May, 2024

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Issue #176

All The Tales

You Lincoln County Son of a Bitch
by Virgil Cain

When John Ringo and Curly Bill showed up at the Patterson ranch down on the Babocomari looking for Pony Diehl, the talented horse thief believed it was the end of his road. He had just helped carry out the Haslett murders, but that was hardly enough to erase all the foolish mistakes he'd made as of late. He'd been looking over his shoulder since he botched that stage robbery in Globe, believing the Old Man would send somebody after him. Seeing that it was Curly and Ringo who came calling, he realized the Old Man had sent his very best killers.

Pony lingered for a moment by his horse before mounting, wondering if this would be the last time he saw Frank's ranch. He was never that fond of the ranch, being that he'd grown to abhor manual labor since his days working for John Chisum. All the sudden, he dreaded the thought of not coming back. He'd outlasted the likes of Jesse Evans, John Kinney, and Dutch Martin, but now he feared that he would not make it through the night.

The three desperados rode through the night, 60 miles east toward Galeyville, due south of San Simon. They stopped off at the Prue Ranch in the morning, had breakfast and caught a nap, then continued through a pass in the Chiricahuas and arrived at Galeyville that evening. It was a ride the Cowboys made often on their cattle drives with Galeyville being a favorite resort for the Cowboys. The Prues were never happy to see them, though they had no choice but to be neighborly, for fear of the rustlers targeting their stock. It was an unspoken agreement that existed between them, though an uneasy one as far as the Prue family was concerned.

Curly Bill still operated largely out of San Simon, though his wrath was felt all throughout Grant and Cochise counties. He had murdered vaqueros in Mexico, ravaged ranches in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and killed more men than he could remember. He had enemies on both sides of the border, but still they could not take him out. He had thumbed his nose at the authorities across the Southwest and even gunned down Town Marshal Fred White in the streets of Tombstone. It seemed nothing could bring him down. Curly fed off that feeling. He was gregarious, boastful, and fearless.

Pony spent the whole ride to Galeyville afraid that he would be killed by his own compañeros, just like Dave Estes, Jerry Ackerson, and Bud Stiles. He was scared silent, which wasn't a common feeling for a man of his skill. Already at odds with Pony Diehl, John Ringo promptly took notice.

"You're awfully quiet, Pony," he said. The Cowboys were loping casually across the vacant mesa in a row of three, with Pony in the middle. "Something on your mind?"

"I ain't never been accused of being a deep thinker," Pony returned.

"Well, you seem nervous, if I'm being honest," Ringo said.

"Then don't be," Pony grumbled. "Nobody asked your opinion, anyhow."

"I got to disagree with you, Ringo," Curly admitted. "Pony and I rode together in Texas and again in New Mexico. Hell, he just rode with us in Eureka. He don't scare easy. Sides, he's with friends. What's there to be scairt about?"

"I don't claim to know, but I know a shaky hand when I see one," Ringo said.

"Pony Diehl with an unsteady hand?" Pony joked. "Now I know you're joshin'."

"Haps he just prefers the night air over yer yapping," Curly hypothesized.

"Perhaps," Ringo said, unconvinced.

It was the only time during the ride into Galeyville that his nervousness was addressed, but it left Pony uneasy. Ringo was interested in pushing the issue, but Curly was being awfully understanding. It was as if he was trying to lure Pony into a false sense of security. Worse, the law at Galeyville was entirely in Curly's corner. If he was of a mind to kill Pony, the Cowboys could bury him in a canyon outside of Galeyville and no one would ask any questions. It made him fearful that he was being led into a trap. Those fears were alleviated when they arrived at Galeyville to be greeted by Deputy Billy Breakenridge. Breck was fast becoming a good friend of the Cowboys, despite his pleasant demeanor and by-the-book mentality. For the first time since leaving the Patterson spread, Pony felt at ease. If he was to be murdered, Breck would not have been there.

The three outlaws settled in at Frank Patterson's saloon and quickly made up for lost time. Cards and whores and whiskey were aplenty, after which they moved outside and continued their hijinks. It was then that Lincoln County veteran Jim Wallace rode up on a chestnut horse with a white-striped face, dismounted, and joined Curly and his friends on the porch of the saloon.

Jim Wallace rode with Curly Bill regularly, but he was also known for blowing all his pay on whores and whiskey. He was perennially broke, and the horse he rode was far too nice for a man of his meager savings. He was an also-ran with the Cowboys, being considered a shell of his former self. He had once ridden with John Kinney and the Rio Grande Posse, but now that he was a barkeep, the Cowboys had gotten comfortable with running him down. He was right tired of it, but they were a dangerous bunch. What other choice did he have? It wasn't like Pony Diehl was jumping through hoops to stick up for him. He just joined in on the laughs when the Cowboys had their turns poking fun at Jim Wallace.

While the Cowboys blew smoke rings into the thin night air, Constable Elias Goodman strolled down the street, noticed the horse and its unlikely rider, and started circling the hitching post. The Cowboys were laughing at the reaction of Jim Wallace, whose eyes were a country mile wide. He was insulted that the constable— who everyone in Galeyville made an open joke of— had the nerve to take exception to his theft of a horse. Every damn Cowboy in that town was riding a stolen horse, but it was his that drew unwanted attention? Now, that just didn't sit well with Jim Wallace. He had to take lip from the likes of Curly Bill and John Ringo, but certainly not from a reprobate posing as a lawman.

"Can I help you, Eli?" Jim Wallace asked, then stood and pulled his pistol.

"Where you get this horse?" Constable Goodman asked.

"If you're so interested in that horse, how's about you take him off my hands?" Jim Wallace said. "Here's my asking price."

Wallace raised his pistol and fired three times at the ground near Goodman's feet. The constable danced around the bullets, cried out in fear, fell back in a panic, and ran off. The Cowboys broke out in uproarious laughter and celebrated Wallace's brazen display of gamesmanship, toasting drinks to his shooting at a lawman and howling with delight.

Deputy Breakenridge wasn't nearly as impressed. He was in town to protect the supply caravan of a store that had gone out of business. When he saw Jim Wallace embarrass the constable and send him fleeing ahead of a hail of bullets, he took umbrage that a dirty drunk like Jim Wallace had made a fool of his fellow lawman.

Breck was just a little feller, but he was hardy and unwilling to flinch even around the Cowboys. He was a freighter and an Indian fighter in his younger days, and he continued to carry that toughness even while surrounded by dangerous killers. It's why Curly liked him so much. He was a walking contradiction. He was calm, polite, and peaceful, and yet, stubborn and aggressive if need be. Breck had every reason to fear the Cowboys, or to look down on them at the very least, but he treated them as kindly as he would the governor. It was a charm that was not lost on the Clanton Gang, who believed they received a raw deal as it pertained to their sullied public profile. When Breck witnessed what Jim Wallace was up to, he stormed down to Frank Patterson's gin palace and made small talk.

"Howdy, boys," Breck politely said.

"You after this horse too?" Jim Wallace asked, his pistol still laid across his lap.

"No," Breck replied, "I'm riding a finer horse than that old nag."

Wallace stood from his chair and approached Breck in a menacing manner, his gun still drawn. Before Jim Wallace could raise his gun, Breck pulled his own pistol and shoved it into Wallace's stomach. With his other hand, he grabbed the wrist of Wallace, overpowering him in a manner that made him drop his gun. Rather than arrest Jim Wallace, Breck released his hand and shoved him away. Wallace felt manhandled.

"Quit making a damn fool of yourself before you force me to lock you up," Breck advised, then turned and walked away.

Jim Wallace raised his gun and pointed it at the back of Breck's head, but he couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger. Leaving Jim Wallace behind, Breck entered Patterson's joint and purchased a round of drinks for the Cowboys, hoping to smooth things over. With the conflict settled and the Cowboys once more singing his praises, Breck left to finish his inventory at the store.

Curly Bill was across the street drinking in a whorehouse when he heard about the showdown between Jim Wallace and Billy Breakenridge. Though it was explained to him that Jim Wallace had been humiliated by the young lawman, Curly was adamant that his good friend Billy had been mistreated; that there would be recompense. He staggered drunkenly across the street and entered Patterson's saloon with a nasty demeanor.

"Somebody fetch Breck from down the dry goods store," Curly demanded, entering the saloon and firing off six rounds into the ceiling. He reloaded his gun as a handful of patrons rushed out and Tex Arnett moved to retrieve the deputy.

"We was just messing about," Jim Wallace reasoned, leaning drunkenly against the bar as Curly slowly walked toward him. Curly hadn't mentioned what he was upset about, but Jim feared he already knew.

"That's why you'll tell Breck all about it," Curly said. "You'll apologize to the deputy and we'll all go about our business."

"I ain't apologizing to that cur," Jim Wallace boasted. "He should know better than to question me, being the poor fuckin' excuse for a lawdog that he is."

Curly stepped forward and slapped Jim Wallace across the face with such force that the whole saloon fell silent. "Say that again," he tempted.

"I ain't got nothing to apologize fer, Bill," Jim Wallace claimed, his lip trembling with fear. Curly cocked his hand back and Jim Wallace flinched, causing an uncomfortable laughter to fill the saloon. Just then, Breck entered the saloon alongside Tex Arnett.

"What's all this about, Bill?" Breck said, his eyebrow cocked inquisitively.

"I heard what Jim done to you, Billy," Curly said.

"It's already been settled, Bill," Breck explained.

"Like hell it has," Curly slurred. "You're a good boy, Billy. You don't deserve to be treated like that."

"It's water under the bridge," Breck insisted.

"But on the plus side," Curly drunkenly continued, waving his loaded pistol about as carelessly as a drunk pisses in an alley, "he's ready to apologize for his actions."

"Why, Bill, I'm nonplussed," Breck said. "I didn't ask for this."

"I'm offering you a gift, Breck. You won't accept my gift?"

"I can see you're in a foul mood, Bill."

"I ain't in no kind of mood!"

"I ain't looking to anger you, Bill," Breck claimed. "I ain't that foolish."

"Then you'll accept the man's apology?" Bill asked.

"If it'll set your heart at ease, let's have it," Breck said.

"You heard the man," Bill said to Jim Wallace, slapping him hard on the back. "Get over there and pay your penance."

The saloon was quiet. Jim Wallace had ridden into town on a stolen horse, high on life. He was dern pleased with that horse and ready to show it off. He was already drunk when he stole the horse from the San Simon station, having been playing poker out at Joe Hill's place. He just happened to wander across the mare when leaving San Simon, so he left his ragged old horse in place of the mare, not even taking the time to switch the saddles. He was drunk when he entered town, pleased knowing he could sell the horse to one of the Cowboys in town and buy another nag. It was likely to net him about 30 dollars. If done often enough, it could support his vices while he lived off the wages he made tending bar.

Jim Wallace suddenly regretted taking umbrage with the constable and playing it tough with Breck. He didn't even dislike Breck. He was just an ornery drunk. Now, the whole saloon was watching him. There were coldblooded killers in there like John Ringo and Pony Diehl, but they were quiet, afraid to tempt the anger of Curly Bill. Even killers like Ringo and Pony held their tongue when Curly got riled. He was feeling right bloody on this night.

Pony realized in that moment that he wasn't safe neither. All them calculations he made prior to arriving were made in folly. Curly Bill was getting up the courage for a shooting when he drank so heavily in the saloon across the street. He suddenly had a feeling that it wasn't Jim Wallace who was the target of his malice. What had gotten Curly so ornery before he learned about the altercation between Wallace and Breck? That's what made Pony nervous.

