High Time at Peer's Point
by Tom Sheehan
A rancher, Devon Killcross, and a few hired hands find an unarmed man on their range where a steer had been killed and butchered. Killcross, self-designated judge and jury, decides the man is guilty and should be hanged on the spot.
The rancher orders two of his men to hang the convicted man and as they approach the stranger he draws a weapon from a shoulder holster, kills one of the two men, and shoots Killcross in the leg.
After a scuffle, they hang the man on a nearby tree. Later, in town, Killcross lies about the incident, twists events to suit his satisfaction and vanity, with the law of the land in vogue. He arranges for the body to be buried on boot hill with no marker except for the initials he had seen on the hanged man's saddle, WD, in a script worn but legible.
The other man that Killcross ordered to hang the stranger leaves Killcross's employ and goes elsewhere, down river or beyond the mountain.
A few years later a young man comes into town without a weapon visible, finds Killcross in the saloon, stands over him at his table, and says, in a soft, determined voice, "One of our siblings sent me to tell you he is coming to get you for hanging our father, Wilfred Dunne, the man with the initials WD on his saddle, like out there on boot hill. Do you remember him?"
"He killed one of my men after he killed one of my cows. He shot me. Is that who he was, Wilfred Dunne, that saddle bum?" Killcross's face sat like a broken egg partially scrambled in a skillet, jowls flaccid, nose scrunched in one spot like it had been broken by a punch, and skin complexion of dead cactus. Some of his men shivered looking at him, so many never looked him in the eye, afraid of the giveaway. It was good for Killcross's vanity, that personal avoidance.
"You intended right from the start to hang the first stranger you saw and it happened to be our father. You killed him for something he didn't do."
"How do you know he didn't kill my steer? We're the law out here," Killcross said as he rubbed his nose like a fighter in a fighting match, a top hand's gesture, or the boss's.
Across the room, an old timer, Honus Batterfield, shook his head at the known gesture, felt sorry for the big rancher who had gone down the wrong trail too many years ago to get back on the right one.
The young stranger said, "Yes, just like how do you know he did the killing?"
"What's your brother look like so I don't get shot in the back? We'll turn the law on him."
"Like you turned the law on our father?"
"You didn't answer me, what's he look like?" An initial nervousness was noticed in Killcross's voice.
"He looks something like me," the sharp young man said leaving the saloon.
In the back of the room, Batterfield weighed the words and their delivery and knew the rancher had a surprise coming his way sooner or later. Perhaps all the people in the saloon at that time were in for a surprise.
Several months later, in the dead of night, July, 1866, the Great War supposedly over for all combatants, a fire starts at Killcross's barn and it burns to the ground.
Two nights later, a stretch of Killcross's fence is uprooted for a long stretch and dynamite is set off behind his herd, stampeding the herd through the fence break. It takes Killcross's crew a week to bring the herd together again.
Killcross is irate, bent on killing whoever has caused him harm in any manner; the consequences promise to be deadly.
Nobody is seen in the area, on Killcross property, no strangers seen thereabouts for weeks, and no sure tracks found near the fence to follow.
A week later, when a stranger enters Wrangler's Saloon in Peer's Point, Iowa, on July 28, late afternoon sun leaning into the room through two wide windows and the door kept open with a brick, the piano player stopped playing, the blackjack dealer stilled his hands in mid-air, the bartender slowed the next beer to half full in its mug, and Maggie Juridic, owner, knew someone special had entered her establishment.
She thought for a moment that she was old enough to be his mother, and discarded the thought in a hurry. He was young, but more than just a handsome young man in his early twenties. Cora D., working the room for her for almost five years, looked up and stared at him and Maggie saw that stare begin. Maggie, at that precise moment, read Cora D.'s mind as it seemed to say she'd give anything in her power to be his age again, meet him at the edge of town before he fell into the hands of who and what might bring him down, man or woman. Peer's Point had already been the death knell for a number of good young men caught up in some of life's frenzy. Several crimes had never been solved, the sheriff finding all kinds of obstacles tossed in ahead of his investigations, almost as if they were concurrent in the initial processes.
In light of all circumstances and incidents, Cora D. was a barometer of sorts for Maggie, telling Maggie things without being aware of it herself.
Even at that, Cora D. was a most sympathetic person in Maggie's eyes as they shared so much of the hard life, and had missed so much of what each of them considered to be the good life, perhaps dreamed too often, but the good life— a woman having a good husband she loved from one day to the next and who also loved her, a couple of adorable children, three or four hundred acres of good grass with water, a favorable amount of cattle, and a stable of horses to run a good ranch. Utopia, each had admitted on a few occasions, had passed them by someplace out on the road when they had closed their eyes for the merest second—perhaps a mote of dust settling the future for them, a face not seen at the crucial moment, a deed gone unobserved when it would have changed life had it been seen, a sincere pulsing of the heart for the other road that might have been theirs to travel.
The young newcomer practically shined in his clothes as though he'd never ridden drag on a cattle drive or never been caught in a sand storm on the fringe of a desert. Maggie'd bet a dollar to a dime he had soft hands, hands that did not know a pitchfork or a rope tossed onto a big horn or a wild mustang, or the accidental touch of a hot rifle barrel in the midst of a range war. He was, she said to herself, too pretty to be dangerous, too handsome for his own good. It was an honest cause for worry to the saloon owner who had seen too much of short lives.
But the stranger was still a good-looking young man possibly at the crux in life where a decision might change the whole run, he was headed for, the way life had changed for Cora D. and herself.
The handsome stranger completely ignored other men in the room, including a cowpoke at the bar who looked like he had been three days riding drag, needed a bath desperately, but had taken a few drinks instead, the path of the drover at trail's end, his hard-earned money spilling from his cup.
The flashy young stranger, uncoiling from the bar with a confident guile in movement, subtle, almost languorous, walked to Killcross's table, stood over him, and said, in a voice much softer than expected, "Did you ever hear of a man whose name was Wilfred Dunne? Had his initials on his saddle. WD."
He appeared as an adolescent suddenly come into an older man's world.
But there was no fright in his approach, standing with no weapon over the big-shot rancher, a certain flair in his stance, bravado in a different package.
The saloon, end to end, went silent.
Maggie also noticed at the same time the hard eyes of the man at the next table who was sizing up the young arrival. "So-Far" Hickey, another new visitor in town, was a recent hire of Killcross's, a hired gun the fashion of the day in some quarters. He was as mean looking as a viper in the corner of a cave, his hat sitting down over one eye as though that eye had already picked out a new target but was not about to give it away.
She remembered what Batterfield had said about him only a few days earlier. "So-Far Hickey's quick with decisions, quick with his guns, quick to pick out a target worth drawing into a duel. Friends told me about him more'n a whole year ago, down past the Pelham settlement. Said it's like he needs the sudden pleasure that wells up in him thinkin' about a gun duel. A match of wits and speed comes high on his scale. On the other end of it, he never gives a thought to a man's courage or the lack of it; how the make-up of a man no way fits into the scheme of a duel. He's never lost a duel and doesn't figure to lose one in any hurry. He's 38 years old and considers himself untouchable in a duel, a survivor on for the long haul. Keep your eye on him whenever you can, for yourself and those you care for."
She could have measured the intensity in the old man's voice, and he'd been around Peer's Point longer than any man in the room. If anybody was the old man of the mountain, it was Batterfield who hadn't said that he'd heard Hickey had killed 8 or 9 men in draw-downs. He figured he might have already spoiled Maggie's day.
Killcross's day, though, was evidently turned on its edge, for he looked directly at So-Far Hickey, his eyes settling into the eyes of his new hire, seeking rescue or retribution for a remark of slight inference.
Hickey moved but an inch in his seat, his gun hand lightly grasping the handle of his Colt and pulling it slowly from the holster, but the cold and ominous steel of another Colt flashed against his neck sharp as the prick of a cactus thorn. The second Colt promising action in the saloon was in the hands of the cowpoke who looked like he'd been the drag rider behind 1000 head of cattle, but his hand was as steady as his voice.
"Don't go no further, mister. You drew on a young'un with no weapon, and in Peer's Point as well as the whole damned State of Texas where we all come from, that's a crime to be stopped by any means. This Colt is my means, so slip that one back where it come from and tell your boss over there that you quit his job and you're going to leave Peer's Point and never come back here or to the entire State of Texas. That's never again. We'll be waiting in both places for you, for a gent who drew down on a defenseless young lady 18 for just a day and her with no weapon on her person."
Silence came again to the Wrangler's Saloon, a stunned silence that sat across the whole room like a giant mushroom, capping it all, had snuffed out every sound.
Maggie, in quick reaction, reflected back on her own immediate thoughts and knew that some little clue had escaped her observation. "Too pretty" hadn't been enough. Then she noticed, for the first time, the slight push against the young stranger's shirt. She realized the delicate balance of the young lady, from the inside. She wondered if Cora D. had also been as surprised as she was.
The men at the bar all spun about in their places to get a look at the lass 18 for hardly a day, and every man seated in the saloon slid his chair back and stood to get a look. Not a single gasp was heard. No one coughed at his own surprise. In a far corner, having his noon meal, Peer's Point sheriff Norman Plumbs shook his head in amazement: Killcross was obviously getting his due, or soon would get it.
It was high time.
Wendy Dunne, celebrating her 18th birthday the day before, doffed her band-studded Stetson and shook her hair loose, a whole mass of blonde tresses that shone with the light of a gorgeous June moon high in the western sky. It was a dazzling sight for even the most insensitive man in the Wrangler's Saloon, coming with a grand surprise. The many old timers, including Honus Batterfield, were enthralled with the bravado of the young lady as well as her suddenly revealed looks. Admiration welled up in each one of them wondering what life might have been like if . . . If . . . If that other road had been taken, the one that Maggie and Cora D. knew from the wrong end.
So-Far Hickey was escorted from Peer's Point at the point of a rifle bore close enough to slow him down if he tried to escape. Accompanying him on his ride out of town were three other Dunne siblings, one of them repeatedly saying, "Hickey, you don't want any part of that man who's going to get the wrath of God come down upon him, not for a few dollars a month that won't get you very far if things do or don't go our way. Killcross murdered our father and the Devil is his due. Believe me, he ain't worth your pay or your time."
Hickey said, "If I ever come across you . . . "
He didn't get to finish his threat when the answer came back. "We learned our lesson from our Pa's killing. You saw that in the saloon. We ain't ever alone. We travel close by each other. If you think me or a brother, or our kid sister, is ever alone, don't believe it. When we Dunnes get together there's a whole passel of us. We all came west from Tennessee, the whole mountain of us. And we're all standing by to make sure no business we don't favor happens. Our Pa was killed when he was on his way to help an old comrade. That puts his murder in glory's frame the way we see it. You best see it that way too." The young Dunne said, as a parting word, "If you ever come looking for me, better know my name. I'm Wulf Dunne, one of the sons of Wilfred Dunne."
A day alone on the trail, Texas far away, cussing and cursing as he rode along, Hickey decided he had gone too far on his way and abruptly turned back. To make amends. To get even. To quiet his noisy vanity continually whispering to him. The name of Wulf Dunne burned in his mind, along with the bright eyes of Wendy Dunne and her silky white complexion.
The following evening, without incident of any kind on his return, Hickey was at Killcross's ranch. He said to Killcross, "I didn't come back so much for you, though I took your pay up front and will earn it, but I can't shake that scene in the saloon. I'm going to get some of them Dunnes. You got one of them, but I'll get my share."
He paused, and then said with conviction, "I'll take care of that little lady with the big eyes before I'm through, and in my own way."
Killcross, smiling, flexing his fingers as though grasping a gun or the end of a rope, said, "Your pay's doubled, starting now and any way you get it done is fine by me. Any way." He had lit up his homely face with his own array of images, all deadly.
Hickey had one request. "Send a man into town to see if they're still around or, if they left, find out which direction they left in, or better, find out if they said where they're going." He patted his Colt in its holster.
"My man'll be there in an hour," Killcross said, rubbing his hands together, the awful glee spilling across his face again. Even So-Far Hickey saw all the irony in it.
Maggie Juridic had her special sources of information in the town beside Honus Batterfield. One cowpoke, owing long favors to Maggie, knocked lightly at her door above the saloon late at night, after he had curled up in a storage room for hours.
Maggie knew the knock and opened the door. "What now, Dutch?" she said as she let him into the room.
"One of Killcross's men rode into town this evening and's nosing around, looking for information about any of the Dunnes and where they are and where they're headed if they've left town. He's kind of skittery about it 'cause Killcross'd kill him if he gave anything away."
"Thanks, Dutch," she said. "You better stay here for the night and go out with the morning crowd. We won't let Killcross in on our secrets, will we?"
In surprise, he said, "You mean I can stay here with you?"
"No surprise there, Dutch. You've been good to me before. It's my turn now." She took his hand and enticed him.
Dutch went out with the morning activity, and Maggie had her horse brought around from the livery by one of her minions. It was not unusual for her to take a morning ride out on the grass.
Once out of town, away from any observer, Maggie lit out for the hills, and went right to Batterfield's small cabin in the forested foothills. She'd been here before a few times and had told one of the Dunnes where they could hang out in safety until they left the area. "Honus is a friend of mine," she had offered, "and he'll keep watch for you. He doesn't miss a trick. Hickey, as far as Honus knows, is untrustworthy and a killer to boot." She felt no complicity in her designs, Killcross being one of her least favorite people in the entire west, and she had developed a sudden admiration for Wendy Dunne and her siblings.
Hickey, hearing the Dunnes had left town for who-knows-where, rode into Peer's Point in the brightness of day and spent an hour or so in the saloon listening to all the chatter around him. His interest centered on hearing that Maggie Juridic had taken a ride that morning over two hours long. He deemed it puzzling for a business woman, with her holdings, taking such time away from her place. He correctly assumed it had something to do with him and the Dunnes. With that in mind, he said to one man at the bar, "I know where them Dunne folks went and are waiting for me, but I got a big secret comin' for them. Yes siree, I sure do, but don't you tell anybody. Hear?"
