sun set, he continued. Too tired and feverish to recognize the pain and thirst that racked his body. The cooling glow brought a new ghost to him now. Not his father, but his uncle Isaiah. As a child, Isaiah would take him and his Mother out into the harbor on his sailboat. They would spend hours there, sailing until the sun died and turned the world into a neverending gradient of orange and blue. The man talked to his uncle, but he knew not what words he spoke. The swaying of the ship was lulling him to sleep. He fell to his knees and collapsed into the sand.

The desert night was frigid. A dry cold that slowly fought against his fever. Coyotes howled. A lone scavenger, separated from his pack approached the man. The canine took a deep sniff against the pallid flesh of the man and then turned away. The man did not stir. His unconscious mind was elsewhere. Separated from his sickly body by many miles and many years.

He was back at the university. A book of naturalism lay open next to the works of Marsh upon a crooked table. The force of the blizzard rattled the shutters and glass of the window. Violence obscured by the tyrannical falling of snow. He was hunched over the small wood furnace of his dormitory, desperately trying to light a fire. The cold was immense, all-encompassing. It bit painfully at his face and left flank. With shaking hands, he scooped the kindling and dropped it upon the floor. Too weak.

He was there for a long time. Trying to light the fire. Slowly freezing to death. Finally, his spark struck true. A sliver of flame birthed a sliver of warmth. As the fire brightened his dark dwelling, The man heard a dark deep bellowing. At first, he thought it the wind, but again it bellowed, nay roared against the blizzard. He stood listening. Slowly he limped toward the frosted window. Why was he limping? Why did the cold bite of winter persist? Using the sleeve of his coat he wiped the glass portal and gazed out upon the university grounds. There he saw It.

It stood tall and solitary against the ice and snow. Steam rose from its nostrils. Warm. Alive. Its grey skin, strong, scaled, was near invisible against the morning's snow until sunlight lanced through the clouds and struck it. Its tail swayed in the wind, reminding him of a pine tree. Stiff yet whip-like. The beast lurched to the side and faced him. The snow weakened. Sunbeams fell upon the ground like arrows. Its two legs shifted the great weight of his girth, The neck, thick, muscled, hefted the head up and It looked at him. Its eyes were not the black and beady eyes of a lizard. They were blue. They were Human. It's face was almost mannish. Almost sapian. A cracked mirror.

It bellowed again, but the man realized that It was not alone in the hoarse chorus. He too had joined in Its mournful wail. They bellowed again. He began to sweat. The snow had stopped. It was melting before his eyes. The heat. God the heat. They bellowed. Was the dormitory a blaze? Was he burning? They bellowed. Where was he? Who was he? They Bellowed.

The man opened his eyes and glared at the morning sun. Gone were the snows and winds of his dreams. Yet the bellowing remained. It was deep. Primal. Guttural. But it came from no long dead beast. The sound came from him. The sound came out of pain. A deep ancient sound. A rumbling gurgle of anguish. He lay there for a long time. Moaning in pain. In a way, he was thankful for it. The freezing air of the desert night had broken his fever. The sharp, almost razor-like, pain that ravaged him helped him focus. With this focus came his being. His name was Leviticus Lowe. He was injured. He was alone. He was alive.

Forcefully he rolled himself onto his back and inspected his eyes. His left eye was invalid. A darkness hung to his peripheral. Nothing but black pain. His right eye strained under the burden of its new role as sole seer. The hurt was immense. Carefully he reached up and stroked his face. Feeling the injury with timid fingers. Next, he reached down on his flank and felt where the second barrel had unloaded into him. It was far more superficial but strangely more painful.

It had been his own sheer ignorance and negligence that saved him. Luke had shot him with his own scattergun. A beautiful thing his father had given him years ago. It had been the bane of many a flock of doves or quail, but never once had it been fired at a man. At least, until yesterday.

When Leviticus came west, he figured the danger to be greatly exaggerated. He refused to buy a six iron, stating his proficiency with the scattergun as an ample excuse. He never thought about which ammunition he brought along. All he ever used was birdshot, as all he ever shot was birds. It never occurred to him that such a round may not kill a man. It never occurred to him that such an action would be necessary, let alone that it would happen to him.

With great effort, he sat up. With a singular, teary eye he gazed upon his surroundings. The area was alien to him. Flat broken rock the color of pale wheat. Cracked earth, indistinguishable from the rock in all but texture, spread out in every direction. The sky, the color of old denim, shimmered in the heat. For the first time in hours, Leviticus recognized his thirst. For a moment it was so strong it overpowered the pain. His torso curled inward as his stomach cramped. This only irritated his wounds and caused the burning knives to stab him again.