Ringo wasn't too nervous. He was clever enough to know that Newman Clanton favored him. He had proven to be a willing and adept killer, confirmed by the notion that Newman had not even been questioned in the killings Ringo had committed. He was a hired hand for the Clanton Gang, and not even Curly Bill could touch him without running afoul with the Old Man. Besides, Curly Bill was tough as iron but John Ringo was faster than the blazes. Push come to shove, Ringo liked his odds, especially with Curly being so drunk. He wasn't looking to poke the bear, though. Only a fool would do that.

Frightened and humiliated in front of a saloon full of Cowboys who were too afraid of the Lobo to stand against him, Jim Wallace did as he was told. He walked over to Billy Breakenridge, looked him solemnly in the eyes, and muttered, "Sorry, Breck."

"Deputy Breakenridge, you mean?" Curly Bill insisted.

"I'm sorry, Deputy Breakenridge," Jim repeated, a hollow look in his eyes.

"Get down on your knees and say it," Curly demanded.

"That's a bit much, ain't it, Bill?" Breck asked.

"You think so?" Curly asked, venom on his tongue and a murderous look in his eyes.

"Don't matter," Jim Wallace rescued, "'cause I ain't doing it."

"Oh, you ain't, is you?" Bill asked, pulling his pistol and spinning the chamber, holding it to his ear and grinning as he listened to it rotate.

"A man gots limits, Bill," Jim said. "I might be a fool, but I ain't a coward. I won't be made to kneel."

Curly marched right past Jim Wallace and Billy Breakenridge, but he didn't act. Both men thought he would strike Jim, but he walked right past him. He parked his husky frame in the doorway and pointed the gun at Jim Wallace's horse, which remained tethered outside.

"You get down on your knees or I'll shoot your horse" Bill said. "You say you won't kneel out of fear, but I bet you'll kneel for the 50 dollars you'll ask for that horse."

"Reckon I will," Jim Wallace said, with shame in his eyes.

"It's unnecessary," Breck pleaded.

"It's all right," Jim Wallace whispered to him, as he knelt to the ground. "I ain't bothered."

"Deputy William Breakenridge" Jim Wallace announced from his knees, "I'm sorry for the disrespect that I showed you. As God is my witness, I won't never do it again, neither."

"Apology accepted," Breck said, then turned and marched from the saloon, staring angrily at Curly Bill as he did.

"Guess there's just no pleasing some folks," Curly said, eliciting a nervous laughter from the room.

"Now, you get the hell outta here, you Lincoln County son of a bitch" he continued, gesturing at the door with his pistol. Jim Wallace wasted no time rushing out of the saloon, pleased that he was leaving with his life.

"I just hate them Lincoln County bastards" Curly Bill announced, making eyes at Pony Diehl as he returned to the bar and ordered a bottle of rye.

Jim Wallace was a bit shaken by what happened, so he marched across the street and ordered a glass of whiskey in Babcock's Saloon. Curly Bill continued to drink and gamble. After a few hours, he was an even saltier drunk. Pony Diehl tried his best to act nonchalant. He believed that he was going to be murdered by Curly Bill and John Ringo and he was running the scenario over in his head. Over and over, he played it out. He wasn't so afraid of Bill in a duel. Curly was a handful, but he wasn't a pistoleer. Ringo was the fastest around, meaning that Pony would have to pull against Ringo and kill him with the first shot. That would leave Curly Bill, who was slow but deadly accurate. If he pulled and shot Bill first, Ringo would ace him. Either way, he ended up dead.

"Walk with me, Ponyboy" Curly Bill demanded, after losing his latest hand.

Curly had been a killer in the El Paso Salt War, but he had also been a good cowpoke and a good friend. Now, he was neither. He was a thief, a murderer, and a bully. He had only been riding with the Clanton Gang for a year, but he acted as if he was running the whole damn gang. Men like Pony Diehl and John Ringo weren't used to taking orders from him, like he thought he was John Kinney. Problem was, he did think that. As of late, he would bark. If you didn't come calling, he would resent you for it. He was brutish and vengeful. When he told Pony to take a walk, Pony knew he had no choice but to follow.

"I thought I told that sorry son of a bitch to get out of town" Curly grumbled, exiting the saloon and witnessing Jim Wallace come stumbling out of Babcock's Saloon.

Pony knew that Curly had only told Jim Wallace to "get the hell outta here", but he didn't speak up. He believed he was going to be walked out and murdered by Curly Bill unless he found the courage to pull first and kill the Lobo. In truth, he was thankful to be given the chance to draw without Ringo present. Under the circumstances, it was the best-case scenario. Then, everything changed. Jim Wallace had caught Curly's attention again. It was a welcome distraction, far as Pony Diehl was concerned. He trailed behind Curly Bill as he hid in the shadow of the porch, waiting for Jim Wallace to cross the street. When Jim approached his stolen horse, tethered outside Patterson's joint, Curly Bill emerged to snatch the lead before Jim Wallace could find his mount.

"I thought I told you to get out of town, you Lincoln County son of a bitch," Curly said, as he confronted Jim Wallace.

"I thought you said to get out of Patterson's," Jim explained. He was plumb roostered and struggling just to speak. "You know I wouldn't offend you on purpose."

"I guess I oughta take this horse off you to make up for the offense," Curly said, mounting the horse right in front of Jim Wallace.

"You know what, Bill?" Jim Wallace slurred, looking up at Curly with a twisted look in his eyes.

"What's that?" Curly grinned, sitting proudly atop his new mount.

"I'm right tired of you," Jim said, pulling his pistol, shoving it point blank into the face of Curly Bill Brocius, and pulling the trigger.

Curly was so drunk that he was hardly paying attention. The bullet hit him in the neck and passed through his cheek, taking out a few molars as it exited his jaw. He listed to the side, looking at Jim Wallace in shock. He wanted to pull his pistol, but his brain was misfiring. He couldn't manage to get his hands to do what he was telling them to do. His body fell from his horse and clapped hard off the ground.

Jim Wallace realized what he had done and immediately mounted his horse and turned to flee. Pony Diehl didn't hesitate. He pulled his pistol and shot the stolen horse out from under Jim Wallace, sending him crashing into the dirt next to the bloody remains of the New Mexico Lobo. He really couldn't say why he chose loyalty to Curly Bill over Jim Wallace, a man who had ridden under him in New Mexico, and loyally so. The former intended to murder him, while the latter had always been good to him. Yet, Pony chose fear over friendship. He couldn't explain it. It was instinct. Pony had no choice but to trust it.

Hearing the gunshot, the Cowboys quickly rushed outside and disarmed Jim Wallace, who swayed drunkenly, as if shocked by what he'd done. He looked as if he couldn't believe that Curly Bill had been shot, despite it being his gun which fired the shot and his finger that pulled the trigger. Perhaps it was the impact of biting the dirt after Pony shot his mare from under him. Perhaps he was finally realizing what he did, but there was no light on in the attic.

As some men called for Jim Wallace to be lynched, others rushed to Curly's side. Pony and Ringo stood back and watched, studying the reactions of everyone around them. Bill was a bully. They figured half the Cowboys would just as soon see him die than survive. It surprised them when the Cowboys rallied to Bill's side like he was the Savior. The boys were stunned to see him gunned down, believing he was too tough to be shot up by the likes of Jim Wallace. They shouldn't have needed a reminder that a lesser man can topple a giant if given half a chance. Then again, the sort who drank at Frank Patterson's place weren't exactly the sort to regularly consult their Bible. Once they saw that Curly Bill was still footed firmly among the living, they turned their attention to apprehending the shooter. They were loyal to him because they feared him, even while he was shot through the jaw.

Being an expert on shootings, Pony and Ringo both seen it wasn't a fatal wound. Least, not straightaway. Jim Wallace was a sloppy shot on a good day. On the night in question, he was drunk on rotgut whiskey and seeing double. He shot Curly Bill at point blank range, but it looked to have missed everything vital. Curly fell from the saddle and clapped off the ground, then turned onto his hands and knees and spit bloody fragments of his teeth into the dirt. He started grunting in pain, as if aggression was his answer to danger even after being shot through the face. He could breathe and he wasn't spilling blood from the inside. By his measure, that was better than he expected.

The Cowboys mobbed onto Jim Wallace, pulling him off the ground and kicking and punching at him. They even mobbed each other in their rush to strike him, until they heard a rifle fire over their heads, nearly skinning their hats. Billy Breakenridge had stepped into the fray once more, firing off his rifle and demanding the Cowboys stand down. The bark of his iron convinced them to fall back. Their respect for the deputy kept them from lashing out. After all, the mistreatment of Deputy Breakenridge was what started this whole mess.

"I'm taking this man in, lawful too," Breck demanded. "I suggest you boys see to Curly's health. If he pulls through this and finds that y'all ain't come to his aid, he'll shoot you sure."

"No need arresting Jim Wallace; he'll just claim it was self-defense," Pony Diehl said.

"Why, that's what it was" Jim claimed, rushing his cadence like the idea had just come to him.

"We'll let the judge see to that," Breck said.

"What if I say we got a hangman's noose on standby?" Ringo said. He was making eyes at Pony Diehl even while talking to Breck, suspecting the talented horse thief was up to something.

"I'd say we're in for a long night," Breck said.

"I only see short work," Ringo disagreed.

"Reckon that's true," Breck gulped, reassessing the situation.

"Curly won't like you challenging Breck this way," Constable Goodman warned, bursting onto the scene with the familiar flare of a coward who waited until the shooting stopped before finding his courage.

"Curly don't look like he'll pay too much mind," Ringo said.

"You're fixing to kill a lawman over Jim Wallace?" Breck asked.

"I suppose not," Ringo relented, thinking better of his misplaced aggression. He stepped away after that, letting Deputy Breakenridge and Constable Goodman take Jim Wallace to jail.

"I'll kill you yet, you Lincoln County son of a bitch!" Curly Bill howled, laying wounded in the dirt as Jim Wallace was led away.

The hanging of Jim Wallace averted, the Cowboys carried Curly Bill to the nearest doctor. Along the way, Curly Bill spoke to Pony Diehl, disbelieving and confused.

"You ain't dead yet?" Curly asked, before passing out.

Curly fell in and out of consciousness from then on. He couldn't stay awake, but he was fighting like hell. Pony Diehl wished the black-hearted son of a bitch would just die already. He knew now that he was marked for death that night. Only by a miracle had he survived.

Curly Bill and John Ringo had collected him from Frank Patterson's ranch and escorted him out to Patterson's saloon, leaving Pony questioning whether Frank Patterson had served him up to the Old Man. Pony was so crafty that he had navigated his way through the debauchery and emerged unscathed, but it gave him no great confidence that he would survive if Curly Bill pulled through. He was pulling for him to pass away. His hopes were unfulfilled.

Upon hearing the doctor pronounce his chance of survival as 50/50, Curly replied, "Whenever I get an even chance, I always come out ahead." Pony knew right then the son of a bitch was too mean to die.

So it was that Jim Wallace was arrested by Deputy Breakenridge and taken before the Galeyville justice of the peace, a corrupt hillbilly rancher called George Ellenwood. Judge Ellenwood consulted the only law book he owned and decided that it was self-defense, based on the fact that Jim Wallace was scared to death when he pulled his pistol. He was set free and sent walking, but he couldn't quit looking over his shoulder. He was in such a hurry to get out of town that he didn't even go by the livery for his horse or wait around the jail long enough for the constable to retrieve his gun. He believed the Cowboys were out to get him, waiting for him to walk out of the jail before they pounced. Instead of hanging around for a second longer than was necessary, he took his release and left Galeyville for good, heading north, 25 miles to the train station at San Simon.

