June, 2024

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Issue #177

All The Tales

The Sergeant and the Irish Lass
by W. Wm. Mee

June, 1855

Oregon Trail

Platte River, Missouri

Mary O'Riley, mother of two young children, Sarah, just turned six and Sam, almost five, was a widow before she turned twenty.

Her thirty three year old husband, Patrick Joseph O'Riley, had been a butcher from the poorest section of the infamous Five Point district of New York City. Despite his city-bred background—or perhaps in spite of it—Patrick had always dreamed of owning his own land. Back in New York he'd kept a roof-top garden in long wooden boxes filled with stinking river mud and horse shit—ingredients he had carried up the steep, narrow stairs in wooden buckets. When his small butcher shop was burnt down during one of the numerous gang wars, Patrick finally decided to pack up his family and move west.

It had taken them two months and most of their money to get to Independence, Missouri and the rest of their cash to by a third hand wagon and four swayback mules, but Mary had smiled and told Patrick that 'they'd manage just fine' and, as usual, Patrick believed her.

If the truth be told, those last two months were the happiest of Patrick's rather unhappy life. He considered himself a 'luckless man', marked by Fate to walk through this world in perpetual shadow. Mary and the two children he considered to be his only glimmer of light—that and the dream of heading west and one day owning his own land.

Luckless indeed however he once again proved to be, for the poor man drowned crossing the Platte River two weeks out of Independence. He died saving his young son Sam who had fallen off the wagon in mid stream. The boy was saved, but the father was swept away. Each morning of those glorious fourteen days before reaching the Platte, Patrick had told Mary that she was the best thing that had ever happened to him, that his children were the second best—and that the third was going on this grand adventure together.

So much for 'the luck of the Irish'!

They never found his body, for the current had carried it quickly away. Mary had cried all night long when Patrick died, but in the morning she had dried her eyes, washed her face and went and cooked breakfast for her children—her own father's last words to her before he passed on ringing in her head. 'Life is for the living, Mary, not the dead. So live while you can, girl—and don't take any shite from anyone!'

Mary O'Riley had always considered herself to be both plain and shy—though in truth she was neither. She had long, dark brown hair with generous hints of red in it, a pleasant face, a nice smile and a quick wit; and though she was a bit on the thin side, she could work from dusk till dawn with never a complaint.

As for the 'shy' part, most people would think that a fair description of her personality—until she got angry—and then the 'Black Irish' side of her would come out—as her husband Patrick had found out on more than one occasion.

And it was the 'Black Irish' side of her that she showed to Reverend Horatio Sunderland when he came calling at her wagon an hour or so after the sermon he had shouted out from his wagon-seat-pulpit less than an hour ago.

* * *

Reverend Sunderland was an itinerant Baptist minister that earned his daily bread by travelling from town to town preaching his own version of 'fire and brimstone' religion. As payment for joining the wagon train he had offered to hold weekly prayer meetings and today's topic—after a rather brief prayer for the recently departed Patrick O'Riley—had been one of the reverend's favourites: 'The Sins of the Flesh!'

During his rather forceful sermon he had spent the majority of his time blaming those sins on women in general and young, unmarried women in particular. All during the uncomfortable oration Mary had felt both his heated words and fierce gaze aimed directly at her.

The Reverend Sunderland had concluded with this stern, dire and rather overlong admonition: "So brothers and sisters, take heed of the Good Book's warning to shun all forms of earthly delights—for therein the Devil does hide! You men, covet not your neighbour's spouse, nor his long legged daughters! Gaze not at swaying hips or come-hither glances! And stay well clear of the tempting pleasures of dancing, gambling and most especially the twin devilments of strong drink and loose women!"

Red faced by then and sweating, the reverend had passed a hand over the crowd much like Moses himself might have when parting the Red Sea. "And all you women out there, heed me and heed me well! Regardless of how pious you seem and godly you act, the sins of Eve dwell deep rooted in your breasts! Keep yourself well covered, your voice meek and your eyes downcast at all times. Wear not bright colours nor rouge your cheeks nor paint your lips. Shun all thoughts of fleshly pleasure and obey your wedded husband in all things both physical and spiritual. Play not the part—even in your dreams—of the wanton Jezebel—lest you lose your immortal soul!"

* * *

And now here was the terrible man himself come round to Mary's own wagon with a sour look on his bearded face and a very pale, nervous looking younger man in tow.

"Widow O'Riley," the reverend began formally, only slightly nodding his head, "please allow me to offer you my most profound condolences for the untimely loss of your husband. Yet God does indeed work in mysterious ways, for what He takes away with one hand He often gives back with the other."

Mary looked up from the fire she'd been tending and frowned at the man standing before her. His sermon had put her in an even worse mood than she'd been in and his words now stirred the Black Irish side of her nature. "I don't recall Him giving me anything at all lately, reverend—though He damn well took a lot!"

The reverend's brow creased into a frown at both her words and her tone. "Ours is not to question the Lord's ways, Mary, but simply to obey!"

"Meekly, reverend," she shot back at him. "You forgot the word 'meekly'. Or is that just reserved for women?!"

The older man's frown deepened—as did the younger man's beside him. "Perhaps, reverend," the younger man put in; "we could come back later when Mrs. O'Riley is less distraught?"

Mary looked at the man the reverend had brought along. He was tall, thin, balding and very foreign looking. She didn't know his name, but had seen him before. A German whose wife had died of snake bite the week before. She wondered why he was there at all—and then it struck her like a blow to the stomach! The reverend had brought her a new husband!

"Mrs. O'Riley—ah, Mary," the reverend continued. "I fear we have gotten off to a poor start. I come not to chastise you, but with a solution to your present predicament."

"And would that be a new husband, reverend, to cure me of my sinful ways?"

"It would be indeed, dear lady" the reverend beamed, absolutely oblivious to her sarcasm.

Mary faced the reverend and smiled sweetly. "Well, I thank ye Reverend Sunderland for your kind concern, but I'm afraid the answer is no. I'm not in the market for a new husband. Now, if you don't mind, I've two hungry children to care for. Good-day to ye both!"

The pair of them just stood there. The younger man seemed embarrassed and willing to leave, but the reverend seemed rooted where he was. "But Mrs. O'Riley, you are now a widow. A very young and attractive widow with two young children. You simply cannot remain unwed!"

Mary's hands were now on her hips—always a sign that her 'Irish' was up. "Can I not, now?!" she demanded. "An' why the bloody hell can't I? Who appointed you the 'shockalorne' or 'marriage maker' of this wagon train?!"

"I think we both know the answer to that, Mary," Reverend Sunderland said calmly.

"You think that God wants me to marry this balding German?!"

"I think God wants all men and women to be happily married, to raise children and to sing His praises and give thanks for His endless bounty!"

"Do you indeed, reverend? Well, you're even a bigger fool than I thought! Now, I'll thank you again to be on your way—and to take this German fella with you!"

Angered and insulted by her harsh words, the reverend turned and, taking the younger man by the arm, stomped away from her wagon. He paused for a moment for one final comment. "It's clear to me now, Mary O'Riley, that you are indeed a blaspheming, Godless woman who needs a man's stern hand to keep you on the path to righteousness!"

"You walk your path, reverend" Mary shot back at him, "and kindly let me walk mine! And don't be bringing any other balding Germans or lonesome farmers 'round here to win my hand. For it's my hand, not yours, to give or keep as I see fit!"

As the two men trod away, six-year-old Sarah tugged at her mother's long skirts. "Is that skinny man going to be our next daddy?

Mary barked out a mirthless laugh. "Not bloody likely! Now, fetch your brother Sam. The soup's ready."

* * *

Early August, 1855

Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory

Sergeant Robert Hooper had been stationed at Fort Laramie for two years now. Most of that time he had led his cavalry unit on lengthy patrols to protect the growing number of ranchers settling in the eastern section of the foothills. Lately however he'd been escorting the numerous wagon trains through the area. He and his twelve man squad would guide a train up through Devil's Gate to South Pass where another troop would take over. He'd then loop back towards Casper, checking in on the various ranches and new homesteads on the way back to Fort Laramie. It was while guiding one of these wagon trains that he saw Mary O'Riley and was instantly struck in the heart by Cupid's small but powerful arrow.

One look at the handsome, brave young woman caring for her two small children stirred something in the solitary soldier that had been slumbering within him for some years now—the desire to put down some permanent roots and start a family of his own.

Asking around, the sergeant soon found out that the Widow O'Riley had caused quite a stir in the wagon train when she refused to remarry and that her presence was resented by a number of the people—a number of women and a reverend named Sunderland that referred to her as 'that Irish Jezebel'!

Not one to beat about the bush, Sergeant Hooper, with a smile on his face and his hat in hand, stepped up to Mary's fire. "That smells mighty good, ma'am. I haven't smelt any home cooking for some time now."

Mary looked up at the tall soldier and smiled back. "Well, I appreciate the compliment, sir, but it's just beans and salt pork. But you're welcome to a plate if you like."

"Why, that's mighty kind of you, ma'am. I don't mind if I do."

As Mary ladled out some beans for the sergeant, Sam, her five-year-old, came up and asked, "You a soldier, mister?"

"I am indeed, son. Sergeant Robert Hooper of the 6th Cavalry, at your service. And what's your name young man?"

"I'm Sam 'n' that's my big sister Sarah."

"Well, I'm mighty pleased to meet you Sam and you too Sarah. What's your mother's name?"

Sam scratched his nose before answering. "Her name's Maw."

The sergeant's smile widened, showing white teeth in the firelight.

"Her name's Mary," Sarah put in quietly, taking the plate from her mother and handing it to the soldier. "Mary O'Riley. She's a widow on account of our paw drowned in a river."

"Well Sarah," Hooper said. "I'm sorry to hear about your paw. You must miss him a lot."

Sarah shrugged. "I used to. He always told us funny stories. But now I'm starting to forget what he looked like."

Hooper looked over at Mary and saw the tears in her eyes—and his heart went out to her even more. "I lost my father when I was about your age. What I remember most about him was that he loved horses. Taught me to ride almost before I could walk."

"I aint never rode a real horse," Sarah said quietly. "All we got is a pair of nasty old mules that kick and bite."

"Well, Sarah, maybe we can do something about that." Hooper then glanced over at the children's mother. "With your mother's permission of course."

