June, 2023

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Issue #165

Welcome, Western Fans!

Looking for free, tantalizing Tales of the Old West?
You're at the right place.


Read this month's Tales and vote for your favorite.
They'll appear in upcoming print volumes of The Best of Frontier Tales Anthologies!

Dodge City
by Lily Tierney
When a group of gunslingers meet up to rob a bank, whatever can go wrong does. There is no honor among thieves, and they all knew that too well.

* * *

Red Valley
by Erin Donoho
Seeking water on his way through the California desert, Ross soon finds himself, along with another traveler named Al, at the mercy of two mysterious women. But when Al hears of nearby gold, his friendly intentions seem to change, and Ross knows the women are in grave danger.

* * *

Prairie Rose
by Clay Gish
In a swirl of dust, three riders bore down on Mary's stagecoach. "Hellfire damnation!" With the bandits charging fast, Mary aimed her shotgun and blasted the closest rider. She had to protect the mining company's payroll and her precious cargo—the bishop of the newly minted state of Montana.

* * *

The Funeral Suit
by Bobby Mathews
Madge witnessed Cullen Grayson's ritual every year: On his birthday, the old man donned his best—and only—suit, and waited to be challenged to a gunfight by someone new. But this year the custom endangered Madge's one chance at love so it was time for the game to end—one way or another.

* * *

Wild Bill: Dead Man's Hand
by W. Wm. Mee
The notorious gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok was sitting with well known dime novelist Ned Buntline discussing the details of Bill's "latest book." Abruptly, the Slatter brothers burst through the door with their guns drawn. The crowd scattered as Bill slowly stood up to face his fierce-eyed attackers.

* * *

The Rememberer
by Ralph S. Souders
Ben Watson observes a cowboy standing at the other end of the bar and he looks familiar. Ben has seen him before, but where or when? Something about the man makes his hackles rise. Ben must try to remember who the man is.

* * *

Want all of this month's Western stories at once? Click here –

All the Tales

Red Valley
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."

"To where?"

"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.

"Me too."

"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?"

"Yes ma'am."

"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."

"Mining what?"


"What happened?"

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.

"He's trying—"

"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.

Ross nodded.

"Is he . . . 

Ross knelt, even though he was fairly sure. Two fingers to the neck told him everything.

"He's dead."

"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.

The End

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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