September, 2022

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Issue #156

All The Tales

From This Tree I Hang
by Joshua Britton

Somehow I'd always figured I'd go down like this. But then the sheriff rushes in and hollers, "hold everything!"

"Praise be to God," the sap next to me blubbers. "I'm not supposed to be here, you know."

But I see Dusty standing in the back, calm and in control, pompous smirk on his mug, and I realize he's behind the sheriff's calling a halt to the ceremonies.

The crowd oohs and aahs as the sheriff explains he's gotten a telegram and it turns out I'm innocent. The crowd don't like the "innocent" part. They never met me, but they'd turned out to see a hangin', and the bounty on my head is too high to be a mistake. The noose is loosened, anyways, though, and my hands are untied. The crowd voices its displeasure.

The sap next to me cries, "No, me! What about me?!"

I wink at the sap as my neck is freed from the rope. He spits on my shirt. But that don't bother me. I wump him on the shoulder and jump off the platform.

The sheriff grabs my arm. "You best hurry up and get out of here. I'm not gonna kill you, but they might, and you'd deserve it, too."

But wallowing in the crowd's outrage is too much fun. I stretch my arms to the sky and slowly turn all the way around so everyone can get a look at my innocent ass. They call me names, curse my dead mother, and throw fistfuls of sand and pebbles at my face. They spit, too, like the sap did, but they miss as often as they hit.

To divert attention away from me, the platform trapdoor is thrown, and the sap loses his footing. But no one pays mind, and the sap strangles unnoticed. Dusty shoves his way through the mob and grabs me by the collar. Over the mob noise, he shouts, "What the hell is wrong with you?" and pulls me away from the excitement. Behind me, the sap gags in desperation. As the mob grows more ornery, the sheriff doesn't move from the side of the platform. He's content to let them take the law into their own hands, and ready to turn his back if things get out of hand. But it don't get that bad before Dusty drags me out of harm's way and we ride off in a cloud of dust.

* * *

But Dusty can't blackmail the sheriff this next time. The sheriff and the preacher's wife have been found out, and he's been run out of town. The preacher's gone, too, disgraced, and guilty by association.

Everyone's yelling at me again, jeering, calling me names. It's worse than before because I got away. They're intent on seeing I ain't getting away again. And with that last sap underground, it's just me this time. The rope is tighter this time, too. All I can do is hope Dusty's around again somewheres with an ace up his sleeve.

Someone starts shooting off a ways. I crane my neck to try to spot him. It's Crazy Abe, a crack shot crackpot. Dusty and I met him a few days ago, stumblin' upon the aftermath of a raid. He took a likin' to us, but what he's doing shooting at the sky, I don't know, and everyone's screaming and falling to the ground or running away.

Except one person, who's standing around like nothing out of the ordinary's going on. It's Dusty! Not yelling, not running, he's simply watching Crazy Abe shoot holes in the heavens. The deputies crawl on their bellies and elbows to get close enough to Crazy Abe to take him down. Someone sneaks up behind him and conks him on the head. Crazy Abe spins around and shoots even more wildly than before. There's a mob closing in on him and next thing I know Dusty is in front of me hacking away at the rope above my head.

"Behind you!" I shout.

Someone has caught on and is rushing us. Dusty whips around and shoots him next to the star on his chest. He falls backwards. Crazy Abe must be dead by now. Dusty finishes with the rope and I fall to my knees, rubbing the rope burn on my neck.

"Let's never come back here," Dusty says as he grabs me by the hand and we run to where he's got the horses stashed.

* * *

Dusty convinces me that we should lay low for a bit, and we head to his mama's farm. I ain't seen her in years. She never liked me much. I see her remembering how much she didn't like me, for a few seconds, before she reluctantly greets me with a hug.

There ain't no adventure here. We get stuck digging up potatoes and carrots. After a bit I spot one of the farmhands sitting on the ground, leaning against a post. "Ain't you gettin' paid for this?" I complain. "What am I doin' in the dirt if you're just sittin' there? I don't get nothin' for sweatin' in the dirt."

I hear Dusty's mama tell him that she'd feed him three meals a day if he'd stick around. He would always have a roof over his head at night. And he can settle down with a nice girl and take over the farm; he don't even need to wait for her to die. She keeps bringing up this girl named Clara. Me and Dusty used to put worms down her dress when we was kids. Dusty's mom wants him to marry her, and I gather Clara's interested, too.

She's so happy Dusty's home that she draws him a bath. I can't even remember the last time I had a bath, so I hop in first when no one's looking, getting the water before Dusty mucks it up. Dusty sits next to the tub while I soak off the months of gunk and grime. He looks longingly at the water and me, and admits he has no interest in marrying Clara, the girl we tormented all those years ago, but that he wouldn't mind sticking around the farm a while longer.

"I ain't stickin' around," I say.

"Well, now, you don't have to, but I wish you would," he says. The dirt freed from my skin floats on the surface of the bathwater. Dusty sticks his fingers in the water and swirls it around.

His mama sends us out to fetch a chicken for dinner. I say she should do it herself, but Dusty drags me outside and I watch him scoop up a chicken that gets too close. He twists its neck until its bony feet stop flailing in the air. He hands the chicken to me and tells me to start plucking; he's going to feed the ones he didn't kill. So I start plucking, one feather at a time.

"This is woman's work!" I say, throwing the dead bird back at Dusty.

She's trying to turn him into a farmer, Dusty's mom is, but we're outlaws, me and him, and always have been. She used to cry every time Dusty and I got into trouble when we was boys, but me and him was just answering our callings. She forbade him to see me back then, not that that ever stopped us. She feeds me good now, so much stew and bread that it feels sinful, but I can tell she'd rather I warn't around. She won't kick me out, though, afeard I'll take Dusty with me if she does.

But I hear them talking about it, and I know I gotta convince Dusty otherwise, before he gets all domesticated-like.

"What are we doing here?" I complain to him. "I don't wanna do this no more."

At this moment, what I don't want to do is to be milking cows before the sun is even up. Dusty shakes me pretty hard to wake me in the morning. I didn't ask for no bed, nor ain't it my fault a bed is more comfortable than the ground. And I never got kicked by no cow before coming back here, neither. When they're full of milk, they's supposed to be uncomfortable, so if I'm milking them and making them feel better, what do they kick me for?

"We got no place else to go," Dusty says.

"That never stopped us before. You don't want to be tied down somewheres."

"I'm thinking of stickin' around." He's finally out with it. "Mama needs lookin' after. And she can pay one less farmhand with me around."

"Now looky here, she's turning you against me!" I accuse him. "She wants you to marry that stupid girl!" I yank hard on an utter, too hard, and get a groan from the cow.

"I don't want to marry no girl," he says. "I only want you to stick with me."

"This ain't no way to live," I say, gesturing toward the open end of the barn where you can see the rising sun behind the farmhouse and the gardens. "We was living real lives before, and I aim to get back to it. And you're comin' with me."

I kick over my milk bucket. It warn't a quarter full but the contents spill out anyway. I huff out of the barn to gather my things, leaving Dusty behind. But I know he'll follow. His mama cries when we head out, and he cries some, too. I'll chide him for that later.

* * *

Now everybody's dead, and that includes the lynch mob that was after us. I recognize some of the faces that had yelled at me before, eyes now looking up at me wide and lifeless, skin blistering in the sun, blood-soaked shirts topped with dust and flies. Last time I saw them their eyes were full of fire. The sheriff is over there, the ex-sheriff, now the dead sheriff. Maybe he talked them into this.

The sheriff had it out for me, of that I'm sure. But it warn't me who squealed on him for sleeping with the preacher's wife. We busted in on him with her, yes, but he bought us off to keep us quiet and we honored the deal. It warn't our fault everyone found out anyways and ran him out of town. The preacher packed up and left, too, but he headed in the opposite direction, from what I heard.

Dusty's down there, the poor fool. It might've been him after all who told on the sheriff, now that I think about it. But if so, I don't know why. Dusty put up a good fight today, sneaking up on foot; they didn't hear him until he was breathing down their necks. He just about pulled it off, too, getting everybody, but not before they got him, too. He crawled towards me, to my horse, and grabbed the stirrup.

"Help me, Dusty," I said. "Get off your sorry ass and cut me loose!"

But he was too weak to stand. He lost his grip of the stirrup and his arm thumped to the ground. Looking up at me he said, "Sorry." But the good Lord only allowed him one last breath. Sorry for bungling the rescue, I figure he meant. Well, I'm sorry, too.

Sorry because I will most surely hang to death this time, from this tree, miles from civilization, feet dangling two feet above the ground. They had me tied up, sitting on a horse, and they was about ready to whip its ass out from under me when Dusty showed up.

But instead we sat there, the horse and me, all afternoon, till the horse got thirsty or hungry, or just plain bored, and pulled out from under me, and trotted away.

