May, 2019

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Issue #116

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They'll appear in upcoming print volumes of The Best of Frontier Tales Anthologies!

The Green-Eyed Kid
by Dan Fields
Jake Pollard, career outlaw, plans to vanish after one final robbery. Visions of vengeance intrude on his dreams of placid retirement. Seeing echoes of himself in one of his compadres, a peculiar green-eyed youth, Pollard overlooks a twist of fate riding not on their heels but right in their midst.

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by Steve Myers
Young Miguel took off with the Major's daughter. Parks is hired to track them down. The girl's uncle is in the group sent to bring her back and hang Miguel. But that doesn't settle right with Parks. When Uncle Anson is ordered to watch Parks, which way will he turn?

* * *

A Woodland Encounter
by Lawrence F. Bassett
Was there a chance to stop the French and Indian War of the 1700s before it even started? Maybe a meeting of the minds somewhere in the wilderness? Follow a British officer into the woodlands and see what happens.

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by Scott Jessop
Charlie Butler made money filling the enlistments of draft dodgers during the Civil War. Then he met Mary, a skinny, 16-year-old prostitute and they made a plan to go to Colorado and start a cattle ranching business. When the Confederate army attacked, the lovers had to make a run for it.

* * *

Bloody Trail, Bloody Ridge
by Mickey Bellman
Elza knew better than to follow the blood trail in a snow storm, but his nephew's lust for killing forced him to climb the barren ridge.

* * *

The Untimely Death of a Delicate Desert Flower
by Templeton Moss
A gunfight at high noon—almost an every day occurrence in a town like Tumbleweed Ridge. But this time it's between the most dangerous gunfighter in the territory and an 18-year-old barmaid. What happens between them changes everything.

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All the Tales

The Green-Eyed Kid
by Dan Fields

Jake Pollard slipped away from himself for two blinks of an eye. He heard the Pacific surf crashing five hundred miles away. It was not a sound he had heard before, but he knew it just the same. A tide pool churned briefly in his mind before changing to the thunder of fast riders with long guns. He felt an anxious chill of certainty that some things could not be outrun.

Something shifted beneath his boot, and Pollard almost lost his footing on the neck of the prone station guard. He was a great broad son of a bitch. The guard, not Pollard. Pollard was a wiry old buzzard with a look of early winter about him. He had worried about getting the brute on the ground, but the shock of a scatter gun pushed between his shoulder blades, hard enough to bruise, had been plenty to make him drop. Big men feared for their lives too.

Pollard had not lost all the forceful nature of his youth, yet he did not let the guard's thrashing rile him overmuch. All he did was lean forward and mash the gun's muzzle a fraction deeper into the fleshy neck. He made a low soothing noise in his throat, the same he used to calm his mare in a storm. Pollard was an old hand with armed larceny and supposed that any of the others, Ames or Ansel or Coyote Joe or especially the green-eyed kid, might have taken the excuse to blow the stubborn captive's faculties to head cheese.

Being honest about it, Pollard reckoned a man his age no longer had the belly-fire to be as tough as the work demanded. When he looked at the kid guarding the door with the beat-up cavalry Schofield he had picked up God alone knew where, the fury of that green stare made Pollard's guts jump. The kid was coiled to fire, on the guard or anyone else in range, if Pollard gave the signal.

Long ago, when the kid was no more than a sinful notion in his daddy's loins, Pollard had moldered for ten days in a Grant County cell, sick with the drying-out shakes and waiting on a circuit judge with plenty more distinguished business. On his lowest day the outlaw had found a score of pest-eaten pages wedged in his cot frame. He read this material twenty times or more, to occupy his mind. It was a fragment of brightly painted adventure magazine, written by a Frenchman or some such, about men in the moon who fired hard green beams of light at rocket-driven ships, luring them to doom on the cold Selenian rocks. That was the kind of energy that came off the kid when he stared. Eerie was the only word for it. Pollard would not miss breaking bread in the company of that face.

"Rance!" Pollard barked Ansel's work name, though their real names and faces would be familiar to anyone who had read a newspaper in the last decade. "You, Rance. What's the holdup?"

