Last Hope on the High Sonoran
by Jack Kimball
When men's hate reigns, and beckons you
to weep upon a trampled ground,
seek out a star that's pointing to
a wayward place where hope is found.
It's there the truth and dead have gone
to light the sky, to break the dawn.
The body of the young man lay beneath a thorned ocotillo, red tipped; his arms and legs spreadeagled, staked out in the sun. A lone wolf crouched on haunches nearby, a gray salt and pepper, eyeing dinner. Ely reined up and pulled his Henry from the scabbard and raised the gunsight to cover the distance. He then sighted down on the animal and took a bead forward of the shoulder. The gun cracked in the wind and the earth kicked up dust in front of the wolf, who then sprinted off. A hunter, just like us. Doing what's natural is no killing offense.
Alone, Ely had been tracking for seven days on the 1870's Arizona Sonoran Desert. Endless flat grasses, peyote cactus, and a merciless wind under a blistering sun. At the end of the seventh day, with the sun dropping in a dry pink, cloudless sky, he had loped over a low rise and found the young man. And now, with the wolf run off, he took his time studying the land. He scanned the horizon, his eyes touching each late day shadow, prying. He listened to what the terrain told him, the sound of wind through sagebrush. Then he pushed up his brown sweat stained Stetson, exposing a stark white forehead beneath a receding hairline. He leaned and spit and used his faded blue bandana to wipe his mouth, spurred the horse, and in a slow walk closed the distance to where the dead man lay.
After dismounting, he squatted down, and with his hand shaking, he closed the man's eyes. He sat there for a long time. Then, with eyes glistening, he reached into his leather vest pocket and took out two squares of white tobacco paper along with a cloth tobacco pouch. He sprinkled tobacco in one square, rolled it up, and struck a match to it. He exhaled; the smoke ran with the wind. He then pulled out a small knife and cut off a piece of the young man's blond hair. He folded the cut carefully into the other square and tucked it back in his vest.
The rope stretching the arms and legs of the dead man twisted in a Yuma style braid, the weave just right. Those Apache know rope. He checked the tracks. Three riders, one rode sidesaddle, the hoof marks deep on one side. Maybe wounded, he guessed. You winged one of them, didn't you?
"Inconvenient? This is more than inconvenient," he said out loud. "It's a world a trouble, is what it is."
The mare whinnied, then snorted and dragged a hoof into the hard white crust.
"You don't need to press me."
Never one to hurry without good cause, Ely pulled the saddle off his golden mare. Over fifty years, he had known a lot of horseflesh, but Dammit was the best he'd known; not because the horse could go all day at a full trot, not hardly needing water; and not because the horse was steady in a skirmish; and not even because she was more steady in a full-on battle. No. None of those things, although he conceded they were all worthy skills on a long chase like now. It's the advice, he smiled. The damn horse talks back. Not aloud, mind you, but you still hear it. And I hate to admit it, but the advice is good, although mainly a pain in the ass.
He fingered the tin marshal's badge on his chest. So I've got a murder to deal with. He then pulled his hat off and poured a little water into the crown. Dammit stuck her muzzle in and slurped it up. Ely leaned in and gave the horse a kiss on her forehead.
"So whudaya think? We bury him above that dry wash?" Where dirt is concerned, the Sonoran doesn't give an inch, so he dragged the young man over to where there might be a break in the wind and covered him with rocks. After some words, he made camp.
Later, the stars were all out, clear as an honest decision, he remembered, from what his last wife Hope used to say. Maybe she's up there, he thought. He'd had two wives, both gone. Susan from consumption, she was the youngest. Only lived three years after they were married. But it's Hope I miss. Bad miss. She and her eastern education. A man shouldn't live beyond his own family's horizon, and I feel you looking down. Mostly giving me grief about not re-marrying. But the badge is a marriage of sorts, isn't it, Hope?
With no more sound than wind in the sage, and with the stars blazing, he had a dream. He had little recollection later, but Hope had grown more beautiful. The worry lines were gone, her face aglow, sparks from a crackling grand fire rising into the night. Standing next to her, he could just make out a face. An Apache.
Ely woke before light and he and Dammit lit out at a fast trot. The sun rose quick. It was going to be another scorcher.
* * *
The Agujero was bone dry, and this was a surprise for the three riders. The Apache Jararaca dug with his hands into the streambed, but he knew it was useless. Rodriquez, a Mexican bandolero, bleeding from his stomach, fell off his horse and lay moaning on the rocky bank. The third rider was a boy, no older than twelve. He was a young Apache brave, and the Apache Jararaca was his father. He loved him, but his father had within him a hate that drove into the boy a great fear.
Jararaca hated everything. He hated the smallpox that had taken his family; his wife White Feather and son, Little Sparrow, dying in his arms, sweating, covered with pustules, their faces deformed. He hated San Carlos where his way of life was gone; no more hunting the buffalo, much less game; no more food other than bare survival, maggot rotten meat on the rez. And he hated losing what he missed most, what he grew up with as a boy, what he loved more than life. He could no longer ride free, his arms spread in the wind, the spirits of ancestors in his chest. But mostly, he had one big hate. He hated the white man, and this hate burned deep.
And now we're in trouble about the water, he thought. Though he and the boy had more for themselves now that Rodriquez had got himself shot by the young white man, the one who wouldn't beg. The bandolero was stupid, trying to steal the courage from the white man. But Rodriquez's dying would give him and the boy more water. And Rodriquez, thank you. I've been eyeing your Winchester .45 cal.
Rodriquez lay on the ground. "Agua. Agua! Por favor!"
The Apache Jararaca strolled over and prodded Rodriquez with the toe of his laced moccasin. He then slammed the butt of his rifle into the stomach wound. Rodriquez screamed in agony. Blood spurted out of the bullet hole, spilling onto the white sunbaked dirt, soaking the ground with a slow scarlet spread. Jararaca laughed. His once proud face, forty years old, looking like sixty, showed his white teeth. His high cheekbones were still handsome. But it was too late. His lips had a permanent sneer. "Too bad you couldn't steal the courage from the one who wouldn't beg," he told his compadre. "You want agua. I give you some", and then he relieved himself in the bandolero's open wound. There will be no wasting of water. "Estaras muerto antes de la manana." Maybe now you'll understand.
By morning, the Apache Jararaca and the boy had ridden on.
* * *
Ely had to see past the blinding sun, but up ahead of him on the trail an Apache boy appeared on a cream brown pony next to a dead mesquite tree. The boy sat with the late afternoon sun behind him, and he crossed his hands in front of him, just waiting. He had long black hair tied with a red cloth headband, a beige breech coat, loose, and leggings half up to his knees. What caught Ely's attention more than anything was the boy's face; it was the one with Hope in the dream.
But off to the left a hundred yards, a flicker of light. I must be dumb as dirt, deserve to die, coming up this grade. Sure enough, a flash from a muzzle, and then lead whistled by less than two feet above his head. He drew his Colt and snapped off three shots. "I know he's too far, Dammit," he said, and holstered the weapon. As he reached for his Henry, a slug slapped into Dammit just above the noseband and near her eye. The horse reared up, an awful wail, flailing her front hooves into the air, then went down and rolled on Ely, trapping his right leg under the animal. This is not a splendid position, he thought to himself. Worse, you're slippin' with some age on you. He'd dropped the pistol and couldn't reach it, or the Henry. For a while, he struggled with the saddle. You'd appreciate the pistol, keep one bullet and put it in your dumb-ass brain.
The ground tore up around him as the bullets played with him. Three shots punched into Dammit. Things got quiet, and Ely stroked her neck as her breathing rasped. She choked on some pink froth, stirred, and tried to rise. She then laid back still. You're out of your misery now, girl.
It wasn't long.
"No lo intentes, hombre blanco," from close behind him.
And so it starts.
"Now we see what's inside you."
In no time, the Apache and the boy staked him out in the burning sun, naked above the waist. His legs and arms spread tight, just like what they did to the young man. The boy cut twigs and dead branches from the mesquites. He then crouched down on his heels, Apache style, and fed a small fire. Black buzzards fluttered around the branches of the dead mesquite trees, and Ely thought to himself a little joke and smiled. Instead of me shooting the buzzards, I'm the carrion, and it's me they'll be eating.
The Apache chugged from the canteen he'd stripped off Dammit and then pulled a whiskey bottle out of his saddlebag. He said something rough and threw the boy the water. The boy took some swigs, then began placing small rocks in the fire. Soon the flame sprouted up, and Ely could feel the heat searing on his naked skin.
For a while, the liquor kept the Apache busy. He'd take his time looking Ely over with his bloodshot eyes. He thrust out his hand, offering the boy the bottle, but the boy shook his head and swiped his hand away. The rocks had flames wrapped around them and the Apache placed a few sticks he'd whittled down with his knife to the edge of the fire. The ends of the sticks embered up red. I got an idea what the rocks and sticks are for. You better be more worried about the knife.
"You think about it, compadre," the Apache said, then moved off, choking and coughing up some kind of bile mixed with whiskey in a ditch. He passed out in the sunbaked dirt. Later, he rolled over and started snoring. The boy did not move, just fed the fire as night closed in.
