by Lily Tierney
Bessie arrived in Dodge City a day late. The stage broke down, and the wheel had to be replaced. The driver asked all passengers to disembark while he rolled up his sleeves and went to work. Among the passengers was a man going by the name of James Hudson. His real name was Ellis Smith, and he was on wanted posters in several states. He grew a beard and mustache as a disguise. There was a young lady travelling with him. She was about sixteen years of age. Bessie introduced herself to them. She asked what brings the two of you to Dodge City. Spring introduced herself to Bessie, and said they were newlyweds and visiting family in Dodge. Bessie would find out later she was lying. The other passenger was an elderly man who was well dressed with impeccable manners. Bessie thought he was from some wealthy family back East. Then, there was Bessie. She wore her best travelling clothes. She wanted to present herself as a widow who was well off.
Bessie turned her attention to the elderly gentleman. His name was Mr. Rope. He told Bessie he was in the oil business. Well thought Bessie, she really has to get to know him. She introduced herself as a widow visiting relatives in Dodge. The driver fixed the wheel, and they were back on the road. Bessie was using her time wisely. She wanted Mr. Rope to be putty in her hands by the time they reached Dodge.
Ellis and Spring were very quiet. They sat and listened to Bessie going on and on chattering to Mr. Rope. If Mr. Rope was bored, he didn't show it. He politely acknowledged all her comments with a nod of his head. They were a few hours outside Dodge, when Mr. Rope became ill. The driver pulled over to let him rest a bit, but they were behind schedule. The driver thought he should get him to Dodge where he could see a doctor. Mr. Rope agreed, and got back on the stage. Bessie was getting anxious. It didn't look like she would be staying with Mr. Rope. Apparently, he was a man in poor health.
As the stage pulled into Dodge, Bessie was dumbfounded. She knew Dodge had a reputation, but when she finally saw it up close she was flabbergasted. On one corner, a crowd was gathering for a gunfight. Two women were fighting on the street while a man looked on laughing. The sheriff was busy talking to a cute blonde, and was oblivious to everything. Bessie stepped off the stage unsure of where to go and what to do. Mr. Rope was barely hanging on, his condition has worsened. A man was waiting for Ellis and Spring when they got off the stage. He greeted Ellis, and looked surprised to see Spring.
"Well, how was the trip?" he asked Ellis. "A lot of problems," replied Ellis.
Bessie overheard him say to get Mr. Rope to a doctor immediately. Ellis, Spring, and Mr. Rope left searching for a doctor. Bessie noticed this man was smiling at her.
"What is your name?" he asked. "Bessie," she said.
"I'm Earl, and so pleased to meet a pretty lady like yourself, " he said, smiling at Bessie.
"You got family visiting, miss?" Earl asked.
"No, I'm new here in Dodge," said Bessie.
"Well how about having dinner with me?" Earl asked.
"Sure," said Bessie.
He asked Bessie where she would like to eat, but he knew he was taking her to the dining room in the hotel he was staying at. It was real fancy, and he knew Bessie would be impressed. Bessie walked in the dining room and was stunned. It was like nothing she had seen before. The tablecloth and napkins were linen. The plates were fine china, and the glasses were crystal. She looked up and saw a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Earl pulled Bessie's chair out for her to sit in. Bessie felt like a queen. He told Bessie to order anything she wanted. She told Earl to order for her. He ordered a sirloin steak, potatoes with gravy, and collard greens.
"I'm a meat and potatoes guy," he said.
Bessie was so happy to be with him. She felt they clicked as they lifted their glasses for a toast.
"Here's to a beautiful lady," Earl said.
Bessie never drank champagne before, but she knew she could get used to the better things in life. She was hoping Earl was the answer to that.
Mr. Rope was now being looked at by a doctor. The doctor told Ellis your friend has a bullet in his right shoulder that has to come out. Mr. Rope was weak and running a fever. The bullet was lodged in his shoulder for over a week. Ellis handed him the money.
"All right doc, you better do a good job," he said. The doctor proceeded to remove the bullet from Mr. Rope's shoulder.
Bessie had another glass of champagne. Her head was spinning. She never felt so happy in her life.
"Do you have a place to stay?" asked Earl.
Bessie lied and said she would be staying with friends. Earl knew she had no friends here in Dodge. It was the last place you would find a friend.
After the doctor finished with Mr. Rope, he told Ellis he would need plenty of rest if he was going to make it. Ellis and Spring helped him up and out the door. They headed over to the hotel where Earl was staying to get Mr. Rope a room. They entered the lobby and headed to the registration desk, and booked a room for Mr. Rope. As they were heading toward the stairs, they noticed Earl and Bessie in the dining room. Spring and Ellis both helped Mr. Rope up the stairs to his room. Once inside, they put him in bed. Ellis asked him if he was hungry. Mr. Rope said no. Ellis told him to just rest, and he would be up later to check on him.
Mr. Rope fell off to sleep. He was in his late fifties, and too old for this lifestyle. When he was young, he rode with the toughest gunslingers in the West. He never lost a gunfight. Folks knew him when he rode into town. His reputation was saddled up ahead of him. He also knew dozens of women like Bessie. He even married one. Today he was lying in a bed clinging to life in Dodge. All he knew for sure, was he was too old for this type of living. His draw wasn't fast enough anymore.
Just a few days ago, the three men were in the bank, everything was going according to plan. Earl told the bank manager to open the safe, and out of nowhere the bank manager drew his gun and shot Mr. Rope. He was hit in the shoulder. Ellis then returned fire and shot the bank manager he dropped to the ground and drew his last breath. Earl stepped over his body and emptied the teller's draw. He couldn't open the safe because only the bank manager knew the combination and he was dead. They all ran out of the bank and rode out of town. Once a safe distance away, they agreed to separate and meet up in Dodge City. Mr. Rope didn't realize how badly he was injured. He tried riding out alone, but fell off his horse. Ellis went to his aid. Earl was already gone. Ellis knew Mr. Rope was too ill to travel. He looked around for a farmhouse. He spotted one down the hill. He decided to chance it. They might be neighborly folks.
Spring opened the door to two strangers. One was very handsome, and the other looked very ill. Her father was in the next room when he heard the knock on the door. He saw both Ellis and Mr. Rope standing in his front parlor. He noticed one was ill, and could hardly stand. He helped Mr. Rope into a chair to sit down. He got some bandages for his wound.
"What happened?" he asked.
"Well, we were riding and someone just took a shot at us, " said Ellis.
Spring's father was suspicious about the two of them. He told them he would take them into town to the doctor. They both said no, they would tend to it themselves. The only luck they had was his farm was a stop off point for the stage. They would rest their horses for the evening. The following morning they would continue their journey. This sounded good to Ellis. He asked if they could spend the night in the barn, and catch the stage in the morning. Spring's father said sure, but you better leave Mr. Rope in here on the sofa. Ellis said he was much obliged. The next morning the stage came, and Mr. Rope, Ellis, and Spring were on it. Spring wrote her father a note which said. Dear Dad, I am leaving with Mr. Hudson. I want to start my own life. I am old enough. Love, Spring. Her father read the note and went to the sheriff in town.
Spring and Ellis went into the dining room to join Earl and Bessie. Spring never drank champagne before. She was excited when Earl offered her some. When Earl saw Spring getting off the stage with Ellis he thought trouble. Spring looked like a young innocent girl, and she had no business travelling with Ellis and Mr. Rope. He was a little annoyed with Ellis's judgment. He thought he had none.
"Wait a toast," said Ellis.
They all lifted their glasses and Ellis proceeded to make a toast.
"Here's to a long and happy life," he said.
They all clicked their glasses and drank. The champagne went straight to Spring's head. She started talking about the note she left her dad. She was crying and said she should go home and explain it to him. Bessie was listening and realized Spring was a runaway. Her father was going to be looking for her. Bessie knew the type Earl and Ellis were. The law would be here in no time. Bessie told Spring that going home might be just what she needed. Bessie looked at Ellis and shook her head. Ellis knew Bessie was right. Spring had to be gone by morning.
The morning brought about a lot of changes. Spring was put on the first coach heading back home. Mr. Rope was getting worse. Ellis decided to get the doctor. The doctor came and said there was nothing he could do. He said Mr. Rope was too far gone. Bessie woke up before Earl had, and she rummaged through his pants pockets, and found his wallet. She stole one hundred dollars, and put the wallet back in his pants. She then tiptoed out the door. Earl was still fast asleep until he heard some banging on his door. It was Ellis. He told him the word was out about the bank job and Spring.
"We gotta get out of here," he said.
Earl was still half asleep and didn't understand Ellis.
"What are you talking about?" he asked.
Ellis told him again what was happening. Earl found his pants and discovered his wallet was in the wrong pocket minus one hundred dollars. Bessie mumbled to himself. Ellis told him Mr. Rope is dying.
"He can't testify then," said Earl. They both left the hotel and headed out of town.
Earl waited until Ellis had his back turned when he shot him. Ellis tried to go for his gun, but just fell off of his horse. Earl took his horse, and rode off with it. Bessie was waiting for the next stage to arrive when she thought she heard a shot ring out. She wondered if she would ever see Earl again. She knew Ellis and Mr. Rope would never be heard from again. Earl would not bury them, nor have the decency to contact their kin. Earl and Bessie were too much alike. The end always justified the means. They will meet up again, folks like them always do.
Lily Tierney's work has appeared in Harbinger Asylum, Veil: Journal of Darker Musings, The Stray Branch, Illumen Magazine,
Polu Texni, The Big Windows Review, Space and Time Magazine, The Writing Disorder, and many others. She enjoys reading and writing poetry.
Back to Top
Back to Home
by Erin Donoho
Ross came up over the ridge and stopped at the top. The sun was descending rapidly in the sky, and across the landscape of canyons and ridges, he thought he saw some buildings. Hopefully that was the town—and with it, water.
He started down the rocks, letting his horse Ash pick his way over the loose soil since he knew how to move better than man could tell him. It had been a long day across the desert, and Ross' canteen was near a mouthful from being empty. It would be good to stop somewhere and rest. Even better to stop somewhere with a roof or food.
Twilight descended just as Ross and Ash descended into the labyrinth of rocks and hills, and Ash picked along the path slowly, adjusting to the sudden darkness. Ross too strained to make out anything. The map said there'd be a town among these ridges, and as this was the only path Ross could see, it presumably led to the town.
Light flashed to his right, and Ross turned. It was light all right, solidly burning in the dark. He guided Ash in to the rock and soon found a small path that led up the hill.
Behind a ridge appeared a house—a small wooden shack, door hanging, one window shot out. Empty. Across the dirt path sat another similar house. Ross urged Ash over to it. It was empty too, except for a bed and what looked like a chest of drawers.
The light flickered behind the rocks and still the path continued, past more houses, what looked like a saloon, and farther out a church. Rocks rose on all sides now, forming a sort of shallow dry valley, and the light kept flickering in and out of existence behind taller rocks up on a ridge.
Ross heard something: water, trickling. It came from his right.
Something rustled loudly.
Ash stopped without being told, ears alert. Ross glanced around, but in the shadowy landscape could see nothing living.
He nudged Ash forward, and the horse crunched over the rocks, ears swiveling right and left. Ross couldn't hear the water anymore, but he knew it had come from the right. To the right, however, was only a wall of rock.
Something moved beyond a boulder. Ross stopped Ash, hand on his holster.
"Hey?" A man ambled out from behind the boulder, rifle in one hand, holster on his hips. "Who's there?"
"Don't move," Ross called, palm resting on the cool metal of his pistol. The man stopped. "Who are you?"
"Al Franklin," the man said. He was stocky and wore a light-colored coat over his shirt.
"You live here?"
"No, just passing through."
"Jutson. They just found a load of silver there."
Maybe the boomtowns were coming back, here. Loads of silver and gold were still mined up in Durango, but Ross hadn't heard of mining in California lately. "Do you know any place around here I can get some food?"
"No siree. This place looks deserted to me."
Ross glanced around. The few buildings that surrounded them were indeed deserted; they looked untouched for months, maybe a year or two. Or even longer. He couldn't tell in the dusk.
"I heard water that way," Ross said, motioning up the ridge.
"Me too," Al Franklin said. "Reckon there's a way up?"
"Maybe. I seen a light up there too." Ross pointed farther up the ridge.
"Someone's up there, might have food."
"You ain't never told me your name, mister."
"Ross Daley. Come from New Mexico."
"Goin' to mine?"
"Maybe." Ross dismounted, rifle in hand; there'd be no good way to ride up this hill. Ross' original intent had been to visit his brother Darrel in Bishop; Darrel's wife Clara had fallen from a horse and was laid up in bed, and Darrel, coming off a small crop the year before, was having trouble handling both the kids and the farm. Now Ross considered coming back here and seeing what men might find underground. He would never go to Durango to mine; too many people, too many tourists. This place was entirely different.
