by Drew Davis
Sheriff Granger knelt and studied the body in the alley behind the Dusty Diamond saloon. Even in the fading early evening light, he could tell there was no hope of life. The man's right forehead sported a deep gash, no doubt caused by the bloody rock laying in the dirt. He seemed to be in his late twenties, dressed in Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.
"This one's new to me," Granger said. "Haven't seen him around."
"Maybe you should spend more time in the saloon," Ramona Hammond smirked. She toyed with her blonde ringlets and swayed in the doorway, flouncing her frilly red barmaid's dress. "You work too hard, Sheriff."
"Be serious, Ramona. A man's dead here," said Nickerson, the saloon owner.
"I am serious. What's a girl got to do to interest a real man in this town?"
"How about doing your job? Get back in there and make sure things stay calm. That way the sheriff will be able to do his job."
Ramona swirled around to face the door. Nestling her chin over her shoulder, she smiled at Granger and said, "Guess I better do what the boss says, Sheriff. But don't forget you're always welcome at the Diamond . . . and other places, too." Then she pranced into the saloon.
"He must be in town for that cattleman's meeting, Sheriff. They're the only ones I've seen so well dressed in the middle of the week. I was in my office when one hell of a commotion started in the bar. This fellow and Jeremy Brock were going at each other."
"Jeremy from the Kirkland ranch? Doesn't seem the kind to get into a fight."
"Definitely didn't have much practice, it seems," Nickerson replied, hitching his pants up over his bulging stomach. "He was getting the worse end of it by far." He stepped closer to the body. "Jeremy crashed through a couple of my chairs and that was that."
Granger raised his hand and halted the man. "Not too close, Nick. Let me finish here."
"How long do you think you'll be, Evan? The longer I keep the Diamond shut down, the more money just keeps flying away."
The sheriff stood and took a last look at the alleyway, then turned to Nickerson.
"It'll take as long as it takes," he said. "Like you told the young lady, a man's dead here." He stepped closer and asked, "What happened after the fight?"
Nickerson shook his bald head and stroked the edges of his bushy mustache as he answered. "That's hard to say. This fellow here took off through the back and, while I was trying to calm the place down, Jeremy pulled himself up and chased after him. When I finally got out here, he was standing over the man, bent double like he was out of breath."
"So you didn't see the death blow."
"Nope. But Jeremy confessed to me right then and there."
"What exactly did he say?"
"Something like 'It was me. I killed him. Get the sheriff.' Then he went to his knees and hung his head. He was so worn out from the fight and whatever happened out here, I had to help him back into the saloon before I sent word to you."
"Well, you need to send word to the undertaker now and I need to go have words with our confessed killer."
When they entered the bar area all noise stopped. The only people in there were saloon workers scattered around and a bruised and battered Jeremy alone at a table. His posture was so rigid even his black curly hair seemed at attention. However, the crowd that had gathered outside the batwing doors was barely being held back by a couple of bartenders.
"Tell them to shut the main doors," Granger said.
"Evan!" Nickerson complained. "Please let me open back up. Why don't you take Jeremy on to the calaboose?"
Granger turned to the man and hooked his thumbs into his belt. "You gonna waste more time bellyaching or let me get this over with?"
Struggling to hold back any further grumbles, Nickerson motioned to his staff to comply, setting off shouts of dismay from those beyond. Then he stormed off behind the bar.
"Nick's right, Sheriff," Jeremy said as he stood up from the table. "No need to delay. I bashed his head in with a rock."
"You saw'im. Out in the alley."
Granger moved closer and leaned over with his hands resting on the back of one of the chairs, eyes locked on the young cowhand. "What's his name? What caused the ruckus between you two?"
Jeremy's face contorted and he couldn't match the sheriff's gaze. He dropped his head and mumbled as he sat back down, "I don't know his name. He was . . . he was just . . . causing trouble and somebody had to stop him."
"Anybody else know the man?" Granger addressed the saloon's employees, walking toward the group. "Anyone else have problems with him?"
Murmurs and shuffling about spread through them but no one seemed willing to comment. Finally, Ramona, who was standing at the bar, teased, "Guess not everyone is as memorable as you, sheriff."
"His name was Caleb Phelps," said a soft feminine voice filled with teardrops.
The saloon workers pulled back to allow the speaker through. A petite woman stepped toward Granger. She was slim and small boned, the canary yellow dance hall dress nearly swallowing her up. She had matching yellow ribbons in her light brown hair, and a red welt that was turning dark purple around her left eye.
"Annabel, don't do this," Ramona said. "Jeremy's already confessed. No need to bring up all the trouble now."
"Trouble?" Granger asked. "What trouble?"
"He's . . . he was my husband," the small woman continued. "I'm the reason Jeremy and Caleb were fighting."
Granger pulled out a chair at the table and watched her as she sat next to Jeremy. She caressed one of the man's scarred hands gently. "I'm so sorry I got you into all this."
"I'm the one who's sorry you had to put up with abuse for so long." Then, staring intently into her eyes he said, "You don't have to worry about him anymore. You understand?"
Annabel pulled her hand back and cast her gaze downward as she nodded her head. Then she turned to the sheriff.
"I've run away from him before," she said. "But he always tracked me down and dragged me back. I thought this time if I went to a town without family or friends or any kind of ties I would be safe. The annual cattleman's meeting never crossed my mind. Then he comes in here today and nearly explodes when he sees me."
"I take it that's where the black eye came from?"
"Not the first one he's given me. He considered me no better than the cattle he ran, just another piece of property."
"I couldn't let him get away with that, Sheriff," Jeremy said. "I stepped in and we started beating on each other."
"But he left you lying on the floor," Granger said.
"Yeah, I've always tried to avoid fistfights. Don't want to mess up my hands for cowboying. Guess I shoulda fought enough to get decent at it."
"Satisfied, Sheriff?" Nickerson interrupted. "How about you take him on to the jail and let me get back to business?"
Granger moved to the bar and leaned against it. "Not just yet," he said. "There are still a few things that need clearing up."
"I do like a man who takes care of details," Ramona said, brushing by the sheriff as she went to sit at the table with Jeremy and Annabel.
"Evan, please . . . I mean Sheriff," Nickerson whined. "What are you talking about?"
"Yes, Sheriff," Ramona added. "You know how things started, and, for about the twentieth time you've been told today, Jeremy admitted doing it. Of course, I personally think he should get a medal instead of a lockup. What more needs explaining?"
"I appreciate all of you trying to my job for me," Granger said. "But please bear with me as I stumble through this. There should be no doubt left when we finish."
"Okay, handsome. I mean, Sheriff," Ramona said with a wink, "What can we do to ease your mind?"
"The fight is over, and Jeremy is on the floor. Mrs. Phelps, did—
"Annabel, please," she said.
"Annabel. Did you stay in the bar, or when and where did you go?"
"I was so afraid and embarrassed. I ran as soon as it started. Straight to the back."
"Into the alley?"
"No, but that's where I was headed. I wanted to grab the first horse I found and get as far away as I could."
"What stopped you?"
"I stopped her," Ramona said. "She wouldn't have had a chance with that man after her. I sent her up to the guest rooms to hide."
"So, Annabel," Granger said. "You never went into the alley?"
"That's what she said, Sheriff," Nickerson huffed. "Where you going with this?"
"Trying to eliminate possibilities. And decide who's telling the truth and who isn't."
"I'm not lying! And neither is Annabel." Jeremy stood up abruptly, his chair crashing to the floor. "Take me in. I'm ready to go." He started toward the door.
"I really admire you," Granger said calmly. "Ready to sacrifice yourself to save another."
Jeremy stopped, still with his back to them.
"Trouble is, young man, you're mistaken."
The cowhand wheeled around and looked immediately at Annabel, then to the sheriff. "What are you talking about?" he asked.
"First I need to ask Annabel a question." Granger walked over to her and reached out for her hands. Cradling them in his own, he asked, "When you and Caleb had your confrontation today, there's no doubt he struck you. Did you get a chance to hit him back?"
Just as Annabel shook her head and started to answer, Jeremy cut her off. "Of course she didn't," he said. "That fool knocked her halfway across the room. I jumped in on him before anything else could happen."
"That's what her hands say," the sheriff agreed, letting them drop to her lap. "No scarring, no blood, no skin under the nails."
"What's that got to do with anything?" Nickerson asked. He leaned over the bar, his interest caught in the story.
"Jeremy knows, don't you?" Granger asked. "When you finally got into the alley, Phelps was already dead wasn't he?" When there was no response other than the cowhand's concerned expression, he continued. "Even with all the blood on his face, you could still see the fingernail scratches couldn't you? You were certain that Annabel had killed him."
"I didn't kill Caleb!" Annabel wailed.
"You didn't?" Jeremy asked in surprise.
"Of course not!" Annabel got up, wrapped her arms around him and hugged with all her might despite his wincing from aching ribs. "But thank you, thank you so much for trying to take care of me."
"Did you say fingernail scratches?" Nickerson asked. "That means . . . a woman?
Granger walked toward the table which was empty now except for one person. "You haven't said much in quite a while, Ramona. I'd check your hands but I can see you've had time to clean them. One of your nails is a bit ragged though. Not from scratching a face, but maybe from slamming a rock against it?"
She turned away, her eyes darting around the room as the sheriff continued.
"Is that why you've been flirting with me all this time? Trying to distract me? To keep me from putting things together? I admit, you've got your charms and I've been mighty tempted . . . but a man is dead here. What do you have to say about that?"
"So I've got a torn fingernail. It doesn't mean anything. Why don't you check every other woman's hands?"
"No need to. There's another thing." He knelt in front of her. "There were tracks, female shoe tracks, leading away from the body, down the alley and around to the front. When I looked at Annabel's feet they were a bit too small to have made them. And yours . . . well, Ramona, if we took one of your shoes and set them next to those footprints . . . "
"He was nothing but trash!" She leaned over the table on her elbows, rubbing her eyes with the palms of her hands. "All he had to do was leave and nothing . . . none of this . . . "
Granger stood and said, "You sent him into the alley, didn't you? Told him Annabel had run that way."
"Yes. I closed the door behind us and stood in between. Said he wasn't welcome here anymore. Said he'd have to go through me to get inside."
"What did he say to that?"
Ramona looked at the sheriff, her tear-streaked face knotted in anger. "He said 'My, you're a feisty one'," she mimicked through gritted teeth. "Then he said 'Maybe I'll just settle for you.' He reached out and tried to grab me."
"I bet that's when he got the scratches on his face."
"Damn right it is. He shoved me to the ground so hard I lost my breath. He spun around for a minute, holding his head, calling me all sorts of names while I got to my feet."
"With a rock in your hand."
"With a rock in my hand," Ramona nodded. "I knew what he would do."
"He came at you."
"He pulled his hand down from his face and I saw nothing but fury in those bloody eyes. I didn't mean to kill him, I swear I didn't. But I couldn't let him get hold of me."
