Ma Reynolds' Cow
by James A. Tweedie
The cow was the only thing left that really mattered to Ma Reynolds.
Her son, Alistair, mattered to her, but she hadn't seen him for three years. Not since the summer of 1877 when he and his Pa nearly came to blows over the boy's plans to leave the farm behind and seek a life of his own.
"You can't go," Pa ordered. "You're needed here. I'm not a young man anymore and I can't keep this place going by myself—at least not forever. I'm getting tired and worn and we brung you up so you could take over and . . . "
Pa never got to finish his sentence because Alistair started bellowing and roaring like a bull working a cow in heat.
"It's my life, Pa, not yours," he countered. "I'm eighteen years old and I'm done with farming. I'm no good at it. It's the city I want, not the plains. And unless you truss me up like a hog, I'm leaving in the morning. I've saved up enough to buy a one-way ticket from Gibbon to Omaha."
"But, Son . . . "
"Sorry, Pa. It's over. I'm already packed and don't tell me you didn't leave Gran and Gramps behind in Kentucky when you was younger than me, 'cause you've told that story a thousand times. So now it's my time to write a story—a story I'll to my own son when he's old enough to listen, if'n I have a son . . . "
The two men, old and young, then stood face to face without talking for a time until Alistair broke it off by saying, "I'd like your blessing, Pa, afore I go. But if you won't give it, I'll find one in Omaha, or wherever it is I end up."
"You're dead to me, boy," Pa said with a sigh of resignation. "And I'll not bless you for leavin' your Ma and me, so just take what you need and go. I'll not be sayin' goodbye."
Those where the last words they ever spoke to each other because two weeks after Alistair left, Pa Reynolds was kicked in the head by his mule while plowing and died on the spot.
Ma grieved the loss of both men for a long time and as she grieved, the fields shriveled up, went to seed, and died.
Friends and neighbors offered to save the harvest but she turned them away, once with a shotgun.
"Leave me be!" she yelled at Pastor Salinger while waving him off the property with Pa's 16-gauge pepper-blaster. "And I'll wager you'll be in hell long before I get to heaven to be with Pa!"
It wasn't long before Ma Reynolds became known as the "Lonely Lady of Lowell."
She let the fields go fallow for two years before she leased them to one of her neighbors so the land could bring in enough money to pay for what she needed to survive.
She kept a large garden and kept the mule to pull her and the wagon five miles to Gibbon or twelve to Kearny when she had to go. She also kept chickens and, most important of all, she kept the family cow, who she affectionately called, Susie.
Susie gave Ma something to live for. Every day was organized around the need to milk the cow once in the morning and once in the late afternoon. Whenever she did the milking, Ma spent the time talking to Susie as if she were talking to Alistair or Pa.
All went relatively well until one Monday when Ma went out to the barn for the morning milking and found Susie missing from her stall.
After looking everywhere she could think of and not finding the cow, Ma walked over to one of her neighbors and asked if he had seen Susie.
"No," he answered.
But in response, he spread the word around Lowell and soon everybody was searching the fields, barns and bushes for Susie, even in the tangled bottomland of the nearby Platte River.
Ma Reynolds was devasted, angry, anxious, worried and, to use her own words, "fit to be tied."
When a bucket of fresh milk appeared outside her kitchen door each morning and evening the next two days, she decided she had the best neighbors in the world and that maybe it was time for her to think about becoming part of the world, again.
On the third day after Susie's mysterious disappearance, Ma heard someone knocking on the outside of the kitchen door. When she opened it, she found Alistair, all grown up with a full beard, grinning back at her.
"Hi, Ma," he said. "I'm home."
Ma's eyes watered up right quick as she threw her arms around her prodigal son and held him as close to her joyfully-beating heart as possible.
"I heard about Pa," Alistair whispered into her ear as they hugged, "and I was right sorry to hear it. But I'd just left home and I was still angry at him and so I decided to just stay away and be 'dead' to you like I was to Pa."
"Oh, Alistair, no! You've got it all wrong! Pa loved you! And after you left, he got down on his knees with me and prayed that God would prosper you in whatever you set your heart and mind on doing. When he died, you not only lost your father, but you lost a man who would have been your best friend if he'd been given another chance."
Now it was Alistair's turn to have tears in his eyes.
"But never mind Pa," Ma continued. "The only thing that matters now is that you're home."
With that, she let go of her son and took a step back.
"And how long do you reckon you'll stay? "
"Ma, I'm done with cities. None of them were as good to me as you . . . and Pa . . . and the farm. If you'll have me, I'm home to stay. I want to be the son you and Pa wanted me to be."
Ma stopped crying right quick and started laughing.
"Well God bless us both," she smiled. "There's chores to get done and fields to plow . . .
"And Susie to milk!" Alistair added.
"Yes . . . of course . . . Susie . . . if she were here it would be milking time about now . . . "
"What do you mean, 'If she were here?'" Alistair asked. "I just saw her out in the barn, standin' in her stall where she's supposed to be. If you want, I'll go milk her now."
"Well, I'll be . . . !" Ma muttered as she stood and stared at her prodigal cow. "Where have you been, my friend of friends?"
"She's been here the whole time," Alistair said. "Except for the three hours I hid her in my bedroom. I figured you'd go back in the barn again and find her, but you never did."
"Why would you do such a thing?" Ma demanded as she pounded both of her fists against his chest.
"It was going to be a comin' home joke but it went all wrong when you ran off to tell the neighbor's and never went back in the barn."
Ma took a deep breath and considered whether she should be angry or let the whole thing go.
In the end, she decided to start laughing again.
The more she laughed, the funnier it got and when Alistair saw her laughing, he started laughing, too."
And when Susie started mooing, they laughed even harder.
James A. Tweedie has published six novels, one collection of short stories and three books of poetry with Dunecrest Press. After living and working in Scotland, California, Utah, South Australia, and Hawaii he now makes his home in Long Beach, Washington, He enjoys being a regular contributor to Frontier Tales.
Back to Top
Back to Home
by Michael McLean
Low, pewter-colored clouds began to spit flakes of snow as the wind whistled across the wide valley floor with an unrelenting force that chilled Walt Wheeler to the bone. They were both exhausted, but the safety and comfort of the ranch, such as it was, demanded another six miles of travel along the two-track road that traversed their part of northeast New Mexico from north to south. He had to keep the sorrel horse moving.
A day earlier, mare's tails scattered across a clear blue sky and a stiffening breeze out of the east told him a storm was coming, but he had to ride the thirty miles to town. There were no options. Three days earlier, Sheriff Luke Dolman had ridden up to his front door and handed him a legal notice. Make a payment on the ranch or the bank would foreclose at the end of the month.
The bank, Wheeler mused, was owned by Eldon Turner who also owned tens of thousands of acres of grassland and wanted only one thing—more. The man already had more cattle than Wheeler had ever dreamed of. The size of Wheeler's ranch was insignificant by comparison and the cattle he raised amounted to only forty head. What his ranch did have, and what was the real object of Turner's maneuvering, was water. Some act of nature had created a multitude of springs that produced enough water to support hundreds of cattle. Wheeler had simply beaten Turner to it and had an indisputable claim and water rights.
At first the offers were friendly, but as Turner's influence spread and his empire grew, they turned hostile. Other folks had caved into the greedy man's ambition, but a veteran of the last of the Apache wars, Wheeler held his ground and fought against the intimidation. Taking out a mortgage on the ranch—he realized too late—had been a mistake. Build and improve the place was his intent, but now . . . no matter, it was what it was.
Suddenly, the horse shied away from a huge tumbleweed rolling toward it. Wheeler watched the object spin away but an unnatural flash of white caught his eye. He pivoted the horse and followed the tumbleweed. The persistent wind calmed for a few moments and the object slowed only to be ensnared in a stand of prickly pear cactus. Wheeler stopped and was out of his saddle reaching for the dried-up weed ball.
Turning the tumbleweed over, a bit of white caught his eye and he grabbed for it, breaking a dried branch off in his glove. Back to the elements, Wheeler slowly opened his hand revealing what looked like a note written on heavy, white paper securely tied with string to the branch. A gust of wind blasted him with needles of snow reminding him they had to keep moving. There would be time for the note later.
* * *
The sorrel was fed, watered, and happy to be back next to its paint horse buddy in the adjacent stall, Ward Wheeler secured the door to the barn and fought in near darkness through increasing snow and wind to the ranch house. The structure was cold, but Wheeler quickly started a lantern and built a fire in the wood-fired cook stove that began chasing the cold away.
A coffee pot on the stove heated as he poured a generous portion of whiskey into a tin cup that he placed on the room's table. The space was warming nicely and he made sure a good supply of wood for the stove was at hand to keep it doing so. Lastly, he shed his heavy coat, but not before removing the note and fragment of branch from its pocket and setting them on the table next to the cup.
Wheeler placed the lantern in the center of the table and sat in one of four chairs surrounding it with his back to the stove. Ready to give in to curiosity, his calloused hands untied the string from the note. Brushing fragments of branch and string aside he paused before unfolding the paper. He had heard of sailors and others placing messages in bottles then sealing and casting them into the ocean hoping they would be found by others in faraway lands. Maybe this was a similar attempt to reach out.
Wheeler took a healthy swallow of whiskey which warmed him throughout, then gingerly unfolded the paper. He was surprised that it was not as dry and brittle as the tumbleweed. In fact, it looked as though it was not old at all. Unfolded, he stared at the words neatly printed with a graphite pencil. Although his body was warm the message brought a chill to his soul.