When Hickey left town, heading west, he turned due north when he was about a mile away and lay up in a copse of thick cotton woods. Two hours later he saw the rider coming across the grass and knew it was Maggie Juridic. All he had to do was trail her tracks and she'd lead him to the Dunnes like a big mouth bass grabbing off a frog on a lily pad. If he planned it right, one devastating gulp would do it all in, and then he'd have his fun.
Staying back, his apt eye on the tracks Maggie was leaving, he climbed into the lower foothills, smelled the smoke of a cooking fire, and took his horse into another thickness of trees to tie him off. He kept mostly hidden by brush or small copses of trees as he followed the trail, now a simple effort on his part.
The cabin was on a small rise, surrounded by grass and open space. He nodded in admiration for whoever had laid it out, tough to get near in the daylight, probably just as hard in the darkness with no lights in the cabin and a dark tree line standing behind it stiff as sentinels.
He spent most of the early evening planning how he'd get in there to get a few of the Dunnes in a hurry . . . and make his problem easier to solve, and saw the sun begin to tip its cap to the taller peaks further west in the great mountain range. He decided to walk in on them in the dark, wearing Indian moccasins from his saddlebag, carrying two Colts in his hands and a rifle slung over his shoulder, the way he'd worn it at Shiloh and other places before the Confederacy had come apart.
The moccasins felt comfortable though strange on his feet, and he was glad he wasn't mounted for a charge. The sun, in magic reflections, bounced and percolated on the myriad peaks, and soft shadows in parts began to crawl into the lower regions of the foothills, like a sneaky animal prowling for town food tossed into the garbage pit.
Hickey recalled the light in the eyes of the young Dunne and the smooth skin on her cheekbones. He'd keep every shot away from her, and if it went that way, he'd get payback on the Dunnes, on all of them, no matter how many were dead or dying but her.
He looked over the entire scene around the cabin, saw nothing out of the way, settled back to wait total darkness, no moon in the offing. A soft breeze carried the evening meal in its midst, and he detected bread and beef and sweet pie in the mix. In one instant of reflection, he remembered a meal so far back it had disappeared for years; on the family farm, him coming back from a long hunt, hunger eating at him, and from a few miles away knew his mother's cooking. It took him in one quick essence to a meal on the line with his cavalry comrades, none of them knowing calamity was at hand.
He shook off immediate doubts, and reset himself. Darkness would soon come on in its way, slow and sure, as steady as time itself.
He had the upper hand in this matter, of that there was no doubt. The pistols felt perfect in his hands, warm, friendly, powerful; he was back where he belonged, on the prowl for Johnny Blue, taking them out one at a time, from up close or from a rifle's distance.
One shadow lengthened itself and fell at the foot of the cabin, waiting to take over the scene, the open grass, the approach to the Dunnes hidden away from his brand of justice.
So-Far Hickey had come so far on this trip, had things nearly in his grasp, vengeance surmounting all burning in him, that he never heard a sound behind him. But there was the click of a rifle; it sounded as ominous as it could be, and close enough that a lousy shot from it would still land somewhere in his body.
And a voice came with it. "Don't even breathe," the voice said, and added with a chuckle, "you've gone too far this time, So-Far. Too far. This far's enough for now. Them Dunne boys never told you there was a few others on their side, did they? Drop your pistols. Unsnap that rifle and let it fall. Don't turn around or you're dead. And don't turn when you hear the first shot, 'because that'll be me signaling them in the cabin that there's a mite bit of trouble out here. Temporary-like. They'll be here in a hurry, all of 'em, and that shot's going off at the side of your head right about now."
The rifle shot sounded in Hickeys ears, bounced around in his head, made him dizzy trying to see if he had been hit by the bullet. His legs wobbled, a tingle began in one arm, his shoulder still felt the strap where the rifle had been toted, but no sense of real pain came to him except the noise in his head. He did not come out of it for a few minutes, his ears ringing, the shot reverberating like a cannon had gone off in his head like a god-awful sound, the way walls break down, let loose debris' clutter. And hurried noises, bustling and scrambling broke out at the cabin.
Eventually, the cannon silenced a bit, no bullet pulsing anywhere in his body, Hickey said to the voice behind him, "Who the hell are you, mister? I don't know I ever did anything to you."
"Honus Batterfield's the name, So-Far, and you plain bother the hell out of me with the road you took in this here life. I been sittin' here for hours watchin' you come along the way, makin' decisions, makin' plans, stayin' hid all the time, all while I'm practically lookin' down your throat from the wrong end." He chuckled again at that comment and enjoyed nudging Hickey with his rifle as he brought the thought to a grand conclusion. "You get the picture, don'tcha?"
The Dunnes, five of them, circled Hickey and Batterfield in a hurry, carrying side arms or rifles, surprise on their faces at seeing Hickey at the point of a rifle, his weapons on the ground, and old Honus Batterfield smiling a huge grin in the soft shadows that had fallen about them.
Wulf Dunne said, "I didn't think he'd swallow the bait, Honus, and you pegged the animal he is all the way. You, my man, are the man of the mountain, the man of the hour."
In his best western voice, Honus Batterfield, almost as old as the mountain, said, "'Tweren't nothin'."
The laughter burned right through Hickey like flame itself.
He was led to the cabin where he found the table set for the supper meal. Savory aromas slipped through the air and some fled out into the foothills. A place was made for Hickey at the end of one table. The only talk was from the youngest Dunne, Wendy, who said, "I'll serve everybody like Ma used to do, so sit still, all of you."
She walked around the room, paused at the stove to check some element of the meal, babbling all the while.
"I don't suppose you know, Hickey, that Killcross put up half the $2000 bounty that's on your head now for a gent found dead on the trail right where Wulf let you go on your way. They even have a witness that said he saw you kill an old man out there. Killcross said he doesn't want your kind of man in our town. Those are his exact words. I suppose you killed that old man for what the Dunnes did to you."
A bit of change arose in her voice that caught Honus Batterfield's attention, but not that of anybody else in the tight quarters of the small cabin.
The pretty thing with the lovely blonde hair and the skin like ivory came around the table and said, "Here's how mad the Dunnes are at you." With that she slammed a log from the wood box down on top of So-Far Hickey's gun hand that idled on the tabletop. Half of the men in the room jumped in their places. Batterfield did not jump, for he had seen her pick up the log and walk away from the stove, and Hickey didn't jump up, but slumped in place as he screamed at the pain in his busted-up gun hand.
When they let him go on the next morning, his gun hand bandaged and in a sling, his empty Colt was in his holster on his gun belt, set up for a left-handed draw in reverse. He was not much of a threat anymore.
The Dunnes were sitting around talking after Hickey was let loose. Wulf said, "What makes you think he's going back there, Honus, as soon as he gets some ammunition?"
"That man's bounden on goin' there, I swear on the whole mountain. There ain't nothing else he wants to do. He knows he ain't gettin' none of us, so he's goin' there to fix what's ailing him right now."
Killcross, on his porch, sees Hickey slowly approaching on his mount. Then he notices the sling that's holding his right arm close to his chest. Somebody somewhere had caught up to his one-time hired gun. It was good he made a declaration that he was rid of the man: except here he was paying him a visit. Killcross wondered if he owed him any money. If he did, he'd pay him and get rid of him in a hurry.
Hickey, dismounting clumsily, said, "I hear you don't want me on the payroll anymore. That's okay with me, and I'm all paid up except for one small thing."
With that uttered in a firm voice he made a clumsy and hasty left-handed reverse draw of his Colt and shot Devon Killcross as he started to rise in surprise. The rancher felt the bullet hit him in the chest and knew he was going to die.
Two of Killcross's men, working on the grounds, shot Hickey before he could swing his Colt on them.
Devon Killcross and So-Far Hickey were buried side by side on boot hill, close to Wilfred Dunne, who had a plain WD on his wooden cross.
Tom Sheehan, in his 94th year, has published 53 books, has work in Rosebud, The Linnet's Wings (100), Copperfield Review, Literally Stories (150), Frontier Tales, Green Silk Journal, Rope & Wire Magazine. He's earned 18 Pushcart nominations, and 6 Best of Net nominations, with one winner. Last year he won Ageless Writers story contest with The Tale of Trot and Dim Johnny, and has submitted other books including $20 Grand, In the Garden of Long Shadows, Jehrico's the Collector's Collection, Murder Down Canada Way, Silas Tully, Saugus Cop, An Accountable Death, Beneath My Feet This Rare Earth often Slips into the Far-side of Another's Telescope, almost enough to pass the time for him.
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To Everything There Is a Season
by Jesse J Elliot
"Okay, I've had enough, Cruz! Too much heat and too much humidity. I'm covered with sweat—I'm tired and itchy. Seriously, I couldn't be more miserable than this. I don't know where or how I can cool off. If there were a river running by town—I'd jump in, clothes and all," moaned Iragene Jones, the Sheriff of La Madera.
Cruz smiled at the image of this unconventional woman doing just that. Cruz was Iragene's deputy, and through a series of horrific events, he was now a family friend and her deputy. He had been through births, deaths, and violence with the Jones's family, and he was now an official little brother of the two scions, Iragene and Daniel.
"Sheriff, let's see if we can leave a day earlier than usual and head for the ranch and some relief. We've already planned the week-end off. Let's see if Bert and Levi, can come in a day early. Give them an incentive of some sort. We've got some cash in the kitty—enough perhaps to entice them into working an extra day."
"Sounds good—if you could drag them away from their farms."
"Won't have to—the two families are in town. Levi's wife, Lorena, is expecting again, and he wanted her to see the doctor. Bert and his wife, Joy, joined them. They're all staying at The Hotel—giving Lorena a week-end off, hoping to save this baby with the Doc so near by."
"Oh, Lord, how many has she lost?"
"I'm not sure but I would say too many for one women"—he stopped abruptly and bolted from his chair. "Dios! Sheriff, look at the sky!"
She took her cue from him, noticing that the hue of the room had turned a ghastly green in a matter of minutes. They looked out of the window together, and then they ran out the door. The sky, usually a periwinkle or lapis blue sky was now a sickly green. They didn't see a funnel cloud yet—but that didn't mean there wasn't one.
"Ring the bell!" she shouted.
Cruz didn't hesitate. The ringing of the bell meant only one thing: DANGER! Danger from fire, attack, flood, or tornadoes. People ploughed out of buildings and saw the greenish sky. No one had to explain the danger. Everyone ran to a designated spot that was set up by the town council just weeks earlier. The shelters included springhouses, root basements, and The Hotel's main dining room, backed up solidly into a played-out, old quarry.
The wind now picked up quickly. The sound of the oncoming storm was coupled with a chorus of screams, as the funnel cloud suddenly appeared, looming in the far distance.
Tornadoes weren't usual in this New Mexico town, but most of the citizens knew them from having lived in Texas or the Midwest, and townspeople knew how deadly they could be. The wind continued to increase, and a painful shower of dust and hail inundated the town and its citizens.
What seemed like hours but was only a matter of minutes, the streets now cleared, Iragene turned to her deputy. "Come on Cruz, let's get to The Hotel! There's nothing else you or I can do!" and they took off down the street, barely able to stand as the wind picked up. A few horses had been left tied up to the posts, and Cruz ran to untether them. His own horse followed him, and Cruz led him gently between two buildings. No guarantee that he would be safe, but better to be sheltered within two solid brick walls than out in the open.
"Go, Iragene! I'm staying here with Leonardo. I don't want him to be alone."
"Are you sure?!" she screamed. "Cruz, we can always get another horse, but we can't get another you!"
He nodded, "I'll be all right, Sheriff," he responded in his soft but reassuring voice. Reluctantly, she ran into The Hotel alone.
* * *
Once inside, she helped cover the windows with the indoor shutters. The outside shutters were already put in place by the staff. Placed there mostly for dust storms or the impenetrable cold of winter, the shutters were certainly the one last pìece de résistance against the power of a tornado—if it chose the hotel as its random victim, everyone knew nothing could stop it. Some of the citizens had seen homes plowed down as if a giant hoe had passed through their town, flattening a line of homes like a row of radishes.
Shaken, but putting on a brave face for the citizens, Iragene walked into the dining area, looking for her adopted sister, Cassie. The room was darkened with only a few kerosene lamps lighting it, but she was able to spot Cassie, working along side Dr. Stein. Already, the storm was taking its toll on the citizens, and it hadn't even hit yet. She could hear cries, groans, and prayers.
She walked over to Cassie who was next to a handsome, well dressed man leaning over a prostrate, old one. The younger man was speaking lowly to the woman. "I'm sure it's his heart. He was having irregular heart rhythms the last time he came to see me, and his heartbeat now is even more pronounced. Take a listen, Cassie," Stein then turned to his patient. "You won't mind if Cassie listens to your heartbeat, do you Tommy?"
"Jest as long as I don't need ta take off ma pants," he retorted. "Don't need no female oglin' ma privates!"
"I promise, Mr. Callahan. No ogling," and she smiled at the cantankerous old man.
She bent over and listened. The two then thanked Callahan and moved away. "I'm surprised there's not more pain," Stein said softly for Cassie to hear. "He has classic symptoms such as shortness of breath which is dyspnea, fatigue, light headedness, and edema. He's a walking deadman."
The two medics paused for a few moments and looked up at the woman who had come toward them in the dark. "Iragene! I was wondering if you were here or deciding to fight the tornado on your own." Cassie grinned.
Both women walked toward the other to embrace. "I came as soon as the streets were cleared, and then I helped close the interior shutters. MacDonald doesn't do anything half ass when it comes to his hotel. If this building doesn't survive, nothing will."
"That's for sure—especially since his daughter Marnie showed up. He'll do anything to protect her," and she looked over at the father and daughter talking together nearby.
The wind continued to increase in sound. Luckily the tornado was slow moving, perhaps only ten miles per hour, yet it seemed like hours since she and Cruz had left the office. Iragene looked around her at the others taking succor in the unusually dark dining area. The wind now increased, sounding like a train—combined with a high-pitched shriek or keening.