He sat there for a long time. Not in a feverish haze but in consideration. He knew he was at least four miles from town, probably more depending on how far he wandered yesterday. He also knew that he had no chance of making it without water. Deciding to focus on one problem at a time, he removed the knife from his boot and stared into the blade. The distorted illusion of himself stared back from the reflection. He studied the image. Noting every line and break of his wound. He took his mirror by the hilt and began to scrape the sand stuck to his gore off as one would shave stubble. It was painful. The irritation caused flesh blood to flow, mixing with the sand and creating a muddy tincture that dripped from his face in dark clumps.

Using the tip of the knife he popped a dozen small grey beads of metal out of his wounds. The pain became unbearable as his work reached its conclusion. He dropped the blade out of frustration. It was well past noon now. His work had been long and soul-breaking. By the time he resolved his nerve and reenacted his pitiful surgery on his stomach, the sun was setting and he was convinced the water was a myth.

Delirium crept in once more. Not the foggy haze of fever but the slow creeping fog of dehydration. He could feel his mind slipping. It came back and It was not alone. A herd of the reptiles trampled around his broken body. Moving in great circles around him. Peering down upon him with their baby-like faces. One reached down and lifted him up from the cracked earth. Swaddled like a babe the beast held him to its scaly breast and nursed him.

But it was not milk or blood or honey that filled his mouth. It was water. Dusy, stale water. The sweetness of it jolted him back to reality. It was late at night, yet a small fire glowed beside him. Above his body stood an Indian. He was as weathered as the terrain. In his hands was a water skin, made from the stomach of some medium-sized game. He seemed unsurprised at Leviticus's waking. He merely lowered the waterskin and stared at him.

Leviticus stared back at the Indian. It was the first one he had ever seen. The creature above him looked nothing like the devils in the dime novels. He wore white man's clothes. A white man's gun was tucked into a white man's belt. The only indication as to his ethnicity was the shine of his skin and his ebony hair in the firelight. Leviticus had been excited to see Indians when he first left New England. Excited to see Buffalo. By the time he reached Missouri, he realized both species were near gone. By the time he finally entered Montana, he no longer mourned their loss.

He looked upon his savior and tried to speak, only the husk bellowing left his throat. More beast than man. He tried again. The bellowing turned into a croak then a squeak then into words.

"Water . . . please."

The Indian shook his head. "Your stomach is dry. Too much water will make you sick. Your sickness will dry what you have left and you will die."

Leviticus groaned. He tried to speak again but failed. He expected the Indian to comment on this but he did not. The cracked form only turned and faced the fire. Slowly, carefully, Leviticus propped himself up. The fire was burning an oily weed-like brush in a small pit. From a distance only the light was visible. No flames. No smoke.

"I was shot." Leviticus finally said. Interrupting the silence of the fire.

"Not well." The Indian answered.

Leviticus started to chuckle but stopped as the pain grew too sharp. The silence returned. Occasionally the Indian's hobbled painted mare would snort from the edge of the light, only for the emptiness to rush in once more.

"What is your name?" the white man asked

"Joshua." The Indian replied.

This took Leviticus aback. He thought to inquire but instead said "Why did you save me?"

"It was not my will for you to die," Joshua answered.

Silence returned. It hurt more than his wounds. "My foreman shot me." Leviticus began again. "He and my crew. We had a dig to the northeast. We found the motherload. I mean, the proverbial motherload . . . "

The Indian said nothing.

Leviticus felt odd after saying his story. Alien. They were not his words. Not his story. It had been his words and his story once. Not anymore. Shame. That was his feeling. He felt shame at his story. Shame at his willful ignorance of the harshness of this place.

He stared into the flames alongside the Indian. Thoughts racing back. Lucas had seemed uninterested with the smaller finds. Even bored. But the moment he read the excitement on Levitucs's face about It he understood It's worth. Understood that he needed It. Just as Leviticus had needed It.

The white man and the Indian sat in silence. For the first time, Joshua asked a question.

"Will you kill him?"

"I think so," Leviticus answered.

"You have never killed a man," Joshua said. It was not a question.

"I know death better than most." He answered.

The Indian said nothing.

Leviticus thought about his response. Those were harsh words but true words. New words. The words of the man he was, not the man he had once been.