Sarah's big blue eyes opened wide with excitement. "Oh, can I Momma?! Can I please?!"

"Me too, Maw!" put in Sam. "I wanna ride too!"

"Sure thing, cowboy," Hooper grinned, absently running the back of his forefinger over both sides of his considerable moustache. "But a real gentleman always lets the lady go first."

Sam frowned. "I ain't no gent-la-min, n' Sarah ain't no lady!"

Hooper's easy grin widened. "Well, you'll be a gentleman someday son, if you work at it. As for Sarah here not yet being a lady, you're right. Your momma's the lady." He then turned to the wide eyed little girl. "Sarah's a princess. She's the Princess of the Prairie, and you are Sir Samuel, her loyal knight and protector."

Sam's blond eyebrows scrunched together."Why do I need to protect her?"

"Because she's part of your family, Sam—and there's no nobler thing a man can do than protect his family—except maybe for keeping a promise."

"I help my maw with firewood 'n' feedin' the damn mules!" Sam beamed.

"Then you are Sir Samuel indeed!" Hooper smiled.

Sam seemed to chew on that for a while, then he asked: 'What does 'nubble' mean?"

Hooper chuckled. "Noble means doing the right thing, even when it would be a lot easier not to."

Sam chewed on that some more, then his young face all scrunched up. "Like when my paw drowned savin' me when I fell in the river?"

Hooper was taken aback by the child's words, but still managed to hold his smile. "Yes, Sam. That was a very noble thing your paw did. You can be very proud of him."

Sam nodded. "I am. I just miss him."

Hooper glanced up at Mary—who had been watching him like a hawk. "I'm sure you all do."

"So Sarah rides first," Sam asked innocently. "But then it's my turn, right?"

Hooper once again tousled the little boy's abundant curls. "First thing in the morning I'll be back here with my mount."

Sam frowned. "Why not now?"

Hooper's glance shot over to Mary standing by the fire; the flames catching the red highlights in her hair.

"Two reason's, Sam. I want to enjoy this plate of fine stew your momma made—but more importantly it's getting dark, and a horse can easily step in a gofer hole in the dark. That horse is my responsibility. He lives or dies depending on what I do, so it's my job to protect him."

For the third time Sam's face scrunched up. "So he's kind o' like your family?" Are you a 'night protecter' like me?"

"Sort of. I'm responsible for all the men and horses in my troop."

"Are they your family?" Sarah quietly asked.

The sergeant's smile became something else; still there, but with shades of sadness around the edges. "In a way, yes, Sarah, they are. Though one day I hope to have a real family just like yours."

"Our family's busted," Sam said round a mouthful of stew. "A real family has a maw and a paw. Ours drowned in the river."

After Sam's innocent statement everyone ate in silence.

* * *

Amos Sykes had been a mountain man for nearly twenty years. Back in the Spring of 1837 he'd come to the mountains a young man from Kentucky looking for adventure. He'd found that—and much, much more. Most of it involved hard work, freezing cold, a hell of a lot of either pain or terror. Now, in 1855, with the beaver trade dried up and thousands of 'Easterners' moving westward, he'd been reduced to scouting for the numerous wagon trains that were crossing the continent filled with know-nothing 'puddin-heads' looking for free or cheap land and a new life.

The conveyance needed to reach this new land of 'Milk & Honey' was a Conestoga Wagon, often called by the rather whimsical name of a Prairie Schooner, as it often seemed to be sailing across a never-ending sea of grass. Mules or a team of oxen were used to pull these 'dream-boats-on-wheels' across a vast, foreign and seemingly infinite landscape that was as different to most who attempted it as a trip to the mountains of the moon might be.

Amos Sykes however knew that it was all just a bucket of shit, for more than half of the eastern sodbusters didn't know bugger-all about surviving in the wild. Most couldn't feed themselves, start a fire without a new-fangled 'match' or protect themselves or their loved ones from either the uncaring vagaries of Mother Nature or the even crueler, far more violent action of both the savages of the native tribes that they encountered along the way or the more familiar looking but just as dangerous savages that accompanied them.

The vast, empty, wind-blown plains frightened them and made them feel small, insignificant and 'forgotten by God'. The seemingly never-ending breakdowns due to a broken wheel or bone, a floundering mule or oxen and all the large number of thunderstorms and dangerous river crossings all took their toll.

The towering, majestic and imposing Rocky Mountains did the same and more, for most were accustomed to either the much smaller, more gentle rolling, wooded mountains of the east or the safe, flat, familiar cornfields of Iowa and Nebraska. The buffalo filled Great Plains with their vast sea of grass and savage tribes of painted heathens terrified them.

Yet everywhere they looked they saw God's great bounty and the awesome power of His all-encompassing Creation!

Most of the would-be settlers were either farmers from small, narrow plots of overly worked land or humble clerks or storekeepers from cramped, crowded, filth-clogged cities. Regardless of who they were or where they came from, they all saw the West as a second Garden of Eden. Everywhere they looked they not only saw, but smelt, heard, and felt the hand of the Almighty moving about them!

His power was plain to see in the sun-blotting flocks of birds that filled the sky, the seemingly endless rivers of fish that filled the lakes and streams and the countless herds of deer, antelope and shaggy bison that darkened the beige-green prairie like God's shadow moving over the limitless land.

Around their blazing campfires at night the various families would cluster to rest, take what sustenance they could from their stew-pots and gaze up in wonder at the millions of twinkling stars slowly rotating overhead.

It was to one of these evening fires—the one tended by the recently widowed Mary O'Riley—that the brusque, ill-mannered, former mountain man Amos Sykes, now more than a little drunk, came calling. Amos had been watching the young widow now for several weeks—even before her fool of a husband had gotten himself drowned saving his equally foolish young son.

'Now that the beaver are gone n' my bones are starting to age,' Amos had reasoned to himself; 'tis past time that I found me a young wife to brighten my days 'n' warm my blankets!'

Twice before he had made his intentions clear to the young widow and twice she had rebuffed him—the last time with the rough edge of her sharp tongue! Amos had gone off to brood and had come to the decision—found at the bottom of a jug of corn liquor—that there would be not be a third rebuff! As he had done all his rough and wild life, he would take what he wanted and to hell with anyone that got in the way!

"Ho there the fire!" Amos called out from the shadows, his words more than slightly slurred due to drink. "Widow O'Riley, tis I, Amos Sykes from Kentucky here— wanderer o' the High 'n' Lonesome, trapper, injun fighter 'n' all round marvelous man come to call! I'm here at your fire once again Widow O'Riley to make an honest woman o' ye—'n' this time I'll damned well do it lass, whether ye like it or not!"

"Damn the man!" Mary cursed under her breath. "Will the hairy old devil never leave me in peace?!"

Amos stepped forward, rifle over his shoulder, the firelight casting his leather-clad form into a hazy silhouette.

"I've come, Widow O'Riley, to offer you both my name 'n' my hand in marriage! We'll have a real preacher speak the words 'n' I'll even buy you a fancy ring—but by God woman I won't be put off again! One way or t'other, you are gunna be mine!"

Mary met this situation like she did all others—head on and no holding back! Hands on her shapely hips, her green eyes flashing, she faced her half-drunk, grey-bearded suitor. "So, Mr. Amos Sykes o' the 'High 'n' Lonesome', you'll not be put off again, will ye?! One way or the other I'm bound to be your wife, am I?!" She shook her head in exasperation and the firelight showed both her anger and the highlights in her hair.

"Have I not told you 'no' several times already?! Are ye deaf man, or are ye just plain daft in the head?!"

Amos, swaying slightly from the drink, went from being determined to angry in the blink of an eye. Glaring, he stabbed a grubby finger at her. "By God, bitch, I've been more than patient with you! Three times now I've come to you hat in hand like a green farmboy n' three damn times you've spurned my affections! Well, no bloody more! I've lived free 'n' wild all my life, takin' what I want 'n' askin' permission from no man! Well woman, I want you—'n' I intend to have you!"

His rifle still over his left shoulder, Sykes stepped forward, stretching out his right hand to take her arm—only to have his own arm suddenly grabbed and yanked to one side. Spinning around, the weathered mountain man came face to face with the large form of Sergeant Robert Hooper.

"The lady said no, friend. Three times by what I heard—so there's an end to it. Now, you'd best leave while you still can."

Too drunk to notice Hooper at first, Sykes, a fair-sized man himself, had to look up to see the stranger's eyes—and what he saw there pleased him not at all. It was a stillness like the one found in the eye of a storm—a dangerous storm, with the power to blow you away like a leaf in the wind.

"Come 'round here again, friend," Hooper continued; "and you and I are going to have a serious conversation." Sykes felt the man's fingers flex, followed quickly by pain and his right arm going numb. "One that I doubt you'll walk away from."

The older man tried to pull free from the younger one, but the pain only increased. He then made the mistake of trying to swing the butt of the rifle still on his shoulder into the taller man's face—but the effort was easily blocked and the weapon quickly turned on its owner. There was a 'smacking' sound followed by a grunt as the walnut stock slammed into Syke's mouth, cutting his lip and knocking out a tooth. Keeping hold of the rifle, Hooper pushed the bleeding man away.

"Now, friend, apologize to the lady and be on your way. You can have your rifle back in the morning after you've sobered up." Hooper opened the breach and ejected the metal cartridge onto the grass. "But remember what I said about not going near her again; for if you do, I'll take away more than your rifle."

Sykes, sober now and furious, his mouth a red ruin, glared back at the cavalry officer. "You got no right to lay your hands on me! I ain't bothered you none!"

"You bothered this lady," Hooper replied. "And more than once by the sound of it! Then you threatened her and frightened her children. So you either leave now or stay and get the beating that you deserve!" Hooper then took a step towards Sykes and lowered his voice. "Personally, I hope that you do stay—that way I can pound you flatter than hammered shit."

The words came out so matter-of-factly and followed by a fierce smile, that for a brief moment Sykes wondered if this big soldier was kidding—but one look in his eyes soon dispelled that thought.

Sykes turned and scuttled away into the dark, muttering curses as he went. Once beyond the sergeant's grasp however he turned and hurled back a threat. "I'll get you fer this, soldier-boy! You just want the bitch fer yerself, but I'll get ya good!"

Then he was gone and Hooper tried to make light of the whole thing, telling the frightened children that he'd be back first thing in the morning to teach them to ride.

