January, 2023

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Issue #160

All The Tales

The Gambler
by Sharon Elwell

Edward Waite — 1850

I met the stagecoach the day Eleanor Dumont came to town. Actually, I met every stage. As editor of the Nevada Courier, I always looked for news. The city of Nevada in 1850 (later called Nevada City) was not a hotbed of stories—unless you count the occasional bar fight or the shooting of a claim jumper. Since President Polk announced in 1848 that California had "gold in abundance," people were pouring into town—most of them men.

Many of these men were still living in brush shanties, cloth strung over boards, and washing their clothes in the creeks. But they were making money—on some claims as much as $400 a day. Prices were high: fifty cents for an egg. Women who could bake or do laundry were earning as much as the men. I saw a man shell out thirty dollars for an apple pie! And President Polk was right about the abundance. Eventually, $440,000,000 in gold would come out of these hills. Much of it would go to the "pocket miners," people like Levi Strauss, Henry Wells, William Fargo—and Eleanor Dumont.

I was lounging on a chair outside my office, notebook in hand, when the coach pulled in. I was hoping to interview a new arrival, but I was not prepared for her. Blue satin ruffles and French-heeled shoes were things I hadn't seen since I left the United States.

I put a hand up to shield my eyes—the way you do when the light is too bright. Eleanor was a sudden burst of color in our dusty town. She was tiny, but it was impossible not to notice her. And while I stood—I'm pretty sure my mouth was hanging open—she walked directly to me and said, "Perdon, monsieur. You can help me find ze Hotel Fipps?"

In a stupor, I pointed the way without saying anything. She moved rapidly up the street, and I had to run to offer to carry her carpetbag.

She gave me a mocking look, and shook her head. "No, zank you. I care for myself."

While I tried to think of the next thing to say, she had already entered the Fipps Hotel.

Ten days later, she marched into my newspaper office. Half asleep at the desk, I was typesetting an advertisement for Grandma Barnes, who made and sold lye soap. Startled to see the mademoiselle, I jumped to my feet. She smiled at my discomfort. "I am needing 20 copies of a handbill. I announce the gala opening of the Vingt-et-un. There is to be music and free champagne. You can make for me, yes?"

I could make for her. Yes.

The mystery was solved. Mademoiselle was a gambler! Vingt-et-un, it turned out, was French for 21, and she had rented a building on Broad Street to open a gaming parlor.

The handbill said that violinists were coming from Sacramento for the opening. I laughed to myself reading that. Apparently she had no understanding of the men who would be her customers. Fiddlers, sure, but violinists? I doubted that anyone in Nevada City had even tasted champagne. These men were whiskey drinkers. The handbill said formal dress was de rigueur, which made me chuckle. The mademoiselle had come to the wrong place.

The moment she left for her hotel, I headed to Broad Street to see for myself. Looking over the swinging doors into the once-vacant room, I saw men hanging chandeliers, washing windows, and setting up tables and chairs. Boxes of champagne bottles lined the walls. Apparently our newest arrival had endless cash in her carpetbag. There must have been ten men at work in that room.

On the night of the grand opening, I dug out a suit and necktie, tucked my notebook into a pocket, and walked to the 21 Club. Music poured into the street. Men were already entering, removing their hats and slicking their hair with nervous fingers. Women were not allowed in the 21.

Inside, Eleanor welcomed us and indicated seats around four tables. Each table had six vacant chairs and a smiling young man with slicked-back hair and a deck of cards in his hand. When all of us were seated, she grandly took her place at the head table.

Waiters in white shirts circulated with champagne flutes on trays, and violinists strolled by. I might have been in New York City or San Francisco. My surprise only increased as the evening wore on. Profanity and any form of crude behavior was forbidden. I saw men gamble, lose money, and struggle to express their frustration without cursing. The Bolton brothers stood behind the mademoiselle's table to ensure that her rules were obeyed.

One-eyed Sam Caldwell looked up with surprise when I took a seat beside him at Eleanor's table. "Well, well, well, Professor. I didn't know they taught gambling in those fancy colleges back East."

Unprovoked, I answered, "I suppose I can learn. How hard can it be if you can do it?"

Sam laughed, and Eleanor smiled at me. "You will play?"

Oh, yes. I would play. I had never gambled, but it turns out that 21 is not hard to learn at all. The object is to get the highest number on the cards in your hand without going over 21. Face cards count as 10 and the ace can be one or 11, depending on how you want to play it.

Each player is dealt two cards, one face up, and can ask for another up to five times. When all players at the table have all the cards they want, the hands are revealed. The player whose cards add up to the highest number wins.

Eleanor seemed to always remember what had been dealt and correctly calculate the odds that the next card would be a low number or a high one. Some suspected she cheated, but no one could figure out how it was done and eventually we all accepted the fact that she was just better at the game.

The 21 soon expanded to a larger room, renamed the Dumont Palace and big enough for 12 tables in play. Eleanor took on Dave Tobin, a professional gambler I would never have trusted, to manage the daily business operations. Miners poured into the Dumont Palace every night. Fortunes were lost in that room.

On a normal Saturday night I lost my stake quickly. But I kept coming back. Eleanor's dark curls, her flashing rings as she dealt the cards: I was mesmerized.

For months I had been trying to work up the nerve to ask Lydia Townsend to marry me. We had ridden out together on Sunday afternoons, and I know that she considered that almost an engagement. I liked Lydia well enough. She was pretty, and independent. She made a tidy living for herself selling baked goods. I'm the first in line for a good pie, and I never had to pay for one after I started courting Lydia. She was well-mannered, not rough-hewn like the women who seemed determined to prove themselves as tough as the men. But her quiet manner dimmed in the flash of Eleanor Dumont's jeweled fingers and tinkling laugh. I was smitten, and I'm pretty sure Lydia could see that, although she never asked what I was doing on the evenings when I did not call on her.

We went on that way for months. Every evening would find me dressed in a suit and string tie, losing money at the 21 if I had money to lose, sipping lemonade on Lydia's front porch when I did not. I had many long conversations with myself about this unhealthy pattern. I was well aware that my double-mindedness was unfair to Lydia—and unfair to myself. I felt guilty every time I walked through those swinging doors. But I went back again. And again.

I had purchased a tract of land on a hillside near town, and started a savings to build a house. Now I had gambled my way through most of that money. I knew it was foolish. But as the sun went down and music poured into the street from the 21, I was pulled inside.

I determined to rent a horse and carriage on a lovely, sunny day, and invite Eleanor to the hillside where I planned to build my dream home. I would walk her through the idyllic future I envisioned.


Flirting was part of my job. Mimicking a French accent, paste jewelry and silks, hinting at possible future liaisons: these were all part of the mystique I was obliged to maintain. Each customer who got a sly wink or a wicked smile thought himself my favorite. It's a business. I didn't pretend to have skills beyond the fact that men found me attractive, and I understood numbers. Those assets do not endure. I knew that my looks and my skill, like the Gold Rush itself, were not endless. My career might be brief. I had no family on whom I could depend. I had to remain focused on making money while I could.

But I was attracted to Edward. He was the tallest man in any room, with one lock of hair that persistently fell over his eyes. He was friendly, and never seemed to take offense when jokes were made at his expense, mocking his naiveté, calling him "Professor." The unmannerly men around us sometimes seemed to have lost all recollection of civilized behavior—coming unwashed into my Palace, spitting on the floor if not admonished.

I found myself watching for him every evening, waiting for him to walk through the swinging doors. My attention was diverted, and I was aware of a sinking feeling when he did not appear. I felt disappointed if he could not get a place in my game. I sent away more than one player who was leaving good money on the table to create a spot for Edward. My feelings were beginning to cost me.

One Sunday afternoon, Edward invited me to go for a carriage ride. I knew it was dangerous. His reputation would be sullied if he were seen with me, and my feelings for him could unravel my air of aloof mystery. But I was bored. More than that, I was lonely. Mostly, I was just plain curious. I had never felt this longing toward a man, and it surprised me.


I packed a basket with boiled eggs, cheese, apples, and one of Lydia's meat pies. I tried to ignore a wave of guilt as Lydia put the pie, still warm and carefully wrapped in a cloth, into my hands. I hoped she did not divine how I planned to share it.

I brought a quilt to spread on the grass in a scenic spot overlooking the valley. Here I planned to build our house. We could see all the way into the Sacramento valley from my hillside—and share a glimpse into our future together. I would have ordered one of her violinists if I could have afforded it. I would present Eleanor with a vision of our home on that hillside: our beautiful children playing merrily, our vegetable garden, our chickens, Beulah, our beloved Guernsey milk cow, the smell of fresh-baked bread, servants. This would become our paradise. I planned to paint an irresistible picture.


The warmth of his excitement was contagious. The flush on his cheeks as he helped me from the carriage caused my own heart to pound. I had flirted with dozens of men, but this fluttery feeling was something I had not encountered. I could think of nothing to say. Luckily, Edward had enough words for both of us.

The first shock of reality came as he spread a quilt and opened the picnic basket. I was literally brought back to earth, astonished that he expected me to sit on the ground. It was no easy matter to place the hoop in my skirt, seat myself inside the hoop and arrange my petticoats so they did not fly up. I tried to hold onto the good feelings, but they were already slipping away.

Like the serpent in the garden, he handed me an apple and said, "Your life here with me will be transformed. No dealing cards to uncultured ruffians. We will build a school for the children, and a church where all will be welcome. As the Courier expands its reach, we will gather news from other towns and make it the biggest newspaper in the West. We will host famous entertainers—maybe Lola Montez or Lotta Crabtree."

He leaned back on his elbows, and gazed into the distance. "I could run for office." He took my hand as he continued. "You would be a charming hostess, and . . . what I'm trying to say, Miss Dumont, is that the future belongs to us. We can shape it to our dreams."

My increasing discomfort had to do with my perch on the lumpy ground, but also with the picture he was painting. I calculated probabilities for a living. At the turn—and this was clearly the turn—the cards were going the wrong way.

Who would bake that sweet-smelling bread? Who would bandage the scraped knees of those beautiful children? Who would milk that patient Guernsey? Wives and mothers needed many more skills than I possessed.

And who would sit without squirming through the dull sermons in that church? I was finding it difficult enough to sit on this quilt for an hour, listening to him. The games I played were won or lost in minutes, in an atmosphere of constant excitement. I had no patience for plans that required days, months, or years of plodding.

I caught a clear vision that afternoon, but it was not the one that Edward hoped. I saw that I was not a wife or a mother, and it would take more than a Sunday afternoon picnic to change that. Still, I was drawn to this man with a feeling that may have been what people call love. I did not release my hand from his.

Edward indeed had the makings of a mayor, judge, or even a governor. My heart sank as I realized that I would be an impediment to the future he was envisioning. I longed to ignore his words and simply lean into him! But he kept talking.

He saw me as a woman wronged by fate, a soiled dove in need of rescue. He would never have believed the truth of the matter—that I had chosen my life of my own free will. The man was a dreamer. But I was not.

I could not bear to break his heart. I would have to make him think he was refusing me, rather than the other way around. At that moment, I had no idea what to do. Pleading a headache caused by the glare of the sun, I managed to get us off the hillside and headed back to town.

As we rode toward the livery stable, the disapproving glances of the bonneted women coming out of Sunday services confirmed my resolve. Then the idea came to me. I knew the one person who could help me put an end to this doomed relationship without hurting Edward.


On the ride back to town, I was dispirited. My description of our future had not produced the desired result. Eleanor's grim expression may have come from the headache she was suffering. Such things seem to be common among women. But she gave no sign that she was enchanted with the idyll I envisioned for us.

Very well. If Eleanor Dumont would not come into my life, I would make a place for myself in hers. I was reasonably intelligent. I would learn the gambling business. I would show that I could do more for her operation than print up handbills. My lack of skill at cards belied that argument, but I could learn. I had seen her sudden smile each time I entered her establishment. And I knew the one person who could help me find a place in her business—and in her heart.


If Lydia Townsend was surprised to find me on her doorstep on Monday morning, she gave no sign. She wiped her hands on her apron and held open the door of the small clapboard house that served as her home as well as her place of business.