In the far corner, Ansel fiddled and cussed over the antique locks on the safe. Pollard wondered why a newly installed telegraph office would not be outfitted with a brand new strongbox. A cracker like Ansel could have popped the latest model open in a flash, but the thirdhand relic before him was giving him fits. It forced him to recall obsolete methods. Previous generations of thieves had their own maddening arcana to suit the peculiar obstacles of bygone times. This was the sign of a world gone horribly modern. Ansel's burnt rawhide face burned a shade darker as he teased a bolt loose with maddening slowness.

"Like opening godburn Farrow's tomb, Cap," Ansel said through tight lips, "but I'm near enough through." A lofty phrase, but Ansel's pronunciation made Pollard feel sure he took Pharaoh for some famous dead Irishman, not a king of Egypt.

Pollard had nobody to cuss but himself for not bringing dynamite as a failsafe. Keen for a swift getaway without bloody traces, he had given stern orders against bloodshed and mayhem. That ruled explosives out, and on the point he had been deaf to all arguments.

"This one clean," was all he had said. How the gang chose to conduct business once he was gone would not concern him.

The telegraph clerk, a wispy fart of a man, rattled his papery throat like he had a suggestion. Perhaps he would appeal for the release of his fellow hostages, the quaking red-haired woman and the wizened trail scout. Maybe he had decided to remember the combination he claimed he had forgot. Pollard was in no mood for him either way. He had let the initial resistance pass, expecting Ansel to deal with the mechanism in less time than it would take to torture the information from the clerk, or force the junior clerk to cooperate once he returned from having his dinner. Now, burning precious time as the four forty-five closed in from Carson City, Pollard had a nest of reasons to kick himself.

"Keep quiet, damn you," he said to the clerk, throwing a dangerous look across the room for the others to see. He did not need the woman taking any encouragement to risk her life by crying for help. Let her squall later, once the bandits were clear away.

Ames, who guarded the hostages, gave a nod. Ames was a good sort, the only one Pollard would miss much. When he drank he claimed he was kin to Spanish nobles by the conquered Mojave women, although he was as black a man as Pollard ever saw.

"Hold fast there, Abrams," Pollard said.

"Aye, Cap," said Ames.

Ansel made a sound like "Ha!" The safe opened at last with a shriek of metallic agony. After that came the rustle of folding money shoved into a saddlebag. The clerk moaned into the floorboards. Pollard listened for a deeper sound, the rumble of the train drawing near the depot. The timing would have to be miraculous to work as Pollard had planned, but he damned well meant to see it through until it faltered. He muttered a prayer to whatever god would pay the postage that Coyote Joe could keep the horses ready without becoming a public spectacle.

It was wasted effort to worry. Everyone had been given the task that suited him best, except the kid who had plenty of energy but had not yet found his role in the cosmos. Coyote Joe understood dumb animals in a way he could never relate to his fellow man. He was capable in many ways but could not bear the strain of official questioning. Pollard prayed for him to stay invisible, ten minutes at most if providence could spare it.

"Cap, it's good." Ansel fought a tremor of excitement in his voice. If the haul was ordinary or less than expected, he was to use the code, "Cap, it's done." His choice of phrase meant the captured sum was more, maybe a lot more, than they had planned on taking. Pollard hoped he had brought a big enough saddlebag. He gave Ansel the countersign that he heard and understood.

"Mighty good, Ance . . . Rance." He flinched at the slip, not that it mattered except to himself. "Vamos," he said next, a command impossible to misinterpret. Each man had his instructions. Ansel took the side door out, hugging the stolen bundle under his dust coat and stuffing extra bills into pockets. He would attract notice unless he vanished quickly. Ames checked the horsehair binding the captives at the wrists and thence to the legs of the iron stove. It was not meant to hold them long, only to keep them on the floor out of sight for as many minutes as possible. While the gang mounted up and took a back route out of town through the hills, the commotion of the arriving train would drown out their shouts for help. Pollard and company were swift riders and would not need long to disappear, but there was no time to burn.

Reckoning the distance of the four forty-five, running by sweet merciful Moses almost on time, Pollard counted off seconds in his mind. Ames was out the door. Pollard heard the nicker of Ansel's horse followed by retreating hoofbeats. Ames followed on his mount a moment later. The plan was working. The scream of the braking train filled the depot, but something was out of place.