"Can't you stay here for tonight?" young Sarah asked him shyly. "Momma 'n' me can fix you a nice bed right by the fire. I'm—I'm afraid that man might come back while we're sleeping."

Mary moved up and hugged both her daughter and young Sam. "Hush now, Sarah. We'll be fine. Besides, we can't trouble Sergeant Hooper like that."

"Oh it'd be no trouble ma'am. In fact, I'd enjoy the quiet. My troopers like to play cards well into the night 'n' they can be a noisy lot."

Mary looked at him sideways with her dark green eyes. "Are you sure you wouldn't mind? Amos Sykes is a loud mouthed bag of wind, but I've heard that he can be mean and vengeful when he's drunk."

Hooper smiled and ruffled Sam's hair. "Then I'd better sleep with one eye open—and to do that Mrs. O'riley, I'm going to need another cup of your delicious coffee."

"And perhaps, Sergeant Hooper, another plate of stew to go with it?" she asked.

"Thank you kindly," the soldier beamed. 'Don't mind if I do."

* * *

Amos Sykes did not come back that night or any other night. Over the next week or so he was either out hunting for fresh meat or scouting ahead for fresh water and Indian sign. When he was back with the slow moving train he stayed well clear of Mary O'Riley and her new beau, Sergeant Robert Bloody-Hooper! But though he stayed away, Amos Sykes still plotted and planned, for the rage he had felt that night had not died away, but settled into a low, hot burn like a glowing bed of coals. Sooner or later Sykes would have his revenge on the big soldier-boy and then miss high 'n' mighty Mary O'Riley would be his!

* * *

During that week Sergeant Hooper became a regular visitor to the O'Riley camp. His troop had been sent out to escort the wagon train to the next fort. Only a few days ride for a mounted troop, it would take much longer for stubborn mules and plodding oxen, for everyone, including husband, wife, and children, walked most of the way and often had to get out and push.

Both the O'Riley children took to riding a horse like they were born in the saddle. Young Sam was fearless and rode not only the sergeant's horse, but several of the other trooper's mounts as well. Even Mary was coaxed into giving it a try, but it was her daughter Sarah that took to it like a duck to water.

"She's a born natural, Mary," Hooper told the Widow O'Riley. "Sam will be a fine horseman, if he doesn't break his neck on the way, but Sarah has that special 'touch' that most of us never even come close to!"

"Perhaps it's just beginner's luck, sergeant," Mary said as she watched her young son, Sam, hug a white stallion he had just been riding bareback.

"Luck's got nothing to do with it, Mary. She becomes part of the horse. Their hearts and their minds seem to become one."

Mary looked first at her young daughter and then up at the tall soldier. She knew that he was 'interested' in her, though, unlike others she could mention, he had been a perfect gentleman about it. There was even a growing part of her that wished he would be more forthright about his emotions—but when he talked about ranching in general and horses in particular, she saw the joy in him come alive.

"I'm not a full time soldier, Mary," he told her quietly. "I was for a long time, but a few years ago I resigned, took my savings and bought a little spread thirty miles west of Fort Laramie."

"Then why are you back soldiering?"

"Two reasons," he replied. "One, I needed money for some stock and a new barn."

"Who is looking after your ranch now?" she asked quietly. "Your wife?"

Hooper's laugh made her blush. "My sister Beth and her husband George. George and I are partners. As for a wife, I don't have one—yet." He attempted to cover the sudden awkwardness with a joke. "You wouldn't know of anyone that might be interested, would you? Living on a small horse ranch in the wilds of Wyoming with an old soldier, his sister, her husband, and their three kids?"

Mary's blush deepened. "I'm not sure, sergeant. I'll have to get back to you on that."

Hooper's smile went from ear to ear. "I intend to hold you to that, Mary—but in the meantime I'd be pleased if you'd call me by my given name, Robert—though my good friends call me Bob."

"Alright then—Bob" she said quietly. "You mentioned there were two reasons you went back to soldiering. Might I know the second?"

"The Cheyenne are on the war-path again, and I was asked by my old captain to help out."

"Could you have said no?" she asked.

"I could have, Mary—but the army's always short-handed out here and I've seen what angry young bucks can do to a small ranch or homestead. It's not pretty sight."

"Why do they hate us so? The Indians?"

"To understand that you have to look at things through their eyes."

"And how would I do that?" she asked.

"Well, just look around you, Mary. Before we came along all this was theirs. For thousands of years the different tribes roamed freely, following the herds and living off the land. They have no concept of 'owning' it, just 'sharing' it. They build nothing permanent, take only what they need and live as one with the world around them. Then we came along and claimed huge sections of it for ourselves. We built towns, roads, farms and ranches. We brought in cattle and pigs, fenced everything in, cut down the tress, ploughed up the earth and put up signs saying 'trespassers will be shot'. Hell, we even built churches and tried to force our religion down their throats! Is it any wonder that they hate us?!"

Mary stood looking at him, a new expression on her pretty face. "You're a strange man, Robert Hooper. Different than most others."

"Oh, how so?"

"Because you are a gentle soldier. Also because you admire your enemy. You find the natives more noble and honourable than most of your own kind. Certainly more so than men like Amos Sykes! You find them less selfish, less greedy. More in tune with the world around them and more deserving of God's grace."

"Well Mary, I don't know much about God's grace, and I can`t condone their acts of cruelty towards the settlers, ranchers and homesteaders—but I must admit there is something about their way of life that moves me."

"Could it be the freedom they have?" she asked quietly, her green eyes bright and searching. "Living every day like it's a hunting holiday? Going where they want whenever they want? Every man a proud warrior and every woman a hard-working, obedient wife?"

Hooper smiled. "I don't know about that last part, Mary. The Indian women I have known were far from obedient! They'd take a rawhide quirt to any man that insulted them!"

"Is that right, Robert? And just how many 'Indian women' have you known?"

He looked at her aslant. "I've known a fair number. As a soldier I've dealt with the different tribes for years, both in peace and in war. Also now and then various tribes stop by our ranch for a little horse trading. George, my sister's husband, is one hell of a good trader! He got an Appaloosa and her colt last year for two blankets and an iron pot!"

Her smile suddenly dazzled him. "You are a strange man, Robert. The kind of man that would frighten most women."

"Me? Frighten women? How have I frightened you, Mary?"

"Oh, you haven't frightened me, Robert. Most women perhaps, but not me.

"And why is that?" he asked.

"I like 'Robert' much better than 'Bob'," she said, ignoring his question. "Rob perhaps—but you don't strike me as a 'Bob'."

"And why's that, Mary O'Riley?" he smiled.

"Call me Mary-Kathleen. It's what my grandfather Shamus called me. He was a strange man like you. Kind and dangerous at the same time." There was a brief pause, then she raised her head and added proudly: "And I loved him dearly."

"Mary-Kathleen," he said softly, the name sounding like a whispered prayer. He slowly reached out and took her hand, feeling it tremble like a newborn colt. She looked up at him and smiled—and he was lost in her sea green eyes.

* * *

They seemingly came out of nowhere, using the rolling plain to hide them till the wagon train was passing them by. One moment there was only the monotonous creaking of the wooden wheels and jingling of the metal harness, interspersed with shouts and friendly calls from the long line of drivers, walkers, and following animals—then all hell broke loose as hoards of screaming, painted savages erupted from the plain like snarling demons from the fiery pit!

Women screamed and called for their children, men cursed and went for their guns, and the long, dusty train came to a halt as the Indians attacked from both sides, riding their ponies at breakneck speed, controlling them with their knees while they fired arrow after arrow at the hated 'White Skins.'

"Get the wagons into a circle!" Sergeant Hooper called out as he and several of his troopers raced back down the line. "Pull off to the left and form a protective circle!" he hollered. "Unhitch the animals and keep them inside!"

He pulled up alongside Mary's wagon. She was up front driving. Sarah sat grim-faced beside her and Sam's head and the barrel of his father's shotgun poked out behind them.

"Pull it around, Mary! I'll help you unhitch the team!"

"Couldn't we make a run for it?!" she called back, pulling on the double reins with all her strength.

"There's no place to run to, Mary. A circle's our best chance!"

She nodded and yanked hard to the left and first one, then the other mule turned. "Move you stubborn bastards, move!"

Despite himself Hooper smiled, proud of the fierce young woman that he had fallen in love with. "Sam," he shouted. "Put that gun down. We'll use it together in a minute, son!"

Sam frowned, then nodding, disappeared into the back of the wagon. Mary stood and hauled back to stop the mules. As she did so an arrow thudded into the side of the wagon only a handspan below the seat. "Damn the painted buggers!"

Then Hooper was beside her, unhooking the animals and tying them to the inside of the newly formed circle. A young trooper skidded his mount to a sudden stop.

"All wagons are in a circle, sarge! Have them build barricades in-between?"

"You got it, corporal. And make sure they tie their animals well. We don't need them stampeding around inside!"

"Will do, sarge!" The young corporal smiled, then raced away shouting orders.

"Your men are well trained," Mary said, jumping down from the wagon and going to the rear, where she hauled Sam and his long shotgun outside. Holding the squirming child with one hand she passed the weapon over to Hooper

"That's my gun!" Sam said. "It was my papa's 'n' now it's mine!"

"It sure is, Sam," Hooper replied. "And we'll soon need it, but right now we have to build a fort!"

The young boy's eyes lit up. "What kind of a fort?"

"A fort to shoot at the Indians from. Come on, Sam, lend me a hand!"

The little fellow grinned and 'helped' Hooper move some boxes and barrels along the tongue of the wagon. "There ya go, Sam. Now go drag your mattresses out and we'll put them on top. Nothing stops Indian arrows like a well stuffed straw mattress!"

As Sam rushed away to help Mary came up and squeezed Hooper's arm. "Thank you, Robert. Sam adores you and will do anything you say. Sarah as well."

Hopper looked into those sea green eyes. "And what about you, Mary-Kathleen? How do you feel about me?"

There was a slight pause and a flash of colour rose on her cheeks. "I feel much the same as they do Robert—perhaps even more so."

Hooper's weathered face split into an ear to ear grin. "Well then, this will really be a story to tell our grandchildren about!"

"Oh? And what story is that, sergeant?"

"Why, how we got engaged during an Indian attack!"

The End

Wayne Mee is a retired English teacher who has always loved writing. He has a number of his stories and a novel self-published electronically, but nothing in the older, 'traditional way.'