"How can I help you Miss Dumont?"

"You know who I am."

"Certainly. Everyone in Nevada knows the owner of the gaming establishment. Please. Come in."

I stepped into the tiny, well-kept room and looked around me. I noticed fresh flowers on a sideboard, a lithographed seascape on one wall, a rag rug in front of the fireplace. It seemed neat and cozy. She did not invite me to take a seat, but stood silent, waiting.

I began, "One of my employees has a birthday on Thursday. You can provide a cake for the occasion?"

She went to a small table and picked up a notepad and pencil. "Yes. I have currants and raisins. How many people will you serve?"

"There are eight people in my employ, counting myself."

"Do you wish rosettes of frosting?"

"Whatever you think. You are the expert in this matter."

"Do you want to know the price?"

I waved my hand. "It is of no matter. I am sure you will be fair. My man will pay you when he arrives to pick it up."

She put down her notepad and folded her arms with businesslike impatience. "Very well, then. Is there anything else?"

I took a deep breath and began, "Yes, Miss Townsend. There is another matter I have wished to discuss with you."

She motioned me to a wooden chair by the fireplace and took the one opposite, frowning. "What is it?"

"I have learned that for some time you have been friends with Edward Waite." She merely nodded, so I forged ahead.

"I believe that your friendship has reached a further stage of development. Am I right?"

She flushed, but did not speak.

"I myself have some acquaintance with Edward . . . "

This remark seemed to open the floodgates of her emotions. She jumped to her feet, and words came tumbling out. "Acquaintance! You, Miss Dumont, are ruining his life! I am well aware of the evenings he spends in your gambling den. I know that he has been caught in your web, and . . . " She recovered herself and sank back into her chair, as if determined to say no more.

"Miss Townsend, I have come to ask your help."

She nodded. "You want to take everything from me, and you have the audacity to ask me to help you do it. You are a bold woman, Miss Dumont."

"I have no wish to take anything from you—least of all Edward. I have come to ask you to help turn him away from me. I will refuse his proposal, but must not cause him pain or embarrassment. Only you can help me do that."

"Proposal? Edward has proposed marriage to you?" Tears welled up in her eyes.

"It is nothing, an infatuation. It will pass as quickly as it began if you are willing to help me."

She frowned with suspicion. "Why should I trust you?"

"Because you and I share the same goal—to return Edward to your arms, where he belongs."

"How can it be that you do not want him? He is a wonderful man."

"He is indeed. But, as you have pointed out, I am not a wonderful woman."


At the 21 the next afternoon, Dave Tobin laughed out loud when I suggested that he teach me to be a better gambler. Wiping tears from his eyes, he said, "Oh, Professor! Do you even know how much money you have lost in this place?"

"Well, I haven't kept a running total, but . . . "

"Exactly. A real gambler would do just that." He indicated a chair at one of the tables and turned over another for himself.

"If you had the gambling instinct, you would know exactly what you have lost and why you have lost it. You would realize that there is a method to it. You do understand that the house always wins?"

"Actually, I do not understand that. Miss Dumont says that each turn of the cards is as fair for one as the other. How is it that she wins so much of the time? Does she cheat?"

Dave frowned and shook his head. "You, my dear newspaperman, are a babe in the woods. Cheating is a risky business with guns in the room, and there is no need. She has a natural advantage for the simple reason that she makes her play after you have made yours. She can base her decision on what she sees; you are relying on pure chance. That slight advantage is all she needs.

"In a typical hour of playing 21, for example, there will be 60 rounds. If you play without error, extremely unlikely in your case, she will win 29 games. You will win 26, and there will be five ties. That's if you make all the right decisions.

"The house needs to keep 20% of all wagers to meet our expenses. That means that players must lose 20% of the money they come in with each night. Players like you, who lose it all, make things more lucrative for us. We make a reasonable profit from intelligent players and an exorbitant profit from—excuse the term—suckers like you.

Dave shrugged. "Players who use no strategy other than their superstitions or desires lose all of their stake every time they come in the door. And that is a large portion of our clientele."

I was stung, but I was determined to see this painful conversation through. "Why do players keep coming back, if there is no way to win?"

Dave shook his head. "You do not understand. Everyone wins some of the time. The possibility of a win is always before you. And the more money you start with, the greater the odds that you will win.

"A player who has a big enough stake to play for several hours has a better return than a player who starts with less. In fact, a player with $500 for the evening has only a 10% chance of losing his whole stake that night. A player with $200 has a 40% chance that it will all be gone by closing time. But a player who comes in with only $50 is likely to lose it all, as you so often do, in very short order."

I was dazed. "And Eleanor understands all this?"

"Of course."

"But she is . . . "

"Stop right there. If you are preparing to say she is only a woman, you will be showing yourself a bigger fool than you already are."

"So while she is flirting and joking, she is also calculating?'

Dave Tobin nodded. "Exactly. And no one is better at playing the probabilities than she. The woman has nerves of steel, unflustered when big money is on the table, cheerful when she loses, prompt in paying out, all the while distracting players with banter. She has a gift, and she never makes a mistake."

I shook my head. "I'm beginning to believe that I am the one making a mistake."

He shrugged. "It's entirely possible, Professor. The odds are not in your favor."


I could see by her doubting frown that Lydia did not trust me, but she was desperate to keep her hold on Edward—desperate enough to take a chance on my plan. She paced, but at last stopped and said, "What would I have to do?" She sounded wary, but curious.

"May I see your wardrobe?"

She frowned. "What does my clothing have to do with this situation?"

"Men, you must realize, are visual creatures. Like magpies, their eyes are caught by shiny things, and they appreciate beauty. You, Miss Townsend, are a lovely woman. But you could use some embellishment."

"I hope you are not talking about paint."

"I am talking about paint. And jewelry, lace, and ruffles—the whole arsenal of female accoutrements."

"I refuse to trick myself out like some common . . . " She stopped herself at this point, so I helped her.

"You will not look like a tart, I promise. Just a little beeswax on your lashes, rice powder on your skin and hands, and the charcoal from a burned match to darken your brows and line your eyes. I promise you will not resemble a painted doll—only a better version of yourself."

Lydia crossed the room and looked into the tiny mirror hanging above the sideboard, turning her head from side to side, considering her face from various angles, frowning.

She did not speak, so after a moment I continued. "Once you are as attractive as we can make you, you must turn away from Edward. The next time he calls on you, he will find another man seated in your porch swing—preferably with a slice of apple pie in his hand. Do you have such a man?"

She grimaced and said. "Henry Abbott asks me to marry him at least once a week. I am sure he would not refuse an invitation. But I am confused. Why would I turn away from Edward if my goal is to bring him to me?"

"My dear Miss Townsend, men are predatory animals. They wish to be hunters. You will take the part of the most desirable prey that we can make you out to be. You must be alluring and difficult to obtain.

"Meantime, I must change his view of me. I will become a grasping social climber. I will brag about him in the post office, stroll boldly through town, embarrassing him."

"It sounds risky to me. What if he is so blinded that he still prefers you?"

"In that event, we will do what in my business is called surrender. I will refuse him, you will comfort him, and the two of you will still be together at the end of the story."


It all went off as Eleanor planned. Edward arrived the next evening and found Henry on my porch swing, drinking lemonade. Edward's eyes widened and he stumbled on the top step. I turned my head so Eleanor's diamond earrings would catch the light. "Was there something you wanted, Edward?"

"No, no. I just came by to thank you once again for that delicious meat pie."

"Glad you enjoyed it. You know Henry, I believe?"

"Of course. Nice to see you, Henry." Edward tipped his hat, backed down the step, and was gone.

The evening with Henry seemed interminable. We were having a lively discussion about his mother's rheumatism when I finally yawned and said that I had to start baking early. The visit was certainly unfair to poor Henry, but it had the desired effect.

  Lydia Townsend Waite — 1879

Almost thirty years later, our house on the hill was usually quiet. But this spring we had a houseful. Our son had brought his family from back East for a visit, and we were enjoying every moment. I was putting our granddaughter, Clarissa, to bed when Edward called me from the parlor.

"Lydia, dear, listen to this. Eleanor Dumont is in the news again."

Since Eleanor had closed the Dumont Palace and left town, we heard from time to time about some misadventure of hers. She seemed to turn up in every mining town from Virginia City to Tombstone. It made newspapers throughout the west when a would-be robber accosted her one night. She pulled out a derringer and killed him.

I called back, coming down the stairs, "Who has she shot this time?"

"She won't be killing anyone ever again. She has died."

I ran into the room. "Where? How?" It was all I could do not to grab the Sacramento Union from his hands and read it for myself.

He read slowly, frowning over the words. "Eleanor Dumont, the famous belle of many a gambling establishment, has died by her own hand. A note found by her side stated that she was 'tired or life.'"

The article said Eleanor had borrowed $300 one night to set up a gaming table in a boom town called Bodie. When she lost that money, she wandered into the night and took a drink laced with morphine.

Bodie had a separate graveyard outside of town for fallen women, but Eleanor's death created an uproar. The miners refused to bury her there in spite of the church people.

Edward went on, "It seems that the men of Bodie did not consider Eleanor a fallen woman. And they were not alone. Listen to this: 'Mourners came in carriages from Reno, Carson City, and Sacramento to give her by far the grandest funeral in the town's history!' That just shows the depths to which such places have sunk." He folded the paper and tossed it into the fire.

I was too stunned to speak. My mind struggled to accept the idea of Eleanor's death.

Edward reached to take my hand. "I was blinded for a time by that woman. Mercifully, you brought me to my senses before real damage was done. I owe all of this to you—our home, our children, my election as Justice of the Peace—everything I have."

I looked at my dear, innocent husband. This was the moment to say, "There's something you should understand about Eleanor Dumont."

But I simply kissed his forehead, and thought, "Thank you, Eleanor—wherever you are."

The End

Sharon Elwell is a retired schoolteacher with a fascination for the 19th century.

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Under a Blood Moon
by Cory Andrews

Reginald Delcole stopped his Tennessee Walker on the right side of the northbound trail so he could have a few sips of water from his canteen and check the map to see how far he had to go to reach Buzzard Hill. Reginald, "Reg" to his friends, was headed there to join up with two other bounty hunters. He knew nothing about the bounty, only to rendezvous at the sheriff's office, situated next to the town gallows pole, and he would be filled in on the job. The sheriff Reg did jobs for in Tucson, Lee Hunting, owed Buzzard Hill's sheriff a favor, and Reg was the best favor he could give him.

Reg has a perfect bounty hunter's record. No one's ever escaped from him, and all the ones that have been asked for alive have come back alive, albeit a little bloodied and bruised. Now if Reg is given the option, dead or alive, let's just say Reg don't mind doin' some killin'. Reg never went anywhere without his .45 Colt, a repeater, and knives which he kept sharp enough to shave with.

The hired gun dismounted from his black and brown horse, aptly named Justice, took a swig of water from the canteen and reached in his saddle bag. He pulled out the map of the Arizona Territory and a piece of beef jerky to gnaw on. Looking at the map he figured he had roughly 30 miles to go until he would reach Buzzard Hill. Reg checked his pocket watch and saw it was only 3 in the afternoon. The sheriff expected him no later than dusk, plenty of time.

An hour or so later, Reg began to see the red rocks and mountains surrounding Buzzard Hill in the distance. The air turned cooler in October in this part of the Arizona Territory and he saw more forest than he had before.

As he rounded a bend in the trail a strong smell pierced his nostrils, making his eyes water. The sight he came upon was quite gruesome. On each side of the trail were three saguaro cacti adorned with the severed heads of 6 coyot's. The animals had to have been killed recently, as buzzards were just beginning to pick at them. Their entrails lay in piles at the bottom of the cacti with flies swarming around, but the carcasses were nowhere to be seen. Reg's stomach felt a little sick from the sights and smells. Sick devil-worshippin' sonsabitches' did that, he thought. He patted Justice and rode on.