The stars came out and Eli lay stretched out staring into the endless black. It won't be long now and I'm ready, he thought. I'm sorry, Hope, for all those years of you staring into the prairie, worried to death, not knowing where I was, or if I was coming back. If you don't want me, I'll understand. But if you'll have me, I'll be holding you soon, so there's that, ain't there? Some of this is good.
The boy came at him in the dark with the knife he'd been using to sharpen the sticks. But then the boy was pulling the rope on one arm and Ely pulled a hand free. Soon the knife cut his other arm loose, and then his legs were free. The boy handed him his holstered Colt and sat back in his crouch.
Ely strapped on the pistol. Shirtless, he made a sprint for the pony. He spoke soft to the horse. "Hey boy, just me now," and then slung his body over bareback.
I know guns, he thought. And that's the sound of a lever action '73 Winchester lever action behind me slip-clicking a round into a chamber. Ely flicked the rein on the pony, facing dead-on into the barrel of that Winchester. The Apache held the rifle hip high, so close if he spit hard he could hit him. Maybe hate delayed him, wanting to relish the fear that was tearing through this white man, but then Ely saw the hate spark. He pulled the trigger. Ely kicked hard off the horse, and as he did a sharp pain grazed his temple. As he fell through the air, he pulled his Colt and fired three shots before hitting the ground. The sound of the gunshot blast broke the sky, a roar, no pause between each crack of the shot, flames firing out of the barrel. It was dead quiet after, like every living thing on earth took notice. The Apache Jararaca lay dead not ten feet away, his head near clean shot off.
* * *
At first sunlight, and for only one reason Ely could figure, the boy collected more dry wood. Then the boy dragged the dead Apache over the fire and built it up to a roaring blaze. The two of them stepped back a way, the flames blue hot, cremating the dead Apache. The boy went into his crouch and began a death song. The mournful sound was steady and low, rhythmic, then pitched high in agony from a loss Ely couldn't imagine. After a long time, the boy then pulled a small box from a satchel he carried. It looked like carved bone, white. As Ely looked on, the boy put personal items he'd collected from the Apache Jararaca into the box; beads, a feather, and Ely thought a small seashell. The boy hadn't spoken a word, and Ely didn't know if he knew English. He must have known some, living on the rez, but knowing English or not, he heard the boy in his head when he asked him what he was doing. He might have been talking, or maybe it was just his imagination.
"My father was full of hate," he said. "My grandmother taught me; what I do now is the cleansing, so the hate won't live in the world." The boy then placed the box in the pyre and jumped back from the heat. The flames soon engulfed the box.
"How long does it take?"
"Hate takes a long time to burn out. My grandmother said 200 white-person years, or more."
Ely kept his eyes on the flames. His breath caught in his throat. He whispered. "Does it work with grief, loneliness?"
"That's a double," the boy said. "You need powerful items."
Ely took out the white tobacco paper he kept with a cut of the young man's hair. "This was my son's hair. My wife Hope and I only had the one."
"Sure. It will work, I think. Why not?"
Ely dared not look at the boy. He placed the folded-up paper in the fire. As the flames took it, there was a flare, large enough to cause the two of them to step back. They stood together as the fire died down.
Before the fire burned out, the boy mounted up on the Apache Jararaca's horse. From the top of the horse, the boy dropped a canteen on the dirt in front of Ely, half the water. He left the pony. He was soon gone in the heat shimmering up in the morning sun.
PostScript: This story and characters are fictional. One intent of the story is to honor the indigenous Yuma Apache. The San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation exists and is in southeastern Arizona. The Yuma Apache are the only Apache group that used cremation. Not only did they cremate the body, but they also cremated all the person's possessions. The Colt six-shooter became renowned as the 'gun that won the West'. The reasons for hating the white man are also true. In time, the hope is the hate will burn off.
Jack kimball is a semi-retired entrepreneur, and a writer resident of Ketchum, Idaho and Raleigh, North Carolina. Jack has always written stories, but since retirement, his passion is to learn to write well, and convey a meaning in his stories in these turbulent times. This story, poetry, and screenplays can be found at http://www.jack-kimball.com
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It's Done, Sarah
by William S. Hubbartt
He rested the roan at a creek bed that curved near the trail, allowing the horses to drink freely and nibble at the grass. Sheriff Clay Holland dug into the saddlebag retrieving some hardtack picked up from his stopover in San Antonio. Overhead, in the willows that lined the creek, a goldfinch twittered as it flew from one stand of trees to another further upstream. Since the passing of wife Sarah, he had carried two canteens, one with water and the other with whiskey. His fingers had found the whiskey and it flowed nicely washing down the hardtack.
The trail had led to a Creekside campfire. He dismounted and tethered the roan. Then he circled around, light-footed along the creek bed where tree growth and underbrush provided a protected approach to the campfire. Three men were sitting around a small fire, one was outlaw Josiah Judd, and Judd had a bandage and sling on his left arm and shoulder. So, my shot at our earlier meeting had scored a hit thought the Sheriff. Now he had to come up with a way to separate the injured man from the other two.
Right now, he had a shot, a bushwhack dead-eye shot that would put down the outlaw Judd. but it wasn't Clay Holland's style, sheriff or not. No, he'd face him, man to man, let the best gun win, even though the killer deserved to die for taking the life of the lovely Sarah and for taking the life of stage driver Harry Porter. He checked his loads, unstrapped the colt as a ready backup, and waited, watching. Then, one of the men stood and reached for the coffee pot on the fire.
The Sheriff stepped out from behind a juniper, running forward with the Winchester at his hip. "Relax boys, I only want Judd. You other fellers sit tight."
The crooks froze in surprise. Josiah Judd's reflexes were fast, his colt clearing leather and returning a shot at this badge-wearing stranger. The bullet found its mark hitting the forestock, knocking the Winchester from the Sheriff's hand. Clay Holland's instinctive reactions caused him to spin and dive following the motion of the falling rifle. Clay Holland tumbled and came up with his colt firing first at the fleeing Josiah Judd and then at the other armed outlaw shooting the gun from his hands.
"Dang-it!" Sheriff Holland cursed. "Gotta secure these two or I still got three on one." He got their guns and boots, tied the outlaws to a nearby tree, and led their two horses away. Hooves pounded in the background as outlaw Judd made a quick getaway.
The tracks were fresh, recent, and easy to follow, Judd seemed to be moving at a steady canter. The Sheriff nudged the roan to a canter to match the pace. The trail tended to follow the river, sometimes close to the shore, other times skirting marshland and or by-passing exposed limestone gullies where the river collected watershed feeder creeks. Tree and underbrush growth was greater along the river than on the prairies. The Sheriff's eyes darted from the trail to the cover along the trail, recognizing the possibility of ambush. So long as the tracks were visible, he felt confident he could maintain the pace and gain on Judd.
Sheriff Holland came around a tight bend in the trail, with rock formation on one side, and underbrush on the riverside, following the tracks of the bay. The roan's ears twitched, and he saw ahead a couple of ducks flushed to the air from the underbrush. He started to pull back on the reins, and suddenly he felt a slam on his shoulder knocking him back, then heard a shot. He tried to hold on, but the impact to his shoulder knocked him off the saddle, as the roan jumped from surprise. He tumbled and rolled from the fall, coming down behind a boulder.
He lay there frozen, behind the rock, waiting for another shot. The roan had strayed away from the gunfire. He checked his wound. It appeared to be a flesh wound with the bullet going through the soft tissue in the left upper arm, and not breaking a bone. It hurt like hell, but his arm could lift and move. And best of all, he could still shoot with his right hand. He pulled a bandana from his pocket and awkwardly using one hand and his teeth, was able to tie the red patch of cloth around his arm to slow the bleeding.
The Sheriff listened. There had been no sounds, no rustling of underbrush, no horse hooves thumping the ground. Somewhere in the trees nearby, a cardinal proclaimed its territory. In the distance, another redbird replied in a copycat echo from a different angle. He knew Judd must still be here, waiting, watching, probably in the middle, between the two birds.
"Hey, Judd. This here's Sheriff Holland, from over Bent Creek way. I know you're hit, you're losing blood, an easy trail to follow," called the Sheriff as he watched the brush.
Josiah Judd answered with a shot that hit the rock and spit dust into the Sheriff's face. But the Sheriff had seen the movement, a barrel poking through the leaves.
"That gun must be getting pretty heavy. Throw it out here in the road between us. We'll get you to see a doctor." There was no answer. Clay Holland decided it was time to put all the cards on the table.
"Judd, it ends here, now. We caught and tried your cohort, Childers. But, it's on you for shooting the stage driver, Harry Porter. He died then and there. The judge issued a warrant for arrest for murder. Give it up now, you'll face the judge."
There was silence from the brush. The cottonwood leaves twisted in the breeze. A sparrow twittered from somewhere downstream.
"It ends today, one way or the other. You're wanted for murder."
Judd replied with another shot. The Sheriff ducked.
"Judd, You're wanted for another murder. Ya see, three years ago I came upon one of your stage robberies, over near San Antonio. Remember? I do. That day you shot and killed a young lady named Sarah Holland. That's right. Holland, my wife. So, it ends today."
