July, 2024

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Issue #178

All The Tales

My Birthday
by Richard L. Newman

It was getting on to late fall; with snow already whitening the tops of the mountains off to the west of us. It was about time to slaughter one of the hogs for smoking, for ham and bacon. Time, too, to check the fences, make sure they's nice and tight before the big storms of winter come through. And best of all, my birthday was coming up in two days, which meant it was time to go off and up and out on the fall hunt. This year, Pa said we were going to try for a hunt up high in those mountains we could see across the prairie, lit up now by the rising sun. A sheep was what we were after. Leastwise, that's what Pa told Ma and Bartram, our hand. Only I knew better. I knew that Pa had that roaming urge, that urge to see the big, high, wild country once again, to put himself to the challenge. I knew because I had it too. Me and Pa were alike that way. Both of us loved the lives we led, loved raising cattle and tending to the ranch, but still, every once in a while, the urge would come up on us, and we'd have to bust out, get up into the far-off wild country, see the whole world laid down below us, and smell the fresh air blowing all the way down from Canada. An adventure, that's what we needed.

And well I knew that Pa was a dreamer. Oh, he was a hard worker, kept that ranch just shipshape and watertight, but he was a dreamer, too. Cause we'd talked about it, him and me. Maybe we'd find gold up there, or silver. Maybe discover a lost city. Who knew? The country hadn't been explored, not all the way, and, hell, anything could happen. So, I was as excited as could be, looking forward to this trip, leaving tomorrow, and gone for a whole week. Yes sir, I was ready.

It was cold and frosty when we headed out before dawn the next morning, me, Pa, the horses we rode, and a pack mule to carry our gear and the sheep that we told Ma we were going to bring back. I was up on Phary—his real name was Pharoah, but we all called him Phary—a big eight-year-old gelding; and Pa was on his old Cavalry mount, Bugler. That horse had to have been pushing twenty, and I guess Pa just rode him for sentimental reasons. Anyway, it warmed right up, and we rode in bright sunshine all day; camped that night in the foothills of the range.

Our plan was pretty simple. We'd ride up as high as we could, then hobble the animals, and climb up from there, packing our own loads on our backs. I had my Winchester and Pa had his old Sharps that he'd converted to centerfire. He swore it was more accurate than I could shoot my '73, but I took issue with that statement, and hoped to prove him wrong.

Real early the next morning, my birthday, Pa said, "Happy Birthday! Let's go up and get you that birthday sheep." We started up a'riding, but even before the sun was truly up in the sky, we'd gotten up to steep enough country that it was time to picket the horses and head up a'foot. Which we did. There was a little draw up to our right, and we headed up that way, looking always to climb higher. It was beautiful country up there, big rock walls rising high on either side of us, with huge, tumbled boulders scattered around everywhere, and green plants growing, and high overhead, the cawing of ravens as they watched us coming up. We were still well below the snow line, but already the air was cooler, and the breeze was so fresh that it made your eyes tear.

Neither of us had ever been in this range before. Until recently, there'd been real trouble with the Indians, and as it was, our ranch was just about at the edge of the country that might be considered safe. Now, though, with the most recent treaty, and the presence of the Army just twenty or so miles south of our place, well, now we figured it was safe enough to come up here and look around. As it turns out, maybe it wasn't so safe as we'd thought, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

We came up and around a rock outcropping, and way up high and off to our left we saw some sheep. Bighorns, I should say. Looked like a bachelor herd, congregating to start the rut. And though they were far off, with our glass we could see that two or three of the bulls were majestic, with a full curl of horns. Prizes, just waiting for us, if we were lucky enough and skillful enough to come up on them.

I remember, it seemed a little funny right then, because we had to go down to go up. To stalk those majestic rams, we'd have to cut downhill for about two hundred feet, and then make our way back up on the rocky route on the far shoulder. So, Pa nodded at me, and we headed down.

And ran smack into a war party of Indians. Fifteen, twenty of em, all afoot, like we were, but all painted up and clearly on the prowl.

I don't know who was more surprised, them or us, because neither of us knew the others were there. Pa and me were right up on them before anybody could react. Pa jumped, I jumped, about half the Indians jumped—and that was only because the other half hadn't even seen us yet. And when they did see us, why they jumped, too. One of them lowered his lance and lunged at Pa, but he swung his rifle up and over and batted the lance away to the side. I pulled up and aimed my rifle, but Pa yelled "No!" right at the same time that one of the Indians yelled out something, too, real loud. Everybody froze. All of us. Nobody moving at all for about a million years, as everyone tried to figure out what to do. Silence and stillness, except for a couple of their feathers, fluttering in the light breeze. I slowly lowered my rifle, and Pa swung his so it was pointing down; and the Indians lowered their lances and muskets and such weapons as they had. The Indian who yelled—he was the chief, I figured—and Pa stood there, sizing each other up.

We had no fight with them—not yet at least—but they sure looked like they was on the prod, hunting for someone or something.

Now, I knew that one time Pa rode with the cavalry, but I never gave it much thought—to me he was always just Pa, running the ranch. But now he held up his hand and started in to signing, talking to the Chief. I never knew he could do that. Without turning his head, he said real quietly, but firmly, crisply almost, "Jamie, I'm going to try to talk to these folks. You do like I do—if I sit, you sit. If I shoot, you shoot, and then run, try to get back to the horses. But for now, you just watch me." Well, sir, I was glad to. I didn't know what else to do anyway.

So Pa signed some more, and then the chief, who we was to learn was called Wolf Killer, signed back. Then they both sat down, facing each other. Some of the Indians sat, too. So did I.

I tried not to stare at them, but I wasn't about to back down none, either. They looked wild and fierce. Men dressed in their breech clouts and leggings, beads and bones and feathers. Painted, a lot of them were. Lean, wiry, with intent, piercing gazes. They varied in age, from young men about my age, up to men I thought were into their fifties. But all of them looked tough and fierce, and different from anyone or anything I'd ever seen before. I sat there and tried to look just as tough. But I don't know just how fierce I looked, because one of the older men looked at me, and then smiled. The sort of smile that said, "We could be friends, or I could kill you dead—just as easy either way." And I thought that his smile was true.

Meanwhile, Pa and the Chief, Wolf Killer, were signing away, their gestures punctuated every once in a while by a word or two mostly in English, but I guess Pa knew some Indian, too, because some of the words I didn't know at all.

Well, after a few minutes they finished up. Then, they clasped forearms, and I figured that we wasn't going to be fighting, not these Indians, not this day, anyway. And they both stood up.

"All right, Jamie," Pa said, "we're going to go back down to the horses now. You follow me and walk easy. Don't need to look back. Just walk on."

That was a jumpy walk, I can tell you. My mind didn't think that I was going to get a spear in my back, but my shoulders were mighty nervous anyway. But nothing happened. We walked back up the little trail we'd just come down not more than ten minutes ago, around the rock and so out of their sight. Pa never said nothing. We just walked our way back down, down to the horses.

Once we got back to the horses, Pa spoke. He said, "All right, Jamie, I'll tell you what Wolf Killer (which is how I learned his name) told me. Some slavers came past their camp the other day, stole three young women. Girls really. The Indians are tracking them, hunting them, and mean to deal most severely with them if they can catch them. Seven slavers, Texicans, Mexicans, maybe. Whatever. The Indians think that they're heading south, down into Nevada territory, maybe aiming all the way for the border with Mexico. They're well mounted and moving fast. And the reason why we're heading home and not hunting anymore is that according to Wolf Killer, it looks like they're heading right toward the ranch. So, we're going to get back there as fast as we can. You understand?"

Pa looked real serious, and I knew why. Ma and the little 'uns were there all alone, except for Bart, the hand, and I didn't think he was much of a fighter. They were just kids—my little brother Thad was eleven, and Ada was only eight. This was bad, and I figured it was up to me and Pa to get there fast, and first, and fend these bandits off.

"I told Wolf Killer where we ranch, and that he's welcome to come up behind us, trap these slavers between them and us, but meantime, we've got to move." And we did.

We'd come a fair way yesterday across the prairie, and more this morning climbing up the slope, but we now we moved as fast as was safe heading back. Once down out of the foothills, we set off at an easy lope. Not anywhere near as fast as the horses could run, but at a pace they could sustain for miles, which was what we needed now. I wanted the sun to stop, to just stay there, high in the sky; I wanted time to freeze, while we ran along across that immensity. But the sun kept moving, and the wind blew, and I worried.

We'd both spent a lot of time in the saddle, me and Pa, and I saw him checking his rifle—making sure it was loaded right. He felt around for the cartridges in his belt, too, and I could tell he was counting how many he had. I had my '73, and I unshucked it, and checked it. It was loaded, but with only 10 cartridges, not full up with 13. And Pa was wearing his old Colt. I didn't have a pistol, and wasn't even wearing a cartridge belt, although I had a spare box of ammunition packed away on the mule. Well, there was nothing for it—we'd ride on in with what we had, me with ten shots, and Pa with a single shot rifle and his pistol and those cartridges stuck in his belt. So be it. Course, if we made it home before those bad men, we'd be set. Pa had his own Winchester back home, and he had another Colt revolver there too. We could make a fine showing there, if only we got back safely and in time.

That land looked flat, only it wasn't, really. It was cut through with little gullies, washes, arroyos. We were getting close to our place, when Pa cut his horse off to the left and down into one of those little washes, one that I knew would lead us out right close to the cabin. I followed.

"Okay, Jamie," Pa said. "We got to try to stop and think for a little here. I haven't seen any tracks. Have you?"

I was ashamed to think that I hadn't even been looking for any, although Pa clearly had. "No sir," I said.

"All right,' Pa said. "We're not skylined right here. Wolf Killer said they'd been tracking those bandits for three days; went up into the hills to see if they could see any sign of them. Which they could not. But he said that their path seemed like, if they kept going the way they had been, it'd put them in sight of our cabin, and the ranch. So, the question is, what would they be likely to do if they see the ranch? They's seven of them, according to Wolf Killer, so they'd probably figure they outnumber anyone at the ranch. And they could get food, re-provision, rest the horses maybe, or steal some new mounts.

"But they'd be risking a fight with whoever is home at the ranch, and some members of their band might get hurt or killed. And stopping would slow them down, let the Indians come up closer to them."

Pa stopped and looked around for a minute. I'd never seen him look like that before: worried, fierce, resolute.

"Well, son," he said, "I don't think that we have much of a choice. If they're there already, then I pray to God that your Ma has forted up with the kids in the cabin. It's stout and she might could hold them off for a while. And if those bastards are there, why then us coming up from behind them gives us a little bit of an advantage. If they're not there, then the sooner we get there, the better. So, boy, I hate to put you in danger, but like I say, I don't see as we've got any choice. So, we're going to ride now. Ride as fast as ever we can, ride right up to the cabin. If there's anyone there, you shoot them. Once we're in the cabin, then we can settle down, and make ready to defend our family. You ready?"

"Yes sir," I said, and I was.

Pa never swore, but he'd called those bandits bastards. And he never called me 'Son," but just now he had. And now he surprised me once again. He stepped over and hugged me, hugged me real tight, and "Love you, James Allen. You're a good man, and a fine son. I'm honored to be your father."

We re-mounted, and just before we lit out, he said two more things. "First, you aim carefully, if you need to shoot, but it's more important that you stay in the saddle and get into the cabin. Second, I'll be fine, but if anything happens to me, you just keep riding. Get into the cabin. You got to protect your Ma and the little 'uns."

"Yes sir," I said.

None of it seemed quite real: The whole talk, the idea that we could be riding into battle, that I might have to shoot a man, or could be shot myself. Pa's warning about anything happening to him didn't even sound real. That was my Pa—nothing could happen to him.

And we took off. This was no easy lope. Not now. Now we were riding hell for leather. Pa left his Sharps in the sheath, but he drew his revolver, and held it ready. And I took out that Winchester, and held it ready, too.

