April, 2024

Home | About | Brags | Submissions | Writing Tips | Donate | Links

Issue #175

All The Tales

Five Points of Light
by Scott MacLeod

Philo was fixin' to rob the 3:45 stage. Now it did not take any great feat of police work to suss this out. He had been telling just about anyone who would listen. Slurring it over his cups at The Gardenia saloon. Boasting about his future windfall as surety for his losses at Beulah's pool hall. Whispering it into supine ears to bolster his courage at her house of ill fame. Some of this was clearly the young man trying to talk himself into the deed; he had never done anything remotely close to such a job.

Naturally word of the heist had filtered to Gandy as did all matters impacting the town.

Gandy had just finished sitting through another silent breakfast.

"Guess I'll head out now," he said to his wife.

"Fair enough," she said.

"Have you seen that Philo boy downtown on your marketing days," he tried, looking to start any small spark conversation.

"Not much need for provisions with just the two of us," she answered, flatly but without reproach. She appeared drawn and worn by something beyond a hard life of ceaseless farm chores in the baking sun.

"OK then," he said giving her a long hug before heading for the door.

Before leaving for his office, he limped out to the barn as he did every morning. He still carried fragments of a bullet shot through his boot at Shiloh and the foot tugged at him well before the onset of cold weather and its accompanying aches and pains. To compound his troubles, yesterday he had discovered one of his young cows acting disinterested at feed time. He scanned the pen and convinced himself that the baby was no more hollowed out looking than the day before. He had lost two calves to scours already and feared contagion. Satisfied for now he walked out back to the small neatly trimmed plot of sod 100 yards behind the barn and gazed at the small wooden cross. It had only been up for a year, but he noted it already needed a new coat of whitewash. His boy would have turned 19 next Christmas. Just about Philo's age.

Gandy had been sheriff long enough, heck, had been on this planet long enough, to know the difference between a bad man and one caught up in the cosmic shuffle. He had really learned that in the war.

He tried to keep thoughts of Antietam from his mind but thinking about Philo and his dead son had put Gandy in a recollecting mood. Today his thoughts drifted to a farm boy in his regiment. The kid had no more sense than the horseflesh he mooned over. He was constantly trying to sneak a snack from his own meager provisions to the officers' mounts. He had never been away from home even on a hunt and Gandy could hear him crying quietly some nights after lights out. The kid put him in mind of Philo. He never really had a chance either.

When the Rebel fire started, Gandy saw the fear in the kid's eyes. The boy momentarily ran back into the woods, but then reversed course and quickly resumed his place on the line. But it was too late. The desertion, even if momentary, had been seen by officers beyond Gandy. Gandy had no choice but to line him up in front of a skinny pine and have him shot.

Gandy snapped back to the present. For now, it was enough that with the Philo affair he had a new headache for the day besides his perennially sore heel and a sickly calf. He was tempted to think he was too old for this grind, but he knew he had no such luxury. Now Old Curley, his faithful deputy, really was too long in the tooth. He used to snort to attention from his napping rocker when Gandy swung open the office doors but now, he just peacefully snored through the boss's arrival.

A few minutes after Gandy had settled at his desk, Curley ambled in for the daily report.

"What do you know about young Philo?" the sheriff asked the old timer.

"Nothing bad," said Curley. "Want me to round him up?"

"No, but head over to his place and tell him I want to see him."

"Will do, boss," said his deputy.

A few minutes after Curley departed, Gandy strolled to the front door of the sheriff's office and craned his neck to watch his assistant branch off the path in the opposite direction of the way to Philo's shack, heading towards the saloon instead, Gandy guessed.

The town was no Tombstone but did present a steady stream of workaday demands on a peace officer. And while you were more likely to fall victim to typhus, like Gandy's son, than to a bullet, there was the occasional unexpected flash of blinding violence typical of the day and place.

Curley was clearly no longer a solution. Yes, Gandy could add an impending staffing problem to his list of daily grievances. And he would not exactly be fishing from a deep pool in looking for any replacement.

The plan had been for Gandy's boy to take over as deputy. He could ride better than his father and shoot the eye out of a rattlesnake from 100 yards. He was tough enough to outwrestle any of the boys in town but also, thanks to his mother, he could read and write and drink lemonade out of a glass in a way that comforted the more civilized townfolk. In other words, he was tailor made for the job of a modern lawman. Until the hacking dry cough and backache. Gandy figured that was just the grippe and would pass in time. But then he noticed the dull red rash spreading from the middle of the body. Gandy knew what that meant from his time in field hospitals: all of their plans were ended.

Gandy thus understood from personal experience that nobody had it very easy in this part of the world. But poor Philo seemed particularly far back in the line, excepting the poor Natives of course. All dads drank in these parts, if you had a dad at all, but Philo's was a particularly mean drunk. After his mother passed, Philo was set loose on the dusty streets to find his way. He took to wearing a tattered overcoat year-round to hide the jutting bones resulting from lack of food. And the bruises. And while the occasional missing chicken was something Gandy could look past, a stickup of the Wells Fargo was quite a different matter.

Gandy stopped by the station after breakfast and greeted Floyd who was polishing his watch behind the ticket window.

"Floyd, I need you to wire the home office that the 3:45 is not to make its scheduled stop today."

He also instructed the wizened stationmaster to post a notice downtown alerting the townfolk to the change in schedule and advised him to take advantage of that lull to distance himself from the station and kill an idle hour or so in the mainway himself.

"Mrs. Catterwall will surely gripe about missing her expected delivery of crinolines," remarked the wizened stationmaster, "but I suppose law enforcement must demand some sacrifices in a civilized society."

"I'm obliged for your and the widow's understanding," said Gandy.

At quarter 'til four Philo sat on a bench at the empty coach station nervously fidgeting with his rusty sidearm. He had never used it in anger, beyond with rabbits of course, but was prepared to do what he needed to do. He was having second thoughts about his plan but had broadcast it so widely he now feared the repercussions of an embarrassing retreat more than he did the legal and other possible dangerous consequences of an attempt. He looked back and forth between the clock and the horizon, waiting for the arrival of the prairie wagon that would change his life. Finally, he saw the coach approach the station. He felt a huge force weighing him down and struggled to find the strength to get to his feet and seize his moment. He never even had the chance to leave his seat, though, as the stage hurtled through at full speed quickly leaving the lad behind in a cloud of puzzlement and dust.

"I guess you haven't been to town this morning to check the new timetable," said Gandy ambling around the corner from the indoor waiting room. "No afternoon stage today."

Philo blinked up at the sheriff with a combination of surprise and relief.

"I should have done this a long time ago," Gandy continued, reaching past his holster into his back pocket as he approached the boy on the bench.

Philo extended his wrists for the handcuffs and looked away as a single doleful tear slalomed across his downy cheek.

But the cuffs did not come.

Gandy gently pulled open the young man's tattered elk skin vest and carefully pinned the tarnished Deputy star just over Philo's hammering heart.

"Don't make me regret this, boy," the lawman said.

The End

Scott MacLeod is a father of two who writes in Central Florida. His work has appeared in Gumshoe Review, Short-Story.me and The Yard: Crime Blog. He can be found at www.facebook.com/scott.macleod.334.

Back to Top
Back to Home

Start With a Horse
by Alexander J. Richardson

He wore a bolero hat and matching poncho, two holes in the chest of it serving as floodgates for the blood pooling beneath him, staining the dirt path, the two riders' shadows masking it from the sun.

James scratched at his beard. "Appears we have found us Nolan's horse thief."

Elliot nodded. His shirt was checkered yellow with black squares, interrupted only by a brown vest, while the hat he wore was wide and crooked and silver, a strap holding at his jaw.

"Is that Clay Delgado?"

James eyed the corpse before turning to his partner.

"Jesus, Elliot. How many times I gotta tell you ain't ever' Mexican we seen is Clay Delgado?"

Elliot rubbed his horse's flank. "Sure looks a bunch like him."

"'Cept this one ain't a day past sixteen, and Delgado's pushing forty. And I ain't never heard a' him wearing no bolero hat."

Elliot's mustache shined like gold in the sunlight.

"A feller could buy hisself some land, with plenty more to drink after, turning Delgado in for the reward."

James shook his head. He gestured at the dead man's holster.

"Shooter got him quick. He didn't even clear leather."

"Gave himself a right headache stealing that horse," Elliot said, "only to get bushwhacked for his trouble."

Elliot brought one leg over his horse and dropped from the saddle. He lifted the dead man by his belt and collar and lifted, setting him on the horse's backend.

"What're you doing?" James said.

Elliot turned to him, one boot in its stirrup.

"Fixin' to take our deceased bandit here to town."

James rolled a cigarette. His black coat hung long on him.

"Don't waste your time on giving some nobody Mexican thief a burial and such. We was hired to retrieve Nolan's property."

He struck a match against the pommel of his saddle and brought the smoke to life.

"Ain't for such purpose that I would return his body," Elliot said. "My effort's for the reward."

"And who told you there's so much as ten dollars on this fool's head? Such time could be spent in pursuit of our latest thieves."

James smoked. Elliot pushed himself up onto his saddle and patted the horse's flank.

"Vanilla here's faster'n all get out. I'll be back on your hide 'fore you can make water."

James finished his cigarette. He turned his horse towards the trail.

"Do it quick." His back was to Elliot. "Don't want to catch no lead while you're gone."

* * *

They were three days outside Whisper's Creek, and five days past the bloodbath that started their journey, when Luigi's horse brought her hoof down funny in a gopher hole, breaking the leg and sending her rider flying with a yelp, silver spurs jangling as he landed. Thomas brought his steed to a quick halt and dismounted.

"Hellfire. You okay, Luigi?"

The crooked cowboy rolled over, his bearskin jacket dusted and prickly bits in his pants and boots, staring at the clouds before pushing himself up. A slit punctuated his gray vest, though his chaps and boots suited the occasion.

"My aching-a bones."

The horse lay on her side, whining sharply, writhing about in the face of her injury. Luigi kneeled next to her.

