August, 2022

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Issue #155

All The Tales

Some Days Are Just Worse Than Others
by Sumner Wilson

Big Ed Smiley, the big man in the county, the big shot who owned most of the wealth in the region, had reached the point where he felt he could do anything he wanted to do and get away with it. This time, though, when he plucked the fifteen-year-old Benson girl, Mona, off the street and hauled her out to his ranch as a personal toy, he made a mistake. The Benson family was well respected in the area and the residents of the town of Scarlet, county seat of Nebo County were outraged.

As a result, the citizens formed a group and marched on Sheriff Wells' office to voice their complaints of Smiley's outrageous act of kidnapping the young girl. Sheriff Adam Wells called on two of the most fearsome of the citizens and enlisted their help. One of the men he picked was a large man, an ex-prize fighter and saloon keeper named Jim Enloe. The other man was an older fellow, named Tillman Dead, who owned a restaurant across the street from the sheriff's office.

Three days before with the circus in town Big Ed Smiley brought his entire army in, and among them was one of his prisoners, a man named Withers who had fallen from the good graces of Smiley. Smiley placed him in a small box, set him in the middle of the street where the full sun would hit him all day long. It was plain to all that Smiley meant to leave Withers there to bake to death in the sun. Jim Enloe had watched the man suffer each passing day. He decided to take things into his own hands, since Sheriff Wells was alone with only his authority to back him up. Enloe finally saw his chance. The guard, a man named Murphy, was sleeping in the shade of the Sheriff's office.

The sun struck Enloe with its powerful heat, and he wondered if they were perhaps setting out on a useless quest. He figured Withers had probably already succumbed. He walked quickly up to the prison box and was surprised to see him still alive.

Withers lifted his head. His lips bled from ugly cracks created by the fists of Bobby Sikh, one of Smiley's roughnecks, Enloe thought. His face was white as the corpse of a drowned man, for there was little air inside the tiny iron box. He rested his chin upon the narrow ledge of the barred window and panted for air in painful gasps.

Enloe held the key to the box in hand. A crowbar.

"I'm fixing to take you out of there, Withers," Jim explained.

He studied the street then to see if anyone watched the rescue attempt. He saw that no one was watching. He wrenched the lock off the box with the crowbar, dropped it and the bar both in the dust, and swung the door open.

"Come out of there, man," he said.

But it soon became obvious that Withers could not climb out by himself. Enloe hauled him outside. Withers attempted to stand but fell instead. So Enloe picked him up and carried the man inside the jailhouse. He and the sheriff set him by the water bucket and allowed him to drink. Wells made sure he didn't drink too much too fast. In time, Wither's managed to reach his feet on his own. The sheriff led him to a cell and put him inside to watch over him in case Smiley sent in a team of gunmen to recover his property.

Dead showed up then, and they decided that they would go out to the Smiley ranch and see if they could free Mona Benson, for Withers claimed that the girl was locked up in one of the sheds out at the ranch for failing to give in to the big man's advances. The sheriff would stay at the jail to guard Withers. The two men, Dead and Enloe, mounted up and left the town of Scarlet in the baking heat of noonday to bring Mona home. Jim was suddenly stricken with a headache. He felt sure this was a bad day. He also knew that some days were just worse than others.

* * *

In sight of the elaborate gate leading up to Smiley's ranch house, Jim witnessed a large tribe of vultures at feast upon the small portion that remained of an unfortunate gambler by the name of Willis. When one of the feathered creatures shifted positions for a better point of attack, he caught a glimpse of Willis's bright red shirt, and this shot him full of pain for Jim knew him well. His only fault was to stay in a game long after he should have tossed in his cards. He had angered Smiley for some reason. Smiley killed him and had some of his men hang him from the front gate that led to his massive ranch house.

As the two riders approached the gate, scavengers that had been feasting on Willis's body took air with a loud whirr of wings. A few of the detached feathers drifted on the slight wind until they touched the ground at last, beneath the gate.

Enloe and Dead stopped beneath Willis's remains, which looked like nothing more than a small length of rags a group of women had ripped apart to create a quilt. A stench hung in the air, so strong it threatened to turn Jim's stomach wrong side out. He watched the old man's nose wrinkle too and felt relieved that no one but Dead could see his own look of disgust.

Nimbly, he stood up on his saddle to cut Willis down. Just as he snapped open the blade of his pocketknife, Tillman said, "Just what are you doing, boy?"

"I'll cut him down, Till. Ain't right to leave him up here."

"You got a shovel?"

"No sir."

"Leave him be then."

"It's not Christian, Till."

"If you don't have a shovel to bury him with, you better leave him up there."

"But the vultures," Jim protested.

The old-timer pointed to where the vultures strode upon the ground nearby, agitated and angered because of the interference of the two men.

"They'll get him anyway. Up there or on the ground. You don't intend to haul him around behind your saddle till we get back to Scarlet, do you? I hope not."

The old man was right, Jim figured, but he felt bad about it all the same.

"We come out here to fetch home the little Benson girl. As for me, I've just about had my fill of this old boy." Dead gestured toward Willis's woeful, ragged remains. "We'll have the coroner come out with his wagon and haul him in. We pay him to do such chores as this."

A few minutes later, Smiley's large, three-story house popped up off the floor of the prairie like magic. They halted to reconnoiter. Dead pointed out the church Smiley had built when he'd passed through some absurd religious phase. He pointed to the barns, and all the other buildings, which included the prison, where they hoped to find Mona Benson.

"They say that twisted sonsabitch held some right fine services in that church," Tillman said. "Course, I don't know that firsthand, and thank God."

This struck Jim speechless, and he wondered what might make a man go so far astray. Enloe rode alongside Dead at a trot. They rode through heat waves that stood out upon the earth before them like shallow pools of water that shimmered bright just like sunshine off a pool.

Jim kept his eyes in constant movement, in search of any sudden flash of color that might suddenly become a man with a gun.

Dead appeared to have eyes only for the windowless cabin used as a prison that held the Benson girl. The old man rode along in an exaggerated slouch.

"I just won't think of what that little girl's been through all these past months," Dead muttered. "Her such a young thing, too. We'll go there first . . . fetch her out of that hell house. Big Ed ain't a man to go off and leave the joint unguarded like it was open house, though. Bill Bolt's around here somewhere, I do believe."

Two hundred yards from the bunkhouse, they drew rein. Out in front, a man sat, all kicked back in a chair propped against the side of the bunkhouse, asleep, rifle across his lap.

Old man Dead raised a supple hand the color of coffee and pointed to the east end of the rough structure.

He muttered, "Go on off to the side there. I'll come at him straight on. We'll catch the bully-ruffian from two sides. See then how he likes it. We'll not give the booger any room to squirm."

Jim got up his horse, and rode at a fast trot toward the small, brushy gully he needed to cross in order to circle the bunkhouse.

Rocks and small stones rolled noisily from beneath the feet of his mount, and what with the swish and loud talk of the brush he disturbed, Jim felt certain the door guard would hear his approach. But as he climbed clear of the gully, he saw the guard still seated there, hard at his rest.

Tillman Dead had already advanced on the sleeping man. Enloe walked his horse up before the guard. He watched Tillman raise a hand for him to stand tight, saw him reach inside his vest and draw out a partially filled pint bottle of whiskey, and place it behind his back, wedged tight between his backbone and gun belt, out of his way. Many had watched Dead drink, but none had seen him so drunk he couldn't conduct his business.

Dead stepped with minimum effort from his horse, tossed the reins over a rail of the corral, and trod up silently until he stood before the guard who snored loudly away in his peace. Dead made sure his shadow didn't fall across the neglectful guard's face. He glanced at Enloe with a half-smile on his eggplant-colored face, drew his revolver, and slapped the side of the unlucky man's head with the barrel. The collision of metal upon hard bone created a loud smack in the silence of the lazy day. The guard fell into a deeper sleep, lost all rigidity, and slid sideways off the chair, where he leaned upright against the bunkhouse, chin at rest on his chest. Tillman squatted next to the man, took his Winchester, stood back up, and pitched it atop the bunkhouse out of reach.

The old man beckoned for Jack to dismount and approach.

"Sleeps peaceful, don't he?"

"Damned if he don't."

Dead turned toward the main house. Jim saw sunlight wink at him off the pint bottle as Tillman headed toward the massive ranch house.

Over a shoulder, Tillman said, "I might as well check out the house while we're at it. No telling what I'll find. Go on inside the bunkhouse. See if Mona's in there. If she is, get her on behind you, and get to hell out of here, posthaste."

"What about you, Till?"

"Don't fret about me. Now, get on, boy. Do what I told you."

Enloe watched Dead walk off as casually as if he were crossing the main street in Scarlet. At the steps, the old man uncorked his bottle, took a large hooker, and then put it back again.

He stopped when he reached the stage of the wraparound porch, turned, and saw Jim still rooted before the bunkhouse like a spectator. The old man fanned the air angrily with a hand for Enloe to get on with his chore.

Jim turned and lifted the heavy wooden bar from the door. He propped it against the outer wall and tugged at the door. It didn't give an inch. He tugged even harder, and soon felt a slow give of pressure. Presently, he heard a female voice frantically sobbing on the other side of the door.

"I'm a friend," he called out. "Jim Enloe, I've come to take you home."

"Stay away," she replied. She still held to the door with all her strength.

"Mona, I'm with Tillman Dead. I'm sure you know him. We've come for you."

Evidently, she didn't believe him, and the two continued the tug of war. The struggle created more of a ruckus than Jim thought. Presently he sensed someone behind him. He released the door, spun around, and grabbed for his revolver.

He was much too late on the grab and stood face-to-face with two men. Their guns were in hand, trained on his brisket.

"Go 'head on," said the nearer man through tobacco grimy teeth, "and reach for it. Might as well die now . . . like a man, in place of waiting around for Smiley to have a go at you. You'll wish then you had."

Enloe relaxed his grip on his pistol, aware it would be suicide to try to have at them while both men had the drop on him.

The second man, a tall, skinny fellow with teeth even worse than the first man's, stepped forward and disarmed him, then passed the gun to his superior, who immediately slipped it behind his belt buckle.

"What're we going to do now, Bill?"

Bill ignored the question, and said to Jim, "I see two horses but only one rider. Where's the other old boy?"

"I needed two horses."

"Bullshit," Bill said. "What for?"

"I planned to take the Benson girl home," he admitted.

The guard Dead knocked unconscious had reached his knees by now. He muttered and mumbled—all craziness.

Jim figured he didn't even know what county he voted in, if he voted that is, and this reminded him of his failure in the plan he and Dead had concocted. He should already have Mona Benson up behind him on his horse by now, headed back toward Scarlet.

If Bill had been alone, Jim felt confident he could have taken his gun from him. He'd pulled off the stunt before on meaner-looking customers than Bill. A slight show of misdirection, a quick left hand to latch onto the gun, a pivot of the toes, a right-hook to the jaw, the gun would be his, and Bill would be out cold. But with two of them-well, the odds were wrong. He let the thought die. This man, he figured, was Bolt.

Jim Enloe waited for whatever lay in store for him, resolved that if Bill Bolt even looked as if he were going to rap him with his pistol, he would do his best to tear the man's face off.

By and by, Bill turned to his sidekick. "Hunt up some rope. Might be some up at the big house. We'll tie him up for the time being."

The skinny man left for the ranch house, almost on tiptoes, as if he were sore afoot. He was one born to ride.

Jim watched Bill grow lax with his revolver. The man said, "I can't figure you, mister." He then stepped closer. Jim longed for him to step a little closer. Just one more step, he figured, and he'd drive his fist right on out the back of his skull.

Just as he planted his feet, and gathered his soul for the assault, the fellow Bill had sent on the errand stopped in his tracks.

"Bill," he cried out. "Somebody's in the house besides Lana and Jeff."

"What makes you think so?"

"Why, hell, the door's wide open. They always keep it shut except in the winter."

Just then, Jim heard two quick shots erupt from inside the house.

Tillman Dead had just run into trouble.

Bolt took two quick steps toward his pal, who by now, frightened by the unexpected gunfire, started in a lope back toward his partner.

Bill made a bad mistake when he turned to his partner and caught on too late. He tried to whirl back on Enloe to rectify his error.

The saloon owner this time was faster. He hit the man so hard behind the left ear that Bolt didn't even quiver but went down hard. A thick cloud of dust rose above him.

Enloe snatched the revolver out of the air, bent to the fallen man, recovered his own revolver, and stood confident, cocky now, with two guns in his fists to show his power.

The door guard, awake now, scurried in his fright to gain his feet, and when he did so, lit out for the deep, brushy gully Jim had ridden through earlier.

Jim raised Bill's pistol to shoot him but pulled back. The man was no threat now without a weapon, and probably would not have been much of one if he'd had a half-dozen. Not with the way he'd cut and run. He swung back around.

Slugs ripped up the soil at his feet by now, and small clods of dirt pelted his trousers legs like hail. He looked up from this spectacle and learned that Bill's pal had started firing at him from over his shoulder as he made tracks for the barn.

Jim snapped off three shots, and this stopped the jets of dirt from leaping up around his feet. Even though he did not hit him, the man had had enough. He threw in the fight and turned all his efforts to reaching the safety of the barn.

The ranch house, by now, sprang alive with a heavy barrage of gunfire. After ten explosions, Jim ceased his count.

He turned again to the bunkhouse door and yanked it hard. He'd expected Mona Benson still to be holding him out. Instead of meeting resistance, the door rushed back at him. He regained his balance quickly and plunged on inside.

"Mona," he called out.

He stopped just inside the door to gain his proper vision. It was unnaturally dark inside in contrast to the full blast of the sunshine outside. He scanned the room patiently, waiting for his vision to clear, and when it did, he found the room very much as Withers had described it, low bunks, a stove, water bucket on a shelf, not much more than this. He saw no places to hide out.

She charged him from an unseen place of concealment behind him. He grabbed her wrists, and the fear, pain, and hatred he saw on her face distressed him for a moment. Desperation had compelled her to charge a man of his size empty-handed.

Once more, he tried to reason with her, "Mona, please. I'm a friend. Listen to me."

They wrestled about the room while he attempted to get through to her. "Please, I'll take you home to your mam."

As soon as he spoke the word, "Mam," the girl fell limp, and would have fallen had he not held her erect.

She mumbled, "My mam?"

"Yes. I'm here to take you home." He explained as swiftly as possible the tight fix they were in, and how important it was for her to trust him.

She nodded and, for the first time, he paused to have a close look at the girl. It was true, just as Withers had told him. She in no way resembled a girl of fifteen. She truly must have gone through a hellish experience, locked up with scarcely enough food and water to exist. He got hot. As hot as he had been in his life.

"Let's go. Can you ride double with me?"

"Yes," she muttered.

He guided her to the door. When they stepped into the outdoor brilliance, she caught at her breath in noisy gasps, and covered her eyes against the glare of the sun.

The undersides of her forearms were covered with thick pads of sores that had healed, and others that were fresh and livid.

Her face, too, was a field of rank sores in varied stages, some old, some fresh, and her hair was thickly matted and filthy. He figured the bunkhouse was overrun with rats, bedbugs, and other vermin.

Fresh gunfire roared from inside the ranch house, and he feared for the old man's safety. He doubted if Tillman would emerge from such a gun battle all in one piece, and maybe not even alive.