Pollard felt the cold sweep of green moonbeams and dread prickled his neck. The kid was off time. He had shoved a heavy file chest against the main office door to delay folks rushing to the scene, but rather than take the side exit he stood above the grizzled scout who lay stretched on the floor.

"I'll have that canvas," the kid almost whispered.

"You!" Pollard hissed. Bewildered and furious, he had forgotten the kid's work name. "You, get your by-god . . . "

"That canvas," the sullen youth repeated, nudging the scout's weathered knapsack with his boot. "What's in it? You give it up, I'll take it."

Pollard felt his mouth open. He had never before been dumbstruck, but seeing a man break formation at the day's crucial moment shocked him to stone. Had the kid planned all along to sandbag the operation for his own amusement, or was he crazy enough to covet an old beat-to-hell mail pouch off a stranger? The scout, still prone, rolled protectively against his cargo.

"I just reckon you'll get along without it," spat the toothless whiskered mouth. "You've no call to take it. Ain't you stole plenty from that safe to suit you?"

The woman warbled with vexation, only once. She had kept admirable composure throughout the robbery. In a cooler frame of mind Pollard would have regretted having no fit reward to present for such excellent behavior. They could give her nothing but the dubious gift of the rest of her life.

"Kid," said Pollard in his hellfire tone, "you ride with us or don't. Not in two seconds. Now." With a spark of his old violence, he clouted the guard unconscious with the stock of his gun, then raised the weapon to just above the kid's knee. It was not a full drawdown but the threat was clear. They both knew the rules of combat as well as any pair of dueling gentlemen. The kid moved, but not straight for the door. With the striking speed of a diamondback his toe stove in the old fellow's jaw. He grabbed the satchel, then whipped his boots across and out the door.

The train was in, the noise of steam and brakes already peaked and fading. Pollard had lost the beat, blinked twice to put himself right. There was nothing to do for the suffering scout. A blood halo bloomed around his poor downy head. If Pollard tarried he would be the last goat in the pen, ripe for the ax. He could shoot his way out, but clearing town would be long odds after that. He glanced at the woman, who studied him through mussed auburn tresses. Even with a wide crooked nose and flinty set mouth she was pretty enough. He had taken her for the fainting type who might recall them later as daring highwaymen, but the kid's brutality had broken any romantic spell. She trembled not with fear but with rage, perhaps made of tougher stuff than Pollard realized.

"I know your face," Pollard heard her say as he made for the door. "Your face and your voice. I've seen your photograph." Her disdain rattled him. It was time for old dogs like Pollard to deal themselves out.

On the street, Coyote Joe was fairly hopping with panic. Beady eyes flashed under his wide straw brim as he waved Pollard to his mare.

"Go, go!" he cried. "Wha's prollum, Cap?"

"Never mind," said Pollard, swinging into the saddle with energy he had not quite surrendered to the past. He gave the mare too much heel and was sorry when she hollered at him, but the near wreck of his plans had left him flustered. "That kid," he told the mare as they flew together out the back way from town, "best be dismounted and building me a fire all contrite-like when I see him, else I'm liable to shoot him off his by-god saddle."

Pollard and Coyote Joe had not made forty yards when they heard the angry shouts of the red-haired woman and the sound of men forcing the blocked door. Next time, Pollard told himself, they would have dynamite, or work under cover of night. As for the kid, Pollard would have him trussed and lowered down a well for good measure.

He caught himself, squinting against Coyote Joe's dust as his resentful mare veered up a hidden pass in the hills. Next time, hell. That was the point. For Pollard, no next time. Despite their devilish run of luck, Jake Pollard's boys were a breed of outlaw all but extinct. Desperadoes thrive in peacetime, but the big war had been over long enough that Pollard reckoned the nation due for another. He had lived to the see the Confederacy rise and fall. Now there were all manner of Spaniards and Prussians and the like who needed keeping down. That or the moon men would invade. The American outlaw would go without friendly harbor for a long while. His options were to perish in glory, to fall like a dog in dirt, or to vanish without tracks into the west.

Ansel had wits, but his narrow skills might shut him out from honest work. Pollard had never known the man to apply himself to anything but theft, graft and misappropriation. If he had references outside the criminal set, he might make a bank manager, though Pollard did not reckon his formal education would measure up. Ansel claimed to have a wife and child stashed in Texas, but never hinted that a reunion was in the family's interest.