A gunshot blasted through the darkness. Both Ross and the man Al Franklin jumped and cocked their rifles, and Ash skittered sideways.
"Someone don't like us comin' in their town," Al muttered, slipping beside Ross where Ross crouched behind a rock.
"Ain't their town," Ross said. He couldn't make out anything up the hill.
"Wouldn't you think it's your town, if you was the only one left in it," Al replied.
"Who's there?" Ross called up into the night. The light still shone bright.
"I could ask the same," a female voice said. "Show yourselves."
Ross, rifle aimed, stepped out from behind the rock, and Al did the same. Ash stood by a rock on the other side of the trail, munching bristles from a scrub brush.
"Who are you?" the woman called.
Al glanced at Ross. "We's just passing through, ma'am."
"We're hungry, and thirsty. I heard water flowing near here," Ross added.
"You won't find nothing here," the woman said.
"My map says there's a town here."
"How old's that map?"
Ross paused. "Maybe five years old. Don't know." He didn't think it mattered. He had bought it at a general store in Charleston, where the old man behind the counter looked overjoyed to see an out-of-towner. Ross should have known better.
"Maybe this town closed up after that. You won't get nothing here."
Al licked his lips. "Well, don't you have water? You live here, don't you?"
"Where you headed?"
Al and Ross glanced at each other. "East to Jutson," Al said. "To mine silver there."
"I'm going to Bishop," Ross said. "We don't mean no harm. We heard water is all."
Silence. There was no sound, not even of birds or crickets. The desert out here was like that, quiet and stealth-like. It bothered Ross like no tomorrow, had bothered him ever since he left Mesquite. New Mexico desert was different; louder somehow.
"You want a drink, come on up here," the woman called.
"Might we bring our horses?" Al called.
"Yeah, bring them."
Ross caught Ash and walked until he found a rough path, then led the gelding up toward the light. Closer and closer they got until he made out a shack in the rock, where a lantern burned on the porch. Then he saw movement and a figure: a woman, in a long skirt and blouse, hair pulled back, pointing a rifle right at him.
"My gun's in my scabbard," he said. "Pistol's in the holster." He held up his hands, empty but for the reins.
She aimed the rifle behind him, at Al.
"Guns are all up, miss," Al said.
She lowered the rifle but didn't take it off of them, squinting through the darkness. "You can take your horses to the barn. Around back."
She pointed, and Ross led Ash around the house. She was indeed a miss, he thought as he nodded at her from just feet away; younger than she appeared. It showed in her face, even in the dark.
A glance behind him showed Al following, and the woman behind them, rifle still tucked by her side. Ross almost laughed, but didn't. He could easily beat her in a gunfight; what was funny was that she was so damn suspicious. No doubt other travelers had passed through here.
Inside the barn were two geldings, one bay and one gray; Ross ground-tied Ash in an empty stall and removed his tack.
"We have hay," the woman said from the barn doorway, and motioned to an empty area where bales were stacked. "Water's back here at the spring."
So the water was up here. He grabbed a bucket.
"Take off your guns," the woman said, glancing at both of them. Ross paused. She aimed her rifle at him and he unbuckled his holster. Behind him, Al's holster clanked to the barn floor.
They followed the woman's direction down a small path, her behind them pointing the rifle at their backs, and curved up and around until they came upon a small stream trickling through the rocks. The men knelt and waited for the buckets to fill, all the while glancing back to see that woman, that girl, standing there leaning against a rock with the rifle pointing right at them. Beneath her skirt Ross saw she was wearing pants. Maybe he could beat her in a gunfight, but that was with all things being equal. They were not equal now.
Once his bucket was full Ross leaned down, dipped his hand in the stream, and drank. The water was cool and clear. Where did it come from in this desert hell?
"You get many travelers through here?" he finally asked as they started back to the barn.
He glanced at the girl. She looked no different, still aiming the rifle.
Ross tossed a flake of hay to Ash when they got back. "Where do you get your hay?"
"From a man in Bishop." The girl had let the rifle hang down by her hip.
Ross walked toward the doorway. "That's a long way. There's no one out here."
The girl just stared at him.
"You have any food you'd be willing to spare?"
She nodded once. "Not much. Don't got room for any extra folks sleeping, though. You'll have to sleep out here."
"That's all right."
"Come on in the house then." She watched Al stroll up. "You hungry too?"
Al glanced at Ross. "I'd be grateful for anything."
"Come on then." She let the men go ahead of her once more and took up the rifle again. Ross felt as if he had been taken hostage, or committed a horrible crime. Strange woman she was.
The house was small, build into the side of a rock, and Ross let the woman open it. Under the wooden roof was a bed, a chest, a table, a stove—and another woman, slim and dark in the shadows, staring at them just as suspiciously as the first one had. She stood by the open stove in the corner, long calico skirt sweeping the logs at her feet. Where do they get wood for a fire? Ross wondered. There sure weren't many trees around here.
"We're passing through," Al said from behind Ross. "Just traveling."
"Have a seat." The first woman pulled out two chairs and set the rifle back against the bedframe, keeping herself between it and the men. "We have some leftover potatoes and carrots. Bit of bread."
"Fine by me," Al said, sitting.
The dark woman finished loading the wood into the stove and began chopping a few stringy looking carrots. But carrots nonetheless. "Do you grow food around here?" Ross asked the first woman, who was swirling a dipper around in a bucket. Water.
"Out back," she said, and poured water into a cup.
"Here?" Ross couldn't help himself.
She handed him and Al cups of water. He drank. It was just like the water at the spring—probably was the water at the spring. Cool and clear.
"Yeah," she said, eyeing them, "the other side of the house, we grow vegetables."
"Where does the spring come from?"
"No idea." The woman skinned a potato with a knife. "It's one of these desert springs. Come from nowhere."
"You two live out here?" Al asked.
The woman turned to him. "Yeah."
"How long you been out here? This ain't no place for ladies."
She raised her eyebrows. "Or men, I reckon."
She was right about that. This wasn't no place for any living thing. Yet there was a spring, and around the house Ross had seen a few scrub trees. It was strangely peaceful, and with the water flowing, not entirely inhospitable to life.
"How long you been out here then?" Ross asked.
"Near two years."
Two years? Why would anyone decide to live out here? "From where?"
Ross clenched his jaw and shifted in the chair. Hadn't her folks taught her better manners than that? "You running from the law or something?"
"No. You?" The woman looked at him calmly. She had brown eyes and a few freckles on her cheeks. She was young, but not too young to be a woman.
"No." Ross couldn't be angry with her, not with her in her position. He would never be in her place, living here. "I'm just curious, what two young women like yourselves are doing out here in the middle of nowhere, in a desert."
The other woman silently served them potatoes, carrots, and thick pieces of dry bread. "I'm curious why you're so curious," the first said.
"Like he said, this ain't no place for ladies," Ross said.
She scrubbed a pan. "We come from near Bishop."
Which was exactly where Ross was going. "Ranching?" From what his brother said in his letters, ranching was a principal industry here like in New Mexico.
"Farming. My father grew wheat, mostly."
"Didn't know there was a market for wheat, here."
"There's a bit of a valley," she said, and fell silent.
"Farther west it's even better," Al said. "I come from around Modesto, that's north and west. Real fertile land there too."
"So you decided to come here," Ross said, staring at the woman. "Why?"
"My father used to take me up here." She didn't look at them, just kept on washing the pan. "When there was a town. Then he died, and my brother took over the farm."
Al glanced at Ross. As if that explained everything.
"It'd be hard enough to get our own plot of land, without a man. And we didn't want to just sit around, be burdens on our families." She hung the pan over the sink. "I came up here, few years back, and saw it had gone bust. No one was here. We thought it was pretty."
"You don't have husbands, then?"
"No." She swiped at the counter with her sleeve.
"Living out here, there's things a man could help you with," Al said.
She stopped in her wiping. "We got all we need here. A garden and water, and we go into town when we need meat or supplies."
Al raised his eyebrows, and Ross shrugged. It was a strange situation. But both men put their questions aside in favor of enjoying the food in front of them.
The freckled woman took their plates when they were done. The darker silent woman had taken off her boots and stood by the bed, still watching them.
"What're you looking at?" Al said finally.
"We don't get many travelers," the first woman said. "Like I said."
"I'm Al Franklin," Al said, standing and extending his hand. The freckled woman shook it. He stepped toward the other one, and she slowly stretched out her hand. "I must say that was some good food. I'm obliged."
"Thank you," the dark-haired woman said quietly. She had a sweet voice, light and pure like honey, or like wildflower-scented air in spring.
Ross introduced himself as well. "Ought to have done that earlier."
"That's all right. I'm Suzanne," the freckled woman said.
Ross was surprised but pleased to know her name. He extended his hand to the dark-haired woman. "Thank you for your cooking, miss . . . .?"
"Delighted to meet you, Adaline." Her hand was soft and gentle, yet her shake was strong, like her eyes. Ross found himself impressed with these women's homestead. But the reason for it—or lack of a reason—bothered him. They were so alone out here.
"So you's been here near two years, and no one here when you came?" He sat back down in his chair and put his feet up on the table.
"No. Empty," Suzanne said.
That was just what was strange. Who would come and stay in a deserted town? "Gone bust I suppose," Al said.
"Yeah," Suzanne said. "Haven't found a mine yet, but like I said, they used to mine here. Most of the towns up in the mountains here are mining towns."
Where are they? Ross wondered. Probably all went bust too. "What's mined here?" Al asked.
"Silver. And some gold, I heard. Not many people here, though."
"No, most of the towns have gone bust. I think there's more in Nevada. You said you's headed to Jutson?"
"You don't suppose that'll bust too?"
"Who knows. I ain't never mined before. And silver seems more plentiful than gold anyhow. I can go somewhere else if Jutson don't work out. I bet Nevada's got plenty of ore, we just got to find it again."
"You know this cabin was here, when you came?" Ross asked the women.
Suzanne shrugged. "Knew there were homes. This one was the sturdiest-looking, built into the rock."
"There's lots of nice houses still standing in town."
"We know it. We liked it better up here. More shade, close to the creek."
"Pretty lucky so far," Al said. "You reckon you can make it out here?"
"We've made it so far. Not so bad. Like I said, this is a good location, it's cooler in the summertime."
Ross thanked the Lord above he was making this trip in April. He couldn't imagine riding through this hellhole in the heat of summer. "Wonder you haven't died out here."
"The spring's enough," Adaline said quietly. Ross looked at her. Her eyes could see through him. She was tougher than she appeared.
"It don't dry up in the summer?" Al asked.
"No." Suzanne shook her head. "Stays about the same all through the year. Just comes trickling down the rocks."
"Odd," Al said. Ross nodded agreement. Snow must really pile up in these mountains.
"So where are you coming from?" Adaline asked Ross, sitting across from him.
"New Mexico. Visiting my brother. He's in Bishop."
"Not far to go then."
"Not compared to the rest of the trip." Ross stretched his neck. "Just need to make it through this desert." He had to be careful not to swear around these ladies.
"You will," Suzanne said, sitting too. "It ain't bad, hardest part is the mountains up ahead. A day's ride and you'll be down in the valley."
"What's your map say this town is called?" Al asked Ross.
Ross pulled the map out of his jacket pocket and unfolded it. "Looks like . . . Red Valley."
"Never heard of it," Al said. "Not that anyone else would have. It's an appropriate name."
"That a familiar name to either of you?" Ross asked the women.
They shook their heads. "My pa only took me here when I was little," Suzanne said. "Don't remember the town name. It'd been bust a while before we came, I'd say. We looked around. Layers of dust."
"Dust would gather here in a few days," Ross mumbled.
"Where'd you get all your things? Pots, pans, bed, chest?" Al waved his hand.
Adaline's lips twitched, and Suzanne glanced at her. "What you get when you come upon an empty town," Suzanne said. "It's all free for the taking."
"Layers of dust," Adaline said. "On most everything."
Ross stared at the map. He still had to travel down through the mountains to reach Bishop. They looked wider than a day's ride. But maps could be deceiving. And this one already had been.
"So where are these nearby towns?" Al asked.
"About fifty miles south, I guess," Suzanne said with barely a smile. "Don't know much about them. Then you got Jutson over the border."
"Wonder with the spring here this town's all been left."
Suzanne nodded once. "Not much of a spring for a town full of people, though."
"You ain't found no mine around here, then?" Al asked.
"No. Not much use looking. I figure we're bound to find one as soon as we go falling down it."
"Well, these towns go bust and then they pop up again." Al leaned back in his chair and took out a pipe. He glanced at Suzanne. "Mind?" She shook her head, and he lit up. "Strange. They say the ore runs out, but years later someone finds more. Like Jutson. They found silver around there before from what I hear, in the eighties, and then it dried up. Now they found more." His lips twitched around his pipe. "Is it really gone or do men just miss it?"
