February, 2016

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Issue #77

All The Tales

A Deadly Substitute
by Lowell "Zeke" Ziemann

Marshal Jeb Smith entered his office after making his evening rounds. Caldwell was quiet now. The longhorn herds that came up the Chisholm Trail were loaded and gone. Trouble that exploded with rowdy celebrating Texans now ebbed and Main Street calmed.

Smith pitched his hat on a peg that hung on the wall behind his roll-top desk. He removed his holster and hung it next to his hat. After a deep relaxing breath, a soft smile broke across his dignified face that indicated a satisfied day's work done. He sat down on his swiveling reclining chair, took a cigar from the humidor, lit it, and inhaled the bitter-sweet aroma.

The latest edition of the Caldwell Clarion newspaper lay on his desk. After reading the headlines he leaned back and swung his long legs up on the desk. Once again he forgot to remove his spurs and added a few more scratches to the scarred left front corner of the desk top.

After hanging the spurs on the pegs, he opened the paper and found his name in a letter to the editor from Parson Chandler. The letter chastised him for using rough old-fashioned enforcement methods that were too aggressive when arresting lawbreakers.

"Parson, put my boots on and you'd be dead in a week," he said to himself. The Marshal grinned at the thought. "The sanctimonious young fool."

* * *

The sudden roar of a .45 erupted and spoiled his reverie. Smith sprang to his feet. A gunshot at midnight always meant trouble. He strapped on his gun, grabbed his hat and walked out the door.

He saw Sally running from her Diamond Saloon. "Vin Barker's been shot . . . I'm goin' to fetch Doc," she shouted as she passed.

"Who'd want to shoot an old farmer like Vin?" asked Smith. "Emmett Lee, Emmett Lee," she said, her voice trailing off as she ran down the street and entered Doc's office.

Marshal Smith rushed to the saloon. Two saloon patrons sat on the floor next to Barker. Smith knelt on one knee and placed Vin's hat under his head. The old farmer was unconscious.

"He's dyin'," said Bert, the bartender. Barker's teenage son looked down at his father and wept.

"Who shot him?" asked Smith. He wanted to corroborate Sally's statement.

Bert nodded toward the tall thin man resting a foot on the bar rail. "Emmett Lee . . . over there talking to Hattie."

"Vin never carried a gun," said the Marshal.

"He had one this time," said Bert. "Much as I hate to say it, Vin pulled his gun first. Never had a chance with Lee."

The Marshal turned his head and looked at the bar where Emmett Lee calmly sipped his whiskey. Void of conscience, pity or shame, he paid no attention to the commotion on the floor. Instead, he focused on the saloon girl.

Emmett Lee took pride in his soiled reputation. He had killed before. Each time he goaded someone into a fight, he outdrew his enemy. No jury would convict a man for defending himself.

The Marshal approached and spoke with a tone of sharp bitterness. "What's your story Lee?"

Emmett Lee shrugged. "He drew a gun from his coat pocket and turned it on me. So I shot him. Ask anyone here," he said.

The Marshal's eyes narrowed, riveting on the feared gunfighter. "Someday, somewhere, you'll meet him," he said.

"Meet who?" asked Lee.

Smith rose from his knee and took a step toward Lee. "The man who will send you to Hell."

The gunfighter chuckled. "Perhaps you'd like to try. I'd be pleased to meet you in the street."

The Marshal paused. His heart told him to accept the challenge and rid the world of this killer. But once again he reflected on the sworn oath he took as a lawman. Self-control trumped his emotions. "I'm a marshal," he said. "Not a gunfighter."

Smith walked slowly toward the door. He passed Vin's son and gently touched the youth's shoulder. "Billy, stop by my office when you're through here."

Parson Chandler entered with Doc. They brushed by the Marshal as they passed each other in the swinging doors.

* * *

An hour later there was a knock on the door of the Marshal's office.

"Come in Billy. Are you all right?" Parson Chandler walked in with him.

"I guess so," said Billy. He hesitated. Rocking back and forth he spoke in the high pitched voice of a sixteen year old. "Why didn't you kill him?"

"Now Billy," interjected the Parson.