The End

Joshua Britton is the author of the short story collection, Tadpoles, the novel, Heart Decisions, and editor of The Notes Will Carry Me Home. His short fiction and non-fiction have been published in many journals including Tethered By Letters, Cobalt Review, Bodega Magazine, and the Tarantino Chronicles. Joshua lives in Louisville. Follow him on Twitter @JP_Britton and on the web at

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Shivaree for Goldilocks
by Tom Sheehan

Two mountain men, Berle Pauper and Smudge Henry, seeking pelts of any kind, found the baby girl at the tail end of a narrow canyon, her cries bouncing off the palisades of stone. The men were heavily covered even for a summer day as if they wore sleeping covers for the coming night. They evoked an aroma that was known by mountain animals of all kinds, and saloon patrons upon their immediate entry, which was about two times a year. Their sight was as good as it can get, their hearing without flaw and they could tell an animal solely by smell on the trail. That included town people before they came into sight.

"What the hell is that? Smudge Henry initially said, as he drew his mule to a stop. "Sounds like a baby, and just around the bend of the canyon. Its got to be deeper in there. Let's go."

He nudged his mule to a trot.

Berle Pauper, bent always at his purpose, said, "No dallyin' for us, Smudge. We ain't none ahead of the game as it is."

His words, he knew, had fallen on deaf ears. Despite his looks, a motley conglomeration if there ever was one of worn pelts and hides he'd sewed with his own hands, a beard that a crazy man would be proud of, and the deepest eyes of any man known, Smudge Henry was the most honest man and the kindest man Pauper had ever known; a partner for life, which was an often-threatened status in the mountains. And he was bound to follow him to seek the source of the cries.

When they turned the slight bend in the canyon, they saw the remnants of a little shack jammed against the canyon wall. Much of it had been broken apart, the roof fallen down, and a body in front, on the ground, the body of a man half dressed for the dawn of his last day. An arrow was in his bare chest, where blood had run free. No weapon was visible, saying it was most likely taken by his killers.

For a moment the two mountain men tried to reconstruct the scene where the death had happened, and for that few moments they did not hear any cries.

They assumed the man had run out of the shack at some disruption about the place, some theft afoot. No horses or mules were visible, though there were plenty of tracks; the man had come from near sleep the way he was dressed.

Searching through the remnants, they found no baby, nor did they hear any cries. And the big surprise was no woman's body was found.

"If there's a baby around," Henry said, "should be a mother too, lest she's been taken, which I figure she was. But that baby, if it ain't in here under the mess of things, has got to be hidden. So, they knew someone outside was bent on no good. We got to find that baby, Berle."

It didn't take them long. Behind the shack remains they found a small cave with a rock rolled in front of it. When Berle Pauper rolled the rock aside, Smudge Henry, softie of all softies in Pauper's mind, he found an infant girl with striking blonde hair. He had no idea of her age, but guessed it was close to a few months. The mother, at the surprise visitors, had hidden her, hoping the right kind of folks would find her.

"What do we do now, Smudge? We can't feed her. We can't get milk for her to stop her cryin'. All we can do is keep her warm."

Henry said, "We can take her to the nearest town, the nearest women folk, maybe a new milker in the mix of them. And I guess that'll be New Providence, down at the big river, lest we cross a new one we ain't seen yet but probably' s half grown by now." He held the little blonde baby in the crook of one arm, her hair aglow. "Pert as a picture I saw once over in Camledge."

Late that night, without finding any new town in their way, the two mountain men and the infant entered New Providence and went right to the saloon. When they walked in, five patrons looked up as the baby started to cry.

The barkeep said, "What you gents got there?"

Smudge Henry, holding the blonde child out in front of him like an offering, said, "A baby girl we found up in one of the tight canyons yonder. Her father, we guess, killed by injuns, and her mother, we also guess, taken off by them. We're lookin' for a mother-type woman who can take care of the poor little thing we ain't been able to feed except squeeze some water into her mouth. She takes to mule riding perty good but has got to be pert hungry by now and we ain't found her kind of grub."

The barkeep nodded to one patron and said, "Go get Tallie. Tell her we got a new baby here hungry as a lost pup." He swung back to Henry and Pauper and said, "What did her pa look like? Big man?"

"Big as a house," Pauper said, "like he could have taken on six of them if he didn't have an arrow in his chest. Know him?"

"Yes," the barkeep said, nodding to the rest of the room, "name was Kincaid and was in here a few days ago, maybe a week, and goin' off with his woman and lookin' for gold or somethin' big. Fool taking a baby and woman out there, chasing dreams."

One of the customers, from a corner table, said, "Know what kind of Indians killed the man, maybe took his woman?"

Henry, still holding the baby girl, said, "It was a Kiowa arrow that kilt him, but that don't say it was Kiowa. We ain't seen a Kiowa since the army came across the big river near two years ago. They're up in the deep mountains now."

"What are you saying? It wasn't Kiowa but someone else using a Kiowa arrow? Why?"

Berle Pauper stepped forward and said, "We didn't smell no Kiowa up there, so we don't think it was Kiowa."

The man responded in a hurry, saying, "You're telling me you can smell a Kiowa out on the trail from a Sioux or a Blackfoot or a Crow? What else can you smell?" The last question carried a twinned haughty expression on his face as he looked around at the others in the saloon. His lips were compressed in a like smugness that all could read, tripling his stance.

"Well, Mister," Berle Pauper said, "all I can smell now is a big mouth say-a-lot who thinks he's something special and who don't think one bit about this little person we brung here to get help and you was asked to go get help and you're still sitting here shooting your mouth off like no baby needed any kind of help. If that ain't enough answer for you, just keep trying me."

The smug one stood speechless.

Pauper turned to the barkeep and said, "I'll get Tallie. Who is she and where do I find her?" And to his compatriot Henry he said, "You keep aholt of her, Smudge. Don't let none a them gents here go touch our golden one. She deserves something better than them."

The barkeep, well aware of what was happening in front of him, said, "She's the sheriff's wife and lives in the little house beside the livery, east from here a hundred feet or so."

Tallie Reynolds, the sheriff's wife, exclaimed, "Oh my, it's Merle Kincaid's baby daughter. I saw her only a week ago or so, before she had a name. I don't know what her name is."

Smudge Henry said, "We called her Goldilocks when we first found her, and Goldilocks she stays far as we're concerned."

"Goldilocks it is," Tallie said, "and now we're going to clean her up and get her fed. We have milk ready and waiting for her. Isn't she the prettiest thing you ever saw? I've never seen golden hair like hers. I do hope her mother will come back to her." She turned to the two mountain men. "Do you think she has a chance of that?"

"If they ain't Kiowa, and we don't think they are what took her, she has a chance. Me and Berle here will have a go at that, looking her up, tellin' her about Goldilocks. 'Bout all one can do for a pert one like this." He touched the baby girl on the forehead just before she left with Tallie Reynolds for perhaps the rest of her life.

Berle Pauper and Smudge Henry were gone out of New Providence more than four years. The only news that ever surfaced about the pair came from two drummers passing through town. One of them, in the Reynolds' home, seeing Goldilocks, hearing the story of her rescue, told of one trading post where the owner said two mountain men had been in for supplies, trading pelts, and were on the lookout for a kidnapped woman with a band of renegade whites and Indians. "The mountain boys said they had been on the trail for almost a year and were 'bounding to catch them.'"

Another drummer, in the New Providence saloon, spoke about the two mountain men still on the move. "They came into Saul Goodman's place in Absalom back east a way, supplied up quick, and took off again. They were in a mighty hurry, Paulie and Henry, and only had one whiskey apiece and were out of the place in less than an hour. That's men on a mission, for sure."

In that four-year span, Goldilocks Kincaid grew into the loveliest little girl that New Providence had ever seen. She was a bundle of golden fleece, wide smiles and the only thing ever said about her otherwise was that she and Tallie Reynolds, her known part-time mother, spent the latter part of each day looking down the road that came from the nearby mountains for possible visitors, and looking as if the visitors were just around the corner.

About that time, in the Chatham Mountain Range, northwest of New Providence almost 80 miles, Berle Pauper and Smudge Henry looked down on the narrow inlet into the Chatham Range, more than 30 miles from any town. Seven horses were tied to a rail in front of a rambling shack of a place that promised it would not make it through the coming winter. A dozen horses were in a make-shift corral in the rear of the shack and they moved in an endless discomfort of some sort. Smoke poured from the chimney and aroma of beans flooded the air. The one window showed a dim light already lit for evening.

A man came out the door and gathered a bucket of water from a barrel and went back inside. Farther off, up a good way on the mountain, a cougar screech of want or dominion was heard. One of the hobbled horses gave off a reply. The smoke drifted toward the two mountain men, sitting on their rumps, breakfast long gone in their guts, no meal at noon, weariness setting in.

Berle Pauper said to Smudge Henry, "Think she's in there, Smudge? I ain't seen her in a whole day. Why'd she stay inside if she's there?" He shook his head, the day taking its toll on him, the hunger crawling in his gut, the long search making its rounds again on him.