"Oh, no. Such a terrible-a way for mia fideli Beauty to-a go."

He walked over to Thomas's horse, retrieved a carbine from the saddle, and shot Beauty in the head, her agonized moans punctuated by the boom of the gun, then silenced.

Neither man spoke for a long moment. Luigi handed the weapon to Thomas and started unstrapping the late Beauty's saddle.

"This'll slow our progress," Thomas said. "Demeter ain't acquainted with bearing two riders."

Luigi was crouched with his back to Thomas, the back of his open jacket hiding the frayed holster. He edged his left hand over, resting it on the butt of his revolver. Thomas's sleeves were rolled up, forearms sweaty as he raised the carbine.

"Juan's waiting for us, like you said. Whole gang's ready to head west. Something big's coming since you and the boys killed that posse. Pinkertons. Maybe the army. Gang can't afford to stick around. Me? I ain't getting caught on my lonesome, trousers down in the thick of things, a shrew against eagles. No sir."

Luigi's teeth were clenched. Like a snail racing, his thumb pressed against the hammer of his gun.

"Hold up a second," Thomas said. "Just what's that?"

Luigi looked up. In the distance, past cacti and brush, a racing shape slowed its charge near the foothills.

"What do you-a know. A lone rider."

"Well," Thomas said, "might be we've found us a way outta this fix."

He eyed Luigi's back.

"We of an accord?"

Luigi didn't speak at first. After a moment, he rose, releasing his gun as he turned.

"Si," he said, and when he faced Thomas the barrel of that man's carbine was aimed at the sky.

* * *

Getting ahead of their unsuspecting quarry was an unremarkable excursion, and Luigi greeted him the traditional way of a robber-murderer. With two bullets fired and the spooked horse chased down, he and Thomas put miles behind them, riding with purpose until they made camp at nightfall.

Luigi had strapped Beauty's saddle to the newly acquired one upon stealing the horse, and he rummaged through the latter now by firelight, stopping fast when he found the cloth.

"Spettacolare!" he said, unfolding it as Thomas turned from his cooking hare. "Look at what I have-a found."

Laid out before them, with its markings and a sizeable X just below the center, was a treasure map.

"Mama Mia indeed," Thomas said, running his fingers over it. "You reckon she's the real thing?"

"I do not say no mama mia." Luigi brushed his fingers along the map's edges. "She looks-a real to me."

A coyote howled in the distance. After a moment, another followed, this one softer to their ears.

"Wait, I know that butte." Thomas jabbed at the map. "It's practically between us and the hideout. Only a few hours outta the way."

Luigi scooped some cornmeal from his tin cup, chewing softly.

"Of course, what if this-a treasure is no more than spazzatura sentimentale? No value."

Thomas raised an eyebrow. "And you with all that Mama Mia bunk. Ever met any fellas in the business of making fake treasure maps?"

"Not in America."

"Good enough. I say we treat this like it ain't no exception. Just a few hours ride. Worst case, we don't get nothing for our lost time."

Luigi ate more cornmeal. Thomas dug his hare out from under the flames.

"Only got a day or so on the trail left. Might be this would serve as a lucrative stop."

"Okay," Luigi said, nodding several times. "I am-a convinto."

Thomas cut the hare's skin. "To fame and fortune."

"Si. To fame and-a fortune."

* * *

It was just hours past daybreak when James and Elliot halted their horses next to the discarded saddle bag.

"Reckon we're on the right track," Elliot said. James spat in the dirt and pointed.

"Had themselves a little fire. Might be we ain't all that far behind."

"Might be." Elliot eyed the saddle. "Why you figure they tossed a quality saddle like that? Sorta thing a rich so-and-so rides with, and they drop it like rollin' paper used? That don't sit."

James shrugged. His navy vest paired with the tailored, gray shirt.

"Could be the man likes his own fine."

Elliot shook his head. He dismounted, gator-hide boots planting in the dirt, and unstrapped Vanilla's saddle before walking over to the one left behind.

"Hell you doing?"


"Why is it you're switching?"

"Said it clear." Elliot set the saddle on Vanilla's back and reached for the strap. "This here's a rich man's saddle."

"And? Might be you've got a touch a' the sun. We was hired to retrieve Nolan's stolen property. Such would include that saddle."

Elliot finished strapping it on. He mounted Vanilla.

"Won't be no concern," he said, resting his hands on the pommel as he leaned forward, his yellow-square patterned shirtsleeves complementing the saddle's dark shades. "I'll spend my share of the reward replacin' it. Get me one real fancy from Albuquerque or somewheres like it. 'Til then, this one'll do nice."

They rode in silence for a while. James pointed at the soft earth.

"Seeing this?"

Elliot looked and nodded.

"Multiple tracks for multiple riders."

James rested one hand on his shotgun.

"Keep extra watchful. I don't feel good about none a' this."

* * *

At the base of the butte, half shaded from the noon sun by a towering saguaro, Luigi and Thomas retrieved spades from their saddle bags and started digging.

"I tell you-a something," Luigi said after a while as he wiped his brown, sweat soaked into his striped shirt and thick jacket. "Every silver and jewel in the west hold-a nothing compared to cold water on a hot-a day."

"We'll drink after." Thomas untied his bandanna and pressed it against his face. "I aim to see this loot 'fore anythin' else."

They dug in silence for a while, sun moving ever-so-slowly overhead. One of the cacti bore prickly fruit, positioned like gleaming, dangerous gems against it. A hawk flew overhead.

"Hang on," Thomas said, the tip of his spade crunching against something sturdier than dirt.

He kneeled, pawing at the ground, brushing dirt aside, revealing two thick branches crossed over each other. The outlaw turned to his partner, grin wide, eyes alive.

"Ex marks the spot, mi amigo."

"Such a good-a resting point for water." Luigi gripped the reins of his new horse with one hand. "Il torrente is close. Let us take-a the horses and refresh ourselves."

Thomas waved him off. "Oh, hell. Go yourself. We're on the edge of finding who knows what in treasure, and all you can do is bellyache about your drinky."

"You are-a most unfair." Luigi threw his spade aside. "Have I not-a proven time and again that I am so very-a rugged and rough?"

Thomas's back was to him. He started digging again.

"You gotta go, go. Take Demeter first. She gets priority over some stolen nag."

Luigi stared down at his treasure-eager companion. He shook his head, switched reins, and started leading Demeter to the creek, taking slow, deliberate steps down the narrow path.

* * *

They'd put time and miles behind them when James raised his fist. Both men stopped their horses. James pointed ahead.

Down just a ways, bookended by cacti and beneath a looming butte, was Nolan's horse, hitched next to a man digging with vigor.

"How about that," James said. "We have indeed found our horse thief."

Elliot lifted his repeater from the saddle. "I only see one."

"Might be the other feller's lit out for greener pastures. Don't matter. Keep a keen eye."

Elliot dismounted, hitching Vanilla and aiming his repeater at his quarry as he advanced in a crouch. James followed suit, standing tall as he approached from the right, shotgun raised.

The American Southwest isn't known for its quiet earth. As the two men drew closer, their quarry paused, then straightened as one hand dropped to his holster.

"Don't even try it," James said, his voice a yell. "Not 'less you're fixing to get back shot."

The man froze. Elliot advanced several steps.

"Run while you can," the man said, back to them, voice muffled. "Just so happens you've come across the best shot from here to Lincoln."

"Might be fact," James said, "but there ain't no eyes in the back of your skull. Draw iron, you die."

Maybe it was that he'd only heard one man's voice and didn't know he had two gunslingers to contend with. Maybe his greed for treasure outweighed his sense. Or maybe the man you and I know as Thomas Burns truly believed he was the best shot from here to Lincoln. Whatever the reason, he turned fast—raising his revolver as he dropped into a crouch—and Elliot's one shot sang true, his repeater's bullet striking Thomas square in the forehead, splattering brains and blood across the butte as Nolan's stolen horse bucked and whinnied in the aftermath of sudden violence.

* * *

Luigi had drunk his water and was allowing Demeter her fill when he heard Thomas shouting, followed by a single gunshot and silence. He drew his revolver, watching the path. Chatter from other voices made its way down to him. Luigi shook his head, signing the cross with his free hand.

"Arrivederci, Thomas. So much for your silver and jewel."

Without another word, he hoisted himself onto Demeter, crossing the creek and digging in with his spurs, raising dust as he made for the hideout.

* * *

Elliot spoke softly to Nolan's horse while James turned the body over.

"I'll be. Thomas Burns." He turned to Elliot. "Looks like we bagged a member of the Juan Rojas Gang after all."

Elliot whistled. "Count on that corpse for coins that shine."


James unhooked the man's gun belt. Elliot eyed the hole.

"What have we here?"

He kneeled, pressing his hand against the dark surface within—and brushed his fingers against a wooden chest.

"Holy Hannah!"

Elliot dug in with both hands, wrenching the chest free from its grave and setting it in place. He drew his knife, slid it outside the lock, and forced the lid open, revealing four gold bars, rectangular, even, and glimmering in the afternoon light.

"We done it." His voice was hardly a whisper. "We found us a treasure."

James had gone through Thomas's pockets.

"Might be we ain't, partner."

Elliot turned from the gold, staring at him.

"What's that now?"

James held up the map. "Got Nolan's initials in the corner. See? This is his property, same as the saddle and horse."

Elliot frowned. "That a joke? This here gold's buried for any sort of somebody to dig up." He gestured at Thomas. "Hell, just like he done."

"You taking your lessons from bandits now?" James laughed. "Pop them bars in a saddlebag while I load the late Thomas Burns onto this horse."

He turned, gripping the dead man by his belt and collar. Elliot rose behind him. As his partner took a deep breath and lifted, Elliot struck the base of his skull with a gold bar. James fell, dropping Thomas's corpse, and Elliot kneeled over him, bashing his head again and again with the treasure while Nolan's horse bucked and whinnied again in the butte's shadow.