"I'm a lawman, not a gunfighter, and surely not a killer," the Marshal replied. "What happened before Lee shot your Pa? I've never seen Vin with a gun."

"Pa just bought one when we came to town. We sold some chickens and eggs to Ed's Grocery and two hogs to the butcher. Pa figured he'd be carryin' a load of cash, so he thought it a good idea to go about armed," Billy replied.

"But why draw on Emmett Lee?" asked Smith.

"Well, Pa wanted to have a drink and I wanted a beer," said Billy.

"There's where the trouble started," interrupted the Parson. "Guns, liquor and women are a volatile mix. A church goer like you should know—"

Smith raised his hand to silence the Parson. "Quiet, Parson. Billy was telling the story," he said.

"So we stopped at Sally's and . . . and Pa bought a round for all the men there . . . except Lee," Billy explained. "Pa said he wouldn't drink with a killer."

"That was a mistake," said the Marshal. "But Bert said your Pa drew first."

"He did, 'cause Lee swore at him and called him a 'dumb sodbuster' and slapped him a couple of times. Then . . . " Billy stopped to take his red kerchief to his eyes and blew his nose. "Then Pa reached for the new gun in his pocket and Lee shot him. Marshal, Emmett Lee should be shot."

The Parson grabbed Billy's arm. "'Vengeance is mine' says the Good Book. Are you through Marshal? Billy come, stay with me tonight."

Billy looked to the Marshal for approval.

"Go ahead," said Smith. "Come back in a couple of days Billy." Then he sent a warning look toward the Parson before turning back to the youth. "You're a man now Billy. Come back . . . alone."

* * *

At first light the next morning Marshal Smith rose from his bunk in the room behind his office. A knock on his door jolted him awake.

When Smith opened the door, Billy stood in the doorway. His eyes were red. "Couldn't sleep. And I'm tired of the Parson's preaching."

The Marshal dressed and pulled on his boots. "What are your plans?"

Billy rocked from side to side. His jaw was set. "I'm torn Marshal. Mad then sad. Mad then sad, mostly mad."

The Marshal leaned back in his chair and let the young man compose himself. "Billy, I know your Ma died a couple of years ago. Can you run the farm?"

Billy relaxed some. "I may sell the farm and go to the University, like Ma wanted. I'm good at book learning . . . especially figures. 'Been keepin' the books for the farm since I was twelve. Our neighbor, Otto Bauer will buy it. He's always expanding his land. Got four sons to keep busy."

Billy lowered his eyes to the floor. "Marshal, I want to see Emmett Lee dead."

"Don't you try it, Billy. Don't you try it," the Marshal spoke like a General giving a command.

"I won't. I ain't a fool," said Billy. "He'd kill me sure."

Billy paused and pleaded with his eyes. "But you could. Pa always said you were the best around these parts with a gun."

"Are you asking me to call him out?" asked Smith. "I just can't do it. It's not a lawman's job to provoke a gunfight. My job is to prevent one."

"What if Lee throws down on you?" asked Billy.

Smith looked into the teenager's eyes. "That's different. But Emmett Lee is not known to challenge a man who could possibly beat him."

"But . . . Oh . . . All right," said Billy. He smiled and walked toward the door.

Billy left. The Marshal put on his vest and hat. He thought about the situation. Billy sparked of intelligence and wants to go to the University. But, just what might be going through the young man's head? Grief and revenge wrestled for control of Billy's mind. It could lead to trouble.

* * *

A week later Sheriff Smith sat relaxed on a chair in front of his office. According to Sally, Emmett Lee had visited Hattie a couple of times, but she had not seen Billy.

Parson Chandler crossed the street and approached. He stopped at the edge of the boardwalk and peered up at the Marshal. "I'm concerned about Billy," he said. "I've seen him a couple of times since his Pa was killed and he seems very quiet . . . very deep in thought. Have you talked with him?"

"Only on the morning after the shooting," answered Smith.

"And?" asked Chandler.

"Law business," said Smith.

"He listens to you . . . why I don't know. Some sort of ridiculous heroic-male thing, I guess." said the Parson. "Billy wants to show you he's got grit."

The Marshal smiled and shook his head but did not reply.