"You go to Sugar Brush, they's been mining there since ninety-two, but it's been going down now," Suzanne said. "Post office closed last year."
She shrugged. "Ran out, I guess. From what I heard."
"Where you hear it?"
"Men in Bishop. They talk." She sat at the table, eyes solid brown, impenetrable.
"Odd," Al continued. "Think you find all that ore, and then suddenly you can't find any. Don't seem right to me. Ought to be smart with the way you do it."
"Mm," Ross said. Al puffed smoke out of his pipe.
"Hopefully men in Jutson are smarter. Got to be smart with ore."
Ross stood. "Sorry we don't got no room," Suzanne said. "But I'll show you where you can sleep in the barn."
"Thank you," Al said. "Grand to talk with you ladies. Great cooking. Thank you both."
Adaline handed Suzanne a pile of blankets, and Suzanne lit the lantern and led them out through the suddenly cold night—without the rifle—to the barn. "The hay's fairly warm," Suzanne said. "But here's blankets in case. It can get cold out here at night."
"Seems like it," Al said. "Thank you. You're mighty kind."
She handed them the blankets. "Good night," she said, more to Ross than to Al.
Al whistled cheerfully as he arranged the hay to his liking. Ross stared at him. There was something nagging him about Al: something about Al's face when Suzanne talked of mining towns.
"You're not interested in this area, are you?"
Al turned. "I wasn't 'til I heard there might be gold here." He grinned and turned back around. "Never know."
There was nothing wrong with Al wanting to mine here. Not really. And yet, somehow, it didn't seem right.
"You're not really thinking of it seriously, are you?"
Al shrugged, lowering himself to the hay. "Maybe."
"You'd be a fool to do it. You'd die out here of thirst before you'd be able to dig an inch."
"There's a spring here. I'd be fine."
Ross laid back in the hay and shrugged around until the stalks no longer poked into his back. "Don't seem smart."
"Don't be personally attacking a man, now."
Ross wasn't. He didn't want to. But something was nagging at him. "It won't do you much good to come back here, you know. They won't be welcoming."
"They might be when I find gold."
"Odds of that aren't good."
"You're a sour one, ain't you." Hay crackled as Al rolled over. "They're just two women, anyway. Be good for them to have a man around. Night."
The night was silent: no crickets, no birds, no wolves like out on the trail. Not even the sound of water, trickling down the rocks. Ross had begun to think he was a different world as he traveled through the desert, and now he was nearly sure of it.
Al moved. Ross's limbs jerked and he heard the hay rustle again, footsteps soft on the barn floor. He had almost been asleep.
But Al was walking out. Ross sat up, watching Al's blocky figure creep toward the barn doorway and disappear to the left, toward the house.
Ross stood and tiptoed to the doorway. Al was walking down the path that led to the stream. He was already past the house, and with all the rocks around he had ample cover.
The house itself was dark. Ross sprang forward, walking on the outsides of the balls of his feet, following Al down the path.
Al slowed, then stopped, peering to his left. Looking for mine entrances no doubt. They wouldn't be easy to find amidst these rocks.
With a thump Al spun around, and Ross barely hid behind a boulder. Al strode back toward the barn, still silent, but quick. Purposeful. Ross followed, keeping to the shadows, and at the barn pressed himself up against the side, listening.
He heard the jingle of a buckle, and footsteps again. Al walked out of the barn, this time toward the house. Pistol in holster and rifle in hand.
Ross ran, and Al whirled and clocked him in the temple.
The world was black; speckled with gray dots. Ross felt hard ground underneath his hand, loose dirt and weeds. He pulled his hand to his head and felt it. Sore. But his hand was clear of blood.
A voice came from up ahead. Ross jerked his head up, biting his tongue at the pain. The cabin. Al. In front of him, a few hundred yards still, was the house. Al was nowhere in sight.
The voice had stopped. Ross stood, shifted his weight and the voice came again. He couldn't make out words, but he knew it was Al.
In the dark every step seemed to take him no closer; the cabin loomed like a ghost, floating away in front of him. He stretched his legs out, lungs burning in the cool air, and finally crouched down as he approached the wall. No light shone from behind the curtains, but inside something scuffled.
"Let go—" a woman's voice. Ross leapt up to the door and slammed it open.
Al spun, aiming the rifle, his other arm snug around Suzanne's torso. Ross pressed himself against the doorway but Al didn't shoot. Suzanne stared at Ross, eyes wide. Adaline rushed up to Ross, but Al jutted the rifle her way.
"Stop," Ross put a hand up, and Adaline stopped in her tracks. He could see her throat bulging, chest heaving for air.
"Better get out of my way," Al said, swinging the rifle again. "Or I'll blow both you and tough gal here away."
"What are you doing?" Ross cursed himself for not having the sense to grab his own guns when he had realized Al was armed.
"I'm going to find myself some gold. No use hunting around on my own and getting nowhere. These gals know where it is. Don't you." He moved his hand, and something flashed in the darkness—metal. Al held his pistol to Suzanne's waist, shoved into her nightdress.
"Drop it," Ross said.
Al smirked. "Get outta my way, mister."
Ross was unarmed. A dive for the guns, or to at least get Al off balance, could result in Suzanne taking a bullet. Maybe Adaline too.
He turned his head slightly; could see their rifle still there by the door. She wouldn't move because Al had the rifle on her, but Al couldn't point it in two places at once.
Ross sought her face. Her pale throat bulged, and he shifted his arm back. Her eyes flickered down. She knew what she needed.
"Let's go," Al said, jerking Suzanne, pushing her toward the door. Ross stepped aside, and Adaline did the same, watching Al and Suzanne approach.
When Al was even with him Ross grabbed the barrel of the pistol, wrenched it up so the shot went through the roof, and shoved Al backwards. The rifle was loose and Ross grabbed it, but Al wasn't giving up, still trying to point the thing, and Ross whacked the barrel down, gripped the stock, but Al's hand clenched just below his, on the trigger.
A shot fired, and Al fell.
Ross pulled the rifle around and held it close. Adaline stood beside him, shaking, holding her rifle, eyes on Al. Al laid below them, bleeding from the head, eyes half-open.
"You all right?" Adaline's quiet voice pierced the silence. Ross looked up to see her put the gun down and go to Suzanne. She stopped close to her, head bent, mumbling to her. After a moment Suzanne saw him.
"You hurt?" he asked.
She shook her head. Adaline wrapped her arm around Suzanne and stared at Al.
"It'll be days to a doctor," she said.
"Is he . . .
Ross knelt, even though he was fairly sure. Two fingers to the neck told him everything.
"Oh." Adaline gasped. Suzanne held her as she sobbed. "I didn't mean to, I didn't . . . "
"Hush," Suzanne said, and looked at Ross. Her face was pale, her eyes scared, but still hard.
"I won't tell anyone," Ross said.
"It was self-defense," Suzanne said.
"Yeah. That's all."
Her eyes flickered, chin trembled. She nodded. He nodded back.
"I'll take him out with me. Bury him."
She eyed him. "If someone asks questions?"
"Odds of me meeting someone from here to Bishop ain't good. But if I do, I'll say he was in a gunfight. And lost." Ross shrugged. It happened often enough in the towns in New Mexico.
Suzanne nodded. Ross put Al's rifle on the table, unbuckled Al's holster and put the pistol next to the rifle.
"You want me to take them?" He motioned to the table.
Both women shook their heads. Ross nodded and looked around, out the open door.
Nothing moved in the night.
He hauled the body out to the barn, saddled Ash, tied the body over the saddle, grabbed a shovel and led the horse down the path, through the dead town. When he finally stopped he could see that same light coming from above the ridge.
* * *
In the morning the land looked like a different world: bright orange and red rock, and dirt everywhere. Only at the house were there a couple scraggly trees and bushes; otherwise the land was bare of any vegetation. It was lonely, Ross thought as he fed Ash. There was no other life that he could see. But there was life, because there was water. Adaline hauled it confidently from the spring, treading over the rocky soil without a hitch.
Suzanne had cooked potato hash, and though there wasn't any coffee the meal was fine.
Adaline sat in a chair, hands folded. Behind her the water bucket sat with the dipper, and farther off, the bed, made up neatly. The little house was quiet and cozy, everything straight and in order, just like in the barn. It wasn't a man's house at all.
"Mind if I ask," Ross said, stretching, "you in need of anything?"
Suzanne stared at her. "No. We're just fine."
"I only asked—wouldn't you be safer back home?"
"Maybe." Suzanne scraped a dish. "Don't know. Home, everyone wants us to get married, have children, you know. We don't want that." She stared at him. "We're not hiding anything."
"So Al wasn't right?"
Suzanne stared at the floor, and Ross instantly regretted saying anything.
"No, he wasn't. We don't know a thing. Honest." Her eyes had deepened to pools, imploring.
He nodded. He couldn't do more than take them at their word, and they had given him no reason to doubt their words. "I best be going." Ross stood. "Thank you misses, both of you, for everything. I'm sorry about what happened."
"Thank you," Adaline said. Ross nodded. After last night, he wondered if maybe they could survive out here.
"We're obliged to you," Suzanne said. "You're welcome back."
He nodded and swung his hat onto his head.
Suzanne followed him to the door. When Ross looked back he saw her, and behind her Adaline, a shadow in the shadows, watching.
The morning was still cool, and he filled his now two canteens at the spring. As he walked back to the barn he saw the land spread out before him in gradually flattening mountains of orange dirt. North, west, south, east: nothing but orange-red dirt and rocks.
He saddled Ash, waved to Suzanne who still stood on the porch, and mounted.
He pushed Ash while the sun wasn't high in the sky, up and up narrow gravelly paths and around rocks, then down around squat pine trees. The land seemed to go on forever, dry and dusty, flat and lined with sage and pine brushes.
And then he saw it: grass. And with it, a stream.
He would make Bishop in a few hours. He planned to stay with Darrel two to three weeks, as long as it took for Clara to heal up, and then head back to New Mexico. And he might just pass through this way again, if only to make sure another Al Franklin hadn't come back to the abandoned town to search for ore.
Erin Donoho has an M.F.A in Creative Writing from Arcadia University, and has had a short story and a collection of
poems published in Metonym, as well as short stories published in Marathon, the Blue Lake Review, and AZE.
She resides in California, and besides writing enjoys studying history and psychology and getting lost in music. Her
website is erindonoho.com.
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by Clay Gish
"Oh, hell no." Pounding hooves sent vibrations through her feet—fast riders bearing down. Mary snatched the water bucket from a drinking horse and heaved her massive body up onto the stagecoach seat. "Yee haw!" At the flick of her whip, Jim, the lead horse snorted and surged forward, pulling the others with him.
Spying a rocky outcropping up ahead, Mary drove the team over the hardscrabble terrain toward shelter. She yanked the reins with all her might to stop the coach. The frightened horses stamped their feet in confusion, raising dust around them. Stomping her boot on the reins, Mary wrestled them under control. "Shush, babies. Sweet apples waitin' for us at home." Once the horses settled, she checked the chambers of her Smith and Wesson .38 revolver and cocked the hammers of the double-barrel shotgun stretched across her lap. "Come on boys. I'ma waitin' for ya."
Three horsemen charged past her hiding place at blinding speed. Mary chuckled, "Too hellbent to notice my dust. They'll be 'cross the Canadee border before they knows they passed me."
She wiped the sweat from her neck with a big red handkerchief. Breathing deep, Mary tried to calm her pounding heart. "Thankee, rock," she patted the mound in gratitude. These three rocky mounds stood out like moles on the back of the flat prairie. The gold stubble of late summer grasses stretched to the horizon. Even as sundown neared, the hot sun roasted the earth and filled her nostrils with the smell of burnt grass.
Mary waited behind the rocks until she could longer hear their hooves, and then snapped the reins. She trotted her team out and back along the road to Cascade. "Ha! No loot for you Johnson boys today. Think I don't recognize you? Fools, ain't even payday at Montana Mines for another two weeks."
An unsettling thought jolted through her mind. Shoot, 'spect they'll be back for it. I been fearin' gangs outta the Dakota Badlands; not local boys. Lord, I hopes you keep watchin' out for me.
* * *
After dropping off the mail bags at the post office in town, Mary swung the stagecoach toward Sun River Valley. She dropped one envelope onto the seat next to her. In fancy handwriting, the envelope bore the name Amadeus Dunne, Mother Superior of Ursuline Convent, St. Peter's Mission. Mary could not bring herself to call her friend Amadeus "mother," though the young priest and all the nuns did. The Blackfoot children and their parents at the mission school did, too.
I ain't callin' no skinny white woman "mother." 'Specially not one no older than me. Now back in Ohio when they called her sister, that made sense.
Mary and the horses eased into a steady rhythm as they headed home. Maybe some days hard, Lord, but this place suits me. I'm a free woman traveling 'cross the prairie 'neath this big, big sky.