Please help us. I pray to God one of these is found. They are watching us. My husband left on business a month ago and never returned. I fear for my life and the lives of my two small children. They will come for us soon. L.G.
Wheeler stared at the note, re-reading it several times. Who? Where? How? He emptied the cup and then added to it. He needed food. He needed to think. The only things he knew for sure were that he found the tumbleweed about six miles north, the wind was howling from the west, and the plight of L.G., whoever that was, sounded more desperate than his.
* * *
Morning dawned sunny and cold—it would make for good travel. Wheeler cared for the horses, fixed himself a hearty breakfast, and packed his saddlebags for the unexpected. His plan was simple, ride back north along the two-track to where he found the tumbleweed and turn west. He had no idea how far it could have been driven by the wind, but it was his only clue.
Deciding the sorrel needed a break, Wheeler saddled the paint and loaded it with the weighty saddlebags. Not knowing how long his search would take, he haltered the sorrel and tied its lead rope to his saddle. After securing the house, he slid his Winchester into its leather scabbard, and stepped easily into the saddle. Adjusting his scarf, he glanced back at the sorrel and nudged the paint. They were on their way.
Riding in silence gave him time to think about the mysterious L.G. From the words in the note, he figured she was a woman with two children. The peril she referred to made little sense. She seemed to be holding out—but against who or what? Outlaws, Indians, rustlers—he had no idea—but she sounded desperate. The open range that lay to the west was just that—open.
In the distance he could see a solitary rider approaching. Always cautious, Wheeler opened the bottom buttons of his coat for easy access to the Colt on his hip. One never took chances in a harsh land. As the rider came closer, he recognized the thin frame of Charlie Fraser, his neighbor to the south. Fraser had a small spread, and like himself, was struggling to keep Eldon Turner at bay.
The two men reined their horses in and exchanged greetings. "You goin' on a trip Walt? Two horses seems a bit much."
"I honestly don't know Charlie. Might be chasing a wild goose."
"Wild goose?" Fraser stared at his neighbor. "I don't understand."
"You ever hear tell of notes tied to tumbleweeds hereabouts?" Wheeler asked and then watched as Fraser's eyes narrowed.
"As a matter of fact, I have. Truth is, I found one a couple weeks back. Wind had been blowing out of the northwest. The tumbleweed was stuck under the water trough in the corral. The note was written in pencil and tied to a thick branch. I thought it was a joke or somebody fooling around," Fraser said.
"What did it say?" Wheeler questioned.
"Sounded like some gal lookin' for her husband to come home. Said he left home and hadn't come back. Fellow's name was Frank or Fred Gentry. I didn't give it anymore thought. Got plenty of my own problems," Charlie said.
"Understood," Wheeler replied. "Eldon Turner is my biggest, but then I found a tumbleweed with a note on the way home yesterday."
"Do say. Reckon we have two things in common on this fine day—an Eldon Turner problem and a tumbleweed note," Fraser chuckled. "What did yours say? If you don't mind me askin'."
Wheeler sighed. "A bit like yours, but the gal said they, whoever they are, were watching, her husband had never returned, and she feared for herself and two children."
"So, you're goin' lookin' for this gal?" Fraser cocked his head.
"Yep, that's our plan."
"The paint and sorrel are buddies," Wheeler said and grinned.
"Well, I best not hold y'all up. Besides, if I don't get back today, my wife and little ones will be sending off tumbleweeds of their own wondering where I'm at. Oh, and Walt, do be careful—good neighbors are hard to find hereabouts." Fraser tipped his hat and pushed his horse south.
Wheeler sat for a few moments and watched his friend depart. Turning back to the road ahead, he nudged the paint and the trio moved out. The dusting of snow from the previous day was already melting and he thought about Fraser's words as he rode. The same woman sent earlier notes in the same manner, but without the concerns she expressed in the one he found—that time was running out. The message was more than unsettling.
Finally, he spotted the thicket of prickly pear that had stopped the tumbleweed. Riding closer he could see that most of the tumbleweed still stuck to it. Checking the sun and its position he changed course and pushed west.
The day was still young and if they moved along at the same pace, he could make thirty more miles without the horses working too hard. The fact that a Frank or some other Gentry had never crossed his path didn't mean much. Despite Eldon Turner's maneuverings, there were plenty of folks moving into the region intent on making a go of it. Talk had it that a railroad was coming soon. That would create a lot of opportunity, and no doubt, trouble that always seemed to follow the rails.
With the sun lowering to touch the western skyline and approaching a small stand of trees, Walt Wheeler decided that was enough for one day. After tending to the horses and making sure they were secure, he gathered pieces of wood for a small fire and meal. He would melt some snow that remained in shaded spots for coffee and to water the pair of mounts.
As he squatted to start the fire, he suddenly stood again. There was a smell of smoke on the breeze out of the west. True, it was faint, but still there. Rubbing his whiskered chin, he decided to hold off on the fire for a bit longer as he studied the countryside stretching to the distant hills on the horizon. At last, the sun was down and the sky was turning deeper shades of purple.
There it was again. He blinked and squinted at a flicker of light. He guessed it was a good five miles away. Wheeler frowned, and in the gathering darkness moved all his fire makings to a different location so the flames would be shielded from observation by the trees. Soon, a small blaze was warming him and snow was melting in the coffee pot. After he watered the horses he would make coffee. A strip of beef jerky and two pieces of hardtack completed the evening's bill of fare.
Rifle at his side and wrapped in the relative comfort of his bedroll, Wheeler stared at the stars above and contemplated the next day. The single point of firelight might indicate another traveler like himself, or perhaps something else entirely. Whatever he found at the location of the distant fire would help determine his course of action.
* * *
The scene that greeted him was not what he expected. The ground was trampled around remains of a large fire that still had wisps of smoke rising from it. Hand-rolled cigarette butts were strewn around as well as two empty whiskey bottles. A mile back he had come across their trail. Four horses had been ridden in from the northeast and then abruptly turned west at a low spot where rainwater collected to provide a seasonal watering hole. Town lay in the direction they had come from—Eldon Turner's town.
Wheeler decided to follow the group since they were headed in the same direction with some unknown objective. He changed horses and with the paint trailing, they moved at a more rapid pace than the day before.
As time passed, he became aware that the landscape was rapidly changing. Low hills made it more difficult to see beyond the next rise. Five or six miles ahead, tree-covered mountains rose sharply hundreds of feet above the countryside. A cautious man, Wheeler slowed as they approached the crest of each hill and each time the trail of the four riders was plain to see heading ever west toward the mountains.
The abrupt upthrust of the mountains was close as he rode up yet another rise. Suddenly, the sound of a gunshot could be heard from beyond the crest of the hill he was ascending. Immediately he was out of the saddle and pulling the Winchester from its scabbard. He ground-tied the sorrel knowing neither horse would move. Crouching low, he moved upslope until he could peer over without being seen.
A few hundred yards away, at the base of the nearest mountain stood a cabin with smoke drifting upward from a stone chimney. The cabin door was open enough to allow a rifle or shotgun barrel to be seen. The four riders sat their horses in a semi-circle a short distance from the cabin—at least out of shotgun range. One of the riders was talking in a loud voice to the occupant of the cabin but was too far away for Wheeler to hear his words.
Abruptly, the men turned south to ride away from the cabin, but then stopped. As they looked back toward the dwelling, Wheeler let out a deep breath. The rider in the lead was none other than Eldon Turner followed by his lackey, Sheriff Luke Dolman. He didn't recognize the other two, but no doubt they were riffraff hired to do Turner's bidding.
Moving on, the four pulled up at a few trees a quarter-mile from the cabin and went about settling in for the night. Surveying the cabin and surrounding terrain, Wheeler spotted an opportunity. A narrow canyon sliced into the mountainside just north of the cabin. The nature of the hills would allow him to take the horses and enter the canyon without being seen. From there he could leave them and after sunset make his way to the cabin. He needed to learn what was going on, but if it involved Turner, it couldn't be good.
* * *
On foot, leading the horses, he worked his way around the hills and into the canyon. In a short time, he found a sheltered spot to leave the pair. They were content to graze on grasses in and around trees and a small spring provided water. He wondered if this was what Turner was after.
As the sun set, Wheeler cautiously started out of the canyon. Keeping to as much cover as possible, he made his way toward the cabin. From Turner's camp came loud voices and an occasional whoop. No doubt they didn't ride too far without an ample supply of whiskey.
Within sight of the front of the cabin, he could see a feeble light from inside through a single window. Some kind of cloth was hung over the opening making it impossible to see inside.
At last, it was dark enough for him to make his move. From the back, Wheeler edged along the walls of the cabin with rifle in hand until he was at the front door. The hubbub at Turner's campfire showed no signs of diminishing.
Without further hesitation, Wheeler knocked on the door.
"Get out of here!" a woman's strong voice demanded. "I mean it! I'll shoot—and I don't miss with this shotgun."
"Ma'am . . . Mrs. Gentry. My name's Walt Wheeler. I'm here to help."
"How do I know that? Maybe you're one of them," she retorted with the same tone.
"I found your note on a tumbleweed. Two days ago—riding home to my ranch."
Moments ticked by without response then abruptly the light from the window faded. The sound of something scraping along the inside of the door could be heard, then ever so slowly the door opened a few inches. Immediately he was looking into the side-by-side bores of a shotgun pointed at him. Wheeler did the only thing he could think of and smiled.