Another hour passed on without any other violent scenes to speak of, only a few other passing travelers that Reg gave polite nods to. Reg saw a post up ahead that would probably tell him how much further to Buzzard Hill. The wooden post staked in the ground had an arrow pointing north with words that vandals had had some fun with. Reg read the words aloud, "5 miles Buzzard HEll." Reg smirked while rubbing his stubbled chin.

Reg looked forward to this mystery job and the town. Tucson had been quiet recently, the action minimal. He gained such a reputation that criminals were reluctant to put up a fight when they knew he was on their tail. It had even been six months since he had killed anyone.

That man had suffered greatly for robbing his cousin's farmhouse and having his way with his cousin's young daughter. Reg found him in the desert camped out by himself. Being a master of stealth, Reg surprised the man in the night and beat him to a pulp. When the man regained consciousness he found himself naked, bound and gagged. Reg then took him for a ride through the desert, dragging him with his horse until all his flesh ripped off, along with his genitals. Reg stopped his horse's gallop when the man's skinless body came to a halt atop the burning coals of his fire. The law could be more brutal than the outlaws.

As Reg descended a hill on the trail, the town came into view. He passed a grand building dubbed the Prickly Pear Inn, a general store, a barber shop, and a gunsmith. The next block seemed to be all saloons and brothels. He thought about havin' a quick screw with one of the local whores before going to the sheriff's office, but decided to wait till the job was done. Best to not let any ass cloud his mind.

Reg made a left at the end of the second block. He could see the sheriff's office and the gallows pole at the far end of the dirt street. Three men sat in chairs on the front porch of the sheriff's office wearing wide brimmed hats and dusters, their horses hitched nearby. Reg imagined these men were the sheriff and the other bounty hunters he'd be working with. He didn't care much for being part of a team, but every once in a while it was necessary, and ta hell with it, he'd been told the money was right. That's all that mattered.

"Good afternoon gentlemen, name's Reginald Delcole. Y'all can call me Reg. Been sent up from Tucson by Sheriff Lee Hunting."

The brown skinned man with long black hair and a horseshoe mustache stood. A gold badge poked out from underneath his duster. He had to have been about three hundred pounds of solid muscle, and a long scar went from above his right eyebrow, across his nose and stopped below his jaw.

"Good afternoon Reg Delcole, I'm Sheriff Tom Ramirez, these are the Wilkins brothers, Wayne and Harvey, you'll be working with them."

"Pleased to meet y'all. So who we after that requires three bounty hunters?"

"Four men, the Butler-Shaw gang. In recent months they've gone on a brutal crime spree. They've robbed a bank, killing two employees and a citizen in the process. Broken into homes and slaughtered families in the middle of the night. They even stormed a brothel in town, stealing from the whores before raping them and slicing their throats. We have reason to believe their hideout is in the mountains west of town. Yesterday a traveler spotted them near Hawk's Cave, the Wilkins brothers know exactly where it is."

"We done grew up in them mountains, know 'em by the back of our hands," said the Wilkins brother closest to the sheriff. They both had missing teeth, shaggy brown hair, and even shaggier beards. Reg took them to be twins, and figured their parents had met at a family gathering. But if they knew the lay of the land and could shoot straight, Reg could give a dead horse's last shit what circumstances they were born under, just as long as they didn't get him killed.

"They sound like some pretty bad hombres. How you want 'em sheriff, dead or alive?"

"Alive would be nice, this town would enjoy nothing more than seeing the four of them hung at the gallows pole, but I don't think it's gonna be that easy. I figure you'll find yourself in a firefight. Try to bring one back alive so we can give the folks a show."

Ramirez handed Reg two yellowed pieces of paper with pictures of the four members of the Butler-Shaw gang and a summary of their exploits. The Butler's were burly, solid built, unshaven men, and the Shaw's looked to be Irish immigrants, thinner than the Butlers and clean shaven. The reward was not written on either of the papers.

Sheriff Ramirez lit a cigar. "And the pay will be $400 for each of you," he said.

Reg's eyes lit up. "I was just about to ask about that. Lee wasn't lying, the money sure is right."

"Lee says you're the best, that you're not afraid to kill. Just what we need."

"When do we leave?"

"You and the brothers go get some chow down at the Fire and Spirits Tavern. The beef stew and bread are delicious, I just wish they'd put the chili back on the menu. Anyway, the bill will be taken care of for you, after that get on your way. My advice is to stake the gang out for a little bit when you find them. Try to surprise them in the night."

"Alright sheriff, the brothers and I will come up with a plan and bring these bastards in for ya."

The Wilkins brothers and Reg made their way down to the tavern. They enjoyed the chow along with a few shots of whiskey and traded stories back and forth of huntin' down criminals. Wayne boasted of being proficient with a bow and arrow, and Harvey claimed he could hogtie a fella up faster than any bounty hunter in the west. Reg found the brothers amusing, but he had his doubts about them. That was ok because it was agreed upon by all that Reg would be taking the lead in apprehending the Butler-Shaw gang.

The brothers told Reg that taking distance, terrain and elevation into account, they could expect to arrive at a spot that overlooks Hawk's Cave around midnight to begin their stakeout. If they saw no sign of the gang they would camp there till morning, then look for tracks at the crack of dawn.

The crew ordered one more shot of whiskey each, clanked their glasses together, threw back the shot and made their way out the double doors. The bartender and a few of the townsfolk who overheard their conversation wished them luck. Unhitching their horses, the men saddled up and began the journey out of Buzzard Hill and up into the mountains.

Harvey Wilkins rode in front, his brother behind him and Reg in the back. He led them past the sheriff's office, and down an unoccupied dirt road toward the forest. As they approached the edge of the forest Reg could see where the trees split and a blazed path began.

Harvey brought his horse to a stop right before the trail began. A crudely etched sign dubbed this the Midnight Chooglin' Trail.

Harvey lit a cigarette, turned and said, "Now Reg, in about a mile or so the trail is gonna get pretty steep and rocky, we're gonna have ta be careful with the horses. Don't want 'em catchin' an ankle in a hole or buckin' and sendin' one of us over the edge of the mountain. Once the trail levels out we get about seven miles or so of easy flat trail before makin' a left on the Vitus Trail. We follow that for eight miles and at that point we have ta hitch the horses and make our way on foot up ta the cliff that overlooks Hawks Cave."

"I ain't too keen on leavin' Justice here behind," Reg said.

"Don't worry, We'll be hitchin' 'em at a post near an old abandoned cabin, they'll be safe. You'll see when we get there. We're gonna have ourselves quite the rock scramble to make it up to the cliff. No way in hell the nags will make it," Harvey answered.

Reg nodded his head satisfied with the response and said, "Well alright then gentlemen, let the huntin' begin." The men let out a hoot and spurred their horses in succession, directing them into the forest down the Midnight Chooglin' Trail.

Reg had never seen land like this down in Tucson. The forest, dense and dark, filled with tall pine trees and the ground covered with leaves. Crisp, cool mountain air felt refreshing to him after a lifetime spent in the dry heat of the desert. Despite the beauty of it all, Reg couldn't help but to feel a bit uncomfortable not being in the environment he was used to. Screw it, he thought to himself, I'm the best goddamn bounty hunter in Arizona, hell the whole west, done put away more scum than these two and that overgrown Mexican sheriff put together. I'll be fine, got more firepower on me than the goddamn Army.

The bounty hunters and their steeds traversed the steep, rocky section of the trail without incident. It had taken an hour but it had been worth it to go slow and avoid injury to the men or their horses. They rode in silence through the flat stretch of the trail, until reaching the junction with the Vitus Trail.

"Up here's where we're turning left!" called out Harvey Wilkins.

The sun began to fade in the west as twilight loomed near.

The Vitus Trail inclined slightly up the mountain, but free of rocks and debris. Harvey lit an oil lamp to help lead the way as the pines grew thicker and the forest became much darker down this trail. By the time they reached the abandoned cabin the sun was completely gone. Through the dense trees Reg spotted the moon, it shone bright and full.

"Well that full moon up above should work to our advantage if those boys are down below the cliff," Reg said.

Wayne Wilkins, pretty quiet till now, nodded in agreement and said, "Sure will make scouting a whole lot easier, plus we won't have to worry about havin' the lamps lit, they won't see us comin'."

The men dismounted from their horses and tied them to the hitching post. Each man provided their traveling companions with food and water before giving them a pat on the head and resuming the journey on foot. Reg had his .45 on his right, a repeater slung behind him, a large Bowie knife strapped to his leg and plenty of ammo. The brothers each had revolvers of their own, and Wayne his bow and silver-tipped arrows, and Harvery his lasso.

They walked down the trail drinking from canteens and eating jerky, they didn't want to start a fire to cook anything and potentially give themselves away to the Butler-Shaw gang. A half mile down the trail they came to the rock scramble. It went up almost vertically. The trees opened up here, the moon shone over the rocks and boulders, lighting the way.

"Now Reg, me and Wayne done climbed this scramble hundreds a times, so we'll go first. Be no good if you fell and took us all out. Just mind your footing, take it slow, and watch where we put our hands and feet," Harvey said.

Reg nodded, "Alright, sounds like a plan, don't you worry about me though."

Harvey started the climb, and Wayne followed. Once Wayne got over the first boulder, Reg began his ascent. The climb was going slow, but smooth, the full moon helped guide them up. Then as Reg was reaching up to place his right hand on a rock the loud howl of a wolf broke the silence. Reg's right hand slipped and his feet dangled, but his left held on. The wolf's howl was answered by maybe a half dozen other wolves.

"Son of a bitch!" Reg yelled. The brothers looked back. Wayne moved back down on top of the boulder Reg hung on to and lifted him up.

"Thanks partner," Reg said, lifting himself up the rest of the way.

"Don't mention it, I done got spooked the first time I heard a pack of wolves myself, almost shot my foot off that night."

Ten minutes later the bounty hunters climbed over the last boulder, and the land leveled out, they had reached the cliff overlooking Hawk's Cave. The smell of burning wood hit their noses. It came from down below, if it was from the fire of the Butler-Shaw gang the traveler's information had been good.

The men caught their breath, had a drink of water, and got in a circle.

Reg whispered, "Alight gentlemen let's get down on our bellies and crawl over to the edge of the cliff and see what's happenin' down there. No smoking and keep your voices low. We got ourselves a great vantage here, be a shame to give ourselves away. You fellas bring binoculars along?"

"I got a pair on me," Harvey answered.

"Me as well," said Wayne.

"Alright good, I'll make my way to the left over by that pine, Harvey you go to the right. Wayne climb up that rock over there that juts out a bit, just be careful. Let's hope these sonsabitches are already asleep or nearly passed out from whatever pisswater they been drinkin'."

The men crouched down and crawled over the dirt and leaves to their spots on the cliff. Reg reached the spot he would scout from first. As he peered over the edge of the cliff he could see a whole lot of what was goin' on without any help from the binoculars.

Outside the mouth of the cave, fire burned on the ground in a circle. Inside that circle wood burned in the shape of a five point star, a pentagram. Five men stood around the circle, each standing at a point. If the devilishness of it all weren't enough to complicate things, the extra body they'd have to deal with did.

Reg looked to his left. The brothers were staring back at him, their mouths agape. Fear was on their faces, that worried Reg.

Reg lifted his binoculars to his eyes to get a better look at the group. Four of the men were stark naked, the fifth man wore a black cloak and hood. The four naked men looked like the Butler-Shaw gang. The cloaked man was standing at the top point of the fiery pentagram, his back to the mouth of the cave.

Reg crawled away from the edge of the cliff, the brothers followed suit and they met behind the rock that Wayne was atop of.

"Just what in the fuck was that?" Harvey whispered.

"Well Harv I'd say that the Butler-Shaw gang is obviously the Butler-Shaw cult too," Reg answered. "Now some devil worshippin' voodoo hoodoo bullshit ain't gonna stop me from collectin' this bounty. I've heard some of these wackos take peyote that they get from the savages when they do these rituals. If they're in a sedated state it may make things easier."

"What about that big fella with the black robe on?" Wayne asked.

"I don't know about him. He doesn't look like any of the men from the posters, but the other four do. Maybe there's a fifth member of the gang that no one knew about," Reg said.

