May, 2023

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Issue #164

All The Tales

Black Bean Arroyo
by Joseph Hirsch

The jail sat in the center of the nameless Mexican town, facing the North, with the Rio Grande somewhere out there beyond the scrub, and Texas beyond that. Not that it mattered, as they would never be returning home.

Stander—one of the six gringos in the cell— gripped the bars in the window cut into the side of the limestone wall. "Well, shit," he finally said.

The other men in the cell had nothing to add to that.

Ernie continued playing solitaire on the cold stone floor. Pete snoozed on a sorry-ass, sweat-stained bedroll probably crawling with lice, which the Mexicans had lain over a rusted spring mattress attached to the wall by a chain.

His buzzsaw snoring didn't help any. But his open mouth made an easy target for that bluebottle fly, and as long as it buzzed around his gaping maw it wouldn't bother anyone else.

Bix muttered to himself under his breath, and blubbered, shaking his head. Normally the other men would have told him to buck up, accept that a necktie party or pinewood coffin came with the territory. But he was young and had just gotten hitched and had the misfortune—when the Zapatistas were shaking them down—to have kept that little locket-sized photo of his new filly. At first the picture had brought him some solace, but now the golden locket with the pretty girl inside just made him sad, tortured him even.

Stander turned away from the window, toward the game Ernie had going against himself on the adobe floor. "You feel like playing poker?"

"Not with you."

"Why not?"

Ginny—who'd heretofore spent his time in hoosegow pacing—stopped, wiped his greasy hair away from his red brow, and looked at Stander. "You know why, you chickenshit four-flush artist."

"The hell I do." Stander gripped the cold bars tighter, leaning back as if trying to whoa up a horse by its reins. He rocked on his heels so his sunburst spurs jingled, making leper's bell music.

"You was beating everyone at cards," Ellis said. He'd been silent until now, but only because he'd had his pinwheel oat baccy to chew. He spit out one last gout, firing a venomous freshet at a cockroach crawling across the floor.

"So?" Stander asked, still holding the bars while leaning back on his heels, almost getting some exercise out of it. "Maybe I was just that good."

"Yeah," Ellis said. "Then all of a sudden Bicycle switches from them paper cards to that harder stock and you're losing."

"What of it?" Stander asked. "A man's luck is bound to finally go from good to bad." He cracked a smile for the first time in months. "Like this, for instance. We was having fun hitting one Mexican stage and bank after another. Now we're in here, getting ready to be wind chimes decorating the branches of a scrub oak."

"They don't use hemp," Ellis said, laconic now as a cow with cud. "They use lead in these parts. They're flush with surplus ammo on account of the Revolution."

"Good," Ginny said, his circles becoming smaller and smaller as he walked. "It's quicker and you don't have to have your neck broke before the curtain's closed."

"Lord a mercy," Bix said, shaking his head, his whines a strange, wheezy musical counterpoint to the basso dirge of Pete's log sawing.

"You do nothing but win when the cards was paper," Ernie said, "and nothing but lose when they're made of this stronger stuff, oaktag or wax or what have you." Ernie waited for it to sink in, but Stander still had that dumb look on his face. "You was only winning cause you got a knack for marking cards as you play them."

"Horse feathers," Stander said, because in a way it was. He'd only ever used a spring up his sleeve.

"You put us in this spot, too, you rotten, spavined sumbitch," Ginny said. He held his hands locked behind his back as he walked now, picking up the pace as he strode. He looked a bit like a country lawyer laying out his plaidoyer for twelve empaneled men. He tilted his pointed chin toward the still-blubbering Bix. "You had the sand to get this little whelp with the milk still on his breath involved, riding for the brand when you know he's greener than Irish grass in summertime. And on that last stage, you started shooting when there wasn't no cause to. Blew that poor man's eye out the back of his head."

"Can't hold your damn liquor, either," Ellis sneered. "What the hell kind a Texan are you?"

"Wasn't liquor," Stander said, which was true enough. While they'd been tossing back tequila he'd been drinking thick pulque from the gourd that bruja señora had passed him on the mezzanine in the whorehouse. Not to mention backing that with mescal and fiery-ass aguardiente. Eventually his chest burned as if he'd swallowed every lit candle on an octogenarian's birthday cake, and the saloon had started to spin like an out-of-control carousel.

And sure he'd shot a little too soon when they had waylaid the stage later the next day. But he'd been seeing tracers of a plumed serpent every time he took a gander at that mangy dog following them out of town. It was Quetzalcoatl come from the firewater bottle to get the revenge Montezuma with the dirty Juarez water had failed to achieve.

And the little man in the back of the stage in his plug hat and red tea shades had been getting shifty-eyed, peepers nictitating like a lizard's. Or like a man contemplating drawing iron and fanning it from the hip. In the next moment Stander's stomach acids had started to roiling—the pulque and mescal repeating on him again— and then the desert began to dance a grim fandango.

The face on that little man in the back of the stage started melting down, a dripping wax memento mori with skin ungluing, its integuments ripping in suety rivulets. Eventually the tallow-like flesh had burnt all the way through, leaving the head a pure, porcelain-white skull. Clicking castanet teeth in the death rictus smile invited Stander deep into the twin hollowed eyeholes, black portals leading directly to hell.

But Stander hadn't been ready to go just yet and so he'd shot. And the man riding shotgun had lived up to his title and the office with which he was charged. The robbers—bone-seasoned and accustomed to winning shootouts—had won this one, too, leaving driver, shotgunner, and passengers sufficiently Swiss-cheesed. But the echoing reports of the lead party drew the attention of some Zapatistas in their nearby encampment and they'd ridden out in a company-sized element. They'd been loaded for bear, or at least a skirmish with rinches and gubmint troops and—

The thunderclap of new gunshots woke Stander from his reverie, brought him back to the prison cell. There shortly followed a cloud of bluish cordite and gunpowder, wafting outward in billowing tendrils that spread over the town square in a slow-creeping fog.

The smoke cleared as it reached the little cemetery beyond the limestone well at the edge of town, which was about as far as Stander could see. He was glad for the sight, too, as the strange, roadside graveyard offered the onliest point of interest in this godless jerkwater. Bits of snakeroot as thick, pure, and white as Colorado snow crept alongside the tombstones, wending through the wooden banister placed around the canted antebellum grave markers. Ocotillo exploded in flaming red buds among the headstones within the wooden border, the petals on the flowers soft and inviting as a lady's gooseflesh-studded nipples.

That banister was the best part, incongruous and manmade, sitting among the ancient rocks and agave plants as blue-green as sand just after moonrise. The mahogany banister refused to bow to the desert's harsh laws of quick, constant, and merciless erosion, still gleaming with a high, ebonized burnish. Somebody probably came by once a week—a charwoman maybe—to shine it with a varnish-soaked cloth.

"Well, shit," Stander said, again.

An oxcart came clacking along the rough cobbles, loaded down with bodies, white men or Mexican men or Apache off the res killed on the warpath. It was hard to tell, as they were covered in dust and blood and these iron bars stood between Stander and them, half-blocking his view. They were piled high and evenly, stacked with the efficiency of cordwood. They were already shoeless, having been stripped of boots, probably sold to some cobbler who'd paid pesos for the leather.

The clickety clack of rickety wooden axles struggling over ancient cobbles had made enough noise to bring Ginny over to the window.

"That'll be us in a few," he said.

"What'll be us?" Bix asked. "What'll be us?" He moved toward the window, crowded in with the other two men. Then he stared at the bodies, coated with sand, looking like big cutlets rolled in egg then dusted with breadcrumbs. Maybe the Messicans were going to really do it this time, too, fire up a cauldron and go cannibal like their forebears back in the days before Cortez.

"Oh, Mercy Jesus!" he shouted.

"Gonna dry gulch 'em, the bastards," Ginny sneered, snorted like an angry bull. "Not so much as a Christian burial."

"They'll be mummified in three days, I guarantee it," Pete said. He'd awoken from his slumber, and had somehow picked up the plot without missing a beat. It was a talent of his, to rouse from a seeming coma somehow already knowing the score. "After two or three days it gets so bad you're basically a husk, like desiccated vegetables, or a cicada shell. El sol will bleach your bones and the wind will blow your pitiable remnants away, scattering them to the four compass points. Just like the Second Book a Genesis says."

"Christ Jesus in Heaven and his whole holy host of ever-loving saints," Bix said, rattling his elongated curse off with the ritual intent of a woman praying her rosary.

Stander felt a tickle on his fingers. It was a pair of feelers on a cucaracha dowsing its antennae, water-witching along the runnels and defiles of the hard-as-caliche cracks of his pores. It might have been the same roach that'd crawled over Ellis's boot when he'd been posted against that wall, accusing Stander of cheating at cards.

If it was, the critter had made a hell of a lot more progress than Ginny, who—done with his lawyerly saunter—was back to walking his ultrasmall circles.

Normally Stander would have crushed the bug, slapped it dead. But he was feeling generous and a little funny besides, in a way he couldn't quite put into words.

He lifted a hand to cast a shadowy umbra over the cockroach, eclipsing its small world with his comparatively behemothic palm. He used a single finger to stroke the tiny critter's amber-brown carapace.

"I do believe," Ellis said, "you've gone a little teched in the head."

"Tend to your own damn affairs," Stander replied, still petting the roach in soothing strokes, like it was the tiniest, gun-shiest pigmy pony in the world.

Ellis was about to give him a bit of lip, maybe even a haymaker to the jaw, but the jail's heavy oaken door chose that moment to open. There followed the jangle of spurs, the silvery music of keys dangling on a massive keyring, the groan of tooled leather creaking, big bellies pushing against concha-studded belts.

"Oh, Christ," Bix said, "Don't make Abby a widow. I think she looks good in anything but she don't like the way she looks in black."

* * *

The Jefe walked the corridor in front of the cells, flanked by men carrying rifles at the port arms position, bandoliers crisscrossing their chests. Most were dirty and wore old shirts shredded by bullets and thorns and cockleburs. The Jefe, however, wore a fashionable chaquetilla covered in golden fleur filagree. Twin golden epaulettes graced either of his broad shoulders.

In his hands he clutched a mason jar filled to the brim with white beans.

He and his men stopped when they came to the cell that held the six gringos.

"The hell," Ellis said, moving from his place at the window.

Ernie stood up from his half-finished game of solitaire. "Maybe he wants us to guess how many are in there. Like the old church jellybean raffles."

Pete was the only one who laughed. It didn't last long, but it was still a laugh. Sunlight slanted through the windows, split the bars and made a golden latticework on the cell's stone floor.

Stander stared with the others, and, being the only one who spoke passable Mex, was also the only one who had a chance to understand what the man was saying.

"You cabrones had the misfortune to have committed your crimes close to the cemetery where my madre is buried." The man's voice was deep, booming, resonant so that the gringos could feel its thunder in their bones. "It is a little shrine, to commemorate the site where the great infamy against her and the other women of this town caused the people to rise up, and rebel."

"What's this greaser jawboning about?" Ginny asked, having ceased to walk his small circles.

"Something about his mama getting raw-dogged by a bunch of rinches a ways back," Stander said. "Or maybe Díaz's men."

"The hell's that got to do with us?"

Stander didn't get a chance to answer Ellis. The het-up Mexican with the curlicue mustache holding his jar of beans wasn't done. "The people of the town were politically unsophisticated, but understood at least that men cannot live under the yoke of foreign oppression forever. That remains true to this day."

He paused to unscrew the top of his bean jar. It was a bit rusted, and it took a moment to yield, giving an unpleasant, fingers-on-the-chalkboard grating sound before the tin top popped. "Nevertheless, I remain sporting, and will extend the following offer to you."

"What's he saying about the frijoles?" Ginny asked. The Spanish word for "beans" was about the only Mex he knew—that and "cerveza."

"He's getting to that right now," Stander said, wincing, wishing Ellis would shut the hell up so he could concentrate on translating.

"You will each reach into the jar for a bean. If the bean is a blanco, you will walk north, across the desert. I cannot guarantee you safe passage, nor that you won't bake to death or die of thirst in the desert. Perhaps you will have your entrails picked out by turkey buzzards, and your eyes will be devoured by red ants and desert rats. Or maybe your thirst will grow so bad you will be willing to slit a vein and drink from that little red oasis."

"What's he saying now?"

"Be glad you don't know."

"But maybe you make it across the Rio Grande. Maybe you make it home, to Texas."

"The hell did he say about my home state?"

"Nothing," Stander said.

The Jefe grinned to show a buck tooth inlaid with soft gold. "If you pick the frijole negro, however . . . " The smile remained on his face, but the way his jade eyes hardened to flinty grey changed the grin's meaning. "The Plan of San Diego called for the death of every fighting-age Gringo. This, however, is decimation rather than extermination, for my vengeful mood is tempered by a strange mercy. Perhaps this is due to my mother's proximity, for just as I hear her screams from the grave, I hear her voice, full of Christian mercy, begging me to forgive."

He jangled his jar so that the white beans started to subside in an avalanche, revealing the handful of aforementioned black beans mixed in among their number.

Neither Ellis nor any of the others had to ask what the Jefe had said. It was easy to get the gist even without getting Stander to translate. But just in case they didn't get it, one of the guards behind the Jefe one-handed his rifle, freeing up the fingers of his other hand to make a pistol. He pointed it at the men in the cell, making "bang" noises like a child with a domino mask and a cap gun.

Ellis spit, hissing like a snake, and Bix continued to cry.

"Don't give 'em the satisfaction, Bixby."

"I can't help it. I don't want to die."

"Hell," Pete said, gently. "It's just a one in ten chance, or something like that. Probably better odds than stepping through the batwing doors in a Tijuana whorehouse." Pete then rolled up his right sleeve as if readying it for a sawbones' needle. He even yawned, which amused the Mexicans.

Pete walked forward, smiling at the partisans, reached his hand through the bars, dug his dirty fingers into the jar. He rustled the beans so that they shuffled and resettled, like corn in a granary feeder sifting as it fell down the chute. "Button, button, who's got the button. Amiright, pardners?"

None of the Mexicans spoke, or even changed expression. Finally Pete pulled his hand free, clutching a bean. He opened his fingers without ceremony, stared at the little white pebble-sized lump. Then he held his hand out to everyone in the room so they could get a good look, before popping the bean in his mouth. "First grub I had in three days."

The Mexicans laughed, not quite understanding the words but getting the music.