The sun began to rise. The pair drank a thick broth boiled over the flames. It amplified his lucidity and his pain. Silently the Indian removed the pistol from his belt and handed it to Leviticus. It was an old cap and ball Colt. It's iron pitted. Its chamber smeared with pork fat.

"Their wagon is two miles north," Joshua said. "Their wagon broke a wheel yesterday and they refuse to leave their treasure. Take my horse. Do your business and return."

It took Leviticus a moment to process this. He wanted to question how the Indian knew this, yet he did not. He knew that the Indian knew, and that was enough. "You are placing a lot of faith in me. I could just steal your horse." Leviticus said.

"You won't," Joshua answered.

"I could die, then they will have your horse and your gun."

"It was not my will for you to die."

Leviticus nodded.

They both sat for a moment longer, then Leviticus stood and saddled the pony. The pain was incredible, As he flung his leg over the beast's back his world turned white, yet he mounted. He looked back at Joshua only once as he left. The Indian sat by the remains of the fire, disinterested, staring into the coals.

The ride seemed swift but he knew it to be much longer. He focused his thoughts inward. He had awoken and found himself a stranger. Everything was different. The boy from the East had died in the desert. He was scared of the man that had crawled out of the boy's grave.

The wagon was exactly where the Indian said it would be. They were very close to town. Easily within walking distance, but greed kept them rooted. The four of them were wrapping wire around the shattered fellows in an effort to bind them back to one singular whole. Lucas saw him first.

Lucas Shaw was a seasoned man. He left Tennessee as a boy for California and its wells of gold. There he prospected many years. The only wealth he found was wisdom. A sly wisdom. A coyote's wisdom. He had killed men. Killed women. He was not one to be afeard. Yet fear found him that day. Fear manifest. Fear in a form more corpse than man atop a painted pony.

He audibly gasped. The other three stopped and turned. Leviticus was close now. He had brought his perpetual silence with him. The horse snorted. The sand shifted. The men's hearts convulsed within them. The pony stopped.

Cole, the boy, spoke. "Levi?"

Lucas felt ashamed. He was the grand usurper. He should have spoken first.

Leviticus didn't know how to respond. In the dime novels he read as a boy the hero always said something venomous and clever before the showdown. Yet his tongue was bound by pain and anger and something else. Something hard.

He drew his borrowed pistol in a controlled manner. It was neither fast nor slow. His betrayers would have had ample time to react if their senses were about them. They were not. Four shots. Evenly spaced in time. The boy and Roger died well. Their skulls caved and buckled and vomited gore from their occipital lobes. Walter died harder. The ball struck his heart. He fell and perished quickly but in pain. Lucas had the worst of it. The force of the shot sent his shattered ribs into his left lung. He fell and was a long time dying.

Leviticus sat atop the pony and watched until he was sure they were all dead. Part of him thought this was not right. That he should use his spare two balls to end the survivors' suffering. Another part, the new part, the hard part, recognized that this was a borrowed gun. Borrowed ammunition. Thought it unwise to waste it. He felt the entire affair was anticlimactic. That this was not fair to him or them. Yet that same deep primal voice that spoke of borrowed weapons noted that it wasn't about them. It was about It.

He walked to the wagon and found the crate. He opened it. The dry wooden planks were rough in his sunburned hands. He removed the canvas and brushed the straw away. He needed to see It. To know It was real. That It was worth it. The pain. The killing.

He removed the lesser fragments and put them to the side. Impressive but not awe-inspiring. In the bottom of the crate in a potato sack filled with cotton and linen rags lay the skull. Iguanodontidae. It. He held It in his hands. Felling the curves. The eyesockets. The chips and fractures. He caressed the skull of the long-dead giant and wept. Wept out of pity and pain, but not sadness.

He sat there holding it for a long time. The sun fell. The night came. The pony grew restless. He never appreciated the beauty of fossils before. He had always thought them inferior to bone. Calcium became stone. Life became unlife. Now, as he sat there holding It he saw the beauty for the first time. Death had not stopped It. Only hardened It more. A painting of flesh turned into a sculpture that outlasted countless species and empires.

The coyotes howled. He thought of leaving with the pony. Returning East with It. But that was not It's place. It became as It was because of the hardness of this place. The badlands were the catalyst of that transformation. The vessel that turned life hard. He buried the bones next to the stinking corpses of the men and rode south to the Indian.

The End

Cory Ethan Williamson is a High School Teacher in Southern Mississippi. Ethan has long enjoyed stories of the West and the journeys and trials it presented to so many Americans. He currently lives in Collins Mississippi with his wife Miranda.

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