Along the way, Jim was passed by the coach of Billy Breakenridge, who was finally headed back to Tombstone via a coach from Galeyville to San Simon, the rail from San Simon to Benson, and another coach from Benson to Tombstone. This was how the well-to-do made the trip. Wasted sots like Jim Wallace hoofed it or rode a dirty old nag. Breck felt bad for Jim Wallace, being that he'd started it all by taking up for the inept constable in Galeyville. Had he let Jim Wallace have his fun, nobody would have upset Curly Bill and Jim Wallace would not have shot him. He knew Curly Bill would kill Jim Wallace if he didn't leave town, and he was of a mind to see that Jim Wallace got on the next train out of the territory. He stopped off along the road from Galeyville to San Simon and offered him a ride to the rail depot. Wallace was eager to accept.

Jim was of the same mind as Breck. He was firm in the belief that he was only still among the living because Breck had taken him to jail and held off the lynch mob throughout the night. Had Curly Bill died, there would have been no saving him. The Cowboys would have strung him up that very night. To his benefit, Curly survived and Jim Wallace was spared. Problem was, Jim wished Curly would have died. He would have rather faced a murder charge or a lynch mob than to be hunted by Bill Brocius. He was right scared, being of a mind to leave the territory on the first train he could catch. He accepted the ride because he trusted that Breck could get him to San Simon. He was less certain that the train could get him to California.

At San Simon, Jim Wallace bid adieu to Deputy Breakenridge and purchased a ticket for Los Angeles, before waiting patiently for the train. He was nervous, but being at San Simon calmed his nerves. He could see Joe Hill's ranch in the distance. He wished he was still yonder, playing cards. Had he not stolen that horse after losing his money to Joe Hill, he wouldn't have been in this whole mess. Then again, his time in Arizona was a wash. He was relegated to a henchman for the Old Man and there was a dangerous sort that often mistreated him. That he was abused over insulting a lawman told the whole story. Jim Wallace had outlived his welcome. Joe Hill had settled into a good life out there, but Jim couldn't find such fortune. Now, he was taking his leave.

He heard the train in the distance. He stood near the tracks and stared down the line to observe how distant the iron horse remained. He could not remove the fear from his heart, even as the train neared.

"If it ain't Jim Wallace," Pony Diehl said, stepping out from behind the depot.

"Pony," Jim said, nervous and reeling. "What're the odds?"

"Got bi'ness in Tucson?" Pony said.

"Looks to me like you got bi'ness in San Simon?" Jim Wallace feared.

"I was always square with you, Jim," Pony promised, still approaching.

"I know you was, Pony," Jim stammered. "I'm just nervous, is all."

"For good reason."

"Why you say that?"

"They's plenty mad at you in Galeyville."

"What bi'ness you got in Tucson?" Jim Wallace doubted.

"Wells Fargo folk is asking questions about a botched coach robbery at Dripping Springs," Pony said. "They got it in their heads that I got something to do with it."

"Shoot," Jim said, finally relaxing his guard, "I was in such a hurry to leave Galeyville that I ain't even got my gun and had to abandon my horse."

"I got an extra," Pony said, pulling one of his pistols and tossing it to Jim Wallace without thinking.

"You always was a good egg," Jim said, catching the gun and admiring it. "That's why I hate to do this," he added, pointing the gun at Pony Diehl and pulling the trigger.

Jim Wallace had always admired Pony Diehl, but he could not be certain that Pony was there by coincidence. He believed it was an assassination, payback for his shooting of Curly Bill. He knew he couldn't get the drop on a top gun like Pony Diehl; he was too fast for a rustler like Jim Wallace to keep up with. He needed a hope and a prayer, and he got them both when Pony tossed him that pistol. He had to take his chance, so he pointed and fired. When he heard the hammer click, his heart sank. Pony always was a clever sort.

"I was hoping you would do that," Pony said, then slowly pulled his other pistol and took aim. He always was a two-gun man. "It makes this a whole lot easier."

Jim Wallace moved to beg. Pony emptied his revolver, shooting Jim six times in the heart. The Lincoln County son of a bitch stumbled back in shock and fell onto the path of the train, still a half-mile in the distance. His body would be dragged half-way to Tucson before it was dislodged. By then, it was no longer identifiable. Pony was long gone when that came to pass. He had a horse hobbled behind the train depot. He took it over to Joe Hill's ranch to hide out for a few days, until he could be certain that no one had fingered him in the murder of Jim Wallace.

Pony Diehl had murdered a man in cold blood, but that was no big deal to a veteran killer like Charles Ray. Rather, it was who he murdered that haunted him. Jim Wallace was no threat to him, and now he was dead for standing up to a bully who harbored designs of murdering Pony in cold blood. He knew Curly Bill was a problem, but rather than stand up to him like Jim Wallace had done, Pony killed poor Jim Wallace to erase any doubts as to his reliability among the other members of the Clanton Gang. He killed Jim Wallace so they would let him back in the gang, not knowing why he wanted to stay with the Cowboys to begin with. Now that they had plotted to kill him, the luster had worn off. Hard as it was to figure, Pony Diehl was looking for a way out. He had no intention of ending up like Jim Wallace.

The End

Virgil Cain is an American author of historical fiction, with works including The Ghost of Rome saga and The Four Corners of Death series. Born in Ohio, Virgil currently resides in Southern Arizona with his family.

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by John Blanchard

The whole time in prison, Frank Ivy kept thinking about his younger brother, Pete. And getting more and more angry, 'cause those deputies had put a bullet in his little brother's back; and the more and more he thought and even dreamed about it, the angrier he got and planned his revenge; so that planning his revenge became the only thing that kept him going in that hell hole in Yuma.

In his mind, he kept living the whole thing over and over and how it might've turned out different—how when the deputies showed up (who pretended they weren't deputies) and he began to suspect who they were, he tried to come up with a plan as to how he and Pete might get out of it. In prison, realized it was too late; only he couldn't help himself—how his mind went wild and he tried to fix it, to make it turn out better. Maybe it was the heat in those little jail cells on top of that rock in God-forsaken Yuma.

He thought about the whole thing, from planning his escape to planning his revenge—how he would track down them deputies.

But at the same time something gnawed at him, some sense that mebbe it was his fault after all. Hadn't his ma said, "Now that your pa's dead, it's up to you to take care of Pete, 'cause you know he ain't got no more sense than a yearling calf, and he'll do whatever you say."

Sometimes he just wanted to put a bullet in his own brain. He even tried to get a pistol, with just one bullet, so's he could stop the picture show in his brain that ran over and over.

He and Pete had come so close, so close to their dream.

Over and over, he kept thinking about that lonely grave out there in the desert which them deputies had dug and buried his brother in, then covered it over with rocks so that no wild animals could get at his brother and tear him to pieces. They all had waited there for the burial. One of them had even said some words, but it wasn't satisfying at all to Frank. He didn't have no confidence that what they had done was in any way a proper Christian burial. But most of all he worried that they hadn't dug that grave deep enough or piled enough rocks on top of it; and he had tried to say so. But they had just told him to shut his mouth, and so he had just let it go. But he shouldn't have let it go, although he couldn't have done anything else.

He might've known it would come back to haunt him later, as he lay on one of those cots in that small hot jail cell in Yuma. He couldn't get it out of his mind, how some animals might come along, hungry, because they were always starving out there in the desert, where there wasn't nothing to eat. They were so determined—so he imagined it. They had found a way to push them rocks off that the deputies had put on top of the grave. Then it wasn't hard at all to dig down two or three feet to find his brother's body and drag it out of there and tear it to pieces. He didn't like to think about it, but he couldn't help it. Every night it came back to haunt him—the same terrible vision of them wild animals tearing his brother's body to pieces out there in the desert. The awful sound of them animals snarling and ripping and tearing.

He felt bad, because he'd talked Pete into the scheme that led to him gettin' kilt—the plan to steal a couple of horses and join up with a cattle drive to California, where they could start over and maybe find a gold mine. He never imagined that the rancher in Arizona would miss his horses so bad he'd follow them all the way across the border and bring along a whole posse, too, and catch up with them out in the middle of nowhere.

For a time everything had went well. They had each a fine horse to ride and a six shooter and Frank had a rifle, too. Then they got lucky and met up with a cattle drive that happened to need a couple of extra hands and took them on. They sort of blended right in with the other cowboys, and no one suspected what they had done.

Pete trusted his older brother and had no sense of his own, but seemed to settle down on the drive and mind his own business and keep quiet. The only thing Frank really worried about was that Pete might shoot his mouth off and brag about things he oughtn't to have mentioned, like how they came by those two fine horses. It made Frank nervous the way one of the cowhands kept looking at him and Frank over his plate of chow when they all sat round the fire and et, how he looked up sneaky-like from under his hat brim and asked questions that he should have kept to himself, like "That's a mighty fine roan you got there, Frank. Where'd you get him? Seems like I've seen him somewheres before."

One day some men in wagons and on horses showed up at Carrizo, where the cattle drive had laid over to water and rest the stock, and said they were prospectors and could they share their mess with them a night or two. Pete started in gettin' skittish right away, pacing back and forth and mutterin', acting like a guilty man. Frank had to take him aside and whisper harsh words in his ear—to calm down and "don't act like no criminal. Just keep smilin' and don't say nothin' lessen someone speaks to you, and even then let me answer 'stead of you." Then Pete seemed to calm down a little, while the newcomers talked about mining and assays and some folks who had struck a rich vein in these parts. In this way, as it turned out, they tried to put him and Pete off their guard. "Just stay calm," he told Pete. "Don't do nothin' foolish." But he was like a young colt, and he bolted when all of a sudden them deputies—that's what they were in truth—jumped them both and took away their pistols and tried to cuff them. Then just like a contortionist at the circus, Pete slithered free and ran for it; and one of them deputies went after him and called for him to stop, stop. But he never would; and he ran with the deputy after him till they were both out of sight over a hill, when Frank heard the rifle shot and the echo that came back at him down the canyon.

He told them deputies and the sheriff then, "You had no call to shoot a man, no more than a boy still, to shoot him in the back. You had no call . . . . "

In prison later on, Frank fed on his anger like it was food and schemed about busting out and crossing the river and tracking down the man that had gunned down Pete, who had put a bullet in his back. He saw himself, how when he finally caught up with the man (oh, but, there were many details), how the man had gone home to his wife and kids and was fat and happy and never suspected. Maybe Grimes would have heard how Frank had busted out; and word came from the prison that Frank had talked over and over about if he ever got out, he was coming for Deputy George Grimes, who had shot his brother Pete in the back, who was just a boy and didn't deserve to die. After all, it was Frank who had put him up to stealing the horses. And maybe, when Deputy Grimes heard that Frank had busted out, he'd begun to worry and start at shadows and noises, even the wind sometimes, when it whistled. Then Frank had come sneaking up on him and was even toying with him like a wild animal will do sometimes with its prey, before it closes in.

Many an hour in the stinking hot prison yard, Frank had sat there in a spot of shade and planned the whole thing out, how he would toy with George Grimes and torture him just as those wild animals had rent and tore at his brother's body. He would take his time, yes, and enjoy it, the whole thing, up to the point where George Grimes begs for mercy, saying, "Hear me out, Frank Ivy. I've got a wife and kids. I don't care about myself. But what about them? Who's going to take care of them when I'm gone?"