"If I was home in Ireland, I'd be sayin' that was a Banshee out there," cried Simon Kavanaugh. Iragene looked around and saw some of the citizens from Ireland shaking their heads and crossing themselves. The sound was not only frightening; it was eerie—seemingly not of this world. "I jest know that someone is gonna die. That Banshee crossed the Atlantic and followed us here!" Mumbles and prayers could be heard.
"That ain't all," said an unfamiliar voice. Yesterday near the mines, Ol' Joe claimed he saw a witch in the form of an evil lookin' coyote. He claimed the witch looked him directly in the eye."
"What does that mean?" wailed another voice.
"I don know, but I think something evil might come of it," responded the first voice in a low and terrified whisper.
"An' that ain't the worse of it. My wife's mother is living with us now, and she said she heard the owl sing."
"So?" asked a puzzled voice.
"That means someone is gonna die!"
"Damn! And here we be—crammed all together with that tornado out there, jes waitin' to land here and tear us all apart."
"It be worse," a voice spoke out in the dark.
"How kin it be worse?"
"Well, me 'n a dozen miners were still underground, when that new supervisor's fool son brung his new wife to the mine to see it. Well, she had one foot on the platform afore someone grabbed that woman and marched her off to the office along with her beau. I hears they both be removed from the mining area. Now it be only a matter of time afore any of us who were there at the time dies."
In the corner, Iragene, Dr. Stein, and Cassie heard a "phoo, phoo, phoo," the sound now used in lieu of spitting three times on the ground to avoid evil. Cassie giggled quietly. "The Ukrainian family obviously won't be left out."
When one of the Italian miners began talking about some stranger in town giving him the malocchio, the evil eye, Iragene had enough. "Stop now! Everyone is scaring the other. We're too crowded, too frightened, and too . . . well, we're just not in a place where we need to find more reasons to scare each other."
A traveling preacher raised his voice and began, "Quiet! This is a Christian town. No more of these heathen comments. 'Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End . . . '"
At that moment the tornado seemed to become louder. Unknown to the citizens, the tornado had passed by and then circled back and struck! People screamed, and loved ones held each other tightly though the majority of children had been in school where they had sheltered under the church. Those who were parents were now crying out for themselves and the fate of their children as well. The heinous sound continued, and they heard things landing against the walls and the roof in addition to the horrible squall.
No one could hear anyone speak, although the occasion scream came through loud and clear. In addition to the horrible wind, the rapidly falling air pressure caused ears to pop—some quite painfully. Though Dr. Stein tried to reassure everyone, no one could hear him. The sound intensified. Some of the people were on their knees, while others stood and embraced.
Time now moved slowly, and no one was sure of how long the tornado's attack continued. But if one listened closely he or she would have heard the sounds of a mother attempting to give birth. Piercing cries could occasionally be heard from one corner, then silence. Cassie and the doctor now made this corner their station as they bent over the distraught woman. They all wondered the same thing: would all this pain, effort, and fear end the same way the previous five had?
"It's looking good, Lorena. I'm about to deliver the head, ah, beautiful hair, just like its mother . . . now, push with all your might! Push, push, Ahhhhh!" the doctor crooned as the baby came out screaming in competition with the storm. A woman took the child and cleaned it up.
Finally the tornado slowly began to move away. The freight train and banshee slowly moved on, and silence replaced the horrific sounds. Fearful, some people began to stand up and move about. That is, everyone but Tommy Callahan. No one seemed to notice except Cassie and Dr. Stein. Cassie moved slowly so as not to draw attention.
No one watched as Cassie bent over the still figure. She reached over to feel his pulse, but there wasn't one. Tommy's heart had stopped, and by the expression on his face, he had died happily. His last thoughts were of himself as a child, climbing his favorite rocks in his small village in Ireland.
Dr. Stein was about to join her when someone frantically grabbed his hand and pulled him.
"Huh?" Stein turned quickly to see who had pulled him. It was Levi, and by the frantic look in his eyes, no explanation was necessary. Lorena was in trouble. He signaled to Cassie, and she walked quickly to join him.
The storm no long generated sound, but Lorena did as she pushed out a second screaming infant. There were two children, and both of them so healthy that their newborn lungs overcame any other sounds. Rather than be annoyed, the people in the crowded dining area rang out with applause and laughter.
* * *
Finally, the sound of wind and rain died out completely, and the all clear was given. People moved quickly and emptied The Hotel, thanking the owner. They then ran to where their children had been succored in the church's basement and to their shops.
Finally when the hotel emptied, Iragene walked directly over to where she left Cruz and his horse. There he was, safely standing between the only two brick buildings in town.
"Cruz! I am so relieved to see you! You weren't hurt—thank God!" and she looked around her. "Please join me."
"I'm fine, Sheriff. I just felt I would be all right if I stood between these two buildings, and I worried about Leonardo. I put a scarf over his eyes and sang to him. We survived it together. But how," he asked turning toward her, "did the town folk do? Were they in a panic?"
"Mentally they were pretty bad, and looking around now at the damage, they were justified." In the middle of the street was a dead cow and part of someone's red barn. Almost all the windows on one side of the street were broken, and right in front of the church were two outhouses, no longer attached to their bases.
They walked together now, looking at joyful families reuniting with their children and friends. Though trees and dead animals lay randomly in the street and on roofs, the damage to the town was not as bad as it had sounded while in The Hotel. The damage appeared fixable, but by the look of the partial barn and multitude of dead animals, all indications seemed to suggest that some of the farms outside of town had not fared as well.
Iragene described the townspeople and their fears and comments to Cruz who was always interested in people and their reactions. She attempted to draw a picture of the townspeople's behavior. He was silent as he listened to the multitude of takes on the situation. Then he asked Iragene a question that stunned her.
"Was there a birth and a death?"
"Why, yes, how did you know? Lorena and Levi had twin babies, and Tommy Callahan died quietly. Cruz, how do you always know?"
He merely looked at her, not really needing to explain.
They had reached the bell and rang it for those who had not yet left their shelter. Apparently the eighteen bars had not been badly damaged, though some of the windows would need to be replaced. In the distance, she and Cruz saw Levi being carried on the shoulders of some friends. The new father beamed with joy and pride—as if it were he that had given birth to a baby boy and baby girl and not his sore and exhausted wife who was now in the process of delivering the afterbirths.
"Cruz, do you recognize any of the dead cattle and other farm animals that the storm distributed on our streets and buildings?"
"I saw the brand KC on several of the cows, and the horse on the roof of The Hotel looked as if he might have been one of Clancy's as well. He was a black appaloosa—not too many of them around."
"You're right, and I sure hate to see that beautiful creature dead. Cruz, I'd like you to ride out to Clancy's place and see if he and the family are all right. Now that you've identified the cattle and horse, it looks as if Clancy's farm took a real beating—even part of his barn is in the middle of the street. And I wonder if those two outhouses are his—talk about losing everything!"
"Talk about losing everything . . . and goodness, is that a kitchen sink?"
"I'll check out other farms that might have been hit, and take an inventory on what everyone needs. I'll definitely head out first to Clancy's. This does not look good for that family."
* * *
After Cruz had gone, Iragene walked down to the doctor's office to see how many people were injured. Apparently very few. Except for the horrific wind, broken windows, and the dozen or so Clancy cattle, the tornado had left the town relatively unscathed. She had heard stories of tornadoes wiping out an entire town, but leaving one untouched building. She heard one tornado leaving an entire town in tact, but completely demolishing one building. Capricious and as deadly as tornadoes were, La Madera had miraculously been spared an Armageddon.
Earlier, Iragene watched Lorena bravely walked across the street and into the doctor's office with some help. She was now happily ensconced behind a curtain with her friend, Joy and her new family. The little girl snuggled up to and nursed from her mother. The baby's brother was asleep in Joy's arms.
Dr. Stein and Cassie were busy cleaning minor cuts and broken bones. Iragene quietly approached Cassie. "I've contacted the mortician, and he'll pick up Tommy."
"What a day! I know I'm going to collapse tonight, but the exhilaration of watching new life come into this tawdry world has kept me going all day." Cassie explained.
"Why is it that every birth is so exciting? And why is every death such a loss? I barely knew Tommy and yet . . . " Iragene whispered.
"It's just the way it is, and maybe the way it's supposed to be? Same questions and answers from thousands of years back. King Solomon also attempted to deal with life and death." Cassie said.
1 To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2 A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3 A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.
"Yes, maybe so." Iragene smiled at her friend and headed toward the door, hoping that Cruz would bring some good news about the Clancy's. Today, La Madera had escaped Armageddon, had two births and one known death. And now, what does time have in store for this small town that Iragene pledged to protect?
Jesse J Elliot writes about what she has loved to read all her life—the Old West—except her stories always
have a strong female protagonist. She has published seven stories in Frontier Tales Magazine, and four of these
were voted short story of the month. Another short story, "Timeless" was published in A Mail-Order Bride for
Christmas. Her novel about a woman sheriff in New Mexico in the 1880s, Death at Gran Quivera was published in 2017.
Her most recent book (04/18) by Outlaw Press is called Lost in Time.
In her previous life, Jesse taught K-6, community college classes, and Educational Methods at the University of
New Mexico. In her free time, she reads, travels, C/W dances, and visits her family ranch in New Mexico.
Back to Top
Back to Home
by AJ Baker
The three bounty hunters laid dead at my feet, the fourth escaping moments before. I dusted off my black tailcoat, wiped blood from my cheek, and bent down for my black hat entangled in the limbs of one of the twisted bodies. I managed to free it but sighed when I brought it close, finding red clotted in the wool fibers. I picked at the specks for a moment, blew on them, then placed my hat atop my head anyway. I holstered my sixer on my hip, then strode over and ripped my tomahawk from the back of one of the fallen men, wiping it to a clean sheen on his shirt and slipping it back into its leather loop on my other hip. The ringing buzz that used to barricade itself in my head all those years ago instantly dissipated to a short and manageable jitter. Good. At least I still felt it.
I had told myself that the wild lands of Colorado would be a good place to lie low. That was a lie, and I should've known better. A man with a hundred and fifty dollars on his head was most certain to turn heads, and I was, but I still told myself that if it was not for my notoriety and wanted status then I would never have landed the opportunity I was offered.
I had heard whispers and tall tales that Rick Carlton and his gang had been working their way up the crime ladder, eventually getting the heat a bit too high and having to relocate out in Colorado. Sheriffs in small towns talked of it, and there was mention of US marshals lurking about for them, as well. Yet, my name still found Rick Carlton's ears, and my mind was still focused on getting to him.
For the longest time, I was merely an unlucky thief who gambled off his small snatches. My downfall was unknowingly cheating a sheriff and him catching me, causing me to accidentally kill him and his three friends when we scrapped in a saloon. I was no killer, but my bounty was posted, and men continued to come like the ones moments ago. So, I protected myself. However, a part of me feared Rick wanted me because of how I did exactly that. He and his men were bad medicine, but I was a jackass, and what's one more jackass to a whole bunch of jackasses?
A shrill whistle escaped my lips, and my horse returned warily through the thicket beside the trail. After looting the dead men's saddlebags and putting their contents in mine, I prodded my hoss's sides with my spurs and carried on east at a moderate canter. The air was brisk, and it chapped my lips, but snow did not seem like it was going to make an appearance in the bright sun. I later slowed my steed and dodged pine boughs with my head and arms, sighing when I came to a crisscrossing junction in the leaf-padded trail. From my knowledge this junction was not supposed to be here, and I grunted angrily to myself for not knowing the way. I had only passed through these parts a handful of times in the past, but years of dodging the law tended to empty a man's mind of the littler things. Minute memories of routes were nothing compared to the constant head turning and jumping at every little noise. Rick can fix that, I thought. He can make it all go away.
Iron stirrups and brass spurs jingled a ways from the south, causing me to instinctively reach for my shooter. The traveler came over the rise on their horse, a woman with her son on the rump of the beast, and I quickly loosened my grip. The woman stared at my battered, boney face, and her eyes went wide upon seeing the crimson stains on my dirtied clothing when her horse neared mine.
"Miss? Could you point me to Evansburg? I'm not sure—"
"Get away from us, you devil!" The woman put spurs to horse and sped past.
I expected that reaction, one that I had been getting more and more, but it was worth a shot. Dismounting, I reached into my kidney pocket and checked my pocket watch. Eleven thirty-six? If this Rick Carlton needs me as much as he made it seem, then I need to hurry, I thought. I shoved my watch back into its pocket and felt around for loose change in my trousers, finding a tarnished half-dollar. I made heads south, and tails would carry me on eastward. Resting the half-dollar on my pointer finger and nail of my thumb, I flicked it high in the air, the sides flashing against the sun's rays. It dropped to the ground and kicked some dust up when it landed, and I leaned over it to see the results. I pocketed the coin moments later. South it was.
Mounting my horse, I turned the animal and we descended down the grassy path. An unnerving twitch inside me wondered if I was even going the right way, let alone if it was still a good idea to even meet with Rick. A lingering sliver of my cockiness began to shrug off the idea of him angered by my absence, only for the remembrance of his brutality to come back around and slap me in the face. No one stands up Rick Carlton, I reminded myself. No one. He had sent some of his men with a letter and found someone like me, a man on the run, before the law did. The townsfolk across the Territory claimed the last man to stand him up for a meeting was a soft one, and, well, critters of all kinds sure liked him. Rick got what he wanted, always. If I did not give him what he was looking for, then the noose was the least of my worries.
Another junction came about through the pines and the distant sight of it made me swear. Where the hell was I? The pine trees, thick and blanketing, disallowed any vantage points to see through their shaggy needles. I neared the junction madder than a hornet, only to find my anger subsiding when I saw the outline of a fallen sign on the ground. I swung off my horse, strolled over to the fallen sign and lifted it from the dirt. Its wooden post had snapped in the middle from who knows what, but I placed the sign back up, lined up the broken splinters and found a scrawled arrow and lettering claiming I needed to trek left to Evansburg. I cracked a wide grin, seeing luck was still on my side. Backtracking to my horse, I saddled up, and went onward.