Smudge Henry, never forgetting the little blonde girl he'd held in his arms, thinking all the time about getting her back in her mother's arms, like it was the end of the world for him and his sole mission in life, said, "She knows something, Berle, that lady. I think she's seen us the last two days hangin' on the edges. Maybe she's seen us earlier. She has to be one grand lady, wearing all this trash on her for this long time, about to burst anytime, thinking about her little girl all the time. I wonder what Goldilocks looks like now. I just can't imagine how she looks 'cept pert as a picture."

"Like a sunflower, Smudge. Like a sunflower. That's how I think she looks.

Probably talking and walking and doing her best waiting on her mother to come home."

He held back more thoughts, letting his head clear, and said, "How'll we do it, Smudge? It ain't gonna be easy."

"I think we ought to run off their horses, Berle. They won't know who's around them, sneaking up on them. Might be every sheriff from here to New Providence for all they know. We have the surprise in hand. They don't know we're here, just two of us. If she knows, she ain't telling them. I bet you a whole dollar she's thinking all the time about Goldilocks she ain't seen all this time. She ain't really thinking about us, though she most likely has seen us."

"All right, Smudge," Pauper said, "I'll run off the horses out back so they come across the front of the shack, maybe toss loose a few of them out front. What'll you do?" He was standing up as if he had stepped forward when volunteers from the ranks were asked for.

Henry thought it over before he answered. "She's the important one. We got to get them to leave the shack, chase what's after them off, or go after the horses. They know they ain't going anyplace without their horses. They run; we have to get her out. I'll get her away. You run off the horses. Okay?"

"Fine by me, Smudge. I can just see her holdin' Goldilocks the first time in almost ever. Won't that be somethin' for her and Goldilocks? That's up to you, Smudge. I'll do the horses. You get her off and out of here. Go down the back side. They'll never try that after dark. We've watched them for a long time. They ain't any heroes in that bunch. If it doesn't pan out the way we want it, I'll see you in the clouds someday, raining down on some poor soul looking for a drink, out on the desert and dry as dust right up his throat."

"Berle," Henry said, almost putting his arms around the man, "we been best partners ever, so who ever lands on his feet in this thing, sees that Goldilocks finds her mom, have a drink for the other."

Berle Paulie slapped his pal on the back. "Let's have at them scoundrels, Smudge. Let's do it good." He walked off without a look back.

In the cool of the evening, the sun gone, the shadows intent on sifting down atop everything, the horses were run off by Berle Paulie. As the whole remuda of sorts went past the horses out front, three more horses broke free and ran with them as if a stallion had made a call.

Men spilled from inside. Three mounted horses out front and chased the loose mounts and some ran on foot.

Smudge Henry, quiet as if he was on the trail of a pelt carrier of any sort, slipped into the shack, put out his hand to a blonde woman, bone-tired looking, age sitting in her face, who shivered in a corner of the one room place. "We found your daughter where you left her, Ma'am. I'm sure she's alright, back in New Providence. Tallie Reynolds has her. She must be waiting for you. We best hurry out of here."

The woman smiled at him, still in disbelief.

He led her down the back side of the shack, through a slim fissure in the cliff face, and out to a sure escape on the plains. He listened for other noises all the way and never heard a sound. He wasn't for praying, but enough Indians told him that He listens up there, on the edge of a cloud.

Sometimes He answers. They called him Tinami, Manitou, Nokomos or Old Man Coyote, any kind of name, but they believed what they said. He prayed for Berle Paulie, the best partner he ever had.

The blonde woman and the overdressed mountain man came into New Providence three days later, in the early evening. Tiredness ran all over them, but when they approached the Reynolds house, two people were sitting out front in the meager shadows of evening, and Smudge Henry pointed to the little blonde girl and said, "There she be, Ma'am. Goldilocks is what we called her because she had no name far as we knew. So, Goldilocks she is. I'm willing to bet that there's a shivaree of sorts coming on the land soon, for you and Goldilocks."

The blonde woman ran forward, her arms spread wide, toward the little blonde girl who stood wondering what was happening all around her.

Tallie Reynolds cried out her joy and her sense of loss in one moment that life took control of.

And from up the road, from the center of town, an aromatic, overdressed mountain man ran toward them, calling out Smudge Henry's name.

New Providence was new all over again.

The End

Tom Sheehan, in his 94th year, has published 53 books, has work in Rosebud, The Linnet's Wings (100), Copperfield Review, Literally Stories (160), Frontier Tales, Green Silk Journal, Rope & Wire Magazine (400+). He's earned 18 Pushcart nominations, and 6 Best of Net nominations, with one winner. Two more western collections will be released simultaneously by Pocol Press soon, "The Townsmen," and "Call Me Chef and Other Stories," written by a man who has never been on a horse. Last year he won Ageless Writers story contest with "The Tale of Trot and Dim Johnny," and has submitted other books.

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The Great Train Robbery
by James Dickman

Close to the one-horse town of Wilcox, Wyoming, about six miles west of the old Rock Creek train station, Butch Cassidy a chiseled-jawed bank and train robber, bit the end off of his long thin panatela cigar and spit it out. Cupping his hand, he lit up his smoke and took long slow draws, letting the puffs drift upward like a ghost. He sat tall on his bay Appaloosa horse, his mission clear in his mind. Butch and his "Hole-In-The-Wall" gang were bent on robbing the Union Pacific Overland Flyer, which was purportedly carrying large sums of gold, cash, bank-notes and other valuables.

In this early morning of June 2nd 1899, Butch raised his binoculars and looked down the tracks and spotted the train approaching. His pulse quickened. Butch was experienced in matters of robbing. He had taken cares to have supplies and fresh horses stashed along the Outlaw Trail. What could go wrong?

There was just one hitch. Word of Butch and his gang's exploits was catching up with them, and trainmen were carrying firearms to guard the passengers and any cargo from bandits. If Butch or any of his outlaws were caught by a posse, they'd soon find that Old West frontier justice usually meant swinging from the end of the hangman's noose or a bullet between the eyes. In this rugged, untamed land of jagged peaks, and prairie, hardy pioneers, cowpunchers, strong women and wild, profane and godless men won the West.

* * *

Behind Butch stood the wooden bridge, and below it ran a creek that was filled with rushing water from the recent storm. He turned on his leather saddle and let out a long, shrill whistle. The Sundance Kid scurried over to the tracks and flashed the red and white danger signal light to the engineer of the oncoming train. A perfect place for a holdup, Butch thought.

Butch grinned broadly, pulled down his binoculars, and directed the other outlaws to take cover and bide their time. As a kid, he dreamed of owning a big spread, maybe even running some cattle. He kept telling himself a few more bank and train jobs and he could retire, even share some of his wealth with the hardworking ranchers taken down by the big time cattle barons. But he was only kidding himself, and he knew from the get-go that he was not the settling type, nor did he take kindly to authority.

The Union Pacific train screeched to a stop, the hiss of steam escaping between the iron wheels and tracks. Three of the masked bandits jumped aboard the locomotive. After a quick but spirited struggle, the outlaws hauled down the engineer and his fireman.

Butch quickly sized up the trainmen. "Good morning gents." Butch drew out his forty-five caliber, single action Colt revolver and pointed it at the fireman. "You're being robbed. You can save everyone a lot of fuss if you would just tell us where the safes are."

The engineer, wearing dark denim Levi's and a surly manner, spat at Butch. "You steal from us, mister, and you'll be forever on the dodge."

"That might be so," replied Butch, "but I'm the man holding the gun, and it's now pointing at you, friend."

"Why you—"

Sundance cracked the engineer over the head with the butt of his pearl-handled revolver, then placed it back into his low-slung holster. "Well, that's plum rude of you. My friend here asked you real polite where the dough was stashed." Sundance's eyes were livid.

Butch waved Sundance back. "A man with that type of nerve deserves to live."

One of the masked outlaws, a tall Texan with a gunslinger's gait, strode over to Butch and drawled in his ear. "The train conductor told us a there's a second locomotive close behind with soldiers on it."

Butch flung his cigar to the ground. "Damn." Butch looked over at Sundance. "Kid, you, me and the gang are going across the bridge. We gotta make sure that second train ain't getting across."

"I'll have two of the guys lay the dynamite. The rest will ride the train over. All we got is a thirty-second fuse," said Sundance, his eyes alarmed.

"If we don't make it, there's gonna be one helluva mess down in that gully." Butch thumbed back the hammer on his revolver. "Gents," he said to the engineer and fireman, "we're in a hurry."

"You thinking about killing us?" asked the fireman, his hands shaking.

Butch removed his rabbit fur felt hat, gave it a shake, and angled the brim low across his brow. "That's mighty kind of you to take concern with our doings. Get your rig going."

The engineer was rubbing the lump on his forehead and said to his fireman, "Go on, you heard the man, stoke the coals and let's get her across." The train started with a chug and a chuff towards the bridge. Part way over the train trestle, Butch saw one of his men lighting the dynamite fuse with what looked like a cigar.

