January, 2016

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Issue #76

All The Tales

Wrath Rides a Dappled Gray
by Ruth Weeks

At twilight the mist stirred, touched the trees, leaves, and streams with icy fingertips. Silence covered the land so thick the flap of a raven's wing echoed through the wild. And from the chill a mighty horse with a coat of smoke and snow pranced forth. Pawed the ground with a black-stocking leg and snorted dragon smoke into the wind. Silk ribbons of a charcoal-streaked mane and tail glimmered in the frosty air. He had come for her this day.

For it has been said, Wrath rides a Dappled Gray.

* * *


If fear had a face, it would be pinched, sweaty, and ghost-white just like Mama's. Something awful was fixin' to happen. Mama never got scared. Not even the time a brown bear lumbered into our yard after spring thaw. Or that brutal cold winter when snaring, rib-thin wolves raided our chicken coop. Fear feeds fear. I stood rooted to the spot. Frantic, she pulled me to her and shoved Grandpop's old war pistol in my hand.

"Zane. Run. Whatever happens, no matter what you hear, do not come out of hiding."

I gazed deep into brown eyes bigger than walnuts. The spit in my mouth turned to sand.

"You must not come for me. Understand?"


Even in terror, she couldn't stop a hint of a grin. "Stubborn to the bone. Always have been. Suppose ya always will be." Her hold on my arm tightened. "That ain't a bad thing, girl, as long as you temper it with the good instincts God graced you with."

The sound of hoof beats made her tremble. Tears dampened my braids when she hugged me to her breast and kissed the top of my head.

"Promise me, child. Swear you'll stay put. I mean it, Zane. Swear it!"

"I swear."

I swear.

The oath repeated itself like a silly nursery rhyme in my head as I ran full bore to woods. Sam, a yellow fur ball with four paws and a tail chased after me, no doubt thinking my flight was some kind of game.

I swear.

A vow whispered over-and-over while I sat in the bowels of the dingy, musty-smelling cave and clutched the cold iron of the pistol and the squirming warmth of the dog to my heart.

I swear.

A promise shattered to pieces with one scream.

At the wood's edge my trembling legs gave way and folded under me like a new born colt's. Black smoke turned day into night.

One rider.

A demon from hell threw Mama like a ragdoll across his saddle. Behind him the cabin spewed a death rattle into hot air and collapsed in a heap of charred wood and mortar.

I couldn't see the face of the outlaw who grabbed Mama and galloped past me, but I saw his horse. Milk white.

No. No. No.

It took two hands to pull back the hammer on the weighty gun and point it at the horse's muscled rump. The pistol's report stung my hand. Rang my ears. Blue smoke wrinkled my nose, blinded my eyes. The shot? Lost forever in air thick and arid with the scent of gunpowder, smoke, and ash.

The hot pistol fell to the dirt.

In a blink of an eye Mama was gone.

And my heart forever turned to ice.

This was Pa's fault. If he'd been here, none of this would've happened. But, no. He had dreams to chase after. Dreams that didn't include his woman and baby. A girl-child to boot. As if Mama had any say in that matter. I figured she tagged me with a boy's name in a desperate attempt to ease my gender, to appease her man.

She claimed, however, the name carried magic. Mama believed in all things mystical. She kept this to herself, however claiming folks wouldn't understand her peculiar ways and think her a witch. Many times I'd seen her eyes glaze and messages only she could hear spilled from her lips. Perhaps the voices in her head, her spirits, had forewarned her of oncoming danger. For all the good it'd done.

But none of her visions or spirit messengers made a lick of sense to me and didn't matter no how. Pa took off, never to return. I promised myself I would never leave her. To always protect her.

But. I failed.

She was gone, and here I was. Hollowed out like a pumpkin shell and all alone except for a snip of a puppy whimpering at my feet.

Where was the magic in that?

Don't know how long I sat in the dirt, staring into blackened logs of a home that would never be again. Not even the sound of wagon wheels made me stir. But hoof beats made my heart summersault, jarred me from my stupor. Quick as a rattler, I turned and raised the ancient pistol. Didn't matter it weren't loaded. The rider didn't know that.

Folks called Max Johansson "Big Sweed" 'cause he hailed from some hamlet in Sweden and was bigger than a grizzly. A blacksmith by trade, he didn't spook easy but the sight of a gun as big as a small cannon pointed at his chest made him blanch, that and the fact the hands holding it shook like a cornered rabbit. He stepped down easy from the blue roan and nodded to the woman sitting in the buckboard.

"Elsa, you best take it from here."

Elsa was Big Sweed's wife of twenty years. She and Mama were friends. Or as good as friends as they could be with ten miles of timber and wildness separating them. She hurried toward me.

Dishwater-blue eyes gazed at the smoldering cabin. "What happened here? Where's Sarah?"

No words came. Didn't feel like talkin'. Or Walking. Or Breathing.

"Oh, my God. Is she . . . was she in the house?"

A slight shake of my head.

No longer worried about getting his head blown off, Big Sweed took the gun. Looked like a pea-shooter in his meaty paws. A bushy eyebrow cocked. "Sweet mother of God. It's a wonder the damn thing still worked." His gaze traveled past me to the yard. "Where is she?"

"Gone. Stolen."

From the frown that crossed the big man's face I knew his wits were stretched tight as a bow string. His voice came as a whisper.

"Who could've took her?"

"The devil."

Before today his puzzled look would've threw me into a side-holding fit. But no more. Today laughter got flopped over a saddle on a white horse and disappeared—just like Mama.

He cleared his throat, shot a confused look at Elsa, and shrugged his big-bear shoulders. I struggled for a deep breath. Guess he didn't know.

The devil rides a white horse.

Elsa wrapped a blanket around me. "Nothing left here. We'll take her home. After all, it's the Christian thing to do."

Felt invisible sitting beside her. The spring seat and my belly yawed and pitched. I glanced back. Was never again gonna help Mama mix up a batch of sourdough and flood the small cabin with the scent of fresh-baked bread. Sleep all safe and cozy snuggled under Grandma's patchwork quilt. I peeked over at the hefty woman beside me and her ginger-haired grizzly-man who rode alongside. If she noticed my stare, she said nothing. Good people. But not kin. Might be they'd come to love me as one of their own and me, them. Weren't the same. No love can replace a mama's.

Later, alone in the dark, with Sam loyally curled by my side, I cried out every bit of sadness and fear I'd stored up.

I'd find her.

If I had to ride into the deepest roots of hell, I'd find the evil that stole Mama and fling its dark, twisted mangy-hide back into the lake of fire and brimstone from whence it was forged. The only law in town was whatever tinhorn yahoo could draw the fastest. But that didn't mean spit to me. Didn't need no law. I'd teach myself how to shoot. To fight. To kill.

Hate rides a red roan.

An itchin', scratchin', burning feeling seared my gut. What was it? Revenge? Justice?


Moss Adams was the town's undertaker. His sweat-stained high-collared shirts stank of embalming fluid for the dead and whiskey for the living. Mean. Ornery; crooked as a witch's wart-green nose and twice as ugly. I hid behind the coffins lined up like pine dominos against the wall and watched him crawl on top of Jake Wilkes stiff body. With a pair of pliers in one hand and a needle in the other, he yanked out Jake's two front teeth for the gold that framed them. Then, cool as a frosted dew, he sewed the gunfighter's lips shut so no one would know. Even hummed a little tune while he weaved the thread in and out of the thin skin. Sure hoped ol' Moss liked the heat 'cause it was gonna be hotter than billy-blue blazes where he'd spend all eternity.

'Course I'd sneaked in to steal the dead man's gun belt and holster, so was I any better? I told myself, yes. At least I hadn't defiled a perfectly good body. A fine line I know, but a line none-the-less.

Every morning I took the six-shooter to the woods and practiced until no twig or branch was safe. Didn't seem to bother Elsa that I wasn't around. Guess she figured I needed time alone to sort things out and come to terms with everything. 'Course, to be honest, with a passel of young'uns of her own to tend and care for she probably didn't even notice I was gone.

I think the horse jumped heaven's pearly gates and fell to earth.

It was one of those Indian summer days. Not quite fall anymore, but not yet winter. Sundown matched the red, orange, and yellow of the trees and the woodsy scent of bark and leaves soaked the air. Twilight ushered in a cool breeze. Icy fog dripped wet tresses from branches and covered the creek with a mist so fine it reminded me of the sugar crystals Mama dusted on birthday cakes. Air so clear and hushed, I heard the grass breathe.

I turned.

And there the stallion stood.

Black skinned, wearing a coat of iron-gray and silver flecks, he watched me walk toward him with dark eyes so wise and deep I could fall into them and never crawl out. A horse so noble and proud, Jesus Christ himself would've thrown a leg over and spurred into hell. Strong. Fast. Willing and brave enough to carry me all the way to Mama and bring me home again.

Big Sweed's barn busted at the seams with bridles and saddles. Didn't take but a few minutes to find a good one, tighten the cinch, and step up into the stirrup. I screwed my Stetson down low and gave the gray his head.

I trusted he knew the way.

* * *

Sarah's long fingers traced the name burned into the wood cross: Zane Montgomery

"Max said your father's old cavalry pistol back-fired. Killed her on the spot."

"Thank you, Elsa. For . . . for not leaving her there for the buzzards and wolves."

Elsa stepped away from the small mound of dirt and shook her head. "No need to thank me. You would've done the same if'n it been one of mine."

"You know, Elsa, that day . . . that awful day, I made her swear not to try and save me. No matter what." A sad smile. "But I knew. Knew before the vow left her lips she wouldn't honor it. After her father abandoned us she said was her duty to protect me. Claimed that's why God made her. Have no idea where she got that notion. Couldn't convince her any different."

Elsa chuckled. "She always was a head-strong child."

Sam whined and nudged Sarah's hand. She knelt beside the grave and stared into his eyes. "Poor boy, I bet you miss her something fierce."

"I'll say he does. That yella' hound comes out here every night and curls beside her. Rain or shine. Sometimes . . . well I know how strange this is going to sound, but sometimes he gets all worked up, barking, tail wagging to beat the band. Kinda like he sees or hears her. Silly notion, ain't it? Thinking the dead can still be around watching over us."

"Oh, it's not so foolish, Elsa. I happen to believe they are, and I find great comfort in that."

The big woman gathered her skirts and slipped down beside her friend. "You never did say how you got away."

"I prayed.

"Every night and day.

"Prayed God's wrath would strike my captor dead. Right where he stood." A deep breath. "Believe it or not, that's exactly what happened."

She pulled Sam into her lap and stroked his tawny coat, lost in thought. Her voice came low.

"We'd gone into town for supplies. Very rarely did he let me out of his sight, and when he did I was on a very short rope. Usually he'd follow me into the store and stand by the door while I got what we needed. For some odd reason this one particular day he let me go in alone while he stood by the hitchin' rail. There hadn't been a hint of a storm brewing but minutes after we hit town the skies turned a puke-green color. The wind stilled like death and lightning cracked sharp as a whip. All of us ran to the windows expecting to see a twister fall out of the clouds. Instead, we watched a stranger ride down the middle of the street, bold as brass."

"Oh, my. What did he look like?'

"Never saw his face, hat was pulled too low, but his horse was a most striking mottled gray I'd ever seen. He trotted right up, pulled out his gun, and shot that piece of oulaw vermin right between the eyes.

"Killed him.

"Right where he stood.

"Just like I'd prayed."

Elsa gasped. "Death rides a pale horse."

"And Wrath rides a Dappled Gray.

"Everyone ran out to the street. All except me. I climbed up into the buckboard and drove straight out of town. Never looked back."

"What happened to the stranger?"

"Disappeared back into the storm what birthed him."

"Merciful heavens."

Elsa struggled to her feet and patted Sarah's shoulder. "I best be seeing to supper. Stay here as long as ya need, honey." She walked a few steps then turned. "Too bad Zane will never know about that stranger. That he rescued you."

Sarah ducked her head. A knowing, secretive grin pulled at her lips and she whispered to Sam's flickering ears.

"Oh, I bet she knows."

The End

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Nothing but the Best
by Robert McKee

n icy wind cut into Alfred Stark as he stepped off the train in Cheyenne. He shivered and pulled his top coat tighter. The coat was a heavy broadcloth, but clearly it wasn't enough. Until now Mr. Stark thought it got cold in Dallas; he'd been wrong.

He hurried into the station and watched from beside a coal-burning stove as two men unloaded the baggage car. When they finished, Stark walked back out to the platform and said, "That one's mine." He pointed to an elegant goatskin valise. One of the porters pulled it from the pile and handed it to him.

"Can you give me directions to a haberdashery?" Stark asked the larger of the two men.

"Certainly, sir." Turning to the north side of the Union Pacific depot, the man said, "Just head straight toward the Capitol, then turn right on Seventeenth. There's one halfway up the block."

"I'm only interested in the very best merchandise," Mr. Stark said.

"Theirs is the finest, sir."

Stark tossed the man a coin and said, "Obliged."

Back inside the station, he took a key from his silk vest, inserted it into the bag's lock, and lifted out his ivory-handled Colt. He then pulled back his coat and snuggled the pistol into his tooled leather shoulder holster.