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Tricks of the Trade
by Sharon Frame Gay

The moon's only a sliver tonight, slicin' through the sky. Stars poke through wispy clouds, riding a light wind. The desolate valley is painted in deep shadows.

The silence surprised me as I nudged my horse, Buck, through the brush. You'd think the whole desert would be singin' out, now that the sun was down and took its heat with it. Even under the cloak of a dim night, New Mexico was tired, and yearned to sleep it off, like some old drunk back at The Velvet Slipper.

It gives me the shivers to think about what happened there tonight. Why, that saloon wasn't fit for prairie dogs, much less to cater to people. It was bad enough that the women, although loose as a lope, were ugly, but the drinks were so watered down I could read through the glass they served it in. On top of that, some card sharp in the corner was doing his best to fleece every cowboy who walked in, including me.

I admit, I took to the shakedown easily enough. A brash blond with amber eyes sidled up in a cloud of perfume and smiled. To say she was homely would be a kindness. But I'd just spent three weeks on the trail. So, I figured a drink or two might make her pretty.

The fact that she kept pouring my favorite whiskey for free should have been my first clue somethin' was wrong. But I lapped it up like Buck does when he meets up with a cool stream on an August day.

I didn't realize rooms could spin and informed the entire saloon about my revelation. To stop the swirlin', I let the blond sit me down at the table with the card swindler. Even though my eyes were dancing in my head, I couldn't help but notice that his oily smile was jagged-toothed and eager, like a wolf stalking a lamb.

When he dealt the cards, I held 'em in one hand and sipped another drink with the other. Before you know it, I was squeezing some coins out of my pocket and tossing 'em on the table like a seasoned gambler, confident in my inebriation, and arrogant enough to believe in myself.

Then things got serious. It wasn't long before every single cent I possessed had found its way into the dealer's pocket, and all that was left were the stains on the table from my sweating glass, and a handful of marked cards splayed out like a fan.

That's when it appeared that I'd been taken. By the card sharp. By the woman. And by my lack of common sense, it seemed. I looked around the saloon and tried to get up, but tumbled across the table. It crashed to the floor, taking everything with it, including me.

I lurched to my feet, then reeled around the chairs, knocking into them and hollerin' that they needed to be hobbled to keep 'em from moving. But that wasn't enough, I suppose. My body decided that now was as good a time as any to just lie down altogether, right there in the middle of The Velvet Slipper.

I heard somebody mumbling and realized it was me. Peering up, I saw the glare of disgust on the swindler's face as he angled himself away from the broken table and clutched at the blond. I dragged myself over and held on to his legs for dear life.

"Help!" was all I could muster in a pitiful voice.

Sneering, he tried to shake me off, but I held on until he clocked me on the chin with his fist.

"Don't bring any more of these fools in here tonight, Lorna," he snarled, and spat on the floor. "It's too easy. I swear there's no challenge lately. I'm done!"

The scoundrel left in such a huff, he forgot his fallen bowler hat and silk handkerchief. He didn't even stoop to pick them up off the floor where I was now residing.

The rest of the folks in the saloon must have decided I didn't look half bad as a new rug, because they let me linger where I fell.

The swinging doors looked far away, like when you peer through the wrong end of a bottle. Squinting, I decided to wander over there without botherin' to stand until the bottom of the door smacked me on the forehead.

Somehow, I spilled out of the saloon and found Buck waiting patiently at his post. After a few good tries, I got my foot in the stirrup and hauled myself up. Buck groaned under my weight and tossed his head in complaint.

I slumped forward over his neck and nudged him with my heels, and we picked our ragged way down the street. Then I straightened and gave him his lead. He broke into a slow jog.

When we reached the edge of town, I tapped him with my spurs, and Buck launched into a gallop. I rode for what seemed like hours until I stopped behind a boulder and peered around. The desert was as empty as a nun's bed.

I got off and stretched, then took a big swig of water from the canteen. It slid down the throat cool and easy, just like the water I kept dribbling into my glass of whiskey when the blond wasn't lookin'.

Then I reached into my saddlebag and brought out all the money the card swindler made tonight off the cowboys and stuffed into his pants pocket.

The same pocket I picked when I grabbed his legs and pretended I was drunk.

I took another slug of water and smiled.

Sometimes the lamb fleeces the wolf.

Climbing back on Buck, I jammed the bowler hat on my head, and turned towards another goodbye town, the sliver moon pointing the way.

The End

Award winning author Sharon Frame Gay has been published in many anthologies and magazines, including Chicken Soup for The Soul, Typehouse, Fiction on the Web, Clarendon House, Lowestoft Chronicle, Thrice Fiction, Spillwords, Saddlebag Dispatches, Crannog, Owl Hollow Press and others. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and has won awards and nominations at The Writing District, Rope and Wire, Wow-Women on Writing, Texas Disabilities, Best of the Net, and The Peacemaker Award.

Sharon was awarded The Will Rogers Medallion Award for excellence in Western writing for 2021. Her collections of short stories, "Song of the Highway", "The Nomad Diner", and "The Wrong End Of A Bullet" by Clarendon House Publishing are available on Amazon.

Facebook: Sharon Frame Gay-Writer

Twitter: x.com/sharonframegay

Amazon Books: https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B01HN5AGXK

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by Jennifer McMillan

Shiloh Hart arrived, white with frost and just about as quiet, grasping his bedroll and Sharps rifle in the early hours of a blizzard that we heard killed 235 people by the time it ended. The Carbon County Gazette called it the Great School House Blizzard. What he was doing out there in the blizzard he never said, which was typical of his nature. Jasper said it shows no common sense, but what would you expect from a Union supporter, Vermonter nonetheless. But he hired Shiloh anyway. The ranch needed cowhands.

Most of the cowhands on the Platt River Ranch worked the cattle drives, but the winters are getting tougher, and so are politics. Last winter, 1887, saw the last of the open range cattle drives, and the hands had to get used to a new industry dependent on the railroads and barbed wire, which is ironic since Fort Fred Steele, Wyoming's guardian of the railways, closed two years ago. Not too many cowhands are staying on at the Platt River—giving short notice or none at all.

Stonewall glanced up when our foreman, Jasper, half carried Shiloh in the bunk house, limping, frozen, but uncomplaining. Jasper planted Shiloh in Callan's bunk, a mistake that the foreman wouldn't have made if he had taken time to think about it. We all knew trouble when we saw it, and the darkening scar on Stonewalls' face told of a storm brewing that would be worse than the one outside. A storm that got darker as soon as Shiloh whispered his thanks in a deep Yankee accent.

John Stonewall is a staunch Virginian, a veteran of the War of Northern Aggression, what the Northerners call the Civil War. His hometown is Falmouth, Virginia, and he is proud to have fought in the battle at Manassas early in the war, maybe even the first battle of the war, under General Beauregard. The Confederates defeated the Union army at the Battle of Manassas, gave hope to the South that their civilized way of life would not be overrun. He earned that scar on his face in that battle, an angry, jagged, red scar that drew a line from jaw to temple.

He also lost his best friend, Hall Callan, the man who befriended him when he arrived at the Platt River Ranch twenty years ago, taught him how to live on the Wyoming range, how to be a cowhand, survive stampedes, flash floods and droughts, harsh winters and hot sun. Callan and Stonewall enlisted in the war together, watched each other's backs as they did on the range, but only Stonewall returned to the Platt River. Callan caught the bullet full on, the one that grazed Stonewalls' face, the one that Stonewall wears around his neck—a memory of his friend and a reminder of the evils brought on by the Union army.

During the blizzard, Shiloh recovered, giving only his name, Shiloh Hart, his age, twenty six, where he was from, Vermont, and he said his rifle was his daddy's, his only inheritance. Stonewall gave that rifle a hard look like he knew it by name, but he kept his quiet, biding his time. The rest of us, nine cowhands left at the Platt River Ranch, did the best we could to keep busy and keep the peace. Cowhands don't do well inside, and Jasper had his hands full doling out unwanted and unnecessary chores, mopping floors, sweeping rugs, women's work the men grumbled, standing watch to keep the fire going, and braving the storm, keeping the roof cleared of the heavy snow, shoveling the way to the barn. We strung up a rope from the bunkhouse to the closest corner of the barn so we wouldn't lose our way in the blizzard as we shoveled, making our way to feed the horses.

In the evenings, we spent our time inside listening to the raging blizzard, Sam's guitar and bad cowboy songs, playing checkers, and being "educated" by Jake as he narrated passages from old newspapers.

"How well do you shoot that thing?" Stonewall asked Shiloh the first night. We were all curious about the Sharps, it being the nicest rifle we had ever seen, and a rare weapon on the range. A skilled man could load that rifle three times faster than a Colt, and the Sharps was deadly accurate 600 yards away, maybe even more. None of the rest of us would ask about it, though. Showing too much interest in a man's weapon was considered bad form.

"My daddy taught me well enough," Shiloh answered quietly.

"A huh. And how did he come by such a fine piece?"

Shiloh looked up and straight at Stonewall. "My daddy was a sharpshooter. Company H, the finest regiment of Sharpshooters out of Vermont."

We all quieted down, looking at the two men and feeling tension in the room. "Hart, your last name? I knew of a Captain Gilbert Hart. Led such a company all the way from Brattleboro, Vermont to my home in Falmouth, Virginia. Had no business being there." Stonewall spit his tobacco in the fireplace where it snapped loudly.

Shiloh held his gaze, not wavering. "He was gone three years. Came back, taught me how to fire that weapon in case it was ever needed again."

As Stonewall started to rise out of his chair, Jasper clamped a strong hand down on his shoulder. "The war's over and it will not be continued here. Understand me, both of you?"

"Yes, sir," spoke Shiloh, his voice quiet and as steady as his gaze.

* * *

Two days after Shiloh arrived, nature decided she had dumped enough snow in Wyoming. We woke to a serene white landscape. The horse corrals were covered hip deep, the barn doors half covered with drifts. Only a thin path went from bunkhouse to barn made by us in shifts. We wondered how many of the 2300 head of cattle we lost.

We emerged into this whiteness, all sound muffled, the glare on the snow blinding, but glad to be out in the fresh air despite the freezing cold. Jake laughed, said you could spit and it would freeze before it hit the ground. Sam said yeah, but at least the wind wouldn't blow it back to take out your eye. We laughed, giddy after being trapped inside. We got to it, a lot of work to do, clean up after the storm.