A pretty, but hostile, face studied him. She backed up but the shotgun never wavered. "Get in, close the door, and put that rifle down" she ordered.
"Yes, ma'am," he replied, quickly scanning the interior of the cabin as he stepped in and leaned the rifle against the wall. It was neat and clean. A kitchen with table and chairs was on one end, a fireplace made of stone with a fire burning rose opposite the door in the center, on the other end there were two beds separated by a hanging blanket. One was occupied by two small children who stared at him in silence as they clutched one another in fear.
"My name is Lucy Gentry. How do you propose to help me?" she demanded. "Do you know where my husband Frank is?"
Wheeler locked eyes with her. "I'm sorry Mrs. Gentry, I don't know anything about your husband. Your note . . . " he carefully reached into his coat pocket, pulled it out, and showed her, "asked for help and says you feared for you and your children. I had to try and find you."
Lucy lowered the shotgun and set it on the table. "Thank you, Mr. Wheeler, I am afraid of those men. I believe this time they mean to kill me and my children. But I won't leave."
"Those are very bad men, ma'am. Eldon Turner is the boss. He's been trying to take my ranch for the water it has and my water rights. Why is he threatening you?"
"He and that no-good sheriff have been her several times threatening my husband—and now me. Each time was more heated. Frank finally had all the legal papers he needed to put off Turner for good. That's when he left—weeks ago," she said with a pained expression full of sorrow, "and never returned."
"What does he want? Water, like me?" Wheeler quizzed.
Instead of answering, she walked to a bucket next to the fireplace and bent down. Returning, she held out her hand and gave him a piece of solid black rock. He studied the rock with curiosity, then it struck him. "Coal?"
"Thant's correct, Mr. Wheeler. My Frank came from West Virginia where he mined it. The mountains behind us have untold amounts of it. Frank studied the rocks and beds it's deposited in, then learned how to claim it. That's what Turner is after. The railroad is coming and that's the first thing they need and want—coal for their locomotives. This coal is called bituminous and there's a fortune of it in those hills," she explained.
"I understand. Right now, we have to get you and the little ones to safety so I can give them a surprise they won't forget."
"What are you suggesting?" she asked.
"You need to get you and the children bundled up to stay outside overnight. Round up blankets, food, and water quick like. We'll go to where my horses are. You can make camp there and I'll come back here and wait for them to attack in the morning. You and the children will be safe, and if anything happens to me, you can ride to town for help. There are good people there in spite of Eldon Turner."
"I will agree to this Mr. Wheeler, but please call me Lucy." She motioned to the children to come closer. "This is Jacob, he's six." Without prompting Jacob stepped forward and shook hands. "And this is Abigail, she's four," Lucy smiled as she introduced the children.
"You both look brave and strong." Wheeler smiled at the pair noting that both nodded in agreement. "Would you like to camp out tonight?" Again, both nodded in response.
"Only one thing Lucy, please call me Walt. The mister thing makes me a bit . . . uncomfortable," he grinned.
"Agreed, Mr. . . . er, Walt."
Making sure the fire was stoked and that the lantern would keep going, Wheeler closed the door then led the way into the darkness with Jacob following close behind and Lucy carrying Abigail. Boisterous noise from the Turner camp indicated the whiskey was still flowing.
A small, sheltered fire blazing and extra wood handy, Wheeler made certain everyone was settled in for the evening then checked on the horses. As he picked up his rifle to leave, Lucy walked up and looked into his eyes. Hers were wet and her voice soft. "I don't know how to thank you. You've saved us from those evil men. Your wife is very lucky and must be very proud of you," she said.
Wheeler looked at her. "It's an honor to help, Lucy, but two things. My years in the cavalry taught me that until the war is over, it's not over and," he paused and smiled, "there is no Mrs. Wheeler. Guess I never had time to find the right woman. Now try to get some shut-eye and keep that shotgun handy."
* * *
When they came at him, he would show no hesitation. Both Turner and Dolman were bullies—and cowards. The other two he didn't know, but they were almost certainly hired to do the dirty work. He was outraged by the thought of what men like them would do to Lucy if given the chance.
Creeping to the cabin's front door, he knocked with the barrel of the Winchester and waited. Nothing. Gingerly, he pushed the door open a few inches and waited. No threat forthcoming, he eased inside, closed the door, and secured the metal bar into uprights on either side. After adding fuel to the fire, he turned the lantern down as low as it would go. Propped up by his coat, he sat on the children's bed facing the door, Winchester cradled in his arms.
Suddenly he was wide awake. He sat perfectly still and listened. Hearing nothing, he rose and tossed more fuel into the fireplace. Light from the window indicated the sun would appear any moment. Suddenly he heard a scuffing sound but couldn't immediately locate it.
Making sure the rifle had a shell in the chamber, he went to the window and slowly moved the cloth curtain aside. Instantly a heavy bullet slammed into the window frame. Removing his hat, he lifted it with the rifle's barrel toward the partially open curtain. This time, a slug shattered the window and put a hole in his hat. "Damn!" he exclaimed.
A voice shouted from outside. "Mrs. Gentry! This is your last chance. You have exactly two minutes to bring you and those children out or you will never be going anywhere—ever. Your choice."
The voice of Eldon Turner was infuriating. There—the scraping sound again, behind him . . . no, above him. Without warning, the cabin began to fill with smoke from the fireplace and blocked chimney. Clever, very clever. Smoke them out and shoot them as they came out the door.
Rising, Wheeler glanced out the window as a man ran from the cabin toward the others who waited with rifles in hand. Without hesitation he aimed and fired, the bullet lifted and slammed one of the thugs backward to the ground. As bullets slammed into the cabin, and choking on smoke, he cocked and fired again at a shape that lurched to the ground. He had to get out of the cabin.
Yanking the bar out, he pushed the door wide open. Smoke poured out as he ran and rolled bringing his rifle to bear on the man he had wounded. It was Dolman. Without thinking he fired again and watched the sheriff tumble over backward. On his feet, he ran for the water trough at the empty corral. Suddenly a blow struck him from behind followed by a fierce pain in his side but he refused to go down. Firing again, he almost made it to the trough when his rifle jammed.
Grabbing for his pistol, he heard a blast from the direction of the cabin and saw his adversary seem to fly backward. Another blast was answered by a pistol shot. Wheeler looked in time to see Lucy retreat into the still smoking cabin as Turner started to close the distance to her with pistol in hand,
"Turner! You coward!" Wheeler shouted.
The banker changed direction and fired, missing the rancher. "Wheeler. What are you doing? Help me end this and your ranch is free and clear—you'll have the title and your water rights." Turner watched Wheeler lifting his pistol, fired again—and missed again.
Wheeler fired and hit Turner in the arm causing him to drop his pistol. The two men kept advancing toward each other. The rancher unexpectedly tossed his Colt aside as he reached Turner and despite the pain in his side threw a powerful punch into the banker's head.
Stunned, the banker staggered backward as Wheeler threw another punch and missed. Enraged, Turner charged and hit Wheeler in his wounded side. The pain was terrible but he managed to stay upright. Turner charged him again, but the rancher stepped aside pushing Turner off balance. Bellowing, he turned and walked straight into a wicked uppercut followed by a strike to the face that broke the banker's nose and sent blood spraying. Staggering backward, Wheeler followed him and threw a roundhouse that put the banker on the ground. Unmoving, Turner lay there breathing heavily, finally pushing himself to his knees.
Bleeding from his wounded arm and glaring at Wheeler, Eldon Turner spat the words. "If you think this is over Wheeler, you're sadly mistaken. I'll see you hang for murdering these men who were serving the law," he sneered. "Your ranch and its water will be mine."
Wheeler glared at the useless man who would murder innocent people to have more wealth. "Pathetic, Turner. Just pathetic." As a final insult, he walked up to the banker and slapped him open-handed across the face. "When word gets out what happened here, there'll be no place in this territory for you to hide," he said holding his side.
"Walt!" Lucy shouted. "There's more coming."
Wheeler turned and saw two men riding fast down the hill he had used for cover. The sound of Lucy cocking the shotgun was reassuring. Grimacing in pain, he picked up his pistol and both waited at the ready.
The pair slowed their horses as they approached and surveyed the scene. "Don't shoot!" a voice yelled. It was Charlie Fraser riding with a serious-looking stranger.
Relieved, Wheeler responded. "Howdy neighbor. You're a long way from home."
"Walt, this here is Deputy U.S. Marshall Foss Pritchard. There's been trouble," Charlie said.
"Ma'am," Pritchard tipped his hat to Lucy. "I'm very sorry to report that your husband, Frank is dead."
Suddenly Lucy started to shake. Overcome by grief, tears flowed freely. "Who, who would do such a thing? Frank never hurt anybody." Wheeler went to her and she grabbed his arm to steady herself as grief turned to anger.
"Hold on, Mrs. Gentry." Pritchard resumed, "I have here a warrant for the arrest of Eldon Turner for the murder of your husband Frank Gentry."
"That's ridiculous!" Turner screamed.
Pritchard glared at Turner, still on his knees. "There were witnesses. A respected man, Reverend Morgan Thatcher, and his wife observed the confrontation—over mining leases it turns out—legal leases that had been duly filed with the proper authorities. Frank was headed back here to Mrs. Gentry when he was assaulted and then shot in the back by Turner.