As she pulled into the mission's yard, a dozen or so children raced toward her. Jumping off the coach, Mary handed the reins to an older boy. "Give 'em extra feed, Mingan. They earned it."
"Mary! Mary!" the younger children shouted. Shy little Kanti hid behind Mary and tugged on her pants leg. Mary scooped up the girl and raised her high in the air. "My lil' songbird. Fly, fly, fly." The child giggled as Mary spun her, while the others jumped up and down, pleading, "Me next! Me next!"
"Have to go and see Amadeus first, young'uns." Mary strode into the mother superior's office, forgetting to knock as usual.
"Welcome home, Mary," Mother Amadeus said with a smile. "Did they keep you in Great Falls for a while?"
"Nah. My friends just poured the drink a tad too much last night. I fell to sleep right there in that saloon chair."
Amadeus raised an eyebrow. "Mary Fields, how long have we known each other now? I keep praying you'll mend your ways."
"Nigh on twenty-five years; ever since I high-tailed it out of slavery. Amadeus, you know'd I'm a drinkin' woman when you asked me to come with you to Montana, so don't be fussin' on me now."
Mary pulled the letter out of her pouch. "I've a letter for you, Sister."
"Thank you, Mary." Amadeus broke the seal and opened the envelope. She said with a sigh, "Bishop Brondel is coming for a visit in a fortnight."
"That good or bad?"
"Well, we will see," she smiled at Mary and tossed the letter aside. "For now, let's think about dinner."
"Those sweet peas in my garden ripenin' up nice. I'll check 'em."
"Lovely. Please take them to the cook."
Mary strode out to her garden—her pride and joy. She had planted corn, beans, potatoes, squash, and sweet peas. Vegetables earned priority, but she had reserved one corner of the garden for a rose bush. Deep red blooms brightened the monotonous landscape that surrounded the mission. Gently, she plucked a bloom for the dinner table. Ah, sweet Jesus, thankee for these flowers. I don't even mind the thorns. Something this beautiful got to protect herself.
After she dropped off the basket of peas in the kitchen, Mary headed to her room in the back of the convent. Though a big, big woman, Mary thought this tiny room suited her. Small and simple; all I need. She tidied herself up a bit and set aright the few things out of order in her immaculate room. A day like today deserves a bit of whiskey. Amadeus will have my hide if I drinks it here, though. No matter. I'll join the boys later down at the saloon.
At dinner, Mary sat at a long table with the nuns. The half-dozen children who lived at the mission sat at another table. Most of the mission's students lived in the nearby Blackfoot village, where they now enjoyed dinner with their own families. Those young'uns without family, they's just like me. They'd be alone in this world if not for the kindness of Amadeus and the nuns.
After dinner, Mary hitched up Jim for the ride into town. "You enjoy your dinner and a nice nap? We'll stride easy tonight, Jimbo. No sense jarring these ole bones of ours."
Stars glittered across the enormous expanse of black sky that arched over the flat prairie. Wish I know'd stories like some folks do about the jumbles of stars that stand together. God done covered all the peoples of His earth with a big cozy blanket. A buffalo blanket, maybe.
* * *
"Howdy, boys!" Mary swung open the saloon doors and marched up to the bar.
A chorus of men welcomed her, "Hey, Mary."
"Whiskey neat, Jake." She pulled a half-smoked cigar from her pocket and struck a match. Savoring the cigar with deep satisfaction, she surveyed the room. In a corner, she spotted the Johnson boys. They sat glumly at a table playing cards with a few others. Losing by the look of it.
"Jake, send one over to the Johnson boys on me. They look like they be needin' it."
Jake nodded. "Them boys been sinkin' deep since they pappy died last fall. Their ranch 'bout ready to go bust 'cause of this drought and young Gus's gambling. That boy either stupid or unlucky. Most likely both."
"Well, hard times can scramble your head and lead a body to the damnedest foolishness."
When Jake brought them their drinks, the Johnson crew looked over at Mary in surprise. She raised her glass in salute.
* * *
"Mary, you'll need to pick up Bishop Brondel from the Great Falls rectory after you've loaded up the mail," Amadeus told her.
"He's comin' today?"
"I'm afraid so. Please don't keep him waiting long. I'd rather he not be in a foul temper when he arrives. He can be a bit snippy when peeved."
"Yes'm. I'll deliver him right gentle and timely."
True to her word, Mary headed straight for the rectory after picking up the mail and the Montana Mining Company payroll. She took a bit of time arranging it all to make sure the bishop had a comfortable seat inside the stagecoach.
Brondel waddled out of the rectory and motioned Mary to pick up his bag. Obliging, she followed the rotund little man back to the stagecoach and slung his bag onto the roof. Sissy man, wearin' that long black dress, dinky cap, and prissy pink shoes.
Though Mary had placed a wooden box in front of the stagecoach cabin, Brondel had difficulty maneuvering himself into the coach seat. Seeing him struggle, Mary gave his butt a boost.
"Sorry, Reverend. Just tryin' to help you up."
"That's Bishop, thank you. And kindly keep your hands to yourself."
Mary shrugged and slammed the door after him. Settled on her perch atop the stagecoach, she clicked her tongue and the team set off.
Leaning toward the coach window, Mary shouted, "So what brings you out this way, Reverend . . . er Bishop?"
"I plan to visit every church and mission under my jurisdiction in this newly minted State of Montana. This congregation is growing so fast and far, I need to set strong standards at the outset."
"You'se got a lot of ground to cover, sir. Montana's spread tall and wide."
"How long until we reach Cascade?"
"Twenty-six miles, should take no more than five hours." I'd make it in four if I didn't have to worry about bumping your sorry ass.
When the bishop closed the coach shades, effectively cutting off conversation, Mary happily turned her attention back to the road and her own musings. The road ran alongside the Missouri River and occasionally through tall fields of wheat. Mostly, though, the surrounding landscape was simply prairie: wild grasses, wildflowers, and golden sod.
* * *
About half way through their journey, Mary spotted a dust cloud on the road up ahead. Horses. Queasiness churned her gut and rose up her throat. She spit hard to relieve the sour taste of fear.
"Hellfire damnation, those goddamned Johnson boys done got the date right." Anger flooded her brain—anger at them for doing this; anger at herself for spotting them too late. Leaning over the edge, she yelled through the coach window, "Reverend, duck down your head real low and don't say a word."
"Woman, stop taking the Lord's name in vain. And what on earth are you jabbering about?"
"Robbers, man. Here they come!"
Three riders bore down on the coach. In a swirl of dust, she steered the team a sharp left and shot her revolver into the air to warn them off. Instead, all three fired at the stagecoach and kept coming faster. Mary felt a sharp sting on her arm when a bullet grazed her. Ignoring it, she aimed her shotgun at the nearest rider. The retort echoed across the prairie as the rider fell and his horse sped away. Mary leveled her .38 at a second rider, who screamed as her bullet pierced his shoulder. The third rider circled the coach, trying to grab Jim's bridle.
"Yee haw!" Her team surged forward away from the robber's grasp. He charged after her, firing his .45. As his horse overtook the coach, Mary zinged a bullet into the rider's thigh. Yelping like coyote pups, the two robbers sped off toward the hills.
Slowing the team, Mary turned the coach around. The fallen rider lay at an odd angle. Not sure if he was dead or dying, Mary hauled herself off the coach and checked for any signs of life.
"He's breathin', but it ain't gonna be for long if I don't get him to the doctor. Reverend! Get out here. I'ma needin' your help."
The bishop peered fearfully out of the window, his pink cap barely visible.
"We gotta load this boy into the coach. You can sit up top with me."
Too frightened to not do as told, the bishop opened the door and came over to Mary.
"Pick up his feet. I'll get his shoulders and we'll lift him into the coach." Mary settled the man on the coach floor, and then pulled off the handkerchief covering his face.
"Joseph Johnson. Now why'd you go an' make me do that? I didn't wanna hurt ya." He was the youngest of the Johnson brothers. She had always liked him.
Joseph's eyes fluttered. "Mary, I'm sorry . . . "
"Shush, chile. Save your strength."
Shutting the coach door, she barked at the bishop, "Get your ass up on the coach, Reverend." Try as he might, the fat little man could not pull himself up. Mary roughly shoved him upward.
Hauling herself up after the bishop, Mary grabbed the reins and set off at a brisk pace.
Two hours later, she pulled into Cascade. The wheels had barely stopped turning when she jumped down and ran for the doctor. Doc Sandberg hurried after her, and they carried the Johnson boy inside his office.
"I'll be honest with you, Mary. It don't look good. Go on home and I'll send word out one way or another."
She would have stayed, but Mary had to deliver Bishop Brondel to the mission safe and sound or there would be hell to pay.
* * *
Mary answered the door to the sheriff's knock.
"I'm sorry, Mary, the Johnson boy didn't pull through," he said. "Doc told me you tried to save him."
"I sure didn't wanna shoot that boy," Mary hung her head mournfully.
"Well, you did right. I've a warrant out for the other two. I hear you got a shot into them boys, too. I'll let you know if they turn up."
Mary closed the door behind the sheriff and dragged herself toward her room. Passing Amadeus's office, she heard raised voices inside.
"I cannot turn her out," Amadeus insisted.
Brondel blustered, "She dresses like a man and swears like an infidel! Blasphemy, it is. She's vile and violent. And then there's the whiskey and cigars!"
"I owe Mary my life. When I had the ague and thought for sure God meant the fever to take me, she nursed me back to health. She stayed by my bedside day and night. Bishop, she helped build this mission with her own hands. I cannot abandon her."
"Your mission is to bring the word of God to the heathens. Those children should be filling the rooms, not a black woman of ill repute."
"Mary may not be a saint, but she certainly is not of ill repute! There is not one citizen in this community nor one child in this school who does not love Mary."
"It's final. I want that so-called woman out of this mission. And I want those children here in this school permanently and away from that heathen village."
Amadeus's voice rose higher in alarm, "You mean to take the children away from their families?"
"That is exactly what I mean. How can we hope to mold them into righteous Christians if we do not remove evil influences? Mary Fields, heathen Indians—I want them away from this mission and away from these impressionable children. If you cannot run this mission properly, others will. Or I will close it entirely and the failure will be yours."
Brondel yanked open the door and stormed past Mary. She stood there with her mouth gaping in disbelief.
"What kinda man takes young'uns from they mammies and pappies?" Mary said as much to herself as to Amadeus.
"Mary," Amadeus began gently, "the bishop's intentions are good, though his methods may not be what you or I would choose. He doesn't know these families like we do."
"You sho 'nuf right there. Babies belong with their kin," Mary asserted.
Amadeus nodded her agreement and slipped her arm around Mary's shoulders. "Mary, the bishop insists that you cannot live here. I don't want to see you leave. This house has been your home as much as the sisters." Wiping away a tear, Amadeus straightened her back. "Mary, I have to choose between you and the school."
Mary jutted out her chin. "Don't worry 'bout me, Amadeus. I'll find rooms in Cascade or build me a place out
on the prairie." As she walked toward her room, the corridor seemed long, the walls too close. The air itself
weighed heavy, pulling down her head and shoulders. In her room, she touched the crucifix on the wall. Did
you feel this alone, Jesus? You damn better stick with me, Boy. Long time since Mary been alone.
* * *
Long slow months dragged themselves into a year. Mary had not seen Amadeus nor much of anyone else since the burial. The weight of the boy's life had placed a heavy burden on her soul. On the stagecoach, fear and sadness now seemed as familiar companions to her as Jim and the other horses in her team. Building a cottage on the prairie had helped ease her mind a bit.
On her last mail delivery to the mission, Mary stammered out an invitation to Amadeus. "Done finished my house, Sister. If you be so inclined, maybe you could come bless it?"
"Mary, dear, I've no doubt the Lord has already blessed you and your home. I'd love to visit with you, though."
Just days before the visit, Mary painted the door to the cottage rose red, her favorite color. It had taken her some time to allow herself any brightness.
When Amadeus knocked, Mary opened the door to her first visitor with a self-conscious smile. "Welcome, Sister."
Offering Mary a basket of cornbread and a small potted rose bush, Amadeus entered the tidy cottage. "It's homey and warm, Mary. You've made a lovely home for yourself."
"Thankee, Amadeus. You're welcome any time. This here rose will be the first thing in my new garden. Beans and peas and such can come after."
"Mary, perhaps you can no longer live at the mission, but no one said you couldn't still come there and spend time with us. The children miss you, especially little Kanti. The sisters miss you. I miss you."
Mary sighed. "Ole Mary ain't been good company. Them babies need to laugh and play, not see my sorry face."
"Oh, Mary, please believe I still love you as my sister. I'm sorry the bishop forced me to choose between my duty to you and to the children."