Granger studied her for a bit. He'd seen plenty of false regret and put-on tears in his life. Ramona, however, had all indication of truth and sincerity. He turned to the bar and said, "Okay, Nick. I think that's it. The Dusty Diamond can open for business."
"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you," Nickerson almost danced with joy as he waved at the barmen to open the doors.
"What about me?" Ramona asked, standing and straightening her dress. "Am I going to jail?"
"Only if you want to watch me make out my report for the circuit court," the sheriff said. "It'll probably say something like: Since the victim had already beaten one woman and pounded another citizen violently, my investigation can only conclude that Miss Hammond feared for her life and acted in self-defense."
Ramona's hand went to her chest and she staggered a bit. Annabel and Jeremy steadied her as she continued to stare at the lawman in disbelief.
Granger started through the throng of thirsty customers but stopped and turned back to the trio. "There's only one thing that doesn't square up with me," he said. "You were very willing to let someone else take the blame for your actions. Jeremy seems to have forgiven you. But there oughta be a price to pay." He squinted hard and thought for a moment. "I've got it."
Striding toward the batwing doors, he shouted to the incoming crowd, "Next round's on Ramona!"
Drew Davis is a writer in the Augusta, Georgia area. His plays have been produced from Cheshire, England to San Diego and places in between including Chicago and Atlanta. Two of his short stories were published in the "Award-Winning Tales" cowboy anthology. His own anthology "The Western Way" is available at Amazon. More of his work can be found at www.drew-davis.com
Back to Top
Back to Home
by Alexander J. Richardson
Clyde Daniels rushed ahead, swearing all the while, rifle in hand. He tried aiming it a few times, but at that range the horse thief was too far away to guarantee he wouldn't hit Sundown instead. Before long, both thief and horse were lost against the desert landscape.
Clyde turned and kicked the base of a cactus.
* * *
Back at the ranch, Clyde and Bob saddled up two of the other horses.
"Sendin' Joseph for help is a good start," Bob said, adjusting a blanket on his pinto's back, "but don't you think we should get the marshal?"
One of the dogs walked over and sniffed at Clyde's boots.
"Marshal won't do shit," he said. "So long as he's got his hairs twisted over 'em goddamn Comanche rumors, he won't put no focus on a horse thief."
"You sure it wasn't a Comanche stole it?"
Clyde looked at his brother and gestured around them. "Notice how nothin's on fire and ain't nobody scalped?"
Bob put a saddle over the blanket and cinched it. "Do Comanches burn homesteads?"
"Assume so. Injuns is Injuns."
Bob tightened his gunbelt. "You fixin' to bring the sonuvabitch back alive?"
Clyde untwisted the reins on his horse. He grabbed his rifle off the saddlebag.
"Up to him," he said, jacking a round into the chamber.
* * *
Joseph was back at the ranch a little before noon, and Clyde scowled when he saw who was with him.
"Pete Lawson?" he said, turning to Bob. "That stupid hay-head brought Pete Lawson for our posse?"
Pete Lawson was nearly seven feet tall, and the cuffs of his pants stopped above his ankles. His horse looked like a mule next to him. He wore a patched duster and carried an eight-gauge shotgun. His beard was black and thick, except for the scar that went from his chin up to his right eye.
"Heard 'bout ya daddy's horse, Clyde," he said, lumbering ahead of Joseph. "It ain't right. By God, it ain't right."
Clyde looked up at him. "Thank you, Pete."
He turned to Joseph. "Got a minute?"
Joseph was rolling a cigarette. He nodded at his brother and followed him into the stable while Bob stayed with Pete.
"If I sent you to town for a flute, would you bring back a hammer?" Clyde said.
Joseph licked his cigarette closed. "Don't sell no flutes in town."
"That ain't an answer."
Joseph shrugged. He took a match out of his pocket and flicked it to life against the bottom of his boot. Clyde watched him light the cigarette and take a long drag on it.
"'Spose I wouldn't," he said, smoke coming out of his nose.
"Then why," Clyde said, "would you go to town looking for shooters and come back with Pete Lawson?"
Joseph smoked some more of his cigarette. He turned and spat on the ground.
"Weren't nobody else to bring," Joseph said. "Just some old timers ain't fit to ride and Samuel Black, and you know he'd sooner cut off his toes than help any of us. It was Pete or nobody."
Clyde rapped his fingers against one of the stalls for a moment.
"Can he even shoot?"
Joseph finished his cigarette and shrugged. "Says he can. Never seen him do it, but he's got a, ah, imposing figure. Won't hurt none if some thief sees a giant like him riding up."
Clyde looked out of the stable. Pete had taken an apple out of his saddlebag and was biting into it.
"We needed bodies fast, brother," Joseph said. "Pete's sure a body."
Clyde nodded a couple times.
"He'll have to do," he said, grabbing the reins of his horse and leading him out of the stable.
* * *
The four men rode out into the desert side-by-side—from left to right, Bob, Clyde, Joseph, and Pete. Clyde stayed just a little ahead of the other men, though Pete's horse skittered back and forth so much that his place in the line varied. They reached the spot where Clyde had last seen Sundown and the thief, and Joseph dismounted. He got down on one knee and looked at the dirt.
"What ya doin'?" Pete said.
"Tracking," Clyde said, keeping his eyes on his brother. "Hush."
Pete looked at him but didn't say anything. Bob grinned and took a sip from his canteen.
"Bear west," Joseph said, and got back on his horse.
The group took off again, with Joseph leading this time. They stopped again and again over the afternoon, eventually making camp on a hilltop at dusk. Clyde and Joseph tended to the horses while Bob made a fire and cooked beans and biscuits, and the men ate together.
"Ah find ya thief, Clyde, ah'll hold 'im down in a river," Pete said. "Mash his face in the mud 'til he don't flail no more."
"Thanks, Pete," Clyde said, and took a bite of biscuit.
"Get a look at the thief?" Joseph said.
"Not great. Tall. Wore a black duster and a wide-brim hat. Looked to have red hair poking out."
Clyde shrugged. "Taller than me." He patted Pete on the shoulder. "Not so tall as this giant."
Pete chuckled. Joseph set his plate down and stood up, walking over to his horse and reaching into his saddlebag. He walked back over to Clyde and handed him a folded poster.
"This your thief?"
Clyde unfolded the poster and looked at it. His face tightened up.
"Shit," Joseph said. "It is, ain't it?"
Bob looked from Joseph to Clyde. "What?"
"Goddammit," Clyde said.
Pete looked around in a wide circle. "What?"
"Weren't no man took off with Sundown," Joseph said. "It was Dirty Debbie."
Bob squinted. "Who?"
"There's paper on her," Joseph said. "She runs with the Juan Rojas Gang. Talks real sweet, then backshoots you. Folks in El Paso is ready to see her swing."
Bob stared at Clyde.
"You let a gal make off with Pa's horse?"
"Didn't let no gal do nothing," Clyde said, glaring at him. "A goddamn horse thief caught me unawares. What do or don't waggle between her legs ain't making no difference."
"Shoot," Pete said. "Ah don't think ah could drown no woman."
Clyde tossed the poster aside. Joseph picked it up and folded it.
"Hey," Bob said. "We goin' up against the Juan Rojas Gang, this's a whole different thing. We don't got the manpower for it."
"We don't know who the thief is," Clyde said, "or whether they're meeting up with no gang."
"Ah couldn't drown no woman."
"Won't be no drownin'," Joseph said.
"Good, 'cause ah couldn't do it. Not to no woman."
"Enough chatter," Clyde said. "Let's get us some shuteye. We ride at dawn."
He laid down next to the fire. Bob and Joseph finished their food and followed suit.
But Pete stared at the fire, only speaking when the other three men were snoring and the horses had settled in against the night.
"Ah couldn't kill no woman."
* * *
They had coffee around a fresh fire and hit the trail while the sun was still coming up.
Clyde looked at Joseph.
"You figger she's making for Hutch Creek?"
"Don't know," Joseph said.
"Lot a' desert here," Clyde said. "Sure you can find her?"
They passed a thick patch of cacti. Short of scrub and the occasional critter, the desert landscape ahead of them was barren.
"Well, shit, Joseph. What fuckin' good are you?"
"Givin' it my best," Joseph said. "Didn't make no promises. You got somebody else to track her, I'll head home."
"Keep an eye out for Comanches," Bob said.
Clyde looked at him. "You got no cause to stress over any goddamn Comanches."
"That ain't fact," Bob said. "Marshal's been talkin' about Comanches for a month. Ever since he got that telegram from the Army."
"The marshal's dumber than a wet sack," Clyde said.
Joseph leaned back in his saddle and started rolling a cigarette.
"Dumb or not, the man can read a telegram," Bob said.
Clyde looked left and right, then back and forward.
"You see all that? It's a big pile a' nothing far as the eye goes. Any goddamn Comanches pop up, we'll see 'em. 'Til then, don't worry 'bout no red men."
Bob shook his head a few times. "They'll see us as easy as we'll see them."
Joseph held up his hand and the group stopped. He hopped off his horse and kneeled down, looking at the ground, cigarette clamped between his lips. After several moments, he nodded and got back on his horse.
"Bear south," he said through gritted teeth.
Clyde nodded to himself. "Hutch Creek is south."
Joseph nodded. Bob looked around. He pulled the Winchester off his saddlebag and rested it against the horn. The sun was high over the four men as they veered south, a posse out to find their needle in a haystack and right the wrong against the Daniels brothers' dearly-departed pa.
"Ah can't read."
"That's okay, Pete."
"Ah can whistle."
"Good for you, Pete."
* * *
It was late afternoon when they spotted the old church house. It sat alongside a steep hill and had several headstones next to, jutting into the desert like a flowerbed of death. Four horses were hitched out front.
"You see all that?" Bob said.
Clyde nodded. He pointed to the left.
"Make for them rocks. We'll take a better look."
They rode for the rocks, Pete bringing up the rear. The four men dismounted and climbed up onto the boulder. Joseph took a spyglass out of his satchel and trained it on the church.
"Them horses ain't Sundown," he said after a moment.
Clyde swore. Pete aimed his shotgun at the church and carefully pulled the hammers back.
"What in the hell you doin', Pete?" Bob said.
"Ah'm keepin' ready case there's trouble."
"That's an eight-gauge," Bob said. "The church is three-hundred yards away."
Pete nodded several times.
"Hold up," Joseph said. "Somebody's movin' about."
The men lay flat. Pete kept his shotgun aimed at the church.
"Bob," Joseph said, "take a look at this."
Bob scooted over and Joseph handed him the spyglass.
"Little to your left, Bob. There it is. Who does that look like?"
Bob frowned as he focused the spyglass. He took a moment.
Then: "Leapin' lizards!"
He set the spyglass down and turned to Joseph.
"That's Graham O'Grady."
Joseph nodded. "What I thought."
Clyde looked at his brothers.
"Who's Graham O'Grady?"
"Member of the Juan Rojas Gang," Bob said. "Wanted for murder in California and Mexico. He gunned down four men in San Francisco, all of 'em heeled. Man's trouble."