The brothers shrugged their shoulders. Harvey looked at Reg and asked, "Well Reg, you've taken down badder men than we have, what's the plan?"

"There's paths leading down each side of this here cliff, am I right?"

"Right as rain," Harvey said.

"Ok. First things first we even out the numbers. Wayne, you go down the right side and take out one of the Butler-Shaw boys with an arrow. Shoot to kill. I'll go down the left side and slice another's throat with my knife. Seeing as these fellas are in the buff, I don't think we'll get too much of a fight unless they have derringers shoved up their ass."

The brothers had no objection to Reg's plan.

"Harvey, you stick behind your brother. After he kills one of the men, you draw on the man in the cloak, get that sonofabitch hogtied fast. We're gonna have our weapons drawn on the two others. I see a chance to bring back three of them alive. Normally I kill if I'm given the option, but with how much money is being offered I think we'll get a big bonus for bringing back more than one alive."

"Ok boss, sounds good ta me," said Harvey.

"Just look for my signal for when to strike," Reg said.

The brothers went to the right and Reg to the left. Reg looked to the brothers and each began a slow, quiet descent down the paths that led to the clearing. Reg and the brothers reached the bottom of the paths at the same time, all three remained crouched. The circle of five devil worshippin' criminals were too occupied with looking to the sky and speaking in hushed tongues to notice the bounty hunters.

As Reg readied his hand to signal the attack, the light from the moon dimmed, darkening the night, and the fire died down to hot embers. Reg looked skyward and saw the most terrifying sight he ever saw in his life. The entire moon turned red, blood red. The deep howl of a wolf pierced his ears again, only this time much closer. He thought it crazy, but had it come from the fire circle? Four more higher pitched howls followed the first one and sure enough it came from nearby. Reg could make out the shape of the man with the cloak on. The man raised his arms to the sky and brought them downward in a fierce motion. At that moment a bolt of lightning struck the fire circle, lighting the pentagram aflame again. This time the fire roared with more intensity, lighting up the entire surroundings underneath the blood moon.

The man in the cloak remained at the top of the pentagram. The four members of the Butler-Shaw gang sniffed at the air and turned their attention towards the bounty hunters. Reg and the Wilkins brothers could see they were no longer men. Thick crimson fur covered their entire naked bodies. Hair even overtook their fingers and feet. Their foreheads widened and protruded. Their mouths hung open showing sharp fangs dripping saliva to the ground. Low growls emitted from their throats as they crouched down on all fours, peering at the men with bright yellow eyes.

Reg looked at the brothers, fear plastered their faces. This time he didn't blame them. Reg remained stoic in spite of his own fear of what he was seeing. He didn't believe in werewolves, but he did believe in what his eyes showed him at this moment. He looked at Wayne and Harvey, nodded his head and yelled, "NOW!"

At the moment the brothers and Reg stood, the wolves sprung from their hind legs, barking viciously. Reg pulled his .45 and fired two shots at the first wolf and another two shots at the second. He caught the lead wolf in the chest with the first bullet and the second bullet went right through its eye, taking a part of the skull and a floppy ear with it. The wolf bucked and yelped, but didn't fall to the ground. Instead it just growled even angrier at Reg before resuming its charge. Both of the.45 slugs struck the second wolf in its upper muzzle, sending shattered teeth, bits of skull and other canine gore flying, but leaving the lower jaw attached to the body. Its eyes were obliterated. The body with just its lower jaw continued to run, albeit aimlessly.

"Goddamnit you're folklore . . . superstition . . . myth!" Reg shouted. "Silver? Is that what it's gonna take?" Reg asked himself aloud. The first wolf with the hole in its head and missing ear drew closer and pounced. Reg didn't have time to wonder if one of his knives were silver or not, he knew his bullets obviously weren't. The first knife of his that Reg grabbed was a folding knife he used for guttin' fish. He flipped it open as the wolf flew through the air knocking him down and pinning him to the ground. Reg maintained his hold on the knife and thrust it into the wolf's stomach as its jaws were about to close on his neck.

The wolf let out a loud yelp of pain and ceased to live. Its disfigured head went limp, dripping blood and saliva onto Reg. Reg felt a scrape on his boot as he pulled the knife out of the wolf and pushed the creature off of him. The second wolf hadn't given up. Its lower jaw moving wildly, trying anyway it could to pierce Reg. He grabbed the wolf by the throat and saw the tongue remained attached, he plunged the knife into its esophagus, and the devil wolf was sent to its death.

Across the clearing from Reg, the Wilkins brothers had two wolves of their own to deal with. Harvey fired on the two charging hell beasts from behind his brother who in his state of fright struggled to nock an arrow. His bullets had the same effect that Reg's had, they simply blew out chunks of fur and flesh, but did not kill the wolves.

Wayne managed to get an arrow nocked as a wolf jumped atop his brother, sending him to the ground. Wayne shot the wolf in the rib cage, and it fell to the ground dead, but not before clawing Harvey's face deeply. Harvey screamed in pain as blood gushed from his facial wounds. His lips were ripped apart and his chin split into two hairy flaps of flesh, but he was alive.

The second wolf jumped Wayne before he had a chance to load another arrow. The wolf bit at his jugular, sending fountains of blood in the air. Steam came off the warm blood as it met the cool mountain air. The wolf ripped muscle and tissue from Wayne's neck, and at the same time its rear feet dug their claws into Waynes thighs and kicked backward, sending chunks of flesh flying behind him. Wayne was dead before his brother could lift himself up off the ground.

Reg had finished disposing of the second wolf when he saw Wayne being murdered. He charged over with the folding knife and pounced on the wolf's back before he could get to Harvey. The wolf was strong and struggled, whipping its head back and forth, but Reg held on enough to get his knife under the wolf's throat and slice it from end to end. The wolf died right away like the others.

Harvey struggled getting to his feet, walked past Reg and stared down at his brother who was torn to shreds.

"He died tryin' ta save me," Harvey said through bloodied lips.

Reg surveyed the scene. The four wolves they killed began to change back to their human form, with the exception of certain body parts that had been blown to bits. Even the crimson fur receeded. Reg picked up Wayne's bow and the rest of his silver tipped arrows.

"Harvey, take these, your brother said they were silver tipped. That's how he killed the wolf, my knife is made out of silver too. My bullets didn't work. I know it sounds fucking crazy but, we're dealing with werewolves here Harv."

"I know. We should've checked the almanac before we left. These are blood moon wolves. The blood moon is rare, only happens every few years, and lasts about an hour. I heard the stories growing up. There's plenty a folks 'round here who've gone missing and animals that've been found mutilated around the time of the blood moon. Reg, I've been scratched, and scratched bad at that. If I turn, promise you'll kill me."


"Hey Reg, you seen what happened to the one in the black cloak, you kill him too?"

"No. Shit, I lost sight of him. Where in the fuck did he go?"

Reg and Harvey surveyed the area looking for any sign of the man, but saw nothing. Other than the light from the fire the land was dark from the reddening of the moon. Reg grabbed a dry piece of wood and held it to the fire until it caught.

"Harvey, let's go over to the mouth of the cave. I think he may be in there watching us. Stay behind me and keep an arrow ready to fire."

With the torch in his right hand and the silver folding knife in his left, Reg started toward the cave. A low growl emanated from the cave as the men drew near. They were five feet from the cave when Reg saw the two red dots at his eye level. The men froze in place as the red dots came towards them.

Realizing the dots were the eyes of the cloaked man, Reg said, " Harv, it's him, fire!"

The arrow shot from behind Reg's left shoulder, but the eyes drew closer. Stepping into the light thrown from the torch, the cloaked man looked bigger than he had from a distance. He held the arrow in his fur covered hand. It did not puncture him, he caught it in mid air. If this was a wolf underneath the cloak, he didn't move like the others, he walked and stood upright like a normal man.

Reg charged the figure with the intention of sticking him with the knife and lighting him ablaze. Harvey shot another arrow, but it flew past the man's head into the cave. The man caught Reg by the throat with his left hand. His right hand grabbed Reg's wrist and twisted it one motion, breaking the wrist and causing Reg to drop the knife.

The man in the cloak lifted Reg up by his throat, and tossed him through the air. Reg struck his head on a rock as he landed near the fire circle. His head split open, slowly leaking blood as he slipped into unconsciousness.

Harvey loaded a third arrow and shot at the man. The man swiped this arrow out of the air too. Harvey, still in excruciating pain, did not load another arrow. He knew he would turn soon, so he might as well let this beast kill him.

The man turned the point of the arrow towards Harvey and slammed it into the center of Harvey's forehead. His skull cracked and brain matter and blood spewed out when the man ripped out the arrow. Harvey's arms flung out and he dropped to his knees, before falling to the ground. Still alive, but well on his way to dying, he crawled to his brother's side. He laid his arm over his brother's blood soaked chest, mumbled some gibberish, and passed on.

Reg slowly regained consciousness. He felt like he'd been caught in a stampede and trampled by a hundred steer. The heat from the fire had him sweatin' like a whore in church. He touched the back of his head. It was wet with blood, but he did not think it was serious, the flow wasn't heavy. His wrist was twisted and hurt like hell.

Staring up at the sky, the blood moon still hovered over. The next thing he saw was the red eyes of the man in the cloak staring at him from above. The man pulled back his hood. Despite having the mannerisms and gait of a man, the cloaked figure revealed himself to be another werewolf.

"Reginald Delcole!" The wolf spoke. Reg couldn't believe it. A werewolf spoke to him, and knew his name nonetheless.

"Yyyy yyy eeeee sss?" Reg stammered. He had never heard himself sound terrified before in his whole life.

"Reginald Delcole, you are a vicious and violent man. It does not matter that you kill in the name of justice. You still kill in brutal ways. For this we are recruiting you."

The voice of the wolf man sounded familiar to Reg. He wasn't sure if he understood right. The wolf didn't want to kill him? The wolf wanted him to work for him? A bounty hunter for werewolves? He thought maybe the Wilkins brothers had slipped him some hallucinogen.

Reg sat up and said, "Heh, so you want me to be part of yer wolf gang huh? What if I don't want to?"

The wolf bent over and pushed Reg back to the ground. Reg got a real clear view of the wolf's face for the first time. The wolf had a long, deep scar that ran from above his right eyebrow, over his nose, past the corner of his mouth and stopped below the jaw.

A hairy hand grabbed Reg's throat for a second time, and the wolf bellowed, "You do not have a choice in this matter!"

The wolf tore open Reg's shirt and drug his claws across Reg's chest. Blood seeped out and flowed over Reg's rib cage. The wolf pulled a branding iron from inside his cloak. The shape of a pentagram adorned the end of the iron. He placed a heavy foot on Reg's bleeding chest as he placed the branding iron into the fire.

After a few minutes the iron turned a bright red. Reg's struggles subsided as the blood loss drained his energy. Satisfied with the temperature of the iron, the wolf held it over Reg, said an incantation in a language Reg did not understand, and seared the flesh over Reg's heart.

The stench of burning hair and flesh filled the air. After several screams and curses Reg passed out once more.

Several hours later, right before dawn, a groggy Reginald Delcole began to wake. He rubbed his eyes and looked towards the sky. The moon was in the distance, its normal color of white. Had last night been a bad dream? He thought. Reg sat up and looked around. The fire pit a mere ten feet from him was normal— not in the shape of a pentagram. There were no dead bodies of wolfmen or bounty huntin' brothers to speak of. Maybe the whole thing had been a dream.

Reg stood, and reached in his pocket for a cigarette. He turned around and there he was.

"Hey boy! Good to see ya." He walked over to Justice and scratched the horse behind the ears before reaching in his saddle bag to get some breakfast for his loyal partner.

"Mr. Delcole! You certainly lived up to your reputation last night."

The deep voice came from the mouth of the cave, behind where Reg and Justice stood. Reg pulled his .45 and spun around.

"Who are you?!"

Reg couldn't see anyone in the pitch black cave.

"I said, Who the fuck are you?!" Reg shouted.

