The Good Son
by Jennifer McMahon
Marshal Kyle Warner risked lifting his head up, just enough to try to locate Chance Monroe. A bullet zinged off the rock in front of him, far too close for comfort. He ducked back down, as the echo rang around the Arikaree Breaks.
"Want to try that again, Marshal?" Monroe called from the rocks above him. "I didn't have my aim in, that time." His voice was just short of laughing at him.
"Go to Hell, Monroe," Kyle called. He took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. It was noon, on the hottest day in July he could ever remember. The red dirt under him was baked dry, and cracked. Every move he made seemed to kick up a fine red dust.
"After you," Monroe replied. Another shot ricocheted off the rock.
Kyle turned to Deputy Billy Fletcher, who was crouched beside him, his Colt gripped tightly in his right hand. "We need help, Billy," he said. "Can you get to your horse, if I cover you?"
"And leave you here alone, Marshal?"
"I'll keep him busy, until you get back with more men. When you do, circle around behind him and close in. Ready? On the count of three. One, two, go!"
Kyle sprang up from behind the rock, and opened up with his pistol, peppering the rocks above him. He didn't know exactly where Monroe was hiding, but that didn't matter so long as he managed to throw him off balance a little. Just long enough for Billy to get to his horse and get away. When his gun was empty, he dropped down again. He turned to see Billy galloping in the direction of Colby. It would take him an hour to get there, another hour back.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time, when they'd left Colby in pursuit of their quarry. A rider had galloped in and reported that Chance Monroe had robbed the stage on the trail from Abilene. Two men were dead, another wounded. Monroe had headed northwest, the man had said, into the rugged territory of the Arikaree Breaks.
Monroe had been a thorn in Kyle's side for months, and had shot down five men in cold blood. It was high time to either put him in the ground, or bring him before a Judge. And so, Kyle had abandoned his customary caution. He had ridden out with Billy, as hard as they could go, but the Arikaree Breaks was hard territory, and it could swallow a man whole, so that no one would ever find the body to give it a decent Christian burial.
"You're all alone now, Kyle," Monroe called to him.
Kyle settled himself into a comfortable position, and pulled the brim of his hat over his eyes. "But I've got you for company," he shouted back, as he reloaded his gun.
Monroe laughed. "Ain't that just sweet? But I don't think you've thought this through. Sooner or later, you're going to get thirsty, and I don't reckon you had the presence of mind to bring your canteen with you, when you took cover. Do you think you can make it to your horse without me killing you?"
Damn it, Kyle thought, looking down at the bone-dry dirt at his feet. He's right. But I'll hold out as long as I can.
* * *
Fifteen minutes passed, then half an hour, and Kyle got to thinking that if Monroe hadn't mentioned the canteen, he wouldn't be feeling so damned hot and thirsty. The more he tried to put it out of his mind, the more it played on it like a tune he couldn't stop humming. He looked towards his horse, but there was no way he could get to it without being cut down.
But maybe Monroe wasn't up in the rocks anymore. Maybe he'd found another way down and moved on. Or maybe he was even now creeping towards him, his gun cocked, ready to kill. Kyle risked lifting his eyes above the rock. A bullet struck it, close enough to throw dust into his eyes. That at least answered the question.
"You going to sit there all day, Kyle?" Monroe called to him.
"Long as I have to."
"Your deputy's gone for help. I can't afford to let them get here. Let's say we finish this here and now, man to man."
It was tempting, but Monroe was fast, faster than anyone Kyle had ever seen. There was no way he could beat him in a fair fight. "Let's not," he said. "Why don't you tell me how much you got from that stage."
Monroe's laugh echoed around the rocks. "About a thousand dollars, and change."
"Not bad for a day's work."
"How much does a Marshal make these days? A hundred bucks a month?"
"It can't be easy, getting by on that, not as a family man. How about I pay you double that, to get back on your horse and ride home to Colby? Buy your wife something nice."
"How about you come down, and ride back in with me? I promise you'll get a fair trial."
Another shot hit the rock. "No, I think I'll pass on your kind offer. Anyway, a trial ain't much use to me, I'm guilty as Hell. Ain't no one going to see it otherwise."
Keeping him talking, that was the thing. The more he talked, the more relaxed he'd get. Maybe he'd make a mistake, give his position away. As long as he was talking, there was a chance, and at least it stopped Kyle thinking about how thirsty he was.
"Why don't you tell me about it?" he called. "You've got a captive audience. Tell me why they shouldn't hang you. How did you end up being such a bad man?"
"Am I a bad man, Marshal? I don't think of myself as one."
"You've done a lot of bad things."
"A man has to survive. This is the only way I know how."
"How did it start?"
There was a long pause. After it, when Monroe spoke again, his voice was so low that it was barely audible. "Once you're branded an outlaw, you don't got a whole lot of choices. Ever hear of a place called Vernon County, in Missouri?"
"Can't say that I have."
"It ain't much, just a whole lot of nothing and nobodies. I was born on a farm there. When I was sixteen, some militia came riding by, some of Bloody Bill's men. They demanded what wasn't theirs to take. My Pa wasn't giving it up, so they killed him. They shot my Mama, too, then took what they wanted. I was out in the fields when the murders happened. When I came back, I found their bodies. I buried them alone, in the rain."
"That's bad, but I don't see how—"
"After the war, I tracked those men down, one by one, and killed them. The last two were on that stagecoach today."
Kyle imagined the young boy finding his dead folks, and having to bury them alone. "So, you never wanted the money?" he asked.
"It helps, I'll admit it. But it ain't satisfying the way revenge is."
"A judge will understand. I'll even speak for you, son."
Monroe didn't answer, and Kyle couldn't get another word out of him, not for a long time.
* * *
Kyle watched the sun edge across the sky at the pace of a grazing buffalo. He guessed maybe an hour had passed since he'd last heard a peep out of Monroe. It was too much time to think of a heartbroken farm boy, bereft of kin and alone against a cold and dangerous world. I'd have probably done the same thing, he thought, if I were in his place.
That was the thing: no one could truly judge another man for his actions, not even if he were a Marshal. There was always a reason, a story behind the man. There were no truly bad men, he'd always figured, just men who were hurting inside so bad, they had to let it out in the only way that a man sometimes can.
"You still there, Monroe?" he called.
In answer, a shot blasted off the rock.
Kyle lowered his head, until his chin was touching his chest. Billy would be back soon with a posse, if he weren't already closing in on Monroe from behind. Pretty soon, they'd make their move. Monroe wouldn't let himself get taken alive, and more men would probably die.
"Monroe? Look, I've been thinking over what you said. It doesn't have to end badly today. Most people would say you had just cause to kill those men. I don't want you to die out here today. It's too damned hot, and I'm too dammed thirsty."
"Killing is thirsty work, in my experience."
"Come down, and let me take you in. I'll help you, get you a good lawyer. I'll even speak on your behalf. You don't deserve to hang."
"I won't hang, Marshal," he said. "I can promise you that."
"Look . . . " But could he tell him about the posse coming? If he warned him, good men would definitely die, but if he didn't . . .
A volley of shots rang out, but this time they came from a distance, higher up in the rocks. It wasn't Monroe's rifle. Sounded like a pistol, maybe a Colt. Then Monroe's rifle called out in reply. Kyle was familiar with its song by now, so much so that he doubted he'd ever forget it. Monroe wasn't shooting in his direction anymore. Billy had arrived.
Kyle broke cover and stood up, then cupped his hands around his mouth. "Billy?" he shouted, as hard as he could.
The shooting stopped. "Marshal? Are you hit?"
"Billy, I want you and the men to stop shooting."
"You want us to what?"
"Stop shooting. That's an order. You're to pull back to five hundred yards, and wait for me to find you." As he was saying it, he made his way to his horse and grabbed his canteen. His fingers fumbled with the top, then managed to get it open. He glugged the contents down in huge, satisfying gulps.
He turned to find Monroe behind him, his rifle in the crook of his arm. His right hand hovered over his pistol in its holster.
"Monroe. Damn it, but you walk softly, son. Come in with me."
"It's too late for that. I'd prefer to end this clean."
Kyle turned around slowly. "You're faster than me. No way can I beat you."
"You never know for sure, not until you try."
They stood motionless for what seemed like a long time, as if they were fixed there, as if the rocks themselves had claimed them as their own. Monroe's hand twitched slightly, and edged towards his weapon. A carnation of blood blossomed in the center of his blue shirt, at the same time as the sound of the shot reached them. Kyle looked up. Billy was on top of the rocks, his rifle against his shoulder. As he watched, smoke issued from the barrel, and the second shot sent Monroe tumbling to the dirt.
Kyle rushed forward and fell to his knees beside Monroe. "It's okay, son," he said. "We'll get you back to town, the doctor will fix you up." He knew it wasn't true; his words were more for himself than his former enemy.
Monroe lifted his head a little. "Told you . . . I wouldn't hang," he breathed. Then he was gone.
Kyle closed his eyes and breathed softly. "Time to go home to your folks, son," he said. "They'll be proud of you, knowing what you've done for them."
He stood and brushed the dirt from his trousers, then went back to his horse and sipped at the water from his canteen. As far as anyone else was concerned, a vicious outlaw had just died, but he knew the truth. A good son had gone home.
Jennifer McMahon lives in Ireland and has been writing stories for as long as she can remember. Her story "Going Nowhere" appeared in the September 2021 issue of Frontier Tales. She is also the author of the "Making Hitler" and "Breaking Hitler" book series, and has just published Volume 1 of her biography of Hermann Goering, all available on Amazon Kindle.
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Let the Red Devils Come!
by Dave Earnhardt
As Samuel Cawker stood gazing through the picture window of his mother's home at 322 Blake Street he suddenly reminded himself, with a shock, that it was already 1880. Yet, the usual stiffness of his blocky frame was giving way to relaxation, as his spirit began to soar with the electricity of new hope and ambition, a state he wanted to retain, urged by spring's sudden and miraculous arrival from what had seemed an endless winter.
He was also inspired by the reborn industry of the world outdoors, the constant clatter and clang of horse-drawn carriages and wagons passing through the clear space and its shadows, before they entered imagination's mysterious dimension through the window's crystal, kaleidoscopic borders, then fragmented brightly into red, white, blue, and yellow shards.
"May," he muttered dreamily as suddenly he recognized the blind coincidence linking his wife with the month, and that, despite his meditative perspective, he'd been standing with his hands clasped behind his back, rocking gently forward and back on his heels and toes, and frowning, in a manner he'd never hoped to display—like a schoolmaster!
"What, dear?" the woman, who was seventeen years his junior—just twenty-one—who stood behind him asked.
He found further inspiration in considering that she would have the energy to push him when he finally became weary with old age, while she retained the beauty of her own youthfulness. "Oh, I was just thinking that you name the month. Such a lovely name."
Moving up to his side, she took his hand and watched with him the orderly chaos unfolding within the frame of the window. Silent presumably with awe for several minutes, she finally announced, "I marvel as I consider our future. This property, and all the rest we own, will be worth a fortune some day. And just look at this hustle and bustle beneath us—so much is happening the world it makes me absolutely dizzy! The Age of Invention indeed!"