"I'm sorrowful, Amadeus, because of that boy's life. I don't hold nothin' against you. You chose right."
Amadeus touched Mary's cheek. "You chose right, too. You did your job, Mary. You saved the goods you carried and the bishop—ungrateful though he was. And you tried your best to save that boy."
Before Amadeus left, she pleaded with Mary, "Please come to dinner next week. I'll tell cook to make all your favorites."
Mary nodded slowly. "Yes'm. I will."
Standing outside her cottage, Mary watched as Amadeus's carriage faded into the distant light. She felt the warm rays of the day's waning sun on her face. She gazed at the little rose pot she held in her hand. Maybe, Lord, you'll bless ole Mary with a new garden?
Digging a hole, Mary gently set the plant down into it. She retrieved ash from her fireplace and sprinkled it around the roots before filling in the hole with dirt. That'll feed you, little rose, and help you grow.
Two fat buds looked ready to sprout. Stroking a tender bud, Mary smiled. A tiny, slender thorn pricked her thumb. "Ouch! Little rose, your thorns as sharp as a kitten's claws. No mind. Something as beautiful as you got to protect herself."
As a historian and adjunct professor, Clay Gish designed museum exhibits, taught American history, and published
scholarly articles on child labor during the industrial revolution. Since retiring, Clay has written the award-winning
travel blog, www.thisthursdayschild.com. Recently, she
turned her hand to fiction with an emphasis on historical narrative.
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The Funeral Suit
by Bobby Mathews
Madge took one look at the old man and shook her head. Cullen Grayson wore a black broadcloth suit twenty years out of style, with a celluloid collar and black string tie. Not a speck of dust on the suit, not a hair out of place. The guns were freshly oiled as they always were, one tied down to his skinny thigh, the other set for a cross-draw on his ornately carved leather gun belt. Cullen climbed the steps into the Bon-Ton restaurant with his customary uneven gait. People said a Shoshone bullet had ruined one of his knees in a raid down in the Nevada territory years ago, but Madge wasn't sure. They said a lot of things about Cullen Grayson. Maybe some of them were even true.
"Good morning," she said after Cullen had tottered unsteadily inside and made his way to a table in one corner. Madge regarded him with the same level of distrust one might have for a dog with a questionable reputation. With his back against the walls, the old man seemed to relax a little. He took off his hat and placed it in the chair beside him.
Cullen nodded curtly and said thank you when she brought him a cup of scalding hot coffee. He shifted in his seat, easing his six-shooters into a more comfortable position. Madge thought of her own gun, then. The big dragoon Colt was too heavy for her. She'd probably break her wrist if she ever fired it. But the thing worked well as a club, and she'd used it to mediate several disputes between drunken cowboys and miners, dropping the heavy barrel upside the offending party's head and looking on as he was dragged from the restaurant.
Madge didn't ask Cullen how old he was. It was impossible to tell. He was the oldest man in the Basin, certainly. And today he had put on his only suit and come to town to pay for it, just as he'd been doing for the last ten years.
* * *
Cullen poured a splash of coffee into the saucer on the table and blew on it. He lifted the saucer with a liver-spotted hand that barely shook at all and sipped. He made a face, and sipped again. Outside, the sun had finally broken over the Big Horns and the day looked bright and alien, like all the days that came before and all of the ones that would come after. Cullen's pale green eyes stared out at the street. It would start any minute now. He flexed his hands, tried to keep the tremors in check. He could remember when his hands had been fine and supple, nimble and long-fingered. Before he came west. In another life—whatever and whoever he had left behind—Cullen could have been a musician, could have been something or someone else.
Wishful thinking. He had always been the man with the gun.
Cullen had never meant for it to happen, had never meant to earn his reputation as a gunfighter. It felt like something that had simply happened to him. He had stood waist-deep in the river of time and watched everyone and everything he had ever loved be carried away by invisible currents he could not control. There'd been a few scrapes, and he survived them. That was all. Five years before, some dime novel writer had come out here to this arid, remote place and found him. What was the fellow's name? Cullen couldn't remember, and maybe it didn't matter anyway. The writer asked him how many men he had killed.
Cullen had made a mistake then. He'd answered truthfully: He didn't know. However many it had been, there were five more since.
* * *
Madge watched Cullen the way she might've observed a snake dying in the street with its back broken from a passing wagon wheel. He was thin to the point of emaciation, barely more than a skeleton. What inner fire kept him on his feet, kept him coming to town in that ridiculous suit year after year, she could not know. Heat radiated off of him like a sickness. The tails of his suit coat drooped around his hips and his trousers puddled in his lap. The collar of his shirt gapped at his neck. If you could look past the lines that had grooved themselves into his face, Cullen Grayson looked like a little boy playing dress-up in his father's clothes. Only his guns looked new, and that was because he treated them like royalty.
Cullen didn't look up. He kept his eyes on the bright and dusty street just outside. From inside the restaurant, the street looked far more vivid, brighter and somehow more real than the tables covered in gingham cloth and the ghostly glowing whitewashed walls. Madge thought that Cullen—this Cullen, the one she could touch and see and hear—held himself in some kind of stasis. He came alive only when he strode to the middle of the street, with his guns tied down and his hat pulled low over his eyes.
They heard the challenger coming, boot heels chocking on the boardwalk, the jingle of spurs playing counterpoint to the percussion of the steps.
Madge tried to ignore it.
"You want some breakfast? You look like you could eat."
Cullen stared at the street. He rose, put on his hat, and nodded to Madge.
Madge pulled in all of the breath she could muster. It wasn't her business, and yet she could not help herself.
"You don't have to do this. You don't."
Cullen flashed a smile, and in that moment, Madge could see the man he had been twenty, maybe thirty years before.
"Yeah," he said in a tone that brooked no argument. "I do."
* * *
"Did you ken him?" Cullen's voice was low, filled with an almost holy wonder in the aftermath. He had survived again. He sat at the table in the corner, just as he had before. Outside, men had gathered around the lifeless body of the loser and tended to him. Soon the undertaker's hearse would come. Someone would throw fresh dirt over the blood on the ground, and the townspeople would come out again. When it was time. When it was safe.
"It looked like Tyler Garth's boy," Madge said. She brought Cullen a plate of baking powder biscuits and bacon.
Cullen didn't say anything. He had known Tyler Garth since the man had moved to town, known the son since he was a boy in short pants. Paul had been a good boy, a smart boy. What in the hell had set him on the path to challenge Cullen?
There was no way to tell. He knew that. Boys—young men, Cullen supposed—were prone to deviltry. No one had forced Paul to step into the street. He could remember being that age, young and full of fire like a kerosene lamp turned as bright as it would go. The problem with that bright heat was that it would burn away. Cullen had seen it many times over the years; gunfighters, cowboys, miners, lawmen, and outlaws burning with white-hot rage. They slapped leather and died, made too slow and clumsy in their haste to raise the gun and shoot, or else they were too afraid, too fight-sick in their fear and they missed their first shot.
They often didn't get another.
Cullen was the opposite. Stalking into the street turned him cold and allowed him to peel back the layers of his humanity, leaving nothing more than the remorseless reptile of his soul. There was a nearly sexual tension he felt in those moments, a thing he would not have admitted to anyone. The gun came up and settled in his palm, walnut grips worn smooth to the contours of his hand by years of long practice. It exploded, the round surging forward toward his opponent. Sometimes in the moments after, when he stood in the sun-drenched street with the sweat ringing the armpits of his snowy white shirt and the dust billowing around him like a living thing and the other man lay dead or dying in the dirt, Cullen felt as spent as the shell he calmly ejected from the six-shooter's cylinder and replaced. He always felt dirty afterward, like he had when his mother had found him with his hands down his pants. There was a sensation of disgust as he put the pistol away. A hateful thing to be used only rarely.
* * *
Madge poured more coffee for the old man, steam rising from the delicate china cup. He still didn't want anything to eat, but she buttered two thick slices of sourdough bread and put them on the table in front of him. He broke the bread with long-fingered hands that used to be elegant. Now they were knotted at the knuckles and nearly skeletal in-between. His hands trembled as he ate, and crumbs fell onto the front of his fine black suit.
Rodriguez filled the doorway. He moved deliberately, so that they could see him coming. Neither fast nor slow. He wore moccasins, buckskin pants, and a homespun shirt. His dark, wavy hair fell past his shoulders, and his wide black hat hid most of his face from the sun. If he had a gun, Madge couldn't see it. Sean Rodriguez was not yet thirty years old, the only son of a Mexican horse-breaker and an Irish immigrant, with his father's dark eyes and his mother's pale skin. He took his hat off when he came inside, and Madge busied herself with sweeping at a spot on the floor she'd cleaned twice already that morning so that he wouldn't catch her looking at him. Sean had always wanted the wild life of the mountains and streams. He hunted cougars that preyed on cattle, and sometimes he hunted men, too. Madge had no idea where or how he lived; she only knew that being with Sean Rodriguez had filled her with a longing that she couldn't quite explain.
Rodriguez brushed Madge's arm with the tips of his fingers, and she turned away as he approached Cullen, who lifted a hand in greeting. Neither of them offered to shake hands, but Rodriguez pulled a chair out from the table and sat opposite the old man, putting his back to the open room.
Madge brought coffee.
"There's not going to be trouble in here," she told them. It wasn't a question. She kept her voice as flat and hard as the street outside. She filled Rodriguez's cup without looking at him. Nearly jumped out of her skin when he turned his face toward her. She remembered that face in the dark, her mouth tracing the shape of his again and again until everything had become too much and crashed over them both.
"No trouble, just a conversation. Would you get me some of that bread, maybe a couple eggs?"
Madge nodded and moved off toward the kitchen.
"How you doing, Mr. Grayson?"
"Good days, bad days. It's my birthday, you know. Day like this, I feel like I could live forever."
"Happy birthday,"Rodriguez said. The words were automatic, something to say as he studied Cullen, taking in the shirt collar that no longer fit, the sagging skin of the old man's cheeks and neck, the tremor in his hands. The snowy white shirt frayed slightly at the cuffs of his sleeves, and crumbs of bread held onto the front of Cullen's suit coat like shipwreck survivors clinging to the wreckage.
"How old are you now?"
Cullen started to answer, but then he had to give it some thought. He raised the coffee cup to his mouth while he considered. Swallowed, put the cup back down gently on the table, and wiped his nicotine-stained mustache with a shaking finger.
"Close as I can figure it, I'm seventy-eight," he said. "Mama and Daddy came into this country in the first wave, spent their nights in a covered wagon while he built a 'dobe. I was born the next year, old Tewa woman was midwife."
Rodriguez grinned at him, a flash of white, even teeth that nearly glowed in the gathering gloom of the restaurant.
"She tell your mama that you were going to live forever?"
"Nobody ever told me. But I lived this long." Cullen said. He ate the last of his bread. He wiped his hands with a linen napkin, finally noticed the crumbs on his suit, and brushed them to the floor. Sean Rodriguez put his elbows on the table and steepled his fingers together.
"Not much longer, though, huh? You got the sickness in you, I can see it. Where does it hurt, your gut?"
Cullen's face went pale underneath the permanent burn that the elements had weathered into his skin. He ran a finger along the celluloid collar of his shirt where it gapped enough that he could fit two fingers in there to touch the wattled skin.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Rodriguez plucked a piece of dust from the knee of his buckskins and flicked it away. He didn't want to look at Cullen. The old man was in bad shape, anyone could see that. He didn't know how much hate Cullen must have salted away in his spirit, but it must have been enormous. Maybe it was some kind of Hopi medicine that kept Cullen breathing from year to year, but it was only in those moments on the street with the sun on his face and the permanent shadow of death at his back when he truly came alive.
And everyone else paid for it.
"Go home," Madge said. She'd come up to them quietly, but her voice was high with anger and fear. "You've already killed one boy today. Isn't that enough? How many more are you going to kill?"
Cullen sat quiet, closed his eyes and tilted his chair backward until he was able to lean the back of his mostly bald head against the whitewashed wall. He looked comfortable, like a man at ease and ready for an afternoon nap. But his hands never strayed far from his gunbelt.
"All of them," he said. "Every one of them who stands against me."
Madge looked at Rodriguez then. He shrugged. She went back to the counter and stayed there.
"I don't want to be the one to stop you," he said. "I've known you all my life."
Cullen grinned without opening his eyes.
"You can't stop me. It ain't my time yet."
He sounded so sure of himself, Rodriguez thought. Of course, all of those men that Cullen had killed had been sure that they would be the one standing after the guns talked loud. Everyone was sure of themselves until they weren't. And sometimes it was too late and you were lying on the ground with dirt in your mouth and blood on your clothes and your life force racing away like the sun chased from the sky by the coming night.