Martin and Jimmy, the brothers, and Jake and Sam went out to ride fence and make repairs, as much as they could, and Jasper took Stonewall to check on the cattle. Jasper, not sure yet of Shiloh's skills or stamina, set him out with Ernst and me to clear the corrals and widen the path through the snow so the horses and the couple of milking cows in the barn could get out. Horses don't do well inside, either. I believe he also wanted to keep Shiloh and Stonewall apart.

Shiloh worked hard, as hard as any of us. Kept his tongue and pulled his weight, had a way with horses noted Ernst grudgingly, said he might fit in on a ranch anyway.

In the afternoon, after the hands returned from fence repairs and the range with the cattle, Ma Cally brought us thick slices of bread, beans, bacon, and a peach cobbler from the main house. As we were eating, tired after the long work, we heard a shot, gunfire off in the East towards Shannons Ranch, maybe from Rawlins, or maybe even from the abandoned Fort Fred Steele, as unlikely as that might be. Riders letting us know they were coming in, but we didn't know how through the deep snow, or why, unless there was a problem. A bad problem to be riding out in this mess. Not much to do about it, so we finished our meal and got back to our work. News will come as it can, and we'd hear soon enough.

Just about dusk, dog tired, we ended all the cleanup and repairs we could in a day. Hard to say how many cattle were lost, Stonewall said, but it didn't look like too many. Boss was pleased about that, heard reports from the rest of us, then took Jasper aside and up to the main house.

When Jasper returned to the bunkhouse later that evening, he looked grim. Three riders from Shannons Ranch arrived, told Boss that a pack of timber wolves had taken down nine head of cattle just before the storm struck. Their boss and ranch owner, Henry Tillis, and his son Will along with another ranch hand went out hunting for them and didn't return, but one of their horses did. Doesn't look good, and they asked Boss for men to help with the search and hunt, which Boss readily agreed to, not only because Henry Tillis was a good friend, but because if wolves were on the hunt, they'd show up to take head from the Platt River Ranch eventually.

Wolves and ranchers don't mix well, especially since the buffalo, their main food, have been nearly hunted out in the last decade or so, and now the wolves are turning to cattle. Jake especially hated wolves, quoting Theodore Roosevelt who calls them "beasts of waste and desolation" because they kill for fun, much more than they can eat, and they have a habit of eating their prey while it is still alive. Wyoming is a rare place for timbers, they mostly stay down by Texas, so their appearance here in Carbon County is concerning.

The news hit us all hard, Jasper torn because of all the cleanup and repairs still needed at Platt River, but seeing that the need to look for the three missing men from Shannons as the more urgent piece of business. It hit me especially hard because Will is my closest friend, being fifteen and my own age. His father taught us both how to shoot and how to rope a steer without being gut kicked or skewered.

* * *

Despite the news, we all slept soundly that night. Jasper rang the dinner gong as the sun was still rising the next morning, and for once, there was no grumbling as the hands rose from their bunks and made their way to the grub set out on long table in the middle of the bunk house. Jameson, the cook, must have been up earlier than usual—we had fresh baked brown bread with raisins instead of flapjacks that morning to go along with our eggs and thick slices of ham. He even put out molasses from the stock he guarded closely to sweeten our coffee. As good as the meal was, it signaled a long, hard day ahead of us.

Jasper decided Martin and Jimmy would stay at the ranch to tend to what they could and do the chores. Boss, Jake and Sam would head over to meet up with hands from Shannons Ranch to search for the missing men. He and Shiloh, Ernst, and I would split up along the Platt River to hunt the pack. One gunshot fired in the air meant the men had been found. More than one meant the wolves. We'd all meet up at Fort Fred Steele before dusk, maybe spend the night there depending on what we found.

By noon, Ernst and I still hadn't found any sign of wolves. We were cold, the horses had icicles on their whiskers, and so did Ernst. It would take a few hours to make our way over to Fort Fred Steele, so we headed that way along the river, keeping watch on the ground for traces of paw prints or signs around the banks and rocks that could mean a den.

About a half hour's ride from Fort Fred Steele we spotted something laying on the snow, red and raw, hundreds of paw prints packed down the snow around it. The remains of a large steer lay in the deep drifts, dragged there by the pack, mostly eaten. The steer had a P and a wavy line under it- the brand of the Platt River Ranch. So, the wolves had come to the Platt River after the storm. How they had gotten the steer all this way was a mystery, a chase, maybe. Boss and Jasper would make the push for the hunt until the pack was found.

The prints led in the direction of the fort, and we followed them almost all the way there. They veered off on the outskirts of the fort, heading deep into the woods. It was almost dusk, there was no point in following the tracks, and the weather didn't feel like more snowfall, so we could easily follow the tracks to the den in the morning. Ernst and I headed inside the fort walls to meet up with the others.

A few of the out buildings were fallen in, and a section of the walls was missing, but the fort itself was still intact. We saw smoke rising from the chimney and were glad of it. Someone made it here before us and it would be warm inside, maybe even some coffee on. We heard the nicker of horses in the barn on the side of the fort and brought ours to join them. Everyone's horses were already stabled except for Jasper and Shiloh's, but we had no doubt they would be arriving shortly.

There were also three other horses, which meant hands from Shannons were there as well, and I recognized Will's bay. Good news! Ernst saw the excitement in my eyes and said he'd take care of my horse while I went to see my friend and make sure he was OK. Just then, Will came in to the barn. "Jeez- we heard ya coming in a mile away! Never could sneak up on a man, could ya, Cam!" I laughed; it was an old joke between us. Boy, it was good to see him.

As Will helped us brush down and feed the horses, Jasper and Shiloh came in, as cold and tired as we were. There was a white tailed deer across the back of Shiloh's saddle, already dressed, and as we took care of the horses, he readied it to cook for our dinner. They also had seen the wolf tracks, but since they came in from a different direction, they didn't find the steer from the Platt River. Jasper's brow darkened when he heard the news.

After the horses were cared for, we gathered our gear and headed to the fort to hear what happened. Henry, Will, and Charlie had gone off to look for the wolf pack after Charlie found the slaughtered cattle the morning that the storm started. The tracks led here towards Fort Fred Steele, then off into the woods. They followed the tracks into the woods a ways, but by then, the snow was starting to come down and they decided to return to the fort to weather out the storm. Just as they were about out of the woods, they heard a noise and saw a couple wolves behind them. They just had time to take out their guns when the pack was on them. Charlie shot one wolf, Henry's horse reared, threw him, and took off running. Henry landed wrong and his leg was broken. Charlie and Will got off a few more shots, got one more wolf, and scared the pack away long enough to get Henry and their horses back to the fort.

When the storm ended, Charlie had left Will with Henry to get help from the ranch. He and several hands got a set up to carry Henry back to Shannons. After Henry was safe and in the doctor's care back at the ranch, Will, Charlie, and another hand met up with Boss, Jake and Sam, and they all headed back to Fort Fred Steele to hunt the pack in the morning.

They also brought grub, so we all had a good warm dinner with that and the deer that Shiloh got for us. Will told us they heard the wolves the night before, and it sounded like they were inside the walls of the fort, probably came in through the part that had fallen down. They saw tracks around the barn in the morning, one really big set.

The fort wasn't uncomfortable, bunks were still intact, a good fireplace, and good company. Sam entertained us all by getting Jake worked up again about the downfall of Wyoming Territory, starting off by saying how nice it would be when Wyoming joins the Union as a state. Jake pulled a long drink of his flask, and said he'd leave for Sewards Folly if that ever happened, plant his beans in the polar bear garden, and live off seal meat with the Eskimos. But what would you expect, he asked, of a place that granted women the right to vote—these women! Aww, said Samm, you're only sour because you ain't got a woman. We all laughed, and Jake said that would drive him to Sewards Folly just as fast.

When the laughter died down, Charlie asked Shiloh what brought him out to Wyoming Territory. Stonewall answered for him, saying the boy was just another Yankee once again ending up in a place he didn't belong and wasn't wanted.

"Aww," said Ernst trying to diffuse the situation. "He's doin' OK, works hard. And he got us dinner. Didn't see any of you bringing in meat for the pot."

"Never saw a shot like it," Jasper said. "The boy had his Sharps out and fired before I even knew there was a deer. Never saw anyone shoot that quick before."

"Just as long as he knows what he's aiming at," said Stonewall looking hard at Shiloh.

Shiloh's gaze never wavered, and in a low voice replied, "I do, always."

Jasper pulled out a deck of cards, tossed them at Stonewall, and said to deal. That broke the tension. As we played our hands, we talked about the wolf pack, wondering how many in it, and if it signaled more packs to come. Charlie said to go for the big one, the leader, and the rest would be easy to pick off. By the looks of its paw prints, he said, it could be six feet from nose to tail.

As the moon rose and shone in the high window of the fort, we heard a howl in the distance. Then another, and then another even closer. Jasper, Charlie, Stonewall, and Shiloh had their rifles and were heading to the door before that last howl came to an eerie close. The rest of us got ours, put our coats on, and headed out the door towards the stables. Jasper directed a few of us to stay guard where the fence was down. He, Charlie, Stonewall, and Shiloh headed towards the woods in the direction of where the howls were coming from.

We heard shot, a yell from Charlie that he got one, then a long silence. The hands returned, said they scared off the pack, and we all went to look in in the horses, make sure they were doing OK in their stalls. A few hands smoked their tobacco in hand-rolled cigarettes and pipes enjoying the crisp air and full moon.

"Bet you don't have sky like this in your Vermont," Stonewall said to Shiloh.

"Hush," said Shiloh going still.

"Don't tell me to hush, boy!" Stonewall turned, rifle in his hands.

Shiloh moved fast, bringing his Sharps up to his shoulder, taking the shot. Stonewall fired back an instant after, then gave a wild shout as a wolf bigger than we had ever seen, bigger than we could imagine, dropped dead at his feet from the roof of the barn, a hole from the Sharps piercing his heart.

"My god, boy, you gave me a start!" yelled Stonewall as he turned, then went white as a sheet.

We turned, looked at Shiloh standing in the moonlight, Sharps rifle in his hand, and a red blossom spreading over his chest.

