Onward We Must Go
by CS Simpson
Tillie's Journal: August 07, 1892
I hate this.
I aim to write down every awful thing about our trip thus far.
Every day, our covered buckboard rumbles awkwardly over these hard, rutted tracks. All the contents crash and bang into their neighboring bits and baubles, resulting in a cacophony of sounds, all playing madly over one another. And it's not just our paltry amount of things making the devil's music, it's the entire wagon train.
I hope to become deaf somewhere along this never ending journey.
Thus far, I've had no such luck. The days are endless stretches of either sitting or walking amidst other weary travelers, as well as these awful covered buckboards squeaking and creaking and grinding. The nights are full of crackling fires, guitar music, and exhausted voices, not to mention the incessant sounds of oxen, mules, horses, and cattle. The moaning and moving about of all these animals is almost as obnoxious as the daytime jangle of all our possessions.
I aim to never climb aboard another wagon once we finally get to Cripple Creek, Colorado. I plan to walk everywhere or ride a horse, no matter how unladylike. My pa is convinced he can find gold in Colorado, just like his childhood friend Mr. Bob Womack did. And I have to suffer for this delusion. I wish he didn't read his friend's letters, or the newspapers, or listen to Bedford's town gossip.
How I miss good old Bedford, Kentucky.
The first half of our trip west from Kentucky was actually quite pleasant. We boarded a steamboat and sailed down the Ohio River until it met the great Mississippi, then went upriver to St. Louis, where we boarded a smaller steamer to go up the much smaller Missouri River to Independence. Those leisurely days aboard ship were spent reading and conversing with other passengers about their lives and destinations. It made me feel like a well-to-do lady, not an awkward teenager whose life had just been upended—again. Seeing the ever-changing territories slide by beyond the water's edge was calming, and I had begun to be grateful Pa made me come along.
Then everything changed once we were done traveling on the rivers. Pa bought this old buckboard from a tired-looking old man, added curved bows like ribs sticking up from the wagon bed, then covered it with canvas to protect our things from the coming dust and rain and baking sun. I helped Pa fill the old buckboard with the few things we'd carried in our trunks from home. Those first few nights sleeping in the clean, organized wagon were actually fun—like camping in the yard at home with my brothers.
But once we bought a pair of oxen and a few other necessities, and joined a few others toward the head of the famous Santa Fe Trail, it was no longer any fun. The much-used trail from Independence to Kansas City (which is still in the state of Missouri, for some reason) was rutted and dusty. Grit invaded everything almost immediately, including our packed clothes and food stores. That short trek in this horrid contraption is what convinced me I didn't want to continue on once we reached the beginning of the Trail.
I begged and pleaded with Pa to sell the oxen and wagon and spend the money on railroad tickets to Colorado instead. When he said "no" I begged to be sent home to Bedford to live with Aunt Betty, Uncle Howard, and my cousins. But, no. My tears could not persuade him. Pa said he'd never be able to live with himself if something happened to me while he was away—but what about all of this?
Any westward expedition is dangerous. I've heard it said for years, and I've read about it in the papers, and I've felt it deep in my bones these last dreadful weeks. Every loud, jarring sound from our fellow travelers makes my heart beat faster, and I imagine an entire tribe of Indians chasing after us or a stampede of bison or a pack of coyotes.
My young nerves are frayed. Fourteen-year-old girls like myself should not be making this arduous journey without a passel of brothers to protect her—maybe an army.
Except, all of my brothers and sisters are dead, along with my sweet ma. The consumption was not kind to our family. Only Pa and I are left to make this inane trip. I can't help but wish they were here so I had someone to complain with about all of this, to keep me company on these long days and nights. Their pale, sunken faces haunt me still. They will probably haunt me for the rest of my days.
It's getting late and it's been another long, hard day. Pa says it's time to snuff out the candle. I'm tired anyhow.
John's Journal: August 11
My true goal isn't the search for gold, though I shall do my best to find my share. I fear for Tillie. Our meager belongings barely fill our homemade prairie schooner, unlike some families, who seem to have packed even their dining tables and dog houses for the trip.
We shall break off from the main Santa Fe Trail after we reach Dodge City and travel northwest with a new wagon master. I think it will be young Jesse. He's ridden this trail thrice before and will go back to collect another ragtag group once he delivers us safely to Colorado Springs. From there, we can travel to Cripple Creek with a different guide, a mountain guide. I hope the air isn't too thin that high up.
My breathing began to feel labored months ago. I'm certain that I too am ill, and so refused to let Tillie stay behind with her cousins last month. Colorado's dry high mountain air has been known to help consumptive patients, and I can only hope it will help me as well. I couldn't bid a premature farewell to my only remaining child and risk never returning to her. I need her with me. She has become my strength these past few years.
She was a beautiful baby, an obedient third-born child, and a dutiful nursemaid to her dying brothers and sisters. And her ma. I hope to spare her any further pain.
Losing so much has made me a hard man, I know. My temper has become short, and my panic is mounting. I hope we reach Colorado before Tillie notices any rattling in my chest. I can feel it there, though it isn't yet obvious to the ear. I'm grateful for the constant discordant sounds of the wagon train.
Sitting around the fires at night, I'm constantly moving to get out of the choking, smoky, shifting breeze. I hate to exacerbate my condition. The other travelers probably think me evasive and untrustworthy, but I don't mind. I'm not on this journey to make friends.
I just heard a pack of coyotes yipping and screeching at each other, the young ones joining in, too. These wily creatures seem to roam the Kansas plains and prairies like unchallenged gods. I miss the verdant flora of Kentucky. These past weeks on the trail west have tested every bit of my sanity and patience. As a former printer compositor for the Trimble Banner newspaper, I'm not as hardened as these other men—like Maurice the Blacksmith, or Thomas the Mason. My pale, spindly limbs are surely a topic of humor for them. But, once again, I am not here to make friends.
Colorado may prove to be my salvation. Only another few weeks and we'll be there long before the snows start to fall. I hope.
Tillie's Journal: August 13
Something is wrong with Pa. He avoids me during the comparative quiet of the evenings and chooses to stay outside, leaving me alone in this dreadful wagon. I usually wake up alone, too.
He's been outside this morning for a while, I think, yet his scent still lingers underneath the canvas. I think he has newspaper ink permanently embedded in his pores, because he's been out of work for months now, and still I smell it on him.
We were still reeling from the last two losses of Ma and little Anna, when Mr. Womack wrote to Pa. He moved to Colorado thirty years before to cattle ranch with his father, but his recent gold-finding mountain adventures seemed to spark some life in my pa. If I'd known that talking with Pa about Mr. Womack's letters and far away Colorado would have sparked this foolhardy trip, I would have ignored his chatter. I may have been able to stop the trip before we got this far.
John's Journal: August 16
I haven't written in a while because our wagon train has been delayed by unexpected rain and thick mud. Several prairie schooners lost a wheel in the deep muck, and one of them had to move forward without replacing it. Since they're limping along with only the three, the rest of the train is required to slow down to match their speed. Now we can only travel about half the distance we used to each day, and I'm beginning to wonder if we'll make Cripple Creek before the first snowfall after all. No matter. Onward we must go. I left nothing behind to return to in Kentucky.
Unfortunately, this journey has turned Tillie into a sullen, reclusive young woman. She refuses to talk about where we're going and has never stopped begging to turn around. I am near my wit's end. She no longer visits with any other travelers. I knew she didn't want to come along, but I didn't know she'd sink so far inside of herself as to stop communicating with me these past two days.
Should I tell her the real reason we're going?
Should I send her home alone?
Tillie's Journal: August 21
The wagon train has finally crossed over into Colorado. I sat up front with him for the first time in a while, trying to spot the Rocky Mountains in the far distance. I can't see them yet, but Pa assures me they must be there, over the next rolling hill. Or the next. Or the next. At least the land is no longer so flat. It's getting a little colder, especially for August, and the last two nights have been downright freezing.
I wish I were back home in verdant Kentucky with the cool Ohio River, giant shade trees, fireflies—and even my family's graves.
At least now I know why we're really traveling out west. Pa is sick. I confronted him earlier, and he tried to deny it at first, but he knows I'm no longer a foolish child. I've lost more people to this wasting disease than I care to number. I know the signs.
Will I be next?
Why haven't I become ill yet?
John's Journal: August 22
Tillie is being cordial with me once more. She even sat up front for a few hours yesterday and asked about Colorado. And I finally told her, or rather, she deduced my tenuous condition on her own. Perhaps I should have told her from the start. She might not have been so eager to turn around. It's too late to worry over my past decisions now. At least we're nearly there.
In listening to the other members of the wagon train, we've decided that we should stop our travels in Colorado Springs instead of heading into the mountains themselves. I truly like this idea, and so does Tillie, though I'm fully certain it's because it would shorten our journey quite a bit. If the area is not to my liking, I may insist we travel up to the capital city of Denver and settle there, instead. Either way, I'm certain there will be at least one newspaper for me to approach about employment.
Though, perhaps I should wait until my chest clears before I attempt to set up typeface on the presses, again.
Tillie's Journal: August 23
I have finally made a friend. Myrtle is two years younger, but doesn't seem to hold that against me. She's traveling from the state of New Jersey with both of her parents and her only surviving sibling, Little Herbert. Consumption took the rest, just like my family. They plan to winter with some distant cousins in Colorado Springs, then continue on to Oregon next year.
I was drawn to Myrtle because of the patient way she cares for her toddling brother. We sat and commiserated about the horrors of the wagon train last night. It was nice to have someone near my age to converse with, since Pa refuses to acknowledge any of the bad parts with me. I know he's trying to stay cheerful, but I'm quite certain he's enjoying this journey no more than I.
John's Journal: August 27
The sunset was beautiful last night. The high clouds were pink and orange, lit by the sun hiding behind the distant Rocky Mountain range. It reminded me of all the times Isadora and I would sit on the front porch together once the children were all in bed, sharing our thoughts.
I miss her very much. Isadora is indelibly etched on my memory, so I bring her with me even now. Yet, I would give almost anything to hold her tonight.
Sometimes it's disturbing to see remnants of her likeness in Tillie's face and mannerisms. Sometimes it's hard to watch my only remaining child—it makes my heart ache so much.
Thankfully, Tillie has become more like her old self since I told her that we would stop traveling soon. She spent a bit of time tidying up our dusty prairie schooner earlier, and even served me tea and sat with me by the fire tonight, although I'm uncertain where she found the dried tea leaves. Perhaps she's made friends with young Myrtle after all.
Tillie's Journal: September 03
I am beyond overjoyed! Colorado Springs is nearly in sight! We shall arrive before noon tomorrow and then all of this will finally, mercifully, be over. I can hardly wait to sleep inside of a building and on a real bed once more! Oh, I can practically feel it!
Myrtle said her father's cousins live near downtown, and I'm certain Pa will find us a room as close to them as we can afford, so we girls will be able to meet with each other until they move on next year. I hope they choose to stay.
I hope I grow to like the sparse greenery of Colorado and the dry air. The mountains are beautiful in a desolate kind of way. I overheard someone say they look even better topped with a white blanket of snow.
I still can't believe the ordeal of this wagon train is nearly behind us. Everything within me wants to push through and arrive tonight, but Jesse, the wagon master, says the town isn't prepared to receive so many of us in the dark of night. Such a shame.
The rattle in Pa's chest seems to have abated a little already. That may be my own wishful thinking, but at least it hasn't gotten any worse. I plan to ride into town with my head held high and help him recover fully from his illness. I even plan to take a job in the first shop that will have me, so Pa can rest.
I'm so glad we won't be continuing into the mountains to search for gold like Mr. Womack. I'm glad to have a friend, and I'm glad to have a chance at a life away from the memories of Ma and my lost brothers and sisters. I shall always remember them, but they should not haunt me out here. Onward we go, Pa says, and tomorrow shall begin a new chapter.
CS Simpson is a multi-genre writer with two self-published fables and three traditionally published short stories,
including two Pikes Peak Writers anthologies. She lives among the Colorado pine trees with her husband and dog and
likely has Diet Coke in her veins. Keep up with her writing journey at www.authorcssimpson.com.
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by Phillip R. Eaton
"Guilty as charged" was the verdict declared by the Honorable Leroy Shepherd, the 'Hanging Judge'. Convicted at his so-called trial for killing five men who brutally raped and murdered his wife Fanny, Aaron Knight spent the following three days watching the gallows being built just outside the only window in his cell.
Aaron's lawyer had argued that he was defending his wife. The judge determined that the five victims could not have committed the alleged crime against Fanny, due to the fact that she was a mulatto, the product of a plantation slave and her owner, therefore, she was considered to be a piece of property, not a person.
The creaking floorboards alerted Aaron that someone was coming. The hangman had convinced the Sheriff that it was necessary to measure Aaron's neck for the noose. He took a length of rope from his pocket and reached through the cell bars, whispering in Aaron's ear, "Shh, don't respond, and do as I say. When you are hung tomorrow, the hood that I use will have a leather collar inside it and protect you from dying, but you must play dead and not move. We will talk again when you are delivered to the coroner."
"That's enough time hangman, let's go," the Sheriff demanded.
Aaron never slept a wink all night. His mind could not forget the words that fell from the hangman's mouth. Who was responsible for keeping him alive, and more important, why?
A sunbeam cascaded through the bars of the tiny window, illuminating the dank cell. Two rats fought over the supper plate left on the floor that he never touched. Sheriff Taylor yelled in and asked Aaron if he wanted breakfast. Hunger was the least of his problems, knowing he was to be put to death in a few hours.
The hangman was getting an early start to his day, testing the workings of the gallows' trap door. A small crowd of townspeople were already starting to gather, attempting to get the best viewing spot. Aaron anxiously looked beyond his only scenery, now that he had a glimmer of hope to see tomorrow.
* * *
The crowd was beginning to swell as the sun was nearing high noon. It was almost time. The squeaky old door hinges, along with the footsteps that echoed against the hallway's stone walls, broke the deafening silence.
A softspoken voice from behind said, "My son, come let us pray to the Almighty for your forgiveness."
"Padre," Aaron began, "I shall never be forgiven for taking the lives of five men. But rest assured, the souls of these five men are going to hell for what they did to my Fanny. She was a person in the eyes of God, regardless of what any judge says. I should not have to pay this price."
"Come on Aaron, it's time. Put your hands behind your back."
The Sheriff snapped the handcuffs closed, and led him outside to the gallows. "Say, Aaron, I don't suppose you're going to need those fancy boots of yours where you're going, you mind if I have 'em?"
"Sheriff, when you can take them off of my cold body, they're yours. But not until."
The hangman approached the two of them and glared into Aaron's eyes. "Are you ready for what's about to happen?"
"Nobody in their right mind is ever ready for their own demise," Aaron paused for a moment, "But given the chance to be with Fanny again, yes I am ready."
A hush came over the crowd as Aaron was led up the stairs to the platform. Mothers turned their children's eyes away when the hangman placed the hood over Aaron's head.
