March, 2023

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Issue #162

All The Tales

Cow-Boys and Calf Fries
by Maggie DeMay

San Pedro Valley, Arizona Territory 1880

Spring round-up was a hot and dusty job under the best of circumstances, but the overly warm winter and lack of precipitation of any kind had left the washes and arroyos drier and dustier than usual. The mild weather must have put every cow on the range in the mood for love, resulting in a bumper crop of calves, making the job of rounding the stubborn little critters take twice as long as it usually did.

The calves had to be rounded up and branded, after which the little heifers would be allowed to go back to the herd. For the little bull calves not needed for breeding, there was another horror awaiting as they were castrated and turned into steers. It was a bloody and disgusting job, usually assigned to one of the younger hands.

Lancer was sitting on his horse, watching the proceedings, and wondering why the cook had volunteered for the duty. Cookie had a pair of razor-sharp knives that he periodically swapped for sharpening when the blade began to dull. As one of the hands held the front end of the calf, Cookie would make one swift cut and the little bull would become a steer. Then he'd pop the testicles out of the sac and toss them into a bucket of cold water. The former bull scrotum was now a flat pouch that Cookie threw into a crate. The leatherworks just across the border in Mexico would pay top dollar for the empty sacs and Lancer didn't have a problem with his ranch hands making a few extra bucks from an item that was going to be dumped into a hole and buried to keep the coyotes away.

Lancer dismounted and tied his horse's reins to the post of the makeshift corral set up to keep the calves from wandering away until they'd had their turn at branding and nutting. He was the foreman for Apache Rose Ranch, and he liked to keep an eye on things. He ambled over to where Cookie and Willie were working.

Cookie's real name was Fred O'Toole. He was an Irishman from Belfast, and the nickname went with the job. Lancer doubted if any of the ranch hands even knew the man's real name. The name seemed to fit the grizzled Irishman and the ranch had acquired a reputation for putting on a good feed for the help. Good food, a clean bunkhouse, and fair wages made a position at Apache Rose a sought-after prize when one became available.

"Are you going to finish with those calves before suppertime?" Lancer asked, wincing involuntarily as a bull calf became a steer with a flick of Cookie's wrist and the flash of a well-honed blade. The calf started bawling as Cookie cauterized the wound with a heated poker before it was returned to the herd. Willie, the youngest and newest hand caught another bull calf as Cookie squeezed the testicles from the scrotum and dropped them into the cold water.

"Shouldn't be more'n another hour or so. Then I'll get supper started. Colonel Slater and them folks from town still comin' for supper?"

"You know they can't miss the last night of the spring branding," Lancer said. "The Colonel's the only one I've seen out here this week, but now that the hard work is done, you know the rest of 'em are going to show up for supper. You got anything special laid on for our company?"

"Nuthin' special. Got a recipe from when I was working for that outfit in Montana. Got a calf roasting in the coals, some nopales I'm going to cook up with some pork cracklin', ranch beans, biscuits, and a few other dishes. Nothing fiddly or fancy."

"Be sure to put on a clean apron before you start cooking. The one you got on needs a good wash, or better yet, a good burning," Cookie was wearing the leather apron he wore when he had to slaughter an animal for meat. "Miss Ivy and the new schoolteacher are riding in with the Colonel and some of the other men are bringing their wives and daughters. None of them need to see that thing. Come to think of it, you may want to throw Willie in the river, that is if there's enough water in the San Pedro for a good wash up."

Willie blushed to the roots of his hair. As the youngest ranch hand, he ended up doing the unpleasant jobs the more senior hands thought of as being beneath their dignity. He always got stuck riding drag, always got mid-watch, and had mucked out so many stalls he was finding himself to be an expert on all manner of horse, donkey, cow, and chicken droppings. He didn't whine or complain and took pride in whatever job he was assigned to do. Every payday he'd send half of his pay to his mama back in Texas and put half of what was left in the local bank. He was a friendly and personable kid and the rest of the hands kept one jaded eye on him when they were in town.

"I got sense enough to know to clean up for the ladies," Willie said.

Lancer raised an eyebrow at his youngest crew member. "Why, Willie, I do believe Cookie is being a bad influence. You're startin' to turn into a regular smart ass. Don't forget to wash behind your ears." He lit a cigar to cover the smell of incontinent calf and scorched cowhide.

"Cookie," Lancer asked, genuinely concerned about what Cookie had in mind for the calf parts. "What are you planning on doing with those calf nuts? If you're gonna cook 'em up, you better be ready to high tail it out of here when the rest of the crew finds out what you're feeding them."

"Nah, Boss Man," Cookie said with a twinkle in his clear blue eyes. "I wouldn't dream of feedin' 'em no calf nuts. I don't think their palate is sophisticated enough for that." Cookie had worked his way across the Atlantic as a cook on a passenger ship and could make rawhide taste good.

Lancer had a feeling Cookie was up to something and decided the less he knew about it, the better. He led his horse to the river for a drink. There wasn't much water in the San Pedro, and that was worrisome. The winter rains had failed to materialize, and the unusually warm weather meant there would be very little runoff from the snowpack. A bumper crop of cows would be of no use to anyone if they didn't have water. He filled his canteen from the clear cold water upstream from where the horses were watered. The cottonwoods had leafed out and the little buds that would eventually open into fluffy white down resembling cotton fibers were just starting to appear in the foliage of the female trees.

You either liked the cottonwood trees or you didn't. The trees did provide nice shade and the local Apache swore that if you found a green and growing cottonwood tree in the desert water was nearby. Lancer had seen this proved true on the Apache Rose Ranch. One of the hands had spotted a flourishing cottonwood in the middle of a mesquite and cactus bramble. After consulting with the Colonel, Lancer had ordered everything but the cottonwood to be cut down and cleared from a half-acre plot and a well dug. Sure enough, thirty feet down there was water. A windmill was erected, and a stock tank was built, enabling the Colonel to double the size of the cattle herd.

Lancer mounted his horse and began his rounds, seeing where hands were needed and solving any problems that arose. Apache Rose Ranch was located on the East side of the San Pedro River near a narrow strip of dusty, wagon-rutted road that ran between Tombstone and Camp Huachuca, home of the Tenth and Sixth Calvary and a regiment of Buffalo Soldiers. The Army was the Ranch's best customer, buying their beef cattle and spare horses.

The town of Tombstone, once known as Goose Flats, was growing in the mad rush of the discovery that underneath the mesquite, cactus, scrub brush, and sand of the Arizona desert was a mother lode of the silver and copper the rest of the country was screaming for. The town was named by Ed Schieffelin after one of the soldiers from Camp Huachuca had told him the only thing he was going to find out there in the desert was his tombstone. Schieffelin had the last laugh. He was making a fortune.

Even Colonel Slater had caught the silver fever. Just across the road, on the side of a hill overlooking the river, a crew was at work opening a shaft the assayers promised would lead to a vein of silver ore. Lancer hoped they were right. The Colonel had everything he owned tied up in the venture, and if no silver was found, the outlook would be bleak. He didn't care for mining or the mess it made of the land, but he wasn't in the mood for looking for another job. Ranching jobs were getting few and far between as the land around Tombstone was becoming mining territory. Silver claims were staked out all over the place, and it was pure luck and ranch hands riding the range that had kept the prospectors at bay until the Colonel had filed a mining claim for the entire ranch.

There was a muted boom as dust escaped from the mine shaft. There was a sudden flurry of activity as the men waiting outside until after the blast hurried into the shaft to dig out the rock and rubble brought down by the explosion. Lancer shuddered at the prospect. Mines were dark and dangerous places. Riding the range chasing cattle wasn't much safer, especially since the Cow-Boys had set up shop in nearby Charleston, but he'd take the sunshine and fresh air over a mine shaft any day.

He pulled a battered watch from his vest pocket, checked the time with the slowly sinking sun, and decided to go back to the bunkhouse to clean up before the company arrived. He hadn't had a chance to meet the new teacher and had heard she was different from most of the women in town. She was a convent-educated young lady from New Orleans, and, if the rumor was correct, a pretty one at that. A clean shirt and a different vest wouldn't be amiss, nor would giving his horse a rubdown and a brush-up. The big Appaloosa gelding looked as if he'd been dusted with desert sand.

As he pointed his horse towards the ranch proper, he couldn't help but wonder what Cookie was planning on doing with a bucket of calf nuts.

* * *

The sun was setting behind the hills, giving the mesquite and cottonwood trees a soft golden glow. The ranch hands had strung Chinese lanterns in the cottonwoods beside the river and set out tables and chairs borrowed from the local Masonic Hall. Cookie had the food keeping warm in a bed of coals and was setting up a kettle full of hog lard for a fry-up.

Lancer strolled over to check on dinner's progression when he saw what Cookie was getting ready to fry. Cookie had mixed up a batter of flour, fine Mexican cornmeal, eggs, and seasoning and was industriously dipping small round objects into the mixture and then rolling them into the cornmeal for a final coating.

"I hope you're not planning on feeding those to the ladies," Lancer said, "Because if you are, I will not be responsible for what they do to you afterward. No one wants to eat a deep-fried calf nut."

"No," Cookie said with a mischievous twinkle in his blue eyes. "I'm not frying up calf nuts. These are Mountain Oysters. Got the recipe from when I was working in Montana, only there they was from sheep."

Lancer let out a put-upon sigh. He didn't think there would be a problem. He would just steer the ladies away from the oysters. He was getting ready to light a cigar when Colonel Slater arrived with his wife and daughter, and the new teacher.

The Colonel was the first to dismount and helped his wife and daughter down from their horses. Lancer helped the new teacher down. She was tiny, not more than five feet tall, with soft rounded curves and red hair pulled back into one long braid. She looked up at him with a pair of luminous green eyes behind a pair of gold-framed glasses as a blush bloomed across her cheeks.

Colonel Slater was making the introductions. "Jim, I'd like you to meet Miss Odalis Dupre, one of our new teachers. Odalis, this is James Lancer, my ranch foreman."

"Pleased to meet you," Lancer managed to get out.

"Likewise," Odalis said in a soft southern drawl.

The Colonel and his wife exchanged glances. Mrs. Slater had been itching for Odalis to meet Lancer since the young woman had arrived in Tombstone.

"When's dinner?" Ivy asked. "We're starved!"

"You will have to ask Cookie about that, but I'd advise you to stay away from the oysters. They didn't look real appetizing," Lancer said.

Odalis was from New Orleans, a city that prized its seafood, and she was skeptical of any shellfish being served in the middle of the desert.

"Thank you for the warning. I think I'll pass on the oysters," she said, smiling and blushing again. Lancer noticed a sprinkling of freckles, scattered like fine gold dust across her cheeks.

Before the menu could be discussed further, other guests began to arrive. Lancer went to help with their horses and wagons, his mind still on the small red haired teacher.

The hog lard was finally hot enough. Cookie dropped the first oysters into the pot as Ike and Billy Clanton, Curly Bill Broccius, and Frank McLaury rode up. Lancer knew trouble when it rode in on stolen horses. Broccius was the leader of a gang that called themselves the Cow-Boys, using the hyphen in the middle to differentiate themselves from the cowboys working the ranches. These honest and hard-working men had gotten so fed up with the Cow-Boys antics they were now calling themselves ranch hands and wranglers. This led to more than one fistfight in town when a ranch hand was mistakenly called a Cow-Boy.

"Well, now," said Broccius. He had a deep Texas twang. "Looks like we're in time for supper. What you got cookin' there, Lancer? I see your ranch hands have put on quite a spread."

"Curly Bill, you and your men are welcome as long as you behave yourselves. There's plenty of food and there's a corral set up by the river where you can put your horses. There are ladies here. I want you on your best behavior. If one of you misbehaves, you all go. Got that?"

"Damn, Lancer, we ain't from South Carolina, but we do know how to act like gentlemen when it's called for. Ain't that right, boys?"