And then I heard gunshots. One sounded like a pistol; then two more in quick succession—rifle shots. And I didn't think that Bugler, old as he was, had anything left to give, but he leaped ahead like he was a'fire, and it was all I could do to keep up with them. And then we were in among them. Or, I should say, Pa was. He came down on them like the wrath of God, charging up as close as he could get to each one of them and firing, with old Bugler turning on a dime and leaping over to the next one, and the next. Four shots, real quick and four of them down.

I heard a shot come past my ear from off to my left and saw one of them bandits holding a little girl and fixing to shoot at me again. So right then I disobeyed Pa, because I stopped Phary, to get a steady platform, and I took careful aim, because I didn't want to hurt that little girl, and I shot that bad man, and saw him fall. I heard more shots behind me, and a grunt, and saw Pa flinch in his saddle, and toss that pistol up in the air, and catch it in his other hand, and then, by God, he fired again, with his off hand. And a man dropped. I hadn't consciously been counting but I figured he'd just fired his fifth shot, which meant he only had one left, but I still had me nine shots, and I meant to use them. I galloped old Phary past a small fire with a body laid out next to it, and looked every which way, until I saw another one of them, crouching behind our wagon. And I shot him, too.

And then, all of a sudden, it was quiet. Real quiet. Just my ears ringing from the shots, and Bugler, blowing nervously—he was still ready to go, you could tell, just wanted more war. And Pa sat, swaying in the saddle, with bright blood on his shirt, and I knew he'd been shot.

"Cabin, Jamie," he said, his voice gone all hoarse and fuzzy, "Get to the cabin." Only I didn't, not before I took his reins and led Bugler up there with us.

"Ma!" I yelled, "Ma!" And a moment later (it seemed like forever), the door opened, and Ma stood there. And her blouse was red, too.

Before I could move, Pa was down off Bugler, and hugging her.

"Oh, Anson," Ma said.

Pa said "Laura, Laura, dear, are you all right?"

Back in the cabin I saw Theo and Ana, and Theo had my rifle on his lap.

Well, I can tell you what I learned from Ma and the little 'uns. It was Bart who'd warned them. Yelling from out back that they were trouble, right before they caught him. But he fought like a bear, Ma said, and gave her time to close the shutters, and fort up in the cabin. She set Theo to work loading the two Winchesters.

"They had Bart," she told Pa, not knowing I could overhear. "Oh Anson, it was horrible. They were torturing him, cutting and burning him, trying to make us come out. I'll never forget his screams. But I couldn't go out, could I? Not with the babies." She was crying now.

"Oh Anson, I didn't know what to do. It was Bart," she said, "who told me. Told me to shoot him. And oh Lord, I did." Sobbing, and Pa hugging her, holding her tight.

"And then, they started shooting the cabin. Trying to drive us out. So, what I did was, I'd shoot both guns, one right after the other, to make them think that there were more of us inside. I kept Theo busy reloading, didn't I, my fine boy?" She tousled his head, and I stuck my tongue out at him.

"And then, I got shot. Just a scratch, really, but it slowed me down a bit, so Theo and Ada were handing me the guns, and I'd go to one window and then the other, trying to keep them from getting close, or setting a fire."

And then she gasped and said "But, oh Anson, you're wounded."

Which Pa was. Ma was right, she had a little scratch, where a bullet had grazed her hip. It bled just a bit, but she was all right. Pa though, had taken one in his side, under the ribs. It had tunneled up under the skin, and was lodged up in back of his ribs, near his spine.

But he told Ma to leave it for now, when she started fussing over him. He had her wrap a bandage around his waist, to staunch the bleeding, and then he called me, and we went back out to see what we could see. Pa and I walked out and looked at the slavers where they lay, those wicked men, and we found the three little girls, too. They were scared pretty near to death, but they didn't seem to have been harmed. We brought them in, and Ma immediately took to fussing over them, and Ada thought she'd found some new friends, and so that was all good.

And then over near that little fire I'd seen as I passed, we came upon Bartram. He'd been our hand for as long as I could remember. I never thought much about him—he just seemed like sort of a member of the family. I got sick when I saw what they'd done to him, but Pa said, "I want you to remember this, James Allen: This man was a hero. He gave your Ma time to get to safety, and he died a hero. You could say he gave his life to save theirs. If you have a boy of your own, I think Bart would be a fine name."

And then Pa staggered and almost fell, and I had to help him back to the cabin.

A bit later, I was out digging a grave for Bart when Wolf Killer and them rode up. I saw them coming, and they were a fine sight to see, hair and feathers streaming in the sun, and the horses thundering. A fine sight, and also a little frightening, to be honest. I didn't really know what to do. Ma and Pa were back in the cabin. So I waved at them. And I called out to Pa.

Pa came to the door, just about the time that Wolf Killer rode up to me. Wolf Killer looked around, his men looked around, and he looked a little surprised and pretty well pleased. Then he said something which I couldn't understand, but I took it to mean that he was asking about those little girls that they'd ridden so hard to find. So I said, "they're up in the cabin," and pointed, and just to be careful, I yelled for Pa again. He understood right away, and stepped out, holding the hand of one the tiny ones, and there came Ma behind him, holding the other two, and behind them, Theo, trying to look fierce, and Ada, sad because she was losing her new poppets.

I thought that that was the end, the happy ending, but not yet, not quite. Because from off to the side, there came a commotion. One of the slavers wasn't dead, and the Indians had found him. A mess of them started whooping and screaming, and I didn't envy that slaver at all. Only Pa stepped forward and said something in Indian to Wolf Killer and the whole band. He said it like he meant it, and then he said it again. And then, limping, he moved over and stood in front of the slaver lying there on the ground.

"Jamie," Pa said, "These Indians have some sort of idea about torturing this poor man. I won't have it. I want you to go in the cabin with Ma and the little 'uns, and lock up, because I don't know what they'll do. But there won't be any more torture, not on my ranch; not on this bastard, not on anyone."

Well, once again, I disobeyed Pa. I shooed Ma and them back into the cabin, and whispered to Ma to lock that door tight, and make ready, and then I walked over, me and the Winchester which hadn't left my side since we got home, and I stood next to Pa. If there was going to be any fighting, I was sure as heck not going to let him stand alone.

Pa stood a little straighter, I think.

I took a quick look behind me and it was clear that the slaver was hurt bad. He wasn't going to make it, come aye or nay, but I agreed with Pa. I'd seen Bart—I had no wish to see any more of that.

Moving real slowly, while those Indians stood and watched, real slowly, Pa drew out his Colt, and put a bullet in the brain of that slaver, sending him to wherever his Maker had in mind, and ending his troubles in this earthly plane. I stood there, my rifle ready, not aimed at anyone, but ready. And I figured Pa had his five shots left, too. So—what were those Indians going to do?

Wolf Killer—that was a serious man, an intimidating man. He stared straight into Pa's eyes for about a year, it seemed. Then he said something, nodded, turned, and remounted. He put one of those girls up in the saddle before him, which was his granddaughter, I came to find, and then all of those Indians mounted, and whooped, and rode clear around the cabin, raising their lances, and shaking their rifles, and then they rode away.

"What'd he say," I asked Pa, watching them riding away into the failing evening light.

"Aw, I don't know, exactly," Pa said. "Something about that we were both great warriors, and very brave, and brave to stand over our captive and not let the Indians keep him, and that we were their friends forever. I think."

Pa put his arm around my shoulders. "Let's go in," he said.

We buried Bart and set up a marker over his grave. "Bartram Moses Anderson, 1832 - 1877. A good man, who protected the only family he had, and died very bravely."

The others, we dragged their carcasses out into the desert, and left them for the wolves and buzzards.

Well, I never did get a sheep, and Bart got killed, and Pa and Ma got shot; and so anyways, that was my fifteenth birthday.

The End

Richard L. Newman, known to his friends as Rick, has traveled widely throughout the West, and is still searching for good biscuits and strong coffee.

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Rebel Renegade, Johnny Grey
by James Burke

Johnny Grey hissed in pain as a bullet grazed his neck. His hand, which instinctively shot up to grasp it, only agitated the pain. He felt warm wetness in his fingers, but not much. All he could do was keep on galloping. The young stallion grunted and groaned as he trampled on. Bullets zipped past, some grazed the beast's rump, prompting whinnies and sudden bursts of dwindling energy. But it wouldn't last. Less than a mile to the treeline! Johnny spurred the mount, unmoved by the creature's misery. He had to keep galloping! Bullets continued to swarm all around him. If not for the gunshots and stench of gunpowder behind him, Johnny might have mistaken them for horse flies! He chanced a backwards glance, and very quickly wished he hadn't. A dozen Red-Legs were hot on his heels! At their head galloped the sneering, bearded, Hans Becker. Even from a hundred yards back Johnny could see the murder in his eyes. He'd seen the same murder in Fritz Becker's eyes earlier. Shaking the bitter memory from his head, he turned back to the treeline at front. He was almost there!

"YOU'RE A DEAD MAN, GREY!" the older Becker brother roared. Another shot zipped past, stinging Johnny's ear. The last of his nerves failing, Johnny took a deadly gamble. He drew his Colt from its holster, turned to aim for the glaring eyes of Hans Becker, and fired. The bullet ripped a gulch through the Red-Leg's cheek, dying his beard even redder with blood, but the chief foe still lived. Johnny cursed himself for wasting the last round in the cylinder. He had his powder-horn and more shots, but reloading was a timely process. Holstering the pistol, he felt for his Bowie knife. The big blade at his side had frightened away plenty of unsavory characters in the past. But a dozen armed bushwhackers, one of them fueled by vengeance, would need more convincing. Maybe once he got into the trees it'd give him a chance. Plenty of trees and bushes to soak up bullets and throw off marksmen. Still won't be much good with him all by his lonesome. He prayed the rumors he'd heard back at the tavern were true.

Soon the constant swarm of bullets ceased but the oncoming rumble of hooves gave Johnny little hope that they'd lost interest. Turning, he saw the Red-Legs clumsily replace their spent cylinders with loaded ones. The hail of bullets resumed and again Johnny cursed himself. In the future he'd always keep a few extra loaded cylinders on him! If indeed he had a future! His entire reason for moving out there to the fringes of the Missouri-Kansas border was to create his future. But even if he survived the day that future would never be what he'd hoped for. The younger Becker brother had made sure of that.

Johnny shook the flood of emotions from his mind. He needed a cool head, now more than ever. The storm of blazing guns and zipping bullets intensified as he closed in on the trees. Wood chips and tree bark burst and scattered as hot lead followed Johnny into the forest. Curses rang out as the Red-Legs charged in after their prey. The stallion whinnied and defiantly slowed down. Johnny knew better than to get mad, the beast had no choice. The path between the trees was narrow and winding. Any more than trotting could lead to a lethal collision. The Red-Legs' mounts would do the same. Apart from his pursuers and himself, the forest seemed deserted. A seemingly endless maze of wood and shadows.

"I guess the rumors were wrong!" Johnny grunted aloud. He was over a hundred yards into the trees and not a soul to be seen. "Guess I'll have to rescue myself," he huffed before reining his mount to a halt. Swiftly sliding off he smacked the stallion's rump, sending it trampling off with a whinny. He flattened himself against the thickest tree in sight, drew his Bowie knife and tried his best to breathe silently.

"Where is he?" echoed the voice of Hans Becker. Sounded a way off.

"HE'S SOMEWHERE IN HERE, WE'LL FIND HIM!" shouted another Red-Leg, sounding much closer. Moments later the thud of hooves on dirt approached Johnny's tree. Sensing the motion just in time, he reached out and grabbed the bushwhacker by the belt and dragged him from the saddle. The two of them sprawled in the dirt. Johnny rolled atop the stunned foe and buried his blade in the man's throat.