The sheriff of Buzzard Hill, Tom Ramirez walked out of the cave with his hands up, a wide devilish grin across his scarred face.

"No. Last night wasn't real. What'd you give me? Did you drug me, or was it those brothers who slipped me somethin'?"

"Mr. Delcole, you can drop the gun, if you can remember from last night, that will do you no good. Plus, you are one of us now. You will embrace it in time. Don't get sloppy like the Butler-Shaw gang, and eternity can be yours."

"Bullshit Ramirez, I ain't no devil dog."

"Reg, change that shirt, it's got a bit of dirt on it."

Reg slowly lowered his gun, but not his gaze from Ramirez. More cloudy visions of the previous hours came to him. He holstered the Colt and unbuttoned his shirt. Horrified at what he saw on his own flesh, the cigarette fell from his mouth. Tears from the claws of the werewolf were completely healed. Deep scars ran across his chest, and a pentagram had been branded into the flesh over his heart. He felt no pain whatsoever.

Reg stood silent. Sheriff Ramirez tossed him a badge, "Congratulations Mr. Delcole, you're the new deputy of Buzzard Hill."

The End

Cory Andrews hails from Easton, Pennsylvania. A cook by trade, and now an aspiring author as well, he's at work on a collection of western-horror short stories. When not cookin' or writin' you may be able to find him hiking in the rocky and rugged Pennsylvania mountains.

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Rosalie's Owl
by Jesse Levi

Rosalie's first sight of home came as she stepped off a stage coach into Helena. She had arrived in Fort Benton three days previously, after a long journey by steamboat on the Missouri river. From there, she caught a coach to her destination. Although travel left her exhausted, the thrill of nearing her journey's end helped the days pass quickly. Her husband, Tom, had spent last summer and all winter preparing a new home for her and the cattle, caring for her late father until he passed had prevented her from joining Tom until this day in late June.

Months had passed since Tom's last letter. Nagging anxiety insisted that something was wrong, but she insisted on thinking to herself that everything was fine. Rumors abounded of a particularly tough Montana winter. The post must simply have experienced some difficulty in delivering the letters he had sent so frequently those first few months.

So, it was time for Rosalie to take matters upon herself. Travel from Missouri to the Montana territory was exhausting and rough for one lone woman, but by the grace of God, she finally made it to Helena. Although Tom's letters had indicated that Helena was a major city (he brought his letters there for delivery), Rosalie had assumed that was only in comparison to the wildness of the territory at large. She hadn't expected to see a city every bit as loud and bustling as her own town.

The streets were filled with people, horses, and wagons in a whirlwind of noise and movement. Imposing buildings stared down at her from every direction, and many more were being built. She blushed as women in loose, low-cut dresses and rouge waved out of windows in one fine hotel, and walked past quickly.

Rosalie had no idea where to find her husband. She had difficulty breathing as she realized the enormous task she had taken upon herself. She knew Tom had built them a home. He'd written often about their little house waiting for his wife to come make it into a proper home. But out here in the west, she knew absolutely nothing about where to go or how to even attempt finding him in either a city this large or the vast wilderness ahead. The only hints were exultant descriptions of a little place miles west of Helena, a one-room home built for a pair of lovers and mountain plains rolling with enough greenery to glut their whole herd. Practical things like how his wife would find her new home didn't worry Tom. Why would she need an address when he'd bring her home himself by spring?

As she stepped into the city, Rosalie found herself panicking. Taking deep breaths, she tried to stop running through scenarios. What if she found herself waylaid in some alley? What if she never found Tom? What if he was, at this moment, in Missouri to pick her up? What if Tom had somehow forgotten he even had a wife? This last thought made her chuckle just enough to help calm herself with a deep breath and straighten her posture. If she was going to make it anywhere, she'd need to be rational.

Before setting out on a wild trek to who-knows-where, Rosalie needed something to eat. Her driver had left her outside a saloon, adorned with a snowy owl Rosalie wasn't sure was real or a replica, which seemed to be a central point for travelers. Clutching her purse and bag, Rosalie stepped through the doorway. She entered a room full of men reeking of sweat and alcohol. The atmosphere was rowdy, but not as much as she'd expected of similar establishments. In the dim light, it was hard to see much of anything. She muttered a silent prayer of gratitude that at least nobody here recognized her.

Rosalie approached the bar, coughing quietly as the owner finished serving another patron. The large man leaned over the counter toward her.

"What can I do for you today?" the man asked.

"I'd like something to eat," Rosalie said. "I'm not particular about what."

"Not particular, huh?" the owner said, chuckling. "The menu's about the same as it's been for months now—beans and onions. Whiskey optional."

Completing the transaction, Rosalie took her food to a corner of the room, hoping that the dark table would leave her essentially invisible. The food was bad. Rosalie admitted that she came from a comfortable life, but still struggled to understand the vim with which others devoured their meals as she consciously chewed and swallowed each bite.

Soon another woman approached Rosalie's seat in the corner. Her dress and appearance looked quite similar to the women Rosalie had noticed in upper windows earlier, and Rosalie found herself avoiding the woman's eyes.

"Mind the company?" the woman asked.

Rosalie shook her head, gesturing politely to a seat across the table from her.

"I noticed you don't look as if you rightly belong here," the woman said. "And thought you might need some company. The name's Betsy, by the way."

"And mine is Rosalie. Rosalie Carver."

"What brings you here?"

Rosalie looked at Betsy for a good while, debating inwardly whether to confide in her or not. Probably this woman wouldn't know Tom anyway—although, if she did, Rosalie certainly wanted to know.

"To be honest, I'm worried," Rosalie said. "Last year around this time, my husband Tom came to settle down and raise cattle. I stayed back home to help care for my dying father, but after he passed in November, I heard nothing from Tom. I don't know where he is or how to find him, and I am beginning to think I should have never come."

"Tom . . . " Betsy said slowly. "What did you say your surname was? And can you describe Tom?"

"Carver. Tom Carver is about my height, not very tall at all. He has black hair, a little birthmark right on the tip of his nose," Rosalie said. She stopped and eyed Betsy. "Why? Do you know him?"

"No, no, not like that," Betsy said quickly. Then she paused. "But I knew of him. He was up here just about every weekend, helped me out of a real tight spot once when a client wouldn't leave me alone. He never even remembered me, I'm sure, but he had a way about him that I couldn't forget. I'm sure you know what I mean. Like he actually cared about the rest of us."

"Yes, I know exactly what you mean," Rosalie said, relieved. "Can you help me find him, then?"

"Oh, honey," Betsy said. "Tom is dead and buried."

Dead. No letters. Maybe the postal service wasn't to blame after all. Rosalie stared at Betsy, who shifted in her seat.

"I'm so sorry to throw that on you like this," Betsy said. "It's just been a bad, bad winter here and your poor husband being so new here, well, he was found frozen solid once the snow began to clear up a bit. His cattle too. I'm sure you must have heard something . . . " Betsy kept talking, but Rosalie stopped listening. Rosalie sat, trying to breathe. Her husband's name caught her attention.

"Tom is buried in a local churchyard now, along with some of the others we had to save until the ground warmed up enough to dig a pit. But say, that means you don't have anybody to care for you now, right?"

"Yes, that's right," Rosalie said, speaking for the first time since hearing Tom's fate.

"And nowhere to go?"


"Why don't you come home with me? I'm sure you know what I am and where I live," Betsy said. She blushed. "But I'm sure we can find a spare room just for now. And occupation, if you're interested."

Rosalie stared. She nodded her head vaguely, and followed as Betsy stood to leave, grasping her hand.

A few days passed by. Betsy had cared for Rosalie and given her more aid than any stranger could possibly feel obligated to. Rosalie lay in her room, only eating if pressured to do so and hardly moving. Her father's death had been expected, and although she missed him, the pain wasn't crushing. Tom was supposed to be here, waiting for her to come home, not lying in a mass grave through the still-cold nights and occasional snowfall.

But Tom was gone. Winter had destroyed their future, but here Rosalie was, still in need of basic things like food and shelter. She felt a pressing need to get out, because a brothel was hardly a permanent residence for a lady, after all, and she couldn't rely on generosity forever.

With no idea of where to go or what to do and very few skills worth anything in this new world, Rosalie took to walking through town. Muddy snow drifts still remained under eaves and trees, sheltered from the sun. Although May had seemed late enough to avoid any trace of winter, reminders of winter's desolation remained even as new growth began to push through. These walks never led anywhere but a convoluted path back to Rosalie's room.

One evening, as she returned to her room at sunset, she noticed an old, grizzled man with one arm sitting on the entrance steps. Men were no strangers here. Rosalie usually took no notice, but this man just sat, watching. Rosalie sat next to him, leaving plenty of room for patrons to move back and forth. He nodded at her briefly, then resumed his watch.

Sunset turned into night, and Rosalie finally spoke. "Excuse me, sir, but what are you doing here?"

"I could ask the same about you," the man said gruffly.

"I live here, in a way," Rosalie answered.

"Can't say I expected that one," he said. Rosalie felt as if she were being inspected. "I'm just an old cripple sifting the bottom of the barrel for an apprentice. Catching my prey, as it were."

"What sort of prey are you looking for?" Rosalie said.

"Young man, but not too young to know how to work. Gotta be desperate or he won't give me a second glance. Determined, certain set of the jaw or something."

"And you think you can determine that by a glance?"

"Instinct, more like. Be a lot easier if you'd leave me be."

Rosalie leaned in, just slightly. "What about me?"

The man scooted just a bit further. Rosalie stepped into the light streaming from the window, standing as tall as she could muster.

"I fit your qualifications, or almost all of them. I have nothing to lose. My husband is gone, my cattle are gone, my property is gone as far as I know. Teach me a trade," she said. She had very little experience working at any kind of physical labor. But she could learn quickly. She certainly had the motivation.

"You don't even know which trade," the man said.

"I don't care. Teach me. It's either work with you or work here," Rosalie said, waving toward the brothel.

The man looked at her and nodded. "We'll try it. But it's hard work, and lonely work. I'll give you the night to pack your things, and tomorrow we head to the woods. You'll stay in the shanty for now. I'll be by around sunrise."

"And what's your name?" Rosalie asked.


The man left, and Rosalie went up to bed, explaining to Betsy that she found a new place to live and giving as much money as she could spare in gratitude for the care Betsy had shown. She left out the details of her new employment, and Betsy didn't pry. Work was work.

Next morning, she got up just as the vast Montana sky began to turn gray before sunrise. Waiting outside with her bag in hand, she looked around at the city again. It was hard to see the land itself through the buildings, but she began to understand why Tom had written so ardently about its beauty. He had specifically mentioned evenings spent with the cattle, seeing the mountains looming in the dusky light like specters straight from a storybook. The same snowy owl from the tavern rested on the eaves of the brothel now. Rosalie thought to herself that it must have been a real bird after all.

Jefferson showed up on horseback just as the sky began to turn orange with the sun. He seemed surprised to see her, seated in the same location as last night. Waving briefly, he dismounted. Another horse, saddled and ready to go, walked beside him. Rosalie felt her stomach tighten as she realized she was meant to ride. Although she had learned to ride horses, it had been as a hobby, not through the wilderness.

Jefferson turned out to be a cattle rancher. He had survived the hard winter with a small herd of about two hundred cattle fenced into property he'd fenced as his own, having foreseen difficulty coming on the open range. Although he housed hired help, an injury last fall had taken his arm. Keeping up the ranch became increasingly difficult as spring turned into summer, so Rosalie learned the trade. She practiced her riding daily, checking on the herds and fences with Jefferson by her side. Often she would see a snowy owl watching from a tree or a fence post. Jefferson never seemed to notice the bird, but Rosalie felt the eyes of the owl, watching silently. It appeared most often during the hours of dawn and dusk, but she caught occasional glimpses even in full sun.

Rosalie became confident over the next couple of months, learning how to manage herds, communicate with the other hired help, ride her horse and work hard. Jefferson's late wife had left behind a functional wardrobe, allowing Rosalie to work with less restriction, and she threw herself into each day. Thoughts of Tom haunted her, and she dreaded time spent alone with nothing to distract her. She sometimes even fancied that her owl was Tom himself. She dismissed the idea as irrational and somewhat pagan, but held on to a hope that somehow Tom had ripped the veil between heaven and earth just to see her.