"Townsfolk saw Turner and his gang ride out day before yesterday as I was headed out to question Mr. Wheeler who had been in town to see Turner. He wasn't at his ranch so I kept on south to Mr. Fraser's spread. That's where I learned of the tumbleweed notes and the one that Mr. Wheeler was pursuing. We rode fast to get here," Pritchard explained. "If you two help me get the bodies loaded on their horses and secure Turner, we'll be headed out. I'll be in town with him locked up by sundown."
Before departing, Pritchard once again expressed his sympathy to Lucy and thanked Fraser and Wheeler. The trio watched as he rode away with Turner and his lifeless gang in tow.
A few minutes later, Charlie Fraser was sitting his saddle. "Remember what I said Walt, good neighbors are hard to find." Grinning, he nudged his horse toward home.
Wheeler turned to Lucy, who still held the shotgun. Her eyes were wet, but she was strong.
"What now?" she asked.
Walt realized that she was now adrift in a world that had unexpectedly changed forever.
"Time to gather up the children and horses. I bet Jacob and Abigail could use a hot meal."
"You need to be tended to and a meal yourself," she said with a gentle tone.
"Children and stock first," he replied with a grin.
Michael McLean has been published in Saddlebag Dispatches, Frontier Tales, New Mexico Magazine, Fictitious (on Medium.com), Rope and Wire, and The Penmen Review. His story, "Backroads" won the 2012 Tony Hillerman Mystery Short Story Contest. McLean believes the less traveled and often lonely back roads of the West offer intimate access to the land, its people, and their stories. He lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with his wife, Sandie, and continues to explore the roads less traveled.
Facebook Author Page: https://www.facebook.com/michael1miner
Southwest Writers Page: Southwest Writers Author's Page
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by Raymond Paltoo
"Throw an extra log on the fire Moses. I want to see their faces." The room was dimly lit from the dying embers of the fireplace. I struck a match on my worn bootheel, and when it flared, I applied it to the wick of the oil lamp I had taken down from its familiar place on the Mantel-piece. It had been there when I left three years ago, and it was still there now that I had returned. The room brightened considerably.
"Yes, Suh! Major." And I could hear my Sergeant's footsteps and then the crackle of a fresh log catching fire. I could see their faces now, filled with fear and in hers, mixed with a certain stubborn defiance. I motioned for my men, all five of them, the ragged remnants of my troop which, at one time numbered a hundred fighting men, to stand against the walls of the room.
My homecoming should have been different; a plate of hot southern food and a bath and then to bed with my darling wife. I had waited three years for this, wading through muddy backwoods and bayous, dodging bullets and bayonets, fighting off the oft- humiliating diseases that came with war. Even with the cold seeping into my bones in winter, I had been buoyed by the thought of my home and the wife waiting for me. Now it had all turned to ashes. The taste in my mouth was bitter with the sting of defeat on all fronts. I had lost again! It was the Confederacy all over.
We had ridden all day to get here, hiding out among the bushes and groves of the forest to escape the marauding bands of Yankee blue bellies, lately grown vicious and vindictive after their victory. We were a beaten ragtag remnant of a once-proud troop of cavalry; our gray uniforms showed no other color but dirt. Our boots, those of us who still possessed any, were perforated by multiple holes in the soles through which mud and water squelched while we walked.
We had proceeded quietly for fear of arousing the local Yankee troopers, but as I entered the yard, I saw the light gleam through the glass panes of the windows. I had quietly moved to the door when I heard the laughter of a man mixed with the giggles of a woman I had recognized as my wife. My former house was quite a distance from the town, so I had no fear of being discovered once we entered
I froze and then drew my revolver and motioned my men with it to advance carefully as if we were on a reconnaissance patrol.
Flinging open the door, I stepped into the room. My wife shrieked, and her eyes widened in fear as she recognized me.
"Charles? Is it you?" she asked. But she knew. Even in my wild and bedraggled state, she recognized me. The unshaven face and uncut hair could not hide me.
"Yes. It is I. In person and at your service, Ma'am. These are my men." I was pretty controlled now with an icy calm. I rolled off the names of the five survivors in my best Southern gentlemanly accent, exaggerated no doubt by the hurt in my heart. "Now, you may enlighten me as to the name and nature of your visitor with whom you seem to be on extremely friendly terms," pointing to the almost naked man to whom she was clinging. Then, conscious of her pink charms on display, she quickly threw a robe around herself and said, "This is James. He was riding this way and dropped in for a visit and a cup of tea before going home."
"May I ask, where is your home, James?" I asked in a friendly way to prolong the conversation, knowing that he was acutely uncomfortable being caught with his pants down.
"Pull up your pants, James, and have a seat at the table. I feel that your cup of tea may be delayed for a while. You see, James, I happen to be Charles Feathers, husband to Rose here and the proprietor of this estate. I do not feel that Rose is quite up to the task at present, so I have no choice but to introduce myself."
I looked questioningly at Rose, but James finally spoke up. "You had gone so long that Rose thought you were either dead or captured and so . . . " His voice trailed off.
I filled in the gaps, "You enjoyed a few sessions together. How long, Rose?"
She looked at me openly defiant now, "About a year!"
I felt the bitter venom of betrayal enter my veins. The flickering fire cast shadows about the room where it did not touch. My soul had become frozen.
"Get dressed, Rose, and come sit at the table with James and me. A nice threesome." And I laughed harshly, jeeringly.
She threw on a plain, worn, home dress, tossed the robe on the couch, and came to sit at the table. Firelight played on her cheeks, turning them rosy. Her blonde hair flowed down to her shoulders. James had pulled up his pants and sat rigid in his chair.
"Moses, how long have you been with me?"
"Since we were boys together, Major. You know that." His lean, bearded face frowned in puzzlement at me.
"Then this is the last thing I will order you to do, Sergeant. If anything happens to me, leave these people alone and go where we planned," and I placed my gun on the table. I had taken it from a Yankee officer who would not need it anymore. It was a beautiful gun and brand new. It was no wonder the Yanks had won the war. They had the tools and the knowledge. Then, slowly and deliberately, I picked up the gun. It was well-oiled and smooth. It was one of the few things we tended carefully in the army, as our lives depended on it every day.
"This is a game, Rose. A game that gentlemen sometimes play. It is a game of chance. This gun is new and fancy. There are six chambers here and five bullets. I will give each of us one shot at a designated person. If I die, then all your problems are solved. My men will leave, and you two will be free to carry on as you were. If James here dies, then I was going to kill him anyway as it will be considered an affront to my honor if we still can use those words. No one cares about a man caught in bed with another man's wife. It is called a crime of passion. And if you die, then both our problems are solved. It is still a crime of passion, and I have neighbors and friends who will understand my feelings coming home from the war."
"And if no one dies?" She was still defiant.
"Then I will move on with my life and leave you with yours. I will go far away from here, and I will have to learn to forget you. Time has a way of blurring the memories, as you seem to know well." And I laughed harshly with the bitter gall of loss in my mouth.
I took the discarded robe from the couch, wrapped it around the gun, and fired four bullets into the fireplace. At every shot, sparks flared from the impact on the burning logs. James winced every time the bullets went into the fireplace, even though the robe muffled the sounds. I was not unduly worried by the sounds because I knew we were at least two miles from the town. I discarded the smoldering robe and threw it into the fireplace.
I turned to Rosie.
"Now, there is only one bullet in the chamber. Willing to take your chances?"
I spun the chamber once more and handed the gun to Moses. He took it with reluctance. I said, "me first, Moses. Fire at will," and I stared down into the mouth of the gun barrel.
The hammer fell with a click!
I spun the chamber again. "Now for James! Should I fire next, or will you do the honors, Rosie"
James said pleadingly, "I have a wife and children. Don't shoot. I am a Parson. Let me say my prayers first." His ashen face was beaded with sweat.
"Well, Well! A parson, married and with a family. Your sins are many, Reverend. Remember the commandment which says Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife!" I said jeeringly.
Rose looked at him in disgust and then said boldly, staring me in my face, "Shoot us, and it will be on your soul, Charles."
"I think my soul died in the war, Rose!" The gun came up, and I shot at the Reverend.
The pin fell on an empty chamber. Click!
"Well, Reverend, I see that your prayers have been productive. Now Rose. It is up to me. It is something called poetic justice. Remember the hole in New Orleans where I found you, brought you here, and gave you my name, a gentleman's name? I was a foolish boy then. Wasn't I?" I spun the chamber again.
She stood with her chin up, knuckles whitening as she clutched her old skirt, "I am sorry that it turned out this way, Charles. It was the war." And she stared me in the face, unafraid. I raised the gun and aimed it at her head, just between her wide-opened blue eyes.
My hand dropped. The gun I laid on the table. I looked at her and said, "You were right, Rose. I do still have a soul!"
A shudder went through the room.
I holstered the gun.
"Now, goodbye, my wife. It was nice knowing you! You will have the house and the estate."
"Where are you going, Charles?" She pretended to care about my future.
"We are going west to California and then to Oregon. The war did not reach there too much, I hear. I wouldn't trust this Reverend too much, Rose. Don't think he's much good!"
We went out to the horses and, after mounting, hid in a small copse of trees looking at the house. Soon, as I had foreseen, the Reverend James could be seen galloping down the road towards the town. I knew the Blue Bellies would be coming in a short while.
We turned and headed south to Mexico!
Ray is a retired Urologist living in Tampa, Florida. He was born in 1945 in the Caribbean and worked his way through College and Medical school in Canada. After specialization, he went to the Caribbean where he started a department of Urology for the government of Trinidad. He returned to the USA where he practiced in Southwest Kansas. He was a two-term secretary of the Kansas Medical Society. He is currently living and writing in Tampa and has published one novel, "ReBirth", dealing with humanity arising from a post-nuclear holocaust. He writes western and science-fiction stories.