Ames could go several ways. He was a free-born son of former slaves. Even after the say-so of old dead Lincoln and the butcher's tide of war, the nation could not make up its mind about men like him. Ames had chosen to kick and buck and push back all his living days in reply. If society ever offered him a fair shake, he might stop his ears on plain cussed principle. He had picked up the outlaw knack without its attendant vices. That would give him a start in anything productive he took it in mind to do. He would make a fine rancher—hell, a senator if that star ever shone his way—but to go straight he would have to strike soon while land and resources could still be got. Ames was a man born out of his proper time. Pollard wished him long life and longer luck. No man deserved it better; no man was more prone to test it if he got it.

Coyote Joe had the likeliest prospects for happiness. He would cling to the wild life awhile out of sentiment or habit, then some hot afternoon he would get too drunk and go drifting. His place was among the adobe hovels of Mexico, where he could sit and reflect like a pickled oracle nobody thought to bother. Pollard pictured him with disciples, perhaps a harem of village girls too homely to marry ambitious men. They would roam the earth alongside him, doing for him with cheerful hearts to make his old age comfortable.

That left the kid. Len Shirley was his name and it must have been baptized onto him. Pollard could not see a person inventing such a handle for himself. He came from Las Cruces. That was where Pollard had found him, anyway. He had slipped into the gang with the ease of a ghost. At first light on the morning they left Las Cruces, Pollard's companions found the taciturn youth saddling up alongside their boss.

Pollard introduced the kid as a card player he had met in a late-night game. It was the truth, as far as it went. At the table there had also been a bitter player who took after Pollard over a crooked deal. Pollard had ignored the old souse, privately judging him unworthy of a straight deal, but the slighted man had gone for a derringer in his waistcoat and nearly caught Pollard by surprise. Without a word, the kid had leaned across the armed man and punched a boot knife between his ribs, just deep enough to put the man in a cold sweat. He lurched forward in the kid's grip, wheezing with pain but unable to cry out with the table's edge compressing his paunch. Pollard had expected a brawl to ensue, but the kid swept his green moonlight eyes across the half-dozen folks in the room. All held their peace. That was Shirley's power, no proof at all against his being a devil in the flesh. The wounded man, clutching a seven-high busted straight against his oozing belly, rose from the table and tottered in silence out of the room. Without a full deck to play with, all of them finished their drinks and waited. When no lawman appeared or seemed likely to, the men withdrew one by one into the night. Not once was courtesy broken. Pollard stayed to buy the kid a whiskey and talk in low voices. Not merely grateful, he had taken Shirley's prompt and ruthless action as a bid for the favor of a respected elder. Damned if it had not touched Pollard's heart. At the time he did not consider that the boy might have taken any chance to stab a man for the sheer fun of it.

Adding a member to the gang meant figuring an extra share of future spoils, but Pollard's boys were more or less content to accept the kid on their leader's word. Shirley never mastered easy conversation, but he made himself understood. Had he not been so undergrown he would have looked as dangerous as he was. He had the physical presence of a scarecrow built in lean times, lacking the straw needed to fill him out. His face had a tallowy sheen that no desert sun could bake away. It made his eyes look unnaturally large and heightened their alarming greenness. Pollard had heard Shirley give his age as seventeen, nineteen and twenty-two in different places, all of which were plausible. Pollard took him for a highly developed fifteen or sixteen, a prodigal son whose people were glad to have him stay gone. Natural cunning, hard experience or both gave him a vaguely satanic composure. Pollard never asked for his personal history, afraid his darkest guesses might be accurate. The boy's lip snarled whenever someone addressed him as Len, like the name embarrassed him, but he never took offense to being called Shirley. From their first meeting Pollard had marked him as an able-bodied eccentric, the type that bore watching when he was not kept busy.

Despite his unsettling temperament, Shirley had made a competent member of the party. His mind was restless but not simple. Once he had proven whatever he reckoned needed proving to the world, he might grow into a mighty big man. When he spoke, his voice had soft persuasive music in it. Without Pollard cutting a fatherly figure among them, Shirley would almost definitely make a bid to boss the gang. Ames and Ansel would object, but unless they got shut of him quick he might convince them to draw lots for the chief spot. It was the way buccaneers chose their captains. If the lot went against him, the kid might make mutiny. With his sly speed behind a boot knife it was apt to turn bloody. Pollard reminded himself that it was no longer his worry, but still it worried him.