He chuckled delightedly at this. "Science is king, so we'd best learn to live scientifically—correct?"
"Yes, dear. I'm so happy you can find so much inspiration out there. That indicated you'll likely succeed in inventing something great. I would like to believe that our love for each other gives you the energy for it, too, which means your success is also my success."
"My dear! Isn't it said that behind every successful man is a caring woman? Could you ever have doubted my love for you?" he asked facetiously incredulous.
"Why do you torment me, already knowing the answer?" grinning, the young woman protested facetiously.
Now Samuel took both of May's hands and pulled her to himself, immediately forcing her to waltz, although the only accompanying music for that activity was the silent rush of life. "A beautiful woman!" he added brightly, swinging her around in a circle. "A brilliant woman!" he added, reversing his spin to counterclockwise. "A devoted woman!" he finished, reversing his spin to clockwise again, waltzing.
The couple continued to waltz silently for several minutes in the warm silence, in wider and wider circles, until, as they brushed a table, Mary blurted, with moderate alarm, pushing the man away, "Sammy! You will make us break one of your mother's figurines!"
This sobering thought brought the man to a halt. Gently, from the nearby mantle, he grabbed a ten-inch-tall woman's green, black and white statue by the waist, holding it out briefly for closer perusal—"Gosh, I forgot!" he declared. "This Venus here is Venetian marble! It's worth fifteen hundred!"
"Oh my!" May declared quietly, staring with newfound wonder as though she was seeing for the first time the figurine of a woman whose nakedness was frozen partially emerging from a thin veil draped over an uplifted arm. Softly, she now declared, "It is flowing cloth—until you touch it," she declared, as she remembered, moving closer to touch the thing as she once had, extending a tentative forefinger slowly until it just barely met the tiny woman's head; but this caused her to quickly remove her hand, declaring, "Yet, it's so cold! "
"All I was saying was that I want us not merely to succeed like so many others, but to exceed—to truly prosper! " Samuel concluded with a determined yet gentle shake of his fist. "Not just for us, but our eventual children and their future!"
Now May was silent.
"What is the matter, dear?" Samuel asked, though smiling as though he knew the answer.
"You know I can tell when you're not pleased. Is it the part about children?"
"Yes," she replied blankly.
"But haven't we spoken of children before?"
"I know it bothers you that childbirth is so painful—is that the matter?"
"Not . . . exactly. I am . . . a stoic, after all."
"Then is it the possibility of losing a child in birth?"
"That is a worry . . . "
"You see, it is here that science helps a great deal—doctors and midwifes know infinitely more than they did when mother lost . . . I'm sorry, I know you don't want to be reminded, but, you see, diet, and breathing techniques, and even exercise regimens, have all been prescribed for you, so you have much less to worry about than you imagine. Don't you agree? " he nearly pleaded.
"Why . . . yes, dearest," she answered dreamily, before falling silent.
Finally, she asked, "Was Fanny against children, or did she wait until she was . . ."
"Too old? " he interrupted irritably. "At thirty-two? I hardly think so!" Instead of laughing, however, he had to moan and ask, worriedly, "Why do you worry so?"
"It's my nature, I suppose," May agreed cheerfully.
"Just . . . please don't bring Fanny up."
"Yes, dear, if it bothers you. But you have no more feelings for her, do you?"
"She was my wife. Now she's not. That is that! "
"Are you being . . . perfectly honest with me about your relationship with her?"
"What do you mean?" he asked genuinely confused.
"You know perfectly well what I mean!"
"Good—then we can change the subject," he answered peevishly.
"You're a regular devil, do you know that?" May pouted.
"You've lost me."
"You never were married to . . . her."
"Yes, dear. Legally, this is true. What's your point?"
"Still you want a commitment from me! " she scoffed with feigned petulance.
Despite the playful overtones in his repartee with May, Sam felt the weight of adult sadness now on his shoulders. Some underlying, unspoken question needed answering—but what was it? Perhaps women were too deep for him to ever understand their needs. Again, May's reluctance early on to marry him could have been caused by something as pragmatic as her not wanting to appear to be an opportunist. After all, with marriage she could claim a right to the family fortune, which was built on the blood and sweat of others. It was a great responsibility, too, to tend the toll roads, board houses, tend saloons, and manage rental properties! If this was her problem, his task, then, was merely to convince her that she alone would determine the degree of her involvement with the business.
His only true regret regarding business, however, was that Mother Mary had sold the Loomises the granite quarry at Four Mile House—what a go he could have made of that place! For consolation he always reminded himself that time was passing relentlessly, and he had no time to get hung up on matters he couldn't change—fortunes could be made wherever imagination dared—again, invention was the key! Finally, he replied, "Dearest, take all the time you need. I just feel that if you consider all options very carefully, marriage is an ideal state for us. No legal matters such as liens or lawsuits bind me, as I am a free man, and you, my dear, are equally free to partake of managing the family businesses or else retire behind the scenes. It is you I want, not your dutiful employment! "
"I understand," graciously, now, she replied.
"Was there another matter you wished to discuss?"
"I . . . not exactly . . . I've been toying with an idea, but it's not a very scientific notion."
"I'll decide that. What is it? You know you can discuss anything at all with me!" he scolded gently.
"Okay. Do you believe that certain people are, well . . . soul mates? "
"You mean that Fate has decided they're meant for each other?"
"Yes—they'd be predestined spirits."
"Oh, that's starting to sound dangerously religious, " mildly humored Samuel warned.
"I never asked first if you believed in God, did I?" Embarrassed, she giggled nervously.
"Don't forget, though, that I feel that a Prime Mover guides us."
"Do you feel that we never really die—in our spirits, though?"
"This is beginning to sound like ghosts and goblins! You can talk to your heart's content with Ma about that sort of thing! She believes in such things— boogie men and such!" he mocked, laughing. "By the way, she should have been here by now."
"But do you truly believe we're fated to be together, Sammy?" she persisted, seeming to plead.
Now, prefacing his answer, he took both of his wife's hands together in his own, and, staring deeply into her eyes, smiling wanly, answered demurely, "Yes, dear."
"I know you need to think about that, but I don't want you upset when your mother comes," persistently May told him, though with a generous, forgiving smile. With this she seated herself primly stiff on his mother's small, dark horsehair love seat.
Despite the reticence in her body language, her smile was all that he needed in order to rise above his sorrows. "I'm sorry too, if I upset you, dear," he said as he turned and approached her now, then, leaning over her from behind, kissed her on the forehead. The pheasant feather in her hat tickled his nose, and he had to sneeze: turning his head, he caught a glimpse through the window of his mother driving up.
"Ma's hu-hu-hu-here! " he sneezed, loudly this time, with eyes watering, then laughed and shook his head.
"Bless you, Sammy!" the young woman exclaimed with a giggle through the tears she hastily wiped away, not wanting to seem weak in the presence of such a strong woman, and declared, humorously, "I hope your allergic reaction isn't an ominous sign of what's to come!"
Samuel grinned, and with a deferential wave of his hand, went to the window.
There, in the near distance, Mother Cawker, age sixty-eight, reined up her pair of thoroughbreds, aligning her black buggy perpendicularly with a brass hitching post. She hopped down from her seat spryly, too, and, whipping the reins over the beasts' thick, muscular necks, slipped and looped the leather straps deftly through the hitching ring to tie them securely with a single cinch-knot.
Her son could already hear her telling him, as she often did, "Sammy boy, I'll still be driving myself to buy cheroots the day I pass over to the other side!" She would always add, too, "Of course I'll be living in that grand beachfront hotel I'm gonna build— The Evalina—like the good seer says! People'll be comin' to stay there from 'round the world!" She'd always laugh with this revelation, then add, "You know my one regret's I never got that college diploma, so's I could talk ideas with them learned guests like Old Levi Booth does!" Samuel would feel sorry for her whenever she said this, and, though he realized that he couldn't sound convincing, since he felt otherwise, he'd always lie for the sake of her pride, "Mother, you talk just fine! "
Nearly prophetically, now, the front door whipped open, and the grand lady of the manor whisked into the room in her long, full skirts, rustling like a tree in a strong breeze. She flipped up her black, mesh veil and peered into the dark parlor. She pointed at May—" You ain't Fanny!" The peacock feather of her black bonnet quivered electrically.
Samuel quickly stepped between the women, leaned and hugged his mother, then, pushing away from her, answered, "Ma, this is May, my fiancée." He chuckled at the unintentional facile rhyme.
Mary reached and turned up an electric lamp next to the door, then stepped back, remaining silent for a while. She looked the young woman up and down, then suddenly shot out her hand to shake—"Very pleased, indeed!" she announced, continuing to shake the petite hand while May grimaced. "Oh, I beg your pardon!" she said, dropping the poor woman's hand from her grip as though it were an undercooked piece of liver being sent back for more time in the frying pan. "I forgot what a grip I have—I guess I've milked too many a cow!" She laughed ingratiatingly, now. "But I didn't really hurt you, did I?" Without waiting for an answer, she winked at May as she pulled her hat off. Her fiery red hair was magnificently revealed, swept into twin waves that ended in a topknot; her head seemed now to tower like a candle flame. Additionally intimidating was the fact that she still had facial features youthful enough she might have been mistaken for Sam's older sister.
"No, ma'am," May lied, still grimacing.
"You can call me Ma Cawker, if you like . . . "
"Mother Cawker," Samuel interrupted. "It's more . . . respectful."
"Oh, Sam! Always so formal!" his mother said dismissively.
"Mother sounds best to me," May replied both to her fiancée and his mother. "But what if I switch back and forth?" humorously she asked.
Mother Cawker ignored May's reply, and told her with formal mien, "Please sit again," as she gestured at the love seat. "I'll put some tea on—do you like chamomile?"
"Why . . . I don't know. I've never had any," May replied wonderingly.
Samuel took the end opposite May on the horsehair sofa.
"I never sit on that," Mother Cawker told May. "Matthew, Sammy's Pa, left some o' his spirit in it—I think it's possessed. Truly—he'll give ya a good pinch, he will, if ya linger there!" She didn't laugh, and continued, "Sometimes I think 'cause he might o' had too much energy, some of it stayed stuck to his favorite sittin' place. I don't know. All I know's I never saw a man work harder'n him—you could call him a hard-livin' saloonkeeper, though some might object to that moniker. Anyway, the apoplexy did 'im in."
"I'm very sorry," May consoled.
"He come from Chicago, though he was born in merry old England. He was a gem!" Mother Cawker added.
"You must have been proud—" May began.
"Oh I was, an' still am! " Mother Cawker declared proudly, with a laugh. "Otherwise do you think I'da kept a sofa so homely only a mule could love it?" She laughed, slapping her knee, pleased with her own humor, then continued, "Truth is, I don't have the heart to part with it. Guess I'm just a softhearted, sentimental old—" But now the whistling of the teapot interrupted her, so nobody could be sure whether she'd sworn, though she was known often to do so. She jumped to her feet, and trotted through the arched doorway into the kitchen. Within a minute she shuffled back into the room and set the silver platter and porcelain tea set down on a low, oval, mahogany Victorian coffee table. "There!" she exclaimed cheerfully, taking her own cup and dropping into a chair opposite her guests. "You can hand her hers, can't you, Sam?" she asked.