Jasper caught him as he fell, closed his eyes as he took his last breath, the Sharps falling from his grasp.

We buried Shiloh the next morning outside the walls of Fort Fred Steele, digging deep through the snow and deeper still though the dirt. Stonewall carrying the body and placing Shiloh gently in the earth, the Sharps next to him, tears running, glistening on the deep scar on his face. Jake singing Amazing Grace, the rest of us too stunned to join in.

We didn't go after the wolves that day, just headed for home. Guilty about that, leaving Shiloh behind.

The End

Jennifer is an adjunct English Professor, retired from Marist College and now at Dutchess Community College. She grew up in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, loves her menagerie of four-leggeds, hiking, camping, kayaking, gardening, art, and of course, writing.

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Renegade Sheriff
by Tom Sheehan

When the wife of William Gifford, a prominent rancher near the small town of Butte Legends, was murdered because she protected a child that was not hers, the law was demanded for the town. Mrs. Gifford was kicked in the head by the horse of a fleeing bank robber as she rushed to rescue a child from the path of the animal. The citizens were aghast at the latest event in a series of illegal calamities. The uproar ensued, screaming for new law enforcement.

Blackwater Carrigan was that law, all the way from Shiloh, McKenna's Hill and half a dozen other military activities as a cavalry officer in the Great War and two succeeding years as a marshal in the Utah territory. He could be described as a man who knew his way around old trails, tough tracks and surprises handed out by Mother Nature or human miseries, and had not come as a volunteer to set a wild town straight. He came duly hired by the powers-to-be, the town council of Butte Legends.

On his arrival, Carrigan came off the train on the other side of the tracks in the fairly new cow town of Butte Legends. He wanted a different view of things, to see what the town looked like from "the other side" as he chided himself. On the distant horizon the Rockies stood tall as sequoia redwoods.

Up closer his angled view of town lent him a scurrilous survey of a town that had grown fast and would die as quick unless the law, enforceable law, was brought aboard.

He liked the looks of the town, the layout, the energy at work, and did not think about the bad parts. Not as yet. All along the way he had taken feelings and ideas from towns that he had been in, as a visitor or sheriff.

They made up pieces of a dream town, which he figured he had invented, but it clung on him strong as a stampede. This town of Butte Legends had grown on him in such a hurry that dedication rippled his thinking.

Carrigan, on the other hand from a dreamer, wore the proper hardware for a lawman; the badge on his chest shining with hope and promise; twin Smith & Wesson revolvers sitting on his hips, and a special Sharps rifle resting in one hand and a well-worn saddle gripped in the other hand, while he balanced the weight on his shoulder. Sitting beside him was a brown and black German Shepherd dog, not as tall as Carrigan, but as muscled, and as observant. The dog responded to the slightest "Tch" imaginable, as he was possessed of extraordinary hearing ability. His name was Brutus. If battlefield commendations could be displayed, Brutus would carry a chart on his chest, but little mattered to him other than the man he sat beside, or walked beside, since the day the man had rescued him from a fiery barn.

As for Carrigan, with a good horse soon acquired from the local livery, his weapons loaded, his dog handy, he'd be ready for work.

As for Butte Legends, standard things can be said. When the first building opened its doors as a saloon only a few years earlier, two other buildings immediately came under construction, a livery and an associated hotel with five rooms promised. The bank followed, stressed by need. One month later, responding to spurting growth, the general store opened its doors, off the back of two wagons loaded with supplies. The little settlement leaped up where two busy trails crossed at Butte Legends, with the river looming in sight as it wound out of the foothills.

Rancher Bill Gifford, whose wife dove in front of escaping bank robbers to save a child, was a driving force in the new community. His telegraph, as noted, brought Blackwater Carrigan to Butte Legends.

History of such quick-start towns shows other activities running too close at the heels of founding fathers. Theft or robbery, kidnapping, murder by choice, and cattle rustling as soon as herds began to build up. When towns like Butte Legends resorted to a vigilante system of correction, often committed on the spot, it gave excuses to illegal interests. So Carrigan had been summoned by Gifford speaking for the town council, with the shiny star of a badge already pinned on his chest.

The star was not the only mark on him. Some element in Butte Legends, hearing of the summons, had already placed another check mark on him, and that mark was sight unseen but known by many. The town had previously had one sheriff, whose tour of duty lasted no longer than his first posse, striking out after two bank robbers who had killed a teller and a customer.

Some soft voices in town said the sheriff was killed by a member of the posse. Doubts about the power of law existed, though no names were ever mentioned in particular.

On his first day in office, Carrigan did not go out of the jail, but spent the whole of daylight hours reading wanted posters, looking out the window at town traffic on the street and on the boardwalk, and marking who talked to who during that stretch of the day. Names and faces were being memorized.

One meal was brought in for him from the hotel, which he did not eat but Brutus did.

As darkness fell, Carrigan slipped out of his office by a side door, eased down the alley, and walked behind five other buildings on that side of the street. He marked the livery, the hotel, the dark side of the new bank, and the general store still being supplied from wagons, three young men doing the dog work, and one man positioning the supplies once inside the store.

Carrigan, in the shadows, Brutus silent as puma on the watch, listened to the banter of the young men as they worked. "You hear about the new law in town?" His ear caught that poser.

"What law is that?"

"Not what law, but who's the law. It's that new sheriff, that Blackwater Carrigan they're all talking about."

"Who's they?"

"The whole town practically, from what I hear. Say he's a real hero from the war, and a dead shot. Wait'll you see the way he carries his guns, like they're primed for killin' soon's he straps 'em on in the mornin'."

"Who said all that stuff? I know you didn't hatch it up."

"Chuckber's who. He says he's the one probably goin' to send him away for good."

"Said it right out?"

"I swear he did, with that look in his eyes says he ain't tellin' no lie, not for a bit."

"Who was he sayin' it to? He don't seem so big or so tough. What's he done anyway that you believe him?"

"He was tellin' the guys at the livery. They was in the back and talkin' kinda quiet and I was up in the mow, working for Cliff, an odd job. Chuckber rides with the Proulx crowd. Like he's the second in command, only faster than Proulx hisself."

"Why'd they want to get rid of a new sheriff? Don't we need one? That woman gettin' killed stuck in my craw same as other folks. A good sheriff'd haul ass on that guy who did it. You know who it was?"

"Chuckber's what they all say. Mean as green apples. He'll draw on Proulx someday and be the cheese all by hisself. For now, Proulx's the boss. What he says, goes. If you don't cross him in any way, you got no problem with him. Otherwise, you're up the creek. He'd as soon kill you as look at you. He wants it all to hisself, from what they say, and they ain't very wrong at such saying."

"Not if the new sheriff is good as they say."

Carrigan, getting the tenor of another piece of the town, slipped back into darkness. Brutus was quieter than Carrigan as he slinked away with his master.

Later, when Proulx and his loud bunch came to the saloon, Carrigan watched them from across the street, in the shadows of another building with only three sides thrown up yet. He saw all of them, including the one addressed as "Boss" and another addressed as "Chuck," marking him as Chuckber.

When they all entered the saloon, and the street was as dark as it would be all night, Carrigan and Brutus slipped across the road and Carrigan introduced the dog to the saddles on Proulx's horse and on Chuckber's horse.

Brutus ran his noise and tongue over both saddles, let out a sniffle and settled down beside Carrigan who traced his hands over the saddle and equipment mounted on each horse. He paid no attention to the other mounts.

Still in the shadows and the darkness that swallowed up the night, man and beast retreated back behind the unfinished building and went on their way.

Entering the jail the same way they came out, Carrigan and Brutus went to sleep.

They slept the night away.

During the night, in different parts of Butte legends, widely separated, cruel and horrific crimes were committed on outlying ranches; men and women were murdered, a child was killed by a stray shot, several fine and decent horses were shot on purpose, it appeared, and one of Gifford's barns was burned to the ground with doors stuck in place by small boards tipped against them. Animals had been burned to death.

The sheriff's office in the morning was stormed by citizens, all screaming that the sheriff was asleep while the town was being overrun by murderers and scum of the earth.

Gifford, tall and distinguished looking for a rancher, showing dispirit as well as displeasure, led the charge.

"Why did I ever think you could help us? These madmen have now established their rule, and we have a pretty good idea who they are." He yelled at Carrigan, "You know what this night is, don't you? It's their response to my getting you hired. My giving the job to you. It's them saying we have given the town over to them. What do we do now?" He looked like a man who would never forget his wife.

"Let me handle things, Mr. Gifford," Carrigan replied. "You get these people off my neck today and we'll see what happens by tomorrow."

Gifford did as the sheriff requested, and later that morning, with Brutus at his side, Carrigan began to check out the scenes of all the crimes committed during the night. He and Brutus went to each site, spent at least an hour at each place, and moved on.

As darkness descended over Butte legends again, Carrigan and his dog entered the jail and Carrigan lay down to rest. Thoughts of pleasant little towns filled his mind, twisted his thinking in different directions. He remembered charm and happiness and boys learning rope tricks and girls cooking apple pies a person could smell a mile away. His yearning ran as deep as his kind thoughts. Well after midnight, he and Brutus again left the jail by the side door and he went off on horseback, Brutus following.

On foot, sly as could be, Carrigan put his rifle down against a big rock and tied his horse off at a small rise facing Proulx's spread. Proulx and his crew of seven were asleep in the house when flames erupted around the house and the barn at the same time. Four of the men got out, only to be shot in their escape. Three others were trapped by flames. Proulx was on the ground outside, his gun belt still in one hand where he had not been able to strap it on. The barn was demolished. The animals, able to get out of the barn, were off across the grass someplace.

Butte Legends, as stories began to circulate, went back to being a growing town, quiet and mostly peaceful after their few nights of terror that happened over ten years ago. The sheriff, Blackwater Carrigan, was still in office, still a quiet man of the badge, walking his nightly rounds with a German Shepherd dog that people called "Caesar" and who looked a lot like the sheriff's old dog Brutus, now two dogs dead. Some boys had hung a star on Caesar's neck.

The End

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

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The Truth About the Incident
by J. R. Lindermuth

"I heard you were there when it happened."

The old man studied the boy before answering. The lad's wide-eyed gaze and anticipation of a tale reminded him of that other boy, the one at the root of the story this one wanted to hear. He gave a quick nod. "Yep. I was there."