Pollard's aim was retirement, better late than not. For five months he had dreamed every night of crouching by a fetid lake of blood. He was motionless in the dream, both arms plunged into the stagnant pool up to his elbows, the stink of corruption fairly choking him. Flies chewed him ragged and found new acreage by burrowing under his skin, yet he could not move because a long shadow over his shoulder let him know a rifle was trained on his backbone, ready to shear it in two if he did so much as swivel his head. No matter how much whiskey Pollard used to put himself down at night, sleep cursed him with visions of himself hunkered down at gunpoint in that sun-punished hell, knowing his only reprieve lay in drinking down every sip of the blood, filling himself up with the unholy reservoir of his own sin. He always awoke the instant before he touched the rancid clotted tide with his lips. Morning after morning he came out of sleep with a copper stench in his nose.

Not long after the dreams began, Pollard had barely stopped an Arizona barber from cutting his throat to claim a paltry bounty of silver. It had been six or seven pieces at most in the coinage of Judas, not that Pollard would count himself worth all thirty. Had the barber not been a timid son of a bitch, dripping sweat from his yellow nose on Pollard's lathered face as he chose his moment to slash, the outlaw might not have been warned in time. Pollard gripped the man's razor hand hard enough to break it. At that moment Shirley had appeared in the shop with Coyote Joe, and they would have kicked the man to death had Pollard not shouted at them to get the horses ready.

Pollard broke the barber's teeth with a bottle of scalp tonic, seized the razor and made two short gashes in his would-be assassin's face. The cuts met in a cross on the lower jaw. It would show that a man had dealt the scar, not some accident. Pollard was careful not to cut an eye or an artery. Had he wanted the barber killed, one look at Shirley's face let him know how fast it could be done.

Spoiling a man's visage gave Pollard a queer feeling, but to murder the barber in the heat of anger would have signified nothing. Pollard wanted a living example to others that he was not a mad dog to be shot on sight, but rather a serious man to be left alone. Since then he trusted no barber. His beard grew wild like scotch broom over pocked and pitted skin. He gave up trying to shave himself; his best edge was too blunt, and typically he had not so much as a puddle of piss for a looking-glass. Once he had let a long-limbed whore at Maricopa Wells bathe him. Whether from kindliness or to spare herself the brunt of his bristles, the woman had offered him a shave. Seeing what a flighty giggling thing she was, prone to hitch up and scream with laughter at the slightest pleasantry, Pollard feared she would bleed him out of plain clumsiness. He paid her extra to let his ragged face alone. She turned out just as ticklish as expected, no thanks to the whiskers.

Now Pollard meant to get away as clean as he could, dividing whatever shares were sufficient to keep the others from following him, and push west to the ocean alone. He had no interest in loafing around San Francisco, like a dandy in some god-blinded parlor song. He might as well hop a train to Chicago or St. Louis to get himself strung up, for all the comfort the Frisco sea air would bring him. Monterey would do, or a smaller town if he could manage it. He was resigned to any place where his reputation was not posted publicly, and where nobody would think to track him. Pollard coveted nothing much beyond liquor and a cheaply let bed. He could afford to drink himself to death in modest comfort, provided he made it last no more than six months. First he would have a proper shave in some friendly parlor where he was a stranger. Then all he wanted was to swill freely and play cards and split tail when he felt like it, no longer minding whether the spirits were good, the games were fair or the shakes were sweet-smelling and delicately freckled as in youth. He would give the full measure of his love to any female with the compassion not to hold it against him the day he perished between her knees.

Pollard got lost again on the Pacific shore in his mind, his mare overtaking Coyote Joe on the last of the hard switchbacks. His imagination could no longer form the ocean's murmur properly. It sounded more than ever like hooves and blazing gunfire, a vengeful host on his trail. He checked over his shoulder but there was only Coyote Joe, no sign of the shouting mob that dogged his thoughts. The thunder of ugly fate, visible or not, was real enough.