Pete sauntered slowly back over to the bunk, taking his ease as he spread out on the dirty ticking, grunting as he did so. "Wake me up when it's time for us to blow this tank town. Also, let me say my goodbyes to whoever got that frijole negro fore they dole him his ounce a lead. Tough break, amigo, whoever you are." He pulled his felt Stetson back over his sunburnt brow and went back to sleep.

Ernie looked up at Stander, eyes narrowing to darkened slits. "Reckon you got a white bean up your sleeve."

Stander said nothing, merely looked once toward the window, and the weird little graveyard patch out there. Then he turned back to Bix, still crying but in softer, racking sobs interleaved with broken fragments of the Twenty-Third Psalm.

Stander took a step forward, but the Jefe barked, "No!"

"Sí," Stander said.

But the Jefe just shook his head and pointed at Bix. The Jefe's grin was so wide now that the brittle parchment of his skin groaned, as if ready to crack. Rumbles of laughter passed among the ranks of the Mexican partisans. They seemed to be soaking up the sobbing gringo's suffering as if it were sunlight and they lazy iguanas on a red rock.

"Sí," Stander said, again, and reached his arm through the bars so quickly that guns got cocked and pointed. But he ignored the pointed barrels even as he heard their hammers drawing back, and drew his bean.

Once his hand was free of the mason jar, he kept his fist closed, milking his audience, tormenting them as much as he could with mere suspense. It wasn't even kissing kin to the agony poor Bix was in, but it was the only card Stander had left to play.

Finally the Jefe ceased to smile and shouted so his Zapata mustache jittered. "La abre immediamente!"

"Por supuesto," Stander said, winking once. "Y la mano está abierto." He opened his palm then, displaying the lumpy black bean. "¿Estás alegre, Jefe?"

The Jefe looked muy alegre, but then, just as before, the smile changed and the soft green eyes went grey and hard. He shouted something, barking like a cornered dog, in Mex so fast and rough Stander didn't get a word.

But maybe that was for the best.

The Mexican men lifted their rifles, and the gringos—whiter than white men now, white as ghosts—stared blankly.

Flame spilled from the rifle barrels, erupting with deafening cracks that sucked all the sound out of the room. Bodies danced like marionettes on furiously tugged strings. A bullet shattered Bix's Adam's apple with a loud pop and he fell to the ground, eyes wide as he coughed, drowning in his own burbling gore.

Ernie had taken five shots squeezed from a Remington rifle, which blew him across the room and left wet bits of his viscera spattered on the limestone wall.

Pete— being supine on the bed—took an odd one at a strange angle through the crown of his head. Somehow the round traveled down the columns of his spine and clean through his right foot. The toe of his boot had unfurled in blooming tendrils, mushrooming outward so that the dumdum bullet had spoiled the leather, warping it like an exploded trick cigar.

Strangest of all, he was still alive, half-unconscious, snoring a different kind of snore, autonomic, his brain dying as a hematoma started to swell inside his busted head.

Ginny had died instantly, both eyes blasted hollow, as if those desert rats and red ants the Jefe promised had devoured the meat of his peepers.

Only Stander and Ellis remained, frozen in place, enveloped in uncoiling pigtail plumes of blue smoke that drifted toward the barred window. Ellis had his hands raised above his head, looking like all the people he'd held up at banks over the years. He spoke out of the side of his mouth, a vaudeville ventriloquist, afraid to even move the muscles of his tongue overmuch, lest he tempt the triggermen.

"The Sam Hill's going on here, Stand?"

Stander—arms still held low, black bean still in his right hand—shrugged his shoulders. "Hell if I know." He looked down at the ground, at the boy Bix. The kid was no longer blubbering, but that was only because he'd finally strangled to death on the blood drained from the sump of his overflowing lung. In his right hand he held the picture he'd been fondling all this time. It was flecked with speckled droplets of blood, but otherwise looked clean enough for the pretty girl to still be seen and even admired through the smoke.

The Jefe snarled something in staccato Spanish, his grin back and the golden tooth gleaming. He pointed one of his smoking Colts toward the locket in Bix's hand.

Ellis, hands still in the air, looked from the locket to the gold-toothed Jefe. "You greasy—"

He didn't get the chance to finish his insult, as another bullet left another of the men's guns and dropped him. He slumped forward, quickly, facedown and in place, as if KO'd by a pugilist with a horseshoe hidden in his glove.

"That wasn't right, you dirty sonsabitches."

The Jefe grinned some more and shrugged his shoulders so that the braids of his golden epaulettes fluttered like lampshade tassels. "I thought I explain the game. Maybe your Spanish is not so good, and you don't understand me." It was the first and maybe last time the Jefe would deign to speak English. He'd winced on the bitter taste of the foreign words, as if each were an especially sour and useless form of patent medicine. "But you may go home now, if you wish."

The Jefe waved his right hand and one of his soldiers dutifully pulled the cell door open. It groaned, eaten and oxidized with red rust and green verdigris like the other few bits of metal in the mostly stone pueblo.

"Andale, por la Frontera, gringo."

"Kick rocks, campesino," Stander said, and spit, since Ellis wasn't here to do it anymore. "The second I'm out of here you'll backshoot me like some greaser version of Pat Garrett or Bob Ford. No sir." He shook his head. "I ain't getting in no footrace with a bullet. And you can have your cotton-picking bean back, cocksucker."

Stander drew back his right hand, like a rounder getting ready to chuck a curveball down home plate. He got halfway through spinning it sidearm when the wall of fire knocked his soul free of his body.

The bean, already on a vicious trajectory, found the Jefe's face, slapping him on the gin-blossomed nub of his fat nose. He blinked once, hard, the smile off his face for the first time since the Revolution had started, eyes neither green or grey, but tinged a lupine violet.

His men watched to see what he would do to avenge this slight perpetrated against him by a dead man. But what could he do? Bring in a bruja to try to raise the gabacho from the dead just so he could shoot him once more?

Such superstitions were part of the old ways, counterrevolutionary. Besides, he had bigger problems than vengeance. The bean the crazy gringo had pulled from the jar was moving, crawling across the floor.

"Que en demonios?" one of the soldiers shouted, crossing himself quickly.

The Jefe leaned down to the floor, while the men around him scattered.

"Necesitamos una limpia, Jefe!"

His soldiers moved back, stumbling over each other, spooked and running for the door as if a stick of lit dynamite had suddenly been tossed in the jailcell.

"Tontos," the Jefe sneered, and crouched down, groaning as he did. He got closer, lowered his hand to the crawling bean, which extended its dowsing feelers, tickling the runnels of his palm in jerky twitches.

The Jefe smiled, lifted his head to the ceiling and belly laughed, filling the stone prison with the echoes of his mad cackling. Then he licked his lips, parched and sere as the desert's centuries-old Joshua trees, and began to whistle the old corrido about the cucaracha.

The End

Joseph Hirsch has sold work to numerous outlets, including The Western Online and Zahir: A Journal of Speculative Fiction. He lives in Cincinnati and is online @

Joseph Hirsch, author of The Phone and the Fishbowl, and other works

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Crazy Over William
by Rich Elliott

My Dearest Pearl,

Your letter arrived last week, and of course I read it many times like I do, then put it in the box with all your others, which you know I cherish.

I will tell you once again how awfully proud you make your old Pa. Doing so fine in your studies, and your thinking now you may want to be a doctor, which I fully agree with. Why, you're so much smarter than your old man it makes my heart nearly burst.

You love your college, I can see that in your letters, and I am happy for you, Pearl. Lawrence is a good town for you, so pretty and peaceful it is now, and how strange to think back to the mad Quantrill days when he burnt it down and slaughtered so many. Well, that's another story and best forgotten.

In your letter you asked me to tell you about Uncle William. Which surprised me some because you were so young I didn't know if you even remembered him. But I reckon by now you've come across all manner of stories about him, about his criminal ways, and the stories grow bigger every year. And maybe you're starting to recall some things about your "uncle," and the other stuff doesn't square, and so what is one to think?

I understand your confusion. You want me to set the record straight, to tell you the truth of William. Well, I will tell you what I know about him, but I caution that not everything may be factual. Not like your classes anyway. My story will be truthful, to the best of my recollection, which is different than factual. It will be my truth, which I guess is the only truth that matters.

I first noticed your Uncle William when he popped up at the Majestic. This would of been several years before he found you. Let's see, I can date it, 'cause it was the year of the big Centennial celebration. I can still picture him, just a boy really, sitting alone at dinner at our boarding house just shoveling it in like he always did, stretching to grab another pork chop, another heap of potatoes, and yapping for another pitcher of milk. I tell you, he kept me and your grandma running!

Well, the next night there were a few cowboys sitting with him, all yukking it up, listening to him go on about how he tricked some Apaches in a horse race. And the next night, a full table of rowdy boys and men all going crazy over William.

The first time I actually spoke to him was at a stag dance. You see, every fortnight in Santa Fe a stag dance was held at the Galaxy Saloon. The dances were very popular events. Cattle-boys and silver-diggers came in from all over the Territory.

Men dancing with men, does that seem strange to you, Honey? Well, it's like this-their jobs were lonely ones to begin with, and the big ol' New Mexico desert made them even lonelier. And people get starved for companionship, for a little human touch, hell, any kind of touch, and with so few women in Santa Fe back then, you can understand how the dances filled a need.

The tables at the Galaxy would be shoved to the corners of the room, fiddlers and guitar pickers were rounded up, the pastor's wife would play the piano, the guys would pair up, and the time would pass in a very lively and interesting way.

Well, William was standing surrounded by a gaggle of cowpokes and prospectors, some of the rougher crowd, like Whip Wilson, Pox Larry, and Slack-Jaw. They were all singing this soppy corridos, mostly just braying, 'cept for William. Pearl, did you ever hear your uncle sing? Oh my, his voice was like crystal, its sound nearly angelic, it was.

Anyway, when their song was finished, William came right over and asked me to dance. Interrupted me in mid-drink, he did, and I nearly choked.

Because, really, why me? I was never one to advertise myself, you know what I mean? I rarely danced at stag night. I preferred to stand back, propping up the bar, nursing my limit of two Galaxy beers, just observing. I was interested in people, but only as objects of study, you might say.

William strutted up to me, cocking his head to one side and wearing his crooked smile. His spurs made a tinny sound on the floor, which I found kinda silly because why wear 'em at a dance?

"Hola, me amigo," he said, like I was some old friend, and he punched my arm, spilling half my beer. "I know you from the Majestic, don't I?"

I introduced myself. "Erasmus Finegarten. My ma owns the Majestic. I seen you there." I wiped the beer off my sleeve.

"Erasmus! I just knew you were a thinker!" he said. "Well, E-ras-mus, vamanos!" And before I could say anything, he was pulling me onto the dance floor. "You know the two-step?"

I tell you, that boy could dance! Even though he played the woman-he wore the red bandanna on his sleeve-he led me, and he knew just what to do.

"The steps are quick, quick, then slow, slow. Like this. Yep, you got it, amigo!"

At first he had to pull me around the room, but slowly I figured it out.

"Now, see, we're going to open," he instructed, turning my body. "And we promenade. Like that! Yes sir!"

I couldn't help myself, I had to smile at his antics. And soon I was mimicking his swaggering moves. We sashayed around the room, dodging other dancers, jostling tables, and generally making a scene. The other men stopped and stared, then they started cheering us.

William and I careened through the Galaxy. I held on tight trying to keep pace. His hold practiced and true. I studied the boy. He lacked the grime and stink most of the men had. He seemed not to sweat at all. He wore a bright white shirt that smelled of Ma's laundry soap. His eyes were very blue, and his blond hair was slicked back. He was clean-shaved. No, I take that back—he didn't yet shave at all.

William, thoroughly enjoying the dance, executed a whiplash move, and I threw my head back, taking in the painted stars on the Galaxy ceiling as if for the first time. The stars whirred through the sky.

"Someday we'll be flying up to those stars," the boy shouted. "I'd just love to go up there. How about you, Erasmus? You ever want to shoot up to the stars?"

I could think of no reply, as the music reached a crescendo.

Finally, the fiddle players were exhausted, and their medley screeched to an end.

I felt flushed and dizzy. "Golly! That's all I can muster for one night," I told my dance partner. William wanted me to stay out on the floor, but I offered to buy him a drink instead.

"I don't drink," he said. "But if you buy me a ginger ale, I'll surely be grateful."

At the bar we talked briefly before his friends came over, heckling, and swallowed him up. I recall that Pox Larry gave me an odd look, but at the time I didn't think anything of it.

Over the next few weeks, in brief snatches, at the Majestic, at the Galaxy, from William and from others, I learned some things about my new friend. As with all things William, I cannot verify the truth of any of it.

He told me his name was William Bonney. Another time he told me it was Henry McCarty. He also went by William Antrim, if it suited him. He was about 17 at the time, but he looked younger. I was six years older, so I maybe seemed like an old man to him.

He told me he'd come from New York City and Indiana and Wichita. He could of told me Brazil or the moon, for all I knew of places. A year before, he was living in Silver City, way south in the Territory, when his ma died of consumption. After that, his stepdad vamoosed. William tracked him down, but stepdad told him to get lost, so the boy did. Since then, as near as I could figure, he'd just been a rolling stone.

Not until much later did I learn that when William showed up in Santa Fe, there was already a warrant out for his arrest for robbing a laundry and escaping from jail.

Now, your grandma, she just loved William. That's 'cause he was always so nice around her. It was always, Yes, ma'm, or Sure thing, Mrs. Finegarten, or You're looking beautiful today, Mrs. Finegarten. To which Ma would blush and say, Oh, go on with you, William.

Ma would say to me, You know, that William, someday he'll be somebody. She told me that quite often, to the point where I got jealous of him.

William and I started to pal around. That boy, your uncle, was always on the go, he always wanted to do things, and it was fun to be around him. I'd find him a horse, and we'd go riding outside of town. He'd show me how he could ride on the side of the horse just like the Apaches did. He was surprisingly graceful. He might of been double-jointed, I don't know.

He had a riata, and he'd practice with that. He'd have me stand five yards away, and he'd cast a loop over me just perfect. Then I'd go out ten yards, and he'd try again and again until he got it down, and pretty soon, he could haul me in from twenty yards away. Then he'd try it with me running and darting this way and that, and he got where he could rope me in from anywheres.