"Found me, you mangy varmint!" he spat in the fading eyes of the dying Red-Leg. After wiping his blade on the dead man's shirt he fished the Colt from the foe's belt and lunged for the nearest tree for cover. More hoof-beats approached.

"JASPER?" another Red-Leg called out with a country twang. "JASPER, WHERE'D YOU GET TO?" Johnny grinned darkly to learn the name of the second man he'd ever killed. Instants later Jasper's horse fussed and trotted off. The oncoming Red-Leg reined his mount to a halt. "JASPER! WHY'D YOU GET OFF YOUR HORSE?"

"Here's why!" Johnny growled as leapt from behind his tree and threw his Bowie knife at the Red-Leg's neck with all his might. The projectile hit home, knocking the bushwhacker from his mount with a gasping gurgle. No sooner had the flailing figure landed than Johnny rushed up to retrieve his knife and loot the dead man's revolver. More voices echoed through the trees and Johnny took cover behind another tree. He quickly removed and checked the cylinders of both looted pistols. One had four rounds left, the other three. A bitter sigh escaped his lips.

"Well done, Johnny!" he huffed to himself. "Now it's only ten against one and you have just enough bullets to make it three against one, if you don't miss!" The deafening blast of a pistol and a shower of wood and bark mere inches from his head cut Johnny off. He stumbled to the dirt with a gasp.

"SHOOT! WHO WAS THAT? SETH, IS IT YOU?" the Red-Leg called out timidly. Thinking quickly, Johnny remembered the country twang of his last kill.

"DARN RIGHT IT'S ME, YOU BLAZING HALF-WIT!" Johnny hissed in the best impression he could manage, wincing that it probably wasn't good enough.

"AW HELL AND DAMNATION! I'M SORRY, SETH! THOUGHT FOR SURE YOU WAS THAT VARMINT WHAT KILLED FRITZ!" the Red-Leg's voice was almost a whimper as he trotted his mount closer. Johnny smirked, the man really was a half-wit! He casually got to his feet just as the bushwhacker approached, brought up one of his pistols and took aim. The half-wits eyes widened as they gazed down the barrel to meet Johnny's.

"I forgive you," Johnny said before pulling the trigger. The idiot's horse darted with the shot, his body slumping limp to the dirt. As he looted the Red-Leg's gun, he congratulated his own marksmanship. A clean shot between the eyes, the face frozen in surprise at his blunder. A hail of bullets tore into the trees and bushes around Johnny. Some of them grazed his arms, prompting him to curse his own blunder; staying in one place!

With a pistol in either hand, Johnny shot up and shot back wildly as he loped deeper into the woods. A lucky shot struck a horse, causing it to topple over. Its rider wailed in agony, his red-wrapped leg probably crushed beneath the animal's weight. A less lucky shot struck a Red-Leg's left arm. Only giving its owner all the more reason to spray lead with his right arm. Johnny began zigzagging through the trees as his attackers pursued. Kept the mounted foes constantly shifting in the narrow spaces between trees. Hans Becker appeared on his stallion, trampling to the head of the pursuers. Seeing his chance, Johnny paused to aim both pistols and fired in unison. One bullet struck a branch, the other blew off his village cap. Uncovered, his face was even more startlingly red with bloodshot fury. Resuming his mad dash, Johnny fired both revolvers again. His left weapon clicked empty, but the other knocked a Red-Leg from his horse with a bullet to the chest. Tossing away the spent pistol he began to reach for the third one shoved in his belt but stopped short. Looking back as he weaved between trees, he noticed his foes were keeping close together. Colliding with each other and cursing as they struggled through the undergrowth after their prey. A dark grin spread Johnny's lips as he took hold of his powder horn. It just might work!

Hot lead hissed after him, tree bark sprinkling his shirt as he drew a handkerchief from his pocket and stuffed it into his powder horn. Pulled his last match and struck it on a tree as he passed. He quickly put the flaring Lucifer to the handkerchief, it caught flame quickly. Johnny uttered a quick prayer for success as he flung the powder horn backwards towards the oncoming Red-Legs. Cries of horror went up instants before the blast shook the world to its foundations. The force flung Johnny forward onto his face, but he sprang to his feet with the agility of a wildcat! Surprising even himself. Chancing a glance back, he saw at least three unmounted horses run off. The ringing in his ears quickly died down for curses and oaths to be heard behind him. Either injured or angry. Johnny ran all the faster, in no hurry to find out which. He couldn't recall how many bullets were left in either remaining pistol, and didn't want to find that out either. Was Becker killed in the blast? If so, would the others give up? Maybe. None of them had lost a brother. Unless Jasper or Seth had brought their brothers along. Johnny cursed the thought as he ran.

He burst through a passel of brush and paused to find himself in a clearing. A concealed meadow in the woods, the eye of the storm. A fresh volley of pistol shots burst from the trees and Johnny was once again running for his life. About a hundred yards to the trees at the far end of the meadow. Too far! He drew both pistols and prepared for his last stand. Spinning around on his heel, he fired both weapons. A return volley knocked him on his back before the smoke had settled. Searing pain blazed in his right shoulder and left waist. Triumphant cheers and vulgar insults went up from his victorious foes. He no longer felt the revolvers in his hands. Shoot, they wouldn't do him any good. The slightest movement brought crippling pain. Soon four sneering faces looked down on him. Johnny coughed harshly. His attempt at a laugh, knowing he had killed all but four!

"Got ya, didn't we you mangy Reb!" spat a skinny Red-Leg who looked like a shaved weasel.

"Thought you was pretty clever with that little gunpowder trick?" chuckled a fat one with a hat too small for his head. "You slavers always did have a high opinion of yourselves!" Johnny tried to say he'd never owned any slaves, but only another cough came out. Prompting a round of laughter from three of his foes. Becker's face was straight as a rail and cold as ice. His eyes shone like hot coals after a long burn.

"You shot the wrong man's brother, Reb," Becker growled.

"Your brother shot the wrong man's wife!" Johnny managed to growl back. The beautiful face of Mrs. Claire Grey flashed before his eyes. His childhood playmate who grew to be his sweetheart. The woman he had eloped with to make his way in the world as a man. Her long black hair, warm smile, and gentle voice had always been a comfort to him. A new wave of pain engulfed Johnny as the weight of her death, barely an hour ago, finally hit him. The crack of Fritz Becker's Colt snapped in his ear, the sight of Claire's limp body, a hole blown through her forehead, her beautiful eyes gazing lifeless up to heaven. Johnny could only growl in defiance as tears flooded his eyes. His face burned with rage as the Red-Legs laughed mirthlessly.

"That Cherokee tramp?" Becker paused to spit. "Shoot! Them savages cast their lot with you Rebs. Suppose it's only natural. Them Injuns was trading their own kind in bondage before you and yours even started importing blacks to pick your filthy cotton! Them dainty little squaws like yours always love to smile and bat them eye-lashes. Ain't none of them ever fooled me for a second! Shoot! My brother done you a favor! And how'd you repay him? A bullet in his back!" Johnny wanted so badly to tell him Claire and hers never owned slaves. Fact was their tribe was divided, about half of had sided with the Union. But knew better then to waste his breath, no reasoning with a mad dog!

"Good of you to turn and face the music at the end there though," Becker brought up his revolver. "Only one of us is in the habit of back-shooting. Any last words?" So many curses, so many insults and defiant exclamations ran through Johnny's mind he couldn't settle for only one. He willed his tears to dry and glared up at his killer with seething rage. Becker thumbed back the hammer and took aim. "I guess not." A hole appeared in Becker's head as he fell backwards amid the crack of a gunshot. The other three Red-Legs did the same as bullets riddled their bodies. Johnny's mind scrambled to comprehend his burst of good fortune. Footsteps approached from behind and he remembered the rumors of Rebel guerrillas in these woods. The kind face of an older, graying man appeared above him.

"You alright there, son?" the man asked. Darkness engulfed the world.

In what seemed an instant the warm glow of a campfire shone through the darkness. Johnny felt his weakness and knew better than to try and sit up. Shifting his weight slightly, he moaned as the searing pains returned to his shoulder and side. Felt the cloth wrapped around his neck, shoulder, and waist; sticky with his own blood. In seconds the older man's face shone above him in the firelight. "Don't try to move, son," he gently ordered. "You've been through quite the ordeal."

"Shoot! Not nearly the ordeal them Red-Legs went through," chuckled a younger voice. A scrawny figure came into view beside the older man. His skin looked tight and leathery and his voice betrayed hard living, harder than most. "Took them on single-handed, you did! Took down all but four! My kinda man!" he finished with a wink and a high-pitched giggle. Johnny wasn't sure he liked this one.

"We heard-tell of what happened in the town," a gruff voice said moments before a bearded man approached. Johnny figured he was a few years older than him. "Sorry about your woman, kid. Them Red-Legs ain't got no honor."

"Thanks," Johnny sighed.

"Don't worry, Doc says you'll be alright," the bearded man said with a nod to the older man. "I'm Jackson, this here is Carver," he nodded to the scrawny man, whose continued look of mindless glee was starting to make Johnny nervous. "You'll get to know the rest of us in time. Doc's got a wagon, tomorrow we'll load you with the supplies and bring you along. Got us a bigger camp in Missouri, you can convalesce there. When you're better you're free to join us. The Cause could use a man with grit and spirit."

"Shoot! This one's almost as good at killing Yanks as I am!" Carver cackled. "Be an honor having you, friend! Got a name, don't you?"

"Johnny Grey."

"Shoot! Welcome to the war, Johnny Grey!" Carver said with a slightly warmer burst of laughter.

"Alright, let the man sleep," Doc huffed, shooing the other two away and lifting a blanket off of Johnny to check his bandages. "About time to change them. Don't worry, I've patched up every one of these roughnecks at least once. Seen plenty worse than this and some of them even lived to tell the tale! You'll be alright," he assured before turning to reach into a bag and produce a roll of bandages.

Johnny let his head fall back on the rolled up jacket that was his pillow. It seemed he was in the war now, whether he liked it or not. And for the South, whether he liked it or not. He almost laughed at the bitter irony of it. He wasn't for the South! At all! He was a Union man who had voted for Lincoln! He despised slavery and felt the South's cause was one of elites fighting for their rights to lord over all! Of course he concluded to keep such sentiments to himself. If these guerrillas knew what had happened in the town earlier, everyone did! Word would spread to other towns and soon the newspapers would be running headlines like "Rebel Renegade, Johnny Grey, Guns Down Patriots in Cold Blood." It only took half her tribe siding with the Confederates to seal Claire's fate. The public's mind would soon be made up about Johnny. Who was he to argue?

The End

James Burke was born in Illinois in 1987. After serving in the Navy he went to college and graduated with his Bachelor's Degree in History in 2016. He has written various short stories since 2017 and has self-published the e-book anthology The Warpath: American Tales of East, West, and Beyond. He lives with his wife in Greenville County, South Carolina.

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Excerpt from Boetticher's Official Guide to Gunslinging
by Jon Gluckman

1. Buy or rent a fine, coal-black stallion.

At Blaylock's Livery, I got me that glistening caballo negro I'd had my eye on for a while, now. There weren't flecks of white anywhere marring that sheen. He was one gorgeous animal: a gift from God.

2. Ride him until he's nearly dead, mouth foaming, rib cage heaving, eyes glaring like they're about to shoot straight from its skull.

And I rode him till he was nearly dead. His hooves bled something wicked.

3. Find the town saloon (This should not be difficult. You needn't be the Sherlock Holmes or the Watson. Every town has one; it usually sits smack in the middle of Main Street.).

After tying him off, and brushing the dust from my chaps, I took the stance, and bow-legged it into the Catawumpus Saloon, and spur-jangled my way through the double action doors, and the smoke you had to pry apart with a pair of Clydesdale gelding tongs, just to approach the bar.