Ike Clanton answered by spitting a stream of tobacco juice that barely missed Lancer's boots, much to the amusement of his brother and Frank McLaury. Curly Bill glared at his gang. He hadn't wanted to bring them along, only he couldn't find an excuse to leave them behind. There would be decent women at this gathering, and Curly Bill, like most outlaws, held decent women in high esteem and he wanted to make their acquaintance.

"That's enough, Ike," he growled. "You mind your manners. Tell me, Lancer, where's the whiskey?"

"There isn't any. There's some bottled beer and sarsaparilla in a tub of ice to keep it cold and there's wine and sweet tea for the ladies. No hard liquor allowed," Lancer said. This was a new ruling by the Colonel. At the previous year's branding two very drunken ranch hands had to be rescued from the San Pedro. They had stripped down and were determined to go for a swim. The mud-covered men were rescued before they passed out face-first and drowned in six inches of water.

"Good thing I brought my own," Ike Clanton said, taking a bottle from his saddle bag and helping himself to a long drink before passing it to his brother and McLaury.

"Put it away, Ike," Broccius said. "You heard the man, no whiskey. Damn, something smells good!"

"Our cook got his hands on some oysters," Lancer said, neglecting to tell them what species the oysters were harvested from. "Put your horses away and wash up by the river. Food should be ready soon."

"Let's go, boys! Put these useless cayuses in the corral and get ready for some fine eatin'. Apache Rose has the best food and the prettiest women!" Curly Bill handed the reins of his horse to Ike and went over to introduce himself to the ladies.

Lancer watched him go, glaring. Curly Bill was way too cocky and full of himself by half. He needed bringing down a peg or two, and Lancer knew just how he was going to do that. He had a few words quiet words with Cookie, who had nodded and smiled at the prospect.

This was going to be a Spring Branding to remember.

The women put the food on the tables while the men gathered around to swap tall tales about riding the range or battles with the local Apache. Lancer knew most of them were exaggerating. If a group of Apache ever came across a lone rider, that was the last anyone heard of them. Apache had little tolerance for strangers on their lands and no sense of humor whatsoever. Geronimo and his merry band of raiders kept the ranchers and miners on alert. Lancer, one of the few white men in the area who had bothered to learn about the local tribes, could understand why the Apache were angry. The land they were promised had been taken from them with a stroke of the pen and the entire Chiricahua tribe was forced to move north to the reservation they were to share with the White Mountain Apache at San Carlos. The problem was that although both tribes were from the Apache Nation, they did not get along. It was like suddenly finding out you were being forced to move in with your worthless brother-in-law and all seventeen of his bratty kids. The Chiricahua had retreated to Cochise's Stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains as far away from their cousins as they could get.

Soon dinner was ready and after a short prayer from the Episcopal minister, everyone dug in. Lancer had managed to get a seat between Ivy and Odalis. He was having a grand time explaining to the young lady from bayou country about what nopales were and how it would be difficult to starve to death in the desert if you knew what to look for.

There was a commotion as Cookie brought forth his masterwork, a huge platter heaped with a mountain of, well, oysters.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he announced with an exaggeration of his usual Irish brogue as he set the platter reverently on a table laid for six. "In the tradition of Old Ireland and the Arizona territories, it pleases me to announce the first Oyster Eating Contest to be held in the Sonoran Desert! Line up men! Let's see who can eat the most oysters in five minutes!"

"What does the winner get?" Ike Clanton demanded. He was already down twenty dollars from losing at Faro that afternoon and was interested in recouping his money.

"The admiration of all present," Cookie stated. "However, the Colonel says he doesn't object to a side betting as long as it is kept to a reasonable amount."

"You hear that, Curly Bill?" Clanton said. "I've seen you eat your way through half a cow and still want dessert. Let's show these cow chasers what real Cow-Boys can do! I'm game if you are."

Curly Bill thought for a minute, wondering if the women present were included in the admiration thing. He wouldn't mind some admiration from Ivy Slater or that little redhead teacher. He did love him a redhead. Too bad he was too old to go back to school.

"Count me in, Ike," Curly Bill stated, grinning from ear to ear, white teeth flashing in a grin beneath his mustache. "Well, y'all gone leave it up to us to show you how to eat oysters? We need more than me and Ike. I got a ten-dollar gold piece says I can eat more oysters than any man here." He reached into a pocket and took out the gold piece. "Sheriff Behan can hold the bets and keep everyone honest!" The assembled crowd roared with laughter at the thought of Johnny Behan keeping anyone honest.

"The Cow-Boys have named Ike Clanton and Curly Bill as their champions," Cookie continued. "From the Apache Rose Ranch, we have young William Hammond. Step up Willie, I've been trying to get you fed up for the last year and a half and now's my chance to finally do it right!"

Willie stepped up to the table. He was seventeen years old and had lied about his age when he'd rode up to the Apache Rose and asked for a job, claiming to be twenty-one. Willie had grown up hungry, his Pa having died when he was six, leaving his Ma to raise and feed four kids by taking in sewing and laundry and any other odd job that came her way. In Willie, Cookie had found the ultimate food tester. The kid didn't turn down anything presented to him on a plate and could pack away food like there was no tomorrow.

"Any other volunteers?" Cookie asked. "It's now or never, so get 'em while they're hot!"

Two more men stepped up, one was a single miner known only as Early Bob who worked the Toughnut mine. He'd ridden out with a pal because there was a rumor free food and pretty women could be found at the end of branding party and he hadn't planned on missing either. Winning an eating contest would be a happy bonus.

The other was a jolly fat man named Carmichael who owned a restaurant in town. He'd been dying to sample Apache Rose fare for ages. He'd heard the ranch cook was a talented chef and hadn't been disappointed.

"We need one more volunteer," Cookie announced. "Don't be shy, boys! Step right up!"

A small effete looking man wearing a deputy's star and wire-framed glasses stepped up after being prompted by a none to gentle shove from Sheriff Behan.

What's your name, son?" Cookie asked.

"Billy," he managed to get out. "Billy Breckenridge."

"Well, Billy, have a seat with the rest of the contestants. Colonel Slater, would you be our timekeeper?"

The Colonel stepped up to the table and took out his pocket watch. "It will be an honor. Cookie, ready when you are."

The men all sat down. Cookie heaped the small plates in front of each man with a pile of fried mountain delicacies.

"The object is to be the last man eating. You have five minutes to consume as many oysters as you can without getting sick. Everyone ready?"

"Let's do it," Curly Bill said, still grinning.

"Colonel, when you're ready."

The Colonel was waiting for the second hand on his watch to reach the twelve. "Get ready," he said. "Get set, gentleman, start eating!"

The crowd went wild as the men started chewing. Money exchanged hands as bets of all sizes were made. Each side cheered their own champion. Willie seemed to be in the lead as he started on his second plate, followed closely by Carmichael, who was practically inhaling the food. Curly Bill was in third, chewing industriously on each bite, pacing himself as if he was planning on eating all night. Early Bob, true to his name, dropped out after the second plate. Billy Breckenridge was still working his way through his first plate, looking slightly green, and Ike Clanton was shoveling food into his face and appearing to swallow the mountain oysters whole.

Billy didn't make it past the first plate. He hiccupped, turned an even more bilious shade of green, covered his mouth with his napkin, and ran to the river. Ike almost gagged at the sight of a distressed Breckenridge but kept on eating. Willie, Curly Bill, Carmichael, and Ike seemed to be in for the duration.

Carmichael finished his third plate, gave a tremendous burp, turned his plate upside down, and left the table, bowing to Cookie as he did. He knew a master when he saw one. He went off in search of a beer, wondering what was for dessert.

Ike Clanton was starting to fade. He was on his fourth plate and the food wasn't sitting well on the whiskey he'd been imbibing most of the day. He swallowed his final oyster, got up shakily, and staggered over to the cottonwoods by the riverbank. He lay down on the soft, cool grass, hoping like hell he wouldn't embarrass himself like Breckenridge, who appeared to be bringing up every meal he'd eaten in the last month.

Now it was one on one, Willie against Curly Bill. Cookie had finally done the near impossible. Willie's stomach was beginning to get full, and he was slowing down. He was on his fifth plate, while against all odds, Curly Bill was starting his sixth!

Willie finished his plate as Cookie heaped on more. Curly Bill finished his sixth and called for a seventh. Willie, try as he might, couldn't eat another bite, he acknowledged defeat as he stood up from the table. Curly Bill kept right on eating until the Colonel called out.

"Time's up! And it looks like we have a winner! Curly Bill Broccius is the winner of the first annual Mountain Oyster Eating contest. Stand up, Bill. Let's all give him a hand and a cold beer!"

"Wait just a doggone minute," Curly Bill said, suddenly looking a little green. "What in the hell is a mountain oyster? I may be from Texas but I sure as hell know you don't get oysters in the mountains."

"Back home we call 'em calf fries," Willie said. "My Ma use to cook up a mess of them every year when we'd make the little bulls into little steers."

Curly Bill looked around. Everyone was having a good laugh at his expense, except for Billy Breckenridge and Ike Clanton, both of whom were hanging their heads over the riverbank being sick.

Sheriff Behan came over and dropped a pile of gold and silver coins and a wad of greenbacks on Curly Bill's empty plate.

"Congratulations, Bill, that's over two hundred dollars. And you have the admiration of the crowd."

He was suddenly being cheered on by everyone who was still standing. He looked around for Lancer, knowing full well the Apache Rose ranch foreman was the one who'd set this up. Sure enough, he was over by the river, talking to that little redheaded schoolteacher and Ivy Slater while Mrs. Slater chaperoned. All three of the women were giggling as if Lancer had told them the funniest joke they'd ever heard. Curly Bill caught Lancer's eye, and the man had the audacity to doff his hat and give him a sweeping bow. Curly Bill did not like being the butt of anyone's jokes. He smiled back at Lancer, nodding his head as he did.

Lancer had made an enemy for life. From now on he would have to watch his back every time he left the ranch.

A few of the ranch hands and folks from town had brought musical instruments and had been tuning up for the last few minutes. Now they started in on a slow waltz as the stars came out and the new moon started to rise over the hills.

"Would you care for a dance, Miss Dupre?" Lancer asked.

"I would be honored," she said, smiling as he took her in his arms and led her to the makeshift dance floor. "I've never danced in riding boots before, or under so many stars."

Lancer smiled down at her. Looking into the deep green eyes of a woman who wasn't afraid to dance in riding boots and had looked up into the clear, star-lit skies of Arizona.

That was the moment he knew he was going to have to get to know her much better.

Curly Bill and Ike Clanton were leaning against one of the cottonwoods. Curly Bill was glaring at Lancer.

"You want us to give him a seeing to, Boss?" Ike asked.

"Not now, you idiot! Too many people. Did you know we was eatin' calf nuts?"

"Yeah. I thought you knew that was what they was. Thought everybody did, 'cept maybe Billy, and he's delicate about his food. I heard the Colonel and Behan talking about having another contest next year, only with better prizes. Hell, you could go down in history as the greatest calf nut eater in the territory. I'd like to see the Earps and Holliday top that."

Curly Bill was still fuming. "Shut up, Ike," he said as he glared at Lancer who was dancing with that little redheaded teacher. He was too full to move, let alone dance, and he knew the ride back to Charleston was going to be a miserable one. He leaned against one of the cottonwoods growing by the river. All he wanted was a stomach powder and a cold beer. Lancer would have to wait.

The End

Maggie DeMay is an Old Cold Warrior. She has had several stories published in anthologies, including westerns like "The Shot Rang Out" by Scott Harris and Friends, New Southern Fugitives, and the 0Dark30 anthology of the Veteran's Writing Project. She lives in the middle of the Sonoran Desert with a rescue chihuahua named Bali-Boo.

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Broderick "Brock" Felton, Deputy
by Tom Sheehan

The day Brock Felton got his deputy badge, it was tossed into his lap by the current sheriff of Stockwood, Colorado, Deke Withers, on the job just three weeks and looking for help. Brock was the only one around who had done any law work at all and that was in a few posse chases, so it was a leap up for the youngster. With him, he brought a talent with Colts and other handguns, like Sure-Shot Harry was just hired, Harry himself, the real Sure-Shot with reams of wanted posters spread all over the territory, as if the circus was coming to town.