"Damn't Kid," Butch said to Sundance, "you guys been stealing my cigars again?"

"With today's stickup, get yourself some rarefied ones, not those dried out buffalo turds you've been smoking," said Sundance, grinning.

The train wheezed, then stopped. "Hey mister trainman, it's a short fuse. Get rolling, or we're all gonna be kindling," Butch said.

"I'm working it," shouted the fireman frantically shoveling the coal into the fire. "I gotta wife back home."

"Well, either I'm gonna kill you or the blast will. Now, get this damn train across," Sundance shouted.

The train's wheels ground into the tracks and squealed forward. "C'mon, c'mon," yelled the fireman. Slowly, the train picked up speed as the fuse burned lower and lower. Just as the last car trundled over, a tremendous roar of dynamite ripped into the train trestle, illuminating the dark sky. Chunks of the trestle shot skyward as a cascade of smoke and debris choked the air.

Butch looked over at the gaping chasm in the train trestle. "Listen up gents, I want you to uncouple the passenger cars. No sense in folks getting unnecessarily killed. Pull up to that ridge ahead, we're gonna look at the mail and express cars."

When the train topped the ridge, Butch said to Sundance, "Gag and tie up our friends here. We'll need to put some distance between us and the local sheriff."

Afterwards, Butch and Sundance approached the mail car and were joined by two of the outlaws. "You call the mail clerk out?" Butch asked.

"Told us to go to hell," said the short, squat robber.

"Dynamite the door," Butch said, taking a step back.

The short man stepped forward and placed a stick of dynamite by the door sill, lit it and moved away. With a boom, the door blew inwards and the squat robber and tall Texan armed with a sawed-off shotgun pushed the crumpled door aside and went into the mail car. When they came back out, the Texan, shaking his head, was holding the mail clerk by his collar, his legs dangling in the air. "Nothing of value in there, boss."

"Why is it always the last one? Blow the express car," Butch said, walking over to it.

Sundance ordered the train clerk out. No response. He raised his pistol and shot out the express car windows. "I said come on out."

From deep within the express car, a shaky voice called, "I can't. My name's Charles Woodcock and I work for Mr. EH Harriman, and he entrusted me—"

Butch interrupted Woodcock. "Would you just shut up and open the door?"

"Mister, I don't know who you are, but Mr. Harriman, the owner of the Union Pacific railroad, personally gave me this job and I just can't," said Woodcock.

"Well, you may never see Harriman again because you're about to get yourself killed," Butch said.

Sundance looked over to Butch, "Dynamite?"

"Yep," replied Butch.

After the door had been blown clean off, Butch and Sundance walked into the express car, both pointing their pistols. Woodcock's face went white. He was a prim, lanky man and his spectacles lay on the tip of his long nose. In his lap, a small mutt yapped at the outlaws.

"C'mon Woodcock, we're not gonna kill you because we like dogs," said Butch. "You know the combination to the safes?"

Woodcock patted his brow. "I  . . . I must've forgotten it. Let me think—"

Butch interrupted, "No need, Woodcock."

"Dynamite." said Sundance.

"Yep," Butch nodded. "It's been that kinda morning."

Later when Butch and Sundance hauled the stolen loot to the horses, Butch fired up a cigar and said, "Hey Kid, one day the sun's gonna be shining on us, we'll be counting all our dough and leave all this behind, maybe settle down in South America."

The End

James Dickman counts Louis L'Amour among his favorite authors. James's professional credits include features in SCBWI magazine and in Writer's Digest among others. And along the way he earned his English Literature degree from UCLA. Some of his short stories and poetry can be found at:

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The Walking Man
by Francisco Davila

I can't rightly say that I can recollect all the things that happened during my growing up years in Largo, Texas. Some things stick in a man's mind more than others. Some things got value and some just plain don't. A man tries his best to keep the good memories. He places a value on them and those memories have a value more than a wagon full of gold.

I recollect the dirt streets and the hot sun. All the wood houses never seemed to be built to last. Back then most folks built their houses out of wood and nails and prayers. Those houses didn't last forever. Either the heat ate them up or the rain wore them out. There weren't but a few places that was built with brick. Brick cost money and most folks lived day by day and hand to mouth. Times were hard and most people lived their lives with spit and grit. We all were living hard and praying for the good Lord to help us keep what little we had. The good Lord gave us strong backs, stubborn pride and high hopes.

Largo, Texas was a border town. It wasn't no more than a good hard spit from Largo right into Mexico. There was a time when our little scrub town had been full of hard cases and no accounts. Border towns were like that back then. Being so close to the Mex border was a sure cause for trouble for our town.

Mexico had no real law back then and in those times many a man with a fast horse and a need to move quick came into Largo looking to ride into Mexico one step ahead of the law. A man on the dodge don't give a good Billy damn about nothing. Many a desperado would ride into Largo a hurrahing and shooting. More than a few innocents paid the price for getting in their way. Those hard cases would ride into Largo and try to tear the town right off its roots. Some of them even got the notion to try to burn the town down.

There was no real law in Largo. The law didn't pay us a never mind because we were just a little scrub town with no more than forty folks in the whole town. No badge toter was going to stand up against those hard cases and no accounts. They just didn't think we were worth dying for. Largo was too small for a Marshall and too poor for a sheriff. Largo wasn't much of nothing and those that stayed in Largo stayed because they had nothing and there wasn't anything anywhere else that was any much better.

We didn't have but one main street and it was no more than twenty houses long. The street was dirt hard and dusty. Sometimes a good wind would whoosh out of nowhere and blow all the street dirt right up into the air and damn near cover the whole town. I swear that dirt could damn near cover a man from head to toe and make him look like he was a ghost.

I recollect the good and the bad about Largo. The hard times and the lean times. Most of my Largo memories have gotten foggy. I suspect it's because they weren't meant to stay clear. There is that one day that comes into my mind as fresh as the morning sun. The whole damned thing that happened that day didn't take little more than a full turn of the clock but it had a meaning and it had a value and that value ain't lost a damned thing.

I recall that I was no more than a month from my tenth birthday and it was early July. I was sitting on my Pap's porch when I caught sight of a man walking his horse into town. Back then a prideful man never walked when he could ride. The walking man must have walked his horse for more than a little while because his horse and him were both covered in Largo dirt. They both had the look of the dirt ghost on them.

The walking man wasn't a real large man but he had a wideness about him that made him appear bigger than he was. The walking man had a tough, durable way about him.

The walking man was leading an old dun horse that had seen some better days. The dun kind of had the same tough durable way that the man had. The walking man had him a full thick beard that covered more than half his face and an old felt hat that covered the other half. He had him some rough and ready clothes. His boots weren't fancy toed Texas cowboy boots. He had him some round knobby boots like he had done some work on a railroad. His shirt and britches hadn't been new for a long time but they were serviceable. He wore a tan jacket that had been stitched in more than a couple of places, but it looked it could still keep the cold out.

The walking man looked like he was a drifting man. Folks in Largo had seen many a drifting man in their time. Drifting men was mostly considered shiftless. Nobody much cared to see them come into town and most everybody said "good riddance" when they were gone.

The walking man walked his horse real slow like he was gentling his horse. It was a funny thing but that old horse he seemed to match every step that the walking man took. I swear it was like those two had a kind of an understanding. Those two must have rid some long miles together. A man and his horse don't get to know each other like that unless they shared some miles and some years together. They had a history. They were partners.

I sat on my Pap's porch and watched the walking man as he walked his old horse right to the blacksmiths shop. My Pap's house was the nearest to the blacksmith. The man that ran the Smithy shop was named Mr. Strebor. Mr. Strebor was horse strong and wolf mean. He wasn't sociable, but he was the only Smithy in Largo. Most folks just kept a distance from him unless they had a need of his services. I walked a few feet behind the walking man and his horse.

The walking man walked right up to Mr. Strebor and didn't waste any words.

"I'd like to stable my horse. He's been rid hard, but he didn't slack up not even for a second."

The walking man had a deep-down heavy way of talking. Mr. Strebor didn't take but a short moment to look at that old dun and then he locked eyes with the walking man. I had the notion he was trying to get the walking man's goat.

"Mister, that horse looks right haggard. He needs to be put out of his misery."

The walking man he held Mr. Strebor's hard look and he didn't flinch.

"We've came a far ways together, and we ain't done just yet. Me and him has seen the mountains and crossed the Llanos. He's got stay and he's a sight better company than most folks I've come across."

Mr. Strebor was banging on a wagon wheel rim and he just stopped his hammering. Like I said, Mr. Strebor was wolf mean and he had him a bad temper. He didn't take guff from no man. He held onto his hammer and he gave the walking man another look. Then Mr. Strebor walked over to the dun and he felt his front and back legs. That old dun stood stock still and wasn't a mite skittish. Mr. Strebor looked up at the walking man and he just nods his head. It was like he took a better look at that at the man and the horse and he could see the value in them. Mr. Strebor, had a deep respect for a good horse. The truth was he didn't respect too much else.