The Parson continued the uninvited conversation. "If you see him again I think it is your duty to tell him to stay out of saloons and above all to forget any kind of retribution in the killing of his father. You must do the same. I'd prefer that Billy goes off to the University at Lawrence with a clean forgiving heart and not one full of hate. Do your duty with compassion."

Smith jumped to his feet, kicked back the chair and looked down at the Chandler. The Parson took two steps back. "Parson, there's forgiveness and there's justice. You are in the forgiveness business. I am here to see justice done. There is a line between the two. Don't cross it. I won't tell you how to preach, and damn it, you'd best quit writing letters to the paper. And never tell me how to enforce the law! Good-bye."

The Parson hurried across the street without looking back. Jeb Smith picked up his chair and sat back down.

* * *

Four days later, as the late autumn afternoon sun warmed the rutty street, Marshal Smith watched Billy Barker ride his small Pinto pony up to the bank. Otto Bauer followed in his buggy. An hour later both emerged, and shook hands.

Billy crossed the street and walked up to the lawman. "Howdy Marshal Smith," he said. "I just sold the farm to Bauer. Money is in the bank. I kept a hundred dollars cash for expenses."

The Marshal rose to greet the young man. "So you're headed to Lawrence to study. Good. Shake the dust and bad memories from Caldwell off your boots. I wish you well."

"I'm not leaving just yet," said Billy. "I have some unfinished business here."

Smith cocked his head to one side. "I hope you don't mean something foolish."

The conversation stopped as both men squinted into the setting sun toward an approaching rider. Emmett Lee slowly walked his tall sorrel horse down Main Street without acknowledging the two men in front of the Marshal's office. He tied his horse to the rail and entered Sally's Saloon.

Billy turned toward the saloon. "Excuse me Marshal."

"Wait Billy," said Smith. He walked up to the youth and patted the coat pockets of the jacket Billy wore. He pulled a handful of cigars from the inside pocket.

"What are these for? You smoke?" asked Smith.

"No sir," said Billy. "Got them for Pa's friends as a going-away present. Come over to Sally's if you want one." He turned to leave.

"Open your coat if you walk into Sally's. Be certain Lee knows you are unarmed," Smith warned.

* * *

Like the other businesses on Main Street, Sally's profits slowed after the Texas drovers left. She stood at front corner of the bar and counted cash from the register. Her piano player plunked out "Oh Dem Golden Slippers" and the music filtered through the levered swinging doors and out into the street. Bert walked around the saloon and lit the lanterns. Emmett Lee stood at the far end of the bar joking with giggling Hattie.

Billy entered. Sally looked up and glanced over to Emmett Lee. "Good Lord," she whispered.

Four regular patrons playing poker at a back table stopped their game. They stared at Billy and sent sideways glances at Lee who continued to concentrate on Hattie. The piano tune ceased.

"Hello Billy," said Sally.

Lee spun around and placed his hand on the butt of the .45 in his holster and stared at the youth. Hattie slipped away from Lee's arm and slid behind him. She peeked at Billy and sent a suggestive smile toward the youth.

Sally closed the cash drawer, edged toward the door and peeked down the street. Seeing Smith standing outside of his office, she stepped out and beckoned to the Marshal.

"I just sold the farm," announced Billy. "I'm buying a round of drinks for the house."

The poker players rose, but stood still at their table.

"Bert, pour one for these four gentlemen . . . not Lee," said Billy.

The gunfighter smirked and spoke in a low, loud raspy voice. "You got the same manners as your Pa. I guess the apple din't fall far from the tree."

Sally watched from the door.

Billy tensed. He looked toward the door. Marshal Smith walked in.

At the sight of the Marshal, Billy's shoulders sagged and he breathed deeply. He opened his coat wide. "Relax Lee, I ain't armed," he said. He turned his back to Lee and looked toward the table.

"Gentlemen," Billy said to the Poker players, "Come get your whiskey. And, here, have a cigar. Not you Lee."

Lee took a wide stance, raised a fist and scowled. "You sassy little pup. Maybe I should teach you some respect."

The poker players looked at the Marshal for a minute and then walked to the bar to get their drinks.

The piano player struck up slow version of "Silver Threads among the Gold".

Marshal Smith stood just inside the door, watching, ready.