The searing midday sun was blinding. The hangman stepped closer as he adjusted the rope around Aaron's neck. "Remember what I said. When the trap door opens, do not move. You must pretend to be dead. I'll talk to you later."
Without any hesitation he pulled the lever engaging the trap door, and Aaron's body jerked at the end of the rope.
The hangman looked out at the crowd and pointed at two men in the front row. "You two, help me get him down and to the coroner's office."
"What's your hurry?" someone yelled out, "Let him hang for a while."
"I can't wait around forever. I have to take the gallows apart and move on to the next hanging."
The men threw Aaron's body over a horse, and the Sheriff escorted them to Doc's place. Dr. Middleton also served as the county coroner, and asked the men to carry the body inside so he could examine it and verify the death. Sheriff Taylor followed behind to retrieve his handcuffs and take Aaron's boots.
"I can handle it from here Sheriff, thank you very much." Doc hurried them out, closing the door behind them.
Doc was frightened, not seeing any signs of breathing from the body. It was quite possible that the ruse didn't work and Aaron was actually dead. He removed the hood and still no reaction. Doc unlatched the door to the medicine cabinet and pulled the bottle of smelling salts from the shelf.
Aaron jerked back to consciousness with a good sniff, and started coughing and gasping for air. Doc hurriedly stuffed a towel in his mouth and told him to be quiet. Footsteps could be heard racing up the stairs. Doc jumped outside, pretending to cough like he had the croup.
The Sheriff met Doc about halfway up the steps and Doc was quick to offer, "That smell gets me every time no matter how often I do it."
"What are you talking about Doc?"
"The smell our bodies give off when you cut them open in the autopsy. You want to come in and see for yourself?"
"No way. I'll take your word for it. But why are you doing an autopsy Doc? You know he was hung."
"Regulations, Sheriff. If I don't follow the rules, I could lose my license. Now, we don't want that to happen, do we?"
"Okay, Doc. I'll have a couple of men go dig the grave."
"Thank you Sheriff."
Doc returned inside to tend to Aaron.
"Doc, just what the hell is going on?" Aaron begged, his voice hoarse and raspy from the hanging. "Am I really dead?"
"No, my boy. You are very much alive, and about to receive an offer of a future, if you want it."
"What are you talking about, Doc? I am not understanding any of this."
"Soon, boy, very soon. You'll know everything as soon as it's dark. I've got to hide you until then."
* * *
Aaron sat in the dark massaging his sore neck when the door swung open. In stepped Doc with two handsomely dressed gentlemen.
"Aaron," Doc said while closing the door, "this is Thurston McDaniel and Aloisius Turnbull. They have a proposition for you."
"I hope that one of you is going to tell me just what the hell is going on here."
Mr. Turnbull cleared his throat and addressed Aaron. "Mr. Knight, we saved you from your demise because we need your services."
"I don't understand."
"Let me try to explain. You see, Mr. McDaniel and I see a prosperous future for the west, and between the two of us, we are investing a tremendous amount of money both in banks and in the railroad system. The problem we face is, currently there is no law west of Kansas, and several gangs are robbing us blind."
"What do you think I can do for you? They just tried to hang me for killing five men." Aaron's voice got raspier the more he tried to talk. Doc fetched him a glass of water.
"Yes, that was unfortunate." Turnbull continued, "But that's exactly why we chose you. You are young and strong and pissed off at the world, and most importantly, you have proven that you are not afraid to kill."
Aaron doubled over coughing, took another sip of water and stood up. "You'd better get to the point. You saved my life to do what for you?"
"Turnbull, if I may," McDaniel interjected, "Son, we want you to infiltrate these gangs, one at a time, and find a way to wipe them out. Plain and simple, that means killing every last one of them any way you see fit."
Aaron couldn't believe what he was hearing. "I still don't understand. What makes you think I can do that? And, what's in it for me?"
Turnbull and McDaniel looked at each other, finally Turnbull said, "We believe that you will find a way to accomplish what we need you to do. This is your only opportunity to stay alive. When we receive word that these bandits have been taken out, we will wire funds to you, under the name of Aloisius Turnbull, Jr."
"And if I refuse?"
Turnbull pulled his revolver from its holster and pressed it firmly against Aaron's forehead.
"That grave they are digging for you should be finished by now, and technically you're already dead, so we will make sure you are, and plant you in that hole."
"Then, I guess you leave me with no choice."
"We thought that you would see it our way. There are rumors circulating around of an outlaw by the name of Brodie Raymond. He is easily recognizable by the scar on his left cheek and rope burns on his neck, and he has a terrible reputation for killing and stealing."
"What's that got to do with me?"
"It's the new you." Turnbull unsheathed a knife and passed it to Doc. "Doc, please."
A swift slash from Doc, and blood gushed from Aaron's cheek. After wiping the knife off, Doc tossed the towel to Aaron and told him to put pressure on the gash. "It should heal up and scar over by the time you get to where you're going."
"You sir, are now Brodie Raymond," offered Turnbull. "Your description is on wanted posters everywhere. Good luck."
McDaniel handed Aaron a bag with clothes in it. "Change into your new duds. Your grave is in the pauper section of the town cemetery. There is a horse there waiting for you, equipped with all the things you need to travel, including a gun belt and rifle. You need to fill in your hole and be out of town before sun up."
"One more thing," Aaron added, "let's just say I'm able to do what you want, and I stay alive, then what?"
"IF that time comes," McDaniel emphasized the IF, "you will get to stay alive."
* * *
Aaron, er, Brodie hurried to finish the shoveling. The morning sky was getting brighter and the sun would be peeking above the tree line before too long.
The horse that was left for him was a beautiful black stallion that stood at least fifteen hands high. No expenses had been spared with the buckskin saddle and bridle, or the matching two-gun holster. The twin Colt-45s sported white pearl grips and felt good in his hands.
Brodie stroked the stallion's forehead, "Well Big Boy, guess it's time to start our new life together. I hope you're ready for this, because I'm not so sure I am, but it beats being dead."
Thoughts of Fanny pierced through his brain as he rode out of town, but he knew it was time to put some distance between himself and his past.
* * *
There were more miles in between settlements the further west you traveled, and Brodie soon found out that his reputation had swiftly preceded him. Upon entering the first so called town, he stepped inside the only watering hole he spotted. He cleared the bar simply by walking in. The jittery bartender begged him not to cause any trouble.
Brodie ordered a whiskey. The bartender slid the bottle down the bar and told him, "No charge". He poured a couple of glasses for himself and tossed them back. The gut-rot whiskey had the flavor of kerosene and burned his throat. As Brodie scanned the barroom, every single cowpoke turned their eyes away from him. The barkeep directed Brodie to the only hotel in town for food, and apologized for not having any.
Brodie stood alone at the bar. Looking up, he could see his reflection in the big mirror behind the rows of bottles. He hated seeing the scarred face he now wore, and pulled out his pistol and squeezed the trigger, shattering the glass mirror.
"Barkeep, who around here knows the most scuttlebutt?"
Chester wiped the beaded sweat from his brow. "That would probably be me, Mr. Raymond."
"So, you know who I am?"
"Any gangs holed up in these here parts?"
"Can't rightly say."
Brodie set his Colt revolver on the bar. "Can't or won't?"
The barkeeper looked across the room and quietly said, "The Larson Gang was through here 'bout a week ago. Seeing as though we got no bank, they robbed the hotel and this here saloon. Shot up the town real good, they did, but only got about fifty bucks for their troubles."
A voice from the other side of the room yelled out, "You got a real big mouth, Chester. Ya ought to learn to keep it shut."
Brodie saw the man's reflection in the broken shards of the mirror. The bartender said that the mouth belonged to the ruffian who thought he ran the town. Brodie turned to face him. The man kicked his chair back and tried to draw, but Brodie shot him dead before he could unholster his gun.
A crippled old prospector rustled the money from the guy's coat and shuffled his feet around to the backside of the bar. He helped himself to a bottle and two glasses from a hidden shelf. Chester yelled at him, "Get away from there, you old coot."
"Well now, don't get your britches in a bunch, you young whipper-snapper. This fine young man just saved this town a whole heap o' trouble, by takin' out that sonna bitch. I'm gonna buy him a good drink, not that gut-rot you pour us."
Brodie placed his 45 back on the bar, looked at the old guy and said, "I'll take that drink mister, and the money too. And while you're at it, clean out the till, and pass the hat around to all of your friends here."
"You'll not get much," Chester said. "Nobody in these parts got any money. And those who did, got wiped out by the Larsons."
Brodie took the money from the old man's hat, looked at Chester and said, "I couldn't live with myself if I left your town without taken somethin' that didn't belong to me."
Brodie back tracked to the door. Out the corner of his eye, he spotted one of the patrons slide his hand to his holster. "Uh, I wouldn't do that if I was you," he said as he cocked the hammer back.
"C'mon Big Boy, let's high tail it outta here." One slap of the reins on the rump and Big Boy was at full gallop.
* * *
Nightfall would be arriving soon, Brodie needed to find a place to set up camp. Recognizing an imitation bird call, he knew he'd been spotted by somebody. A tall gangly fellow showed himself from behind a sassafras shrub and pointed his Winchester at Brodie's head.
"Get down off that horse, mister," he said.
"I got no beef with you," Brodie replied, as he stepped around Big Boy.
"You're in the wrong neck of the woods." He motioned with his rifle for Brodie to walk on ahead.
Standing his ground, Brodie said, "You're aiming that thing at the wrong guy."
Five more guns were pointed in his direction as Brodie was led into the camp of the Larson Gang.
"State your business stranger," Larson said.
Brodie stayed silent. The barrel of a rifle poked his ribs. "The Boss said, state your business."
Scanning his adversaries, Brodie faced the man who spoke first. "If you're the boss, you'd better tell your men to lower their weapons before two of them die."
"How do you figure?"
"I can draw and shoot two men before any one of you can get a shot off. And you will be one of the two."
Larson took a step toward Brodie and looked at his face real close. "Boys, put your guns away."
"Do as I say, now," Larson commanded. "We were just about to sit down to supper. Join us?"
"Don't want to intrude, but I don't mind if I do."
"Shorty, you're supposed to be standing guard. Did it ever occur to you to take his guns?"
Brodie looked up at his escort. "Shorty?"
Larson chuckled. "Yeah. It's an obvious nickname since he's a foot taller than the rest of us. Everybody's got nicknames. Let's see, yours is pretty obvious too. Scarface."
No sooner were the words out of his mouth, when Brodie drew both pistols and pressed them against Larson's temples. "Don't you ever call me that again, or it will be the absolute last breath you ever take on God's green earth. Do you understand me?"
Shorty cocked his Winchester and aimed it at Brodie's head. Brodie whirled and shot him in the chest. "I told you, you were aiming at the wrong guy."
Brodie glared into Larson's eyes, "Now, can we get back to dinner?"
The rest of the gang was uneasy about their guest, especially after he killed Shorty. They were whispering amongst themselves as to how they were going to get rid of him, and were shocked when the boss invited Brodie to join them.
"We could use another gun, now that you done kilt Shorty."
"For what? Why would I want to join up with you?" Brodie asked while staring down his soon to be new compadres.
"We're lookin' to make a big haul in a couple of days, and need six guns for the job," Larson told him, as he received the evil eye from his men. "And if any of you bozos got somethin' to say, say it now, or keep yer peace."
"Boss, how do ya know we can trust this yahoo?" asked Slim.
"This ain't no yahoo, Slim. This here's none other than Brodie Raymond."
Brodie raised his eyebrows, "You know who I am?"
"I wondered. But the moment you pulled yer pistols on me, I knew fer sure."
Slim and the other three glanced at each other, slouched, and went back to finishing their supper.
As the night grew darker, Larson gathered everyone around the fire and laid out plans for the big heist. The C & O Railroad was going to be rolling through Rocky Gulch in two days, carrying gold and munitions for Fort Collins. The train has to slow down through the gulch, putting the guards on high alert for an ambush. The plan was to highjack the train after it leaves the confines of the gulch, just before it picks up speed again.
The fire was left to burn out and everyone turned in for the night. Brodie stayed awake, waiting until all of the others were fast asleep.
With the other five snoring in unison, Brodie started on his silent mission. One by one, he approached each member of the gang, smothered their faces with a rolled up bed cloth, and sliced their throats.
He saved Larson for last. "Hey, wake up," he hollered. Larson tried to sit up but Brodie had his knee on his chest. "Larson, when you get to hell, tell them Brodie Raymond sent you."
Brodie placed the knife across Larson's Adam's apple and leaned on it. A gurgling sound emanated from Larson's neck as he gasped for air one last time.
Brodie wiped the knife clean on Larson's vest, and laid down for a good night's sleep.
* * *
Intending on an early start to his day, Brodie first needed to stage the area to look like a robbery. He gathered their weapons and ammo, the valuables from their saddle bags, and removed all of their boots. These items could be used for trade if he ran into any unfriendly natives. He selected one of their horses to use as a pack-animal and set the other ones free.
It was possible that no one would find the bodies for quite some time. Larson had picked a well treed spot for his encampment, but the area had to be left just right.
"C'mon Big Boy, it's time to mosey on."
* * *
Brodie traveled for several days, never laying eyes on another living soul. Just up ahead through the trees he spotted a water tower. There would only be one reason for it to be there, the railroad. If he waited there for the next train, he could at least find out how far he was from the closest town.
He found a spot suitable to set up camp, but before he could even unlash his satchel from the pack horse, Brodie heard a train whistle in the far off distance.
The approaching train slowed to a stop. The engineer lined up directly under the water chute.
"We don't want no trouble, mister," the engineer yelled down from the cab.
"Just wanna know how far to the next town. Not lookin' to cause no trouble."
Brodie no sooner got the words out of his mouth when five riders came thundering up from behind him with their guns a blazing. Several passengers on the train joined the crewmen and returned fire. Brodie suddenly found himself in the crossfire and was forced to shoot his way out.
When the smoke cleared, the robbery attempt only resulted in a lot of dead bodies. All five of the attackers lay on the ground, although two were still moving. The train engineer was dead, as were several of the passengers.
Brodie was somehow unscathed through it all, but was looking at the barrel of a shaking rifle, being aimed right at him by the fireman.
Brodie holstered his gun, put his hands in the air and yelled, "I'm not a part of this. I want no more trouble. And I don't want nothin' you got. Can you get this train to the next town by yourself?"
"Well, I ain't gonna stop ya."
While the train took on water, Brodie collected the guns from the dead men and chased away their horses. He knelt down next to one of the guys who was still breathing.
"Are there more of your gang?"
The guy pulled his handkerchief down from his face, moaned and coughed, and gasped for enough air to say, "Go to hell", before his body gave up.
Brodie turned to the last one alive. That guy grabbed ahold of Brodie's shirt with his bloody hand, and pleaded with Brodie to save him.
"Nope. Sorry, but your time's up buddy, you're gonna die. It's just a matter of now or later."