The layering of the trees began to thin, opening up the trail to clean cut grasses and shrubs, which made me hopeful that settlements would be slowly approaching. The sun had vanished behind a milky overcast and the temperature dropped while I moved along. I swore again, feeling the chill cutting through my outerwear and sinking deep into my skin. My tailcoat was wool, sure, but I needed another layer and should have taken a coat from my previous attackers. I opened and closed my fists a few times, my knuckles whitening from the dry, chilled air.
I finally broke out of the tree line, trotting down a decline and finding myself on a long, swishing trail that led through shallow, rolling hills. Smoke began rising in the distance and I followed it against my better judgment, the silhouette of a shack soon revealing itself. I began passing it minutes later, seeing an older man on the porch enjoying his tobacco. I nodded when he was close enough to see me, but his expression went sour at my sight. His eyelids dropped down to confused and judgmental slits, the rest of his face contorting into a snarl upon seeing my stained clothing like the woman before. He shot to his feet, damning me to hell and ordering me to move along at a quicker pace. I hung my head and waved apoplectically, but my embarrassment did not add speed to my horse. The older man groped behind his porch banister and pulled a leaning rifle out by its barrel, but I had already began galloping away at the sight of its muzzle. Once I put some yards in between me and him, I carried on speeding down the road.
A mountain range loomed in the distance from the rolling hills, and I slowed from a gallop to a trot. The trail beneath me dried out and looked more and more worn down with hooves and cartwheels as I covered more ground, and after looking up to the vastness of the lands and squinting I could just barely make out clumped buildings.
I followed the winding trail closer to the outskirts of Evansburg, the stench of sheep shit soaking into my nostrils as I passed them milling in their pen. A boy stood outside of the sign-covered general store shouting about newspapers, and when he caught me looking at him riding by, I flicked him a penny. It landed by his feet and he called out his thanks by the time I had passed the post office and oversized doctor's office.
My eyes were trained on a large building almost on the other side of the town. I could feel the watchful eyes of the law giving me a once over from the other establishments on the sides of the road, and my body tensed, but I still pressed on to the building. A dying red and gold painted sign was soon visible, the letters reading "Barrel Head Saloon" with a colorless barrel pictured behind them. Sitting beside it was a long line of rickety hitching posts, almost all of them filled with the customers' rightful steeds.
I rode closer and hitched my horse, patting her down and letting her know she was the greatest. I then made way for the stairs leading up the porch, and piano keys clinked louder until I pushed my way through the double doors into the saloon. My presence was met by concerned looks from card players and people eating, but I ignored the stares and made way to the plump barkeep who was vigorously shining glasses with a cloth and peering through his sheening.
I approached the bar top, set my hands on the counter and cleared my throat. The barkeep glanced up with a distasteful look through his spectacles, sighed, and set his glass down.
"You must be the one they're waiting on. What can I help you with, feller?"
I pulled my tarnished half-dollar from my pocket and slapped it on his side of bar top. "Double shot of whiskey. Johnston's."
"You're gonna need it."
The barkeep turned to the wall of liquor behind him and began pouring up my dead shot while I glanced over my shoulder, finding a man wearing a wide-brimmed valley hat checking me out. I didn't break my gaze and he didn't break his, but the more I stared the greater the feeling of unfortunate familiarity grew. He waved a toothpick back and forth between the corners of his mouth, and he whispered amongst his counterparts.
"Here you are," the barkeep said abruptly, sliding me my drink and causing me to break my stare.
Grasping the glass, I held it below my chin, leaning in towards the barkeep and swirling it some. I gestured with my head. "That man in the corner. The one with that valley hat. He's a bounty hunter, ain't he?"
"Yeah. Came in earlier this morning pretty banged up."
I lowered my eyes, watching my swirling. "Oh, I bet he did."
The barkeep heaved a heavy sigh, lowering his voice. "Umm, your man is waiting. He's on the second floor. You can use those stairs over there by the back door."
I thanked the barkeep, throwing my booze back and clacking it down on the bar top. I straightened up my clothes a bit, shot another look at the bounty hunter in the corner, and made my way to the stairs. While I ascended them, I could feel the heat seeping out of my skin as each step turned my face hotter and hotter. Before I could think about turning back, it was already too late. I found myself at the top in front of a lacquered door with a cast-iron ring handle. I rapped it three times, waited a moment, and the door abruptly opened. Sighing, I stepped through.
Inside, I was met by the doorman, a tall, ox-like feller with two pistols. He gave me a mean look-over once or twice then stepped out of my way, glancing to the six Carlton gang members that sat at a green poker table in the corner of the run-down room. Weak, grey light cast through the window beside them, catching the brims of their hats and blocking out parts of their faces in shadows.
"Lawrence Godby," the old man in the middle of the table said. "Most folks don't find good fortune in keepin' me waiting. Do I need to take that iron from you?"
Stepping toward the only empty chair, I cautiously eyeballed the patrons sitting beside Rick Carlton. I sat then scooted my chair into the edge of the table, stunned by the man before me.
Rick clasped his hands, leaning forward into the light some and revealed healing burns on the right side of his body. He held his hands upward and slightly in front of his white beard, resting on his elbows, and his discolored eyes locked onto mine. The gang leader motioned to my blood stains. "Trouble find you?"
"Bounty hunters. Tried nabbin' me on my way in. Fourth one is downstairs. Looks like trouble found you too?"
"Was in Dakota. Son's 'shine distillery blew while we was taking a gander at it." Rick paused and waved his hands gently, then pointed to me. "But you, sir, Lawrence Godby. I've heard stories about a sad soul slayin' lawmen with one of them hawks. How'd you get it? Was you an Injun killer? Or was it something a bit sweeter?"
"Parents left me in the woods as a baby. Ute tribe members found me when they were hunting and raised me like their own."
Rick stroked his beard, glancing between his partners. He placed his hands down onto the tabletop, lifting his pointer finger and tapping. "If that bounty hunter comes up here a'knockin', you kill him with that hawk, you hear?"
"I can't kill a man inside town again. I'm already wanted, and he's probably already off getting deputy support," I said a bit too brashly.
The Carltons all began chuckling, then Rick pounded the table, silencing the laughter and homing in on me again. "I know that, Godby! I paid off the sheriff. Ain't no law from this town coming for us until tomorrow."
"All right. Why do you have me here, Rick?"
My mind, clouded and foggy with anticipation, still attempted its tirade of lies within. Thoughts of a hold up, robbing an armory, smuggling. No, those were purely lies. If I was a betting man, Rick would have something far more nefarious in mind, something conjured up only by having a chat with Satan himself. Kindness was a myth to Rick Carlton, something of a fairy tale that his mother would have told him about in order to forget about the cruel, hateful world that he would thrive so much in. Desperation ran deep, though, and having Rick's might protecting my future seemed that much more desirable.
Rick revealed a cigarette from his coat pocket and stuck it between his lips, lighting it with a match and puffing on it as he spoke. "That shoot out you found yourself in a few weeks back. The one in Englewood. Well, that man you wounded died later that evening. Turned out to be a smuggler I knew running a gold operation in California."
My heart seemed to stop, and I felt my face heat up again and slick over in sweat. I swallowed hard, speechless and feeling my hand itching for my gun.
Rick leaned in and pointed his cigarette at me. "I liked that. I liked that a lot, Lawrence Godby. That was very, very helpful in some of my efforts. In fact, you've angered a number of people by now. That's how I know you are the man I need to help me with my next set of tasks."
I relaxed my hand away from my weapon. "What about payment?"
Rick cracked a yellow-toothed smile, then blew smoke. "You'll be more than compensated." His expression suddenly dropped, his face turning stern. "Butch, he's the moonshiner son in Dakota. You see, there's this menace in that area, another young man who thinks he's the next big gunslinger. His parents gave me trouble way back when, so I dealt with them. I thought that was that, but that goddamn boy tried killing Butch and has already killed a few other gang members. Butch had captured this wretch, but he and his men let him get away."
"What does that have to do with me?"
"Because you and some of my men are gonna ride to Butch's fort and kill all of his men as punishment. Put the hurtin' on Butch but keep him alive."
I leaned back in my seat and stroked my chin ponderously but held my gaze with his. "Just like that, huh. What makes you think I'm a killer?"
"Look at you, Godby. The color has left your eyes. Probably can't sleep much with all the gunshots and wailin' going on in your head. You may be tall but you sure ain't fillin' them britches. What? Killing's been getting to your eating, or something? Ah, well, that will be all right. It gets easier. But if I do know one thing, Lawrence Godby," Rick stared me down, almost gritting his teeth, "it's that you're a goddamn killer."
I gazed deep into Rick's black eyes, but suddenly the door burst open behind me. I spun in my seat and watched the valley-hatted bounty hunter slug the doorman directly across the jaw, throwing him to the floor. The bounty hunter collected himself, reaching for his revolver.
"Lawrence Godby!" he cried, standing over the fallen doorman. "You're coming with me."
The glint of his revolver's muzzle left leather; however, my blade had left its leather loop seconds before. With a flick of my elbow and wrist, the tomahawk twirled like greased lightning through the air, and my colored beads and leather fringe decorating the handle danced. There was a thump and boney crunch as the man motioned forward with his Colt. He gasped, looked to his chest and found the blade stuck square in the middle of his torso. The man dropped his gun and stared wide eyed at me still in my chair. He let out a final sigh, then keeled forward face down. Seconds later, blood washed over the floorboards.
Rick applauded theatrically, standing from his seat. "Now that, that was what I like seeing! Oh, boy! Did you see that fellas? This is why you are getting the big bucks, Mr. Godby." He walked around the table and placed a hand on my shoulder, still marveling at the kill. "How does a thousand dollars sound?"
The number was so astounding it broke me away from my hallow stare at the body. I shot a sideways look at Rick, stood and strode to the dead man on the floor, then hauled him to his side and pulled my bloodied blade from his leaking chest. Wiping off the blade and holstering it, I crossed my arms and cocked my head. "A thousand dollars? What's the catch?"
The rest of the Carltons stood from their seats and came around to Rick. He took a step forward, grabbed my shoulders and looked me in the eye. "When you're done with Butch, go fifty miles south to Sandyville. I'll be sending you with new men. Lay waste to that place, and that goddamn menace. Kill as many folks as you can. No leniency. It's what they get for having that kid as their hometown hero."
I nodded, but uncertainty was rising. I stuck a thumb towards to the body. "What about him?"
Rick slung an arm around my shoulder, and we started making our way for the door together. "Don't worry about it. We're Carltons." He patted my chest and smiled.
We left the room as a group, the doorman rubbing his jaw and closing the door behind us. As we descended the stairs a woman cried out from down below, and Rick chuckled. When we arrived at the bottom, the woman was sobbing and splattered in blood at her table in the center of the dining room, the rest of the customers nearby gasping and staring at the ceiling. Through the wooden beams, thin streams of blood cascaded downward, all landing in the middle of the circular table and splashing out small droplets forming a crimson circle.
The barkeep ran over to the woman speechless, touching at the red and gawking at the scent. He spun to a grinning Rick Carlton. "What the hell have you done?"
"Looks like there's a mess up in that room, dear barkeep." He pulled a money clip from his pocket and tossed it to him. "For the cleanup."
We strolled by the wild-looking barkeep and frightened customers, reaching the double doors and pushing them open. Before we passed through, the barkeep called out, "Damn you to hell, Rick Carlton!"
Rick turned back quick while his men passed him and I. "I ain't goin', barkeep. I'm already there." He looked to me and grabbed a fistful of my coat. "You and me both, Godby."
We left the saloon, found our saddles, and rode off for the Carlton encampment. Behind me, people ran from the saloon in masses, all screaming and pointing at the inside of the building. I turned away from the scene, leaving me to ride off to my own mayhem. Rick was right. I thought I knew myself better, but those were just the lies making themselves anew again.
Money outweighed morals. In that room for the first time in years, the intoxicating buzz did not ravage my nerves. The small amount of food in my stomach did not want to leave my body. Evansburg was soon only a speck to my backside, and I pressed onward for my complete descent into the dark, hateful life of a killer.
AJ Baker is a twenty-year-old sophomore attending Indiana University. He is currently unpublished but is working on an offer he will soon receive from Olympia Publishers regarding a Western anthology he wrote that ties in with this short story.
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The Adventure of the Old West Murders
by Nolan Yard
Many who have read the memoirs of my dear friend Dr. John H. Watson know that my voice seldom takes the helm. It is my preference that his writings continue in this tradition. Readers will know that when my pen hits paper, it usually does so in the act of composing some arcane treatise on various matchboxes, or some monograph on the disintegration of various fabric when exposed to the elements. No; I do not take any part in adding to John's recordings of our forays into the criminal underworlds. I leave this entirely in his very capable hands. But in this instance, when John had said one morning at breakfast that he was "about to jot down our tale of intrigue concerning the hotels and depot of Las Cruces," I could not turn down the importuning of my heart. I felt compelled to express a succinct yet pathos-filled prologue to illustrate my keen amazement and indefatigable appreciation for my friend, John Watson.
And so there you have it, dear reader. I will not outline the main points of our tale, as I wish to let John do what he does so well. Yet, I desire to inform minds behind the eyes following these words that it will reveal my friend a person of selfless cunning, who has been there through thick and thin, but most importantly a man who saved me from death's grasp. If not for his loyalty as a friend, I, Sherlock Holmes, would be lying in a lonely grave beneath the soil on some hillock of Las Cruces, New Mexico. I will let the man himself tell the tale, the man to whom I owe my friendship and my life.
From the Journal of John H. Watson, M.D.
It was October of 1895 when Mrs. Hudson brought up the letter that began our adventure to the West. London hazed over and temperatures were cool but not cold. Holmes and I both read from our library, my choice manuscript being an autobiography on Henry Fielding and his being what appeared to be a monograph on the construction of Britain's interlinking railways.