Then—and this was the delicious part, the supreme moment of triumph and revenge, when Frank replied, "And what thoughts of mercy did you have, George Grimes, when you shot my brother in the back, who warn't much out of boyhood, who just wanted a chance to grow and be a man and maybe someday get married and have kids himself? And what about his ma and pa? And what about me, his own brother? What about me? Did you stop to think about that, before you pulled the trigger?"

As he conjured, the sun kept moving across the yard, spoiling the shade; until Frank Ivy sat with his naked head in the sun and grew delirious, gnashing and spitting into the dust, like some wild animal. "But I won't kill him all at onc't, no, I'll kill him in little bits, until my six shooter is empty and even then he'll not be dead until I let him, until he begs for mercy, yes, begs . . . . "

* * *

Mebbe he would've done so, too, one day. Only some other feller beat him to it and killed that deputy before he did, over something else; and Frank heard about it. He even met the man when they sent him to Yuma prison; and he attended the hangin' in the prison yard, behind a cordon of guards.

They say Frank Ivy broke through the cordon that day. He got right in front of the prisoner as they drug him along in his ankle chains, the signs of a beating all over his face; and he said, "You the man that kilt Deputy George Grimes?"

The man looked back at him through one swollen eye and nodded.

Afterwards as he sat in solitary, Frank Ivy swore—to himself mostly— "I meant to shake his hand, I meant to shake it, but I didn't. Something happened, I don't know what. All of a sudden I rared back and decked him, I did, square on his chin, and he went down. Then the guards came at me with rifle butts, until I bled, and put me in cuffs, and the next thing, I woke up here.

"They tell me I'll be here awhile, in the dark alone, trying to explain it to myself, which I couldn't do to the warden, no how. The rage that come over me then, all of a sudden like, when I shoulda been happy. I shoulda been happy, no matter what, even if the prisoner had done what I had sworn to do and planned out and lived for all those years. But I wasn't."

The guards that came to bring him food could hear him moanin' and groanin' in the dark. They could hear him saying, "He stole from me, he did. He took what was rightfully mine, the thing that kept me goin' all these years."

Now that he didn't have that thing anymore, it was like the life had gone right out of him, they said. He began to wither like an old gourd in the sun that no one had ever picked from the vine; and so it just languished there and got ripe and sweet and no man ever et of it, that might have lived on for a day or two, if he had.

The End

John Blanchard is a published and award-winning short story writer with an interest in the history of the American West. He divides his time between Oakland and Borrego Springs, California. His short stories have appeared in literary journals and the anthology Best of the West 2010. In his blog, John reflects on the writer's life and posts some of his short stories as well as excerpts from his novels. John is also a photographer. Some of his photos appear on his web site.

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And Some Will be Gray
by Chere Taylor

My father was a son-of-a-bitch before it ever became popular to be one. Later in life, he would be celebrated for that very trait. Admired for his projection of strength and masculinity. In 1871, he would be elected mayor of our small town, Prairie Haven, located in the newly minted region known as the Arizona Territory. He would rule that town the same way he dominated his first son, me, and the wife who died while giving birth to me. Unyielding, unbending. You did what James Garrett told you to do with a 'Yes sir' or otherwise risk a 'Slug to the throat!'

That's what he called it, when he slaughtered the cow thief or perhaps just some drunken bastard who mistook our cattle ranch for his own domicile. I always pictured him in my head stumbling his way around our livestock, perhaps tipping his derby to the sleeping bulls.

"That son-of-a-bitch earned himself a slug to the throat!" James proclaimed while straddling the dead man's body. Pa was a big man with burly, black hair and a beard. He gripped his pistol, adopting the same authority and reverence of a preacher man clinging to his cross.

I remember my nine-year-old self examining the corpse along with my older brother Gabriel. There were no 'slugs' in the dead man's throat, though his head had caved in from the force of the single shot bullet. It reminded me of the time I accidentally rode our horse through Missus Neely's garden, smashing half of the melons with the horse's hooves.

This is death. I told myself. This is what it looks like. I tried to soak it up. To make it real to myself.

From that point on, I made it my life's work to make sure Papa loved me enough so I wouldn't earn " . . . a slug to the throat.". I didn't, couldn't, love him in return. How could I love a man who choked my eleven-year-old brother til he fell unconscious to the floor? Or the time he stood guard on the front porch refusing to allow me back into the house, even though it was after two in the morning until I had cleared enough snow for our oxen to eat. The gun had been there too, almost as a separate entity, casually resting in my father's lap.

It was that same pistol he placed in my sixteen-year-old hands years later. The war was over and Gabriel was due back home any day now.

"Shoot any gray," Pa told me, "that steps foot in our yard." I could smell the liquor on his breath. Something vile and harsh and mysteriously adult like.

"What if it's—"

"Shoot the grays I said! There will be no wickedness staining this here soil. You understand me, boy?"

I swallowed the rest of my unfinished question. What if it's Gabriel?

Perhaps Pa detected my silent thought. He put one hand on the back of my neck, a reassuring gesture if it wasn't for the calluses on his palm, the pressure of those massaging fingers.

"It don't matter who's wearing the coat. Even if it's kin, you shoot him dead. The grays betrayed our country. So you give any gray you see a slug to the throat, or so help me, I'll be giving you one."

I nodded even though I understood that Gabriel's true crime was not so much that he betrayed our country, but that he betrayed our father, which, as far as Papa was concerned, was far worse.

Gabriel made a child with one of Samuel's (a visiting relative) slaves. Not a sin in itself. The female slaves gave birth to lots of mulatto children. But Gabriel didn't have the good sense to be quiet about it. He bragged about his fatherhood to us and the townsfolk. He even tried to buy the kid from Samuel, if the rumors were correct. All of Prairie Haven turned against him at that point. I guess he thought that by joining the Southern cause, he would reinstate his status as a white man. Again, wrong move.

So every morning that April, instead of helping the farm hands with mending the fences or feeding livestock, I took the long walk to East-wind Trail, which was about a hundred yards from our home. There I waited for Gabriel or any gray's return until the sun dipped beneath the horizon again. Of course, I wasn't going to shoot him or anybody else. Just give a warning shot in the air. One bullet and one shot. Then I would run behind the back of the house, pick up my already packed luggage and continue on East-wind Trail to join the ranks of carpetbaggers, never to return to Prairie Haven again.

Each day, to my great relief, there were no grays. I saw plenty of horse-drawn carriages. Travel had certainly picked up after the war. Occasionally, men in blue coats would also appear, though I didn't recognize anyone.

Maybe he's dead, I thought as I traced an endless pattern of circles on the dusty road beneath my shoe. I pictured Gabriel lying in some unmarked field, his body bloodstained with a bashed-in head where his thinking used to be. Yet even then there was something to be admired there. He had escaped Papa.

It was one fine morning when I stepped out on our front porch after breakfast. There in the distance, a wink of gray. It was hard to be sure of the exact color of the silhouette behind the strength of the rising sun, but it was making its way towards our home.

My heart dropped to my belly. No, no, no, it couldn't be him! I raced towards the dirt road, cutting across the wheat fields, the single shot pistol banging against by my side. All Confederate Soldiers were ordered to return their coats as part of their surrender agreement, I reminded myself. That's what it said in the Weekly Arizonan. There will be no grays here!

As I got closer to the limping figure, it was no longer possible to deny the obvious. Gabriel was coming home . . . and in a gray coat. Slowly, he hobbled on his crutches, now only several feet away from me. I saw a shock of red hair peeking out from the gray cap, his face worn and dirty. This was not the confident, devil-may-care Gabriel who left for war, but a soul who had been beaten up, spat upon and then inserted back into Gabriel's body. What would his reaction be, after he watches his only brother shoot a bullet into the air at his approach?

"Whacha' doing lil' brother?" He favored me with such a warm and innocent smile, it broke my heart. "God, you grew up so much since I've been gone. You're almost as tall as I am now. Has it really been three years?"

That's when the idea hit me like a lightning bolt. An idea so brilliant, it almost blinded me with its perfection.

"Take off your coat and leave it by the side of the road."

His smile fell, allowing more of his weariness to bleed through. "That's all I get? Not even a 'hello'?"

"Papa told me to kill you." I hissed and looked back towards our home. It was so far away that I couldn't tell if anyone was standing on the front porch. But something twinkled in the distance, a flash of light. Perhaps the glint from a whiskey bottle.

"But I don't have to do it, if you're not wearing a confederate uniform. That's the only thing he's pissed about. Drop the coat."

"And go home naked? Ashamed? No thanks." Gabriel shook his head. "I knew it was a mistake coming back. Papa never forgives nuthin'. Should have just gone and left with Jo-Jo." Jo-Jo was Gabriel's bastard, colored son. Suddenly his eyebrows rose, as if he had been struck with his own lightning moment. "Why don't you come with me, and we'll skip Prairie Haven for good? I'm tired of the 'good folks' around here, anyway."

But I was lit with my own wit at that point. To outsmart Pa? To defeat him with his own damnable logic? That doesn't happen often, but it always felt good when it did.

"You could wear my shirt." This was even better because it happened to be a plaid blue. "Put it on and we'll both tell him goodbye together. Then hell, I'll go with you."

Gabriel's eyes flitted here and there as if searching for another answer that was buried in the wheat fields. Then wearily, he nodded and we began the process of undressing.

I hunched over as I unbuttoned my shirt, embarrassed of my thin, skeletal chest, its unhealthy, pale color like the underside of a fish. When would I develop the muscles that both Gabriel and Pa had? Then Gabriel removed his coat and my breath hitched in my throat.

On his left side was a large, gaping wound, about the size of my fist. It was raw and angry looking. It didn't seem like a man who had a wound that size would still be walking in the land of the living.

"A Yankee got me." Gabriel replied when he saw me staring at it. "Doctor said it was best to let it drain before he bandages it up."

Next he removed his pants, revealing the signs of another angry wound in the process. At least this one was properly bandaged up, even if the cloth was stained red in some areas. At last, he removed his cap and carefully placed it alongside his other garments by the roadside.

I gave him my blue shirt but didn't bother giving him my pants. It was doubtful he could fit into it anyway with his wounded leg.

We limped our way back through the yellow field, moving clumsily through its waves, like a wounded elephant. All the while I kept thinking about Pa's cow thief, who was in reality most likely a drunken neighbor. Was his shambling similar to ours?

Pa was indeed sitting in the rocking chair. An empty bottle of Old Crow rested on his lap, his face emotionless. I didn't like his bland expression. I would have preferred if he were wearing a scowl. Anger was an emotion I was familiar with. Not this empty facade.

"It's Gabe, Pa. Gabe's come home. But he ain't wearing the gray, see? So, I didn't shoot him. He wants me to go up north with him."

I hated how my voice sounded. Weak. Like I was asking for permission instead of telling him what I was going to do.

His gaze shifted from me to Gabriel. Without giving me another glance, Pa reached behind his back, took out a second pistol and put a bullet in me.

To be fair, it wasn't a slug to the throat. Pa wanted to be more sure than that. He aimed directly for my face. I was dead, my head a smashed open melon before my body even sunk to the ground.

Gabriel's hair would be his excuse. There were two small patches of gray on both sides of his temples. Not enough for someone who helped carry his brother across a field of yellow to notice. But enough for a fanatical son-of-a-bitch who punished his sons to make up for his fucked up life to take note of. Who expects gray hair on a nineteen-year-old? But war has a way of changing people, contorting them into unfamiliar shapes.

Pa never shot Gabriel. Perhaps the fear in Gabriel's eyes was enough to momentarily satisfy him. The very next day, Gabriel escaped to the east, stealing his bastard son in the process. The colored woman was terribly upset about it, but the Negroes had no rights yet. There was nothing she could do other than weep and wail, her tears staining her printed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.