"Then, please mister, put me out of my miser . . . " He didn't even get to finish his last sentence.
As the train headed out for its next stop, so did Brodie and Big Boy.
* * *
The next town was closer than Brodie anticipated, and he arrived there before dark. After the morning's skirmish with the would-be train robbers, he wasn't feeling like dealing with any more people, so he set up camp just outside of town. He put a pot of coffee on the campfire, and settled on some jerky for his supper, while Big Boy and the pack horse grazed on the plentiful green grass.
The cloudless sky turned into a blanket of blinking stars as the sun disappeared over the hills. Brodie fell fast asleep, only to be awakened hours later by a wet tongue slobbering on his face.
It was daylight already, and peering through his eyelids he could see a little boy with his arm around a big yellow dog.
The boy squatted in front of Brodie and asked, "Hey, mister, are you dead?"
"Well, son, that just might be the question of the day. Are you an angel?"
"No sir. I'm a little boy. And this here's my dog."
"Your dog gotta name, boy?"
"Yes sir. My daddy calls him Dog."
"Can you tell me where I am?"
"In my yard. That's my house over yonder."
"Can you fetch me some grub, boy?"
Once Brodie was upright, he could see the outskirts of the town. He no sooner had his gear packed, and the little boy returned with some biscuits.
"Thank you, boy. Tell me, where's your daddy?"
"He's at workin'," the boy said, staring at Brodie's six-shooters.
"What's your daddy do?"
The boy got real excited and said, "My daddy is real portant. He touches everybody's money."
"He work at a bank?"
"Oh, no. He gots a money store," he said, beaming ear to ear.
"Thanks, boy. I'll see ya around," Brodie said, and headed into town.
Wherever he was, it was about the quietest place he'd ever ridden in to. There wasn't a single horse tied to a hitching post, nor was anybody walking the street.
Brodie tied Big Boy up in front of the saloon. A sign on the door said, 'Closed until noon', then he heard the church bell ring. It dawned on him that it must be Sunday, and everyone was in church. That would explain why he was all alone. He was checking the straps on the pack horse when he heard a door open and men talking. Brodie leaned around the backside of the horse, to see five men coming out of the bank. Four of them had guns and saddle bags, the fifth man had a gun to his head. They all darted down the alleyway between the buildings.
Brodie waited until he could hear the sound of their horses, and ran down the alley. He watched the dust cloud kick up behind them as they rode off. There on the ground was the fifth guy. His head was bleeding pretty bad.
"I'll live. I'm not so sure about the town though. Everybody's money was in that bank. Those thieves got away with all of it."
Brodie curiously looked at the stranger and asked, "You got a little boy and a dog?"
"Yes, but what's that got to do with anything? Are they alright?"
"They are fine. I was just askin'."
Brodie waited for the church services to be over and the saloon to reopen. He settled in for the afternoon to devour a steak dinner and several shots of whiskey. The townspeople were slowly finding out about the robbery and were getting riled up. It was time for Brodie to track down the thieves before any town vigilantes interfered.
About a mile out of town, he located a wooded area where he could hide his pack horse while he trailed the thieves. Their tracks led Brodie down a laneway that was carved out of the heavily treed forest. He traveled cautiously, wishing that he had eyes in the back of his head. Not hearing anything but singing birds, chirping crickets and Big Boy's hooves on the earth, Brodie began to wonder if he was on the right path.
Big Boy raised his head in the air and snorted. The smell of a wood fire permeated the air.
"Well, Big Boy, I didn't know that you were part bloodhound."
Brodie traveled the rest of the way on foot until he reached the cabin. Four horses were tied out front and he didn't notice a single man standing watch. He snuck up to the cabin and peeked in the lone window. All four of the men were sitting around the table.
Forcing his way into the cabin would be a suicide mission, he had to figure out a way to get them outside.
Brodie gathered some dried grass and piled it at the corners of the cabin. He planned to smoke them out. He started a fire, then blew out the flames, in order to let the piles smolder.
The game plan was effective, one by one they ran out coughing from the smoke. Brodie laid on his belly behind a rock and once the last guy was outside, picked each one of them off with his trusty old Winchester.
When nightfall arrived, Brodie packed up all of the saddle bags, and rode back to town and headed to the banker's house. He attempted to put the money on the porch without being noticed, however, Dog had other ideas and announced his arrival. The banker opened the door and greeted Brodie with his .45 in hand.
"I remember you. What are you doing here?" he asked, cocking the hammer.
"Don't shoot. I'm returning your money. Those men won't bother you ever again."
"Who are you, mister?"
"Let's just say I'm a very close friend of Dog, and your boy. Now, if you'll just lower the pistol, I'll be on my way."
Brodie disappeared into the darkness.
* * *
Brodie Raymond stoked the morning fire to heat up some coffee and counted his blessings, wondering at the same time how and why he had been so lucky to stay alive.
In a short few months, he had survived hanging at the end of a noose, he had overpowered several gangs of criminals, racking up more kills than the best buffalo hunters, prevented several robberies, became a blood brother to the Lakota, and put up with all of mother nature's furies. It was time to find somewhere to hibernate.
The nights were getting colder and the leaves were changing to their fall colors. Winter in the Rockies was arriving early, and heading back east didn't seem like a good idea. The Arizona Territory looked like a plausible destination for a few months, but first there was a matter of having the funds wired to him that were promised.
Brodie traveled to the nearest train depot, the last on the line before traversing the Rocky Mountains.
Three days later he got a response to his telegram. It was addressed to Aloisius Turnbull, Jr. and thanked him for his service and enclosed a money order for fifteen dollars.
Brodie stood in disbelief, looked at the clerk and said, "This can't be right. Fifteen dollars? Surely there's been a mistake."
"I'm sorry sir, but I'm just the clerk. I take the messages and pass them on."
"Can I cash this money order here?"
"No, sir. You'll have to take that down to the bank."
Brodie was pissed. He put his life on the line to save their railroad and their banks for a measly fifteen dollars? It was a very good thing that Turnbull and McDaniel weren't standing in front of him, or he'd have two more notches on his gun.
He took a deep breath and said to himself, well, two can play this game, and headed to the bank.
Just as he was about to enter the building, a man came running out with a gun in his hand and a bag thrown over his shoulder. Chasing after him was one of the tellers.
"That son of a bitch just robbed us blind," he yelled, "Stop him."
"You'll never catch him," Brodie yelled. "How much did he get away with?"
"Everything, he cleaned out every till, and the safe."
There was only one thing that Brodie could do. "C'mon, Big Boy, let's ride." And the black steed flew out of town.
As soon as Brodie caught up to the thief, he stopped chasing him and just started to follow behind, waiting to see what his next move was going to be. A couple of miles down the road, and the horse first slowed to a trot, then stopped altogether. The rider turned to look at Brodie and waited for him to ride up alongside of him.
With his gun drawn, he said, "You following me mister?"
Brodie tipped his hat back and nodded his head. "What gave you your first clue?"
"What do you want?"
"Well, you see," Brodie continued, "I got this here cashier's check, and I wanted to cash it at that bank you just thieved from. But it seems as though you took all of their money. I want some of it."
"You want me to cash your check? Are you off your rocker?"
"Oh, no. You see, the guy that owns the bank, well he owes me. So, I want everything that you took."
"I'll shoot you first."
"I don't think so. You see, even sittin' on this here horse, I can draw my gun and shoot you before you can pull your trigger. Now you can go ahead and try me if you want, or you can drop the bag and ride off, and I'll let you stay alive. What's it gonna be?"
"Just who the hell do you think you are anyway?"
"I thought everyone knew me. Allow me to introduce myself, the name is Raymond, Brodie Raymond. And what do they call you?"
The rider looked Brodie over good: black hat, black shirt, black pants, black horse, two fancy guns, scarred face, yup, it could be him.
"I'm Jesse Dalton," he said, and holstered his gun.
"Well, Jesse Dalton, I'll take that bag now."
"My brothers aren't gonna be happy about this."
"You can tell them to look me up anytime. Now, ride on outta here."
Brodie opened the bag and took a quick glance at the loot. Without counting it, it appeared to be an acceptable amount for what he felt was owed to him.
"Well Big Boy, it looks like we've been paid after all. Time to say goodbye to Brodie Raymond, and hello to the new me, Boyd Gallagher."
The wind picked up bringing a chill to the air. Looking up at the darkening clouds, Boyd patted his horse's neck and said, "Big Boy, Arizona is looking better and better. The snows are coming, so we're going." He nudged his spurs into Big Boy and yelled, "Get up there."
Phillip R. Eaton is a graduate of Lockport High School and Niagara County Community College. He began his writing
hobby after retirement and has had two books published: Col. Frank N. Wicker, From Lockport to Alaska and Beyond
and My Civil War Uncles, and issoon to be included in a Frontier Tales Anthology.
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Apprehending Mr. Howard
by Peter Ullian
an Emil Harris short story
Historical note: Emil Harris was a real person, one of the first policemen in frontier Los Angeles in the 1870s, and the only Jew on the force at that time. He later served as a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy, as a U.S Deputy Marshall, and, eventually, as a private detective. Sheriff Miller of Ventura County was also a real person, and Jeff Howard really was an accused murderer with a habit of repeatedly breaking out of Sheriff Miller's jail. Policeman George Gard was also a real person, Harris' former partner on the LAPD. And, finally, the "Calle de Los Negros" was an actual red-light district in frontier Los Angeles.
Despite the factual basis for this story and its setting, creative liberties have been taken.
It was twilight by the time we tied our horses to the post outside the Golden Eagle Saloon beside La Prietita, a brothel, in the infamous Calle de los Negros in Los Angeles, or the Town of Our Lady of the Angels, as the Mexicans called it.
Calle de los Negros is among the most notorious five hundred-yard stretches of city block in the world, rivaled only by San Francisco's Barbary Coast, but perhaps even superior to that legendary stretch of Northern Californian waterfront real estate in its abundance of vice and degradation. In 1877, that was saying quite a lot, because there was no want to vice and degradation in most cities at that time.
The air in the alley smelled of tobacco, tallow, roast beef, and horse manure. The sounds of trumpets, guitars, fiddles, dulcimers, hurdy-gurdys, and zithers wafted with the odors from the rows of shops, opium dens, gambling dens, cat houses, and drinking establishments that lined the street.
There was also a dead horse stuck half in and half out of the street. In Los Angeles, when it rains, the dirt streets transform into a muddy morass, but when the streets dry again, they are as hard as granite. The horse must have expired and sank into the mud, and now was half entombed and half in the open air, immovably decomposing until the next rainstorm. Its fragrance did nothing to improve the atmosphere.
I was, at that time, a deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff, having had a falling out with the chief of my previous employer, the Los Angeles City Police Department. The Chief and I did not see eye-to-eye, so despite having gained a state-wide reputation as the man who captured the infamous bandito, Tiburcio Vásquez, I had found my tenure with the city police no longer bearable.
This was how I was assigned the task of apprehending the outlaw Jeff Howard, who had considerably vexed Sheriff Miller of nearby Ventura County through frequent escapes from his jail. Howard was rumored to be in Calle de los Negros, an area of town with which I had more than a passing familiarity.
I was joined in this endeavor by my wife of six months, Lettie Rosenfeld Harris. Lettie, upon learning that as a woman she could not join any of the government law enforcement agencies, had joined the Pinkertons for a time, but, dissatisfied with their practices, had with a sum procured from her father who had made a fortune in dry goods in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, subsequently established her own detective agency, and proceeded thereafter to accompany me on many of my duties as an unpaid detective consultant.
"Can I convince you to go home and allow me to handle this?" I asked Lettie. Although my wife was brave and capable, I often feared for her safety.
"Mr. Harris," she said, "what a silly question."
When working together in a professional capacity, we always referred to one another as "Mr. Harris" and "Miss Rosenfeld." Only in the intimacy of our private moments was I "Emil" and she "Lettie."
Resigned to my wife's indomitable will, I walked with her into the Golden Eagle Saloon, where we were met by the sound of clinking glasses filled with brandy, rye, and aguardiente. A large roast sat upon the bar, with a huge knife and an even more impressively sized two-pronged fork beside it. Patrons occasionally carved off a piece and ate it with their fingers. The Golden Eagle's customers largely eschewed the stack of small plates on the bar beside the meat.
We sauntered up the bar and ordered two glasses of aguardiente. The barkeep served us, and Lettie wandered to the roast. She picked up the fork and knife and began to carve small pieces, placing them on a ceramic plate.
I turned and looked at the crowd as I sipped my aguardiente.
It was a rough crowd all right, although not a-typical of the crowds who did their drinking in this establishment. A number of them were members of the Sydney Ducks gang, a group of Australians who had once formed a criminal enterprise in San Francisco's Barbary Coast, before they had been driven from town by the US Army almost twenty years ago. They had taken up residence in Los Angeles' Calle de los Negros, where they had resumed their criminal activities with somewhat less scrutiny in our smaller and less cosmopolitan town.
They looked back at me suspiciously. Most knew who I was, both because of my reputation as a lawman and because I had once owned an establishment of my own in the alley, The Wine Room, which I had later moved to Main Street.
I was about to say something to the scrum of faces turned in my direction when I heard a familiar, unpleasant, and unwelcome voice at my side, along with the click of a pistol hammer.
"Emil Harris, as I live and breathe, what are you doing in the Golden Eagle?" said ex-special officer Joseph Dye.
I turned and looked at the disgraced former Los Angeles police officer who had shot dead our previous Marshall, William C. Warren, but who had been acquitted of all charges on the tenuous grounds of self-defense.
His pistol, a Colt Dragoon, lay on the bar, his hand casually wrapped around its grip, his finger gently caressing its trigger, the hammer fully back.
"What are you doing back in Los Angeles?" I asked. "I thought you were in Santa Barbara."
"I missed my old stomping grounds," Dye said.
"You've done quite enough stomping around here for a lifetime, I think," I said.
Dye frowned and twitched his mustache. "State your business, Harris," he said.
"I do not think that I will," I said. "As I do not answer to you."
Dye did not lift the pistol from the bar, but he cut his head towards it. "Don't you, now, you filthy Jew?" he asked, none too politely.
It was true I am a Jew— previously the only Jew in the Los Angeles Police Department, and at that time the only Jew with the Los Angeles County Sheriff. But judging by the condition of the clothes on Dye's back and the condition of those on my own, I was not the one who could rightly be accused of being filthy.
Just then, Lettie brought the two-pronged fork down on the bar, its sharp ends pinning the sleeve cuffs of Dye's jacket to the bar, trapping his gun and gun hand.
I saw Dye's eyes go wide in surprise as he struggled to free himself.
I punched him in the jaw. I felt the power of the blow surge through my fist and into my shoulder, and Dye's head bounced off the bar and he fell unconscious, his arm still attached by the sleeves to the bar.
I picked up the Dragoon from the bar and eased the hammer back into place, the better to avoid any unintended discharge.