"This was just delivered for you, Dr. Watson," Mrs. Hudson said, entering the room. "By the postage alone, I daresay they wanted it to get to you expedient-like."
She handed me the letter, the return address of which I recognized being from the American southwestern territories.
"Can I get you both some more tea?" Mrs. Hudson asked, collecting our tray.
"That would be lovely, Mrs. Hudson. Thank you," I said. I moved over to the sofa, glancing over at Holmes who briefly flashed his eyes at my tearing of the letter and quickly returned them to his reading.
The letter was from my American brother-in-law. You see, dear reader, many years prior my half-sister, Samantha, had married a businessman she met upon her visit to the States. She and her husband, Barnaby Higgins, had a daughter. I corresponded with my sister for a time until her death at a young age. Ever since this tragedy I had kept in touch on an annual basis with Barnaby and my niece, Serena. I knew Barnaby to be a very busy and straight-laced man. Serena on the other hand was very charming and a bit more carefree than her father, at least in writing.
It had been some months—had it been a year?—since I had last heard from either of them. The letter I beheld, written by Barnaby, detailed an urgent matter and quite rattled my nerves:
Two murders took place at my El Paso hotel. I was forced to close down my establishment there. In addition, my contracted station agent was killed while on duty at the depot. I thought I had rid myself of this horrific cloud over my dealings, but it has followed me to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where I have another hotel and hope to strengthen the train line up to Albuquerque. So far at my new location, there has been a death at both my hotel, the wife of a Texas senator, and at the local station, one of my hired watchmen.
I will pay for both your and Mr. Holmes's travel and lodging expenses and more. John, please talk to your friend, make him see that this is indeed most dire. It is not only my business I fear—you can imagine how I feel about the deaths thus far! I have received letters threatening not only my life, but that of Serena's as well. It is bad enough the Pinkertons I have hired have gotten nowhere. I did what I only could do and that is, write to you and your esteemed friend to bring this murderous saboteur to justice.
Mrs. Hudson had just left the room after setting down the tray. I don't even remember thanking her. My hand, almost involuntarily, slammed down upon the table, rattling the china.
"Watson," Holmes asked, setting his book down, "whatever is the matter?"
"It is just too much, Holmes," I said, shaking my head. I loosened the top button to my shirt, suddenly feeling the excessive warmth of the room. "Someone or some party is threatening the life of not only my brother-in-law, but my dear niece!"
Holmes stood up and walked over. "May I read the letter?"
I handed it to him and took a deep breath in an attempt to calm my nerves. I knew not to interrupt as he scanned the words with his assiduous gaze. I secretly hoped my friend would see something in Barnaby's summary, perhaps that spark that so ignites his ingenious mind to the hunt.
Upon finishing, Holmes looked up and said, "I am sorry, Watson, that you have received such news. It indeed appears someone is after your brother-in-law and consequently your niece, though there is not one singular motivation that stands out. There can be many. Nevertheless, of course, I would like to help you."
"Really, Holmes?" I said, feeling my brows rise. "Would you agree to it?"
"Watson, as you know, my case itinerary is currently fallow—but that is neither the point. You are my friend and I will do what I can to assist your family."
* * *
I will not bore the reader with mundane details of our sea voyage and my anxieties over the situation facing my niece and her father. Despite these worries, I did anticipate seeing my first glimpses of the North American continent, the land that my late sister had called home for so many years. Surely there was some charm to the western frontier that enticed her away from her native isle. I was to have a taste of this allure as Holmes and I disembarked from port at Galveston, taking a train through the vast farmlands and infinite prairies of west Texas, stopping briefly at El Paso to arrive in Las Cruces, New Mexico territory.
A man in a nicely trimmed suit with close cropped hair greeted us at the depot.
"Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes?" he asked, smiling broadly.
"I believe it is the other way around," Holmes said after being addressed as myself.
"Oh, I do apologize, gentlemen. Mr. Higgins has tasked me to escort you to his hotel The Emerald. I am Percy Chalmers, his concierge and if there's anything you need during your stay, please let me know."
"Where is Barnaby now?" I said, weary from the train. "Could he not meet us here? We've traveled a long distance."
"He apologizes that he had a prior engagement." Chalmers checked a shiny pocket watch, which bore an etched inscription. The article impeccably matched his silver cuff links and tie clip. "He instructed me to accompany you back to the hotel dining room, where he will be waiting to meet you."
"Very good," I said, looking to Holmes who also nodded. Both of us were tired and had not eaten for more than half a day.
* * *
The Emerald sat in the center of downtown, the main thoroughfare lined with various wagons and coaches and plenty of horses. Chalmers was very polite, though I believe he sensed Holmes's and my fatigue after excessively pointing out points of interest then stopping abruptly. It was all intriguing to behold, but The Emerald itself was a grand three-storied, green-painted edifice.
As Chalmers led us into the lobby, I became even more impressed with the look. Everything was of fine quality. I could have easily been in Kensington.
We entered a grand dining hall. Rising from a table were my brother-in-law and niece, the picture of my sister.
"Uncle, is that you?" Serena said, walking briskly forward.
"Serena?" I said, feeling my eyes water.
She embraced me. "You have your mother's looks, my dear."
"Oh, Uncle, I am so glad you two have made it. I feared our letters would be all that I would know of you."
"I for one am grateful to be here," I said. "Please meet Mr. Sherlock Holmes."
"It is pleasure, Serena," Holmes said.
"Your reputation precedes you, Mr. Holmes," Serena said, her golden hair mirroring my sister's.
"Yes, it does, sir," Barnaby said.
I embraced my brother-in-law, making introductions.
"Please sit," Barnaby said. "Chalmers, take their orders. They are surely hungry."
Holmes and I ordered meat and potatoes. Barnaby began introducing us to the party of three with whom he'd had a meeting. "This is Miles Bridgerton, an associate of mine, and these two fine gentlemen are related. First, please meet Thomas Simmons current Mayor of the City, and his son, Reginald Simmons, attorney-at-law."
The mayor and his son stood out as clean-cut individuals, though Bridgerton exhibited a ruggedness. Being a medical man, I couldn't help but notice a deep scar on his face.
Acquaintances were made and I enquired as to how Serena and Barnaby were getting along since the move from El Paso, to which Barnaby said, "We shall discuss such things later. Mayor Simmons and I were on the topic of expanding my rail lines north east of the city to various yards. Fortunately, his son can draft up the legality issues."
"Pray tell," Holmes said, "what issues do you speak of?"
"Come, Mr. Holmes," Barnaby said, "surely you know how much money is involved. When I buy land and the seller sees how much I'm willing to pay, they may raise the price after the ink is already dry. Out here, people tend to get greedy and renege quickly on contracts. Luckily, Mayor Simmons and Reginald can use their influence to help smooth things along with such folks."
"Surely, if your seller will not vacate the land he has sold you, there are constables at standby?" Holmes said.
"You may be surprised to hear this, Mr. Holmes," Barnaby said, "but Las Cruces currently has one sheriff and two deputies in a city of thousands!"
Holmes and I looked at each other aghast. It truly was the wild west I'd heard of in stories.
Holmes and I finished our meal and the mayor and his son took their leave, as well as Bridgerton, who lived in a suite on the first floor.
"Now that we have privacy," Barnaby said, "I can discuss who I think is after me."
"Remember, they are after us," Serena corrected.
"We all know it is because of my dealings. I have political and business rivalries, and someone from either arena surely has a vendetta. Though I suspect the culprit is in the political realm."
"Tell me, Barnaby," Holmes said. "You have plans to run for Texas senate. Why did you move further west?"
"How did you know, Mr. Holmes?" Serena beat her father to it.
"Watson allowed me to read a few of your prior letters to him. They spoke of consolidated rail lines in west Texas, depots in Abilene, Odessa, and El Paso—promoting commerce. It was only a matter of time, and your haste to vacate the environment of murder in El Paso showed your distancing yourself from further scandal in that area. Though it has followed you. Furthermore, I saw the mayor carried with him a scrap of paper that listed names of current state senators, whom I read about in the paper on the train ride here. Perhaps that was also the reason for your meeting. The two of you are finding allies, supporters in your future bid. Subsequently the mayor and his son will benefit from your business by backing your rising political clout in this city and all the way to Austin."
"Holmes," Barnaby said. "When I said your reputation preceded you, I meant it."
"What of this political rival?" Holmes asked.
"Mitchell Havens," Barnaby said. "He owns the Moonstone Hotel up two blocks. He has put in his bid for senator and knows of my plans to run since the rumors started in El Paso. Occasionally, he was a guest at my hotel there, though I knew he was spying, soaking up rumors, and spreading falsities."
"The Moonstone will be the first place where we inquire," Holmes said. "Now, how did you come by your bodyguard, Bridgerton?"
"Serena," Barnaby turned, "perhaps you can answer this. Miles and you have been given to talking quite frequently."
"Father, it just so happens that he is always around. We both live here after all," she said, irritably. "Mr. Bridgerton is a veteran of the Indian Wars who saved father's life while he was surveying for his railway. An Apache raiding party attacked father's survey crew, and Mr. Bridgerton held them off, putting a bullet between the eyes of a brave aiming a weapon at father."
"That scar he carries?" I asked.
"Must have been incurred during that same attack?" Holmes inquired.
"Yes," Barnaby said. "A knife slashed his cheek. He saved my life and I keep him close because he would do a better job than the sheriff's deputies and the Pinkertons whom I have sent home combined!"
"Father has made him a shareholder," Serena said.
"And I have no qualms. He's earned it," Barnaby said folding his arms. "Forgive me, it is a bit late, and I am certain the two of you can get some shut eye. I will have Chalmers show you to your room."
"Very good," said Holmes. "Tomorrow we shall inquire further, discreetly, with hotelier Havens's acquaintances. Rest assured, Watson and I will upturn some rocks regarding these slayings."
* * *
Holmes and I both awoke early to a rapping on our door. I opened it, and Chalmers rushed in.
"Gentlemen, I'm sorry to disturb you," he said. "But there has been a murder."
"Murder?!" I said, immediately becoming more lucid. "Are Serena and Barnaby alright?"
"Yes, they are fine," Chalmers said rubbing his hands. "It was a guest. Knifed to death."
Holmes and I wasted no time in getting dressed. In a mere two minutes we arrived to the third floor directly above us. Chalmers led us to the suite. Blood stains were being wiped from the door sill.
"No. What are you doing?" Holmes sad angrily. "You are erasing evidence." He put a hand to his eyes, shaking his head.
"I'm sorry," Chalmers said. "Barnaby wanted me to have it cleaned right away. He is on his way up here after waking Mr. Bridgerton to stand outside Serena's room."
"And the sheriff?" I asked.
"He has been sent for, though I would not count on him getting here soon. They are always notoriously late."
Holmes and I walked in. A low lamp was lit on the wall, casting an eerie glow. A well dressed man lay sprawled two feet from the entrance.
"Two deep thrusts to the chest and abdomen," Holmes said. "It was a quick and decisive attack with the desired effect."
I nodded, noting the precision of the killing blows.
"As seen from the bloodstains being cleaned at the door, the man was stabbed as he began entering his room," Holmes said. He then reached inside the dead man's coat pocket, examining his billfold. He pulled out a few bills and notes, perusing and replacing them back inside the coat. "An appalling signature, but one of the notes I'm sure has Mitchell Havens's signature."
"You're sure, Holmes?" I said.
"If I were a dilettante, I'd say no, but I am certain."
Barnaby's voice came from the corridor. "I do not want to enter, John, but know that I am here and you take all the time your friend needs."
"We're done here anyway," Holmes said, frowning.
"What have you got?" Barnaby asked, as we exited the crime scene. The bellhop had finished wiping up the blood on the door and was now using a wet cloth in attempt to clean the deeper areas where wall met floor.
"We have enough," Holmes said. "Watson and I will have some tea and breakfast, during which we will devise a plan of attack."
"Oh, thank God," Barnaby said. His hands shook, and I pitied him and his travails.
* * *
"I am going with you, and that's the end of it," Serena said suddenly.
She had joined Holmes and I in our room, despite her father's protestations. Undaunted by the morning's events, Serena had volunteered to be a part of our investigations.
I admit that I startled. My mouth fumbled before I could argue. Holmes sat with his hands steepled, mild amusement glinting from his eyes.
"You may think I am just a pawn in my father's life, Uncle, but I assure you that you are mistaken if that is indeed the case," Serena continued, stepping closer. "My father may be a brusque man who has made enemies in business and government. He may attempt to rule over me like he does his financial affairs. But I am still his daughter. Don't I have a right to care for him? And what about my life too? And besides, I carry this."
From a hidden dress pocket she pulled out a small derringer pistol.
"But Serena—the danger involved . . . " I began, exasperated.
"Danger? Danger, sir? Uncle, forgive me, but you and Mr. Holmes here have been a world away when just down the hall a senator's wife had her throat slashed. Or when Collin, a friend as well as employee, lay knifed to death on the depot platform. No," she shook her head. "Do not lecture me about danger. I have lived my life alone and ventured out beyond my father's shackles since my mother died. You may cage this bird, Uncle, but I will find escape. Now you either let me help you, or I shall continue inquiry on my own."
I had known my sister Samantha to be stubborn in her way, and it appeared this quality along with American resolve had passed to her daughter. I stood bewildered, catching a glance at Holmes who was now unabashedly smiling.
I looked back to Serena, standing tall with a slight tilt to her chin. Holmes stood up from the wingback chair where he sat. "Watson, it appears there is nothing we can do. Your niece is ardent and unbudging. She shall accompany us in our endeavors, though I hope you have devised good excuses to give to your father?" He glanced over to her, his eyebrows raised.
"Have no fear, Mr. Holmes. I have long been acquainted with filial subterfuge. He won't know a thing."
* * *
As we made our way to the Moonstone, we were stopped in route by the owner himself. Mitchell Havens greeted us within several feet of the entrance.