He watched a man dive headfirst from the house, saw him land in the center of the porch, gather his feet beneath him, and flee down the steps.

This was not Tillman Dead, Enloe saw. He breathed a sigh of relief. The old man had held his own, at the very least.

The man caught a slug from behind just as he gained the yard, and slumped forward, cold dead, Jim figured.

A large woman soon followed the unfortunate gunman. The woman stood sky high, and privy wide. She backed slowly down the steps with a gun in each hand and fired them off in alternate blasts. Smoke lifted above her head like the nimbus of some angel fallen in disfavor from paradise.

Jim couldn't see who she was shooting at, but he had little doubt who it was.

The woman, he felt, was no shabby slouch in the guts department. She was a hellion trueborn.

She reached the yard and whirled about, caught air, and pulled foot for the barn.

Tillman Dead emerged from the house at a casual pace. Jim watched him snap off two shots at the woman, whose long black hair streamed out behind her like the tail of a racing-mare. He missed with each shot, and finally the gutsy woman gained the safety of the barn.

Tillman Dead reloaded his weapon, and then studied the barn, as if he thought he might just go ahead and storm it.

Enloe reckoned the barn would likely hold a good number of defenders, and a loud gait of gunfire issued steadily from the safety of the heavily timbered barn-fortress.

Dead finished his reload and took up his bottle and downed a drink.

Afterward, he sauntered back inside the ranch house as if he had all the time in the world.

Jim stood on hot coals of tension and wondered how much longer it would be until Dead finished with his mischief. He was eager to get off the property.

The old man returned later, bent over. He walked backward across the porch and down the steps, pouring a steady stream of some sort of liquid out of a five-gallon demijohn from which he'd knocked off the neck to allow a smoother, faster flow.

"Kerosene," Jim mumbled. The girl was silent alongside him but clung to his elbow.

Dead proceeded down the steps. He poured the kerosene from the demijohn in a long trail. When the container ran dry, he tossed it aside, drew out the whiskey bottle, and took another pull, then tucked it away again. He scratched a match, dropped it upon the long combustible trail of kerosene, and strode back toward the bunkhouse with full contempt for his safety.

Clouds of dust leapt from the ground all around the old man's feet. The rattle of gunfire from the barn bounced off the ranch house in a steady echo, with two voices.

Dead continued his carefree stroll toward the bunkhouse, as if he were out for his evening constitutional. Behind Tillman, Jim saw the fire trail Dead had ignited flash on up the steps, cross the wide porch and penetrate the house. Flames licked up the outside walls, crackled industriously, sizzled, spit and hissed with a loud nervous energy.

Enloe lifted Mona up into the saddle, ready now to mount up behind her. He thought to fetch Dead's horse to him as the old man seemed to be in no great rush. But his animal threw high its head and rolled its eyes in fear.

Enloe swung about in time to see Bolt rush him, the bar used to lock up the bunkhouse clutched in his hands, raised overhead as a club.

Jim threw up a forearm and deflected the blow. The bar caromed off his arm and fetched him a right smart lick that set up a fierce burn and severe tingle in his arm.

He hit the man hard, three times with his fist, watched him fall in a heap, and then leapt up on the horse behind the girl. He grabbed for the reins of Tillman Dead's horse in the same motion, but instead he found the old man already mounted up.

Dead dug in his spurs, and Jim struck out behind him. None too soon to suit the barman, they caught air in hot abandonment of that hellish den of no-good.

He cast eyes back over a shoulder. Fierce flames sprang forth in ragged tongues through the windows and doors of the big house, and the brave army, which had defended the barn so honorably, made a slow appearance. The men stood idly about, as the fire ate up the house, too smart at least to attempt to fight the conflagration, for, by now, it had broken free of the interior of the building from every opening. It sucked hard at the air and created a tremendous roar like a beast that had suffered a horrible and killing injury.

Nothing now, short of a miraculous downpour, could extinguish those flames. Jim Enloe figured that Big Ed Smiley had never performed a solitary deed to qualify him the grant of a miracle, so the house was surely doomed.

They ran through the hot winds and passed beneath the tragic remains of the hanged gambler in a windy blast.

Enloe hoped the girl had not had time to figure out what hung there by its neck like a scarecrow someone had forgotten and left out to turn to tatters.

They passed from sight of the arched-over gate, the twice-disturbed vultures, and the grisly remains of their meal, and then the riders slowed to a walk to give their horses a good blow in case they needed to make a hasty side-trip through the brush. If Smiley and his entourage happened to ride up on them, it would then be prudent to have rested animals.

"What kept you?" said the old man.

Dead stopped his animal, and stood up, one foot at rest in a stirrup. He tugged out papers and tobacco and rolled a smoke. "You should be back in town by now, mister." He lit his smoke and cut Jim down with a withering stare from his fierce, raptor's eyes.

Suddenly Jim's headache fired up again. "I ran into a few problems."

Dead eased back down into the saddle. "I gave you the easiest chore, boy. Damned if you didn't go off first thing and screw that up."

"Some days are just worse than others, Till," said the saloonkeeper.

Dead scowled at the answer, reached then, and produced his bottle, but found it empty. He studied it forlornly for a time, then flung into the brush. For any damned fool knew there was nothing more useless than an empty liquor bottle. "Let's get," he said in an urgent command. "I'm so dry I can't even whistle."

By the time they reached Scarlet, Jack's horse was spitting thick foam into the air that looked like calf slobbers, and foam boiled up from beneath each piece of leather that touched the hide of the good animal.

When they came in sight of her home, Enloe said, "You see Mona, I told you we'd take you home."

"Yes sir," she said. "I see now that you did."

Dead took the girl inside and later her father came out the door and thanked Jim with all his heart as he likely had Dead in the house. He invited him inside to join the celebration. Jim turned down the offer. He figured this was a private affair that he had no business interfering in.

Later, he and Dead struck out back toward the Sheriff's office. "Now, if we can rid the county of Big Ed Smiley," Tillman Dead said, "we'll all be better off.

"Yessir," Enloe said. But he knew that this too would be no easy chore. But at least now his headache had subsided.

The End

Sumner Wilson is a retired railroad trainman, switchman, and brakeman. He took up writing in motel rooms to bedevil time while waiting to "get out" on homebound trips. He is the author of the novel The Hellbringer.

Wilson's short stories have appeared in Cappers, published in Big Muddy—a journal of Southeast Missouri State University—and he's sold two dozen stories to Sterling/Mcfadden Publishing, Inc. He has been published multiple times in Frontier Tales. He and his wife reside on the Gasconade River in the Missouri Ozarks, where many of his stories take place.

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The Last Man Out Of The Alamo
by B. Craig Grafton

The last man out of the Alamo wasn't a man. That is he had not yet reached the legal age of majority, legal majority then being twenty one years of age for males, for he was only a lad of sixteen, a child still but at the same time a man too. His age hadn't stopped him any from doing as much work as and more than some of the men there at the Alamo. Only thing though was that sometimes he still acted childish, impetuous, and pouted as youth are inclined to do at times. His name was James L. Allen and he was from Kentucky.

In fact it was his impetuous act as a boy that got him to the Alamo in the first place. It was at Marion College in Missouri where he was a student and like everyone else there, he too got caught up in the Texas fever that was sweeping the nation. With a bunch of fellow students, the students being all male, he volunteered for Texas. The guys were all doing it and he wanted to be like everyone else. So maybe it was the peer pressure that got him to sign on, or maybe it was the spirit of adventure that he got carried away with, but in any event all that mattered not now, for all the excitement and thrill of the adventure had long ago faded, this being the eleventh day of the siege of the Alamo. It had faded because, just like every man there, he too wondered if anyone was ever coming to their aid. And for him he especially wondered if he'd ever see seventeen, if he'd miss out on a lifetime of experiences and opportunities.

At the beginning he had been so enthused about serving there at the Alamo that one of the first things he did, to prove his manhood, was to volunteer for a somewhat dangerous assignment. That assignment being the burning of La Villita, the little village in English, just outside the Alamo. It was a gaggle of small huts located in a no man's land between the Alamo and the Mexican forces. Small tiny huts in which some locals had once lived but now had abandoned once the siege had begun. They offered a way too tempting spot for the Mexicans to hide in and take pot shots at will at the Alamo defenders. They were just small one room shacks, ten by ten at the most, made of wood so dry from the Texas heat that a match put to them would send them up in flames in just a matter of seconds. They needed to be burned down now as soon as possible.

The then Co-commanders, Colonel Travis of the regulars and Colonel Bowie of the volunteers, Bowie hadn't been sick and bedridden then, each called for a volunteer to run over there with a torch and set them ablaze while the rest of the men covered them.

"Any of you men want to volunteer?" asked Travis, addressing only his men. But he didn't give anyone a chance to answer. He already had someone in mind. "How about you Bob. You willing to volunteer?" he asked Robert Brown.

When in the army and you're called upon to volunteer, you volunteer. Robert Brown knew this and Robert Brown volunteered.

It was Colonel Bowie's turn then to call for a volunteer from his men and Colonel Bowie already had his volunteer in mind too, Carlos Espalier, a young protege of his. Carlos, like Brown volunteered and like Brown he too was proud and honored to be chosen.

Travis or Bowie never gave James a second look when he raised his hand, waved it furiously, and bobbed up and down trying to get their attention. They looked right past him, their decisions having already been made. James thought he was ignored because of his age for after all he still had the face of a boy and didn't even shave yet. He was disappointed and mad at the same time that he hadn't been chosen and he grumbled about it to the man standing next to him.

"They didn't pay any attention to me. What are they, blind or something? Why I'm sure that I can run faster than either of those two. One of them should have been me. What's the matter with those two anyway. They think I'm too young, too scared, or something?"

John Blair of Tennessee, the man next to him, age thirty three, a volunteer with Jim Bowie's men, answered him.

"Carlos is seventeen. And no you're not too young. It's just that Jim has taken Carlos under his wing so to speak and he's giving him a chance to prove himself here that's all. "

"What about Bob Brown?'

"I don't know anything about him other than he's one of Travis's men and he's eighteen by the way. I'm sure Colonel Travis knows what he's doing by choosing him."

The conversation ended there as Espalier and Brown were each given a torch and proceeded to the Alamo gate. Blair and James took their places along the Alamo wall with the rest of the men, their rifles at the ready, pointed outward towards the Mexican troops. Brown and Espalier sallied forth, set La Villita on fire, and made it back safely without incident. James and the others not having to waste any ammunition covering them for the Mexicans did not even fire a single shot at them. The two young men, heroes now, returned to a round of slaps on the back and a round of huzzas for a job well done, James joining with them, not daring to show his disappointment.

Later he comforted himself best he could by recalling that when he crossed the line in the sand drawn by Travis, he was one of the first to do so. He was proud of that. In fact he had bolted forward from the middle of the pack trying to be the first to cross only to be beaten out by Tapley Holland, a young man from Ohio who shoved him aside to be first. Nonetheless he was one of the first to do so and that didn't go unnoticed by the men or Colonel Travis who was in charge then, Colonel Bowie too ill to command.

The burning of La Villita had happened at the start of the siege and James had served faithfully, admirably, honorably from then until now, the eleventh day of the siege. He had proven himself over and over again as good a soldier as any man there. He had made friends with and earned the respect of quite a few of the men. They in turn treated him as an equal and respected him as one of them.

But he also made friends with the boys there. Of the boys from Gonzales, thirty two men actually, he had become good friends with a couple of them, William King age fifteen, Galba Fuqua age sixteen, John Gaston age seventeen, young men, not boys, his age. He had bonded with them much more so than he had with any of the other men and they all palled around together doing typical things teenage boys do on the sly, smoking, chewing, drinking, and of course talking about girls. They were of that age when a young man's fancy turns to girls and tonight especially so for they were all going to the dance, or fandango as some ot the men called it, and dance with the women there.

A couple of the men could play a fiddle and they all knew how to play the popular songs of the day. A high old time would be had by all. Only trouble was, there would be few women there to dance with. Nevertheless that didn't discourage any of the men, the boys included. So as the fiddler struck up the tune Old Zip Coon the boys were out on the dance floor, which was actually the hard clay ground inside the Alamo chapel, ready to dosy doh with the first woman they could latch on to. That was the safest place to hold a dance, there in the Lord's House of all places, where everyone was somewhat protected by the higher walls of the chapel from the constant Mexican cannonade that had been relentlessly going on for days now.

Of the handful of women there at the Alamo most were old and married. There was Mrs. Juana Alsbury whose husband had been sent out on a mission by Travis, Mrs. Juana Melton whose husband was the quartermaster there, Concepcion Losoya the mother of Juana Melton and Alamo defender Jose Toribio Losoya, Gertrudis Navarro the unmarried younger sister of Juana Alsbury who was taking care of the ailing Jim Bowie, Mrs. Almaron Dickinson wife of Alamo defender Captain Dickinson who was taking care of their fifteen month old daughter, and Mrs. Ana Esparza wife of Alamo defender Gregorio Esparza who was there with her four children one of which was Maria her thirteen year old daughter from her first marriage.

The only other young single woman there besides Maria was Trinidad Saucedo, age twenty or so and she was as beautiful and as shapely and as gorgeous as they come with her angular high cheekbones, sparkling brown eyes, and long flowing raven black shiny shoulder length hair. And like all young Mexican women she dressed somewhat provocatively compared to Anglo women in that she wore her blouse somewhat revealingly open and exposed her bare shoulders. No decent self respecting white woman would ever dare do a thing like that. And when one of the local Mexicans there then played a Mexican fandango song on his guitar she danced to it with a fury, flitting and raising her skirt, exposing her shapely legs as she stomped around and snapped her fingers. Again no white woman would ever do that.

But there were two problems with Trinidad. First everyone there knew that she was deeply in love with one of the men there she called Bobby, it wasn't Robert Brown, and actually engaged to him. But her Bobby was not the jealous type for he was sure of Trinidad's love for him. Thus he gave all the men a chance to dance with his betrothed, James included. And that was the second problem, all of the men. He had to wait his turn. The understanding there being that after you had danced with Trinidad for a minute or two someone else would be entitled to tap you on the shoulder signifying they wished to cut in, and of course, you would let him.

Though Trinidad was four or five years older than James, he did not let that stop him from dancing with her, an older woman. In fact that kind of actually enticed him. He patiently waited his turn and finally got up the nerve and tapped the shoulder of one George Washington Cottle, one of the men recently arrived from Gonzales, and said, "Cutting in sir."

Wash, as he was known, was a big man and had the appearance of a lion with his long flowing brownish hair covering his ears and face and had the voice of a lion too as he non verbally growled at James but nonetheless backed off and let James cut in. James took Trinidad's hands and began whirling her around the dance floor to the tune of some high stepping reel the name of which he knew not nor did he care. All that mattered now to him was that he had a woman, a beautiful woman, in his arms. After his two minutes were up he felt his tap on the shoulder and turned around to see if it was one of his new pals was cutting in on him. It wasn't. The person who cut in on him was Maria Castro, the plain, somewhat dumpy, short, for James was a head taller than her and towered over her, thirteen year old daughter of Ana Esparza. James could tell she had her eye and her mind set on him as her own. He politely excused himself from Trinidad, for after all he knew that he had to dance with Maria since she asked him to, and took her hands in his. That was the gentlemanly thing and expected thing to do even if he wasn't all that thrilled about it. She babbled on incessantly as they danced and James could tell that she had a school girl crush on him. He tried to ignore her yet act politely at the same time for he considered her just a silly kid, not a real woman like Trinidad. Now as she blathered on, his only hope was that one of his new buddies would come to his rescue by cutting in.