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A Cowhand by Any Other Name
by Lloyd Mullins
Johnson County Jail, Buffalo, Wyoming
It occurs to me that names are a strange thing. They are a necessity that most strongly identifies us, and yet we have virtually no say in their choosing. Our parents name us according to whim before we can say anything about it. Others give us nicknames based on what they see in us, or what they want others to see us as. They are meant, by those who choose them for us, to represent us in our entirety but fall far short.
Looking through the bars of my window at the children playing in the street, I can already guess what their nicknames will be (if they're not already). Which ones will be "Fats", "Red", or "Shorty" just by looking at them. Although the chances are those sobriquets will follow them the rest of their lives, they are all based on superficialities, and those are just the white boys. I won't go into what many of the Mexican, Indian, Negro, or Chinese boys are likely are likely to be called, or any of the girls, regardless of race. Suffice to say the names probably won't be complimentary, but they will be how people will see the bearers of those names.
And of course, names, especially nicknames, can be dangerous, even to those who bestow them.
Those early days of cowpunching are among the happiest and most carefree days of my life. The work was hot, dusty, dangerous, and I loved it. I quickly mastered the arts of roping and "brush popping" and the long days in the saddle allowed plenty of time for thinking. I especially enjoyed being assigned to the most remote parts of the rancho. I would often spend a week or more alone, high on the side of a mountain, tending the herd, no one but a book or two for company.
Not that I didn't enjoy the company of the boys, who were a wild and fun-loving bunch. I was fascinated by stories about their homes, families, and backgrounds, and they listened—often with disbelief—to my tales, especially those of my time with the Buriat, and my journey to America.
They were an accepting lot—anyone who pulled his weight was welcome. They were accepting of pretty much anyone, regardless of where they were from or the color of their skin—within reason, anyway. I was delighted to have fallen in with such a good lot.
Some of the best times were spent with Dave and Jack. The former slave-owner's son, the former slave, and I worked well together, and we spent many happy days working cattle and camping under the stars, where we talked of many things around the fire. Dave was particularly intrigued by the philosophy I had read, particularly Locke's ideas about owning one's self1. For my part, I tried to reconcile the American ideals of freedom and equality with the "Peculiar Institution"2—the thing that had been my father's only reservation about the United States. Neither Jack nor Dave could really explain it. It was like a man trying to explain why he had hair. It just was.
Our conversations also cast new light on my own homeland, vis-à-vis serfdom, which I was equally unable to explain. Dave found it fascinating that our serfs were actually white men, while Jack used that fact to propose that Russia was no better than his—a position I heartily agreed with. In fact, he truculently proclaimed Russia even worse than the U.S. because our slaves were white. "It ain't right to own another man, but at least we don't keep our own kind as slaves," was how he put it, a comment which not only ended the discussion for the night but cast a pall over the mood of the next day or two.
One night, I told them the story of Gogol's3 Dead Souls, in which a man named Chichikov runs around purchasing the titles to serfs who had died since the last census. Those serfs were considered alive, officially, and since the serf's owners had to pay taxes on them until the next census (which occurred infrequently), many were only too happy to sell these non-existent yet taxable properties that existed only on paper. Chickikov's idea is that once he has acquired enough "souls", he will mortgage them to an unsuspecting bank and pocket the money.
Jack found the story hilarious. Dave sat deep in thought for a while and then said, "You Russians sure done us one better."
"What do you mean?"
"Well here at least, a slave's free when he dies. You boys have figured out how to keep him in chains and make money off him even when he's dead."
It struck me that while men like Jack and I could appreciate Gogol's satire, only someone like Jack, who had been a slave, would be likely to realize the true tragedy of the piece.
That perspective was made even more clear to me at a later date.
* * *
The full moon lit up the night almost like daylight. We were enjoying the cool of the evening each in our own way—I was watching Juan plaiting a mecate4, and listening to his stories of the Rancho from the old days, before Borland weaseled it out from under the old Patron, Don Alvaro. Juan's brothers Balduino, and Fabricio played mumblety-peg with Dave. Charlie Murphy was torturing his harmonica and stoically ignoring Jack's and Billy Smith's jibes. Bill, Zeke Walker and Enoch Taylor were grumbling and sharing a bottle—when Borland rode up with two men in tow.
"Boys," he said, "these here are Dave Schwinghammer and Dave O'Sullivan." He told the new men to get settled in, turned on his heel and stalked to the house.
Dave took charge of Borland's horse. "You fellas 'light and set. I'll get your horses settled tonight." They handed him their reins and he led their horses away.
Schwinghammer was a skinny little fellow, with thin arms that made his name seem a lie. O'Sullivan, on the other hand, was a huge brute of a man, big enough to make you feel sorry for the horse that has to carry him. They stowed their gear in the bunkhouse, came back out, and hunkered down with us.
Schwinghammer was from Wisconsin, with the slight Nordic accent of that region, and had come to California as a freighter and muleskinner, but "got tired of pulling splinters out of my backside. I figure I'd prefer a saddle for a seat."
O'Sullivan was fresh from "t' auld coontry" and had a thick, almost indecipherable Irish brogue. Like me, he'd quickly discovered that mining was not the sort of life he wanted: "I decided I'd rather be poor and see what's on the top of this land rather than underneath it." Of course, it sounded like "Oy disoided oy'druther be puir'n say whit's on top o dis land rather dan oondernaith't," but after repeating himself a couple times, we began to be able to start chopping through his accent to understand him.
Jack, ever the joker, spoke up. "Well, welcome to Dos Ríos Rancho, fellers. I reckon there's just one problem we're gonna have to deal with first, to make sure things keep working smooth around here."
"What problem would that be?" asked Schwinghammer.
"Well, it's simple," said Jack, "we just got too many Daves in this here outfit. How we gonna keep it all straight? I mean, 'sposing I need somebody in particular to help me with something? If I want Nate or Joe, I could just ask for 'em by name and everyone'd know who I wanted. But, what happens if I need a big man for moving something? I can't just ask for Dave, can I? The boys'd be just as likely to send the little Dave as the big. That won't do boys, it just won't do." He did allow that, since none of us knew the Daves yet, we couldn't use the time-honored tradition of basing the monikers on familiarity. "I think what we need is some temporary names to get us by 'til they earn one."
We all agreed that was an excellent solution to the problem and proceeded to toss out nicknames that we felt would prevent communication problems in the future.
The new Daves took the ribbing good-naturedly, and generally kept quiet, for of course it is a law of nicknames that the bearer cannot choose his own—although Dave Schwinghammer bristled when "Little Dave" was suggested for him. Most of the suggestions were intentionally ridiculous, but all were suggested in a spirit of bonhomie. We finally settled on "Dutch" for Schwinghammer, and "Big Dave" for O'Sullivan.
The newly christened Dutch and Big Dave shook hands all around, including Dave's, who had just returned from the corral. Dutch retrieved a bottle of whiskey from his gear, and we passed it around, toasting the newcomers.
"You forgot one," Bill said, surly as ever.
"One what?" I asked.
"One Dave. Why do these two need nicknames and he don't?"
"'Cause he was already here," said Jack. "He's the original Dave."
"It just don't seem right to me," said Bill, "treatin' him different."
Several of the boys backed Bill's position, mostly as a way of keeping the fun going. Dave himself remained silent on this subject, as he did on most things unless specifically addressed. In fact, "Quiet Dave" was one of the first names suggested. Others included "Original Dave", "Middling Dave", "Checkers", and "Brushy Dave".
Jack took another pull at the bottle. "How 'bout 'Black Dave'? Just keep it simple, like we did with Dutch and Big Dave. That way even new men would know who we're talking about." Several of the boys concurred.
"I'll go you one better," sneered Bill. "How about 'N----r Dave'?"
Dave remained silent on the subject, just got up and walked into the bunkhouse.
"Doggone it Bill," said Jack, "what's the matter with you? You just can't help trying to stir up trouble, can you?"
"What's the matter Jack, afraid I hurt your little pet's feelings? Can't he stand up for hisself? I reckon if he wants to be a man, he ought to learn to act like a man."
Several of the boys joined Jack in shouting Bill down. A few took Bill's side though, and the high spirits of the group were turning ugly when Dave returned from the bunkhouse. Everyone quieted down, curious to see what he was going to do.
Dave was stripped to the waist and barefoot. He stared at us for a moment, and then held his hands above his head, as he turned in a circle. The group went dead silent when the moonlight illuminated the mass of scars covering his back and shoulders—something he had always kept hidden. Someone let a long, slow whistle, and another muttered "D--nation" under his breath.
"I just want you all to see that I ain't armed," said Dave in a clear, steady voice, "before I get started. I ain't out to kill nobody, and I don't want nobody killing me." Then he raised his fists in a pugilistic attitude and said, "Come over here Jack."
Bill pushed forward through the boys to stand facing Dave. Bill was larger and heavier, but Dave's lean, whipcord-muscled body left no doubt in my mind that Bill was in for more of a fight than he expected. "What's the matter N----r Dave?" Bill blustered, "Can't stand up on your own hind legs like a man? You need your 'massa' to protect . . . "
"I ain't gonna fight you Bill," Dave said. "It's Jack I'm fixing to whup."
"What?" said Jack.