The End

Alexander J. Richardson is an author of speculative fiction, crime fiction, horror, and westerns. His work's been published on Fiction on the Web, 96th of October, and Frontier Tales, among others. When he's not working on short stories or his novel, there's a good chance he's reading.

Back to Top
Back to Home

The Short Fuse
by J.B. Stevens

Chewie didn't know how fast the smoking fuse would burn down. But—he did know that the dynamite was within spitting distance and things were about to get spicy.

The dead mare's corpse pinned Chewie's leg, holding him in place next to the explosives. The horse-crushed appendage ached, acid tickled his throat, and he smelled the animal's tinny blood.

Chewie sighed, leaned back, and pulled off the ten-gallon hat. He was blue about the mare. She didn't deserve this.

He listened to the bacon sizzle of the fuse and knew—he did deserve this—he had it coming.

The entire job had been a disaster, he'd behaved like a greenhorn, riding into the bank, purple bandana strapped around his face, stolen scattergun on his hip. A two-bit Jesse James. It was dumb and exciting and made life worth the pain.

Hell, at the end of the day, there were better ways to make a living, but robbing banks was just a damned fun time.

But this job was a bust. Things went sideways quicker than a circuit preacher in a distillery. The bank's clerk had pulled a six-shooter. Chewie's partner, Jeb, shot the clerk in the gut. As the clerk fell, he popped one off at Jeb—that one caught the mare in the head. She dropped and Chewie was pinned.

Jeb hopped over the mare, skipped over the clerk, got next to the vault, and set the dynamite. Then, he took the clerk's smoke wagon and tried to move the mare, but that was a non-starter.

After pushing on the dead animal long enough to clear his conscience, Jeb skedaddled.

Chewie was stuck, the fuse burned down, and the fat lady warmed up.

* * *

Chewie looked to the clerk, pulled his bandana off, and dropped the scattergun. "What's your name?"

The clerk's hands were over his gut. Blood flowed through his fingers. It darkened the man's purple silk vest and white shirt.

He raised his blue eyes. "Nephi."

"I'm Chewie." He dipped his chin. "Nice to meet you."

"I can't say the same."

"That's fair."

Nephi looked to the bank's entrance. "Why'd your partner leave you?"

The sparking snake of a fuse was a quarter of the way down. "Jeb cares more about getting in that vault than saving my backside."

"That's unfortunate."

"For us both." Chewie reached into the saddle bag on the side of the dead mare. He found his opium pipe, pulled it out, sparked a match on his stubbled chin, held the fire to the bowl, and sucked. After a spell, the pain in his leg retreated, and the world became a happy cloud.

He offered the pipe to Nephi. "This'll take care of that gunshot."

The clerk waved a red hand.

Chewie lowered the pipe. "Nephi's an odd appellation."

"I take it you aren't from Salt Lake."

"I claim Missouri."

The bleeding man looked to his gut and sighed. "Nephi's a common name in Utah. It's from the Book of Mormon."

"Never read it."

"I imagine you're not much of a reader."

Chewie sucked his pipe. "Why Nephi, I think you might be picking at me—just when we're becoming friends." The smoke took hold and his mind morphed into a blissful rainbow. "A few winters back, in Dodge City lockup—that's where I met Jeb—I read Eddie Poe's stuff."

"You like it?"

"Nope." He spit. "Too damned creepy."

Nephi looked to the damp spot, closed his eyes, and shook his head. "You're scared of ghost stories?"

"Not exactly scared. I just don't like all that negativity and violence."

"You're a bank robber."

"I'm not a bad man, I'm just forced to do bad things."

Nephi unbuttoned the vest, pulled up his shirt, and glanced down.

Chewie looked. The wound was an angry blossom of fresh. It made Chewie think of buzzing hornets. "Tell me about your Mormon book."

"You've read Poe, he's entertainment." Nephi closed his eyes and leaned his head back. "The Book of Mormon is truth. The answer to eternity's mysteries."

Chewie peeked at the fuse. Six more inches had burned off. "I'd like to know the answer to that one." He mouthed the pipe.

Nephi's head was still back. "Let me tell you about Joseph Smith . . . "

* * *

Five inches of fuse later, Nephi wrapped up. "And those Golden Tablets became the Book of Mormon."

Chewie grinned. "So, Joey got to marry all the young women and he took all the donations for his church. Then he told everyone only he could see these magic plates, and he was God's chosen man?"

Nephi coughed. Flecks of blood rose and fell. "That's not exactly what happened, but that's the gist."

Chewie slapped his non-horse-crushed thigh. "Ole' Joey is a better crook than me."


"That fella didn't just take your money, he also took your women, and all he traded you was your own soul. Smart."

Nephi wagged a red finger. "It isn't like that."

"Like what?"


Chewie smiled. "It always is. Joey sold snake oil and you bought it." He spread his arms wide. "This whole city bought it. Where's Joey now?"

Nephi wiped his bloody hands on his sleeves and put them back to his gut. "Joseph Smith has moved to his eternal reward."

"What about the next big man in charge? Who took over?"

"The current Prophet?"

"Yeah." Chewie sucked the pipe. "He have a big house on a hill and married a bunch of them pretty young ladies?"

"I don't see why that matters," Nephi said.

Chewie laughed. "Tell me you're a rube without telling me you're a rube."

"You think you're wiser than me."

"Think, no? I don't think it. I know it."

"I know I've had a happy life full of righteous purpose. Can you say the same?"

"I cannot. But I can say no minister took my woman and my donations and told me I got the better end of the deal. And now, you're bleeding on a dirty bank floor, next to a two-bit crook because you work for a living to hand over those donations."

"I'm here because your partner shot me." Nephi looked away.

"You're here 'cause you clerk at a bank. I bet The Prophet doesn't have to stand on his feet all day—dealing with customers from behind a counter."

Nephi closed his eyes and leaned his head back. "I suppose he doesn't."

* * *

Chewie sucked the pipe and peeked at the bomb's fuse, only a few inches were left. He blew a smoke ring towards Nephi.

Nephi coughed and waved his hand in front of his face. "Why'd you rob this bank?"

"I didn't."


Chewie winked. "You shot my horse before I got far enough for this to be a robbery. Hell . . . " He swept his hand at the trapped leg. "This was just a sad attempt."

Nephi grinned. His eyes were filled with tears. "Why'd you attempt it?"

"Back in Missouri, Jeb said he'd heard that whores and rustlers banked here. That always means lots of cash. That true?"

Nephi frowned. "I don't ask where the money comes from. It's not my place to judge."

Chewie laughed. "Either you're the only non-judgmental bible-thumper I've ever met, or you care more about money than principle."

Nephi began to weep.

* * *

The clerk wiped his eyes and began saying a quiet prayer.

Chewie coughed—Nephi looked up.

Chewie pointed at the explosives. "That's gonna be some boom."

"All for naught. That vault's empty."

"Come again?"

"It's conference week."

"I don't know what that means."

"The vault's cleared out. The contents were moved north four days ago."

Chewie grinned. "Seriously?"

"Yes." A smile came across Nephi's face. "We needed to make room for incoming travelers. Faithful from all over are arriving and they need somewhere to store their valuables."

Chewie hooted. "Empty?"

"As your soul." Nephi spasmed and crimson mist filled the air.

Chewie looked at the fuse, it was very short—almost time. "I apologize for getting you in this mess."

"God's will—I accept it. If you take your savior into your heart, the next step will be much easier."

Chewie sucked his opium. "I'm glad you believe that. Even if it is all bull."

It was time. He looked at Nephi and winked. The banker was pale, but his smile was wide—he sang a hymn.

A hot wind came, and Chewie learned the answer.

The End

J.B. Stevens lives in the Southeastern United States with his wife and daughter. His war poetry collection The Explosion Takes Both Legs is scheduled to be a September 2023 release from Middle West Press. His short story collection?A Therapeutic Death?is available from Shotgun Honey Books. His pop poetry collection?The Best of America Cannot Be Seen?is available from Alien Buddha Press.

Before his writing career, J.B. was a United States Army Infantry Officer, serving in Iraq and earning a Bronze Star. He is also an undefeated Mixed Martial Arts Fighter and a Black Belt in Brazilian Jiujitsu. He graduated from The Citadel. In addition to writing, he works as a Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal.

For more info, and a free book, go to JB-Stevens.com.

Back to Top
Back to Home

The Devil in Foreign Boots
by Myles Robb

They had begun riding in the early dawn, leaving home and their lives in the past just as they fitted themselves a new one. The air was warm, and the sun had barely begun to rise on the horizon, gleaming with a pinkish-red sky. Cornelius Cain led his younger cousin, Sidney, down the sloping hills off into the western darkness. The two of them laughed as they rode the horses in the glittering plains, blowing with each fall breeze that strung past them. Behind them lay that sun, ever-looming and melting the ground with its impressive glow.

When they had stopped to rest, Cain cooked them both raw meat over a small fire under the dry sun. They sat and bubbled with excitement over the life that awaited them. Cain had convinced Sidney to travel with him, describing the spoils they would find. Gold lay somewhere out there in the mountains near the sea, but along the way were towns without count, full of money and women. Sidney tried to smirk. They talked and laughed over fond moments in their past, passing a bottle of whiskey between the two. Cain sang and danced, lifting Sidney's spirits, with confidence that this had been the right choice. After all, they were meant to be outlaws, not caretakers. Cain assured Sidney that they would only hit a few places on their way just so they had enough to make it through the mountains. After they finished their meal, Cain stomped the fire away with his fresh boot, and they saddled up, following the train tracks that drifted off into the southwest. The sky was filled with blue, and clouds sailed across the air like ships trekking across a sea. Cain's hat shaded his eyes from the scorching fall sun, and the wind whispered secrets through the sagebrush, painting a portrait of the barren hills overlooking a bustling town.

Cain told Sidney to load up, and they set down off the road, readying their guns and eating the old meat. Sidney wrapped a bandanna around his face, covering his mouth and nose, copying the work of Cain. They each loaded pistols and stuck them in their waists, then loaded shotguns, which they would carry horseback into town. Cain laid out a careful and cautious plan, while Sidney wiped the sweat off his brow, reluctantly nodding his head in acceptance.