4. Order a whiskey, even if you possess a distaste for whiskey; it's requisite that you have a whiskey, and tell the bartender to leave the bottle. It is imperative that you tell the bartender to leave the bottle. (See Appendix 6, Plate 11 on how to weaponize a whiskey bottle.)

I said, "Sam, do I gotta blow your horse to get a drink? And leave the bottle." (I almost forgot to tell Sam to leave the bottle.)

5. Insult the gunslinger on your left or right. Choose the side where the gunslinger is. If there is one on either side, let nature decide. Say something like,

EXAMPLE: "Your mother's a filthy pig-whore who's got the pelvic inflammatory disease so bad that she gave it to you, gave you the coquettish melissa too, because she's your mother, but that obviously didn't work since your nose has rotted from your fat, stupid, bloated face."

Or something similar, or shorter, but penetrating, anger-inducing.

I pulled Boetticher's Official Guide to Gunslinging from the saddle bag I'd brought in with me. You can't trust nobody these days. Leave it on the steaming caballo negro and you've written an invitation for any highwayman to purloin your treasured heirlooms and valuables. My memory ain't ironclad anymore since I got kicked in the head by that mule (seems like someone's always getting kicked in the head by a mule these days) like it got shot full of holes for the memories to leak out, like some kind of brainpan colander. So, I studied them pages and knew what I had to do. I shoved my elbow into that fella's rib cage, and let rip a destabilizing onslaught of verbiage, that I shan't repeat here, it not being decent for good, God-fearing people to hear.

6. Defend yourself. (See Appendix 6, Plate 11 again.)

Before he reacted (actually, I can't be sure he'd heard me. He'd said, "Wha—?" And Mr. A.O. Babel tickled—rather, hammered—them ivories back into the pie-ana' frame like he was fit to bury them so's they'd never rise again in the afterlife) I shattered the left side of his face, so that his jaw hung in a non-operational manner, swinging back and forth like a breach cloth between the legs of one of them Kiawah fellas. The upper hand is imperative. One time, back in my feckless youth, I'd let a guy finish his sentence, and that's why my eyebrows won't never grow back now.

7. Go upstairs and see Candy (there's always a Candy) if you're not bleeding too badly.

I consulted the Boetticher for my next steps while my drinking partner slithered like a copperhead over the edge of the bar, more liquid than solid, down to the piss gutter, kinda like he was a dollop of mercury. Sam stood, bar towel in hand, staring with his mouth hung open, too. I didn't have a scratch on me. Of course, I never do. With my forefinger anchored to the passage in the manual, I traced the words, so I wouldn't miss a-one. I said, "I'll-see-Candy-now."

8. Relieve the rest of your tension playing with Candy.

I don't think I really got to tell you about Step 8, now do I? In fact, I'd lay money on it, that your imagination can drum up images of what Candy (her name was, actually Melody) and I would do up in her room for 20 minutes. Actually, it only took about ten minutes. She only said, "Leave it on the vanity" but I'd made Melody sing: eyes glazed—the way she couldn't look at me for fear of bursting into flames. Some say I misread signs, but I am a scholar of mythology; she was my Semele, and I, her Zeus. I was a god in the ways and methods of amorous love-making, and in just ten minutes.

9. The next morning, when the sheriff and his three deputies burst through Candy's door, (See Appendix 1, Plates, 1, 2, 3, 3a, and 7 on Gun Handling While Pulling on Your Britches; it's somewhat complicated, but with a little practice, a child could do it.) defend yourself, again.

Well, I didn't have to wait until the next morning. My britches were already in place, barn door shut, and everything put away, proper. I killed two of the three deputies with my revolver. Shot the stocky one with the gimp leg, and the one arm through the tonsils, so after he fell to the floor, he gurgled like when water pulls away from an oyster bed. The other one just leaked through his belly as his mind leaked into unconsciousness. Astonished by the sounds the stout man made while dying, I gawked at him and didn't see the third deputy, who snuck up behind me. The sheriff and his remaining deputy threw me to the floor, hog-tied me, and kicked me stupid. Then they hauled me to a holding cell behind the sheriff's desk in the county courthouse. This all happened about seven minutes after playtime with Candy . . . ahh, Melody, I mean. That gunslinger I'd demolished regained consciousness. He told his daddy, who was the sheriff. He had to write it all out, his jaw being all out of commission. Then they derail my euphoric peace of post-coital bliss by unleashing this rain of violence upon my body and my freedom.

10. See Appendix 11, Appropriate Behaviors while Incarcerated.

I didn't cry for my mama or nothing, seeing that she'd abandoned me as a child. One day she left with a bible salesman, (someone's mom always left with a bible salesman). She never came back. Why'd she never come back? She'd said, "Honey, I'll be right back."

11. See Appendix 12, Post-Hanging Manifestations: How to Avoid Embarrassing Post-Mortem Bodily Functions

12. See Appendix 13, Coping with Feelings of God's Abandonment and General Nihilistic Malaise, from the Infinite Anonymity of an Unmarked Grave.

 . . . and these steps, 11 and 12, I can't comment on, because I am beyond words now. Anyone would be. Boetticher includes them, but God knows why. Seems kind of pointless, if you ask me.

The End

Retired veteran English teacher Jon Gluckman writes in a small southern New Jersey town just outside Philadelphia, PA, with his beautiful and brilliant (also retired) curator wife and two rascally rescue puppies, Arthur and Bella. He has published work in Micro-Fiction Monday Magazine, 101 Words Weekly, Mystery Magazine, Grim & Gilded, Frontier Tales, and Mobius Boulevard.

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Mountain Mail Runner, February 1859
by Moss Springmeyer

Like a magnet seizing an iron filing, the California Gold Rush of 1849 dragged Jack west willy nilly. A myriad other iron filings were tumbled along too, jolted loose from their pasts, a brotherhood of zest for adventure and dazzling dreams of riches. He'd chased every whisper of a gold strike for five years. Some whispers were will o' the wisps. Others were real, but luck was not with him. Time for a change. One thing was sure: He'd learnt to live rough and he was going to stay in the West.

Then, one night in the saloon, the Mica, California postmaster said he hadn't laid eyes on Long Tom, the mail runner, since Tom snowshoed up the Emigrant Trail towards Beckworth Meadows three weeks before. The recent blizzard had likely killed him on the way back. Jack had jumped at the job. Later, he'd learnt the skills to carry it out.

He'd begun by stumbling, tripping, and falling in the heavy wooden snowshoes, called "rackets" for their likeness to tennis gear. The first dozen tumbles taught him that he couldn't just charge through, a humbling lesson for a man so tall and strong. He'd tried taking longer and shorter strides, raising his legs higher and lower, swinging the rackets wide and narrow. The first attempts with the high lift left the front of his thighs burning and swollen the next morning. Trying out the wide swings planted pain lurking to shoot up the insides of his thighs at the slightest sideways motion the next day. But those muscles grew strong and supple, high lift and wide swing became second nature.

The pinch of magic that pulled it together was a bounce. As each step landed, he bounced a little bounce, giving the opposite leg an extra lift just as it started to swing forward. That cured the stumbling. Breathing an explosive "Ha!" aloud every other step recruited the gut muscles to the heave and helped him find the rhythm.

The snowshoe struggle became the racket dance. It was still hard work, but joyful, too. That little bounce lifted his heart as well as his snowshoe. Out on his own, he'd quack now and then, just for the hell of it, imagining himself a long-legged duck waddling up the trail.

Now, after a week in town, too many cards and too much booze, Jack welcomed his mail-route routine. Five years had engraved it into his soul, but it was always a new adventure. At the snowline, he hopped off the Mica mail wagon and gulped the astringent tang of the pines. He scooped up his fur blanket roll, satchel, and snowshoes. Another dive into the wagon brought up a bundle of poles and a frame crisscrossed with rawhide mesh which he would assemble into a travois. Using the travois, he would move that huge mail sack, three times as much as he could have carried on his back. Lastly, he manhandled out the 200-pound waxed-canvas sack. He'd be taking it east up the Emigrant Trail over the towering Tormentoso Range through Swayback Pass and down to his friends and neighbors at the Fort Hotel in Beckworth Meadows.

He imagined the sack squirming with colorful living threads eager to connect far flung family and friends with the Beckworth Meadows folks. A letter hectoring the orphaned apprentice-lawyer to be born again would warm the boy with his uncle's love; the cutler would hear his sweetheart whisper of the stirrings of spring in South Carolina; the ranching trio of brothers would read into their father's wearisome tirade on states' rights his unspoken care and worries about their safety. The inn keeper would read the illiterates their letters. Their little community would hum with connections.

The mail wagon, the last wheels he'd hear until his return, rolled away with the usual hearty "Better you than me! Good luck!" The next human voices would be happy shouts greeting him and the mail at the Fort Hotel. Now, the silence was torn only by the harsh caws of the blue jays, the tinkling trills of the juncos, and the diminutive cacophony of "Chick-a-dee-dee-dees" darting and fluttering past. Behind it all, the susurration of the perpetual breeze in the pine tops, a sound so native to the mountain realm that it whispered below awareness.

The alpine sounds lifted his spirit as he worked, lashing the travois's two long poles onto a cross-piece just wider than his shoulders. He then tied the frame between the poles' other ends, the whole looking like an A-frame ladder. The mail would ride on the mesh-covered frame. He would push against the cross-piece with his chest, dragging the back ends along the snow, knee-high powder resting on packed snow deeper than three men standing on each other's shoulders.

He strove up the track into the green and white solitude, so familiar, but never the same. He thought, "I'm an otter back in the water. I'm a hawk climbing the sky!" Every muscle sang, strong and elastic, an ecstasy of motion.

As the sun sank behind him, the pines' pointed shadows stretched into spearheads, obsidian on the sparkling snow. He smiled that they pointed his way eastward up the Emigrant Track, the shortest route to his base at the Fort Hotel. The surface powder he toiled through would be three or even four feet deep before he reached Swayback Pass, 70 miles ahead and 9,500 feet high, the lowest dip in the Sierra Tormentoso's crest for miles and miles. Until spring, the steep snow-swathed slopes banished hoofed animals. Even the deer wintered in the valleys.

* * *

The third day brought Jack to Swayback Pass. The juncos stayed lower down, but up here at the edge of the sky, chickadee troupes chittered and swooped and jay caws boasted and argued. No matter how many times he came, the sheer wonder of this between-land cleansed his soul. What a miracle to be walking yards above the ground that was itself almost two miles in the sky,with the majestic peaks soaring even higher both south and north of the pass. Past his long climb up the west slope, but not yet into the steep descent down the the east side, he sped across the flat, his motion fluid, almost effortless.

There was something otherworldly about the pass, he thought, as though whatever was making the mountains had come roaring up from the south, paused to catch its breath here, and then raged on, rending and ripping and roaring north. An alien being, magnificent, hugely powerful, dangerously indifferent.

The blood sang in his veins and his whole body rejoiced as he danced east across the level pass. For a blissful moment, his starting point and his destination did not matter, he was in the landscape and of the landscape, and it was in him and of him.

Was that moment what heaven was like? Could a human soul bear it for long? He began to feel more separate again, still joyful, but more distinct. The crisply focused view before him ended abruptly five miles ahead. In the distance rose vaguer mountain ranges, flat like torn paper, the nearer ones dark, the furthest almost as pale as the lavender of the fading day. Below sight, in the gap between the end of the immediate crisp view and the nearest of the paper cutout ranges, at the foot of the Tormentoso lay his goal. The glorious solitude, the floating feeling of awe subsided as the homey prospect of arrival arose.

Each stride drew him closer to flinging wide the Fort Hotel's front door to devour the savory aromas of venison stew and fresh bread. Friends and neighbors would jostle for his news and smile that he had made it again—glad to share the victory, because they all knew that crossing the Tormentoso in winter was dueling with Death. That fellowship would gladden their hearts, feeling a little bit stronger when he was with them. And how the mail would rejoice them, renewing and strengthening their ties to absent friends and loved ones.