"He's got muscle and bone and stands real proud."

The walking man nodded right back at Mr. Strebor and walked his dun over to the water trough. Both of them were covered in dirt but the walking man takes out a handkerchief out of his back pocket, wets it in the trough, and wouldn't you know he goes and wipes that old horse's face. All the while he's talking low and gentle to that old horse. He gave the dun some water and oats, unsaddled him and wiped him down. The walking man had some big hard hands but that horse didn't shy away from him not a bit when the walking man rubbed his head. I watched him show all that kindness to his horse and it made me feel good and proud. I got a warm feeling for the walking man. He had quality.

Mr. Walking Man took a few minutes tending his horse and then he scooped up some of the water from the trough in his two hands and washed his face in it. I had the notion that he was pushing toward sixty but when the dirt got rubbed off his face, I could see that his beard was mostly white and when he took off that old felt hat his head hair was just as white as his beard. His skin was sun burnt and weather worn and had more than some wrinkles. He surely had seen sixty come and go and he was more than likely closing in on seventy. He wasn't a spring chicken but he stood rooster proud.

Mr. Walking Man shucked his saddle in the barn corner and he yanked his Springfield rifle out of the scabbard. He wiped the dust off the Springfield and cradled it in his hands like it was a little bitty baby. Mr. Strebor didn't go back to his hammering. He just kind of kept eyeballing the walking man. He looked Mr. Walking Man up and down more than few times and then went back to hammering on that wagon wheel rim.

Mr. Strebor waited till Mr. Walking Man started walking past him and he tells him.

"You can get a hot meal at the saloon. It ain't the best, but it'll warm your belly."

Mr. Walking Man just shook his head and he tells Mr. Strebor.

"Ain't got the extra money for a meal. It's best that I just give you your money now."

Mr. Strebor just up and he walks over to that old dun and wouldn't you know he puts his hand real gentle like on that old horse's head and he starts rubbing it.

A man like Mr. Strebor he didn't get pushed. He was the one always doing the pushing, but he was his own kind of man. I can't say that anyone in Largo ever had the wants to call him a sociable man but he wasn't a contrary man either. Mr. Strebor had a fairness about him. He looked over to Mr. Walking Man and tells him "a dollar will do." Mr. Strebor had a set price for stabling and feeding a horse. That price was two dollars but he only asked Mr. Walking Man for only one dollar. I can't rightly say that I ever had a fondness for Mr. Strebor, but he didn't have any petty ways and that is the god's honest truth.

Mr. Walking Man handed Mr. Strebor a silver dollar and then two of them just kind of ran out of words. Mr. Strebor went back to hammering and Mr. Walking Man started walking down the main street. He didn't go into the saloon. He just sat in an old wooden chair right in front of the saloon and just kept looking down the street. He looked up at the sun like he was telling the time and kept on looking down the street. He cradled the Springfield in both his arms and stared down that road like he had a good notion who was coming.

It wasn't even a quarter hour when these three hard cases come riding low and fast like the devil himself was hot on their trail. Mr. Walking Man got off his chair and walked right into the middle of the street. Right dead in the way of the three hard cases. Those three hard cases kept right coming right at him, but Mr. Walking Man just planted his feet down hard in the dirt and he don't budge an inch. The three hard cases had no doubt seen Mr. Walking Man standing in the middle of the street, but they still came charging at him.

Mr. Walking Man yelled real loud at them.

"I ain't dying alone you border scum."

The three hard cases came galloping and shooting right at Mr. Walking Man but he stood rock still. There wasn't any budge in him. He swung his Springfield right at the middle rider and shot him right off his saddle. The one to the left shot Mr. Walking Man on his right side, but Mr. Walking Man didn't give a never mind. He just kept shooting at those two hard cases and the two hard cases kept riding and shooting right at him.

The one on the left had a better horse than his partner and he got nearer to Mr. Walking Man. That was his undoing. Mr. Walking Man gut shot him off his horse. That was when the third hard case shot Mr. Walking Man right in the middle of his chest. Mr. Walking Man fell in the dirt. He didn't look likely to get back up but that third hard case jumped off the back of his horse and he shot Mr. Walking Man again. When the shooting had started, I ran under my Pap's porch. I watched that border trash just keep walking right up to Mr. Walking Man. It broke my heart because that border trash was fixing to shoot him again. I jumped to my feet and I yelled.


That border trash didn't but take but a quick look at me and then he aimed his gun right at the middle of Mr. Walking Man's back. Mr. Strebor had found a hand gun. He shot that border trash dead. Mr. Strebor walked up to Mr. Walking Man and turned him over slow and gentle. Mr. Walking Man had spit and blood coming out of his mouth but he was some stubborn about dying. I had a notion he was in intolerable pain but his words come out strong

"Those three drygulched my friend. Me and him traveled a long way together."

Mr. Walking Man looked right at Mr. Strebor.

"That dun is a good horse. He took me ahead of them. I ain't ever rode better."

Mr. Walking Man died right there in the middle of Largo's main street. Mr. Strebor found an old wagon tarp and wrapped Mr. Walking Man up in it. I had the belief that he didn't want to see Mr. Walking Man get any Largo dirt on him. Mr. Strebor had respect. He looked right at me and he tells me flat.

"Get here now, son. We got to get this man off the street."

I ran over and looked up at Mr. Strebor. I had a powerful fear of Mr. Strebor. He scared most folks but I had a question to ask.

"Mr. Strebor, was he your friend?"

Mr. Strebor didn't think for more than a few seconds. He put his hand on my shoulder.

"I didn't know him, but I've seen a scarce few like him. He was of a kind that the good Lord stopped making."

Mr. Strebor went and got his wagon and we put Mr. Walking Man in the back. Then Mr. Strebor got two shovels and put them next to Mr. Walking Man.

We took Mr. Walking Man to the edge of town where we had a small cemetery. Mr. Strebor and me dug a grave for Mr. Walking Man. Mr. Strebor did most of the digging but I stood right next to him and I did myself proud. Mr. Strebor stood over Mr. Walking Man and he said a small prayer. It wasn't a real long prayer but Mr. Strebor he took his hat off and he bowed his head while he was a saying it. A sadness came over me. Some tears ran down my face. We found some rocks and we piled them on top of Mr. Walking Man and then we grabbed our shovels.

It was then that I saw that the whole town of Largo had been watching us. They had stood off a ways and watched us put Mr. Walking Man into the ground. Not a one of them had come near. Mr. Strebor and me drove that wagon back to the stable. I had a prideful feeling riding back with Mr. Strebor. Me and him had done a man's job.

Mr. Strebor let me come by every day and tend to the dun. The old horse had quality. Me and him got to be good friends. When I got older, I went to cleaning stalls and helping out in the stable. Mr. Strebor taught me some blacksmithing. Me and him we worked some hard days together.

When I had grown up some I left Largo, Texas. I had a fancy to see a mite of the world. I traveled some and seen some. When there was a call I went to Europe and fought the Kaiser. I loved one woman and we raised up three boys. Those boys are grown and have spread their wings. My love she went to heaven and I hope to be with her right soon. I've done a few things and seen some others. Many a days I recollect the seeing and the doing. I recollect Largo, Texas and I recollect Mr. Strebor and Mr. Walking Man. Those two were both the same kind of man. They had value.

The End

Francisco Davila, 71, is a husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, and Marine. He worked as a fruit picker, janitor, steelworker, special police officer, and hospital worker. He has a Bachelor's degree from Buffalo State College and is admirer of the American pioneers and the wild west.

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The Blue Tinted Specs
by Ray Dyson

Sun-baked Fort McDowell shimmered in dancing heat waves on a blistering Sunday afternoon in late August when a lone horseman ambled in behind the camp's mess hall. He let the dusty black horse under him pick his pace. Joel Patrick Bannon had been nearly a week on the hard trail, and a day at the desolate Army post spread along the southwest banks of the narrow Verde River would be a welcome respite on his long journey home.

Bannon skirted an open plain behind a long row of cavalry stables and nearly empty corrals. A brawl had broken out among several young infantry soldiers playing a rough-and-ready game of baseball, and a harried shavetail labored to break it up. A few soldiers on the slack gave him cursory glances as he angled toward the officers' quarters—a long, low line of ugly adobe buildings overlooking the square-shaped parade ground. Thick adobe walls separated the little mud-colored houses, and each house boasted a small window to the left of the front door. Ramadas—crude awnings made of leafy brush and supported by cottonwood poles—shaded each window. Under their spotty shade hung large clay jars called ollas in which drinking water was cooled. A rough-planked sidewalk ran the length of the row, beside a ditch dug by soldiers along a line of tall, verdant cottonwood trees. In the ditch—called the acequia by local Mexicans—ran the water which supplied the camp.