And he soon got his wish but it wasn't from one of his pals. He turned around and there was John Baugh, Colonel Travis's adjudant.

"Colonel Travis would like to see you son," said Baugh in a formal all military like manner, indicating something serious was up.

James stopped dancing and stood there dumbfounded wondering what this was all about. Maybe it was about that mission he, and a few others, had volunteered for before. Maybe Travis wanted to see him about that. His hopes rose as he stood there kind of stunned thinking about it.

"Now son," said Baugh, shaking James out of his trance.

James looked at Maria, the disappointment on her face plainly visible.

"Excuse me Maria but I gotta go," he said. "Duty calls." He turned his back on her and left without even thanking her for the dance. It was an impolite childish thing for him to do and it broke her little heart as evidenced by her smile turning to a frown.

John Baugh, being from Virginia and ever the southern gentleman, then did the right thing of course and asked Maria to dance with him. "May I have this dance young lady?" he asked, bowing to her as he did so. She accepted and he whisked her off her feet but she was still heartbroken.

James was visibly nervous when he stood outside the open door of Colonel Travis's office. That's when he, and everybody else, noticed it, the Mexican cannon fire had stopped. It seemed that it had been going on for days now, even all through the night, keeping everyone awake and on edge and its silence now was golden.

"Come in son," ordered Colonel Travis all military business like, he too noticing the silencing of the cannons.

James entered, took off his hat, held it in his two hands before him, and stood there at attention.

"Relax son," said Colonel Travis, noticing the lad was ill at ease.

James' shoulders slumped. The tenseness visibly left his body but he remained standing at attention.

"You wanted to see me sir?"

"Yes I need you to do something for me."

"What's that sir?"

"A mission, I need to send you out with a dispatch," he said and handed James a folded wax sealed letter.

"Another request for help sir?" asked James, taking it and stuffing it in his shirt pocket without looking at it.

"Yes, take it to Fannin wherever he is."

Travis had picked James because he knew that James had wanted to go out and burn La Villita when he called for volunteers the other day. Knew that he was disappointed in not being chosen. This was his way of making it up to him now. But what it really was though, was that it was Travis's way of saving this young man's life. But he couldn't let James know that.

"Look son," he said. "I know what you're thinking. I've already sent out half a dozen men before and no one's come to our aid but I've got to keep trying."

James knew that Travis had sent his old childhood friend Jim Bonham out with a plea for help and that Bonham had returned but without any men. Knew that Travis had sent out John Smith and that John Smith had brought back the men from Gonzales even if they only numbered thirty two. But as to the other men Travis had sent out, none had returned. Maybe they didn't make it.

"Look son," repeated Travis.

James wished Colonel Travis would stop calling him son, like he was his child.

"I know you got a fast horse and I know I can count on a man like you getting through."

There he had said it at last, "A man like you."

"Thank you sir. I'm honored," said James. "I won't let you down sir."

"I know you won't James. I know you won't," replied Travis. Then his head and eyes tilted upward in a moment of silence as if he was listening for something, something he didn't hear. "Seems like the Mexicans have let up shelling us for now thank God. Best you get some sleep and rest up while you can. Tomorrow you can go out soon after it gets dark. Talk to Bonham first though. He can fill you in on the best way out, what to avoid and what to be on the lookout for, and he can tell you where in the hell he thinks Fannin is. Good luck on finding that fool."

Travis looked at this young boy, only sixteen and reassured himself that he was doing the right thing here sending him out like this. He knew that he may be sending him out on suicide mission but he would be better off taking his chances doing that than staying here and being condemned to certain death with the rest of them. Colonel Travis was only ten years older than James but here in Texas ten years was a lifetime and Travis knew his lifetime here in Texas was up. No point in this young man's life being up too. Not when it could be saved.

James L. Allen slept that night until noon next day so exhausted was he from the days of constant tension and cannon fire. That evening he was the last man out of the Alamo. Under cover of darkness he ventured out. He was fired upon. But he made it. The men saw him make it and they let out three loud raucous hip, hip, hooray cheers for him. He heard them and smiled, determined to make it, not to let his fellow men down, as he galloped off into the darkness of the night.

The End

Author's latest books are: Jill Driver: Trail Boss, Willard Wigleaf:West Texas Attorney, and Twenty First Century American Fairy Tales. They are available on Amazon.

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Emma's Decision
by Mike Jackson

San Luis Obispo, California, 1878

The chain connecting the ball to the prisoner's leg iron clinked with the swaying motion of the stagecoach. Sitting next to the prisoner was Emma. She was wearing a braided straw bonnet that kept allowing wisps of her brown hair to escape. Her eight-month-old daughter, Ida, was squirming in her lap, tired of being held. Emma's eyes followed the chain up past the prisoner's wrist shackles to his face. His left cheek was a mass of smallpox scars, the skin pits spreading down his neck in a rough band before disappearing into his shirt. He noticed her staring, sighed, and looked out the window. She shivered, held her child closer, and scooted further away from the man.

There was another passenger, a man with a grey-tinged moustache wearing a bowler hat, sitting opposite the prisoner. The rocking of the stagecoach caused him to lean forward often, and when he did, his jacket would rise and Emma could see the gleam from the brass on the bullets of his gun belt.

The baby looked at the man with the gun belt, studying him. Two bright black eyes beneath a mop of brown curls. She squirmed again. "Ida, calm down," Emma said. She let the baby crawl to the empty seat next to her, but held her arm.

The iron ball attached to the prisoner's ankle rolled across the floor, bumping into her foot. Kicking the ball back, the man with the gun belt growled, "Cooper, keep that thing on your side of the stage!"

The prisoner frowned and said, "Yes, Marshal." Cooper stepped on the slack in the chain.

Emma thought, My husband is joining me next week, and he asked me this morning when he took me to the stage station if I wanted to wait a week and travel with him. I should have said yes. Ninety-five miles to Santa Barbara. Maybe taking Ida to see my sister there wasn't such a good idea after all.

Three hours later, they stopped at one of many change stations on a stagecoach route. The team was changed to six fresh horses, mail bags were left and loaded, they ate and attended to calls of nature. Emma used the time to feed Ida, getting a blanket from her travel valis to cover her breast. The men politely looked at the trees and brush on the hills. When they left the station forty minutes later, Emma was feeling nauseous. Hope it was nothing I ate, she thought.

The stage rolled down a narrow canyon. Emma smelled the aroma of dozens of wild flowers mixed with the tangy sap smell of the chaparral. There was a lively stream to the right of the stage road, splashing down the canyon. She felt the stage slow and come to a creaking stop. The driver was saying something, but she couldn't understand the words.

The driver pulled on the reins of the stagecoach. It slowed and came to a stop. Sam loosened his grip on the reins as he looked at what used to be a dry riverbed. Gazing at the far bank, he listened to the six horses taking deep breaths. Sam spat out the road grit sticking to his tongue, kicked the brake into place, and looked at the water flowing at the Suey crossing of the Santa Maria River. Damn, he thought, as he pulled at his beard. I knew there'd be water after the storms last month, but I wasn't expecting so much. There's at least a sixty-foot-wide stream here. The river bed was a quarter mile wide, mostly dry gravel and sand. In the middle was the stream, curving in toward the sandy crossing. Not that wide, and when there's water here, it's always shallow. He watched a clump of leaves floating by the stage. "Current moving fast, not raging . . . but fast," he muttered to himself. He called in a loud voice to his passengers, "We're at the Santa Maria River. There's some water, but we can handle it. Keep your arms and heads inside."

The marshal stuck his head out, saying in a loud voice, "Reinsman, I've got a prisoner with a thirty-six-pound ball and chain leg iron with wrist shackles. He won't last a second before being pulled under. Are you sure there will be no problem?"

Turning on the bench, the driver squinted at the marshal. "I said we can do it. This crossing's dry most of the time. When there's water, it's always shallow. Put your head back inside because we're going now." The driver kicked off the brake, slapped the horses' rumps with the reins in his left hand, gave the lead horses a light slap with the whip in his right hand, and the coach lurched forward.

Six horses pulled, and the stage wheels crunched over the gravel bank and into the river. The water rose to the axels, then the horses sank, the water lapping over their backs. The driver knew what had happened. "Damn river undercut the bank," he said to himself. He used his whip then, the braided leather strip arcing out behind him, then forward to the lead horses with a crack like a gunshot. "Pull, pull, you bastards," he shouted. The stage entered the undercut, the water rising to the wheel tops. The stage tipped in the current's direction as the water pushed its sides. Sam used the whip again, sending it cracking over the horses' backs, shouting, "Godamnitohell, pull you sons of bitches!" He moved over to the left side of the driver's bench, slipped the reins into his right hand, grabbed the roof rail with his left, and leaned out over the water. The tipping slowed.

Emma held Ida with both hands, feeling the coach tipping. The water rush was so sudden, the marshal slipped off his bench and fell out the open entrance. The list and rushing water pushed her off the bench to the floor of the cab. She landed on her back, Ida still in her arms, and both their heads under water. She lifted Ida above the water level, the baby coughing up water and crying. Suddenly, she felt two hands wrap around Ida and yank her away. She sat up, spitting water and gripping the bench. Emma saw the prisoner, the water swirling around his knees. One arm pushed for support against the cab's roof, and the other held a screaming Ida.

With a lurch, the stage steadied. Water rushed out through the doors. Emma looked out the window. She saw the driver standing, reins in both hands, to control the horses. "Stay in the wagon!" Sam shouted. The lead horses' shoulder muscles bunched as they surged up, the water level going down to their bellies. Sam let out a long breath, knowing the leaders had pulled themselves out of the undercut. Now in shallower water with more stable footing, the horses pulled the stage out of the underwater ditch. With the stronger forward pull, the wagon righted itself. The stage plowed through thirty feet of shallow water, the river surface reaching the wheels' axels. Sam drove the stage up the river bank and parked next to a clump of trees. As the horses took deep breaths, their nostrils flared. The soaked stage was dripping water like a squeezed wet rag. The marshal, soaked from head to foot, waded out of the river, boots squishing on the gravel, with his bowler cap in hand.

Emma stepped down, shook her wet hair, and turned back to the stage. The prisoner carefully handed her a crying Ida. He picked up his iron ball and stepped down, standing at the rear of the coach. Emma walked to a boulder, sat down, and rocked the child. She whispered into the baby's ear, "It's over, we're safe." The crying changed to soft whimpers.

The marshal took out a set of handcuffs, went to his prisoner, and cuffed him to a wheel, saying, "Cooper, you're going to stay here for a while." He turned to Sam. "I thought you said there would be no problem?" he said, glaring at the man.

Sam spread his hands wide. "I know what I said, but the river undercut the bank. Never seen it to happen here before." He returned the Marshal's glare with squinty eyes and a set mouth. "I got us across, I did. We're wet, but alive. The coach and team are good. We rest for an hour, clean up, and start again. In three hours, we'll be at the next station, change horses, and on our way to Ballard's Station for a hot meal."

The marshal pointed his finger at Sam. "Listen, reinsman, I'm going to be reporting this to your boss. There better not be anymore 'mistakes' from here to where ever the hell we switch drivers. I've got a man to deliver in Los Angeles to Federal authorities in three days, got it?"

The driver lifted his chin, and he spat a glob of dirty phlegm close to the marshal's boot. He said, "Mister, I been driving stages for ten years; I know what I'm doing. I'm going to check on the horses and the stage now." He walked away, but kept his head turned, staring directly at the officer until he got to the wagon, where he finally turned his head to check the baggage compartment. "Everything's soaked here. No dry clothes for anyone."

The marshal turned to Emma and said, "I'm going to wring all the water I can from my clothes." He pointed with his thumb at the handcuffed man. "No talking with the prisoner." He walked down the bank and disappeared behind a thick stand of brush and trees.

Emma waited until she couldn't see the marshal. She turned to the prisoner, saying in a low voice, "Thank you for what you did. Ida would have drowned if not for your help."

The man smiled and shrugged his shoulders. "The child needed help. I know how to do the right thing."

"What's your name?" asked Emma.

"Daniel Cooper."

The baby cried again, fists balled, eyes darting everywhere. Emma hugged Ida close, patting her back, rocking back and forth. The baby closed her eyes; the crying changed to soft breathing.

Looking at him, Emma asked in a low voice, "Mr. Cooper, what did you do to deserve that ball and chain?"

Daniel's eyes opened wide. He took a deep breath, looked at Emma and said, "Ma'am, after the smallpox went through, it left me alone on my family's sharecropped farm near Eagle Pass, Texas. Couldn't run the place alone, so I left. Before I left, the landowners claimed I had stolen things they had loaned to my pa: a plow, a barrel of nails and a hammer. They used it as an excuse to take the livestock, which was all I had left. They filed charges anyway, and I decided I didn't want to work on a Texas chain gang. It was time to leave. My mother had relatives in Los Angeles, so I went there." He paused; eyes unfocused, but staring at the driver checking the team's harness.

"But how did they catch you here in California?" asked Emma.

"I was living with a cousin in Los Angeles, and we heard of the La Panza gold strike north of San Luis Obispo. We went there and staked two claims. We were doing good, pulling in fifty dollars a day. But I ran my mouth too much about Texas in a saloon. Two local sheriffs came one morning. They arrested me right at the claim." He leaned back against the wagon wheel, shook his head, and looked at the ground.

"They'll send you back to Texas to stand trial," Emma said.

Daniel nodded his head.

The driver shouted, "Time to leave! We've got a four-hour ride to get to the next station." The marshal appeared; his clothes looking damp and wrinkled. As soon as all the passengers were back inside the stage, Sam slapped the reins and the stage jerked forward, following the stage road up the valley and on the south side of the river. The coach returned to its familiar rocking and swaying as soon as the horses began the distance-covering trot they could maintain for hours.

Everyone was trying to get comfortable sitting on a hard bench with wet clothes. The road dust filled the cabin like a gritty fog. Emma was sweating. The stomach twinge she felt earlier grew into a nausea trying to force its way up her throat. She asked the marshal, "I'm going to be sick. Would you lease hold Ida for me?"

The marshal, looking uncomfortable, said, "Mrs. Anderson, I'd like to, but I can't. I'm in charge of a criminal. I have to act if this prisoner causes problems. He may decide to make trouble while I'm holding your child. I'm sorry, I really am."

He looked out the door at the hills.

Emma said nothing. She closed her eyes, beads of sweat appeared on her brow. The woman shook her head, looked at the prisoner and said, "Will you hold Ida, Daniel? I'm going to throw up any second now."

The prisoner looked at the marshal. The officer rubbed his chin, considering. He nodded his head at Daniel, saying, "Cooper, be careful with that baby."

Emma handed the sleeping Ida to Daniel, who cradled her with two hands, her head resting on his shoulder. Emma turned suddenly, grabbed a roof support bar, leaned her head out of the cab and vomited again and again, stopping when her stomach was empty. The driver heard her, turned and saw what was happening. He stopped the stage, got a bucket from the back storage area and gave it to Emma, telling her, "The swaying and going up and down, it gets some people sick just like on a boat. I can't stop anymore. Have to catch up with the schedule. Just use this bucket, and I'll deal with the mess at the next station."