Stark never carried his gun on trains. He hated sitting for long hours with the weight of it pulling at him. Alfred Stark was a man who refused to suffer discomfort of any kind. He appreciated the finer things and assumed pleasure in life was his due.

Coming to Wyoming in February was not Mr. Stark's idea of pleasure. He'd grown up in the heat of south Texas and now, living in Dallas, he cursed the chill from November to March. Everyone in his acquaintance knew of Stark's hatred of frigid weather—Mr. Stark made all of his likes and dislikes known to everyone—but a man also had responsibilities. Stark's responsibility was redressing the grievances of his employer, Major William T. Carey, and to do that, this winter, he was forced to travel north.

He pulled his Stetson down a notch and ducked his head into the wind. He made his way up Capitol Avenue and around the corner on Seventeenth.

As manager of what Major Carey called the "Protective Department" of Carey Enterprises, Stark could have sent one of his operatives on this manhunt. He would have, too, except the Major had taken personally the transgressions of the man Stark hunted. John Randolf once had been trusted. For that reason, the Major wanted him located and dealt with.

Stark scanned both sides of Seventeenth, saw the shop, and picked up his pace. The wind, behind him now, pushed with icy fingers.

He understood the Major's being taken in. Randolf was smart. Very smart, indeed. He had come to work for the Major in the spring of 1909, and in less than two years he had doubled the profits of the Major's cattle-buying business. In '11, Randolf was placed in charge of all the Major's interests in north Texas: the freight enterprise, six feedlots, and two dozen cotton gins.

John Randolf moved up the Major's ladder fast, but he proved to have his loyalties confused. When he discovered the scales at every cotton gin had been set to read light, Randolf turned the information over to the sheriff, then left Dallas in a rush. It cost ten thousand dollars to quiet things down, and the Major was not happy. He wanted Randolf dead.

Once Stark arrived at the haberdasher's, he quickly stepped inside.

"May I be of assistance, sir?" asked a small man approaching from the back of the store.

"Yes," said Stark, his teeth chattering. "You can sell me something warm."

He would kill Randolf quickly and then get the hell out of this frosty climate.

Stark peeled off four ten-dollar bills to pay for the fleece-lined sheepskin coat he'd chosen. Forty dollars was a large sum, but Stark would accept nothing but the best, especially when it meant avoiding the cold.

After handing the bills to the clerk, he walked to the window. He frowned at the number of moto-cycles and automobiles that jostled up Seventeenth Street. The blasted machines were nearly as ubiquitous here as they were on the streets of Dallas. Stark hated what was happening to this country. He despised motorized vehicles. They were noisy and uncomfortable. He still rode only in carriages, but in Dallas, a proper carriage was becoming increasingly more difficult to find. That looked to be the situation in Cheyenne as well.

In the half hour it had taken to make his purchase, the weather had turned even worse. The temperature had dropped, and large flakes of snow now swirled into the street.

He shook his head in disgust. If he could take care of business that afternoon, he would be free to secure comfortable rooms, eat a fine supper, then catch the first train back to Denver the next morning. He hoped to be home in Dallas by the end of the week. But he was unfamiliar with the countryside, and there was no way he could locate Randolf's small ranch on Lodgepole Creek in this weather.

When Randolf left Texas, he had provided no clues as to his whereabouts, but he had family in Dallas, so Stark tracked down Randolf's nineteen-year-old brother. At first the brother was no help, but Mr. Stark was persuasive and skilled in the use of a leather blackjack. It required effort. Stark's arm still ached from the beating, but eventually—after Stark blinded his left eye—the kid had told him of Randolf's ranching operation north of Cheyenne. Stark smiled at the memory of how eager the kid had been to talk when Stark threatened to blind his other eye.

Randolf's choosing to hide in Wyoming was a surprise. Stark might have expected the man to head south to Mexico. But on second thought, it hadn't surprised him at all. John Randolf never did what people might expect.

As snowflakes piled on the window sill, Stark decided there was nothing to do but find lodging. If the storm passed, he'd locate Randolf in the morning.

He turned toward the sales clerk. "Where's the best rooming house in town?" he asked.

"Rooming house, sir, or hotel?" The haberdasher was a foppish sort. His suit was snugly cut, and he had thin, slick hair he combed forward across his brow.

"Rooming house." Whenever possible, Stark stayed in rooming houses rather than hotels. The best ones were much more comfortable, and the food was always superior to the food in hotel restaurants.

The clerk tapped a long index finger against his cheek. "Well," he said, "let me see. The closest would be—"

"I didn't say closest, mister," Stark interrupted. "I said the best."

"Oh, the best," said the clerk. "That would be Mrs. McPherson's, just past the courthouse." He pointed through the window toward the northwest. "About seven blocks."

Stark folded the old coat into his valise and buttoned his new one all the way to the neck. "Are you sure this McPherson's is the best?" he asked.

"Oh, absolutely, sir. Mrs. McPherson has the very best accommodations in all of Cheyenne."

* * *

His new coat was warmer, but still the cold wormed its way into Stark's bones. It was a relief to finally step onto the large stone porch of McPherson's Boarding House.

The preening clerk had been right. This was a fine, impressive place. It was three stories high and took up half the block. Etched glass windows flanked the massive front door.

Stark pulled a porcelain knob beside the door and heard a chime. A young woman in a maid's dress answered.

"Of course, sir, come in," she said after he'd explained what he wanted. She then led him into a high-ceilinged reception room and introduced him to the proprietress, Lottie McPherson.

Because she wore no ring, Stark assumed Mrs. McPherson was a widow. And a handsome widow at that. She was little more than thirty, with chestnut hair and a full, round figure. He promised himself to better their acquaintance later in the evening.

"You are fortunate, Mr.—"

"Stark," he said. He felt no hesitation at using his own name. He expected to finish his business here and be back in Texas long before anyone even discovered Randolf's body.

"Yes, Mr. Stark, you are fortunate. The legislature meets for forty days beginning in January, and they've just this week adjourned. So with the members returning to their homes, I have several vacancies."

"Excellent," Stark said. It was time he had some good luck on this damned errand. "I'll have your best rooms then, madam."

"My best? I'm sorry, sir, but my best rooms are taken. I've other very nice—"

"No," Stark said, raising a finger and cutting her short. "Your best is what I'll have. I'm prepared to pay you double your normal rate."

"But, sir, as I said, the rooms are taken." She walked to a desk in the corner, opened a ledger, and, running her finger down a column, added, "Yes, they were let just yesterday afternoon by a Mr. Frederick Perkins."

Stark thought for a moment, then suggested, "Perhaps if you would point the rooms out to me, I might visit with Mr. Perkins and the two of us could come to some arrangement."

Mrs. McPherson seemed to hesitate, but finally she said, "Very well, sir, if you wish." She walked him back to the foyer. "It's the first door at the top of the stairs."

He thanked her and climbed to the second level. He knocked at the door. From within the chamber he heard a muffled, "Come in."

Stark stepped inside and pushed the heavy oak door closed.

It was odd, but the main room was nearly dark. The draperies were drawn, and no lamps were lit.

"Hello," Stark said, wishing his eyes would hurry and adjust to the lack of light. "Mr. Perkins, are you there?"

"Yes, Mr. Stark," came a voice from behind, "I am."

Stark spun around, and as he did, something solid struck him hard across the forehead. His knees turned to sand, and he fell in a heap to the carpet.

When Stark came around, he had to squint against the light. The drapes were now opened wide.

"Welcome to Wyoming, Mr. Stark."

Stark raised his eyes and saw nothing but a blur. He shook his head and looked again in the direction of the voice.

"John Randolf," Stark said, not even trying to hide his disbelief.

Randolf, holding Stark's Colt, stared down at him from a large leather wing chair.

"Why do you look so disappointed, Stark?" Randolf asked with a smile. "After all, you did come to Cheyenne to see me, didn't you?"

When Stark didn't answer, Randolf leaned forward and said, "I don't like what you did to my brother, Stark. But I'm going to tell you something. You should've killed him on the spot. He wired me saying what you'd done, and that you were headed my way."

Stark started to stand, and Randolf said, "Stay where you are." Stark moved to get up anyway, and Randolf's boot lashed out and caught him along the jaw. Stark felt his head snap back as he was sent sprawling.

With a groan, he rolled to his stomach and pushed himself to a sitting position. He felt a string of saliva and blood curl onto his chin. Wiping it away, he said, "Randolf, never mind how you knew I was coming to Cheyenne. How the hell did you know I was coming to this rooming house—this room, for God's sake? I didn't even know it." He probed a molar with his tongue and felt it wobble.

"Simple, Stark. You've always been satisfied with nothing but the best." Randolf leaned back in the chair. "Sadly, though, you'll not be enjoying these fine accommodations. We're leaving."

"Leaving? Going where?" He was feeling uneasy.

"For a ride, Mr. Stark. I have two horses stabled behind the house."

"Take a look outside, Randolf. There's a damned blizzard."

Randolf turned to the window. "Yes, sir," he agreed. "It is getting nasty, isn't it?"

* * *

They'd been riding for over an hour. Stark tried to watch for landmarks, but all he could see was falling snow.

He considered digging his heel into the horse Randolf had provided, but he knew that was pointless. Randolf rode a strong young gelding, and he'd put Stark on a sway-backed nag. Stark wouldn't get a dozen yards before he was either caught or stopped by a bullet. Randolf carried Stark's Colt tucked into a belt around his jacket. His saddle scabbard held a scoped hunting rifle.

"Come on, Randolf," Stark said. "This is insane. It's freezing out here. Where are you taking me?"

"You'll see, Mr. Stark. You'll see."

As they rode, the snow continued to fall. After another half hour, Stark spotted something fifty yards up ahead, but he couldn't make out what it was.

"What's that out there, Randolf?" When Randolf offered no response, Stark stood in his stirrups and squinted. "Is that one of those—"

"It's a moto-cycle, Mr. Stark. An Indian Wigwam moto-cycle, to be exact. I bought it from a fella just yesterday with you in mind. I know how fond you are of the internal combustion engine."

"What the hell're you talking about?"

"It's only six years old, and a man with your excellent taste will be glad to know that in its day, it was the best machine that Springfield, Massachusetts, had to offer." With a chuckle, Randolf added, "Of course, the fella I got it from has modern ideas, and he's been using it to herd cows the last couple of years, so its current condition is a little rough, but it still runs. I rode it out here myself just this morning. Before the snow began to fall."

They came up to the long, black machine, and Randolf reined in his horse. He turned to face Stark and said, "Get down."

Stark's eyes took in the countryside and saw nothing but an empty expanse of prairie. "You don't mean to leave me here."

"You're wrong about that," Randolf said with a smile. He pulled Stark's Colt from his belt and repeated. "Now get down."

Stark stared into the pistol's bore, then reluctantly slid from the saddle. The snow covered the tops of his brightly polished boots. "I'll die out here," Stark said. "I'll freeze to death."

"There is that possibility," Randolf allowed as he took the reins to Stark's horse. "But I'm a fair man, Mr. Stark—more than fair, some might say. I'm leaving you this fine machine. If you can ride it out, then you'll survive." He checked the sky. "But I'd suggest that you get started. Once this snow gets another inch or two deeper, I doubt this cycle will carry you very far."

Stark looked at the white flakes building up on the Wigwam's brown leather seat. "I can't ride this thing," he said. "I don't know the first thing about it."

"Then I expect you're in a pickle."

Randolf turned his horse to leave, but stopped short, and again faced Stark. "One more thing," he said. "Strip."

Stark felt his eyes go wide. "What?" he asked. With the wind's howl, he wasn't sure he'd heard the man right.

"Take off your clothes. All of them. Every stitch."

Now Stark had heard, but he couldn't believe what he was hearing. "The hell with you, mister," he shouted.

Randolf aimed the gun and said in a low, even voice, "Do it, Stark."

"Never. You can shoot me, you bastard."

"All right," Randolf said, and pulled the trigger.

There was a burning slap, and Stark was knocked to the ground. He grabbed his right ear and felt an inch-wide bloody groove.

"Strip, Stark, or I'm going to shoot off pieces of you until I run out of bullets." He patted the side of his coat. "And I've got a whole pocketful of bullets."

Stark considered his options, then sat up and pulled off his boots.

"Socks too," Randolf said.

Stark took off his socks, then everything else except for his longjohns. "You wouldn't take a man's underclothes, would you?" he asked.

Randolf looked down into Stark's eyes. "I got another wire this morning," he said. "It's from a cousin of mine in Dallas. My brother died yesterday from the beating you gave him, so I reckon I'm not feeling too merciful right now."

He gave a hard stare but didn't say more. Stark unbuttoned his underwear and pulled them off.

"Wrap everything in that fancy sheepskin jacket," Randolf said, "and hand it up."

It was difficult. Where the snow clung to his bare feet, it was so cold it burned, but he did as he was told.

Earlier Randolf had tied Stark's goatskin bag to the gelding's saddle. Now he opened it and shoved the clothes inside. He looked down at Stark and smiled. "Been a pleasure, Mr. Stark," he said, and gave a friendly two-fingered salute. He put the heel of his right boot to the horse and started off. After ten yards, he stopped and wheeled around. He pulled the revolver from his belt and opened the chamber. He shook the cartridges into his palm and tossed the gun to the snow.