August began to fade into September. Rosalie awoke one night to the sound of pounding on the door to her little shed. Muttering a prayer, she opened the door. Jefferson stood in the starlight, lantern in hand.

"It's time you learn something new, Carver. Ellen's ready," he said. Rosalie nodded, shut the door and put on her clothes. The night was chill, and as she walked after Jefferson, she saw the outline of a large bird blocking out the starlight above her.

It didn't take long for her to hear Ellen, a cow Jefferson had warned her was almost ready to deliver. She had never attended a birth of any kind, but fervently hoped they weren't all so loud.

"The first thing to watch for is the sack," Jefferson said. "She looks to be pretty far along, see how she's panicking? Stay back a bit!"

Rosalie stepped back. The cow was circling frantically. Rosalie wasn't sure how much time had passed, but the calf began to emerge. Jefferson warned her to leave it, assuring her that he had seen this process time and again, and that the cow was unlikely to need assistance. He was right. Ellen's calf emerged, dropping to the ground.

Jefferson approached the pair carefully. Although Ellen still seemed upset, he was able to approach the calf and dry it off with a towel he'd brought for the purpose. He motioned for Rosalie to approach, which she did, at a healthy distance from the mother cow.

As she bent down toward the calf, grief struck. Motherhood seemed like an impossible dream now. Ellen, however, didn't seem to have any maternal inclination at all. She stood near the gate, mooing balefully, as if she had absolutely no idea what to do with the little calf.

"Why doesn't she want to be with her baby?" Rosalie asked Jefferson.

"She's just new to this. Life out here's a little wild and we can't expect the poor cattle to know what they're doing the first time, anymore than you knew anything about life on the ranch when you came out here," Jefferson said.

"I still don't know much," Rosalie said.

"You've come a long way. You know why I was out in town that day, anyway? Why my ranch hands weren't enough?" Jefferson said, beginning to help the calf onto its feet.

"No," Rosalie said. She had often wondered why, as the other workers seemed much more capable of every task.

"Because I can tell you care. I don't know your story, and I don't need to," Jefferson said. "But I know that somehow this means everything to you. I can trust you to care for these animals and this land just like I do. Skill comes with time, heart doesn't."

Rosalie nodded, grateful for the praise. She helped Jefferson calm Ellen and guide her with her calf into a special pen set up for new mothers. Once they could tell that Ellen had become comfortable nursing the calf, Jefferson went to bed. Rosalie remained outdoors. The quiet night gave her time to reflect. Her thoughts were as bleak as ever. Two months did very little to heal her wound. She wondered if things would have been easier or harder had she been with Tom those last several months. In a way, their marriage seemed like a dream more than anything, as they had been married shortly before Tom left. She was now a widow, but had barely had the chance to be a wife, anyway.

Knowing that she wouldn't sleep tonight, Rosalie just stood, watching the stars. The snowy owl had perched on a post during the whole birth and labor. A couple of minutes after Jefferson left, the owl flew toward Rosalie, making her jump. Landing on the ground in front of her, it hopped a few times, and she could have sworn it jerked its head as if asking her to follow it. Cautiously, she stepped forward. It hopped again, stopping to watch her. This time as she stepped forward, it began to fly slowly toward the gate leading to the woods.

Feeling almost as if she were sleeping, she ran to the stable and prepared her horse for a ride. As she approached the gate, the owl began to fly into the woods. Anytime she began to lag behind, the owl stopped on a rock or branch, seemingly to wait for her. The starlight was just bright enough to allow glimpses of white that disappeared altogether while passing through thickets. Rosalie rode on. As the sun began to rise behind her, it cast its light on a little house lying just at the base of a mountain, barely larger than her own shanty. The owl flew ahead, landing on a little wooden sign in front of the house.

Rosalie brought her horse to a stop, hesitant to trespass. The owl hopped impatiently on the sign, and Rosalie and her horse ambled forward. As she dismounted a little way from the door, she saw that nobody had been home for quite a while. A plot where a garden should have been grew nothing but weeds, and nothing moved about save a few birds flying away at Rosalie's approach. The snowy white owl seemed firm that this was their final destination, no matter if anybody lived there. Whoever had been here must have left in a hurry, leaving a fence half-built, tools strewn about. She tied her horse to a post.

She continued to approach until she saw a word carved on the owl's perch, covered in the dust of who knows how long: Carver.

Rosalie had found her home.

Cautiously, she opened the door. The snowy owl flew in behind her. The little house was just one room, but the builder had constructed it with care. A little table lay in the middle of the room, with a dirty bowl on one end and a clean one set up on the opposite side. Rosalie envisioned Tom setting a place for her to help him while away the lonely winter. A bed stood in a corner, and on the other end was a stone fireplace with the ashes of Tom's last fire still in it. A journal lay near the fireplace. She could see Tom lying on the floor, writing in front of the fire as he tried to fight the bitter winter.

Rosalie walked over to the bed and threw herself facedown, raising a small pile of dust. The owl stood next to her, gently nuzzling her cheek. Rosalie lay there, somewhere between sleep and mourning, and knew that this was one last present from Tom. When she awoke around mid-day, she sat on the edge of the bed, taking a last look at the home-that-could-have been, seeing exactly where she and Tom would have raised their family together, imagining a nice chair in the corner where she could sit and work in the summer evenings as Tom chased their children around the house in a game of tag. She could see their little black-haired children with Tom's mischievous smile, giving her sticky hugs and kisses before bed. Those children and those memories were mere phantoms, but seeing their home affirmed that Tom had lived and he had loved her and waited for her.

Stooping down near the fireplace, she picked up Tom's journal. She gave it a kiss, and stowed it in her pocket to read later. It was time to say goodbye to this home and return to her new future. She fastened the door gently, and pulled the little wooden sign from the ground. She stowed it in her saddlebag and prepared to ride again. The owl flew by her side now as they made their way home.

Jefferson was tending to Ellen and the new calf again when Rosalie approached the gate. Leading her horse to the stable without stopping to talk to Jefferson, she fed and groomed the animal tenderly before heading to her shanty. It would be time to find a more permanent home before another winter came in just as harsh as the one that took Tom, but for now, this was her home. She leaned her sign against the wall and went back to work with Jefferson. The snowy owl remained, nestling in to sleep in the Carvers' new home.

The End

Jesse Levi grew up in the American West, on property homesteaded by his grandparents over a hundred years ago. Although he's traveled often, the West will always be home. Levi's interests include journalism, farming and crafting stories that capture the heart of American culture.

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Penumbra, New Mexico
by Nicholas Wagner

Minx Otero yanked the tourniquet taut on her thigh. She pulled her black boots on, brushed the sand from her dark dress, and primped the long black hair she'd tied into a bun below her brown hat. Then she was off into the desert again. The rattler's bite, a shallow puncture quickly drained, wasn't affecting her movements. She was lucky. It had been three days since she'd stepped off the train, and she figured she was pretty close to the town of Penumbra, New Mexico where her business was to be done. It was getting close to sundown, and she'd prefer to spend the night indoors.

Her brown suitcase, heavy with the effects she was to deliver to the lost scion, carved its own wheeled path behind her in the sand. The company that sent her had requisitioned a stage coach, but it had been waylaid some time before. Not wanting to miss her opportunity, she hitched a ride with a man transporting hay to a fort some distance past their destination.

All was fine and dandy until the lead horse took ill and collapsed on the road, damaging the wagon in the process. Not wanting to delay any further, Otero grabbed her luggage and started on her way, anticipating she'd be in the town by night fall. What she didn't anticipate was the snake looming in the scrub brush she stopped to rest in.

She heard the ominous tail sprout a warning then felt the strike against her leg. She stumbled away without even getting a good look at it. After she was a safe distance down the road, she stopped again to tend the wound. And now, through the drifting dust, she could see the outskirts of the small town situated around the stage coach stop. To its far right along the plain was a well and a small river corking through the valley between distant mountains ahead.

Beyond the stage stop and its small corral of horses were a hotel, tavern and general store. Across the thoroughfare from them was a market and livery with stock for sale.

Minx walked inside the hotel.

There was a staircase straight ahead of her that wound up to the rooms. To her left, was a counter, where a woman in a white blouse sat in front of mailboxes. Beside it, was a corridor that connected the hotel to the tavern next door.

The woman behind the counter was old, with slicked back curly-hair, a pair of spectacles had slid down her nose. She spoke with a german accent.

"How may I assist you?"

"I'll be needing a room here," Minx said with a wink. "Minx Otero's what they call me."

"Agnes Tresco." The porter looked around for her companion.

"Just me."

"How modern. The room is above. Number 3." The porter motioned to the landing and pushed a key forward. "And food is that way," Agnes said, hooking a thumb left of her desk.

Minx dropped her luggage off in her room, which had a trunk instead of an armoire below a window that overlooked the stretch of desert that led to the river. Her dusty bed had red sheets with holes in them. Beside it, there was a table below a curling golden sconce in the wall.

When Minx took her boots off to check the wound, something scraped across the floor in the room beside her. She saw where there was a breach in the wall along the floorboards, and put her head to the ground to look through it.

Dirty black boots stomped across the ground, kicking up dust that travelled through the hole. Minx stifled a cough. Past the boots, Minx saw an Apache man tied up in a chair beside a table much resembling her own. He had on a red head scarf, a brown vest over a white shirt, and brown leggings tucked into his riding boots. His head was slunk down, but he was breathing. When the man was far enough away from the hole, she got a good look at him too.

He looked like a bounty hunter. Built thick, he wore a filthy white shirt over tan pants. He had a handlebar mustache, and matching gray hair above eyes narrowed in disgust at whatever nature threw his way.

"They comin' for you, Apache?"

He didn't answer. The bounty hunter kicked his chair leg. The Apache stirred.

"Where they fixin' to catch up? Figured we'd a got into more trouble on the road here. But for all I know they got agents spirited away in them mountains. I'd come along in the night, is what I'd do."

"They're more interested in keeping the women and children away from the fort," the Apache said.

"Meaning I could go easier on you, knowing there's less chance of you getting sprung?"

"That and the souvenir you gave me in my gut. Think you're okay, chief."

"Hardly count that as a mosquito bite, and you're still flappin' your gums on the subject."

"How 'bout some water?"

"Think you're on the reservation, slick?"

"Dead and alive pay the same?"

The bounty hunter grabbed a basin, leaned the Apache's head back and poured water into his mouth.

"That's just on account of my Christian nature. The pay cut might even out if I didn't have to hear your yappin' any longer."

"Praise be to Jesus," said the Apache.

Minx stood up and walked out of the room.

As she was leaving, the door beyond the bounty hunter's opened, and she saw a man in a neat black suit appear. He had a fine gray mustache, and thoughtfully eyed a newspaper in his right hand.

"Good day, madam."

"Good day," said Minx.

"Are you off to the dining facilities?"

"I am."

"Then our paths twine together," he said.

They walked down the stairs and into the tavern area past an indifferent Agnes.

The tavern had polished dark wood floors and matching tables in front of the bottle-heavy bar area to the right. Through the back window, the sun was setting over distant mountains. The barkeep had light brown hair and was clean-shaven. He wore a dirty striped shirt over black pants.

"Good day sir, I'm Carver Duluth. This is . . . "

"Minx Otero."

"Good afternoon. My name is Edwin. Edwin Orentius. You're both recent arrivals."

"I can say that for myself."

"And I for myself," said Minx.

"There you have it. Recent arrivals, both," said Duluth.

"I'd recommend the beef stew. With some whiskey to help it clear your gut."

"I'll take that recommendation."

"Minus the whiskey," said Minx.

They sat at a table nearby, and Minx thought to begin her inquiry of the missing man.

"What's your business in town, Mr. Duluth?"

"I'm working on behalf of the stage company, inspecting the stops along this route."

"How are they faring in your assessment?"

"Given the recent troubles with the Apaches, quite well," he said. "And yourself?"