Emma would pass Ida to Daniel whenever she needed the bucket. She would also deal with Ida's dirty diapers. After dusting her baby's cleaned bottom with scorched flour from a jar she kept in her canvas travel bag, she'd knot on a new diaper, throw the dirty one in an old pillowcase . . . and give Ida to the prisoner in time for her to grab the bucket.

The afternoon heat created a smell combining the road dust, the used diapers, Emma's bucket contents, and the drying of the leather and wood of the coach. The passengers leaned their heads outside the open window spaces. Road dust covered their faces as they took deep breaths of fresh air.

The road curved west, and they went up a side canyon to the next station. There was a fast change of horses, and they were on their way again. No walk this time to stretch their legs. They followed a creek up the canyon and passed through a settlement named Los Olivos before arriving at the next station, called Ballard's.

It was 9:30 PM when they rolled into the front of the two adobe houses making up the station. The driver gave the mail sack to the station manager and eased himself down on a wooden bench against a wall of the larger adobe. He leaned back, took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. Two men took the tired team to the stables. The passengers slowly walked into the house. They sat at a long table, a lit oil lamp on each end filling the room with soft light. Everyone was staring with a blank look on their faces.

They ate dinner and spent the night in a next-door adobe because the Santa Ynez River was running too high to cross that night. The manager told them they could cross in the morning. They slept on the floor with the blankets a station wrangler gave them.

Sam, rubbing his shoulder, went to sleep in a separate room used by the drivers. Emma's last thought before sleep was, Another damn river, that's all we need.

The noise of people moving woke Emma. She rubbed her eyes and blinked at the dim light of dawn coming in the window. Emma took care of Ida before going into the main adobe for breakfast. Everyone was on the stage by 7:00 AM, and the coach, with fresh horses, left the station. There was a new driver, a young man with red hair and bushy sideburns. Sam would stay at Ballard's Station until his next registered stage arrived.

After two hours, they arrived at the Santa Ynez River. The driver stopped, looked at the ford, then said to the passengers in a loud voice, "Water's shallow and it's gravel all the way. Don't worry, we won't have problems." The marshal grimaced and looked at Emma, saying, "That's what the last driver said. Hope this one has better judgment." Emma bit her lip and held her breath . . . they splashed across with no problems, headed towards the next station. "This man knows what he's doing," said the marshal with a nod of his head and a smile. In the valley, the road was flat, but as it approached the foothills, it rose and curved. Emma swallowed several times, feeling her stomach churning. I'm getting sick again. They followed the same routine as yesterday; the prisoner held Ida while Emma held the bucket.

When Emma was leaning back, resting with her eyes closed, the bucket at her side, she heard Ida laughing. She looked and saw the prisoner moving a finger in circles above Ida's stomach. He was saying, "Lanza, Lanza . . . pico la panza!" On "panza' his finger dived to Ida's stomach, tickling, causing giggles and laughter to burst from Ida. Even the marshal made a half smile. Emma asked, "Daniel, those words are Spanish, right? What do they mean?"

The prisoner looked up, holding Ida with two hands, grinning. "I don't know what they mean; my mother learned them from a friend who spoke Spanish. She used to do this with my brother and sister to bring out the smiles." Emma saw the grin run away from his face, replaced by an empty stare. Daniel Cooper sighed and looked at the hills. Emma stared at him. This man doesn't act like a criminal.

The road's grade became steeper and there were more curves as they climbed into the Santa Ynez Mountains. Finally, they reached the summit of San Marcos Pass. As they went down from the pass, Emma gazed up from her bucket and looked out the open side of the wagon. She saw the Pacific Ocean stretching to the horizon; the sun making bright sparkles over the blue water. Emma saw a wide canyon below her, covered with oak and brush, stretching to the coast. There was a breeze moving up the canyon with the tangy smell of sage and damp earth.

At last, the driver pulled into Kinevan's Station, the last mountain stop before Santa Barbara. In forty minutes, they were back on the stage with a road that never stopped curving like a snake, but with a downhill grade this time.

An hour past the station, the stage slowed to the pace of a horse's walk. Emma heard a difference in the sound the horses' hooves made; from the thunk of hoof on dirt, it changed to the solid clop of a hoof on pavement. She looked out and saw the stage was moving on top of stone. She peered at the rock and noticed a series of chiseled grooves crossing the roadway. Emma said to the marshal, "Will you look at that? Someone cut grooves in the rock."

Looking at her, he said, "I think the Chinese did that. They chiseled and blasted the road through this rocky part in the 1860s. This entire section is solid sandstone. Those grooves help the horses' hooves grip the road so they don't slip. They gave the name 'Slippery Rock' to this part of the stagecoach road, which is why we're going so slow; the reinsman lets the horses set their own pace here."

"They did a lot of work," said Emma, and she switched her gaze to the ocean.

The stage was passing through a stagecoach-sized rock cut when suddenly a man emerged from behind a boulder, The first thing Emma noticed was the double-barreled shotgun the man held pointing at the driver's head, the second thing she saw was a bandana covering his face leaving an open strip between his eyes and his hat. The bandit said in a loud voice, "Driver, if you want to live to spend what they're paying you, stop your team."

The driver stopped the horses. Another man, face hidden behind a bandana, came out from behind the cut on the other side of the road. He carried a sledgehammer in one hand, a shotgun in the other. The passengers could see and hear what had happened.

Emma held the sleeping Ida close. The prisoner watched the men with the guns, and the officer leaned over to Emma. He said in a low voice, "Emma, keep yourself turned to me so they can't see what we do." Keeping his hands under the compartment's low side panels, he pushed his watch and ring inside Ida's diaper. Emma understood immediately. She whispered, "Take off my gold wedding ring and put it in too." The marshal complied. He took two small objects out of his pocket and shoved them inside the diaper. Leaning closer to Emma, the officer whispered, "Prisoner's keys."

The second bandit tossed the sledgehammer down and leveled his shotgun at the passengers. "Everybody out. Do as yore told, no one gets hurt. Do something stupid, yul be dead. Keep yore hands above yore waists so I can see them."

The passengers got out and stood next to the horses; the prisoner holding the ball and chain to his stomach. "You too, driver," shouted the bandit. Lowering himself to the ground in a hurry, the driver forgot to set the brake. Motioning with the shotgun to the passengers, the bandit said to the driver, "You geet over there too."

The other robber, a shorter man than his companion, came down from his position on top of the cut and walked to his partner's side, the two dark muzzle holes of his shotgun pointing at the passengers . . . two blue eyes staring at them from the space between his hat and the bandana.

The marshal's coat was open in the front; his belt's bullets and buckle were visible. "You with the gun belt, drop it to the ground and ease it forward with your foot. Do it slow." The marshal did as he was told. The bandit moved the belt and pistol to the side with a kick.

The robber patted down the sides of the officer and driver, pressing his shotgun against their chests as he did it. As the bandit was pressing the side of the driver, the reinsman said, "You won't find anything on me. The company doesn't allow us to carry guns."

The bandit grunted, "That's fine by me, buddy!"

The thief looked at the prisoner, his mouth curled into an amused smile. "Well, looky here, a prisoner, and where there's a prisoner, there's a lawman." He walked over to the marshal, and with the shotgun's barrel, pushed aside the officer's jacket. "Yep, there's the badge. You a US Marshal?" he said.

"I am. And that man is my prisoner. You harm any of us, and you'll have more than a local sheriff after you." He spoke in a normal voice, as if he were having a conversation over breakfast. Emma's opinion of the man went up. He doesn't sound scared at all, she thought.

Pushing up the officer's chin with the shotgun muzzle, the bandit said, "Bud, that really scares me."

Ida cried. Emma jiggled the baby up and down, quieting the child. The bandit shook his head, saying, "Enough of this bullshit. Let's get down to business so we can get out of here." He backed away, keeping the shotgun pointed at the group, saying, "Take off all jewelry, empty your pockets, and toss it all to the ground."

A silver necklace, six dollars in bills, and one dollar and forty-one cents in coin were laying in the dirt when they were done. "This is shit. I've seen more money on the bar in a saloon." said the short robber. "I didn't see them throw anything out of the stage when they came up to the cut." He motioned to the taller bandit, "I'll watch em, go check inside the stage; they may have hidden things there."

His companion searched the cab. He grabbed Emma's purse and dumped everything out on the coach's floor. There was a comb, stage ticket, some ribbons and six dollars. He snatched the cash. "Found six greenbacks in her purse."

"That's better!" the robber watching the group said. He turned to the driver, "Driver, get your strongbox and throw it down."

"I can't. It's chained to the wagon, and I don't have a key," the reinsman answered. His brow was sweating and his chin trembling.

The bandit nodded his head.

The robber who searched the wagon came back and picked up all the dropped valuables, placing them in an old grain sack. He walked out of sight behind the large stone outcropping. When he came back, he didn't have the sack.

That must be where their horses are, thought Emma as she continued jiggling Ida up and down. She shook her head. We are being robbed . . . why am I thinking about horses?

"They chained the strongbox. Take the sledgehammer and smash it open."

The taller man picked up the hammer and went to the stage. He unlaced the leather apron covering the storage space beneath the driver's seat, and he saw the chest attached to the stage's body with a two-foot length of thick chain. Grabbing the box by the corner, he twisted it until the side with the lock was facing outside. Picking up his shotgun, he placed it on the cab's roof, across the corner luggage rails in the back. Moving with caution because of the sledgehammer in one hand, he climbed up to stand with the hammer on the driver's seat. He took a breath, and with a powerful swing hammered down on the strongbox's lock. He did it again and again. The smashing sound startled the horses. They stomped their feet, and the wagon shook. Wood chips and splinters went flying after a hit. The shotgun slid a little on the luggage rail where it was resting.

He broke through the side. Reaching in, he pulled out two bundles of bank correspondence. He squinted at the words and tossed the letters aside. There were other documents which he couldn't understand, so he threw them on the ground with the letters. Reaching deeper inside the box, he pulled out a canvas pouch. Looking inside, he found three bundles of one-hundred-dollar bills. "There's cash," he shouted. Putting the bills back in the pouch, he tossed it to the ground.

"Get down and gather it up. We've spent too much time here already."

As he said that, Emma shifted Ida in her arms, and the wedding ring slipped out of the diaper and fell to the ground. Emma froze. The prisoner, the marshal, and the robber looked down at the gold ring. The bandit looked up, staring at the baby. "I'll be damned, lady. You found a good place to hide things. Take the diaper off that kid and shake it. Fast, now, 'cause I'm losing my patience,' he said in a low voice. "Hurry," he yelled to his partner.

Grabbing the sledgehammer, the robber on the stage threw it to the ground, and he reached to grab his shotgun laying across the roof's luggage railings. The stage shifted under his weight, causing the shotgun to slide off the rail. He made a grab for it, but missed. He looked over the edge of the roof just as the gun hit the ground and discharged. The BOOM from the weapon caused the horses to bolt and run down the sandstone slope, pulling the stagecoach. The wagon's sudden jerk threw the bandit off the top of the stagecoach, head hitting the side of the rock cut before landing on the ground. He lay still, unconscious but groaning . . . blood pooling around his head.

Everyone in the group looked at the stagecoach when they heard the shotgun blast. Everything happened in seconds, and they continued staring after the man hit the ground. Ida, startled, cried. The marshal turned and jumped at the remaining robber. Emma watched the lawman grab the shotgun's barrel, pushing it down and away from his body.

Emma heard a chain rattle, turned, and saw the prisoner step towards the struggle, but he dropped the iron ball and tripped over the weighted chain. She turned back, looking at the marshal and the bandit wrestling over the gun. The robber reversed the grips of both his hands on the shotgun and swung the stock up and around to the lawman's head. The stock struck the marshal on his temple, and he crumpled to the ground, unconscious, with one leg twisted under the other.

Emma was stunned. She watched the marshal fall, and the bandit say, "That'll learn ya." Turning from the lawman, the robber pointed the shotgun at Daniel. "Jailbird, get back with the woman," Standing up and clutching the ball to his stomach again, Daniel stepped back.

Ida was crying all the time. "Lady, shut your kid up!" shouted the robber. Emma bounced her baby up and down, saying, "Shhh, shhh, shhh." Ida cried louder.

"Damnit, I can't believe this mule shit." Squinting, the bandit kept the gun pointed at them. He bent down, grabbed the dropped wedding ring, and stuffed it in his shirt pocket. "Now, take out whatever else you have in that diaper and give it to me." He held out his hand, both gun barrels in his right hand, pointed at Emma and Daniel.

The prisoner said, "Emma, just give him what he wants. He'll take it and go."

"Listen to that jailbird. He's talking sense."

Emma let out a long sigh. At least it'll end soon now, she thought. Supporting the crying Ida on her hip with her left arm, she pulled out the marshal's gold pocket watch with her right hand, putting it in the thief's palm.

Daniel watched the bandit's eyes shift to the watch for a second. When he dropped the ball on the bandit's foot, the thief yelled in pain and bent over, lifting his foot.

The prisoner jumped to the bandit's side, wrapping the chain of the wrist shackles around the thief's throat, and gave it a powerful yank, pulling the chain tighter and tighter. The bandit's eyes were half closed, and his tongue stuck out from his mouth. He raised the shotgun to his chest, but his fingers spasmed and opened, letting the gun fall to the ground.

"Daniel, stop. You'll kill him!" Emma screamed.

The prisoner didn't pay any attention. Emma moved to his side, placed her free hand on his shoulder, squeezing it and yelling, "Stop, Daniel, Stop, Enough!" Daniel stopped, looked at Emma and looked at his hands. He released the pressure on the chain. The thief collapsed to the ground, senseless, his breath going in and out in ragged gasps.

She watched Daniel standing over the unconscious bandit, staring around with a dazed look. Ida's crying was loud. Gazing up and down the slope, Emma said, "Where's the driver?"

"I saw him running down the slope like he was being chased by the devil."

Emma sat on the large rock by the road cut. She rocked back and forth, patting Ida on her back. Ida's crying was softening.

A horse whickered from behind the rocks. "The robbers' horses," said Emma. The prisoner set his jaw and took a fast step towards the sound. He nearly tripped after the leg iron caught his foot. He picked up the ball, walked over to the unconscious marshal, and searched the lawman's pockets. Daniel went through the pockets two times. The prisoner stood up, his shoulders drooping. He looked at the iron ball, dragged it a few feet, sat down on the ground and sobbed, wiping his eyes with the shirt sleeves on his manacled wrists.

Emma stared at the man, thinking, and she made her decision. She searched through Ida's diaper, taking out two small objects. Standing up, she walked to Daniel and said, "You're looking for these. You're not an evil man, just not lucky." She gave him the marshal's two keys.

Daniel was mounted and armed. Sitting on the thief's horse, the bandit's pistol was on his hip and the shotgun in the saddle sheath. While tying up both unconscious bandits, he'd put the leg irons and shackles on the bandit with the biggest mouth, the short one, thinking, That bastard will be angrier than a just-castrated bull when he wakes up with hands and feet tied, and wearing a leg iron with ball and wrist shackles. He smiled, remembering when he threw the two keys into the canyon's brush. He stretched his arms out full length, enjoying the feeling.

Ida was sleeping on a saddle blanket in the shade of a small tree at the edge of the stone road.