Brock was broken in in a hurry, seeing three strange riders tie up their mounts right in front of the bank and walk into the bank with guns drawn for robbery. He motioned several people away from the bank with silent hand waves, and slipped to the side of the bank door, against a heavy wooden column, part of the overhead support, and positioned himself for the robbers' exit, choosing to face them on the street rather than rushing into the bank, merging tellers and customers in the middle of a gunfight.

The street was cleared, no shots were fired inside the bank, and the three robbers came out the front door of the bank, walking, in no apparent hurry, their hands loaded with cash bags, and the third man the only one with a drawn gun. Brock whacked him on the pistol hand, the pistol falling immediately to the ground. The other two guns were dropped quickly from holsters at Brock's orders.

Three robbers caught, no shots fired in or outside the bank, no tellers or customers hurt, silence and admiration floating in the dusty road. The silence was deafening until applause and cheers broke loose up and down the main road of Stockwood, Colorado, in the year 1888.

There could have been a great party in town that night, but Brock was off on another mission; it was business for the busy, the way things in the West went for officers of the law, just about every single one of them.

Meanwhile, word had come to the sheriff's office that a wanted man, Batter Colby, had settled himself in Doc Witherly's cabin in the mine-rich foothills and was holding Witherly captive, one man who Brock knew personally and liked him as though he was his old grandfather, now gone a half dozen years. The old miner was a story teller who several times entertained Brock with a series of once-told tales right off the saddle or the tip of a shovel. That relationship spurred Brock to get close to the cabin, watch Batter Colby for the best part of a day as Colby made several check-out rounds of his own about the cabin, at least assuring his safety for the time being, knowing the old man had few visitors.

He never once spotted Brock, or his horse, each hidden securely and not detected in any way, at a decent distance from the cabin. Such results kept both Brock and his current adversary, Batter Colby, in hopes of complete security both ways, at least for the time being.

However, Brock kept thinking of ways to draw Colby from the cabin, but worried continually that a wild disruption would endanger the old man; he had to protect him at all costs, a duty that braced him with deep fervor.

When an idea came to Brock, he slipped away and went back to town, picked up a few things, and returned to his position of watch. That night, at a safe distance from the cabin, he tied a small bell, with a red ribbon on it, to the limb of a tree, hoping for the wind to blow hard enough and often enough to make the bell tingle, in its position away from the cabin; he'd call it, if asked, a nerve wrench, assured that it would work with some assistance from Mother Nature.

He remembered how his grandfather in the older days was totally upset at a scraping on their home roof from a tree limb, and it happened every time the wind blew. It finally irritated his grandfather, mad enough one night, to climb out of bed, get dressed, set a ladder in place, climb to the roof, and cut off the noisy branch, then put the ladder away, undress and go back to sleep in an instant; saying loud enough for all the family to hear. "All's well and done, and a job done well is a man's highest tribute."

Those words had stuck in place with Brock all those intervening years, and this day they came into play, the truth of them nearly spelling themselves aloud.

Once in place, in the dark of night, Brock sat back to wait for Colby to react, take things into his own hands, get rid of the distraction which every gust of the wind blew down the valley and slammed into the foothills, including Doc Witherly's cabin, cell of a kind right now for the gentle old man who was as much a saint as any man Brock had ever met, not deserving one minute of the imprisonment in his own cabin, and such a waste of time for a goodly soul.

Brock figured, for both these men, the ruse he had set up would make both amends and corrections for the sinner and the sinned on.

On the third night of the bell being in place, some ringing on previous two nights, a steady wind had come up and began to play a constant tune of sorts, a continuing ringing of the bell under a moonlit night, the night itself kind of keeping in touch with the bell and its music, and the nerves of Batter Colby into a twist of fortunes, a twist of chance.

The composite of bell and wind and moon must have reached Batter Colby, for in the dead of night, Brock heard the cabin door creak open, and caught a glimpse of Colby stepping out of the cabin, pay attention to the wind's direction by wetting his fingers in his mouth and holding them overhead.

The wind, he thus determined, was coming from the East, and coming from where he heard the bell ringing all the while. He headed that way.

Only when he saw a branch sway and heard the bell tingle and sort of spotted the bell on a branch, he stepped closer to get rid of it, after looking around the whole area, to make sure he was alone.

Nothing alerted him as he pulled the small bell from the tree, until he heard the click of a rifle, and a voice say, "One false move from you, Batter, and you're dead as the old door nail. Toss your rifle and your pistols on the ground. No tricks or you're dead with one shot from my rifle."

Batter Colby flung his rifle way off to his left, and then threw his hand guns much closer to his feet.

Brock could read the potential play of the noted bandit, so he fired one rifle round onto the pistol nearest to Colby, setting off one of its own loaded rounds as a reaction. Colby did not move again until he was ordered to lie flat on the ground, hands behind his back, until handcuffs were twisted onto his wrists with a loud and final snap.

Brock locked him outside the cabin while he untied Doc Witherly from his ropes in the cabin, hugging the old story teller as he did so.

The old miner and story teller said, at his release, his eyes flashing with the true light, "I remembered the story you told me about your grandfather cutting the noisy tree branch on the roof of your old home a long time ago. It kept me thinking of a follow-up. So, glory be."

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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Bring Him Back Dead!
by Christopher M. Reynolds

The posse found the dead horse at the mouth of Rawhide Canyon. When they saw the Three S brand seared into its flesh, they knew then that Clint Farley had failed in his desperate attempt to escape justice.

Only two hours had passed since Farley blasted his way out of Saddle Rock jail with a Colt .45 and broke fast for the canyon. But, as far as deputy Sam Fenton was concerned, the story would end here, with him and the rest of the posse running Farley down within the gorge's towering walls.

The deputy knew Farley was playing a losing hand by rushing into this rock-lined death trap.

No sane man would ever attempt to take on a force of nature like Rawhide Canyon. But for Clint Farley, pure insanity was his only hope of escape.

Sheriff Leonard dismounted and slowly sauntered his lean, wiry body over to the dead horse. The old lawman crouched next to it, examining the bloody gaping hole in its brain. His calloused hand ran down the animal's bristly coat along its front leg. A bad fall had snapped it in half like a broken stick.

"Horse broke its leg," he drawled. "Clint must have shot it before he made a run for it."

"Just like the no good son of a bitch killed Jess McCauley," said Hugh Miller, owner of Saddle Rock's general store.

"Weren't right, Clint killing Jess 'cause his dogs killed his chickens. A chicken you can replace, but not a man's life," said blacksmith Riley Tanner.

Sheriff Leonard grunted in agreement as he stood and dusted the trail grit from his drooping mustache. He pointed his finger at a clump of gnarled shrubs.

"He must have cut and run through that pile of sagebrush over yonder and headed up Rawhide afoot. Clint must have known we were on his trail. Hell, he didn't even bother picking up his hat."

A dusty black sombrero lay in the dirt, half hidden by the brush.

The harsh sunlight gleamed on a silver dollar lying in the dirt. The sheriff stooped and picked it up. "I guess Clint won't need this," he said, putting the coin into his pocket.

"He won't be needin' nothing after today's over," said Sam Fenton grimly. He sneered and spit a thick wad of tobacco juice into the dirt.

The sheriff's eyes rested on Sam's dark face wondering how his deputy felt about hunting down a man who'd once been his close friend and business partner. He turned around. With a slow gaze, he studied the frowning faces of his volunteer lawmen.

They were a determined bunch comprised of Hugh Larson, Riley Tanner, Art Anderson, Ed Seminole, Jim Blainey, and deputy Sam Fenton.

There wasn't a man in the bunch who didn't know Clint Farley or how reckless he was. And they all knew, every last one, that Farley would kill them just as quickly as he did that horse if it meant staying alive.

The sheriff's eyes rested on Jim Blainey, and he sighed. He hadn't wanted him to join the posse, but he needed every able-bodied man he could round up. Blainey and Jess McCauley had been business partners in the Cross L Ranch. He'd been the chief witness for the state at Clint Farley's trial. Thanks to his testimony, Farley had been sentenced to life in prison for murder.

But now Clint Farley was hiding deep within the canyon walls, and Jim Blainey had a score to settle with him.

"You men all knew Clint Farley," said Sheriff Leonard, "And I'll bet you ten to one that he's gonna want to shoot it out with us."

A few heads nodded in agreement at the sheriff's wisdom.

"Now, he's hiding somewhere in that canyon, and I aim to capture him. Clint Farley deserves a square deal, and I'd rather take him in alive than dead. But he's on the wrong side of the law and will make us take this manhunt to the bitter end."

"If I have my way, I'll bring the son of a bitch back dead," Jim Blainey whispered to Ed Seminole.

"You and me both," said Ed.

The two men stopped murmuring when they saw deputy Fenton give them a queer look. It seemed odd to him that the pair were more intent on killing than dispensing justice. But he couldn't blame them. He knew the bond between Jim Blainey and Jess McCauley ran tight. And Ed Seminole had worked for both men as a cowpuncher on their ranch for over a year. Blainey and Seminole might have been a couple of loud-mouthed drunks, but what man wouldn't want to avenge a friend?

The big-shouldered, raw-boned deputy shook the incident from his mind and continued listening to the sheriff's last instructions.

" . . .  he's desperate, which makes him more dangerous than usual. He ain't got nothing to lose. We do, so don't take no chances with him."

Sheriff Leonard pointed into the mouth of the canyon. "Clint Farley ain't no dummy, and he knows this terrain better than he knows the back of his hand. And he's damn gutsy enough to double back and steal our horses. Art, I want you to stay here and guard the ponies if Clint tries to backtrack. The rest of us will go in on foot. Now, that's enough of me running my mouth. Fenton, you, Blainey, and Seminole can take the north slope. Hugh Larson, Riley Tanner, and me will take the other. Let's get to it, gentlemen. We have until dark to round him up."

On the cliffs of Rawhide Canyon were junctures where a man willing to gamble his life might reach the peak. A desperate fugitive attempting such a damn fool thing would open themselves to rifle fire from any point in the canyon. But if Clint Farley could hold off the posse until the sun went down and keep hidden until nightfall, he might make it out alive.

None of the six men said a word, silently marching through the steep sides of the narrow gorge.

The posse's boots crunched softly against the ground as they swept the canyon, fanning out in a broad line, with three men to one side of a half-barren creek and three men to the other. They moved along at a slow, deliberate pace, watching for tracks.

As the men marched along, Sam Fenton's thoughts drifted to distant memories of better times.

It was funny, he thought. Not long ago, he and Clint Farley had been best friends and equal partners on a cattle ranch. But three years of hard luck broke their business and their friendship. After a bloody fistfight, Sam hadn't spoken a word to Clint Farley in two years.

Now, there was no more friendship between the two than between a fox and a hound. Farley was a convicted murderer, and Sam Fenton was the lawman bringing him to justice.

Sam Fenton, Jim Blainey, and Ed Seminole started moving north in a jagged, sweeping line, searching every crack and crevice in the canyon from end to end. There was no way in hell that Farley would be able to slip past three armed men or camouflage himself in a patch of rabbit brush.

Deputy Fenton gripped his carbine tightly as he inched along the steep slope. About thirty yards below was Blainey. Ed Seminole slinked above the two men, tip-toeing along the thin ridge winding through the arid basin.

They slowly crept forward, taking cover along the hillside, ducking into deep gullies, swinging around rocks, and crouching in shrub-lined slopes. They'd stop and listen intently for any sound which might betray the violent fugitive, then start moving again.

As the men prowled the ravine, Sam Fenton couldn't keep his eyes off Blainey and Seminole. There was something about the pair that didn't add up, and their presence in the manhunt was making the deputy uneasy. Especially Jim Blainey. The square-bodied bronco twister was practically jumping out of his boots with excitement, eager to join the posse.