"Serena, you look lovely, and you two must be Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson," he said, bowing. "Doctor, I have read a few of your publications with fervor. My name is Mitchell Havens."
I looked to Holmes who showed no surprise. "I am grateful, Mr. Havens." I said. "How did you know who we are?"
Before Mr. Havens could answer, Holmes said, "He has spies everywhere it appears."
"Well, not everywhere," Mr. Havens said, "but I keep them spread out. You have to if you're to be a senator."
"I guess so," I said, perplexed.
Mr. Havens was tall and lean with long hair beneath a wide brimmed hat as was the fashion. He had a familiar look I could not put my finger on. Perhaps I had seen his portrait in the papers on our train trip from Galveston.
"Why do you bother my father?" Serena said, her voiced raised.
"Bother?" Mr. Havens said, his palms upward. "How am I a bother? I am merely doing what is within my right, surveying my options, just like your father does with his train tracks and other aspirations."
"Like becoming senator?" Holmes asked.
"Well, I wouldn't say he is becoming one," Mr. Havens said, chuckling. "He's got a long way to go on that front. You can't completely buy your way to politics. You have to be able to persuade and get people to like you. A tough thing for him."
"Oh, I see," Serena said, sneering. "You mean he has to have something like your charm? Your disregard for respect and manners?"
"I take it you don't like my bawdy events at this here hotel?" Mr. Haven said. "Your father can run his hotel all prim and proper, but at the Moonstone we like to drink, gamble, and have fun. There's no harm in giving the people what they want."
"If it's working out for you, then why do you spy on him?" Serena countered.
"Always got to know what the competition is up to," Mr. Havens beamed. "Now, come on. Don't fret none. Come on in. Have a cup of coffee."
"I'm afraid we have an appointment to keep," Holmes said, turning around. "Good luck with your campaign, Mr. Havens."
Serena and I looked at each other, uncomprehending. We quickly turned to catch up with Holmes as he made his way back down the way we came.
* * *
The three of us sat in our room. Holmes said he needed time to think as he sat looking out the window. I conversed with my niece, learning of her suitors, one of whom included Reginald Simmons, the mayor's son. She had quickly distanced herself from him, as he was given to drink and the midnight crowds at the Moonstone.
Suddenly Holmes broke from his revelry. "Watson, can you please accompany Serena down to her father's office and find Mr. Bridgerton? He needs to stay with her."
"What is the matter?" Serena asked.
"Please, Serena," Holmes said, taking her hand. "I will explain all later. Right now we must keep you near your father's bodyguard."
"But why must we worry so?" She said.
"I fear someone or some party is going to act brashly. I want to keep watch here at the window to see if anyone suspicious enters the building. Watson, do you have your revolver?"
"Good. Please escort Serena downstairs and find Bridgerton. And be on the lookout."
"Okay, Holmes, if you say so," I said, leading Serena to the door.
We descended the stairwell and reached the lobby, stunned by Holmes's warnings.
"He thinks someone will strike today?" Serena said, as we passed the front desk.
"He must have seen something that leads him to think so. As stumped as I am, I have always trusted his methods." As soon as I said this, I caught a familiar personage vanish up the stairwell we had just descended.
"Wait," I said, rounding. "We need to go back to my room. Quickly now." I ran back across the large lobby and up the stairwell, Serena close to my heels.
As I opened the door, I saw Chalmers with a fake mustachio and wearing droopy street clothes.
"We used to have a big Texas house." Chalmers stood over Holmes. My friend did not look good. His eyes were open but they sagged. Blood matted his hair and stained his collar where it trickled down from a blow to the head. A broken whiskey bottle lay askew on the nearby bed.
I reached into my pocket but Chalmers revealed his own revolver from behind the chair, pointing it at Holmes. "I wouldn't do that Doctor, if you don't want to see your friend's brains exposed." He smiled maniacally. "Now, be a dear, and slowly lay your concealed gun on the floor, sliding it toward me."
I glanced at Serena to my right. Her hands were slightly raised, and I feared Chalmers might point the gun at her next, her being one of his originally intended victims. I had no choice and slowly laid my revolver down, pushing it across the floorboards.
"Chalmers—how could you?" Serena said.
"Don't interrupt, dear," he said. "As I was saying, we used to live in a big house, back when Pa worked for your father. Old Barnaby, the magnate, the almighty. The slavedriver! The Civil War may have ended, but he made slaves of us all, didn't he? You see, my father was his main foreman."
"Look, Chalmers," Serena said, "if you have a grudge with my father, it has nothing to do with him." She gestured to Holmes.
"Him? He's trying to thwart my efforts to tear down your father's empire." Chalmers looked down, perplexed, then back up. "And what about me?" His voice was strangely calm. "Your father requested this man's help to find a monster. But we know who the real monster is. Did you know your father had a posse slaughter a family of Comanche, all because they were camped near his tracks? Did you know he stole land from ranchers near Socorro? Families were forced to flee with nothing."
"My father has made mistakes, but surely . . . "
"You wonder why I've done the things I done?" Chalmers smirked. "My Pa died building Barnaby's bridges. He worked my Pa so hard, we never saw him. The money he sent home was barely enough. My mother could scarcely provide for me and my siblings. Your father worked my Pa day and night to meet deadlines. And one night my Pa worked to the wee hours, lost his balance, and fell off that bridge into the Rio Grande. They tried to save him but it was too dark to see. He washed up the next morning."
"I . . . I'm sorry, Chalmers" Serena pleaded. "I had no idea . . . "
"Your father's greed and disregard for human life made him the monster!" He rasped. "Afterwards, it was too much for my mother, that she in turn grew sick and died, leaving all us brothers and sisters to fend for ourselves!"
"And your brother Havens, not his real name," Holmes interrupted groggily, "helped you in your plot to destroy Barnaby's life brick by brick."
"You shut up," Chalmers shouted, "You think you're so smart. I'll destroy all I can."
My heart sank as Chalmers cocked the trigger. Suddenly a pop filled my ears and Chalmers stumbled back. Serena had pulled her pocket derringer and fired, hitting Chalmers near the collarbone. He lost control of his gun and I charged.
Shattered glass erupted around us as we crashed through the window. We hit the second story awning and I felt air gush out my lungs as my chest grazed an iron rung. More pain followed as I landed on top of Chalmers who had hit the dirt road right before me.
I rolled off of him, dazed. My head whirled and someone came into focus. Chalmers managed to find his gun. I saw him cock the hammer and point it at me. A shot rang out and he toppled over.
In the distance I made out the imposing figure of Miles Bridgerton. His bullet had caught my assailant square between the eyes.
* * *
It was miraculous. Despite some stiches, I remained unscathed. I will be forever grateful to the awning that slowed my trajectory.
We sat in the dining hall the next morning, five of us including Holmes, myself, Barnaby, Serena, and Mr. Bridgerton.
"Watson, I honestly don't know what got into you," Holmes said.
"I saw no other course, Holmes" I said. "The window happened to be conveniently placed."
"You are a hero, my friend, and don't you forget it." He smiled, sipping his tea. "I know I won't."
"How did you know it was Chalmers and his brother Havens?" Serena asked, wanting, like the rest of us, to get to the bottom of it.
"Merely a line of deduction," Holmes began. "When Chalmers picked us up from the depot, he checked his pocket watch. In the moment I noticed a quoted inscription credited to the initials "M.H." I filed this away and later made the connection to Mitchell Havens. As soon as I saw this rival hotelier and aspiring senator, I immediately recognized the resemblance, though he tried to hide it with his grown-out hair."
"The clincher actually happened before. The murder victim discovered our first morning here was a James Smyth hired by Havens to spy on Barnaby's operations, but really he was hired to be murdered to show the futility of our arrival and to further taunt father and daughter. I easily gleaned the connection in that the victim's billfold contained a monetary note signed in messy scrawl simply as 'Havens.'"
"Havens knew his brother was a killer. Together they used their special talents and influences to slowly erode Barnaby's endeavors. A tragic accident had morphed both men into vengeance obsessives. But I daresay this can be a lesson to those who hold the safety of others within their purview." Holmes glanced at Barnaby.
"It is a tragic state of affairs," Barnaby said. "Had I known Chalmers and Havens were brothers whose father worked for me, I would have offered them assistance. They changed their names. If I remember correctly, their father was my foreman named Reynolds. I believe I mailed an insurance check to their mother. Sadly, it may not have lasted long due to their hardships and her medical bills." He shook his head, wiping his face wearily with a steady hand. "And those rumors about that posse ambushing Comanche are true. I should have never hired them. When you let loose blood-hungry men, you realize too late that you could never control or stop them. Some past decisions haunt me each day . . . "
"Well, we can only move forward," Holmes said, "for that is nature's inevitability. Try as we might to turn back the pages and relive moments of the past, we can only do so in mind, not reality. A cold-blooded killer is dead, and yesterday I sent a request to have his accomplice brother arrested, which the sheriff notified me not an hour ago has been fulfilled. Havens will be forced to abandon his path towards holding public office."
"Now you both will have time to see a bit of the West," Serena said.
"A few telegrams from Scotland Yard, unfortunately, are calling me back," Holmes said, "and I will need the assistance of my trusted amanuensis."
"Well, Holmes," I said, "I daresay we have not done without a bit of a wild west adventure."
Nolan is a writer featured in Foliate Oak, Blood Moon Rising, Aphelion, Points in Case, Defenestration, Wingless Dreamer,
The Haven, Robot Butt, Little Old Lady Comedy, History and Fiction, and The Copperfield Review. Under penname Louis
Emery he self-published Epic Fantasy novel Cinders on the Wind. He loves books and the wordy process of making them,
complemented by a cup or two (or three) of pecan-flavored coffee.
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The Bird-Studded Sky
by Eva Schultz
Birds pressed in on John Ambrose from all sides. Their dirty, snapping beaks bit at his hair and their wings slapped at his face, their screams crowding all thoughts out of his mind. He could barely see the ground through the flapping haze; his boots seemed to devour the miles beneath him with unnatural speed. He knew that if he stopped, he would die.
He waved his arms until they were tangled in birds—birds bent and folded over his hands, over his face, smothering his last moments away.
Ambrose sat up in bed, a wordless shout dying in his throat, his upper body tangled in his quilt. He scraped the blanket away and swung his feet over the side of his cot. He sat with his stocking feet on the bare plank floor.
The dream never stopped feeling real, no matter how many times he had it. He had experienced his own death thousands of times over the years.
And he knew why.
* * *
"Mama, come and see! The birds are stuck in the sky!"
Mrs. Webster did not look up at her 8-year-old son. "Willie, you can see that I am busy with Mr. Cooper," she said, gesturing at the dry goods merchant, who was tallying her bill.
"William Webster." Her tone held all the warning and correction needed.
The child made an impatient sound and trotted back out the door and down the steps of the dry goods emporium, resuming his place in the packed dirt road.
It was a full five minutes before Mrs. Webster resolved a minor mathematical dispute with Mr. Cooper, emerged from the store, and saw a group clustered around her son, gazing at the cloudless blue. "Willie?" she called, a note of uncertainty in her tone.
"Mrs. Webster—did you see?" It was Jake Longley, one of the young men who worked at the stables, turning back from the crowd and waving her forward.
Mrs. Webster shifted the packages in her arms and joined the group. At first, she saw nothing. Then, as she shielded her eyes and they focused against the sunlight, she could make out a dark spot near the horizon that slowly coalesced into several distinct spots. "Just birds . . . " she said hesitantly.
"Watch 'em for a spell," Jake urged.
Mrs. Webster glanced at him and looked again. She waited for the slight movement that should be just visible at this distance. After several moments, she began to frown, then placed her thumb in her field of vision just below the birds, closing one eye.
When she dropped her hand and opened both eyes, Willie was standing in front of her, staring up expectantly. "I said they were stuck," he said.
"Come on, now." She took her son by the hand. "It's mighty strange, but we have tomatoes to harvest and chickens to feed."
As mother and son trekked in the opposite direction, back into the maze of homesteads to the west, they passed a lanky man with a gray beard and piercing brown eyes. They didn't speak to him, but then, no one really did. Mr. Ambrose (was it his Christian name or his surname?) had so assiduously ignored everyone for years that it had become common to return the treatment.
He seemed incapable of offense. The townsfolk advised newcomers not to bother trying to engage him.
"That's just how some folks are," Mrs. Webster's father-in-law had explained patiently when she was offended upon first encountering the old man. "Everyone's been through something. There's no reason to try and force a body to be friendly."
He came to town every other Tuesday to trade, walking straight to the mercantile, conducting his business in a mutter, and walking straight home. Now, on this strange, silent morning, as the crowd stared at the sky together, Ambrose slipped in silently to stand with them.
* * *
A group of men—anyone who didn't have immediate business in town, really—agreed to walk out together and investigate. One of the farmers speculated that the sight was a mile and a quarter away, not a long walk.
The men moved forward together, discussing the strange sight before them. Jake, who had explained the odd scene to Mrs. Webster, led the way with his friend Charlie.
"I've never seen old man Ambrose go anywhere without being asked or forced," Charlie said, glancing back at the old man.
"He caught cold a few winters ago and wouldn't let my ma bring him a tureen of soup," Jake replied. "She said she was trying to help him—he'd die if it took to his lungs—but he told her it weren't his time yet. We didn't see him for two weeks; my pa finally rode out to his old shack, and he was out front milking his goat like nothing ever happened. Didn't even bother to tell my folks he was well, let alone say thank you for the concern."
Jake cast a surreptitious glance over his shoulder at Ambrose and was relieved that the man didn't seem to notice. "My pa thinks Ambrose is an old army man. After everything Pa saw when he was a chaplain, he says it's best to just pray for him and leave him be, but I still think he's an old loon."
Charlie didn't reply. They had drawn much closer now and could distinctly see the outlines of the individual birds—seven, in all—spread out in a sloppy row.
Around Jake and Charlie, the older men began to discuss the pattern of the cluster, which way they appeared to be headed, why in the world they looked so still. They were hovering for some reason, one man speculated. Must be.