The pair rode in slowly, and Sidney listened to the horses' feet clop against the ground, avoiding eye contact with those who saw them come in. Cain saw it just ahead of them, the bank standing tall and proud, egging him on with his newfound sense of pride and destiny. They fell out of their stirrups when they arrived at the front steps, Sidney gripping the shotgun with all his nervous might. Cain gave Sidney a countdown and led the way, bursting through the doors into an empty lobby and shouting, "Everybody stop right now. I'll shoot." He looked to the young lady at the gate, "You, load up some cash, now." He motioned to the nervous Sidney to watch the other attendants. Cain followed the woman back and watched her pull out bundles of cash frantically before falling to her knees and sobbing. Cain stood confident before saying, "Shut it. Just finish up so I can get out of here." She finished stacking the case full of cash. He kissed her on the cheek and smiled before jogging out into the lobby, ushering for Sidney to follow him quickly out the door. They quickly loaded the horses and took off through a growing crowd of people watching them ride. As they left town, Cain looked back and saw nothing, then began to belly laugh to Sidney's nervous delight as they began riding west towards the sun that now fell into darkness.

They woke that morning in the plains, surrounded by grass under a cloudy sky. Cain was awake before Sidney had opened his eyes, sitting around an early morning fire, singing folk hymns and skewering meat to take with them on the journey. He was naked and dripping from the river where he had bathed and looked as warm as the sun, telling Sidney they would find another town and spend the day there, but they had to leave now for a head start from the law. Cain wore only a smile on his face, proud of the success that had befallen them. They left soon after, with Sidney falling asleep on his horse while Cain sang folk tales to himself. The day was warm, with a boiling sun lighting the sky to the west with a strain of white clouds dissipating into eternity. A pale blue sky broke through them and ushered light onto the grasses that swung in the wind. They saw four riders in black shuffling across the hazy horizon behind, passing silently and sullenly. A yellow shine came down from the sun, illuminating the plains with a road into destiny. Cain led them on ahead, and they reached town later in the day when the clouds grew dark. Sidney tied the horses to poles, and the pair entered a bustling bar full of laughing and singing.

Over the next few hours, they sat in a group of grown men playing cards, filling their bodies with liquor and whiskey. The men around them had women come by to serve their drinks, groping them and returning to their gambling, teeth filled with rot. Cain won a hand of poker, took both arms, and wrapped them around the money, pulling it into his lap. Sidney fell back in his chair to the ground, and with a laugh, Cain picked him up and led him out into the warm night. They sat on the porch drinking from an empty bottle, and the strange men came out demanding their money. Cain took the bottle and, with a jolt, swung it against the big one's head with a crash, then falling into his unconscious body. His skin was pulled off and thrown to the wood boards, pummeled by fists before Sidney's young body freed him and dragged him off. Cain jumped off the wooden ground and ran into the bar, grabbing a bottle before throwing it back at the men after him. He shouted, "I won the money fair," holding the broken bottle out like a knife with the silent bar staring him down as if he were the devil in foreign boots. After the commotion subsided, he returned to picking fights in the back with the pigs, taking all comers.

Cain spent the night in a jail cell and was released in the early morning and thrown onto the dusty ground. Sidney dropped the pistol and money on his back, and they spent the day drinking again. That night, Cain slept with an unnamed woman he discarded the next day while Sidney played cards in the dirt alone. They left town the next day and rode on through the country, passing into the hills of Oklahoma. The prairies were yellow and dying, with the preserved heat from summer lingering and the sun illuminating the journey.

Over the following weeks, they continued on their path. They robbed and stole from those they came across and drank in the towns they stopped. Cain had begun to court so many women that Sidney lost count while he would sit lonesome around the fire with nothing to him but his thoughts. Sidney had stopped following him into bars, beginning a friendship with a young woman that he had to leave behind, promising her he would return. Cain had started to look disheveled as his beard and hair grew out on his person. He would spend the money they stole almost immediately, promising they would earn more when they reached California. To him, it served as a symbol to the life stolen from his youth, reminding Sidney of the life they had, although Sidney had come to want it back.

Weeks later, they came into a large town near the Rocky Mountains. It sat on a flat plain beneath the slopes and was surrounded by rolling barren hills and decaying grasses. The sun was a bright yellow, with a slight heat keeping the two men warm. Their horses stopped along a river that led into town and drank from the pale, clear water. The men had grown tired from their journeys here and had kept themselves a whole satchel of cash to spend when needed. As they pulled into town, the streets were filled with people, and they tied their horses to poles before heading into the bar. Cain spent the day drinking and the night with a beautiful young lady who begged him to stay with her. The next morning Cain told his cousin he was too rich for a whore.

In the center of town was a bank that stood arrogantly while Cain admired it from the barsteps. Sidney tried to argue that they had all they needed and to focus on food to bring with them during a cold winter in the Rockies. Sidney lost his argument when Cain began chatting with a young lady and impressed her with his ensuing wealth. With a confident opening, he burst in through the doors and danced, while Sidney held his sweating shotgun to the bank attendant. Like before, Cain brought an older man to fill another satchel full of cash. All the while, the man muttered, "Damn heathens." A rumbling commotion gathered out front and the old man laughed.

Cain shouted, "Come on! Fill it up. I gotta get out of here."

The man replied, "You both ain't getting nowhere."

Beads of sweat dripped down Cain's forehead, and he pressed his hat to his skull before holding the shotgun to the man's head. "Just do it. Don't make me shoot you."

The old man only smirked and said, "Then you'll really be in trouble."

With bulging eyes, Cain heard Sidney shout, "Cain, we got to go now!"

The man was about to speak again before Cain pulled the trigger without a care, and a rupturing bang hit his ears. The body of the man fell over on the floor, and Cain ignored it while grabbing the satchel. Sidney shouted, "Let's go!" On the way back to the lobby, Cain smiled, knowing he had won. Sidney looked him up and down, forgetting the immense sound, and said, "A man over yonder got loose. Said he was gonna make us regret it. Let's get out of here. I ain't staying here a second longer." Running out the doors, Cain threw a bundle of cash in the air to the onlookers and laughed before saddling his horse and smiling to the ground as if he were returning the spoils of war to the people. No one smiled at him.

Immediately after, Cain ignored his own advice and found himself in town drinking in the bar, gambling away the money they robbed only hours previous. Cain had already started a fight and fell asleep on the wooden floor with booze stained in his linen shirt. Sidney sat in the corner, playing cards with a traveling salesman. With a sudden jolt, the doors swung open, and a silent wind blew into the saloon.

Four men came into the bar holding rifles, with one leading the way, carrying nothing. The leader wore all black and had a face hidden by a long beard with a hat hiding his scalp. He spoke to a silent bar room, "There now, boys. We ain't need no trouble." There was silence. He had no expression and unrolled parchment in his black gloves, "We just want the boys Cornelius Cain and Sidney English. If y'all could be so kind as to point me in their direction, we will leave happily." Without even a seeming hesitation, Sidney and the sleeping Cain were dragged out of the saloon and tied with rope before being set on horses. The four men rode out quickly in the ever-darkening night, with a blue horizon fading into the sloping hills.

They were taken into a barren field in the dark night underneath a sky full of white stars. The mountains surrounded them in the distance, and it was still except for the now quiet and muffled cries coming from Cain. The men sat around a fire, silence filling the air around them, with each taking a small sip from a liquor bottle and passing it across to the other. The two men were tied on the dirt, looking up into the night. Sidney's body was shivering, and he tried to huddle in whatever warmth he could find. Cain lay there motionless and worn, staring up as if he were dead. The man in black strode over in his leathery boots, stepping purposefully in time to the bound men. He crouched down and his beard nearly hit Sidney's body, "You're Sidney English?"

Sidney looked at him now tearfully and regretfully nodded.

The man nodded briefly, "I expect we'll get more truthful information from you than your cousin then?"

Sidney only nodded.

"Good." The man grabbed the scrawny Sidney by the arm and dragged him to the fire with the other men, out of earshot for Cain. The men took turns staring at him with no expressions, and they would look at each other, speaking in an unknown, foreign language. The one in black said again, "Well, I expect you know why we took you out here, then?"

Sidney gave no indication of a response.

"You can speak if you'd like. The other one won't hear a word."

Sidney swallowed. "I reckon you aim to kill us, then. For the robbery."

The man nearly laughed, which made Sidney's body shake. "Well, you're close then. Not just for the robbery. And we ain't gonna kill ya. I reckon that ain't for me to decide. Did Cornelius tell you?"

"Tell me what?"

"Your boy, Cornelius, there. He strolled right into that bank and murdered Lloyd Parish in cold blood. No rhyme or reason to it. Just because the man wouldn't listen to an outlaw."

Sidney shut his eyes. "Today?"

The man's mouth formed into a curve, and he said, "Well shit Sidney. I expect you would know since you were in the damn bank."

He shook his head, remembering the piercing gunshot from inside the bank. "I don't buy it. Cain wouldn't hurt a damn fly. He only wants money. It must've been a punch." He replied defiantly, believing his own words.

The man grinned. He leaned in close, and Sidney could smell the liquor in his breath, "What do you think his wife would say, Mr. English?"

Sidney recoiled. Turning his head from the stench, he looked off into the hills. Barren and dry. Snow had begun to fall hushfilly in the cold, and Sidney shivered in his linen clothes.

The man turned back to the others. "Looks like I damn near shook him back to reality." He took the bottle and held it in his black gloves and drank and slammed it into the dirt, shattering it into pieces and stomping his boot in the glass. "Some people forget how good they have it." The men sat sullennly, judging the young man tied and shivering in the falling snow. The man stood above Sidney and said, "Why don't you tell us what you all been up to since you left home."

After some time, Cain had finally been joined by the man in black as he kneeled near Cain's face. "I expect you are Cornelius Cain, are you not?"

With a grimace, he replied, "Yes, sir, I am. Just call me Cain."