"I work for an agency back east, they want me to locate a missing man on behalf of his parents. Gerald Vy. Has such a man introduced himself to either of you?"

Duluth shook his head then looked at Edwin.

"The name does not affect me as such. How would you describe him?" asked Edwin.

"Dark hair, just beyond twenty. Blue eyes. Often clean-shaven. Prefers his suits neat and shoes polished. His accent would call to mind New York society."

Minx caught something suspicious pass behind Edwin's eyes.

"I don't believe so."

Edwin brought over their stew with a smile.

"Let me know how it strikes you," he said.

Minx returned the smile.

At that point, the bounty hunter came down the stairs with the Apache. They took a table in the center of the room facing the bar.

"Whiskey and stew?" asked Edwin eagerly.

"Sounds like that's it," said the bounty hunter. "Unless this one feels like feeding me another helping of his complaints. Thick enough to eat or fill a book. Where are you all from?"

"New York," said Mr. Duluth.

"Myself as well," said Minx.

"Guess he must be a sight. Y'all ain't got any Indians back East, do you? Musta drove 'em all this way. Thanks for that," said the bounty hunter. "Pardon me, it was not my intention to offend any of your civilized sensibilities. My name is Plethory Waskins. This Apache here is called Fuerte. Don't let us ruin your meal none."

"Mr. Waskins," Duluth said. "We were just discussing a man named Gerald Vy. Have you seen him in recent weeks?"

"In recent weeks, all I seen is this fella and his folks, scurrying through them mountains on their little burros."

Edwin gave the two men their stew and whiskey and walked back over to the bar.

"I forgot to mention," said Minx. "Mr. Vy had a harmonica he was fond of playing. That might have distinguished him from some of your other customers."

Edwin shook his head.

Waskins kept eyeing the windows nervously, and after viciously dispatching of his meal and whiskey, finally dragged the Apache back up the stairs. Following a brief discussion with Minx regarding a shared acquaintance in the garment industry, Duluth left shortly after. Minx stayed alone with the barkeep, but he remained tightlipped, his doleful eyes seemed to search the ground for answers they never encountered. When the sun finally sank into the mountains beyond the window, Minx walked back over to Agnes, who gave the same reply regarding Vy, though her flat delivery hinted at nothing nefarious.

Minx retired to her room and kept an ear open, but the night marched forth without incident. When it was full dark, she snuck out of her room. Agnes had retired upstairs at some point, and the door to the tavern was closed. Minx produced a lock pick, fiddled with the door and forced it. She walked behind the bar and began rummaging about, but found nothing of interest, save for a few salacious letters between Edwin and a young woman in Missouri.

When she was about to head back upstairs, she saw distant torches through the window. Men on horseback with guns and fire.

Minx ran into the hotel, closed the tavern door, then yelled:


She heard the window smash out in Plethory's room, and a repeating rifle began firing from above. Indians whooped past the threshold of the hotel, and returned fire.

Edwin ran downstairs with a rifle and fumbled with his keys to open the door. On seeing it was unlocked, he gave Minx a suspicious look, then ran into the bar. Two Apaches with rifles were on horseback on the other side of the glass, and as soon as he entered, they both shot him in the torso and he fell down.

Minx dropped to the floorboards and kicked the door closed. It halfway splintered with another rattle of gunfire, swinging back open on rusted hinges, and she kicked the remains of it closed again. Then she ran upstairs and stumbled into the open room she saw Edwin enter from, collapsing onto the floor as shots peppered the window and wall around her. The gunfire continued from all sides, rifles and pistols blaring as other hotel occupants joined in the fray.

She got to her knees and rummaged through Edwin's desk, quickly finding the object of her desire, the harmonica engraved 'GV,' with a bloodstain near the lip piece. Minx shoved the harmonica inside her brassiere, then ran back to her room, gunfire from the hotel doorway piercing the wood just beyond her as she dove beside the bed. She pulled a revolver from within her luggage, then aimed it at the door, but there were no movements on the landing.

She looked out the window, and seeing nothing there, opened it and dropped her suitcase the ten feet down. She lowered herself out the side, and grazed her boots against the wall to soften her fall.

An Apache appeared on horseback to her left, aiming his rifle at Plethory's window. He turned to Minx with a look of surprise, and as he angled his barrel towards her, she shot him in the head. He dropped off the horse, and shuddered to a stop on the ground. Minx crawled over to the horse, grabbed the stirrup and lifted herself onto him. As she wheeled him around, the stock of a rifle struck her in the face. She fell to the earth and lost consciousness.

Minx woke with her arms and legs bound together across the backside of a horse, watching the ground shift below her. She heard her captors talking in Apache in front of and behind her. Eventually, the party stopped.

It was nearing sunrise, the sky a dark blue feathered with red. They were in an open field of tall grass surrounded by woods. The mountains rose to their left.

One of the Apaches threw Minx to the ground, her hands still tethered. Her mouth ached. When she spit, a tooth came out with the blood. Beside her were Edwin and Plethory, both filthy and bleeding from multiple wounds to their faces and bodies. One of Plethory's eyes was bruised so badly it couldn't open.

There were four Apaches on horseback, all in white shirts and dark pants over riding boots. Fuerte was the closest one. As he watched the captives, the other three walked over to a cleared out patch of dirt that formed a square within the field.

"What about the others?" Minx whispered to Plethory.

Plethory spit out blood.

Minx looked over at Edwin, barely clinging to life.

"You just gotta say it. You just gotta say it so I know. What happened to Vy? I found the harmonica."

"Wasn't me, honest. He kept borrowing money for cards. Wouldn't pay the fella back. Then he ran his mouth off one night, and everything came to a head. Fella who did it was gone the next day. You'd never find him, just some miner drifting from town to town."

"How long ago?"

"Three months. They got him with a knife, I was there when he was dying. He said, 'mail this back to my folks.' But they robbed him blind. No address, nothing. Fellas that did it burned everything in a fire afterwards. Sat around it, drinking in the street. Left his body there by the ashes. I buried him by a tree in the mountains. Made a cross. Fixin' to tell you this morning, didn't think you'd necessarily believe it."

Fuerte pointed to Plethory.

Two of the Apaches grabbed him, made him stand up. They led him over to the dirt patch. He took a couple steps and disappeared. His body thumped hard below, he howled fiercely for a few painful moments and then stopped screaming.

One of the other Apaches walked over to Edwin, examined his chest wounds then looked at Fuerte and shook his head. Fuerte nodded. The Apache cut Edwin's throat. He shook for a few moments then died.

Two of the men grabbed Minx and tossed her back onto the horse. They rode up a rough mountain path that eventually looked down on the main road connecting the stage coach line.

They saw an old man there driving a two-horse coach at a leisurely pace.

The Apaches conferred amongst themselves. Fuerte and one of the others were shaking their heads, but two of them couldn't be persuaded.

Eventually, the belligerent ones broke off, and headed down the slope for a patch of brush within rifle range of the stage. As they neared it, gunfire sprang out from all around, and the two men dropped dead. Fuerte and the other Apache took off into the mountains.

Somewhere along the incline, Fuerte decided that either Minx was slowing the horse down too much or it'd be worthwhile to lose some pursuers hoping to gallantly rescue the woman, so he cut the rope and dropped her onto the ground. She stared at a blank white sky through scattered treetops until the blonde cavalryman lifted her to her feet.

He was named Slazak. He had a circular scar beside one of his calming hazel eyes. He gave her water from his canteen, and asked what happened.

She tried to describe the field where Plethory and Edwin's bodies were, he said he'd do his best to find them. While the rest of the company pursued the Apaches, he took her down to the next stage stop, got her a room at the motel there, and arranged for her passage to Albuquerque.

He gave her his forwarding address, and she promised to write once things were settled.

When the coach deposited her in Albuquerque, she telegraphed her employers explaining the situation, and they made arrangements for her to get home. She was on a train the following morning, grasping the filthy harmonica, thinking of Slazak's kind eyes, and watching the desert pass by her.

The End

Nicholas Wagner is an author and filmmaker from Virginia. His previous westerns include Bandit's Paradise and A Ruin of Mercies. More of his work can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Nicholas-Wagner/e/B08L1XFNL5

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Alias Jack Felton, Mystery Lawman
by Tom Sheehan

The one man in the Big Dog Saloon, in a small corner of New Mexico, that the barkeep, Joe Kittering, did not know, had not seen before, made him wonder what kind of horse he was riding. Horses, for Joe Kittering, told a lot about their riders. For the money, for rider or owner, the quarter horse was most valuable because of its price, endurance, its build and muscle set, agility on a drive, and that breed's smooth responses under pressure, all according to which kind of demands were directed for it. And that breed came ahead of Appaloosa, Clydesdales, Mustangs, Percherons, Morgans or a dozen other breeds he was familiar with. Each one also told him about its rider or owner, all concerning abilities of the animal under saddle toting a rider.

In his quick thoughts about horses, he spotted an old customer come into the saloon, eyed him aside, and asked, like a nosy busy-body, "Nick, you see any new horses tied up out front? Anything special in color or breed as measured by a good horseman like yourself?"

That was enough to puff up Nick for a quick reply, him being a man of many words.

For sure, it did not take much to get Nick Goring to talk, about anything that came up in conversation, like horses, women, roses, rags or rifles, you name it, and so it was that he told him there was a special Thoroughbred at the tie rail, one he didn't get to see too often on local ranches for cattle driving or even grazing and attending locally on available grass. All the other horses were the regular quarter horses that cowboys treated like family every time they put a blanket on and saddled him up; for a day's work at hand, due to be done the best way possible for man and animal, paid and fed all the way to completion, most likely, mostly expected.

"I tell you, Joe," replied Nick, "this one's a Thoroughbred 'n' stands like a king, all royalty, all the way through, and shiny black like Hell lost its fire for getting rid of yesterday's spoilage and spillage. It's about as proud as a victory parade on a march, regal black, proud as a new dad at first announcement and don't even need a crowd to shine for." For the first time this day, and the first day in a long spell, Nick went silent, completely out of breath, and hung his hands by his side as though he'd lost something precious.

Kittering, in turn, looked around at the customers in the room and spotted the one face he had not seen before, a handsome gent under a sombrero now lounging at the far end of the bar, with a view of the whole room, front door to secret exit at one end, in one corner. He saw the man double-check the immediate surroundings in the corner he had picked for himself, obviously for some purpose. Which certainly was not theft. So, if not, perhaps it was on the legal side, marshal not displaying his shield, his shining star, his unspoken but heard legal force.

The barkeep, reader of men, too, was right on the button about the man taking in everything in sight, everything spoken and heard, every move, slight or itchy, being made in the whole saloon, and ready for any demand at action.

This trip he was Jack Felton, third sobriquet this month for him in a search for a vaunted killer, gunman, bank robber, hostage taker with one girl of 18, blue-eyed, beautiful Clarie Mifton, still missing, and not a word about her for a month; but this saloon in a town on the way further west, where a rider kept reins in one hand on a following mount sitting a young girl, constantly quiet but red-eyed when passing a stranger on the trail, like she could be shot, or the stranger met on the trail might suffer the same fate, if a word was uttered by her.

In truth, he was Twich Dawson, Federal Marshal-at-Large for the whole territory of New Mexico, with legal power in any butting territory or state he happened to enter while on the trail of a wanted man. Twich himself was a dead-eye shot with either pistol he carried or the long rifle in its scabbard on his saddle, enough firepower, with good strategy, to hold off or take on a small army of bandits or thugs not knowing their worst enemy at work.

Each time Twich left home on a job, his wife, Matilda, said, "Bring my man and my kids' daddy back to me after this chase. I'll be counting on you."

She was fully aware of how good his shooting practices had been, what his past had been like, and prayed it continued.

Now, as one Jack Felton, he sat alone in The Big Dog Saloon, at work but not looking like he was at work, his eyes on the crowd, the door, new customers, horses and riders passing the place all the time, as if some were checking it out to, just as Jack Felton, alias, was. The girl would not be seen in town, for sure, but a drinker needed a saloon or a new supply of liquor, so to town he must go, or come and leave the girl bound up in some small shack taken, bought or rented on the sly, for minimal use; rest his mount, rest himself, seek other relaxation for his soul.