The talk died away. They were so close now, they could see the birds trapped in eerie stillness above. Buzzards—the sign of death.
One of the men drew a pistol from his belt, and the others dropped back as he aimed. He fired once; nothing happened. He tried a second time, then a third. He was the best shot in town; no one needed to remind anyone else of that. Not one of the birds moved.
"That's unholy," Charlie muttered, and Jake did not contradict him.
* * *
No one knew what to do. How could they? Groups trekked out to the edge of town throughout the afternoon to gawk, throw rocks, shoot. Nothing made a difference. The children were innocently excited to see something so strange, but the adults were disturbed by the sight.
Finally, Parson Longley spoke up—everyone should come back to the church for a prayer meeting, he urged. This could be nothing but an omen, and such a dark thing should be prayed against.
The fiddler played hymn after hymn, and the parson read the scriptures, and the men took turns standing to pray, uncertain of what to ask for. As the sun sank below the horizon and the crickets' song began, a low sound started in the distance—a hum of wind that rose and rose. Murmurs moved through the room as the fiddles died away.
Longley hesitated, then walked up the aisle to open the door and look out into the night.
"I need to get home," one of the farmers said, and there was a general murmur of assent among the congregants.
"Wait." Longley put a hand up. "It could be a twister. We may be safer here."
"The weather ain't right for that," one of the men pointed out. "A twister don't come up out of nothing, middle of the night."
As the room buzzed with discussion, in the back row, old Ambrose stood up and slipped out the door. Only the parson noticed, and he headed outside to follow the old man.
Longley glanced around, his eyes adjusting to the low light, and saw a figure moving slowly, steadily in the direction of the birds. "Ambrose?" he called. He crossed the stretch of road between them. "The wind seems to be getting worse. Come inside and wait it out with us, why don't you?"
He was close enough now to see that Ambrose was looking him in the eye. After 20 years of the man's downcast gaze, it was unsettling.
"Go back inside," Ambrose replied. "The danger will be past soon enough."
Parson Longley wanted to say something. He wanted to take the old man by the arm and guide him inside, to light and safety. But something in the man's eyes stopped him. He watched Ambrose walk away and wondered if he'd ever see him again.
* * *
Captain John Ambrose walked to the vultures, and ghosts walked with him. Young men, wide-eyed Union soldiers who had never seen battle before. He was supposed to lead them. He was supposed to set the example.
The memories hung on his back like a load as he walked: the flares of rebel guns, the ground-shaking percussion of the cannons, the wild, too-close faces as the enemy bore down upon them.
The memory was as fresh as if it had just happened last night. In a way, it had—every night for 20 years. Ever since the day he led those boys into battle, saw the buzzards frozen in the sky, and knew it was his time to die.
And so he ran. The branches slapped and scratched at him as he tore through them and deep into the underbrush. He heard the shots behind him, screams that he knew were his men dying.
He couldn't have said how he knew, but as his men crouched in the brush waiting for their foe, he saw the buzzards and knew they were there for him.
Would his men have lived if he had stayed and fought alongside them, if he had allowed the birds to take his soul? They had all stood and fought, and they all died—every man in his platoon, to a one. He had learned this long after, as he lay low in a faraway town. Perhaps death, enraged at finding that its prey had escaped, had taken all of his men as payment.
He ran west, trying to forget. For the first few years, he moved from town to town, like a creature pursued. Every day might be the day that death returned for him. How would it feel when he saw that sign in the sky once again? How would he answer this ultimate test that he had failed so long ago?
He walked in the windy dark, trying to remember all the names of the men in his unit, all those young lives that ended in one day. Instead, he could only see the faces of the townsfolk, the neighbors he had lived alongside for two decades.
At last, he reached the birds. He swallowed hard and stepped forward, directly beneath them, and looked up. The wind quieted, and he heard the rustling of their wings, saw their forms moving against the starry sky.
He looked back at the town. Then he turned and followed the birds beyond the town's border.
* * *
The next morning, as soon as the sun was high enough in the sky to see, the men of the town headed back to the edge of town. They could see something there in the sky, but they soon realized they could see movement this time. As they drew near, the birds descended.
Moments later, they were near enough to see the buzzards preying upon the fallen form of John Ambrose.
Eva Schultz lives in Aurora, Illinois, where she is a business writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Her work has recently appeared in Slippage Lit, The Free Bundle, and Fabled Journal. She lives with a big orange cat named Gus and enjoys drawing, painting, and collecting typewriters. Visit her online at www.evaschultz.com.
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Back to Home
by Robert Gilbert
Millie McAllister stood in silence. Her stare, aimed off in the distance, returned to gaze upon the mound of dirt in front of her, just a simple grave, awaiting its cross.
Nearby, an old, rusty shovel remained vertical, its face only halfway out of the ground. A slight breeze teased at her red-gold hair, but it did little to stifle the river of tears that constantly ran down her face. Maybe it was the sooty sunlight that painted across her cheeks, but Millie looked pale, paler than I'd ever seen before. Certainly her auburn hair shaded the tones of her face, but there was a peaked look in her complexion, as if the incident had slurped all the color right out of her.
The gentle flow of wetness from her eyes continued as she tightly clutched the hand of Zackary, just 12 years of age, their only child. She couldn't afford the typical black mourning dress worn for bereavement as such, so she was dressed only in a simple, aged, store-bought frock. There was an October chill in the air, so her shoulders were covered with an old, knitted shawl. Zackary was wearing his Sunday-best britches and a clean, tan shirt, with brown suspenders holding it all in place. His scuffed boots revealed they'd undergone a quick once-over with boot polish and a brush. Resting in place on his head was a worn, brown cloth derby. His lengthy blond hair curled against his ears, with locks protruding down his neck.
Standing at the other side of Mille, I felt the same cool breeze brush against my hard facial skin and whisk through my broad mustache. The draft touched my flannel shirt and tickled my U.S. Marshal badge. The soft fabric of my shirt was held tightly against my frame by my aged, black suspenders. In both hands, I held my wide-brim, felt cowboy hat in front of me.
I glanced briefly over at Millie, then at the boy. In both of their eyes, I could see that their loneliness and confusion was what welded them together. She did her best to explain to the boy that his pa had been gunned down only a few steps away from their homestead porch, but it still didn't seem to make any solid sense to either one of them.
The crisp, autumn air filled our lungs. Harvest was already over, so the fields lay bare, allowing even more bone-chilling gusts to come our way. I continued to stand motionless, thinking about what a wonderful family they were. Many townsfolk from Cheyenne River were there to pay their respects, standing by Charles McAllister's shallow grave just beyond their high plains house. It was Millie's choice for his resting place; she wanted to keep him close to her, rather than the hill at the edge of town.
A lasting eulogy and prayer was delivered by Pastor Daniel Davis of First Faith Congregational Church. His masterful words were strong, presented with credence and delivered with much conviction and belief. He asked us to recollect Charles's service in the Union Army, and he spoke comforting words meant to take the sting out of his untimely death. Prayers of remembrance were uttered by several of those standing nearby, knowing that the old soldier's steadfast faith would follow him into Glory Land.
The pastor's words kept rattling through my brain as I repositioned my hat. Slowly, one by one, family by family, the mourners turned and disappeared back to town, the sound of horse hooves and buggy wheels filling the crisp air. Then, there was only cold, torturous silence.
Again, I turned my attention to Millie, a widow now emotionally spinning with endless confusion. Her tears continued to fall, so much so that she had to release her palm from Zachary's grip. Her hands came together to cover her face, concealing a would-be scream. In reality, she could hardly lift her voice above a whisper. I watched her head slowly bob up and down, as if she were trying to convince herself that there was some sort of plausible explanation for her husband's ill-timed demise. Perhaps she thought it had something to do with the color of his uniform during the war. And perhaps she's right, I thought.
The wind continued to circle around us, as if we were enclosed in an old canning jar. As it howled, Millie finally mustered the courage to speak a few words. She spaced her words evenly, but it was still evident that her mind reeled with confusion. "I ain't a big sermon talker like Pastor Davis. He does it real good." She paused to catch her breath, and then went on, "My husband is buried here in this ditch. Now, he's at rest, knowin' our homestead dirt is coverin' his eyes." Her memories of him were pure and clear, and she looked in my direction as more tears of emotion welled in her eyes. "I'll have feelings for him forever, no matter what," she murmured.
A hush fell around us as the casual breeze turned a bit chillier, as if nature itself echoed the young woman's pain.
The man standing next to me was my deputy, Levi Bounds. We'd worked together for over ten years. He was in dire need of a partial shave and a trim of his bushy mustache, but Levi had always displayed a strong, rigid profile. He was just plain big and ugly, my kind of lawman. Levi liked to cuss a lot, especially at drunks who thought they could out-duel him to see who had the fastest gun. His hardened skin magnified the inky blackness of his eyes. He was wearin' a dark blue, flannel shirt, with faded suspenders. His trouser cuffs were tucked inside his tall, drab boots. As he stood there, he repositioned his cowboy hat, a wide-brim felt, similar to mine. His black hair curled to touch the back of his shirt, and sunlight momentarily danced a glint across his badge.
Light and shadow cut through our stance as leaves, like feathers, floated across the landscape, slowly designing its colorful, yearly fall blanket. As always, the coming of autumn was a masterful experience.
At last, Millie's tears evaporated, and she turned to look at Zackary. "Go change your clothes, young man," she directed, in a tired voice. "Put that hat away and get in them bibs you usually wear. After that, go to the barn and corral and feed an' water the livestock. I was gonna do it myself this morning, but this here killin' has kept me busy. Go on now, and no fussin' 'bout it neither."
The well-mannered boy walked over to Levi and me, shook our hands, then stepped back and said, "I wanna be a U.S. Marshal too. I think it'd be mighty nice to wear a shiny badge and run them damn ol' Rebs back to Dixie. Get rid of the same kind o' shit that killed my pa."
"Zackary!" Millie yelled, with a critical, motherly tone in her voice. "Don't you be a-usin' nasty talk! Do as you're told, young man. Get to the house, change your clothes, then get out to the barn. Them animals are waitin' for ya. You git right now, ya hear?"
Zackary quickly made his way to the back door without saying another word, at least not any that we could hear.
"Millie and Warren," Levi said, turning away from the grave, "I gotta get back to Cheyenne River. I got walkin' to do, to make sure our town is as fit now as it was when we left it, so I'll be moseyin' on, if ya don't mind. Ma'am, I'll stop by another time, maybe on a happier, sunnier day." He walked over and gave Millie a hug as he put his hat back on his head, then stepped to his two-stocking chestnut. He mounted up and tipped his hat in a cordial farewell.
At last, she was able to share a smile. "Marshal Brothers," she said, looking in my direction once more, "you wanna stay for some coffee? Let me put fire to the stove. It won't take long. I even got some fresh milk to cool it down."
I followed her to the back door and when we stepped inside, I removed my hat. Before long, the aroma of coffee had filled the entire room, the best thing to hit my nose in a long while.
We sat across from one another, nursing the hot brew. She lightly blew over the rim of her cup to entice it to cool, creating tiny waves on the black surface of the beverage. 'Fore long, another faint but gradual smile appeared, as she tried to ignore the circumstances of the day. I thought of asking questions, but I didn't have to; she graciously took it upon herself to fill me in on the gory details of the happening.
Millie's voice was weak, as if her breath burned in her throat, but she began, "Charles and me were years apart in age, ya know. An old man sees a pretty girl and sweeps her off her feet and into his arms. That was years after the Civil War." She took a first sip of her cooled coffee, then continued, "Charles didn't speak of the war much, but ever' so often, he mentioned Vicksburg. He said he served in the 55th Illinois Infantry, with Grant. He said the worst fightin' was against them sons-a-bitch Rebs from the 43rd Mississippi Infantry. That afternoon was a real bloodbath, he told me, with more dead around 'em than livin'. Somehow, Charles lost his rifle and had to rely on his bayonet to help him stay alive. Only a few from his bunch came home. Many of his friends were buried there."
Millie stood and walked slowly away from the table and into the front room. She paced the floor, still holding her coffee cup, and talk seemed to come easy for her now. "Years after the war, Charles and I met in Grand Tower, Illinois. It's a small town that faces the Mississippi River. We socialized a lot. Even though I was only 17 at the time, he thought I was in my twenties. Truth was, Charles couldn't wait to marry me," she said, with a crooked smile on her face and a look of happy nostalgia in her eyes. "When I turned 18, we wed." She continued to pace as memories of Charles lingered around the edges of her mind, bringing another faint smile to her face. Her words were straightforward, as if she were only talking to herself.
I studied her disposition, letting her feelings carry on.
"You ever seen that ol' river, Marshal?" she asked, glancing in my direction.
I took another sip of my coffee and peered at her over the rim of my cup.
"The Mississippi, I mean. It's as long as it is wide, and the river bottom is full o' old ships that didn't make it." She paused and shook her head. "All them muddy banks with twisted trees. In the spring, floods come along and wash away any crops some fool thought to plant. It was hard to make a livin' there, so we moved out here to Colorado, where the land is plentiful and money from crops is real good. We expanded the size of this place, and we've been pleased with our lives here. Matter fact, after Zackary was born, Charles was happier than a fox in a henhouse."
She refilled our coffee cups as I continued to listen to her reminiscing.
Millie continued to stand, but her features suddenly appeared shaken. "Yesterday, Charles was standing on the porch, and I was in the front room. These riders come up, four of 'em, yellin' with Southern accents. The one who did most of the talkin' said he was Moses Fitch. 'These others are Skinner, Juba, and Harley,' he told us. All of 'em were laughin' real hard, like they'd gone mad or somethin'. Then, they got serious, especially that Moses fella in the gray, faded cap. Them other men's hats were just as shabby, but I can't tell ya whether they was gray or not. They all looked nasty, like pigs who'd been raised in dirt. Marshal, I ain't never seen no men so filthy."