To Sam Fenton, he seemed too eager.

He couldn't shake free the memory of Farley proclaiming his innocence throughout the trial. Clint Farley may have been many things: a mean drunk, a degenerate gambler, and wilder than an untamed stallion, but he'd never been a liar.

But in all truth, the damning testimony from Blainey and Seminole convinced him of Farley's guilt.

Before Clint Farley was hauled to court, he tried to mend the bad blood between them. He'd visited Farley's jail cell, offering help—and Farley had snarled at him fiercely, telling him to go to hell. Now he was creeping into Rawhide canyon to hunt down his old friend like a wild, rabid animal.

Sam Fenton's mind flashed back to the scant evidence in the case: Jess McCauley's body was found at the gate leading to his ranch house. His gun was still in its holster, and Farley's name had been scrawled in the soft dust of the road beneath the dead man's finger.

It didn't take a Pinkerton detective to see that he'd been shot down in cold blood.

Everyone in the small town of Saddle Rock knew the history of bad blood between Clint and Jess. At the trial, Clint Farley didn't deny that he had visited McCauley at his ranch shortly before someone killed him. And his name written in the sand had been a persuasive argument in his conviction.

At the trial, Blainey and Seminole claimed they had met Farley as he rode away from McCauley's homestead. After riding to the ranch, the pair found Jess McCauley dead beside the gate.

It would have been pointless for Clint Farley to deny the charges against him.

After accepting the evidence at face value, Sam Fenton had taken Clint's guilt for the stone-cold truth.

The weary deputy shaded his eyes from the sun and glanced below him. He saw Blainey had been swallowed up by a dense growth of withered Aspen trees growing along the steep hillside. Then he caught a glimpse of Seminole in the distance, sliding swiftly between clumps of scrub oak. He dropped out of the advancing line into a gulley, circling a jumbled mass of large stones that collapsed from the wall of the cliff.

As the hunt continued, Fenton couldn't forget the conversation between Jim Blainey and Ed Seminole. He wondered if either man had a personal grudge against Clint and was using this manhunt as an excuse to get even.

Suddenly a faint, menacing voice sliced through the dense wall of Sam Fenton's muddled thoughts like a hot knife through butter.

"Don't move, Fenton. Drop the Winchester and put your hands in the air."

Not six feet away squatted Clint Farley. He was backed up against the rugged canyon's burnt orange walls, veiled behind a hefty stone lying along the winding path. There was a sneer on his dusty lips as he pointed a revolver at Sam Fenton's chest. In his other hand, he gripped a .50 caliber Spencer rifle.

The deputy dropped his carbine to the ground and slowly reached his hands toward the sky.

"Collecting some blood money, Fenton?"

He and Clint Farley locked eyes. Farley's black sombrero was gone, and the sun blared down on his face with a swell of unforgiving heat. There was a wide gash across his left cheek, blood streaking all over his face.

Fenton felt pity for his old friend as the outlaw glared at him with sad, bloodshot eyes. In only a few hours, Farley had transformed from a man into a savage animal held at bay.

"Clint, you better drop your guns and come back with me," he said.

Clint Farley spat a vicious laugh and said, "I ain't gonna go to prison for something I didn't do. Not in a million goddamn years!"

As he stared down the barrel of Farley's gun, the deputy was almost relieved that Clint had gotten the drop on him. Sam knew that if the situation had been reversed, he would have put a bullet in his old friend without hesitation. But sentimentality was a luxury Sam Fenton couldn't afford. A soft heart in this territory could get a man killed.

Yet he didn't want the responsibility of returning his former partner to that miserable old jail cell in Saddle Rock. Or bring his corpse to the undertaker. But, as a sworn law officer, he still had a duty to uphold.

"You haven't got a chance, Clint. Even if you kill me, there's gonna be five more men coming after you. And you can't kill them all."

Farley gave his old friend a ruthless grin. "You wanna make a bet on that? If they come after me alive, they're leaving this canyon dead! Dying in a shootout is better than going to the pen for the rest of my life."

"This canyon's covered tighter than a kettle drum, Clint. Give me your gun. If you say you didn't kill Jess McCauley, then I believe you. I give you my word. I'll fight to clear your name."

The fugitive's lips curled back in a savage mocking grin. "Go to hell, Fenton!" he snapped. "I don't want no favors from you—now or never! You and me got all our business squared away years ago. You might have stomped me once, but not this time. Now, I got the upper hand! Cut your gun belt loose! I'm only gonna tell you once! I'd hate to have to drill you."

As Sam Fenton fixed his eyes on Clint Farley's passion-torn face, Jim Blaney suddenly appeared from the shadows at the edge of the cut bank. He snuck silently behind the outlaw and hovered over him like a vulture. His face had twisted into a dark mask of hatred, his mouth set in a cruel smirk.

The deputy felt a great wave of anxiety wash over him as his muscles tensed with anticipation. One wrong move from Blainey could cost him his life.

As Farley continued to hold his gun on Fenton, the deputy watched nervously out of the corner of his eye as Blainey veered far out over the bank. The seconds ticked as he waited patiently for the crisp command to end the dangerous situation, for better or worse.

Clint Farley took a restless step toward the deputy; his revolver still pointed menacingly at the lawman's heaving chest. Time dragged on like an eternity as Fenton waited for Jim Blainey to announce himself, giving the order for Clint to drop his weapon and surrender.

But at that exact moment, as the deputy's life teetered between heaven and hell, Sam Fenton realized the stark truth of the situation. Jim Blainey wasn't planning to save his life but taking Clint Farley's instead.

There would be no command to drop his guns because he had no intention of taking Clint Farley as a prisoner. Instead, the vengeful Blainey was going to shoot Farley square in the back, right between the shoulder blades.

With his gun poised in his meaty hand, Blainey rested his thumb on the revolver's hammer. He leaned farther out over the bank, about to make good on his earlier vow to bring the fugitive back dead.

The deputy's blood boiled at Jim Blainey's act of cowardice. To him, shooting a man in the back was as gutless and yellow-bellied as stomping on a crippled whore. There was no time for Fenton to shout a warning, barely any time to think.

Ignoring the gun pointed at him, the deputy stabbed for his Colt. In a flash, Sam Fenton slid his pearl-handled revolver from its holster and fired a volley of bullets toward Jim Blainey.

A slug hit Blainey in the arm, and his gun slipped from his fingers. He stumbled to the bank's edge, desperately flailing his limbs, and fell face-first into the gulley. His head bashed against a rock with a sickening thud. He now lay sprawled on the ground, still as a fresh corpse, unconscious but still breathing.

Clint Farley spun on his heels in time to see Jim Blainey drop like a lead weight. He turned and stared at Sam Fenton with a shocked look. A long moment of silence fell between the two men.

Deputy Fenton was the first to speak. He said grimly: "Jim Blainey was going to kill you, Clint; plug you square in the back."

Now Farley's look of surprise changed to one of eternal gratitude.

"I had a dead drop on you," he said, "but you still went for your pistol to save my life. You knew you was taking a mighty big risk. Why'd you do it, Sam?"

"I can ask you the same question. You didn't know Blainey was behind you. You musta thought I was drawing on you. Why didn't you shoot me, Clint?"

Neither man answered the other man's question. The two stood silently in the sun-drenched canyon, studying one another, trying to make sense of the other's actions.

Clint Farley shook his head in disbelief and dropped his revolver and the.50 carbine to the ground.

"I'm mighty obliged to you, Sam Fenton. When a man does right by you, you return the favor. Holler for the Sheriff, and let's get back to town. I'm turning myself into you, deputy."

Sam Fenton stooped over Jim Blainey's body and rolled him on his back. A throbbing purplish lump pulsed on his forehead, dribbles of red blood trickling down his face. His right bicep was a bloody mess, where Fenton had blasted him with a flying bullet.

The deputy cut off a strip of cloth from Blainey's blood-soaked shirt and tied it around his injured arm to stop the blood flow.

He frowned as he inspected the man's bare muscled arm. A faint pink scar was still visible on Blainey's forearm. Sam Fenton looked closer at the freshly healed wound with pensive eyes. It looked like it had been nicked by a bullet.

"Blainey was aiming to blast you in the back, Clint," he said. "I heard him and Ed Seminole talking earlier. Both of them piss-drunk sons of bitches seem to have it out for you. That's sort of peculiar, ain't it? Whatta they got against you? Any idea why they'd want to see you dead?"

Clint Farley scratched at his stubble-lined cheek mulling the question over in his head. Was there any reason big Jim would want to see him sent away to the big house in Yuma? Suddenly, his eyes widened in shock.

"Yeah! I remember something now. But . . . but . . .  "

"But what? Spit it out, Clint! Any reason at all?"

"It was so goddamn silly that I completely forgot about it. About a year ago, I was playing cards at Bess Watson's place. Jim Blainey was there, too. He was pissed drunk, as usual, and started smacking around one of Bess's whores like she were a man who owed him money. When he started dragging her around the parlor by her hair, I jumped up from my seat and beat the tar outta him. After I was done whomping him, I told him if I ever saw him in Bess's place again, I'd beat him again worse. When I threw him out into the street, he started hollering up a fuss, telling me to watch my back and that he'd get me one of these days when I least expected it. But, like I said, that was a year ago. I never thought the crazy son of a bitch would go through with his threat."

"How do you and Seminole stack up?"

"He ain't nobody to me. I might have shared a bottle of whiskey with him at Bess Watson's. But me and him don't have no history. Why do you ask, Sam? What're you thinking?"

Sam Fenton shook his head in disbelief. He had a hunch that was troubling him.

"The day after Jess McCauley's murder, I went into the Saddle Rock bank to tend to some business. Jim Blainey was standing at the cashier's window when I walked inside."

The deputy stopped talking, trying to remember every last detail. A little, meaningless, unimportant fact had lodged itself in the dark recess of Sam Fenton's mind—a little point he had forgotten until now.

"His right arm was wrapped up in a sling," Fenton continued. "I stood next to Blainey while he was scrawling off a check, and he was having trouble writing because his arm was all messed up. I asked him what had happened to it and he told me a snake had bitten him. I didn't make nothing of it then. But it's all starting to add up now."

The deputy had always assumed that his old buddy Clint Farley had killed Jess McCauley. Now he wasn't sure. On Jim Blaney's bloody arm was a fresh scar that might be from a bullet. And Blainey had been walking around with a bandaged arm the day after his ranching partner was murdered.

Clint Farley hunkered beside Fenton as he crouched in the gulley over Jim Blainey's unconscious body. The deputy gave the fugitive Farley a troubled glance and said, "Clint, during the trial, there was one thing I remember hearing. It seemed funny at the time. The way I remember it, the testimony was that McCauley's gun was found in the holster but had two empty shells."

"That's right," said Farley, nodding in agreement. "But what's so funny about that?"

"Only a plumb careless jackass would carry a pistol with two empty shells. Maybe one to cradle his firing pin, but two? In these parts, a man needs every bullet he can spare. And Jess McCauley ain't the kind of man I'd likely call a jackass, would you?

Clint pondered the question and said: "Which tallies up to what?"

"Maybe Jess McCauley had pulled his gun on whoever murdered him and gotten a shot off before he died. If that's what happened, then that would explain the empty shells. And maybe whoever killed him put the gun back in his holster—"

Clint interrupted the deputy's train of thought, finishing his sentence for him. "And scrawled my name in the dust and framed me for the murder! And you're thinking those two low-down drunks Jim Blainey and Ed Seminole was the ones doing the killing."

Sam Fenton realized that only two men had testified under oath against Clint Farley, and one was lying unconscious at his feet. The other was still on the steep side of the canyon hunting for Clint Farley and was closing in fast.

"Clint, I'm as sure about this as I have been about anything in my life. But it's gonna be almost impossible to make a jury believe a story like that. Not without having solid evidence to back up that yarn."