After Pa become the mayor a few years later, he remarried. The corpses he had left in his wake made no difference in his electability status or in matters of romance. He created more children, and they too learned how to tiptoe around his whimsical fury. How to carry the individual pieces of his liquored up life.

And that should have been the end of it. Except even in death I continue, as will Gabriel Garret and James William Garret when we meet again in the next life.

The End

Chere Taylor enjoys wasting many hours of her life buried in a good book or binge watching bad cinema on Netflix. She has a passion for reading, writing and almost everything involving the works of Stephen King. She is currently working on her first novel. You can find her stories in Another Realm, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, The Chamber, Granfalloon, and Books 'n Pieces Magazine. She's also been known to lurk around her Inkitt account at

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Banks of the Rio Grande
by Joe Stout

The sound of a gunshot sent birds flying out of the desert scrub.

A figure approached the victim, a rabbit, bending over to pick up the animal and place it in a leather game bag. The calico shirt and jeans couldn't hide the female figure beneath them, and the freckles and ponytail peeking out from under the Stetson hat confirmed it.

She walked back to her horse as her baby babbled on her back. Agnes could handle anything now, she thought with a smile. The train to Dallas, the horseback ride across Texas, and now the gunshot as her mother killed their evening meal.

They were headed for El Paso, where her brother was waiting. It had been a hard journey, but the Guadalupe Mountains were fading away in the distance, and El Paso was less than a hundred miles away.

* * *

It was raining the day they rode into the border town, the only rain they'd seen on their trip.

Agnes was awake, peeking out of the slicker over her mother's shoulder. Jumping off the horse, the woman tied it to a post before stepping onto a wooden boardwalk and opening one of the doors.

Behind the desk, a man looked up at her. He had stringy brown hair and looked like he needed a bath. "Help you, ma'am?"

"I'm looking for the Marshal."

The man stood. "You found him. I'm Marshal Ike Tucker."

The woman shook her head. "No, not you, Mr. Tucker. I'm looking for Roy Miller."

Tucker looked down at the floor. "Reckon you'd be Roy's sister, then."

"Yes, Abigail Blackburn," she said.

"He done told me about you, how you dressed up as a man and fought in the war, taught him to shoot, all kinds of stuff."

She blushed. "I'm glad Roy's proud of me, but it doesn't tell me where he is."

The Marshal looked down as he kicked the toe of his boot against the floor. "Well, Miss Blackburn, I ain't exactly sure how to say this, but Roy's dead. Got killed in a shootout with some bank robbers last week."

Her eyes went wide. Roy. Gone. The last hope for her and Agnes after her good for nothing husband had walked out on them. She sank into a chair against the wall.

"Can I get you something, Miss Blackburn?" The Marshal asked.

"No. Er, thank you," Abigail said, her mind racing. She was down to the last of the money her brother had sent, and what she had left wouldn't be enough to get her and Agnes back across Texas. They'd risked everything to get here, skirting the border of Comanche territory and traveling alone across open country some men didn't survive.

"I'm sorry I had to be the one to break it to you."

Abigail took Agnes off her back, holding the girl in her lap. She babbled and cooed, the soft noises calming her mother. "It is what it is, Marshal. Now that Roy is gone, Agnes and I will have to find a way to get by."

"Your brother had a special fondness for Louella Birch, who runs one of the local, er, parlors." Tucker blushed when he said it, and she picked up the meaning. "I'm sure if you needed work, she would be happy to help."

Abigail shook her head. She didn't want to consider that kind of work, but in a frontier town, her options would be limited.

Her eyes wandered to where the wanted posters and other bulletins were hanging, drifting over them as she thought. Maybe she'd become a bounty hunter, like Roy had always teased her about.

"The way you can shoot," he'd told her, "It wouldn't be fair, and they usually pay as much for 'em dead as alive." A smile crept across her face at her brother's memory.

Suddenly, her hand shot forward and plucked one of the papers from the wall. "What's this about a thousand dollar shooting contest tomorrow?"

Tucker raised an eyebrow. "The Judge Gibson prize? No one's ever claimed that."

"Tell me about it," she demanded.

He shrugged. "Judge Gibson was a sharpshooter in the war. He claims he's the one that killed the Union General Reynolds at Gettysburg, but . . . " Tucker shrugged to show his skepticism.

"What about the prize," Abigail pressed.

"I'm gettin' there, hang on. After Gettysburg, he ended up down in Georgia fightin' with John Bell Hood. One day, he's running along the river toward the fight when he gets his feet shot out from under him. Hell of a shot, he's convinced it was a Yankee sharpshooter that got him. The damage was terrible, they had to amputate both his legs, leaving him in a wheelchair. But Gibson vowed revenge, and started the prize after the war to try to draw out the shooter."

Abigail shook her head. "Revenge makes people do strange things."

The deputy nodded. "Ol' Gibson is obsessed with finding the one that shot him, but he ain't having much luck. So far, no one's collected, not even your brother, and he was the finest shot I ever saw."

Abigail smiled. "Roy was a great shot, and I taught him everything he knew. Fortunately, I didn't teach him everything I know."

* * *

The next morning, Abigail was the first to arrive at the contest grounds on the banks of the Rio Grande, Agnes strapped firmly to her back. Slowly, more people arrived, until there was a crowd of about fifty shooters and a few hundred spectators behind them. At eleven o'clock, Marshal Tucker wheeled a man in a wheelchair up to the assembled shooters. A rifle lay across his lap. He smiled at Abigail, his eyes dancing playfully. "Well, boys, it's simple," he said. "You've got three shots to hit that target across the river. That's all there is to it. Make that shot, and win a thousand dollars." Now he winked at her. "And try not to get beat by a girl."

The men looked at her, standing a little bit away from them, and muttered quietly. Gibson looked around, then took a clipboard off a nearby table and called a name.

A man strode to the firing line, a tall, rangy fellow with an old black-powder musket. His first shot sailed well over the target, and the second was wide. The third splashed into the river well short, and he was done.

"Next!" Gibson called as the shooter slipped away into the crowd.

* * *

Abigail was the last name called. Stepping forward, she raised the rifle and took careful aim.

"All those men couldn't hit it, what makes you think you can," Gibson asked.

"I'm a better shot than all those men put together." The crowd roared with laughter as the rifle roared. Across the river, a plume of dust rose closer to the target than any previous attempt, and the crowd went silent.

"Sorry. Agnes bumped my arm," she said.

"I can hold her," a woman in the crowd offered.

Abigail gave her a smile. "It's been so long since I've shot without her on my back, I think not having her there might make my aim even worse!"

Turning back toward the river, she raised her rifle, resting her cheek on the smooth wooden stock as she took aim. Her breath slowed, and she pulled the gun tight against her shoulder. Agnes' familiar weight comforted her, and the baby was still, almost like she knew this shot was important. Her finger caressed the trigger, pulling evenly until it broke.

The crack of the gunshot was followed by a soft ping as the target across the river collapsed.

For a moment, no one spoke. Then the crowd cheered as Abigail worked the action to chamber a new round. On her back, Agnes was laughing at the glee that filled the air. Abigail looked at Gibson, who was grinning ear to ear.

"Helluva shot," he said, extending his hand. Abigail took it as a camera flashed. Gibson reached in his pocket and took out a wad of cash. "I never expected I'd have to give this away!"

Abigail smiled as she took the money. "You never met anyone that can shoot like me."

"Once," Gibson said, darkness clouding his face. "But you're a lot prettier than that scoundrel in Yankee blue!"

* * *

Abigail waited, standing behind the door to her hotel room. Agnes was asleep on her back, her quiet breathing comforting Abigail.

She knew Gibson would come. She'd known that as soon as she'd seen the look on his face when she hit the shot. But waiting was the hard part, standing hour after hour waiting for him to arrive.

Finally, she heard the creak of rolling wheels on the floor outside, and the clatter of a key in her lock. The door swung open, and he rolled inside.

Stepping forward, she pressed the muzzle of her rifle into the soft spot behind his ear. "Hands where I can see them!"

Slowly, his hands came off the chair. "You knew."

"I went to see the coroner this afternoon. Funny thing, the shot that killed my brother didn't come from the bank."

"As soon as he told you about me, you would have known," Gibson whispered. "I knew as soon as he told me about you."

She laughed quietly. "You give me too much credit. Shooting you was an accident. It was my first fight, I saw someone in gray and fired. Hitting you was pure luck, except an officer saw me do it. They decided I was some kind of sharpshooter, and sent me to the trenches at Petersburg. That was where I mastered my craft."

"An accident," Gibson whispered, disbelief in his voice. "A lifetime in a wheelchair because of dumb luck."

"Or in your case, the lack of it," Abigail sneered.

"So what now?"

"You murdered my brother." Abigail walked around to face him, the rifle aimed at his chest.

"I was merciful!" He spat. "Death is better than a life in a chair like this!"

"I'm glad you feel that way."

"What?" His eyes traveled down the barrel of the rifle, focusing on the muzzle aimed at him.

Abigail smiled. "Imagine the shock when people learn Judge Gibson tried sneaking into a woman's hotel room. Fortunately, the woman was armed."

"You're going to murder me?"

"I'm going to avenge my brother."

The rifle roared, and Gibson slumped back in his chair, his lifeless body sliding onto the floor.

On her back, Agnes started screaming.

The End

Joe Stout is an east Tennessee based writer who focuses on short stories and flash fiction. His work has been published by the Non-Binary Review, Literary Cocktail Magazine, and CafeLit. When he's not writing, he enjoys exploring the mountains and spending time with his children. You can follow him on Facebook at Joe Stout Writing or Instagram @joestoutwriting.



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Stubble Wind
by Marc Neuffer

Killing a man is easy. It's the shudder after that takes its toll.
Noah Birkman, 1880

Not a breath of relieving breeze stirred in these high rocks as I watched for even a feather of movement below. Jeremiah nudged my side and whispered raspy, "Horses need water soon." In his mind haze, he forgot I shot his mount, leaving us only my horse, Buster.

"No point being quiet," I said. "Those Comancheros know we're up here, and they need it same as us." I stroked the barrel of my Winchester for a measure of personal reassurance. There's a passible chance to escape this castle of rock and sage at a midnight gallop, but I'm staying with Jeremiah.

"Why are they so far north?" he asked.

I gave him my best conjecture. "Army musta chased their kind out down south."

Three mornings ago, we saw the bandits a mile off, being sure they were such, riding toward us with purpose through the chaparral. That distance allowed us time to skedaddle horses and pack mules below this escarpment that guards our rear and flanks. On the climb to a higher perch, Jeremiah's mare stumbled severe and rolled, splinter breaking a leg on horse and rider. Jeremiah got better treatment than his horse, me doing my best, pulling his leg to get bones back under skin and bound up straight.

Jeremiah's face is gone flush and sweating fierce. Claims he can still draw a bead, but his glassy stare wouldn't do well for targets over ten feet away. His cheek is healed from a saloon cowboy's fist he took for being who he was and where he stood. After knocking Jeremiah down, that ranch hand wanted to boot stomp my partner, but the barrel of my 44, pressed against his skull, sobered him up sufficient to reconsider his dislike for Jeremiah's kind.

Today is too hot, too dry to be still. "Got any rollys?" Jeremiah asked. It took much from him to get that request made.

"Have to twist our own. Wanna sip?"

He ran his tongue over dry lips, taking long to think. "I would."