The man grinned, "Good." He pulled Cain up forcefully, dragged him to the fire, and slammed him in the pebbled glass. He groaned. The other men around the fire looked at him angrily. Cain lifted his head and looked at the group of them. He looked at the one in black in confusion.

The man smiled. He sat on a wooden log, "Now, shall we begin?"

With a frown, Cain replied, "Begin what?"

The man looked off into the freezing night and ignored his question. "You are Cornelius Cain of Fort Dodge, Kansas?"

"Yes, sir."

"You are the husband of Eleanor Cain and father of Mattie Cain?"

Cain gritted his teeth and hesitated. "Yes, sir."

The man smiled, "So what are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere New Mexico?" He clasped his gloved hands.

Cain looked him in the eye, "What do you aim to know?"

"You know your family is mighty worried about you. Thought you were killed."

Cain smirked, "Maybe I was."

The man looked at him sternly, "Freedom ain't the same as death. You'll learn that soon enough." Cain hoisted his body up and sat against a log. He stared at the flames of the fire and watched them rise, sparking light in the ever-looming darkness. The man stared at him intently, watching the expressions on Cain's face change as if he were looking for something hidden in them. "Tell me about where you are going, Cornelius."

"I told you to call me Cain."

The man's face was pure stone, "Tell me about where you are going, Cornelius."

"Sidney and I aim to travel to California."

"What's in California?"

Cain swallowed. "Gold."

The man laughed and held his belly as he doubled over. The other men just continued to stare at Cain. It was a deep, bellowing laugh that filled the valley and hills, rolling off the lands and into the mountains. The man had to catch his breath in the silence and then looked at Cain, "Gold." He laughed again. "What gold do you think is left, now? Do you think endless riches are awaiting you at the sea?" Cain said nothing. "I tell you this. There is nothing in California that is worth the trouble. You will only find pain and suffering when you continue your journey." Cain spat in the dirt. The man took a deep breath and stroked his beard with his glove. "Who is Sidney to you? By blood, that is."

"He's my youngest cousin."

"That's right, I remember now. And what was the reason to leave your family behind on this journey into paradise?"

Cain huffed and spat out, "What business of it is yours then anyway? Who are you? What do you want with me? Are you the law here?"

The man grinned and chuckled, then signaled the other men to do the same. Cain looked at them all like a scared dog. "Well, I don't know about that. I guess you could say that we're just trying to do the right thing." He breathed. "Tell me, if you're on your way to California, why did you spend so much time here?"

"Well," Cain thought, "Guess I liked it right and good here."

"Like women, don't you?"

"Don't you?" Cain smirked.

The man gave a half-smile. "Sidney told us you're a bit of a troublemaker. Robbed a train back home in Fort Dodge. The sheriff had more to say, many of it involving young women." The man shook his head in disgust.

Cain swore under his breath, "Damn." He looked back up at the now-standing man. "That ain't true. You can't prove it was me."

The man sat eagerly. "Right, you are, Cornelius. Care to tell us about the crimes you committed on your way here?"

Cain swallowed again. "What crimes?"

"Do I need to spell them out for you?"

"Mhm." Cain lifted his head proudly.

The man sighed and reached into his pocket. From it he pulled a parchment paper and unrolled it, holding it in the silent falling snow. He cleared his deep voice, "Robbery of four banks. Assault. Gambling. Stolen property. Marooning. Murder."

"Hey now, some of those ain't crimes."

"Like what, Cornelius?"

"I ain't maroon no one. And it ain't a crime."

The man reached for Cain's chin, holding it in a black leather glove with vicious fury. "I reckon the Good Lord will think otherwise." He threw the chin away. "I tell you what, someone will be brought to justice for these actions, but it don't have to be you. I will raise you a proposition. We plan to bring you both in on these charges and let the masses have at you. But I tell you this," He smiled and grabbed Cain's body, holding it tightly in his steel black gloves, "If you testify against Mr. English, you will go free while he gets stuck with the charges. If he testifies against you, then it's reversed. However, if you both testify against each other, you will both go to prison. If y'all are both silent, then you'll go to prison as well, but you will be on your own. There is no way out of this. Someone will be brought to justice for their transgressions. Now, it can be you, Cornelius, or Mr. English, whom we spoke to before you. Decide." He threw Cain to the ground against the broken glass.

Over the next few minutes, the man paced around the fire, stroking his beard and staring into the mountains. He listened to Cain mutter to himself and began to shiver in the dead of night. It was a deepening blackness, with the falling snow melting as it hit the grass and hills.

"Alright," Cain said in finality. "I'm ready to answer."

The man stopped suddenly and turned in his boots briskly. "Good." He smiled and sat quietly next to Cain and listened closely.

Cain breathed and then spoke, "Sidney English committed these crimes. I watched him rob four banks and from different men along our journeys. He committed an assault upon many men and gambled in the night. He is a sinner and preyed on women. He marooned his family and killed Lloyd Parish in cold blood. He disgraced our family in Fort Dodge."

The man stood up and with no expression, replied, "It's done." He adjusted his hat and motioned to the silent men to stand, and they moved quickly into the darkness. One of them had written Cain's words down on parchment. The man disappeared with them. Cain sat still in the darkness now and shivered from the falling snow. He looked about him. Pale mountains and snowfall like soft raindrops, landing on the ground and dissipating in the dirt. Some howls began to erupt from the ominous land around him, circling him. The silent men came back nearly an hour later and carried the hobbled and cold Cain onto the horse and began riding. They rode back into town, and there were lingering lanterns lit in the night, and some people had gathered to see them. Without knowing, Cain woke in the morning on the ground untied.

For the following days, Cain drank himself away in the saloon and spent his nights with numerous whores, who took his money eagerly and left him asleep in the mornings, broke and drunk. One afternoon in the dead of winter, he gathered with a crowd on the road and saw an execution rise in the square. There was a stand with hooded prisoners, and an undertaker guided them to the platform. A priest had come out and read from his bible, and the crowd looked on in eager silence. It was a warm day, and most of the snow had disappeared, but that would not last. Cain tried to see the prisoners' faces. Then, as their hoods were removed one last time, he saw Sidney at the end of the line. The man had looked disheveled and ratty. He wore dirty rags and was skinny to his ribs. There was grease in his hair and bags under his eyes. Cain couldn't hear his final words. The hoods were put back on, and the undertaker released the lever on the platform. The six men fell, and a snap of their necks breaking filled the silence. Cain stared blankly at the scene and shortly after, left his former cousin to hang.

Cain found himself in the mountains weeks later, drinking the last of his liquor from a large canteen. Penniless and ill, he wandered aimlessly into unknown western reaches dangerous for a lonesome man. His body ached and he longed for the pain to end, his stomach starving him endlessly. The snow was falling, and his hat was heavy with moisture. He tried starting a fire, sitting in the cold snow, and rubbing his hands together. The horse stood there, stamping its feet, freezing. His sight had almost left him as he sat there staring off into a blue dusk that fell into the night. He heard wolves surrounding him, but he could not care for their growls in the darkness. He could feel their breath on him. The trees blew, and the wind was frigid and angry, locking him away in the valley. Cain tried to sleep around the fire but found none. Instead, he shivered and pleaded for rest.

The End

Myles Robb is an undergraduate student studying public administration. This is his first publication. You can follow him on Twitter via @mylescrobb.

Back to Top
Back to Home

Texas Town
by Tom Sheehan

The times were good for just about all the people in Texas Town, though Sheriff Doug Tollivan and his deputy were constantly on their toes.

Generally, there were no whispers in town. Perhaps deep and personal secrets were whispered, but everything else was said straight out and loud, like a man standing upright in his stirrups.

And the sheriff was aware that two opposing factions would be in town at the same time and knew that not one man in either the Box-Y crew or the Double Zees was apt to duck the slightest soiled word tossed about in the two saloons. The one thing Tollivan did know was they'd not start anything in the street, the store or any place of business other than one of the two saloons, The Crystal Nugget and The Twisted Saddle. The citizens, too, knew the code of the drovers; public places are out of bounds for such actions, but a saloon is often like Hell come warmed over and ready for the ultimate fire.

Texas Town, like many cow towns, came alive before a drive started as the drovers beefed themselves up for the long haul, and after a return from a successful drive to celebrate, to burn off the trail dust, to see family and old friends or new friends, or spend some money.

The last was most usual.

Tollivan also knew for a certainty that a third faction might instigate trouble for some purpose; he'd seen it before, and from usually unsuspected quarters. It was like the time that soft, mind-my-own-business Busy Boddey had fired back at tormentors, tired at last of being the dumb one in a match. He'd simply taken aim and shot brute Hardy Ackerson off his front porch as Ackerson was pounding at the door. It was one of the rare incidents as was seen in the episode now called "The Prompter's Issue." He was a stranger, not seen in the saloon before, never seen in the town before, and when two cowpokes were in a mild argument, the stranger kept alluding to "real Texans settle things out in the street, man to man."

He exhorted them in his way: "Real Texans know their way around an argument; there ain't none but face to face and out in the street. That's Texas men's home town, out in the street!"

His voice had gone up an octave or two, coming into the argument like a third knife, and before you knew it they were out in the street and drawing their weapons and shooting and one man dead as ever.

But it wasn't over: when folks looked about for "The Prompter" he was nowhere in sight, and his horse was gone too. Things seemed to quiet down until a rider came into town and said he had seen an old pal riding past him in a hurry down the southern trail as he was coming up from a water hole.

"Hell, I ain't seen him in five or so years, from when we rode for Slim Callahan over at Moseby's spread. He's a cousin to Zaron Zount of the Double Zees.

They warmed Hell over again those next few days until Zount was knocked off his horse on his own spread by a lucky shot from who-knows-where, and everything came to a standstill when he finally stood up, still alive, but all folks aware that death could come into their ranks in seconds and had almost taken one of the top dogs.