The evidence that convicted Farley was hearsay and wholly circumstantial. Yet, it was so strong that only absolute, unassailable proof would overthrow the conviction.

Time was short. Blainey was still unconscious, but he might recover at any moment. And the other posse members might soon appear, drawn by the sound of firing bullets. Sam Fenton didn't want that to happen—not yet.

An idea was prodding the deputy about how to help clear Farley of the crime. It was a wildly fantastic, utterly fool-crazy plan.

He carefully lifted his head above the mass of rocks, searching the hillside for any sign of Seminole. After some time, the deputy spotted him crouching along the hillside under the shadows of crooked pinion trees.

Before long, Seminole hunkered down on his hands and knees and began to crawl cautiously across the craggy dirt. A small boulder stood in his path. He clambered behind it, taking cover as he surveyed the terrain. He'd heard the sound of the deputy's revolver echo in the distance and wasn't going to take any unnecessary chances.

Sam Fenton stood in a shallow basin, hidden from Ed Seminole's watchful gaze. Clint Farley watched his former partner with intense curiosity as he picked up his rifle and steadied the barrel between two rocks. He glanced at Clint Farley and said;

"I never did like that son of bitch Seminole, no how."

He aimed his carbine, squinting along the barrel's iron sights. The top of Ed Seminole's white Stetson appeared from behind the rock as he lifted his head to scour the canyon.

The deputy held steady as beads of sweat trickled down his face. He closed one eye and took aim as his finger tightened around the trigger. With a loud, thunderous crack, a bullet whizzed through the air, grazing the tip of Ed Seminole's hat. The white Stetson sailed into the air like a dry leaf caught in a stiff wind.

Seminole shouted a loud yelp of surprise, taking deep cover behind the rock. After a long moment, he cautiously peeked his head around the stone, yelping again as another bullet came flying his way. He broke out in a cold sweat, muttering curses to himself.

Clint Farley looked on in amazement as Sam Fenton loaded fresh shells into the chamber and took aim. He still couldn't understand what the deputy was trying to accomplish by shooting at the hard-drinking cowboy.

Seminole crouched down further behind the boulder, dropping out of sight. As he peered his head around the curve of the rock, one of the cow puncher's feet slipped on the loose gravel, stretching it out beyond the cover of the stone.

Without hesitation, Sam Fenton sent another shot flying into the heel of Seminole's heavy leather boot. From his viewpoint, he saw his foot twitch with nervous excitement and quickly disappear again behind the rock.

The deputy was a sure shot with a gun and a rifle. He threw down his carbine and drew the .45 Colt from its holster. His chapped sun-parched lips curved into a cruel smile as he emptied the chamber, blasting away at the knobby stone with a hail of lead. He was playing a wicked game with Ed Seminole and loving every second of it.

Shot after shot, a deluge of .45 caliber slugs splattered at the stone, barely missing the cowpuncher's body by mere centimeters. As the deputy's Colt unleashed a torrent of bullets, there was no way for Seminole to return fire without exposing himself to certain death.

Sam Fenton gave Clint Farley a sly wink as he stopped to reload his trusty Colt. With sure-handed accuracy, he began to fire again. The .45 barked loudly, sending a rolling echo of gunfire reverberating throughout the high-walled cliffs of Rawhide canyon.

Seminole had become a ball of jittery nerves as he cowered behind the rock. As each bullet blasted against his skimpy stone fortress, he steepled his shaking hands and prayed to Jesus to let him live.

Instead of returning fire, he thought the smart money would be to play dead and wait, knowing the other posse members would soon be coming to his aid.

Sam Fenton knew it, too, and kept shooting at Ed Seminole until his revolver was empty. He peered over at Jim Blainey and saw he was still unconscious. Fenton turned to Clint Farley and said urgently:

"Slip down the gulley and hide in the brush down there. I'm gonna lure Seminole out from behind his rock, and I want you out of sight."

"Sam, has this heat fried your brain? What kind of hair-brained scheme are you cooking up?"

Get out of sight before I take a shot at you," barked Fenton.

Farley shook his head in disbelief and dropped down the gulley hiding behind a clump of brush. The deputy watched until he was gone, then shouted:

"Ed Seminole! It's deputy Fenton. I got him! I got Clint Farley!"

Seminole was still crouched behind the rock. After a moment, he rose warily to his feet and shouted:

"You say you got him?" he asked. His voice was raspy and panic-stricken. He came out of hiding, dragging his rifle along the ground and limping on a broken heel.

Seminole was shaking like a terror-stricken cat. He stooped to pick up his white Stetson, then came forward, scowling.

"Fenton," he said as he drew closer, "I'm damn glad you showed. That buzzard made this canyon plenty hot for me. Look," he said, pointing to a bullet hole in the crown of his hat. "I almost got my brains blown out! And the low-down son of a bitch ruined my new hat!"

He reached the edge of the gulley and looked down at the flattened body. It only took a moment for the scowl on his face to vanish, replaced by dumb-struck surprise.

"What the hell! That's Jim Blainey!" he cried. "Where's Clint Farley?"

Sam Fenton shrugged and said: "He musta gotten away in all the confusion. I heard shooting and came to help. Then I come down to this gulley and saw Blainey lying in the dirt. All shot up. Funny, eh? Him blazing away at you—"'

A furious look was plastered on Ed Seminole's face as he stared at Jim Blainey flopped out on the dirt.

"You mean to tell me that it was Jim Blainey shooting at me the whole time?"

Sam Fenton tried to explain the situation.

"Hell, Ed," he said soothingly. "He musta thought you was Farley. And you thought he was Farley."

"He thought I was Clint Farley, my ass!" rasped Ed Seminole. "That goddamn son of a bitch knew damn well I was behind him! He shot my new hat off! And he knew Farley's weren't wearing no white hat."

"You must be wrong, Ed." Sam Fenton's voice was soft and reassuring. "That don't add up. Why would Blainey shoot at you on purpose?"

"Why?" Seminole's face was venomous. "I'll tell you why! Because he owes me a thousand dollars. So he figured to pay me off with lead bullets instead! He thought—"

The two men suddenly heard a low, pitiful moan. They looked down and saw Jim Blainey struggling to awake from his unconscious stupor.

"What the hell happened? Where am I?" he asked groggily. He groaned in pain as he tried to sit up, clutching at his wounded arm. His eyes were dazed as he looked up at the two men.

Seminole glared back at Blainey with a white-hot hatred burning in his eyes.

"What happened?" he jeered. "Your little plan backfired. That's what happened. You figured it was cheaper to kill me than pay me the money you promised. Safer, too. Then nobody would ever know that you killed Jess McCauley and framed Clint!"

"What're you flapping your lips about, Ed?" said Jim Blainey. He was still shaking the cobwebs from his head, his thoughts clear as mud. He turned his head away from Ed Seminole and locked eyes with Sam Fenton. An enigmatic smirk was on the deputy's lips.

"That's enough, Ed! Shut up! Don't say no more! We've been tricked!"

The severity of his situation suddenly dawned on big Jim Blainey as bright as the morning sun. He glared at Sam Fenton and said, "You double-crossing son of bitch! You and Clint Farley was in on this set-up together!"

Blainey made a quick stab at his gun, but his holster was empty. He saw his revolver lying in the dirt, far out of reach, and let a string of unholy curses part from his lips.

Ed Seminole continued his tirade against Blainey.

"I never should have trusted you. Any man willing to kill his own business partner ain't got no kind of loyalty. Wait till I tell the story in court! Wait till I tell a jury how you cheated Jess McCauley—and murdered him when he found you out! And offered me a thousand dollars to testify Clint Farley killed him! You tell me to shut up? Well, I ain't gonna shut up no more."

Jim Blainey painfully rose to his feet. Sam Fenton had tricked him good, and he knew it. He couldn't fathom how the deputy figured out his ploy. But he knew one thing for sure: if you can kill one partner, it's just as easy to kill two.

"Sure! I promised you a thousand dollars. And I'll pay you off—in full! You yellow rat bastard!" he snarled.

Then, suddenly, swiftly, Jim Blainey moved. His left hand thrust into his pocket, snaking a hide-out gun he kept for emergencies. He fired the tiny .41 Derringer into Ed Seminole's chest.

The slug sent Seminole reeling backward, hands clutching empty air. Then, Jim Blainey popped another bullet at the swaying man, and Seminole went down.

Sam Fenton's Colt practically leaped from his holster into his waiting hand. Blainey whirled on him, but Fenton's gun was already belching lead. A round of slugs caught him in the guts, dropping him dead to the ground.

Clint Farley rushed up the gulley just as Blainey went down. The sound of sheriff Leonard's weary voice suddenly echoed throughout the canyon.

Clint Farley said: "Here comes the sheriff."

Sam Fenton knelt next to Ed Seminole. He tried to raise himself up but stumbled.

"Take it easy, Seminole," said Fenton gently.

The man had been hit twice and hard, but he grinned faintly at the deputy. "I'm all right," he whispered. "I'll live long enough to testify."

"Jim Blainey's dead, Ed. And dead men are out of my jurisdiction. He's gonna have to answer to a different judge now," said Sam Fenton, pointing his finger toward the heavens.

The deputy stood tall and looked at Farley. "That clears you, Clint."

Clint nodded. "For the second time today, Sam, I'm obliged."

"Forget it," said the deputy. "But don't open your mouth. Seminole is going to live. Let him tell his version of the story. Sure as hell, if Sheriff Leonard ever heard the truth, I wouldn't even be able to get a job in this town cleaning spittoons in Bess Watson's cathouse."

The End

Christopher M. Reynolds is a former chef from Denver, Colorado. He's a sleight-of-hand aficionado and has written extensively about magic tricks. When not cooking or practicing cheating at cards, you can find him watching Italian spaghetti westerns or reading Agatha Christie novels. "Bring Him Back Dead" is his first western story.

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Tommy and Tack
by Sumner Wilson

The old man hated nights as much as anything in life. Some nights, he slept poorly, other nights he slept briefly.

Tommy Goodloe had heard wolves raising hell in the far pasture during the night. He hoped his cow and the six-month-old calf were safe. This caused him to shiver with dread. He got out of bed and cooked his bacon, eggs, and coffee, sat at the table, and chomped down his bacon then supped his coffee till there was only a cup left. He planned to down it for dinner. He decided to ride his mule, Tack, over to his neighbor, Elbert Carter, to warn him that he'd heard wolve creatures prowling around last night. First, he would check on the mule, cow, and calf. The cow and calf should be in the barn or in the barn lot by now. If so, he would milk Della.

He washed the few dishes he'd messed up, then stepped to the coat rack, slipped into his jumper, and stepped outside onto the porch. It was late autumn and had turned chillier in the past two weeks.

His old mule, Tack, brayed his good morning greeting as he stepped from the porch.

He heard the cow moaning low in her chest inside the barn. Tommy didn't like the sound. He grained Tack and then stepped toward the barn to check on the cow and calf. He stopped at the entrance. The sun streamed in the interior and revealed a constellation of dust motes that danced like mad and brought to his mind a snowstorm. The cow bawled again, louder this time.

He stepped deeper inside the barn and passed rows of stalls he no longer had a need for. He walked toward the stall he'd heard her sound off from. He leaned over the half wall and peered inside.

Seeing its provider, the cow moved up to him and stopped where the wall prevented further movement. Tommy noticed the lameness with which she walked. This was not good. He looked to the far side of the stall and to its full length as well. No six-month old calf.

"Drat it," he muttered. His leathery old cheeks drew inward with his frustration and made him appear older than his seventy-five years. His eyesight had nearly left him now and his hearing had fled along with his sight. He still walked about fair enough, that is, if he didn't walk over three miles.

"Where's the calf, Della?" he asked. He had the answer already but needed to do something but stare at the pain-stricken cow. He reached out a hand and scratched the flat space between her eyes, then shoved off from the wall and entered the stall. Last year, Della had practically given up all her milk. He'd walked her over to Elbert Carter's bull when she started bulling. He now had a fresh cow, but no calf.