Emma picked up the canvas pouch, laying forgotten on the ground. She gave Daniel the pouch. "Take it," she said. "There's three hundred dollars inside. You'll need it."

He took the pouch, unbuttoned his shirt's top, placed the sack inside against his skin. "How do you know how much money there is?" he asked.

"It's a business loan from my husband to my brother-in-law in Santa Barbara."

Daniel cleared his throat. "Emma," he said, "I don't want to take your family's money."

"Don't worry. My husband insured it."

Daniel looked puzzled. "Insured?"

"It means the stage company will give him $300 to replace the stolen money," she said impatiently.

"Oh, I get it." he paused, rubbing the pockmarks on his cheek. He reached down to where the robber's grain sack was tied to the rope strap. "I won't need this," he said, and handed the sack to Emma.

Daniel regarded her. "Listen, Emma, I have to hurry. There will be another stage coming by in two or three hours. That's the way they run them. And I think you'll see our driver again. A runaway stage pulled by a tired team won't go far. He'll find them and come back because he knows bandits don't stick around after a job, and he won't want to lose his job." He paused, looking thoughtful. "Thank you for all you've done. I will not forget you or Ida," he gestured to the sleeping baby. He wheeled the horse around and trotted down the stone road.

Port of Los Angeles, San Pedro, California, 1878
Merchant Ship "Providence"

Standing on the main deck, the first mate of the bark, Providence, gave the passenger list to the captain. He said, "We signed on our last passenger today."

"Did he pay?"

"Yes sir, the full thirty dollars."

"Where did he go? We sail in three hours."

The first mate shrugged his shoulders and looked down at the wharf.

"Said he'd be back in two hours. He went to sell his horse."

The captain shook his head. "He'll have to ride it to British Honduras if he misses our departure."

"We'll know if he makes it back to the ship in time," said the first mate. "He'll be the one with the smallpox scars on his face."

The End

Mike Jackson is a retired school teacher who lives in Santa Maria, CA. The things he enjoys in life are writing, reading, hiking and fishing, in that order. Fiction writing is new for him; but the longer he does it, the more he likes it.

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Bad Blood
by Robert Gilbert

The first layer of snow had already left a white blanket on the Colorado high plains. More was expected the next morning, coupled with a blast of cold air coming down from Wyoming. The dusty, brown soil was already asleep; wheat fields had been harvested months ago. The rolling flatland lay barren. The wind shifted and whistled in no certain direction, lifting the powdery flakes like tiny particles, sending them twirling around till they fell to form designs of a frozen quilt. There were no trees to block the endless patchwork, but, ever so often, a barn or lean-to served as the backdrop for a drifting snow bank. The outstretched sky was icy blue all the way to the horizon. The trail leading in and out of Cheyenne River was coated with light, blowing snow that partially covered the hard road in either direction, broken up here and there by hoof prints and impressions of wagon wheels.

I'm tellin' you this because right now a steady chill was running through me, my collar raised, walking the streets of town. Sunlight had spread across this place less than an hour ago, and shade still coated the west side of every building. I was into my usual rounds making sure things were fit and proper for another day. The townsfolk had decided they needed a U.S. Marshal to keep things decent and safe around here. I guess they expected my stay to be maybe a couple years at most before I'd move on, but it was going on fifteen, and I was still here. It was also my choice to hire my own deputy, so I chose Levi Bounds. He was as trustworthy as the day was long and tough as they come.

Coolness continued to fill my lungs as I paced down the boardwalk in the direction of Jake Byers's livery. Even with the stable door to his business shut, I could still hear the loud pounding of hammer striking metal while he corrected the size of a shoe. My daily visit with Jake wouldn't take long, 'cause I still had the rest of the town to check on.

Close to Jake's livery, I stopped momentarily in front of what remained of the burned-out former Harris Dry Goods Store & Millinery. It was completely scorched to the ground. The only things visible were skeletons of shelves where fashionable ladies' hats were once displayed. Not too long ago, a family feud in their private lives occurred with some rather spirited accusations from MayBelle Harris against her now-ex Mead Harris. It seemed Mead was spending a lot of extra time in the Gray Owl Saloon, getting seriously acquainted and making time with a social lady who served drinks there. She also offered female services upstairs, in a private room. It was not a secret that the whore had plenty of other customers to pleasure, but Mead was her favorite, especially his visits inside the valley between her thighs. At least those were the facts according to the people around town.

MayBelle and Mead came to an agreement: He would stay away from the so-called "frisky lady," as everyone in Cheyenne River knew her. Things went along pretty smoothly for the married couple until Mead up and disappeared into hiding one day. There was an old farmhouse several miles out of town, once owned by Tom Cate and his family, on a sizeable spread of land. The kinsfolk decided to move north, closer to his brother's land. Tom mentioned to me that crops up there were better than in our parts. I was never one to argue about crops, but I saw near equal tillage of the land from the surrounding farm acreage. I thought maybe Cate would return in a couple years, but he didn't. Anyway, after he and his family packed up and moved out, it made a perfect hideout for Mead and his lady friend. I was sure right about that fact. He and the slut had themselves a cozy time there, for sure. They sneaked back and forth to that hiding place in hopes of not being caught. To a few of us, Mead even bragged that his size wore her out. Can you believe that crazy shit? That woman did have nice-lookin' features, and I was sure he couldn't resist showin' her the many ways he knew to have a really, damn good time.

One day, after their frolics, Mead and his lover returned to town, sometime close to noon. Even from a half-mile away, the smoke and flames could be seen lifting to the sky. In a matter of moments, Harris Dry Goods Store & Millinery was nothing but a nasty blaze. Across the main road, MayBelle stood at the stage depot, with her bags packed and several trunks filled. She told the locals, "Oh, let it burn." A few words were exchanged between husband and wife, and her last comment to him after she boarded the stage was a loudly shouted, "Enjoy!" A few days later, Mead and his lady left town, never to be heard from again.

I made my way into Jake's livery, and the coolness from outside suddenly evaporated. The fire pit was full of red flames, dancing across hot metal that was being shaped. Jake looked away from his business and gave me a quick nod. His lips parted into a friendly smile, and a slight hint of orange reflected on his white teeth. His brows were high and rounded. Our handshakes came together, strong as ever, an iron grip.

He was a man who always looked the same, never changing from day to day. Muscles protruded from his sleeveless shirt, and he was a well-tanned figure of a man, big and powerful. Broad shoulders dominated his physique, and his hands and fingers were relaxed but strong. He had clear, observant eyes that seemed to dig deep into the souls of anyone who caught a glance from him.

"Right on time, Marshal Brothers," Jake said in a respectable way, before he returned to shaping the shoe.

"Just doin' my job, makin' my rounds," I answered. "It's gettin' somewhat cold and nasty out there, Jake. Most times, I take a leisurely walk through town at this time o' day just to make sure everyone's keepin' the peace, but I've got giddy-up in my boots today. It ain't gonna be nice and warm till spring."

"You need some coffee to keep you warm," he replied, his voice deep with a masculine laugh.

"I made some in the office this morning. I'm down to the last of that brew Kasper Hyde sold me in his mercantile. He swore it's one of the finest-tastin' brews on the market today, but that's bullshit. I nearly choked to death after sippin' a second cup this morning. I might as well be drinkin' mud, and it's the same color too. It was so damn awful bad it coulda gagged a maggot, and that's a fact!"

Jake heard what I said, put the hammer down, turned in my direction, and bellowed with laughter. "Why don't ya drink that stuff they serve in the saloon?"

"I usually do," I said. "The Gray Owl doesn't open for a couple hours though. Maybe I'll just make myself busy in the office for a while, but I still got the rest of town to look at 'fore I mosey back. I've got some papers to file, wanted sheets to look over, and I guess I should take some time to clean this ol' .44. Been wantin' to sell it. Maybe it'll catch the interest of someone in the saloon." "Hey, Warren," Jake said, now being friendly. "I've been hearin' some rumors."

"Yeah, prob'ly the same news I'm hearing from Joe Tucker over at the land office," I replied.

Jake hesitated and stared at me with those sharp, assessing eyes.

"That old farmhouse where Mead and the whore camped out has been sold," I said. "Some fella by the name o' Tubbs bought it. Luther Tubbs."

"I guess word travels fast," Jake stated in a dry response. "That's a real nice, big piece of property, with plenty o' chores to be done on all them acres. Maybe he's got kin to help him turn the land. I bet a couple work horses or decent mules to pull the plow would help greatly."

I nodded as I watched Jake return to his work once more. Again, flames danced in front of him, and the shoe glowed red.

Suddenly, Jake stopped what he was doing, turned, and faced me again, with a curious look on his face. "None o' my business," he said, "but there's something strange goin' on 'round here, Marshal."

"Like what?"

"Well, a couple days ago, some strangers come through town, big boys, real heavyset. They had their hats pulled down over their eyes, but I could see a deep scar on the left cheek of one of 'em. They weren't the friendly sort neither. Only one of the two spoke, to request some water for their horses. Then, he asked for directions to the old Cate place. I thought it was real strange that it was them who were askin' about the place, rather than family."

"Maybe his kin want to look the land over before others get here."

Jake shook his head, and silence loomed between us for a moment.

"Did the strangers mention their names?" I asked, speaking with firmness.

Again, Jake shook his head.

"Well, you just keep busy, Jake," I said. "Deputy Bounds will be up soon, probably back in the office before I'm done with my walk. I'm gonna go check in with him, then do some office work. You take care now, ya hear?"

"I will, Marshal. Thanks for stoppin' by."

After we said our goodbyes, I lifted my coat collar before exiting his place. As I closed the livery door, I continued to hear the sound of hot metal being pounded into shape. Suddenly, the wind twirled around me, and my breathing became labored, so I hurried to the other side of town in a brisk walk.

On the boardwalk, in front of Mason's Drug Store, I heard a damn barking dog. It was bein' nasty and annoying at that early hour of the morning. The mutt belonged to Wiggs Farris. Farris didn't hold a real job in Cheyenne River, but he panhandled for money to enjoy a glass of whiskey now and then. He also begged for leftover table scraps at the café, enough for him and his filthy fleabag to enjoy. When the dog saw me approaching, he ran between buildings, then disappeared inside a dilapidated shack at the end of town. I knew that when I'd do my walkabout tomorrow, I'd see that barking nag serenading our town again. I'd given Wiggs several warnings about the noise, but it didn't faze him one bit. I decided that the next time Cheyenne River had a town meeting, I'd ask those in attendance to approve a dog nuisance ordnance. Hopefully, that would take care of the situation.

I had to do some checking on other buildings, and by the time I made it back to the office, Levi was there, though he didn't look like he was fully awake. I suggested he try the coffee I'd made earlier, but he shook his head. I guessed he knew how bad it was. Gazing at the clock on the back wall, we agreed that the Gray Owl would be serving beverages in another hour.

I took my time doing office work and cleaning the ol' .44. Levi and I jawed for the longest time about the Cate homestead and what Jake had mentioned about the two strangers.

Time passed, and soon, frosty morning sunlight was all over us like a blanket as we made our way into the saloon. We noticed two horses hitched to the rail out front. The saloon was dead center in town and it wasn't a fancy place like the ones in Denver we'd heard about. It was the best place in Cheyenne River, though, to wet the dust from your throat, swap stories, play a hand o' poker, and grab a swig o' whiskey. It didn't hurt that there were always a few fine-lookin', half-dressed women there to lean on your shoulder, showin' off their uplifted tits.

Levi and I were sittin' at our usual riser section along the side wall, where we could get a good look of what was going on. We sipped black coffee, and it was awful damn good.

We knew the usual patrons who came and went, but at the moment, our attention was centered on two rough-looking cowboys leaning on the bar. Whiskey was their favorite, as was Nadine, who was standing between them, dressed in her usual skimpy, silky outfit. She wasn't exactly pretty, but that didn't matter. The bigger of the two gents was getting real feisty and demanding, and soon, she was bein' pushed around, till a slight scream of protest came from her red lips.

I set my coffee cup on the table. My eyes were dark as I scrutinized the situation, my cheekbones tightening and loosening as I stared at them. "You fellas wanna leave her alone?" I asked in a loud, husky voice. "Enjoy whatever you're drinkin' and move on. Don't waste my time to tell you both more than once."

Silence filled the entire room, and Nadine's eyes widened.

"You heard me!" I yelled, in a demanding tone. "Leave the lady alone. Finish your drinks and mosey outta town."

Nadine jerked away from them, with tears running down her face. Her right hand covered a torn part of her outfit, and it was evident from her pained expression that fear and anger knotted inside her, panic rioting within her.

"You got a big mouth, mister," the bigger of the two said, looking my direction. The rotten smile he had for Nadine left his face in a hurry. "Me an' my friend was just havin' a little fun with this saloon bitch, enjoyin' her company. See, we's in need of a pleasurable fuck, but then your big mouth goes and butts in." His words ended, and both cowboys walked in our direction.

Levi Bounds and I immediately stood. I managed a small, tentative smile, but anger was dancing in my eyes. We both opened our coats at the same time, revealing the silver glint of our U.S. Marshal badges.

The cowboys paid no attention and started pushing tables and chairs out of the way to close the gap between us. Suddenly, they reached for their sidearms, but, even quicker, Levi and I had our Colts pointed in their direction.

"You've had your drinks," I said, clenching my teeth, "and your playful fun. I could arrest both of you for assault on the lady. Not only that, but you interrupted our morning coffee."

The loudmouth cowboy holstered his Colt, and his lips thinned with anger. His buddy lowered his gun and began to back away, but curses were falling from his lips.

I was furious. "I don't wanna see you two again, not anywhere near Cheyenne River. My deputy and I keep this town respectable, and we don't need drifters comin' through here, stirrin' up trouble."

"Marshal, we was mindin' our business, enjoyin' our whiskey and havin' a little fun with that trashy woman. Didn't mean to offend anyone, but you two lawmen gents just had to step in."

"Get out of town before I put you both in jail. Ride on and don't come back."

They started toward the door, but the big man stopped and faced Levi and me. His words were straightforward: "My name is Sutton. Remember my face, Marshal. If you two weren't lawmen, me an' Clowers would just as well shoot both of you for buttin' into our personal business. Never can tell when we might see you again. Next time, we'll make sure you get what's comin' to ya for interruptin' our socializing with that whore. We could handle her real good, take turns fuckin', enjoying whiskey an' suckin' those ample-lookin' virgin tits." At that, both men belly-laughed and exited the Gray Owl.

Levi turned to me. "Ain't no easy road when you deal with scum idiots like those worthless drifters. Just damn troublemakers. Another day on the job."

We finished our coffee and made sure the young lady was taken care of by an older saloon woman. It wasn't the first time some driftin' cowboys had come through Cheyenne River with other ideas on their mind besides enjoying a beverage.

While Levi and I made our short trek back to the office, the town seemed quiet. I could still hear that mangy dog at the end of town, though, barking fiercely, liked he'd seen another mutt or maybe a stray cat. I was just waitin' for some citizen to come to me with their own valid complaints about the deranged varmint; I could guarantee that end of town would get real quiet 'cause I'd have just and legal cause to do somethin' about it.

It was getting colder by the hour as the wind picked up, swirling against the windows and doors. The fire in the office potbelly stove did its best to keep us warm. As we tried to ignore the chill, we distracted ourselves with endless conversation about the two strangers.