How long had it been since Cullen had felt fear, the real thing, the prickling in your spine and the heavy racing gallop in your heart when death was around the corner or worse yet looking you in the eye? Rodriguez, who lived out in the mountains and hunted big cats and wolves and anything else that threatened his employer's stock, had lived with fear so long that it felt like an old friend. He recognized and welcomed it, channeled it into something useful. A sign that he was still alive. And Madge . . . Rodriguez glanced at her. A woman alone on what still passed for the frontier, where the Chiricahua had raided only a short time before. She'd come West with her husband, but he had died somewhere on the mountain near Ten Sleep. Was Madge afraid? Rodriguez thought that she must be. She was a woman alone in the vastness of this high desert plateau. Her fear was probably greater—or at least different—than his own. He wished that whatever they started that night near the canyon had led to something more, but he didn't know how to say that, didn't know what words he needed to lasso her.
Everyone thought Madge was a dance-hall girl, a sportin' woman who would take a walk upstairs with anyone. Rodriguez wasn't sure about that. If it was true, did it change the way he felt about her? He didn't know. All Rodriguez had ever seen in Madge was a woman who kept her restaurant open and fought like hell to survive.
Maybe that was all any of them had. Survival.
* * *
"You so anxious to die, Sean? Lot of country left to see." Cullen opened his eyes and cut them toward Madge. "Seems a young man like you should be at home with a woman. You don't want the reputation that comes from killing me."
Madge sat a little apart from the men, trying to ignore them. She'd left the coffee pot on the table between them. She polished the restaurant's silverware and folded the white linen napkins. Her fingernails were bitten down to the quick, and every now and then she would worry at one with her small, sharp front teeth. Did Rodriguez even have a gun? Madge couldn't see it if he did, but it might be stuck in his waistband. Not every man wore a holster, let alone two of them like Cullen. She wished she knew. She wished Cullen would go home. She wished Sean had never come to town. She wished. The idea stopped her cold. Madge never wished for anything. She couldn't afford to.
Why now? Why today?
Rodriguez put his hands on the table between him and Cullen. His fingers were long with scarred and knobby knuckles, but his nails were clean and neatly trimmed. He held Cullen's gaze without flinching.
"I don't want a reputation. I don't want to kill you, and I don't want you to kill me. I want you to go home."
Cullen shook his head like a man trying to clear away a pesky gnat. He pushed forward in his seat and put his forearms on the table. Around them the restaurant was dim and cool. The warm whiff of freshly baked biscuits and honey seemed to linger in the air. It was a fine aroma, maybe the best thing Cullen had ever smelled. If they would leave him alone, he could sit here all day, drink coffee, and watch the afternoon slide by like the shadows on the wall.
"I'll go home when I'm done," he said. His voice was mild, soft in the quiet dining room, but there was no mistake. He was resolute. He would not be moved, he would not be hurried, he would not turn from his burden.
"Mr. Grayson. Cullen." Madge's face wore a look of surprise, as though she hadn't realized that she was going to speak. "Please stop this. Go home. Haven't you killed enough? Aren't you tired of it by now? Why can't you just die and leave us alone."
Cullen stared at Madge, his face bone white save for two spots of color high on his cheekbones.
"If a man spoke to me that way, I would have gunned the son of a bitch down."
"If I were a man, I'd walk out in the street and shoot you myself."
Cullen shot to his feet, tottered, and had to place his palms on the table to regain his balance. Madge rose and moved toward the counter, her long skirt whispering along the floor. Rodriguez stood, too. He placed himself between the old man and the woman. Dust motes floated in a stray sunbeam and the ozone smell of anger and fear overpowered the scent of baking. Cullen started around the table, boot heels hard on the bare plank floor until he met Rodriguez's eyes.
He tried to sidestep Rodriguez, but the younger man stayed with him.
"You can't—" Rodriguez said, and Cullen went for his gun.
They were too close. Rodriguez hit Cullen with a big, work-hardened fist, hit him hard enough to split a knuckle on one of Cullen's jagged yellow teeth. The old man went down, flat on the floor, still scrambling for a six-gun that was held in place by a leather loop around the hammer of the gun. Cullen staggered up to his knees and finally made it to his feet, though he was listing badly to one side. Blood poured from a broken lip and pattered against the rough wood floor. He stared at Rodriguez with eyes that blazed like blue fire and touched his fingertips to his lips, the blood nearly glowing in the gloom.
"I'll kill you for that." Cullen spat more blood onto the floor and walked toward the batwing doors of the restaurant. His feet were loud. "I'll see you in the street, you goddamned dog."
"I'm not heeled. I'm not fighting you in the street. Those days are over. They've been over for a long time. Everyone knows it but you."
Rodriguez flexed his fist, watching the dribble of blood flow down the back of his hand. He picked up a napkin and absently wrapped his knuckles with it. Cullen paused at the door and turned toward him.
"I don't give a goddamn. I'll be in the street. Gun, no gun, I'll kill you on sight."
"Cullen, I said I'm not armed."
"I am." Madge didn't raise her voice. She didn't have to. Cullen turned to look at her standing there behind the bar and Madge was already shooting, the big Dragoon Colt braced in both hands. She fired once and the recoil of the big revolver knocked her back against the shelving where the good white plates sat stacked and waiting for a lunch and dinner crowd that would never come tonight as long as Cullen Grayson was there. A stack of them hit the the floor and shattered, but Madge didn't notice. She brought the Dragoon down once more and centered it on the thin old man silhouetted in the doorway, cocked, and fired again.
Cullen Grayson lay face up, the hot blue fire of his eyes faded to the color of worthless flawed sapphires. His boots scraped the hard wooden floor and he died looking up into the nothingness from where he could not return, with no word on his lips, no thought in his mind, and no breath in his lungs. He was dead before he knew it, the punctuation mark at the end of the long sentence of twenty or more men who had fallen by his gun.
* * *
Rodriguez approached Madge carefully, as though she were a newborn fawn. He took the gun from her hand gently, loosening her grip one slim finger at a time. He slid an arm around her waist. She looked up at him, dazed at what had happened, at what she had done. They stood there looking at the body for a long time until a young cowboy who could no longer stand the suspense sneaked up the boardwalk by crawling on his belly and eventually poked his head under the batwing doors. His eyes widened as he took in the sight of the legendary Cullen Grayson dead on the floor and Rodriguez with the gun in his hand. The cowboy yanked his head back as if he'd nearly been struck by a rattlesnake.
They could hear him yelling as he clopped away through the dusty street, screaming his fool head off for everyone to hear that Sean Rodriguez had up and killed Cullen Grayson. The old man was finally dead and they were free.
Bobby Mathews is a novelist and short-story writer based in Birmingham, Alabama, and survived a dirt-poor upbringing
by the grace of books and stories by Louis L'Amour, Elmer Kelton, Don Coldsmith, and Luke Short. His short fiction has
been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize, and he is the author of two novels: Living the Gimmick and Magic City Blues,
both published by Shotgun Honey Books. When he's not writing, Mathews is procrastinating.
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Wild Bill: Dead Man's Hand
by W. Wm. Mee
The original interview between gambler/gunman/adventurer James Butler Hickok and reporter/novelist/bullshitter Ned Buntline took place in the frontier town of Deadwood. At that time Deadwood was the Sodom and Gomorra of the 'Old West'; a lawless and godless gold mining town in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory.
As fate would have it, on August 2nd, 1876, just a few weeks after the interview, Hickok himself was killed in Nuttal & Mann's No. 10 Saloon; shot in the back of the head while playing poker by a cowardly little shit called Jack McCall. The cards he was holding at the time were aces and eights, all black—ever since then called the 'Dead Man's Hand'.
Ned Buntline, using a great deal of imagination and considerable 'poetic license', later went on to 'immortalize' the gunman's words and deeds in a series of dime novels that were a great success with, as Bill himself would have undoubtedly put it, those 'fancy dressed assholes back East'! What follows is a short exert from one of those dime novels.
* * *
Wild Bill's voice was gravelly from too much whiskey and too little sleep—yet his piercing blue eyes were still clear and bright and had had not yet started to deteriorate due to Glaucoma.
"Ya see, Mr. Butt-line, it don't really matter much if a feller's got one gun or two, or how fancy his pistola is or even how fast he clears leather with it," Wild Bill leaned closer to the reporter and fixed him with that famous steely stare. "What really matters, sir, is does the aforesaid shooter have the balls to actually stand there n' take proper aim while the other feller's shootin' at him!"
Bill held his glass up to a vagrant shaft of sunlight that had somehow trespassed into the dimly lit saloon. The amber liquid seemed to catch fire. "And it is my experience, Mr. Butt-line, that very few men have the balls to do so."
Buntline, his whole obsession with the 'fast draw gunfighter' having suddenly been shattered, somehow managed to ask. "But—but isn't the fastest man always going to win?!"
Bill downed his drink and poured another before answering. As he did so those piercing blue eyes automatically scanned the room for any sign of trouble. As was his want, Wild Bill sat with his back to the wall, facing the salon doorway whenever he could. "Ned . . . ," he said, running the back of his hand over his ample moustache. "May I call you familiar, sir?"
"Why—I'd be honored, Mr. Hickok," Buntline replied, blushing slightly, his pencil poised.
"Well, Ned, it's like this. A fella that draws too fast is in an awful rush. His heart's poundin', his palm's sweatin' n' his breathin's bad. Most time he shoots low the first shot n' high the second. By the time he's ready for his third, I nail the bastard dead center."
"Right between the eyes?" Buntline asked, knowing his audience would love the gore.
Wild Bill downed his drink and smiled. "Hell no! Ned, only a damned id'jet tries fer a head shot when bracin' a fella intent on killin' him! No—I go for right here," he said, tapping himself in the center of his chest. "Either that or the gut. I leave the 'fancy' shootin' to fools, farmers—n' dime store novelists like yourself!"
"But, Mr. Hickok . . . ." Buntline said, still in shock.
"Ned," the long haired gunman said while refilling his glass: "Kindly favor me by calling me Bill."
Buntline nodded. "Bill? Certainly Mr. Hickok! But what if—Bill—the fastest man doesn't miss?!"
The twinkle was once again back in those piercing blue eyes. "Well then, Ned, I guess this big novel yer fixin' to write 'bout me will be a much smaller book."
Just then the saloon's double doors swing wide and two determined looking men burst in—both with weapons in their hands.
As Buntline was later to learn, these two were Frank and Cyrus Slatter from Dodge City, Kansas. The Slatter brothers were hard, mean, no-goods who consider themselves to be 'gunmen'—and often hired out as such to anyone willing to pay their price—which, as rumor had it, was none too high. Frank and Cyrus also had a younger brother named Albert. Now Brother Albert considered himself to be a true 'sporting man' and favored cards over guns—along with good whiskey and bad women. Unfortunately, during a friendly game of poker a week or so earlier, a fifth ace had miraculously turned up. A dispute arose, guns were drawn and Wild Bill had been forced to dispatch young Albert then and there. Witnesses said that Albert drew first, but that his shot went wide. Bill's however obviously hadn't. Apparently the Slatter brothers considered their younger sibling's death to be nothing short of murder and had rode over from Dodge seeking revenge.
On the long ride over they shared several jars of Kentucky moonshine they had brought along to both ward off the chill and shore up their courage. Now, standing in the muddy thoroughfare just outside of Nuttal & Man's No. 10 Saloon, they finished off the last jar. Both men had several weapons about their person, but each brother's preferred firearm was already in their hand as they entered the saloon.
Brother Frank carried a fairly new but poorly cared for .45 caliber Scofield Top-Break pistol that he'd taken off one of his victims. Brother Cyrus, always content to let Brother Frank do the 'up close killin', favored a Sharp's .50 caliber buffalo rifle for those longer, and considerably safer, shots. This time, however, Cyrus was both impatient and drunk, ('Never a good combination when any killing was planned,' Bill was later to remark). The elder Slatter, his massive rifle held ready, brushed by Brother Frank and into No. 10 Saloon.
* * *
Another factor that Wild Bill considered important about being a 'shootist' was distance—as in how far away you were from your intended 'target'. For Bill, who, in his 'latter days' was rumored to have suffered from failing eyesight, the closer the better.
"Ya see, Mr. Butt-line," Bill had told the eager young reporter at an earlier interview back when Bill was marshal of Abilene, Kansas: "Most fellers not only rush their shots n' don't aim proper, but they start shootin' from too damn far away!"
Bill's hand moved slightly and was suddenly filled with one of his legendary ivory handled Navy Colts. Like a slight of hand artist walking a silver dollar across his knuckles, Bill half cocked the long barreled revolver, rolled the fluted cylinder up his other forearm, twirled the gun twice in a glittering silver arc and, uncocking it, lovingly laid the weapon on the table before him.
"Most pistols, Ned, no matter how well made, are good for twenty, maybe thirty yards at best. After that, their accuracy goes all to hell. At fifty yards, most folks can't hit a barn door painted red. Now some fellers will claim they can shoot glass balls n' such when tossed in the air, but their either full of shit or they're usin' birdshot. Probably both!"