"I'm planning to whup your --s."
"What the h--l for? You d--nfool, I'm on your side. Why ain't you taking up against him?"
"Don't 'spect any better from him. Don't care what he has to say. He's just ignorant and mean, and ain't nothing ever gonna change that. You though, you're my friend, but I don't figure to 'low nobody to ever name me again 'thout my say so. 'Specially when you and me both know there ain't a hair's difference between 'black' and 'n----r'. You of all people ought to know better, but I guess you don't, so I'm fixin' to teach you." Looking at Bill, he said, "I'll deal with you later—if I have to."
"Now d----t Dave," Jack said, "you know I didn't mean nothing of the sort . . . "
"What you meant don't matter. It's what you said. Now put 'em up."
"No, doggone it . . . " Jack said, before Dave's punch set him back on his heels. "Alright now you're getting me mad . . . " Dave struck him again. "I'm sorry alright? I don't want to fight . . . "
I'm not sure if was Dave's third blow that changed Jack's mind, or the boys chuckling at his predicament, but Jack proceeded to enter the fight with a whole heart. He and Dave went at it hammer and tongs, punching, kicking, grappling, gouging, and biting for all they were worth, fighting like they were brothers while we encircled them, laughing and cheering them on. It was the best fight any of us had seen in quite a while.
The two were pretty evenly matched—one moment Dave would seem to be winning and the next Jack would have the upper hand—but Dave's wiry strength and endurance finally triumphed. Jack lay in the dust, propped up on one elbow, his other hand lifted to signal defeat. "Alright," he mumbled through split and swollen lips, "you win. I apologize. Your name's just Dave. That's all. And I'll whup the man that calls you otherwise—unless you'd druther do it yourself, o' course."
Dave smiled, spit out a tooth, offered his hand to Jack, and said through equally mangled lips, "I reckon that'd suit me right down to the ground." He pulled his friend to his feet. "It's been a pleasure whuppin' you."
Jack spat blood, and clapped Dave on the shoulder. "Nobody I'd druther be whupped by."
Dutch handed Dave the bottle, and held out his hand, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Just Dave." We all went dead silent, wondering how Dave would take that. Dave stood silently for a moment, staring into Dutch's smiling face, then threw back his head and laughed heartily. He shook Dutch's hand. "'Just Dave'," he said. "I b'lieve I like that. What do you think, Jack? Not that it matters."
"Not that it matters, but if you like it, I like it."
Just Dave handed the bottle to Jack and turned back to the boys. "Bill, you got anything to say?" he asked.
"Bill done remembered some business he needed to take care of in the stable," said Charley.
* * *
It strikes me now that most names given us by others, including our parents, are generally a matter of affection, or at worst, convenience, and if harmful, that harm is personal and usually superficial. It is the name a man gives himself that causes genuine harm to others. A self-named man wears a mask to hide his past and his true self from others and, while his assumed name may protect him, it all too often places those around him in unexpected danger. Always beware a man who changes his own name, no matter what position he may hold. He is not to be trusted.
1 Ed. Note: Probably from Locke's Second Treatise on Government, either from Chap. IV "Of Slavery" or Chap. V "Of Property"
2 Ed. Note: A common term for the American system of slavery.
3 Ed. Note: Nikolai Gogol, 1809-1852. Ukrainian author.
4 Ed. Note: Horsehair rope
Lloyd Mullins is the author of the historical novel To Be Free: The Life and Times of Nate Luck (currently seeking publication). He is also an U.S. Air Force veteran and a life-long student of American history, particularly the Old West. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in America's Emerging Literary Fiction Writers: Illinois, Indiana, & Iowa, Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Nonfiction, Indiana's Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Fiction, and Tributaries: The Indiana University East Journal of Fine Arts
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The Last Mountain Man
by Francisco Rey Davila
We were living in Osage, Kansas. It was where my Mary and I had been living for the last two years. We were Virginia born and raised, but Kansas had good soil and it was a growing land. My Mary and me, we had a dream to have the best farm in the state. Kansas land was rock bottom cheap and it was open land. A man could build grand if he had the will and gumption. Me and my Mary had more will and gumption than most and we had each other. Yes sir, Kansas fit right into our dream.
As soon as we got our land, we went to work. The first thing that we did was cut down some trees and built us a good house. We dug the foundations deep and we built our house strong and sturdy. Mary wanted a wood floor and even if it was a chore to split them logs, we made us a wood floor. It was the best house in all of Kansas.
Even as we were building our house, we were breaking soil for our crops. We were going to grow wheat and corn. Wheat and corn were money crops and the good Lord willing we were going to have a good crop our first year and a better one the next year and a better one every year after.
Them first two years were the hardest. We worked the land seven days a week from first light till after dark. We had us a small garden for fresh vegetables and I hunted wildlife for our meat. Back then they used to call any meat that was in the cooking pot wild turkey. Calling it turkey made the meal sound high class and special. My Mary had the gift. She cooked the best wild turkey stew in the whole state of Kansas. She cooked it with a touch of spice, our homegrown vegetables and a whole mess of love. The good Lord gave my Mary a heart bigger than the sky.
The summers were red hot and the winters were bone cold. Kansas winters have no mercy. They were full of wind and snow and freezing cold that would numb you right down to your bones. Me and Mary, we had our struggles but we had each other. That was our gift from God.
It was right at the end of that November when this mountain man came riding his bay horse right toward our front door. He rode his horse tall and proud like he had some injun in him. I had seen him riding in from a distance and I went and stood right on our front porch. We kept a rifle just inside the front door. A man had to be careful of strangers.
The mountain man was wearing wool and furs and he had on him some hard worn boots. Most of his face was covered in a full beard. He had a length of hair that went past his shoulders and right down his back.
When he got about fifteen feet or so from our front porch, he asked for some water from our well. He never got off his horse until I said yes. He went to our well and filled the bucket three quarters full just so he wasn't going to spill any water. A man doesn't waste someone else's water. The first thing that he did was to fill his hat and give his horse a drink. A man like him prides his horse like it was a part of him.
My Mary had been in the house. She was smart and cautious when it came to strangers. My Mary had more sense than most and she had good instincts. Mary came out and handed him one of our tin cups just so he could have a respectful drink. He drank his water slow and easy. Wouldn't you know Mary had gone into the house, but she wasn't gone for more than a heartbeat. Mary handed that mountain man a plate of her turkey stew. It was chuck full of our fresh vegetables and it was fresh cooked. That mountain man kinda looked at my Mary like he had a mind to say no, but Mary just handed him some of her fresh country bread to dip into the stew.
I had the notion he was hungry, but he was a prideful man and a prideful man doesn't ask for his supper. He took that plate of stew from my Mary and he ate his meal real slow and easy. When he got done with his eating, he handed the empty plate to my Mary and then he said "obliged". He didn't say a word more. He wasn't a talking man but he had respect.
He just got on his bay and rode away. Me and Mary stood on our porch and we watched him ride away until we couldn't see him anymore. The truth was that the time of the mountain man was almost gone. They were a vanishing breed. It made us both feel a real deep-down pride to see one of his kind before they were all gone.
That coming winter was a mean and cold one. The snow came down like it was in buckets and it seemed to keep right on coming with no letup. Mary and me had managed to cut our crops and take them to market. We even bought us a milking cow. It was a special time for me and my Mary because we were expecting our firstborn.
We had stocked up on enough food to last us till the snow was gone and I had enough feed in the barn for our horses and for our new milk cow. It was my chore to feed the animals every morning. It was a mighty cold walk from our house to the barn and back, but a man takes care of his property the best that he can. We had two plow horses that had strength and grit and our new milk cow didn't need no coaxing to share her milk. She was our reward for going without for two years. A man takes pride in all the things he worked hard to earn.
It was the week before Christmas when we began to hear a wolf howling. This was a lobo wolf and he was howling because he was hungry. His hunger was pushing him right to our house. A wolf like that could kill all of our livestock. I kept a good watch out for that wolf, but it wasn't good enough. It wasn't no more than two nights later that I was laying asleep in our bed when I heard our milk cow mooing and bellowing in the barn. That lobo had got into our barn and he was getting at our cow.
I yanked on my boots and grabbed my rifle, but by the time I got to the barn that lobo had killed our milk cow. He was tearing at her belly when I ran in, but he didn't run away when he saw me. That lobo came right at me. I turned my rifle on him and took a shot. The truth is that I didn't have time to aim. I just got scared. That lobo he must have got scared too because he slammed into me and ran out of the barn. I got up as quick as I could but he had run off. I wasn't rightly sure that I had shot him till a I saw some specks of blood on the ground. That wolf had a bullet in him. That made him the most dangerous critter on earth. He was hurt and he was in pain, but he had tasted meat and that meant that he was coming back.
I cut up our milk cow as best I could and I buried the meat. That lobo could have been rabid. The only thing left to do was to go after that lobo and put him down before he came back. I saddled up one of our horses and got me some supplies from the house. Mary kept wishing that I didn't have to go out after that lobo but it wasn't like I had a choice. I kissed my Mary goodbye and went out after him.
I chased after that lobo for almost a full day. That winter wind and cold made it slow going. At first, I followed his tracks, but the snow got heavier and buried all the tracks. I just kept figuring where he was headed and kept pushing. I never was a man to kill just for the killing but that wolf had come to our house and he was sure to come back.