What he really loved most was to practice with his Colt Frontier. We'd set up bottles aways away on a rock or cactus, and William would shoot at 'em. But never your normal stand and aim, no, he'd already graduated from college on that. Instead, he was always moving, he'd spin and fire, or hit the ground, jump up, and shoot, or even, swear to God, he'd do a cartwheel and shoot. He could do these tricks with either hand, always trying to draw faster and faster.

"Boom, I got you, you rapscallion," he'd cry out. "Pow, you're dead, you villain!"

This practice your uncle never tired of. We'd both be all sunburned, and finally I'd plead, William, let's get back, for God's sake, I'm getting hungry, and the Majestic needs me.

But even into the night William's motor was still running. I doubt he slept much. After finishing my work battenin' down the hatches at the Majestic, I'd walk by his room, and I'd see a light. I'd stop in, and he'd be reading. Because your uncle was a big reader, do you remember that? Just like you are. That kid, he just seemed to be interested in everything.

"There's so much to learn, Erasmus!" he'd complain to me. "So many books, I'm going to run out of time!"

He'd even read some Erasmus, which is how he recognized my name. But his all-time favorite, hands down, was Jules Verne. He couldn't get enough of that guy!

"Erasmus, just think about taking a ship to the moon!" Musing about this, he smiled, and excitement lit up his face. "Or sailing over Europe in a hot-air balloon! Up there so high, people look smaller than ants!"

As if any of these incredible voyages could ever really happen! But for William, he believed in them. He'd wag his head in awe. "I will to do that someday, yes sir!"

Your grandma made William a cook at the Majestic. She felt he ought to have something useful to do, make some money of his own. She likely worried he was taking me away from the Majestic too often. William was a quick learner, and he picked up things in the kitchen real fast. Honestly, he got where he could make one hell of a Denver omelette.

But his kitchen days didn't last. He just couldn't stay put in one place very long. He found he could make more money dealing cards at the Galaxy, and it was a whole lot easier.

When I wasn't palling around with William, I found myself thinking about him, wondering what he was up to. Ma and I both tried to coax him back to the kitchen. We worried about him.

"The boarders are asking for your omelettes, William." I told him. "Why don't you come on back?"

"Gee thanks, amigo," he said, "but the Galaxy suits me better."

I started to hear rustlings around town that made me more worried. Suspicions of William cheating at cards. Someone seen him lifting dime novels at the General Store. And the sheriff, he was rumored to be tracking the boy's movements.

Around this time, money went missing from our cash box at the Majestic, which I didn't put together until much later.

It didn't make me happy that William was spending more and more time with various shady characters, them with their hats pulled low, them with whiskey-breath or wooden teeth or whip-scars. The men followed him around town like he was some walking, talking ringmaster.

One night I interrupted his reading to voice my concerns. "William, those guys you're hanging with. I don't think they're so hot. I don't think they're good for you."

William put down his Jules Verne and looked up at me with surprise. "What do you mean, amigo? You mean guys like Pox and Slack? Why, they're all right. They're simpatico. Interesting types."

"Be careful, William. You're better than them."

"Better? What makes you think I'm so good?"

I considered this. "Well, how nice you treat my ma, for example," And how you treat me, I thought.

He mused about this for a minute. "Erasmus, you don't really know me, now do you? You hardly know me."

Well, he had me there. I left his room more confused than ever.

We had another stag dance at the Galaxy. That night there was more drinking than usual. Some guy pulled into town with a wagon full of cheap beer he was promoting. Tombstone Brew he called it, and the men were lapping it up.

Again, your uncle was the center of attention. He'd come into a little money, and he was buying rounds for his pals. He was spinning his yarns—everyone crowding closer so they could hear—some tale about his horse dropping dead of heat stroke and him walking fifty miles through the desert to Las Cruces.

And then he sang this song. "El Corrido de Kansas." You know, it's the one where the cowboys swim the Salado, bring the steers home, and end up buying nice hats. Well, he sang it lovely, it just floored everyone.

Anyway, then your uncle asked me to dance. We danced to one tune and then another and then another. I confess, we made a handsome pair. Others set their beers down and watched us. There was longing in the room. Did I imagine it?

Pox Larry, wiping beer from chin, shoved his way over to us and said he was cutting in. I started to let go of William, but your uncle held on.

"Not right now, Pox Larry," William said. "In a while. I want to dance one more with my pal."

Rebuffed, Pox Larry slid back to the bar, and the gang had a good laugh over this.

Pox Larry sulked while your uncle and I danced a waltz. I can still hear it in my head, it was the one called "Vienna Blood."

The two of us glided through the Galaxy, and for those minutes I forgot myself. I didn't feel so ill at ease like I often did back then. If I was a religious man, I might say I felt, for a moment, the grace of God.

Well, "Vienna Blood" roused to a finish. My knees felt weak. I told William, Thanks, the dances were swell. He gave me his cracked smile.

But later that night, outside the Galaxy, as the crowd was leaving, things went wrong.

Pox Larry ploughed his shoulder into me. It was no accident.

"Pardon me, Sweetie," he laughed.

I ignored him and started to head home to the Majestic. Outside in the street, the light from the Galaxy was shining on us like we were on a stage.

Pox called out, "You too good to talk to a cowboy? Whatever your name is."

I should of kept walking. Instead, I turned and faced him. "It's Erasmus. And no, I'm not too good to talk to a cowboy."

"E-ras-what? Eras-Mouse?" Pox Larry spit in the street. "Well, I guess the Mouse has spoken!" By now a crowd had formed.

"Don't call him that." It was William, and he had pushed between us. "Let him be, Pox."

The cowboy, his face inflamed, glared at us. "And who is going to make me?" Pox placed his right hand on the handle of his holstered gun. The onlookers groaned and took two steps back.

"William, I can fight my own fights," I found myself saying.

"Hear that, everyone, the Mouse wants to fight me!" Pox smirked. "William, step aside."

William raised his left hand as if to halt the cowboy. "Pox, I don't want to hurt you."

Then a few things happened very fast.

The cowboy drew his pistol. That was a mistake. For William had years of practice in his arm. In a blur, his gun was out and already smoking. His first bullet hit Pox's gun, which went pinwheeling into the crowd. William's second bullet tore through the cowboy's right leg, chaps and all.

For a minute Pox looked down and studied his leg in a bemused fashion. "Why, William, why'd you go and do that?" he whined. "I was just havin' some fun."

And then the crowd gasped because now the leg wound was spurting blood.

"Damn," said Pox. He clutched the wound, fell to his knees and then onto his side.

I looked to William, feeling so terrible and guilty for this turn of events. But his blue eyes were as calm and cold and distant as some lake on the moon.

Meanwhile, Pox squirmed in the street while his life-blood shot out. The blood pooled, glistening for a second, until the hungry dirt lapped it up, and then with remarkable speed, he laid dead, and the townspeople, feeling somewhat ashamed, slunk off.

Back at the Majestic I sat by William's door waiting for him to return. I'm not sure where he wandered off to after the gunfight, but I waited, and I replayed the scene and concluded, logically, that the sheriff would do nothing, as everyone had seen it was clear self-defense, and thus no harm would come to William. I waited and thought these thoughts, and felt sorry for myself, until I gave up and went back to my room to sleep.

It was sometime in the night that William made his escape, one of his many escapes in a career of running. In the morning, when I finally got the key from Ma and opened his room, it was empty of all his belongings. Except for one thing. On his bed he'd left me his worn copy of From the Earth to the Moon.

Your grandma once had this cuckoo clock. Not a fancy German one like you might see, but a cheap one. It had a birdy that popped out that sang quite loudly before popping back in. It was kind of beautiful, this many-colored bird, it really was! And at first it worked, singing right on the hour, every hour. Everyone in the dining room at the Majestic would stop whatever they were doing and watch that thing go, and they would smile and chuckle and say, I'll be damned.

But then that cuckoo clock got strange. It went off the rez, as they say. Oh, that birdy would still pop out, but at unexpected times, like whenever it wanted to. It was very surprising and eventually, very annoying.

A couple times I tried to fix it. I'd take it off the wall and down to a little work bench we had in the basement of the Majestic. I'd open up the back of it and stare at all the wires and gears. Very complicated! I'd try twisting and fooling with some of the wires, and I'd oil the gears, but nothing I ever did made it work right. In fact, I probably made the damn thing worse. I tell you, that crazy bird had a mind of its own. All day, all night, many times per hour, it would burst forth. It just wanted to sing when it wanted to sing!

Finally, we had a drunken boarder who took a deep dislike to that bird. One night that boarder threw a fit, he ripped the clock off the wall, carried it outside and shot the thing full of holes. And you know what? That wondrous little birdy popped out one last time, it croaked a single note, then it just stopped, with its beak open, never to sing again.

Well, here's the thing, I think William was kind of like that cuckoo clock. He was such a wondrous thing. Everyone just wanted to stop and watch him and listen to him. He got your attention. He was special all right. He was bold, and he had the most interesting stories. But he also had something wrong inside him, some clutchy gear, some too-tight wire. Something that was off that got more and more off as time went on. God knows, I tried to fix him. Maybe others tried too. But his insides were pretty tangled, so I guess there was little chance to save him.

Anyway, five years went by. I thought I might get a letter from William, but no such luck. Instead, to my dismay, the newspapers began to report on his escapades, which grew steadily in their outrage.

As near as I can figure, when he left the Majestic, your uncle lit out for the Arizona Territory. He probably was a ranch hand there. Then I seen an article about some Billy the Kid that kills a blacksmith in Bonita. Well, I studied the drawing, and I put two and two together. That sure looks like my William, I thought. He was always hankering for a nickname. He'd say, You're not a somebody if you don't have a nickname. Well, now he got one.

Then of course came the Lincoln County War, which likely you heard of. That sorry clash 'twix the big-money ranchers. Over pieces of paper, beef contracts, can you believe it! A battle which your uncle got all caught up in.

I have this theory. I think William had a big need for a father. And 'ol Tunstall came along, became his boss, and filled that need. And you know, William made such fearsome loyalties!

Anyway, when Tunstall was shot dead, I think your uncle pretty much came completely apart. That's my theory.

When the war ended, there were dead men littered everywhere, some say 19, some say two dozen, who really knows, and your uncle, unrepentant, was on the run, and the bigwigs in the Territory were intent on bringing him down.

William turned up among the Mescalero, at the Agency there, and a bookkeeper ended up dead.

William seemed to always find himself where trouble was. He was in Lincoln when he watched someone set fire to a lawyer. Seeing an opportunity, your uncle made a deal with Wallace, the new governor—I'll testify against the murderer, if you give me amnesty. Well, but it was a Wallace trick, and William ended up in jail. Which, of course, he quickly escaped from.

He next turned up in Fort Sumner. His black cloud accompanying him. Billy the Kid was a big name now, and he was dogged by crazy types. In a saloon he ended up killing some joker over a game of nothing.

William fled to the ranch of a friend. Somewhere near Corona. Sheriff followed with a posse. Sheriff ended up dead. Yet again your uncle was on the run. But now a U.S. Marshall was on his tail. Man by name of Pat Garrett. And this chaser was different 'cause he was more fame-seeking and more murderous than all the rest, even more than William.

Well, now here is where you enter the story, my darling Pearl.

Because this is when, at the Majestic, in the middle of the night, I got a knock on my door.

"Erasmus! Hombre!" A raspy whisper, from behind the door. "It's your ol' pal. It's William."

Well, there stood my friend. But gone was his boy-hood. Flat-out looked dead on his feet, dirt-lined, hollow-eyed, and twitchy.

"Good God, William! Or what is it I should call you?" In that moment, I was mad at him for all he'd done and not done.

He just pushed past me into my room. It was then I saw this little someone tagging close behind him.

And I just looked you over with the greatest surprise, as you might imagine. You were the most beautiful child I'd ever seen-half-Apache, I judged, with shining black hair parted in the middle, naja cheekbones, sunburned skin, and fierce blue eyes. You stood there in your dusty buckskins staring straight at me, defiant and unafraid.

I guessed you to be around five years old.

"This is Pearl," William said. "She's been calling me Tio."

He placed his hand on my shoulder to stall my questions. "We're pretty hungry, Amigo."

"Of course." And I raced downstairs and brought back whatever kitchen leftovers I could find—bread, fried chicken, bowls of pinto beans—which you and your uncle devoured. Silently, I watched you two eat.

"I found her along the road to Santa Fe. No water, no nothing, just walking straight north up the road. I judged she'd be dead in two days."

Your uncle studied you. "She doesn't say much. My guess is, she ran away from the Muscalero Rez."

Well, I watched you watch me, and then you were surveying my room, fixing on every little thing, until you finally landed on the Jules Verne. I tell you, you grabbed that book and touched the cover and ran your fingers over the image of the moon and the rocket and whispered some words. And don't you know, you wouldn't put the book down! You held it like, like it was some kind of life raft.

"Now that's something!" William's old laugh brought back memories. "She's a fan, just like I am."

"William, what the hell are you doing here?"

He didn't answer for a while, nor would he look at me. Finally, he gave me his crooked smile. "Well, I guess the dance is almost over. But hot damn, it's been a wild ride."

"Papers say you're in a lot of trouble."

"I guess half the Territory is chasing me. And the other half's cheering me."

"You could give yourself up. Serve some time. Make amends."

William laughed. "Tried that."

"So now what?"

"Now I'm just here to say hello. Then I got to vamoose. Head north, get lost among the Navaho."

"Can I do anything for you?"

But he was lost in thought. "Remember those dances at the Galaxy?"

Pearl, you were clutching your Jules Verne book and whispering words again. You were studying a picture of two men, on rocky land, near a half-buried rocket.

I looked at William. "Do I remember?" I sighed. "I remember you were going to fly up to the moon someday."

"Maybe she will do that," your uncle said, smiling. He ran his hand along the frill of your buckskin. "Which brings me to my point, Erasmus. Can you keep her?"


"Where I'm going, she'll only come to harm. You can keep her safe."

"Oh, hell, William, Billy the Kid, whatever your name is!"

But your uncle was already standing and moving to the door. "I got to keep moving."

At the door he stopped and turned. "You know what?" He paused to think of a word. "You can just call me querida. It's been good seeing you again, old Pal."

I heard his spurs on the stairs, I heard his horse snort as William jumped on, and I heard him gallop away.

As near as I can reckon, 'ol Pat Garret was at that very moment closing in and not more than a day behind.