A bevy of tough customers was inching towards me with unpleasant countenances. They seemed displeased at the violence I had visited upon Dye, although I considered it proportional to the violence he had implied that he intended to visit upon me.
As the men approached, Lettie spun one of the plates that sat beside the roast through the air, and it shattered into one of the would-be assailants' foreheads. The man, short, bald, and mustachioed, stood for a moment, a look of perplexity upon his face, before collapsing to the floor.
The men looked about, unsure of themselves.
I raised my Deputy Sheriff's badge high in the air. "Gentlemen, I represent the Sheriff of Los Angeles County, the county in which you currently reside, or at any rate, in which you are currently located. I recommend you all take several steps backwards before this situation escalates into further unpleasantries."
This was when "Duckie" Sydney Duckworth, the leader of the remnants of the Barbary Coast's Sydney Ducks, stepped forward.
"G'day, Emil," he said, for I am well-known throughout the Southland.
"Hello, Duckie-Boy," I said, although he was no boy, being at least in his forties by now, if not older. His Australian accent, although diminished, still lingered. He wore a natty vest and bowler over a frayed and stained shirt which I suppose had once been white.
"What can I do ya' for?" he said.
"I am looking for a man by the name of Jeff Howard," I said.
"Jeff Howard?" Duckie Sydney mused. "Well, you won't find him here."
"Do you mean to say he isn't here?" I asked.
"I mean to say you won't find him here," Sydney said.
"It's an enigma," Lettie chimed in. "Mr. Duckie, you are very enigmatic."
Duckie Sydney tipped his bowler to her. "G'day to you, Miss Rosenfeld," he said. "And thank you kindly for the compliment. How are you finding employment with the Pinkertons?"
"I have gone into business for myself, Mr. Duckie," she replied. "I found the Pinkertons objectionable."
"Well, on that we agree, m'lady," he said.
"Please do keep us in mind for your investigative needs," Lettie said. "We are the Rosenfeld Detective Agency. I am the proprietor and sole agent."
"So, you're a small outfit then, are you?" he said.
"The better to serve our clients, I am sure, Mr. Duckie, as we can devote our full resources to their inspective necessities."
"Well, should I ever have any inspective necessities, Miss Rosenfeld, you shall be the first to know."
"That's fine, then," Lettie said. "Now, where can we find Jeff Howard?"
"On that subject I cannot be of service, I am afraid," Sydney said. "In Calle de los Negros, we do not inform."
Lettie raised an eyebrow. "Do you mean you have been paid to not inform?" she asked. "May I ask by whom?"
"You may ask, Miss Rosenfeld," Duckie Sydney said. "But I will not answer."
At this point, Dye shook himself awake and got to his feet. He angrily pulled the two-pronged meat fork from the bar, freeing himself, and proceeded to swing at me with the prongs pointed in my direction.
I deflected the blow with my forearm and landed a roundhouse upon Dye's jaw, which sent him over the bar. He disappeared behind and did not rise.
This was enough, however, to provoke the crowd.
A large man, bald on top and upon his chin, but bushy in eyebrow, mustache, and mutton-chop, came at me, his gap-toothed mouth snarling. Although I am six feet tall and well-muscled, he was of a different class entirely. His biceps bulged inside his shirt, and his chest strained against his suspenders.
Despite my disadvantage in size, I retained advantage in alacrity. When he neared, I dodged to one side and drove my elbow into the back of his neck, driving his head into the bar with considerable force. His face bounced once off the bar top. He spun around, blood pouring from his nose, his eyes glassy. I struck him once more across his bald crown with Dye's Dragoon, and he crumpled into a heap upon the floor.
Lettie kept up a fusillade of crockery against the ruffian charge. Her aim was unerringly accurate, each plate spinning with precision and considerable force and striking its target right between the eyes, faithfully bringing the ruffian down.
Another man was upon me then, a tall specimen of Western manhood, his cheekbones chiseled into sharp edges with which one could cut leather, his unshaven and strong jaw jutting beneath thin, pursed lips, dark eyes flashing hatred below unkempt, unwashed, darker hair. His arms swung in a wide arc, the hand curled into a fist at the end of it aiming with remarkable accuracy for my temple.
I dropped to the floor and drove my boot into my assailant's testicles. My aim was true and as the man doubled over, I grabbed him by the shirt collar and drove his head into a barstool. The barstool came apart in splinters, and the man collapsed upon it, where he lay still.
I leap to my feet in time to see Duckie Sydney raise a Navy Colt in the air and fire into the ceiling, which caught everyone's attention and promptly put an end to the onslaught.
Then, to my dismay, he brought the barrel of the pistol down in my direction as he thumbed back the hammer.
Returning the favor, I drew the Army Colt from my shoulder harness and pointed it back at him as I likewise thumbed back the hammer.
Lettie, I could see from the corner of my eye, had abandoned spinning crockery as her weapon of choice and had drawn both of her Frontier Bulldog snub-nosed revolvers, one aimed at Duckie Sidney to dissuade him from pulling the trigger whilst his pistol remained pointed in my direction, and the other aimed at the crowd to persuade them to discontinue their assault upon our persons.
We stood there for a moment, suspended, each of us a hairsbreadth away from killing one another and likely being killed in kind, when the doors to the cantina swung open and George Gard, my former partner in the Los Angeles Police Department, stood there with his jacket pulled back to reveal his badge upon his vest, flanked by four gendarmes in uniform, two on each side, all of them with their hands upon the handles of their revolvers.
"What's all this then?" George demanded.
"Hello, George," I said, without lowering my pistol.
"Why, hello, Emil," George said. "What brings you back to our old stomping grounds?"
"I am here on an investigative matter," I said.
"Is that so?" George said. He surveyed the scene, broken crockery and fallen men both littering the floor. He looked at Lettie and tipped his hat, a derby like the one I wore; indeed, like those we had both taken to wearing when first we were promoted to detective. "Evening, Mrs. Harris," he said.
"George," Lettie said, without taking her eyes or her aim off neither Duckie Sydney nor the crowd that faced her. "What a delight it is to see you."
George turned his attention to Duckie Sidney. "Duckworth, what's the trouble then?"
"No trouble, Detective," Duckie said.
"Then why all the gunplay and broken crockery?" George asked. "To say nothing of the men lying about with bloodied noses, blackened eyes, and swollen lips?"
"Just a little Saturday brawling, Detective," Duckie said.
"But it's Wednesday," George remarked.
"Every day is Saturday in Calle de los Negros, Detective," Duckie said.
George grunted and opened the other half of his jacket to reveal a shoulder harness that holstered his Remington .44. "Do you want to lower your weapon, Duckie, or do you want me to pull my pistol from its harness and see how big a hole it makes in your carcass?"
Duckie Sydney spat on the floor in response, but he thumbed back the hammer of his weapon and put his pistol in his belt.
I returned the gesture and holstered my pistol, as did Lettie with her Frontier Bulldogs.
"Now, Duckie-Boy," George said. "Why can't Emil here go about his investigations without all this hullabaloo and calamity?"
"No reason I can think of," Duckie said.
"That's fine then," George said. "Attend to your wounded, Duckie." He turned to me. "Emil and Mrs. Harris, would you join me outside in the moonlight for a chat?"
At this moment, Dye rose again, this time from behind the bar and armed with a double-barreled shotgun.
"I'll teach you to knock me senseless, you malignant malefactor!" Dye shouted.
I gripped the barrels of the shotgun and forced it upwards. Dye blasted both barrels into the ceiling.
The blast had heated the metal of the barrels and scorched my hand. I wrenched the now empty weapon from Dye's grip.
"You don't need to teach me to knock you senseless, Joseph," I said. "I already know how."
I smacked Dye smartly in the face with the butt of the shotgun, and he dropped again to the floor like a sack of grain.
After a pause, Lettie said, "I think a spot of fresh air would be most welcome right about now, George, thank you for the suggestion."
* * *
Of course, there is no fresh air in Calle de los Negros, not even outdoors. The atmosphere reeked of everything that it had when we arrived, in addition to the rapidly ripening horseflesh half-entombed in the street.
"Aren't you in charge of removing dead horses, George?" I asked.
"Damnit, Emil, why are you always making trouble wherever you go?" George complained as he lit a cigar and offered one to me. I accepted, then cut my head towards Lettie, who stood impatiently, waiting to be offered one as well.
George offered, and she accepted. George lit a match and we each put the ends of our cigars to the flame at once and puffed, our cigars glowing to life.
"I don't cause trouble George," I said. "I investigate it."
"Well, I can't have any of that Jeff Howard business around here," he said. He acknowledged my surprise and went on. "Sheriff Miller telegraphed Sheriff Rowland and City Marshal King. Sheriff Rowland's on your side, but King doesn't want any investigation in his jurisdiction, which is the city of Los Angeles, which is where you are, now."
"But we believe the fugitive is hiding out in Calle de Los Negros," I said.
"You'll have to wait for him to leave the city, then," George said.
"Why doesn't the Marshall want Howard apprehended?" Lettie asked, sharply. "Howard is accused of most flagrantly murderous endeavors."
George shrugged. "If I knew half of why folks did what they do, I'd be a hell of a wiser man. Heed me on this, Emil. If I must come back again because of this thing, I won't be the only one unhappy about it. Mrs. Harris, it's been a pleasure to see you again. Take care of your husband for me, will you?"
Lettie promised she would, and George tipped his derby again and walked off with his troops in tow.
"Well," Lettie said. "I hadn't expected the Los Angeles police to be against us in this investigation. It certainly does raise some questions."
It certainly did, I thought. It raised the question of how much bribery was required to purchase City Marshal King.
Lettie took my right hand in hers. "Oh, Emil," she said. "Look at your poor knuckles."
My knuckles were indeed raw and bloody and swollen from all the hardened heads I had been forced to drive them into. Lettie brought my hand to her lips and gently kissed it, sending a tingle of lightning through my body, for I am helpless to resist my wife's kisses.
Then Lettie took a flask from her saddle bag, uncorked it, and poured whiskey on my hand.
I grimaced in pain.
She took my other hand and did the same. I grunted in discomfort.
"That should help," she said.
Then she looked thoughtfully at La Prietita, the brothel, next door.
"Are you thinking what I am thinking?" she said.
I looked at La Prietita. "That depends on what you are thinking," I said.
"If you are thinking you should find a way into the La Prietita to talk to Sadie Margolis, then you and I are very much in agreement," she said.
* * *
Most women would object if their husband snuck into a brothel and spoke to a Sporting Lady who knows him by his given name. But Lettie Rosenfeld Harris is not most women.
The entrance to La Prietita was guarded by two conspicuously large men I recognized as off-duty Los Angeles policemen. Rather than risk another potentially escalatory confrontation, we decided the stealthy approach represented the best option.
Although generally, Lettie hates to be left out of the action, in this case she agreed to distract the guards at the door while I attempted to enter the adobe through the rooftop.
La Prietita was a two-story adobe sandwiched between a row of one and two storied buildings along Calle de Los Negros, with no space between them. This required me to climb to a one-storied roof, make my way along several more, and then climb up to the second story of La Prietita, and attempt to gain entrance from there.
I climbed atop a barrel next to the building at the end of the street, which allowed me to grip the edge of the roof of the first building on the block. With some effort, I hoisted myself high enough that I could swing my leg and secure a foot upon the roof's edge, thereby allowing me to drag the rest of myself to the roof. There, I crouched to reduce the chances of being seen and crept along from building to building until I reached the two story La Prietita.
Along the second floor of La Prietita there was a balcony, so I swung from the adjacent roof of the building upon which I stood and gently lowered myself to the balcony's floor.
I crept along the balcony, peeking through the windows, searching for Sadie Margolis. I encountered many a salacious sight along the way of Sporting Ladies and their customers clutched in carnal embraces, but none of the women were Sadie, and none of the men were Jeff Howard.
Finally, I peeked in a window and spied Sadie Margolis, lying luxuriously upon her bed clothed in only her natural splendor, while a gambler I knew as Harvey Rappaport pulled on his boots, left cash on the dresser, and bid his adieu.
Upon Rappaport's exit, I rapped gently upon the window.
Sadie looked up with a curious expression upon her face. Recognizing me, she rose from the bed and, without bothering to cover her nakedness, came to the window and opened the French doors to the room.
"Emil, you silly boy," she said, in Yiddish, our common tongue, "why don't you use the front door like everyone else?"
"I couldn't wait to see you, and the men at the door looked like such a bother to get past," I said, also in Yiddish.
"Come in, come in, Emil," she said, taking me by the arm and leading me to her bed, sitting me down as she went to a small table and poured two glasses of whiskey from an open bottle. She returned to me and handed me one of the glasses. "L'chaim," she said, and gulped down her drink.
I did likewise.
Smiling, Sadie took the glasses and returned to the table, to fill them up once more.
I will confess that Sadie's nakedness made me uncomfortable, as it always did. By now, however, I was quite used to it, as she was not one to hide her nakedness if it did not suit her. We did a fair amount of business together, as she was one of my most reliable informants, and, I had discovered, it rarely suited her.
"Have you arrived at last to sample my services, you handsome boy, after all this time?" she asked.
Indeed, while I had visited Sadie many times for the information she readily provided, I had never visited her for the carnal pleasures she promised, although she had often offered them to me free of charge. Nevertheless, I felt it would be improper for me to partake in Sadie's fleshly gratifications, as a sworn officer of the law. Even though prostitution was, at this time, perfectly legal in Los Angeles County, it nevertheless struck me as a dicey proposition to take Sadie up on her offers.
And, of course, now that I was happily married to Lettie, who satisfied all my wants and more, the matter was entirely out of the question.
"I'm hoping you can provision me with some information, Sadie," I said.
Sadie sighed as she returned with the glasses. She handed me one, then sat beside me. Rather than gulp it, this time she sipped the whiskey, as did I.
"Again, with the information, Emil," she said. "A girl would think you didn't like her."
"I like you very much," I confessed. "But duty calls."
"And the wife beckons, does she?" Sadie said.
"You should meet Lettie," I said. "I think the two of you would get along famously."
"She wouldn't be scandalized by a woman such as me?" Sadie asked.
"Lettie is not easily scandalized," I said. "And she also speaks Yiddish."
"Well, what can I do ya' for, Emil?" Sadie asked.
"I am seeking a man who goes by the name of Jeff Howard," I said.
"Ah," Sadie remarked, "you are helping Sheriff Miller of Ventura County who cannot keep Howard locked in his jail, despite the fact that Howard is accused of murder and of absconding with a significant sum from a cattle rancher's payroll, which has yet to be recovered."
"I am," I admitted. "And I suspect the money from that payroll has been used to hire protection from the Sydney Ducks and to pay off City Marshal King to look the other way."
"Correct on both counts," Sadie said. "However, he hasn't used any of those ill-gotten gains to line my pockets, even if I'm not wearing any, so I have no compunction in telling you that Howard is just down the hall, since you asked." Sadie sipped her whiskey and pointed towards what I assumed was Howard's current location.
"Is he now?" I replied. "Just down the hall?"