The next day we were standing on the boardwalk in front of our office. Once again, Levi had a mouth full of warm tobacco juice and spat a sizeable glob onto the street. Evaporation from the gooey mound rose quickly.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a wagon, heading out way at a slow pace. As it neared, I saw that it was filled with all sorts of fancy furnishings: chairs, tables, and a nice looking wood dresser, stacked high but all tied down nice and snug. A comfortable-looking rocking chair was roped on at the back end, with boxes under it, presumably full of utensils and clothes and that sort of things.

It was still noticeably cold out as the wagon pulled in front of us. The team of horses eased down from their gallop. Snorted air steamed out from their nostrils as the driver set the brake with a hard yank.

The man, dressed in heavy clothing and knee-length, dirty, scuffed boots, looked down at us from beneath his well-worn cowboy hat. He had a clean smile, 'cept for a few missing teeth. "I'm Luther Tubbs, and this is my wife, Grace," he said, with a slight Southern twang.

Levi and I introduced ourselves and exchanged handshakes. Luther held a firm grip as we tipped our hats at Grace.

"Point me in the direction of the Cate spread, would ya, Marshal?" Luther asked in a friendly but chilly, lip-quivering voice, as warm breath escaped his mouth. "We signed legal papers at the land office over in Wavery yesterday. The missus and I sure can't wait to see our new home and property." Luther and his wife were in spirited moods.

"Surprised to see you folks now," I said, "especially with winter comin' on and mounds o' snow to keep you inside your place till a serious thaw comes along."

"Snow don't bother me none, nor Grace," Luther mentioned. "We was farmers back in southern Indiana, near where the Wabash and Ohio Rivers come together. We had our share of too much rain and floods and decided to move to higher ground."

"Well, good luck with your new home," I said, adding a smile of encouragement. "Go west for maybe three miles. When you come to a fork in the road, turn right and head out another mile. The ranch will be on your right."

Luther and Grace grinned and hugged, then thanked me with genuine happiness dancin' in their souls.

"If you ever have any problems out that direction," I said, tossing glances between them and a quick nod to Levi, "you let us know what's going on, and we'll help the best we can."

After more smiles and more thanks for Levi and me, Luther released the brake and slapped the horses. Just like that, the newest residents of Cheyenne River disappeared, following the directions we gave them. Wagon tracks and hoofprints faded from sight as more seasonal wind and continual snowflakes whipped and whirled in all directions. Without a doubt, a heavy winter storm was coming. Levi and I returned to the office and stoked more wood in the potbelly stove to keep warm.

Days went by, and talk around town centered on the new family that had taken over the Cate spread. Some remembered Mead and the saloon whore spending time out there. Others went on about their business, saying hello when Luther and Grace came to town for supplies. Of course, there was constant gossip about the whole situation. Would anyone move to an empty homestead now, in the middle of winter, with snow and such comin' on?

About two weeks after Luther and Grace first showed up, cold drafts continued to smack down on us from Wyoming. Levi and I saddled up and took a ride out to the Tubbs spread. By the time we got there and pulled our reins, Luther, bundled up warm, was up on the roof, tending to patchwork that was in need of repair. We noticed the porch had already been replaced, complete with a real fancy hanging swing, held in place with hardwood pieces.

After we dismounted and stabled our horses, Luther invited us in for coffee. Grace preferred the taste of hot tea. The interior was absolutely beautiful, especially with the fireplace aglow. There was no comparison; I recalled the Cate house always bein' in shambles. The kitchen had been fixed up real nice. The dining area was being worked on, and Luther showed us a sketch of what the room would look like. There were two bedrooms, and the larger one was ornate and pleasing, having been decorated with an obvious woman's touch. The smaller bedroom was filled with boxes and household goods, to be stored there till Luther's lofty plans for the rest of the house were complete.

As we sat at the table and Grace politely poured refills; our discussion centered around the house.

"I wanna finish all the indoor work 'fore plantin' season," Luther said. "I already spoke to the man at the mercantile regardin' seed prices and a new plow. Our horses are plenty young and healthy for the work ahead."

As I continued to nurse my coffee, the joy on Grace's face quickly disappeared. The strength she'd shown suddenly faded like an evening sunset. She momentarily lifted her hands to her face to hide the coming tears, and she looked worried, as if her mind wandered with confusion. She mumbled her disturbing thoughts under her breath.

"Go on. Tell the marshal and deputy," Luther insisted. "Don't hide the facts."

Grace sighed, then said, with wetness glistening on her cheeks, "I have an older brother, Sutton. He has a friend, Clowers, real ugly to look at. That ol' rascal will kill anybody who looks at him too long or sideways. I'm afraid them two followed us from Indiana. Sure, they tried to keep outta sight, but I just know they're around, spyin' on us, as we try to fix up this house. This place . . . " She paused to sob, then turned to me. "Marshal, this house is my dream, the answer to my prayers, but Sutton wants it real bad."

"And you think them two are tough to wrangle with?" I asked, with a smirk. "The type who are ready to pick a fight over anything?"

Grace and Luther slowly nodded, and tears continued to well in Grace's eyes.

"Is one of them kinda heavy, a big man with a big mouth, who likes to sass off and push people around?" I quizzed.

"Sure is," Luther said with a nod.

"The same two idiots we had words with," Levi mentioned. "We didn't take too kindly to them trying to personally socialize with a dance hall woman inside the Gray Owl Saloon."

"You gotta find 'em, Marshal, before they find us, and keep us informed," Grace said, her voice wavering. "This place is rightfully ours, and we wanna keep it. It's our new home with plenty of work to be finished."

Levi and I stood and voiced our goodbyes. We thanked Grace for the coffee and conversation, adjusted our hats, raised our collars, and walked into the cold air toward the barn. We brought out our horses and mounted up, waved at Grace and Luther, and rode off. Fierce wind danced around us. We lowered our hats to protect our faces from the oncoming bits of pelting snow.

Several days passed with no news about the problematic situation at the Tubbs spread. In that short amount of time, Levi and I decided to take turns riding a back trail that took us to a small rise that lifted above their ranch. Using binoculars, we watched their property but saw no trespassers. The snow had increased to cover most of the land, and we were dressed warm to fight off the frost that landed on our faces. The wind teased at our bodies, so we only stayed long enough to quickly observe what was down below.

Days later, we faced a whole different situation altogether. As Levi and I stood outside the office, Grace was coming toward us, perched atop the wood bench of their wagon, slapping reins across their chestnut and bay. As she got closer, we could see red stains on her coat. She set the brake and stepped down to meet us, with tears flowing like rain. She used her sleeve to wipe across her cold, wet face. It didn't take long for us to understand the circumstances after she walked us to the back of the wagon and pulled back a tarp that covered Luther, who was full of bullet holes. Red splotches painted his body as he lay flat on his back. At least five shots were counted.

We led Grace inside the office so she could tell her story. "They came right at dawn and wouldn't leave," she began, sobbing. "Surprised us both. Sutton said the property was his, too, in the land deal. Luther yelled and went for his gun he kept in a kitchen drawer. Sutton and Clowers drew their guns and started shooting at Luther. It was over real quick, and my Luther was dead. I managed to lift him to the wagon to come to town." Grace trembled and cried, looking down at her bloodstained front.

"I know what they look like," I said. "I'm guessing they're still out there?"

"I guess so," she replied in a weak tome.

After leaving Grace with the town doctor, Levi and I saddled up and headed to the bluff behind their property. We found a good hiding place. From it, we could see the same two horses the cowboys were riding when I ordered them to leave Cheyenne River.

With rifles in hand and sidearms loaded, we slowly made our way to the barn to see if they were hiding inside. The building was empty.

Levi slowly managed to the rear of the house and stayed out of sight, with a perfect angle at the back door. I made my way toward the porch and hid behind the well, not far from the new front door.

"Sutton!" I yelled. "I'm Marshal Warren Brothers, here to arrest you and Clowers for the murder of Luther Tubbs over land ownership."

Suddenly, broken glass loudly crumbled from the front window. Thereafter, a rifle repeatedly fired rounds near my location. I slowly inched to the other side of the well for a better shot at the window. I lifted up and unloaded hot lead in that direction. His next shot knocked the rifle from my hand. With my .44 out of the holster and pointed, I quickly spent six bullets, directly into the window. Then, after the shattering sound subsided, there was silence.

At the same time, I heard gunfire from the back of the house. More shots were released until Levi yelled, "Marshal, Clowers is dead!"

Powdery flakes increased to nearly blinding snow showers by the time the culprits were belly down over their horses. It was a brisk ride back to Cheyenne River, and Levi and I had time to chat along the way, trying to understand the circumstances of this feud. Luther and Grace were good people living a decent life, with a new ranch that was theirs to enjoy. A blood relative thought differently, and three dead bodies were the result of that greed. Widow Grace had a challenge in front of her to find a helping hand. I guessed it wouldn't take long, 'cause the people of Cheyenne River were the respectable kind. Perhaps it might take years, we all knew, but Grace would do her best to forget about what happened that fateful day and move on to a happier life.

The End

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:

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A Favor Returned
by William S. Hubbartt

At the Henderson Freight building in Santa Fe, Jeremiah Putnam had nearly finished loading a wagon and was making minor adjustments to secure the load. The fifty-year-old Putnam, woolly and whiskered in appearance, was now glistening with sweat on muscled arms, and buffalo-like shoulders from loading the heavy items into the wagon.

"Ready, Putnam? We got one stop before we get on the road, over at La Tienda. This trip is an exchange of merchandise with a merchant up in Taos," said the lean twenty-five year old Clint Carrigan as he walked into the freight-yard from his earlier stop at the cantina.

A few minutes later in front of La Tienda, merchant Hiram Bowersox stood on the boardwalk in front of his store as the teamsters made final adjustments to the load and covered it with canvas. "Which route you taking up to Taos? I hear-tell that the Jicarillas are stirring up trouble. Travelers tell of depredations up along the river route last few days."

"Well then, maybe we'll take the high desert route." Clint glanced at Putnam who nodded in agreement. He clicked his tongue and snapped the reins to get the horses started.

The scattered ranchos and haciendas faded into the distance behind as the wagon pulled along north of town. An occasional mourning dove cooed from the sparse trees and meadowlarks flitted between the bushes in search of food. Occasionally a Puebloan on horseback passed going southward.

"Boss, what do you know about these Apaches?" asked Putnam, as grey clouds drifted across the skies. Instinctively, Clint scanned the horizon from right to left checking for signs of hostiles. He had dealt with the Kiowa while crossing the trail between Independence and Santa Fe. A Paterson Colt hung on his hip, and a Hawken rifle was propped against the bench seat next to his left leg. A small box of ammunition lay down by his feet.

"Most of what I know about the Apaches was from hear-tell in the cantinas. They're tricky, mean cusses who thrive in the desert. Different tribes hereabout. There's Chiricahuas, Mescaleros, and the Jicarillas. Don't seem like they get along even amongst themselves.

"But, they're all Apache. They all talk the same, right?"

"No. Different dialects, they say though, they do get along OK with the Puebloans. Well, the fellers that been here a while say that the Jicarilla are the ones that claim this area. They're treacherous and cruel."

"Mebby that's why they been attacking the white folk, eh? They want the goods from the settlers."

"Yeh, that and they say that, according to Jicarillas' beliefs, the Taos area where we're headed is the heart of the world."

* * *

As men often do on long trips, Putnam sat silently, his body rocking to the motion of the wagon as he considered Clint's remarks. Sometimes, ten or fifteen minutes or more may pass between the parts of a conversation. "So, this is Apache homeland where we're going? Ain't it kinda like kicking a sleeping dog?"

Some time passed as Clint's eyes scanned the horizon ahead and both sides as he considered his reply. "That's why we carry the armament and took the high road to stay away from the reports of problems along the river route. Besides, Taos is a settled town The Mex people settled there years ago, there's a mission there."

The trail rose upward with a long curving pathway that caused the draft horses to breathe hard even while Clint slowed their pace to a walk.

Soon, the shadows grew long as the sun dropped behind the mountains to the west. The temperature was dropping as quickly as the sun. They came upon the mission at Las Trampas called San Jose de Garcia.

The next day was slow due to the steep upward travel into the heavily forested area of pinyon pines and junipers. Nearby rose a stone mountain, its lower levels tree-covered and capped off with snow called Jicarita Peak. In the shadows of this peak, the teamsters came upon an ancient village called Picuris Pueblo. It was an area that included a small Spanish settlement of Nuevo Mexicanos who tended to flocks of churro sheep alongside the native culture of Puebloans.

As they reached the settlement by early afternoon, Clint determined that it was best to stop and rest the animals after the arduous climb. Clint wiped down the horses and sent Putnam to forage for some wood to build a small fire. Moments later, Putnam returned with an arm full of dead-fall limbs, his eyes wide with excitement.

"Clint, back in the trees, I found a large stone etched with writing. No words that I understand. What do you suppose it is?"

Clint picked up his Hawken as they walked away from the camp into the nearby woods. He glanced around, then spoke in a low voice, barely over a whisper. "I heard talk about this in the cantina. It's the first one I've seen. Oldtimers say it's a rock shrine. The Apache use a large boulder-like this to make etchings about the Jicarilla creation beliefs."

Breakfast was done and the animals were hitched to the wagon as the morning sky greyed and yellow streaks brightened the eastern peaks. As Clint made a final check of the hitches, the horses' ears twitched, one snorted, and the animals suddenly became edgy. From the nearby woods, there was a rustling followed by the crack of a broken twig. Clint heard a squeal, like a critter in distress.

A Puebloan girl, nearly grown, maybe thirteen or fourteen years, wearing a deerskin dress, ran from the forest towards the smoldering fire, crying excitably in her native language. Her words sounded like gibberish to Clint, who was unfamiliar with the Northern Tiwa language of the Picuris Puebloans. But, the excited pitch and tone of her words, with wide-eyed terror clearly conveyed a fear for her life.

"What happened? Do you speak Spanish," Clint asked in Spanish?

Terrified, the girl ran into Clint's arms looking anxiously over her shoulder.

"They're after me. They're going to kill me!" She replied in Spanish, her voice shrill, her body trembling.

Clint pulled the Colt from its holster and quickly led the girl towards cover behind the wagon. His alert eyes scanned the nearby forest, then up and down the two-track pathway that led them to Taos, and then back towards the Picuris Pueblo. The wildlife did not perceive a threat.

Tugging at his britches, Putnam stepped out from the trees where the remnants of the breakfast fire were but a fading trail of smoke. "What you got there, Clint? Who's your friend?"

The girl trembled at the sight of another man.

"It's OK. He's a friend," said Clint as he holstered the Colt and turned towards his companion. "This here young lady come running from the woods saying somebody was trying to kill her. But there's nobody around."

After a few more questions in Spanish, it was determined that the girl would accompany the men to Taos. A few moments later, the wagon was rumbling up the road on its final leg to their destination in the northern valley. Ever mindful of the Apache threat, Clint kept the Hawken rifle between his legs and holster loop off the Colt on his hip. The two-track roadway wended through the forest and began a gradual descent.

Cautiously, Clint periodically checked their back trail and glanced down at the Puebloan maiden who had settled on the canvas that covered the goods in the back of the wagon. An attractive woman-child showing curves blossoming into a woman, her shiny black hair waved in the breezes and she rolled slightly as the wagon bounced over ruts in the hardpan roadway. The tanned leather pull-over dress with decorative beads fit her loosely and her breasts jiggled with the bumps of the ride. Her copper-colored complexion gave off a natural youthful shine to her face and a creaminess to her arms and thighs.