"Hey," Pete said. "We's four men."
"Hell do we care about any goddamn members of any goddamn gang?" Clyde said. "We're here for Sundown. They don't got 'im, we move on. Didn't trek all the way out here for no bounty hunting."
Bob shook his head and handed the spyglass back to Joseph.
"You thick? Dirty Debbie made off with Sundown." He pointed at the church. "She's a member of that-there gang. So's O'Grady. If he's here, she'll be about."
"We don't know Dirty Debbie's the thief," Clyde said.
"Christ Almighty, Clyde. What snake crawled in your bunk? You described her. You saw the poster. Sure as shootin' it was Dirty Debbie. Question is, the hell we supposed to do now?"
"Can't kill no woman," Pete said.
"You so sure it was her," Clyde said, "then we go down and make 'em talk."
Bob laughed. "Make 'em talk? You some sorta dime-novel hero I ain't never heard of? Graham O'Grady killed four men like he were spittin' chew. Ain't none of us all that special with a gun, save for Joseph, and it don't change that I count four horses outside that church. O'Grady ain't alone."
Joseph didn't say anything. He was using the spyglass again. Pete looked at his eight-gauge.
"Ah got a gun."
Clyde scowled. "So what you want to do, Bob? Head on back with our tails between our legs and a horse short?"
"Goddammit, I ain't sayin' that. Be nice not to catch no lead, though."
"Hush up," Joseph said. "They got company."
Clyde turned away from Bob and looked down. Coming along from the south at an even pace was a rider. The horse was black.
"Goddamn," Clyde said. "Is that Sundown?"
Joseph didn't say anything. He kept his spyglass trained on the horse.
Then: "Yup. That's Sundown."
"Goddamn," Clyde said.
Bob swallowed hard. Pete turned to Clyde.
"Sundown's ya daddy's horse."
Joseph set down the spyglass and looked at Clyde.
"How you want to do this, brother?"
Clyde stared at the church for a while.
"All them Juan Rojas fellers got dead-or-alive bounties?"
"They do," Joseph said.
"Smart bet's head back to town," Bob said. "Get us a proper group. Outnumber 'em somethin' fierce."
"We go back to town, there's a good bet they'll have all skedaddled 'fore we're back," Clyde said.
"I could find 'em again," Joseph said, "or go back myself and then find you."
"Could be Comanches," Bob said. "Don't pay to travel that far yourself."
"Comanches is Injuns," Pete said.
Clyde rubbed his hands together.
"We take care a' this now," he said. "Tonight. No going back. All 'em gang members can catch lead."
"This is foolish," Bob said. "You're bein' a hard-headed fool."
Clyde turned to him.
"Then go back. Ain't nobody makin' you stay."
Bob scowled. He spat on the boulder.
"Like I'm gonna let my brothers go into this without me."
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"'Sides, I don't wanna run up against no Comanches alone."
"Comanches is Injuns," Pete said.
"We give it 'til dark," Clyde said, fingering his Winchester, "and we'll hit 'em without no warning."
Joseph nodded. He leaned back onto his rear. There was a rifle strapped to his back and a six-shooter on either side of his gun belt.
"It's a plan," he said, and began rolling another cigarette.
* * *
Night came, and the four men approached the church on foot. Candles were lit inside, illuminating the windows. Clyde and Joseph carried Winchesters, Bob held a silver six-shooter, and Pete wielded the eight-gauge shotgun.
A dark-skinned man stood outside the church, smoking a cigarette. Joseph held up his hand for the group to stop. He handed his rifle to Clyde and pulled a buck knife off his belt. He creeped up behind the man and, without so much as an extra breath, grabbed him by his left shoulder as he cut his throat. The man collapsed, and the rest of the group moved up.
"Okie dokie," Joseph said. "Pete, you stay put here. Me and Bob and Clyde'll storm the place. Once we clear—"
He was interrupted by Graham O'Grady walking out of the church, who took one look at the situation and reached for his gun without a word. Joseph lunged forward, sinking his knife into the crook's stomach just as he drew his revolver and fired a shot off.
There was immediate shouting from inside the church. The horses whinnied and strained against the hitching post. Bob swore and threw himself to one side of the doorway, leaning around and firing a few shots inside.
"Christ alive, you got 'im." Clyde leaned over and reached for Joseph's hand. "C'mon, let's—"
He stopped talking. Joseph's face was pale and a large bloodstain was forming on his shirt.
"Oh, hell," Clyde said. "Oh, hell."
Joseph swallowed a few times.
"G'on. Can't do nothin' 'til they're set."
Clyde stared at his brother for just a moment before turning to Pete.
"Stay with him. Don't let nothin' happen."
Pete looked at Joseph. "He's shot."
Clyde didn't say anything. Bullets were flying out of the church now. He rushed to the other side of the doorway and tossed Joseph's rifle to Bob.
"Not so far as I can tell," Bob said. He holstered his six-shooter and checked the Winchester's chamber. "This is a right mess."
"Don't see how you figger that," Bob said, firing a round into the church and jacking another one into the chamber.
"Give me some cover," Clyde said.
Bob did, shooting into the church again. Clyde lunged in, throwing himself behind one of the pews. Two men were visible by the altar, and even in the dim light they looked identical. The top of Clyde's pew exploded in chunks of wood as they shot at him. Bob leaned in again and shot one of them in the chest, putting him on his back. Another shape rose in the dark from a far pew, shooting back at Bob. He rolled back to cover, and Clyde shot the other man at the altar between his eyes. The other shooter moved to the left, and in the light of a nearby candle her red hair shined.
Clyde dropped down and jacked another round into the chamber. Bob leaned into the doorway as Dirty Debbie fanned the hammer of her gun, and two bullets caught Bob in the side, spinning him around with a yelp as he stumbled to the ground. Clyde shot at Dirty Debbie and missed, and dropped flat as she shot at him several times. He put another round in the chamber and leaned up as she turned and ran for the nearest window, throwing herself into it and smashing through the glass.
Clyde rushed back to Bob.
"How bad is it?"
Bob winced. "Ain't awful, I don't think. Go. Get her."
Clyde stood. Pete was leaning over Joseph and shaking his head. Out of the corner of his eye, Clyde saw movement by the horses. He turned to find Dirty Debbie grabbing at Sundown's reins.
Clyde fired at Dirty Debbie and the shot went wide. She turned, revolver raised, and Clyde threw his Winchester, hitting Dirty Debbie in the chest and making her drop her gun. He charged forward and punched her in the jaw. She stepped back and got her fists up, parrying his second swing and hitting him in the nose. The two of them struck back and forth as Sundown reared up and whinnied, and after a moment they were grabbing each others' throats and squeezing.
"Ah'll help ya, Clyde! Ah'm comin'!"
Clyde caught half a glance of Pete rushing up with his eight-gauge aimed. The left barrel's shot took off the tops of Dirty Debbie and Clyde's heads, while the right barrel's shot hit Sundown square in the flank, putting the enormous horse on its side and ending its whinnying.
Alexander J. Richardson is a writer of speculative fiction, crime fiction, and westerns, with eight stories published and more currently slated to be. His work's been distributed on four different websites, both long-standing (Fiction on the Web) and newer (96th of October). Outside of his short stories, Alexander's working to have his debut novel published. He currently resides in New Jersey.
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Full Flight from Yuma
by Tom Sheehan
Crackbak Mellon-Mellon sang the song endlessly, "Ain't No Jail Aholtin' Me," sang it, mouthed it, uttered it, yelled it, from one minute of the day to the next. For his five years in Yuma Territorial Prison the guards always knew where he was, in what disposition, secure in one cell or another, or laboring on a prison work detail. Prisoner #127 was known by the only name ever used by him, Crackbak Mellon-Mellon, but history had other versions that are worth unveiling if the man is to be known if not understood. Yuma Territorial Prison, as described by some Arizona folks in the know, was "200 miles of nothing between here 'n' there," and about the driest and hottest place in the territory. He was 24 years old when he was brought to Yuma, the prison then just over a year old, and 29 when he escaped, in 1881.
That truth said Mellon-Mellon was born Richard Bannister Barrows, III, to the Barrows of Jamaica Plain, Boston area, Massachusetts, USA. His parents, the Richard Bannister Barrows, II, were engulfed by the great fire in 1857 that burned to the ground the stately home of the Barrowses in a very posh section of that village. The only child, Richard III, was rushed out of the house at the height of the immense conflagration (fueled by almost 100 oil lamps spread throughout the mansion), by the nanny Auntie Lidz, a large black woman who dearly loved the child as if he was her own. He was four years old and her lap was the warmest, sweetest and most loving lap he had known, and the only one most likely, because the parents were caught up in a serious social life, the father a successful ship owner.
People of Jamaica Plain village assumed that Richard III died in the fire that leveled the huge home, along with "that governess or nanny they had, with a funny name, who must have burnt with poor little Richard, but nobody can remember her name."
Before dawn the next day, Auntie Lidz was in the house of a relative in West Cambridge, and a week later in the back end of Rockport, near Gloucester and the Portuguese-manned fishing fleet, at another relative's place of employment, with another ship owner who saw no color in people, and asked no questions about "the black lady, who could cook like a god sent from Olympus, and a white child, perhaps little more than a tot."
Even there, Richard III was caught up on two levels, a white boy in the brace of black servitude. But Auntie Lidz's employer hosted the most elaborate parties with the grandest food imaginable, great reams of it, elaborate loaves and cakes and icings, greens with magical tastes, and a miracle mix of fish and meats, "sea and sod" as the ship owner called it, all cooked up by "that woman in his kitchen, the mother of that poor child with that strange name, Crackbak Mellon-Mellon." Interest piqued, spoken for, and accepted, so thusly the boy grew up in two worlds, but knowing at all hours the warmest place on earth, the lap of Auntie Lidz who became, one unsuspecting day as declared by the boy himself, Momma Lidz. The woman sang songs to the child the minute she left off her duties as cook, maid, live-in factotum, endless singer in her own mind as she spun through her duties . . . big, black, gracious for her size, elegant of hand, songs in her throat for every deed required of her, mythical songs that called on her past and the memories she strove endlessly to keep alive in her mind, and in so doing presented to the loving child an extension of her own history. From her lap he caught a sense of music that swelled in him but especially off by himself. It was when he was alone that he could enjoy the joy that leaped out of him as he sang, knowing Momma Lidz's voice, the magic of her words, the love that rose from her lap, from her sweet embrace, while she sang "ole Afridca comin' home agin."
Now and then, in moments of deepest sadness, she told him of her journey in chains and all imaginable pains on a dark ship when she was just 13 years old. How she survived by being freed of her chains on calm nights and was brought to the captain's cabin. What her survival had cost her. What she was taking back that was her own to give, not to be taken at threats of death. Only when he had come of age did rage enfold him, the night in the haymow when a girl, another mixed person, played games with him. His rage came apace of all the pleasures he would come to know.