By the time he sighted the camp, with Coyote Joe straggling behind as winded as his horse, Pollard had cooled from murderous rage to dull disapproval. Shirley had a destructive streak that would bring the world some grief, but underneath his awful face he was only a raw kid, swinging his prick to show the world what a bad piece of news he was. So had Pollard been. It was the oldest act in history. Pollard's theory was that Cain never meant to slay Abel, only to show a little muscle and grit. The fight got out of hand as fights often did, and the brother who bucked fortune went bust for his trouble. For Pollard that was the true lesson in scripture: Providence never dealt any man straight.

The gang had cut through a narrow pass mostly hidden to white men's eyes. The route had served them before. Anyone but a Paiute tracker would try the wider north road before testing the treacherous bends of the Carson Range. From his boyhood Pollard carried the rusty parable about how camels and rich men should avoid threading needles. To reach their hideout the five men had threaded several fine needles in succession, and would ride out rich indeed. Perhaps the trick was riding horseback rather than camelback. Whatever the reason, Pollard smiled at the perverse thrill of getting one over on the gospels.

The rough ride had exhausted the mounts. All would welcome a night's sleep in solitude. Riding up on the swiftly pitched camp, Pollard found the kid keeping a surly eye on the fire, picking without interest through the contents of the stolen knapsack. Ames was hobbling the horses while Ansel baled the money into packets with twine. Coyote Joe was off his horse, fiddling some biscuits together with as much flour and trail dust as he could find. Pollard was not inclined to eat. He regretted having drunk up his last bottle a week ago. He felt almost melancholy enough to collect his share, leave his companions to fate and embark on his dissolution at once. His heart chided him, though, and he elected to sleep on it. There would be time for proper farewells. He owed his mates one more night watch, if nothing else. Ever since their first ride together, Pollard had taken first watch.

The kid pulled odds and ends from the canvas pack, studied each one and dropped it back inside with a snort of distaste. He was vexed with his own plunder, as though a porter had delivered him the wrong luggage.

"What'd you reckon on finding?" Pollard called down. The sun had dropped with extra speed and firelight danced on the young man's face. Almost any light that fell on him accented the malevolent cast of his features.

Shirley said nothing at first, only spat. He fished out a watch that had been fine but was all broken and jangled with wear. "Damned old bastard," said the thin cold lips. "What'd he want to keep all this trash for?"

"What in hellfire did you want to take it for?" Pollard asked. They were not looking at each other, and Pollard's tone was milder than a rebuke. He knew the kid had no answer. Forty years on, Pollard had not forgotten the measure of thoughtless rage a young man could fling at the world, for no reason except he had the bad luck to be born. Bent spoons and sooty rags and Indian trinkets rustled around the sack, stirred by the kid's impatient paw. He unfurled a tangle of papers, all torn and eaten through but still folded to show the owner meant to keep them intact. From atop his mare Pollard could not see much, but the delicate lines made him sure the writer's hand was feminine. They were daughter's letters, or sweetheart's letters, or if Pollard guessed right by the age and profession of the man who had them, the fond words of a dead wife. He half expected the kid to take delight in having stolen items of sentimental value. Then it dawned on him that Shirley could no more grasp the meaning of sentiment than whistle the doxology out his dirthole. Taking one last look in the bottom of the pack, the disappointed young bandit pitched it on the fire to burn. The bundle was sweaty and coarse and made dark smoke as the flame tried to catch the fibers. Pollard steered his mare away to circle the camp in the falling dark. He spied Ames already catching winks, his head propped on a stone. Ansel lay nearby, bound in the filthy blanket he carried. Coyote Joe need not have bothered with biscuits. They were too tired to eat, although they would wake hungry enough. Stale biscuits, Pollard reflected, were to be the final breakfast of his infamous career.

He had managed to bite his tongue when Shirley cast his trophy away so lightly. The whelp had never wanted it to begin with, nor had it held any loot worth having. The indecency of taking it in the first place, never mind risking the safety of the gang, offended Pollard's sensibilities as a thief and as a man. It was all he could do to leave it alone, let the fool learn for himself about worthy thoughts and actions. Pollard was one watch away from freedom.

Cold wind piped through the pass, floating the mare's mane in pretty wisps. Pollard liked quiet nights in the wilderness, but even the open spaces of Nevada seemed to be losing substance. Better to find four friendly walls that stayed put rather than feel the desert close in on him, a little every day, until he smothered. He was wanted in six counties. His only wish was to end up someplace where he was welcome, but wanted by nobody. Could a man, he wondered, have two destinies lying in wait for him, one biding its time to overpower the other? He tried to conjure the ocean again but he could not hear the waves. The night's chill and the rock-strewn ground were too present. He saw no riders, heard no tumult of hoofbeats, yet at the edge of his heart he could feel them. There was no moon, and not likely to be one.