Judd answered again with a shot that pinged off the boulder where the Sheriff lay. The sheriff had seen where the leaves had parted, and he placed his shot at that spot. There was a shout and a curse from the trees.
The Sheriff glanced around, seeing a mature cottonwood tree, thick enough to provide cover. It was some ten feet away, and other brush nearby offered some cover to approach Judd from a different direction. He picked up a rock and threw it into the woods behind Judd for a distraction, and scrambled to the trunk of the tree. Another shot slammed into the boulder where the Sheriff had taken cover when falling from the horse.
Crouching, the Sheriff cat-footed from one tree to the next, moving back and around, approaching the trail in a flanking maneuver from what now would be the right side of outlaw Judd. The outlaw was crouched behind a deadfall with a clear view of the trail from the small town, but now his flank was exposed, and it was obvious that he was weakening.
An image of the lovely Sarah flashed in his mind, followed by a sense of shouldering his rifle and shooting this murderer who deserved to die. But the rifle was in the boot of the saddle and inoperable, and the 80-100 feet between them would be a test of handgun marksmanship. He raised the colt, thumbing the hammer back and checking for a full chamber, and stepped forward following the aim of the pistol.
This was the moment he had waited for, the moment that had given him the strength and determination to pursue and catch a killer. This was a vicious predator, a man who killed a stage driver, robbed innocent people of all their valuables, a man who had killed before, snuffing out the brightness in the world that was Sarah.
All of a sudden, the badge didn't mean anything, that he was a sheriff sworn to uphold the law, these were just symbols of some meaningless history lesson in a one-room schoolhouse many years ago. In his mind, Clay Holland saw the smiling freckled face of Sarah, a face that became pale gray and lifeless in death, a face that was his last memory of this beautiful girl, extinguished like a blown-out candle, because of the wickedness of the man now in his sights, a face that called out for a wrong to be righted, an eye for an eye, a life for a life.
Josiah Judd had turned and looked his way in response to the approaching movement. Their eyes met, yet Judd's expression seemed calm, unemotional, relieved even, calmly waiting.
BAM. BAM. BAM. BAM. BAM
Then Judd's body seemed to jerk and twitch, arms flailing, like a puppet on a string, reminiscent of some traveling minstrel show that had come through town last year. Then the motion stopped, the eyes still looking at Clay Holland, but now appearing glassy and lifeless; the body of Josiah Judd slumped forward as if napping on the log.
Clay Holland looked down at the bloody body now at his feet, not fully realizing the events of the last six seconds. The gun in his hand was hot, still smoking. He had remembered seeing Judd from eighty feet away, and now he was standing over a dead man. His knees felt weak, and he sat on the log, numbly inserting cartridges into the chamber of the Colt.
"It's done, Sarah."
But an emptiness remained.
"It's done, Sarah" is excerpted from Six Bullet Justice, A Sheriff Clay Holland Adventure, a western fiction novel.
William S. Hubbartt is author of non-fiction and fiction materials. His work has appeared in trade journal articles,
literary reviews and E-zines. He is author the three book series of Sheriff Clay Holland Adventures and other western stories.
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Closing the Book
by Dick Derham
Granger, Wyoming, May, 1892.
Travis Gorman shouldered his Texas-sized bulk through the bat wings of the Spurs and Saddle Saloon, Granger's solitary watering hole for men of the range, and saw what he expected: the new hire was ensconced at one of the rear tables disgracing the South with his drawl and holding forth about his early gunpowder days in New Mexico, spinning yarns, and testing the credulity of three Rafter B hands drinking their afternoon beers, so Gorman saw it.
Gorman ignored the greetings from the barman and two hands from another brand as he briskly strode across the saloon, his scorn redoubled as he heard the words. "Had us a real turkey shoot," the make-pretend gunsel was saying. "Plunked old man McSween myself." Whether his listeners saw through the two-pint bantam, Gorman couldn't say. In his experience there were men who talked, there were men who did, and very rarely men who did both. Gorman prided himself that no one in all of Wyoming had any idea of Gorman's life in Texas. Except for Mr. Burleson, of course.
"But you let Billy get away," McIntosh pointed out.
"He was a short-horned punk," Tommy Weller insisted. "Liked waving his gun around as part of a crowd. Never would have had the cojones to face me man—."
Gorman didn't give the insignificant runt the courtesy of letting him finish his sentence. "Boss man wants to see us both, Weller," he said. "Come."
* * *
Some might call Jesse Burleson a cattleman, and he would not contradict them, certainly not when confirming his own growing status within the Wyoming Stock Growers' Association. But Burleson, despite his origins, considered himself a rancher, a man of business, a man of the world not limited by the strictures that might apply to simple cattle tenders, a decisive man worthy of the power he soon would have.
Burleson's office occupied a corner room at the Granger House, the town's only concession to the architectural innovation of multi-story buildings. He had preempted the corner room facing north and east, thus welcoming the maximum daylight while avoiding the burning heat of the Wyoming afternoon sun. Burleson had appointed the room as befits a man of substance, as the man he intended to be, a solid oak swivel chair behind the broad desk, an official looking filing cabinet, maps on the wall of Wyoming and of the district he represented in the State Legislature back east in Cheyenne, and a bookcase with the official Wyoming law code, books on the history of the Wyoming cattle industry, and other books valued for their appearance. all selected and arranged to proclaim power and influence. The two straight-backed chairs that faced the desk seemed to fit the room, but at Burleson's direction a carpenter had sawed the bottom inch off each leg, assuring that any man across the desk would find himself looking up at Burleson.
Burleson himself was a stocky muscular man, his approaching middle age betrayed by the touch of gray around the temples, enough to project distinction and judgment, he assured himself, while his carefully dyed thick black hair reflected a manly vigor which combined with his steady level gaze projected an open honestness.
Gorman had long ago grown comfortable in his boss's office, and even at his height exceeding six feet with his boots off, looking up to Burleson had seen as natural as a cow in heat greeting a bull. If the Weller felt intimidated, perhaps it led him unwisely to exaggerate his swagger.
"Been riding for Rafter B two months—" Burleson began.
"Three, going on four," Weller interrupted. Gorman saw Burleson shift at the interruption but uncharacteristically Burleson hadn't put Weller in his deserved place. That told Gorman that something unusual was afoot.
"A good hand, McIntosh tells me." Gorman didn't believe that. "I hear you've been places, seen things, done things," Burleson paused for emphasis, "a lot of things."
Weller preened himself with the recognition. "That's my brag," he said.
"Big troubles down in New Mexico."
That was all Weller needed to get started. "Back in the old days," he began, "we boys down in Lincoln County didn't need our branding irons and lariats for our work," he told Burleson. "When things heated up, we left them back at the ranch and took with us the tools the work needed." Weller smirked. "We learned them as didn't ride for the House a few things and collected our bonuses.
"Why I could tell you some stories—"
"Experience." Burleson's interruption told Gorman that his boss was not in the mood for storytelling. "The skills a man develops on the job he carries wherever he goes," Burleson said. "Up here a three-for-a-nickel cow hand has registered his own brand as though that gives him grazing rights on the range. Carl Prichard's cows don't eat much grass yet, but he's got ambitions and a long rope to go with it. You think you can handle him?"
"Reminds me of Frank McNabb out on the Ruidoso," Weller began. "Mr. Dolan sent me out to talk him into siding with the House, but I already knew what he thought, so I didn't waste no time with palaver." Weller winked. "If you catch my drift."
Burleson showed little interest in Weller's yammering. "Pay Prichard a visit, Weller. Show me what you learned in New Mexico and your pay will reflect your value."
Weller's lips curled up as he flashed a glance at the man he saw himself as supplanting and got to his feet. "While I'm out doing the work, Gorman here can go to picking the posies to decorate his dirt mound, Mr. Burleson. I'll see Prichard tonight and me and my rifle—"
"Don't bore me with details," Burleson said impatiently.
"Just kill him."
Gorman waited until the door closed behind Weller.
"Cocky little rooster, ain't he?"
Gorman's words merely reaffirmed Burleson's judgment. "Cocky" had described that lanky young cowhand barely into scraping off the whiskers down in Mexico those many years ago. An insignificant hireling with more ambition than scruples had been easy to manipulate into doing whatever Burleson's business required. "Cocky, but experienced and perhaps useful," Burleson said.
Gorman shifted uneasily in his chair. Talking himself up to Mr. Burleson had never been easy. "I used to bend my elbow with Prichard when he was still forking TA Connected broncs, Mr. Burleson, but that don't mean I can't do my job." Gorman leaned forward. "I've been doing your chores for more than ten years and never had no complaint." He was almost pleading. "I don't guess Mr. Compton nor Mr. Barber could talk me down."
Burleson was not in the habit of explaining himself to underlings, but things were at a sensitive point. "When I take you with me to Cheyenne, I'll need someone I can trust to handle chores around the ranch." Burleson pulled out his roll of bills and peeled several off which he passed to Gorman. "I want you to spend the night in The Sultan's Palace," he said. "All night," he added, making clear it was an order. "I want the sheriff to know where you were, if he has to ask."