"Why, yes, Ma—Mother, " he answered correctively, rising to retrieve the two remaining poured cups. "Is there honey already in this?"
"Of course, " Mother Cawker answered cheerfully. "I wrung it outa the beer barrel myself, personally for you! " she joked, laughing. When her son didn't smile, she slapped him on the back and chortled, "Oh don't take it to heart, so!"
May merely stared at her, baffled by her strange sense of humor.
But to quell her possible alarm, Sam told her, "Mother's goin' daft! Don't pay any attention to her!"
Ignoring her son, Mary continued to sip her tea daintily, she extended the little finger of her drinking hand upward. "You see, my Dears," she finally said, "all those years—when was it—my gosh—over thirty years ago when Mister Cawker passed on? Is that possible it's been that long? Well, you see, I told him to cut back on the drinkin' an' card playin', but he was a fun-lovin' son-of-a-buck! I'm dreadful sorry he had to pay the price God seems so determined to ask of us! More sorry than you can know, " she added dreamily, now, staring into the inner distances. "An' that doggery, bust-head stuff he drank coulda kilt a moose! I couldn't stand to touch it! If he'd a just set it out with a price on it, I wouldn'ta cared if he sold an ocean of it, but he thought he had to drink it to convince others it was okay! So 'twas no wonder he never bought a license for it— too much liability, as he finally showed! I know it was the drink that made his heart give out. "Course he drank other spirits, too—I don't mean to say he wasn't normal! But when you know what goes into that stuff, why would you get closer'n ten feet to it?"
"Why, what was in it?" May asked out of politeness.
Mother Mary grinned widely, now, raising an instructive index finger—"Well, wine, when we could get it, but usually grain alcohol, and tanbark, strychnine for a bead, coffee grounds for smoothness, leather strips for a bitter, molasses for a touch o' the sweet, tabasco an' jalapeños for bite, then gunpowder, chewin' tobacco, an' cigar butts for body! See why I drank tea like this here all them years?" she joked, laughing, though quickly her happy, murmuring song sank into a moaning hum, as sorrowfully she shook her head, finally staring into nothingness.
"Oh, Ma— Mother! That's positively a criminal thing for you to do! Are you now antisocial? " Samuel teased facetiously, since he currently sold the very same potion in his taverns.
But Mother Cawker was staring into the distance, and asked dreamily, wistfully, "What do you suppose Mister Cawker'd be doin' right now in Heaven?"
"Probably cutting a brand spanking new deck!" Samuel quipped brightly.
Apparently, Mary hadn't heard him, as, poised with her flowered, porcelain cup suspended in the air, she continued staring into nowhere.
Finally, to show that he'd found a happier subject than any previous, Sam offered, "I'm awfully sorry dear sister Elizabeth couldn't be with us today." He waited a few moments, and, failing to get a response, continued, "She and Calvin are doing very well with the toll-road business, I hear." Again he tried again in a few moments, "Elly Cawker became Libby Loomis, just by marrying—sounds kinda funny, don't it?—too many l' s! " He waited again, hoping to recover his mother's attention. Finally, he proposed, "Ma— Mother, I know what'd cheer you up! Why don't you tell May that story about . . . you know, the wagon train—I don't want to give it away and spoil it, an' you know no one tells it the way you do, anyway! "
"What story?" his mother now asked him, stone-faced.
"You know which one!" He scoffed, chuckling charmingly.
With a snap of her head, her green eyes glittering, Mother Mary Cawker now faced her son, grinning. "That was no story, if you mean when I scared off them red devils and saved us'n that wagon train from a good scalpin' or worse! "
Samuel moaned in protest, "But Ma, you're givin' it away! "
"That's all right, Mother Cawker," May said politely. "Sam's already told me how it was for you to be the first woman to drive a team, let alone a team of six, in Colorado!"
"Yes ma'am! I was! " the older woman answered heartily. "I run supplies from Four Mile House to Kansas City once every coupla months! I also run some wagon trains. An' I was also one o' the first women to keep a boarding house in this fine city all by myself. Still, you see, some thought doin' all that was undignified for a woman—but you always get that sort in history. Some even thought it was worse than that—but I'll tell you straight, I warn't no madam! " Here, quickly, she corrected herself—"I was more of a mademoiselle! Meanin' spoiled! " Now she laughed, apparently please with her own wit.
"Don't we know it!" Samuel teased affectionately.
"Well, you don't know just how lucky we all were in those days!" Mother Cawker informed her son. "You included, if you want me to tell about the near-massacre, since otherwise you might never've lived to your first birthday! An' I won't even repeat what they did to little ones!"
"Then you'll tell it?" hopeful, grinning broadly, Sam asked his mother.
"Well, sure. To start with, them so-called men on the train with me was just a bunch o' yellow bellies, I'll tell you!" she continued fiercely righteous. "Hidin' under the wagons! I guess they thought 'cause sin' they served as our fort they was safe just bein' behind 'em! One of 'em even up an' hollered, "Here come the red devils!" like he was brave, but he didn't even raise up a rifle, duckin' down again, of all the nerve!" Now she laughed.
"So, tell what you did," Samuel coaxed anxiously, slapping his knee involuntarily with anticipated delight.
"I'm getting there as pleases me," his mother answered. Now she turned to his fiancée—"All his life, May, he's been a seeker of pleasure, just like his Pa! Mind you, both are excellent saloon keepers, but neither has had a lick o' business sense! Always happiest out a-cuttin' a deck with the boys. Doesn't it seem strange? Yet it's as true as south-runnin' rivers! Oh I'm glad the dear had his fun, but he needed to remind himself how much he needed me for the books, else he'd o' had no place to play in, a-tall! "
"It can be a dangerous business, Ma," Samuel instructed her soberly, now. "You gotta cut the tension somehow, or it ca'n drive you nuts! You think I want to hear about every blubberin' fool's troubles?"
"But weren't you givin' that lout a good, sympathetic listen about his wife runnin' off with someone else when he just went and stabbed you in the gut?" Mother Cawker asked somberly, now.
"Yeah," he answered, laughing involuntarily—"I made the mistake of callin' her . . . let's just say, a bad name, since you ladies are present," he tole her, as he glanced back and forth between her and May.
"That does put a twist on the whole story, I admit, but you did survive! I never said you an' your Pa warn't tough, did I? I never worried too much on that score—I knew you could handle most o' them drunks, anyway, who just had to make a point o' gettin' outa hand to prove their manhood!"
"Well, I can't say I ain't lived real good," Sam replied. "But you remember I was laid up a whole month with the hole in my gut?"
"Yeah! Maybe you were used to havin' too much fun! But you were always full o' life, Dear," his mother replied sadly. "Yes, you always did manage to live—boy howdy you've proved yourself a live one!" She laughed and leaned to slap him on the shoulder a second time.
Sam was frowning, though, apparently not liking to be talked about. "Please go on with the story, Ma," he coaxed impatiently, now.
"The true story, if you gotta call it that! But okay. Here I go. I got me a contract to lead a train down to here from Fremont's Orchard up Nebraska way. Well, we pulled two wagons up with two teams of ox. They was, let's see . . . twelve o' them brutes eatin' us out of house and home into ruination—I never saw an animal that could eat that much! Anyway, on the trip we came up over this ridge, really to get a good looksee over the far territory, and found us a nice stretch o' beach along the Platte, fifteen miles north of Denver City. All we wanted to do was water the animals an' get freshened up, when we pulled up to a nice draw outa the sand, in sage prairie, an' set the wagons side-by-side about ten feet apart, like usual, mainly to keep any wolves'n coyotes away. We always put a good-sized bonfire at each end. So, anyway, I set out at first cookin' breakfast. But, wouldn't you know it, all of a sudden some dern renegades— called themselves Arapahos, but I know by the dress some Pawnees and Utes was thrown into that ragtag outfit probably got kicked outa their tribes—came outa the brush, with their bows drawn, aimin' them long buffalo-huntin' arrows at us, for an extra insult to boot! I tell you I had to think quick, too, sin' the men followed Colonel Londoner duckin' down like rats under the wagons to save their own sorry hides!
"I'm simply . . . well . . . shocked! " May exclaimed complacently. "About the whole situation!"
But Sam was helpless in the throes of laughter, pointing red-faced at his mother—"This is the part I absolutely love! " now he thundered.
"Oh, I do say!" Mother Cawker exclaimed indignantly still. "All I did was the only natural, sensible thing I could think of!"
"What did you do?" excitedly May asked, caught up in the action of it, now.
"I just grabbed up the hot, black iron skillet I was frying biscuits in, and, with my hair all frazzled with the wind already—plus you don't see too many redheads around these parts in the West anyway. Well, I right away I got up on my own wagon and did a dance, swinging that pan up high, a-stickin' my chest out an' scratched with my feet on the wagon bed like a chicken doin' its dance, even kickin' up some dust clouds. An', well, the next part's a little embarrassing for a lady, but it has to be told to finish the story—I have false teeth, you see . . . " (She grinned to show them). "They were wooden back then, though they're porcelain now. Anyway, while I was prancin' about, I pushed 'em out forward with my tongue, so's to make 'em stick out, then clattered 'em together wild-like, sometimes a-lettin' out with a cluck-cluck high in the throat like a chicken. Then I'd also make a whinin' noise I made up—sort of a hummin' buzz like a ghost would make, with a few Whoop-whoops here an' there. I guess I musta actually looked most like a rooster doin' a matin' dance—that' what Sam's always said, anyway!"
"Oh, he does have a good imagination!" laughing, May scoffed.
Mary fell silent, now, to drink her tea, hastily commenting between sips, "Don't want it to get cold. You two go ahead—you don't have to stop drinkin' yours either just for me to gab! I'm just not much of a hostess, you see! I was brought up rough, an' rough I'll stay!" proudly she declared, laughing self-indulgently. "Sometimes I know I'm hard to follow. Martha Maxwell sittin' next to me in the wagon durin' the attack wondered if I'd lost my mind!" she chortled.
May sat staring silently at Mother Cawker now.
"Oh, what a sight that had to have been!" Samuel laughed, slapping his knee several times, as tears of mirth rolled down his flushed cheeks. "But tell May how they acted then," he chirped breathlessly.
Mary continued, "Why, their eyes grew like saucers—big as the ones under our cups—like a dang buncha cows! Then they all of a sudden stood up like they was possessed, an' one-by-one dropped their bows'n arrows. But the strange thing was they walked toward us, an' all but one of 'em stopped about five feet from the wagons, while he walked straight up to me an' reached out his hand toward me, like he'd touch my hair, of all things! I musta frowned somethin' fierce, 'cause he jumped back a step, though I knew what he wanted. So, I just bent my head forward an' let him he touch it, though at the same time I barked, "Devil!" at him good an' rude. Well, then he spit on the ground, an' trotted away, an' the other ones run right after him like nobody wanted to be the last one to escape the witch, all a-snatchin' up their bows'n arrows real quick before they rode away so fast you'd think they just got cursed by the Devil himself, I tell you! So, after that we went on our merry way without another bother, unless you want to include the tongue-lashin' I gave Mister Londoner and them other lizards! Why, there's no excuse for that kind of thing, not when children's lives're at stake, leavin' the likes o' Martha Maxwell and me to fend off the savages!"