The four card players took their drinks and cigars and hurried back to the table. The cards were not dealt. The men waited for something, anything, to happen.

Lee's look would have intimidated the Devil himself. He thrust a long finger in Billy's direction. "You cowardly son of a sodbuster. Get heeled and go to work!" he shouted.

The Marshal moved to a table in the middle of the room and sat down. He watched every move that Emmett made. Sally walked to the table and stood behind him.

Billy smiled at the poker players; then moved to the piano player and handed him a coin. "Play a waltz for me sir," he said.

Then he walked to Hattie. "Dance?"

To Marshal Jeb Smith, the picture became clear. He said nothing, but rose and moved two steps closer to Billy who led Hattie to the small dance floor. The four poker players slinked down and peeked over the table top.

Lee suddenly charged Billy and grabbed him by the back of the coat collar. He spun him around and sent a punch to the youth's stomach and a second one to his jaw. Billy went down, but came up with his head between Lee's legs. He rammed the top of his skull into Lee's groin. Lee doubled over, but raised one boot and kicked Billy in the ribs.

Billy scrambled backward and struggled to his feet. He reeled against the piano and yelled through bloody lips. "You dirty coward. You murdered Pa".

"You're a dead man," yelled Lee. He drew a knife from his belt and flung it toward the staggering youth. The blade nicked the left shoulder of Billy and quivered when it stuck in the side of the upright piano.

Lee cursed violently at missing Billy's head. Then suddenly he twisted about and faced the Marshal. He stopped and stood quietly for a second. "You dirty badge hanger. You sent this boy to provoke me!" he screamed. He grabbed for his gun.

Smith responded and two shots sounded like one.

The Marshal winced and grabbed his shoulder, then quickly fired a second time. The killer spun around and fell on the foot rail of the bar. He bled from two holes in his chest.

Lee looked up at the Marshal and spoke in stuttered gasps. "I guess . . . I guess . . . I met him," he said.

The Marshal pointed to the patrons under the poker table. "Get Lee out of here. Cart him to Doc's parlor, then tell Doc I need him here at Sally's."

* * *

Four days later Billy reined his pinto pony to a stop in front of Jeb Smith's office. A carpet bag hung on his saddle horn.

The Marshal sat in a chair on the boardwalk, his left arm in a sling.

Billy tipped his hat. "Good-bye Marshal. Glad to see you're all right. I'm headed to the University of Kansas in Lawrence."

Smith nodded and smiled. "You took a risk and a beating. But you planned it, didn't you."

Billy Barker grinned, spurred the small pinto, and left without a word.

The End

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Buzzard Bait
by Jeffrey A.Paolano

Although open his eyes blur the images. Realizing focus consumes a moment while he kicks the frost out from legs and sciatica.

Hawking a gob he expels the sputum into a pail.

Searching between his legs he disappointedly feels of the wet leaked during his sleep. The reality is shameful.

Working the stiff from his hands while he rises he applies himself at the pisser bucket. Sometime has passed since he can abide winter's sting on the way to the privy. His bowels don't move often enough to make the trip necessary with any frequency.

Yesterday's bowl of atole stands cold on the table. The spoon congealed in the mass, it is breakfast for this day.

He pulls on the jug of Mezcal to warm his bones.

The few sticks in the pile serve to start the fire in the estufa with the result the room begins to warm at least on top of the blaze.

* * *

In the instant he freezes as he marks the faint clopping of horse shoe iron on the rocks of the dry crick bed serving as the track to his camp.

He knows of no one who would venture out in this inclement weather to attend him. He secures his Navy Colt and rotates the cylinder to assure the caps.

Truth be told, he can't see but ten yards, not clear anyhow, but at ten yards the thirty-six will rip a hell of a hole. Take a man's arm off'n or might be, a leg.

Backing into the corner at the end of the pallet, he allows he'll blot out the fella as he comes through the door. He's wish'n the windows weren't frosted over like they was.

"Mr. Clemens, Buster Clemens, it's me Aldolpho, you know the beer man's son. Hey, Mr. Clemens, hey Buster," yells the rider to be heard over the conditions, with a sneaking suspicion the old man being near blind will pot him by mistake.