The sheriff went to sleep thinking of the past incidents and all the possibilities, and was deep in a post-midnight and well-earned sleep, when the sound of a shot brought him straight up in the measly cot pushed against his desk. And it was definitely a rifle shot; that meant long-range, out of sight, bushwhack kind of temerity in a town generally considered as a cowboy town where nobody was ever shot in the back. Supposedly.

On rising, booting up, all he said was, "I knew it was bound to start like this."

He had no idea how accurate his assessment was, but had his rifle in hand in seconds, hat on his head, door latch in the other hand, when a second shot sounded. It was a reply shot, a defensive shot, he gauged, because it came from the opposite end of town. From near the livery came that second shot, and the first shot had come from near Betty Kline's Dress Shop at the main trail road as it left town, heading west toward Puma Hill and the mountains.

One position was secluded, he assumed, recollecting the close quarters of the building in the immediate area, and the second shot, the defensive reply, was from more open ground, and obviously at a target with background light from the newspaper where The Texas Lookout editor, Calvin Kyle Dupont, was laying up his next issue. The newspaper's night light was the only one that was ever lit after midnight. The big spread owners had insisted the saloons close down at midnight, agreeing that they wanted cowpokes as sober as possible saddling up for them come daybreak. They had the weight to make such a demand.

Tollivan hoped that at least one deputy heard a shot; he liked having people to talk to in the early morning, in the haze of the false dawn, in the grayness through which night stamped questions all over the day that was facing him and all folks rising to face them..

An old ache, like a twisted muscle, came anew in his neck. He had known it before, like a badge being worn, the pin sticking him, blood and consequences being drawn. "Tomorrow," it said. "Tomorrow."

He scrambled to get close to the livery, to find out if anyone was hurt, but there was nobody there; no dead man who fired back at a bushwhacker before he died, no shooter taking care of his side arm, no witness to an attempted bushwhack killing.

Big Hugh Lavery, livery owner, a noted deep sleeper, stumbled from his bed in back of the livery. He was half dressed, in one boot, holding the other boot, limping, suspenders on top of his long-john top, and sleep like pie dough hanging at his eyes. "I had a dream, Doug," he said to the sheriff, "and I swear I heard some shots."

"You heard 'em, Hughie. I heard 'em at my office. Did you see anybody? Hear anybody running down past the barn? A shot came from down this way."

"Nothing, Doug, I swear it. When I go off, I go off."

"Well, I'm going to the other end of town. But you look around and see if you find anything new or out of the ordinary around the livery. One shot came from up there and I have to check it out. I'll be back later. Send for me if you find anything." He paused and offered a suggestion to Lavery, "Put your other boot on, Hughie, before you stub your toe."

"I already done that," replied Lavery. "That got me awake." And while he bent to boot his other foot, he said, "Somethin' else I dreamed, Doug, but I can't remember what it was."

"You better check the stalls. You know how many times you said someone walked off with his horse in the night and didn't pay up."

Lavery, up for the rest of the night, slipped on his shirt, flipped red suspenders over his shoulders, and nodded at the sheriff; day had started and he might as well get going.

* * *

At the other end of town, The Texas Lookout editor, Calvin Kyle Dupont, was already questioning some folks about what and when they heard a gunshot or two gunshots. He'd gotten nothing but mumbles and figured somebody in the mix was holding back because of an allegiance one way or another. He saw the sheriff coming and figured he'd better tell him what he had garnered; not what was evidence, but a feeling still coming on him. It was evident that the sheriff couldn't do his job on such feelings, and he couldn't run a newspaper that way either.

"Cal," Tollivan said, "I kind of thought you'd be up early. You must have heard the shots last night."

"I did, Doug, but I didn't see a thing. Came right out and only heard a horse riding off, out at the fork in the road and fast, but I couldn't tell which way." He looked at the gray dawn still in its approach over Texas Town. "I don't think anybody would have seen anything, but there's an awful odd feeling hanging in the air."

The sheriff understood right away. "You figure like I do that we have opposing forces at work but doing it on the dirty side. This was bushwhacking all the way. Coward's way, Cal. Name me one of the cowpokes for either spread that'd stoop to this."

"Not one of them comes to mind," Dupont said. "Not one man I'd pin this on with my wildest guess. They're not the type."

"Meaning you think it was a stranger?" Tollivan was staring at the newspaper editor with a hard eye that also was saying something else. His words hung in the air and seemed to tip themselves in one direction.

Dupont jumped at that point. "A woman, you think?" he replied, shaking his head. His gaze went looking at the far peaks the sun was bouncing off at last, and said, "Or a strange woman at that?"

His smile was a wider-than-ever smile. "I could get a serial going on something like that." The smile came still wider. Turning saloon talk on its ear was a definite possibility.

"We could go on guessing forever," Tollivan owned up, "unless someone breaks down on a late Saturday night in The Crystal Nugget or The Twisted Saddle, with his mouth jumping like a clothesline full of duds in the wind."

Both the sheriff and the newspaper editor were nodding in agreement when Hugh Lavery came pounding up the street on a paint, his arms waving as he came on.

"Hey, Doug," Lavery yelled, "I remember what I forgot." He lumbered off his horse, a paint so pretty that Lavery undignified it and was unaware of the difference.

"Listen," he said. "One horse was missing from the stalls. I heard two horses riding off, toward the valley. And," he punctuated it with a full breath and a puff of his chest and a twist of his head, "I smelt perfume. A woman's perfume. I ain't smelt that kind of stuff in a dozen years."

His eyes rolled in a kind of contemplation of a new measurement or an old loss, and Dupont thought Lavery was the saddest story that he'd never get to write. And the sheriff couldn't picture Lavery behind bars, but everybody has some kind of secret he holds tight to himself, or along with a sympathetic sheriff.

Tollivan thought, "Secrets hold a town together, and sure carve out lines of division."

"Let's go check that out, Hughie. Show me what and where, if you can."

The essence of perfume, of course, was long gone from the livery and the stall where the missing horse was stolen revealed nothing. But a search of tracks in the turn of the road out of town showed Tollivan that one of the horses was without a rider. "I think the missing horse was led off by the woman wearing the perfume."

The pause in his words was relevant. "Whoever she is, she wanted to dump suspicion on somebody else." He turned to Lavery and asked, "Whose horse was it that she took, Hughie?"

"I haven't seen him in three days. Paid for a week's rent and good care. Name's Oscar Greglin. Said he'd been working out of Puma Hill for almost a year. For Worries Williams and that neat wife of his who's a real beauty and half his age."

The Sheriff of Texas Town reached into his pocket and pinned a badge on Hughie Lavery, owner of the livery. "Hughie, you're now on the payroll and we're going to Puma Hill. Just you and me."

"We gonna see her, Doug? Ask questions?" Lavery was beaming with anticipation.

"We're gonna see him, Hughie, her husband, if we don't get to her." His voice was slightly exaggerated, but convincing.

Puma Hill sat on a slight mound at the edge of a long-running foothill in the Llano Basin. It was familiar country to Tollivan, having been in Puma Hill on several posses in his early days. He didn't expect much of a change in it.

Worries Williams was a good looking gent of about 60 years, with deep eyes and a full head of hair that must have gone white before its time, for it was snow-white and had settled on him as part of his character. He wore it long, over the ears and down the back of his neck where it nestled on his shirt collar. The picture on his mantle was a startling beauty of a woman, around 30 or so years.

Williams invited them in when Tollivan said he had some questions about one of his ranch hands.

"C'mon in, Sheriff, but I can guess it's about Oscar Greglin. He's been trouble the last month or so after a pretty good start here. I think he's finally gone off. I haven't seen him in a close to a week."

He took a deep breath and said, "You got some questions on him? Am I right about this?"

He looked at Tollivan who nodded at him and looked again at the picture of the woman on the mantle.

Williams said, "That's my wife Charity who's not here right now. She goes off every once in a while to see her sister at Gloucester Ridge. I don't get up there very often by choice, but send one of the boys with her for company coming and going. She's due in today. Greglin made the trip once. She's never had trouble at all up and back. I try to give each hand a trip. Her sister has three kids and we don't have any, so it's a real party for her when she visits. Me and her sister's husband don't see much to agree on."

Tollivan, almost locked into the beauty of the woman, managed to say, "Any recent troubles with Greglin?"

"Not really," Williams said. "One of the hands told me he said if anything ever happened to me he'd up and marry my wife and run the ranch. Can't blame a man for saying that, long as he doesn't do anything about it. Oh, I know it's been said before or thought of, but that's something comes of long drives with the cows or lonely night watching. Makes a man dream a lot. Keeps some of them going."

"You owe him any wages?"

Williams said, "I figure about a week, but he's got to show to get it, and a man that's jumped the job don't deserve full pay, I don't care what anyone says."

Hoof beats broke up the discussion as Williams said, "That's probably her now."

Charity Williams walked into the house and her beauty stunned Tollivan; he looked at the picture on the mantle and then back at her, and she was more beautiful than her picture. He turned red as Worries Williams said, "Sheriff Tollivan has been asking some questions of Oscar Greglin."

His wife turned red, the blush filling her cheeks. She hugged her husband and said, "Well, I didn't want to tell you, but he's been acting up. Said half a dozen times he'd marry me in a hurry if anything happened to you. I couldn't stand that, but he kept saying it every time I turned around."

She looked redder, then looked away before she said, "I took some matters into my own hands."

It all hit Tollivan in a hurry: the scent of perfume, the missing horse, the first shot in the night, the second shot, the disappearance of Greglin.

He simply said to Charity Williams, "You manage to scare him off, Ma'am?"

"Yes, I did. I scared him off and ran his horse off so he couldn't rush out of Texas Town unless he stole a horse."

Before Williams could say anything, Tollivan said, "I appreciate that, Ma'am. I know he left town by some other means. I don't have a single idea of when he'll come back, if he ever does."

Her smile was as good as a posse running a wanted man to ground, and Worries Williams did not have as many worries as he might have imagined.

Tollivan knew how lucky Williams was. And Texas Town was probably rid of another headache of the very private kind, the whispered kind that causes worries, random gun shots without murderous intent, and character revelation, including his own.