Nervous about offending Hickok, Buntline had licked his lips and posed his next question as delicately
as he could. "I'm sure my readers back East, ah, would be interested to hear about what you . . . ah, consider your 'best shot'—ah, if you don't mind, sir."
Bill suddenly leaned in close and smiled. "You askin' 'bout my 'best shot', Ned, or my 'longest' one?"
"Well, ah—would they not be one and the same?"
Bill shook his head, his long blond curls framing his weathered face. "No, sir, Ned! They are not the same thing t'all! I believe I made my longest shot back during the civil war. I was giving what little comfort I could to a wider lady when I heard a ruckus from out back in the henhouse. Lookin' out the winder, I saw that some lowlife rebel scum was stealin' the lady's chickens! I yelled at him to leave the foul be, but he foolishly chose to ignore my warning. It were fifty-six yards from that lady's bedroom winder to her chicken coop. The rebel thief, a bird under each arm, was attemptin' to climb over the back fence, so he was a might further. I needed three shots to bring him down—but bring him down I did!"
"You mean, Mister Hi—, er, Bill, that this 'feller' was unarmed and running away from you when you shot him?"
Bill downed his drink, flicked his trigger finger over both sides of his considerable moustache, and poured himself another drink. "He had a pistol on him but he was too occupied at the time to use it. However he was told to 'desist his thievery'. Besides, Ned, everyone know that a person who will steal a chicken will also steal a horse—n'a horse thief is the worst kinda feller!"
Buntline was scribbling furiously when Bill downed his drink and launched into his next tale.
"Now my best shot was just outside the Bore's Head Saloon in Hayes City, Missooua. That'n was well under thirty yards. Probably closer to twenty. I'd been playin' poker all night n' was goin' out fer a Sunday mornin' ride with a local lady when a mule skinner, drunk as a skunk n' twice as smelly, started shootin' at me right there in the crowded street! He was blastin' away with a big ol' Colt Dragoon, all the time yellin' 'bout how I had 'killed his little brother, Lenny.' I don't recall shotin' no Lenny, but then, ya never know—seein' as how there's been so many. Anyway, the damn muleskinner had already hit a stray dog, wounded two pedestrians and killed my horse—a beast that I had come to love n' cherish! Well, I'll be damned if the poor thing didn't fall right on me, pinnin' me to that muddy street! So there I was, my legs stuck under my dead horse, my pistol drawn, just waitin' for that sumovabitch to show his-self!"
Bill paused and leaned forward, as though he was about to impart an important secret. "Ned, that mule skinner was indeed one cowardly bastard, 'cause when he did show his-self round the rump of my dead horse, he was usin' a town woman as a 'shield'! She weren't no frail little granny, neither, but a well fed, church-goin' woman of considerable girth! With her long skirts n' crinolines n' such, there weren't a hellova lot o' that mule-skinnin' bastard showin'!"
Bill reached out, and grabbed the half empty bottle, splashed some of the amber liquid into Buntline's already full glass and filled his own to the brim. Downing it in one gulp, his recharged his again and set the bottle down, his other hand automatically flicking over his moustache in the process.
Buntline, his own drink forgotten, asked the obvious question. "What—what happened next?!"
Bill's blue eyes twinkled. "I shot the bastard in the head, naturally! My first shot blew off his left ear. When he jerked away, I nailed him with the second one right betwixt his eyes."
"But Bill! You might have hit the woman! How could you possible take such a chance?!"
Wild Bill's blue eyes suddenly went ice cold. "Ned. The bastard shot my horse!"
* * *
(Comment by Ned Buntline):
Yet another point of interest must be noted here for all the readers who hunger for the tiniest of minutia dealing with the 'Wild West'. Bill Hickok favored the 1851 model Navy Colt.
In the late 1860's and early 70's, when most hand guns were being converted from the time consuming 'cap and ball' revolvers to the much faster, self contained, breach loading brass cartridge, Wild Bill stuck with his old pair of Navy Colts.
The 'Navy' is a lighter, smaller handgun in .36 caliber, and, in Mr. Hickok's opinion, (backed up by numerous 'documented encounters' by this reporter), a smaller, lighter weapon allows a faster, smoother draw and, more importantly, a more accurate shot. The 'cap n' ball' revolvers such as Colt's Dragoons, the massive Walker and the 1860 Army, as well as all Remington's are either .44 or .45 caliber and kick like a mule. The newer, breach loading handguns, including the famous, short barreled 1873 'Peacemaker', though much faster to load, are also all .45's and just as prone to being inaccurate.
As Wild Bill once put it to this reporter over drinks in Tombstone Arizona:
'My brace o' Navy Colts served me well 'nough durin' the War. Kilt me more'n my share of rebel scum n' then some! Don't see no need to change somethin' that already works damned good! Besides, a smaller caliber don't, kick like a bastard, spoil a feller's aim n' need a damned fencepost to rest it on!"
* * *
Now, back to Deadwood and the Slatter Brothers at No. 10 Saloon.
On that hot, dusty day in late July, 1876, a very angry and very drunk Cyrus Slatter burst through the saloon's double doors, spied Wild Bill sitting at the far end of the rather long, crowded room, raised his .50 caliber buffalo gun and fired. The report of the massive weapon, especially from inside, struck the ears like a thunderclap!
The waitress screamed, the bartender swore and half the men present dove for the floor, while the other half went for their guns! Bill, it seemed, was the only one to stay calm, even though the large slug had whistled by his golden locks. The heavy bullet passed through the plank wall behind Bill, traversed the narrow alley and continued on through both the rear wall and the upper chest of Deadwood's only lawyer, P.F. Daghurt of Wichita Kansas. The above mentioned barrister was killed instantly.
Back in #10, slowly, almost casually, Wild Bill drew one of his legendary Navy Colts, aimed and fired. This reporter later paced out the distance and found it to be approximately fifty-five feet across a crowded, smoke filled room!
Frank Slatter, close on his brother's heels, saw Cyrus stagger back, drop his Sharps, gasp out a last breath, then crumple on top of his discarded rifle. In a white rage Frank raised his pistol and started walking briskly towards Wild Bill, firing as he came. Having his Scofield already drawn allowed Frank to miss not once, but thrice before Wild Bill aimed carefully and shot his second attacker squarely in his black heart.
As Wild Bill had explained earlier, Frank's stolen Scofield was a .45 and did indeed 'kick like a bastard'—and as such, helped to spoil his aim while Bill's lighter Navy's hadn't.
"Be thee 'fearless under fire', Ned, and thee shall prevail!" Wild Bill had once told Buntline. "I learned that fightin' bloody rebels in the late war. 'Course," he said with a twinkle in his sky blue eyes: "it never hurts to be a little lucky as well!"
Wayne Mee is a retired English teacher that has always loved writing. He has a number of his stories
and a novel self-published electronically, but nothing in the older, 'traditional way.'
He hopes you enjoyed meeting 'his Bill'.
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by Ralph S. Souders
The summer heat had arrived early in Colorado that year. The crops were already sown in the fields and the first plants were beginning to sprout. These gave the farmlands a soft, green tint when observed from the area roadways. This color would become darker as the growing season progressed and the plants grew larger. The rains to date had been more than adequate and Ben Watson was hopeful that this trend would continue. This was his first summer working his small farm south of Wide River. His property was leveraged at the bank, and he was hoping for a strong harvest to begin reducing some of his debt. Farming is a finicky business as even the best farmers are totally dependent on the weather, a force totally outside of their control. Ben was optimistic that the good weather would extend through the growing season. He was also a realist. He planned to continue working hard and hoped that he would have plenty of grain in storage come autumn.
Ben Watson had been in Wide River on business that morning. He had met with the bank to discuss a small, second loan to purchase some cattle. The property to the north of his farm was a small ranch owned by Will Dickerson, a middle-aged widower with no plans to remarry. Will's major focus in life was his property which he had named the Diamond D Bar Ranch. He had worked hard to make it prosperous. Will had recently offered Ben the opportunity to graze some cattle on the Diamond D Bar. Ben's cattle would carry a separate brand to distinguish them from the Dickerson herd. Ben was interested in this proposition, and he had prepared a short business plan for submittal to the bank. The bank seemed generally receptive to the idea. Ben was by no means fully leveraged with them and he anticipated their positive decision in the near term.
Following his meeting at the bank, Ben left his horse tied to the hitching post in front of the bank and walked up the dirt street to the Northern Lights Saloon. There he stepped onto the boardwalk before walking across it and entering the saloon through the swinging, wooden doors. He continued across the barroom floor until he reached the long, wooden bar located against the back wall. He felt excited and optimistic following his meeting at the bank and he was planning to celebrate with a couple glasses of whiskey before returning home. The bartender had seen him enter the room and was already positioned to pour him a drink.
"Afternoon, Charlie," said Ben. "Rye whiskey."
"Sure thing, Ben," he replied. Charlie immediately placed a clean glass on the bar and poured the drink. Charlie liked Ben. He gave his friend a generous pour.
"Thanks, Charlie," quipped Ben. "You're gonna empty that bottle right quick if you ain't careful."
"Don't worry," laughed Charlie. "That's a house pour. The top shelf bottles pour slower."
Ben smiled, enjoying the bartender's humor. He had already decided that he would limit himself to either two drinks or thirty minutes of time, whichever came first. He had promised his wife that he would return in time to complete a couple of projects on the farm that day. He liked to keep his promises.
As the bartender moved away to serve another customer, Ben noticed three cowboys standing together at the end of the bar. He had seen them in town previously, usually together but sometimes one or another would be by himself. He had never paid them much attention, but today he found himself focusing on one of the three, a taller man standing between the other two. The tall man's associates were gruff looking characters, both wearing dark clothes and black hats, and both in need of a shave and a haircut. The tall man was also wearing dark attire, but he was clean shaven, and his hair had been recently trimmed. His hat was a grey Stetson. All three men wore relatively new boots on their feet and .38 caliber handguns on their hips. Ben assumed that their horses were tied out front. Ben had never previously more than glanced at their faces. However, in taking a longer look today, he suddenly had the eirie feeling that he knew the tall man from somewhere. He was certain of this, but he could not immediately recall from when or from where. He began pondering this thought in his mind.
Before too long, the bartender returned. Ben quickly swallowed what remain of his first drink and watched as Charlie poured a generous refill. Charlie certainly knew how to take care of his friends.
"Thanks again, Charlie," said Ben. "I'm much obliged."
"It's nothing," replied Charlie. "It's great to see you. You should come around more often."
"Yeah, I wish I could," Ben agreed, "but my little farm keeps me busy. There's always something that needs doing. It's hard for me to get away."
Charlie nodded his head in understanding. He had never lived on a farm, and he could only imagine how much work was required in operating one. He admired the dedication that the area farmers showed in managing and maintaining their properties.
"Let me ask you something," said Ben, changing the subject while lowering his voice. "Who's the three cowboys drinking at the end of the bar? Do you know them?
"Not really," replied Charlie. "They come in here most afternoons. They don't talk much to anyone, just among themselves. They'll usually have several shots of whiskey and then they're on their way. Seems I heard they live on a ranch somewhere west of here, but I don't know exactly which one. Why do you ask?"
"Just curious, that's all," replied Ben. "Seems like I know the tall one from someplace, but I don't remember where. I'm probably mistaken. This wouldn't be the first time."
Charlie could tell by Ben's facial expression that his friend did not really believe that he was mistaken.
"Tell you what," said Charlie. "Let me poke around a bit and see what I can find out."
"No," admonished Ben. "That's not necessary. They don't appear to be the friendliest bunch. No need to stir up trouble. Leave it be."
"Don't worry about me," Charlie replied with a smile. "I'm good at this. It goes with my job. Come back here later and maybe I'll have your answer for you."
With that, Charlie walked away, needing to serve a couple of riders who had just entered the bar. Ben finished his drink and set his empty glass on the bar. He placed some money beside his glass. He waved good-bye to Charlie as he turned and headed toward the door.
"Thanks, Charlie," he called to his friend. "I'll try to stop by tomorrow. See you then."
Charlie nodded in affirmation as he prepared to pour the two riders their drinks.
Ben left the bar and walked back down the street, untied his horse and climbed onto the saddle. He pointed his mount in a southerly direction and rode out of town toward his farm. They would be home in thirty minutes. As the horse trotted through the countryside, Ben continued to think about the tall man in the saloon. There was something about him. If only he could remember.