As Randolf rode away, he called over his shoulder, "I left one cartridge in, Mr. Stark. I guess I'm feeling some mercy after all."

Stark watched, shivering, until horses and rider disappeared. Already his bare feet had turned a light purple. The wind sliced into him like a knife through a melon.

He staggered toward the moto-cycle and brushed the snow from the seat. Wincing, he straddled the machine and lifted it off its stand.

There were pedals like on a bicycle, and he assumed that the motor would start by operating these pedals. He had never ridden a bicycle before, but he had seen children doing it, so how difficult could it be?

He dug the toes of his left foot into the snow and pushed off, but before he could get both feet planted on the pedals, the cycle canted to the left, came out from under him, and he crashed to the ground. Cursing, he climbed to his feet and tried again, but he achieved the same result.

Alfred Stark was a stubborn man. He did not rise to his position in life by being anything less. For more than an hour he made repeated attempts to ride the moto-cycle, but finally, exhausted and freezing, he admitted to himself that he could not do it.

The cycle lay there, black in the white snow, mocking him.

Furious, he lifted it up, and half rolling and half throwing, he shoved the infernal machine out away from him. It traveled a few feet, and with indifference, it toppled onto its side.

It was clear that Randolf had left it here only to taunt him. He'd known that Stark would never be able to ride it. If Stark lived to be a hundred, he would never master this God-damned machine.

And with that thought, Stark realized that he would not live to be a hundred. He would not live another day.

He stood shivering, clutching himself with frosted arms, and scanned the vast prairie. As he watched the inexorable snow fall in great, frigid curtains, his eyes landed on the place where Randolf had dropped the gun. The Colt was less than twenty feet from where Stark now stood. It was partially covered, but Stark could see it. The blue barrel stood out against the white.

That bastard John Randolf had left him only three choices. He could sit here and freeze to death. He could begin the long walk back toward Cheyenne, knowing he would be dead before he got half a mile.

Or . . . 

He dropped to his knees and shoved his hand into the snow, forcing stiff fingers around the gun's ivory handle.

 . . . there was choice number three.

As Alfred Stark brought the Colt's muzzle to his temple, he told himself over and over that the choice he was making was the best.

The End

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The Troubled Stranger
by Marguerite Doecke

Cade Garrett walked into the old mercantile with a distinctive presence. His flawlessly polished boots made a deep echoing sound on the dusty timber floor as his tall, straight posture carried him towards the petite young woman behind the counter. He took a moment to study her and when she turned to greet him, he drew in a sharp breath. She was so much like her, yet completely different. Her striking beauty was pleasantly unexpected and her violet eyes caused Cade to swallow a deep knot that had lodged in his throat; those eyes had haunted him for the past two years. God, she was beautiful and she was going to hate him when he told her.

"Good morning, may I help you?" She asked in a pleasant tone. Her smile was shy but genuine and Cade steeled himself. It had taken him so long to get to this point, to get the courage to do what he should have done when it happened, but time and drink and guilt had been his able companions until now.

"Lodging," Cade spoke in a gruff voice that he didn't recognise as his own. He forced his dark eyes to meet hers and noticed her reserve.

"Is that a question or a statement, sir?" her response was unexpected and caught him off guard.

He smirked. "I'm looking for lodging. Excuse my manners. I'd be obliged, Miss . . . "

"Livingstone. Sarah," came the confident reply. "Mrs Hanthorn has lodging right next door. She's reasonable and cooks well too. I'm sure she can help you."

"Cade Garrett," Cade replied and tipped his Stetson. "Nice to make your acquaintance, Miss Livingstone. I'm sure we'll cross paths again." His dark eyes held hers as he spoke. She returned his gaze, unflinching. He was unsettling and dangerously handsome.

The ring of the doorbell disturbed them and Cade saw the colour drain from Sarah's rosy complexion when she acknowledged the man who appeared before them.

"Sarah." He was tall and solid. The tarnished star on his tattered vest identified him immediately. He looked at Cade with cold eyes and then to Sarah. She stared at the counter and started to wipe it vigorously.

"Sherriff Jesse Black," he reluctantly outstretched his hand. "I see you've met Miss Livingstone, my fiancée." His emphasis on the last word sounded a direct warning.

"Cade Garrett." Cade returned the firm handshake. "Looking for lodging. Miss Livingstone was just assisting me with my enquiries." He turned to acknowledge her, but noticed she had gone.

"Then I suspect you'd best go and see Mrs Hanthorn," the sheriff's tone was unfriendly. "It's a busy town, Mr Garrett."

Cade walked confidently past the sheriff and when he stepped outside the mercantile he let out the shaky breath he'd been holding.

He'd lost his nerve. It was her eyes and her innocent beauty that had struck him worse than a physical blow. The sheriff had complicated matters but Cade knew what he had come to do and there was no turning back now.

Sarah was a mess. The handsome stranger had unnerved her and the unexpected visit from Black had ended badly. She was still shaking the next day when the sound of heavy boots drew her from her worrying thoughts.

"Good morning." It was Cade Garrett. Sarah managed a thin smile. He held his Stetson in one hand and ran the other through his shoulder length hair.

"I need to speak with you about a matter concerning—"

A loud commotion at the front of the store interrupted him, followed by a gunshot and the shattering of glass. Without a thought for himself, Cade jumped the counter and landed on top of the shocked young woman, sending them both crashing to the hard floor.

"Stay down and don't move, whatever happens," Cade shouted. He grabbed his shiny Colt from its holster and moved swiftly towards the trouble ahead. The next gunshot came without warning and Cade slumped to the ground before darkness enveloped him.

He awoke to a throbbing pain in his shoulder and Sarah's wide violet eyes staring intently at him.

"Oh thank goodness," she whispered, fussing over him.

"What happened?" Cade asked hoarsely as Sarah passed him a glass of water. Her attentiveness was undeserved and it embarrassed him.

"You saved my life," Sarah smiled weakly. She looked pale and frightened. He was no hero. That was why he was here, to tell her and seek redemption.

"Doc says the bullet just scraped your shoulder. Looks worse than what it is but you must rest until you're healed."

"Sarah, I have to tell you something," Cade knew that the next moments would change Sarah's pleasantness towards him and the strong attraction they were both fighting. He fought the nausea in his gut and drew in a steadying breath.

"But before I do, tell me about you and the sheriff," he spoke in a gruff tone.

Sarah flushed and looked nervously at her hands.

"I promised my dying father that I would marry Jesse Black. He promised he'd take care of me, especially after Becca died. My father went to his grave thinking I'd be looked after." Tears pooled in her eyes and Cade wanted desperately to wipe them from her pretty face. "Jesse is a jealous man, Cade." The resentment in her voice confirmed Cade's suspicions. He was about to break her fragile heart but there was no choice.

Cade took Sarah's trembling hand and forced his gaze to hers.

"I knew your sister, Sarah," Cade used an even tone when he spoke, "but not in the way you're probably thinking." I came here to tell you about what happened to Becca. When I came upon you in distress, all the memories came flooding back." He closed his eyes as Rebecca's death replayed itself.

He had been waiting by the wagon while his two older brothers had gone into the mercantile for supplies. As the youngest Garrett, Cade's role was to tend to the horses and the wagon, a task he took seriously and with pride. The shouting roused him from his musings before he heard the gunshots. Two burly cowboys rolled out of the saloon, cursing and spitting. Cade smirked when he spied Jack Callahan being tossed out from the saloon yet again. The two men were very aggressive and very drunk. Cade could see all hell breaking loose at any moment and walked swiftly towards the commotion, his hand possessively on his Colt. At that moment, a breathless young woman in a long red dress ran out from the swinging doors and placed her hands on her shapely hips.

"Jack Callahan, you stop that right now!" she yelled in a sassy voice.

"Go inside, Becca," Callahan boomed, spitting a brown stream of tobacco onto the dusty ground, "ain't no place for a lady out here."

By this time, both men had reached for their guns. It was going to end badly. Cade made the decision to intervene and shot a single bullet in the air. The men took aim but before they could fire, Cade shot first. What he hadn't anticipated was the fact that Rebecca, frozen with fear, hadn't moved and was right in the line of fire.

"I killed her," Cade forced the words from his tight throat as he opened his eyes and looked into Sarah's wide, violet eyes. "It was the bullet from my gun that killed your sister." He winced as the revelation registered Sarah's shocked disbelief. "I came to find you to confess my crime. The guilt's been so bad, nothing helps. Hell, I've drunk so much but the pain keeps coming back, eating at me. This is not the man I am meant to be, Sarah, I need your forgiveness. I wish I could take it all back, all of it." Sarah looked into the eyes of a haunted young man, shallow with grief and remorse. She couldn't hate him, but could she forgive him?

"You were in the wrong place at the wrong time, Cade Garrett," Sarah replied, her voice shaking. "We've all seen too much fighting, too much death. My sister chose a dangerous life. When she left we never spoke again. You're not the only one chasing the ghosts from your past." A single tear trailed down Sarah's cheek. This time Cade didn't hesitate to wipe it with his calloused thumb and Sarah didn't flinch at his touch.

"You're not to blame yourself for what happened to her." Sarah's voice was interrupted by the sound of heavy boots entering the doorway.

"The hell he is," came a familiar, snarling voice behind them, "because he's under arrest for murder."

* * *

Cade woke again to the dull throbbing in his shoulder and a feeling that his head was going to split in two. A quick glance at his surroundings confirmed his circumstances as he stared through the bars of his cramped cell. So much for redemption, he thought, as he held his aching head in his cuffed hands; his fate would be sealed at the end of the noose at first light. He'd fought his demons and lost. Muffled voices disturbed Cade's misery and as he slowly raised his heavy head he locked eyes with Sarah.

"I shouldn't be here but I had to come," she whispered shakily. "If Jesse finds out . . . "

"Don't risk your safety for me," Cade replied hoarsely. The regret in his eyes was clearly evident, despite his best efforts to appear calm.

"You don't understand," Sarah swallowed, "you won't hang tomorrow. I've made sure you will be released, unharmed."

Cade stared at Sarah in disbelief. "How?" The palpitations in his chest thumped louder and he felt nausea churning in his gut.

Sheriff Black's familiar voice echoed from the doorway. "In the morning Sarah will marry me, you'll be on your way and we'll forget this little . . . " he waved his hands in the air as he spoke, "incident ever happened."

Sarah looked as though she was going to faint. Her violet eyes looked pleadingly at Cade.

"Is this what you want?" he asked in a whisper.

"It's for the best . . . Your life for mine," Sarah's eyes betrayed her. "I forgive you for Becca's death, Cade." The tears ran freely as Sarah gave Cade one final glance before running from the stifling room.

Black sauntered over to Cade's cell, a look of triumph in his eyes.

"I knew Becca too, very well. I was coming to ask her to marry me when you stepped in, playing the hero. When she died, I vowed to find the next best thing to her, which was her sister." The look of triumph faded and was replaced by a shadow of sadness. The ghosts of Black's past were chasing him too.

"Sarah isn't Becca," Cade said slowly, "you know what kind of woman Becca was and Sarah has different values. She's innocent and deserves a life you can't give her."

Black sighed audibly; the pain in his eyes evident. "Becca was the only woman I ever loved. Problem was, half the town cowboys loved her too. I've seen the way you look at Sarah and how she looks at you. It's the way I looked at Becca." Black continued. "I was watering my horse the day you played the hero. It should have been me who rescued her from those brawling cowboys; I am the sheriff of this county, for God's sake. I've blamed myself ever since, but your arrival made it easier to unburden some of the guilt." Cade thought he was hallucinating from the pain of his injury. He breathed slowly to calm his nerves.

"Two wrongs don't make a right," Black sighed heavily. "You didn't kill Becca, you were just being what a man should be, protecting a vulnerable woman. I can't charge you for that and I certainly can't live with your death on my conscience; it's heavy enough with guilt as it is. Hell, I need a drink." The sheriff unlocked Cade's handcuffs and a look of understanding passed between the two men. "Think I need to meet me another saloon girl." Black smiled sadly and walked somberly from the cell.

Cade took a moment to gather his thoughts and entered the mercantile with a lighter step. Sarah looked at him in shocked disbelief when she saw he was alone.

"Good morning," Cade said in a husky voice and her heart thumped in her chest. "I know a lovely ranch not too far from here that could do with a woman's touch . . . "

"Is that a question or a statement, Mr Garrett?" Sarah replied, smiling.

Cade returned her smile and thought of the possibilities ahead of them.

The End

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Betrayal, Part 1 of 2
by Jesse J Elliot

The weather was warmer than usual for late fall in New Mexico. The sky was a rich blue with white, feathered fronds of high clouds. While enjoying the view from the windows, Daniel turned to his wife, "Sure you remember Alonzo, Pru," the soft spoken man said, "he was the one who passed out with cousin Bobby in your mother's azaleas during our wedding," Daniel looked to see if his wife remembered the man who accompanied Cousin Bobby everywhere. His sister, Iragene Jones, the sheriff of Los Brazos County just shook her head, "Who can forget those two?"