"With a young Sporting Lady named Miranda Vega, a Sonoran of not inconsiderable beauty."
I'd had cause to meet Miranda Vega a time or two in my duties as both a policeman and subsequently as deputy sheriff, and I concurred with Sadie's description.
"But she cannot compare to you, Sadie," I said.
Sadie chuckled. "You're too kind, Emil," she said. She raised three fingers. "Three doors down," she said. "On the right."
I reached for my billfold.
"Don't insult me now," she said. "Your coin is no good here, Emil, as you well know."
"Will you accept my gratitude, then?" I asked.
Sadie smiled and put her mouth to mine and kissed me.
"I'll accept your sweet kisses," she said, "even if you remain stingy with the rest of you. Be off with you now. I have customers lined up downstairs to see me, and someone's got to line my invisible pockets, if Howard won't."
I finished my drink, tipped my hat, and slipped out into the hallway.
I counted doors, and listened outside the third, as I unholstered my Colt and thumbed back the hammer.
I heard only silence from within, so I assumed Howard and Miranda had completed their business. Although I regretted having to enter the room abruptly, I saw no other way.
And so, I stepped back and kicked the door open.
It swung wide and I stepped in. Miranda and Howard lay naked and entwined in post-coital bliss, which I had just rudely interrupted. They both sat up in shock and surprise.
Miranda Vega remained, indeed, a beautiful young Sonoran woman. Howard was somewhat less beautiful, but only somewhat less young.
Miranda's look of shock faded into recognition. "Detective Harris," she said. "Sadie is down the hall."
"Thank you for your assistance, Miss Vega," I said. "But I am not here for Sadie. I am here for Jeff Howard."
No sooner had I said this than Howard threw a bottle of mescal at me and leapt out of bed, making a dash for the door to the balcony.
I dodged out of the way of the flying bottle, but the liquid splashed my face as the bottle smashed. Mescal stung my eyes, although, fortunately, not shards of glass.
Through the one eye I managed to keep open, I aimed with my Colt at Howard's bare-assed figure as he reached the door.
But I could not bring myself to shoot down an unarmed and naked man. Howard escaped through the door, and I gave chase, wiping mescal from my eyes.
By the time I made it to the balcony, I could just see Howard's lower half dangling as he hoisted himself to the roof.
I rushed to him but failed to get a grip upon his legs in time. He swung them out of my reach and dragged himself to the roof. I nearly went over the balcony as my arms grappled with thin air. As Howard got to his feet upon the roof, I recovered my balance, grabbed the lip of the balcony's roof, hoisted myself upwards, and followed.
Howard was already well down the row of buildings, his pale body illuminated by moonlight. I took off in a sprint to try to catch him.
I reached the end of the two-story adobe's roof and leapt to the roof of the one-story next to it. I crouched when I landed, sprang to my feet, and resumed my chase.
Howard had just reached the end of the row of buildings and paused as he searched for a way to safely descend to street level.
I was gaining on him.
I saw Howard bend at the knees, presumably to make a leap off the roof, when suddenly, scrambling up to the roof beside him, there was Lettie, who got to her feet and charged at him.
Howard did not even see her before she tackled him around the waist and the two of them rolled and tumbled to the edge of the roof and then off of it.
Alarmed, I ran yet faster to the end of the row of buildings until at length I stopped and looked down at the street below.
Lettie sat atop Howard, who lay upon his stomach. She straddled him, pinning him down, gripping his hair in her hand. Howard, evidently knocked senseless by the fall, offered no resistance.
Lettie looked up at me. "Hello, Mr. Harris," she said. "I believe we have apprehended Mr. Howard."
I looked down at her.
"I believe, Miss Rosenfeld," I said. "That in this matter, as in most, you are quite correct."
Lettie beamed at me, which made my heart swoon. I took the handcuffs from my belt and threw them down for her. She took them and shackled Howard's wrists behind his back.
I climbed down to her, and together we hoisted Howard to his feet, where he wobbled, still senseless from the fall.
"Mr. Howard, I am Detective Rosenfeld and this is Deputy Sheriff Harris," Lettie informed him. "We will return you to Ventura County now."
"I just came from there," he protested.
"Yes," Lettie said. "That was contrary to plan."
"I'll just escape again," he muttered.
"Perhaps," she said. "Or perhaps they will hang you this time before you get a chance."
I saw a concerned expression cross Jeff Howard's face.
Lettie evidently noticed his expression as well. "It is often a mystery to me, Mr. Harris, how so many miscreants appear surprised when confronted with the proscribed punishment meted out for their crimes," she said. "They should do a more thorough job of investigating the legal consequences of their crimes before committing them, I think."
I smiled. Lettie Rosenfeld Harris had yet to fail to fill me with wonder at her boldness, intelligence, and courage.
I found myself eagerly awaiting the moment we could once again be alone together, and I could hear her call me "Emil."
Peter Ullian's post-apocalypse, post-pandemic, near future neo-Western, The Last Electric House, is published by Swamp Angel Press. His short fiction has appeared in Cemetery Dance Magazine, Hardboiled Magazine, Frontier Tales Magazine, the anthology Crimeutopia: Say What Now? from British publisher Murderous Ink Press, and the DAW Books Anthology Star Colonies. He was the 2019-2020 Poet Laureate of Beacon, New York. His poetry has been published in anthologies and periodicals and nominated for the Rhysling Award and the Pushcart Prize. His plays have been produced off-Broadway, regionally, and internationally. His books can be found on his Amazon Author's Page ( https://rb.gy/oivt8z).
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Lost and Found Henry
by Geordan Melton
The sounds of the piano filled the tavern, as patrons played cards, told wild tales of the west, and cussed back and forth about rain and when they were going to see any. Days were long and hot, and it drove people to do whatever they could to try and make money, without relying on the ground to give way to a bountiful harvest.
Henry was a Cherokee man, and said he could find whatever it is you lost, no matter how far or hidden it was. This helped him carve out a meager living for him, his wife, and their little girl. The pay wasn't much to brag about, but food was always on the table, and they never went without, which is all a man can ask for.
Henry entered the bar at sunset, and placed a wand made of willow on the counter.
The bartender, Sal, pointed up to a sign that hung over the bottles, which stated No Magic Items. "Now Henry, you know the rules."
Henry waved off the accusation. "I know, I know. That's why I am hoping you will hold it for me. I'm not trying to ride all the way home to then ride back here."
Sal huffed, but carefully put the powerful twig behind the counter. "Fine, just this once. Don't forget it next time."
Today was not Henry's day. Exhausted and angry, he continued to pity himself in new and inventive ways as he sat, bent over the bar, and washing his woes away with whiskey. The crowd had started to dwindle, to the point where the only people left was a table of old timers playing poker, the bartender, and Henry.
"Rough day? By now you're usually home with the family." Sal said to Henry, while he was starting the evening cleanup of dishes.
"Rough couple of days, old man." Henry grumbled over the top of his glass, angrily staring at himself in the mirror.
Sal chuckled, then sighed. "Well, it can be like that at times, can't it? Just had a group of men in here raising Cain about a well they just dug. As soon as they had got 'er done, dug the hole and 'erthang, the guy who hired them refused to pay."
"What for?" Henry grunted in response.
"Man said they dug 'er in the wrong spot! They were ten feet off from where it was supposed to be!" He let out a string of hearty laughs before returning to the glass he was cleaning out.
"Well," Henry began, and finally sat up and looked Sal in the eye, "could be worse, you know."
"How's that? You got something that can top digging ten feet and putting in stone for nothing?" Sal moved so that he could continue his cleaning in front of Henry.
Henry smirked in a crooked way. "Yes, I am positive." He let out a deep breath as he said the words.
Sal took the glass and set it down, then leaned forward on the bar with the towel still in hand. "Alright, out with it then, what happened this time? Lost item turned out to be in a flyin rattle-serpent pit?"
He downed the last part of the whiskey in front of him. "No, worse."
"A couple days ago, I was sitting at the table with my wife and daughter, when a knock interrupted us. I got up, and found a well-dressed man standing there, looking quite confused. He had these blazing green eyes, and was dressed in a nice suit. I didn't recognize him from town, and figured he got lost trying to leave.
"'Is this the house of Lost and Found Henry?' He sounded quite shaken, and kept looking around as if someone was watching.
"'That's me.' He proceeded to unload a tale of sorts. He told me that in an old house, right down the road from where we were currently living, he had lost something around the time the prior residents had "expired." Told me that it was a pearl necklace, and he suspected that in the five years that had passed, he knew it had to be in that house to this very day.
"'Well sounds good enough, if you are so sure it is in that house, then why do you not want to go get it?' I asked the man, a little annoyed at the lateness of his request.
"He seemed to get even more nervous after hearing that, saying 'No no no, I couldn't possible do that. It took me the five years since I lost the necklace to even work up the courage to come this close to it. No there just isn't any way I could step a foot on that property, much less the house itself.'
"'Look, I just don't know if this is worth the time—'
"'Sir, I'll pay you fifty dollars just to retrieve a piece of jewelry where you already know the whereabouts.'
"I had to fight back a cough from choking on the surprise of being told he would give me that amount of money just to go into some old spooky house and grab a necklace. When I had finally gotten over the initial excitement, we started to shake hands. When he was walking away, I started to get suspicious.
"'Now that I have agreed to this little adventure, what's the catch?'
"He spun around as if he heard a gunshot. 'I beg your pardon?'
"'What's the catch?' I said again and gave him a hard stare into his eyes. 'We've already said that you know exactly where this item is, and you're willing to pay a large sum of money for said item. So, what is in that house that keeps you from grabbing it yourself?'
"He swallowed and looked up the road towards the house, before finally letting out a deep sigh, as if he finally was going to get something off his chest. 'Well, if you must know, I knew the people living in that home prior to them passing on. In fact, I used to be in love with one of the girls that lived there, back when I was but a boy. That in itself isn't the issue.' His eyes were wide and wild like some sort of scared creature. 'The problem is I did try to go there, this morning in fact, and I could have sworn I saw someone walking about on the second floor. I believe it was her.'
"With that, he left without another word, and said I had until tomorrow night to find him in town, with the necklace in hand, before he would be off again. I took a second to think about it and figured regardless of whatever restless spirits may inhabit the place, the pay was too good to pass up.
"I decided I would wait until the morning, since this wouldn't be the first time I had to tussle with something long dead deciding it wanted the thing I was after. So, I went back to the table, finished up my supper, kissed my girl goodnight, and went to bed without telling my wife what the man had offered. I didn't want to get her hopes up, since I knew something was bound to happen.
"I woke up, got dressed, and took everything I thought I might need in case of a ghost popping up and throwing chairs and that sort of nonsense, such as the cross I always wore, next to my birth amulet, a pouch of salt, I was told worked to dismiss spirits by our local pastor, and my wand. I didn't know the people that lived in that house and hadn't lived in our home long enough to get really acquainted with anyone that didn't still live nearby.
"As I walked up the road, I kept checking my compass that allows me to know the direction of any item in question, as long as I focused and didn't let the thought of where I actually wanted to be get in the way. As far as I knew, I was headed in the right direction, and after about ten miles, I came up to the house. Right away I could understand the stranger's hesitation to even look in the direction of the old house.
"It had Honeysuckle vines crawling all over it, and as I walked up the steps, the creaking of the wood gave me the impression that any second it was going to come down around me. The house itself was boarded shut, and from what I could see it was dark inside. I knocked before entering the door, announcing my intrusion, as I pushed past and into the darkness that laid within. I pulled out my wand and let the tip glow with a white flame to try and get a better look. It took me a second to see clearly, but the inside looked as if the house was just lived in, with coats still hanging on a rack, and the table in the dining room still set as if dinner was about to be ready.
"To make sure I was safe, I went around the entire downstairs area and started to open all the curtains, to let in the sunshine. That was about the time I saw a family portrait that hung over a fireplace that was covered in mold and debris that came from the years of abandonment.
"In it were two older girls, about in their marrying years, a mother and a father, and the older of the two was wearing a pearl necklace. I broke away my gaze, and looked down at my compass. It was starting to spin like a twister, and after a quick search of the room I was in, I decided it must have been in the room above.
"I hesitated, first realizing the eyes on the portrait seemed to follow me, and if that wasn't enough, I started to hear soft footsteps above. I figured the man had found a spine somewhere in his body and got the gumption to come get what he lost so he wouldn't have to pay me. At least, that is what I had hoped, and what gave me the courage to get up the steps of this large plantation house and go straight for the room I thought must hold the necklace.
"Everything creaked, and as I got up the stairs, I started to hear the sounds of someone crying. I once again pretended maybe it was the man, but sadly I knew that was a lie since I have never in my years heard a man cry like that. I should know, I come to the saloon once every couple of weeks.
"I worked my way to the door, and the crying only got louder, and I finally got the nerve to take one of my shaky hands and turn the handle to the door. I expected to be brought face to face with some nightmare, but as I swung the door open, the crying stopped. I was alone with the sound of my heart trying to break its way out of my rib cage.
"I didn't know if I was relieved to be alone, or if that made it worse, and I dug my hands around the wooden cross on my neck, cussed a few times, then rushed inside the room to get what I needed and get out before something else happened. I had made it this far, the last thing I needed was to put myself through all this and get yellow-bellied at the last moment. It might have not been what I wanted to do, but that big dollar sign loomed over my head and made it a little easier to open each and every drawer until I was alone, in a dead girls room, with no necklace in my hand.
"I took a deep breath, pulled the compass out again, and found that the needle had stopped spinning, and was pointed directly behind me. I counted to three, and turned around as fast as I could, hoping I'd be alone, and wouldn't you know it? I was. I let out a breath of relief, and immediately regretted it.
"The door swung shut, the curtains suddenly closed, and every single drawer had slammed shut. By the time I had turned almost all the way around, there was a small woman, standing just inches from my face. I'll tell you right now, she did not look happy.
"I stared at her for a few seconds, and when the fear had started to replace itself with awkwardness, since when I say she was only a few inches away, what I mean is I am sure she could smell the eggs I had for breakfast. She slowly started to lift up her hand. In it, was a pearl necklace.
"'So, finally coming back for what you left behind?' Her voice was cold, and angry. I had one hand on my cross and another hand on the salt in my pocket, waiting for the right moment.
"I swallowed back a yell and spoke. 'Well, y-you see ma'am. With all due respect, I was just sent here to—' I was cut off but the door slamming open, and her turning around in surprise as another, just as terrifying, woman stood in the doorway. I raised my hand with the salt in it and threw it through the two ghosts. They shrieked as they vanished, and suddenly the necklace hit the ground. I scooped it up, and ran down the stairs, preparing my wand for anything that might be coming after me. As I made it to the front door, I could hear the two talking, and for some reason, I felt the need to stop.
"Both the specters suddenly appeared before me, drifting from the ceiling into the foyer where I was now shaking from courage. Something wasn't right here, and I needed to understand something before I left. It didn't help that the front door was slammed shut, and I couldn't think up any spell that would fix such a problem.