Della tried to swerve to meet him, but he reached out and pushed her back until she showed her rear end. He knelt at the tender leg. He hoped that she'd picked up a thorn or perhaps a mild hoof disease that he could doctor with oil of juniper. In this he wasn't lucky worth a darn.

He saw where the teeth of a predator had tried its best to cut her tendon. She allowed him a short look, then jerked her foot out of his grasp. He got up and walked to the tack room and fetched a bottle of Friars liniment and a clean rag.

Done with the doctoring, he shut her stall door and went back into the house and fetched the milk bucket. He stripped the cow and took in the milk and strained it into a large crock. Afterward, he stopped at the closet and took forth his Winchester with four extra cartridges.

Tommy took down the pole gate and allowed Tack to walk with him across the pasture. There was seldom a move Tommy made that Tack wasn't aware of. They kept a good eye out for each other. Sorta like brothers.

They walked down to the far pasture where the woods began. He would likely find what remained of the calf, blood if nothing else, although he figured the calf would be a bit more than the wolves would eat at one serving.

He found a dried spill of blood first. He knelt alongside it.

Tommy saw by the look in Tack's eyes he knew for sure what had taken the calf. Not only was Tack smart but he was stubborn enough to try the will of an angel. He loved to fight as well and scrapped with the best of them. He could jump the moon. There was no horse around could go head-to-head with a mule born to fight. He had bullied Tommy's last riding animal so much that finally he just gave up and sold the critter to his neighbor, though he had cherished it. However, he liked Tack even more.

So, when Tommy had company, which was a rare occasion, his friends would leave their riding animals tethered in the woods and enter the yard afoot. That way old Tack didn't rip the ear off one of their high necked, prissy, prancing animals. After all, many men were as fond of their beasts as Tommy was of Tack. They hated the idea of their fine riding stock coming out of the fracas with an ear dangling, or worse.

He found tracks.

"Good lord," he muttered. This wolf's track was huge, twice the size of his own hand. "That gent must be big as a lion."

There were four of them. He took the four smaller ones to be females. The critter that made the larger track was no brush wolf that was for sure.

"Been awhile since I seen a paw that big," he mumbled. "He's brought them ladies along with him too. No telling how far them rank beasts have traveled. It's a right smart of a wonder they ain't tackled the hens and the old rooster. Crimination, what would I do without my eggs?"

It was Tack who found the remains of the calf. The bones had a lot of meat and gristle still attached to them. Tack got too much of a whiff of the remains and skittered backward a couple feet. He then stopped and looked on. Tommy slapped him on the side of the neck and pushed past him.

He hunkered on his bootheels and studied the carcass. He filled his pipe and set fire to the tobacco and smoked in silence for a few minutes. Smoke exited his mouth and nose that soon joined the low hanging limbs of the trees. He rose and touched the animal's neck then and looked down at the leftovers at his feet. "I 'spect there's enough meat left for them bully beasts to return for it. Won't be tonight. If they was that hungry they woulda ate the calf whole. They won't be back until tomorrow evening.

"Let's you and me take a little trip. Maybe Elbert has some strychnine."

With that he battled aboard the mule's bony back, and holding the Winchester in his left hand, leaned forward, and tapped Tack on the right side of the neck. Tack turned and walked off out of the woods. He didn't need reins to command this animal, nor saddle either. Tack didn't like a saddle and long ago advised Tommy he wouldn't endure one.

* * *

Elbert Carter was as lean as a whippoorwill and tough as whet leather. His roughly lined face looked as if the man behind it had seen the wide world over, although he hadn't traveled any farther than Higgins. He and his three boys still ran a fair-sized herd and likely there were several calves in the bunch. Wolves would take the calves before trying any bigger creatures.

He told Elbert that wolves had taken his calf.

"You just heard them critters last night?"

"Yessir. Coulda been early morning. I usually step outside 'round two o'clock and my bladder had yet to force me from bed."

"Thank you, for ridin' over to warn me. The boys'll have to keep out a good watch."

The riding animals that old Carter held in the corral were skating around inside on nervous feet, whickering on occasion. Dust rose from the corral and lit out skyward. They had all run into Tack before and remembered the occasion.

"Well, that there ain't all I come for."

"Need somethin'? If I got it, it's yours."

"I need strychnine."

Clifford, Carter's eldest son looked on from the barn loft with one hand against the timbers that held up the entrance to the hayloft.

Elbert Carter spun on his heels and shouted, "Clifford, we got any strychnine left?"

His boy shook his head. "Used all of it last spring in the corn crib."

"Well, shoot," Carter said, and his face flushed red. What man wouldn't be embarrassed not to be able to fulfill a request from a neighbor? He removed his dusty old hat, ran a bare hand across his brow from habit. "We had a fierce attack of rats sometime back. The boys musta used it all up and then forgot to buy any more."

The cold wind tried to blow Tommy's hat away. He snatched it back just in time. "Think nothin' of it, Elbert. I remember when I was young and forgetful too."

They both chuckled for a second.

"Well, it ain't right," Elbert said. "Hate it I can't help you any, by golly."

"Tell you what, Elbert," he said, as if he were thinking out loud, "I'll sit out awhile tomorrow night and see if I can cut that big ol' feller down. I reckon then them ladies will light out when they need to cozy up some with a male."

"How much of that calf was left, Tommy?"

"I figure it'll be enough to bring them back to the scene of the crime."

"Need to put out a hen, too. Just to be cautious. Tie her up to a limb close to the ground so she'll flop around and squawk her head off. If that don't call that ol' boy up, he's likely a ghost."

* * *

Carter stood in the barnyard watching the departure of his neighbor. He filled his pipe and smoked as he watched Tommy and Tack diminish in size with each step made. In time, he finished his pipe, knocked out the dottle, went back to the ladder beneath the entry hole up to the hayloft. He helped the boys.

"What'd ol' Tommy say, Pap? He got rats too?" Clifford said.

"No, son. A wolf with bitches killed his calf last night. He wanted to poison them, but since none of us has any dope, he figures he'll sit up tomorrow night and try to pick off the male."

Clifford stopped work then and said, "We'll have to ride out with the herd then."

"You boys take turns. No need in all of you to be bleary-eyed next mornin'."

"All right, Pap," Clifford said. "I'll go out tomorrow night."

The old man said, "I want you to go over to Tommy's far pasture when you are out, right there where the woods take over. You check on him. He's as old as I am. Ain't no tellin' what kindly a mess he'll get into, him out there alone."

"I'll do 'er, Pap. You bet."

* * *

Goodloe rode away from his neighbor's place. Too bad he hadn't been able to borrow the poison he needed, but he'd get by. Anyway, it'd been a good long while since he'd spent time out at night. He'd watched the stars if it was clear. Do that while he waited for the big wolf to step out and show himself. He remembered what Elbert Carter had said about using a hen as extra bait. In the end, he figured sure he wouldn't offer up one of his laying hens as a sacrifice to the wolves.

The river bluffs were where the wolves were hiding out. He was sure of that. He shook his head, and allowed he'd seen the last of the river that had once watered his herd. He'd been shaken half to death in his days of riding horses, most of them eager to run like jackrabbits and swerve off one way or the other. He mainly went afoot nowadays. If he went to town or someplace, he rode old Tack. That is if the fierce critter would allow it.

Tommy still ran cattle when he first bought the mule. Had he known then that his friends would need to leave their riding creatures in the woods and hoof the rest of the way in to visit him he likely wouldn't have bought old Tack. But the two of them soon formed a wonderful bond of friendship. Tommy had no idea what he would do without him. He liked the notion that he could talk out loud to him and not call it talking to himself.

He was a lonely old man and Tack was a lonely old mule. They were a pair, and likely wouldn't fare well if one of them kicked off. Tommy's wife Estelle died a year after he bought Tack. They'd taken care of each other since that time.

"All critters need a good friend, don't they, Tack, you ol' rascal?" Tack didn't answer him, but there were many times when Tommy wished he could, and there were times he wouldn't have been all too surprised if he had. "Now if we can just shed ourselves of them wolves, we'll be doin' fine."

The next morning after he fed the mule and milked the cow, he decided Tack's pen needed to be a bit higher. He set to work. He had several new poles to raise the sides of the corral with. He figured that one more row would be enough to prevent Tack from leaping the fence. For tonight he meant to sit up and kill that thieving wolf. He for sure didn't want that mule along with him. If so, the wolves would scent him and wouldn't return to their kill, and that would be that, regarding what he owed the wolves.

As Tommy worked, Tack roamed about restlessly, pacing up and down and all around inside the enclosure. It was easy to see that the old mule didn't like what his friend was up to. Along about noon, he stepped over to the porch and sat on the top step, filled his pipe, smoked, and admired his work. He said, "That's higher than you can leap, I reckon, ol' man."

Tack snorted then whirled about and chased off toward the far side of the pen.

The air, already cold, had freshened even more. Tack entered his wind break, which was a heavy length of tarp that Tommy had set up to ward off the north wind and where Tack often slept on the straw that he had scattered on the ground. In fierce cold, Tommy lodged Tack in the barn.

He saw Tack inside the shelter, knees buckled beneath him, relaxing inside, with his head high, and his eyes on Tommy's every move. He must have decided that he'd have to learn to like the new height of the pen.

"He'll likely behave himself tonight when I walk down and set my ambush."

After supper, Tommy left the house with enough time before dark to walk down to the place where he would set his trap. He watched his mule, although Tack didn't watch back. Usually when he tried to leave the mule and go off alone, he would snort and chase about in the corral until he was out of sight, but tonight, he seemed unconcerned. This sort of set the old man's feelings awry. For it was as if Tack was deliberately ignoring him. He pushed the thought out of his mind and walked on, running through what he planned to do later as he went.

* * *

Clifford Carter gathered up his heavy coat, rain slicker, and small sack of egg sandwiches his mother had given him in case he got hungry during the night. He had his Winchester rifle along as well, which he carried across the bow of his saddle. He waved his father so long, swerved his animal to the right in a neat spin and got the critter up into an easy three-gait as he left the yard. He felt an urge of excitement working in his stomach and was somewhat happy at this veer from his usual duties.

He managed right fine until along about midnight. His enthusiasm faded then and finally flew off toward the stars. He decided it was time. He opened the sack of sandwiches and tackled the first one he located by feel. He ate it and unable to resist, ate the remaining one as well.

Half an hour later, the food worked its magic on him. He watched the frost float to the ground, flashing occasionally in the light of the half moon. He made a good fight of it, but some few minutes later he lost out. He hung his head until his chin rested on his chest and fell asleep.

Something awoke him. He jerked erect with the frost gathered about on the ground shining with the artistry of nature. At first, he figured he was dreaming. He reached out with a hand to draw up more covers thinking he was abed but then he felt the rifle slipping. He awoke in a rush and caught it with his left hand as it slipped down the side of his leg.

This spooked the horse, for likely it had been asleep as well. The gelding spun about as if to flee. Clifford halted it with a strong grip on the reins.

"Come on, you jughead," he muttered. "You're dreamin'."

Just then he heard what had awoken him. It was the unmistakable sound of a wolf howling way off toward the river. Again, the animal attempted to bolt, but he steadied it in time to prevent a runaway.

"Stop that, critter," he said. "Them cows ain't disturbed none. So just stop it."

He strained his hearing then to locate more sounds. But that was all. The wild creatures were now silent. A few of the cows were up and cropping the frosty grass, but the majority were still lying there with steam arising from their backs like smoke. Clifford thought by this that the wolves weren't up to menace yet. So, he got up the gelding more to exercise it and himself as well than to do anything useful. He rode all the way around the herd and when he made it back where he started from, he stopped and relaxed again in the saddle. He was already searching the eastern horizon for the rising of the sun, which at this hour was a profound waste. Just then the muscles of the horse fell slack and he took the hint and did the same thing.

The next time he awoke, he allowed it was somewhere around three in the morning but having no watch he had no true idea.