The feminine scent of her soft body flashed through Clint's mind from her fearful embrace moments earlier. He felt himself wondering what it would be like to hold her, to kiss her tender brown lips. The wagon bounced over a loose stone in the roadway breaking the reverie.

"Who is chasing you?" Clint asked as their eyes met briefly.

The young Puebloan glanced over her shoulder before responding. Her eyes grew wide in fear. "The Jicarilla's. They try to kill me."

"But, why?"

The girl cowered in response.

To the right, a couple of birds flushed from a stand of trees. Was there movement back there? Clint thought he caught a glimpse of a copper-skinned native running parallel to the roadway a hundred yards or more away. His skin prickled in response.

The wagon rounded a curve in the road and came upon a grayed deadfall timber across the roadway, swallowed by a receding dust cloud. The log blocked the roadway, leaving only a steep dried creek bed which likely would cause the heavily top-loaded wagon to tip if an attempt was made to pass the obstacle. Putnam pulled back on the reins to stop the rig.

An arrow thumped into the side of the rig near where the girl was curled into a dip of the canvas. She squealed in fright and stretched out flat to lessen her exposure as a target. Putnam fired the Hawken into the trees from where the arrow had come.

"Save your shots until you have a target," called Clint. "Get under the wagon, behind the wheels." The three travelers scrambled down seeking the paltry protection provided by the wood-spoke wheels. From somewhere in the trees behind their position there was a yelp, and as they turned to check their rear, an arrow thumped into the side of the wagon and another sailed through the wheel spokes and caught Putnam in the thigh causing a yelp.

"Not bad, not bad," grunted Putnam as he pulled at the arrow that had cut his trousers and left a deep bleeding scratch on his left thigh. "I can tie it off with a bandana."

"How many? Two, three, four? Got us from both sides," called Clint. Then he saw movement in the trees and fired the Colt. The reply was a taunting whoop and another arrow bounced off a wheel spoke. From somewhere behind, horse hooves pounded the ground, causing the huddled defenders to turn to the rear. A painted pony came at a hard gallop, its rider hugging the animal's neck giving no target. The hooves thundered, closer and closer. Clint turned his pistol looking for a shot.

Suddenly, the warrior dropped from his horse, reaching under the box grabbing the maiden, catching her ankle, and dragging her out from under the shelter. She squealed in fear, trying to kick her attacker. Clint's shot missed. Without thinking, Clint crawled after the girl trying to reach her extended hand. She struggled to break free, delaying the warrior's escape.

Clint pulled his knife and leaped onto the warrior, breaking his hold on the girl. The muscled warrior, younger than Clint, reacted quickly, clawing at Clint's face, drawing blood that ran into his eyes. Blinded, Clint swung the knife into the sweating slippery arm muscles causing a grunt; blood oozed, but no release. Clint punched into the man's body while waving his knife, looking for contact. They tumbled and rolled, fists punching, legs kicking, now the warrior had a knife in hand.

Somewhere in the struggle, the image of the Puebloan maiden flashed through Clint's mind, her tender softness as she nestled into his arms trembling in fear of being caught by some unknown pursuers. Would this be the death of him because of a moment of weakness giving in to the pleadings of this woman-child momentarily in his arms?

The warrior was lithe and strong, his knife shined in the sun as the men now found their feet and moved in a tight circle, arms spread each with a knife in hand lunging, swiping. Clint had scored an angular slash in the man's stomach that oozed crimson, but the warrior had not weakened. His fast slashes were cutting Clint's hands and forearms, slicing thin cuts that reddened shirt sleeves with blood. The two-horse team snorted and stomped nervously at the nearby struggle and smell of blood.

The warrior's eyes glanced momentarily at the girl who had crawled back under the wagon wheel. Clint sought advantage and made his move, a jab to the warrior's midsection, but his boot stubbed on a boulder causing him to slip. The warrior reacted and Clint felt himself falling backward, his head banging into the hard soil as the mid-day sun blinded his vision. Instantly, the warrior was on top, his glistening knife inches away from Clint's eyes, his putrid breath and yellowed teeth grimacing into a smile of anticipated victory.

Clint's left arm struggled to hold the warrior's knife back as each man's muscles tensed and shivered in resistance. The teamster's legs kicked in reaction, his knee coming up swiftly to find softness in the warrior's groin causing a scream of pain with a release of arm tension. Clint's knife hand pulled free and sent the sharp blade just under the warrior's rib causing a gasp of surprise. The momentum of Clint's kneeing action sent the warrior flying over Clint's head, landing impaled onto a sharp stub of a branch sticking upright from the tree trunk blocking the road.

Clint ducked at the sound of a pistol shot and watched as another Apache warrior fell off the top of the wagon, causing the horses to give a human-like squeal, and pull at their harnesses. Putnam's pistol smoked and his lips curled into a smile. Clint found his pistol in its holster and drew it as he turned in a circle looking for other attackers. In the sudden silence, the high-pitched melodious twitter of a gray catbird pierced the trees from somewhere overhead.

"What's your name you pretty li'l thing?" asked Putnam as the girl mixed a poultice and patched his leg. She looked curiously at Putnam and then to Clint while she continued her work.

"What is your name?" Clint translated to Spanish. After all, they had been through together, it seemed fitting to know the girl's name.

The girl kept her eyes down focusing on the task at hand, her face flushing. Finally, she spoke in barely a whisper. "My name is Lomasi. It means pretty flower."

"My name is Clint," he said in reply. "My friend is called Putnam."

The travelers remained on high alert for the remainder of the trip down the mountainside. There were many places from which the angered Apaches could stage an ambush. The landscape changed from pine forests to a mix of conifer and aspen forests, to semi-desert shrub lands and sagebrush. By late afternoon, the wagon rolled into Taos.

By the time they had reached Taos and stopped at the trading post, the Puebloan maiden had jumped from the wagon unnoticed and disappeared somewhere between the Pueblo and the town center. Merchandise was unloaded and traded for needed items.

Clint talked with Taos merchant Guillermo Chavez describing the Puebloan maiden and her fear of being stalked, followed by the attack by the Apaches.

Merchant Chavez reasoned, "The young girl, she is Puebloan, No? And the attackers were Apaches? Likely she has caught the eye of an Apache brave, but the Apaches don't want their blood mixed with a Puebloan. And two died in pursuit of the girl."

Chavez paused and a twinkle came to his eyes, "Somewhere out there is an Apache brave searching for his amor for a sunrise ceremony. He too is likely in danger. You were lucky, my amigos."

* * *

The freighters were on the road southward towards Santa Fe before the sun broke over the mountains to the east.

The team was hitched as the morning shadows from the canyon wall began to recede. With a click of the tongue and a shake of the reins, the wagon started rolling down to the southward trail.

Its ears twitched and the lead horse snorted. There was the pop of a gunshot and Clint's broad-brimmed hat flew from his head back into the wagon box. Clint and Putnam both ducked, drawing pistols and looking around to their respective sides. A second shot thumped into the side of the wagon and the horses bolted. Putnam let the animals run to put distance between the attacker and the rig.

"Movement to the right. There!" Clint's Colt sighted on a target in the brush and he returned fire.

Now Putnam struggled to control the team as the wagon bounced over the rough rocky trail. The jolting ride caused the canvas cover to come loose; merchandise began bouncing around and falling onto the trail.

"Hang onto the team," Clint shouted over his shoulder.

There was an Apache cat-call from a canyon ridge above. A warrior appeared momentarily, launching an arrow into the brush where the bushwhacker had shot from. From the yelp of pain, it was obvious that the arrow had found its' mark. A man fled up a dry-wash creek bed, an arrow in his butt.

Putnam had pulled at the reins, turning the horses and bringing the rig to a stop. Then Clint saw an Apache warrior rise up from a cleft in the canyon wall. Next to him stood the Puebloan maiden, Lomasi. Her hands held up showing open palms in a sign of peace. She called out in Spanish.

"Don't shoot. He is my boyfriend."

"I recognized that bushwhacker. That was Seamus, one of the freighters who works for our competitor Murphy Freight," said Clint. He called out to Lomasi. "Does he have a wagon of goods around here?"

"There's a wagon there," replied Lomasi as she pointed down the trail.

Clint used a sign language for "thank you" to Lomasi. He chuckled to himself that she and her Apache boyfriend had returned the favor for saving the maiden's life a few days earlier.

The End

William S. Hubbartt is author of fiction and non-fiction books and short stories. This tale is an excerpt from his forthcoming western novel "Against Overwhelming Odds - A Clint Carrigan Adventure."

Link to author page on Amazon: William S. Hubbartt: Books, Biography, Blog, Audiobooks, Kindle

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Seeking Justice
by Ralph S. Souders

"Whoa!" hollered Webb Cranston upon reaching the summit of the tree covered butte. The trail to the top had been long, narrow and steep with several sharp turns among the many large boulders encountered along the way. As Webb sat upon his mount in a small meadow within the trees, he grabbed his shirt to pull the collar more tightly around his neck. The air temperature was noticeably cooler atop the butte than it was in the valley below. A northerly breeze made the temperature seem even colder. Webb intended to remain on the butte for the next hour or so. His horse, a coal black stallion with white stockings on his two left legs, was tired and deserved a short rest. He could graze until it became time for them to begin their descent into the next valley. As Webb dismounted, he could faintly see the smoke from the chimneys in Culverton in the distance. The town was still a several hours' ride away. He planned to stop and make camp that evening once they were off the butte unless he should find a suitable spot along the downside trail beforehand. He observed that there were currently no riders approaching the butte from either direction. About three hours of daylight remained before dusk. He anticipated no surprises or disturbances upon stopping for the night.

Webb Cranston was a young man of twenty-two years, orphaned nine years earlier when his father, Lance Cranston, was gunned down near Wide River, Colorado. Lance had been shot out of his saddle in a narrow ravine on his neighbor's ranch while searching for stray cattle. Some theorized that he had encountered rustlers who had murdered him to protect their identities. Others thought that he had been the random victim of bandits who had robbed him. Still others believed that he had been targeted by a larger landowner who had been trying to take control of the water resources in the area during that time. Nobody knew for certain. Lance's body was found lying beside a worn riding trail. He had taken bullets in the chest, hip, thigh and back which indicated that he had encountered multiple assailants. His empty six-shooter lay on the ground beside him. His rifle lay in the grass nearby. A short distance away, a blood spattered boulder revealed that one of the outlaws had been shot and seriously wounded. Nevertheless, although the local sheriff had investigated as best he could, the killers were never identified and they eluded capture. Webb had always assumed that they were still alive, living as free men, although he had no way of determining this for certain. He hoped to someday see them arrested and punished for their crime.

Lance Cranston was buried beside his wife in a small plot on the Cranston ranch. Fortunately, Webb had been taken in by Josiah Watkins, the neighbor on whose land Lance had been killed. Josiah had temporarily merged the Cranston property with his own, operating both ranches as a single entity, always intending to relinquish the Cranston property back to Webb once the boy became old enough to manage it by himself. That day was rapidly approaching. Meanwhile, the Cranston cattle and the Watkins cattle had retained their own brands. Josiah Watkins was an honest man. He developed a strong affection for Webb and treated him the same as he did his own sons. He kept accurate accounts of the revenues received and the expenses incurred on the Cranston property. He maintained the profits in both his and Webb's names at the bank in Wide River. This would make his eventual divestiture of the Cranston ranch quite simple. During Webb's years with the Watkins family, Josiah's wife, Harriett, became the mother figure that he had been without for most of his life.

During the following nine years, Webb grew tall and strong. Both his father and Josiah had instilled in him a strong, work ethic. When he was young, his father had taught him how to shoot a rifle and through the years, Webb became a proficient shot. Later, Josiah taught him how to shoot a handgun. Both of these were important skills for a young man to have in the rural west. Webb readily took to shooting a handgun and he eventually spent many hours practicing with it. Learning to shoot well proved to be an expensive activity. His ammunition was purchased in town by Josiah who recorded these expenses on the ledger of the Cranston ranch. Prior to his eighteenth birthday, Webb began to confidently wear his handgun in a holster tied to his hip. He had become an upstanding young man, a law abiding citizen. He was God fearing with a strong moral code. Nevertheless, he expected that he would be using his handgun someday. Perhaps this was to be his destiny. He intended to be fully prepared should that day finally arrive.

A couple of years earlier, the killers of Lance Cranston had unexpectedly been identified. One of these men, a drifter named Cy Wagner, had provided information on this crime to the U.S. Marshal in Fort Hays, Kansas. Wagner had been captured near there by a local sheriff and charged with the ambush killing of an unarmed rider, a local man who had been traveling across his own farmland. Upon his conviction of this crime and a sentence of death by hanging, Wagner had offered to confess to some additional crimes in the hope that this action might save his life. The marshal was quite willing to listen to him and the lawman took careful notes of everything that he was subsequently told. Two days after providing the marshal with the details of several vicious crimes, Cy Wagner was sent to the gallows and executed. Many of the details that he had shared with the marshal were so disturbing that the lawman had decided not to request a lesser sentence for the criminal from the judge. Among the crimes to which Wagner had confessed was the killing of Lance Cranston. He had informed the lawman that the mastermind and primary shooter in that murder was a man named Slade Collier. It was Collier who had shot the unsuspecting rider from his horse, eventually killing him by shooting him in the back at close range. Cy Wagner admitted to shooting the victim himself at least once, possibly twice.

According to Cy Wagner, Lance Cranston had taken refuge behind a large ponderosa pine after falling from his horse. Certainly he would have preferred a more defendable position that might have offered him better protection. The ambush, although hastily organized, had been very effective. Since Lance was a strong man with many friends and few enemies, the idea of being ambushed was something that he had never contemplated. When the shooting had erupted, he had been immediately knocked off his horse with bullet wounds to his left hip and his right thigh. Despite the intense pain, he had managed to grab his rifle from its scabbard and stumble behind the nearby tree. There he made his stand. Lance realized that his position was precarious. He was bleeding badly and he was outnumbered by his foes, all of whom were still hidden from view. He didn't know how many there were. Lance got off several shots from his handgun, dropping it once it was empty of bullets. Raising his rifle, he aimed it at a nearby boulder and pulled the trigger as soon as he saw movement behind it. He saw the bullet hit the outlaw in the neck, just above the left shoulder. The man fell against the rock before slithering down the back of it until he was out of view. Lance was pleased to have hit his target but he knew that this was a minor achievement, all things considered.

Meanwhile, with Lance effectively pinned in his location, his adversaries carefully moved among the boulders and the trees until they had their target open and vulnerable. They began to shoot at him from two directions. Although he managed to get off another shot, flesh wounding Wagner on his bicep, he was defenseless against incoming fire. Lance was hit in the back and the chest almost simultaneously. As he dropped the rifle and slumped against the tree, another bullet entered his chest from closer range. Mortally wounded, Lance fell to the ground unconscious. Within minutes, he was dead. The third member of the gang, an outlaw named George Lofton, lay dead behind the boulder from which he had been shooting. Lofton's body was removed from the crime scene and dropped into an abandoned mine shaft located more than a mile away. It was never recovered. Lance Cranston's body with his pants pockets pulled inside out with his money gone, was found near the tree where he had fallen. His horse was missing and it was never found.