"'Phoebe, what have I told you about scaring the ever-living daylights out of people who show up here? This is why we never get any company.' She spoke and crossed herself as if she was just merely annoyed with the whole ordeal.
""But Laura! This man just walks into my room, without asking mind you, and starts going though my stuff like he owns the damned place!' she screamed. I raised my wand in defense, casting the ghosts in a bright white glow. Nothing happened this time, and they continued as such.
"'First off, language. Second off, it has been five years since the two of us were supposed to move on and be dead.' The one I now knew as Laura moved her hands to her hips and started tapping her foot. 'For all we know, he does own the place!'
"I worked up the courage to speak. 'Ahem, um, no ma'am, I'm here just to retrieve something lost. Sorry if I've caused an inconvenience on y'alls afterlife plans.'
"Laura looked at me quizzically. 'Really now, and what would it be that someone lost here? Last time someone came snooping around that hadn't dropped anything before Phoebe once again lost her temper and scared them off.'
"'That wasn't my fault! He was snooping around trying to see if ma and pa left anything worth selling! He might as well had dug up their graves as well!' Phoebe pouted and crossed her arms, the necklace dangling from her hand.
"I held up my hand, letting the pearls dangle. 'This, ma'am. That necklace is what I was sent for.' Phoebe gasped and immediately snatched the necklace from me. She then put her hands behind her back, trying to hide it.
"Now Laura looked upset, and her hair started to float wildly around her head. 'What necklace? Phoebe, what are you hiding behind your back?'
"'Oh, um, nothing dear sister. Why would I be hiding anything from you?' She shot me a dirty look that went through me.
"'I can see through you, and if you've got what I think you've got in your hand, I'm going to kill you.' Laura paused and thought for a second. 'What I mean is, I'm going to kill you for good.' She put her hand out, palm up, waiting for her sister to give her what she had found.
"'But, but, Laura . . . '
"'Now, Pheobe!' She screamed and it looked as if her jaw came unclenched as the hair on her head went wild as if a tornado just blew through.
"I had completely forgot about the salt at this time and raised my arms in defense in case she was going to come after me next. Phoebe let her head droop and started crying tears that disappeared before they hit the floor. Laura grabbed the necklace from Phoebe, and she kept crying without looking her in the face.
"'Five years, Phoebe. Five, long, miserable, years I've looked for this necklace! You know what it meant to me!' I started to feel bad for poor Phoebe as she started to sob.
"'I know you have, but . . . but I couldn't let you go! After you died, I blamed myself for you tripping the way you did and hitting your head on that rock. It was all my fault! We never should have argued over that stupid boy.' She kept sobbing.
"Laura calmed down, her hair at a mere flutter. 'I told you on my death bed, it wasn't your fault. That stupid boy was my fiancé, and this was the only thing he could afford to get me back then.' She shook her head. 'It wasn't right of you to take it, whether I was dead or not.'
"Phoebe started to cry even louder. 'I didn't take it Laura! It was just here when I came back and found my own body. I swear!'
"About that time is when I noticed there were some spots on her neck that were darker than the rest of the throat. 'Wait, then, you were killed, with that necklace?' I asked out of turn.
"'Yes, you stupid man.' Phoebe said to me under her tears. 'And now that you found it, you're going to make Laura go away, and I'll never find out who killed me. Laura will move on, and I'll be stuck here forever!'
"'Wait, wait just one second. You really thought I would leave you?' Laura floated over to Phoebe. 'I would never leave you all alone like this Phoebe.' She held her sister.
"'Great, now we are both stuck here it seems then.' She giggled then sniffled a little bit, trying to hold back some fluids that weren't even there.
"Laura smiled at her, then furrowed her brow. 'Wait, how did you know the necklace was here? If you were sent here to get the necklace, someone had to know it was here.'
"'Look, I was just sent to find the thing. If you want to talk to anyone, talk to the person who sent me.' The fear had left me and now I was left with a question of my own. I turned towards Phoebe. 'How did you not see the man who killed you?'
"'It wasn't as if he announced himself. I put on the necklace and was looking at myself in the mirror when suddenly I was attacked from behind.' Phoebe had now pulled herself from Laura. 'When I came back and found my body, whoever it was, was already gone!'
"'Wouldn't the man who sent me know who killed you?' I asked, acting as if I was a sheriff with the questions that were swimming around my head.
"Laura now interjected. 'Well, what did he look like? I think we just might need to have a chat with that man.' Phoebe and Laura now both looked at me, a fury in their eyes.
"I told them the look of the man. His squirrelish features, and the nervous demeanor he had. They couldn't believe it, and then I knew I had gone too far.
"'Oh, and he had wild green eyes, like an emerald. He told me to meet him back at the inn when I got the necklace.' They both screamed in anger, since it seemed they both knew the man. Laura was saying things like 'I had loved him!' and 'How could he?!' before they both took off through the ceiling, and I looked out the window to see them headed towards town.
"I looked back, dropped the salt on the ground, and thought I had come for nothing when I realized they had left behind the pearl necklace. I picked it up, and left the house, hoping the man was still alive."
Sal leaned back and thought for a long second. "And?"
Henry looked at him and raised his eyebrows. "And what?"
"Did you get paid?"
Henry slugged down another glass of whiskey and made a face. "Ugh, what do you think? I went to find him, and when I asked the inn keeper where he was, he said he ran screaming from his room. Took a little bit of time, but I eventually figured out he ran all the way to the Sheriff and gave a full confession. Said that he found Phoebe with the necklace around her neck and couldn't help himself. In his rage, he killed her, and forgot to take the necklace as he fled." Henry shook his head and pushed his glass back out, signaling for another round.
Sal obliged him and gave him another round of whiskey before Henry downed it again.
"Crazy, and to think he got away with it for all these years. That's at least got to count for something, don't it?" Sal asked Henry.
"Yeah. To answer your question, no, he didn't pay me. He was in such a state in his cell, it was like he was in his own little world. Kept rocking back and forth with his knees tucked up, saying 'sorry' a bunch of times. Couldn't bring myself to even ask." He wiped his face from forehead to chin and back again.
"Well, that is a crazy story, but were closing up now." Sal grabbed his glass and set it behind the counter. "You gonna pay, or am I putting it on a tab?"
"I don't know old timer." Henry reached in his pocket and put something on the counter. "Do you take pearls?"
Geordan Melton is a former Marine who now goes to Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. After
returning home from service, he decided to pursue a degree in Creative Writing, with the hopes of becoming an
editor and entering the publishing industry.
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The Ex in Texas
by Arón Reinhold
His blood sounded like disturbed earth pushed aside by a steely plow. He hung upside-down in a barn with his hat resting in sour hay while waves of brutal feeling pulsated throughout him. His forehead swelled with the memory of the night. He panicked, then felt his knife in his worn jeans and relaxed. He cut himself down, falling limp atop the last straw. He stood, knowing he would leave right then and there, no matter his work-worn exhaustion. He would abscond from Emma.
She reconnoitered him from his family's rundown Lubbock ranch, long before James Smith knew she existed. At the time he thought only of getting past the season, of the clouds and the one luxury in his life, books, but nothing of that affluent daughter of the Allens. She stalked him, then staked him, and that was that, for a time. He had little other choice in such a small community, until that day when he spurred her to string him up. James had done the decent thing, so he could not comprehend what would follow.
Emma's family had come from cotton, but they lost the reins after the Civil War. They left Houston and carved out an enormous ranch, bringing former slaves with them. But their labor was still marked with the brand, even if only herds bore the lettering. So, Emma was wood and iron, and she cast hot coals at the help. That sorry day, she had blasted Grace for drawing a tepid bath. Grace, a brilliant girl, fired back like a rhetorical gatling. Emma chased her screaming down the stairs with a fire poker, half-dressed, and cackling. James arrived early, well before the time of the cordial invitation, for which the preparatory bath had been drawn, but just in time to put a noose around his own neck. Grace blew past him out into the grass, and he turned to see his flame, vibrant and uncontrolled. He reached his hand into the air and caught the flying metal sent hurtling at Grace, then tried to calm Emma. She writhed like a snake in his arms. Then she went limp, fell back into his embrace and stared at him. As he stuttered, she smiled with hellfire on her lips.
"Oh, James, I'm dreadful sorry you had to see me in such a state."
"It's okay, Emma, I just don't know why you treat them that way."
"Never mind that, dearest. I really must finish my bath. Then won't you take me out on a hayride?"
He reared back as if she had hissed. "What do you mean? It's getting close to sundown. We can't—"
"We can't what?"
"Well, uh, y'know."
"But why can't we?"
"Because . . . um . . . "
"Why don't we?"
"Please, James, please!"
"Okay, fine. I'll, uh, get the wagon loaded. You sure your daddy won't—"
Then Emma kissed him on the cheek and strutted bare up the stairs. He went out and faced the red sun, thinking of the night. He struggled to gather the horses, who walked sideways from him, but succeeded by the time Emma said go.
The trip out was full of bumps and tension. James raced like the wheels. Then she told him to stop and laid flat in the back. He hovered over her, looking into her intense eyes, even as the world whirled and he was now on his back. She had her hands on his throat.
"You ever tell me what to do again and I'll tell my daddy your plans for me this night."
"I didn't do—"
"Then why'd you take me out in a wagon under obscurity?"
"What the hell, Emma?"
"You're mine for the rest of your miserable life, so shut your fucking mouth, James."
"I mean it. Did you know one of our slaves is buried out back? I killed him. And I'll kill you, too, if you don't shut the fuck up."
"E—" She kissed him to close his lips, then knocked him dark with the fire poker. She drove the wagon back to the house, levered him to the ground without mercy, and strung him up by his feet. Emma's father came to check, but she sent him away with rot sweet words. Then she stabled the horses and went to bed.
James didn't understand, but knew he had to fly right then and there. He pulled out a horse from the stables and prepared them for the ride. He almost took off, but then remembered something worth his life. He searched the wagon by hand in the dark until he found his favorite book, The Count of Monte Cristo Vol. 1, then he was off in a fearful cloud of dust. He arrived at his home without much disturbance, then looted the pantry for hardtack and other vittles. He rolled up some hay for the horse in a blanket, grabbed a canteen, Vol. 2 and his cash, and left for good without a word to his family. He knew he'd be labeled as a horse thief, knew this was goodbye, but even the thought of being broken by that . . . woman was enough to sever any ties and risk the noose.
James had no set plan on where to go, just the vague idea of riding a train into the blue. His first inclination was to follow the Brazos down towards Abilene, but that seemed too obvious. Then he remembered there had been a big celebration when the Texas & Pacific Rail Line opened up a 'nearby' stop due south in Big Springs, just a few years before. That was only a couple days travel by horse. But he was still awful close to that demon, close enough to feel her sulfur breath. This first night would make all the difference, so he rode the horse hard, watching the land for ankle breakers under the panoptic moon.
By the break of day he'd covered just over thirty miles. He was wary of people and kept at a distance from the small settlement, not yet become a township. But both he and the horse needed rest, so he found a shaded spot near a clean-tasting lake and they bedded down for a few hours. The heat of the sun woke him. He shrugged off his exhaustion, fed and watered the horse again, then took off at a more moderated clip. His thoughts turned to the hardtack, but he knew his limits and felt safer putting on some more distance.
As he rode, his mind seemed to roll off the plains and circled around the regret of leaving. He saw his mother's smile, felt the premonitory bruise of her disappointment. But over the flat land of his home rose bright icy eyes that cooled his internals. Now he remembered that boy, why the name eluded him he didn't know, but just the same he saw his black face juxtaposed with the white sheet. Emma's admission made some kind of sick sense. The boy's death had been ruled an accident, but the circumstances were strange, not that the sheriff cared all too much. And even before all that he had seen how quickly she could jump from cloying honey to a smothering licorice. Her tongue was a saw, and cut she did. Then there were those little critters found around the property . . .
James decided to set up camp as he arrived at a river which he thought might be the Colorado. His new horse appreciated the break, and his own stomach had about gone on strike. He fixed up a fire and then started soaking the hardtack. James stared into the flames and wondered why she had picked him. She always said she knew he was the one upon first sight, but in retrospect James wasn't sure what that meant. There were a handful of other young men in Lubbock, all who pined after her like coyotes. And he wasn't special, besides his fondness for reading. He was no looker, didn't sport muscles, and couldn't rodeo worth a damn. His family was barely solvent, and he really had no future besides eking it out as a subpar rancher. In the whole town he was like the runt of the litter. There was no understanding her.
His eyes watered from the smoke of the flame. He moved over, but the carbon suspension followed him every which way. Eventually he just kept them shut tight and drifted off to sleep.
James woke to the sound of swelling warbles and a rosy kiss in the sky. That rest did him good. He stood and stretched, then brushed the horse with his hand.
"I guess I gotta think of you a name, since we're going to be fast friends." The horse whinnied while he thought. The animal was the color of a light wood, which reminded him of the sun-bleached driftwood when Edmond met his friend for life. He certainly needed one.
"Are you my Jacopo?" The horse neighed, shaking its long face. He stopped petting him. "I guess you don't see me as Edmond Dantès. Hell, I don't. Okay, what about Zatara?" Now he felt its face rub against his warm hand. "I'll take that as a yes. That's fine, I don't want to duel with Fernand, anyway."
He showered Zatara with affection while staring out at the lazy river winding between scores of trees on either side of the bank. James wondered if the Comanches that used to live in the area ever stood at this exact spot, if any of them watched the swiftness of the river and felt like him, sharing similar burdens. Then he sighed and readied Zatara.
He rode for two more thirsty days before reaching Big Springs. Both he and Zatara had already exhausted their supplies, and they greeted the small town tucked between two foothills with much relief. James also noted the brilliant sheen of the rail lines cutting across the bare ground, illuminated by the head of a slumbering giant peeking over the horizon. The town itself bustled with business on a scale he had never before seen. At roughly thirty-five times the population of newly-founded Lubbock, Big Springs resembled for James nothing less than Paris. There were dozens of buildings clustered around the rail stop, including several saloons. James was sure parched for a drink, but he thought it best to resupply before wasting away.
He tied his horse at the front of the nearest general store. The wood facade still sported polish, and the store manager was friendly enough. He filled his bag with more hardtack, but this time acquired a tub of lard and a meager quantity of salt. He eyed the slices of bacon behind the counter, but forced himself to turn away when he saw the price. He did shell out a buck for a small cast-iron skillet and some jerky, which he felt was a swindle, but he was desperate to refine the tasteless biscuits anyway he could.
When he left, the sun stood tall over the town like polished boots. James eyed the multitude of saloons, considering the dens of sin with thirst, but then recalled the true reason for his being in Big Spring, the next leg. The ticket office was rather unassuming, just a shriveled hutch. Were tracks not stretched into infinity beyond, James would have thought it an outhouse. Still, he approached the ticketmaster with due reverence. He was an uncombed man with wrinkled cuffs and mutton chops that waved in the wind. Every gust would blow one side or the other into his nose and mouth, triggering a rolling sneeze. His handkerchief looked like a white flag.