I scooted close, uncorked the bottle from my duster, and handed it over. "Not too much now," I advised as he tipped it up. Turning my eyes and thoughts to the bushwhackers spread out behind rocks in the draw below, I gathered pouch and papers to twist one. Lighting the smoke, I touched it to a fuse, then tossed the fizzling stick over, aiming for the mouth of the gulley. Jeremiah reached, and I passed him the cigarette. The explosion reminded the bandits to keep to their wits and gave them more desire for our goods. Why the wagon captain we were meeting needed dynamite was a mystery to me. The other boxes held mostly ammunition, whiskey, tools, and salt blocks.

On the first night, two men below got stupid brave in the light of a mostly full moon. Five remain to claim what the mules carry and to scavenge our corpses.

Late morning ate the shade, and shifting Jeremiah out of the sun was hard on his splinted leg. The dark red oozing flesh smells of putrid rot, and this morning's bandages came away green when I changed them for fresh. Figure a day more for him, maybe two on a stretch. When he passes, I'll take his saddle, guns, and bags with me and see his personals get returned to whatever family he has.

Getting into a crouch, I said, "Gonna see if I can nick some of those boys down there." Jeremiah has his smoke and bottle, so won't need me for a while. Every few hours, I take our rifles and a box of shells to a guarded crevice in the rocks, shooting down into the gulch, hoping for a lucky ricochet. I want them to fire back in wild aimed desperation and anger, wasting ammunition. Our supply could last a week of constant shooting. Jeremiah propped up to help the first day, and we bothered them extreme, but his leg pain made it too hard to move about the next. After chipping away at the rocks below, I returned to my place at his side.

"More whiskey," he said, then, "Tell me about your family."

Me and him met seven days ago, charged to bring top-off supplies to a wagon stop along the trail. He didn't know my family was such a thin one, and I knew little of his except for how he presented. Both of us understood his request, his needing diversion of thought. So, I began.

* * *

Pa told me I came into this world along the Ohio, and I took it as truth. Was six before I learned the Ohio was a river.

First I can true remember we were on a sod house homestead in John Brown's bloody, blown to bits, Kansas. That was before the Union suffered the full war. The pain of that mighty conflict reflected in the eyes of men Pa's age, who could recognize each other without exchanging a word or a nod, no matter what side they took. Mostly, they were quiet men. Others, those ill of mind from the ravages, never got off their knees, Pa said. Didn't know what he meant back then. Do now.

I suppose every Pa tells their sons about that time, fearful it might get forgotten. When speaking of the war, he always looked to the horizon, wind to his back, puffing his smoking piece. Never talked of what he done personal. Instead, related about the places and battles and how it was a time every man became a killer. Those streams of considered words always finished in lament of what could never be after such great loss.

In those rambles, he pressed on me that men in large numbers often chose bad, and it was good policy to ride clear of those circumstances. Best to figure out the proper of things, long and hard, before stepping out. He never said it, but I figured it's why we moved to Kansas. You can see a man coming from a long way off on those flat grasslands.

Pa had a gentle countenance with those of his but wasn't slack in advising correction when needed, cuffing the back of my head to get my attention. On occasions of riders crossing into our land, he was a straight iron bar, never bending to a slick word or sly intention. Kept his Henry repeater and revolver ready, and the easy manner he carried them seemed warning enough to those who might seek what was not of their earning. I saw men look to his face, then to his gun hand, then turn their eyes to other things. He taught me to shoot on that Kansas prairie. Got so I could pop the head off a prairie chicken at fifty yards. Hitting them in the bulk leaves nothing but bloody feathers, bones, and guts.

The four of us, Ma, Pa, me, and Emma, settled on that lush land, growing corn for the feedlots in Kansas City. There had been one before me, a brother, and a younger sister. Neither climbed past a year in age. Ma never spoke of those. Pa told me it was the cause of her melancholy days and to let her pass through them. He never spoke their names. I never asked.

After Pa died on the trail, I felt need to share that knowledge with Young Emma, thinking being part of something bigger would bring her a comfort. I'd grown hearing Ma call her Young Emma, so I took to doing the same. Pa always just said Emma, like his Ma's name. Never knew that woman, but Ma told of her kindness and strong spirit.

Locusts swarmed bad when the winds blew dry across our part of Kansas for a season, then drier for those following, making the loam turn toward dust and crumble. It came as understood the land would no longer sustain, so our family joined some hundreds, leaving that once heaven for the promises of the Oregon Territories.

I was two months shy of fifteen and Emma ten when we hitched the ox pair. I imagined them holding conversations in their own tongue to pass the miles and hours, telling of good forage, soft ground, cool water, and hills of manageable slopes. Ma did most of the rein work, though I could manage that as well as Pa had.

In the early trail months, he and I took turns riding Charlie, his gelding buckskin, to keep him accountable of having a saddle and rider. Up high, standing tall in those stirrups, I felt as the master of a land that stretched forever. It made me thirst for a gallop with a fist full of mane in one hand and leather in the other.

Every day, Emma walked til her little legs gave out in late morning. Then she would squeal as Pa swung her up into the back of the wagon to perch on our night quilts piled on crates and trunks, sitting up there like a prairie princess braiding her dark hair. After Pa passed, I took up that care.

Weren't officially on the Oregon Trail until we left Leavenworth, where our wagon joined in company of a guided train longer than a mile with drovers pushing cattle behind.

We provisioned there for the long stretch of empty sameness that lasts to the Rockies. That town was such a bustle and curiosity to my boy eyes. Never saw so many people in one place. It took Ma's frequent and stern warnings to keep me from wandering off in search of a day's adventure, striding through the dusty choke of waggoners, buyers and sellers, and men and ladies of higher note than us. Buffalo soldiers and gaggles of Indians filled the streets as if on parade. Plenty of drunks slept in the low places and fancy women beckoned from high balconies colored up in face and dress.

Those were different days for me. The boy days. Before telling the lie of being sixteen, the lie of being a man on the day I laid Ma in her grave along the Platte River, the day I shot that drover dead when I caught him in our wagon, searching for our stake money minutes after the last shovel of dirt joined the mound above my mother. He called me boy. Waved a rusty Bowie blade in my face and threatened to send my soul upward. His whiskey breath heated my cheeks and seared my eyes. To my mind, men like that were hardly what I considered human.

I believe God gives big brothers a high calling, so wasn't fear for myself. What horror came to me was leaving Emma alone, unable to fend for herself, thieves taking all that was hers and then taking her. No Pa, no Ma, and no big brother. That pumped my blood hot. I felt under the wagon seat for the cloth that wrapped Pa's Colt revolver and swung it up as Pa taught. When using a pistol, he said, find the target, find the center, the being of what a thing is, then squeeze the trigger, not expecting the sound, the flash, or the recoil. It was as if Pa steadied my grip and trued my aim.

I punched a hole in that man's chest. With a single shot, I turned a man into dead meat without a second thought, without an eye twitch, wondering if it had been like that for Pa in the war. I gave no resistance when a hand came out and took the pistol from mine. Seemed an eternity between the gun blast and feeling that hand.

"It's alright, Noah," said the hand's voice, a man's voice, gravelly yet kind in tone.

A press of folks closed in on our wagon, fencing in the small patch of ground my family claimed temporary. Their presence held back the open sky I needed to make time roll regular again. It was Tom Anderson stood beside me. Had been his hand, his voice, the Tom Anderson who left our county with us and five other families. He had helped dig Ma's grave that morning.

Emma's crying brought me to steadiness more than anything else could. She fit snug, gathered hidden in the skirts and arms of Tom's wife, Elizabeth. Been with her since we woke to find Ma passed on from the fever.

No mistaking the sound of horses at a gallop or their hoof scuttle and complaining huffs when drawn up short. The wagon master and one of his scouts slid off saddles before their mounts came to a proper halt.

"What goes on here?" Captain Harrison demanded. "Who fired that shot?"

"There's a dead man," someone said.

"Drover Jenkins," said another.

"Who killed him?" the captain asked.

Fingers pointed to me, and my knees sought the ground.

"Why so?" came the question.

Another of our small band who made the trip to Leavenworth, Frank Willis, and his woman saw Jenkins crawl into our wagon, heard the commotion, and bellowed threats. But for their testament to the bald facts, the circumstances might not have turned my way.

"Who belongs to this boy?" came the captain next.

I tried to stand, but Mr. Anderson kept me down with a gentle hand on my shoulder while men's voices issued their knowledge.

"Pa is gone."

"Ma died this morning."

"His wagon."

"Got a sister."

"Too young."

Defiance rose in me. I stood. "Sixteen. A man, not a boy." I said.

Mr. Willis and his wife knew it to be a lie, short almost a year, but kept council to themselves.

The captain eyed me. "That so? You look younger."

Drawing my chin up as to offer a target, I gave my answer. "Got charge of me, my sister, and this wagon. Been so since Pa died, and Ma got the sickness last week."

My words brought satisfaction enough to the captain. That and seeing Frank Willis stand in such a way to say he would look on after us.

The captain pulled his brim down, ending all conversation. "Get that body buried," he said before mounting up and riding back to the head of the train to get its long tail moving for the day.

Tom Anderson handed over Pa's revolver. "Best strap this on and keep it handy." Eyes looking west, he said, "Dangerous country."

Men hauled Jenkins out of our wagon while I took stock, finding purposeful things needed doing. Hitch the ox, hammer the wheel wedges, and water Charlie. The men who carted off Jenkins returned too soon to have made a grave. His bones were left to join those of horses, mules, and cattle we'd seen on each side of the trail along the way. Seemed every mile had a cross or plank with names and dates marking a pile of rocks or mound in the grass, some dug up by wolves. The largest bones were from burnt wagons or those with broke axles, their hoops arched like the bare ribs of some great beast.

After harnessing the ox, I asked Mrs. Willis, "Can you see fit to keep Young Emma for a day? Got some cleaning and fixing up in the wagon to do later." I didn't think it proper to tell a woman about the blood.

When we started for the morning, she put Emma on their wagon seat, arm around her shoulders. They pulled in behind my wagon so she could see me through the canvas opening.

My wagon. First time I considered it in such term. Was a lonely thought. Salt tears came. Missed Ma's tender touch and voice, teaching Emma to read and write from the same Primer I learned from. Pa would load his pipe and smoke on those evenings of lessons, face relaxed, content after a hot supper and hard day tending what needed. He bought Ma one of those traveling libraries. Six books and a bible, all of the same bindings and size, held in a purpose made oak box with brass hinges and latch. She read to us from those. After such readings, Emma would whisper to me in the dark, wanting to know more about those stories and if they were true.

The Last of the Mohicans was my favorite. Read that one to myself since Ma thought it too man hardy for Emma's ears. I took to continue reading to her from those story books after Ma was no longer able. Even then, Emma gave night questions to my ear when she'd had time to consider.

Two weeks on and the purple of high mountains, their jagged sawtooth clipped the horizon's straight line. Emma and I found our way by then, taking the chores each could manage. The washing was hard on Emma. It had always been done in Ma's company, her learning and listening to what it meant to be a woman. I cleaned the skillet, Dutch oven, and big pot as it fell beyond her small hands and strength to do the scrubbing. Her biscuits turned softer in those weeks, and I came to turn the bacon proper, not burn it. Pa's gun belt no longer rested strange on my hip.

Since I laid claim to being a man and in charge of a wagon, it was my place to take occasional night turn to protect the herd and keep them from wandering off in search of better graze. The hands driving the cattle needed sleep as to be ready for another hard day in their saddles.