After a moment, his wife, a striking Texas belle with mahogany hair remembered, "Oh, yes, Ah do remember Alonzo, and Ah recall Mother being quite upset about her azaleas. Ya'll say he and Bobby are inseparable?"

"Have been since they were kids. Their families were friends as far back as when Texas was its own Republic," Daniel responded.

"I always wondered," Iragene asked, "how does Alonzo earn a living? His family lost everything during the War."

"Alonzo earns his keep looking after our cousin. He's a good man, can ride almost as well as Bobby, and is one of the few men that can hold his liquor and keep up with our cousin. I guess he's on the Montague payroll."

"Remember that 4th of July celebration when that little girl dropped her doll out the window onto the roof? It was during one of the worse summer storms in Austin's history. Remember what Bobby did after hearing that little girl cry about her doll?" Daniel asked.

"I sure do," Iragene said, deepening the tone of her voice. "He said, 'Don't you cry none, little lady, Uncle Bobby will rescue yer darlin'!'"

Daniel chuckled, "Everyone tried to stop him, because of the lightening, but Bobby only responded, 'Hell,' unabashed in front of the ladies, 'jes' git me another drink and a ladder and, Ah'll git that doll.' He swallowed the drink, climbed onto the roof, and rescued the doll. He was the hero of the day with the ladies, in spite of his language.

"And remember the dozens of rodeos Bobby rode in, always riding the most brutish bull or the highest kicking bronc. Even as a kid, Bobby chased the greasiest pig and caught it. The man either lacks all common sense or is one of the most daring men I know," he said with the unmistakable tone of hero worship."

"Enough memories, Daniel, I'll help you with the chores. I might have a day off from being sheriff, but I know you can always use an extra hand around here." The two of them got up to complete the chores. They each carried a pitchfork to muck out the stables and lay down some fresh hay. "How many men did you say Bobby was bringing?" Iragene asked.

"A dozen. The others will leave as soon as the horses are delivered, while our men from the Austin ranch will stay on and work. In addition to their pay, Bobby promised all the riders two nights in town." Both brother and sister knew that most of the men would end up spending all their time at any one of the eighteen bars and a visit to Mrs. Brown's girls.

The loud barking of their dog, Oso, interrupted their conversation. He was a large dog, covered in thick brown fur that resembled a bear, hence his name, and now he was barking at two approaching horsemen.

On guard from past experiences, every adult grabbed a rifle and stood ready to fight off any threat to their home. In the distance, they heard a loud whooping. The two siblings looked at each other and said simultaneously, "Cousin Bobby is here."

Bobby and Alonzo came loping up the road to El Tecolote. Both men had their hats in their hands and were whooping and yelling like two happy banshees.

In the doorway, Prudence stood beside Cassie, another member of the Jones family unit. Cassie was orphaned early and grew up along side Iragene and Daniel and had always been treated like a third sibling. Cassie was a healer, but she could shoot a gun as well as the Jones brother and sister.

"Whoa there, Cousins, we come in peace!" Bobby shouted as he looked at the rifles. Gracefully he jumped off his horse and made a grab to hug Iragene. "Ol' Bobby is here and ready to celebrate!" He pounded Daniel on the back and proceeded to lead his horse into the stables. "Hey, where's the stable boy, Daniel?" looking around for someone to take care of his hard-ridden horse.

"Well, until we can get one of those cowboys you brought out with you, you're looking at him," Daniel said.

"Hell," Bobby said unapologetically, "Alonzo, how 'bout you taking care of the horses while I meet and greet the family?" Bobby's words were more of a statement than a question, and the now silent man got off his horse and took his and Bobby's horses in to the stable.

"Thanks, Alonzo," Daniel said, "we'll have some chili heating up for you." The man looked at Daniel and nodded. When Daniel looked around he found Bobby kissing Pru's hand and then lifting Cassie up and twirling her. Cassie was smiling an indulgent smile as Bobby put her down and kissed her on the cheek, still standing with his arm around her.

"Hey, Cassie, ya'll know you're still the gal that got away. How about some sugar for me!"

"How about some hot chili and fresh bread instead, Bobby?" she smiled indulgently as she slipped out of his grasp and into the kitchen. During this time, Prudence just looked at the bold and handsome cousin. His presence filled the small home. After a brief tour of the place, Bobby went off to join Alonzo and get washed up.

"Oh mah, ya'll grow those boys a lot wilder in Austin than we do in Beaumont, Daniel," Prudence said as she waved a feminine fan across her brow. "Now all of yer stories about Cousin Bobby don't seem so tall." Cassie added, "You'll find that most of the stories about Bobby are actually toned down."

Bobby cut quite a figure. He was over six feet tall, had dark brown hair that curled slightly, and was built as solid as an oak. In contrast to his tanned skin, he had piercing blue eyes. He was everything a cowboy should be, right out of a dime novel, fearless, masculine, and oozing charm. Everyone responded to his charismatic personality, and when Bobby Montague entered a room, every eye was upon him.

Compared to the colorful Bobby, Alonzo appeared like a sepia photograph. Not bad looking and certainly impressive a figure on his own, but when next to Bobby, he almost faded into the background.

The group was interrupted as Bobby Montague and Alonzo Mayfield entered the house. Alonzo looked around the small but pleasant home with surprise. "Very nice, but ah'm

surprised . . . " but he didn't finish after realizing what he was about to say. "Well, ah jes' expected something different." Everyone shrugged and they sat down to a pleasant meal of venison and green chili, fresh bread, and flan. Cassie had been cooking all day, and their helper, Adelaide, served the meal.

"So," Bobby started, "the horses are about twenty five miles east of here. Ya'll were right about there being enough water and grasses this here time of year."

"Did you have any trouble? Lose any horses?" Daniel asked in between chews. "Seven hundred miles is a long way to drive horses." He looked at Bobby and Alonzo, not caring who answered and attempting to draw Bobby's quiet friend into the conversation, but Bobby answered.

"We lost only six horses." Bobby said proudly. "We lost a mare one night while she was giving birth. The foal was breach, and we couldn't get to her in time to save her or her foal. Two yearlings strayed up an arroyo and ended up in a gully washer. Two got into some locoweed, and one broke its leg. Ol' Alonzo here, took care of it. We started out with 115 horses, and we brought ya'll 109 plus five youngins born on the trail."

"Amazing work, gentlemen. We are in your debt! I'll wire the captain from Fort Sumner. He'll be sending some of his men to pick them up. After these horses are sold, I want to add some local mustangs. Cruz, Iragene's deputy, saw a herd of mustangs south of here on some of the mesas. I'd like to pack out a couple of days and see if . . . "

"Stop," Bobby guffawed, "are you telling me those crazy stories about your sister being the sheriff of the county are true?" He looked at Iragene. "How in the world did they make you a sheriff? My cousin, a woman sheriff!" and he laughed. Alonzo's eyes went wide, but he didn't say anything.

"It's a long story," Iragene quietly answered, "let's save it for another day."

"Hell no!" and Bobby turned apologetically toward Prudence, "Sorry ma'am, but ah can't believe mah little cousin Iragene is a sheriff! Must not a' been a lot of qualified men around, I guess," and he elbowed Alonzo who just continued to stare.

Surprisingly it was Prudence who replied, "Bobby Montague. We have seen a lot of violence out here. We women fought off vicious murderers while the old sheriff not only did nothing to help us but was actually married to the woman who planned the murders—which, if she succeeded, would have included our own. We ladies resent yer disparaging tone of voice and mockery for a woman sheriff," Prudence said and then sat back somewhat mollified.

Iragene and Cassie just stared at this proper Southern Belle, not only saying what she did, but taking on a dinner guest in her own home. Prudence had indeed changed from the pampered lady she had been when she left Beaumont. Since that time she had had a child with only the assistance of Cassie, a women whom she had at one time considered a woman of lesser worth, and only a day later, she had had to kill a man to protect her husband and herself from certain death. New Mexico had changed her.

"Ah'm sorry, ma'am, Iragene, and Cassie. Ah guess Ah got a lot to learn," and Bobby put on a face of contrition.

"Bobby, we almost lost our lives. Out of that mayhem, Iragene was singled out to be our sheriff, and so far things have worked out for us and the town," Daniel explained.

"But how do you arrest anybody?" Alonzo spoke for the first time, "Yer such a tiny little thing."

Iragene laughed, "Oh, I have my ways."

"She can outshoot, outdraw, and kick faster than anyone in the county," Cassie said proudly. "She and her deputy, a fellow about the same size of Iragene, took down three of the biggest, ugliest, and meanest brutes La Madera has ever known—the Titus brothers," she continued.

Shock appeared on both men's face. "We ran into the Titus brothers in Amarillo two years ago," Alonzo continued. "Me 'n Bobby got the best of them with a little help from the bartender who hit one of them boys with a billy-club. We barely made it out with our lives." Turning quickly to Iragene, "And you took them out?" he finished, his face filled with awe.

"Yes, well let's not talk about me anymore. What do you think of your new cousin, Bobby?" Iragene quickly changed the course of the discussion, pointing to the baby in Prudence's arms.

"He's a real beaut, Daniel, Pru, and ah love that tassel of red hair on his tiny head. Yep, a real beaut. Got a horse picked out for him yet, Daniel?"

Daniel laughed, "Not yet, but soon."

"Well now, we have jes' one last job—bring in that there bunch of horses and close the deal. Then we're off to town for some nights of celebration, huh Alonzo?"

Alonzo nodded and smiled, "Lookin' forward to meeting some of them New Mexico gals ya'll got in town," than realized his audience and looked around sheepishly. "Oops, sorry ladies."

Iragene tried to hide her smile, "I'm sleeping in Cassie's house, so you two can take my place. It's the adobe closest to the corral." Iragene lit two lanterns, and they all said goodnight.

The next morning the two young men showed up for breakfast. Cassie was ready for them. She had green chili, eggs, ham, potatoes, and fresh coffee. Besides being a midwife and healer, Cassie loved cooking, and her well-eaten meals reflected it.

"Why lookey here, Alonzo, Cassie ain't only purty, but she's one talented cook, as well," Bobby said. Alonzo just stood there.

The rest of the family joined the two men now. Everyone sat at the table, eating and talking about old times and now the arrival of the horses. "I just can't begin to thank you boys for bringing those horses up. They've been eating our feed and running in our fields on the Texas property. Now their sale can help pay some of the bills!" Daniel laughed. "I'm a lucky man, got my family, my land, and now my horses—thanks to both of you."

"Well, before ya'll get teary eyed on us, Daniel, don't forgit ya'll are paying us for this," Bobby added to keep from being embarrassed by his cousin's words.

"Why, I almost forgot," he laughed. "When you boys are finished, I've got some supplies for the last day of the drive. You can bring the horses in tomorrow. Everyone can feast here, get paid, and then head for town."

" Sounds mighty fine to me. Any special gals in town I should keep my eyes out for?" Bobby asked, turning to Iragene with a twinkle in his eye.

"Lots of beautiful New Mexican women, but none who want to get their heart broken, Bobby. Just promise me you and your men will stay out of the cantinas. We had some problems here not too long ago, and a lot of distrust exists between the whites and the locals," Iragene replied matter of factly.

"Okay, Sheriff, mah boys and Ah'll watch ourselves. We won't cause you no grief, ma'am," and Bobby cuffed Alonzo on the shoulder, apparently a favorite gesture of his. "Let's go, amigo, one more day in the saddle, and those ladies in the town are ours!" Both men stood.

"Thank you for the fine vittles," Alonzo said to no one in particular, and he walked over to retrieve his hat.

As the men walked over to the stables to saddle their horse, Bobby let out another hoop and holler, "Amigo, we got some fun days ahead of us. I can't wait to git to town and enjoy the ladies." Realizing Alonzo hadn't responded, Bobby looked over at his friend saddling horse. "What's got into ya'll, boy? I haven't heard you this quiet since ya' dove into the pond and cracked your head senseless."

Alonzo looked at his friend, "Guess Ah'm tired, Bobby. Also, that high yeller gal, Cassie, hell she acts just like a white, eating with us and all, and your cousin being a sheriff. Don't them women know their places, Bobby? Ah'm telling you it ain't natural."

"Dammit, Alonzo, can't ya'll let it be? My uncle was an odd one—some say a Quaker. They've always been the mavericks of the family, but who the hell cares? As I said, you don't have to marry them, so jes' drop it."

Alonzo knew the conversation was over, so he didn't respond. But he thought it mighty queer to have a female as Sheriff and a yeller gal as an equal. Maybe this would make things easier to justify later, he thought, and then jumped upon his horse and followed Bobby out of the stable and onto the trail.

* * *

The day was much cooler than the former one. As the two men rode along, they could hear the chatter of ground squirrels and the sound of scrub joys squawking out their melody. The two men rode side by side as if they'd been in this formation most of their lives—and they probably had. Bobby looked over at Alonzo and said, "Come on, I'll race you down to the stream where we can water the horses and take a lunch break."

"Nah, Ah'm jes' enjoying this easy gait, relaxing after over a month on the trail. Let's jes' take our time," Alonzo said quietly.

"Ya'll do that, Alonzo, but I think I'll let this here horse let out some of his thunder!" and he dashed away down the trail, letting his horse have his rein, and the two of them galloped out of sight, leaving Alonzo in a cloud of dust.