The End

Sheehan (31st Infantry, Korea 1951-52; Boston College 1952-1956) in his 95th year, has published 57 books and has multiple works in Rosebud, Linnet's Wings (100), Serving House Journal, Literally Stories (200), Copperfield Review, Literary Orphans, Indiana Voices Journal, Frontier Tales, Western Online, The Literary Yard, Green Silk Journal, Fiction on the Web, The Path, etc. He has 18 Pushcart nominations, 5 Best of the Net nominations (one winner). Later book publications include The Cowboys, Beside the Broken Trail, In the Garden of Long Shadows, Between Mountain and River, and Catch a Wagon to a Star. His most recent book, The Saugus Book, gained him $1000 first prize in poetry

Back to Top
Back to Home

A Cowboy's Elegy
by James Lee Proctor

Nobody wanted off that trail more than me, 'ceptin' maybe Elizabeth who said I shouldn't go in the first place, that the others would take care of it. And maybe Tidbit who would prefer nights in his stall munching dry hay and keepin' the cold wind and me off his back. But sometimes a man doesn't decide such things for himself. Circumstances deal the cards and they must be played out no matter how they come to ye. Least that's the way I was taught. Trouble is, sometimes not everybody's playin' the same rules, the same game.

Circumstances this time were Dub Crenshaw stole a pair of Hank Honeycutt's horses, prized specimens both, fleet and strong lookin'. Hank had been showing 'em off all over Palo Pinto County proud as could be, so it weren't no big surprise when they went missin'. It was less a surprise when Dub Crenshaw disappeared right along with 'em. I coulda told 'em Dub was to be avoided. Best to run a man like him off afore he ever gets his hooks in ye. Tell him straight out his prospects are few and his future's dim in these parts, so he best be elsewhere. I'm all for givin' a man a second chance. We all sit in the pews on Sundays singin' 'bout Amazin' Grace and such. But that's providin' the man you're givin' the second chance to is the kinda man who sees it the same way as you, as a blessin' and not some kinda weakness.

"Why can't you let the new marshal go after him, Silas?" Elizabeth said to me.

I was in the barn checkin' preparations, makin' sure my bedroll wouldn't drop off somewhere between home and Staked Plains. It seemed like a ridiculous question, one my ma would have never asked my pa, and I had the answer fixed in my mind like an undeniable faith, incomprehensible to nonbelievers, the whys and wherefores. And I'm certain my response to her was equally mysterious. "I'm obliged to go. 'Sides, the man ain't even checked in at the courthouse yet." I kissed her cheek, felt the bristle of my beard brush against her soft skin, told 'er to make sure Lee and Joe double up on their chores while I'm gone, then lit out with Hank to get a few hours of ridin' in afore dark. Lucas Bledsoe joined up when we passed through his place. He seemed a good young man, that his daddy taught 'em right.

Out here, word 'bout lawbreakin' seems to travel faster than anyone can on horseback. But fence cuttin' and pasture burnin's likelier to lead to violence nowadays. Hold up men had few opportunities in a town the Texas & Pacific decided to bypass. Indian raids weren't too consequential anymore. T'was mostly young'uns getting into some fire water. They'd get themselves terrible drunk and couldn't hardly stay atop their horses, endin' up doin' more damage to themselves than what they'd planned. There'd been plenty of rustlers come through Palo Pinto in the early years. These days, thieves hit us ever now and again for a dozen or so head. But we all take it serious, no matter how small the stealin', thinkin' the best deterrent was them knowin' it wouldn't be tolerated. We made sure Mr. Son had a good story for his newspaper too, so word got 'round. We always took out after 'em; a pursuit consistin' of ever able-bodied man in the area who had any association with raising livestock. Nobody ever died and most the shootin' was at game when the hardtack ran out. A few times they got away, but we give 'em a helluva run. When we catch up to 'em, we bring 'em back to the courthouse where, if there was any killin' to be done, it'd be the official kind.

Why Dub Crenshaw knew all this and still took the chance was a riddle preyin' on me those days followin' his trail. He was never the smartest man, but I never took 'em for someone truly bad at the core neither. Never had any real family or much chance. Dublin, all us call 'em Dub, his folks got themselves starved out of Ireland. His pa was sick when he got here, too weak to do a full day's work, and it only got worse. Took 'em nearly ten years to die. Ifin he'd a been healthy, I have no doubt he'd a been one of the toughest men around. Dub's ma died a blood poisonin' three days after he was born. He was more or less raised by the God-fearin' church people that took him in, or the ranchers that give him chores, a meal and a roof. I always hoped he had some common sense tucked under that filthy gray hat a his. And what he wasn't born with, I thought they would a taught him them three years he done at Huntsville for burgling the general store. Why he'd a come back to Palo Pinto after they released 'em is a mystery. No ma or pa, and after what he did, no friends neither.

Weather was comin'. Real weather. Not the blue norther that blew Hank and Lucas back home three days ago. They said it twasn't the cold and the wind and the rain. Said they were runnin' out of time to move their herds and he'd cut his losses with the horses, a calculation a man like me just don't know how to make. T'wern't nothin' they's hands couldn't a tooken care of; done it plenty a times afore in all kind a weather.

"I'll drop your horses on my way back," I said to 'em.

"You know, I'd stay if it made one lick of monetary sense," Hank said.

"It don't matter. Least we all ain't turnin' back."

Hank shot me a look and a nod of thanks. Lucas, bein' not much older than the man we was chasin,' had no words to say, no excuses to make, and stayed in Hank's shadow watchin' the horizon, the horned frog scurry across the sand, the red tail hawk fly above us, regarding everything else but me and our joint situation. I didn't take it personal. Times change. I watched 'em ride off east, back toward their places and the comforts they'd find there; comforts their daddies and mamas eked out of rock and dirt. Because I knew Dub didn't have the option to turn back, I didn't either.

The black on the horizon maybe had a blizzard buried inside it and both me and Tidbit would need a place to hole up 'til it passed. The storm's front edge started blowin' out the hot air, kickin' up dust and makin' room for what come after. I rode hard and fast toward the caprock to put it between us and what was comin'. By the time we reached it, I could see Tidbit's huffs in the cold. I unsaddled and hobbled him, sos he wouldn't run off from thunder, and got a fire lit faster than three men coulda done it, and all before the hail came down upon us. Chunks, some the size and hardness of pebbles bounced around the ground just past the bluff protectin' me and Tidbit. When that stopped, the rain came. By the time I woke up sometime in the early hours, my bedroll had a couple inches of snow on it and the fire was out.

The sky was gray and the snow fell light through mornin' mist when we set back on Dub's pursuit. Most woulda taken the weather as a sign of bad luck, another misfortune atop others. Hank and Lucas probably did. For me, it made cuttin' for sign all the easier in the snow and wet earth. Dub was at most a half day ahead of me and I figured to find his new tracks by midday. Hoped to lay eyes on him the next. But long about late morning, I came upon a set of tracks, unexpected 'cause it was just one horse and a rider, not the three horses, one rider I'd been followin'. I stopped and listened a while. But nothing in the desert's thick, cottony shroud of froze mist revealed itself. Above, the sun was tryin' its darndest to break through. It soon would, and the previous night would be forgot.

I found my crossin' spot over the Colorado just outside Runnels in the Bexar District. On the other side I stopped to give me and Tidbit a drink and a rest when the lone rider's tracks I was followin' ran out. That's when I knew we was bein' watched. 'Neath the sounds of water fallin' over stones and Tidbit's lappin', a sound like the sharp snap of a limb came from behind. Could a been dead cedar scrub castin' off a snow-covered branch, but seein' as there weren't much a that around, it sounded more like trouble. I stayed real still movin' my shootin' hand to the pistol strapped to my leg.

"That you, Silas Cain?"

"It's me." I said without turnin' round or movin' a twitch. Never know what'll set a man to shootin'. "That you, Gray Wolf?"

"Yes sir."

I slowly lift my arms up and away and turn to face a regal man atop a worn-out palomino and draped in a bear skin blanket. He's wearin' his chief's headdress like he's goin' somewheres special and got his Winchester rifle, his pride and joy, propped on his right hip. He's a picture of stoic gallantry, somethin' we both agree is lost upon our own offspring. I hadn't seen 'em in a coon's age and seein' 'em there brought a smile upon my face. Gray Wolf never smiles.

"What's an ole Suma warrior doin' round these parts? Ya'll done kilt all the buffalo already and the white men don't want any part of this here land."

"Same as you, old man. Passing through." He holsters the Winchester in a finely tooled leather scabbard and leans to one side, stretching out his back. "You chasing a law man, or is he chasing you?" He says it in Apache, seein' if I still understood. I still hear it, don't speak it.

"Why? You got one cookin' in a pot over yonder?"

This brings a grin, then a wail of laughter I'd never gotten t'see afore. It was good to see a man lighten up a little in his later years. He goads the palomino over and shakes my hand. "Don't make me fall off this horse, old friend. I might not survive it."

"Know the feelin'. This cold's got me brittle as a dead tree. Speakin' of which, your sneakin' up skills need some improvin'. Heard you comin' a mile off."

"Like you say, buffalo been gone a good while. Nothing to practice on. That marshal's headed to old Fort Concho tracking a horse thief rode through here yesterday. He's no buffalo, but he didn't hear me 'til I cocked my rifle."

"Probably shouldn't ought to a done that, Gray Wolf. Could a got ye kilt."

"Says he's after a man named Dub Crenshaw. And you say we have unusual names."

"Same man I'm chasin'."

"You should ride together. Better if there's two."

"I see him I'll tell him you said so."

We're silent for a few long moments.

"How's Elizabeth?" he said.

"Stubborn as ever. How's Little Dove?"

"Passed last spring."

His chin drops to his chest. I do the same. We say our separate prayers.

"Well, I best be gittin'. Which way you say that marshal's headin?"

Gray Wolf points south down the trail. "You will catch him today if that old horse doesn't die underneath you."