The Sixth Cavalry and Eighth Infantry garrisoned the sprawling camp a little northeast of the burgeoning town of Phoenix. Roving bands of Apache dodging the Camp Apache and the San Carlos reservations to the east and the southeast often found hiding places in the stony fastness of the Superstition Mountains, and the officers and men at McDowell were routinely kept busy scouting and driving the renegades back to the reservations.

A yellow-haired cavalry lieutenant thin enough to double for a flagpole offered only a perfunctory glance as Bannon rode up. The young officer squatted on a short, three-legged stool in the shade of a ramada at the west end of the officers' quarters, his blouse sleeves rolled to the elbows as he polished the gold buttons on his dark blue, heavily braided tunic. Straggly blond hairs struggled to be seen above his lip. Someday, Bannon thought, with a little luck the lieutenant might grow a proper mustache. The lieutenant stopped polishing and looked up again when the stranger dismounted.

Bannon took off his wide-brimmed plainsman's hat and slapped trail dust off his fringed buckskin shirt. A short-barreled Colt Peacemaker minus its front sight rested in a smooth leather holster clipped to his belt slightly left of the buckle. The worn dark wood handle rode within easy reach of his right hand. A bone-handled Bowie knife sixteen inches long slanted grip forward in a plain leather sheath on his right hip.

"Lieutenant." Bannon touched the brim of his hat and made a point to smile. "Looking for Captain Hovis."


"Social. Knew him up in Wyoming. I sold him several horses for the cavalry."

"If you rode in from Wyoming you picked the wrong time. Apache named Victorio jumped the San Carlos four days ago with a bunch of other young bucks, and the captain and the cavalry's out chasing them. They could be out for weeks."

Bannon nodded. "Post looks mighty deserted."

"No cavalry here just now. Only the Eighth foot."

"You're cavalry."

"And I am the sole cavalry presence on this post just now. In fact, I am being transferred to Fort Apache. I leave tomorrow with the pack train. That is why I am doing this." The lieutenant indicated the brass buttons. "The CO at Apache is a stickler for spit and polish. By the by, I'm Tobias Arnold."

"Call me Bannon. Glad to meet you. Sutler open on Sunday?"

"Closed today. There's a trading post a couple miles to the north."

"Thanks. Reckon I'll mosey, then."

"Bannon . . . Bannon." The lieutenant mulled the name, suddenly bobbed his head. "Yes, sir. I believe I have heard Hovis speak of you. He will be sorry to have missed you."

Bannon slid easily into the saddle.

"I heard you say Wyoming. If you are bound that direction you need to be careful of those renegades. They probably made south for Mexico when they jumped, but you cannot be certain. You be vigilant. Renegade Apaches are plenty to worry over if you're on the road alone."

"That's a hunch." He gathered the black's reins and left the lieutenant to his business.

A small knot of officers and their women relaxed in the shade of cottonwoods along the Verde, talking among themselves while a number of children played nearby. The Four Peaks of the purple McDowell Mountains loomed behind them, framing a picturesque scene. He halted the black in the shade of the farrier's shed, emptied a small bag of oats into his hat and let the horse eat while he watched several children gleefully splashing in the red water of the Verde. When the stallion had finished, he rode into the shallow river to let him drink, drawing the attention of the adults, many of whom curiously surveyed him. After a while he tipped his hat to them and rode back the way he had come.

He had meant to spend the night at the post and pick up supplies from the sutler on his way out in the morning. Instead, he decided to swing by Kale's, about a mile west of McDowell, to pick up a few things he needed, then keep moving. He could reach the foothills by dusk.

The Kale Brothers trading post stood on open land, a low, L-shaped adobe and wood structure tucked among towering saguaro, many seven or eight times the height of a man. A wooden, roofed porch fronted the long leg of the L, which boasted three entrances—a large double door in the middle and smaller doors at either end.

He left the black in the shade of a four-arm saguaro at the corner of the L, the reins dangling. A shaggy brown and black mutt sleeping beside the door at the end of the porch looked up briefly, did not appear impressed, and rested his head between his paws. Bannon stepped inside and eased into the corner, standing motionless until his eyes grew accustomed to the dimness. From that corner he commanded a view of both legs of the L and his gaze swept the two rooms.

About a dozen customers, mostly soldiers, lounged on battered chairs in the larger room, apparently to find relief from the scorching sun. They drank beer and half-heartedly cursed each other as money and IOUs passed between them. Their attention mainly focused on a billiards table at the back of that room. Harsh laughter and loud swearing followed the faint click-clack of clay billiard balls.

About half as many layabouts took up space in the smaller room, all but one sitting at a round table playing poker. A bony, horse-faced clerk with wide-set, drooping eyes craned a long neck over a stack of canned tomatoes, letting a prominent Adam's apple bob. The clerk had the saddest-looking face Bannon had ever seen.

The slim clerk stepped behind the counter. "How can I help you?"

Bannon ran off a short list and the clerk jotted down notes on a pad and slipped away to the larger room to fill the order. Bannon leaned against the counter and watched the five men playing draw poker.

He guessed the four unarmed infantry privates at the table were no more than twenty years of age. The fifth man, medium size and about twice the age of the soldiers, wore his black hair oiled, parted down the middle, and smoothed to each side. Long, black mustaches drooped around a small mouth, making his prominent nose look even bigger. He wore a new black, three-piece ditto suit, and a black bowler hung from a nail on the back of his armless chair. A heavy gold watch fob dangled from the left side of his floral-printed waistcoat, the end disappearing into a large pocket. Wire-rimmed, blue-tinted spectacles hid his eyes, but the tilt of his head told anyone paying attention the man was intently watching the cards being dealt by the private to his right. Bannon clenched his jaw at the sight of the spectacles.

"Check." The gambler tapped the manicured tips of long fingers on the table.

"Same here," the private to the gambler's left said.

"I'll chance the draw," the next private said.

"You can't run me out that way." The third soldier put his cards on the table and tapped the drawing of a Bengal Tiger gracing the back of the top card.

The private who had dealt picked up the deck and eyed the gambler. "How many?"

"I'll play these."

"Now, that is what I call a skunk play." The private holding the deck fastened his eyes on the gambler while his mouth twisted in a little arc. His gaze suddenly switched to the private sitting to the gambler's left. "Reeney?"

"Gimme four."

"That mean you got an ace?" The dealer smiled, slipped four cards onto the tabletop, one at a time. Bannon kept his eyes on the man behind the blue tints. The gambler leaned slightly forward, and Bannon was satisfied the man studied the cards keenly.

"Me, too," the next private said.

"A second ace," the dealer said and dispensed the cards.

The third private looked at the dealer. "Can I get all new cards?"

"Remember what we told you, Pen. You can take five less'n you got an ace."

"Then I want five."

"No ace?"

"I got that part of your rules, Crem."

"Sooner you pick up the rest of 'em the sooner we can play somethin' more entertainin'," Crem said. "Mind like yours is made for an officer."

"Told you, Pa never allowed no card playin' at home."

"That's plain as warts on a two-headed dog," Reeney said. "Give him his cards, Crem, and let's get on with this."

Crem slid five cards to his right and the gambler lifted his head to watch as Pen picked them up one at a time.

"Dealer takes three."

"Check." The gambler again tapped the table, and the next three players did the same.

"Four bits." Crem dropped the coins on the table, one at a time.

The gambler didn't hesitate. "Raise to a dollar."

Reeney and the private to his left quickly mucked. Pen held his cards close to his face and fanned through them. "Raise another dollar."

The other three soldiers looked hard at Pen. The two who were out of the play sat silent, knowing anything they said with Crem still in the hand would be uncalled for. Crem looked at his hand, back at the raiser.

"Damn, Pen. You tryin' to skunk me, too?"

Pen's right foot began tapping the floor. He put the cards face down on the table, his right hand shaking slightly. Crem muttered under his breath and tossed his cards.

"Raise two." The gambler gently stacked shiny silver dollars in front of him.

"Call." Pen flipped his hand over. Five bright red cards greeted expectant faces.

"Damn, Pen." Crem shook his head. "Whatta ya doin'?"

"Whatta ya mean. They're all red."

"Pen, you got three hearts and two diamonds. That hand ain't worth teats on a bull."

"They're all red," Pen said again, but nothing that suggested confidence backed his words.

"Too bad, soldier." The gambler showed two sevens and reached for the pot.

Pen looked at the gambler then turned his head toward Crem.

"Pen, they gotta be the same suit."

Pen dropped his head and smacked his forehead three times with the fingers of both hands. "Boil me for an oyster."

"Ay, god," Reeney said, shaking his head. "You surely ain't built for speed."

"Don't let them judder you, son," the gambler said. "Only way to learn from your mistakes is to make 'em."

"By that count," Reeney said, "Private Pendleton ought to be the smartest man in the whole rosy world."