* * *

"Phew, Ah'm exhausted from one day of Cousin Bobby," Pru said, sitting down to nurse her baby. "Ah glad he's headin' back to Austin soon."

"Well, I guess it takes that much energy to drive more than a hundred horses over 700 miles," Iragene responded to her and got up. "Guess I'd better go and pack. I want to leave early tomorrow for town and see what Cruz has been up to."

"I wish you didn't have to get back so soon," Cassie said. "It's not the same around here when you're gone—too quiet," and she smiled.

"Why not come with me? We have a couple of hams in the smokehouse, Daniel brought a bunch of supplies from town, and all you need to do is bake a few loaves of bread for Pru and Daniel and the men. Come on, Cassie, it will be fun having you in town. You've been wanting to meet the new doctor and share medical procedures. He told me he's excited to hear about the local herbs.

"I don't know," she hesitated looking at Pru, "the ranch will be awful busy tomorrow with all the men coming. What do you think, Pru?"

Prudence looked at the two women. She knew she was dependent on Cassie being there to cook and organize, but she also knew it was time for her to accept the responsibility of her home, besides she had Adelaide now to help with the meals and a neighbor, Dorothy Powell to help her with baby Alexander. "Of course, Ah'll be fine. If ya'll could just bake up some bread and biscuits for us and a pot of calabasitas with the last of our squash," she said, trying to sound confident.

"Okay, then it's settled. Tomorrow we'll leave right after breakfast," Iragene sang out, then turned and gave Pru and Cassie a hug. Cassie smiled and Prudence tried her best not to be too surprised at her sister-in-law's unusual display of affection.

* * *

It was sundown before the two men arrived where the horses had been kept, but when they got there, only a trampled field remained with five hobbled mares and their foals. There was no sign of the other horses or the dozen men who had driven them from Texas.

"What the hell! What happened to the damn horses and the men!" Bobby shouted and turned to see Alonza with a gun pointing at him. "What the . . . are you nuts, man!?"

"Git off your horse, Bobby." Bobby glared at him and didn't move. Then when least expected, Bobby made a grab for his gun. Alonzo, with his gun already out shot his friend in the arm. "I sorta suspected you would try that. Sorry, shooting you in the arm might hurt but not as much as shooting the hand you draw with, and it should heal quicker. Ah ain't such a bad guy now, am Ah?"

Bobby grabbed his arm. It hurt like the devil, but the bullet seemed to have missed the bone. His elevated adrenaline and anger kept him on his feet.

"You goddam bastard, we're friends, almost brothers. What the hell is going on?" He looked around. "What happened to our Austin men? Did your buddies kill them? You murderin' sonafabitch. Now ya'll are gonna kill me too, huh?" he jabbered on with the shock of what just happened. He looked at Alonzo with venom in his eyes.

"No, ah'll jes' leave ya'll with the rest of the men that weren't interested in making a little more than what they were getting' for their hard work. Some of us are jes' tired of having to work for others that were born into money and never had to worry."

"Hell, you sonafabitch, you never minded eating those rich folk's food, staying at their house, or spending their money. Even now you're on the payroll, have been all your life."

"Yeah, and having to follow you everywhere, do what you want me to do, like Ah was your slave. This here boy got tired of being told where to go and when. We're selling those horses up in Las Vegas to a man named named Silva. He offered us $100.00 a horse—same as the army."

"You fool. How long do you think you'll be able to live on a few hundred dollars if you're an outlaw, even if they let you live long enough to collect—which I don't see happening."

Doubt shadowed Alonzo's face for a brief moment. "Ah'll live, and for the first time in mah life, I'll live the way I wanna." Alonzo got down from his horse, approached the injured man, and took his gun and rifle. "Now git off your horse and walk towards those rocks. I'll follow ya."

They had only a few hundred feet to go, but the pain was beginning to hit Bobby and every step became unbearable. Finally they walked around a large rock surrounded by shrub oaks. There were the six men from the Austin ranch, beat up and tied up. "Hell," Bobby managed to say, "how could you let those bastards beat up on these men? Damn, Alonzo, you've worked with these men and spent all those months on the trail with them. Are ya loco?"

"Shut up, Bobby, Ah guess they put uppa fight. Ain't no one killed, so don't sweat it none."

"Don't sweat it?! You bastard! We've been friends all our lives. Doesn't that mean nothin' to you?"

"Bobby, ya'll don't know what it's like to always be the poor one, the quiet one, the unnoticed one. Ah've lived in your shadow all my life. Now ah want my own life without you."

"Poor bastard," Bobby managed to insert enough sarcasm to make his words hurt.

He then looked at the men who were bound and gagged. "At least let me remove their gags and let them have some water."

Alonzo hesitated and then nodded. Barely able to move with the pain from the gunshot wound and the bleeding, he went to get water for the men, knowing dehydration was the deadliest killer next to man in the Southwest. By the time he had given them water, he almost collapsed with the pain. Alonzo just sat astride his horse and watched.

"Ah'm takin' yer horse, Bobby. He should fetch me another couple o' hundred bucks. The saddle alone will bring in some extra bucks, doncha think? Oh yea, and thank the Joneses for the extra vittles." But the exertion of walking and then giving the men water had taken its toll, and Bobby lay there unhearing next to his men.

* * *

The next morning found the Jones family sitting and eating breakfast together. The smell of cooking, baking and coffee filled the air, but Daniel was up and out of the house long before the others had finished eating. The excitement of seeing his horses and starting his horse breeding ranch up again wouldn't allow him to do anything but walk around, checking the stables and the corrals. He filled buckets with water and put them in the wagon to refill the troughs. He was so busy, he almost missed Iragene's and Cassie's departure.

"Hey, you two weren't leaving without saying good-bye, were you?" Daniel looked up to see the women already astride their horses, both wearing the long, split riding skirts with their saddle packs on their horses.

"Of course not," Cassie laughed. "You were so busy that we thought we'd ride over to you."

"I'm not so sure that he would have noticed we were gone," Iragene feigned seriousness, "until he came in and tasted his afternoon coffee and lunch. Prudence is in charge of the kitchen for the few days we'll be gone."

"Oh, yes. But then, how can anyone spoil cutting slices of ham?" he asked, uncertainty shadowing his voice.

The two women, friends since childhood though they were from two worlds, one a wealthy rancher and the other slavery, waved good-bye and headed out. Looking at their backs, they almost looked like sisters, same height and dress, one a sheriff now, and the other a healer and midwife. Daniel smiled and went back to his work.

* * *

Bobby woke up that next morning with a burning pain in his arm and a mouth that tasted like foul cotton. "What the . . . where the hell am I?" he groaned as he tried to open his eyes in the bright sun.

"Boss, you're in New Mexico. Don't ya remember? Alonzo shot ya yesterday and then took off to meet the other rustlers," one of his men explained. "Ya'll been out since early yesterday evening. We was startin' to get worried about ya ever waking up."

Bobby looked at the man speaking, "Why Tim Everett, you old cowboy, you, worried about Bobby Montague? Huh, no need. I'm fine," and he attempted to focus on the man and not slur his speech. Everett was about five feet eight and lean and wiry. Right now Everett seriously needed a bath and some bandages for the weeping wounds on his face and arms. Bobby looked at the other men, some in worse condition than Everett. Though his head and arm ached, he began to recall the events. He remembered Alonzo acting a little odd, and then he remembered his so-called best friend shooting him in the arm—even going so far as to steal his horse. Damn! What got into the man?

"Boss, what are we going to do? We're all hog tied an' hurtin something fierce. That water helped, but we're all dried up, thirsty and hungry," another man, Doc, asked. Doc was one of those men that could doctor any horse. He didn't, however, have any people skills, and he was no good even bandaging a hand, but show him a sick or hurt horse, and he could work miracles.

Bobby was becoming more alert. His hands had been tied as well, but for some reason, Alonzo had failed to remember that he carried a knife in his boot.

Bobby looked around at the six men who lay next to him. Everett seemed to be the one in the best shape. "Tim, put your back to me and put your hand in my left boot. I got a knife in there. See if ya'll can pull it out and hold it steady so I can use it to cut my ropes."

"We knew ya would git us out of this mess, Boss!" another rider said hopefully.

"Well, let's just see if we can get these ropes cut," he answered as Everett angled his body to pull out the knife from his boot.

"Got it!" Everett croaked out, his voice as dried up as the rest of him.

"Tim, hold it still, up and out." Bobby moved back to back to Tim, and hoped his cutting the rope off his wrists would not lead to a major artery being cut instead. Since neither man could see, they depended on the other riders to help them out. "A little to the left, Boss. Now up about an inch. Yeah sir, you got it. Now move your wrists up 'n down," another man said.

Those men who were able to speak encouraged the cutting of the rope and let out a strange bellow of joy through their dried up mouths when the rope around Bobby's wrists gave way. Though exhausted, Bobby turned around and with his good hand, sawed the ropes off Everett. Everett then sawed the rope off of Doc and the others.

Some canteens were lying around empty, and those who could make it down to the stream filled the canteens for those who couldn't. Open sores and some broken bones were tended. Luckily the breaks were mostly fingers though some ribs had been bruised or cracked.

Bobby's wound was painful, but having washed it out in the cold stream, he noticed with relief that no infection had set in and the bleeding had stopped. There had been a lot of bleeding but the bullet had gone through his arm without doing serious muscle or bone damage.

While rummaging through the campsite, one of the men found a bag of spilled flour. There were also some berries bordering the stream. Tootsie, the camp cook gathered up what he could find and made the men some pretty decent biscuits with berries. After not having eaten for two days, the meal was a feast.

The End

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O'Grady's Last Stand
by John Hansen

The bugler's call to reveille broke the stillness of the early morning tranquility that engulfed Fort Grant. It was 0445 and already it was hot, a legacy left by the preceding day's intense July sun, which at this point, was only a distant orange glow. The bugle's shrill notes had produced the desired effect on all of the fort's occupants except one, Private Agustus O'Grady or Gus as he was known to his fellow troopers.

It had been a rough night for Gus. He'd had a nasty rendezvous with a bottle of rot gut whiskey that he'd purchased at the sutler's store. The store, which was just off post, made it far too easy for Gus to get himself in trouble as he had done a number of times over the past ten years that he'd been in the Army.

Gus was oblivious to what was going on around him. The other troopers, with varying degrees of reluctance, were getting up and dressed. There was considerable complaining about the heat, the hour of the day, the Army in general and what probable nonsense that Lieutenant Welch would have them doing that day under the scorching Arizona sun.

It was a vague, distant voice that Gus was hearing. He struggled to fight his way through the nausea and pounding pain that was gripping his head. Unlike the earlier voices of his fellow troopers, Gus sensed an urgency to respond to this one. Unfortunately for Gus, at about the time he found his way back to consciousness he felt his bed being lifted on one side and then pushed violently over. As he was being catapulted from his bed, Gus' eyes popped open to a kaleidoscope of the wall, window, First Sergeant Beechum, the ceiling, some blue trousers, and finally as his face smacked the floor, a pair of highly polished boots which he knew all too well were probably those of Lieutenant Welch.

"Good morning, Mr. O'Grady," said Welch in a sarcastic tone of voice. "We missed you out on the parade ground this morning. I was concerned that you might have taken sick."

Gus was fully aware of what was happening now and he was fighting desperately to overcome the dizziness and nausea so that he might get to his feet when he felt the swift boot of the lieutenant hit him in the stomach. Instantly, Gus was gasping for air and at the same time retching. Fortunately for him, he'd already thrown up everything in his stomach during the night behind the barracks. Small bits of vomit still clung to his bushy red mustache.

"Get your drunken carcass up, O'Grady. You're a poor excuse for a soldier. Do you hear me? Come to attention, private. That's an order."

Although barely audible, Gus managed to whisper, "Yes sir."

Gus laid face down, flat on the floor. The wood smelled worn and dirty. Slowly, he pulled his arms under himself and got to his knees. A wave of nausea hit him and he paused.

"C'mon, O'Grady you miserable drunk. Get to your feet. I haven't got all day."

Gus brought one knee up and then paused when he began feeling sick again. Sergeant Beechum moved to Gus' side to help him.

"Let him alone, Sergeant. He'll do this on his own, and soon, or he'll have a long time in the stockade to think about the wisdom of drinking."

After what seemed like a monumental struggle with the forces of gravity Gus found himself standing, as best he could, at the position of attention before Lieutenant Welch. Gus was a pitiful sight. His red hair, which hadn't been washed in days, was severely tangled and he was in need of a shave. Gus

wasn't a big man. He was of medium build and stood maybe five feet eight inches which put his eye level at about the chin of Lieutenant Welch.

"Don't you ever get tired of this, Private?" asked Welch in an unfriendly voice. "Do you find pleasure in being a drunkard and a disgrace to the United States Cavalry?"

Here we go again, thought Gus. I'm going to have to dance this jig one more time.

Welch turned at an angle and looked back across his body at Gus as he slowly moved to Gus' left. And then he stopped and sighed. "You know, Private O'Grady, men like you puzzle me. You had a good service record during the war but since then you've fallen in the gutter and can't seem to find your way out."