Catching a strange fresh whiff, the warning perfume announcing storm, he thrust on faster. The bright blue sky went white.

The cold sharpened till he could no longer smell the pines. Their murmur deepened to a growl. Up here, the snow pack rose so high that he looked into the midriffs of the trees—underneath the powder, the snow surface was solid, yet higher than a man on stilts.

The wind pushed harder and deeper into the the forest, filling and erupting where, moments before, chickadee calls had trilled. The little hairs inside his nose froze together, tickling and tugging at his nostrils.

Feathery flakes gave way to a fast, dense, swirling snow, disguising his way. Pushing against the wind was devouring his zest and strength. His alertness shifted into alarm. "The storm is taking too much out of me," he thought.

Even the jays hushed and hid. The wind roared and whipped from everywhere at once, stinging the bare skin around his eyes. Deeply thankful for the thick furs protecting him everywhere else, he strode on.

"Not going to be an everyday storm. Got to get the mail through somehow," he thought, pushing down the fear. He let himself imagine those colorful, living filaments of connection, reaching from everywhere through his mail sack to the people awaiting them.

He squinted against the driving snow. The lashes in his eyes' outer corners began to freeze together, so he popped his lids wide every few strides. But at the same time, the sting of the snow on his eyes triggered the lids to close. The snow surface on which he strode and the white sky merged into one close yet limitless blurry envelopment. "I'm in the cloud, now," he thought. In this alien white world, if he should stray, the familiar pines and rocks were so changed by the heavy snow and the sculpting wind that he might not find his way back.

The storm verged on blizzard and his hope flattened. Pitted against the storm, a dull ache in his thighs was ramping up. The muscle knot between his shoulder blades was cramping. How long could he fight the wind as well as normal exhaustion? Fear began to tingle outward through his muscles to his finger tips and toes. The mail runner before him wasn't the only man who had died in such a storm. He'd heard of people bewildered by a blizzard losing their way between their cabin and their barn, frozen to death just steps from their safe, warm kitchens. Smart folks put up a guide rope to follow between barn and homestead. There'd be no guide here. Grim determination was carrying him. "No!" he shouted, "I will not die!"

The wind roared louder and drove the snow stinging hard from every which way. The travois dragged heavier and heavier. Luckily it was low-slung, it did not catch much wind. Usually, somewhere near this point he could camp, but today the wind and the snow and the arctic cold would freeze anyone camping.

He strode on, his load heavier and heavier, laboring through the wind and deepening powder, guessing how far he had come. He could shovel out a snow shelter using his rackets, but he'd heard of people smothering in them. The Simpsons' abandoned cabin should be pretty close. He squinted and blinked into the snow, peering for the lightning-blasted tree that would mark the path to the cabin.

The flying snow seemed somehow both solid and intangible. When he shoved it aside, swiping a clear spot in front of his eyes, it did not resist. But the space filled even before he finished the gesture. "Like wrestling with a phantom," he thought. As he strove forward, panting displaced the deep even breathing that had steadied and accelerated his strides in the racket dance. He tried to recover the rhythmic breathing, but slipped back into panting whenever his thoughts drifted. Exhaustion extinguished the bounce in his stride. His thigh and rump muscles were shooting pain, his shoulders and back throbbing. Disorientation flashed. The heavy travois hindered him, demanding a ponderous struggle as the powder drifted and the wind shoved and pushed him and battered him with noise.

Just when he needed the smooth swift motion most, all he could conjure was laborious lumbering. Then he wobbled. Could his muscles be failing? No!

"Damn you, Mother Nature!" he thought. Then "Damn me! Cocksure that I knew every one of your twists and turns!"

Energy spurted through him, reviving the racket dance for another hundred yards. Then the bounce vanished again and he could not ignore the pain. He clenched his fists, punching with each stride. Maybe if he sat down, just for a minute, strength would flow back into him. No. He toiled on, gritting his teeth, clinging to the image of the glowing living filaments running through his mail sack, connecting his community to their far flung kin.

Could he have missed the scorched tree? The huge poles of the lower trunks of the pines were buried in snow. He slogged through an amputated forest of branch-clad middles and tapering tops, mostly white but shadow-smudged and accented in green. Snow swaddled trees materialized out of the swirling white as he passed—now and then one brushing his shoulder, behind them ranks and ranks dwindling and melding into the encompassing white of snow and cloud. Maybe he hadn't come as far as he thought. His gut knotted. If he should fall, he would be done. Suppose he was lost and didn't know it. A moment of vertigo left him uneasy, not confident about which way was up.

From the smothering-thick snow, on his right a man-sized dark smear emerged and took shape as the lighting-blasted tree. He wept and filled his lungs as he turned down the path, praising the builders of the cabin, constructed of logs discarded from clearing the Track. The snow whirled. Nearly blinded, on an axe's edge between hard-won caution and desperate haste, he slogged towards the cabin. A few more clumsy steps and he crashed into the log wall.

He loosed the straps and kicked off his snowshoes to dig out the door. The struggle to see beyond the relentless pain in his legs and torso was making him giddy. The luxurious pull of doing nothing tugged at him again and again, inviting him to take a break, rest his back against a tree, and let go. No. He accepted the near-death weariness and held firmly in mind the haven awaiting him. Shelter was within reach and people were counting on him. Those letters would renew and strengthen the threads of love, connecting the Beckworth Meadows ranchers and prospectors and even the ne'er-do-wells to their fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, friends and lovers back East. It was up to him.

He began by flinging the snow far aside. The deeper he dug, the harder the work. Not only was the lower snow densely packed by the sheer weight above, but he also had to lift these deeper loads higher. He took for granted that his arms, shoulder, and back would answer his call to lift, but suddenly, they did not. He tried once more, but got nothing. Betrayal. Rage.

Rejecting the rising panic, he inhaled deeply, inflating his entire torso, accepting the pause, and looking past it to a vision of stepping through the door, into a still space with log walls deflecting the battering, roaring wind. Another deep breath and, yes, this time the body answered. But could he trust it? Very deliberately now, breathing and shoveling.

At last, the door gaped. He hauled his gear through and collapsed into the stillness of the shack. Safe, at last. His muscles suddenly slack. Shelter, haven, rest. He sprawled beside the door, weeping.

Spent, he focused on unfurling his hands, near-frozen into curving claws, now the numbness pierced by a riot of sensation mingling intense tingling with a sudden burning. The wind raged on outside.

As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, a darker piece of darkness took shape below the rafter. It looked almost like, it was, a man, a hanged man. Fighting the impulse to flee, Jack lurched up and staggered over. But the hanged man was cold and no pulse pumped through his wrist. Up close, Jack glimpsed a face distorted into a grotesque parody, a carnival mask. He almost screamed with disgust—Was that a fat snake hanging out of the mouth? No, it was just a tongue bloated huge with blood and the muscle gone slack after death.

Nausea rose, but extreme fatigue overwhelmed it. He stumbled back, loosed the fur blanket from the travois, collapsed on the mail sack and nestled into it. He forced himself to eat some pemmican, the frontier traveler's compound of fat, berries, and jerky. Then, settling the heavy fur over him demanded concentration. Exhaustion had exacted its price: his fingers were slow, his grip clumsy, he felt tipsy. Nonetheless, by habit and sheer determination he exactly arranged his clothing and the blanket to be as warm as possible—any exposed skin would freeze in the night.

A surge of horror at the hanged man thrust Jack up. Pause. He swayed. He knew that the blizzard promised death, so he must stay. Yet, the prospect of spending the night with the corpse spurred him to flee. In his delirium of exhaustion, an image of the friendly gathering in the wamrth of the Fort Hotel came to him and an insidious voice urged that hurrying away to summon help would honor the dead. He yearned to say, "Yes," but recognized the shimmer of falsity at the edges from past experience of tempting mirages of water in the Boneyard Desert. He recoiled.

He pushed the horror down, reminding himself that he had seen dead men before and that he had a job to do. But the dead men he had seen had died in accidents or simple violence. No face had ever looked like this. The horror stirred like a rabid bear in the cellar, but he kept it trapped. Being himself trapped in the shack made that hard. He focused on what he must do on the morrow, but his thoughts kept circling back to the hanged man. Who was he? Why had he hanged himself? Why here?

Subsiding, Jack nestled back into the mailbag. His mind reached for the blissful awe he had felt as he entered the pass, but he could not find it. As his eyes closed, he welcomed an imaginary guide rope—homemade cordage like his Beckworth Meadows friends fashioned—he could follow to the Fort Hotel. His focus shifted so the guide rope shrank to a tiny cord in a bird's-eye vision of the whole country with brightly colored, living threads stretching into the mail sack—short ones reaching east from California, long ones fanning out east, south to the Carolinas and north to Maine. It was up to him to keep those threads alive.

Sleep began as delicious, complete rest.

Then he found himself a mute, invisible, paralyzed, anguished observer. He watched the dream stranger clench his jaw, carefully knot the noose, climb a ladder to tie the rope onto the rafter, then descend weeping, fetch a tall, sturdy wooden stool, step onto it, and check the length of the rope. The dream stranger then shortened the rope, dragged the noose over his head, and took a deep breath.

Time stretched. The dream stranger's face melted into his friend Lucky's haggard visage after Dolly and the babe died. The pain of pity, like a thorny stem being dragged up his throat, went on and on. Then the face melted and took shape as his friend Matthew whose broken ankle kept him behind when his wagon train went on into ambush and slaughter. Only Matthew blamed himself. The face reshaped again as a despairing soul he had known in the mining camps, then as a dozen others in whom he had sensed a temptation of darkness.

The face blurred into anonymity and the stranger sprang up from the stool. As he then plunged, the rope snapped taut and the neck broke with a crack that Jack could feel jarring his own bones into wakefulness.

The corpse still hung, beyond help. Jack closed his eyes. He imagined nodding to the corpse and strolling past it to the special map. Those thin filaments glowing red, blue, and yellow stretched from all over the country into the cabin. They joined into a single cable he was following hand over hand down the mountain to the Beckworth Meadows. He gave himself to sleep, less trustingly, but such bliss in the relaxing muscles.

The stranger's face materialized again, but this time the horrible protruding tongue transformed into a huge live snake that came slithering out of the stranger's mouth, its eyes fixed on Jack. Jack could not move as it slithered towards him, slow, sinuous, inexorable. It reared up its head, bared its fangs, and struck. In the split second before it bit, Jack jolted awake. Where had the serpent gone? Gradually the mundane, reassuring cabin came back to him.

There he was again, watching the suicide unfold, but this time the stranger's face was indistinct and Jack's heart was a battleground. He yearned to soothe the stranger off the stool and away from the rope. At the same time he was boiling with rage, wanting to roar at him, "I fought that blizzard beyond what I could do, but you, you just gave up and cast life away?!" Did that make his struggle so much trash, the ecstasy up on the pass a mere soap bubble? The rage took hold and he was no longer paralyzed. He brutally forced the stranger's head into the noose. As he kicked the stool away, he felt a spurt of dark joy at the snap of the spine, at the death, at his power.

And then desperate sorrow as he fruitlessly strove to tuck the stool back under the hanged man's feet, as if the hanging could be undone. Did he hate the corpse, hating it for his own revulsion and fear, was that why he had done this hateful murder? As he writhed in self-disgust, he felt the mail shift. This sack, although it weighed so heavy, how could it possibly contain all the love and rage and hope and despair that would sing along those filaments? He conjured the map with the glowing filaments again and stroked the sack. Keeping those filaments alive was up to him. He nestled onto the mail. He was not comforted, but he was surviving.

Suddenly he noticed an almost-silence—just a shiver of breeze in the tips of the pines. The blizzard had moved on, so at least he wouldn't be fighting the wind tomorrow. Sleep took him.