Burleson listened to Gorman's footsteps as he walked down the hallway. A man not without use for all these years, since Burleson began his rise back in Texas. But Texas was ancient history. The Stock Growers' Association was talking about him running for Governor in the fall's election. A prosperous rancher like him could guarantee cattle-friendly policies, they assured him, and he was wise enough in the ways of politics that they didn't need to mention that his bank account would grow fat. "Got to ask," the chairman of the recruitment committee said apologetically, "no dark shadows in your early days that an unscrupulous opposition could smear you with?" Burleson had given the expected assurance with complete confidence. Trailing his herd up from Texas, he had changed names and no one could trace him to his beginnings, to the rough years at the border, and the things any ambitious man would do, trampling all who got in his way. But rustler-friendly muckraking editors could ask about Compton and Barber and other long-forgotten insignificant obstacles and make them into sound politically embarrassing. Burleson had worked hard to gain the power he held today. It would be unjust for the slanders of men with printers' ink under their fingernails to get in the way of his next climb of the greasy pole.
But Gorman's mention of Compton and Barber unsettled him. The unscrupulous politicians in Cheyenne could nose into Gorman's history in Texas, things that had nothing to do with Wyoming. A man who considered a problem more than once wasted time. When Weller proved he was as good as he claimed, his next job would be to make sure the book on Texas was slammed shut, shredded, burned to ash.
* * *
Gorman dozed, only half awake, in the unaccustomed softness of the full-size bed with the luxury of crisp linen sheets below and above. Any jealousy at sharing work with some ranny as shallow as Jensen Creek in late summer had dissipated in the warmth of the glorious afterglow of the last half hour.
Gorman's mind wandered back comfortably to the early days down on the border when he was just seventeen, the whelp of a dirt farmer, fourth in line with nothing to inherit, and needing to make his own way in the world. It had been luck, getting that job from Burleson on what seemed like a simple one-month cattle drive with his two partners, Compton and Barber. But he quickly learned how successful cattleman did their business, and he'd recognized Burleson as a powerful man on the way up. Aggressive, ambitious men were easy to manipulate, using the lessons he learned with his Pa back on the farm. He was always Johnny-on-the-spot when Burleson needed anything, whether it was a refill to a coffee cup, a man to saddle his horse, or turning some simple cowhands into coyote food, only simple Mexican vaqueros of course, but still . . . . And so, Burleson learned he could be counted on when it came time to put Compton and Barber where the sun don't shine.
Since those days in Hidalgo County, he'd had a good job, good pay with a bonus every time he bucked his wrist at someone Burleson did not want around and a future soon to be even brighter.
Gorman laughed inwardly. What folks would say if they heard the stories he could tell . . . . Something in his drowsy recollections niggled at his brain, a thought somehow tied to old history, and to a new man who could slide into his place, a thought that had an urgency to it, a warning perhaps, but as he was trying to get it into focus, the woman beside him stirred. Her hand was cool and gentle as it fluttered across his chest, and then nothing was as important as finding her lips with his.
* * *
Weller's kill gave him the right to strut into Burleson's office first while Gorman followed quickly and slid into his usual chair. Gorman wondered at the angry frown on Burleson's face.
Laramie, one month later.
"I guess that sorry excuse for a rancher has got an extra hole in his flea-bitten union suit this morning," Weller reported, and waited for his expected praise and bonus. Gorman could see the signs that Weller missed. When Burleson was silent, Weller continued, "Poor fellow didn't get three steps from his front door before he was down making bloody mud pies."
"Prichard's union suit is fine," Burleson growled. "Can't say the same for that cowhand you killed."
"Cowhand? Gorman told me—"
"Don't rope someone else in on your blunder, Weller. A man stands up to his mistakes."
"Prichard ran a one-man spread, so when this jasper stepped out, I assumed—"
"Assumed!" Burleson barked with an intensity Gorman had seldom deserved himself. "You're not paid to assume anything. You're paid to get it right."
"But how could I know some drifter—?"
"It was your job to know."
"Even a near-sighted schoolteacher could tell the difference between a thirty-something-year-old rancher and a scrawny down-at-the-heels drifter as green as spring grass!"
Gorman enjoyed the show as the deflated gunsel tried to puff himself back up. "A lone drifter don't really matter," he assured Burleson. "I'll get Prichard done tonight.
Weller had taught Burleson that closing the book on Texas—on Gorman—would take more than a mega-mouth cowhand. "You will not," he declared. his decision irrevocable. "Ride back to the ranch and wait for orders."
Gorman had watched the interview contentedly. Weller had removed any threat to his own status. "My horse is in the livery, Weller," he said. "Wait for me and we'll ride out together."
Burleson and Gorman listened to the boot steps as they marched down the hallway and descended the stairs. As the footsteps died away, Burleson turned his attention back to the weekly edition of the Wyoming Cattleman which he had been reading, and that an his eyes flicking briefly to Gorman.
Burleson paused outside the office door and read the lettering on the frosted glass:
Real Estate Investments
Management and Personnel Services
In Burleson's inquiries at the Cheyenne Club, Standish Morford had been universally recommended as a man of great discretion. Burleson swung the door open and entered the outer office, a small room with three upholstered chairs for waiting clients, and maps of Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, the Dakotas, and Montana displayed on the wall. Colored yarn connected photographs of ranches to a spot on one or another of the maps, just what a man might expect for a broker who put buyers and sellers together.
The man who emerged from the rear office and held out his hand for a firm reassuring shake was attired in a well-tailored suit of broadcloth from one of Cheyenne's most exclusive haberdashers, a shirt of the best linen, and a striped four-in-hand tie, a man whose very appearance communicated prosperity and success. Inside Morford's private office, a drink in his prospective client's hands, Morford began his standard spiel. "Some excellent properties have recently come on the market," he began but Burleson quickly disabused him.
"I'm not in the market for selling my ranch, nor with buying another."
"Assisting my clients in protecting their real estate investments requires a variety of services," Morford replied with the long-practiced diction of an Easterner that frontier boobs always associate with judgment and experience. "I pride myself in providing whatever specialized and confidential services my clients require," he said. "Some need help in syndicating with Eastern investors. Others with enhancing the profit from effective marketing arrangements for their fall sale or acquiring prime bulls to upgrade their herd." Apparently seamlessly, and with carefully chosen words, he smoothly moved to subjects of concern to many of his clients, subjects that justified a lucrative fee. "I maintain a crew of expert workingmen who act with the utmost discretion to handle infestations of Texas ticks, the distractions of ravenous wolves or other forms of pest eradication."
Eradication. Burleson repeated that word to himself as he swirled the liquid in his glass thoughtfully. It suggested the desired finality. "I handle routine pests with my own crew," Burleson said, "but I have a unique removal requirement."
Morford's easy, graceful manner allowed new clients to gain confidence at their own speed. "For the most sensitive pest removal, my expert staff operates with the fullest discretion and guarantees results."
With that assurance, Burleson relaxed. "It should be a simple matter," he told Morford. No names were mentioned and perhaps he was not completely candid. Perhaps Morford did not understand the reasons behind Burleson's need, but he dealt with results, not reasons. Arrangements were quickly agreed to and Burleson pulled out his money roll, prepared to make payment. "When it is done," he added, "I want your assurance that no ignorant gun trash can ever talk about my business." His eyes met Morford's and explicit words were not needed.
Morford nodded slowly. Rarely did he have the opportunity to sell unsatisfactory tools already marked for discard, but that was not something to emphasize to Burleson. He spoke slowly letting his show of reluctance justify a hefty premium.
Burleson's need precluded quibbling. Bills were counted out; hands were shaken and Burleson departed.
* * *
Over on Pine Street, two blocks from Morford's office, the Ten Gallon Saloon served the liquid needs of townsmen and ranch hands alike. The regular customers included several who had learned that "the real estate investment industry" provided steady pay with far better working conditions than any sweat-and-dirt cowhand could imagine. Even the new kid had quickly understood that life in a Laramie saloon beat spilling buckets of sweat under a blazing Wyoming sun or turning blue fighting the wind in a High Plains blizzard. Whenever they were in town between assignments, the "workingmen" as they call themselves, routinely congregated around a corner table to indulge their thirst and to keep an eye on their rivals for advancement in Morford's eyes.
One of the men, Dix Drucker, was a well-built man, only average in height but with a solid bulk to him that made him the dominant person in any group. The light brown hair that matted across his cheeks projected a soft friendly persona and an easy get-along manner until one followed the aquiline nose up to the two darkly intelligent eyes, twinkling with amusement now, but which pierced through the pretenses of the men gathered around for their afternoon drinking. And when his soft gentle jaw hardened into his business-face, any observer knew that Morford's top workingman excelled in challenging work in a responsible, professional, capable—and deadly manner.
"How was the Idaho trip," Drucker asked one of his companions, Mel Crenshaw, of an age with Drucker but with a smallness to his stature that made him resentfully intimidated by his long-time companion and competitor in Morford's working crew.
"I came, I saw, I thundered," Crenshaw replied. "Didn't stay around for the funeral."