For most men on the move, liquor did the trick; that meant, as he had deduced, a saloon or a liquor seller. The only other provider would come from theft of goods from wayside cabins. Such a splurge would normally leave a trail, like the one he was on at this moment, seeking a man he had never seen, but knew the ways of such men.

That thought had barely cleared his mind, when a rustle at the saloon door was heard, followed by a string of curses when a boot was caught in an entrance crack and a stumble could be imagined full bore. It must be a traveling man, on a long journey, throat gone dry, knotted up by travel, tired of some kind of responsibility or onus, to catch him at his worst.

Thus, he walked toward the one man who was on his tail without him knowing it, either of them, though Alias Jack Felton managed a small smile to escape his countenance as the stranger approached the bar, discovery not part of his mind, but a yen for whiskey.

While Kittering knew his horses to a "T", Alias Jack Felton knew his men, the breakaway kind, the criminal kind, the deadly kind, and the kind that liquor drove his engine no matter where he went or what he did, like walk directly toward the man chasing him these long, struggling days.

Alias Jack Felton could not say a word, had to let the man be invited by the barkeep, lounge easily at the bar, feel the comfort of the whiskey he sought and bought, but he'd listen to the man gab, hear the blowhard shoot off his mouth if he was a mind, for the girl was the feature, her rescue and freedom of the real importance. He listened to the repartee.

Kittering said, "Well, pal, twice here in two days, and glad to see you again. Want the usual? Yours for the asking."

"You're right, barman. The usual." He looked around lazily, second time lazily, and Kittering said, "You must have found someplace comfortable." It was more of a question than a statement.

"Right you are again, barman, an old miner's cabin and a shed with damned few of his tools still there, out there on the low hills. He ever hit anything before he moved on?"

"Not a sliver. Just picked up one day and took off. Never did see him again, must be near two years now. Time flies." He poured the man his drink.

Felton ordered, "One for the road, barkeep. Up and at 'em, my father used to say before he did it himself. Not a word back ever since, so I keep moving. Thanks for your hospitality."

He slipped out of the Big Dog Saloon as though he had never been there in his whole life. But once past the edge of town, out of sight of all behind him, he lit out for the hills, and the long-forgotten cabin, a prayer on his lips, in his throat.

The cabin was a mess, the bed the sole piece complete in a room with broken chairs, a three-legged table, and other unusable items in total disarray.

His heart almost fell down through his chest, when he thought of the shed.

He opened the shed door, and there staring at him, knotted in rope to a chair, her eyes as blue as the clear heavens on a glorious day, with a bandana stuffed and tied near her mouth, was Clarie Mifton, no longer missing. But now crying with joy as the ropes and bandana were loosened, and she fell freely into the arms of Alias Jack Felton.

Folks at the Big Dog Saloon tell the story of a lawman storming into the saloon, guns drawn, and handcuffing an unknown man, then leading his prisoner and a girl out of town, him like he was heading a three-horse parade. No names were ever cast about because folks were never sure who was who, the good, the lovely and the bad man still full of curses, probably on his way to the Hell he had created on his own.

The End

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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Daisy Mae
by James A. Tweedie

The reason Daisy Mae Farnsworth married Bill Flanagan in 1884 was because he was the only man in Wyoming who dared to ask for her hand.

No other man was brave enough or foolish enough to risk spending the rest of his life with a woman who could shoot better, ride better, drink better, and fight better than he could.

So when Parson Plumber finished presiding over their "I do's" all the men and nearly all the women in the cattle town of Juniper breathed a sigh of relief and went back to minding their own business which, for most of them, had something to do with raising, feeding, selling, or moving cattle from one place to another.

The one holdout was Meg Simpson, a widow-woman who had pinned her hopes on Bill Flanagan for her second marriage. Along with everyone else at Daisy Mae's wedding, she congratulated both the bride and groom, but in her heart, she was asking the Lord Almighty to favor her by letting Daisy Mae fall off a horse and break her neck so Meg could start wooing Bill back into her corner again.

Meg couldn't understand how Bill came to choose Daisy in the first place. After all, Daisy's first marriage to the Honorable Judge Samuel S. Farnsworth had come to an unsatisfactory end when Daisy discovered her esteemed husband in bed with Myrtle Jensen-the wife of the pastor who served the town before Parson Plumber was appointed to replace him.

Daisy shot the Judge through the heart before he could roll out of bed and when Myrtle confessed to the adultery no one could find any fault with what Daisy had done.

"A crime of passion," Sheriff Thompson declared when he refused to arrest her for planting her wayward husband six-feet under.

The grave was left unmarked because—as Daisy said to the folks who came to the funeral—"I refuse to spend any of his money to pay for a memorial with his name on it. I plan on forgetting that he ever lived and I hope that you all do the same."

"Besides," she added. "His money is now my money and I can do with it whatever I want."

Rumor had it that the Judge had gotten into the habit of beating Daisy Mae whenever he came home drunk. But rumor also had it that if Daisy Mae had one black eye to show for it, the Judge usually came out of it with two.

Even though Meg pretended to be mystified over Bill Flanagan's reasons for choosing Daisy Mae instead of her, the reason seemed fairly obvious to everyone else.

After his death and in his will, the late and unlamented Judge Farnsworth left everything he owned to Daisy Mae, including the house, 5000 acres of land, 900 head of cattle, the "Bar-5" ranch and everything that went along with it. Folks figured that getting his hands on all that money was too big a temptation for Bill Flanagan to resist.

To everyone's surprise, and to Meg's disappointment, it turned out that Daisy Mae and Bill Flanagan not only managed to tolerate each other, but to offer every indication that they had honestly and truly fallen in love.

But all of that came to an abrupt end six months after the wedding when two drunken cow-hands got to fighting each other in the town saloon. Bucky, the older of the two, challenged Tipsy to step outside and settle their argument with a gunfight.

Tipsy thought it was such a good idea that he pulled out his pistol and dropped Bucky dead right there and then.

Unfortunately—seeing as how confused Tipsy was and how he couldn't see well enough to shoot straight—the man he dropped dead onto the floor of the saloon turned out to be Bill Flanagan, who had just walked through the door looking to have a beer before riding back to the ranch.

While one of the men quickly rode off to break the news to Daisy Mae, the rest knocked Tipsy over and did their best to beat him back into sobriety while two others went outside looking for Sheriff Thompson.

"The Sheriff's in Cheyenne on business," one of them announced when they returned twenty-minutes later. "So, I guess we're going to have to lock Tipsy up until he gets back."

"No need for that," one of the other men said, in a tone of voice that made it clear he had put himself in charge. "We all saw what Tipsy done to Bill and so we'll have our own trial, find him guilty, and hang him up someplace where it won't frighten the children."

The trial took over two hours, not because the prosecution or the defense had much to say, but because everyone was having too good a time drinking and telling each other stories about what they had seen and what they thought should be done about it.

By the time the two hours were up, the sun had gone down and every man in town had squeezed into the saloon except for the undertaker who only stayed long enough to recruit four men to carry Bill's body outside and put it on a wagon so he wouldn't have to carry it to the mortuary on his back.

Not long after the undertaker left, the men shouted out a unanimous verdict of "Guilty" and proceeded to march Tipsy and his horse down the street until they gathered around a large Cottonwood that stood behind the town jail.

One of the men tied the end of Tipsy's lariat into a noose and threw the rope over one of the lower, stronger branches on the tree.

Other men tied Tipsy's hands behind his back, lifted him onto his horse, and put the noose around his neck.

"Sorry, Tipsy," said the man in charge. "But you're guilty of killin' an innocent man and justice must be served. As you know, that means you've got to hang. So, if you've got some final words, now's the time to say 'em, 'cause time's a-wastin'."

Tipsy was still as drunk as he had been when he pulled the trigger on Bill Flanagan, but even though he was still drunk, he understood enough of what was happening to know that the longer he talked the longer he was going to live.

"When I was ten years old," he began but he didn't finish the thought because Daisy Mae had ridden up behind the crowd, lifted Bill's Winchester, and placed her finger on the trigger to put a well-aimed bullet into Tipsy's brain.

Tipsy's horse bolted at the sound of rifle-fire, leaving Tipsy behind, swinging at the end of a rope that had turned out to be unnecessary.

Everybody turned around to see who had fired the shot and saw Daisy Mae sitting on her horse with her rifle still pointed in Tipsy's direction.

"Daisy Mae!" screamed the man in charge of the mob. "What do you think you're doin'! You can't go around takin' the law into your own hands and makin' yourself judge, jury, and executioner!"

Daisy didn't hear half of what he said, partly because everybody was yelling and making noise, but mostly because she was busy searching the crowd to see who had shot Tipsy before she'd had a chance to pull the trigger herself.

"Why'd you do it?" someone yelled.

"Because I had more right to get even with him than you did!" Daisy yelled without thinking through what she was saying. "And if any of you come to string me up for what I done I'll drop you to the ground faster than Tipsy did to my Bill!"

No one made a move in her direction and it wasn't long before the confusion died down, the crowd broke up, and everybody left for home—everyone except for the undertaker, who cut Tipsy down and hauled him away so the women and children wouldn't see him hanging there in the morning.

As he rode off, Daisy was still trying to figure out who would have wanted to shoot Tipsy as much as she did.

Several of the men in the crowd had carried torches to help them see what was going on but now that everybody had left, the town was as dark as the prairie that surrounded it.

The stars and a quarter-moon provided the only light as Daisy rode the two short blocks to Meg Simpson's cabin.

There were no lights showing inside when Daisy rapped lightly on the front door.

The door opened but it was too dark to see who had opened it.

"Good evening, Meg," Daisy said.

There was no doubt that the voice that answered was Meg's.

"Come in, Daisy," she said. "Good of you to stop by."

Meg didn't bother to light a candle so the two women talked and cried in the dark together until the sun came up in the morning.

"I know you loved Bill as much as I did," Daisy said, "and maybe you even loved him more than I did at first. But I've never loved a man as much as I love him now—until last night . . . "

It turned out that they had more in common than being in love with the same man. Both had come west as children on the Oregon Trail. Daisy had been left to fend for herself as an orphan when her parents died of dysentery at Fort Laramie and was raised by a schoolteacher in Cheyenne

The wagon taking Meg and her parents to California had broken down just short of South Pass where her father died after being kicked in the head by one of their two oxen. Meg's mother returned to Missouri but Meg went off on her own and by the time she was 20 years old she helped start up a food service in Green River when the Union Pacific Railroad came through in 1869.

Both had learned to ride and shoot and both had married and become widows without having any children, and both of them were ready to give up and spend what was left of their lives in some place like Denver, San Francisco or even St. Louis—anywhere but Wyoming.

When the sun came up, Meg went to fixing griddle cakes and coffee for breakfast.

"I'll stay and eat," Daisy said. "But then I've got to get back to the ranch. I've got to settle accounts with the ranch hands and get the cows and goats milked and how I'm going to do all of this without Bill, I just don't know. Since we got married, he's been running the ranch and now . . . "

Daisy started crying again and Meg stood up, walked around the table, and wrapped her arms around her.

"You're a strong woman, Daisy," she said. "You've done it before and you can do it again and if you need anything, let me know and I'll do what I can."

Daisy lifted her head and, as she looked into the eyes of her new friend, she began to consider a new direction for her life.

"Meg?" she asked. "Why don't you come back to the ranch with me? We could be partners and run the spread together. I'm sitting here asking myself why ranching always has to be done by a man when the two of us could do it just as well. Who knows, maybe someday we'll each find a man and maybe we won't, but why wait when we can team up and do it ourselves starting now? What do you say?"

Meg let go of Daisy, walked back around the table, sat down and began poking her fork into her hot cakes until she had broken them up into little pieces.

When she became convinced that she couldn't break up the pieces any smaller than they already were she looked up at Daisy with a smile and said, "Sure, why not? Let's make history!"

And they did.

The End

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.

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