* * *

At last, daybreak pierced the cracks in the walls and door. The sky had cleared, so his journey would be dangerously cold. But here above where eagles soar, every second that the sun shone directly would warm the air. He waited, musing on the mystery of fibers, connecting or killing, till the light shifted pink and gold. He strained to hear the faint susurration of the pine tops. He startled and then smiled as caw followed caw, the jays reviving their raucous conversation. He began to stretch; every muscle complained.

He opened the door. Brighter and brighter, the sunlight revealed the corpse's eyebrows; reminding him strongly of Lucky, one of his neighbors. How could it be, when he'd never sensed any undertow, any yearning for darkness in the man? Terrible sorrow had afflicted Lucky, but his deep inner strength had pulled him through. He had survived and was building a new life. But Jack felt uncertain, because the face looked alien, so swollen and purple in the morning light. So the light didn't solve the identity problem. But it helped him make some sense beyond the night's horrors: the fat snake the poor man had appeared to be vomiting last night was really just an absurdly large protruding tongue.

Committing every revolting detail to memory so he could faithfully sketch the scene for his friends and neighbors, his gorge stirred, but he forced himself to eat some more pemmican. As he moved about, his aching muscles ached less. Even though the track led downhill from here, each step in the deep fresh drifted powder would devour time and energy. Yet he could feel the gentle, steady pull of the Fort Hotel gathering reeling him towards his goal, towards keeping those bright threads alive. He clung to that. He felt hollow, light headed. He was going through the motions numbly, but going through them nonetheless. He strapped on his snowshoes. Did the racket dance await?

The End

The Sierra Nevada range was the playground and sustenance of Moss Springmeyer's childhood. Deeply influenced by tales of the ancestors there, Moss is a passionate reader of literary and historical fiction and is starting on a journey fusing them in a particular realistic, albeit imaginary, setting.

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Tales of Old Joe
by Phillip R. Eaton

Joseph S. Bartholomew dedicated four years of his life to the Army of the Confederate States of America. Like so many of his fellow soldiers, he had suffered through numerous battle wounds, illness, and starvation. Yet somehow, he managed to survive.

One of the things that helped keep Joe alive all those years, was the thought of returning home to his family. He had left behind his beautiful wife Annalee, and their newborn baby girl, Annabelle. Unlike some of the other soldiers who from time to time were furloughed home if they were close by, Joe never had the chance. Assigned to General Lee's command, Joe most often found himself along the front line of battle. At the war's end, a beaten-down Joe Bartholomew was finally discharged and allowed to go home.

He returned south to find that his plantation had been destroyed by the Union Army. His land had been ravaged and his home burned to the ground. They left behind only piles of rubble. Out back, under the weeping willow tree, the local minister had erected two wooden crosses, one for Annalee, and one for young Annabelle.

Devastated by his discovery, Joe succumbed to his grief and hid away in a shack on his property that used to house the field workers. It was the only thing left standing from the invasion.

Having seen more death in his lifetime than a thousand men deserve to see, revenge didn't enter his mind; more killing was not going to bring his family back.

As more and more soldiers returned home from the war front, word got to Joe's sister Charlotte that he was at the plantation. Upon her insistence, Joe spent the next several weeks convalescing with her and her children. They too, had suffered when she lost her husband very early in the war.

News came that land in the new state of Kansas was being offered up for homesteading, and Joe made the difficult decision to leave his sister and head west.

When he arrived, Joe stumbled upon a makeshift settlement that was commonly referred to as No Name, Kansas. The folks that had settled there were war-weary and wanted as much distance as possible between them and where they came from. It became the one place where the North and the South no longer existed.

It didn't take long before the population of No Name grew to the point that made Joe extremely uncomfortable. He traded off most of his belongings for food and ammunition and kept only the bare necessities. He hung on to a few cooking utensils, his bedroll, a canvas tarp, his rifle, and service pistol, but the most important thing of all was his trusty old mule, Buck. Joe said his goodbyes to the friends he made and headed farther west.

* * *

One fateful morning, while bathing in the ice-cold river that cascaded down a steep mountainside, Joe was startled by a big old grizzly bear who was foraging for his breakfast. The bear decided that Joe looked like a promising meal and lunged at him. The bear's razor-sharp claws swept across Joe's chest, cutting his flesh through to the bone. He stumbled backward into the river; his blood turning the water crimson red. The bear, standing at well over seven feet tall on his hind legs, continued to lunge at Joe.

Buck was tied up among the shade trees along the riverbank. He was as sturdy and muscular as a mule can be, and at fifteen hands high, he was as big as a standard horse. Buck nervously snorted as the bear's loud snarl echoed across the water. When Joe let out yet another blood-curdling scream, Buck broke free and charged through the brush, and headed straight for the bear. That old grizzly bear was no match for Buck's fast-kicking hooves and was soon trampled to death.

A hunting party of Ute natives overheard the commotion and raced to the river. When they arrived at Joe's side and found him still alive, they wrapped him in blankets and took him, Buck, and the bear back to their village.

Joe hadn't been injured as badly during four years of warfare as he had been by one grizzly bear. The tribe's shaman performed his healing rituals over Joe while the women of the village tended to his physical wounds. It was weeks before he was well enough to venture outside of the teepee.

The huge bear was a blessing to the village. The abundance of meat from its carcass provided food for everyone, and the women turned the hide into clothing in preparation for the upcoming cold season.

* * *

The Utes had come into possession of rifles and ammunition, receiving them in trade from the wagon trains passing through their lands, however, their poor marksmanship rendered the weapons useless, and they continued to hunt with the more familiar bow and arrow.

Early one morning when the men of the tribe had left to go out hunting, Joe spied one of the young Indian boys attempting his hand at firing one of the rifles.

Joe watched as he took aim. Not a single shot hit the target. Joe approached the youngster and through a very primitive sign language offered to help.

When the boy acknowledged that he understood, he handed over the gun and watched intently as Joe hit the target dead center. Joe pointed to the sight on the gun and showed the boy how to line it up. With a firm pull of the trigger, his face lit up as he hit the target.

Thrilled by his success, the boy anxiously awaited the return of the hunting party so that he could show his father what he had learned. Joe, unaware of who the boy's father was, was taken by surprise when the Chief stood witness to what had been accomplished. The boy showed his father what he had been taught, and the Chief hit the target on his very first try. One by one the Chief relayed instructions to the rest of the warriors on how to sight the rifle. It didn't take long before they were all quite proficient at shooting. Joe earned much praise from the Chief for what he had done, and as soon as he was better, he was allowed to go along with the hunting parties.

It was several more weeks before Joe had fully regained his health, and winter was starting to show its ugly face. Chief Longbow, gracious for everything that Joe had contributed to the tribe, invited him to stay with them until spring. Throughout the winter, Joe became very adept at the seasonal hunting and survival techniques taught to him by the Ute warriors.

Amazed by how well Joe had adapted to their lifestyle, the Utes made him their blood brother and gave him the name Bear Claw, thereby creating an unbreakable bond between them.

When the snow melted and spring began to bloom, Joe, who had become well respected by members of the tribe, was allowed to continue to live amongst the Utes, but his internal desire to be on his own prevailed. Now proficient in the Ute's native tongue, Joe thanked his blood brothers and sisters for all they had done for him, and with the Chief's blessing, headed into the mountains.

* * *

With no breeze stirring the trees, no birds singing, and no crickets chirping, the morning was suspiciously quiet. The only sound came from Joe's feet as he crunched his way through the woods. He was hungry and looking to find a young rabbit or maybe a grouse, but they were eerily absent.

The hairs standing up on the back of his neck was Joe's sixth sense warning him that something was amiss. He stood perfectly still and listened; he heard nothing. He surveyed the overgrown forest floor for any kind of movement; he saw nothing.

Joe became overwhelmed with the sensation that he was being watched. He suspiciously tilted his head back, as his eyes scanned the foliage in the trees above. There it was. High up on a limb staring down at him was a young cougar. Joe feared that he just might be on the mountain lion's dinner menu. He knew he was never going to outrun the beast. His only chance of survival was to try and fight him off. Loading his rifle was going to take too much time, so he reached for his bayonet, carefully slid it onto the barrel, and locked it in place.

The cougar's tail twitched just before he leaped from his perch. Watching the lion coming right at him claws first sent terrifying shivers down Joe's spine. With barely enough time to react, he raised his bayonet high into the air.

The weight of the cougar knocked Joe off his feet. The two of them lay on the ground side by side. Other than his heart feeling as if it was about to pound right out of his chest, and trying desperately to catch his breath, Joe escaped unhurt.

Blood oozed from the cougar's chest when Joe extracted the bayonet. He had to make sure the wound was fatal, so he poked at him with his rifle. The cougar didn't move. Joe was about to find out just how edible mountain lions are. It wasn't exactly rabbit meat, but when you're hungry, almost anything will do.

* * *

Communities continued to spring up in the strangest of places as more and more people pushed westward. Joe, intent on being alone, moved higher into the mountains, only showing his face when he needed supplies.

He was a scary sight to most of the migrating population. In true mountain man style, Joe hadn't had a haircut or shaved his face since before he had lived with the Utes. Most of his clothing was made from skins of the animals he had harvested for food, and worst of all, he smelled like them too. He could clear a space at a bar just by walking in the joint. Even the grungiest cowpoke wouldn't stand by his side, and that was just fine by Joe.

Joe had also grown ornery enough to never back away from a confrontation. Once when frequenting a local establishment, a couple of the town's affluent men approached Joe about hiring his services to hunt down a man who had been terrorizing the town folk. They offered to compensate him with a year's worth of supplies if he would eliminate the possibility of that man ever entering their town again, by any means that he thought necessary.

Joe tracked him down, and after informing him of the town's demand, Joe found himself staring down the barrel of a Colt-45. Joe explained that he had a very sharp hunting knife in his coat pocket that he used for skinning hides, and threatened to use it on him unless he holstered his gun right then and there. When the man refused, Joe grabbed him by the wrist and squeezed it until the gun fell from his grip. With the hunting knife at his throat, Joe explained to the guy that the town was paying him to kill him, however, he would be willing to let him live for $200, with the understanding that he leave town and never return, or Joe would hunt him down and finish the job. That $200 bought Joe many more provisions.

* * *

When he would hear of ranchers being terrorized by wolves or mountain lions, Joe would hunt them down and present the carcasses to the ever-grateful ranchers, who paid him a bounty for the kill. He soon gained quite a reputation and would find messages, left for him along the trail, for his services.

Joe survived just fine high up in the mountains. The seasons came and went, and the only time Joe had contact with another human being was when he made a pilgrimage for supplies.

On one of those trips, Joe headed back to No Name. The town had become a populated city, something that no one ever wanted, but with the influx of easterners, it was inevitable.

A plume of black smoke in the distance grabbed Joe's attention, and he nudged old Buck in that direction. He came upon a young lad by the name of Seth Owens, who had just buried his folks.

The story was that Seth had finally stood up to the school bully, and the bully's father retaliated by killing Seth's parents and setting their cabin on fire.

Joe understood Seth's desire for revenge, but he also recognized how, at such a young age, any attempt by him to do so may have catastrophic results. He offered to take Seth into the mountains and teach him how to hunt and survive without the need for others. Then if he still felt the need to retaliate, Joe would not interfere.

* * *

Word reached Joe's ears about random killings in No Name, and after finding out the names of the victims and that no one had been apprehended for the killings, Joe knew that Seth had learned his lessons well.

Old Joe retreated into the mountains, but they too had been populated by more people than he was comfortable with, and he was forced to move farther north. Wishing that he could've been the last person on Earth, even one other human being had become too much for Joe to bear.

Word was that the United States had purchased the Alaskan Territory from Russia, and tales were being told of land there that no man had ever set foot on. Uncomfortable with the infusion of people where he was, Joe set off for the high north country. He followed the coastline through Canada and arrived near the end of the last few weeks of the Alaskan summer.