He was looking west with his back to camp when the first rifle shot tore the night. It seemed to Pollard that he wheeled the mare around slowly, a mounted man underwater, bewitched by the advent of his dreadful fancy. The blast was too near to be possible. In the fresh dark at least one encroaching rider should have been visible. Pollard flinched at a second crack of powder, felt the shot whine past his ear. Still he saw no stranger, heard no horse. A soundless ghost posse had taken the camp.

A firebrand sparked from a crouching shape, and Pollard recognized the bark of the pistol. Ames was at the ready, firing three purposeful shots at nothing Pollard could see. The clap of the phantom rifle came again. The shooter seemed to move in their midst and still did not appear. Pollard's eye caught a muzzle flash, so low to the ground that he thought the hellish avenger must be moving sidewinder-fashion in the dirt. As the shot's echo died he heard a scream of pain rise to meet it. The pitch was alien to Ansel's muttering throat but the cry had come from the safecracker, tangled in his blanket and rolling near the fire where he had been asleep. He wailed like a motherless child as a dark fountain spilled from his navel, dyeing the woolen bedroll the shade of Pollard's nightmares.

"Ames!" Pollard cried out to the one he hoped would make sense of things. He slid off his mare, hoping it would keep docile enough to use as a rampart. The mechanics of survival had taken over. Even with his gun drawn Pollard resolved not to fire unless a definite target materialized. Ames turned his head, distracted, and at the next rifle shot his pistol spat back, pure instinct. Pollard saw the white of Ames's eyes. Awful comprehension shone on the man's dark face.

It dawned on Pollard to search for the kid as Ames broke cover at a run. Shirley stood at the edge of camp, firing his pet Schofield into the dark at a slow, regular pace. It looked to Pollard like obscene dumbshow, a round of absurd target practice without targets. No enemy was out that way, and Pollard knew that Shirley knew it too. When the last chamber sounded, the green eyes turned to face camp. Steady hands reloaded. He had a second pistol in his belt, evidently taken off one of the sleepers. Pollard's felt his guts rumble with a feeling of doom.

Coyote Joe, across the fire from the gutshot Ansel, sat moaning in a sleepy daze. One eye scanned vainly about for deliverance. The other eye had been shot out of his head. He put up a mournful idiot sound until, without warning, his body jumped and his breath hitched. A scarlet flower opened on his breast. His hand pawed the iron skillet at his elbow, wanting it for a shield, unmindful that it was still hot from the fire.

Pollard drew on Shirley when he saw the youth fire directly into Coyote Joe. In the madness of that act, Pollard saw he had been wrong to indulge what he took for the restlessness of youth. A new and monstrous thing took shape in his view. Pollard snapped off a shot, too provoked by the violence against Coyote Joe for his best aim. The shot grazed Shirley high on the shoulder. Except for a small indignant noise the kid gave no sign of being hit. Pollard knelt, sighting more steadily from under the mare's belly, when a jolt and a scream from the animal shivered his blood. Rather than return fire at Pollard, the kid had shot the horse. The old bandit twisted too far at the waist, gasping at a creak of pain in his back. Had he not faltered he might have jumped clear before the dead weight of his mare with her poor bleeding head crushed him to the earth. Splintered ribs and a shattered knee strummed a chord of pain on the broken instrument that was Jake Pollard, desperado, recently retired.

Rolling his eyes up to their limit, Pollard spied Ames kicking at the fire, at a charred fibrous object tangled in the flaming wood. Something exploded under his boot and a wound opened high in his thigh. Ames hollered, grabbing his bloody haunch as he fell, barely out of the fire's reach. The kid had the drop on him, dealing a point-blank shot to his chest.

Pollard understood. He did not grasp the sense or the reason of it, but he saw the plain face of what had happened. Destruction had stolen up on them, true as the ghost legions riding at his heels, true as the phantom rifleman of his dreams. It had come in lunatic form, suited to a world whose origin and chief element was chaos. It was too late to tell, and not worth asking, whether Shirley had seen what lay in the bottom of the satchel before throwing it away. It was too haphazard for him to have planned, but Pollard's intuition told him the kid had been waiting a long time for a freak turn of chance. The whole of his short life might have led him here, poised for his moment.