Well, dear Pearl, I have told you all I know about your uncle. I hope it answers some of your questions.

I hope it reminds you how you came to live with your grandma and me. I also hope you understand—if you don't already—that you, my dearest Pearl, were a gift. An act of love.

And maybe, you will take away one more thing, which is this—If you someday be a doctor, you stay humble. Because not everyone can be fixed. No matter how much of your heart you give.

Honey, I have blabbed on far too long and surely have kept you from your studies. So go back to your books now.

But remember to take your breaks too. Get outside and walk and be thankful. Right now, I can picture those redbud trees on campus, and I bet they are in full bloom, aren't they? Well, you get out and walk amongst them and smell the blossoms and know you are loved.

Sweet dreams, Honey,

Your loving Pa

The End

Rich Elliott has been a gravedigger, English teacher, dishwasher, textbook writer, construction gofer, video producer, and track coach. He is the author of two books about running (The Competitive Edge: Mental Preparation for Distance Running; and Runners on Running: The Best Nonfiction of Distance Running), as well as two collections of short stories (Duck and Cover: Eleven Short Stories; and What Mad Pursuit: Short Stories About Runners). He is currently working on a collection of historical fiction. Elliott lives with his wife in Valparaiso, Indiana.



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by William Zeranski

Edger Coe occupied a chair in the shade of the roof of the dry goods store. He leaned back, puffed on a cigarette. From the effort of rolling the smoke, fragments of tobacco were scattered on his lap. Mason Rainy, his fellow loafer, occupied the neighboring chair, elbows on knees, paring the nail of his index finger with a multiplex knife.

Edgar looked out, squinting against the glare of the day. His gaze swept the scorched dirt street and out to the dry flat country of scrub brush and pale sky, all burnt yellow. Off in the distance to a low rise, a rider appeared. No details yet, just a distant dark speck, not enough identify who could be.

"Nice day, you think?" Mason still whittled away.

Edgar sighed. "Well, it's quiet." His eyes still fixed on the approaching rider.

Bravetree was a little town. Not much happened during the day. Yes, travelers stopped and passed on. Wells Fargo came through every two days. That was a big event. Presently, the cattlemen and the sheepherders stopped shooting at each other. So there was a general peace.

Still there were small sudden bursts of excitement. Personal disputes when Fridays and Saturdays came along. Hard working men getting paid was the core of most problems. Going to the saloons. Gambling, swing fists, busting heads.

But in the middle of the week, there was just the high heat of summer. Noon blazed down hot. Even in the shadow where Edgar sat, so much as standing up caused one to sweat. So he lounged and looked, taking in the whole of the main street. Dozens of buildings lined both sides. And there was Bravetree Saloon, across the street.

Edgar noted the six horses tied up in front, flicking tails, nuzzling each other or stretching to drink from the trough.

"Shit," Mason said.

Edgar glanced at him and grinned while his fellow loafer sucked a spot of blood off his finger, then folded up the knife, and slid it into his pants pocket.

Quiet was good, but business was slow. Edgar Coe, owner and proprietor of the only dry goods store, lounged. His wife Emily stood at the counter inside arranging the goods as she would arrange her kitchen utensils in her own kitchen.

He peered out to the open country, to horse drawing nearer, and got a sudden tightness in his gut as he recognized the rider. "Mason, do me a favor and check who's in the saloon.""Well, I suspect it's Stuart Canton with some of his boys."

Edger grunted and said, "Just go take a look."

"I saw'em ride in no more than half an hour or so ago. While you were inside."

"Check again for me anyway."

Mason let out a sigh. "All right."

"Thanks. I appreciate it."

His friend, who was also the town blacksmith, stood and adjusted the brim of his hat. His muscled form threw a thick shadow on the street when he moved out from under the porch roof of the store.

Edgar watched him go, a slow hulking progress. He considered going inside, but one thought kept him rooted to the chair. His wife Emily told him to go out and leave things to her. They owned the store, but on slow days he left her to it. She liked it that way. She liked the quiet too.

Coming out west after the war, he thought would be difficult for her, even though they'd talked and decided together. She'd become steeled in a happy sort of way.

He looked out at the incoming rider, verified what he already expected and was glad he told Mason to go over to the saloon. He shook his head slightly and rolled another smoke slowly, not so much concentrating on the filling and rolling, but on what to do. Or what not to do. But just sitting seemed to be the best thing to do at moment. To let things play out. But then again.

He slipped the made-up cigarette behind his ear. He got up and the chair legs thudded on the wood. He went inside. The door was lashed up with a lanyard from the doorknob to a peg in the wall. Just inside the doorway he paused and looked at Emily clothed in a light blue dress, an apron, with her caramel colored hair tied back with a ribbon. Seeing her made him happy.

"Need a hand?" He arms hanging at his sides, his thumbs touching the outer seams of his trousers. A habit ingrained in him from his time in the army.

She smiled and said, "No," which was the same thing she told him a half an hour before.

Edgar was a little older than his wife. She was nearly twenty-two and he just over thirty. She was eager for a baby, which hadn't happened yet.

On the counter, she sorted through spools of thread and twine, arranging and shelving. She didn't need or want assistance. Industrious she was and heart-warmingly attractive, Edgar counted himself among the blessed.

"Okay." He smiled back and suddenly didn't know what to do with his hands, so he looped his thumbs in his pants pockets and went back out to drop on his chair. There, looking out, his suspicion was confirmed as to the identity of the rider.

Heavy footsteps on the porch signaled the return of Mason, who said, "So, Lowell Ronson is coming to town," seeing the horseman enter the main street.

"Yep." Edgar took the cigarette from behind his ear. "Yep."

"And, like I said, Canton's in the saloon."

The store owner lit his smoke with a match he ran along his trouser leg. "Well . . . "

"Well, what?" Mason sat down again.

"Well, I don't know. We'll wait and see." Edgar glanced at the blacksmith who nodded and settled back.

During the war, Mason had been an artilleryman, so that was part of why they gravitated to each other. Being soldiers and accepting the fact that there were times when waiting was the only thing to do.

Soon enough, Ronson and his roan horse came by, slow and easy. His hat down low, shading his face. He rode ramrod straight, yet his form flowed with the smooth stride of his mount.

"What's that?" Mason leaned forward in his chair as if it helped him to focus.

The sun glinted off the red finish of a guitar Ronson had slung across his back.

"A guitar? What's he learning how to play it?" Mason pushed his hat back and swiped sweat off his brow.

Edgar glanced at his friend, considered the ridiculousness of the question and said, "Why don't you go hammer out a horseshoe?"

Mason grinned and chuckled. "Nah, I'll stay." He eased back in his chair.

Ronson rode by. Burnt brown by the sun, his shirt sleeves rolled up his thick forearms, one hand with a loose hold on the reins. The shadow of man and horse drifted along the ground. He looked to the two seated in the shade and touch the brim of his hat with a finger. "Mason," he said.

Mason waved. "Morning, Lowell."

Then Lowell Ronson said, "G'morning, Sheriff," to Edgar Coe.

Edgar had never gotten his mind around the title. The army taught him to be a soldier and to ride a horse, but being a sheriff was something you had to learn on your own. Happenstance was the decider just about a year ago. He made the error of mentioning he'd been one of the guards at the Capital prison when conspirators to President Lincoln's assassination were held for trial. Standing in a prison corridor with a rifle didn't prepare one for being a lawman.

But as Sam Holder, owner of the Bravetree Saloon said back then, "You're the best we got."

Hardly a grand recommendation, still here he was and unless it was necessary, he kept the sheriff's star tucked in his shirt pocket. He gave a returning nod, said, "G'morning, Lowell," and watched Ronson, a man who was part of a situation...a problem, that could get out of hand pretty quick.

The sun glared off the guitar like some medieval shield across the rider's back, but Edgar knew it wouldn't protect him. Lowell suffered from a serious pain, not physical, but inside. It might not heal for some time. If ever. Which was sad, being that he was a good man. Ronson worked his ranch, not a big one, but respectable, with sleep, cattle and horses. He was beholden to no one.

Edgar eyed the gun strapped to the rider's waist and the cartridges tucked into the belt loops.

"What do you thinks going to happen?" Mason fished into his pocket and began toying with the multiplex knife again, looking for another fingernail.

"How the hell do I know." Sighing loud, he crossed his arms, then scratched the back of his neck and crossed his arms again.

"Get'in kind of itchy, aren't you?"

He looked at the blacksmith to see if he was making some attempt at humor. He wasn't. His mouth was pursed hard, his cheeks puffed out. A half-frown wrinkled up above his left eye. "I like Lowell, but Stuart Canton, not so much, but still . . . I don't want trouble."

"I know. Me either." Edgar uncrossed his arms, stuck his thumbs into his pockets. After a moment of thought, and feeling Mason's eyes on him, he made a clicking noise with his mouth and stood, and so did the blacksmith. "Okay, you go get your double-barrel, but take your time," he put a hand on the Mason's burly shoulder. "And I mean take your time. I'm going in there, but I want a few minutes to see what's going on, so-"

"I'll take my time. I understand. I've faced fire before." Mason winked and stepped off the porch and continue with his usual ambling walk.

Edgar watched his friend cross the street and liked that he did take his time. He liked that a lot. He also liked his judge of character, because he liked Lowell Ronson too.

Moving into his middle forties, Ronson wrestled the land and other men to be the success that he was. He stood against all, on his own two feet, but lonely was lonely.

Yep, that was it. Being out here. Working, thinking of a future, planning about what you wanted in it. Edger saw that all the time, in all the people passing through going onto somewhere else.

Edgar thought about rolling a smoke, then realized that it would only delay things. His pulse picked up a beat. He watched Ronson stop in front of the Bravetree Saloon and ease out of the saddle, spy the horses tied up along the rail, and stand there for a long moment.

A mind changing moment, Edgar hoped.

But no, Lowell stepped up on the porch, with a jingle of a spur, swung the guitar from off his back and pushed through the swinging doors.

Edgar thought back to the beginning of the summer. A wagon hauling props and sets, with faded yellow letters on the canvas roof reading Hooper's Traveling Show. A coach that had seen better days, with luggage packed on top, trailed behind and stopped in front of the saloon.

A man in shirt sleeves and vest worked his chubby bulk out of the coach. With an effort he slipped his arms into a suit coat and hitched it onto his shoulders. He called to a passerby, got an answered to a question and then in a waddling gait made his way across the street to the store. He put a foot on the porch and hoisted himself up. Extending a hand to Edgar, seated by the entrance, he said, "Sheriff, I'm Wallace Hooper. Just coming by to introduce myself and the troupe."

The whole scene amused Edgar, who crossed his arms and nodded to the long-winded Hooper. The manager talked and gestured to members of the troupe who milled around the coach. A gentleman in a gray suit and tall hat diverted a number of townsfolk with skills of prestidigitation, performing tricks with a deck of playing cards. A stout fellow, the company juggler, in a waistcoat, spoke vehemently to the teamster while someone else dropped the gate on the wagon. From the cramped space of the coach, the final passengers eased out. Two men deep in conversation, began adjusting their accouterments: cuffs, collars, string-ties and coats.

"We have thespians, of course," Hooper said. "Performances of Shakespeare and scene from the latest New York shows." His thumbs tucked into his belt.

It was the final occupant who caught not only the sheriff's eye, but anyone with eyes to see. The young Burnett in a pale pink dress presented a stunning contrast to the dusty street. She smiled and called to the magician who immediately slipped the cards into a coat pocket, giving her the fullest of attention.

"Clara Deering," Hooper said, pleased with himself. "All the way from New England." His hands balled up into fists, now set at on his waist. "All the way from Connecticut." He add as if she were some exotic being from the Far East.

Edgar had to agree that there was definitely an appeal. "What does she do?"

"Oh, our troupe's singer-our nightingale. Prettiest voice in the West."

"Well, now, that's saying something." The store owner began to speculate on the attention she already started to stir up.

When the time came for the Hooper's Traveling Show's opening night, you paid two bits at the door of the saloon and went on in. The raucous crowd came from miles around to be entertained, because they were so starved for any kind of diversion.

Edgar Coe drifted in to keep an eye on things. He took a seat in the back, a way from the riotous carousing.

The company constructed their own curtain on the low platform at the far end of the saloon, which, when the time came, was drawn back by a stagehand. The show began, Hooper as interlocutor, introduced the acts, and the juggler juggled, and the magician mystified all with card tricks and a rabbit pulled from an opera hat. The audience clapped wildly, hooting and hollering.

But a point, the roaring of the crowd desisted as the young woman, the nightingale, took a seat center stage and began to strum a well-played guitar. Its yellow varnish long faded. Light from the stage lamps shimmered along the fabric of her red velvet dress. Her pale fingers plucked strings. Her melodious voice stunned all with a subtle warmth. The sultry resonance captivated everyone.

Whatever impulse it, Edgar noticed Lowell Ronson leaning his rangy form against one of the ceiling post, watching, mesmerized. The sheriff learned later on that Lowell was one of a few to have courage and guile to succeed against the chaperoning efforts of Wallace Hooper and introduce himself to the enchantress.

Things happened after that, and so fast that Hooper, sweat beading on his puny face and in an enraged panic, confronted Edgar, being the sheriff, that me might have influence over the advances of Lowell Ronson, one lone rancher moving with purpose. No, there was nothing he could do.

"I'm a sheriff not a matchmaker or an...un-matchmaker. Hooper you're on your own."

Hooper was and he lost the struggle.

Edgar didn't really understand the attraction between the rancher and singer. Emily, between arranging shelves and shuffling goods, straightened him out.

"Look at Lowell-hard working and solid-and inside that sun burned skin, she saw something. In there, he's got a kind heart, Edgar."

He supposed it was so. The relationship was a whirlwind. Hooper's Traveling Show moved on and Clara Deering stayed at the Bravetree saloon doing what she did best, enchanting the patrons.

No more than a month past and Lowell Ronson rode off in search of a circuit preacher. But like a sudden storm, an unexpected event changed everything.

Stuart Canton returned from moving eleven hundred of his father's cattle north and came to town. Right to the Bravetree Saloon, bringing a handful of his cowpunchers with him. Drinking, cussing and telling stories being the order of day. They took seats, broke out a deck of cards and played until the nightingale began to sing.

Canton and his bunch looked and listened and later on Canton swooped in like a bird of prey. That was apparently that. It happened, and somehow he got Clara Deering's attention.