Joe found an area high up on a mountainside to his liking. With nothing but rocky cliffs above him and a cool stream running below, his view of nothing but treetops for miles was a comforting sight and already it felt like home.

Making a temporary shelter became a priority. As he was cutting pine limbs and clearing brush, he was visited by the largest elk he had ever laid eyes on. Joe stopped what he was doing and stood perfectly still while the elk walked right up to him, sniffing his scent with each step. When it was within arm's length of him, the elk snorted, then ran away, only to stop a short distance from him and let out a loud bugling sound. When it stopped, Joe attempted to echo that same sound, letting that elk know that he was there to stay.

Within a couple of days of settling in, disaster struck. He was approached by another human being, the exact thing that he was trying to avoid. A very weathered old man stood off in the distance, watching. He didn't approach, and when Joe moved in his direction, he vanished.

Upset that he wasn't alone in his new surroundings, Joe set out the next morning to see if he could find the old fellow. After a short hike up the mountainside, Joe saw what he thought looked like an opening to an old mine shaft. The soil was all packed down around the entrance, indicating a lot of foot traffic. He contemplated entering the shaft, but an eerie feeling told him not to. Behind him stood the old man he had seen the day before.

The old man spoke no English and didn't respond to Ute. Joe was able to finally communicate with him through sign language taught to him by a Paiute woman whom he met in the Nevada Territory. Joe learned that the old man had been living in the abandoned mine shaft after being shunned by his people. He had gotten too old and feeble to contribute to his tribe, so he was cast aside to die alone.

The old man pointed at Joe and then pointed at the entrance. He then took off his bow and arrow and handed them over. He removed his heavy outerwear, his hat, and his thick deerskin boots, and set them at Joe's feet. The old man put his hands together and bowed, then turned and slowly walked away into the woods. Joe didn't need to hear words to understand what he was witnessing.

The mineshaft turned out to be a godsend as winter came early. Joe stocked up on grasses for Buck, who became very comfortable in the mine when the temperatures dropped below zero outside.

Maneuvering through the heavy snow made hunting difficult, but the snow also helped to preserve the meat. Joe was able to sustain himself by rationing the lone deer he was able to bag. There were plenty of timbers in the old shaft for firewood and he made drinking water from melting the snow.

As winter progressed, Joe relied on what he had learned from the Utes, and between rabbits, and an occasional fox, he had plenty of meat, and he found winter berries by watching the birds that had remained in the area.

Come springtime, the world came alive again. Hibernation was over, the leaves turned green, the snows melted and fed the streams which were stocked full of fish. Heaven had been reborn. This was what Joe had always imagined and had longed for.

It all seemed too good to be true. But as life would have it, Joe's Eden unraveled. Gold was discovered in the far reaches of the Alaskan wilderness and soon there were wannabe prospectors everywhere you could see, trampling over Mother Earth with no consideration for anything but their greedy selves.

Feeling as though his personal space had been invaded, Joe headed as far away from the chaos as his feet and Buck would take him. Although Joe was never seen again, the local folklore indicates that Joe and Buck are still wandering around Alaska to this very day, avoiding the rest of us.

The End

Phillip R. Eaton is an author from Western New York. He has been featured in Frontier Tales Magazine. He has published two non-fiction historical novellas: Col. Frank N. Wicker, from Lockport to Alaska and Beyond, and My Civil War Uncles, and the fiction mystery novella, Living Here Still. He also writes fictional short stories, exploring sci-fi, westerns, sports, and some romantic fantasies.

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The Phantom Marksman
by Ralph S. Souders

It was a quiet afternoon in the Mountaineer Saloon as I stood at the bar drinking a glass of rye whiskey. The evening crowd would be arriving soon. I was wasting some time before heading back to the ranch for dinner and my evening chores. Nearby, a group of four men were playing a friendly game of poker around a table, enjoying the camaraderie amidst a meandering flow of casual conversation. Although I had been paying them scant attention, my interest piqued as I overheard them beginning to discuss the topic of the Phantom Marksman, a legendary figure in this region of the state. Although many of the details of the marksman's story were well known, his identity remained a mystery and a topic of much conjecture. To this day, everybody seemed to have a theory as to the shooter's identity. Only one person knew this for certain.

"In my opinion, I think he was a member of the outlaw gang," stated one card player. "He probably turned against his partners in an attempt to take all of the money for himself."

"No, I disagree," replied another while subtly shaking his head. "I think he was a bounty hunter. Once he killed the outlaws, he scampered back home to collect his reward."

"I bet he was a renegade lawman," suggested a third man. "His motive was justice, pure and simple. He never went public because he feared being charged with murder if other lawmen were to disapprove of his vigilante tactics."

"I think he was a hired assassin," offered the fourth player. "He probably worked for a rival gang. I picture him being an emotionless, cold-blooded killer."

Many years had now passed since the notorious event that had ignited this legend. Most people were resigned to the fact that the Phantom Marksman would forever remain unknown. As I listened to each man present his theory, I immediately recognized the obvious flaws in each. All these theories were implausible, even without considering other details that none of these men could have possibly known. Although I had intentionally given this matter minimal thought in recent years, the card players' discussion that afternoon had coaxed my memory. Reluctantly, as I slowly sipped my whiskey, I once again began to recollect the details of an important event that had occurred much earlier in my life.

* * *

It was a typical autumn in Millington, a small town located in the Colorado highlands in a sparsely populated area northwest of Leadville. The silver and phosphate mines in the area were busy. The miners came to town regularly to purchase supplies and to enjoy themselves in the saloons. Cowboys and ranch hands from the region's cattle ranches frequently came to town for the same purposes. The Millington area was a tight knit community by western standards and most of the longtime residents knew one another. Newcomers were easily identified by the locals, and they were typically viewed with suspicion until they gradually became familiar. Whenever strangers came into the area and remained for any length of time, the sheriff would make it his business to determine what their intentions might be. If they could not provide good reasons for their presence, the sheriff would encourage them to leave the area while strongly suggesting that they not return. Most strangers understood the sheriff's message and quickly went on their way. Occasionally, some did not.

One evening, three men had ridden into town, tied their horses to the hitching rail, and entered the saloon located beside the local hotel. This was not an unusual occurrence. Often riders would stop at the saloon, have a few drinks, perhaps ask for some directions and then be on their way. These three men, however, had remained in the saloon until late in the evening, patronizing the working girls before taking their horses to the barn up the street. They then retired to the hotel for the night. This routine was repeated over the next several evenings. Except for the women, the men kept to themselves and made no effort to converse or interact with any of the other locals. They had a sinister aura of hardness about them, and the townsfolk sensed that they were potential trouble and should be left alone. The sheriff was due back in town soon and everyone was certain that if these men were still around at that time, he would be having a conversation with them.

Meanwhile, during this timeframe, I had observed these men on the stage road about six miles east of town. They had been accompanied by a fourth individual. Living on my uncle's ranch and working with his cattle herd, I seldom ventured into town and, therefore, I had not realized that the townsfolk already had concerns about them. It was while looking for stray steers one afternoon on the western end of the property that I had first seen them. They were seated on horseback. I was confident that they had not seen me since I was on higher ground, well hidden by boulders and trees. As I watched them from approximately a quarter mile away, it appeared to me that they were studying the terrain, almost as if assessing tactical advantages in case of a future conflict. Since the Millington region was generally a peaceful place, the idea of any type of violent confrontation made no sense. More likely, it seemed that they might be outlaws planning an ambush, perhaps targeting the afternoon stagecoach from Leadville or perhaps a supply wagon belonging to one of the mines. The short section of road that they had chosen included a sharp turn with several natural barriers behind which the bandits could hide. Regardless of their ultimate intention, I believed that their actions deemed monitoring and I planned to carefully do this until the sheriff arrived back in his office.

Several days later while again patrolling the western sections of the ranch, I discovered these same three men standing in the road at this same location. Their horses were already hidden, and I suspected that they were preparing to put their plan into motion. The sheriff, as best I knew, had arrived back in town yesterday. I decided that I would observe from a safe distance, and if an armed robbery did in fact occur, I would provide an eyewitness report to the sheriff immediately. Other than that, I did not know what else I could do. I knew that the stagecoach sometimes carried payroll money for some of the larger mining companies destined for deposit in the bank in Millington. I suspected that the stagecoach was the most likely target of the outlaws' upcoming ambush.

After watching the strangers for the next half hour, I noticed dust in the air in the distance as the stagecoach approached this location on its way into town. I estimated that it was approximately one mile away. Using this as their cue, the three outlaws separated and went behind boulders in the tall grass, one on the near side of the road and the other two directly across the road from where I was positioned. Quietly, I walked the short distance to my horse and grabbed my Winchester rifle preloaded with 38 caliber cartridges. I grabbed a handful of spare ammo at this same time. Then walking carefully and silently, I moved closer to the outlaws than I had previously been, well secluded behind some large rocks and surrounded by trees. I was a skilled marksman with a rifle, having been taught to shoot by my uncle at a young age and having practiced often through the years. From my new position, I had clear shots at the entire stretch of road as well as the various hiding places that the men had taken. There was also a straight path back to my horse in case the situation got bad, and I would need to escape in a hurry.

As the stagecoach drew near, the two men across the road mounted their horses and rode out onto the road, stopping in the center and facing the direction from which it was coming. They were now wearing cloth masks, covering their faces except for their eyes. The third man remained hidden in the tall grass just below me. He had also put a mask over his face to conceal his identity. Adrenaline was seeping into my bloodstream, and I could feel my legs and arms shake in anticipation of what was about to happen. Hopefully, I could witness the crime without being required to use my gun. If I would need to shoot, I trusted that the nervousness causing my body to shake would subside quickly. I would need a steady eye and steady hands if I was to be able to shoot accurately.

Soon, the stagecoach rolled into view and came to an abrupt stop as the driver saw the masked gunmen on their horses in the road. To my surprise, one of the riders aimed his pistol at the stagecoach, pulled the trigger and shot the guard sitting beside the driver. The guard had made no effort to grab his shotgun before being shot. He tumbled out of the seat and fell hard to the ground below, lying bleeding and motionless beside the stage. I wondered if the guard was dead until I heard him moaning in pain. The driver slowly raised his hands and surrendered to the outlaws.

"Please don't shoot," the driver pleaded. "Take whatever you want."

"Get down and stand beside your friend," instructed one of the outlaws. He gestured at the wounded guard who was lying injured in the dirt. The driver immediately did as he was told, still holding his hands above his head.

"How many passengers are inside?" the other outlaw asked the driver.

"Just one today," the driver replied.

"Open the door and tell him to come out," he said. "Hurry it up. Don't waste time."

The driver again did as he was told, opening the door of the stagecoach and beckoning the passenger to come outside. The passenger complied with this instruction and exited the coach, stepping onto the road and not closing the door behind him. I gasped in surprise as I recognized the passenger. He was the fourth man who had assisted the other three in planning this robbery several days earlier. By leaving the door of the coach open, he was signaling to the others that there were no remaining passengers inside. The passenger stood in the road near the horsemen, making no effort to stand near the driver, nor was he instructed to do so. It did not appear as though the driver understood the significance of this. He obviously had other thoughts occupying his mind at the present time.

"Where's the cashbox?" asked the first outlaw.

"It's under my seat," replied the driver.

"Get it," instructed the outlaw. "Drop it right here."

The driver did as he was instructed, climbing back onto the stagecoach and pulling the metal cashbox from beneath his seat. He then lifted it and tossed it over the side, allowing it to land in the area where the outlaw had designated.

At this time, the third outlaw who had been hiding in the tall grass beneath my position, stood and walked onto the road. He knelt beside the cashbox, opened it and reacted in delight as he observed its contents. The other criminals behaved in a similar manner. The cashbox was filled with paper currency as well as a significant quantity of gold and silver coins. Even from my position on the high ground some distance away, I could see that the metal box contained a lot of money. I assumed that there had to be several thousand dollars, but I had no way of knowing this for certain. Nevertheless, I was confident that my estimate was close.