Webb was intrigued to learn the identity of Slade Collier and he immediately became determined to bring the killer to justice. Unfortunately, even with the money that Josiah Watkins had deposited in the local bank, Webb had limited funds for conducting a search. Most of his assets were in the form of cattle and land. Since Josiah Watkins needed most of the cash money for operating the Cranston ranch, little was available for Webb to use in this investigation. Webb had a good friend in Matt Thomas, the Western Union telegraph operator in Wide River. Matt promised to monitor the transmissions that he saw daily coming across the telegraph wire. Should he ever discover any information on Slade Collier, he promised to let Webb know. Webb thereafter remained in close contact with Matt Thomas to be assured that his friend would not forget to pass along any relevant information. Although he expected that it might be a long wait, Webb believed that the location of Slade Collier would eventually become known to him.

Several months later, Webb learned that Slade Collier was living in Culverton, a small crossroads town about two day's ride to the north, almost on the Wyoming line. Webb immediately packed his gear and headed toward Culverton. His horse was young, healthy and rested, eager to run unimpeded through the open countryside. Webb's saddlebags contained the provisions for the trip as well as a change of clothes should he need it. His bedroll was tied behind the saddlebags and a canteen filled with water was within his easy reach. The scabbard holding his loaded rifle was positioned on his right side in front of the saddlebags. His six-shooter was also loaded as it rested in the holster on his hip. Additional ammunition for both guns was stored with his gear. As Webb left home and began his journey, his travels soon took him through the same narrow ravine where his father had been ambushed and killed years earlier. As he rode past the exact location of that ominous gunfight, he felt angry and increasingly determined to confront his father's killer and bring him to justice. He hoped that Slade Collier was still in Culverton. Assuming that he was, Webb intended to succeed in this mission.

That evening, Webb made his camp on the bank of a small stream located at the bottom of the butte. It was protected from the wind by a row of rocks and boulders that had accumulated over time as each spring's flood waters had receded back within the natural borders of the stream. He did not build a campfire. The black stallion with the saddle removed was tied to a branch of a nearby tree. Webb flattened his bedroll on the cold, hard ground and then removing his boots, he climbed beneath two wool blankets while still wearing his clothes. His white Stetson hat and his gun belt containing the holstered handgun lay on the ground beside him. He was tired from his long day of riding and as he stared at the star filled sky, he could feel his body slowly relaxing. Within minutes with thoughts of his father on his mind, slumber overtook him and he fell into a deep sleep. He needed to sleep well. Tomorrow was destined to be an eventful day. The day he had been long awaiting. He would be well rested, prepared and ready.

Come morning, Webb ate a light breakfast of salted ham and flour biscuits that Harriet Watkins had packed for him. Obviously, she was unaware of the specific purpose of his journey. Webb made a small fire so that he could heat his morning coffee. He fed the stallion a small portion of oats that he had carried from home before allowing the horse to graze in the nearby grass for the better part of an hour. Finally, in mid-morning, Webb saddled the horse, broke camp and headed toward Culverton. He expected to arrive there by early afternoon. The weather was cool and sunny with a slight wind coming from the north. Webb traveled into the wind but it was not a difficult ride. He had many thoughts on his mind. He felt brave yet he was afraid. He was confident in what he was doing yet he had doubts as to whether he could succeed. He was still a young kid who would soon be confronting a hardened criminal. Slade Collier was a dangerous man. This was for certain. Webb knew that once he confronted his father's killer that afternoon, there could only be three plausible outcomes. Slade Collier would either be in jail, arrested for his crime, or else one of them would be dead. Although Webb was determined to prevail, he understood that his own death was a distinct possibility. If this was to be his fate, he was prepared to accept it.

It was just before one o'clock when Webb Cranston, sitting atop his mount, sauntered into Culverton. He stopped in front of the local saloon, dismounted and tied his horse to the hitching post. Although it was situated at a crossroads, Culverton appeared to be a quiet place. Besides the saloon, there were several businesses on the main street including a hotel, a general store, a bank, a telegraph office, a blacksmith and a stable. There was also a sheriff's office and the local jail. Webb wondered why a man such as Slade Collier would be living in such a place. Probably lying low for a while, he thought to himself. Webb instinctively patted his horse on the neck. This gesture did little to calm his nerves or bolster his confidence. Then delaying no further, he stepped onto the weathered boardwalk, walked across it and entered the saloon through the loose, swinging doors. The interior of the saloon was dingy with the only light coming through the exterior doorway and two windows on the front of the building. It had a musty smell and Webb could feel the sawdust beneath his shoes as he walked upon the worn, wooden floorboards. A long bar with no barstools ran along the entire back of the room. A narrow stairway to the second floor was located to the right. On the left were a number of round tables surrounded by wooden chairs. Several men were sitting at two of these tables, playing poker and smoking cheap cigars. Webb had never previously been inside a western saloon. This was an entirely new experience for him.

"What can I do for you, cowboy?" greeted the man standing behind the bar. He spoke with a mild tone of amusement, perhaps sensing the young man's uneasiness.

Webb's immediate reaction to the bartender was one of annoyance. He didn't appreciate the man's attitude. Nevertheless, he maintained his composure. He believed that it could be to his advantage to be underestimated and not taken too seriously.

"Hopefully you can help me," said Webb as he approached the bar. "Where might I find Slade Collier? I hear he's living in these parts."

The bartender's demeanor changed immediately. No longer amused, he now viewed the young visitor more suspiciously.

"Who's asking?" inquired the bartender, obviously curious.

"My name's Webb Cranston. Do you know Slade Collier?"

"I might," the man replied. "What's your business?"

Webb didn't want to say too much to the bartender, especially with the others in the room listening.

"I need to speak with him," explained Webb. "He knew my daddy. There's a matter that we need to discuss.'

"What type of matter?" asked the bartender.

"That's between him and me," replied Webb matter-of-factly. "Do you know where I might find him?"

The bartender stared at the young man with much interest, trying to comprehend the unexpected situation that was developing before him. Slowly, almost as if seeking to defer the discussion, he turned his head and focused his attention on one of the poker tables located across the room. Almost as if on cue, a rough looking man stood from a table and in dramatic fashion, began to walk slowly across the wooden floor toward the bar. He was of stocky build and average height, dressed in dingy, dark clothes and wearing a brown Stetson. His unshaven face contained an impatient scowl as his dark, unkempt hair hung almost to his shoulders. He had an unpleasant demeanor, perhaps exacerbated by this interruption to his card game. He appeared to be in need of a good scrubbing. He stopped walking upon reaching the bar, standing about fifteen feet away from Webb.

"Who's your daddy?" asked the man in a rough tone of voice. "I don't believe that I know any Cranstons."

"Lance Cranston was his name," replied Webb. "He lived near Wide River."

"Never heard of him," the man responded while shaking his head dismissively.

"Are you Slade Collier?" asked Webb. "If you are, you know Lance Cranston. I'm sure of this."

The man seemed to be taken aback by the young visitor's insistence. He was wondering what this was all about.

"Look, kid," he replied. "I don't know what you want but you're beginning to annoy me. State your business and then leave. I have a card game to get back to."

"So, you're Slade Collier?" Webb asked again although he was already certain of this. He wanted to receive verbal confirmation.

"Yeah, kid. I'm Slade Collier. I don't know your daddy. I've already told you that." He was becoming increasingly agitated.

"Then you knew Cy Wagner and George Lofton," stated Webb. "I hear they were friends of yours."

A surprised expression encompassed Slade Collier's face which simultaneously began to slowly redden with anger. Meanwhile, Webb continued to speak.

"That's how you knew my daddy. You, Wagner and Lofton bushwhacked him in a ravine near our ranch. While he was pinned down behind a tree, you snuck around behind him and shot him in the back. He never had a chance. How much money did you take from him, maybe thirty dollars?"

Slade Collier was now enraged. "Get the hell out of here, kid, while you still can, before I teach you a lesson that you won't live long enough to forget. This will be your only warning."

"Okay, I'll leave," replied Webb, "but I'm not going too far. I noticed coming into town that the sheriff's in his office today. Maybe he and I should have a little chat."

Webb turned and took a couple of steps toward the door. Suddenly, he stopped and addressed the other men in the room sitting at the poker tables. They had been intently watching the confrontation as had the bartender.

"How about covering me as I go out the door," requested Webb sarcastically. "Collier here likes to shoot men in the back. He's a pretty good shot as long as his target's facing the other direction."

Webb slowly walked out of the saloon through the swinging, wooden doors. He had his arms raised toward the ceiling as if to tease the outlaw with a bigger target. He was certain that Slade Collier would follow right behind. Webb crossed the wooden boardwalk and stepped into the street, heading toward the sheriff's office located at the other end of the small town. He had only taken ten or twelve steps in the street when he heard the saloon doors open and close behind him. He heard steps on the boardwalk. He knew that Collier had come outside.

"Where you going, kid?" called Slade Collier in a loud voice. "We're not finished here."

Webb was confident that the outlaw was not going to shoot him in the back. To do this in front of witnesses would ruin Collier's reputation forever. He would become an immediate fugitive, sought by lawmen and bounty hunters alike. He would also become an outcast among criminals, most of whom would not condone such a cowardly act. He would be running and hiding for the remainder of his life. He would find no refuge. Nor would he experience a natural death. Eventually, somewhere, he would be hanged by a rope or killed by a gun.

Webb walked to the center of the street before he stopped and turned around to face his adversary. He hoped that somebody would go and fetch the sheriff. He was feeling increasingly nervous as he faced the front of the saloon, his eyes immediately focusing on the lone man standing just outside the swinging doors on the boardwalk. Even at this distance, he could see the anger in Slade Collier's eyes. The man was obviously irate and anxious to act upon this emotion.

"Come on out!" Webb yelled to the outlaw, coaxing him into the street. "Bring your gun! Let's settle this!"

Slade Collier was a hardened criminal but he wasn't a gunslinger. He had fired his gun numerous times through the years but he was usually crouching behind a boulder, a tree or some other barrier when doing so. He had never stood in the open and faced another man at twenty paces, knowing that only the man with the faster hand would walk away. The loser would be left lying in the dust in his own blood. He had no desire to draw guns with the young kid. He knew nothing about him. He wasn't confident that he could win.

"Stay right there," Collier ordered angrily. "I take no pleasure in gunning down a green kid like you. Still, it's time that somebody taught you some manners. You ain't big enough for that loud mouth of yours." His body language indicated that he wanted a fist fight. He rubbed his knuckles in anticipation as he stepped off the boardwalk and began walking in the street toward Webb.

Webb really hadn't expected a fistfight. He had assumed that a hombre like Collier would have preferred to use a gun. He wasn't too concerned about fighting the outlaw. He had been taught how to box by Josiah Watkins' sons, both of whom were several years older than him. Webb had become very adept at moving his feet and swinging his fists. He realized that Slade Collier was bigger and probably stronger than him. Nevertheless, Webb was certain that he was the more skilled boxer and in better physical condition than his adversary. He felt ready as he tightened his fists and stepped toward his antagonist, prepared to teach a hard lesson of his own. He hardly noticed that a crowd of men had assembled on the boardwalk, intent on watching the escalating confrontation in the town's street. Several of these men had been inside the saloon just minutes earlier.

Slade Collier wasted no time, quickly and aggressively moving toward Webb, believing that this action would intimidate the kid and force him into a defensive posture. He was wrong. As he immediately threw two quick jabs with his left hand that missed their mark, Webb responded with a solid left hook that hit Collier in the mouth, busting open his upper lip. Immediately, a line of red blood began running down his chin, dripping onto the dirt beneath his feet. Enraged, Collier threw a sweeping, right hook that Webb skillfully deflected before responding with another hard left of his own. The two pugilists exchanged several more punches, connecting with some while missing with others. Finally, Webb landed a hard right uppercut than landed squarely on Collier's jaw, causing him to wobble unsteadily as the dizziness filled his head. The outlaw was now virtually defenseless as Webb attacked him hard, pummeling his body unmercifully with several hard blows. This was more than Collier could withstand. As he absorbed a final, vicious hit to the side of his head, Slade Collier collapsed to the ground, his limp body lying in the dust.

Anticipating a possible violent reaction from Slade Collier's friends, Webb pivoted sharply and faced the group of men standing on the boardwalk in front of the saloon. He held his hand a few inches from his holstered handgun, daring any of them to draw their weapon on him. By now he was feeling quite angry himself. He was prepared to shoot anyone who might feel inclined to try his luck. Nobody accepted the challenge. As Webb stood defiantly in the street, the crowd dispersed as most of the men retreated back inside the saloon. None of them felt compelled to come to the assistance of Slade Collier. Perhaps none of them considered him to be that close of a friend. If any did, they apparently did not feel confident enough to test the wrath of the determined young stranger from Wide River. Regardless of their reasons, Slade Collier was left lying in the street awaiting the arrival of the local sheriff. He was in no condition to try to get away.

Late that afternoon, Webb Cranston left Culverton and headed for home. He had accomplished what he had set out to do and he was pleased to now have the ordeal behind him. Following the short yet brutal fistfight, the sheriff had arrived and ordered Slade Collier to be carried to the local jail where he was placed on a cot in a cell to await the next scheduled visit of the U.S. Marshal. Collier was suffering from a severe headache, probably caused by a concussion. Webb had explained to the sheriff that the prisoner was wanted for the murder of Lance Cranston in the Wide River area and that there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. The sheriff confirmed this information via telegraph with the U.S. Marshal's office. He assured Webb that Slade Collier would be held under tight security in the Culverton jail pending his transfer to the U.S. Marshal. Webb had every confidence that the sheriff would be able to accomplish this transfer as planned.

Webb Cranston intended to make his camp that evening on the bank of the little stream located beneath the forested butte, the same place that he had slept the previous night. The black stallion had been fed that afternoon in Culverton, so he was energized and ready to travel as they left town. As they rode the trail home, Webb couldn't help but think about his father, realizing once again how much he missed the man and the pain that he still suffered from losing him. He was certain that these emotions, although seemingly getting better over time, would never leave him completely. He felt great satisfaction in knowing that all three of the men responsible for his father's slaying were now either dead or in legal custody. He had no doubts that Slade Collier would someday soon hang for the crime. Depending upon the ultimate location of the outlaw's execution, Webb hoped to be in attendance to witness the event.

As Webb rode atop the black stallion through the northern Colorado countryside, he was relieved that his long quest was finally over. He felt content in knowing that he had prevailed and that his father could now rest in peace. He was pleased that he had not needed to use his gun. It might still be to his advantage someday for an adversary to underestimate his skills in shooting a handgun. This would continue to be his secret. Meanwhile, he was intent on living his life much as his father had. Webb planned to reside on his property near Wide River and to earn his living as a gentleman, cattle rancher. Such a future was enticing to him. He looked forward to it. He was happy to be going home and eager to get back to work

The End

Ralph S. Souders is an American author of suspense and literary fiction. He has written three novels, Hans Becker's Family, Ursula's Shadow and Lost in the Water. A native of the Chicago area, he has also lived in South and Central Florida, Upstate New York and East Tennessee. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida. After graduation, he worked almost exclusively in executive positions in the American subsidiaries of German manufacturing companies. There he wrote hundreds of business letters and this is how he believes he honed his writing skills. Today he is happily married to his wife of thirty-four years. They are now retired and live in Middle Tennessee.

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