That was something that made Edgar scratch his head in puzzlement. Standing next to Emily behind the store counter, he expressed his mystification, but she made the solution simple. "Stuart Canton is handsome and younger than Lowell."

"Yes, ma'am." He scrutinized his wife looking for a little more than that and repeated, "Yep, younger and handsome . . . handsome in a slick sort of way, if you ask me."

She tilted her head to the side in a thoughtful way. "And," she said, "he has money-more money then Lowell."

"It's his father's cattle money and his father's not dead yet."

"No one lives forever, honey." Emily touched him on his face as if she'd spoken to a child.

Edgar grimaced. "So, it's slick looks and money."

"It has been known to work that way." She shook her head, her brown hair, hanging loose, flowed around her face.

He considered the ten years different in their ages and the struggles early on with running the store. It was his turn to touch her cheek and then kiss her.

The expectations and speculations of what would happen when Lowell Ronson returned to town to find his songbird in another man's cage were plenty.

Mason said, "I'd shoot Canton dead."

"Then I'd have to arrest you-or shoot you," Edgar said.

"You could try." The blacksmith's lips twisted into a wry smile.

But that was where the humor stopped.

Just a few days later, Lowell Ronson returned with Preacher Victor Tull, taking him right to the saloon door. Ronson went in with a hopping step and in less than a minute walked out, his stride stiff like steel.

Fortunately for all concerned, Preacher Tull saw a rising storm in Ronson and took him by the arm, talked and talked and succeeded in cooling the spurned suitor's blood. But the knowledge of something that wasn't settled stayed in the air, even as the rancher mounted his horse and returned to his home.

Well, the time had come for Edgar to cross the street, enter the Bravetree Saloon and see what trouble was brewing. He didn't know what to think, with Ronson with a pistol on his hip and a red guitar in hand, and Canton inside with a few of his ranch hands. He went into the store, up to the counter where his wife tallied figures in a ledger, with a pencil in one hand.

She looked up, saw his face and frowned. "I saw Lowell come in."

"Yep." He scrubbed his mouth and chin with a hand, and then said, "Give me my gun." Reaching under the counter, she set the Schofield on the counter, holstered and wrapped in the gun belt, a relic from his days in the war. He hadn't shot at a man since then and wanted to keep it that way. But, there was always a time when he knew he had to put it on.

He unraveled the belt, buckled it on, set the holster so it felt right. He pulled the pistol, checked the rounds in the cylinder, eased it back into place. He looked at Emily and said, "I'll be right back."

"Please," she said. Her smile nothing more than a decoration.

He went out the door and headed to the saloon. He took the sheriff's badge from his shirt pocket, pinning it on. Squinting against the sun, he wondered if it could get any hotter. His boots crunched in the parched earth of the street.

A buckboard slowed and the driver, an older man by the name of Jack Booker. He eyed Edgar, the gun and the star, and said, "Well, I'll be at the store."

"Emily's there, Jack. I'll be back soon enough." He touched the brim of his hat.

Booker nodded and the sheriff focused his attention on the swing doors of the saloon. Sweat started to percolate up on his skin, caused by more than the heat of the day.

Reaching the entrance, he pushed one of the doors open with his left hand, keeping his gun hand free. He moved into the cool shadow of the big room. No more than a dozen men occupied the bar. Loafers stood at the rail.

Only one of the round tables were in use where Stuart Canton sat on the far side, facing the doorway. Three of his men sat with him. The last leaned against a post supporting a balcony. Poker cards lay arranged on the table showing a game in play, along with a half empty whiskey bottle and shot glasses.

With his back to the door, Lowell Ronson stood, the red guitar clutched in his right hand hung at his side. He faced Canton and spoke in a low voice, "Where is she?"

"I already told you." Canton leaned to the side, looked passed Ronson, spotted Edgar. "Howdy, Sheriff, what brings you here?" The widening of his eyes and the sound of his voice showed that the question was genuine.

"Just came by to see how everybody's doing." Edgar stayed where he was, his eye on everyone.

Ronson turned his head to see Edgar and then looked back.

"Well, we're just doing fine." The young rancher's smile was a mask that slipped a little.

"Where is she?" Ronson leaned forward.

Canton's smile waned. "I've been tell'n you for the last five minutes-" He reached to take a full shot glass from the table, and paused, "You want one?"

When Ronson didn't answer, he shrugged and sipped. "Like I said she's gone."

Ronson shifted his stance and then said, "She's gone? When did she leave?"

Stuart Canton reached for the bottle on the table filled his glass and offered again. "You sure?"

Lowell ignored the offer. "If she left, when did she go?"

An eddy of tension swept through the room. Edgar felt it and sensed that Canton did too.

"Okay." Canton set his glass down without drinking. He leaned forward in his chair and pointed toward the main entrance. "If you go out there, you'll see six horses and in here you see me and my men, that's five." Canton waved his finger exemplifying his point. "And one of those six horses is a nice little dun. A white stripe down the nose. Well, I own it, but she rode out from the ranch early this morning-sneaky as all get out-and she is gone." Canton dropped back in his seat emphasizing the conclusion of the explanation.

Edgar's brow furrowed. He did see the six horses this morning, so did Mason, so he missed something. And what he missed was seeing the morning stage arrive and then head on it's way.

"Gone where?" Lowell's voice softened.

"Parts unknown." Stuart threw up his hands, saying, "How do I know?" He gazed hard at Lowell, grabbed his drink, again, and tossed it down. "Now that is the end of that."

"No, it's not." Lowell took a half step forward.

The atmosphere in the dull light of room instantly heated up and to make it leap even higher, now, out of the corner of his eye, Edgar saw Mason stepped through the doors. A shotgun held with the double-barrel resting in the crook of his arm.

"Now, what the hell are you doing with that?" Canton's voice changed to something wary. "Nobody's getting married today, right, Lowell." A taunt was in the words.

Lowell set the guitar on the table and stepped back, his right hand hovered over a pistol grip.

Canton put up his hands and said, "Whoa."

"Lowell..." Edgar took a few slow steps. "There's no reason for this. None at all."

Canton glanced at the Sheriff and then back to Lowell. He slowly shook his head and said, "The Sheriff's right, you know that."

"Shut up. You took what was mine." Ronson stood tall and ready.

"No, Lowell," Stuart said. "She was nobody's. You got to understand that. If she wanted to be, she would've waited on you-hell, she wouldn't have left me."

Ronson's gun hand flexed.

"Think about it." Canton lowered his hands. "Just think. She ain't worth a gunfight over, is she? Is any woman? She ain't your wife-she ain't your sweetheart-and she is gone."

The silence pulled tight as a wire. Then snapped as Lowell shoulders drooped.

Canton didn't move or speak. Edgar saw that he was smart enough to let the moment go.

Lowell took the red guitar from the table in both hands. He studied it. "It was going to be a wedding present." He lowered it, so the instrument dangled in his right hand by the neck. He turned to leave.

A silent sigh began to fill the room.

Edgar felt his insides breath.

It was then that Lowell Ronson spun around swinging the guitar like an axe, one handed, fast and hard.

Canton's eyes widened as the side of the guitar struck the side of his head. The varnish body gave with a crack, collapsing while discorded noise came from the strings of the snapping neck.

The rancher went down and men started to move. The young cowpuncher who leaned against the post began to pull his gun, and then a shotgun blast went off shattering the balcony railing.

Mason then pointed the double-barrel across the room. "Everybody calmed down."

Canton pulled himself off the floor, a hand against the side of his face.

Lowell looked at his victim and said, "I had to do something, you understand?"

Stuart Canton glanced at the floor, still working on getting his balance, but he nodded. "Yeah, now get out...go home."

Lowell let go of the neck of the shattered guitar, which clattered on the floor. The loose strings released low, warped chiming sounds.

Knowing Mason still had one loaded barrel comforted Edgar. His eyes roved over the faces of Canton's men. He watched Lowell Ronson turn and saw a calm in his eyes.

The rancher gave Edgar a single nod, said, "Good day, Sheriff. You too, Mason," and passed between them out out the swinging doors.

Canton's men began to move and looked at each other as if they were making a decision to do something about Lowell Ronson.

Edgar gestured to the bar and said, "Why don't you all get a drink? I think that's best."

It seemed uncertain if they would listen, then their boss said, "Do what he says," still holding his head with his elbows planted on the table.

"Stuart, you want a doctor?" Edgar was just beginning to feel the fury of the conflict easing out of him.

"Nah, I want a drink."

"Well, one of you boys get him one. And you all stay here...and a relax." Edgar turned to the blacksmith and gesture to the door with a tilt of his head, and the two left.

Outside the saloon proper, they stood in the shade of the porch roof.

Mason replaced the spent shotgun shell, glanced back inside, and said, "I'm headed back to my shop."

"Okay. Talk to you later." Edgar unpinned the star and slipped it back into his shirt pocket.

Ronson was already out of town, riding back the way he came.

The End

William Zeranski lives in the northeast where he writes his fiction, is a sometimes playwright, and reads his Zane Grey.

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The Duel at Dusty Flats
by Tom Sheehan

The Western Rally Stagecoach rolled into Dusty Flats just before the evening meal. The sun still rode the mountain tops to the west and a breeze had cooked itself up from a few shaded canyons on the Teton Range. A swirl of dust rose in a spiral behind the stagecoach as it came to a stop, like a miniature whirlwind, carrying nothing but road dust. Two passengers stepped down from the coach and Sheriff Al Bitbender came up off his seat in front of the jail and his office seeing a woman in red finery and a man who was long, lean, mean looking, and who as soon as he alit from the coach strapped on two handguns. Standing erect once he stepped on the ground, the male passenger stretched one arm at a time over his head.

Bitbender, at attention, knew the cautious move, had seen it before; never get caught looking silly or too lazy or having both hands too busy at the same time when you're carrying two guns.

Across the road from the jail, the Big Salvo Saloon's bartender saw the sheriff move, noted the two passengers, and wondered what had caused the reaction in the sheriff. It was quite different for the staid, quiet sheriff now 10 years on the job, long enough to gin up more than a few shots at Hell for some lawmen, long enough for Time to begin its cruel measurement.

Other signs were noted at the arrival of the stagecoach for there was a mark on one side of it, a simple "X" in black, easily noted by the sheriff, but not seen by the bartender standing on the other side of the road.

Bitbender, moving from the front of the jail, walked slowly toward the stagecoach and with a loud voice hailed the driver. "Hi ya, Whip, have a good ride?" He looked up at his old friend who slouched at the reins of the coach team as he held them tightly at the stop.

Whip Teecums was Bitbender's best friend, would play checkers with him before the day was out, and share a toss and a tale at the Big Salvo Saloon as a new day started up on the other side of midnight. Neither man needed much sleep, though a time and a place would generally be found for a mid-day nap, all things considered. They had ridden as cavalrymen under the leadership of Alexander Doniphan, colonel of the 1st Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers, in the Mexican-American War in 1846.

Often at checkers they'd talk about their exploits at El Brazito and Sacramento and Chihuahua, recalling the brilliance of their leader and filling in spaces with names of other young volunteers from Missouri who had made the epic marches with Doniphan. Many of them were boyhood friends from Liberty, Missouri, where Bitbender and Teecums were born in 1825, served with Doniphan as 21-year-olds, then served as 38-year-old men in the Great War between the States, and now knocked at half a century in life.

There was only one thing that was not generally talked about between the two old friends; an alert marker signifying danger, a simple "X" on a coach of wagon or, in a few cases hired gunmen, on the saddle of a horse. The two had set this up real early in life, as youngsters playing games in Liberty. It stayed with them throughout their military service and after separation from the military. The marker said plain and outright that the bearer of an "X"

was a definite danger to one or the other of the pair.

It was a kid's game that was never let go.

The sheriff brought back in his mind several such warnings, but the most significant one, a half dozen years earlier, was a stranger who walked into the Big Salvo Saloon one evening with an "X" on the back of his Stetson, and Bitbender wondered how in Hell his pal had put it there, if he did.

But he did, and it was minutes later when the sheriff started to leave the saloon that he saw the man spin about and go for his gun. He dropped the man with his one quick shot, and a search of the man produced a note that simply said, "Kill the sheriff of Dusty Flats. MG." Bitbender knew MG was Merle Gibbons, a one-time convict, but couldn't prove it. There was little worry about him when Gibbons was killed by a stagecoach shotgun 50 miles down the line during a holdup attempt.

Now the sheriff came back to the arrival of the stage as his pal said, "Yes sir, Al, and Bob Corcoran at the Gregson Ford stop said to say hello to you.

That old buck ain't never goin' to stop, is he? He's still sporting that limp from the robbery. Any news on them two rattlers who done it?"

"Nothing to speak of," Bitbender replied, but took another look at the simple black "X" on the coach, for there sure was something he might speak of but wouldn't. Not at the present time. Not until he thought the situation warranted it. He was wrapped up in another thought that came quickly upon him . finding Bob Corcoran as a "Forced-Reb" in a hillside dugout in the middle of a huge artillery barrage. He'd been conscripted into the Confederate Army under force, placed in uniform, and was found by Bitbender, also wounded. A third man, a Union cavalryman was dead in the dugout, and after hearing Corcoran's story, Bitbender had him don the dead man's Blue and pose as a wounded Yank. The pair carried it off all the way to a stagecoach station years later in the Tetons.

Bitbender never told a soul about the "fair trade" for Bob Corcoran.

But he was thinking about that whole situation as he appeared uninterested in the new arrivals as best, he could, but did note things about each one of them, and locked away those notes in his mind for safe keeping.

As it was, the sheriff's days with a fast gun had just about drawn to a close. He hadn't fired a shot at a man in over two months, though he'd love to catch up to the wild one who had robbed the Gregson Ford stop of all its horses, all its grub, all its ammunition; and left Bob Corcoran lying in the back corral bleeding all over himself. The shooter'd deserve whatever came his way, is the way Bitbender'd sees it.

The lady in the red finery appeared to be one of the tallest women Bitbender had ever seen. And that statuesque height so heightened her overall beauty that it promised every man in Dusty Flats would soon have a new love . if she was to stay in town. The way she looked over the town, apparently studying each and every building facing on the main street, told him she was seeking where to put down her foot and get a foothold on some piece of Dusty Flats.