"That you, Al, I say is that you Aldolpho?" Shouts Mr. Clemens from his defensive position, "Hey Al, is that you out there?"

"Yeah, Mr. Clemens, it's me. Come on out, see for yerself," eagerly requesting Mr. Clemens to assuage his fears in the hopes of easing the danger.

Slowly, Buster angles towards the door, trying with cocked head to see through the opaque iced over window glass, finally convinced there is no option he cracks the door and surveys the yard.

"Why, Alph, I am that surprised to see youse' up here in this blow, what's the reason for it son? Somethin's awrong is it down below?" His head shifts back and forth as he speaks still on the prowl for danger.

"No, Mr. Clemens no trouble, just Miss Estelle, tells me to fetch yawl, she says come up right quick, bring you this horse and see gon'a give me a quarter for the job." With that he tugs on the bridle rope secured to the horse's head with a hackamore.

The plug draws forward. Buster takes notice of the ribs protruding and the swayed back. The hair covering the horse hide is scalded and manged.

With critical eye he wonders as to whether this cull can carry him out to Miss Estelle's but no matter he must try, there is nothing for it.

"Come in out of the cold, boy, warm yourself at the fire, I have no Arbuckle, but at least you can get heated." So saying he crawls into his raggedy chaqueta, wraps a strip from his blanket as a scarf about his head and shambles out the door to grasp the reins on the pony.

Buster pasears the beast over to the shed ties the lead to the rail and begins to assemble his outfit.

His saddle is worn through to the tree in several locations and the oxbow stirrup on the near side has been reattached to the stirrup leathers by the threading of wire.

Once his horse is harnessed he proceeds into the shack to collect his doofunnies, put on what extra clothes he has and covers all with his poncho. He mounts his slouch hat.

A quick glance about the room affirms there is nothing else he need take. So with that he departs trailing Aldolpho along the trace.

* * *

Miss Estelle sits grandly upon the porch of her imposing house. She is ensconced in her rocker, a location wherein she has spent the better part of the past twenty years.

In her hand the omnipresent stone pipe which she tamps with a thumb having years ago lost all feeling and accrued a large callus so that she can pack burning tobacco with it.

When she is of a mind she grips the instrument with what is left of her browned teeth.

Her plew is in a poke to her side.

The pupils are yellowed with cataracts constricting the myopic vision of her rheumy eyes.

The wrinkled, parchment skin is streaked by the dirt that accumulates in the crevices as she does not bath and has not for these many years.

The scraggly hair is done up in a loose bun drawing attention to the almost universal grey.

She wears a calico summer spectacle which over the years of exposure to the blast of sunshine has been faded to a blotched mosaic.

On her feet the ubiquitous clod hoppers of the plains, with the sole separating from the toe leaving a gap where one can observe the foot within.

* * *

She watches now as he rides in. What she sees is a man tall in the saddle, well mounted on a California sorrel pony, Concho Mexican saddle with a manzana for his reata. He sports fine boots, with a sombrero for his shade.

Straight backed sitting high in the saddle, proud and strong, thick black hair. Skin tanned by the sun and wind while he works the cattle.

All say an all-day hombre.

She smiles at what she sees, how handsome he is, how grand.

Buster's horse saunters up to the gallery whereon the old woman sits in her rocker, evidently oblivious to the polar weather.

"Might cold to be asitten out ain't it Miss Estelle?" He pushes on the pommel with both hands to lift his body from the saddle and work the cramp from his legs.

"Why hello, Mr. Clemens, so nice to see you, what a welcome treat your coming," so saying she smiles to reveal the prodigious gaps in her darkly, yellowed teeth.

He steps down, ties the horse to the hitching rail and mounts the steps having removed his deformed hat. Surveying the old woman, his heart breaking a little at her pathetic sight, he nevertheless gathers and says, "Why Miss Estelle you look so nice today."

The ancient orbs shine just a mite and crinkle at the corners.

Mr. Clemens steps over to her and gently lifts her hand by placing his beneath so hers only rests upon the back of his in the way of the ballroom and says, "Querida, may we go inside?"

She's taken by the gallant and rises with her hand.