I was riding into a patch of trees when my horse reared up on me. He reared right up and threw me off his back. He threw me so hard that I slammed against them trees. It was then that I saw that lobo charging right at me. He was coming in hard and fast but I couldn't get to my feet. That old horse of ours saved my life because he started jumping and kicking and got in between me and that wolf. That lobo slammed him into ground and tore into his throat.
I turned my rifle on that lobo wolf and kept firing right at him. He jumped off our horse and came charging right at me. That wolf was a murderous thing to see. He was snarling and growling and was covered in blood. I lay on my side and just kept pulling the trigger on my rifle, but that old lobo kept charging at me like he wasn't feeling no pain. I swear that he was no more than a foot in front of me when he fell down dead. The truth was that I had a bit of pride in me for that lobo. He went down fighting and he had no quit in him. A man can't fault an animal for being what the good Lord made him.
That horse of ours had thrown me into the trees and my right leg had slammed into one of trees and the bone had snapped right below my knee. The pain hadn't hit me until after I had killed that lobo, but it hit me mighty hard right after.
Our horse was laying on its side and his throat was open and bleeding something awful. I could see the pain in his eyes. That horse and me had done some good hard work together. I never had cause to say a hard word against him. The only thing that I could do for him was to stop his pain. I crawled over to him and took my side knife to him. I cut him clean and quick. I touched his head for a moment and I said a prayer to help him on his way to heaven.
It was then and there that I saw the fix that I was in. I was stranded in the middle of a snowstorm without a horse and I only had one good leg to get me home. Our house was a good days ride away and more than that on foot. I wrapped up my right leg just as tight as I could. The doing of it caused me a heap of pain but I had to keep the broken bone from moving as best as I could. The only thing to do after that was to get to my feet and get myself back home.
It was a chore getting to my feet and considerable more to get myself moving. I used my rifle as a crutch, but the going was slow and hard. I can't say how long that I kept trudging in the snow. It was more than some hours. I kept going the best that I could, but the wind and the snow kept working against me the whole way.
The wind kept slapping me in the face and the cold air was stiffening me right down to the muscle and the bone. I prayed to the good Lord to keep pushing me. I had a good woman waiting for me and we had us a baby coming. No snowstorm was going to stop me from being where I had to be. Me and Mary and that baby in her belly, we had us a ways to go yet. We had us a future.
The storm got so bad that I couldn't see no more than five feet in front of me. The storm kept getting stronger, but my body kept getting weaker. The good Lord kept me going, but traveling on only one good leg was working against me. It was a chore to keep my balance. When my balance gave out I fell to the ground and landed right on my broke leg. The pain hit me so hard I let out a scream like a baby calf. Try as I might, I couldn't get my left foot underneath me and get back on my feet. The more I tried the more I kept sinking into the snow. I gave it my all, but it didn't seem like it was going to be near enough. It was right then that I asked the Lord to take good care of my Mary and our baby. It wasn't like I was done trying, but the odds against me was mighty powerful. The most important thing was for my Mary and our baby to be taken care.
It was right then that I got yanked up to my feet like I was no more than a rag doll. Something powerful got hold of me and shook the snow off me. I looked up and saw that mountain man. He tossed me on his shoulder and he starts walking. The wind and the snow kept hammering at him and me, but he just pushed himself right through like it didn't mean a damned thing to him.
The pain in me had weakened me some. I was a might feverish. I can't rightly describe our traveling real well, but I can describe him. He was bear strong and full of grit. He had on those snowshoes with the webbing on them like the injuns wear. Like I said a man couldn't see no more than five feet in front of him, but the man that was carrying me on his shoulders, he was the last of his kind. He had no quit in him. He took him a path and he stayed right on it.
He fought that damned snowstorm and pushed himself one step after the other. The world seemed to stop moving. The only thing that was moving was him and me. He never spoke a word the whole time. He never did nothing but fight that damned snowstorm like it was a living thing.
We had been going for some time and then he stopped walking and stood still. He stood still in the middle of the snowstorm and then he took him a hard deep breath. He had to be bone tired and wore out. I had the notion that he didn't have the strength to carry me any further. He was swaying on his feet and breathing hard. Most any man would have dropped me and left me to die. I had the notion that if he had dropped me, he wouldn't have had the strength to pick me back up again. I didn't want to die, but I didn't say nothing to him. He had done more than most would have done. I wasn't going to give him any guilt for leaving me. No man on God's green earth could have done better.
That mountain man just stiffened his back and he commenced walking again. Me and him were moving like we were just one person. The wind and the snow kept biting and tearing at us, like it had a grudge against us. It didn't want us to keep trudging on. It wanted us to quit and die but there was no quit in him. He pushed himself like he was three man strong. There wasn't no stopping him, because stopping meant dying and a man like him wasn't meant to die easy. Twice more he stopped and twice more he started back up again. The last time he stopped he fell to his knees and put his head down and he held it there for no more than a minute. When he lifted his head back up, he let out a roar like he was a giant grizzly bear. It was like he was roaring at the wind and the snow. He was telling them that he wasn't done yet.
Him and me just kept on moving. He fought the wind and the snow and he carried me all the way to our front door. He banged his fist hard on our front door. When my Mary opened up the door, we were so bone frozen she damned near had to drag us inside.
The good Lord had been with me and him. Neither me nor that mountain man had got any lasting damage. My leg needed setting and Mary done a fine job of it. That mountain man he had gotten some frostbit on his hands and on his toes and even some on his face. Mary put lard on his frostbit areas and he didn't lose no body parts. Mary fed us and tended us. The goodness in her helped us heal right quick. That mountain man he slept on our wood floor right near the fireplace for three nights. He never said no more than five words the whole time.
My Mary asked him his name. It was a woman's question. A man wouldn't have asked, but a woman was allowed. He said his name was "Tolan". The next morning he got his gear together and he left. He never did say goodbye. He just walked right back into the middle of the snowstorm.
That was the last we ever saw of Tolan, the mountain man. I owed that man my life. When our son was born, he came into the world growling like a bear and full of grit. We named him Tolan because a good man's name must never die.
Francisco Rey Davila, 71, is a husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, and Marine. He worked as a fruit picker, janitor, steelworker, special police officer, and hospital worker. He has a Bachelor's degree from Buffalo State College and is an admirer of the American pioneers and the wild west.
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A Twin's Revenge
by Tom Sheehan
In 1857 the wagon train came west to Wyoming, to Torson Valley, so fertile and rich-looking that Dabney Brunton bought a nice big piece of it along a stream that carried clear mountain water. His wife Lila had twin boys, 6 years of age, Roy and Rob. En route, without any warning, the wagon train was assaulted by a large group of horsemen. None of them were Indians from the Plains tribes. None of them were half breeds or renegades, a mix of red and white, but all of them were white men as cruel as false dawn is on some bad days.
As a precaution at the start of the journey, Brunton had slung a couple of thick boards spanning the underside of his wagon where his sons could hide if the wagon train was attacked. It had worked for Roy Brunton, but Rob never reached that haven when the big attack came. He was killed by a single bullet, fired by a man with a bulbous nose and narrow eyes. The boy was buried beside the trail after the attackers were driven off.
Dabney Brunton made a cross for the grave out of the board that could have saved Rob's life if he had reached that small hideaway under the wagon bed.
Lila Brunton said the final words for her son Rob while holding Roy's hand.
She did not let go of his hand all that day, though the boy kept looking back toward the grave for much of time. For a month of nights, he had fiery, evil dreams of "Pigface," a name he assigned to his brother's killer. That name too was a personal secret.
Roy had seen the face of the man who killed his brother, hesitated on telling his parents, and finally did not tell them. It was not long after, in deep thought in the half-built cabin at the end of the rich Wyoming valley, when he realized his dreams were keeping visible the face of the dread killer; for a purpose.
The image stayed with him for years, clear as a reflecting image on the face of a still pond. And the details of that man never faded; he brought them back every day of his life thereafter: the bulbous nose asserting a porcine look, the eyes so narrowly spaced they might be attached by that ugly nose itself, a brow high as it was broad, and a pair of weak-looking, sloping shoulders that hung so low they seemed to be without much support.
In the short years following, Lila Brunton gave birth to two more children in that Wyoming Valley, but she too looked backward each day toward that hallowed spot where her son Rob was buried beside the trail. Though Roy, growing solid and tall each day, was a fine son, and younger children Amanda and Roger took much of her time, the void in her life was constantly with her until the day she discussed the fateful attack with Roy who had come into his 17th year as a steady hand for his father. The ranch, without surprise, grew apace with him.
The discussion, which she initiated, centered on the lack of attention that Roy exhibited for his younger siblings. "Roy," she said outright, "I know you work like a slave for your father and me, but Amanda and Roger love you so much, even though you do not seem to love them back half as much. The seeming distance disturbs me greatly. But I do not want to discuss it with your father, who has his own way with things. You know how driven he is to increase this ranch in every aspect, but I feel much of that energy neutralizes the loss of Rob. Your father loved him the way he loves you."
Roy, more sensitive than his mother thought, had seen much of it coming the way it did. "Mom, I have looked back every day since Rob died, every single day of my life, just as you do. He's my twin brother. We were paired from the beginning. None of that goes away from me and I know it has not gone away from you. I had dreams for so long I thought I had gone to Hell for bearing so much hatred and sorrow at the same time."
"Oh, Roy, you never said a word, though we knew things bothered you all get out. I kept from saying anything about Rob because I hoped it would slip back into the past for you and not haunt you the way it's haunted me."