Another man, tall and lanky with a tied-down six-shooter low on his right hip, drifted in from the larger room and passed in front of Bannon. He was almost as tall, but not as solid through the arms and shoulders. He took a seat at a table behind the card players, just to the right of the gambler. After sweeping Bannon with an offhand glance, he seemed to lose interest. He pushed back his rust-colored Montana peak hat to show black hair with a deep widow's peak. A rawhide string laced through the edge of the hat's brim kept it from flopping. He took the makings from his vest pocket and began to leisurely roll a smoke.

Bannon returned his gaze to the gambler and watched as the man dealt. Long, tapered fingers—polished and dainty—proved quick with the deck. The gambler did not watch the other players but was intent on the cards as they came off his fingers. Only when he gave cards to himself did his eyes stray from the deck, and he gave himself away only by the faintest tilt of his head. The movement went unnoticed by the others in the game, who were focused on their own cards.

The deal finished, the gambler made a quick survey of the players' faces. Bannon fixed the gambler with a hard stare when the man's glance fell on him. The gambler's head quickly turned, the specs hiding his eyes.

The hand was quickly played. The gambler again took the pot and the blond private to Reeney's left threw down his cards and shoved his chair back. The chair legs squealed loudly on the dim room's rough planks.

"I'm out," he said, rising to his feet.

"Aw, sit down, Tom," the dark-haired Crem said. "You can borrow from me."

"No. I'm down two months' pay as it is."

Tom glared at the gambler and straightened his back. Bannon thought the private might do something rash, but the infantryman's shoulders slumped and he turned away.

"His luck runs too good for me," Tom said at length.

The gambler's face darkened and his upper lip curled, but the private had already wheeled for the door. "I need to grease my boots," Tom said.

Tom's heavy steps still echoed along the small room when the gambler looked at Bannon. The curl disappeared from his upper lip, replaced by a tight smile.

"Perhaps the gentleman at the counter would like to sit in."

If Bannon had not taken such an immediate dislike to the cardsharp, he would have let it pass. He would have simply waited for his supplies and rode on. Instead, every emotion in his body vanished. He eased from the counter and stepped close to the gambler.

"Your deck?"

"It's an honest deck."

"Two types I don't play cards with." Bannon's low voice grated hard as a running iron. His gaze bored into the gambler but did not miss the gunman to the gambler's right, now watching with sudden interest. "One-eyed and four-eyed."

The gambler flushed and even behind the blue-tints Bannon could see the man's eyes cloud over at being called a cheater. To the gambler's right, the gunman tilted forward in his chair and his right hand edged to his holstered six-shooter.

"Your meaning?" the gambler cried.

"Knew a gambler up at Laramie once." His voice was deceivingly relaxed. "Wore blue-tinted specs. A lucky man at the tables. For a bit. The four-eye's luck turned when he was found marking the cards with phosphorous. He used the tints to see the marks."

A deathly stillness blanketed the room. The gambler froze, as did the soldiers, all eyes fixed on Bannon. Crem grabbed the cards and stared at their backs. The gambler jerked his chair back and his right hand flashed to his chest. Bannon closed like the strike of a rattler. He pulled the Bowie and slammed the flat side of the wide blade across the gambler's jaw. The tinhorn toppled over his chair and to the floor. Dazed, the man's right hand tugged at the watch fob and stopped when a voice—cool and measured—cut into him.

"That best be a watch," Bannon said.

The gambler's hand halted where the fob disappeared into his vest pocket. His blue-tints had fallen off and black eyes glared hate. Blood leaking from the gambler's jaw and nose rolled down his mustaches and splattered his printed vest. Bannon stepped closer and pinned the gambler's right hand with his boot. He returned the big knife to the sheath on his hip and yanked at the gambler's gold fob. No watch came out of the man's pocket, but an over-under Wesson derringer. He held the little gun high for everyone to see before he tossed it against the wall. He picked up the blue-tints and stepped back from the sprawled figure.

His hand shaking, the black-garbed sport drew a white, silk handkerchief from his coat pocket and pressed it to his bloodied face.

The lanky man sitting to the gambler's right remained still, but his green eyes cut dark and cold.

"I ought to kill you," Bannon told the gambler, "but it wasn't me you were cheating so I'll let it go. You won't do any more business here."

The soldiers, rigid in their chairs, gaped. Bannon tossed the specs onto the tabletop. Crem eagerly scooped them up and examined the backs of several cards. After a few seconds, the private cursed and flung down the tinted glasses and cards. Reeney grabbed them and repeated the test, with the same result. Pen started to follow suit when a cold and flinty voice stopped him.

"I'll take those."

The lanky man with the low-riding six-shooter rose gracefully to his feet, his manner unhurried, his green eyes calm. His half-finished cigarette dangled loosely from his lips, a thin reed of smoke curling upward. His left shoulder turned slightly, and his right hand hovered near the butt of the Army Single Action tied to his hip. His eyes glinted like polished emeralds under the wide brim of his pushed-back hat. Bannon had seen his kind before. The man would be good with that iron on his hip—quick yet deliberate. He would not fire hastily. If he got off a shot he would likely hit his mark.

"You got a interferin' nature, compadre." The Texas drawl was pleasant, but his face exposed his intent. "Ain't smart to call my friend a cheat."

A thin smile creased the bloodied gambler's lips, but he made no motion.

"You a pal of the tinhorn?" Bannon asked.

The green-eyed gunman shrugged. "Not so's you'd notice, but I got a grubstake in that craw-jammer on the floor and you're meddlin' in it."

"You back a grifter you borrow a fair amount of trouble."

"I'm doin' it. You can poach your egg right here and now or you can turn around and slope. I won't hinder you. Far as I judge we got no quarrel, seein's how Kramer's such a muzzle-loadin' daisy. But if you aim to stick you will have to back your play."

"I'd be glad to go. I didn't come in here to stay long."

The gunman smiled coldly.

"Good way to think of it, compadre. Ain't no reason to fight somebody else's battles."

"But the soldiers take the money before I go."

The gunman lost his thin smile. "Reckon not."

"Soldier," Bannon called, his eyes fixed on the man bracing him.

"Sir?" Pen answered in a barely audible high-pitched squeak.

"Take the money on the table and get out."

"You move, soldier, I'll kill you."

"Me first," Bannon said.

"Make your play."

The gunman's hand snaked for his six-shooter. He was fast, but his six-gun had barely cleared leather when a slug from the Peacemaker opened a hole in the center of his chest and slammed him into the wall. The fire went out of his green eyes and his head shook slightly in disbelief. His Army Colt went off and the bullet smacked the wall to his left. Still on his feet he raised the Colt for another shot, and the Peacemaker roared again. The second slug spun the gunman around. His finger jerked and his six-shooter exploded a final time, the bullet plowing a harmless furrow across the hard floor. He hit the wall face first and bounced off. He fell backward onto a table. It gave beneath his weight, throwing him to the floor and then toppling over his lifeless body.

The little room hushed. No one moved, but soldiers rushed in—two with pool cues in hand—from the larger room. The soldiers drew up in a knot near the bar, staring silently at the two men sprawled on the floor and at the big man standing solidly, six-shooter in hand.

The gambler's terrified eyes riveted on the black hole of the deadly Peacemaker, but Bannon had by now dismissed him. His eyes fixed on the lifeless man beside the gambler, and a brief, sad look flicked over his face. He put the Colt on half-cock and popped open the loading gate. His actions were sure and quick but not the least hurried as he slipped cartridges into two of the three empty chambers, closed the gate, drew the hammer to full cock and lowered it slowly, the firing pin over the empty chamber. He slid the Colt back into its holster. It had all been done as smoothly as blinking.

"What was his name?" he asked Kramer.

"Lafe Harris," the gambler squeaked.

Bannon nodded and turned to the infantrymen. He pushed the pile of crumpled greenbacks and glinting coins to the center of the table and told the soldiers to split it among them.

"And don't forget your comrade, Tom."

The sad-faced clerk clutched some of his supplies in shaking hands, but most had spilled onto the counter. The clerk nervously gathered them, barely able to tear his eyes from the dead man on the floor. Bannon paid and turned to go but stopped when he saw the soldiers truculently eyeing the four-flusher. Kramer had crawled to the farthest corner and was sitting with his back against the wall, pressing his red-stained handkerchief to his face.

"Let him be," Bannon told them. "He's broken and you got your money."

The soldiers hesitated, glancing at each other with wide, frosty eyes. After a moment, Crem backed off and the others followed him outside.

"You see it clear?" Bannon asked the clerk.

"Saw it clear. That lead-spinner went for his sidearm and you fried his bacon. It was plain you had no choice."

"Tell them what you saw when they ask." He turned to the gambler. "You're lucky, sport . . . today. If you want to keep your luck take a hunch. Don't ever cross my trail again."

The gambler said nothing and did not move as Bannon drew away.

Loud voices fell silent when Bannon came out of Kale's. The soldiers had gathered around the black stallion, taking in the long-barreled Peacemaker tucked into a saddle holster on the right side, a Winchester in a saddle boot just behind the Colt, and a sawed-off Greener twelve-gauge in a boot on the saddle's left side. They watched wordlessly as Bannon tucked his supplies into the deep saddlebags.