That evening after completing his projects and eating dinner, Ben sat with his wife, Miriam, on the front porch of their small farmhouse. He was enjoying an after-dinner whiskey with a couple of hand rolled cigarettes. She was doing some sewing, repairing some of Ben's summer work shirts. She would begin making his winter shirts before too long. As they sat there in silence, enjoying the warm summer weather, Ben contemplated the tall man he had seen in the saloon that afternoon. It was a strange feeling, being certain that he recognized the man but not quite knowing where he had seen him. Upon retiring to bed that evening, he slept well but while awakening twice from a deep sleep, the first thoughts to enter his mind were of the tall man in the saloon. He was quickly becoming weary of this. Come morning, his inability to recall this detail was beginning to aggravate him, thus trying his memory further.
Throughout the morning while working in his field, Ben thought about the former times in his life. He had been in Colorado seven years including this one year on his own farm. Until recently, he had never seen this man locally. Previously, Ben had spent his teen years in Minnesota where he had lived with his uncle's family following the death of his father. He had no recollections of the tall man being in Minnesota. Prior to that, as a young boy, he had lived near Ottumwa, Iowa, but again, had no memory of seeing the tall man there either. Ben was becoming increasingly frustrated, and he tried unsuccessfully to divert his mind to other things. By mid-afternoon, with his chores for the day finished, he decided to ride into town and visit with his bartender friend, Charlie, as he had planned. He was interested to know if Charlie had investigated and learned anything about the three men who had been in the saloon yesterday. Ben was not expecting to find that Charlie had been successful.
As Ben arrived back in Wide River, he tied his horse to the hitching post in front of the Northern Lights and went inside. The saloon was not very crowded, but it was becoming late afternoon and the evening crowd would begin to accumulate before too long. As Ben walked across the floor toward the bar, Charlie saw him and placed a clean glass on the counter.
"Rye whiskey?" asked Charlie, already grabbing a bottle from the shelf."
"Yeah, of course," replied Ben a smile. "I reckon that's one thing that'll never change."
The bartender smiled in return and poured his friend a drink.
"Thanks, Charlie," said Ben as he took his first sip. Ben loved the taste of whiskey, and he briefly savored the bite of the liquid before swallowing. His face contained a contented smile.
"So, Ben," said Charlie, "I tried speaking with those three cowboys yesterday. They're not the friendliest bunch. They seem to be in their own gang."
"I'm not too surprised to hear that" replied Ben. "What happened?"
"When they were ready for another round of drinks, I approached them with the bottle in my hand and offered them a round on the house since they've become regular customers. They let me fill their shot glasses but instead of acknowledging the drinks or saying thanks, they stood there and stared at me, leaving the drinks setting on the bar. The expressions on their faces were cold and it appeared that they wanted me to mosey along. It was awkward and I wasn't sure what to do.
"Did you move along?" asked Ben.
"No, I stayed there and tried to start a conversation. I asked them where they were from. They told me Kansas City. I asked them where they were staying around here. The tall guy interjected that I seemed to ask a lot of questions and that maybe I should mind my own business. He said that nosey people have tendencies to get themselves hurt or killed. He suggested that I might want to keep that fact in mind."
"Really?" asked Ben. "I wouldn't have thought that you'd get a reaction like that to such an innocent question."
"Nor did I," replied Charlie. "It makes one wonder if maybe they're not so innocent."
"Perhaps you're right," agreed Ben as he considered the words that the bartender had just spoken. Perhaps they are hiding from something.
Suddenly, Ben had a thought as to where he might have previously seen the tall man. He was surprised that he would remember this. Years earlier while still in his pre-teens, he and one of his buddies used to occasionally visit the sheriff's office in Ottumwa and look at the Wanted posters pinned to a bulletin board on the wall. The men on these posters were criminals wanted by the law for committing serious crimes. He wondered if perhaps he had seen the tall man's visage on one of the posters.
Remembering the time frame of when he had read these posters, Ben believes that it was during 1868 or 1869. The sheriff would leave the posters on his wall until receiving notification that the at-large criminals had been arrested or killed. Others would be removed when they became several years old, even though the criminals had not been reported as apprehended. By that time, all leads to the whereabouts of these men had become cold and the odds of receiving additional assistance or hints from the public were unlikely. The sheriff would not dispose of these old posters. He would keep them on file in his cabinet in case he might need them for future reference.
Ben finished his drink and then had another. By this time, the saloon was becoming more crowded. As he prepared to leave, he left some money beside his glass and waved goodbye to the bartender.
"Thanks, Charlie," he said. "I'll be seeing you."
"You too, my friend," replied Charlie. "Take care."
As Ben left the bar through the swinging, wooden doors, he walked across the outside boardwalk and stepped into the dirt street. He left his horse tied to the hitching post and walked across the street to the sheriff's office. Sheriff Larson was sitting behind his desk studying a map of some location in the general area. He stopped working as his visitor entered the office. He appeared pleased to be taking a short break from whatever it was that he had been doing,"
"Howdy, Jim," said Ben as he entered the room. "Do you have a minute."
"Sure thing," replied the sheriff. "What's on your mind."
Ben informed the sheriff that he believed he recognized a man in the area who had been featured on a Wanted poster many years earlier. If this was the same man, then he was still at-large from the law. Ben expected that the sheriff would want to know this. He was not surprised to find that Sheriff Larson utilized a similar filing system to the one utilized by the sheriff in Iowa. He removed a stack of posters from a drawer in his filing cabinet and placed it in front of Ben.
"Have at it," said the sheriff. "If there's an open Wanted poster issued for this guy, it will be in this stack. If it isn't there, it means one of two things. Either a poster was never issued, or he has already been apprehended and served his time for the crimes he committed. If the latter is the case, the poster has been discarded." The sheriff sat back and watched as Ben got started on his project.
Ben quickly realized that the posters were stacked in chronological order with the oldest poster on the very bottom and the newest posters on the top. He immediately placed aside the more recent posters and within a few minutes, located the posters dated in 1869. He began to review these slowly and carefully, wanting to make certain that he would not overlook the poster that he was seeking. Sure enough, in less than fifteen minutes of time, he found it. It was dated February 15, 1869. The criminal's name was Nathan MacGregory. He was wanted for armed robbery, physical assault and homicide in both Indiana and Illinois. Among his murder victims were a bank teller and a security guard. Ben proudly removed the poster from the stack and handed it to the sheriff.
"Are you sure about this?" asked Sheriff Larson with a hint of skepticism in his voice.
"Am I one hundred percent positive?" replied Ben. "No, I'm not. But I'm probably ninety percent sure that the man who was in the Northern Lights is this same guy." He then informed Jim that the tall man had threatened Charlie, the bartender, for asking him where he lived. "That's awfully odd behavior, I'd say."
"Yeah, I agree," said the sheriff. "I reckon that I need to check this out. Thanks for bringing this to my attention."
"Just trying to be a good citizen," replied Ben. "He and his partners seem to be in the saloon most weekday afternoons. You can probably find him there then."
The sheriff nodded his head in understanding. "Good to know. I'll investigate this for sure. Thanks again."
With that, Ben left the sheriff's office and headed back across the street. A couple of minutes later, he was riding out of town and headed for home. He was pleased that his meeting with the sheriff had gone well. He intended to return tomorrow afternoon in time to follow the sheriff into the Northern Lights. Hopefully, the tall man and his sidekicks would be there then.
The next afternoon, Ben arrived in Wide River just before four o'clock. He tied his horse to the hitching post outside the saloon and took a quick look over the swinging, wooden doors to see if the gang might be inside. They were. He was excited to see them standing at the end of the bar. Confident that they had not noticed him standing outside the doors, Ben walked across the street and notified the sheriff. Jim had already prepared a plan for this eventuality, and upon being informed of the situation, he immediately began the process of putting his plan into action.
The sheriff went up the street and deputized two businessmen who typically assisted him in situations when he needed support. The deputies entered the Northern Lights and took seats at the poker table located nearest the bar, acting as though they were early arrivals for a card game. Ben was next sent into the saloon to discretely inform the bartender that the sheriff was coming within the next few minutes. Ben bought a drink and carried it to the poker table located nearest to the front doors where he sat down facing the bar. Charlie then subtly entered the manager's office and informed the saloon owner, Clint Meyers, of the developing situation. A minute or so later, Clint inconspicuously walked across the saloon and ascended the stairway to the second floor. Until now, the three men were paying no attention to the activity happening around them.
Once the sheriff's team was positioned, Jim Larsen entered the saloon and halted just a few feet inside the swinging, wooden doors. Holding his hand on the handle of his holstered gun, he located the three men standing at the end of the bar. They had turned their bodies toward the front doors and their eyes were focused on the sheriff.
"You three," called out Jim in a loud voice. "Take your guns out of your holsters and place them on the bar. Do it now!"
Simultaneously, Ben and the two deputies, sitting at separate tables, drew their handguns and pointed the barrels at the three men. Charlie pulled a shotgun from beneath the bar and aimed it at the men while Clint Meyers aimed a rifle at them from the second-floor railing above. At this point, the sheriff ordered everyone else out of the saloon, all of whom immediately exited through the front doors. The three men were in a hopeless position, both outgunned and surrounded. They hesitated for a minute.
"Now!" repeated Jim Larsen. "Do as I say. Go for your guns and you won't live long enough to regret it."
The three men slowly removed the guns from their holsters and placed them on the bar. They then raised their hands above their heads. Charlie collected their guns off the bar. With the handguns of the sheriff, the two deputies and Ben Watson fixed on them, the captives were walked out of the saloon, across the street and into the sheriff's office without incident. Once inside the sheriff's office, they were herded into the jail cell and the cell door was locked behind them. They were in a state of shock, having had no inkling at all as to why this was happening.
"What's goin' on?" asked the tall man in an angry tone. "We ain't done nothin'."
"Yeah," protested one of the others. "This must be some kinda' mistake."
"We'll see about that," replied Jim. "I'll be talking to each of you separately in the morning. If you haven't done anything wrong, you've got nothing to worry about. Otherwise, I'll wire the U.S. Marshal in Fort Collins to come over here and fetch you. This will all be decided by this time tomorrow."
"What're the charges?" protested the tall man. "You can't jail us with no cause?"
"I'm holding you on outstanding felony warrants from Indiana and Illinois. Your friends are being held as suspected accomplices. It's all perfectly legal. Don't worry. You'll get your day in court."
"You're makin' a big mistake," warned the tall man. "You'll see."
"No, I believe it's you who's made the mistake," replied the sheriff. "You should've stayed out of my town. You three might as well sit down and relax some. I suspect you're going to be here a while."
The sheriff hung the jail cell key on the wall directly beside his desk, far out of the prisoners' reach. He also arranged to have guards monitor the prisoners around the clock. These three men would not be going anywhere any time soon.
It was now time for Ben Watson to head back to his farm. He had put off some chores today and he had some catching up to do. Nevertheless, he was proud to have assisted the sheriff in this matter and he believed that he had enhanced his profile in the town. He liked Wide River, and he was anxious to be a responsible member of the community.
The next day during his interviews with the prisoners, and after exchanging several telegrams with the U.S. Marshal, Sheriff Larsen determined that the tall man was, in fact, the fugitive, Nathan MacGregory. The other two men, Norm Larabee and Mack Keating, were career criminals with extensive records in Kansas and Nebraska. They had been riding with MacGregory for several months and their gang was suspected of several additional crimes. The U.S. Marshal planned to arrive in Wide River the day after next, when he would take possession of the prisoners. He planned to take them to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they would face trial for the federal crimes that they had committed. While in his custody, the marshal was confident that he would be able to finally close several other open crimes that had been unsolved for some time.
That following week, Ben rode into town one afternoon and tied his horse to the hitching post outside the Northern Lights. Going inside, he walked to the bar. Charlie poured a glass of rye whiskey as soon as he observed his friend entering the room.
"Here you go, Ben," he said. "This one's on the house. I think you earned it last week."
"Thanks, Charlie," replied Ben. "That was some afternoon, wasn't it? That's the most excitement I've had in a long time."
"Yeah, me too," agreed Charlie. "This place is usually much more laid back.
Ben nodded his head. "Yeah," he replied, "I'm sure it is."
The saloon was not crowded. Charlie poured himself a drink, something that he seldom did, and the two friends stood on opposite sides of the bar and visited together. They enjoyed a good conversation before the late afternoon crowd began wandering into the saloon. It was then time for Charlie to get back to work. Leaving some money on the bar, Ben left the saloon and headed for home. The weather was beautiful, and the evening was going to be nice. He looked forward to spending it on the front porch of his farmhouse with his wife, Miriam. He would be meeting with Will Dickerson at the Diamond D Bar Ranch in the morning. He enjoyed being a gentleman farmer. Life was good.
Ralph S. Souders is an American author of suspense and literary fiction. He has written three novels; Hans Becker's Family, Ursula's Shadow and Lost in the Water. He has also written a movie script and his short stories have appeared in Frontier Tales, Gadfly Online and The Penmen Review magazines. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida. He is happily married to his wife of thirty-five years. They are now retired and live in Middle Tennessee. His website is www.ralphssouders.com.
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