Shirley was firing on anything that twitched, a boy shooting paper ducks on the midway. Pollard could almost hear the prize bell ring. Two points on three shots at Coyote Joe, a wild miss and a pair in the brisket. A point for Ansel, not a clean hit but enough to shut him up for good. Ames did not stir, might have dashed his head on a rock but the kid would make sure. That stung Pollard, the indignity of a prone man gunned to death. Not even the horses would escape execution. The kid toppled Coyote Joe with a final round and swiveled to Pollard like a weathercock, gun hand outstretched. Gone was any familiar sign from the moon-green eyes. Pollard had seen every flavor of rage and resentment on that hateful face. He was as accustomed to the stony cruelty of Shirley's features as any man could be, but the new light burning there pricked him all over with horror. What he saw coming off Shirley was joy.

Jake Pollard tried once more to outpace the present. Leaving his broken body he rode hard in his mind for the sea, letting out a roar fit to split the earth. He felt the shot go low in his back, but he never heard a sound.

Deputy Matt Bonneville and his sorry detachment of volunteers might never have found the hidden encampment if not for the carrion birds. The feathery shapes made dizzy kite circles over the spot, dipping now and then to sample the dwindling feast. Even then it had taken the advice of a thirsty roving hunter, who had heard the gunfire two nights prior, to put them on the right trail. The men pissed and moaned worse than Temperance Leaguers as they drove their mounts through the rocky passes. Bonneville himself had thought it a fool's chase, but was glad to be out of town awhile. He would not credit wild rumors about who had done the robbery until he saw the men face to face. If Pollard's gang was responsible, he knew better than to expect they would sit waiting to be caught. Bonneville reckoned they had shot a worn-out horse and left it to draw the buzzards. Even so, he bade the others be silent, swearing liberally for emphasis, as the company drew near the rank stench of death. When he stopped his mount, he swore again.

Two days had given the scavengers plenty of time, but enough remained of Pollard to identify him where he lay. Coyotes or something bigger had dragged the mare's hollow carcass halfway off him. The crooked arrangement of his limbs told a painful tale. Near the ashes of the fire lay a thin man shrouded in bloody wool, alongside a paunchy old wreck of a fellow who had bled out all his color onto the sand. A Negro and a second mare lay face down together. Not far away were the other horses, hobbled and unable to flee the carnage. Apart from Pollard, Bonneville did not recall any of the men's names.

With no signs of an Indian raid, they worked out that the robbers must have quarreled among themselves. Aside from two bank notes caught in some brush, none of the depot cash could be found. One man insisted that Pollard rode in a gang of five, not four, but nothing was known about the absent man. To get the better of Pollard, he was bound to be the sort that Bonneville would sooner leave to fortune. Four dead outlaws would bring bounty enough to suit him. If the town marshal cared to chase the telegraph money once he returned from meeting the president-elect in Carson, let him try.

Nobody ascribed much importance the ashen tatters of a knapsack, which in the confusion had been knocked atop the campfire and all but burned up. Bonneville gave the melted silver wad on the charred watch chain to his brother-in-law, the most desolate drunk in the posse, to do with as he pleased. The rest was left to blow away at the convenience of the east wind, including a black sheaf of spidery correspondence and a dozen spent paper cartridges. These last, if intact, would have been curiosities. They were made for an antique variety of breech rifle, not the sort of thing for well-heeled bandits to carry. Anyone mindful of their potency would have taken more care than to cast them into open flames.

That night, and for several nights after, an affable saloon keeper called Valdez left his lights burning an extra hour. His establishment was modest but clean, not far from Salinas and still a fair distance from the ocean. His pretty daughter Marisol, who kept the place with him, had gone to bed. He sat up alone with his favorite bottle and a deck of cards, curiously certain that a weary traveler would come along in need of rest and company. He could not account for the notion, nor explain the silence that rewarded his vigil. He would have done better to save his oil.

The End

Dan Fields once absconded with a film degree from Northwestern University. He has recently published work with Sanitarium, Grotesque Quarterly Magazine and Alcyone. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and offspring.

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