May finally smiled, and asked, "Could you have just paid the red men something to go away?"
"My dear," Mother Cawker answered testily, "they had no right to our money, even if they'd a had a use for it. An' our goods, like knives and muskets, we needed—to the item—else we wouldn't have bothered adding the weight to our burden! As it was, I hung onto our ledger for dear life, especially bein' the only one who knew the slightest thing about keepin' books. There was absolutely no room for waste! Just to get by, I had to charge my party for meals an' ammunition, so everything had to be kept accurate to the penny, an' I'll tell you true, after you've been pinchin' 'em you don't give anything away without a fight!"
"But weren't you almost frightened to death? " May asked, having turned pale.
"Why do you think I did that crazy dance? " Mother Cawker asked her.
"But I think I would have been frozen stiff! " the younger woman announced.
"Dear, I lost three of my five children, some during childbirth, some shortly thereafter, so I wasn't about to let Sammy and Libby get kidnapped by some heathen scoundrels, especially after all the trouble I went through going back to Sauk county, Wisconsin to retrieve 'em after their father kidnapped 'em!"
"Oh, of course," May answered timorously, apparently not sure what she was talking about, but not wanting to seem rude.
Always one to end a discussion on a positive note, though, Mary asked her son and soon-to-be daughter-in-law at once, "Well, are you two gonna give me grand children before I'm a hundred? Or will I have to live even longer than that, tormentin' you 'til you do?"
May crossed her hands in her lap, blushed and bowed her head, while keeping her back as erect as a board.
Samuel answered, "Only fate can tell, Ma."
"Fate! " Mother Cawker scoffed. "You're smarter than fate! Haven't you at least made any money on that patent for your . . . what did you call it? "
"Fluid Measuring Tank," Samuel answered proudly. "Yes. I even have a new invention, Ma, made special for you and your seances," he teased now with a mischievous grin.
"Another of your pranks, I suppose!" Mother Cawker answered, chuckling. She turned to speak toward May—"He and his friend started on the darn thing I knew they'd waste whole years! What was his name, that lawyer fella . . . "
"Gaines, Ma. Allen Gaines."
Mother Cawker remained smiling beneficently toward May, before informing her, "They even wasted time on pranks, one time smearn' phosphorous from matches over some sheets, then put 'em over their heads, and came into our seance last November. About scared us outa our skins! " She laughed and shook her head.
"Oh, Ma! You sat there like a rock! Didn't even crack a smile! " Samuel retorted.
May giggled at the news.
But Mary wasn't going to let it go—"After that they called my Central Park lodge 'Spook House!' " she announced. "I don't know, though, but I'm pretty sure the epithet has had time to wear thin. Hopefully we haven't lost too many customers!"
"Well, you won't have to earn another nickel, if Gaines' and my application for another patent goes through," Samuel advised happily.
"Then this is a new one?" Mother Cawker asked tentatively, as though hoping to get a straight answer. "What's it called?"
"The Electric Attachment for Rocking Chairs." It is simply designed for your spirit summonings, Ma— Mother. It'll revolutionize the whole process. You see—"
Interrupting her son, Mother Cawker grinned and winked at May. "I knew it was some crazy contraption! Now we have to hear how it works! " she added, feigning sarcasm.
"Now, Ma, don't prejudge it, 'cause it's got a true scientific purpose. You see, it's an electric generator wired to all the chairs around your seance table. When you wiggle around in your chair, it connects a circuit, and a low-voltage zap flies around the circle through all the seats, so all may fancy themselves pleased by the touch of a traveler reachin' back from the spirit world—it will thrill believers and skeptics alike!"
"Oh, you devil! " Mother Cawker and May announced unintentionally simultaneous. With the shock of their mingled voices, the two gaped at each other, then burst into laughter, soon tears of which were rolling down their cheeks.
"Ma, I made it to make sure you can make money chargin' for your spirit meetings!" Sam protested now. "You remember how many of 'em were duds, an' everyone demanded their money refunded!" He looked serious.
Soon Mother Cawker had to console her son by telling May, "I always felt Sammy would some day contend with the great Mr. Edison himself!" Then she turned to gaze lovingly at Sam's profile, adding, "With his phonograph a coupla years ago, then that in-can-descent lightbulb! "
"Ma, I didn't invent a lightbulb! " he deferred.
"But I thought you at least wrote to him and get some helpful hints!" the older woman protested. "That doesn't mean he did it all by himself!"
This time Samuel looked embarrassed: he hung his head, his smile falling into a worried frown. Finally, quietly, sadly, he remarked, "I don't have half the talent Tom has! I just got lucky a few times!"
When the silence had again fallen in the parlor, Mother Cawker told her son, "Sammy, I meant no harm. No one on earth can deny you have a mind that won't quit— just like your old Ma's! " Oddly, she didn't laugh. After a few more minutes, she said, "Oh, Sam— and May—you just wait! We're all gonna make a fortune more! You'll see it by the time I finally get to Summerland and build Evalin! You'll be seein' me at ninety-five drive my rig up to fetch cheroots at that—what's its name— Goux Drugstore in Santa Barb! Right down the beach I'll fly, in my buggy chariot! See, not just one, but three of my most reliable mediums have already predicted it in a vision, believe it or not! When others make judgments on us we'll see who gets the last laugh! It isn't the stick-in-the-muds, after all, that make the money!" She chuckled.
* * *
Once again Samuel Cawker found himself gazing from his neat Capitol Hill bungalow, watching the world pass, but this time he did so wearily, having temporarily awakened from his daydream at age sixty-eight—the same age as his mother during their last meeting. He couldn't lie to himself, either, that he now felt old—tired and slow of mind—a feeling exacerbated in that he was living already ten years within a new century. A special sadness settled like a cat on his chest when he remembered how beautiful his fourth wife, Grace, had been—mother of his only child, Samuel Roland Junior. Though Alberta, Canada, was her birthplace, she'd returned to her beloved Santa Barbara, just like his mother had, having found her ideal place in which to live out her last days in paradisal warmth. He also missed her terribly.
He recalled, with a little shock, how the "For Sale" sign in front of the old home on Blake Street had startled and disturbed him. Yet it heartened him to remember that Mary had turned it into a genuine theater, as she'd always wanted to—rather than into another saloon. She'd succeeded at everything she'd undertaken. What could have been more natural than that she'd moved across town to Central Park where she could more closely oversee her Sand Creek and Cherry Creek Valley Wagon Toll Road companies.
He could finally see the horse-drawn parade of humanity without illusion—as a slogging impediment to progress—as he envisioned the advance of innovation that would, within half a decade, replace buggies with motorized automobiles, boxy and running on four stiff, secure wheels. All industry had to do would be to come and drive up the value of all her real estate, for Mary's fortune still to be realized! She had picked good, solid businesses that complimented industry—he'd always been proud that his mother had never fallen for that fool's dream, gold! She'd kept her passions to herself, by God! He had to laugh to himself, wondering if his own son would actually believe her stories, all of which were true, but still sounded too good to have been.
In the finally analysis, his mother was simply a fine human who'd always been true to her dreams and their promise! As proof of that quality, out of love for her own children, hadn't she signed over her considerable holdings to them while she was still alive, rather than leaving a single scrap of inheritance intestate? And, free of guilt, having earned her day in the sun, hadn't she finally driven her little, comfy phaeton down the beach—up to her ninety- eighth year on earth! All in pursuit of her simple pleasure, her precious, little cigars? So, she had had the "last laugh" but not meanly for what she'd gotten away with, but for the joy she found in life that was available to everyone! Oh, she was a rarity, and he loved her all the more for her character. Suddenly Samuel was aware that he was standing with his hands clasped behind his back, rocking gently forward and back on his heels and toes, frowning—just like a schoolmaster—an occupation he'd once romantically fancied—again, yet more profoundly happy, somehow, despite his aching bones, than he'd ever been!
Dave Earnhardt holds a master's degree is in English language and literature. He's also a poet, and has completed three volumes of poetry. Many of his poems and some short stories have been published in reviews and anthologies internationally. He also taught high school English for three years, and college composition for fourteen years. Now, though, he can give his writing the full-time attention that it deserves.
He's always been very interested in the history of civilization, which he believes parallels literature, which he calls the history of the human heart. His primary focus in writing is on what used to be called the human condition—truthfully, fairly, in full dimension, and to represent the down-to-earth cares and motivations of human beings.
He's had poetry published in: Casaba Review, The Wabash Review, Voices International, The Occasional Review, ERAS Review, The Poet Fine Arts Society, Encore, in the FUSION Poetry Contest, Mandy, Black Bear Publications, EWG Presents, Visions of the Enchanted Spirit Anthology, Poetry.com, pulse29, The Sound of Poetry, Poetic Visions, The Voices Network International Poetry Competition, Driftwood Press, and The Aurorean.
He's had short stories published in: Heist Magazine, EWG Presents, and The Climbing Art.
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by Mary Verlinde
Steve Mason and his partner Shorty Smith, were in the corral on their Little Bar 4 spread which they had bought the month before. They were trying out some horses they had bought from the T Bar M, a big outfit ten miles west of the Bar 4. It had once run stock on what was now the Bar 4 and the partners suspected them of wanting it again.
All the horses were broke as they were supposed to be. At least, until they came to a beautiful, big blaze-faced sorrel. He was long legged and well muscled, with a beautiful intelligent looking head held high. He showed some signs of speed and endurance. Anyone could see that if he was broken right he would be a top saddle horse. Each one had picked his own string of saddle horses as they were tried out. They took turns choosing. The sorrel fell to Shorty. He roped him and didn't have to snub him to saddle him, he just trotted up like he had been ridden every day.
"Reckon I got the best hoss in the whole string right here. Look at those muscles, legs, and feet" said Shorty as he saddled him.
Steve said, "Wait til you've rode him before you start braggin!" although he did think Shorty was right.
Shorty finished saddling the sorrel and swung to the saddle lightly. He hardly hit the saddle when the horse seemed to explode. He went off the ground with all four feet and bucked high in the air. Every time the sorrel jumped, Shorty grunted. The horse came down and went up again and again and again. Every time he hit the ground, there was a jar that shook Shorty's whole body so he thought he would fall apart. Then in one of these lunges he lost a stirrup. Then he went whirling through space high in the air and when he hit the ground he saw the sorrel above him, its sharp hooves flying and its mouth wide open ready to trample him to death. But Steve dashed up on his horse and caught the sorrel by the hackamore rope and wheeled him around before his hooves could plow into Shorty's flesh.
Shorty got up from the ground and climbed up the fence in a moment while Steve was holding the rearing, plunging, and squealing sorrel. Shorty sat on the top rail of the fence. His nose began to bleed from the jolting he had got and he pulled his soiled red handkerchief from his pocket and began to apply it to his nose. Steve coaxed him to try again.
Shorty said, "No! That hoss is a killer! No man can ride him. Turn him loose, sell him, shoot him, get rid of him some way, afore he kills somebody!"