"Uh, yes, howdy. How much would a ticket to New York City cost?"
The ticketmaster looked at James like an impending tornado, then blew out both wispy chops with a loud clap. "This here is the Texas & Pacific Rail Line, we don't go out that far aways. You'd have to transfer to another line from any of our easternmost stops."
"Oh, okay. Well, any idea what it'd cost me to get over there? Always wanted to see the artificial lights."
"I haven't ever been out that way, but I've seen some of it. I guess you could take our line to New Orleans, then transfer to the Chicago, St. Louis and New Orleans Railroad and ride to St. Louis, but that's as far as I know for sure."
"Yeah, but can you guess the cost, sir? I'm sure I can figure out the next transfer once I'm there."
"Well, as far as I can figure, it would cost somewheres around $55 to $60 or so. But like I said, I don't know their rates."
James resembled jerky in the blistering sun, sapped of his good humor. He only had $4.59 left over from the indispensable vittles.
The ticketmaster saw his salt and decided to cut it with some of life's lemons. "Didn't you say you were wanting to see them electric lamps?"
"Yeah, but I don't think I'd ever make it there. Not in my life."
"Well, you ain't gotta go that far. Fort Worth just got some of them a few years ago, I reckon that's a lot cheaper than seeing the Yanks."
James had no idea how such a blue moon had passed him by, something like that in his own state, the conjuring of an ethereal power. He knew he had to go.
"How much to Fort Worth?"
"That would be $5.59, young man."
James crumbled and returned to dust. He thanked the ticketmaster kindly no, wiped his face and spat out the grit of the raised winds, then shuffled over to drown his desperation and dreams. But just as he was to swing past the doors of the nearest oasis, a Nubian princess punched right through him. He ate the earth again. He heard the shuffle of feet and a deep male voice hollering just behind his back. James turned to see some middle-aged white man shaking the very same woman.
"Give me back my wallet you fucking thief." He slapped her across the face.
James jumped to his feet and pushed the man. "Hey, stop that!"
The man nearly tripped, caught himself, then stepped towards James with a fist raised, but his foot crunched through the tub of lard, becoming stuck fast. He reddened, then threw a hard punch that clipped James's chin. From dust to dust. The man became more aggressive towards the woman. James reached down to his holster, then realized he hadn't packed a pistol at all. But he worked himself up into a wrath at the disrespect, grabbed his 'new' cast-iron and swung like bat and ball. Score!
"Gee, thanks, mister." The woman got to her feet and extended her immaculate hand. "I'm Liberty Freeman."
James stuttered out his name, in awe of her airs.
"Well, Mr. Smith, I guess I owe you."
"Okay, James. Here's a buck for your efforts." She peeled a greenback from a long, leather wallet with an intricate, interlocking design. Liberty turned to go.
"Wait, Ms. Liberty. Why was that man bothering you?"
"Huh, you must be really wet around the ears. Because I'm black."
"So you didn't steal his wallet?"
"Of course not. But speak of the devil, you can have this." She offered up the fancy billfold.
"What is it?"
"His wallet. You sure you wouldn't do better pulling plows?"
James opened the pouch with the prudence of a cruel joke, but she was right, this was the man's wallet. "Now just a second. I thought—"
She winked. "I ain't say nothing about after he come for me."
Then James noticed the name burned into the leather, Carl Clementine. He was one of the sheriff's men. He looked down at Carl laying sunny-side up, and the yolk made him conscious of a handful of folks watching them both.
"I've got to get to Ft. Worth, this man is after me."
"Well, I don't think he's going nowhere fast, but sure he'll be after you since you done busted him good."
"No, I mean he was here in town looking for me." He wasn't, but now he would be.
"Oh, you didn't do it for little ol' me?" She fluttered her eyes then set a hard face. "I guess I'll have that bill back."
"No, I need- I didn't recognize him until I read his name here."
"I 'spose you can keep it then. As it happens, I'm heading to Ft. Worth, too. This ain't an invitation, but would you kindly ride with me?"
"Uh, sure. What for?"
She shook her head. "Anyhow, where you from?"
"Where the hell is that?"
"No place. North of here."
"Texas, not the reservation."
She didn't answer, but instead set the direction and pace. They braved the storm of sneezing at the ticketbooth, then went to the platform, where it was quiet save the wind.
"Well, I've never heard of your home." She looked him over. "You ain't strong, particularly good looking, nor got the gift of gab, so what's your deal?"
"What do you mean?"
"We're going to travel together a couple hundred miles. Now I know it's a little different borne by train, but look. I gotta know if you're useful, and how. So what'd you do?"
"I am . . . was . . . a ranch hand."
"Okay, horses. Too bad this is an iron horse. Next?"
"I don't really—"
"Come on, everyone has something."
"I read books."
She raised her eyebrows. "Okay, I can deal with that."
"Something wrong with books?"
"No, just you'd be surprised how few of y'all read, though you fought mighty hard to keep my people from the right."
He reddened. "You're right."
"Hey, you're alright. Now here's the plan: I'll play the help. You're the son of a wealthy rancher heading East to them big schools. You deflect anyone. Use your book learning."
"Okay, I can do that."
James heard the lumbering of a leviathan bellowing from lathe lungs. The train was at hand. The beast hissed, then emptied itself of people, who came streaming out, shielding their eyes from the reflections of the day. He was perplexed at the dense coiling mass, its sounds and sights. Then he remembered about Zatara.
"I've got to get my horse."
Liberty grabbed his arm. "There's not much time. Why don't you forget 'em?"
"How could I forget a horse?"
"Look, didn't you say that imbecile you brained was after you? How could he forget your horse?"
James accepted the practical truth mute. She gave his forearm a light squeeze. "It's okay, I know it's a lot of money, but you can pluck that from someone else's hand. That's the meaning of this whole country."
"Zatara is my friend. I have to go check."
"Well, I won't wait around if you mess up. I can take care of myself."
"I believe that, but I'll be back."
James took off running. The streets seemed thickened with new faces and suitcases, especially around the saloons. He couldn't see Zatara through them all. He dodged his way to the trough, but saw Zatara was gone. So was Clementine, and the tub of lard.
"All aboard!" The conductor yelled, like an oracle before the tempest.
James scanned back and forth, eaten by panic and sunk by another load of loss. Then he decided. "I'm sorry, Zatara! I'm sorry." He booked it back to the train and hopped on, just before the release of the brakes.
James took a breath, inspecting this undulating miracle. The inside was real nice, like Emma's home, but the comparison didn't discourage him. He swiveled like an owl, not seeing Liberty.
"Can I help you?" A voice from behind asked.
He whirled and stepped back, nearly bumping into a bespeckled speculator seated at the first row. James begged his pardon and then faced the car attendant.
"Um, howdy. I'm looking for my servant, she was holding our spots while I uh—"
"Ticket please." The attendant was a thin boy with head afire and freckles like descending ash. James flashed him his pass, then shoved it down into his bag.
"You'll be two cars down, sir."
James realized, scanning the fitted sheen of affluent fabrics, he had boarded into the first class section. The beauty of the place made a bit more sense. He passed on through the door at the end and came to a small gap outside, beyond which was another carriage. He stepped across careful as cattle while gripping the handrails. Then he went inside. This car was much the same, though less lavish. The pattern would hold. James went to the next car, his destination, and spied an elaborate feathered hat waving at him. Had to be Liberty.
"I see you didn't wait for me."
"Like I said. Find your horse?"
"No. Worse, I think Carl took him."
"Yeah. He's one of the sheriff's men. From Lubbock."
"What are you wanted for anyhow?"
"Probably horse theft. Hopefully that's all."
"Yeah, I left because of a woman."
Liberty let the point die. She really didn't care to know. "So you got any of them books on you?"
"Yeah, I took my favorite with me." James opened his satchel and pulled out Vol. I, then handed it to Liberty. She took it in with a smile.
"This was one of my people."
"It's pronounced 'doo-mah,' dumbass. His father was from Haiti and France, his mother came from Africa as a slave."
Liberty rolled her eyes. "It's an island next to Cuba."
"Is that where all them slaves rebelled?"
"That's the one."
"I don't know too much about it."
"That's probably because the slavers here didn't want word getting around. The US didn't even recognize Haiti until partway through the Civil War, six decades after the revolution."
"Oh." That was more than he could process.
Liberty turned the conversation back to Dumas, which seemed like safer territory than the brilliant example. "So I take it you're searching for Mercédès?"
James laughed, then trembled. "More like escaping Château d'If."
"So, she's the prison warden?"
"More than you could know."
"Believe me, I know what that is like."
James realized what she meant. "You're right, I apologize."
"Don't worry 'bout it. What'd you do to her?"
"What'd I do?"
"Well, yeah. You're the man. It's always the man."
"I s'pose that's true. Not in this case though. She's crazier than all hell."
"That's what they all say."
"No, I mean it."
"Laudanum or phosphorus didn't cut it?"
"Never mind, go on."
"She killed one of their sla . . . uh, former slaves. A little boy. A few years back. I didn't find out until she told me this past week. Then she, uh, threatened to charge me for rape, knocked me out cold, and strung me up by my feet in her barn all because I stopped her from killing another."
Liberty shook her head. This wasn't that uncommon a situation for black men, though anyone who would falsify such charges was clearly a monster.
"So I take it she's got means?"
"Boy, you stepped in it good."
"What exactly is your plan?"
"Well, first thing was I knew I wanted to get on the train, so I did. I thought I'd head out to New York to see the lights, but I ain't got the money. Now I guess I'm headed to Fort Worth since I hear they got some."
"Okay, but what about the girl?"
"Emma? I just escaped her daddy's man, and it's a big state."
"What's her family do?"
"And you're headed to Fort Worth, home of the Union Stockyard?"
"Yeah, I figure you didn't think that through. You'd best make some money and book it out of there quick. Pity you lost your horse."
Just then a burly conductor passed through, glancing at all the heads. His eyes fixated on Liberty. He licked at his lips like a lean coyote, then strode over.
"I'm going to need to see your ticket."
James started to rummage through his bag, kicking himself for not keeping the paper on his direct person.
"No, sir, you're okay. I just need to see her ticket." He glared at Liberty, his eyes cigarettes.
James cleared his throat, then put on what he thought was an educated accent.
"Good sir, this here is my servant. As you can see, she has a ticket, which I myself purchased."
The conductor looked her over, then back at James, then handed him her ticket. "Everything's in order. Have a good day."
Liberty melted into her chair, sighing. "Thank God."
"You had a ticket. I don't understand why I made the difference."
"He ain't care about a ticket. He either wanted to kick me off or get his kicks off."
"He's a Lord alright, just not a good one. None of y'all are."
James wasn't sure how to take that. "So, why are you going to Fort Worth?"
"I'm going to survey land for some friends of family."
"Where'd you come from?"
"I was just in California, but I'm from Chicago."
James whistled. "You traveled that far alone?"
"I told you, I can take care of myself. You on the other hand . . . "
Liberty pointed behind him at the back of the compartment. A man burst through the door and stuck his head in each seating area, pulling off hats and flashing a paper.
"Run out the door behind me and get to the roof."
James grabbed his stuff and bolted out the door, catching the man's attention. He charged down the aisle after him. The sudden explosion of color and wind almost knocked James off his feet, but he grabbed onto the rail and steadied himself. He turned, then stepped onto the rail in order to climb up onto the roof, but was hurled down to the floor. His limbs slapped the walls. James felt that the man was atop him, and fought. He tried tossing a few tired haymakers, but the man blocked and deflected each one until James fell back, breathing hard. Then the man reached to his belt and pulled out a folded paper, thrust it into James's face.
"You've been served."
The man recovered his hat, got up, and left, opposite his origin. James lay there dazed but determined to read the thick words of his dearest, or, at least that of her telegraph attorney. He folded the paper and stored it in his pocket, then pulled himself up, heaving. His muscles tensed with indeterminate apprehension. He walked back to the seat towards Liberty, but as he approached, the train began to whistle with brakes.
"Did you elude him?"
"Not really. He just handed me what I think is a lawsuit."
"No, from Emma."
The train came to a slow halt at an unassuming platform on the southside of Fort Worth, the sole passenger depot. They walked together without much conversation, then stepped out into the day. James looked around the train and lost his breath at the cityscape. If Big Springs were Paris, then Fort Worth had to be Xanadu. Just beyond the depot were several multi-storied buildings which loomed like mountains for the simple Lubbock boy.
"I've got to go see about that land for Ms. Davis. It was a pleasure, James. I wish you a speedy jailbreak."
He stretched out his hand and she clasped it. "Thank you, Liberty. If I ever make it out that way, I'll look you up in Chicago."
"Ask around for the African Methodist Episcopal, they'll know me."
"I'll remember. Safe journeys."
Liberty crossed the rail headed to the southeast. Soon she was lost in the dust and undeveloped tracts. Now James was as a leaf, tumbling without root or branch. He followed the path away from Liberty towards an enormous road. Riders, steeds, and stagecoaches descended and rose with the bumps of the clogged arterial passage. James could see smoke rising on either side of the channel of ceilings, off into the ambiguity. The whole Earth narrowed down the street, while he strutted like a penned stallion. Then a strange contraption caught his eye, sliding along rails as a skinned snake. People crowded its guts, looking out from openings. James realized this was a train in miniature. The vehicle stopped and let off dozens of people. He rushed over to the crowd and was carried like trout into the streetcar. James slipped by the payment and the mass pressed him into a window as the beast slouched north.
His view afforded him knowledge of the city hitherto unknown, of the scale, its peak. Each cross street was a Big Springs, avenged sevenfold. Bursts of math multiplied in his mind, each opening his heart to the diminished sky, though still blue and immortal. He smiled at the immensity of it all, this sprawling tower of babel. He wondered about the cosmos, wandered among its lands. Then he saw a memory.
Zatara was tied to a post in front of a large, raucous saloon. James disembarked at Fifteenth and walked up to his horse, who whinnied at his sight. He went to untie the reins when a man was ejected from the entrance. The man rolled his head on his back and saw James, then launched at him with the full force of the law. James recalled Clementine's ugly mug and jumped back, but tripped. By himself, his fate was sealed, but he was not alone.
Zatara reared up and blasted Carl good. He landed in a stiff cloud, ajar. Then the saloon doors swung wide with a sauntering suavity smoking a cigar. Bandoleras crossed her cut form, above her swishing dress. She pointed a pistol at Carl Clementine, cocked.
"Señor, you are confused."
Clementine reached for his pistol, so she shot him. He slumped and was dead. She puffed on her roll while surveying the moral damage from her vantage on the steps.
"And a horse thief, too."
"No, ma'am, that's me."
She turned to James. "I see you here with the horse and know that he is yours. Can you not feel his brotherhood?"
James gazed into one of the large brown eyes, patting his neck. He turned back to the woman.
"Then that is the law."