* * *

The wind borne sand scours the white lap siding and the cream and green trim. Not uniformly, but dependent upon the location's exposure to the wind.

There is a further differentiation based on which wind strikes, the winter blasts, the spring and fall zephyrs or the summer storms. Each blow removes the paint in a singular pattern.

* * *

Inside the cats have created a powerful presence which takes Mr. Clemens a moment to become accustomed too. The dogs do not seem to have added to the pungent odor.

Walking Miss Estelle across the tile of the foyer they enter the library.

With shreds of carpet upon the floor, stuffing bulging from the several locations of rended upholstery and a dearth of knick knacks and picture frames. The absence of which having left squares, rectangles and ovals of discolored wall paper.

Guiding the lady to a chair he grabs another and places it so that they may sit face to face.

Sedentary, he recalls the look of her vivacious youth prior to the ravages of time and the pillaging of the creature's attributes by the forbidding life upon this difficult land.

The destruction inflicted on her assuming over the years the role of ranch hand, working the cattle throughout the day, sleeping on the ground, eating biscuits and beans and eventually undertaking heavy drinking to relieve the tediousness of the unabridged venture.

The devastating loss of her husband, then her two sons and finally her only daughter, with the attendant drift from normalcy and the failure to return.

Time heals all wounds is a non-functioning bromide in the case of Miss Estelle.

Over the ensuing years, her continuing glide from rationality was occasioned by an ever varying response of the townsfolk.

At first the sympathy and empathy, then the acceptance of a supposed angelic but damaged mind, followed by the humorous acceptance of the eccentric wealthy old lady and finally the realization whatever dinero there had ever been was gone revealing the inevitable scorn with which she is currently regarded.

Mr. Clemens, can remember though the days when he was a top vaquero, on a path to straw boss and thereafter range boss. Well favored by the patron of the rancho and many of the Cyprians in town.

The girls endured the wrath of their madams and pimps as a result of having gifted their favors to the dashing young man.

Then Miss Estelle arrived in Broderick.

She arrived as a mail order bride from her home in Boston. She arrived with a trousseau fit for a life in New England and held a femme fatal literature shaped romanticized fiction of life on the Great Plains.

* * *

Her betrothed by all accounts an honorable man, a hard worker, with a good head and a strong potential to build a profitable ranch, affording a comfortable life for his family.

* * *

There already was a Soddy on the place the roof of which was covered with shingles to prevent leaks in the rain.

Many corrals and necessary outbuildings had been constructed from tree trunks and limbs hauled in from a boscage on the range. There was anticipated the building of a proper house at the earliest opportunity.

* * *

Miss Estelle's initial negative reaction to the appalling dust, filth, heat and constant wind was in short order overcome by her natural stature as a sensible woman who had the ability to take the vagaries of life in hand and work them to her will.

* * *

And she took note of Mr. Clemens. Compared to her husband he was charismatic. In possession of the attributes she imagined when she conjured the Wild West of her girlhood dreaming back in Boston. He fit the mold to a tee.

* * *

So she dove in, working like a hand, having a baby a year, supervising the Mexican girls who cleaned the house, tended the babies and prepared the food.

Together the two newlyweds built up a right smart ranch, raising good beeves, desirable horses and stumbling on a profitable sideline in mules.

* * *

And all the while at dances, celebrations, and political rallies she noticed Mr. Clemens and to be honest he noticed her.

There being no way for the matter to progress any further since Mr. Clemens's honor would not allow intercession in a marriage.

His only option to his mind would be to rub out the husband however; he harbored an opinion such a solution would be unsatisfactory to Miss Estelle.

And so the matter progressed with discreet eye contact, the most innocent of remarks and occasionally the holding of one another during the trading of partners in the progression of a Virginia reel.

* * *

As the years pass the Italianate style house is built, the ranch prospers, the husband and children die.

During the same period Buster Clemens continues his activities without abatement, spends all the money he makes, improves his lot not at all and as age catches up with him starts a long slide towards invalidism.

No longer is he the dashing cowman, with the beautiful horse, spectacular saddle, and thick shock of hair.

Now, he passes through middle age, and thinning hair. He rides an old roan, has a second hand working saddle, limps from several broken bones and is increasingly seen as irrelevant.