"Don't want to forget to ride over and check on that ol' man," he said. "We'll wait a few minutes yet though."

He stepped down from the saddle, melted a small patch of ground frost as he made water, then mounted again. The naps he'd taken had done little toward refreshing him. He soon grew bored and decided to go over and check on Tommy.

* * *

The old man had heard the two wolf howls earlier. The second one had been made in the same spot as had the first one, so he knew they were still hanging tight. Needing to relieve his bladder, though, he figured it was after two a.m.

"If they're gonna come," he muttered, "I wish they'd get after it."

He remained sitting up, back against an ancient pecan tree. His head began to droop, and he jerked erect again. Finally, the effort grew too troublesome, and he succumbed to sleep-an event that usually escaped him while in bed.

He dreamed of Estelle. She was shaking him by the shoulder. He allowed breakfast was ready. He made to sit up on the side of the bed and he was sure he smelled biscuits in the oven.

"Mr. Goodloe. Sir you done fell asleep. It's too frosty to be sittin' on the ground this away. Need to get up or you'll come down with the ague."

Tommy raised up. The welcome scent of hot biscuits faded away to nothing, and he was sorely disappointed, almost angry that what he thought real was just a misty dream. He recognized the voice of the eldest boy of Carter's.

"Wasn't asleep," he snapped in mild anger. He hated the thought of the neighbor boy catching him sleeping out with the frost falling slowly in the moonlight that looked like broken glass.

"Well, I reckon you were meditatin' then," Clifford said. He said it in earnest. For he didn't want to shame the old man.

"Them blamed wolves musta passed on out of the country," Tommy said. He fumbled in a coat pocket for pipe and tobacco. He rose to his feet, fired a match, and stood smoking. He was still a bit ashamed for being caught asleep. He finished his pipe, knocked the dottle into a hand and when it felt cool enough, he dropped it to the ground. Just then, back at the house, his mule screamed like a panther. He jumped fully awake and lit out toward the house as fast as he could go. Tack continued to bray loud enough to perturb the angels on high.

"Them wily beasts are after my hens." Tommy cried out, still running as fast as an old man can.

Clifford caught up with him. He kicked a foot out of the stirrup and said, "Catch on behind me, Mr. Goodloe."

It took him a few attempts to mount up but made it and when he did, he struck the rump of the horse and it leapt ahead in a full all-out gallop.

The horse reached the yard with dust from its hooves rising behind it in a long tail.

Tommy raised the rifle to a shoulder, ready now to fire on what had nettled his mule enough to scream out as if in pain. The hens in the loft were squawking loud enough to crush rocks. They were the target the wolves hoped for.

"There. See 'em, Mr. Goodloe?"

"Lord above," Tommy muttered, "that mule jumped my corral fence." He wasn't right sure if he was proud of the mule's leaping ability or disappointed that Tack had leapt his corral fence.

Tack had knocked off the top rail when he leapt from the pen and now at the barn's entrance had one of the wolves by the neck. He shook the creature like a feist with a rat.

Clifford fell back on the reins and the animal skidded to a stop and the dust that had trailed them caught up and hid them all three in a large cloud.

Tommy slid off the rear of the animal. He sighted his rifle and fired off a round. He hit one of the bitches. It leapt four feet in the air, turned over in a somersault and fell on its back, dead. He then searched for another target while the hens squawked for mercy.

Tack tossed his wolf into the air and scampered about and found another one. The big male. The animal screamed in surprised pain like a kicked dog as Tack clamped down on its neck, standing at the barn's entrance.

The remaining bitch emerged from the barn and ran with its tail tucked against its belly to flee from the death and utter defeat that was carrying on all about it. It flashed out of the barn and streaked for the open spaces of the pasture, then found the courage to raise its tail high as it fled.

Tommy once more raised his rifle. The boy, though, was much younger and had much better vision and much quicker reflexes. Clifford hit it in the side just behind the left elbow. It skidded in the dust much like its pack mate did earlier.

Tommy turned in time to see Tack toss the male high in the air. It turned a neat somersault and hit the ground hard. However, no one told Tack that the beast was dead. He commenced leaping high and coming down on the male with both front hooves. Again, and again, the angered mule leapt and landed square on the dead and ragged animal. By and by, Tommy stepped forth and laid a hand on the neck of his friend.

"Watch out, sir," said the boy. "He's got blood-hate in his nostrils. He could harm you."

Tack ran in three quick circles as if to set the earth back on its proper beam. He then stopped and looked at Tommy. He rolled his upper lip back as far as was possible, showed his long yellow teeth, and threw his head. A frothy spume of spittle fell across his back.

At last, he stopped his infernal racket and stood still for a few seconds then as if he'd just recognized old Tommy. He stepped up to him and lowered his head.

Tommy gave the ears a brisk rubdown. Finished, he hugged the old mule and spoke babytalk to it. "Saved my hens, didn't you? You are a good ol' scamp."

Soon they calmed down and looked about. The wolves were lying around in the barn lot like large dogs sleeping. The best thing about it he figured, was the blamed hens had stopped their fuss where a man could think straight once more. The mule had turned them from the hens, which was why they had come into his yard and faced such peril. They had taken a chance and it backfired on them.

The old-timer and young man gathered up the wolves and piled them together.

"What do you mean to do with these dead creatures, sir?"

"Toss them in a brush pile. They'll go up in smoke. Why?"

"I'd like to have them. I think I could make a fine coat outta them."

The old man said, "Well, I'll help skin them rascals for you if you carry off their carcasses."

When he finished the job and the lad had carried off the naked critters, daylight was chasing off the night's darkness.

"That male one is tore all to heck. It won't do to make a coat. But you got more than enough to do.

"Listen here, gent" he told Clifford. "Let's go in, wash up a bit and I'll scratch up breakfast."

"I reckon on makin' two. One for me, and one for a gal I know."

So, the boy was old enough to think about the women folk. He chuckled.

"I'll take that male and hang him by his hind legs from a limb of a tree down close to where them beasts killed my calf."

"As a warning, sir?"

"Yessir. To warn off any more wolves.

"By golly, I'm starved plum' to death. Come on, gent. Let's go find some breakfast."

They stepped up on the porch and he felt the warmth of the sun on his back.

He sighed and this tightened his chest. He and old Tack had made it through another bout of darkness, and best, had gotten rid of the wolf problem. He would sleep sound tonight. And this, to the old man, was a fine occasion.

The End

Sumner Wilson is a retired railroad trainman, switchman, and brakeman. He took up writing in motel rooms to bedevil time while waiting to "get out" on homebound trips. He is the author of the novel The Hellbringer.

Wilson's short stories have appeared in Cappers, published in Big Muddy—a journal of Southeast Missouri State University—and he's sold two dozen stories to Sterling/Mcfadden Publishing, Inc. He has been published multiple times in Frontier Tales. He and his wife reside on the Gasconade River in the Missouri Ozarks, where many of his stories take place.

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The Crossroads
by Ralph S. Souders

As a young ranch hand, my mornings typically began the same. After eating breakfast at a table outside the bunkhouse, I would saddle my horse and ride to the nearby fields to inspect the cattle herd. The O'Sullivan family for whom I was employed owned a small, 1,600-acre ranch near Wide River, Colorado and they typically had 100 to 125 head of cattle grazing on their property at any one time. They were not a wealthy family, but their ranch was well run and financially viable. They were hard working people who lived a well-deserved, comfortable lifestyle. They were good to their employees and most of their small staff had been with them for several years. I, for example, was into my third year at the O'Sullivan ranch and I was saving my money as best I could. Hopefully, in a few years, I would have accumulated enough money to purchase a small homestead of my own. Once I was established and settled on my own land, I hoped to find a good woman who would settle down with me and start a family. This was an ambitious plan, no doubt, but I was confident that it was achievable. All things considered, I believed that my plan was reasonably close to being on schedule.

As I rode into the fields that morning and studied the herd, I had to assume that a few steers were missing. This was the usual situation as the ranch contained few fences and the cattle were allowed to roam freely throughout the day. Remarkably, they usually stayed in the general vicinity of the main pasture and were not too difficult to monitor. Sometimes at night, however, steers might wander off in the dark and become disoriented. The following morning, any strays would have to be located and led back to the main herd. The O'Sullivan cattle were clearly branded, and it was unusual for a loose steer not to be found. We had every expectation of quickly finding all of today's strays and bringing them home. This task would typically require no more than a couple hours of our time.

I quickly began this task and before long, I had located a loose steer's tracks and had begun following him toward the northern end of the O'Sullivan property. He was following the same route that wandering steers often took. I followed the tracks to a ridge located approximately a quarter mile beyond the property line of the ranch. The top of this ridge was located on federal property. From this vantage point, I could easily view a wide area and I quickly spotted the steer in a small clearing located a short distance away. I would have him roped and in my custody in a few minutes. Leading him back to the herd would not be difficult. As I continued to survey the panorama before me, I was surprised to see unexpected activity about a mile or so to the northeast. The exact location was the intersection of two roads, simply called the crossroads by the people who lived in the area. The Fort Collins Highway went from the town of Wide River in the west toward Fort Collins in the east. Wyoming Road went toward the Wyoming Territory in the north and Millington in the south. Neither road was particularly busy by urban standards although they were used extensively by residents of the region. Supply wagons to the area mines often used these roads. The twice weekly stagecoach from Fort Collins to Wide River traveled on the Fort Collins Highway. Occasionally, a patrol of the U.S. Calvary might be seen on either of these roads, travelling in one direction or another.

As I watched the activity at the crossroads, I counted four riders on horseback. I recognized one of the riders although I did not know him by name. He worked on the Freeman ranch, a much larger property encompassing almost 5,000 acres. It was owned by Hank Freeman, a man of questionable character who was not well regarded by most members of the community. Freeman had had disagreements with several of his neighbors through the years and he was suspected of having ordered violent acts from time to time against them. Most recently, he had been contesting water rights with the neighboring ranch to his east. Although there had been no violence to date, the tone of their disagreement was becoming increasingly ugly. The local sheriff was attempting to mediate the situation as best he could. I wondered what the men at the crossroads might be doing, but I did not have time to idly sit in my saddle and watch them. Leaving my position atop the ridge, I rode down the trail until I came upon the loose steer and captured him with my rope. Once I had him contained and subdued, I slowly began leading him back up the ridge toward our shared destination, the O'Sullivan ranch. My horse and I led the way with the steer following closely behind. The trip home was expected to take no more than half an hour.

As we reached the top of the ridge, I decided to stop and rest for a few minutes before proceeding further. Almost immediately, I realized that the four riders were still engaged in their activity at the crossroads. As I curiously watched them from the distance, I slowly began to suspect what they were doing. Could it be that they were planning to rob the stagecoach on its next run between Fort Collins and Wide River? Tomorrow was the last day in June and the stagecoach was scheduled to run the following day, July 1. It would be carrying the monthly payroll money from Denver for many of the mines in the area. It appeared that the four riders might be doing a practice run, wanting to make certain that their robbery would be executed quickly and efficiently without mistakes. They obviously wanted their heist to be successful and they certainly did not want to get caught. It never occurred to them that someone might be watching as they rehearsed their crime in that isolated location. I had no way of knowing exactly how long they had been practicing that morning. Less than ten minutes after I had begun watching them, I saw them gather for one last conversation before riding away together in the direction of the Freeman ranch. Once they were gone, I knew that I needed to get back to the O'Sullivan ranch as quickly as possible. I was anxious to tell Sean O'Sullivan exactly what I had seen. I was confident that he would want to alert the sheriff.

Early that afternoon, I was sitting in the sheriff's office in Wide River along with Sean O'Sullivan, the sheriff and two sheriff's deputies. They asked me to describe in detail what I had observed at the crossroads that morning. When I finished speaking, the sheriff and the deputies asked me several specific questions, all of which I appeared to answer to their satisfaction. The law enforcement officers agreed that I had probably stumbled upon a serious crime in its planning, and they decided that a counter plan needed to be developed and implemented at once. They agreed that July 1 was probably the criminals target date for their intended robbery.