The boy leaned across the table, his eyes bright with eagerness. "So, woncha tell me about it, mister? I mean, I've read the stories and I've heard it from people who weren't there. But you know the truth of it."

The old man heaved a sigh. He'd come in the restaurant to get out of the rain and felt obliged to buy some lunch in compensation for his presence. The boy who served him seemed privy to rumors which put the old man at the scene of what had come to be known as a historic shootout. He frowned at the thought of this; he knew it for what it really was. He sighed again. It didn't seem likely the boy would give up his pestering. He might as well tell the kid what really happened.

"Those dime novels you read haint the truth of it, you know," he began.

The boy waved a hand. "I know that, mister. They color things. That's why I want to hear it from you. You was there."

"Yeah. I was. And I guess you figger Nolan is a right brave hero, doncha?"

"He's the only shootist I ever seen in the flesh. He used to live right here in town."

"Man's a liar."

The boy chuckled. "You better be glad he don't live here no more, mister. Word got out about you callin' him a liar you might be in a heap of trouble."

"I haint worried. I knowed the man back then. He was a liar and a sneak and I expect that haint changed much since." The old man spooned up the last of his soup and wiped his lips with his sleeve. "You want me to tell it like it was or do you wanna keep on believin' those made-up tales?"

"I wanna hear what truly happened."

"All right then. Here you go. It was back nearly 10 years ago. We was up in the hills prospectin'—me, Nolan, a German called Swartz, and the boy, a kid named Abe. The kid was about your age, maybe a little older or younger. Don't know exactly. He was a stray. Claimed to be an orphan, but we suspected he'd run away from home in search of adventure. He begged to join our outfit when we was buyin' provisions. He had cash to pay his share, so we took him on.

"Unlike some other pests I've run across, he was a likable lad." The old man winked at the kid, warming to his audience. "He pulled his own weight, did as he was told, and was willin' to learn. We all took a liking to him." The old man fixed an eye on the boy. "You ever done any prospectin'?"

"No, sir."

"Well, let me tell you, it haint no easy way to make a livin'. It's hard work. You're diggin' and scratchin' in the rocks from sunup till sundown in the hope of findin' color. And when you haint doin' that you're waitin' out storms so you can get back to it. And the whole time we had to keep an eye out for the Apaches who were still runnin' around in those hills and resentin' our presence.

"Some prospectors have struck it lucky and found a bonanza. But they're the exception and not the rule. Most end up like me—old, flat-broke, and plumb worn out whilst still scramblin' up and down the hills, hopin' to strike color."

The old man noted the boy was looking a bit bored. Now he was in a story-telling mood, he didn't want to lose his audience. He leaned back in his chair, scratched at his whiskers, and said, "Tell you what, son. My throat's a bit parched. Why don't you get me another cup of coffee and a soda pop for yourself? Then I'll get onto the part of the story you're itchin' to hear."

The boy scurried off and the old man took a moment to ruminate on his memories and see if he might color things up just a tiny bit.

"We'd just finished our supper and were lazin' around by the fire watchin' the sunset when Ross rode into our camp," he resumed as the lad sucked on his sarsaparilla. Mention of the shootist's name got the boy's attention.

His eyes lit up as he asked, "Was he packin' his usual?"

"Indeed. The famous cross-draw rig he always fancied. I recognized him of course. I'd seen his ugly mug on enough wanted posters. Nolan knew who he was, too.

"'I mean you no harm, gentlemen,' he told us. 'I was passin' by and spotted your fire. Do you think you could spare a bit of food for a hungry stranger?'

"There's stew in the pot and the coffee's hot," I told him. "Alight and help yourself, stranger."

"Nolan glared at me. 'He haint no stranger,' he said. 'You know who he is as well as me. Why are you invitin' the likes of him into our camp?'

"I told Nolan the man said he meant us no harm and I was inclined to take him at his word. I said it wasn't right to turn away a hungry traveler, even if he did have a bad reputation. Now I'll admit, I didn't fancy Nolan much more then than I did later. He grumbled a bit, but finally relented and didn't push the issue."

"Were you all packin', too?" the boy asked, his eyes shining in anticipation.

"We were armed, though Nolan was the only one with a pistol—a poorly cared for piece nearly as old as him. Swartz had a shotgun and I carried a rifle. The only weapon young Abe had was a pocketknife. You got to understand, lad, we carried arms because we had to, not because we liked them or were any good with them. Truth is, if we'd all carried pistols none of us, including Nolan, could have hit a barn standing still."

This acknowledgment seemed to disappoint the boy. "Weren't you afraid Ross planned to rob you? Isn't that why Nolan objected to you inviting him into your camp?"

The old man laughed. "If that was his intent, he was in for a big disappointment. We'd had a discouragin' season. Except for barely enough grain to cover a few more weeks of food, the only one of us who'd found anything worthwhile was the kid. Abe panned a couple of fair-sized nuggets that morning, which gave us hope things might be lookin' up.

"Nolan whispered to me later his suspicion Ross was after Abe's nuggets. I told him that was ridiculous. How would the outlaw even know the kid had them?

"Anyway, I figgered once Ross had his belly full, he'd move on. I was wrong. After he ate, he picketed his horse and came back to the fire with a bottle and a box of store-bought cigarettes. He passed around the bottle and the cigarettes and asked if we'd mind if he spent the night. Said he was too tuckered to ride on in the dark and would be obliged for our hospitality.

"I was annoyed, but not brave enough to object to his plan. Nolan's expression revealed his opinion, though he also held his tongue. Swartz and Abe bid the shootist welcome, shifting to make a place for him close to the fire.

"For some reason I couldn't fathom, that darn kid took a shine to Ross and started asking him questions about his travels, his guns, and such truck. The attention pleased the man and the next thing we knew he'd plucked one of his weapons from its holster and allowed the kid to hold it. This bit of kindness touched Abe. I saw his eyes glowin' in the firelight as he fingered the big hogleg. He returned the favor by plucking out his nuggets and displaying them to Ross. I took this as a sign of trouble down the road.

"Ross's presence made me nervous. Maybe Nolan was right after all. I didn't sleep well once we'd bedded down. I imagined him coveting Abe's gold. He'd spread his bedroll between mine and young Abe's and he seemed as restless as me. He kept turning, tossing, and grunting as he sought a comfortable position on the hard ground. The fire burned down and drifting clouds across the near-full moon cast shadows over our bivouac. Save for the soughing of a breeze in the leaves overhead, the far-off yapping of a couple of coyotes, and the rasping snore I knew to be Swartz's, it was a quiet night.

"Time passed and I must have just drifted off to sleep when I was awakened by a slight noise, the rattle of stones underfoot. I sat up and saw Ross stooping over the form of young Abe. I called out. The crack of the gun that followed was so loud it startled me."

The boy listening to the story clapped his hands together and jumped up, his large eyes catching the gleam of the overhead lights. "Is that when Nolan challenged him to a fair fight?"

The old man spun on him. "Fair fight hell," he snarled. "Ross was still alive when I reached his side. Blood gurgled in his throat and lungs and I knew his time was short. He asked why I'd shot him. I told him I thought he meant the boy harm. Before he died, Ross said Abe had kicked off his blankets. He only intended to cover the boy."

"You shot him?" The old man's audience sank back in his seat, his mouth dropping open in shock. "Is that the truth of it, mister?"

"That's the truth of it."

"So there was no gunfight between him and Nolan?"

The old man didn't answer. He drained the dregs of his coffee and rose. All these years Nolan had been bragging on his mistake. He'd still be doing it, no matter how many times the old man told the truth. Did it matter? The rain had stopped and it was time he moved on.

The End

J. R. Lindermuth is the author of 18 published novels, including four traditional Westerns. His Western short stories have appeared in Frontier Tales, Rope and Wire, The Western Online, Short Barrel Fiction, American Western, Trails West, Wild West, and other magazines. He is a member of International Thriller Writers and a past vice president of the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

By Strangers Mourned (April 2022), Milford House Press
Fallen From Grace (Jan. 2022), Milford House Press
Sooner Than Gold (Jan. 2022), Milford House Press
Twelve Days in the Territory (May 2021), Sundown Press


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More Good Luck and Less Good Faith
by Eric A. L. Axner


Good Faith City wasn't really much of a city; it was a collection of wooden buildings erected in a straight line across the Diamondback Basin, below the windswept peaks of the Sidewinder Range. A grocery store, a hardware store, a saloon, a sheriff's office, a bank office and a few other structures, most of them hosting residential quarters on the second floor. By naming it a city, the founders hoped the railway would soon reach their outpost, but there was yet little sign of any steam blowing on the horizon. Despite the settlement being young and its inhabitants all more or less recent arrivals, newcomers to this dustbowl of a town were still met with suspicion and constant whispers of often malign rumors. That was not least true of its newest resident, who for some reason had left the fertile farmlands of the Ohio Valley to try his luck out west.

The gossip surrounding Elwood Erskine wasn't helped much by the fact that it very soon became a well-known secret that he had received a hefty inheritance from a childless aunt back in Cincinnati. A man with money to spend naturally drew much attention from those who had something to sell - and those who didn't mind offering nothing in return. One day, after stocking up on goods from the local merchants, he spotted a gorgeous-looking chestnut roan mare standing tied up outside Good Faith Saloon; lean, toned and probably quite young. Just the kind of horse he wanted and needed. As almost all heads turned as he entered, he found it somewhat easier to ask aloud who the owner of that horse outside was, after having reinforced his nerves with a few drops of bourbon. His eyes met with almost all the patrons, none of whom said a word until a tall, slender man with a reddish mustache stood up from a poker game at a table near the far end of the room. Slowly the man walked up towards the bar where Elwood stood, and said, just as slowly:

"That's Cahoots, my horse."

In contrast to his otherwise leisurely manners, he pulled out his right hand so fast, that Elwood only noticed the open hand waiting to be shaken once the man had nodded slightly, letting his eyes guide Elwood's.

"I'm Caleb Ryder. I suppose I'll have the honor of welcoming you to Good Faith City. You're Mister Erskine, am I right?"

"Yes, Elwood Erskine. A pleasure."

Their handshake was quick but proper.

"All mine, I assure you. You must excuse your new neighbors for not being more welcoming, you see the last people to settle here were, might we say, bad eggs. "

"Are they still around?" Elwood asked, still feeling the gazes from many suspecting eyes.