Steve saw that he couldn't persuade Shorty to try to ride him again. So he decided to ride him. He put his own saddle on him. Then he swung lightly to the saddle and the sorrel sprung high in the air bucking furiously. He bucked harder now than he had with Shorty, because hadn't he just thrown one man? Wasn't he master of men? But Steve rode him and kept cropping him with his quirt. Steve thought he would have to make the horse think he was riding him easily and was punishing him for bucking.
Then Steve hardly knew what was going on. All he could feel was that jarring, jolting demon under him. Then suddenly, he heard Shorty yell.
"Look out! He's throwing himself back!"
But Steve was out of the saddle before he struck the ground and was back in it and up with the horse. Then he began to regain his senses and felt the bucks grow easier. He became conscious that the horse was no longer bucking but merely crowhopping. Steven began to hit him harder with his quirt.
"Buck, dang ya!" He almost sobbed it.
Then he yelled at Shorty to open the gate. He swung the sorrel, that now seemed to be bridlewise, and went out of the corral across the range. This was the fastest horse Steve had ever been on and he had been on some good ones. He went for about a half mile, then swung the sorrel sharply and the horse turned so sharply and quickly that he nearly sent Steve out of the saddle.
Steve said, "He's a cuttin' hoss!"
Then he went back to the corral and dismounted. The horse rubbed his head against Steve's shoulder. Steve opened the gate and led him inside and began to unsaddle him when Shorty came over.
"Ya. Ya rode him! Best ride I ever seen!"
Steve said, "Yeah, I'd like to ketch the gent that spoiled this cayuse. Best hoss I ever forked!
Shorty shook his head."Yeah, the darn thing spilled me so hard my head ain't clear yet. An if you hadn't been so handy, I wouldn't be standin' here!"
Steve said, "He's the fastest horse on the range."
Shorty had a bay bronc he figured was one of the fastest in Montana. They decided to race the next day. They bet five dollars a piece on a mile stretch. Steve finished unsaddling and hung the saddle on the corral fence. The horse followed him. Steve and Shorty started to the house. The sorrel followed Steve to the gate. Steve stopped and stroked the velvety muzzle and the proudly arched neck.
He said to Shorty, "I got a horse, an' whadda horse!"
Shorty said, "Yeah, he's a mighty fine animal."
Steve said, "Somebody abused this hoss and made him hate men and I just had to show him who is boss and I'd shore like to ketch the hombre that spoiled him. He's the finest piece of horseflesh I can ever remember seeing!"
Then the two men went out the gate and the horse put his head over the gate and whickered.
"I reckon you'll have to get along without me for awhile, ol' boy," Steve said.
After supper Steve went to the barn and took a measure of oats to the sorrel in the corral. He rubbed down his new found pet and apparently faithful horse. When he was through, he caught one horse and tied him and gave him some hay. He opened the gate to let the other horses out to pasture. Then he went to the house and went to bed.
Next morning both men were up early. Shorty made breakfast while Steve went out to bring in their small remuda. After breakfast, they decided they would have their race on the way out to look over their cattle. They were to race from the corral to a little creek that ran across the range one mile west of the ranch. The cattle were usually along the creek in the morning.
Steve saddled his sorrel while Shorty saddled the bay. They led their fine, highstrung horses out of the corral and mounted them. Both horses reared a little but they soon calmed down. Shorty's bay got started first, running hard. Shorty thought he had the race, but the sorrel passed him like a streak. Suddenly Steve reined the sorrel to a sliding halt and yelled to Shorty to stop. Steve dismounted and went over to a dead cow on the prairie beside him.
Shorty drew his bay to a halt and said, "What's this?"
Steve answered, "Can't you see somebody has been shootin' up our stock?"
They looked around and saw half a dozen more fine whitefaces lying around dead. All of them were shot.
The two men were examining the carcasses and looking for tracks when a man jumped up from behind a clump of sagebrush and yelled, "Hands up there, hombres, if you want to stay healthy!" The man was a short, stocky, with long black whiskers, small black eyes, and a mean scowl on his face. Steve and Shorty knew him as Clint Lister, owner of the T Bar M, whom they had bought the horses from. They raised their hands.
Clint said, "Pull their hardware off'n 'em, Jake."
A little man with a long bullet scar on one cheek and a crooked nose stepped up to the partners. They recognized him as Jake Bowen, foreman of the T Bar M.
Just as he was about to take Steve's guns, a sorrel streak passed Steve, hit Jake, sending him sprawling, and went on to Clint and grabbed him by the shoulder with his teeth, hurling him high in the air. He trampled him to death before Steve could reach him.
Steve and Shorty had already drawn their sixguns and Shorty had the little gent named Jake covered. Steve held the sorrel so he wouldn't attack Jake.
Steve mounted and rode to a little ravine where he found the T Bar M horses saddled. He brought them up and roped the dead man to one. They disarmed the other man and made him mount and headed for Leadville where they were going to turn the two men over to the sheriff.
When they got to Leadville, they turned the dead man and the prisoner over to the sheriff and told their story. The sheriff locked up the prisoner and took the corpse to the undertaker. Then the two Bar 4 men and some deputies went to look at the dead cows. As they started, the sheriff looked at the sorrel and asked, "How come you're riding that horse?"
Steve said, "Bought him from T Bar M."
"Yeah, but how come he let you ride him? Didn't he buck?"
"Yeah, he bucked."
Shorty said, "Yeah, he bucked worse than anything I ever seen before. He really made Steve set down in his saddle and ride!"
Steve said, "I can't figger out how I rode him. It musta been by accident!"
The sheriff said, "That horse is a killer! His name is Devil. Clint Lister's bronc peeler busted him two years ago. Clint saw how good he was and gave him to his son, Buck. Now Clint thought a lot of Buck and it was a good thing he did, cause nobody else ever did. Buck was the devil on horses 'specially when he was drinkin'. He liked to leave them torn to shreds from their flanks to shoulders. The T Bar M had a couple hundred horses then so Buck didn't care if he kilt one once in awhile. One day Buck Lister was found dead on the trail about a mile from town with his head trampled in. The sorrel was grazing nearby. Buck had been drinkin'".About a month later Newt Baker, another T Bar M waddy, was drunk in town an' he was gonna show the town that he could ride that horse. He got dumped an' trampled to death right there in the street with Clint and a bunch of hands watchin'. So Clint figgered when he sold him to ya, the sorrel would kill ya an' that would be a good way to get ya off the range."
"Well," said Steve, "I reckon he was purty surprised this mornin' when he seen me ridin' this hoss. An' it was this hoss that kilt him. By the way, where did Clint get him?"
"Caught him outa a wild bunch. His mother musta been a good mare in foal to a hot blood stud that got loose with a bunch a wild 'uns. Looks like he's mostly hot blood, with just enough bronc to make him tough an' stout an' give him that buckin' streak."
When they came to the place where the dead cattle were, the sheriff told the Bar 4 partners he thought he could handle the rest and clean the range of this rangehog outfit now that Lister and Bowen were out of the way. So the Bar 4 boys thanked him and rode home.
On the way, Shorty said, "I reckon ya got quite a hoss there, Steve. I guess he'll outrun my bay alright!"
"Yeah," Steve said, "an' I reckon I won't go drinkin' none while I'm ridin' him!"
This story was written by my father, Jack Casey, when he was in high school in the late 1930's. He was a great lover of horses and a great cowboy himself. I believe he wrote this about his own horse, Cub, who my dad considered as his "partner" and together they built the ranch.
My dad wrote about first seeing and catching Cub, who was called "Old Blue" and known as the "worst outlaw on the range" by his fellow cowhands working on the Keogh ranch.
"When I first caught him the cowboys at Keogh's said, 'shoot him before he kills you,' and 'I wouldn't put my saddle on that outlaw!' But the next spring they all wanted to buy him!"
He was called the 'worst outlaw on the range' as he'd try to attack a man on sight.
I used a little Irish blarney, a little kindness, a little patience, and a good firm hand on him, and he responded and became a pet. That's what gives him so much endurance, makes him so tough, the fighting heart within him.
One of the men said when I was breaking him, he was ornery, Cub was, but I was just a little ornerier, guess he was right. I wouldn't give up until I had him broke, although I was ready to quit many times, he only threw me once, that was awful hard, but I went right back at him & knocked it out of him & he never bucked afterwards."
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by Katie Jordan
Dust permeates the air, drying Wayne's bloodshot eyes, the invading particles grating like sandpaper. He recognizes a grove of scraggly trees—a sign that home is near—and speaks, the sound echoing back to him. "I'm coming home, darlin'."
He forces his chin upward, wincing at the crick in his neck. Starlight shines its soft welcome.
"Rose," he murmurs, his wandering mind shifting from the desolate landscape.
Memories of Rose flood back to him: the vibrant spark in her jade green eyes, bold questions, and resilience. Like the hint of whiskey on his tongue, she intoxicates and beguiles him, even in her absence.
He closes his eyes, imagining the feel of her porcelain skin and the hollow at the base of her neck, where perspiration pooled during intimacy, a physical testament of her desires.
Rose is a good wife. The kind who makes mouthwatering buttermilk biscuits, never ceases her amusing chitter-chattering, and keeps him up late at night. The only thing she ever asked from him—in an uncharacteristically bashful manner—was blue fabric, so she could sew herself a dress.
"By golly, I can't wait." Wayne chuckles to himself, patting his horse's mane. "How much longer, Wes?"
Wes continues trodding along. Night sings its lullabies, the cicadas humming so loudly they infiltrate Wayne's brain with non-stop buzzing. He drifts asleep, waking when Wes starts up a rocky hill—swearing he can smell Rose's sweet scent. He imagines the way the scar on her left cheek dances when she speaks. His. She's all his.
"Am I dreaming?" He says the words out loud, but Wes doesn't stop walking. "I've been gone too long."
Eighteen months ago, hankering for a wife, he placed an ad in the newspaper. Rose arrived on an inbound train. Their love flourished, smoldering the very first night. She'd barely warmed his bed when he left to drive cattle to railheads in Kansas. His absence—intended for only a few months—has been a tick shy of a year. Every day, Rose consumes him, filling his thoughts, and causing a gentle itch underneath his skin.
Rose's disposition is pleasing—even keeled, warm, affectionate. But when Wayne left, a hint of fear surfaced, shining in her eyes. He could see the reservations in her body, the way she pursed her lips and clenched her fists.
"What if you don't come back?"
He winked, tipping his Stetson. "As sure as the sun rises, I'll come back. Nothin' can keep me away."
But the heat kept him away. Exhaustion. Steers the size of the broadside of his small barn. One job led to another. He completed the tasks for Rose—for that mischievous smile, warm caress, and promise of a future, deep and true. A chance for love to blossom. The security to make their life worth living.
He pats Wes. "Time to build that new house I promised her."
Wes whinnies and lowers his head, the exhaustion evident in his deep, snorting breath.
"Okay, old boy. I hear ya."
Wayne sighs and climbs down, heading toward a small inlet in the rock cavern, Wes trailing behind. Constellations above glow, as if trying to engage them, whispering 'further, get a move on, Rose is waiting.'
Counting the stars, admiring the prosperity and hope of what lies in wait, Wayne falls asleep in the dust.