When a white boy of that end of Rockport, a constant companion of Crackbak's, began to steal from Momma Lidz's employer, he dropped clues that it was Momma Lidz who did the thievery, small and unobtrusive clues he had discerned about the woman and "that stupid boy who don't know if he be white or black, who ought to know his place."
Beset by doubt, called upon by friends to "get rid of that disgrace he harbored, that woman and that child," the employer and ship owner was caught in a quandary. The solution was never his, as he was robbed one night coming back from Gloucester and shot dead on the road. Momma Lidz and Crackbak didn't last a week, as relatives of the ship owner ushered them out of town. Crackbak was 12 years old. Momma Lidz died of a heart attack in her flight. A week later he snuck back into Rockport, killed the thieving boy, was seen, and ran. When it leaked out later that he had killed the wrong boy, his brother having committed all the thefts, Mellon-Mellon made a vow that he would seek revenge.
He was still running 12 years later, still promising to avenge Momma Lidz' death, when he was sent to Yuma Prison for holding up a stage outside of Mineral Park, Arizona Territory and taking the strongbox away with him.
Such is history of one person, boy to man, freed to be imprisoned, man on his own in this world of two worlds.
Two passengers of the stagecoach that Mellon-Mellon robbed were from Bisbee, almost 100 miles back on the trail. They had seen the robber on a number of occasions, back in Bisbee. Doc Parsons, a general practitioner, and his wife Mildred, town stalwarts, solid citizens, stood up in court and pointed at Mellon-Mellon as the coach thief. They identified him by the scars on Mellon-Mellon's body, on wrist and face, that the doctor had seen two visits to his office. Parsons, once on General Grant's staff as a medical aide, was firm and definite in his identity. The judge, knowing some of Mellon-Mellon's background, much to his chagrin, said at the sentencing, "Young man, I hate to see a whole life wasted, so I am going to send you to Yuma Territorial Prison, not for your whole life, but for 10 years. I sincerely hope that you get out of there someday and move on with your life."
The judge never realized, for one minute, that Mellon-Mellon would escape from Yuma. It appeared impossible from his personal survey, the facility new, the walls solid, the guard force strong, the surrounding territory, for miles and miles on end, a sure deterrent to escape. The land was inhospitable to say the least, natural enemies growing out of that inhospitable geography, dangers found deep in canyons, hidden up wadies, in the way of any man on the move. Whatever the judge gleaned about the young prisoner, he did not find the resolve that Mellon-Mellon had formed and held in deep reserve.
Only two days in prison, knowing the jeopardy that daily surrounded him, including one mouthy prisoner making serious jokes about his name, Mellon-Mellon made a small, deadly weapon, a knife of sorts but jugular sharp, out of a metal dish "lost during mealtime." Other prisoners took the hint when the mouthy prisoner was found, in his cell, almost bleeding to death from a jagged wound on his face. Mellon-Mellon, always singing his song, "Ain't No Jail Aholtin' Me," was never bothered after that, and was able to plan his impossible escape from Yuma.
It only took him five years.
Six months after his escape, through the curried intervention of a guard, with not a single sighting of the escapee, the doctor, his wife, and the judge managed to relax their vigilance about revenge. They believed, as did many people, that the fugitive had perished in the desert. But, then, each got a copy of a letter found secreted at Yuma, that said, "I don't blame none body of my jailin'. Not youse too. I ain't none bad accep what I did to nudder boy. I thot he real kilt Momma Lidz all alone, but his bruder did it. Who come after me gettin' hurt ever time. That come promise. I ain't kep no hate wi me, but make sure the killer be kilt."
Rockport, Massachusetts was too far away to be reached by an escapee without funds or friends. A letter was sent by Arizona prison officials advising Rockport officials of Mellon-Mellon's promise of revenge.
Yuma, indeed, was too far away to be any kind of a threat to Rockport, or to the real thief who Mellon-Mellon believed had killed his Momma Lidz by causing her heart attack.
It only took Crackbak Mellon-Mellon eleven months to walk into Rockport after dark on the last evening of August, 1882. The August moon was not shining, but a west wind came steady and the tide was out, the air so fully fresh and invigorating that he could easily measure the difference with his Yuma cell. He thought it was like finding a salt cache on his escape route through Utah. The salty air, full of memories, made him cry at first, and then the hateful resolve overcame him. He knew for only bare moments the safety of Momma Lidz's bountiful and heavenly lap. It was never to come back to him, that acre of pleasantness, that sea of warmth.
During his long stay away from Rockport, he found out, the real killer had died, leaving Mellon-Mellon unresolved.
Lost in his desolation, figuring a way out of his present situation, he dreamed of walking back westward as the fulfillment of his life. "I kin do thet less'n a year, betcha betcha betcha," he mouthed to himself in the darkness of the night. He remembered the heat of his cell at Yuma, how it burned his skin, laid him down trying to recall how to breathe properly, saving himself by absolute stillness, wasting nothing of his mind.
At a moment of fearful realization, that Momma Lidz's warm lap might be gone forever, that darkness had stolen her, that the death of a thief had no resolve for him, he found himself at the edge of the sea. Boats and craft of all sizes bounced on the slightly angular waves coming inward with the tide. He heard the music of the sea and the hulls being washed by the grace of the ocean. The stars had flung themselves out over the vast sea and seemed to touch the far line of the horizon. One star close to the horizon blinked continually at him, as if pointing.
"West go east and east go west," he said under his breath, knowing that there would be no place to hide any longer. In the steady motion of tide, the water touched warmly on his legs, not as warm as his Yuma cell, but warm, invitingly warm. The walls in his prison cells had been hot on his skin, some days as hot as the sun itself, but the floor of those cells was really the rooftop of Hell. The threat, ever there every minute in Yuma, disappeared. "Ain't no more fallin' t'rough," he sang, "fallin' down the Devil's lap."
And there was real music out there, where that bright, glorious single star still blinked at him, Momma Lidz's kind of music! The smooth throb of it came on the tide, moved with the breeze, with the full sky of stars keeping pace. His fingers could almost touch it, move with it, as the beat ran on his skin. All of it enveloped him, promising a blanket of heaven.
The revelation came alive; Momma Lidz was still warm in whatever place she waited. He had done his revenge, and she had to be warm as ever, her lap as bountiful. He remembered how she had always wanted him to learn how to swim, always being near the sea, or connected to it somehow, but he had an inevitable fear of water and never learned how. So it was his own miracle when he said, almost sang, "Aint none too late learnin' now, Momma, none too late for learnin'."
Again he heard the music as he had in the foothills of wild western mountains, in Utah and Wyoming and other places on his way to forever, the music that belonged to her, that came with the wind in canyons, across lush prairies, up and off the peaks "prayin' right up to heaven itself."
He leaned into the slight white line coming at him and swung one arm forward. He sang the song that had carried him for such a long time; "Ain't No Jail Aholtin' Me," letting the words rise from his throat as the warm September water washed against his face.
Tom Sheehan, (30 years retired), in his 944th year, (31st Infantry, Korea1950-52; Boston College 1952-56), has published 52 books, three latest with Taj Mahal Press, Has multiple works in Rosebud, The Linnet's Wings (Ireland-100), Copperfield Review, Literally Stories (UK-147), Frontier Tales, Green Silk Journal, Rope & Wire Magazine in Oregon (800).. He has 18 Pushcart nominations, 6 Best of Net nominations (one winner). Later books released are The Grand Royal Stand-off and Other Stories; Small Victories for the Soul VII; and Jock Poems and Reflections for Proper Bostonians. His story, "The Tale of Trot and Dim Johnny," recently won the Ageless Writers contest.
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by Devin Beggs
Matthias watched the old woman walk toward him, her hands full as she slogged in the mud. He stood tall on the jailhouse porch and held his rifle comfortably at his waist. He felt like he had a star on his chest even if he didn't. His uncle, Sheriff James Whitlock, had deputized him that same morning, not ten hours ago. "Youngest deputy in Nevada history," he'd reckoned.
Now the sun hung low in the sky and its rays snuck under his hat brim and his eyes narrowed as he watched her. The old woman walked to a spot about ten feet from the porch steps and stopped. She wore a knee-length floral dress and a bonnet and she held a pie and a pitcher of lemonade. Her short heels sank into the mud in front of the porch and the fat of her calves billowed out over their edges. She looked familiar.
"Aren't you going to help me with these, boy?" she said.
"What are they?"
"Lemonade and huckleberry pie. For the prisoner."
"My pa says your teeth will rot out from too much pie."
"Won't matter for him none, will it?" She nodded over Matthias's shoulder at the jail cell.
"You can't come in here. No visitors. The prisoner is in isolation, by order of the sheriff."
"I understand. And you're the one standing guard?"
"You know I am. I'm the deputy."
"The deputy. Making sure he stays isolated, right?" she said. "You're doing an excellent job of it. I don't really need to visit him, all right? I just need to deliver him his last meal. You understand. Prisoners sentenced to die always get a last meal. I just won't feel like I've succeeded as a mother, unless he gets his last meal."
"Oh. You're Owen's mother."
"That's right. Ellen McGregor. All you got to do is make sure he gets this pie and lemonade. I'll wait outside. And you can stand watch over him while he eats it, make sure there's no funny business happening. I'll wait here. You return my pitcher and my pie dish after he's finished."
Matthias narrowed his eyes at her. "You can leave those here. Maybe he'll get them. Maybe he won't." He hated the McGregors, every last one of them. Leastways, his family did, and that was good enough for him.
"If you won't do this for me," she said, "I'll sit here and wait with you till they take him out to the gallows in the morning, and I'll pour this lemonade right in his mouth. If his hands are bound, I'll feed him from my hands. I swear I'll do it. I'll just sit here with you the whole night through. And I am not the most pleasant nighttime company, I'll tell you that much right now."
There was something not right with the woman. She was up to something. Perhaps a weapon baked into the pie, or some lockpicking device to help her son escape. Matthias could hear his uncle now. I put you in charge for one day, and you let some old lady with a pie and pitcher of lemonade pull the wool over your eyes?
He stood taller still. "No, Ma'am. The prisoner will not be permitted a last meal. Please turn around and go back where you come from."
She rocked side to side on her feet. The ice in the pitcher tinkled against the glass as her hands trembled. The pitcher was sweating, the ice melting. The sun must have been hot on her back because it was hot on Matthias's face. She looked up into his squinting eyes. "Have you ever made an exception before? In your guard duties."
"Hell no. What kind of deputy would I be then?" He didn't tell her it was his first day on the job.
"Don't you cuss in front of me, boy. I may be a McGregor but I'm still a woman and your elder."
"I'm sorry, Ma'am."
"If it was me here standing guard, I would feel the exact same way. I understand the job."
She took several steps forward as she spoke and he took a step back. Turned his gun a hair toward her. But she just set down the pie and the pitcher on the porch near his feet.
"You're Doc Müller's son, ain't you?"
"What's your sister's name?"