"Go on," I said, before I took a sip of the fresh brew.
Her eyes became misty, and her expression was cold. "Moses mentioned Vicksburg," she said, turning to me. "He said all four of 'em had kin who were killed there. After a lot of questions, they figured it was Charles's 55th who done 'em in. The riders yelled a few more words and curses, and then gunfire exploded, cuttin' my husband into pieces right before my very eyes."
"Vicksburg happened over twenty years ago, Millie," I said, "back in '63."
"I guess time made no difference to them, Marshal. Lost blood is never forgotten." She stared out to the mound under which Charles was buried and faltered to say any more.
I placed my coffee cup on the table, stood, and repositioned my hat. When she approached me, we held each other for a long while. I did my best to comfort her, but her sobbing just went on and on. "Let me get back to Cheyenne River," I said.
She struggled with uncertainty.
My voice hardened as I answered, "Levi and I have a serious job ahead of us. Ev'rybody in town looked highly on your husband. I know they all extend their sympathy to you and Zackary."
She tried to smile but could only offer a bit of a smirk, which I completely understood. Millie watched from the front door for a moment, then she stepped to the porch as I unhitched my bay and eased myself over my cold saddle. She moved to the place where the porch met the dirt, to tell me goodbye.
I nudged my horse in her direction. "You tell that young man o' yours that he's gonna make a great lawman someday. No doubt about that." My words were sincere, 'cause I'd seen some real potential in that boy for as long as I'd known him.
Again she tried to smile as more tears dripped onto her lips.
By the time I turned away from her house, returning to Cheyenne River, layers of distant sunset painted the western sky. Long steaks of smoky gray, soft red-orange, and lavender stretched into the horizon. A constant chill was all around me and crept into my lungs while my bay paced along at a steady gallop. Beyond the painted sunset, a black sky was south of me and rapidly closing the gap between us in a heap of dark gray and ebony clouds. Without a doubt, there was a storm a'comin', and it looked like it was going to be a chilly one.
I was still miles from Cheyenne River, so the ride gave me plenty of time to reflect on Millie and the boy. I nudged my horse into a full gallop as I pondered, Just how long is this revenge from the Civil War gonna last? If those four mongrels have already worked out a hit list, it'd be best for Levi and me to start huntin' 'em down, 'cause I got no idea who's next. For all I knew, it could have been someone in Cheyenne River. I knew a few folks had done like Charles and made their way to Colorado years after the war. Better do some checkin' with the older folks, I decided. I was sure that word about Charles's killing had already spread around. The way I saw it, old soldiers who'd served in the war needed to be on the lookout for four strangers on horseback. It was Millie's mention of Moses's gray cap that really set that in stone.
When I finally rode into Cheyenne River, I felt tension in all the eyes looking up at me. As if that wasn't a cold enough feeling, the intensity of the breeze had increased since I'd left Millie's homestead. I looked around and couldn't find Levi; he was nowhere to be found. Frustrated, I stepped down from my bay, strapped the leather across the hitch rail, and made my way across the boardwalk. Before entering the U.S. Marshal office, I looked to the heavens.
The crisp night was beginning to get cooler, and those black clouds were coating the sky. In the distance, I saw a few early strikes of lightning, and kerosene lamps were blazing in the windows, including mine.
When I walked into the office, I spotted Levi standing next to the rifle rack, surrounded by a handful of people. Most of them were older veterans, from the ranks of the Civil War, men who'd moved to our neck of the woods from places like Ohio and Michigan. They were worried sick and shouting questions to Levi.
"Those responsible for Charles's death will be found," I assured them over and over again, but the townsfolk sounded skeptical and displeased.
A few even told me they'd taken to wearing sidearms and were aimin' to get their rifles cleaned and loaded. One even asked, "Am I gonna have to escort my missus to and from the fancy fashion shop?"
"I can't argue against that," I admitted.
After they left, I turned to Levi. "Come with me," I said.
We began walking on the boardwalk, toward the telegraph office, and we felt a few droplets of rain tap on the wide brims of our felt hats.
Marcus Rule did a real good job of running the wire business, and he was still at his post, sending news up and down the line to various towns who might have known Charles. Marcus liked to talk a lot, even more so than the town barber, but I'd never been one to be interested in tall tales and gossip. He had a bad habit of constantly blabbing to members of the congregation while the service was going on. That didn't sit well with Pastor Davis, who finally told him, "Shut up or get acquainted with another church," which was precisely what Marcus did.
When Levi and I stood in front of Marcus, we instructed him to wire every town within a thirty-mile radius of Cheyenne River to be on the lookout for a quartet of riders dressed like saddle bums, one possibly wearing a gray, Confederate-looking hat.
"I'll get it out soon as possible," Marcus said, thrilled to have a new bit of gossip to pass around.
As we made our way back to the office, the wind smacked hard against us, noticeably colder. The sky was increasingly black, with those ominous clouds rolling in from the southwest. It was approaching fast, with blustery rain and a wicked, blowing wind I didn't appreciate in the least bit. Levi didn't take kindly to it either.
Levi and I bunked in the back of the jail. He took the lower bed because of his enormous size; I didn't want him caving in on me in the night. There was a small window near the end of my bunk which allowed me to keep an eye on the shops and businesses that populated the boardwalk area of town.
"Are you ever gonna quit smokin' those things?" I spat at Levi. I'd told him more than once that he should give up them specialty cigars he bought on a regular basis at the dry goods shop in the middle of town. When he lit one up, it stunk the place up terribly, and the smell was completely nauseating.
Even worse, my deputy had an affinity for the occasional pleasure of spitting. Wads o' tar shit filled his left cheek, and warm mucus emptied from his lips, along with a gooey, slimy substance whenever he was close enough to aim for a spittoon. When he was outside, the big globs just splattered into a miniature mound of black saliva in the dirt, making for the perfect place for flies to come and lay their eggs.
The next day, Marcus stood at my desk, holding a telegram. He was so excited about it that he nearly knocked down the wood stacked next to the pot-belly stove that had been warming the office and back room all night. Levi and I were sitting at separate desks, drinking overly hot coffee from tin cups, so hot it was scalding our tongues.
"Marcus, I guess you already read this, huh?" I quizzed, looking at him suspiciously.
"Course I did, Marshal. I had to write it down when it came over the wire," Marcus said.
"So you know what it says?" I continued.
"Just doin' my job, Marshal. Ain't tryin' ta be nosy." He paused for a moment, and his fingers twitched nervously. "That's what you're a-thinkin', ain't it? You think I already know what's goin' on, and that it ain't none of my business," he said, wearing a facial expression like that of a man who was cornered.
I ignored Marcus's reaction and began to read aloud, "This here message is from Sheriff Joe Mays, over in Cobb Station. He says four rowdy sodbusters, one wearin' a gray cap, match your description. 'I'll keep watch on 'em till you arrive. They had no problem tearin' up the Pink Lady Saloon last night. Just a no-good bunch o' ruff and rowdy sodbusters wantin' to tear this town apart. They're aimin' to do the same to our other saloon tonight. See you soon and be well-heeled.'"
I thanked Marcus and instructed him to take his leave without another word spoken. I watched him walk to the office door and step out onto the boardwalk. Thereafter, he retreated to the street and headed back to his office.
Sheriff Mays's news enticed us to make sure our Colts and rifles were loaded. We inserted extra ammo in our holster belts, as well the saddlebags. After everything was to our satisfaction, we locked the office door and walked in the direction of the livery.
Autumn's coolness swirled around us, pressing sharp breezes against our bodies. We hurried into the livery and the sudden warmth felt like a July day. Immediately, our saddles were in place, our horses let out, and our feet rammed into the stirrups.
With Cheyenne River now behind us, the trail continued across the tabletop flatlands for the next ten miles or so before it inched upward, adding to that a gradual curve. Even in our heavy coats, the brisk weather was extremely noticeable. At the same time, the clouds I'd noticed when leaving the McAllister place were now gray-oatmeal in color. Then, just like that, they opened up and rained a vicious, raw storm down upon us. Sheets of rain pelted us and our horses, slapping against the wide brims of our hats.
Fortunately, we weren't that far from Cobb Station when the storm hit. That town was a hilly place, nestled between two lengthy mountain ranges. It was artistry at its best, a picturesque setting, even in a rainstorm.
We dismounted and tied our reins to the rail in front of the sheriff's office, stepped up on the boardwalk, and hurried inside. Introductions were made quickly, hard grips against hard grips.
"Thanks for comin' so quick," Sheriff Mays said in his typical hard tone. "Right now, the men you're after are occupyin' the High Ridge Saloon, likely up to no good again. If that Marcus of yours got my message right, you already know that last night, those hooligans decided to take over the Pink Lady, and they ruined the whole damn place. Tables were broken, the bar mirror was shattered, booze bottles smashed everywhere. Heck, three whores even ended up being fucked all night, without any payment for their trouble. Moses Fitch and his bunch are absolutely terrifying scoundrels. No doubt about it, Fitch is the worst among 'em."
The sheriff led us back out onto the boardwalk, and Levi and I looked across the way, trying to ignore the pounding rain in front of us. From that distance, we could hear the rambunctious activities going on inside the High Ridge: piano playing, loud chinwag, ladies screaming, and cowboys laughing. The smell of whiskey filled the air.
Soon, the three of us were standing in the street, directly in front of the lively watering hole, with the rain drenching our clothes. Our boots were sinking in puddles of mud, and while our pistol belts were secure, our hands were wet against the wood grips of our .45s.
Suddenly, someone in the saloon hollered, "Hey, it's the sheriff!" giving our whereabouts away.
Almost immediately, Moses Fitch, Skinner, Juba, and Harley piled out and stood on the boardwalk, leaving the festivities behind.
"What's the occasion, fellas? Why are you lawmen standing in the muddy street? You lookin' for trouble or after somebody?" Fitch said, the obvious spokesman of the group. His voice didn't sound threatening; rather, there was a hitch of laughter in it. The others beside him joined in his chuckling, with heavy sarcasm.
"I'm Marshal Warren Brothers, from Cheyenne River. I'm here to arrest you and your friends for the murder of Charles McAllister, on his ranch."
"You got shit for brains, Marshal," Moses replied. "I ain't never heard of no Cheyenne River. Never been in that part of Colorado."
"I got an eyewitness who says otherwise, Moses," I stated matter-of-factly. "You and your partners rode up to Charles's place and started a quarrel about the Civil War, namely Vicksburg. Then, all four of you drew your guns and emptied them, filling that man with lead right in front of his own house. Does that ring a bell, Moses Fitch?"
Instantly, the four spread apart, lifted their guns, and spat a shower of bullets around us as we ducked for cover. Sheriff Mays, lurking behind a pillar in front of the mercantile, had a good shot at Skinner. The desperado was trying to duck for cover, but Mays's bullet burned inside Skinner's chest as he collapsed and died.
Meanwhile, Juba scurried to take cover under a wagon. I was in a closed area between two buildings and saw him, saturated in mud, as he leaned away from the wagon. I fired one shot, and the ammo from my .45 directly penetrated Juba's gut. He rose up momentarily, let out an ear-splitting scream, and fell flat into a puddle of mud.
Deputy Levi Bounds spotted Harley, who was trying to retreat into the ladies' apparel shop. Harley got as far as the front door, turned to face Levi, and let go with two shots. Levi returned fire until his pistol was spent. All six rounds slammed into Harley, and he slumped to his knees and slowly fell to his side.
Sheriff Mays and I saw Moses running in the direction of the livery. We fired at him, round after round, thinking that he'd been hit, only to see Moses leave the blacksmith's shop and escape into a nearby stable. We both ran in there to finish him off, but he was nowhere to be found.
Three of the four were dead and had the bodies secured across their saddles so Levi and I could make our way back to Cheyenne River with the culprits in tow. It was still nippy outside, but the rain eventually began to subside. The shootout and our travels had carried us into the evening hours, and darkness had already painted the sky. We were drenched and filthy by the time we made it back to town and met up with the undertaker to arrange for the handling of the deceased. We cleaned up in the back of the barbershop and had dinner at Melba's Meal House, directly across from the U.S. Marshal office.
The next morning, Center Street was a mess of mud and deep puddles. Easing our direction through the oozing muck was Millie McAllister. She was holding her horse reins as she led the animal behind her. Tied down over the saddle was Moses Fitch, still wearing his faded Confederate kepi. She maneuvered to where Levi and I were standing on the boardwalk in front of our office, and there was a look of determination in her eyes as she said, "Marshal, late last night, I was workin' in the barn, and I heard a horse approachin'. It was dark and cold out, so I didn't wanna take a chance of tryin' to run to the house. Instead, I hid in a horse stall with light from a dim lantern. When I caught a glimpse of that gray cap, I was sure it was that ol' Moses Fitch, comin' back to start more trouble. I don't carry a gun, so my only protection was a three-prong pitchfork. Soon as he saw me, he ran toward me. I saw blood all over him when he got closer, so I knew he was hurt. I figured that might give me a fightin' chance. When he got real close, I rammed Charles's old pitchfork straight into his chest. I pushed so hard that I could see the prong tips comin' out his back. He grabbed the handle and tried to remove it from his middle, but he died in front of me. I'd be lyin' if I said I ain't damn pleased about that," she said, now struggling to hold back tears.
The horse Fitch was tied down on suddenly jerked, and the Confederate cap fell into a sloppy, muddy gathering of rainwater. Another horseman trotted near from the other direction, and his mount's hooves unknowingly stomped the cap down into the mud, the last bits of gray sinking into the grime to be left behind as a final memory of the McAllister happening.
Robert Gilbert is the author of Run with the Outlaws (amazon), a collection of Western short stories. Hooked on
Westerns began when Gilbert lived in Hollywood, California, as an entertainment writer. He spent numerous
occasions on the Western back lot of Warner Bros. studio. Many of his short stories have been published in Frontier
Tales and Rope and Wire. Gilbert has written over twenty-eight Western short stories. Visit his website at: www.robertlouisgilbert.com
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