"Tidbit? Hell, he'll outlive you and me, both. Now, that ole nag a yours there, I can hardly believe is still drawin' a breath." I mount up.

Gray Wolf ignores my insult and says, "But the man you are chasing is headed west."

"Lancaster way?"

Gray Wolf nodded.

"How do you know?"

"I saw him double back just before the snow. A young man on a copper mare leading two good horses."

"You talk to him?"

"No. He didn't see me. He seemed nervous, like a man on fire. I avoid such men."

"Too bad," I said, "you could a picked up a replacement for that ole palomino. Take care Gray Wolf, and thanks for not shootin' me."

"Next time," he said.

* * *

Come 'bout sunset, I smelt the fire, then spot its glow and the white smoke of burnin' mesquite timber in the dyin' light. It's a ways up the slope headed to the mountains. Whoever it is, is camped 'neath the banks of an arroyo not wantin' to be seen. I stop and listen. I hear the sounds of more than one horse and figure it's Dub. I lead Tidbit off to a place behind a tumble of rocks near a mesa where we got protection from the wind and out of sight from Dub's position. I find a spot where I can keep an eye on 'em. When it's dark enough sos nobody'll see the smoke, I start a fire and make the last of the coffee. I reckon to wait fer his fire to go out, then I git the drop on 'em. That don't work, no matter, I'll snare 'em in the mornin' and start home.

All night he keeps the fire goin' and not gettin' much sleep. From what Gray Wolf said, I don't guess he's slept more than a few hours the whole time we been after 'im. Tryin' to figure out someone like Dub can be infuriatin' like guessin' a mad dog's next move. Ye don't want to shoot 'em, but you don't want 'em taken ye down with 'em neither.

First light I see Dub's fire's out. Vultures assemble in the pink sky. Mornin' then came full on and the sun's at my back and in Dub's eyes, ifin he looks my way. My shadow's long across the plain, an indiscernible shape pointin' at the arroyo, amblin' toward it slowly and careful like, watchin' for the crown of Dub's hat to be pokin' over the edge of his hidin' spot, my rifle tucked under my arm. I hear the horses. They seem agitated at somethin'. 'Afore I git to where I can see all the way into the arroyo, or where he can draw a bead on me, I call out, "Dub. It's Silas Cain. C'mon outta there and let me take ye back home." I wait a spell for a reply, but nothin' comes. "The only place those horses you stole will bring what they're worth is in civilized country. That ain't where you are nor where yer headed, son."

I see something scurry out of the corner of my eye. Might a been a jackrabbit or a prairie dog, but then I see it clear, bobbin up from behind the arroyo, the top of a hat, movin' in the direction of where I think Dub's hidin' himself. There's a shot, a dull report muffled by the banks of the arroyo. Then another comes, and another, then dust kicks up along the line of the trench with more shootin'. I'm figurin' the marshal circled back and was tryin' to corner Dub down inside the gulch. 'Bout all I can do is wait for the shootin' to stop.

The time passes. I hear nothin' outta the arroyo but snorts and whinnies. "Anybody alive down there?" I yell out. More time passes and I'm thinkin'; if theys both dead, nobody could answer. If Dub's dead, the marshal would surely answer—' but maybe it wasn't the marshal down there. If the marshal's dead, Dub might have reason not to answer. Killin' a lawman's far more serious than stealin' horses.

As I was considerin' all the what ifs and their consequences, and thinkin' 'bout the best way to finish the job without gittin' shot, ole Dub, on the back a one of Hank Honeycutt's show horses, scrambled up the side of the arroyo and lit out lickety-split toward the mountains. I ride up fast as Tidbit'l go and see a young man splayed on the dry creek bed, a brassy lookin' star pinned on his bloody chest, eyes starin' up at me and the vultures beyond. Dub's horse and Hanks other horse are stompin' and snortin' all agitated. He'd left them and all his supplies, 'ceptin his saddle, behind. I goad Tidbit down into the arroyo and up the other side, and ride him after Dub in a hard gallop. He's past his prime, but in a race, and especially when he's behind, ain't a lot a difference 'tween him now and the colt he once was. He just ain't gonna be able to do it too long.

Then I start thinkin' to myself, what the hell has Dub got on his mind? He cain't run all the way to the mountains. And even if he could, he ain't got nothin' to last him through the night. I know he ain't too keen on plannin' things out, thinkin' 'em through to their natural end. I ease up on Tidbit. It's a long way back home fer the both of us. After about five minutes of Dub goin' all out, and he's gittin' smaller and smaller in my field of view, a swirl of dust billows around him as his horse goes down heavy on the hardpan. Probably the first time in that young horse's life it'd been worked hard.

As I ride up on 'em, neither Dub nor the horse moved a twitch, and theys layin' there broke in aguish. Dub's arm bone, split to a jagged point, was pokin' through his leather coat, his ankle pointin' the wrong way in a stirrup. The horse was worse. I draw my pistol, cock the hammer and level at his head. Tidbit jumps a step when I pull the trigger. Hank's horse goes quiet.

"Sposin' I'm next," he said in a rasp, dust stuck to the blood on his lips.

"Can ye walk?"

"Don't rightly know 'til I get out from under this dead horse."

"You best hope that other horse ye stole's ain't run off yet, or you're lookin' at a long walk back to Palo Pinto County. Ifin you can."

"Just shoot me now Silas. Git it over with."

"That ain't my call, Dub. Tain't my job neither."

* * *

Five days later we come off the trail tore up and bedraggled. The new marshal was slung across his horse. There weren't nothin' on 'em givin' a clue to his name. Lucky for me he'd laid in a supply of coffee, hardtack and biscuits afore he set out after Dub. Although I splinted Dub's arm and put a torniquet on 'em, gangrene set in bad and he was fixin' to lose it, though in his case, that bad news wouldn't affect him long. Me and him talked a little 'bout it; would his arm be there when the noose took 'em, or maybe the doctor was away and the rot would beat the rope? Those are the kinds of choices men like Dub seemed destined fer their born day.

The streets of Palo Pinto were quiet that day. Most of the men were roundin' up their herds, gittin' 'em north to the yards or gittin' their bales to the gins. Mr. Son of the Western Star News sees us, sees the body layin' over his horse, sees Dub about half dead, and runs alongside, a round man with thick legs that work hard to keep up with an amblin' horse, askin' what happened. Wants a story for the paper. I don't tell 'em nothin' 'til I speak with the judge. I tell Mr. Son to fetch the doctor ifin he's around, and the undertaker, too. "These men need tendin' to."

I put Dub in the jail cell, lay him on a cot with a blanket, put a pillow under his head, make sure he's got some water and a crust of bread. He's burnin' with fever. I hoist the marshal over my shoulder and haul him up the steps of the courthouse and lay him out on a table inside the empty courtroom. I take the horses 'round to the livery stable and tell Jake they need carin' fer. When he asks who's payin' I tell him the likely payment's comin' in the form of an orphaned horse, the one the marshal won't be needin' anymore. I tell 'em not to git no lofty notions 'bout the saddle, though. "If none a that pans out, Hank Honeycutt'l pay ye. I'll tell 'em he has to."

Mr. Son rounds the corner of the livery in a huff, his thin gray hair is wild around his red face. His coat, once white and remarkable for this town, is now the color of the street. "Doc's at Little's place trying to save one of his bulls. Apparently, it got gored by a wild hog. Should be back by tonight, Lillian tells me."

"Well, ye be sure and tell 'em 'bout Dub in the jail right off, Mr. Son. Don't let 'em go nowheres without lookin' 'em over first." I mount up. "I'm goin' home."

* * *

A stuffed mattress and an indoor fire feel good. Elizabeth said yesterday she had one of her feelings, that I was gonna be ridin' up any minute, so she cooked an extra big pot a stew and some extra bread. "Joe and Lee ate most of it afore they rode off to join the drive," she said. No sense it goin' to waste, they said.

"Nice knowin' there's one person in this house cares 'bout when I come and go. Don't matter. I'm full as a tick."

"Your stomach must a shrunk out there," she said.

"I spose it likely did at that."

Elizabeth's sittin' next to me mendin' one a my shirts and I watch her hands work the needle and thread through the cloth. Her hair's down around her shoulders, a few strands of gray play in the firelight. She smells like the soap on the wash basin. I'm feelin' tired; not the worn-out, dog-tired a man gets from too little sleep and a lack of nourishment, but the kind that comes from knowin' he done what he could and saw it to the end.

"I saw ol' Gray Wolf while I was out there. Little Dove passed."

She keeps to her stitchin' without comment. She didn't particularly care for the woman, but I knew she commiserated with any woman livin' out on these plains. Elizabeth has her standards but she has sympathy, too. The only thing filling the quiet is the cracklin' fire.

"You ever feel like this whole place is dyin'?" I said to her.

She stops her stitchin' and stares deep into the flame. "It may feel like it's dyin' t'us, but that's just the natural way, Silas."

"I 'spose."

She turns and faces me. "I remember when we first come out here. This place was a bunch wilder and rougher back then. If we were alookin at it fer the first time with our ol' eyes, we'd be movin' on. Lotta people did. Thems that stayed were a different kind of people. But we did, and folks like us did, and we made it a better place."

"Seems like all them I could depend on are dyin' off, Elizabeth."

"Or maybe they're headed somewhere else. Somewhere they think a place needs 'em more than here."

* * *

That night I dreamed Elizabeth and me, and Gray Wolf and Little Dove had a springtime picnic on the bank of the Colorado, and the clear water passed over the stones. Then I was standin' in a cemetery over the marshal's grave. The headstone had no name, no writin' at all. Then snow started fallin'.

The End

James Lee Proctor writes in a variety of formats from novels and short stories to trade articles and treats fictional and non-fictional characters with as much brutal honesty as they deserve. His motto: If you're not laughing or crying, I'm not doing my job. Borderline is a Texas crime thriller published in 2014. The Rules of Chance, published in 2020, is a collection of eleven short stories about how automobiles bring people to destinations they could never have imagined. He writes from his home in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Back to Top
Back to Home