"That's right. Beautiful name. Beautiful. And your mother is Charlotte, the sheriff's sister, ain't that right?"
"You know that's right. Same as I know who you are."
"As I said, Matthias, I understand. But let me ask you: do you really think the sheriff's sister would mind if I just give a little something to a dying boy? You think your pa would mind? Or the sheriff? Imagine if it was you fixing to die tomorrow. What's your favorite meal? Tell me."
She was looking right in his eyes. He looked at his shoes. He made up his mind not to tell her his favorite meal, but he thought about his ma's fried chicken and cornbread, and then he thought about the pies she used to make too. Maybe the smell of the huckleberry pie at his feet reminded him of those pies.
"I see you admiring the pie. Owen won't be able to eat the whole thing anyway. Why don't you have a piece? It's the best huckleberry pie in Nevada. Maybe in the whole United States of America."
"No, it ain't. You try my ma's some time." He realized he was smiling and quickly flattened his expression. A deputy doesn't fraternize.
"Listen, Matthias. How long have you been standing here? You must be tired. I'm tired too. Came all this way in my Sunday best, just to see my poor son off to the gallows. We're both tired. Won't you put down the gun and share a slice and a glass with me? Please."
What was her plan? No McGregor would come here unarmed without a plan. Maybe all along her plan was to make Matthias drink. Maybe the last meal bit was a decoy, and the lemonade was always meant for the deputy—poison. She was fixing to poison the sheriff, or Deputy Donne, but they just didn't happen to be here today. Instead she got Deputy Matthias. Uncle James had always taught him to be suspicious of things too good to be true, just as he'd told Matthias to be careful when he had held one hand on the Bible that morning.
The old woman reached out and put her hand on his wrist. Her grip was strong. He flinched, tensed, and his finger slid off the trigger guard and onto the trigger where it held.
"The gallows stink with last year's corpses." She spat the word stink like a taste of stale tobacco. "Horse thieves, murderers, rapists. My son is accused. There's no proof. It's often the innocent that are punished for the crimes of the wicked. It will be a shame tomorrow when he dangles, more than a shame: a travesty. All I'm asking is for you to let me give my boy his favorite drink, his favorite food. He's been drinking my lemonade and eating my huckleberry pie since he was a boy." She let go of his wrist. Her voice took a gentler tone. "Well, until he left home, he had been. I regret things we've done, now, and I regret the times we spent apart, when we didn't share a roof."
Matthias tightened his grip on his rifle. He wouldn't let her honey-dipped words sway him. "It don't matter to me what you and your son do. I'm the deputy, and I was told by the sheriff—"
"I know what you're gonna say. You were told no visitors. You're just doing your job. Far as you know, he is guilty." She squirmed under the sun. "When I was your age, I stood guard a time or two myself. Believe it or not, I held a rifle not unlike yours, and stood on these two feet until sunrise.
"That's what we do. Guardsmen stand guard over prisoners. I can tell you're a skilled guardsman. You won't let him escape. You'll stand tall. True. But can't you allow him a nice, cold glass of lemonade? A warm slice of pie? You're the best jailer in town. But the best jailers keep their prisoners happy. A happy prisoner ain't one who will try to escape and get you killed. No. A content prisoner eats his last meal and resigns himself to the gallows. Don't you think so?
"Have a glass. I boil water and sugar together into a thick syrup and I store the lemon juice overnight in the icebox. Makes it extra tart. Have a slice. Owen picked the huckleberries himself, back before all this business with the dead men in that abandoned mine. Ironic, ain't it? He picked the berries that went in his own last meal. Think how good it will taste. You skipped breakfast, didn't you? Doing the sheriff's bidding is tiring, hungry work. Why don't you share the meal with Owen, and when your uncle returns, he'll congratulate you on a job well done. You watched the prisoner, just as you were told. No visitors. You just gave him his last meal.
"That's all I'm asking. Please. Take this pie and this lemonade and slide it through them bars to my poor Owen. That's all I'm asking."
Matthias hesitated. With the sun beating down, the lemonade did sound mighty good, as long as it wasn't poisoned. But above all, he wanted her to stop talking. "You leave it here and I'll make sure he gets it."
"I'd like to wait here and make sure. You take this to him, and I'll wait here on the porch." When she stooped to pick up the pie from the porch, he saw her dress was stuck to her back. She held the pie up to him, trembling.
He leaned his rifle in the crook of the porch railing and took the pie. It was still warm. It warmed him from its insides to his hands and up to his chest. Its smell made him smile. He couldn't help it. It reminded him of his mother's pies at home, how she always baked apple pies and peach pies to cover the formaldehyde smell from Pa's basement operating room.
"Well, go ahead. Bring it to him."
"Let me think." He tried to imagine what the sheriff would say. He tried to imagine what would be the right thing to do. The old woman in the sun fanned herself with short fingers. He said, "You come up here on the porch while you're waiting."
He set the pie on the rail and leaned against the rail next to his gun. She picked up the pitcher and walked up the stairs and leaned on the rail next to him. They both looked at the door into the jailhouse. It was closed but they both knew who was in the cell on the other side of it. Nobody spoke. Her face was beaded with sweat but she didn't take a sip. She put the pitcher on the floorboards. Then she looked across his chest at the rifle.
"How does that rifle work? When I was your age, we had the pump kind."
He picked it up and held it loose and upright between them, balancing on its stock. "Well, it's this new kind. It holds four cartridges instead of just two."
"I remember when I was hunting squirrels, I only had two shots and then I had to run all the way home to get more rounds for the shotgun," she laughed. She didn't smile when she laughed. She was looking through the solid door.
"Look, ma'am. I don't know when my uncle's coming back. I don't want him to see me sitting with you."
"I understand. I don't want to be seen with you either. A McGregor settin' with a Whitlock. Imagine what the people will say."
"Well, I ain't a Whitlock."
"But your Ma is one."
She looked him in the eye. He looked at the floorboards of the porch. She said, "Neither of us ought to be seen with the other. Why don't you just go bring Owen his meal. I'll wait here."
"I just don't know."
"You'll still be the best deputy in town. You're the man for this job, Matthias. Your uncles and your Pa have their own worries, what with the abandoned mine and the sickness around camp. They put you in charge of this thing here because they believe in you. So do I. Now just go in there and give my boy his pie and his lemonade and I'll be on my way. Everyone will know how strong you were and what a good job you done."
"I just don't know."
She reached for the gun and Matthias darted up. They both grabbed it at the same time. Her grip was strong. She was saying something about how she just wanted to see how it worked. They held the rifle with all four hands between them. She stopped smiling. He alternated pushing and pulling but still she held on. They kicked over the lemonade and it poured through the floorboards onto the dirt below. Then he pushed, knocking her off balance, and whipped the rifle out of her grip, but still she held on, and the whipping hurled her off the steps onto the ground.
She landed in the mud, on her side, one arm trapped under her. Her dress was hiked up high on her hips, exposing her pale fat thigh. Her legs were splayed out. One shoe was still on the porch next to the upended lemonade pitcher. She moaned every few seconds like a songbird returning to an empty nest.
Matthias looked up and down the deserted street. He crouched next to the old woman and put his hand on her shoulder but she only moaned louder. A horrible, deep, throaty sound. He stood up. He couldn't help her, nor could he leave his post. He climbed the steps and leaned his rifle against the rail again and he stooped and righted the pitcher. Just the dregs of the lemonade left inside, more moisture outside the pitcher than inside. The wooden planks were stained with lemonade. He went to the pie on the railing and smelled it. Then he dug through the pie with his hands. There was nothing inside but pie filling. He dropped handfuls of pie filling into the mud. Still she moaned as he wiped his hands against each other and then against his trousers. He would have to stand guard until the sheriff got back. With wet boots and a dry tongue and huckleberry-stained hands, he stood tall.
Devin Beggs is a new author living in Sunnyvale, CA. He studied English literature in college, and the works of Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, Elmore Leonard, and others inspired him to write western fiction. He has written two western novels, and his short stories have appeared in The Racket Journal and Black Flowers.
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by Ginger Strivelli
Jade sat at her table in the corner of the saloon. She had her tarot cards out, shuffling them absentmindedly. She had no customer across from her yet. The saloon was full of men as the gold rush was in full swing and the miners had overtaken the small sleepy town. The customers were usually more interested in the dancing girls and the man that ran the poker table than the fortune teller sitting in the corner.
"Jade, you want your usual plain tea?" The bartender appeared behind her carrying a fine silver teapot he had brought from back East with him.
Jade bowed her head, gesturing to her own ancient cups she used for drinking and tea leaf reading. Her name was really Mazu, after one of her ancestral Goddesses, but the Americans didn't understand how to say it or what it meant. They understood jade. Jade was like gold. It was dug from Mother Earth's body and traded for money. So she went by Jade, that she hoped would convey that she was valuable herself. Alas too many women had little value in this time and place she mused as she watched one dancing girl prying some coins out of an old miner for the cost of her company.
Jade stirred her tea with a jade chopstick she pulled from the folds of her purple silk dragon print cheongsam dress. She looked up to see a miner marching up to her table addressing her. Her English was adequate but this man was speaking French.
"Do you speak English or Mandarin?" Jade asked him.
"Oui . . . Yes, yes." He stammered. "I require help, much help. Magical help. I require a sorciére"
"Wu po, in Mandarin. Witch in English or perhaps the more poetic sorceress." Jade said, still stirring her tea.
"Madame, are you such a creature?"
"I am such a human woman. You may call me Jade."
"My gold mine is, how do you say, hanté?"
"Haunted." Jade said one pointy eyebrow pointing even higher. "By what, sir?"
"I have none ideas, Madame." He finally took off his hat and wrung it in his hands. "My name is Gasper."
"Gasper. I grow bored of reading people's fortunes anyway. I will assist you for the night, for a handful of gold nuggets."
Gasper held out his large hand and motioned to her much smaller ones. Jade held out her hand. He nodded and reached to pull out her chair as she rose.
"Won't the bartender worry about you leaving?" Gasper asked.
"He will only think you have hired me for some more mundane work for the night. In any case. I work for myself, not for him."
Jade had an American style crocheted shawl and bonnet on a peg at the door she paused to put on over her silk cheongsam dress. It made her look even more out of place as they stepped out onto the busy San Francisco street. Not that anyone really stood out with people from the Sandwich Islands, China, Mexico, and Canada all mixed in with the local Natives and the American settlers anyway. Most of the Chinese women had adopted the local dress style however, so Jade always looked a bit out of step with the times. That suited her fine. The 1850s were not her time after all. She was an old soul with lifetimes dating back to the lost island of Lemuria, sunken deep below the Pacific that she looked longing out over as she followed the Frenchman to his wagon.
The ride to Gasper's mine was a long one. What had been dusk was then deep darkness as he helped her out of his wagon in front of a cave he had been digging in. He lit four lamps he had hanging in the entrance of the cave and lit another that hung from a walking stick that he took in hand.
"We might should not came within the night." He stuttered. His English was poor but his nerves were rattled, she could tell by the worse than usual shaking of his voice.
