December, 2023

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Issue #171

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

Last Hope on the High Sonoran
by Jack Kimball
Marshal Ely is on his last chase after he comes on a dead man staked out to the ground. Little does he know he's after an invincible Apache filled with hatred for the white man, and Ely may end up being the next one tortured and killed. But is there a larger lesson?

* * *

It's Done, Sarah
by William S. Hubbartt
Sheriff Clay Holland must bring in a vicious outlaw named Judd after he robbed a stage and killed the stage driver. During the pursuit, Clay realizes that this is the same murderer who had previously shot and killed Sarah Holland, Clay's wife. When Judd attempts to bushwhack the lawman. The Sheriff must face his own demons.

* * *

Closing the Book
by Dick Derham
Unscrupulous politicians seeking to serve their own selfish ends could sabotage Jesse Burleson's campaign for governor by revealing best-forgotten details of his Texas origins. Prudence required that Burleson thwart their efforts.

* * *

Wrigley Welles, Pecos Lawman
by Tom Sheehan
How does a Texas lawman put the beauty of the mountains aside his work and chase down a wanted killer while he himself is captured by the land fully about him to the limit?

* * *

The Sun Still Sets
by Rich Martino
Charles and his mother run for their lives during the attack on The Alamo. They find a hiding place, but it is only big enough for one and peril approaches.

* * *

by Phillip R. Eaton
The war ended months ago but a band of renegade soldiers continue to maim and destroy. Ruby and Cole are forced to move in with their aunt and uncle when their mother is killed, then their home is burned. When the renegades are spotted in town, Ruby plots a secret mission of retaliation with some unexpected help.

* * *

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All the Tales

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.

"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.

"Kill him."

Laramie, one month later.

Burleson paused outside the office door and read the lettering on the frosted glass:

Standish Morford

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."

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.

Granger, one week later.

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?"

"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.

"Kill him."

Laramie, three days later.

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.


The End

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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