"Done him your usual trademark way?" Drucker probed, it being easy to slide the needle under Crenshaw's skin.
"Never got no complaints," Crenshaw snarled. "Maybe you'd learn something if you tried it."
"I'll remember not to show you my back," Drucker replied.
Crenshaw flushed angrily. "You big Texans think you're too good for us who just get the job done."
While Crenshaw waited for a response to his barb, Drucker merely smiled dismissively, a response certain to nettle Crenshaw more than any words that would suggest he was being taken seriously.
The kid who had watched the interplay between the senior man in wonderment, got to his feet and squared his shoulders, asserting his status as the equal of the older men, but with an arrogance that seemed hollow to observers. "The boss told me to come by and see him this afternoon, so looks like I got me some errand to run."
Drucker watched him cross the room, looked at Crenshaw and shook his head. Devlin was one of the few things the two men agreed on. Phil Hensley was down in Colorado now, working clean-up.
* * *
Morford didn't bother to glower at the washed-up failure who stood nervously across his desk. "Devlin, your performance in Colorado—"
"Wasn't my fault, Mr. Morford," Devlin hurriedly interrupted. "I downed that dirty little nester, just the way Dix, I mean Mr. Drucker trained me. I was just swinging to saddle to ride down for the kill shot when these two jaspers stormed out of the barn with their guns in hand." He tried to make Morford see that he had been in the right. "They wasn't in the payday, so I skedaddled. The way the nester went down, with his shirt all red, and all I figured the job had been done anyway."
"But it hadn't," Morford replied. "Hensley is down there now cleaning up the mess you left." As Morford looked at Devlin, he no longer saw a throwaway needing at some cost, but a valuable two-legged commodity already bargained and paid for. "You're not the first man to leave a mess behind in his early days, Devlin." He gave a reassuring smile. "Some men who can learn from mistakes become top hands. Am I going to be saying that one day about you?"
"Yes sir," Devlin promised. "I learned maybe Drucker don't know everything."
Morford studied Devlin thoughtfully and seemed to make his decision. "An easy one-man request for service came in this morning. I'll let you prove what you can do." Briefly he outlined the assignment and Devlin's head bobbled up and down to make clear he got it. "Should be a quick in and out," Morford concluded, "but I'll send Drucker along since I don't have much else to keep him busy."
"I can handle it, Mr. Morford. You don't need to—"
"Drucker is not to be involved in the operation. It is to be done entirely by you. Understand, you're being tested, Devlin. Drucker only rides along to report back."
* * *
An hour later, when giving Drucker his own briefing, Morford told Drucker nothing that would violate the agreement with Burleson. "You don't need to know the details of the assignment, Dix" he said. "I told Devlin he's being given a second chance to prove himself. I told him you are only there to evaluate."
Granger, one week later.
As senior agent who had long been afforded the exclusive dignity of being addressed by his first name, Drucker knew his evaluation of every new hand was sought and respected. "That little Iowa farm hand don't listen well, Mr. Morford. It's a wonder he knew which end of his tool to use."
Morford chose his words carefully. None of the uneducated sub-humans he made use of must ever suspect how easily they could be expended for a sufficient price. "A lot of men stumble out of the starting gate, Dix. I seem to remember an early trip to the Dakotas, but you're my top hand now." Morford let himself be amused at Drucker's reaction on learning that Morford knew about his clumsy. One way Morford dominated the cretins was to make them think he knew everything. He let his eyes bore in on Drucker. "So maybe Devlin just needs a second chance. I rely on you to judge whether he has the potential to handle the kind of work you do so well. If he can't measure up . . . " Morford left the thought uncompleted.
"One more matter, Dix, on the Colorado business, Devlin tried to shift responsibility to your training," Morford said, aware that he had just given Drucker both license and motive to complete the second stage of the Burleson contract, while thinking it was his own decision. Low-class workingmen were easy to manipulate.
As Drucker strolled down Pine Street back to The Ten Gallon, he reflected on the responsibility that Morford had delegated to the man he called his most valuable agent. Morford had once emphasized to Drucker "only a man that combines your judgment, talent, and dedication can be trusted with the important work of our clients," and gave him the responsibility to train and evaluate the talent of trainees, and to remove men who lacked the aptitude for work in a demanding profession.
So, Drucker would ride with Devlin, evaluate his performance, listen to him talk about what lessons he had learned in Colorado, all with an open mind and then, of course, kill the little creep.
In mid-morning, Gorman sauntered into Burleson's office and tossed a money belt on the desk in front of Burleson. "Bucked my wrist last night, Boss," he announced. "Here's the money Prichard made selling your steers. Nobody will find what's left of him till he claws his way up through the muck come Judgment Day."
Burleson opened the belt and extracted a gold coin. He flipped it to Gorman. "Have a drink on Prichard," he said. "Then saddle my horse and have it out front at noon, ready to ride for the ranch."
An hour later, when the knocking came on the door, Burleson was writing another of the tedious letters to newspaper editors across the state giving them an "exclusive" insight into his plans for the state of Wyoming. One master letter, change the order of paragraphs, add some words of special interest to folks in Rawlings, acknowledging that the Union Pacific could be high-handed to the farmer-leaning publication; another letter assuring the merchants of Cheyenne his understanding of the importance of the railroad to Wyoming's prosperity; and, trickiest for a rancher, expressing his shock at their recent troubles to the editor of the scandalous rustler-loving Buffalo Bulletin up in Johnson County, words that maybe he meant, maybe not. What did it matter? After he was elected, he would focus on more important things, such as the state's construction program and negotiating the "executive commissions" to be deposited in his St. Louis bank account. That was politics.
The man who entered was young and lacked the cocky arrogance of Weller that Burleson had misread as the product of experience, but his gun leather was serviceable, and Burleson could tell that the holster was not new off-the-shelf and still stiff, but had the supple molding that reflected use. Burleson prided himself on his ability to read men and could tell at once: this man had killed. Morford's man.
"Just rode up from Laramie," the man began. "A friend said I should stop by and see if you had chores a workingman might do." The man didn't give a name. That was the first thing Burleson noticed. Nor did he hint at the nature of the work. A man who understood the value of keeping his mouth shut. Burleson approved. Not that it mattered for a disposable tool whose silence had already been bought.
"If it's work you're looking for, I'll be riding out to the ranch with my assistant shortly after noon. We ride at a canter out of town but we always slow down and rest the horses when we come out of the river at the ford."
Burleson picked up his pen and turned back to his papers, letting the killer understood that he been dismissed.
* * *
In the Spurs and Saddle, as he worked his way through Prichard's beer, Gorman found himself reflecting. He had made himself a good life. If he hadn't been a man of initiative, he could still be nothing more but a hired farmhand or dirt-and-sweat cowboy working for thirty-and-found. Or eating trail dust year after year between Texas and Montana.
Gorman chuckled to himself. What would folks say if he mentioned where a special pair of graves could be found in the hills of Hidalgo County or told the story of the joke he played on Mr. Harmon on the trail drive to Wyoming, Harmon who had started out owning the greater share, but Burleson owning it all after Harmon took his cold swim in the Arkansas River just north of Dodge City.
He had proved to Burleson how important he was and earned a good job, with good pay and a bonus every time he bucked his wrist at someone Burleson didn't want around. And now he'd have a soft life in the city with his choice of saloons, the best brothels in the state and maybe even getting into the Cheyenne Club for oysters shipped in fresh from San Francisco on the Union Pacific. What more could a man want?
* * *
Shortly after noon, as they rode past the outbuildings of town, Gorman felt relaxed enough in the golden sunshine on a day not yet summer-hot to start a conversation with Burleson. "They calling you Governor yet, Mr. Burleson?"
Laramie, three days later.
"Some of the bankers and railroaders haven't knuckled under," Burleson replied. "But the Association runs things."
"It'll be new to me, living in a big city like Cheyenne," Gorman said. "From eating off tin plates down in Tamaulipas to the China plates in the Governor's mansion it's been a long trail since you had me hot-pistol them three vaqueros to get you your start."
"A long trail," Burleson agreed absently. The man riding beside him was nothing more than detritus on the trail. Unimportant, no longer useful, and soon to be forgotten.
Accustomed to Burleson's silence, Gorman rode tall in the saddle, proud of how far he had come, knowing his brothers would be envious if they could see little Travis on the trail to be top hand of the governor of the entire state of Wyoming. And all he had to do was show a few losers how Sam Colt's ingenious little toy worked.
West of Grainger, above the confluence of the Harris and Muddy rivers, the mid-summer water levels made for an easy ford of the Muddy. Two hundred feet across, water barely up to the stirrups, the Muddy was easy on horse and rider alike and though the horses knew their job, a prudent rider still entered the water with his attention focused on the upstream for any unexpected driftwood while he let the horses set the pace.
So it was that Gorman paid no attention to some itinerant drifter breathing his horse on the other bank. But when they emerged from the water, he tensed as the rider walked his horse forward to intercept them. Gorman could not miss the six-gun held firmly in the man's hand.
"Picked the wrong man to rob," Gorman told the rider.
The gunman seemed amused as he looked from one man to the other. "This is an even easier kill that I imagined."