Jade took one of the hanging lamps from the wall of the cave and motioned to Gasper for him to lead her to the problem. On the drive out to the mine he had told her all about a shadow that followed him in the cave and how it screeched at him when he dug. Gasper marched unsteadily ahead of the little woman who seemed much more at ease than he was.
"Stop." Jade said as they reached a fork where the cave split into three halls. One running downward, the other two running upward.
Gasper turned to look at her inquisitively. She poked her head into each shaft for a look, though she didn't lean her lantern in to light them. She was actually not seeing the cave halls but feeling the energy within them.
"You have been digging in all three?"
Jade started down the single hall that headed deeper into the ground. Gasper did not want to follow her. He didn't at first until some continental sense of chivalry came over him and he rushed after her. He held the light on his walking stick up like it was some weapon that would protect them as they walked then crawled down to the bottom of the cave floor where a still, tiny pond shimmered in the light of their two lamps.
The light was not a weapon though. It held no power to harm or even brighten the shadowy figure who rose out of the pond and flew towards them at great speed. Gasper took several backwards running steps until he noticed Jade was standing firm at the end of the pool. The shadow had come face to face with her.
Gasper watched slack-jawed as the little Chinese lady spoke in tongues to the shadow who seemed to understand her perfectly. He was mortified and crossed himself not once, not twice, but thrice as he watched their supernatural exchange.
Jade finally stopped speaking and sat her lamp down beside her feet. Then she calmly extended her arms as if to pick up a child and the shadow stepped in as if to embrace her but then just melted into her, disappearing from view. Jade picked up her lamp, turned around, and took the few steps to join Gasper again.
"You have disturbed his resting place. The great warrior, hunter, chief of his tribe, from many many years ago, has rested here for hundreds of years."
"You speaking his language? How do you know his language?" Gasper stammered out between some colorful exclamations in his own French.
"I was speaking a much older tongue than his or mine. Both our peoples, your people, all people descend from that tribe."
Gasper looked around nervously. "You hexed him. He is gone?"
"No. He is within me. I will take his battered soul to a safer resting place. He would never have peace again here with the gold in these caves and rivers of this valley.
Gasper stepped away from her looking worried.
"Never fear, Sir." She patted her heart twice. "He will stay with me until we take him to a better resting place."
"We take him?" Gasper whispered.
"Yes, you will drive me to the sea." She said climbing back up the caves cramped passageway.
Jade was in the wagon first, pulling her shawl tighter around her narrow shoulders. Gasper joined her gingerly, taking the seat beside her and taking up the horse reins. He looked at her as if she might explode like dynamite any moment.
The ride to the nearest beach was only slightly longer than the ride from the saloon to his mine was. They rode in silence these hours as Gasper was frightened stiff of the ghost the little Chinese lady was carrying, and Jade was exhausted from carrying the other spirit inside her own unnaturally.
The sun was just turning the sky shades of purples and reds over the mountains to the east as their wagon pulled out onto a sandy beach with the Pacific to the west. Gasper helped Jade down. She shooed him back when he started to join her walking into the waves. So he backed away and watched from beside the horses, petting their manes. Jade walked bent and in pain like a woman eighty years older than her young body really was. She fell once. Nonetheless she motioned for Gasper to not come help, pulling herself back to her feet. Finally Jade made it to the line where the outgoing tide was crashing. She looked through her pockets and found a large hunk of turquoise with half a dozen other rocks and various charms she carried. She put the turquoise stone in her left palm.
Gasper was watching in awe and fear as she worked the magic. She somehow conjured the shadow being back up out of her right hand and poured it into the rock she held in the other hand. It reminded Gasper of someone pouring tea from a kettle into a cup. Once all of the shadow had disappeared into the rock, she promptly collapsed to the sand. Jade motioned this time for Gasper's help.
When he got to her side he carefully hoisted her up to her feet though he kept one arm around her for her to lean on.
"You hurt, Madame?"
"Tired. I've worked great magic tonight. You must finish the spell for me. I do not have the strength. This must be thrown way out into the sea." She handed Gasper the rock.
He recoiled from it, knowing the spooky shadow man was somehow inside that rock now. Then thinking of how grateful he was the shadow man was no longer in his gold mine, he did take it from her and quickly threw it as far as he could out into the ocean.
The ride back into town Jade spent knocked out cold. Gasper kept looking over his shoulder, fearing perhaps the shadow might have climbed back out of the sea and was following them. When he pulled back up to the saloon, he carefully woke up Jade. She sat up looking like herself again, smiling. Gasper helped her down and then took a sack of gold nuggets from his belt and held it for her to reach into for her pay. She started to stick her small hand in but he stopped her and plunged his own hand in, pulling out a large handful of gold and offering it to her. Jade took a purse from the folds of her cheongsam and opened it for Gasper to drop the gold into.
They parted ways after the payment was made. Gasper went back to his mine, thinking he was grateful to the witch for getting rid of the old Native Chief's spirit that wouldn't be haunting him anymore. Jade went back into the saloon, ordered her tea, and started shuffling her tarot cards waiting for her next customer.
Ginger Strivelli is an artist and writer from North Carolina, where she raised her six children. She has written various types of fiction and nonfiction for over thirty years.
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Ren of Tree Hill
by John T Morgan
Garden of the Gods, Tennessee 1845
It was late. The sun had set two hours ago, and the deep black dark of night was beginning to set in. A rancher's cabin sat in the middle of an eighty-acre farm located in the valley nicknamed Garden of the Gods near the small town of Tree Hill. A herd of cattle almost too big for the farm rested near the barn. The cabin itself had two small windows covered as if the contents inside were purposely verboten. There wasn't another dwelling for almost a mile.
Inside the cabin, a family was sitting down to supper. A fire crackled in the fireplace, and the four people sitting at the table were eerily quiet. Renfrew Brown, known as "Ren," sat at the table, struggling to stay awake. His dog, Blaze, was watching him silently from the corner of the room. Sitting completely still and silent for a long time didn't help Ren keep his body from trying to shut down. His ten-year-old frame beat and bruised after a grueling day working on his father's farm. Actually, it was his stepfather's farm now, and his stepfather continually made that point very clear. Ren's birth father planned to teach his boy how to farm and raise animals and then pass the farm down to Ren, but he knew his new stepfather never would. Tonight, his stepfather, Magnus, had been eating for almost an hour. In the fields, Magnus worked ferociously. But, at the dinner table, he lounged, almost unnecessarily. His stepfather's plate was empty, and he was going for seconds, which meant Ren would not get dinner tonight. His mother sat across from him stone-faced, still and silent. Ten minutes later, Ren, his muscles aching and his belly hungry, slowly reached his hand toward some food at the edge of the table, trying to sneak a tiny bit of food unnoticed. Pain flared upon his right temple as his stepfather's cup shattered across his forehead. Sounds of his baby brother crying from the other room filled his head as he faded out. Ren briefly regained consciousness only for a few moments to realize he was being dragged outside through the fields towards a patch of woods on the property's far edge. Ren faded out again.
Some time had passed before sounds started forming inside Ren's head. It was the woods beginning to wake up for the day. A penetrating cold enveloped Ren, and he opened his eyes. Only one eye would open; the other was swollen shut. The sun wasn't up yet, but dawn would be arriving soon. Ren tried to sit up but couldn't. He felt a heavy weight covering his body. He was buried under a layer of mud with only part of his face uncovered. Ren started to fade out again until he felt something wet and slimy run across his face and flinched slightly. It happened again. Ren opened his eye, and a grin formed on his face as he realized it was his dog. Blaze had uncovered his head from the mud. He tried again to get up. This time he was able to pull an arm out of the wet earth. His dog pranced around with excitement. It took some time, but Ren pulled himself out of the shallow mud grave where he was left to die. Luckily, he was stronger than his stepdad believed him to be; or at least he was so far. But, his thoughts were slow, and his body was so cold. He had to get warm. He pulled himself up into a low thick Juniper tree where it was a little warmer. Blaze snuggled up against him. He looked out towards the direction of his home. His mother thought she found salvation with his stepfather after his birth father died. She did not. Magnus was brutally cruel. By the time she discovered his cruelty, she was pregnant with his child and felt her only option was to endure. Ren loved his mother and his new baby brother. But he knew he couldn't go back home. His stepfather now thought him to be dead or dying. His only option was to leave. Ren pulled some pine boughs in close to him and snuggled closer to his dog. The sun would be up soon and bring warmth with it. Now would be his time to leave. All he had was the mud-soaked clothes on his back and his dog, but that would have to do. A few minutes later, Ren stood up, and he and Blaze walked west, away from his home, and away from Tree Hill.
Tree Hill, Tennessee, 1852
Ren hiked up to the top of a ridge and looked down. The sun had set, but the blue light of twilight still illuminated the land. Below was the home he left seven years ago. There were no lights and no signs of activity. There was no livestock, and the fields were overgrown. Ren surveyed the land that he used to know so well. The land had moved on while he was gone. Trees and brush had taken over areas once cleared, and the cabin and outbuildings were in disrepair. A twinge of sadness sprang up in Ren's mind at the reminder of things lost in his life and the thought that maybe his mother and brother didn't fare so well after all. Ren walked back down the ridge to his mule. There was a storm coming in, and the winds were starting to pick up. Ren climbed back up on his mule. He had several miles to travel to get to town. He removed a deerskin poncho from one of his saddlebags and draped it over himself, and rode on towards town as the storm picked up.
The ride into town was beginning to get tough. A bitter wind howled across the land, and rain began to pelt his face and body. The rain was cold and heavy, and the night was getting late. Ren's mule was struggling. He needed to find shelter soon. Ren came to the top of a slight rise in the land. Down the slope in front of him was a river, raging from the recent rains. Off in the distance, on the far side of the river, Ren could see the faint lights of a small town. The town he left years ago.
He came to the river that was now raging violently from the storm. The wind gusted and nearly knocked him and his mule over. The town would have to wait. Maybe he could find a place to cross in the light of day. Ren stepped off his mule. Trying to build a fire in this storm would be futile. He pulled his mule along to a small break, away from the river, then removed his bags off the mule and ate the last scraps of food left in his pack. His rapidly growing teenage body constantly demanded sustenance. After pulling off the saddlebags, he watched his mule lay down. She wasn't as young as she used to be, and this trip was arduous for her. He strung up his rain poncho between two trees and underneath his hammock and underquilt and crawled in for the night. As he began to warm up and drift off to sleep, his thoughts drifted to the past, thinking of his mother and brother and the dog Blaze he once had.
* * *
Ren quickly walked through the stream the following day as the water was less than a foot high. He left his mule back at the overlook. It would make a good camp, and it wasn't near any trail or road. Once Ren made it to the other side, he sat on a large rock and put his dry boots back on. He had left most of his gear back at camp, except two items; a canteen and his whip. The whip was unassuming, but he knew how to use it well, and it had saved his hide more than once.