* * *
Light wakes him, the sun peeking out with a fierce, blazing persistence. He climbs back in the saddle, desperate to hold Rose in his arms.
Hooves approach as he rides through town, passing the saloon. Wayne turns, nearly falling off the saddle. "John? Is that you?"
His friend rides beside him, pushing back unruly curls from his forehead and spitting into the distance. "We thought you were a goner. Where you been?"
"Got to make money for the missus. Stayed away a bit too long with the cattle drives. How's Rose gettin' on without me?"
John avoids eye contact, ignoring the question. Wayne stiffens. "You have somethin' to say to me, John, then you say it."
The dust stirs up under the horse's feet. John clears his throat, leaning back in his saddle. "You've been gone a while. Rose was convinced you weren't coming back."
Wayne uses his handkerchief to dab at the sweat on his brow. The movement does nothing for the acidity building in his stomach, making its way into his mouth, filling it with vile bitterness. He's not a mean man—not the hateful type—but he can't help feeling angry at Rose.
"I told her I was comin' back, didn't I?"
"Yep." John nods, then pulls to the left with his reigns. "I've got business in town. Good seein' you."
Wayne had been driving cattle every day for nearly a year. No time to stop. He sent Rose a letter—one. One may not have been enough. An eerie prickling ascends Wayne's spine as his mind zips through overlooked possibilities. A lost letter isn't unheard of. A year is a long time to be gone.
The air becomes drier with each step, the anticipation of arriving home filling Wayne with an unfathomable weight. He clutches the reigns harder, the leather burning into his cracked, dry hands. His tongue is a foreign object in his mouth, dry and unmoving, but he doesn't stop to dig through his saddlebag for water. For better or worse, he needs to see his wife.
His dingy, one room home looms in the distance, the rickety fence barely upright. Small tufts of grass poke out of the sad pasture. Wes stops, as if on cue, as they both eye a horse inside the parameters of the fence. Wayne dismounts and stares at its shiny coat and bulbous gut. His heart pounds in his chest as he makes large strides toward his house. He nearly walks in, but stops, thinks better of it, and knocks.
Rose opens the door, her black hair stuck to the side of her face. Her expression contorts when she sees him, her lips quivering and the spark in her eyes vanishing entirely. She lets out a sharp whimper and then collapses, crying into her hands. "I thought you were dead. Why didn't you write?"
There's a man inside, getting up from the bed—his bed, their bed, the bed they made love in after they got hitched—and Wayne's heart is shredded. What kind of man lies with another man's wife? What kind of woman would break her vows in her husband's absence?
The man slinks out the half open door, not daring to make eye contact. Air fans Wayne's flushed face as he passes. He doesn't budge as the man gets on his horse and leaves, or when Rose crumbles on the ground, clutching at his legs.
"Please." She clasps her hands together. "I didn't hear from you. I didn't have a choice."
His instincts tell him to tear his leg away, to scream and berate her, to give in to the mounting pain and betrayal in his soul. Instead, he turns and heads back to his horse, reaching inside the saddlebag. He needs a distraction—anything that will take his mind off his wife. His soul is punctured, fragments of pain piercing him with malice.
Inside the saddlebag, his hand rests on his gun. His breath catches and he forces himself to look at Rose, a crumpled mess on the floor of their home, the bedsheets askew from the man's presence.
Her captivating face is smeared with tears. She gasps for air. "Please. You left me here alone. I have nothing."
She motions with her outstretched hand. Wayne allows himself to absorb the scenery. It's a desolate, barren landscape, with nothing to offer. He had to leave to earn money. She had little. But still . . .
"You're my wife." The words croak out when they exit. He barely recognizes them as his own. "You couldn't have done somethin' else to survive?"
His hand moves past the gun in the saddlebag, pulling out a small parcel. He tucks it under his arm, unsure what to do with it—now that his beloved wife broke her promises. To death do we part.
The door to the house remains half closed. Rose props herself up on her knees. Pain courses through Wayne. He tries to make it dissipate. A woman in this territory, alone with nothing, can't survive long. He overestimated her resilience.
"I told you I would return."
She stops crying long enough to look up. It's only now he sees how emaciated she's become. "How was I supposed to know you weren't dead? You didn't come back!"
He deadpans her. "Who was that man? What were you doing with him?"
"I met him in town. He brings me food and I . . . "
She needn't finish. The severity of what occurred between them is apparent. He fed her and she provided for him in other ways. The notion makes Wayne's stomach churn. All that time away from her. All that time spent pining for their future.
He shifts his weight from one foot to the other, knowing he has a decision to make: stay with his unfaithful wife, or leave and try to forget she exists. He takes a step toward Wes, ready to make the bleary trip back to Kansas, but his heart and pride battle one another, tearing him in two. He pauses, contemplating which to give in to.
The parcel from the saddlebag is still under his arm. He turns around and drops it on the floor. Rose's hand caresses it—five yards of blue fabric.
Wayne doesn't look at her, he can't. He made mistakes—he's to blame for leaving her too long—but he needs time to stew in anger.
"Well," he finally says. "You goin' to let me in or not."
He reaches down and grabs Rose's hand, pulling her up. It's only when he presses his other hand against the door, fully opening it, that he sees the dress-clad infant sleeping in a dresser drawer on the floor, and gasps.
"Is she mine?"
One look at Rose's face reveals the truth. If any doubt remains, the slight arch of the babies' nose and blunt chin confirm paternity. She's a mirror image of Wayne.
He scoops his infant daughter up, mesmerized by her tiny fingernails and the gentle tranquility he experiences by watching her breathe. He lets out a long exhale, sending up a silent prayer of thanks, and cursing himself for nearly walking away from his wife and daughter.
Tears continue streaming down Rose's cheeks, her body quivering. "Please forgive me. You don't understand how hard it is for a woman out here. I had to feed your daughter. I had—"
"There's nothing to forgive." Wayne pulls Rose into his chest with his free hand, allowing her to sob into his chest, wetting the layers of dust and grime clinging to his body. "Let's not speak of it again."
Katie Jordan resides in the Pacific Northwest with her bonsai enthusiast husband, Brad, two daughters, and the
world's loneliest goldfish seeking a friend, Fishy McFishfish. She dabbles in writing dystopian, fantasy, horror,
sci-fi, and women's fiction. Her published works include a dystopian novelette written in seven days for AND MAN
GREW PROUD, a Christmas story about a man burning down his fiancée's apartment (MISTLETOES AND MAYHEM), and a
fantasy tale for MAGIC WE'VE FORGOTTEN. A complete list of her published works can be found on her website:
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by John H. Dromey
When measured by the standards of Colonial Virginia, where—in an earlier century—settlers sometimes used tobacco in lieu of money, Cyrus Whitney probably had the price of a decent saddle blanket soaking up saliva between his cheek and gums. The other passengers gave him a wide berth at the steamboat's rail as soon as they discovered not all of that fine, moist spray in the air was generated by the paddlewheel. Even his friend Homer was careful to stay upwind.
Cyrus spat over the side of the riverboat, and then turned his head toward Homer.
"What do you reckon? Will you ken a shark when you see one?"
Homer shrugged his shoulders. "Time will tell."
An eavesdropping bystander with more knowledge than sense waded into the conversation with both feet.
"Put your fears to rest, gentlemen. You'll find no sharks in these inland waters. That's a most fortuitous circumstance for us all, I must say. I remember well from my sailing days the threat posed by those finny creatures and their deadly tooth-filled maws. Why, one time in the South Seas . . . "
Cyrus turned to listen and leaned his back against the railing.
Homer waited for a pause in the narrative to inject a non sequitur.
"You've got an almost full set of teeth yourself, Cy. Do you suppose you could align your chompers in such a fashion as to propel a squirt of tobacco over the far rail? It might be worth a small wager."
"Distance alone is not a fair challenge, Homer. I might risk a coin or two, though, on my ability to hit a porthole from three or four paces away."
"Open or closed?"
"Closed, of course, so there'd be visible proof of my accuracy."
The other interlocutor was not yet ready to weigh anchor.
"I take it you two gents are betting men. You're both invited to go below decks in half an hour or so. There's to be a poker game then. In the meantime, I can tell you of my adventures on a whaling ship out of New Bedford."
It was time for Cyrus to discharge another spurt of tobacco juice. He stopped chewing, dry swallowed, and pursed his lips.
Homer took a step backwards.
The self-described whaler edged forward to keep the conversation going.
Cy turned his head slightly, closed his eyes as a precaution against back spray, and then spat squarely on the toe of the talker's boot.
If looks could kill, Cy would have been harpooned on the spot.
"Do you think he's really a sailor?" Cy asked Homer a short while later.
"Could be. He was cussing like one when he walked away."
The two men continued their conversation in hushed tones so they couldn't be overheard.
Thirty minutes later, Cy and Homer went below. The poker game was about to start.
There was room at the table for a couple more players. The sailor was already in place. He was visibly relieved to see only Homer sat down.
Cy circled the table, spotting spittoons, and then hovered on the opposite side from Homer.
Homer played a conservative game, but after winning a few modest pots early on, he began to lose steadily. The sailor did not fare any better.
One player had the outward appearance of an experienced gambler, but the gent's once-dapper suit was threadbare and the lining of his vest was torn. Although he sported a flashy ring, the large stone had an obvious flaw in it. Apparently, Lady Luck was not smiling on him either.
The big winner was an ordinary-looking man. The way he was dressed he could have been a homesteader or a laborer. Nobody asked his profession.
For the first time since starting to play, Homer looked directly at Cyrus. Cy shook his head ever so slightly, and Homer correctly interpreted the meaning of the barely perceptible motion. Based on previously-agreed-upon signals, as far as Cyrus could tell—and he'd been watching the play very closely—there was no indication the game was anything but honest. With his right hand, Homer brushed back his hair in acknowledgement. Message received.
The next hand added to the ordinary man's winnings.
While the cards were spread out on the table, Cy moved in for a closer look. He still had a mouthful of tobacco.
Cyrus sneezed. At the same time, his mouth opened slightly and allowed some juice to escape. That marked the cards. The spray also marked the money and more than a few of the players and spectators.
Homer whipped out a handkerchief and started to wipe off the table.
"These cards are a mess," he said. "Let's get a fresh deck. I'll pay for it."
No one objected. While they waited, Homer examined the deck they'd been using. He found rough spots on several cards, but didn't have sufficient time to figure out if there was a pattern to the scratches.
With the arrival of the new deck Homer slipped the old cards to Cyrus.
Homer rolled up his sleeves. He broke open the deck and fanned out the cards for all to see. The surfaces were smooth and undamaged. He shuffled the cards and play resumed.
The gambler and the big winner both threw in their first hands without betting.
When it was Homer's deal again, he found rough spots on some of the cards as he shuffled. He set the deck on the table and folded his arms.
Cyrus returned. The card players tensed, then relaxed when they saw the telltale bulge in Cy's cheek was gone.
"I tried to play solitaire with this deck, but it can't be done," he said. "There are two cards missing and they're both aces."
"Maybe they fell on the floor when you sneezed."
Everybody looked under the table except Homer, the gambler, and the big winner.