No one knew better, than Gus himself, the harsh reality of what Lieutenant Welch had just said. But Gus' problem was more complex than what the Lieutenant saw it as. It was much more than simply a situation of cause and effect where Gus could just decide that he wasn't going to drink anymore so he could avoid the unpleasant aftermath. It was more complicated than that and up to this point in his life he hadn't been able to find a solution.

"You're a hard case, O'Grady," said Welch. Nothing I do gets through to you. You know in biblical times you could be stoned for being a drunkard."

Welch paused as if he expected these words to affect some degree of shock in Gus and that shortly he would see this fear reflected in Gus' expression. But it did not happen. It wasn't that Gus didn't believe that Lieutenant Welch, with the full approval of the Army, was capable of inflicting some devious punishment upon him. No, that was not the case. It was more that Gus was nearing the point where he didn't care what the Army did to him. He felt as helpless against some of the tyrants in the Army, like Welch, as he did in resisting the lure of a bottle of whiskey. Although annoyed by his indifference, Welch was not deterred in his moral chastisement of Gus. "Deuteronomy, Chapter 22 I believe. This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice." Welch paused and glared at Gus before continuing. " . . . he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die." And then posturing for maximum effect, Welch stepped to within inches of Gus' face. Gus could feel Welch's breath as he exhaled and he could smell the stale odor of coffee. Welch continued in an emphatic, hateful tone of voice, "so shalt thou put evil away from among you."

It was not uncommon for Lieutenant Welch, being a God-fearing man of considerable proportion, to conduct himself as a fire and brimstone preacher rather than a United States Army officer. His behavior during these times seemed irrational to First Sergeant Beechum and it generated contempt from the enlisted men who had heard tell that some years back Welch caroused with the worst of them.

Sergeant Beechum cleared his throat. "Sir, beggin' your pardon but we did leave the men out on the parade ground. They're probably getting' a mite restless."

Lieutenant Welch shifted his focus from Gus to Sergeant Beechum and back again as if to acknowledge the Sergeant's concern but to convey to him also that he wasn't through with the private.

"O'Grady, I'm going to break you of this curse that the Devil has put upon you. I'm going to free you of old Lucifer's hold. It won't be easy but if you want to gain your place in the hereafter, and not to mention some respectability in this man's army, it will be a small price to pay. Therefore, I hereby fine you two month's pay and sentence you to work on the firewood detail for the next month."

Gus' pulse quickened as the significance of the Lieutenant's words sunk in. He was flat broke now. At thirteen dollars a month he had just been relieved of twenty-six dollars. He wanted desperately to punch Welch in the face but he thought better of that impulse when he considered the penalty for striking an officer could be a lot worse than what he was already looking at. Gus knew that he was powerless to change things. This realization, however, only added to his anger and frustration.

"Well, Private, do you understand your sentence?" asked Welch somewhat indifferently.

"Yes sir," replied Gus.

"Good," said Welch. "You'll be a better man for it. Your time on the firewood detail begins this morning right after breakfast. Don't be late."

Welch paused, waiting Gus knew for him to respond in a military manner. Gus had been at the position of attention since getting off of the floor. His head was throbbing from the hangover, his stomach hurt from being kicked by Welch and he was angry. But more than anything he felt a need to get away from Welch and so he squared his shoulders a little more, saluted crisply and said, "yes sir."

Lieutenant Welch returned the salute and then walked out of the barracks with Sergeant Beechum following.

Gus turned his bed right side up, re-made it, and then sat down on the edge of it to take stock of the morning's events. He couldn't believe that he'd ever find himself in this kind of a fix when he first joined the Army, but he was a stronger person back then. He had become an example in human behavior of what not to be. He had been busted from sergeant to private, and seemingly now, an attempt to relieve him of what little dignity that he still possessed was being made. Deep down he knew that he had more self-pride and respect than to allow this to happen, but for some reason, he just couldn't resist the temptation to drink. Maybe he was taking after his father. As a boy growing up in the slums of New York City he had observed first hand in his father the consequences of being a drunk. There were fights, most were for no apparent good reason and nearly all involved liquor. Regardless of the outcome, the violence often didn't end at the pub or on the docks where his father worked loading ships. Many times he had cried and pleaded with his father not to hit his mother or older brother but it generally only resulted in him being backhanded. Gus' older brother left home first, at the age of fourteen. By the time he was fifteen he had lied about his age and joined the Union Army. He was killed shortly before his sixteenth birthday at the Battle of Bull Run. Gus was devastated by the loss of his brother and blamed his father for having caused it.

With the start of the war, Gus felt an even stronger compulsion to leave home. He was desperate to get away from his father's tyranny but for a long time hadn't for his mother's sake. But now he hated his father even more and that made life at home hardly bearable. Besides, he reasoned, he had to avenge his brother's death. And so, much to his mother's dismay, Gus joined the Union Army when he was only sixteen. His first real action came at the Battle of Antietam where he was shot in the left thigh. The wound healed nicely within a few months and Gus went on to fight with distinction at the Battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. For his valor and coolness under fire Gus was promoted to Sergeant.

It was at the Battle of the Wilderness that things began to change for the worse. It was a costly battle in terms of lives lost on both sides and Gus was wounded again, this time he received a shrapnel wound in the stomach. The wound became infected and was slow to heal. Gus spent nearly six months in a Washington hospital. Following this, he was granted three months convalescent leave at home. Little had changed other than Gus' father was having trouble finding enough work because of his affinity for drinking and fighting. It was a trying time for Gus. Painful memories of friends lost in battle and the overall horror of the war coupled with the lingering discomfort of his wounds caused him to seek solace in drinking. Ironically, one of Gus' primary drinking buddies was his father. Liquor seemed to be a bonding agent between them, a fact that saddened Gus' mother a great deal and in sober moments shamed Gus.

In the spring of 1865, shortly before the surrender of the Confederacy, Gus returned to the army. His wounds were mostly healed but his physical state was not up to par, due in part to his not having taken proper care of himself while on leave. With the war nearly over, the Army decided to send Gus by train out West to fight the Apaches and that had been almost seven years ago.

The firewood detail departed Fort Grant each morning at 0600 in two big lumber wagons. The wagons were drawn by four mule teams driven by civilian teamsters who worked for the post sutler. It was easier for the mules in the coolness of the early morning to make the two hour pull up into the pinyon and juniper covered hills to the east of the fort. But, by mid-morning, the sun showed little mercy to either man or beast.

Gus had been befriended by one of the teamsters who was also a Civil War veteran. His name was Hank Chambers. The long wagon ride to and from the woods each day gave Gus and Hank plenty of opportunity to probe one another's character through conversation about their past and present. It was no secret to anybody why Gus had been assigned to the firewood detail. A lot of people just assumed that he was a drunk and a poor soldier. They didn't want to bother themselves with asking why Gus drank. Hank, on the other hand, did; he had been there.

Gus was beginning his tenth day on the firewood detail and his tenth day without having taken a drink. This was due partly to his being flat broke and partly to his fear of ending up in the stockade. The end result was that Gus had stayed sober and was even somewhat proud of that accomplishment.

It was a cooler than usual morning which suited Gus, Hank and the mules just fine. Gus, however, had been a little fidgety as the big wagon rolled slowly along. Having been an alcoholic himself, Hank sensed the reason why.

"Are you ah cravin' it today, Agustus?" asked Hank casually.

Gus shook his head slightly and laughed in a disgusted manner. "Is it that obvious?"

"Fellars like you and me Agustus, don't ever get entirely shed of the whiskey habit. Even when we manage to keep ourselves clear of it for a long spell it's still just right there in the shadows like some big ole mountain cat that's been a stalkin' you."

"I suspect you're right my friend but that's a scary thought. Being in the army out here in the middle of all these Apaches who'd like nothing better than to lift your hair and this miserable life sapping heat everyday can make a man look for comfort sometimes in the bottom of a bottle."

"Well, Agustus. I'm gonna tell you straight up how it is. If a fellar can look in the bottom of that bottle you talk about, just sometimes, he probably will find a little comfort every now and again. But, if he goes lookin' for it on a regular basis he'll find nothing but sorrow and heartache. Take it from me Agustus, I know. I was on a first name basis with them two for longer than I care to admit."

"So, how did you shake the habit?" asked Gus. "That's what causes me to worry, the thought that I'll always have to be relyin' on the bottle. Ever since I joined the end of the war it's been like a magnet for me and, with all the fighting and killing and some of these high and mighty officers that a man has to put up with, it's been a right powerful force."

Hank was silent for a moment. From the expression on his face, Gus sensed that Hank was wrestling with the prospect of telling him something. Finally, Hank began to speak but it was in a manner as careful as a person stepping their way across a stream on water slickened rocks.

"You know Agustus, there's times in a fellar's life when, if he can change his surroundings, he can be a different man. I mean, just plum drag up and skedaddle. Cause if a fellar's got the whiskey curse he needs all the help he can get."

Hank was now looking straight ahead over the backs of the mules and gripping the reins as if he were intent on driving the wagon whereas before, he more or less held the reins and paid little attention to the mules as they plodded along the road that they had been over so many times before.

"Are you saying that I should desert?" asked Gus in a quiet voice so that none of the six man cavalry escort would overhear him.

"I'm just sayin' that some time back I was where you're at right now. I had me some dreams in life that I knew wasn't ever gonna happen unless I changed my circumstances."

"So you're a deserter?" asked Gus in a non-accusing tone of voice.

Hank turned to Gus; his eyes were defiant. "I ain't had a drink in five years. I got me a wife and son, a home and a job. I got dreams too. Right soon, we're gonna head out for Oregon and lay claim to some land. We're gonna have us a farm." Hank paused for a moment and then he said: I shed blood for my country at Gettysburg and again up in the Montana Territory. I figure I'll let some other fellar take a turn now."

Gus could appreciate what Hank was saying and he was somewhat moved by the fact that Hank thought enough of him to reveal his past in an effort to help. What Hank was suggesting, though, carried with it a heavy price. Gus was beginning to realize more than ever that there was no easy solution to his problem.

Gus went to bed early that night. It had been a tiring day not only from having to cut firewood but he now had an on-going internal debate with himself. There seemed to be no end to the various rationales that came to mind both for and against staying in the Army. Gus had known a number of men, besides Hank, that had deserted and only a small percentage of them had ever been caught; however, the ones who had paid dearly. During the war they were shot for desertion, now they received time in the stockade and hard labor. Gus was already doing the hard labor, which wasn't as bad as he originally thought it was going to be, but he had no desire at all to try out the stockade.

It seemed like to Gus that he'd barely gotten to sleep when First Sergeant Beechum entered the barracks and lit a lantern.

"Up and at'em boys. We're going for a little ride," shouted Beechum.

Gus looked up at the old German clock on the wall. It took a moment for his eyes to focus. The clock read 0215. "That can't be right," said Gus to himself. "It must have stopped during the night." But then Gus noted that the brass pendulum was still swinging back and forth.

"What's up Sarge?" asked one of the troopers.

"The Apaches attacked a ranch about ten miles south of here. They killed six people, burned the buildings and stole all of the stock. The Colonel wants a patrol sent out right away to pick up the Apaches trail while it's still fresh."

Gus was hopeful that he wouldn't be required to go along since his sentence on the firewood detail wasn't up yet. Besides, he thought, why should I risk my life if I'm not even on the payroll.

"What about me, Sarge?" asked Gus.

Sergeant Beechum turned towards Gus. The expression on his face was one of indifference. "Yes, Mr. O'Grady, the Lieutenant asked me to especially invite you along. He doesn't want you to miss out on all the fun".

Gus never knew how to take Beechum. There were times when he seemed sensitive to the men's feeling and then there were other times, like now, that he appeared to take great satisfaction in exercising the authority that he possessed.

By 0300 the detachment, which was under Lieutenant Welch's command, was assembled on the parade ground. Each man had been issued a week's worth of rations which consisted of hard tack, salt

pork and coffee as well as 100 rounds of rifle and 30 rounds of pistol ammunition. They would be traveling light and fast, just like the Apaches usually did but whom on this occasion, would hopefully be slowed by the burden of their recently acquired plunder.

After a short pep speech by the Post Commander, Lieutenant Welch, followed by Bravo Company, rode out into the night. It was a pleasant evening, comfortably cool with no wind. A full moon shone overhead which made it easy to see the wagon road that they were riding on. Not a word was spoken in accordance with the orders given by the Lieutenant, as the sixty men of Bravo Company rode along in a column of twos. After a few minutes of walking the horses the order was given to proceed at a gallop.

The night air felt good on Gus' face as did the rhythmic motion of his big sorrel horse. It had been several weeks since he'd been out on patrol and the sights, sounds, and smells of a military mission were once gain causing the adrenaline to pulsate within his system. It was a feeling of purpose, of bravado like no other sensation Gus had ever experienced prior to joining the Army. But, as Gus knew all too well, it was a feeling of cruel deception as well because ultimately the euphoria that he was feeling now would be replaced by fear and terror during the heat of battle. And, after the battle, there would be sadness over those men lost and frustration with re-creating events in one's mind in a vain attempt to affect the outcome. Following this, there would be a period of trying to suppress the question that every soldier tries to put out of mind: when will it be my turn to die? It was an endless, worrisome process for Gus and many men in the Army.