Ren approached the town. He kept his head slightly down with his hat on, which slightly masked his face. The city was composed of the main street running about five blocks with another row of blocks on each side. It seemed both larger and smaller than he remembered from his childhood. After passing half a dozen homes, Ren entered the town proper. One of the first businesses Ren came to was a mercantile. That suited him just fine. Ren walked through the doors and right up to the counter.
"How can I help you" A large man came out from the backroom.
"Some jerky, please, venison would be fine"
The man reached under the counter. "It's a nickel a stick," He stated as a question.
"I'll take three." The guy handed him the jerky wrapped in paper. He paid the guy, thanked him, and left the store.
Ren sat down on the bench near the storefront. As he ate his jerky, he took in the town. It was still reasonably early, but it was starting to come to life. A few men were walking around and a couple of families. There seemed to be a lot of activity at a large building on the far side of town. Several wagons were loading people. As the four wagons passed the mercantile heading out of town, he noticed all the wagons comprised of children, children that looked sullen, sickly, and just plain beat. About an hour passed, and nothing eventful occurred until an older man walked out of the shop across the street. The older man noticed Ren immediately and paused. Ren looked away but could see out of the corner of his eye that the man was now walking directly towards him.
As the older man approached, another man came out of the mercantile behind him. "Hello, sheriff," he said with a mocking tone.
The older man didn't respond but just kept walking towards Ren and sat down on the bench next to him. As the other man walked off, he looked back with a smirk. Once the other man was gone, the old man inquired, "You're not from here, are you?"
Ren looked at the old man, "No, my family and I are just passing through." The older man nodded.
"Are your parents here in town?" "No, they are back at our camp making some repairs to our wagon."
"Oh." remarked the old man.
"Are you the sheriff?" Ren asked.
The old man paused, "By name only," he shrugged. "Anyway, you might want to steer clear of this town without your family. I know you're not a little kid, but this town isn't safe for kids, even young adults."
Ren didn't respond, but the older man just kept looking at him. "Well, in any case, you should be gone before that other guy comes back around." The older man got up and went inside the Mercantile.
A few minutes later, Ren walked out of town, west, towards his camp. About halfway to his camp, he noticed the wagon tracks that contained the children all turned south. Ren looked to the south and surveyed the land but didn't see anything in the distance. He continued walking towards his camp, but after a hundred yards, he turned south and walked through the light brush paralleling the wagon trail.
After a few minutes, Ren came to a small river, probably the same river that flowed near his hidden camp. Ren followed the river upstream as it appeared to go in the same direction as the wagons. Traveling was easy until he started entering some rocky hills, which made following the river much more difficult. Ren abandoned following the river and moved off closer to the wagon trail. As Ren climbed out of the river bottom and onto a slight rise, he froze. His eyes filled with terror. Ren was looking into a pit filled with bones. But, these weren't just any kind of bones; these were human bones. He was looking at the small bones of children. Ren had seen and experienced many things over the years, but the scene before him made him stagger. He gazed over the pit in astonishment. Ren bowed his head, said a little prayer, paused, and moved on.
Ren wasn't walking long before he began hearing sounds of activity ahead of him. He kept inside the brush, moving very slowly and silently, stopping every so often to watch and listen. Ren was getting close. He could make out some movement at the base of the hills ahead of him. He inched closer. It appeared to be a work camp. The boys from the wagons were busy hauling buckets of some material to the men. The men were shouting and pushing the kids to move faster and work harder. The kids look beaten, both physically and mentally. Ren heard movement and sound behind him, but he stayed frozen and quiet. Two men on horses were riding up to the camp from the way the wagons came. One of the men was the guy with the smirk from town. Ren watched silently as the men dismounted and walked over to the camp, and started examining the boys' work contents. They appeared angry. Three boys were called over. The other man with the smirking guy pulled his belt off and proceeded to whip the boys on their backs until they lay on the ground motionless. He yelled something at the other boys, who then seemed to start rushing furiously about their work. The two men got back on their horses and started back towards town. Ren stayed motionless, peeking through a tiny gap deep in the brush. As the two men approached, it would be the second time Ren would be shocked today. The other man riding on a horse was his Stepfather.
* * *
One hour later, Ren was walking into his camp. He checked on his mule and led her down to the river and then to a better area to graze. Ren sat on a log overlooking the river and stared out over the horizon, deep in thought. He didn't know what to expect returning to the area after many years, but these developments surprised him. Ren also profoundly wondered what had become of his mother and little brother. He knew he couldn't walk away from this, yet he didn't know how to proceed. Ren knew there were probably half a dozen men in the operation, maybe even a dozen. He knew his stepfather's cruelty, which shed a lot of light on the type of operation and people involved. There were just too many unknowns; how much of the townsfolk were involved, how the children would react, and how the heck he could develop a plan where he could best a dozen or so hard men operating a child slave operation in a small town that was, at least, partially complicit. He looked out at the river. He then looked past the river towards the town. He had time; he didn't need to rush. He would have to do some reconnaissance first. He was just a young man, but he was smart, and he had time and the element of surprise working with him.
Ren spent the next day thinking and working on disguising his camp from anyone that may stumble across it. He did some fishing and built some fish traps. Ren also walked upriver a bit and found an ample supply of wineberries and a massive supply of fiddleheads in a shaded swampy area. He harvested a fine collection of both, and along with the recent catch of fish, he would have a very filling dinner tonight.
As Ren started the fire, his thoughts again wandered to his mother and brother. Where were they now? Where they even still alive? Rage filled his mind as he considered the fact his stepfather might have killed them in his absence. He cooked his dinner over the small fire. He devoured the meal then put the fire out as the sunset. There was no need to chance anybody noticing the light from his campfire. He looked again at the town in the distance, then walked over, climbed in his hammock, and turned in for the night. Tomorrow would be a big day, the start of many big days.
* * *
The following morning Ren didn't shave. He decided to let his stubble grow. His beard would come indecently and help separate him from the boys in town and help disguise him from anybody who might recognize him. He put his hat on and, this time, saddled up his mule and rode into town. He spent a good part of the day just riding through town and around the outskirts taking everything in. The large building housing the boys was the Greybrook Orphanage. It appeared to house three or four dozen children, mostly boys. There were always a few men surrounding the building, and who knew how many inside. Some of the men had guns. While purchasing some more supplies from Hal, the mercantile owner, he overheard some ladies talking about "gold in the river" and that they think "the men work the children too hard out there." He couldn't hear any more than that, and Hal was watching him closely. He thanked him once again for his purchases and left the store. Ren rode around a while longer observing the townsfolk and the layout of the town and the surroundings and was about to head back to camp when out of the corner of his eye, Ren saw something awful taking place in the alleyway he just passed. Ren hurried his mule around the block. When he was close to the other end of the alleyway, he quickly roped his mule to a post and peeked into the alley. The smirking guy was beating a young boy nearly to death. The boy was almost motionless on the alley floor.
The smirking guy raised his fist to strike the boy again, and his fist froze in pain. Something had wrapped around his arm. It loosened, and he turned just to see a glimpse of a young man before a bolt of pain shot through his right eye. He didn't even hear the crack of the whip; the pain was so bad. His eye exploded in his skull as he fell to the ground in pain. He looked up and screamed furiously, but the boy and the young man were already gone.
* * *
Ren and the young boy quickly rode the mule out of town. This time he rode to the north first and curved around west to avoid any of the men that might be traveling between the work camp and town. Ren had left town in haste but didn't think anybody was following. He looked back several times and again didn't see anyone or any signs of movement. The boy rode behind him semi-conscious and in very rough shape.
* * *
Back at camp, Ren put a blanket on the ground and laid the boy down on the blanket. He gave the boy some water and nursed his wounds, lightly rubbing some pine pitch on the cuts to disinfect them and pouring cool water from the river on his bruises. The sun was setting, but Ren wouldn't chance a fire tonight. He would let the boy rest. Ren grabbed his mule, tied it near the boy, and then went over to his hammock for the night. He felt uneasy. He was now in a precarious situation, and it called on him to be extra cautious. He grabbed some extra blankets from his mule and went back to his hammock.
An hour later, the sun had set, and the camp was dark and quiet; a large man crept into Ren's camp. The large man moved towards the little boy on the ground, and the mule brayed loudly! The man stopped and looked towards the mass in the hammock. "I know you heard that, and you know I'm here. You might as well come out". There wasn't any movement from the hammock. There was just the slightest noise coming from behind him. "This boy was pretty clever," he thought. The man didn't turn around or move but just spoke calmly. "Boy, I'm not here to harm you. I'm here to help you and the young one. We talked yesterday morning briefly. I'm Sheriff Sutter". He paused. "Can I turn around now without you ambushing me?"
Ren stood about ten feet behind the sheriff. "Sorry, sheriff, it's been a trying day, and I'm not sure who I can trust around here."
The sheriff turned around. "You picked a good place to make camp; nobody comes through here nowadays." The sheriff sat down on a log. "I saw what happened. You saved this boy's life, but NOW you're in a heap of trouble. I'm hoping I can help you out of it."
Ren sat down on a log near the sheriff, looking back over his shoulder briefly. "Don't worry, nobody else followed you here, and I covered your tracks." We can start a small fire; the warmth will help the boy, and nobody will be out this way tonight.
Ren collected some wood as the sheriff lit a fire. The sheriff opened his pack and pulled out some dried fish and crackers. "We might as well eat while we talk."
Ren sat down, and they both ate in silence for a while. "You're the Smith boy that went missing years ago, aren't you?"
Ren gave the sheriff a brief assessing look. "Yeah, that's me."
The sheriff nodded, "A lot has happened since you left. Why did you disappear?"
"My stepfather beat me and left me for dead in the swamp by our house. I was only ten, and his temper was getting worse every day. I thought my only choice was to let him think I was dead and slip away. I just came back around to see what became of my family. I went by our old house, and it has been empty for a while. Do you know what became of them?"
"I do, and that's partly why I came here tonight, partly." The sheriff and Ren sat by the fire, and the sheriff began telling his story.
"Seven years ago, a few days after you left town, I had a run-in with your stepdad, Magnus Cole. Your mother came running into my office one evening. She said you had gone missing and was afraid Magnus was to blame. She told me you two argued, he hit you and knocked you out, and she put you on the couch downstairs to rest. She fell asleep, and when she woke up, you were gone. Magnus had told her you walked out and said you were never coming back. She was skeptical but didn't let on to Magnus that she doubted his story. I've kept my eye on Magnus; I even went out to the ranch and did a little investigating. Not while Magnus was around, of course. I didn't want to cause trouble for your mother. I didn't find anything; by then, recent rains had washed away any tracks or clues. Still, I believed he had a hand in your disappearance. Nothing came of it, but I let your mother know I understood her predicament, and if she ever needed help, all she had to do was ask."