Cy set the cards on the table.
"Are you sure about the count?" Homer asked. "Those cards stack up higher than the deck we're playing with now."
"That means somebody's holding out cards, waiting for a big pot."
Backed up by a pair of burly crewmembers, the steamboat captain, who'd been an interested observer, conducted a search. The man who'd been winning had two aces from the old deck and four knaves from the new deck concealed in his clothes.
Cy was as proud as punch. "Homer caught the cheat for you, Cap'n, just like I said he would."
"There's no question but what this man's a crook, Cyrus, but I don't think he's ever been on the boat before."
"What about the gambler?" Homer pointed to the shabbily-dressed man.
"He's been aboard each and every time I've suspected something was wrong with the poker game," the captain said, "but he always leaves the boat with less money than he arrived with."
"A card shark doesn't have to rake in the pots personally in order to come out ahead, just as long as he has a confederate to win for him and split the take once they've gone ashore."
"How does he manage that?"
"He marks the high cards, and then passes them to his accomplice in the deal. He used a different partner each time to keep you from getting suspicious."
The gambler spoke up. "That's some tall tale you're spinning, Mister. You bought that last deck yourself. Just how was I supposed to mark the cards in it?"
"With your ring," Homer said, pointing toward the man's hand. "Do you mind if I take a closer look at it?" He stood up and leaned over the table.
The smug expression left the gambler's face. He had no innocent explanation for the presence of a needle-sharp projection on his ring. "I'm through talking," the man said. He also stood up.
The two men stood an arm's length apart taking each other's measure. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the gambler produced a Bowie knife. He brandished the lethal weapon in the manner of an experienced fighter. In the wink of an eye, the gambler extended his arm and rotated his hand ninety degrees. He was prepared to slash open his unarmed opponent's midsection with a single swing of the finely-honed blade.
Fortunately, Cyrus was there to save the day. He swung a copper spittoon with all his might and caught the gambler on the side of the head. Some of the contents sloshed out, but the bettor paid no heed. He was knocked senseless.
"Put him in irons," the captain told a couple of crewmembers. "We'll set him and his henchman ashore at the next town and let the law deal with them, but first divide out their money among the honest players."
While that was being done, Homer told the card-playing sailor, "Not all sharks live in the water."
"How can you be so calm?" the sailor wondered. "In your place, I'd be shaking in my boots."
"What's done is done," Homer said. "I reckon it wasn't on the cards for me to die today."
The captain went over to Cyrus who was busily gnawing on a fresh plug of tobacco.
"That was a propitious time for a sneeze, Cy."
"I agree, Cap'n, but it was no accident. I can sneeze anytime I want to. Would you like me to demonstrate?"
The captain's no was emphatic, but not quite quick enough to prevent some trampled toes as a space cleared around Cyrus.
Some heroes are best admired from afar.
John H. Dromey was born in northeast Missouri. He enjoys reading—mysteries in particular—and writing
in a variety of genres. His short fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Flame Tree
Fiction Newsletter, Gumshoe Review, Mystery Weekly Magazine, and elsewhere, as well as in numerous anthologies.
His story "The Ingenious Gentleman" was published online in Frontier Tales Issue #36 (September 2012).
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by Rory Halpenny
Based on the ballad 'Big Iron', written by Marty Robbins
'Agua Fria' the town sign said, Spanish for cold water. From the looks of it, you would have thought they hadn't seen any water for a hundred years and certainly none that was cold. Dirt covered everything in sight and the wind created small dust devils that whipped through the town. The main street was lined with a dozen or so buildings on each side and a few homes, they appeared to be nothing more than hovels, had been erected behind them. Just beyond the buildings to the left could be seen the steeple of a dilapidated church. If paint had ever been applied to any of the structures, it had long since eroded away and several buildings had wood slats missing from the roofs and walls.
The sun had barely risen over the horizon when a lone figure, equally covered in dust, rode past the weather-worn sign and turned his horse down the street. The black stubs of a beard covered the man's cheeks, chin and neck and dark circles ringed his eyes, but he sat straight in the saddle and showed not the least sign of fatigue. His stallion was brown with white splotches and walked as if every step was a laborious endeavor which took every ounce of strength the creature had to perform it. Some of the townspeople were watching and knew the pair must have come a long way. But no one approached him or called out a greeting. Holstered on his side was a long-barreled .44 Colt revolver. He seemed to carry himself in such a way as to discourage any type of familiarity. But that didn't prevent whispered rumors from being passed around.
"Outlaw. Must be. No call to come here otherwise."
"Tain't no need to think that of him. Could be he's just a cowpuncher."
"No cowpuncher carries an iron like that one. That's a fightin' weapon and if'n he's carryin' it, he means to use it."
The stranger pulled his horse up in front of the hotel which also served as restaurant, bar, and casino for the small town. He wrapped the leather reins loosely around the hitching post to allow his tired mount to drink at the water trough. He then allowed himself the luxury of splashing his face and wiping away some of the caked trail dust. The water was almost as warm as the air but if that bothered him, he didn't show it. He then unsaddled his horse and walked through the hotels swinging double doors.
The interior of the hotel was not in much better condition. Dirt and grime covered nearly everything. The bar was along the left wall, the stairway to the hotel rooms straight ahead, and a few tables and chairs were on the right near several large windows. Two men sat at one of them, a deck of cards between them, but they were not playing. A third man was sleeping with his head on the bar.
A young Mexican girl was futilely trying to sweep the floor but as fast as she cleared a space, the wind would set at naught all her effort. When she saw the stranger, she dropped the broom and ran through a door at the far side of the bar. He heard her yell for her father in Spanish. After a few moments, her father, a thin man with rolled up shirt sleeves and an apron wrapped around him came in and stepped behind the bar.
"Buenos Dias, Senhor. I am Esteban Ramirez, the owner of this hotel. Can I get you a drink?"
The man dropped his saddle next to the door and walked up to stand opposite Ramirez. " No thank you. But I will have coffee and some breakfast if there is any."
"Si Senhor. My wife is preparing breakfast right now. It will be ready in a few minutes. Please take a seat and I will bring the coffee."
Ramirez, obviously excited at having a new guest at last, rushed out as quickly as he came in. The man walked over to the array of tables paying no attention to the small crowd that had followed him in. Deliberately choosing a seat that allowed him to see the entire room without exposing his back to the door or a window, he removed his coat, hung it over the back of his chair and sat down. He had not been facing the onlookers when he took his coat off. As he sat, he turned around and everyone there caught sight of the small metal badge which identified him as a Ranger for the Territory of Arizona.
* * *
For twenty minutes, while the ranger ate his breakfast, no one said a word. When he had finished, he took a piece of paper out of his vest pocket, unfolded it, and laid it on the table. A name and the sketch of a man's face were on it but no one bothered to look. They knew who it would be.
"I've come for him."
The people looked at one another as if silently debating who would speak for them. At last, the general store owner, a gray-haired man, stepped forward. "He won't let you take him alive."
"It doesn't matter to me."
One of the men sitting at the table with the deck of cards slowly got up and moved towards the door. The ranger saw him but pretended not to. Once outside, he unhitched his horse, very clumsily, leaped into the saddle and galloped down the road towards the far end of town.
The store keeper spoke again, "He's going to warn him." The man was noticeably uncomfortable.
"You haven't a chance against him. Texas Red is the fastest gun north of the Bravo."
A gasp came from the top of the stairs. The ranger looked up and saw a woman, her eyes wide with fear but he showed no interest in her arrival. Instead, he returned his attention to the store keeper.
"That's my worry." He spoke without the slightest hint of concern. An inexplicable desire to get away from the man at the table passed through the crowd. Silently, they filed out and hurried away. The only ones who remained were the ranger, Ramirez, the woman, and the drunk who still lay asleep on the bar counter.
The ranger sipped his coffee and leaned back to rest his neck and eyes. When he opened them a few minutes later, he discovered that the woman had come down and was sitting at the bar staring at him. Her look was not of pure fear anymore but was now mixed with an equal part of malice. The ranger was not perturbed. He stared back, as if daring her to confront him. Their eyes seemed to be locked for an eternity but it was really only a few moments before she was unable to endure his gaze and turned around.
"Give me a whiskey will you, Esteban?" Her voice was strained and uneasy.
"You should not drink so early, Danielle." But despite his disapproval, he poured the drink for her. Her life had not been easy and it was going to get much harder today.
Two miles north of town, stood a white adobe house. That house belonged to twenty-four-year-old Texas Red and he stayed there whenever he was in town. No one in Agua Fria knew exactly where he'd come from. He had simply arrived three years ago and stayed. Perhaps it was because there was no sheriff and no jail there. Everyone knew what Red did, but he caused no trouble in Agua Fria so no one bothered him.
The man who had left the hotel so quickly came cantering up on his exhausted horse. He had run it near to death getting there then jumped to the ground and sprinted to the back of the house. Three men were sprawled on the back porch of the house in various poses of relaxation. Red, his bright hair resembling a forest fire out of control, was standing under a large pepper tree looking up at a young Mexican boy who was sitting on a branch about halfway up the tree.
Red tossed a large silver dollar up to the boy. "All right Pepe, drop it whenever you're ready." Pepe grinned. This was the game Red always played with him. Forty feet away, three empty bottles sat on the upright poles of a fence. If the coin reached the ground before Red shot the bottles, Pepe would get it. If not, Red took it back. Pepe had learned not to drop it right away by to try and catch Red when he was distracted. Red liked that: it made the game more challenging.
The man from the hotel ran up out of breath and barely gasped out Red's name. Red shifted towards him but kept his eyes on Pepe in the tree.
"Late to catch a train, Lem?"
Lem was doubled over, panting for breath. It took several minutes for him to finally get out his warning. "There's a ranger in Agua Fria."
The men on the porch were suddenly all alert and on their feet. One picked up his gun belt which was lying on the table next to him and began strapping it on. They stood waiting for Red's orders. They all looked worried.
Red chuckled to himself, amused by how excited his men got over little things. "Stop panickin' and have a drink." He tossed a whiskey bottle to Lem who gulped it down and coughed half of it back out.
"What are we gonna do, Red?"
Red thought for a moment. "Lem, go on back and give our visitor a message. Tell him I'm comin' to . . . " Just then Pepe dropped the coin. Red's hand flew to the holster of his .45. One after another, the three bottles burst and showered glass onto the ground. Just after the third gunshot, the coin thumped into the dirt at the base of the tree. Red picked it up and pocketed it while Pepe crossed his arms and frowned. He hadn't beat Red in over a year.
"Tell him I'm comin' to town around eleven-thirty. If he ain't gone by then, I'll send him back layin' 'cross his horse, belly side down."
The ranger watched a group of townspeople gently push a nervous looking man through the hotel doors and up to his table. The man was neither tall nor short, fat nor thin. His head was bald except for some small tufts around his ears and he wore large spectacles over red rimmed eyes. The store keeper was back and introduced him as the mayor. Upon hearing his title spoken, the man drew himself up a little straighter, took several audible breaths and began to speak. "Sir, our town was founded in the year of our Lord, eighteen hundred and four. We have been a small but thriving community, priding ourselves on the fact that we have built for ourselves a peaceful, harmonious society—
The ranger stopped him there, "I am sure you speak very well mayor, but right now I am not in the mood for oration. Please say what you have to say."