"Only one", replied Caleb and grinned. "So, new in town and asking about a horse, not looking to buy her from me are you?"

"If the price is fair. And she's as good as she looks."

"Let's go outside and you can have a better look for yourself. And leave your neighbors so they can finally finish their drinks."

* * *

It was practically a done deal. After only a few minutes and for a good sum Cahoots was his and Elwood was noticeably pleased.

"I bought her in Wichita," said Caleb, "and she's never had a bad day as long I've had her."

"She's in for some tough work, I won't deny that. But she'll manage it just fine I reckon."

"Hope you don't mind me asking, but where exactly do you live?"

"Up on Anthill", replied Elwood, "if you know the place?"

Caleb nodded gently. "It's quite a desolate place up there. Not the easiest to build a homestead on surely. Or safest, seeing as it's not far from the main route north into town."

"Do you want some more dollars to keep it a secret?" countered Elwood laughing.

"No, I won't spill the beans. Besides, those bad eggs I told you about have left."

"All except one."

"You don't have to worry much about him. He's rather trustworthy."

"So you know him quite well?" Elwood couldn't help but look a bit surprised and curious.

"So do you. Good day, my friend, and good luck. I'm sad to say you'll most likely need it", Caleb quipped as he went back into the saloon.

Elwood loaded Cahoots with his newly bought goods and headed off home, up to Anthill, convinced that Caleb was absolutely right that he needed all the luck he could possibly get.


The following weeks were as tough as predicted, but he made genuine progress. Soon Anthill had the foundations of a ranch on its flat rocky expanse and Elwood's conviction grew that he had made the right decision. In the evenings he often looked down on Good Faith City from the north from his high vantage point. Unbeknown he, in turn, was being looked down on from the tableland of the Coachwhip Plateau to the east, not far from the easternmost border of his land. To the west began the complete wilderness of the Rattler Desert. It's a well-established truth that word spreads fast in a small town and plenty of people who had been in the town the last couple of weeks knew plenty of things about Anthill and its owner; without Caleb Ryder even having to open his mouth.

* * *

It was early Saturday morning, Elwood had just fed Cahoots and his dozen hens, his sole company, until now. Back at the farmhouse, he found another horse and, after having a look around the side, a man peeping through the front door. Startled, but giving the stranger the benefit of the doubt, he simply asked in a rather mocking tone:

"Found what you're looking for there, friend?"

The stranger quickly found himself in the situation and replied with a broad Texan accent and the strong smell of hard liquor emitting from his heavy breath:

"I hope you will excuse my brashness, kind sir. My name is Briggs, Clarence Briggs, I work for the National Land Survey Agency. I take it this is your house?"

Elwood didn't know what to answer, only that he had to answer something. Hopefully, something that would make the stranger go away. There were a lot of things he might be, but a federal bureaucrat wasn't one. Still struggling to find words, Elwood turned around and started walking back the way he had just come, thinking he might add both some distance between himself and the stranger—and, if needed, be closer to the hunting rifle he kept on the wall in the stable. As a man of peace, he hoped it wouldn't come to that. Immersed in a whirlwind of thoughts spinning around his head, he was first truly awoken by the painful sensation of his fall backward onto the hard ground of solid bedrock coated with pebbles. First then did he feel the course fibers of a rope cutting its way into his throat, choking him.

With a lasso tied around his neck like some unruly cattle, he was dragged towards the stable, the skin on his back getting ripped and competing with the ache caused by the noose. Now his mind had cleared up with only two thoughts remaining: if he wasn't going to hang to death, then he was confident the revolver he had seen hanging from the stranger's hip holster would do the deed.

* * *

The ooze of old booze was about the only thing keeping him somewhat awake, as his neck was freed, only to have the rope tied to his hands and feet and around the tie stall. Sitting on the floor next to Cahoots, he looked helplessly on as the stranger, obviously a ruthless outlaw, in a hurried pace broke down the door to his house and started rummaging around. If there was one positive thing in all of this it was that, after a bit of a struggle, Elwood got his hands loose, thankful for this drunken mistake on the outlaw's part. His feet however were tied so hard and good his toes were already going numb. At least now he knew he was going to be kept alive for as long as the outlaw deemed suitable.

With his hands free he stroked the front legs of Cahoots in an attempt to calm both of them down. Damning himself for not carrying a knife, a spark of hope was ignited when he realized he might just be able to stand up. After a few attempts, he was on his feet and set Cahoots free, pulling her reins as far as he could, urging her softly to go outside. Maybe just maybe, if she wandered off a bit, someone might see her and bring her back to the ranch. Everyone in town knew she now belonged on Anthill Ranch. Whatever would happen if his plan worked was written in the unlucky stars, but it was a chance he had to take.


Caleb Ryder and three other men formed a clique one might rely on almost always finding in the back of the saloon in Good Faith City, occupied with poker, cigars and the occasional tall tale. It was therefore no problem for Pilar García, the wife of the grocery store owner Alvaro and one of the worst local gossip mongers, to find him and tell him she had seen his old horse roaming around below Anthill as she had just arrived in town.

"That Erskine was nowhere to be seen, however. I think you could take her back if you'd like, señor Ryder!" she remarked slyly.

"No thank you, I've got myself a new mare" Caleb responded nonchalantly, not letting his eyes slip for a moment from his cards.

But he couldn't really let it pass: it wasn't like Cahoots to break loose, and Erskine was clearly both a careful and diligent man. Leaving after he had lost the round they were playing, he headed straight for the sheriff's office. He found the sheriff buried in a newspaper, feet up in dirty boots on the desk.

"Is that what they call Irish manners, is it?"

The sheriff, Isambard Tierney, who was a black-bearded man big in every way imaginable, simply snarled and only put the newspaper down after Caleb had seated himself in front of him.

"Irish manners is not having a seat until you're told to sit," he retorted in thick Irish English, "not that an Englishman would know that."

"I'm Kentucky born and bred" assured Caleb.

"What can I do you for, Mister Ryder?" You haven't gotten yourself into any trouble have you?"

"Not since I came to town and you know it. I've changed my evil ways. Repented"

The sheriff snarled again.

"So you've said. And true, there have been no reports of cattle rustling over the last three months or so. Or bank robberies for that matter . . . "

"I think you should go up to Anthill and Erskine's ranch", Caleb interrupted, "and bring the deputy with you. Where is he?"

"Deputy Armstrong is off today. Why, if I may ask, should I go to Erskine's ranch?"

"His horse—my old horse—has been seen wandering about on her own up there. It's not like her. Something might have happened. It's an isolated place and not far from the trail the desperados often use, you know that. Erskine would be an easy target. He's a farmer, not a fighter."

With a deep sigh, the sheriff stood up and agreed to head up there right away, bringing his deputy with him—on one condition:

"You come along too Ryder. You know this Erskine fellow best. I just hope your concerns for him are for nothing. I'm not in the mood for dealing with death today."


The first thing the three-man posse, headed by Caleb on his new horse, noticed when they arrived at Anthill was not Cahoots, but the sound of commotion from inside Elwood's house. It sounded like a fight was taking place.

"Or maybe he's just gone mad up here all by himself," said the deputy, Gareth Armstrong, tongue-in-cheek, "Lord knows I would."

The sheriff gave his fresh-faced deputy a stern glance, while Caleb dismounted and continued on foot towards the house. He thought he recognized the voice he heard loudly grunting and cursing inside, but he wasn't sure it was Elwood's. As a figure suddenly appeared in the broken-down doorway, he instantly made sense of who it was—and what was going on.

With a quick draw, Caleb held his six-shooter in his hand, making his presence known by cocking it. He wasn't expecting such a hearty greeting.

"Caleb old friend! I was wondering where you've been. How are you?"

"Good afternoon Clarence. Put 'em up will you."

"Is it afternoon already? Well, time flies when you're having fun, doesn't it?"

By now three revolvers were aimed at him, but Clarence, still noticeably under the influence of spirits, seemed totally unaffected by this threefold threat to his life.

"So you've sided with the right side of the law now have you? Kill me are you?"

"Only if I have to Clarence, only if you make me."

"Take your gun and place it on the ground in front of you", the sheriff commanded, "do it now and no one has to get hurt."

The almost unbearable tension that held them all in an exhausting grip proved too much for the young deputy, whose finger squeezed the trigger without him taking aim, shooting past his intended target by a good bit. In the tiny window that the loud and unexpected sound caused, Clarence drew and fired, followed less than the blink of an eye later by Caleb. Three bullets, two hits. Clarence dropped his gun as his right hand instinctively reached for his left arm, acutely hurting from the bullet that had gone right through it. The sheriff hastened to put him on the ground and tie him up. Caleb stood still as if in shock until an agonizing moan shook him out of it. The red sands surrounding Deputy Armstrong's fallen body were shifting to a more vivid red. By the time the sheriff kneeled before him and took his pulse, he had already left the sun-baked desert behind.

* * *

It didn't take long until Elwood was found and freed; almost asleep on his knees with his head nearly resting on the stable floor.

"I heard you talk to him . . . " he said softly as Caleb helped him to his feet and gave him some water, "and old friend was it?"

"I swear I didn't tell a living soul about you or your place up here," Caleb vowed sincerely, "I swear it on my parent's grave."

Elwood coughed as the water cleared his throat from sand, dust and hay.

"It's alright. It doesn't matter. It's over now at least."

"Didn't I tell you you'd need good luck to make it here?" jested Caleb to lighten the mood.

"But a little less trust in good faith wouldn't hurt either" Elwood snapped back, having almost found strength enough to crack a smile with his chapped lips.

By the setting of the sun, Cahoots returned on her own, seemingly having enjoyed her little outing.

* * *

With Clarence Briggs behind bars and Gareth Armstrong buried, Good Faith City was a place both relieved and in grief. Most pressing was the need for a new deputy sheriff to help uphold the thin and frail framework of law and order in a place where none of that was to be found for endless miles around. But Sheriff Isambard Tierney already had a good candidate in mind—it was mainly a matter of being very persuasive on his part. He knew he'd have to work the old Irish charm real hard to get Caleb Ryder to give up his comfortable seat at the poker table.

The End

Eric A.L. Axner is a Swedish bilingual writer, painter and musician. With a love for Westerns and wild nature, this is his first Western story, but most likely not the last. Instagram: www.instagram.com/e.a.l.axnerofficial

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