August, 2022

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Issue #155

Welcome, Western Fans!

Looking for free, tantalizing Tales of the Old West?
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Read this month's Tales and vote for your favorite.
They'll appear in upcoming print volumes of The Best of Frontier Tales Anthologies!

Seeking Justice
by Ralph S. Souders
Webb Cranston is determined to find the outlaw who murdered his father. He searches for years until a lucky break helps him to identify the killer and the town where he lives. One way or another, he must bring the criminal to justice—or die trying.

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Some Days Are Just Worse Than Others
by Sumner Wilson
Big Ed Smiley, the biggest man in the county, felt he could do anything he wanted and get away with it. But when he plucked the fifteen-year-old Benson girl off the street and hauled her out to his ranch as a personal toy, he made an even bigger mistake.

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Emma's Decision
by Mike Jackson
Daniel is being taken by a US Marshal to stand trial in Texas for a crime he didn't commit. Emma, another passenger, is convinced Daniel is innocent. Can he escape from injustice while staring into the two dark holes of a double-barreled shotgun?

* * *

Bad Blood
by Robert Gilbert
On Marshal Brothers' morning walk, the blacksmith mentions two troublesome ruffians. The ruffians are found and thrown out of town. The family arrives and settles in, but the ruffians return. Family bad blood erupts and the law must takes over.

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A Favor Returned
by William S. Hubbartt
Teamster Clint Carrigan is delivering goods through territory controlled by Jicarrilla Apaches. There he encounters a Puebloan maiden who fears for her life. But during a deadly battle, the maiden disappears. Will they ever cross paths again?

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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. He was a boy.

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All the Tales

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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