She descended with them, then bent and plucked a badge from Clementine's pocket. A few men ran over, one of them a Fort Worth deputy.
"This man here was a horse thief. Furthermore, he insulted my honor. This man can testify." She pointed at James, who gulped.
"Uh, y-yes. He did steal my horse, and later fought me when I tried to recover him."
Zatara neighed in agreement. The deputy crouched to inspect him, but found no wallet or other identifying information. He stood and looked at the other two men, then back to James and the woman.
"Well, he seems like a drifter. Eddy, go ask the barkeep if he had a room. That'll settle it."
She uncocked her arm. "Good, because he did not."
"And you, how did he insult you?"
"He solicited me."
"Well, it's the Acre, ma'am."
"Claro que si. But I am not the Acre."
Eddy ran back, wheezing from the effort. "He's probably a drifter. He ain't rented nothin', he just showed up struggling with the horse and beelined for a drink, then chatted up that lady there. She, uh, showed him what for."
"Yes, I can see that." The deputy shook his head. "Well, I suppose you're free to go. But if you disturb business again, then I reckon you'll become our business." His badge shone with pain.
"I understand." She tipped her hat, then walked over to James, the movement of her hips like waves, still smoking.
"Why did you help me?"
"You spoke my language. No tongue has since I left my home country. Besides, it seemed we had a common enemy."
"Where is your home?"
"That's a long ways, ain't it. Why are you out here?"
"I could not bear to witness the uneven suffering and self-enrichment under our dictator. Instead, I wanted to see who pulled his strings, to see which Europeans opened my people's veins again."
"Huh. What Europeans?"
"This land belongs to the Comanche and Wichita, no?"
"Oh, I don't really know Fort Worth, but out my way it was definitely the Comanches before us."
"In Fort Worth, too. They halted the colonial power of Spain, drove out newly freed México, and resisted your people for decades."
"I see your point. So, what Europeans, um, opened y'alls veins before?"
"Many. The Spanish, the French, the British. We drove them all out, just as you will be driven out one day. You will all be as Ozymandias."
James didn't speak what he thought was Spanish, but still, he was enchanted. He held up the conversation like a royal train. "What's it that we're doing to you now?"
"You prop up Porfirio Díaz with business and technology. You enable his theft twice over, stealing from the indio and mestizo, already victims. Our lands, our lives go to him and his cronies and your companies."
"I don't know anything about that, but I'm sorry for what we're doing."
She suddenly slapped him on the back and leaned into his ear. "Let's get a drink. By tonight you'll down the worm, güey."
"I would love to, but I don't drink with anyone without first knowing their name."
She laughed. "My name is Espada Trejo, now come!"
They walked just a few streets down, still on Main, still foot and hoof-deep in the bowels of Hell's Acre. Women congregated on the corners like preachers, while James stared, Mesmer's child, causing Espada to laugh.
"You can't help yourself, can you? You are like the neandertal man."
"He was a cave-dweller, a less advanced human."
"No, they live in trees, in Africa. Neandertal man was found in Germany."
The streetcar clanged. James pulled Zatara away as the metal wall rolled forward. One of the windows flashed, and he turned to look. A banshee leered at him, her eyes drowning the sun. He froze. His heart beat, his temples thumped. The sounds of the prostitutes and Johns faded behind the ringing of a bell. He choked on her perfume, entombed in a floral mausoleum. Espada shook him.
"We have to go . . . " He said, speech extended and low. "Get on Zatara."
James scooted back, giving Espada the saddle. He looked up at the streetcar and those drilling eyes unbroken. A group exited the vehicle, then it continued on into the dust and crossings. He could still feel her burning him. A man approached them with a package under the gaze of the sun. James opened it, revealing a lock of hair, his mother's.
"Emma says she'll be at the north end of Main. That you still have a chance to make things right."
"There's no right with her."
"Well, then to give her what she wants.
"I won't do that."
"Look back at that lock and think hard, boy."
The man walked away and found the nearest drink.
"Who is she? What is that hair?"
"She's a genie I just can't put back in the bottle. And this, well it's my mother's hair."
"That woman has your mother?"
"In all likelihood."
"I think you'll have to wait on that drink. Catch me up to speed while we go see about God's plan."
"I don't want to get you in any trouble."
"You already have. She saw you with me and Zatara. I'm trying to get us out."
So James told her about Emma and his escape, about her memory, long like her claws.
Espada clucked her tongue. "You have to confront her to exorcize this ghost."
"You don't know what she's like."
"No, but I know of chupacabras. Some years ago a foreman was hurting women while the rail was built. I confronted him, and he tried to hurt me. I killed him with a crucifix."
"I envy your resolve to bring the sword."
She smiled. "You can do this, too."
He shook his head. "What's a chupacabra?"
Espada halted Zatara before a hotel with red brick. "They suck the blood from the goats."
"Oh, like a vampyre."
Sitting in a splendid suit, a bearded Irishman looked up from his newspaper, then licked a pen and made a note for his manuscript. Espada swung and stepped off without a word. James watched her go for a while, then waited. She returned on a painted horse with a rifle in hand, hair streaming in the glow. James marveled at the wood and steel on her Winchester. The word 'crucifijo' was emblazoned on the stock in false gold.
"This is Tierra. She battles with us."
They rode in silence, each prognosticating. Their arrival at the starburst courtyard was marked by its somber bell. The land was a flat yard, clear save the arrayed forces and young trees circling the building. The traffic of the city made no sound before the bench. James avoided the grotesque glares from one steely gargoyle.
"James Smith, you are ordered to return to Lubbock with us for questioning." The sheriff's hat stood tall, like the steeple of a church, his badge a rosary.
His hat blew off his head, punctuated by a hole just above his cranium. He held up one hand to still the men. Smoke curled from Espada's crucifix.
"This matter is between James and Emma."
The sheriff turned to Emma, as did her father, riding a white horse beside her.
"She's right, daddy." She said with an obscured smile.
Emma descended from her black steed, whose eyes were red with war.
"James, darling." She said, batting her eyelashes.
He rose from Zatara, and they floated toward one another.
"You are mine. Submit to my hands, love. I will teach you."
James shook his head. "I am not your property. I've learned that's what's wrong here, that's always been what's wrong."
"Yes you are, doll. Everything is mine."
He smiled, then swelled into laughter. She reached across the void and gashed his face with her nails. James covered his wound and turned away in a grimace. She hovered around him, aloft.
Espada shot once into the air. Emma swung to face Espada, her hair hissing in the twilight. Then she crept back to her side and climbed the night mare. All told, eleven men stood in her wings. The rustling of feathers and leather shimmered across the city valley as they all drew their steel arms. Espada tossed James a pistol and popped two more rounds into her rifle.
Night arrived. No faces could be seen in the dark, until the lights buzzed alive like flies. Then James shot. He missed, but the horses started. A wall of death marched at them at Mach speed and all the guns added to the brilliance of artificial day.
Espada's face was livid with lever-action fire. She downed the sheriff and two of his men from the get-go. James tried hard, but couldn't hit the barn. Within moments the cavalry was broken, the sword had slashed seven of their fold. But she was empty and they were overwhelmed with a two-to-one disadvantage. Even through the thick smoke that obscured the bodies, Espada knew they were done.
"If you so much as move, I swear to God you'll be holier than Emmental." Emma's father shouted.
"What the hell's that?" James called through the dust and grit.
"It's a foreign cheese, you fucking idiot." Emma said, trotting her horse forward and leveling her pistol at Espada through a clearing in the gray.
Then the bell tolled like a cannon shot and all heads whipped to the tower. Emma's father snapped his head back in surprise, but recognition faded when the bullet lodged in his forehead. The other three men were crushed by a rain of ore. Emma took one look at her fallen posse and cut out, her mare chugging like a train without caboose. She looked back at James and he realized none of this was over.
Laughter echoed from the heavens as Justice raised her rifle to the sky. "Y'all better get. The whole town done heard us now."
"What about you?" James shouted.
"Don't worry, I sounded the warning, and now represent a land interest. But I'll have to lead them after you like hell hath no fury."
"This ain't done." James said, looking after Emma's dust.
Espada nudged Tierra closer to him. "No, but we're finished here. Come with me to my home, guero. She'll find we're the wasps to her flies."
James looked down at Zatara and rubbed his cheek. The horse whinnied, stamped its hooves. He was ready.
James faced Espada and smiled. "Alright, let's dive right into the sea."
They both raised their hands to Justice in a grateful OK, then bolted off down the road through the waves of unwelcoming arms.
Arón Reinhold is a Texan who reads and writes. He studied English Literature at the University of North Texas until graduating in 2014, working subsequently as a grassroots organizer to effect a just and sustainable society. Recently, he returned to fiction out of a love for the craft and its inherent promise to envision a different world. His story "Risen" was published in the "Rise" zombie anthology by Wicked Shadow Press, and he has upcoming publications in Bewildering Stories and Black Petals.
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by Templeton Moss
Neither one of them was ready to give an inch. The man and the woman both had their guns out and pointing at the other. Lying on the hard, dusty ground between them was Cart Burgess, his eyes continuously darting from one to the other. From windows and doorways all over the town, terrified but curious faces were peering at them.
The man spoke first.
"This ain't gonna go the way you want it to, missy," he said.
"I'd take it as a kindness if you wouldn't call me 'missy,'" was her reply.
"And I'd take it as a kindness if you was to put that gun away and let me take what's mine."
"Be more'n glad to if you could convince me there was anything in the vicinity what belonged to you."
"You know damn well what I'm talkin' about, girly."
"My name's Becky. Not missy or girly or honey or baby. Becky Smith."
"And I'm Luke Travis and it's mighty nice to meet you, Miss Smith. Now how's about droppin' that gun and leaving me to my bounty?"
"Your bounty? This here's my bounty," she kicked Burgess with the toe of her boot. He winced. "Where you got yours hid?"
Travis ground his teeth in frustration. The hand that wasn't holding a loaded pistol was holding a handbill; a wanted sign he'd been holding on to for two weeks while he tracked Cart Burgess. It was slow work, but the price on Burgess' head made the waiting worthwhile.
Or, at least, it would have, if it hadn't been for this girl who came in out of nowhere and stole his bounty.
"I been following this man for two weeks. Two weeks! That makes 'im mine."
"Seems to me," said Becky, "that the bounty goes to the one who brings 'im in. Not the one who spent two weeks following him. What? Were you too scared to take him in when you had the chance?"
Travis tightened his grip on the handbill. "I'm gonna let that go on account of you're a girl. But you should know I don't let anybody call me a coward more'n once."
"I'll keep that mind."
"Do you even know who this man is?" He gestured toward Burgess with the hand which held the poster.
"Seein' as I'm just plain womenfolk what don't know nothin', why don't you go ahead and explain it to me. And use small words so I'll be sure to understand."
"This here's Cart Burgess! You don't exactly walk up to a man like Cart Burgess, stick a gun in his face and say 'You're comin' with me!'"
"Are you sure? Cuz I recollect doing exactly that not five minutes ago and it seems to have worked out okay."
This was true. Burgess had been walking across the street from his hotel to the saloon when Becky had stepped in front of him, drawn her gun and informed him that he was her prisoner.
Whether it was shock at being told this by a woman or the bottle of rum he'd polished off in his room before deciding to mosey over to the saloon we may never know. But, whatever it was, he was slow enough that Becky was able to get close enough to stamp his foot, punch him in the solar plexus, relieve him of his firearm and, thus, take him into her custody.
It was then that Luke stepped in and demanded she surrender the prisoner to him. The next thing they knew, they had a standoff.
"Now I am powerful sorry," said Becky, "that you were too slow to take this man yourself. But that ain't my problem. I beat you to this one fair and square. Maybe bounty hunting ain't the right line of work for you. I hear tell they're lookin' for a piano player down at the saloon."
"I'm all out of patience, little girl! I am taking that man. And if you don't like that, you're gonna have to shoot me."
"I have no intention of shooting you."
So saying, Becky pointed her gun away from Luke Travis and down at Cart Burgess. Burgess' eyes widened. So did Luke's. So did the many eyes peering at them from various windows and doorways.
"I know you been taking your sweet time catching this man," she said, "so you had plenty of time to study that handbill of yours. Which means you know full well that Cart Burgess is wanted alive. Not dead or alive. Alive. I kill him, neither one of us can collect."
"You're crazy!" said Travis. "You'd kill a man in broad daylight? In front of witnesses? Just to stop me getting my bounty?"
"Firstly, you can go ahead and stop referring to this as your bounty, as I think I've made it very clear that he's mine. Second, whether this man lives or dies is entirely up to you. You put your gun away and get the hell out of my face, he lives. You make a play, he dies, I swing for murder. Either way, you don't make a dime off of Cart Burgess."
"If I don't make a dime either way, why should I back off? Why shouldn't I just let you pull that trigger?"
"Cuz I know you, Luke Travis."
"You sayin' we met before?"
"No, sir. Never seen you nor heard your name before this day, but I know you. Cuz we've been standing here, talking, all friendly and nice for a real long time and you've been threatening me and insulting me and putting up with me threatening and insulting you. Even let me off the hook for calling you coward. But you know what you ain't done?"
"You ain't cocked your gun. Which means you don't want to shoot me. I'm guessing you killed a lot of men, same as me—all nice and legal, I'm sure—but I'm bettin' you ain't never killed a woman before. If I kill this man, and all these nice folk see me do it, I hang. And if that happens, it's because you didn't back off like I asked you to. Which makes it your fault if I die. 'Bout the same as if you coked that pistol and pulled the trigger yourself. So, you tell me. A man who lets a woman call him coward and doesn't even cock his gun when he's pointing it at a woman . . . is he gonna let me hang?"
For a moment, nothing moved. No one breathed. Travis' thumb moved, almost imperceptibly, to draw back the hammer of his pistol. But, instead, he holstered the weapon and let loose some of the most impressive cussing anyone in the town had ever heard.
"Okay, then," said Becky, and she put away her own weapon (which, by the way, was fully cocked during the entire exchange) and picked Burgess up off the ground. Then she looked at Travis, who was now tearing his handbill into small pieces.
"I'm sorry for what I said. You ain't a coward. A coward would've shot me dead while I was talkin'."
To his own great surprise, Travis smiled. "You wouldn't really have killed him, would you?"
Becky smiled and reached into her pocket. "So long, Luke Travis." As she walked past Luke, a bewildered Cart Burgess in tow, she thrust a folded sheet of paper into his hand.
Luke waited until Becky was out of sight to unfold the paper and read it. As he had thought, it was another wanted poster. And this man had a bounty on him nearly twice the size of Cart Burgess'.
Underneath the picture and the description of his crimes were the three familiar words every bounty hunter knows by heart:
DEAD OR ALIVE.
Templeton was born and raised in San Diego County, California, which is where he first started writing. He moved
to Kentucky to go to college, where two of his plays were produced. Since then he has been living and working
in Louisville, self-publishing stories for kids of all ages. www.sixtysomethingtrees.com
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