June, 2024

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Issue #177

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Looking for free, tantalizing Tales of the Old West?
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Read this month's Tales and vote for your favorite.
They'll appear in upcoming print volumes of The Best of Frontier Tales Anthologies!

The Sergeant and the Irish Lass
by W. Wm. Mee
Mary is newly widowed, with two small children, and in the middle of the Great Plains in a Conestoga wagon. The Indians are on the warpath, the local minister is eager to get her married off, and a crude, drunken mountain man wants her. Can the cavalry rescue her in time?

* * *

Tricks of the Trade
by Sharon Frame Gay
A young stranger ambles into town and meets his match at the poker table. His stake gone, all seems lost—or is it? Sometimes the lamb hunts the wolf.

* * *

by Jennifer McMillan
Shiloh Hart arrives at the Platt River Ranch, Wyoming, after surviving a great blizzard, a pack of wolves, and the worst crime of all—being a Yankee in the post-Civil War West. But will he survive Confederate veteran John Stonewall?

* * *

Renegade Sheriff
by Tom Sheehan
The town was young and growing, but the Proulx ranch has taken up robbing and killing with impunity. Blackwater Carrigan is hired on to be the law, but the Proulx crew decide to show the town who is really in control. Will the law prevail against chaos?

* * *

The Truth About the Incident
by J. R. Lindermuth
An old man reveals the truth about a famous gunfight. Will his listener take his word for it?

* * *

More Good Luck and Less Good Faith
by Eric A. L. Axner
Being a recent arrival in Good Faith City isn't easy, as Elwood Erskine finds out the hard way. When a ruthless outlaw threatens to take both his money and his life, it is up to his only friend in town to help him. But will he be in time?

* * *

Want all of this month's Western stories at once? Click here –

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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