Her unhurried gaze took in the bank, the Nixby Hotel, the Grand Salvo Saloon, the DF Gen'l Store (whose sign had been loosely hand-painted a dozen years earlier and showed it), the jail and sheriff's office and, at length, the eyes of the sheriff who stared back at the loveliest pale green eyes whose stare he accepted at the back of his mind with only a slight tint of caution.

When she walked off toward the Nixby Hotel, Teecums' shotgun rider jumped down and picked up her bags to carry along behind her. Not once did she turn around to acknowledge his prompt assistance.

Bitbender noted that too.

As for the tall stranger who had strapped on twin Colts, there came other signs with other cautions attached to each move he made, each look in which he too took in the makeup of Dusty Flats the way the lady in red had.

The shotgun rider had ignored the tall man's single bag on top of the coach, which Teecums tossed down at the man's feet. Pushing his Stetson back on his head, untying the safety thong on each holster, bending his knees to pick up the bag and remaining head up so that his eyes never strayed from the horizontal, told Bitbender he'd always be ready for the unexpected. Even as he moved toward the hotel, his head managed to continually swing slowly side to side as if watching his flanks.

If the tall stranger was not a hired gun, a killer at heart or a showboat (and the sheriff had known a few), Bitbender thought he'd probably make one helluva deputy . or a sheriff. The way he carried himself spoke of confidence all the way.

In short order the two new arrivals were out of sight, and the Bitbender and his old comrade Teecums were soon at a game of checkers in the saloon, a bottle sitting on the table at their elbows.

Teecums said, "Al, you seem a bit fuzzy today. You okay?"

"To a point, Whip, to a point," Bitbender said. Then, shrugging his shoulders, he added, "Maybe I'm getting older but in more of a hurry of some things. I guess I can't figure out who you were pointing out with that mark on the stagecoach, and it's bothering the hell out of me."

"What sign, Al?" Teecums said in surprise.

"The mark on the side of the stage. The old "X"."

"Hell, Al, I never put no "X" there on this trip."

"You didn't see it?"

"No. Not once. Never bothered to look seeing' as I didn't do it."

"Well, someone knows," Bitbender said. "Think it was Corcoran who did it?"

"You might think he's too dumb to catch that, Al. Y'oughta know that. Nice guy but could be dumb as a rock if you were to ask me, which you ain't about to, him bein' such an old friend of yours about as long as me. He didn't do it, I'd guess, but if he did, it had to be for the guy who got off the stage back there and bought one of his pintos and a saddle. Said he had to ride back a way to check on something real important."

"What did that gent look like, Whip?"

"A little guy, funny clothes, like a drummer might look or one of them medicine men we see once in a while. Wore a store-bought hat, a black one made me almost laugh at him. But no weapons either, none that I saw."

Bitbender's little book of mental notes was getting plug full from one stagecoach run into Dusty Flats. The town was really quiet for a few weeks thereafter and the two arrivals, the red dress lady and the tall man looking much like a fast gun, sifted into the town as if they'd been around a long time.

The lady was Maybelle Madison who obviously had some money with which she opened an account at the bank (and the banker would never say how much any depositor put into his vault) and took a room on the second floor of the hotel. She began to buy and sell horses in a deal she quickly made with the livery owner. It turned out she had an excellent eye for excellent horseflesh and made the livery owner sit up real early with her appraisals.

One of her first deals was buying a lot of horses, at her price, from one seller; "I'll buy all of them only if you keep the one appaloosa and take it off with you when you leave." A few days after the seller left, the appaloosa was found dead in a lonely and secluded spot a way off the regular trail to and from town. A bullet hole was in the horse's head. Two youngsters discovered the dead horse and alerted the sheriff.

Maybelle Madison never said one word about her refusal to buy the horse, but folks began to tell tales that she had somehow determined that the horse was sick or that it had been stolen. Most folks felt she had high ideals and wouldn't deal for a stolen horse. Of course, "most folks" meant the gents who all shared a kind and considerate heart for the beautiful newcomer to Dusty Flats. 'She can have her way with any of us," as one of them allowed.

The tall fast-gun looker got work at a nearby ranch, the owner saying repeatedly during the following weeks, "That Slim Crocker could be top hand at any ranch around here. And he doesn't worry about anyone or anything, those guns of his setting him apart from regular cowpokes even when he ain't fired at anything yet. Least nothing moving around on feet."

The ranch owner had shared those words with Bitbender in the saloon one night, and the sheriff found himself still divided in his impression of Crocker . he could ride on either side of the fence, as a hired gun or as a squared-up deputy, and a possible replacement at his own job.

Bitbender, still wary about the unknown source of the "X" on the stagecoach, kept his eyes open, and it was on his rounds on a hot August evening, the sun saying it might not let go its grip this time, his shirt collar damp with sweat and his armpits colored dark gray in his light gray shirt, saw an unfamiliar pinto at the railing in front of the barbershop. A close scrutiny revealed an "X" scratched on the saddle fender. He might not have seen it if he hadn't bent over to check, not knowing what had drawn his attention in the first place. Later, he'd agree it might have been intuition or part of his survival drive.

He figured he'd best determine the owner of the pinto and check him out, one way or another.

Ambling past the barbershop he saw one man in the chair getting a shave and one man waiting, a nervous acting gent. The lamp lights burned brightly in the shop, but Bitbender did not recognize either customer. On a rack nailed on the wall he saw a hat that rarely appeared in Dusty Flats. It had to belong to the pinto's owner, designated by Bob Corcoran most likely as a person of concern.

He walked across the dusty road and sat on a bench in front of the bank that was closed for the night and the shadows swallowed him. A lone rider came into town and went directly to the livery. It was Slim Crocker and a few minutes later Crocker and Maybelle Madison rode out of town. Bitbender said, half aloud, "I bet they got to know each other on that stage ride and found some liking for each other." He nodded his head several times and said, half aloud again, "Good for them. We don't have all the time in the world out here." Minutes later he began hearing his own echo, the words coming back to him like an omen unleashed.

It made him think, "Maybe I ought to get me something else to do."

Across the street at the barbershop, the man who was getting a shave shut the door behind him and walked towards the saloon in an apparent hurry. In the shop the fidgety nervous gent who Bitbender was now sure owned the pinto with Bob Corcoran's "X" on the fender of the saddle, sat in the barber's chair. It appeared to the sheriff that the barber wanted the customer to take off his jacket, but it looked like the man refused; apparently it was enough for him to have taken off his hat. He kept waving one hand and talking full blast, either giving directions to the barber or animating a story.

The sheriff wished he could hear what the man was saying.

But he had enough to keep him alert, keep an eye on the odd gent with the funny hat, who wouldn't take his jacket off, and who had an "X" scratched on the fender of his saddle.

Now that he had him pegged, Bitbender hustled off to the saloon to talk to the fellow who was newly shaved. He found him at one end of the bar talking to one of the ladies of the house, good-looking blonde young enough to be Bitbender's daughter, old enough to have been a woman with a gang of kids.

After apologizing to the lady for interrupting their conversation, he introduced himself. "I'm the sheriff of Dusty Flats, Al Bitbender, and I'd like to talk to you about the other customer who was in the barbershop with you a little while ago, the gent with the funny hat."

"Hell, Sheriff, that's some strange gent, I'd swear all the way to Oklahoma and back, which is where I hail from. Name's John Schmidt. It's not just 'because of his crazy hat and funny clothes I call him strange, but he's loose in the noggin, if you get me. Keeps sayin' the great Doomsday is almost here and's gonna take a lot of us down, 'specially lawmen who don't know what's happening all around them. That stuff doesn't sound so good no matter who's sayin' it, and loud like he was doing, wagging his hand all over the shop like it's part of his talking. I was really gonna look you up and tell you about him, but my thirst and other you-know-what's was bothering me a whole bunch and that just got hustled off quicker than a jack rabbit, and thank you no way for that."

Bitbender laughed and said, "He say anything besides that, like where he come from or where he's headed?"

"Yep, he sure did. The barber said to him, 'I ain't seen you before, mister.

Glad you dropped into my place,' and the funny hat gent says, 'Back in Clifford Springs we got three barbershops and you only have one here. Where else could I get a decent haircut when the end of the world's comin''?' And that last part was him starting to get edgy like I said."

"He say where he was going?"

Schmidt said, "Well, I don't suppose it's too far if the world's gonna end, meaning no he didn't say where to."

He took his turn at laughing and looked at the blonde and added, "I ain't going anyplace in a hurry but right here if the world's gonna end, and this here with me right now is the best I can think of." He put his arm around the blonde who had broken out with a great smile.

Going off to a far corner of the saloon, Bitbender took a seat at an unoccupied table and he was thinking how much information had come his way; from Bob Corcoran most likely with the "X" marks on the stagecoach and the pinto fender, from Maybelle Madison and Slim Crocker who allayed any fears they were a problem on the marked stage because their interests proved to be solely in each other and their own tasks, and from John Schmidt bent on his own mission.

He tried, with some difficulty, to put it all together, wondering what he could do with it, when a tap came on his shoulder. It was Clarence Macomber the barber who was wearing some concern on his face.

"Can I talk to you, Al? Something funny's going on in town."

"Sit down, Clarence, have a drink on me," and signaled the girl at the end of the bar, who brought a bottle and another glass to the sheriff's table.

"What's going on, Clarence? From outside I saw some of the action that went on in your shop, and saw the gent in the funny hat and talked to the other gent, the big guy from Oklahoma, who's now at the other end of the bar with the blonde." He nodded toward Schmidt.

"Oh, he seems like a regular gent," Macomber said, "but it's the other one who bothers me."

"Yep, I saw some odd things too. Did you tell him it was best if he took his jacket off to get a haircut? I guessed that's what was going on when I was looking into the shop."

"That's exactly what I came to tell you, Al. That gent has got something up his sleeve." He paused and added, "Not just that way. Not guesswork. I mean he really has something up his sleeve, something hard. I felt it. Might be a cast of some kind or a brace, but I came to tell you I think it's a gun. I didn't dare touch him too close or even ask him what it was, just waited until I could get to tell you."

A huge sigh of relief came from him as he swallowed the drink in one gulp.

It seemed as if a huge weight had been lifted off his whole person and he looked right into the sheriff's eyes. "Some of the things that jump up in my mind I know I could never do, Al, but that strange little gent tells me if I had a better than even chance, I'd take a razor and strop to him."

Bitbender poured him another drink, and said, "Thank you, Clarence. I'll take it from here. What arm is the suspicious one?" He made a face as if to say the answer was not important, and pointed to the bottle and said, "It's yours. Have a good night, my good man." The light was on in his eyes.

"His left," Schmidt said, understanding the light in the sheriff's eyes, and reaching almost apologetically for the bottle.

A while later, night in full swing, the glow of each light in town fading within a short distance of its source, occasional night sounds coming from the tamed and untamed animal world, Bitbender began his regular stroll around town. When a barn owl asked "Who?" the sheriff thought, "Don't ask, Who? Say, What?" He was able to snicker at himself as his gaze swept over Dusty Flats drifting well into darkness, the mountains to the west and the north shutting away their share of stars.

Several dim scenes or silhouettes grabbed for his attention through their sounds or their familiar shapes or the flickering late light of candle or a lamp in a window. John Schmidt and the cute blonde came out of the saloon across the street from him and walked down a nearby alley. Maybelle Madison and Slim Crooker, the slow hoof beats of their mounts signifying a leisured pace, came back from an evening ride and headed into the livery with light coming from two front windows and the glow filling a small portion of night at that end of town.

None of the quasi-scenes were unexpected by the sheriff.

When he spun around at a soft and unfamiliar noise, he noticed a pinto was tied to the rail in front of the bank, the windows dark all across the front of the building. The pinto was familiar in his estimation.

That was quickly affirmed when he saw the man in the funny hat and the odd clothes standing in the middle of the road and facing him. His intentions were as plain as day in the dark of night.

An owl asked the same question again. A door, with a tempered touch, closed on one of the darkened buildings of town.

Silence caught control of the town and then gave it back; the sheriff felt it on the back of his neck. He stood in the middle of the road, his eyes not positive of all the things he saw, but he knew a threat to his life was imminent.

Funny Hat said, "We never met back in Clifford Springs, Sheriff, but I've been waiting to see you for a long time. I come here to make amends for past deeds done to my family."

"Who are you?" Bitbender said. "I don't even know you. I was only in Clifford Springs one time in my life." He barely recalled the visit at first.

"Yes," said Funny Hat, "and you pushed the posse until they caught my father, Parker Deveau, and hung him."

The whole scene came back to Bitbender; catching the wanted man with a young girl riding double with him, a girl that was not yet 16 years old.

Funny Hat Deveau said, "That was his daughter from another marriage. That was my half-sister. You hung my father because he had rescued his own daughter from a life of hell."

In the glow of a sudden light behind Funny Hat, coming from a door just opened, the sheriff saw Funny Hat's right hand flexing near his belt.

"Well," Bitbender said, "her real father was in the posse with us when we finally cornered your father, the rat of rats. Parker Deveau, who told lies his whole life, nearly killed her real father, the only one of us who really knew who she was. All your father's lies were made up before he went off to kidnap her. He had tried to catch her unawares another time, caught up in her beauty. Maybe you don't know it; she was pretty as a picture but she never had a full mind of her own."

"You're a damned liar," Funny Hat Deveau said as his right hand went for a pistol in the holster.

Al Bitbender, knowing he was at the edge of life and at the far edge of his talents as a sheriff, went for his gun too. Both weapons fired at the same time. Bitbender felt the slug hit him in the left leg and his gun spin out of his hand. He fell down as he saw Funny Hat also drop his weapon and collapse onto the road, clutching at his chest where the shot must have hit him.

Doors slammed open around the town. Light, in odd pieces, fell onto sections of the main road. Boots sounded like drums on the boardwalks and came with heavy clomps in the dust as Bitbender, in pain but also with thankfulness, sat on his haunches. He realized that he too had lost his gun and looked around to see where it was.

The yell came then from off to the side of one of the buildings. "Look out, Sheriff. He's not dead. He's got another gun."

Bitbender spun around on his butt and saw Funny Hat stand up with a pistol he had yanked from his left sleeve. His own gun was too far to reach.

Funny Hat leveled the once-hidden pistol at the sheriff still sitting in place.

The shot came from the side of the road, from the edge of a building, where Slim Crocker, quick as any man could be, drew his weapon and dropped Funny Hat Deveau in a swift turn of justice.