On big moon nights, the duty came easy, and I liked the feeling of a true man doing true man things. Being young, I idled with thoughts of shooting wolves and coyotes or running off Indians and bandit rustlers and partaking in other derring-do. When out of sight of the other men, I practiced drawing and aiming at imagined intruders. We saw wolves and coyotes aplenty but never shot them at night. Chase them off, we were told. Gunshots would rouse the train and cause commotion and fear of a raid or such.

* * *

My throat had become dry in my telling, so I took a mouthful from the canteen then lit a twisty, intending to pass the first to Jeremiah. He'd slipped into slumber from the whiskey and fever. As full dark overcame us, I took a long pull of whiskey courage and stepped into a pair of moccasins before embarking on my plan.

On foot, I swung wide of the bandit camp, following a dry bed. Two fireside voices murmured, and three blanket lumps told of those sleeping. Finding my place, I held a match in one hand and a fused stick in the other. Two more lay in the dirt by my knees, tied together with twine, twisted, ready to light. It was a sure thing the two awake would hear the match scratch, perhaps see the flash of it even sheltered by rocks between us. I considered this long and hard as Pa counseled me. Once struck, there was no course but forward.

The first stick was well thrown, landing close at hand to their fire. Without looking, I grabbed the next and sparked the short-fused pair, then gave a more careless toss, being sure the men knew my location.

Explosions, yelling, and chaos covered my movement to a shadowed, low place where my rifle waited. I stood, exposing shoulders and head. Three shots took two of the crowd, backlit by their fire, wounding, if not killing. The others found cover and darkness, so I slipped back to Jeremiah.

When dawn lit the underside of the eastern clouds yellow, the sight of three men and seven horses making away from us came as pure relief to my sleep starved eyes.

Sally's doing good after these days of little water, but Sam looks mostly give out, head low, nose almost touching dirt. Loaded down, that mule will never make trail to the next drink, and I doubt he'll even try. After stacking the salt blocks and crates of explosives under the rock shelf, I took the remainder from Sam's pack and found room on Sally's.

I saddled Buster and gave the rocks piled over Jeremiah a last look. No man should die alone, and I think he had a good drift off, full of whiskey and my story.

Rummaging through Jeremiah's saddle bags, I'd found a bible and a double locket. That good book gave me wish for better words to say over him, and the two pictures, one an old woman and the other younger, brought remembrance to me of Ma and thoughts of Emma. Holding that locket, it came to me that the source of loneliness in a man's heart often springs from far away concerns for the women of his life. Some say Indians aren't like white men, but that locket, those pictures spoke different.

Down on the flats, I mustered Buster and the mules a piece away from the butte. He nuzzled me, so I reached up to knuckle rub under his chin right where he likes, then slipped him a molasses candy. He's been steady in his service to me, and I sometimes wonder who's the master and who the servant.

Winchester to shoulder and cheek to stock, I laid sights on my target, drew breath, held it half exhaled, then squeezed.

I erred in judging how far to retreat so to be unaffected. The mightiness of such a stack of dynamite is not to be misunderstood. As I intended, it brought down a sizable chunk of the ledge, giving Jeremiah a tomb no man or animal would ever uncover. The explosion hurled rocks high in the air, surprising me with dull thuds and thumps made on reaching ground around us for many seconds after the detonation. Given the noise and hard rock rain, I waited some minutes for Buster to regain his sanity before I took to the saddle.

Laying over the reins, we headed north to the wagon stop and my employment. North to the river. This land holds death's promise for pilgrims seeking an imagined Eden, not understanding the sorrowful forfeit that comes due.

When the wind flows gentle on the stubble grass plain, I hear Young Emma's small voice whisper from seven years in the grave. Noah, tell me a story.

The End

People who read fiction prefer another's sadness to their own, so I collect broken shards and dreams in my net, hanging them on my wall like scalps. None are too small to throw back. Sadness is a sticky thing.
From Riley 1.0

Author Marc Neuffer began writing fiction tales after the home nest emptied. In his writing, he enjoys exploring different genres to tell stories that entertain the reader. Marc has nine published novels. Amazon Authors Page:

He can be reached at MarcNeuffer@Outlook.Com

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The Cold Heart of War
by James Burke

"Can hardly feel my fingers!" Corporal Seth's Carver's voice trembled as he held them up to the campfire. Outside the cave the frigid wind howled. Occasionally stray snowflakes whipped in to stab the six of them in the eyes. Between the Injuns raiding them all the way from El Paso, the Yankees digging their heels in and making them pay for every inch of Valverde, the roaming Mexican militia brigands, and the bone-chilling blizzard, Carver and the others got the feeling they weren't welcome in New Mexico.

"Shoot! The way I'm feeling right now, If you told me we was desert dwellers, I'd be skeptical!" Private Damon Burns huffed a bitter laugh. The fire did little to warm them, but it staved off the blue inferno of frostbite. "Ain't we got no bacon left?"

"No!" Sergeant Bill Devlin snapped. "And if we did you'd be the last to get a slice!"

"Why all the abuse, Sergeant?" Burns demanded.

"A private ain't one to be asking no questions!" Devlin hissed. "And if you lot were half the soldiers a Texan ought to be, I might not be in this predicament!"

"Oh, shoot, Sergeant! We was all the worse for wear after Valverde! Each of us to the man got his hoss shot out from under him! Half of us was shot and the rest got the cursed runs from the filthy water of this here territory! T'aint our fault General Sibley thinks this God-forsaken land is the key to beating the Lincolnites!"

"The General was drunk as a fish all through the battle too!" grumbled Private Dunn.

"Is yonder bottle full of coffee?" Corporal Carver asked with a trembling finger pointing accusingly at the whiskey behind Dunn's back.

"That ain't the point!" hissed Devlin. "Even in victory we ain't won nothing but to get our noses bloodied by a bunch-a wretched Mexicans!"

"Shoot! I hear tell them Mexi-boys we faced was led by the Mountain Man Kit Carson! That should explain them fighting like wildcats!" Burns chuckled.

"Carson! Good golly, I heard of him!" Dunn gasped. "He's killed more Injuns than smallpox!"

"Well we ain't no Injuns!" Devlin growled. "Hell, my daddy died at the Alamo with Crockett and the others! We Texans ain't gonna be brought down by no Mexicans!"

"Crockett and others sure were!" Burns said with a harsh laugh. "That Carson feller didn't let no Mexicans surrounding him bring him down! Shoot, he scurried right on out under their noses at at Mule Hill and fetched back the army to rescue General Kearny's boys!"

Devlin sneered. "He's a Lincoln-lover and that's all there is to it!" Venom burst from the sergeant's mouth with a vulgar hiss. His body trembling as much from tension as cold. To Corporal Carver, he resembled a human rattlesnake. "I hear tell he even took up their praying! Wretched rosary-rattlers! And all to please one of their greasy little hussies!"

Burns whooped with laughter. "Shoot, Sergeant! You ain't gonna deny one of them pretty little things ain't never worked their magic on you? Wasn't you with the Rangers when they rode on into these parts back in '41? Word was you was a devil with the little señoritas! Or rather you'd been them the devil!"

"Careful, Burns," Carver snapped, his body stiffening with disgust. "You went too far."

"Shoot! You think there's a woman of sound mind and body from here to Richmond that would cuddle him willingly? I hear tell while we is shivering out here, the Captain's down in yonder village having a fiesta to wed his own little señorita! Daughter of some banker trying to worm his way into Davis' good graces. And ain't no way she'd be saying 'I do' if daddy wasn't twisting her delicate little arm!" he trailed off in a wicked chuckle.

Carver leapt up with both revolvers drawn and cocked. Leveled them at Burns and Devlin, both with Bowie-knives drawn and ready to leap through the flames at each other. "That's enough!" he barked. Both turned to him. Burns' face softened as his wicked giggling resumed. Devlin snarled like a caged wolf.

"You threatening a superior non-commissioned officer?"

"No, merely a higher-ranking one. You can have me shot after the blizzard, if'n they don't throw us all at another hill full of blue-bellies!" Devlin tucked his fangs away as he sat down and sheathed his knife. Burns did the same. None of them noticed the shadowy figure standing in the mouth of the cave.

"Hell! That almost became interesting!" In an instant Carver's pistols turned on the stranger in the entrance. Devlin and the other four had their shotguns in hand within seconds. The shadow's hands went up. "Don't shoot, friends! I'm one of your number!"

"Who are you?" Carver demanded before Devlin could.

"Name's Jones, I'm with Captain Frazier's Rangers!"

"Shoot! What you Arizona boys doing all down here? Thought you'd all scurried off to Tuscon?" Burns asked.

"Nah, some of us lost our mounts to the militias round these parts. We bedding down for the blizzard up in the hills. We saw light from yonder fire, I came to see if y'all had any bacon or baccy to trade, is all!"

"Keep your hands up high and come on in slowly," Carver ordered.

"And he means, molasses-like!" Devlin snarled. Jones obeyed. Soon the firelight revealed a young man with long blonde hair, shiny blue eyes, and a warm boyish smile. Wide-brimmed black hat, black coat with thick gloves.

"Shoot! Looks like one of ours to me," Burns shrugged before lowering his double-barrel. Carver and the others followed suit. Jones let down his hands with a sigh.

"Ain't got no food, or tobacco!" Devlin grunted.

"That's too bad. Mind if I get warm before heading back to camp?" Devlin grunted approval and Jones took a seat between the sergeant and Dunn. Jones held his hands up to the fire and gasped with comfort at the precious heat. Carver finally sat back down as Dunn offered Jones a swig of his bourbon, which he accepted graciously. "Couldn't help but overhear as I approached. You say there's some kind of hoe-down happening at the village down the mountain?"

"Captain Peter Polk's getting hitched," Devlin grumbled.

"Shoot! Peter Polk's getting a poke, what he doing!" Burns cackled.

"Local señorita?"

"You know it!" Burns said. "Say what you will about the greasers, but their little ladies is cute as button on an angel's night gown!"

"Must be one of the well-bred ones, to win her a captain!"

"Local banker, I hear, name-a Maria Madrid." Carver blinked at what he thought was a flash of anger in Jones' eyes. In an instant the flash was gone. The corporal shook his head. Cold must have been getting to him.

"Madrid? Ain't that a city in Spain?" Jones asked no one in particular as he gazed into the flame.

"Shoot! Word has it they is Jews. Came here better part of two hundred years ago. Since Valverde, some of the locals been getting all sweet-like on us. Figure we're winning! Wish they'd tell the weather! Her daddy arranged it, I hear. What you'd call a business transaction!"

"Shut up, Burns!" Carver snapped. "It's disgraceful, arranged marriages! That went out with kings and queens!"

"Yep!" Burns nodded. "Went out all the way to New Mexico! Shoot, these backwards little greasers still think it's the days of knights and dragons and such nonsense! It's a wonder the Injuns ain't killed 'em all off for us!" Jones' face was blank as a blackboard as he stood up, as if to leave.

"Maybe you underestimate them," his voice had darkened to a throaty growl. In a flash of motion, he drew two Colt Dragoons and fired both into Burns' and Devlin's heads. Before the shock faded, Jones tossed his left Colt into Carver's face, knocking him backwards in a daze. With a swift turn he brought his boot up into Dunn's nose while cocking his right Colt. He put a bullet in the next private's head and drew a machete with his left. The last private was bringing up his shotgun when Jones leapt through the fire to split his skull to the teeth. The double-barrel slipped from the dead man's grasp. Jones cocked the Colt and turned to finish the recovering Dunn with a single shot. Carver was moaning on his back, grasping a bloody nose, when Jones stooped to retrieve and holster his left Colt. Carver, still dazed from the impact, had regained enough sense to glare up at his attacker. "Filthy Tehanos!" Jones spat in Spanish before swinging his machete down, carving Carver's head from his shoulders.