Gorman knew his job, keep Burleson safe. But at this range, a rushed draw to beat a filled hand could be barely aimed. He measured the distance as they closed and readied for his best shot. He looked sideways at Burleson. Burleson seemed oddly unconcerned at the gunman's threat.
Forty feet between them narrowed to twenty, then ten, and Gorman readied himself for the fastest draw he'd ever made. That's when Burleson spoke. "After you finish, let the river have the carcass. It don't matter where it turns up."
Gorman rocked back in the saddle as he realized those words were addressed to the stranger. "Mr. Burleson, he protested. "I done all your chores, ever since—"
"The Texas book is closed," Burleson bluntly. The rancher looked impatiently at the man from Laramie as he reined his horse around him. "You're wasting my time," he told him.
Drucker was brief.
"Good thing I was along," Drucker reported. "Devlin told me where he planned to do his work and I found me a good overlook for backup. The rancher rode out with one of his cowhands unlucky to be riding beside him. Devlin had his gun already fisted when he braced them, and from where I was watching, Devlin was running the show. But it looked like he cared more about running his mouth than working his finger."
Morford let Drucker tell the story his own way.
"That cowhand of Burleson had more guts than a pack of angry wolves. Even with Devlin drawn and cocked, he went for his gun. Course Devlin red-shirted him, but the cowhand winged Devlin on his way out.
"Could have been Colorado all over again," Drucker continued. "With Devlin sagging in his saddle and his gun arm useless, the rancher was just riding away clean. So, I swung to saddle and did the job. Then I rode back and put Devlin down."
Morford reflected. A profitable contract fulfilled. An unwanted hireling gone. And a surprising end that assured no dissatisfied client. Morford withdrew a stack of bills from the safe and began counting out Drucker's well-earned bonus.
Dick Derham, a native of Seattle, has been reading Western history and fiction since his teenage years. A member of the Wild West Historical Association, he has written over twenty stories for Frontier Tales.
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Wrigley Welles, Pecos Lawman
by Tom Sheehan
Wrigley Welles was law's name, the very last word on law, in The Pecos Wilderness, the southernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains in the range of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of north central New Mexico. He was, more than a sheriff or marshal, but a mountain climber, a cliff-scaler, a rider of horses on an uphill rise until sense told him it was about to become a foot-chase for a killer, a thief, a kidnapper, or a gunman of notorious deeds.
Wrig, as he was called, before it became the simpler version of Rig, found excitement and deep satisfaction on an open-plains chase or the one that led him into the higher reaches where eluders, losers, murderers, fast gunman, and all their ilk, sought escape in places where the law might never chase them; except for Wrig or Rig Welles, who'd go anyplace to catch anyone who's face was shown on a wanted circular.
Rig's last look at such a posted circular was a sketch of one outlaw, Pix Dagger, who robbed a branch of The New Mexico Bank in Cleverley, riding off with more money he'd ever handled in his life along with the young son of a bank teller, Richie Carver, Jr., there to deposit his latest dollar earned.
Richie was 11 years old and was carried off by Pix Dagger to throw off any shooters taking aim at him and afraid of hitting the boy screaming for help all the while.
Their ride away from the bank, and out of Cleverly, was as smooth as a prairie stroll with a young lady; uninterrupted, not a single bullet slicing through the air around the duo on horseback. Richie did not stop screaming until they were on the first rise outside of town, the mountains stretching down their reach directly in front of them, the rise to formidable heights promising some escape route or hideout, if so chosen, for Pix Dagger and his loot and his prisoner, his new ward, his escape means: he realized he might have been shot to death if not for the kid on the horse with him.
"I don't want to know your name, kid, 'cause I'm gonna call you 'Smokie.'
So, don't say anything else to me or I'll stick this gun down your throat or toss you off the side of a cliff. Makes no difference to me, so, be wise about your mouth."
Richie Carver, Jr., practically went silent for the first time in his life, knowing the fix he was in, what the man, who had his hands on his life, might do on the spur of any moment. He remembered his mother saying, "Sing when you feel like singing, but keep quiet when you have nothing worthwhile saying; people understand the singing but not all the other stuff kids carry around with them."
The horse exhibited the first of the difficulties, the climb getting steeper, and Pix Dagger, talking aloud to himself, said, "I got to find a place to hide the horse, if I can, for a few days; see if anybody chases us way up here. Nobody knows it, but me and my horse, and now you, kid, but I got grub hidden all over this mountain, lots of it, enough to go a couple of weeks so we can slip away with all the goodies." He laughed a victorious laugh, like a job-well-done laugh. He let it go a second time, loud, so the whole world could hear it.
Pix Dagger had no idea that Wrigley Welles was on his trail already, surmised that the robber, the kidnapper, and the teller's son were using the Pecos as an escape route and a temporary hideout, that they'd hideout for a while, then dump the boy in some weird ending he dared not think about.
Neither did he know the boy was dropping small pieces of his red handkerchief every time he could manage to tear a piece loose; Richie lost count of how many pieces he had ripped off his handkerchief but it was getting smaller with each tear, all the pieces coming in different sizes, different shapes.
In truth, Dagger had no idea that two ends of the deal were working against him, one with him and the one behind him already on the trail. He might have thought, if he had known, that none of it was going in his favor, that things were piling up all around him, including the Pecos too in their silent rising to near the top of this known world in all of New Mexico, him this night coming to be closer to the stars than he had ever been, damned near the top of the world.
Dagger had put his horse in a cave, hoping it would protect him as much as possible from mountain lions, any flesh-eating animals born to the Pecos. He and the boy, trussed with a chunk of lariat so that he wouldn't run off, had climbed high and higher for he length of day, the sun gone past the low horizon, the two of them secluded in a cave for the night, the entrance secured, food taken from a hiding place, the kidnapper and the kidnapped having their first meal of the night.
Richie Carver heard the true silence of the night, of the earth, of the mountain itself, as he tried to sleep, picturing the torn pieces of his red handkerchief being collected by an eagle-eyed trailer on his own way up the mountain, the pleasant feeling of such discoveries drawing him into a deep sleep, the Pecos his bed for the whole of this night.
Rig, in his own cave for the night, a small fire casting its light so he could count the pieces of the red handkerchief he had collected, and had laid out on the floor of the cave, trying to find its measurements, how much more he might find on the way up the mountain, the boy filling his mind with admiration, hoping the kidnapper might be feeling some sympathy for the boy.
Every bit of help that was mounting for the boy, no matter the source of help, would all add up to a rescue of the boy. The return of the stolen money was no longer on his mind, him imagining, a hundred years from now, some mountain climber would stumble on the riches and find his life suddenly changed because of his love of climbing such as The Pecos.
His own horse was also penned in a cave; he feared for him, too, like he did for young Carver, both creatures drawn into the drama by a thoughtless, careless human being wanting the good stuff of life regardless of its cost, of who and what was hurt to satisfy his own hunger.
Rig Welles fell asleep with the good thoughts chasing him into the mountain darkness, into the forever of things.
Early morning, before the sun broke free, the sheriff, the pursuer, was afoot on the high Pecos. He wondered how much handkerchief was left, if he had found the last piece available for dropping on the wayside, sight-unseen by the kidnapper, the robber, Pix Dagger, whose mind was most likely on a new day on the mountain, possibly seeing a way out down the other side of the mountain, perhaps already in his plans having made that trip.
The sheriff had been here before, the challenge of such a climb having hit him a few years before, his own demand of "know the country you're responsible for, ever foot of the way that you can imagine.
Then, in the midst of morning silence, he heard a soft whistle, heard it repeated, heard a husky voice say, "You tryin' to signal someone, kid? No one way up here. You ain't got a chance in hell of anybody hearin' you, don't you know that?"
Welles wanted, desperately, to answer back, to hear the ruckus in response, but kept a whistle to himself, catching sight of the kidnapper and the kidnapped close beside each other in front of a cave opening, the deep darkness like an evil blackness at the cave mouth. If the riches were in there, he cared less, but he had to let the boy know he was there, close enough to hear him on top of the wind, blowing over his back toward the pair on the run.
Rig Welles, in a moment of deep thought, the fingers of one hand twisting around the red remnants in one pocket, selected one piece from his pocket, let it free from his hand, saw it fly directly toward the others as it was caught by the wind, saw the boy spot it as it landed close to them, and then continue on an errant flight out and beyond from the near top of The Pecos.
"What the hell was that?" said Pix Dagger.
"Go see for yourself," said young John Carver. "It's right over there." He pointed to the sole rock near the peak, might have sat there from Infinity.
Dagger moved toward the sole round boulder, away from young Carver.
When Dagger picked up the piece of red handkerchief, he had a sudden realization of the worst kind, and a single shot struck off stone right at his feet, and Rig Welles said, as John Carver, Jr. rushed to his side, "Make another move, Dagger, go for that gun of yours, and I'll drop you right where you stand, and there's no way I'm packing your body down this mountain."
That's how they came back to the town of Cleverly, the kidnapped kid leading the kidnapper and the local sheriff, and a satchel over the boy's shoulder just waiting to show it to his father.