"Better send for the provost." He tied a small bag of oats, enough to last until he made the high country, to his bedroll.

"Yes, sir," Crem said. "Mister, that was . . . "

"Better go to the provost, soldier." He swung into the saddle. "Tell an officer what happened here before one comes to ask you."

"Maybe you should hang around," Reeney ventured. He was sitting on the porch steps, his right hand idly stroking the brown-and-black mutt.

"Lot of questions—" Crem started to say, but Bannon was in no mood for conversation.

"Tell the provost."

He shook the reins and the big black started out. He gave no thought the infantrymen might try to stop him. Soon, rider and horse were a single black dot fading into the darkness of the distant Four Peaks.

The End

Ray Dyson is a retired newspaperman and the author of four books, including the western story, The Scavenger Breed. He has a degree in journalism and a minor in history, specifically the American West and the War Between the States. He and his wife, Pamela, have one daughter and three grandchildren.

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Off the Beaten Path
by Alexander J. Richardson

It was Monday mornin' when he sauntered into the saloon, wearin' a bearskin jacket—hung open, with gold buttons—a gray vest underneath, brown chaps, and black boots with spurs a' silver. His mustache was long and curly and held touches a' gray against the amber it had once been, and his wide-brim hat had a taxidermized rattler wrapped around, the snake's face bulgin' at the front a' it. A revolver hung from his right hip, he carried a lumpy sack that stunk somethin' awful, and while newcomers usually bother me fierce, I didn't see nothin' wrong with this feller.

Easton and I clearly wasn't in agreement, though.

"Hey," he said from behind the bar, one hand on the spotted apron he always wore, his paunch givin' its ties no slack, "can't come in heeled."

The man tipped his hat at Easton.

"Buongiorno, " he said, then gestured at me. "This-a man is heeled, no? Why is so different?"

Easton jerked a thumb at me. "This man helps me keep order here. And what the hell's a buongiorno?"

The man shook his head a few times. "Apologies, apologies. To saying buongiorno is to telling you good day."

Easton looked him up and down. His black facial hair was long but tidy—so as to give the girls upstairs a rewardin' tickle, or so he always told me.

"You a goddamn Spanish?"

He grinned and shook his head again, pressin' one hand against his chest.

"Me? No, no, no. I hail from Italia, makin' my way in the west same as-a all body else."

Easton looked at me for a moment. I was in my usual chair with the usual eight-gauge in my lap, and I didn't speak.

"You got money?" Easton said, turnin' back to him.


"Guess Italians can spend money here good as any other feller, but you gotta lose the iron. That's a house rule for any visitor, even Americans."

The Italian smiled and stepped outside for a moment and when he came back his holster was empty. Easton glanced at me, and I nodded. He took a bottle out from under the counter, poured a small splash, and pushed the glass over. The Italian put his sack down and looked at it.

"What is this drinking?"

"Whiskey," Easton said.

"I do not care-a for no whiskey. Only wine."

"Ain't no wine here," Easton said. "Options is whiskey or stickin' your head in the trough outside."

The Italian frowned, but after a moment he lifted the glass and downed it in a quick swallow.

"I am Luigi."

"Hell sorta name's Luigi?" Easton said.

"It is the name given by me papa, and was-a his name, and the name of his father firstly, and many of his fathers before."

The bartender grunted. "My name's Easton. This here gunhand," he said, gesturin' at me again, "is Thomas Burns. You might think he looks like a goddamn Irish, what with the red beard and all, but he ain't. He's Swedish. Keep in mind that if you give me any sorta fuckin' trouble, you'll be answerin' to him. Got it?"

Luigi turned to me, his grin wider.

"Buongiorno, Thomas."

I nodded slightly. Easton leaned across the bar.

"I asked you got it, Italian. You gonna got it, or do I need to send you packin'?"

Luigi dipped his chin. "Apologies, apologies. Nobody ever so sorry as me. May I have another-a drink?"

Easton took his glass and poured another splash.

"What brings you so far off the beaten path?" I said.

Luigi downed his beverage and smiled at me again, a twinkle in his eye.

"Bounty hunters," he said.

Easton perked up. "You? A bounty hunter?"

Luigi rested his elbows on the bar.

"There is tanta money in this, no? To any tiratore who brings in the nefasto Juan Rojas Gang, dead or alive?"

Easton looked him up and down.

"Figurin' you're a few saddles short for that sorta work, Italian. Ol' Juan's got plenty of guns ridin' alongside him, and the posse started outta here a few weeks back now."

Luigi arched an eyebrow. "Oh, is he so-a tough? Potente sceriffo?"

Easton snorted. "A locust ain't tough without its swarm. He's got a lot of men is all. Sure as a stopped clock's right twice a day, fifty bullets is bound to hit somebody more'n a few times."

He pointed at me. "Hell, even my old muscle went off after 'em. Had to hire this cowpoke, keep some sorta order in here."

"And I'm all the luckier for it," I said.

Easton grinned. "Stuff that piehole. You're paid fine."

"In all truthfully," Luigi said, and there was a twinkle in his eye, ain't no doubt about it, "I have-a come here to claim the bounty on Juan Rojas and his sporchi truffatori."

Easton stared at him.

"What's that, now?"

Luigi stroked his fingers across the sack. "Your ears most correct. The sorry bastardos are no more."

Easton stared a moment longer. He barked a laugh.

"You're outta your skull."

Luigi wagged his forefinger. "No, no, no."

Easton leaned over the bar, starin' at Luigi's sack.

"Ain't no way or no how you could fit one body in there, Italian, much less a slew of 'em. Sack ain't even close to big enough."

"All truthfully, but it fit their heads."

Easton frowned.

"You're a goddamn liar."

"No, no." Luigi pushed his glass forward. "Another drink, per favore."

Easton didn't reach for the bottle.

"You got the heads of Juan and his sorry folks in there, prove it."

"I will only show-a this to the men that posted Juan's bounty."

"It was me posted it." Easton jerked a thumb at his chest. "Me."

Luigi leaned a little closer.

"Only you?"

"Well, Mr. Watson from the general store contributed, with approval from the sheriff."

"Then-a Mr. Watson needs to be here, too." Luigi spread his arms. "That is how I condotta business."

Easton didn't speak for a moment. He scratched his beard.

"Wait here a stretch. Thomas, don't you let him leave."

I nodded. Easton went around the bar and hurried out a' the saloon. Luigi reached over for the bottle and poured himself another splash before holdin' it out to me.

"Drink with me?"

"Not yet," I said.

It was several minutes before Easton came back, Mr. Watson with him—his signature striped shirt tucked into stitched pants—and a sandy-haired man with a revolver on his hip and a star pinned to his vest.

"Thought we should have us a representative of the law present," Easton said. "Deputy Glover agreed."


Deputy Glover pointed at the sack.

"You really got a bunch of heads in there?"

"Certainly smells like it," Mr. Watson said, wavin' his hand in front a' his face.

Luigi nodded.

"Let's see it, then" Easton said. "Enough gawkin'. You wish to be paid, show us what we're buyin'."

"Can't believe you done took 'em without seein' the sheriff," Deputy Glover said. "He an' the others was hot on the trail. I been tendin' this two-horse town for weeks."

Luigi lifted the sack.

"Nobody said I no see the sceriffo," he said, shakin' it out and sendin' a pile a' heads tumblin' onto the floor.

Easton, Mr. Watson, and Deputy Glover all stared, their expressions shiftin' slow from curiosity to horror.

"Mother of God," Deputy Glover said. "That's . . . that's Sheriff Wood! That's the posse!

Luigi was closest to Easton, and he raised his glass, smashin' it against the old bartender's face. Deputy Glover reached for his revolver, but I raised my eight-gauge and blew a hole in his chest with the left barrel. Mr. Watson shrieked, lookin' from Luigi to me, and I shot him with the other barrel before he could come to his senses. Easton was pawin' at his face, screamin', and Luigi pulled up the back a' his coat, takin' out the revolver that had been in his holster earlier and shootin' the man three times in the chest.

I broke the shotgun open, ejected the spent shells, and reloaded as Luigi poured two glasses and slid one to me. I lifted mine.

"To the gang's continued success," I said.

Luigi nodded and we both drank.

"Where's everybody hidin' out at?" I said, puttin' my glass down.

"They are-a outside Gallup. Easy ride."

I looked down at the bodies.

"Better get to it, then."

Luigi grinned as he holstered his iron and grabbed the bottle, and the two a' us walked out to our horses.

The End

Alexander J. Richardson is a writer of speculative fiction, crime fiction, and westerns, with sixteen stories published. His work's been distributed on five different websites, both long-standing (Fiction on the Web) and newer (96th of October). Outside of his short stories, Alexander's working to have his debut novel published. He currently resides in New Jersey.

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