Al Bitbender felt the pain in his leg, realized what had happened, saw Crocker walking toward him, and said to no one in particular, "I think I damned well better find something else to do. And I was right about who could take my place."

The End

Sheehan, in his 95th year, (31st Infantry, Korea 1950-52; Boston College 1952-56), has multiple works in Rosebud, Copperfield Review, Literally Stories, and Green Silk Journal, etc. He has 18 Pushcart nominations, 6 Best of Net nominations (one winner). Latest books released are The Townsman, The Horsemen Cometh, The Grand Royal Stand-off and Other Stories; Small Victories for the Soul VII; Jock Poems and Reflections for Proper Bostonians, Ah, Devon Unbowed, and The Saugus Book, among others. His book count is now at 58.

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The Frontiersman's End
by Chris McAuley

When Jessie pulled the trigger, he felt the familiar kick of the Colt vibrate along his forearm and into his shoulder. As the bullets hit their targets he felt like the right hand of God. A spirit of pure vengeance made manifest in the flesh. As the Raiders ran desperately from their cover Jessie watched dispassionately as he cut a path through their flesh, muscle and sinew. With this gun in his hand, he was a surgeon, expertly directing each hot, molten piece of lead in their joint quest to carve and rend flesh. When the chambers in the gun were finally spent all that was left were the dead bodies of his enemies. As they had hit the ground they were already rotting, ready to be feasted on by coyotes or welcomed back to hell.

He cautiously spun the empty slots in the pistol and deposited the cartridges. He had a limited amount of ammunition and he couldn't afford to waste a single bullet. When the gun was restored to its full glory he kept it out of its holster and held it at hip length. As he walked slowly towards the bodies that were a testament to his handiwork a slight movement caught his eye. One of the Raiders was attempting to slither away. From the look of him, Jessie figured that a bullet had smashed through his spine and made the man's legs useless.

Jessie watched the raiders face creased in tortured agony. He was inching across the desert. His black gloved hands grasping at the dirt, pulling himself forward. Jessie's eyes drank in the man's pained grimaces as he slowly walked towards him. When his shadow crossed the Raider's path, the man stopped moving. Jessie willed him to turn and face him. There must have been power in the frontiersman's thoughts because that's just what the murdering bastard did. Flipping himself on his back, the dark suited man coughed up rivers of dark blood. Slowly the Raider looked up at Jessie, as he saw the shadows cast from the wide brim of the frontiersman's Stetson onto his stern face. A chill ran up what was left of the doomed man's spine. It was almost as if the frontiersman was wearing a native death mask.

A thousand memories assaulted Jessie as he towered over the pleading figure of the Raider. His wife and children brutally murdered after he had extended misguided hospitality to these men. Moments which he had managed to push away during his quest for vengeance resurfaced again. Jessie stooped over the Raider and listened to the broken babbling coming from his bloody lips. Impassioned pleas for mercy mixed with prayers to an uncaring God.

Slowly, deliberately, Jessie placed the muzzle of his colt pistol into the Raiders lips. As the harsh sunlight glinted over the gun's metal the frontiersman gave himself a second to admire the intricate carving displayed across the barrel. The gun had been gifted to him by Colonel Buell for his services in the Mexican war and was engraved with the eagle of victory. He waited a moment longer, attempting to draw out some sense of satisfaction from the fear in his quarry's eyes. No such feeling came. With a sense of disappointment Jessie pulled the trigger of the colt one more time. The back of the raiders head exploded like a ripe pumpkin. Blood and brain matter scattered over the frontiersman's face and clothes.

Jessie raised himself with a sense of weary resignation. This was the moment he had dreaded. It was time to give the devil his due. He had started this journey with noble intensions but as his eyes scanned the horizon towards the place, he used to call home. All he could see in his mind's eye were the faces of the innocents he had slaughtered along the way. There was a price to be paid for that and this was a place of final reckonings.

He brought the barrel of his precious gun towards his mouth. Once again, he saw the sun trace its way across the eagle. A final remembrance of the man he had once been. After muttering a half-remembered prayer, he slid the cold blue-gray metal into his lips. The last thing he saw was the hammer of the pistol rise and fall. A final legacy of the trail of violence which had consumed him these last few months. His final thoughts however were of his wedding day, the smell of lilacs and of home.

The End

Chris McAuley.

Co-Creator of the StokerVerse

Co-Creator of Dark Universes

A writer who specializes in the Horror, Science Fiction, fantasy, western and crime genre. Chris has been the lead writer in novels, comics, audio dramas and games. He is the co-creator of the popular StokerVerse, along with Bram Stoker's great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker. He has also created a science fiction and fantasy franchise with Babylon 5's Claudia Christian called Dark Legacies. Chris has worked with some of the top names in Star Wars, Star Trek and Doctor Who.


International Best-Selling Author - 2022

Stoker Award Nominee- 2021, 2022,2023

Poet of the month award - Horror Writers Association - 2022 (June)

Award for Sci-Fi animated short (The Curse of the Cyberons) -Boston SciFi 2023

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The Red-Leg Ambush
by James Burke

The charred Kansas town was a skeleton of its former self. Billy Young couldn't help but sniffle at the blackened fragments of shops and saloons. Even the local school and church had been put to the torch by Rebel renegades. Reportedly the very barbarians they had come to ambush! Billy's eyes began to water, squeezing them shut did little to dame the river of sorrow. He had been there before, visiting friends and relatives. Places of fond memory reduced to ashes! Had all the love and joy been burned too?

The youngest of a dozen Red-Legs hung his head in shame. A futile effort atop his horse. Even the brim of his hat couldn't hide his weakness. He sensed the scornful looks from his comrades as they dismounted. A deafening rumble roared in his ears as his nose ran, he barely heard the approaching footsteps. A hoarse cry burst from Billy's throat as a pair of rough hands ripped him down from his mount.

"QUIT BALLIN, BOY!" whiskey-soaked breath bellowed in his face. Billy opened his eyes to the scowling, scraggly, unwashed face of Blake Burns. "The Rebs'll be here soon and your cryin'll give us away, you sniveling COWARD!" he roared. Another pair of rough hands ripped Billy free of the drunkard's grasp.

"Shout a little louder, I don't think the Rebs heard you the first time!" a softer voice growled. Billy blinked tears from his eyes to see Frank Marion scowling into Burns' glare. Marion was taller and broader than the sneering, wiry drunk. He also looked much younger, though both were in their mid-thirties. Burns was shaggy and unkempt, Marion was clean-shaven but with a long dark mane. The only thing the two had in common was the crimson cloth wrapped around their legs. Billy had come to regard Marion as a second father; his own having been hobbled in a farming accident and unable to take up arms for the Union.

"You and Big Mike are too soft on that pup!" Burns spat.

"Maybe we ain't HARD ENOUGH on YOU!" Big Mike Daniels sneered as he stomped between them. Burns shrank like a cat before a hound and retreated a step. Big Mike was their duly elected Captain and had proven himself a capable soldier. He had been a lawman in the past and even battled Indians. Standing taller than anyone else, with broad shoulders and a booming baritone, Big Mike looked the part of a leader.

"I miss Pete Rhodes," Burns half-grumbled, half-whined, remembering their fallen comrade. "He'd back me up here!" he turned to snarl at the others standing off to the side.

"We all miss Mad-Pete! But don't be too sure about that last part!" Big Mike grunted. "Now everyone get your horses down behind the rubble and get to cover! The Rebs will be here soon! And remember to space out! Don't be right across from each other!" he finished with a snarl. Everyone nodded mutely, remembering a tragic crossfire that happened in an ambush the previous year.

Billy dried his eyes and followed Marion and Reverend Isaac Carpenter to the opposite side of the main street. As he led his horse away he could feel the burning glare of the drunkard on his back. He was careful not to return the gaze. Burns had always been a hot-head but had only started lashing out a few months back, after finding his old friend Mad-Pete Rhodes shot to pieces after rescuing two star-crossed lovers. The one time Billy ever saw Burns cry.

"Never mind Burns, lad," Reverend Isaac said as they eased their mounts down together. "His demons are catching up to him and that bottle just helps them gain ground," the preacher bitterly rolled his eyes.

"They catch up to all of us, Preacher," Marion softly huffed.

"Indeed," Isaac conceded. Everyone in the band knew Blake Burns' story. How a rebel mob swarmed his farm, beat him bloody, torched his crops and burned his house down with his wife and daughters inside. His was only one of many tragedies to befall abolitionists in Kansas and Missouri. And most Red-Legs knew rebel raiders had similar sob-stories motivating their own deadly rampages; some were even committed by Red-Legs. Billy forced another wave of tears back as he considered these thoughts. He was committed to the cause and there was no turning back. Without another word they crept into the ashen remains of a saloon, store or, for all they knew, post office.

Big Mike and some others crossed the road to their side and took refuge in a nearby building. "Remember to watch your fire, one of the wagons has precious cargo aboard." he called out just loud enough to be heard. "And nobody fires until I shoot first!" Muffled grunts of acknowledgment went up seconds before the faint rumble of southward bound hooves became audible.

Looking northward up the street, Billy saw dust going up in the wake of the trampling Rebel horde. It was Ma Delilah and her sons. Most were actually her nephews but unseemly rumors implied there was little difference in her case. An Alabama family that had moved first to Missouri, then to Kansas to expand their plantation empire. The family Patriarch, Sam Delilah had been killed by a unionist just as hostilities broke out between the states. Ruth "Ma" Delilah had taken up her husband's mantle with an equally violent hatred of the union, free blacks, and all abolitionists.

An old friend of Big Mike's had galloped into their camp before dawn and tipped them off that Ma Delilah was leading the last of her clan in a desperate trek for Texas. Word was she planned to head for Mexico with all the loot and money she could scavenge. Either to feather a new nest or to buy support from Emperor Maximilian for the Confederacy. Perhaps both.

The Red-Legs were intent on neither occurring. Especially since among the loot they carried was something far more precious than gold or silver. Word was, they were hauling a wagon stuffed with slave girls. Ma Delilah had made a pretty penny renting them out since the war began. The Red-Legs had heard-tell about an Emancipation Proclamation back east. They intended to make a proclamation of their own.

Billy chanced looking up to see the Delilah Clan growing larger and more visible as they approached. He recognized a few hand-me-down Confederate uniform jackets among the twenty-some-odd riders. But most simply wore gray or light-blue clothes to identify themselves with their side. Thumbing back both hammers of his shotgun, Billy laid flat on his back, took a deep breath, and slowly exhaled; just like Marion taught him. He had only been riding with the Red-Legs a year and had seen a few scrapes with them, but never against so many! The teenage boy still only carried his shotgun, not revolvers; his hand still shook too much to shoot straight. He turned to Marion, also on his back, his Colt Revolving Rifle was primed and ready. The older man offered a reaffirming nod to the youngster, who returned it with a weak smile. To Billy's right Reverend Isaac muttered a prayer or Bible verse before priming his own shotgun. The rumble of hooves grew louder, almost deafening. The earth shook like a Biblical disaster approached. Then all hell broke loose.

The rapid blasts of a Henry Repeater spat lead like lightning bolts bursting from an angry heaven. Big Mike had opened fire. Billy and the others followed suit. The Delilah Clan came to a crippling halt as hot lead tore into man and horse alike. Peppered with gunfire on both sides, they fired back frantically. Mostly only hitting air and the charred walls they had burned months earlier. A stolen stagecoach came to a halt as stray bullets and buckshot downed multiple members of the six-horse team. Billy blinked as he reloaded and tried hard not to wonder if his buckshot had felled man or beast. Mechanically reloading with trembling hands, Billy rose to empty both barrels again at the first thing that moved. A grey figure splattered and toppled in the choking gun smoke, which soon grew to a thick fog. It was as if the town was on fire all over again. A new inferno blazing from the ashes.

"WATCH YOUR SHOTS!" Big Mike bellowed. "DON'T HIT THE STAGECOACH!" As he reloaded again, Billy saw Marion take carefully aimed shots with his Colt. Bullets blazed by him, a few grazed him, but he stood stoically on and downed figures in the fog with precision. With his sixth shot, Marion knelt down for another hail of bullets to pass harmlessly overhead. Billy and Reverend Isaac both rose to blast away with buckshot. They slumped back down to reload as Marion rose to empty his cylinder again. Billy froze in wonder at Marion's stoic calm as bullets blazed over and around him. None of them struck.

Soon the firing ceased, the gun smoke too thick to see through. No one shot, no one spoke. A gentle breeze kicked up and carried smoke and dust southward. The fog of war brushed aside like a curtain and the theater of carnage stood before the Red-Legs in grizzly detail. The Delilah Clan was slaughtered. Lying perforated in bloody heaps, the grey and light-blue of their make-shift uniforms splashed crimson by their wounds. The hidden Red-Legs looked on in awed horror at their butcher's bill. Billy forced his breakfast back down his gullet.

Big Mike was the first to emerge from his cover and loped eagerly towards the stopped stagecoach. "GIRLS!" he bellowed. "YOU ALRIGHT IN THERE?" I cried. Billy blinked, it hadn't occurred to him that the girls ought to have been screaming their heads off by then. Before he could stand Marion sprang like a panther toward the coach.

"Mike don't!" he called out. Too late, Big Mike's hand grasped the door latch and swung it open. Billy saw Big Mike stumble back in shock at the wicked leer of an old hat and the shiny barrel of her Colt. Marion's rifle thundered and her revolver dropped to the dirt in a mist of blood and shattered bones! Big Mike toppled over just as Ma Delilah fell forward rolled to the ground with a feral cry. She wailed with equal parts fury and agony at the bloody stumps that were once her hands. Again Billy's breakfast desperately tried to escape.

"YANKEE COWARDS! BLUE-BELLY DEVILS! FILTHY RED-LEGS!" Ma Delilah screeched and roared like a mad-woman. "YOU KILLED MY BOYS!" she bellowed before berating them with a stream of such filth and obscenity Billy expected more civility from the slimiest of saloon girls, none of whom he had the guts to approach even so many miles from his mother! Billy was mesmerized at the grotesque figure in the dirt. A silver-haired granny, missing several teeth, wrinkled as dirty laundry, pale as snow, a clad in a black mourning gown. Billy felt he had read a ghost story about her once. All of while, Marion climbed into the stagecoach and emerged with a worried look on his face that made it obvious.