The outlaws plan, as best as I could determine, was to have two men on horseback positioned on the Fort Collins Highway just east of the intersection. One rider would have a pistol drawn while the other rider would be pointing a rifle at the stagecoach driver. Once the stagecoach had stopped, two more men on horseback would ride out of the trees beside the road and assume positions behind the stagecoach. They would also be wielding rifles that would be pointed at the driver and the security guard sitting beside the driver on the front seat. They would also make sure that no passengers inside the stagecoach would attempt to interfere. The outlaws had developed a sound plan that would probably have been effective against an unsuspecting target. However, once law enforcement understood the specifics of the plan, it would not be too difficult for them to devise an effective counter measure of their own. They had almost two full days to prepare such a plan. They intended to be ready with it.

Late in the morning on July 1, the sheriff and his entourage laid their trap for the stagecoach robbers. In addition to the sheriff and his two fulltime deputies, five other men were deputized to assist in the operation. Near the crossroads, the sheriff and a deputy on horseback were stationed beside the Fort Collins Highway, one-tenth of a mile west of the intersection. Two additional pairs of men were stationed beside Wyoming Road with one pair located one-tenth of a mile north of the intersection and one pair located one-tenth of a mile south of it. Two additional men on horseback were hidden in the trees beside the Fort Collins Highway approximately one-quarter mile east of the intersection with Wyoming Road. Finally, two Colorado Rangers would be sitting inside the stagecoach. No other passengers would be traveling on the stagecoach that afternoon. As the law enforcement officers assembled and hid in the vicinity of the crossroads, Sean O'Sullivan and I took a position atop the nearby ridge, approximately a mile away. From that vantage point, we would be able to witness the event without being noticed by any of the participants. We would also be well out of the range of the anticipated gunfire that was almost certain to erupt.

About two o'clock that afternoon, the four outlaws arrived at the crossroads and made a quick survey of the general area. The lawmen were well concealed by this time and the outlaws did not discover their presence. Minutes later, the four of them assumed their own hiding spots, the same places that I had observed them occupying during their practice session two days earlier. Soon they were hidden from view, and they remained hidden thereafter. Almost an hour later, Sean O'Sullivan and I could see the dust from the stagecoach in the air in the distance as it progressed through the Colorado countryside and approached the vicinity of the crossroads. The air was thick with anticipation as we awaited the stagecoach's arrival at its place of destiny. We were anxious to witness what was about to happen. I could not begin to imagine the tension that the men hiding among the trees below must have been feeling at that moment.

As the stagecoach neared the crossroads, two masked riders suddenly rode out from the trees and assumed their positions on horseback in the roadway just a short distance east of the intersection with Wyoming Road. The stagecoach slowed down and soon came to a complete stop as the road was now blocked by the bandits. At this time, the other two masked riders come out from behind the trees and took their positions atop their horses directly behind the stagecoach. The outlaws' plan was developing exactly as I has previously watched it practiced. It was at this point that their detailed plan began to unravel.

"Put up your hands," ordered the lead outlaw as he waved his pistol at the stagecoach driver sitting beside the security guard. The driver dropped the horses' reins and lifted his hands into the air. The security guard was slower to react, perhaps trying to decide if he wanted to try shooting one of the bandits with his rifle. The lead outlaw's partner wasted no time. He pointed his rifle at the security guard and quickly pulled the trigger, shooting the man in the chest. The guard dropped his rifle upon his receipt of the bullet. The impact caused him to jolt backwards in his seat before he tumbled off the stagecoach and hit the dirt road below. I assumed that the man was dead before his body hit the ground.

"Give me the cashbox," the lead outlaw instructed the driver. "Now! Do we have to shoot you, too? Hurry up!"

The driver pulled the cashbox from the space where the security guard had previously rested his feet. Without waiting for further instructions, he dropped the cashbox over the side of the stagecoach and watched it as it landed on the ground directly beside the outlaw's horse.

"Get your ass down here and pick up the cashbox," the lead outlaw ordered the driver. "Then lift it up to me."

The driver did exactly as he was told. Retrieving the cashbox, he lifted it to the lead outlaw who proceeded to grab it and hoist it onto his saddle. It was heavy, obviously containing a quantity of gold and silver coins as well as paper currency.

Once they had the money in their possession, the outlaws had no further need of the driver. The man had witnessed the murder of the security guard. He was a liability that the gang needed to eliminate. There was no benefit in keeping him alive.

"Kneel down," the lead outlaw ordered the driver.

The driver was frozen in fear, unable to obey the outlaw's order.

"Kneel down," the lead outlaw ordered again, this time in a quieter, colder tone of voice. "Otherwise, I'll shoot you right where you're standing." To add emphasis to his command, he pointed his pistol at the driver's head and cocked the gun.

The driver slowly knelt onto the dirt road expecting to soon be losing his life. He wondered if he would hear the gun fire before the bullet entered his head and killed him.

Inside the stagecoach, the Colorado Rangers were carefully monitoring the events that were transpiring outside. It had now become apparent that the stagecoach driver was about to be executed just beside the stagecoach door. The lead outlaw obviously had no idea as to the identity of the passengers inside the stagecoach. He only knew that he could not risk leaving any witnesses to today's crimes alive. The rangers were certain that the man would be coming for the stagecoach passengers next. The ranger sitting closest to the door beside the kneeling driver pulled his pistol from its holster and as inconspicuously as possible, pointed it through the open window at the mounted outlaw. The man was leaning over in his saddle, holding onto the cashbox as he pointed his own gun at the head of the helpless driver. Before the outlaw could pull the trigger of his gun, the ranger pulled the trigger of his. The bullet from close range hit the outlaw on the side of his head, mortally wounding him. The outlaw and the cashbox fell from the horse's saddle, hitting the ground simultaneously. The man was dead, there was no doubt about this whatsoever.

Upon hearing the gunshot from the ranger's pistol, the lawmen on horseback left their various hiding places and converged on the stagecoach in the road. The outlaws positioned behind the stagecoach lifted their rifles and began to shoot at the arriving lawmen. Their shots missed their targets while promptly drawing return fire from several different locations. One of the outlaws was knocked from his saddle as a rifle shot hit him from close range. His partner dropped his gun to the ground and raised his hands in surrender. The remaining outlaw who had partnered with the lead outlaw attempted to flee to the west only to discover that he was hopelessly surrounded as the lawmen converged. He quickly dropped his rifle and raised his hands in the air. Within minutes, the two surviving outlaws were arrested, handcuffed and placed inside the stagecoach. Accompanied by the two Colorado Rangers, they would be transferred to the jail in Wide River where they would be charged with the robbery of the stagecoach and the murder of the security guard. I suspected that they would be tried quickly in a court of law and then hanged as punishment for their crimes. The other two outlaws had already been confirmed dead at the scene.

Later that evening and over the next couple of days, the captured outlaws provided the sheriff with detailed information on some of the violent crimes that had previously been committed in the area. They claimed that these crimes had been instigated by Hank Freeman as had that week's stagecoach robbery near the crossroads. Whether or not their cooperation might spare them from the gallows would be a matter for a judge to decide. I suspected that this information might be enough to save them from such a fate. Their live testimonies would be necessary should the local prosecutor seek to try Hank Freeman for any of the crimes for which he was now being accused. At the very least, it was obvious that he had been harboring criminals on his property. It would be interesting to see if a man of Hank Freeman's wealth and stature would be held accountable for any of his past actions. I was hopeful that he would be.

Weeks later, I was surprised to learn that the payroll company had issued me an award for my assistance in thwarting the theft of their cashbox during the July 1 attempted stagecoach robbery. I added the award money to my modest savings account at the bank and I now had enough money to begin the process of looking for a small homestead to purchase. It would probably take some time for me to locate the ideal place. Meanwhile, I planned to continue working for the O'Sullivan family for the immediate future. Although I was sorry that the security guard had lost his life, I was proud to have been of assistance to the sheriff in bringing the outlaws to justice. It felt good to have rendered this service to my community. I liked the Wide River area and I intended to always reside there. It was where I planned to raise my family.

The End

Ralph S. Souders is an American author of suspense and literary fiction. He has written three novels, Hans Becker's Family, Ursula's Shadow and Lost in the Water. His short stories have appeared in Frontier Tales, Gadfly Online and The Penmen Review magazines. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida. He is happily married to his wife of thirty-five years. They are now retired and live in Middle Tennessee. His website is

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by Lily Tierney

"Clem, You have to make a decision," Martha said in a high pitched voice in her parlor.

"I told you over and over Martha that I am not the marrying kind, "explained Clem.

Martha and Clem have been courting for three years, and Martha thinks it is time to marry. Her family used to give hints about a wedding, but now they bluntly ask when and where.

"You can't use your momma as an excuse anymore, Clem," Martha shouted back at him.

"Martha, momma needs me," protested Clem.

In spite of this, Clem sees himself as a hard-drinking gambler like his daddy. Martha would laugh when he described himself in this way. She knew he was not at all like his daddy who left his momma before Clem was born. His daddy was sixteen when he married Clem's momma, and took off a few months later never to be seen again. There have been rumors that he was a gambler and heavy drinker in the saloons. Clem's momma never remarried thinking that maybe one day he would just appear at her front door. This was unlikely to happen, but this went on each day of her life.

"I'm going to the saloon tonight," Clem announced in an authoritative voice.

"Why don't you grow up, Clem?" Martha asked, shaking her head.

That night the saloon was empty except for a few locals, and a lone stranger. Clem stood next to the stranger and offered to buy him a drink.

"Well, thank ya young fella. It is a mighty kind of you," he said in a soft voice.

The stranger was in his late forties going gray around the temples. He used to work for the Pony Express until the telegraph came along. Now, he dabbles in odd jobs including cattle drives.

"I'm a hard-drinking gambler just like my daddy," confessed Clem looking solemnly at his drink.

The stranger looked at Clem smiling and shaking his head from side to side.

"Now son, you have to make your own way in this world. Your daddy lived his life, now it is time to live yours," he said to Clem who was listening closely.

"What are you afraid of?" he asked Clem.

"Not a thing," Clem said unconvincingly.

"It seems to me you need to take the reins and get going with your life. By the way, you don't look like a hard-drinking gambling man at all," the stranger said, sizing Clem up.

"I don't?" asked Clem looking suspiciously at him

"No, you don't, but it is up to you to decide who you want to be," the stranger said thoughtfully.

"Well, partner, you seem to know what you are talking about," Clem said with a grin.

"I do, I do," said the stranger staring at his drink.

Clem took the last swig from his shot glass, and said goodnight to this obliging man.

The next day he saw Martha, and had to jump in front of her to get her attention.

"Well, what is it, Clem?" Martha asked.

"Martha, I've been thinking about us getting married," he said nervously.

Martha was speechless, she tried to walk; but got dizzy and passed out right in front of the livery stable. Clem frantically tried to revive her, and she finally came around. Clem carefully helped her up, and Martha dusted herself off.

"Clem, I will think about it," Martha said, still reeling from his proposal.

"Martha, you got to tell me now," Clem begged, kneeling on both knees with his hands clasped.

Clem's heart was pounding; he wanted Martha more than anything to be his wife.

"Well, I have waited long enough for you to ask for my hand in marriage," Martha said pensively.

"I will marry you, Clem Jefferson Bailey. I am not marrying your daddy, but the man I know and love," Martha vowed.

Clem seemed to have changed overnight, and Martha thanked her lucky stars for that. He finally realized he was his own man, and didn't need to hang on to a ghost in the past.

"Martha, I intend on making you the happiest gal in the county," Clem proudly declared.

"Clem, I couldn't be more proud of you than I am now," Martha said knowing this was a new beginning for them.

The End

Lily Tierney's work has appeared in print and online magazines. She enjoys writing fiction and poetry. She is a native New Yorker.

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