It was just getting light when Lieutenant Welch and Bravo Company reached the burned out ranch headquarters. The sight of the bodies of the rancher and his family lying in and around the charred structures produced a humbling affect upon the troopers who had been spoiling for a fight. Based upon the location of the bodies, Gus surmised that the Apaches must have attacked at about supper time yesterday evening. The rancher, his wife, and two little girls were inside the burned out cabin whose walls had fallen down and exposed a table with several place settings still on it. The couple's boys, who looked to be in their early teens, were lying near the barn. It appeared that the Apaches had gotten to them first and then moved on to the cabin.

After selecting a four man burial detail to remain behind and attend to the slain family, Lieutenant Welch ordered the column forward at a trot on the trail of the Apaches. The tracks headed east into the mountains and the many wooded canyons there that afforded the Apaches plenty of opportunities to ambush anyone following them. With all of the stolen livestock that the Apaches were driving before them it made for an easy trail to follow. In fact, thought Gus, maybe it was too easy.

The sun was now fully visible above the eastern horizon. Lieutenant Welch's column had been following the Apaches for about an hour without incident. They had moved from the valley floor with its sparse cover to a point several miles into the mountains where the pinyon and ponderosa pines brushed against the troopers and their horses as they pursued their quarry. Fortunately, for him and his men, Lieutenant Welch had adopted a more cautious attitude in his pursuit of the hostiles. He had slowed their pace to a walk and sent two men in advance of the main column and dropped two men about one half mile behind to watch their back trail. It was very dangerous for the men given these assignments as they ran the obvious risk of being easily overwhelmed by the Apaches and killed. Their value of course was to provide an early warning to the main body of troopers of any Apaches lying in wait. Unfortunately, for Gus he was one of the men ordered to guard the column's back trail.

Gus had been paired up with a green trooper named Rudolph Steinmetz. He had been born in Germany but came to America with his parents when he was five years old. He had been in the Army slightly less than three months and had yet to experience his first action.

Gus cringed when he heard Sergeant Beechum order Rudy to go with him. He knew that Rudy was not very proficient with either his rifle or his pistol and Gus also knew that Rudy was not a particularly skilled rider.

The main column was now well ahead of Gus and Rudy. It made for an uneasy feeling within the two men knowing that the commotion hopefully caused in the Apaches killing them would alert their fellow troopers as to the Indian's presence.

Gus reined his horse in while he scanned the basin below him and Rudy. It was about a half mile wide and a mile long. Narrow canyons entered the basin from the east and the west and the entire area was wooded. Gus didn't like the looks of things.

"Let's hold up here a minute, Rudy," said Gus.

"What do you see, Mr. O'Grady? Did you spot some Apaches? asked Rudy nervously.

Gus looked at Rudy. Nobody ever called him mister out of respect. As a private with a drinking problem he was usually addressed as mister in a condescending tone. But Rudy was visibly afraid and he looked to Gus who was a veteran in these situations as a source of security.

"Rudy, you can call me Gus."

"Yes sir, said Rudy without thinking. But what did you see down there?"

"I ain't seen nothin' yet but I got a bad feelin' about this place."

"So, do you think hostiles are going to attack Lieutenant Welch?"

"Well, it looks —" Gus paused abruptly and fixed his eyes on a particular spot. Then, suddenly, he reined his horse around and spurred its sides. "Quick Rudy, let's get off the skyline and into these trees."

Within seconds the two of them were into the trees but Gus knew it was too late, they had been spotted. Worse yet, Gus realized that Lieutenant Welch and Bravo Company were riding into an ambush. The Apaches had deliberately let the two men on point ride through their carefully devised killing zone.

Gus tied his horse to a pinyon tree and jerked his Spencer repeater from its scabbard and scrambled back up the ridge with a now, very frightened Rudy in close pursuit. As the two of them neared the crest of the ridge they dropped to their bellies and low crawled to the top. Peering through the fescue grass atop the ridge it took Gus less than a minute to see that the Apaches had kept hidden from view several hundred warriors in the two side canyons entering the basin until the cavalry troop had descended the ridge and could not see the Apaches moving in on either side of them. The troopers would be caught in a deadly crossfire.

Within his mind, Gus was frantically considering his options as he watched the deadly drama below him unfold. He knew that he must do something to warn his fellow troopers and soon. Why, thought Gus, couldn't I be on the firewood detail with Hank today? Chances are, I'm going to die today and I'm not even on the payroll 'cause I'm a drunk.

Gus sighed deeply as he empathetically pushed the lever on his repeater down and then brought it up chambering a .50 caliber round.

"What are you doing Mr. O'Grady?" asked Rudy in knowing disbelief.

Gus rested the barrel of his rifle on a rock. Without taking his eyes from the valley below and in the most stoic voice that he could muster, Gus said: "Get your horse, Rudy, and ride as fast as you can for the fort. Bring back help."

"What about you, Mr. O'Grady?"

"There's no time for talk, Rudy. Just go!"

Gus took aim at an Apache on a paint horse who was leading the group of warriors from the west canyon. It was a good six or seven hundred yards. "You best get out of here, Rudy, "Gus said as he began to squeeze the trigger.

Rudy crawled back down the ridge a short ways before he got to his feet and started to run. At the sound of Gus' rifle he dropped to a crouch position and jerked his head around in the direction of the shot. Smoke was drifting up from the barrel of Gus' rifle as he levered another cartridge into the barrel.

The sun was beginning to set by the time the relief column from the fort reached the basin where Lieutenant Welch and Bravo Company had taken up defensive positions. Their union was uneventful as the Apaches had already broken off the siege and melted into the surrounding hills. It was the Apache way to fight only when they held the advantage but on this day Gus had saw to it that they hadn't. Lieutenant Welch's command had suffered some casualties but nothing like they would have had it not been for the actions of Gus. The Apache's element of surprise had been lost and with it, Bravo Company's probable annihilation.

"I understand that Private O'Grady was responsible for firing the warning shot," said the Colonel to Lieutenant Welch. "Was he ever able to rejoin your company?"

"No sir. There was quite a lot of shooting up on the ridge behind us for a while this afternoon. But it didn't last more than a half hour and it's been quiet up there ever since. I assumed that O'Grady and Steinmetz were killed."

"Well, Private Steinmetz made it back to the fort. He told us where you were but was totally spent and unable to return. He also said that when he last saw Private O'Grady he was shooting at the hostiles from a ridgetop above your position."

For some reason, the significance of Private O'Grady's actions had not fully registered with Lieutenant Welch until now. Perhaps it had been because of his lack of respect for Gus as a soldier that he could not appreciate the fact that Gus could have just as easily ridden off and saved his self rather than launch a one man attack on two hundred Apache warriors. It was apparent to the Lieutenant now that Gus had made a conscious decision to surrender his own life in exchange for the lives of some of his fellow troopers.

The Lieutenant ordered Sergeant Beechum and two men to retrieve Gus' body. They spent over an hour searching the area where Gus had made his stand. They found many empty shell casings from Gus' Spencer rifle and four dead Apaches but no sign of Gus or at least none that Sergeant Beechum reported to the Lieutenant. There was one set of shod horse tracks heading north from where Gus had made his stand against the Apaches. More than likely they were headed for Oregon, but as far as Sergeant Beechum and his two men were concerned, Private Agustus O'Grady had been captured by the Apaches and no doubt suffered an unspeakable death.

The End

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The Miners of Lightning Spruce
by Brian Biswas

A man entered the bar from out of the smoky grayness of dusk. He was a handsome man, Alice thought. She liked the look of his face and hands. A strong man. She saw that his arms were long and muscular. And then there were his eyes. Enormous, blue eyes. Sad eyes. Eyes that said nothing and at the same time said everything. Eyes that looked like they might be hiding something. The man must have been in his early thirties, a bit old for the usual crowd in the bar. Most of the inhabitants of Lightning Spruce were in their mid-twenties. He seemed lost in thought. Alice wondered what he was thinking, but she was not about to ask. She had an uneasy feeling about him.

Someone called out to her from the counter. A young man with curly blond hair. Ted. One of the regulars. Ted had a crush on Alice, though she had never encouraged him. It would have angered Stu, for one thing. And it was well known what Stu had done to the last man who tried to steal his girl. It had happened six months before. Harvey Klaus was a day worker on the Thirdstone Vein in the Ceti gold mine ten miles north of Lightning Spruce. Harvey was tall and thin with light-brown hair, steely eyes, and enormous hands with long, bony fingers. He'd been mining for nearly a year and was already rich, he bragged to a pretty, young bartender named Alice Jones late one evening. To prove it he handed Alice a gold bracelet inlaid with precious gems that sparkled in the harsh light of Fisher's Bar. There was more where that came from, he told her. But the next day Harvey was found in a back alley two blocks from the bar. He had been strangled. When word of the killing got around, well, it was hands off Alice from then on. Even so, that did not prevent Ted from gazing lovingly at her whenever he got a couple of drinks in him.

The Mexican Highlands was a mining region in southeastern Arizona. It was a geologist's dream, with rich deposits of silver, gold, copper, and zinc. It had been discovered by prospectors in 1882. Within five years a dozen towns had taken hold. There was Cerbat, Pierce, and Courtland. Hackberry, Truxton, and Valentine. Gilmore, White Knob, and Quartzburg. And Lightning Spruce. The area was lawless, the weather scorching, and dust storms a common occurrence. But Lightning Spruce was not a place where you went for a vacation. It was a place where you went to get rich. As a result competition was fierce. It was not uncommon for fights to break out when new veins were uncovered. And with little in the way of local law enforcement, crimes usually went unpunished. As Alice was well aware of.

Alice was an attractive woman with long light-brown hair and cherry lips. Her eyes an opalescent gray. She nodded when Ted asked for a lime daiquiri—his third—and as she was jotting down his order he asked when she was off. Would she like to see a play that evening? Troubadour was playing at the Crystal Globe at 9. She smiled. She remembered the last time he had asked her out. As luck would have it, Stu had overheard. He let Ted off with a warning—he did not feel like spilling blood that night, he said—but made it clear he would not go easy on him again. He would put a knife in his back.

"I don't think so," Alice said. Even if Stu had not been in the picture she would not have been interested. Ted was nice enough, good-looking if a bit plain, a man who could always make her laugh, but he was not her type. She liked tall, handsome men, men who knew how to stand out in a room full of braggarts. Like this stranger who had entered the bar as night was falling, who strode over to the counter without acknowledging a soul, and who was motioning Alice over to him.

She brought Ted his drink and then turned her attention to the stranger. The man ordered an Arizona Throbber. Those were tough to drink, Alice knew, and she admired him for trying. It showed courage and she liked that, too. She tried to read what he was thinking, read it in the lines of his face, but she came up with nothing. She looked at his hands and noticed that he was tapping the counter. And it was then she saw an ugly scar that ran across the back of his right hand from the base of his thumb to his little finger. When the man realized she was staring at his hand, he turned it over. Palm-up. He made a fist with his hand. She gazed into two blue eyes, but he looked away, into the distance, the shadows of the bar. Alice had the feeling the man was here for a purpose. And not the usual one.

"Back in a second," she said.

When she brought his glass, he thanked her. He put a five dollar bill in her hand. Then he said:

"Mind telling me who owns this place?"

"Jimmy Fisher," Alice replied and added, "Why do you ask?"

"Just wondered. I'd like to speak with him. If that's possible."

"He's not here."

"Know when he'll be back?"

"Nope. You never know with Jimmy. He comes and goes as he pleases."

"What do you mean?"

Alice laughed. "I mean he owns this town and he can do what he wants. That's how it works when you own something. You know? Look. Why don't you finish your drink and see what you can do in the casino room. If Jimmy comes back, I'll tell him you were looking for him. What did you say your name was?"

The man paused. "I didn't. It's Fredericks. Sam Fredericks. I'd be real grateful if you'd send him my way."

"Okay," she said. "He's a thin man with red hair. You can't mistake him. What was it you wanted to see him about, anyway?"

Sam looked at her but did not reply. Was that irritation she saw in his eyes? "I don't mean to be nosy," she said, "but Jimmy will want to know. He doesn't speak to just anyone. In fact, he's quite particular about whom he speaks to these days."

Sam looked puzzled. "Why is that?"

"Ever since the summons came down, I guess."

"What summons?"

"The brawl two months ago. In this very room. A man was killed."

"I see."

"Jimmy wasn't real happy about that as I'm sure you can imagine. Not that he did anything wrong, mind you. It wasn't his fault things got out of control. Not Jimmy. They don't come any straighter than him. He's got a temper, I'll grant you that. But who doesn't around here? You need a temper in this town just to survive. And the sheriff needed someone to blame."

Just then Alice heard the rumble of thunder in the distance. She went over to the front window and looked out and she saw thunderclouds curtaining the sky. The wind was picking up and she saw flashes of lightning.

"I'm not going out there," she said.

"When are you off?"

"Probably about the time the storm hits. Guess I'll hang around until it's over."

"You live far from here?"

"On the edge of town. It's okay. I'll wait."

"It might be awhile."

Alice shook her head. "Summer storms are always brief. Hey—you're not from around here are you?"