The mayor stood silent for a moment. Then he coughed and spoke again. "We do not like violence. We have never had any killings here and we would appreciate it if you left Mr . . . "
"Trayburn. And I am Mayor Arnstein."
"Is that all?"
"Very well. No."
"What . . . what do you mean no?" The mayor was suddenly very afraid of Treyburn.
"I mean I am not leaving until my work is complete."
"But . . . but we . . . we are a peaceful town. There is no violence here."
"But there is a man who revels in violence."
"He hasn't done anything to us."
"I am not interested in what he has or hasn't done to you. There are twenty graves littering the Arizona and New Mexico territories and twenty dead men are in them. I intend to make sure there will not be twenty-one." Arnstein tried to speak but Trayburn cut him off. "I am neither asking your permission nor concerned with your approval. I have a job to do. Stay out of my way and let me do it."
Arnstein sputtered and coughed but couldn't think of anything to say. The storekeeper spoke while the flustered mayor collected himself. "You will get no help from us. Red has four men who ride with him and you'll have to face all of them alone."
"Have I asked for help?"
"Killing him won't bring those other men back."
"It will prevent any more from joining them."
"Justice is not created with a gun."
"It can only be enforced with it."
"But if you talk to him? Promise him a fair trial."
"A fair trial would hang him. You said yourself he'll never come willingly."
A horse trotted up and stopped outside the hotel. Lem came through the swinging doors. He was still nervous but tried not to show it, "Red's goin' to be here at eleven-thirty. He says if'n you don't go under yer own power; he'll send you back layin' cross your horse."
A thin smile crept across Trayburn's face. "Tell Red I'll be leaving just after eleven-thirty." Lem understood what he meant. Red would understand too. He left as quickly as he'd come and for the second time that day, spurred his horse north and out of town.
No one spoke anymore. Slowly, the crowd left the hotel and broke up. This time, only Trayburn and the woman remained. Ramirez was busy upstairs and the drunk had finally woken up and headed home to go to sleep again.
The clock was striking when a priest walked into the hotel and sat down across from Trayburn.
"Good morning, my son. I am Father Samuels."
"Good morning, Father. To what do I owe this honor?"
"I have been asked to come and talk to about your presence in Agua Fria. The people are agitated by it."
"I am aware of that. Are you here to tell me to get out as well?"
"I am not an officer of the law and wouldn't presume to give commands to one. But I am responsible for the welfare of human souls and I would be neglecting my duty if I did not express my concern about what you are preparing to do."
"I am preparing to uphold the law."
"By taking the life of one of God's children."
"Would you care to visit the graves of some of God's other children? Red has violated the law and he shall answer to that same law."
"But surely you believe the law must be tempered with mercy?"
"Only when mercy has been earned. I'm surprised at your attitude Father; I would have thought you would understand. Even the Lord's mercy is not a free gift. It must be earned with repentance and contrition."
"By killing this young man, you will be taking away his opportunity to repent."
"Just as he took away the opportunities of twenty other men. Shall I allow him to continue to destroy the hope for heaven others carry? Of itself, that would be an act of evil, but to do so in the name of mercy would be sacrilege."
Father Samuels paused for a moment. He had underestimated this ranger. He was no simple-minded bully who could only see the quick and easy path of killing.
"The Bible clearly states, 'Thou shalt not kill'. Yet you came here fully prepared to do just that. Sin does not justify sin. If you kill as he kills, what makes you different from him?"
"The motivation. He kills for the pleasure of it. I kill to allow others to live in peace. There is another scripture I suggest you read, Father. It comes from the Book of Ezekiel, thirty-third chapter and sixth verse, 'But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman's hand.' I have been hired as a watchman and I will not let the sword come without warning."
"We are supposed to love our fellow man and be forgiving of their faults. Christ turned no one away from him. We are not the judges of other men's sins. It is not for us to bring about their deaths."
"When was the last time you told him that?"
Father Samuels was caught off guard. "Wh . . . what?"
"When did you last deliver this sermon of love and brotherhood to Texas Red?"
"But . . . but he wouldn't listen . . . "
"That's right, he wouldn't listen and he would continue to kill and he will continue until he's stopped by a bullet. I'm sorry Father, it's no use trying to preach pacifism to me. Pacifism only works when everyone agrees to it. As long as the Texas Reds of this world exist, men like me will have to do this unpleasant job."
The priest, visibly shaken by the ranger's unorthodox defense of his purposes, made one last attempt to dissuade him, "Our Lord taught us to do unto others as we would have others do unto us."
Trayburn was ready for it, "And as Red has done unto others, so shall it be done unto him."
There was nothing left to be said. The priest stared at him for a few moments more, then stood up and quietly left.
Texas Red swung effortlessly into the saddle of his Appaloosa and took a long, satisfying breath of air. His men shifted nervously in their saddles. They were all uneasy about what was coming but Red had already dismissed their warnings and so they kept silent. The young outlaw gripped the handle of his pistol reassuringly, then turned the head of his horse south towards the town.
Trayburn stood up, walked to the door, picked up his saddle, and walked out. A minute later he returned without it and sat down again. Ramirez came out and handed him a small piece of paper. "Your bill is three dollars in gold or eight dollars in paper." Trayburn handed him three large gold coins.
"Tell your wife the food was excellent."
"Gracias, Senhor. I hope you visit us again."
"You are probably the only one in town who does hope that."
"That is probably true, but I hope so anyway. This hotel is my business, catching outlaws is yours. You do not interfere with me; I see no reason to interfere with you. You are courteous and you pay your bills. Guests like that are always welcome here." Ramirez went through the kitchen door once again.
Danielle turned around and stared at the ranger. "I wish you'd never come here."
Trayburn sipped the last of his coffee and said nothing.
"Did you hear me? I said I wish you'd never come."
He still said nothing.
"All those fancy answers you had for Arnstein and the Father. But none of you bothered to actually find out about Red. You talked as if he was some specimen to be examined and dissected according to your particular views. But he's not! He's a man! He took care of me when I first got here. Gave me money so I wouldn't starve, helped me to get a job and a place to live that wasn't filled with rats. He's the only person who was ever kind to me and he doesn't deserve to get shot down like some mad dog."
Trayburn looked up. "Perhaps you think we should publish your passionate sentiments in the newspapers? List in great detail, the virtues of your hero? Perhaps we should place a copy on each of his victims' graves. That should comfort the widows and children they left behind."
"Will killing him comfort them?"
"Probably not, but it will give them a measure of justice."
"Maybe he's made some mistakes but the good he's done still counts for something."
"Twenty murders is not a mistake and no amount of supposed good offsets them."
"You just don't understand! You don't know how he suffered growing up. His father was a drunk and beat him. His mother was a religious zealot who thought that starving your children was how you taught them to behave. Did you ever meet them? I did! They came through here still screaming at him about the devil owning him and never once did they admit their fault for what they had done to him. But you don't care about what he went through do you? You don't care about what made him this way. Why don't you go see them sometime?"
"You . . . you have seen them?"
"But if you know what they did to him you must understand why he is the way he is."
"Of course, I understand. It turns my stomach how he was treated. But it doesn't matter."
"How can it not matter?"
"Because the men he killed were not responsible for his pain."
A sudden rustle of noise silenced both of them. Trayburn stood up and looked out the window in time to see the last few people scurry into the nearest building. Five horsemen were coming down the road. They stopped in front of the store, about a hundred yards away, and he saw Red dismount and stare at the hotel, waiting for him to come.
Trayburn turned and began to walk towards the door but Danielle rushed between him and the door. "Please. Please, I beg you don't. Just ride away, he won't stop you."
"Step out of the way."
"I love him! Doesn't that mean anything to you? I love him, can't you understand . . . " She got no further for a look of pure hatred suddenly appeared in Trayburn's face.
"You love him! How dare you say that to me! You ask me to ride out because you love him! You ask me to spare his life because you love him! You dirty the very word 'love' by saying that to me. You tell me I should see his parents but have you ever seen the families of his victims? You talk of his pain, what of their pain? You want compassion for his suffering, where is your compassion for theirs? You tell me you love him; what do I say to those who loved the men he destroyed? That I let him go free because someone loved him? That I permitted him to kill again because someone loved him? I will not do that. He will die today or I will, but I will not do that!"
Trayburn pushed past her and out the hotel door. She did not try to stop him again. Tears welled in her eyes and a grasping fear began to build in her but she did not go after him. She simply stared at the empty doorway and waited.
Their eyes had locked the moment Trayburn stepped into the street. Red was grinning from ear to ear, eager for the kill as he was always eager for it. To see another man drop in front of him, to have control over the fate of another person's life and end it when he wished. There was no feeling like it in the world. He began walking towards the ranger.
Trayburn began to move as well. A slow, steady walk, matching Red step for step and both of them shifting ever so slightly until they stood dead center in the middle of the road with forty feet separating them. There they stopped and waited. Red's grin never faded. Trayburn's face was empty of feeling. At the altar of the church, Father Samuels was on his knees, praying for understanding. Ramirez and his family waited in the kitchen where they were safe from stray bullets. Red's men watched from atop their horses, sure that Red would win but not quite sure. The townsfolk watched as well but none of them had any doubt of the outcome. They all knew how fast Red was.
The seconds ticked by like hours. Nothing moved. The wind was gone. It was as if the whole town had become paralyzed in an instant. Two men stared at each other like immovable statues.
Red's hand moved for his gun faster than a striking rattlesnake.
The spell was shattered by the sound of a gunshot that echoed across the silent desert and seemed loud enough to crack open the mountains themselves. But that was nothing compared to the shock of the townspeople as they watched Texas Red spin completely around and fall to his knees facing the ranger with the smoking .44. Red's hand was gripping the handle of his Colt but it still sat in its holster. He looked down at the bullet hole in his chest as if unable to believe what he saw. He raised his head and looked at Trayburn, then fell forward into the dust. The gun slid from the holster, still clutched in his right hand. The grin had never left his face.
Trayburn lifted his head and looked at the four riders. None of them made a move for their guns. They merely turned their horses and rode out of sight.
When they were gone, he put his gun away. By then, most of the town, including Father Samuels, had gathered around the dead body of the outlaw. Father Samuels knelt down beside him and began to administer the Last Rites. Trayburn walked forward but did not stop to look at the man he'd killed. He continued on to where Red's waiting horse stood. He took the reins and led him over to his dead master. Then, he waited patiently for Father Samuels to finish. When the final amen was spoken, he lifted the outlaw and placed him on the back of his horse, belly side down, and walked him back to his own mount.
She was at the doorway watching him. He met her gaze. Once again, their eyes seemed to be locked in place. Finally, she lowered her head and turned to go inside. Trayburn swung into the saddle, turned his horse south, and rode out of Agua Fria.
Rory Halpenny was born in Canada in the province of Nova Scotia. He has always had a love of reading and particularly enjoys stories of the Old West and French history. He possesses a great love of truth and a deep faith in God. These two attributes, combined with a certain song, were what motivated him to write his first story.
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