"Not there," he huffed. Big Mike, back on his feet, looked down on the baying wench with disgust.

"Where are they? Where are the girls?" he demanded. After a few more agonized gasps, the hag's menacing leer returned.

"Why?" she spat. "Want them for yourselves?" she scanned the increased crowd of Red-Legs. Billy blinked, not having noticed the others had emerged from cover. He turned back to Ma and very quickly wished he hadn't as her pale green eyes locked with his. Her smile became even more lecherous. "Want to give that little pecker-wood his first time?" she asked before balling with laughter. Billy trembled with fury and stomped towards her with both hammers cocked and both barrels trained on her hideous face!

A pair of arms grappled him from behind and the reverend's voice begged him to stop. Even as Billy blinked, forced a deep breath into his lungs and stepped back along with the preacher he could hardly believe what he had almost done. Scanning the others he saw the shocked looks on their faces, even Burns was stunned. Billy thought for sure he would faint, but Isaac's arms held him up.

"Faith, Billy!" he insisted. "Be strong!"

"STRONG MEN YOU ALL ARE!" Delilah hissed. "Crawling in the dirty like worms and ambushing us like COWARDS!"

"Says the tramp who burns whole towns to the ground that ain't got nothing but lonely wives with brooms to fight you with!" Burns snarled.

"THEY HAD IT COMING! AND SO DID THOSE WORTHLESS LITTLE WENCHES! I sold them CHEAP! But I'm sure them Quantrill boys is having some good times with them cow-eyed gals! Guess you boys get the blues tonight!" She paused to loose another volley of screeching laughs.

"Just tell us where they are," Marion grunted. Ma paused to look at him thoughtfully amid painful breaths. Then her eyes brightened in recognition.

"I remember you!" she stabbed one of her bloody stumps up at him. "You're that abolitionist butcher from Kansas City! Mary, wasn't it?"

"Marion," he softly corrected. She chuckled in sadistic glee.

"My husband told me about you! Told me about you and that scrawny little PARTNER of yours! Lindsey, wasn't it. A fitting name for a pathetic excuse for a man! If even you can call him a man! My husband told me, he was more like a WOMAN to YOU!" She paused to laugh hysterically. All eyes scanned from her to Marion and back again, trying to figure what to make of her ramblings. Marion's face was as stoic as his voice was silent. "You deny my husband's word?" she blinked at his silence.

"Lindsey was my friend," he growled in reply. "A man I trusted more than any other. That's all there is to it. But it doesn't matter now. You WILL tell us where those girls are!"

"Or what, you Red-Leg SODOMITE? You'll shoot off my feet too?" she asked with flared nostrils and bared teeth.

"No," he said with a long pause. "We'll leave you like this," again he paused for the words to sink in. The wrinkles on her worn face seemed to soften, her squinting eyes widened, and her screeching voice silenced as she realized her position. The same silence gripped Billy and the others as their minds put together the horrific puzzle of what her final hours would be like should one of them not put a bullet in her head.

"Tell me, Ma, what do you think will get you first?" Marion asked with a bitter smirk. "Wolves, Coyotes, or maybe the buzzards will swoop down and figure you won't be able to fight them off with those flimsy little broken hands. Sometimes you even spot a wild boar in these parts. Whatever the case, they won't wait until you breathe your last before they sink their teeth in." Billy swallowed hard. He wasn't sure which was worse, the fates Marion just described or the fact that part of him actually figured Ma deserved it!

Minutes of stark silence crept by, only interrupted by whistling winds. "A few hours ride north of here!" Ma gasped, seeming on the verge of tears. "There's a red barn, off the road to the west in a patch of trees. There's a Confederate flag flying on a pole outside it. You'll find them there!"

"And the Quantrill boys?" Big Mike snapped.

"About a dozen of them!" Ma snarled. "Now FINISH ME!" Marion and Big Mike exchanged glances. With a sigh, Marion turned and strode casually over to a fallen rebel, looted a revolver from his gun-belt and checked it. Returning to Ma's side he dropped it in the dirt beside her.

"You ain't got no more slaves, woman. Do your own dirty work!" he snapped. She gazed in shock from the pistol to her bloody, finger-less hands and back again several times in horrified silence. Marion turned and walked towards where Billy, Isaac, and he had laid the horses.

"Good one, Marion!" Burns giggled darkly.

"MOUNT UP, EVERYONE!" Big Mike barked before striding to his own mount. Billy and the others awkwardly obeyed, dragging their eyes from the pathetic figure patting the pistol frantically with useless arms.

"Don't leave me!" she sniffled. "Please, don't leave me like this!" she pleaded. Billy turned to see her eyes welling with tears. He still wanted to shoot her, but for reasons that made him hate himself less.

"Come, Billy," Reverend Isaac dragged him towards their mounts. "We all reap what we sow," he said firmly.

"PLEASE!!!" Ma resumed screeching like a wild animal. Billy bit his lip and ignored her feral cries. Billy hardened his heart and mounted up with the rest. Soon they were galloping northward up the road and the hag's cries vanished forever in the rumble of trampling hooves.

* * *

Hours dragged by as they galloped. Big Mike and Marion were neck-in-neck at the lead. Billy scanned the group and managed a smile as he realized they hadn't lost a single man in the ambush! A miracle, he thought, and knew Reverend Isaac would agree with him. Hopefully there'd be another miracle that day.

Billy was old enough to understand what went on between men and women in bedrooms. He also knew a man could hurt a woman something fierce that way. In the silence of his mind he prayed them Quantrill varmints wouldn't touch the poor girls until nightfall.

The sun was leaning hard westward when they all noticed the big red barn sitting in a clump of trees. Several tents strewn in front of it. The stars and bars flapped defiantly in the air of a Free State. Billy felt himself smirking with menace as he and the rest of the dozen-man column curved off the road and galloped towards the enemy camp with renewed vigor! The thick patch of trees were the perfect corral and the Red-Legs had a herd to slaughter.

The Johnny Rebs must have heard them coming and figured they were their own men. Two of them approached, waving and smiling. Instants later their eyes widened, presumably at the red leggings and dark coats. They went for their guns but never cleared holster. Big Mike and Marion downed them with one shot each. Even as the Red-Legs trampled into camp, the Quantrill raiders stumbled out of tents in shocked horror and fired wildly, mostly missing. A few Red Legs toppled from their mounts. The rest fired with fury at the hated foes.

Billy found himself leaping from his mare, landing on his feet and peppering three men with both barrels. They fell in a mist of their own blood and Billy quickly reloaded. He barely noticed his hands no longer shook. Turning to a snarling rebel thumbing back the hammers of two Colts only a few feet away, he knelt and discharged both barrels into his waist. The Reb toppled over in two pieces. Billy reloaded and turned to the big barn door as it swung open. Several Rebs burst out in various degrees of undress. They fired revolvers and repeaters wildly, downing another Red-Leg from his horse and grazing Billy's cheek. The lad toppled over but swung up his shotgun and fired, downing two Rebs. Marion's revolving rifle, Big Mike's Henry and Burns' Colt made swift work of the other five.

Everyone stood still and silent as the gun smoke settled. Moments later Billy heard muffled whimpers and wails. Forgetting the sharp pain in his cheek, he leapt to his feet and rushed into the barn ahead of everyone else. What he saw made him drop his weapon.

About ten figures were sprawled about the hay. Some in ripped and tattered dresses, others desperately clasping at the straw with nothing else to cover themselves, a few didn't even try to cover. Billy tried desperately not to notice the latter. His fists tightened as he wished there were more Quantrills to kill. The varmints didn't wait for nightfall.

Big Mike cursed from behind Billy. Marion blasphemed under his breath. Others only looked on in horror. A few of the Red-Legs who had daughters approached the whimpering girls gingerly. Gently telling them there was nothing to worry about, that no one was going to hurt them anymore. Marion and Big Mike started doing the same. Billy turned to see Burns eyeing the scene with disgust and defeat, he drew his whiskey bottle from his coat and took a long swig as he turned and strolled away.

Turning back, Billy's eyes looked with those of a slave girl kneeling wide-eyed in the hay. He figured she was a few years younger than him. Her dress was tattered but holding together. Her eyes were hazel, very pretty but filled with fear. Every muscle in her body trembled. Billy strained himself to hold back tears as he stepped towards her.

"It's alright," he said softly. "The Rebs are all dead. We won't hurt you. You're safe now," he could tell she wasn't convinced but persisted. "I'm Billy, we're going to take you somewhere safe," he was only a few feet from her, reaching out to touch her shoulder when his eyes locked on the bloody, limp figure beside her in the straw. A Quantrill raider, lying still and silent, a gash cut across his neck!

Billy barely had time to lunge backwards as the blood-soaked blade slashed at his throat. The knife sliced the palm of his hand and sent him toppling over with a painful cry. The slave girl sprang and roared like a wildcat, pinning him down and raising the weapon high. Billy shut his eyes and waited for a deathblow. A burst of momentum, more hissing cries, and the rumble of a larger figure, and Billy opened his eyes to see Marion had grappled the girl and was dragging her back towards the hay. The lad gasped a deep breath and willed his heart to stop pounding before it burst his ribs.

The girl wiggled free and lunged back against the straw. Marion stepped back a few paces and begged her to put down the knife. "We won't hurt you!" he pleaded.

"LIAR!" she snarled and slashed at the air with the dead Reb's knife. "You just like them! ALL-A-YA!"

"You're wrong," Marion said softly but firmly. "I know how you feel."

"NO YA DON'T!" she spat.

"I do," he said, almost whispering. Billy noticed Big Mike and most of the others had crowded around the scene. "When I was a boy, smaller even than you, my Pa would," he paused to eye his comrades then stepped closer to keep talking in a lower voice. None of the others could hear what he was saying, but the girl did. Whatever it was, it softened her face. Soon her arms went down to her side and the knife slipped from her grasp. Moments later tears were streaming from her eyes and she leaned forward to weep into Marion's chest. He gingerly embraced her and patted her head.

"I'll be okay, darling," Marion soothed her. Billy stumbled to his feet and looked in awe with the others. Even some of the girls had recovered enough to watch the scene. Eventually Big Mike snapped at the others to check on the rest of the girls and get ready to move out. Reverend Isaac was at Billy's side in no time, and began fussing over his grazed cheek and cut palm.

The reverend ushered Billy out of the barn, where the lad noticed four of the others had been injured. None of them killed. A few horses had been downed by bullets in the fighting. Burns got busy putting them down then went to fetch fresh horses the Rebs had lashed to the nearby trees. Within an hour, the twelve Red-Legs were mounted with the girls riding double and on their way to the nearest Union-friendly village. Some of the girls were wrapped in the coats of their dead captors. Marion had wrapped the girl who had the knife in his own dark blue coat.

The sun had set by the time they galloped into town and came to a stop outside the church. The pastor and his wife emerged and eyed the poor girls with painful pity. Big Mike and the pastor exchanged glances and nods. Without a word the pastor and his wife began helping the girls down and leading them into the church.

Marion dismounted and helped his girl down then paused to whisper something to her. A moment later she turned and sullenly stomped over to Billy's mount with her eyes to the ground. For a moment he feared she was going to attack him again, he flinched slightly as her gaze shot up to his.

"Sorry, Billy!" she snapped. Billy could only blink in silence. "About the knife, I mean," she softened her tone awkwardly. Her gaze softened as well and Billy knew she really meant it.

"Hell, it's nothing," he shrugged. "Barely even a scratch! You just surprised me and took the wind out of me is all," he awkwardly laughed. Thankfully she managed a slight smirk, which made him feel better.

"I'm Rosaline," she said before looking back to the ground sullenly. "So long," she finished before stomping back to Marion, then followed the other girls into the church.

A few hours later the Red-Legs were miles out of town, not wanting to stay the night with them and risk exposing them to Quantrill's vengeance. The fire was burning and the men were huddled around it in awkward silence. All eyes awkwardly avoided Marion. If the man noticed the awkwardness he gave no sign of it. Some biscuits were passed around and they all ate quietly. Billy hadn't even realized how hungry he was, hadn't eaten since breakfast!

Eventually Marion rose to go and double check the horses, as had always been his habit. Once he vanished into the dark surrounding the camp fire Burns snickered, his mouth wet with whiskey.

"So which of us do you suppose he's thinking about, all alone out there in the dark?" he asked with a wheezing laugh. That was the last straw! Billy leapt to his feet, lunged and buried his fist in the drunkard's nose! The dull-eyed lecher blinked in astonishment then sneered with rage as he sprang to his feet, balled his fists to a swing at the lad. Billy dodged the swing with ease and gave him a sharp jab in the gut. Big Mike caught Burns' arm before he could swing a hook into Billy's jaw and dragged him backwards. Reverend Isaac wedged himself between Billy and Burns.

"That little pecker-wood, cuss hit me!" Burns growled.

"Yeah? Maybe you had it coming!" Big Mike barked.

"Was only fooling around!"

"That was not funny, Mr. Burns!" the reverend huffed.

"Since when does a preacher defend queers?"

"And what manner of a man are you, Mr. Burns?" Isaac snapped. "You who suckle the teat of the bottle! Even if a word that HARLOT said today can be trusted, you're more offensive than he is!"

Burns locked eyes with Isaac in seething silence for several seconds before wrestling free of Big Mike and stomping a few paces away from the fire and curling up in the dirt with his bottle, like he did every night.

Eventually Marion returned. If he heard any of what had happened he never mentioned it. None of them ever spoke of that day again. Not even Burns. Billy sometimes wondered if any of what Delilah had said about him was true and if it had anything to do with what he told Rosaline about in the barn. But he knew better than to ask, and he never would.

A few months after the ambush, Quantrill's boys ambushed them! Hit them with rifle fire from the trees overlooking a narrow stream as they paused to water their horses. A bullet nicked Billy's arm and three others were killed in the first volley. The rest galloped like every leprechaun in Ireland was after them! Billy looked back to see Burns was pinned beneath his fallen mount by the creek bed. Marion was already galloping back to help him. Burns had just wiggled free of his horse and was reaching up to accept Marion's hand when a rebel volley downed them both.

The End

James Burke was born in Illinois and served in the United States Navy. In 2016, he graduated University of Saint Francis (Joliet, IL) with a Bachelor's Degree in history. His fiction has appeared in Frontier Tales Magazine and he has self-published an e-book, The Warpath: American Tales of East West and Beyond. He lives in South Carolina.

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