"No, I'm not."

"Where are you from then?"

Sam did not reply. He was looking at Ted who was looking at Alice, an expression of annoyance on his face.

"Guess I'd better go," Sam said.

He finished his drink and made his way into the casino room. With its dark paneled interior and smoky atmosphere, the place seemed to beckon. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light of the room, he saw the gaming tables with people crowded around them and the slot machines and a bar. A stage where men and women were dancing.

A woman brushed by Sam and he smelled her perfume. Like a flower garden, he thought. Her black hair fell past her shoulders. Her skin looked smooth and soft. Sam looked around and he saw more women and he saw men ogling them and he saw men gambling. He heard snippets of conversation, all of it inane.

A woman came up to him and asked if he would like to dance.

He smiled. "Maybe later," he said.

She laughed. "Okay." And then she disappeared. She was pretty enough, that was for sure, but Sam was not interested. Not now. Now, there was something else he needed to do. There was something else he needed to do while he waited for Jimmy.

Within two hours Sam had hit the jackpot at a dozen slot machines and had won every game of craps, roulette, and blackjack he had played. He had won so much money, in fact, that he had become the center of attention. Everyone was watching him. Everyone was watching and wondering what he would do next. You did not clean this place out and get away with it.

Sam was about to play one more game—all his winnings against the casino itself, he said—when from out of a back room strode a brawny man in a white linen suit, with sneering lips and caterpillar brows, his hair slicked back, his black eyes dancing. He must have been a man who commanded respect for a hush descended over the room. Everyone stopped what they were doing and watched in anticipation as the man went up to Sam and tapped him on the shoulder.

"I'm sorry, sir," the man said, "but I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

Sam didn't say anything. He looked at the man as if he was crazy. The man continued, "If you please, sir."

Sam said, "Who are you?"

The man pulled himself up to his full height. Even so, he was a good two inches shorter than Sam. "Name's Frank Williams." He pronounced the words crisply, as if they were supposed to mean something to Sam, but of course Sam had no idea who Frank Williams was. He said, "Pleased to meet you Frank. I understand a man by the name of Jimmy Fisher owns this place. I'm waiting to see him. And I'm going to stay here until I do."

Beads of sweat appeared on Frank's brow. If Jimmy was here he would not stand for this, he thought. Not for a moment. He put his arms akimbo and said, "Sir, it's time for you to go."

"I'm not through," Sam said sharply.

"Oh, but you are," Frank replied angrily. "And," he continued, stabbing the air with his right index finger, "I'd like you to return the money you've won before you leave. No questions will be asked."

Sam raised his eyelids. "You think I'm cheating?"

"I'd never accuse you of something so dishonorable."

"I've won everything honestly," Sam said. He paused, then added, "However, if I hadn't removed those magnets under this wheel—" He pointed at the roulette wheel.

"You're not from around here are you?"

Sam smiled. "People seem to think I'm not."

Frank scoffed. "You think you're smart, don't you?" He ran a hand through his thick, black hair and smacked his lips. "No, you're not from around here. And we don't like outsiders."

"I'll leave when my business is concluded," Sam said. "Lightning Spruce is a mining town. It's nothing but outsiders. And besides, I'm just passing through."

"Get out!" Frank raised his right arm threateningly. "Or must I have you thrown out?"

Sam smiled. "As you wish. But we'll let Jimmy decide about my winnings when he returns."

Frank glowered, but said nothing more. In all his years at the bar, he had not come across anyone like this man. Most people slunk away without a word when he confronted them. They knew what they were up against. And they valued their lives. But to tell the truth, Frank was scared this time. He would let Jimmy handle Sam when he got back. Jimmy would know what to do. He always did.

Sam went back out to the barroom. He went over to the counter and sat down and ordered another drink.

Alice was off now, but she could not leave Sam. She went into a back room and changed her clothes and then she came out to the counter—to the other side of the counter—and sat down next to him. Sam looked at her. She was wearing a dark-red blouse with a picture of a dragon on it, and a short black skirt with a narrow silver belt. A bracelet around her left wrist. Her legs were long and slender and her hair looked almost green in the pale light of the room.

Alice said, "Mind if I join you?"

He nodded. She sat down. The new woman on duty asked if she could get them anything. Sam ordered a beer. Alice, a margarita. The woman wrote down their order and left. Sam said, "What's your name?"


"Alice what? I like to know a woman's full name when I'm speaking to her."

"Alice Jones."

"Hello, Alice. Pleased to meet you."

"You're really good, Sam. And Frank is such an idiot."

"You watched us?"

She nodded. "Everyone did. Frank is Jimmy's cousin, you know. He works for Jimmy. He's supposed to keep accounts, but most people think he doesn't do anything. Most people think Jimmy is indebted to him for some reason. Stu—my boyfriend—told me Frank helped Jimmy out of a jam once, but he wouldn't say what happened. I got the impression it was something illegal, just from the tone of Stu's voice. I think Stu might have been involved in the whole mess, but like I said, Stu hasn't told me. I know Stu doesn't like Frank and he says Frank doesn't like him, either. If you ask me, Frank is just a prick."

Sam was silent. Alice said, "Has your girlfriend run out on you?"

He shook his head. "I don't have a girlfriend."

She frowned. "I think I understand you. You want someone, but she doesn't want you. That's sad."

Their drinks arrived and they sipped at them. Then Sam said, "How old are you, Alice?"

"Twenty-four. And you?"


"That's a nice age."

"You look like you're eighteen."

"I'll take that as a compliment."

A pause. Then Sam said, "How old are you, really?"

"Twenty-four. Honest."

"Right." He eyed her closely. "You're family lives here?"

"I was born in Reno. My parents divorced when I was sixteen and after a few months I fell for Stu. He told me Lightning Spruce would make us rich."

"What do you see in Stu, anyway?" Sam asked. There was a puzzled expression upon his face.

"I don't know," she said after a moment's hesitation. "I like his looks, I guess."

"That's what you care about?"

"I'm a simple girl. Easy to please."

Sam said, "No, you're not. You're not easy to please."

Alice fidgeted nervously. She stared at the wall behind the counter. She seemed to be reading the menu—or else she was lost in thought. When Sam spoke again, he pronounced the words slowly, crisply, "You know who Stu is, don't you?"

"What do you mean?" Her hands were sweating, the color draining from her cheeks. Sam spit out the words, "Stu killed a man in this bar two months ago. A man named Edward Quinn. A man who happened to be my friend."

"Oh." She spoke in a watery whisper.

"And Jimmy's protecting Stu."

"Why would he do that?"

"Because Stu is Jimmy's friend."

Alice's heart was hammering. She looked out the window into the darkness. She closed her eyes. When was Jimmy coming back?

"Quinn was a miner," Sam continued. "He'd prospected in California and Nevada, wherever he could find work. He had a family to support and when you have a family to support you do what you have to do. He was a good man, a kind and just man. We met in Fresno. He saved my life once. We were heading home from work and were jumped by two thugs wielding knifes. We took our blows"—he pointed at his scar—"but our attackers got the worst of it. One of the men was killed, the other was wounded but managed to get away. I found out later the men were brothers. Stuart and Carlos Kennedy. Quinn left shortly thereafter—he was drawn here by the prospect of easy money—and I vowed that if I ever saw him again I'd be sure to repay him. When I learned of his death at the hands of Stu, I knew I had to come here. Death doesn't absolve us of our debts, no matter where we may be."

"I know Stu is no angel," Alice said. "I'm not dumb, Sam. I know what goes on around this town. But he loves me. Okay? And I'll take Stu, warts and all. He's not like the other men in this place. Men who want you for the night. And want you to leave in the morning. You know what I mean?

"And, like I said, I know about the brawl. I wasn't there, but people told me what happened. A drunk got in a fight; one thing led to another. People said so many fists were flying it wasn't clear what happened. It was probably an accident. Those things happen. Out here on the edge of nowhere they happen all the time."

Alice finished her drink and Sam ordered her another and while she was waiting he looked around the room. He listened to the wind howling outside. He heard the branches of a tree rubbing against the windows. Alice looked at Sam as if she expected him to say something, but he said nothing. The romantic sounds of a guitar floated through the air from out of the casino room and filled the silence between them.

Alice sighed. "You'd think—"

"Hey, man." Someone grabbed Sam by the shoulder and spun him around. "What do you think you're doing?"

"We were just talking," Sam said.

"Stu!" Alice cried, recognizing her boyfriend.

"Stay out of this, baby."

"But he's right. That's all we were doing."

"He wants your ass. Look at the bastard."

"No, Stu, please."

"Shut up."

Sam said, "Alice is right: we were just talking, okay?"

"Don't give me that crap," Stu said. "Just get the hell out of here."

Sam rose. "As you wish." He paused, then added, "And if Alice wants to, she's coming with me."

Stu pulled a knife. Alice screamed. Someone cried out, "Oh, Christ. Everybody look out!"

Sam looked at Stu and he looked at the knife. And then he frowned. But he did not look scared. Stu did not know what was going on, but he did not like it. He was used to people turning tail when he confronted them. Nobody faced him down and got away with it. Nobody. But as he looked into Sam's steel-blue eyes he saw the look of a man who was not about to back down. And for a moment, he felt the coldness of fear. But only for a moment. He ran his hands through his thick brown hair. He spat on the floor. He looked at Sam icily. And then he said, "Chicken."

Every muscle in Sam's body was taut. The veins on his neck stood out. He ran his tongue over thin, dry lips. A lawless wind was slamming in from the south and it rattled the windows, shook the walls. A flash of lightning lit up the place as if it was daytime.

Sam looked towards the window and then he looked at Stu. His foot tapped the floorboards steadily. "Hear that?" Sam said. "Hear it?"

Stu said, "Get out." He ran the blade of the knife slowly across his throat.

Alice had never seen Stu like this, not even when he had confronted that man from up north, the man Stu thought was trying to undercut him. Then he was merely angry, but now he seemed like a man consumed by rage. The blade of Stu's knife gleamed in the light cast from the lightning bolts that lit up the room and Alice saw blood on it. Blood that was not there.

Sam said, "Put that away."

"Get your ass out of here." It was Frank, emerging from the casino room. He leaned against the doorway, an expression of contempt upon his face. Filled with renewed bravado, his thick hands seemed eager to kill. Sam looked at Stu and he looked at Frank, but he did not move.

"I think you'd better do as the man asked." A voice from the counter. Sam turned and he saw Ted smirking. "You care for your life, you'd better get out of here right now." His words were slurred and his eyes bloodshot. "And as for Alice . . . " His words trailed off.

Sam looked at Alice and said, "Let's go." Alice did not reply. She was trembling. Sam guessed that she did not know what to do, but when he looked at her more closely he saw that he was mistaken. She knew what to do. Maybe for the first time in her life she knew what to do. But she was scared. "Let's go," Sam repeated, "after I've done what I came here to do."

"I've had enough," Stu said and he spat on the floor. He took a step towards Sam, his knife at the ready. Alice cried out, "No!"

Just then the lights went out and the music stopped. People started screaming. Someone threw a punch and moments later a fight had broken out. It happened so fast that for a moment Alice did not realize what was happening. She heard the cries of men and of women, saw ghostlike silhouettes, eyes glowing in the darkness. A bottle grazed her chest and she fell to the floor.

It was thirty minutes before the power came back on and order was restored. Chairs had been overturned, broken glass was everywhere. The smell of blood hung in the air. Men lay sprawled on the floor, many of them with cuts and bruises. Alice lay among them. Her blouse was ripped and there were marks on her face and hands.

Sam had vanished. And in the middle of the room, face down in a pool of blood, was the body of Stu. A knife was embedded in his back.

Sam disappeared from Lightning Spruce and was never heard from again. The investigation into Stu's death was inconclusive. Most people thought Sam had killed him, of course, but others were not so sure. Some thought it was Ted or even Frank. They had motives as well and it did not help that they maintained a stony silence whenever the subject was brought up.

The funeral was held two days later and was well-attended. Whatever people thought of Stu, he had quite a reputation and needed to be put to rest with respect, they said. Alice watched emotionless. She did not think anyone deserved to die, at least not in the shameless way Stu had been dispatched, but she knew what people meant when they said he deserved it.

Blood was to be spilled that fateful evening—a natural consequence of events set in motion when Sam entered the bar—the only question was whose. And that depended on Alice. Stu laughed when he saw her lying on the floor, did not notice the weapon clutched in her left hand, saw only the anger in her eyes. He dismissed her with a smirk, then turned to face Sam. A final confrontation.

What happened next was like a dream to her now. A woman slowly rising. An arm outstretched. A hand hovering in midair poised to strike the fatal blow. What would Stu have felt if he'd pivoted to face his attacker? Surprise—or humiliation? He certainly would not have expected a woman to wield the knife.

When the funeral was over, she headed home. It was a warm, windless evening. As she walked, she looked up at the night sky, at the unfamiliar stars, so bright and faraway. High overhead, she saw the faint outlines of the great nebula in Andromeda. Little Cloud—as it was known—was sixteen thousand light years away, yet, tonight it seemed much closer. She walked on awhile longer, by the river that wound along the outskirts of town, wondering what would become of Sam and realizing that she already missed him.

The End

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