In my naiveté, I assumed that the incident was almost over. I anticipated the first three outlaws stuffing their saddlebags full of money and then riding away in the opposite direction from town, leaving the empty cashbox behind. They would share their heist with their accomplice later. The driver and the corrupt passenger would carry the wounded guard to the stagecoach and place him inside. They would then transport him into town where he would be treated by the town's doctor. Hopefully, his wound was treatable, and they would get him there in time to save his life. I had already decided that I would remain hidden in my location and allow the two men to assist the injured guard by themselves. I needed to remain anonymous until I could give my statement to the sheriff, enabling him to bring these outlaws to justice. Fortunately, the driver would be able to corroborate my story.

Unexpectedly, the situation changed entirely. The third outlaw, still standing in the road, pulled his six-gun from its holster and pointed it at the driver. "Go stand by your friend," he ordered the driver. "We still have some unfinished business here."

It was clear to everyone, including the driver and me, exactly what this unfinished business entailed. The outlaws were going to execute the driver and the guard, if he was still alive. I was not certain that he was. The driver, visibly frightened, did as he was told and walked over to the guard who was still lying on the dusty road. The driver had no alternative except to comply with this command.

"Kneel down beside him," instructed the third outlaw. "Why don't you grab hold of his hand? That might be a nice touch, don't you think?" The man smirked as he said this, obviously enjoying the power that he held over the defenseless driver.

The driver again did as he was told. He knelt on the road and grasped the wrist of the guard. The guard's skin was not cold, and the driver was able to feel a pulse. The pulse was not very strong but at least for the moment, the guard was still alive.

"Please, let us go," pleaded the driver. "I can't recognize you. I have no idea who any of you are. I won't be able to tell the sheriff anything."

"Sorry," replied the outlaw coldly. "We can't take that chance. We have no choice."

"Sure, you do!" begged the driver. "Please! Don't do this! Please!"

"Sorry," the outlaw replied. "I have no choice. Stop bellyaching. Try to have some dignity."

The driver resigned himself to his fate. As he knelt there in defeat awaiting the inevitable, he closed his eyes and began to whisper a prayer. I felt tremendous pity for him, and I decided then that I needed to intervene in his behalf while I still could.

As the outlaw raised his arm and pointed the pistol at the driver, I quickly raised my rifle and pointed it through a gap between two large rocks. This position would enable me to take an accurate shot without totally revealing my position to those on the road below. As the outlaw slowly prepared to shoot, I aimed my weapon at him, measured my shot and then carefully pulled the trigger. The rifle fired and a second or so later, the outlaw collapsed to the ground, his gun firing as he fell but missing its intended target by a wide margin. From my position on the high ground, I could see that he was suffering from a serious head wound. I surmised that he might already be dead.

Chaos erupted as the two outlaws on horseback, taken by surprise and reacting by instinct, pulled their handguns and began shooting in the general direction from which my shot had come. They were uncertain where I was, and they desperately wanted to know. The passenger was also armed with a six-gun, but he did not remove it from its holster. I carefully aimed my rifle again and easily shot one of the mounted outlaws out of his saddle. He also incurred a mortal head wound. The other horseman, caught in the open, turned his horse toward my general location and attempted to charge my position. He apparently had determined approximately where I was hiding. He must have believed that he could find protection among the rocks and from there, he and his surviving accomplish would be able to search for me, find me and kill me. Unfortunately for him, I was already waiting for him as he rode toward the exact location where I was hiding. As he neared the rocks in the tall grass below me, I targeted his chest and pulled the trigger. I felt the bullet leave my rifle and I saw it hit the outlaw. He fell backwards off his horse and was probably dead before he hit the ground.

At this point, I stopped shooting. I had taken three shots and the criminals had taken three casualties. The driver and the sinister passenger had taken refuge behind the stagecoach. Fortunately, the driver had applied the brake when the robbers had first accosted him on the road, preventing the startled horses from running away while pulling the stagecoach behind them.

For the next fifteen minutes, I maintained my position behind the large rocks on the high ground. From there, I could eventually hear the two men conversing behind the stagecoach, although I could not comprehend what they were saying. Initially, their voices sounded agitated and fearful, as they obviously did not know the intentions of the nearby assailant. Over time, their tones sounded more relaxed and normal. Perhaps they believed that the hidden shooter had left the area or perhaps they were convinced that the three dead outlaws had been his only desired targets. Eventually, they developed the courage to come out from behind the stagecoach and to stand out in the open. The driver was unarmed whereas the passenger's handgun was still tucked in a holster hanging against his hip. The two men were understandably apprehensive. They cautiously approached the wounded guard lying on the ground. Meanwhile, I remained vigilant with my rifle pointed between the two rocks.

The two men quickly examined the injured man and discovered that he was still alive. They carefully lifted him and placed him on the floor inside the stagecoach. The sinister passenger convinced the driver to enter the coach to pull the guard further inside so that they could securely close the door. The driver, of course, did not realize that the passenger was a cohort of the three outlaws. The passenger apparently believed that the hidden shooter was gone, and he was now standing in a more relaxed posture. Suddenly, as the driver disappeared inside the coach, the man pulled the handgun from its holster and moved closer to the still open door. He was obviously about to shoot the driver who was kneeling beside the guard while pulling him further inside. Before the passenger could fire his weapon, I quickly and accurately aimed my rifle and pulled the trigger. Immediately, the criminal lurched forward as the bullet from my gun hit him in the back of his neck. He fell heavily to the ground and moved no further. I suspected that he was dead.

The driver scrambled out of the stagecoach through the door on the other side, remaining behind it while ducking beneath the open windows. He remained there for several minutes until he could hear the unmistakable sound of my horse trotting away from the scene in the same direction from which the stagecoach had originally come. He waited until the sound faded in the distance before vacating his hiding place. Then wasting no time, he closed the doors of the stagecoach, lifted the metal cash box from the road and stowed in back under his seat. Then releasing the brake and prompting the horses, he began racing toward town at the fastest speed possible. He left the four dead outlaws lying in the road pending the arrival of the sheriff later. Upon the stagecoach's arrival in town, the driver intended to stop it in front of the doctor's office so that the wounded guard could be moved and treated as quickly as possible. Not knowing the seriousness of the guard's injury, the driver hoped that there was still enough time for the doctor to save him.

Before leaving the area, I had carefully recovered the four spent shells from the ground and placed them inside my pants pocket. Then retreating to my horse, I had placed my rifle back inside its scabbard, climbed into the saddle and ridden away. Confident that I had been unseen by the stagecoach driver or anyone else who might have happened along, I held the horse to a medium trot instead of a full-out gallop, wanting to remain as inconspicuous as possible. I rode through the adjacent range land as it contained numerous tracks from cattle and ranch hands' horses that had continuously trod upon it. I knew that this action would effectively conceal my horse's tracks as they became intermingled with all the others. Although this stratagem might indicate to investigators that the killer of the outlaws was perhaps associated with my uncle's ranch, they would not have the means to determine this for certain nor to establish the identity of the shooter. With no credible eyewitnesses, the shooting would be unsolvable.

When the stagecoach arrived in Millington, it created considerable excitement in town. The wounded guard was carried into the doctor's office where he received immediate care. The doctor examined the gunshot wound and although it appeared to be serious, he was able to extract the bullet from the man's chest and stitch the area closed. The bullet had hit a rib which prevented a serious injury to the guard's heart and lungs. It had also evaded all major blood vessels. Once the bone fragments had been successfully removed, the doctor was confident that the man would make a full recovery.

While the doctor was performing his surgery on the guard, the sheriff organized a group of men, and they rode east together on the stage road for six miles until they arrived at the site of the shooting. They brought an empty wagon with them. As they came upon the scene of the shootout, they were amazed by the carnage. They found the scene to be exactly as the stagecoach driver had described it. Four men lay dead on the dirt road with their handguns lying nearby. All of them had succumbed to a single wound from a bullet that had been almost perfectly placed. The sheriff profiled the killer as an experienced ex-military sharpshooter, someone who had probably trained in the union or the confederate army during the recent war. He was unaware of any such individual residing in the general area. Based on the details that the driver had provided, the sheriff did not believe that the shooter was guilty of any crime for his actions. This person was a true hero who had provided a public service. He had saved the lives of the stagecoach driver and the guard. The sheriff hoped to learn his identity.

The sheriff and his crew placed the bodies of the four outlaws in the back of the wagon and transported them back to town. They collected their handguns from the road and rounded-up the three horses. The sheriff would retain possession of the guns. The horses would be sold unless they were to be claimed by kinfolk of the deceased in the near term. Upon investigation, the sheriff determined that the outlaws had belonged to the McAllen Gang, a criminal group that had been terrorizing the eastern part of the territory. He identified them as the brothers, Jed and Wes McAllen, a cousin named Bud Walters, and an associate, George Rutledge. They were reputed to be mean, hardened criminals who were violent and ruthless in the treatment of their victims. They were buried together in the town cemetery that evening. The sheriff was relieved in knowing that they were no longer at large. Millington was a safer place by their demise.

As I arrived back at the ranch house, I had already decided to keep my participation in that morning's shootout a secret. I would entrust nobody with that information. All my life, I had been somewhat of a loner, and because of this, nobody except my uncle was aware of my exceptional skills in shooting a rifle. The sheriff was looking for the killer of the gang members and although I knew that the shootings had been necessary and justified, I feared that he might not totally agree with my assessment. I did not want to risk facing murder charges and ultimately hanging for a crime of which I was not guilty. Also, I expected that the surviving members of the McAllen Gang, should there be any, might seek revenge against me if they were to learn my identity. Unless something unexpected was to happen, I planned to forever keep my secret and to eventually take it with me to my grave.

The story of the Phantom Marksman was big news in town for the next few months. Over time, it grew in stature, becoming folklore in the local region. It had now been many years since the notorious shootout on the stage road east of Millington. The still unknown marksman had assumed the status of a Don Quixote or a Robin Hood in various versions of the story. As the legend grew, he became a much-revered figure. People imagined him to be a bold, confident character who would stop at nothing to uphold the law and defend the weak and the vulnerable. They would never know that this folk hero had been a shy, teenage boy who possessed no unusual character qualities and had no desire to ever be in the public light. Fate had placed him beside the stage road on that exact day at that exact time. Somehow, he had found the wherewithal to react as he did.

Today, I hope that circumstances will never again require me to fire my rifle at another person. Nevertheless, if I should ever again have the need to do so, I know that I will not hesitate. My intentions are still to live my life quietly, to mind my own business and to keep my secret to myself. I have every confidence in my ability to successfully accomplish all these goals.

* * *

Finishing my whiskey, I placed my empty glass along with some money on the bar. The card players had moved to a fresh topic in their conversation, and I was again content to stow the memory of the Phantom Marksman back in the deep recesses of my mind. Hopefully, it would be a long while before I would visit it again. Saying goodbye to the bartender, I left the saloon through the swinging, wooden doors, crossed the boardwalk outside and proceeded to untie my horse from the hitching rail. Then climbing into the saddle, I turned the horse in the direction of my ranch and prompted it to trot. It was a pleasant afternoon for a ride with a cool temperature and no threat of precipitation. I expected to be back home with my wife within the hour.

The End

Ralph S. Souders is an American author of suspense and literary fiction. He has written three novel, Hans Becker's Family, Ursula's Shadow and Lost in the Water. He has also written a movie script and his short stories have appeared in Bewildering Stories, Frontier Tales, Gadfly Online and The Penmen Review magazines. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida. He is happily married to his wife of thirty-six years. They are retired and reside in Middle Tennessee. His website is www.ralphssouders.com.

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