Moments later, Captain Javier Rodriguez turned to the mouth of the cave to see his nine militiamen enter. "Well done, Capitano!" Sergeant Ramirez said. "Your performance was wonderful!" Behind him the men all chuckled in agreement.

"Sorry, muchachos! No food, and I must go! The rest of you get warm." Javier waved off their praises.

Ramirez stepped forward and put up a hand. "Where are you going, Señor?"

"To the pueblo down the mountain."

"It's crawling with Tehanos!"

"I must! Maria is there!"

"The Madrid girl?"

Javier nodded. "That worm father of hers is selling her to their captain!" he jerked a disgusted face at the dead Confederates.

"The disloyal swine! To think you had only just won his approval to wed her when the war began! Cowardly merchants have prostrated themselves before the Tehano dogs since the battle! Now they prostitute their daughters!" The nine militiamen grumbled and spat with rage as they listened.

"I will not lose her!" Javier seethed, trembling more from hatred than cold. "Even if we must lose our land, I will not lose her!"

"We are with you, Capitano!" Ramirez grunted, with a round of cheers from the others.

Javier shook his head. "No, this is my fight. And as many are in the town it will likely be a one-way trip. I cannot ask you all to risk your lives for me this time." Their faces twisted in despair but soon hardened in determination.

"We go where you go, Capitano!" Ramirez said firmly. "You are all we have now." Javier sighed at the truth. They were all his family's peons, even with his father's adoption of more enlightened views they still acted like peasants. All had followed him blindly off to war. Their pueblo was too small for the creation of a volunteer regiment, but organized into a militia. Colonel Kit Carson had generously donated old Hawkins rifles to arm his men. At Valverde they had fought as hard as they could, but with so little training and no experience they had been routed under heavy cannon fire. Volunteers and militia had been blamed by Colonel Canby and the other Angolo officers, prompting numerous desertions, more out of resentment than cowardice. For weeks Javier and his men had been ambushing Tehanos in the wilderness. His mastery of the English language and ability to ape their accent had been most useful. As much as he would have loved to spare them the danger of his mission, he knew they were all in this together.

"Glad to see you are all finally thinking for yourselves," Javier smiled.

"You and your father taught us well, Capitano," Ramirez said with a salute, mimicked by the other nine. Javier returned the salute and led them off into the blizzard.

The journey down the mountain was arduous and bitterly cold. The snow fell so thick and so hard it was nearly sleet. Javier squinted as the constant stream of white threatened to blind him. Only the constant downward slope assured they were going in the right direction. Occasionally the light of the pueblo broke through the falling sheet of white. If any of his men had fallen their cries were muted by the whistling wind. Forty of them had followed him to war at Valverde, several had been killed by Confederate cannon. More had died in skirmishes with the Tehanos and of exposure since the snow started. This had been the worst winter in many years. As if the cold heart of war itself had summoned the frigid storm. Javier shook the philosophy from his mind as he trudged on through the snow. Determined to rescue one of the few things truly worth fighting for in this land.

After what felt like hours the ground leveled off and the storm seemed to have lost most of its fury. Javier gasped a sigh as the light of the pueblo's cantina still shone up ahead, barely a quarter-mile away. It was a miracle! Javier obediently went to mass with his mother and father, but only through recent feats of survival in the face of danger had he truly begun to believe in such things. Heavy breaths gasped behind him and he turned to see Ramirez and eight of the others. The looks on their faces were grim, the ninth man was gone. Javier bitterly accepted the loss, struggling even to remember his face and hating himself for it. He shook the emotion from his head, no sense in tormenting himself. It was a miracle any of them had made it through at all!

Every other house in the pueblo was dark and shadowy as the ten men trudged up the road. Light blazed brightly from the cantina with muffled cries of drunken fervor. Not the usual revelry of the locals fighting back the rigors of a New Mexican winter. Voices yipped and howled in English in the country twang Javier was so good at imitating. Smoke billowed from the chimney and light glimmered from the glass windows, a luxury few of such establishments could afford. The Madrid family bank stood in silent shadows across the street. A cold, vulgar embodiment of the love of money. A love rejected by the God who embodies love most purely. Above the cantina's main entrance stood a sign reading "Cantina de Madrid." Javier sneered at the name of a traitor. Even love for the man's daughter would be hard-pressed to win clemency.

As the singing and laughing continued inside, Javier motioned for Ramirez and one of the others to take position on either side of the entrance. The remaining he quietly ordered to take cover beside the building's four windows, two on parallel walls adjacent the main double-doors. Javier knew there would be a service entrance at the rear of the building and stealthily made his way there, avoiding the light blazing from the windows. To little surprise the back door was unlocked and he entered to see a timid old woman scrubbing at filthy crockery. A finger to his lips prompted a knowing nod from the old crone. No love lost between employer and employee. Quickly, Javier checked and reloaded his weapons. Out in the main room the laughing and singing died down as a throaty voice croaked for attention.

"Gracias, muchachos! Muchos gracias!" Javier carefully approached the nearby doorway and glanced out to see the proprietor himself, Alberto Madrid, standing before the roaring fireplace. His daughter Maria standing with visible reluctance. Her arm grasped tightly by her father. Her face twisted in a wince of misery, but adorned in a dazzling gown of white. Her raven hair hung loose to magnify her beauty. Señor Madrid wore his best suit, stretched nearly to popping at its seams by his obesity. His face flush red with inebriation and sweat streaming from his thinning black hair. About thirty Tehanos gazed hungrily at the trembling maiden. All in various shades of gray and brown, as had become the Confederacy's uniform. Some wore darker coats to ward off the cold that pierced even the walls of the cantina. As always, none so much as raised an eyebrow as Javier stepped slowly out of the doorway. His fair skin, blonde hair, and civilian clothing a natural camouflage.

"Thank you all so much," Madrid went on in a heavily accented English. "I pray this celebration will be the start of a prosperous business relationship and a lasting peace in the freedom of your—OUR—glorious Confederacy!" He paused as the Tehanos whooped and cheered. "And now, to seal this partnership more fittingly, I call our dear Captain Peter Polk!" More cheers went up mixed with rude jokes and obscene gestures as a young man in a flashy uniform stood. His face reddened from drink and his glazing eyes fixed on Maria as he stumbled clumsily towards her. The poor girl recoiled at his every step. Her cackling father's grip tightened and his arm strained to keep her in place. Madrid took the Captain's hand into his and forced Maria's into the other's grasp. "As the acting master of this pueblo, I am proud to pronounce the marriage of you, Captain Polk and my dear sweet Maria!"

"Padre, please! I beg of you!" Maria cried as she forced her hand free of the leering Tehano. "I cannot marry him! My heart belongs to another!" Her voice was chocked off by a fat, grubby hand grasping at her throat.

"You will do as your Papa says!" Madrid snarled in her face. "You are mine! I will give you to whom I please! And I say you are his!" He thrust his flailing daughter into Polk's arms, which tightened around her like a serpent. Her pleas drowned out by the coyote howl of her betrothed.

"Easy there, girl!" Polk chuckled. "She's a lively one, ain't she Señor Madrid? Don't you worry, I have broken me a few uppity mares in my day!" The Tehanos roared with laughter. Their laughter died in shock as a dark-coated figure forced his way between the unwilling bride and groom. Before Polk could form a word of drunken indignation, a Colt Dragoon appeared in the interloper's hand. The roar of the gunshot shattered the windows. Frigid wind burst inside, snuffing out the festive mood. Polk toppled backwards in silence.

"JAVIER!" Maria gasped. The look of shocked hope on her face soon grimaced in confusion as her love grabbed her by the arm and tossed her to the floor aside. Javier spun to grapple her father and twist him around between him and the shocked audience. As if on cue, one of them clumsily brought up his shotgun and fired. Buckshot burst into Madrid's gut, prompting a pig's squeal. More shotguns blazed, peppering the fat banker with hot lead. Soon the unmistakable cracks of rifles came from the shattered windows. The double-doors at the entrance gave way to mighty kicks and more rifle shots burst into the drunken foe. Javier smiled darkly at the accuracy of his militiamen. Nine of the hated Tehanos had fallen, he had taught them well.

Buckshot peppered the windows and doorways. The man beside Ramirez fell in a bloody heap. Javier released his meat-shield, the dead banker's mutilated body fell to the floor. In an instant both his Colt Dragoons were up and spitting lead. A foe fell with each of his eleven remaining shots. Javier lunged to the floor as his pistols clicked dry. Narrowly avoiding a hail of hot lead. The rumble of footsteps assured him his men were not bothering to reload but charging the enemy. Coming to his feet, Javier drew his machete and joined the ensuing melee.

Ramirez swung his rifle-butt into a Tehano with full-force, dislodging his jaw. One unfortunate militiaman raised his rifle high to bring the butt down on an enemy's skull, only for the foe to send him flying backwards with his last shotgun shell. Javier swiftly avenged his comrade with a swipe of his machete. Tehanos drew their infamous Bowie knives and joined the melee with howls of fury. Bodies in rags grappled in frenzied combat. Some could only be told apart by hair-color and skin-tone. Blades cut flesh, fists pummeled bone. Necks were choked, eyes were gouged. No quarter was offered, none would have been accepted.

The fire began to die as the sounds of violence faded. Panting breaths replaced wails of pain and growls of wrath. Five bloodied victors stood amid the carnage. Ramirez and three others were all that was left of Javier's militia. The few red embers crackling in the fireplace did little to warm the frigid cold gusting into the once prominent establishment. Soft whimpers were heard and Javier turned to see Maria sniffling over the mangled remains of her father. Javier's blood cooled and his heart softened. Even after what he had tried to do, Madrid's daughter still loved him. Javier's fists tightened as he sheathed his blade, the swine was unworthy of his own offspring! He slowly approached his love, who looked up to him with sorrow in her eyes. He helped her to her feet and their eyes met in a long silent gaze. Her eyes welled with tears and she embraced him, burying her face in his chest without a word. However he had hoped to take her as his bride, this was not it! He damned the Tehanos and the Confederacy, and he damned the war for forcing this ordeal upon Maria. Javier turned to see Ramirez and the other three watching in somber silence. Moment later Ramirez snapped at the men to hurry up and find where the enemy kept their mounts. They rushed out into the snow, the sergeant hot on their heels.

Minutes later, Ramirez and the men had found the local stable and readied horses. The four of them stood mounted and ready in the snow outside the ruined cantina. Soon the somber couple emerged from the battered doors, arm-in-arm. Maria was wrapped in a thick woolen coat retrieved from the inner rooms. Javier mounted the stallion and accepted the reins from Ramirez before helping his love up to be seated behind him. Her arms wrapped firmly around her groom-to-be. "I have had my fill of this war," Javier said, almost shouting. As if addressing a multitude. "Let's go home," he said before snapping the reins and chirping a command to the mount. The beast began walking, he reined in a northerly direction. Ramirez and the others followed in silence. Next stop, El Pueblo de Rodriguez. There would be peace for the young couple. Javier fingered his Colts in their holsters. Let the Tehanos dare threaten him in his home!

The End

James Burke was born in Illinois in 1987. After serving in the Navy he graduated University of Saint Francis in 2016. He has written several short stories for Frontier Tales Magazine since 2017, and has self-published his e-book anthology The Warpath: American Tales of East, West, and Beyond. He lives in Greenville County, South Carolina with his wife.

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