"Two years later, your mother slipped me a note and asked for that help. Magnus told her in a drunken rage that he buried you out in the swamp, and if she didn't watch it, she would be next. She wanted to escape. So I helped your Mom and brother out of there. It was easy enough. Magnus had discovered gold in the river by then and was off all day panning. This occurred before the work camp got up and running. But I'll get to that later. Anyway, I snuck your mother and brother out of the house mid-morning, and by the time Magnus came home that evening, your mother and brother were in another state, and they are still there and doing well. They sure would be happy to know you are alive." He smiled.
"I dug up areas of the swamp over the years but never found anything. Something told me you might have made it out somehow." Sheriff Sutter threw another log on the fire.
"Life went on like normal for a few months until Jasper Steele came to town. I knew Jasper was trouble. He wasn't a troublemaker in the normal sense. But, I could tell Jasper was a dangerous one. He was charismatic; he charmed the ladies with wit and compliments and impressed the men with tough talk. I could tell, under that shiny veneer, he was not a good man. Jasper opened the Greybrook orphanage in the old hotel at the edge of town, giving orphan kids strict discipline and hard work to help bring them up correctly and god-fearing. At least that was their spiel. Jasper and Magnus teamed up at some point, and the orphanage expanded and brought the work camp on the river to its current state you see today. They work those kids mercilessly. I try to help the kids when I can. Most of the townsfolk look the other way. Their gold operation must be making an incredible amount of money, and that money benefits the town. People can become pretty blind when money is clouding their view. So that brings us up to today."
There was a long pause, and Ren asked, "Why did you tell me you're a sheriff by name only?"
"There are too many of them and only one of me, besides the more pressure I put on them, the more they would take it out on the boys," replied the sheriff.
"You did quite a number on Jasper today. He and his men are going to be searching for you, and if they find you, they'll no doubt kill you in the worst way imaginable." Sheriff Sutter gave Ren a long assessing look.
"These are evil men, son. My strong advice is to follow the riverbed upstream until sunrise; this will hide your tracks and then make north for Somerset in Kentucky. That's where you'll find your family under the name Sanders." The sheriff gave him another long assessing look.
Ren looked over at the small boy recovering on the ground and back at the sheriff. "I have another plan," Ren said, and then he and the sheriff talked deep into the night, no longer about the past; now they discussed the future. And it was daunting.
* * *
Ren woke up bright and early. The sheriff had left after their discussions and had given him a lot of new information. He tended to the young boy who was feeling much better this morning. The young boy's name was Sam. They had a long breakfast together and discussed his stay at the orphanage and the work camp, along with his last confrontation with the smirking man. He expected Sam to be defeated, but he still had a lot of strength in him. Ren finally asked Sam, "Are your plans to head out of this area, or do you have other ideas?"
Sam looked at Ren, intrigued.
That was all Ren needed to know. He then laid out the plan he and the sheriff came up with last night. They would need Sam's help for their plan to have a decent chance of working. It was just going to be up to the three of them since they couldn't trust any of the townsfolk with confidence.
The Plan Begins
Ren sat in the old silver mine that the sheriff described the night before. He didn't like hiding out while others were busy at work. But, his time for action would be soon. It was just hard to wait. He tried to get some rest but couldn't sleep. The mine was built into the hillside about a mile past the work camp. The sheriff was right; it was pretty extensive. He was back at least a few hundred yards, and it kept going for several hundred yards more before it came out the other side in a smaller opening. He had a tiny fire going to give him a touch of light.
Sam entered the cave riding the sheriff's horse, carrying two large bags. He sat down, winded and tired from the hurried trip.
Ren walked over to him. "Did the sheriff get you everything okay?"
"It's all there," Sam replied.
Ren opened the first bag and took out the two guns and ammo. He gave half to Sam. "You just rest here for a bit" Ren opened the other bag, removed the contents, and got to work.
Once Ren had finished, he walked back to Sam. "Are you ready for this?"
Sam looked at him straight in the eyes. "Those men are crueler than you could imagine. I've never been more ready".
Ren nodded. "Be ready." Ren hopped on the sheriff's horse and rode towards town.
* * *
Only one man was outside the orphanage. He was watching the area closely. Most of the other men, including Jasper, were out on the hunt for that brat boy. He would get what's coming to him and more, he thought. The boy had taken his eye, and he would have hell to pay. He and two other men kept guard at the orphanage. The man surveyed the town. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the large boy dart behind the mercantile. A smile rose in his mind. "Stupid kid," he thought. He backed up into the building and exited through the side door on the adjacent street. The boy would be in for a big surprise when he snuck upon him. He approached the back of the Mercantile with his gun drawn. Pain erupted from his hand, and his weapon dropped to the ground. He turned to see that the boy had snuck up behind him. He had a whip in one hand and a gun in the other. He dove for his gun and heard a loud bang. That was the end for him.
* * *
The sheriff was in the kitchen's pantry. A few boys had been on cooking duty for the rest of the orphanage, occasionally entering the pantry to grab an item or two. The sheriff was hiding in a corner in the dark behind some boxes. Everyone, including the two men, would be in the dining hall to eat soon. The sheriff continued to wait. He was currently alone in the pantry when he heard gunfire in the distance. It wasn't close, but it was unmistakable, as it was one of his guns. Now was the time.
The sheriff rose and peeked out of the swinging door. Two men were standing guard inside the hall, just outside the door. The hall had enough noise with the boys eating that the men didn't notice the gunshot's sound. One of the boy cooks was coming his way. The sheriff ducked back to his hiding spot. The boy entered the pantry, looked around for something, then proceded quickly toward the corner the sheriff was hiding. As the boy reached for something on the shelf above him, the sheriff covered the boy's mouth and whispered into his ear.
* * *
There was a large crash in the pantry after a couple of minutes, and the boy screamed, "Help!" The two men burst into the pantry only to be gunned down immediately by the sheriff. After talking with the boy, he had the boy create the diversion to lure the only two men left guarding the orphanage into his trap. The sheriff and the boy walked out of the pantry. Several dozen boys sat frozen at their tables, stunned. The hall was crowded today as all the kids were at the orphanage and not at the work camp because Jasper and the other men were out hunting Ren. The sheriff sat down with the boys and told them everything was going to be okay now.
But, in the back of his mind, he wondered, "Where is Magnus?"
* * *
Ren rode the sheriff's horse toward his old camp by the river; as he approached, he could see smoke from his campfire. The smoke was visible from a mile away. As he came over a rise, he could see the sheriff's plan had worked; Jasper and his men had found his camp and were now searching for him. He sat there on the rise until one of the guys spotted him and yelled to the others. Ren took off riding toward the work camp as fast as the horse could carry him. It was a fast horse, much quicker than his mule, and he was a little lighter than the men chasing him. He kept ahead of them and their bullets.
Ren approached the work camp, which had recently been ransacked. Sam had done a great job while he was gone. He looked closely. He could see deep tracks in the ground from the heavy box containing the gold supply heading up the hills toward the silver mine cave. Ren moved quickly up the slope toward the cave, even in more of a rush. The sheriff's horse climbed the hills with Ren on his back. Ren could hear the men behind him and some gunfire. They were getting closer. Ren came to the cave entrance, dared a look back, saw the men approaching swiftly, Jasper in the lead. "Where is Magnus?" he wondered. He entered the darkness of the cave.
Jasper led his men to the entrance. He told four of his men to wait outside while the other six came inside with him. Two of the men lit torches and affixed them to their horses. They nudged their horses to move into the cave ahead of them, and the group followed in the shadows. As they approached the center of the cave, they heard movement from the other end. They all looked toward the small opening at the far end and briefly saw the silhouette of Ren exiting the cave. They quickly picked up their pace just as a massive explosion knocked them to the ground. Looking back from where they just entered, Jasper could see a dynamite explosion had destroyed the entrance. He also knew the blast assuredly killed men on the other side. He and his men got up and scrambled toward the remaining opening in the back. Just as they got to their feet, another explosion rocked them. Now, they had no way out.
Ren and Sam met back at the work camp after they set off their dynamite that collapsed both entrances. Ren put the box of gold on a small trailer and attached the horse. He patted Sam on the back. They smiled and headed into town.
The Final Confrontation
A couple of hours prior, Magnus had sat in his room above the mercantile. He had seen one of his men just get gunned down right outside his room on the road behind the mercantile. He wasn't the kind of person to be shocked, but the large boy looked like a grown version of the boy he killed years ago and buried in the swamp. The shock made him hesitate. He sat by the edge of the window staring at the boy while the boy slipped away. Yes, that was him. Magnus just stayed right there watching and waiting for his opportunity.
Magnus heared the gunfire at the orphanage and knew it wass either the boy or the sheriff. He continued to wait and watch. Two hours went by, with little activity in town and no sign of any of his men, the sheriff or the boy. In the distance, he could see two figures approaching town on horseback. As they grew closer, Magnus identified them as Ren and another kid. He watched from the window as they rode through town, pulling a trailer with HIS gold. They were heading toward the orphanage. Magnus smiled and quietly left his room, with his gun drawn. As he went down the stairs into the Mercantile, he noticed Hal was in the backroom, but the three little old gossip ladies of the town were right by the front door watching the boys ride by the storefront. He snuck up on them without any notice.
Ren stood in front of the orphanage, next to the horse and cart, watching and waiting. Sam had gone inside to check on the rest of the boys. A door opened from the mercantile, and the three little old ladies walked out in a daze. They were closely followed by Magnus holding a gun to their backs. Magnus moved the ladies toward the boy and HIS gold. Once, they were half a block away. Magnus stopped and surveyed Ren. "You grew up," he yelled.
"You left me for dead," Ren replied.
Magnus just grinned. "I'll make you a deal: these old ladies in exchange for that box you have there. I'll take the box and be on my way. You can go home to your mother, and we can all move on."
Ren surveyed his surroundings as he spoke, "This gold belongs to the town and these boys, not a killer of women and children like you."
Magnus scowled with anger, "you can play it that way if you want, but I'll just kill these ladies and then you and take the gold anyway" Just as he finished his sentence, a loud bang, and his gun, along with his gun hand were gone. The sheriff stood up from the rooftop nearby and aimed his large rifle directly at Magnus. Real shock overtook Magnus, and he turned just in time to see one of the old ladies hit him square on the head with something hard. Magnus faded out.
Magnus Cole was sentenced to hang two weeks later. Ren, now reunited with his mother and brother, did not attend. Magnus no longer had influence over them. Almost all of the town attended and watched the hanging and were glad to see him gone. The boys took over control of the orphanage and lived very well with the aid of the gold. Ren and the sheriff were given a portion of the gold in thanks. Ren, his mother, and brother restored his family farm and lived there for quite a long time in prosperity and happiness. The unmarked gravesite filled with children was honored, with the town also attending a service for all the young lives lost. Lastly, the sheriff deputized Ren, which would be just the start of Ren's incredibly adventurous life.
The author, John T Morgan, grew up and currently lives in Michigan, but spent over a decade in western Montana . He has a bachelor's degree in Environmental Geology and Social Work and has strived to work on projects that better the lives of people and the world in which we live. His current passions are photography and writing.
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