Sheehan's newest eBooks are "Korean Echoes", nominated for a Distinguished Military Award, and "The Westering," 2012,
nominated for a National Book Award by the publisher (with 7 collections completed and in the publisher's queue). Now
in his 96th year, Sheehan writes 1000 words a day. Boston Globe's Alan Lupo (RIP) once said, "Sheehan is Dos Passos
reincarnated and drives a story into our souls as if it was an old Buick Roadmaster."
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The Sun Still Sets
by Rich Martino
The incessant battle cry of "Viva Santa Anna!" becomes a fervid two-piece symphony when the soprano wailing of bugles join in. The rhythmic cracking of non-stop musket fire travels beyond the fort. It is swallowed up by the ground quaking stampede of horses kicking up a golden cloud of dust in their wake.
Inside the fort the cacophony is compounded by officers bellowing orders. Guttural howls of soldiers in bayonet blood waltzes. Harrowing death wails of women and children echo off the walls still standing. Blood spills and seeps into cracks in the parched brown earth. It ebbs into ever-widening circles of burgundy sludge.
We are running for our lives. My mother holds my hand so tight in hers, I fear my bones will break. But she won't loosen her grip no matter how much I cry out. We head for the chapel. When we arrive, we see holes being carved in the sacred walls to shoot from. Through clear stained glass I see the outline of a soldier. He makes a hasty sign-of-the-cross before shattering a piece of the window depicting angels in a supplication gesture to the heavens. Before he gets his rifle through the hole, he is shot in the chest. He staggers backwards a few steps then lurches forward. He crashes through the window and falls face-first into a pile of shattered cherub statues.
We change direction and run along the west wall toward the barracks. The Mexican cavalry has breached the wall and overwhelmed the Texians. Civilians race in the direction of the San Antonio River. A soldier yells at my mother to follow, but she ignores him. I am terrified and manage to pull my hand out of my mother's grasp. I start running toward the river. My mother screams for me to stop. Rounds are exchanged in bursts of red sparks and smoky white pyrotechnics. A cannon blast explodes very close to me. My ears start ringing and I fall to my hands and knees, too terrified to go further. For a moment there is an eerie silence, only disturbed by the hungry cries of vultures gathering and circling above. In front of me there is a ditch filled with dead bodies. Faces with frozen eyes stare unfazed into the blazing light of the merciless Texas sun. One gasping soldier crawls over bullet-ridden corpses of his regiment, reaching for a nearby rifle. The soldier manages to feebly grip the butt of the weapon for one brief moment before he goes limp. He spews out a splatter of dark red spittle with his last breath.
My mother catches up to me and grabs my hand once more. We are running again, this time back to the fort. The ground is exploding all around us in fiery bursts of bloody dirt. I fall, but my mother hoists me up the instant I hit the ground. Somehow we make it to our barracks. She leads me inside to the back of the building. She opens a small trap door in the ground that reveals a small storage area which was used for hiding valuables. It's empty now. She pushes me down into it and I have to curl into a ball to fit. There's no room for her.
Bending over, she grabs my face in both hands.
"Charles, don't you dare move from here no matter what. You wait for me to come back for you. Promise me!" my mother screams above the gun fire, cannon blasts, and death cries. She sees the look on my face. I have just turned twelve years of age and she is all I have left after losing my father in battle. She tries to assure me.
"Don't worry, I will find a place to hide in the chapel." I swear I will not budge. Her reply of I love you is cut short by the slamming of the trap door.
After what must have been hours, the last shrieks of the slaughtered die out to occasional whimpers. The steady burst of gunfire dissipates to an infrequent pop.
I can't stand being trapped in this dark hole any longer. I know I shouldn't, but I emerge from my hiding place and what's left of the building. I must find my mother. My hands fly to my face to shield my eyes from the sudden burst of daylight.
Through the cracks in my fingers I see hellish carnage everywhere. A real-life manifestation of the apocalyptic watercolor illustrations depicted in my Sunday school prayer book. The air is still cloudy with gray-white smoke. I choke on the acrid, sour scent of burnt charcoal and ammonia. Stumbling forward, bits of haze clear momentarily revealing snippets of nightmare visions. Bodies in unnatural poses on the ground. A woman with her arms still wrapped tight around a child. An open wedding scrapbook, pages fluttering in the wind. A wooden game table blown to bits with charred chess pieces scattered nearby. There are craters the size of watermelons from cannon blasts. One of the barracks is burning, sending thick orange flames high over the rooftops. Occasionally a sharp splitting sound rings out as support beams in the building collapse and crash to the ground.
When I am near the chapel I almost trip over the body of a woman splayed out on her back. Her long dress is hiked up over her face. Embarrassed for her robbed dignity, I reach down to pull the garment below her knees. But before I can, I hear the sound of boots stomping behind me. I turn to see a man dressed in a blue single-breasted coat with red facings and piping. He has linen trousers on with patches of pristine white, but mostly covered in slick reddish brown stains. His skin is smooth dark bronze and his eyes a shade darker. He looks at me with distant coldness. I drop to my knees and close my eyes.
"I am sorry young Señor," he says politely as he aims his rifle. "No tomar prisioneros." I think the Mexican soldier assumes I am praying for my immortal soul because my lips are moving silently. But I am not. I'm mouthing a silent apology. It is the first and only time I have ever broken a promise to my mother.
I hear a loud click. I open my eyes to see the look of surprise on the soldier's face. He chuckles. "No más municiones." He points his bayonet at my throat. My eyes squeeze shut again. When nothing happens I peek through one eye. He smiles, shrugs and spits in the dirt next to me. "Well perhaps I answer your prayers. Spread the news. Viva Santa Anna!"
He is gone. I turn back to the woman whose dress is up over her head. I tell myself I have seen other women dressed exactly like that. But I know it's not true. My hand trembles as I pull down the dress to reveal my mother's face.
I wander aimlessly, covered in dirt and sweat, unable to decide what to do. I want to go back and lie down next to my mother, but keep walking in circles until I feel I might collapse. I see a young girl who looks close to my age in a torn dress sitting in the rubble of the burned-out barracks. Her hands are caked with mud and blood. She has smeared her face with it in long streaks. It looks like war paint. I walk over and sit down next to her. We remain that way for a while. Finally, my gentlemanly upbringing compels an attempt to comfort her.
"History will not forget the Alamo." Hollow and absurd. As soon as the words escape my mouth I regret them.
She takes a while to respond. "God willing, the dead who fought for us will no doubt be honored." She turns to me. Her nose is running. "But what about those of us who are left?"
This time I don't attempt any response. After a few minutes of silence I say, "My name is Charles, you can call me Charlie."
She sighs deeply. "Victoria. I guess you can call me Vicki."
I didn't know what possesses me to do this, but impulsively I reach out and gently hold her hand. I look straight ahead at the darkening sky over the hues of the prairies. Her hand stiffens and for a moment, my upbringing tells me I have overstepped. But then Vicki slowly returns my grasp. We continue looking out onto the landscape and not at each other. An unusually large red-orange sun is setting over the flat, barren land. It changes the color of the prairie to a similar palette. It is breathtakingly beautiful. We watch in silence.
Fifty years later on the anniversary of the Alamo, Vicki and I sit on the front porch of our house in Dallas, 250 miles from where the doomed fort stood. We do this every year. There are never words spoken between us about what happened on that horrible day. We just sit on the porch swing, gently swaying and holding hands.
With only the sound of the softly squeaking swing and a chorus of crickets, we watch a very similar sunset to the one we gazed upon the first day we met. We are still there after the sun dips below the horizon and stars materialize to dot the pitch-black sky.
Rich Martino is a long-time writer who is just beginning to submit his work for publication. He writes flash fiction
and short stories in multiple genres besides literary pieces, such as horror, sci-fi, fantasy, magical realism, and
historical fiction. Rich was born and raised in New York City but lives in Las Vegas now. He is also working on a novel.
Rich can be reached at @richanthonyleo on Twitter.
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by Phillip R. Eaton
Ruby and her brother huddled together in the loft of the barn and cried as they listened to the blood-curdling screams of their mother. Even though the war had ended months ago, there was a small renegade band of Union soldiers who continued to ravage the countryside, causing total destruction to anything that lay in their path.
"We gotta do something. Mother's in trouble," cried Cole.
Ruby cowered in the corner behind a hay bale. "Mother said to stay here no matter what, Cole. We have to wait."
"Well, you can if you want to, but I'm not waiting."
Cole climbed down the ladder from the loft and grabbed a pitchfork on his way out of the barn. Two riders were still on horseback near the front of the house. As Cole ran towards them, one of the men pulled his Colt 45 from his holster, took aim, and fired off one round, knocking Cole to the ground. Blood poured from his head. Ruby, watching from between the slats on the boarded-up barn window, let out a scream and ran to her brother's side. Cole was out cold but still breathing. Ruby picked up the pitchfork and lunged toward the men. Once again, the rider pulled the hammer back and took aim.
"Hold fire," yelled the man in the Sergeant's uniform from the doorway of the house. "We don't kill no girls." He turned his attention to Ruby. "Drop the fork little lady, and you won't be hurt."
Ruby stopped running and did as he asked.