Roy saw the blue pain sitting in his mother's eyes. Memory told him her eyes had been that way for a long time; that was as long as he had thought about Pigface. It made him wonder about his father, how that man had hidden the pain, though he had been busy, it seemed, forever. From the time they bought the land, dropped the first tree, set up the first stone of the hearth, put down the first seed, brought in the first bull, twisting the tail all the way to the first corral. Work, he realized, obviously had replaced sorrow, though it could never erase it.
Roy figured it was time to tell his mother what it was like with him, thinking it might alleviate some of her sorrow. "Mom, I never told you or Pa that I saw the man who killed Rob. I have seen his face every day of my life and so many nights in dreams I couldn't count them. But if I ever see him, I will know him in a second, no matter what he looks like now, how he has aged, what time has done to him. Rob will be avenged, that is my life's work coming. I will become a sheriff, or a deputy, and that man's death will be legal. That is a promise I make to you right now, as your son, as Rob's twin brother . that Pigface will pay for killing my brother."
Lila Brunton thought there was so much hard steel and fire in her son's eyes that in one sparse moment she let go the anguish and pain carried nearly visible on her person for ten solid years. Those feelings fled like balloons let loose to the sky, for her son had also carried the pain for her. Someone truly shared with her. She did not blame her husband, who had been a hard worker from pre-dawn until late-bed for those ten years.
On days following, a new spirit working its will in her body and her mind, she began to see things about the ranch, and her husband, a bit differently, but also continued to watch Roy with a keener eye. The break-out, she realized, would come sometime, after certain demands made themselves known in the maturing young son she loved twice as much since his revelations. It was a love that she thought was not possible, so much pain had preceded it.
"Lila," her husband said early one evening, "you're like the girl I first met. I see the change and I'll have you know none of this has been lost on me. No particular surprises from me now, but I realize as much as you that Roy is working his way to a special place in his life. He will do as he wills, I am sure of that. He has grown into a remarkable young man that this ranch needed every step of the way, no matter how hard I worked on it. He has been a godsend, but his mission in this life has yet to be completed. We must pray for him every night and every dawn as his day starts. Rob, I am sure, watches with us. We'll let Amanda and Roger grow into all of it. We'll let them have their time. Roy was robbed of his early, just as Rob was."
As her pain and anguish had fled into the skies earlier, she now rushed into her husband's arms, the circle in their lives almost gone the full cycle.
Meanwhile, while the transformation proceeded in the family, Roy Brunton did his civic duties as well as ranch duties. He went on at least a dozen posse runs after bandits, robbers, killers in the great Wyoming valley where the family had made a new and successful life. Becoming a sure tracker, a reader of men on the run and their habits that let slide hints and clues of their passages, he was hailed as a new force in criminal tracking, treatment and pay-back.
"Hey, Roy," the sheriff once said while they were on posse, "How in heck did you know that scoundrel went up there in them rocks where we can't go in any hurry and where no one can last very long, with no water up in there?"
"That one's easy, Sheriff," Roy explained. "Before he robbed the bank he'd been in the general store and bought, mind you, bought, four canteens. He was not going far, not on that old mount Timmons from the livery said he rented; he was going long, meaning for a long time in the rocks and caves.
"When I saw where he broke off those burrs, I just figured he wanted to set off that old critter, with burrs under his saddle, on a long run for us to chase foolish like and had another mount tethered off in some place near those rocks, like maybe in the cave where we found it. The man was thinking but never thought one of us would cotton to his tricks."
"I tell you, son, no man ever on a posse with me could figure that one out.
"That makes you special in my mind. You should be sheriff someday."
"I aim to be, Sheriff," Roy Brunton replied, and all who heard him say it believed it.
The posse was skirting a huge bend in the river east of Torson Valley, with the day gathering down to evening. They had not seen a sign of their prey this side of the river and the sheriff offered that they ought to head back or hole up in the nearest town and start out the next day back at the last sign.
"Who's for heading back and who's for wetting his throat and holing up in Scattercross?" He looked first at Roy Brunton, sitting his horse right beside him.
"I'm heading into Scattercross," Roy said, "no matter who says what."
"You going searching again, Roy?" the sheriff said, fully aware that Roy Brunton never missed a chance to check out a new town or a town he had not been in for a while.
The nine-man posse broke off in pairs that wandered into town, wetting their whistle, looking for an old friend, seeking lodgings such as above the livery or with a friend or relative. The sheriff and his deputy made for the sheriff's office. Roy Brunton, as always, dallied around town, looking in windows, visiting the general store, window shopping in a few glass-fronts, and checking out the barber shop.
Late in the evening, when most traffic came to one of the two saloons, he dropped into the first saloon, looked around, and left.
The second saloon, The Great Divider, was a different story.
He gasped, though inaudibly, as he entered The Great Divider, slipping in through the swinging doors as soft as a shadow. In the large mirror gracing much of the wall background behind the bar, he saw in absolutely clear reflection, as in many of his dreams, the dreaded, deadly, haunting visage of Pigface. The murderer of his twin brother was dealing the cards in a game with four other players at a poker table. The dealer did not look up, but kept dealing the cards. He did not see Roy Brunton walking slowly towards him and his tablemates.
But off in one corner sat the posse sheriff, his eyes on Roy Brunton as he approached the poker table where Pigface sat. The sheriff, scowling, indecision showing on his face, searched his mind quickly for the details that lingered about the man.
Criminals, those who evade jail-time for much of their active lives, must depend for survival, and their continued freedom, on certain abilities or senses that include perception, intuition, and suspicion. Without using perception, not having seen Brunton at this point, and not employing suspicion, he was suddenly brought aware of his intuition trying to shake loose of the poker game. Something new hovered about him. Because of the intrusion of intuition, he sat straight up in his seat, but had not moved otherwise.
Pigface's real name was Moke Oliver, and the strangest thing with that brutal murderer was his evasion of any jail time in his long criminal history. Some might call it luck, but lawmen know that odds always swing around eventually. That information was also shared by jailers and prison wardens, like the top dog in Yuma Territorial Prison and other such places where reality always touches down like a bird from flight. Wardens are those men being the last custodians of luck, all of it finally gone sour for the bad guys of the west. Somewhere, in the penal system, a warden was waiting for Moke Oliver . unless an avenging twin got in the way.
As Moke Oliver sat there at the poker table with murderous friends and saddle pards, any on-looker would have seen the give-away character-molding signs that lingered on his person: he was as ugly as a sty, mean as a carrion-seeker, self-centered as a judge in a kangaroo court, and as hungry as a newborn. The signs also said distance should be maintained, meaning "stay away from Moke Oliver."
But Roy Brunton was approaching him, his hands positioned at his sides, poised. The sheriff felt fate in the air.
Upright in his seat, Oliver was also acutely aware that luck may have shifted its place of operations.
More than seeing the shadow descending on his person, he felt the weight of an old crime descending with it. The particular crime did not reveal itself, but it was present in some manner, in some form.
The full shadow of Roy Brunton descended over the back of Moke Oliver, fell upon the poker table, on the money mounding in the pot. And young Brunton, rage beginning to assemble itself in huge cumbersome doses, could have shot Oliver right then and there. But something held him back. Perhaps it was his twin brother casting an alarm, or his mother's words about the horrors of revenge coming into place for the last time.
His gun was in his hand.
Oliver looked into the large mirror behind the bar and saw Brunton with the drawn gun. "You don't look like a bushwhacker, kid, and I know I never saw you before, so what's this all about?"
"It's about murder, mister, a murder I saw you commit. You killed a six-year-old boy more than 15 years ago and I've been looking for you all that time."
"You're crazy, kid. I never kilt no six-year-old boy in my whole life." But he felt the weight of some shadow still pushing down on him. "Where was this supposed to be, this killing?"
Brunton waved his gun again, saw the sheriff standing now across the room along with the Scattercross sheriff, and said, "15 years ago, in the Walters Pass. You shot a six-year-old boy as he was trying to hide under a wagon."
"You're still crazy, kid. I never saw you before in my life, and 15 years ago, how the hell old was you then anyway?"
"I was six, Pigface. And I was under the wagon and his name was Rob and he was my twin brother. I saw you do it. I saw you shoot him like he was a sheriff chasing you or some grown-up who had already lived a lot."
"What did you call me, kid?" Moke Oliver said, as if being called that name was worse than being called the murderer of a six-year-old boy.
"I called you Pigface 'cause that's all I could ever remember about you. And you can ask any man in this room, including the sheriffs over there what they'd remember about you if they only saw you once."
There was only a slight movement of the players at the table. The Scattercross sheriff said, "Don't do it, boys. None of you. First man tries to help this killer of a six-year-old kid gets hung along with him."
Four pairs of revolvers, in the hands of the law, were trained on the table.
Moke Oliver, looking at his pards, felt the weight of the long shadow still laying its hugeness on him, and Roy Brunton, like his mother, felt something let itself loose in the night.
He'd have to tell his ma and pa how it all felt. He no longer had any visions of being a sheriff, and saw himself content as a rancher, like his father, which is why they had all come west in the beginning.
Sheehan, in his 95th year, bothered by macular degeneration, racing time, has published 57 books, latest from
Pocol Press, The Townsman and The Horsemen Cometh and Other Stories, Small Victories for the Soul VII, and The
Grand Royal Stand-off at Darby's Creek and Other stories. He has multiple works in several sites. He recently
won first prize for his book of poetry, The Saugus Book and an Ageless Press short story contest. He served in
Korea 1950-52, graduated from Boston College in 1956, and retired in 1991.
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