"Let me take her to the barn and show her how to respect a man in uniform," said the shooter, as he holstered his gun.
"At ease, private. You'll do no such thing. Get ready to ride. We're movin' out."
Ruby stood there, her legs shaking with fear, and watched as the men exited her home with sacks of their belongings.
"You want us to burn it, Sarge?"
"No, leave the house, but get their horses and burn the barn," he commanded.
They mounted up and rode off to the west, away from town.
Ruby tore the bottom of her dress and wrapped Cole's head with the cloth. He opened his eyes and moaned, "Mother?"
Sparks from the barn had ignited the roof of the house as the two of them raced inside. Mother was lying in the middle of the kitchen floor, bloodied and bruised, her dress torn to shreds. Cole ripped off his shirt and covered her up.
"We need to get her out of here. Help me carry her."
Ruby, with tears streaming down her cheeks, took her by the legs.
They managed to get her outside just in time. The old dried-out timbers of the house burst into flames as if a bomb had gone off.
Mother reached up and touched the side of Cole's face. "You look out for your sister now, boy. Be good." And she closed her eyes one last time.
* * *
Cole and Ruby each took turns shoveling scoops of earth into the grave and said their goodbyes.
"You are welcome to stay with the Mrs. and me for as long as you need," said Rev. Johnstone.
"Thank you, Reverend, you've both been most kind, but we got word from our uncle in Kansas. He wants us to join him there. Me and Ruby will be leaving at the end of the month."
"So be it. You will always have a place here if the need comes up."
* * *
The train whistle blew loudly as the engineer slowed to a stop. The conductor came on and announced that they were taking on water before continuing on to Dodge City. Ruby leaned over Cole's lap to look out the window.
"There is a man in a wagon out there waving," she said.
"That's Uncle Herman," Cole yelled, and they jumped from their seats and ran to the platform. Herman Morse, their mother's brother, beat them to the steps.
"Why did you meet us out here?" Ruby asked.
"What, no hello first?" Herman said. "Anyway, my place is closer to the water tower than the station in town, so I took the shortcut. C'mon, your Aunt Hattie is dying to see you. She's cooked up a big turkey dinner just for the occasion."
* * *
Cole and Ruby settled into their new surroundings. Life sure was different in Kansas from what it was back home. The land was flat and dusty, most people lived in either cabins or sod houses. There wasn't a single plantation house to be seen. No lush greenery hanging from the trees. The people that lived in the area were all from somewhere else, others were just passing through.
"Cole, I want you and your sister to take the buckboard into town and get some supplies. I hear tell that Mr. Tolliver has a new shipment of peppermint candy at the General Store. I think maybe you should add a couple of sticks to the list."
* * *
Ruby helped Cole stack the supplies in the back of the wagon. Cole wiped the sweat from his brow. "Sure is hot. I could go for a cold drink of water right about now."
Just then a ruckus could be heard coming from Sullivan's Saloon.
"Cole," Ruby called out in a loud whisper, "Look. It's them."
"Look, the guys coming out from the saloon. Look at the uniforms. It's the same men who hurt Mother back home."
"How can you be sure? We're a long way from home. What would they be doing in Kansas?"
"Cole, I'm telling you. I will never, ever forget the face of the man who pointed a gun at my head. It's them, I know it is. Look, there are three of them. There should be one more coming out. And he should have stripes on his sleeve."
The barroom doors swung open and a red-headed scruffy guy in a Sergeant's uniform stepped out and mounted his horse. The others followed him out of town.
"Now, do you believe me?"
Cole hung his head and shuffled his feet in the dirt.
"I know what we gotta do."
* * *
Several nights were spent sneaking out of the cabin after their aunt and uncle had fallen asleep, in order to search for the soldier's hideout. They were nowhere to be found.
The next night at dinner, Uncle Herman was telling stories, as usual, and told of the time when his new foal escaped her pen and ran wild. She was lost for days until he finally located her in one of the alcoves of the nearby canyon.
Cole and Ruby looked at each other at the same time with the same grin on their faces. That night, they headed straight for the canyon.
As they walked the creek bed, the rocks were slippery underfoot, it was hard to be quiet. Up ahead, they could see the reflection of a campfire on the canyon walls. Cole and Ruby got into a position so they could see around the bend, sure enough, there were four men in blue soldier's uniforms, and one was red-headed.
Ruby motioned to Cole to turn around and leave. When they got back to their horses, Ruby said, "I've got an idea."
"Let's go home and I'll tell you all about it."
* * *
"So, what's your big idea?"
"Look, you and me, we can't fight them in a shootout, obviously, and if we tell Uncle Herman about them, he'll want to get the Marshal from Dodge City. They may be gone by then. What if we sneak in while they are sleeping and steal their guns and tie them up?"
"Don't be stupid. That'll never work."
"Okay then, that's what I thought you'd say. Want to know what plan B is?"
"Not if it's as stupid as plan A."
"We kill them in their sleep," she said. "It'll be like pickin' off a fox in a hen house. They will never know what hit'em."
Cole looked at Ruby like she had gone loco. "Are you serious?" he said.
"You seen what they did to Mother. They gotta pay."
Cole thought for a minute, then said, "We'll go to hell."
Ruby glared him right in the eye. "I'm good with that. How about you?"
* * *
As soon as Cole was sure that Uncle Herman and Aunt Hattie were asleep, he and Ruby crept out of the cabin and headed to the barn. The moon was full and cast their shadows across the ground. Suddenly there were three shadows. They stopped dead in their tracks and slowly turned around. There stood Uncle Herman.
"You didn't really think you'd get away with this did you?"
"Don't know what you mean Uncle," Ruby said trying to sound innocent.
"I know what you're up to."
"Never mind how. Let's just say you two aren't as secretive as you think you are."
"You can't stop us," she said. "If you saw what they did to Mother, you'd let us go."
"Your mother was my sister. I never said anything about stopping you, I'm going with you. Three against four is a little better odds, don't you think?"
Another voice from the shadows blurted out, "I think four against four is even better," Aunt Hattie said as she buttoned up her overcoat. "Shall we?"
* * *
"We need to climb the west side of the canyon. The moon will be at our backs. Hattie, you stay here at the entrance, in case one of them tries to get away. You got Betsy loaded?"
"Both barrels, dear. Just like you showed me."
When Uncle Herman, Cole, and Ruby reached the peak of the canyon, they spread out and laid on their bellies overlooking the alcove at the bend in the creek bed. The bright moonlight shined down on the sleeping soldiers like it was daylight.
"Ruby, would you like the pleasure?" Whispered Uncle Herman.
She nodded, then yelled, "Y'all put your hands up and come out of there."
They jumped up from a deep sleep with their guns waving, rubbing their eyes, and yelling, "Who's there? Show yourself."
"Throw down your guns and put your hands up," Ruby yelled again.
They all looked up at the ridge and began firing.
Cole and Ruby ducked and kept their eyes on Uncle Herman.
"You heard her, throw your weapons down," he yelled.
They fired again.
Uncle Herman nodded his head and the three of them leaned over the edge and commenced shooting. It was like shooting frogs in a tree stump hole. Three soldiers fell with the first round of shots. The last one standing was the same one who shot Cole and pointed his gun at Ruby.
Ruby looked over at the other two and claimed, "He's mine." She aimed her rifle, squeezed the trigger, and plunked his kneecap. He went down in a heap.
"That one is for my brother," she yelled.
She pulled the trigger one more time, striking his right shoulder, knocking him on his ass. She must've hit an artery because the blood spurted out like a fountain.
"That one was for pointing your gun at me. The next one is for what y'all did to my mother."
"Fuck you!" he yelled out, trying to lift his pistol.
"In your wildest dreams, you son of a bitch."
Ruby pointed the rifle and eyeballed the sight. She lined it up with his forehead for the kill shot. She hesitated, lowered the barrel, took aim at his midsection, and pulled the trigger again. He grunted as the bullet plunged into his gut.
"Now suffer, you bastard."
Herman looked over at his niece as she stared into the canyon. The tears streamed down Ruby's face as she watched the life ooze from the man's body.
"Let's go home," he said.
* * *
Hattie cooked up a big breakfast of eggs, grits, and salt pork. Everyone sat quietly and tended to filling their bellies until Uncle Herman finally broke the silence.
"Looks like the chickens were really generous this morning," he said.
"They were. I hope y'all are hungry after last night," Aunt Hattie replied.
Ruby glanced over at Cole, then sheepishly said, "About that, Uncle Herman, what happens now?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, young'n."
"You know, last night in the canyon."
"Don't know nothin' 'bout no canyon. Me, I slept like a wee child last night. How 'bout you Hattie?"
"Like a rock dear, like a rock. All night long."
Uncle Herman looked up from his plate, "And that, boys and girls, is the end of the story."
Phillip R. Eaton is an author from Western New York. He has been featured in Frontier Tales Magazine. He has published
two non-fiction historical novellas: Col. Frank N. Wicker, from Lockport to Alaska and Beyond, and My Civil War Uncles,
and also writes fictional short stories, exploring sci-fi, westerns, sports, and some romantic fantasies.
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