Still the clandestine attraction persists, in point of fact if anything it amplifies.

* * *

Even so Miss Estelle, now having sustained significant damage is unable to function rationally. Consequently, although she is now free there can be no consummation of the relationship, no formal bonding through marriage, nothing but the bitter longing on each side for what cannot and will not be.

* * *

As Miss Estelle retreats into her daunsy life, Buster Clemens does much the same. Each withered with the years passing becoming increasingly uncouth and isolated. They slip and slide down into their individualized pit of paucity and eccentricity.

* * *

Now, Miss Estelle, her hand lightly within the handsome vaquero's two, makes her appeal. "Mr. Clemens I need you to grant me a boon. I require you deliver my animal Ismael to the Worthing Land and Cattle Company spread as soon as possible," she says it with the simple grace of a child completely and utterly innocent of the depth of her request.

She is in fact asking for his life.

Unexpectedly, his first thought is why does she want to kill the bull?

Immediately, his mind refocuses and without changing his expression in the slightest begins to reason through the matter and reckon his response.

If he says no, she will be terribly offended however, for how long is anyone's guess. He does not believe her mind can hold a thought for over a few minutes. It is surprising she has been able to engage Aldolpho and remember what she wanted to ask him once he arrived.

He must say yes, as it has no meaning, she will have forgotten the whole thing by the morrow, probably even the fact of his being here. If she remembers at all it will be as a dream.

With her wizened hand upon his own, he looks into the flecked eyes and with a gentle voice intones, "Yes, my dear I will grant your wish and take Ismael through the pass to Worthing Rancho, happily I will do this for you."

She looks back at him but her eyes contain not even the faint light of moments prior. The muscle beneath her skin is limper than just earlier. Her whole body collapses in on itself. On the floor spreads a puddle.

The accumulation of sign gives him to understand she has willed herself to live only for as long as it takes for him to arrive and for her to deliver her request.

What possibly the true import of this message is he cannot fathom.

However, he is now faced with a conundrum.

When he agreed to fulfill her request he thought it would pass from her memory. Now with her death it becomes a deathbed promise. That is to say inviolable. He now has no option but to fulfill his oath.

Within seconds as he sits holding the inarticulate hand he begins to realize Miss Estelle has bequeathed to him a gift.

Possibly, to balance the years of unrequited affection between them, she now gives over what he truly needs and could not have attained elsewise.

A final adventure, with him in pursuit with the strength and passion with which, he would have braved it in his prime.

With such exertion he will collapse and his life will end, not as an enfeebled, rotting ruin but as the robust vaquero of his youth.

This is a fine present something he can sink his teeth into and chase with verve and vigor.

Laying her hand gently in her lap, he goes out and rides the dilapidated horse into town and approaches the Minister of the Methodist Church. Not that he knows which Church if any she would prefer but just because it would be more Anglo than Mex.

He knocks at the door of the rectory, "Hello, my name is Clemens; I want to tell you that Miss Estelle has passed."

"How do you know, my good man?"

"I was with her when she went over the hill." Having had his say, he turns on his heel and rides back to Miss Estelle's house.

Her body will keep well enough in the cold house, and he can pass the night in a bedroom upstairs and get his start in the morning.

He wishes he had a quarter for some bait.

In the morning once dressed he enters the barn and begins to pluck the threads with his Barlow to separate old feed sacks at the seams.

The meal they once contained has been attacked by mice and rats who to facilitate getting at the grain chewed holes in the sacks.

Consequently, the sacking is somewhat tattered. He parts one sack to wrap about his hands as gloves. Others he cuts holes for his head to be draped over his body to fortify his shabbily thin coat.

He saddles the horse Aldolpho brought him, wishing as he did so that there had been oats for him last night; the animal has had nothing but the dried dog town grass poking up through the snow, on the way up here.

It's a difficult thing for either the horse or the bull to keep warm on scant feed.

Aboard the derelict horse and leading Ishmael, Buster winds up off the ranch. Striking a trail which will take him up the cerro to the break in the Musselshell, he settles on an easy pace.

Since in all likelihood there is no place they actually have to be and there is small chance they will survive this ordeal, he has no reason to torture them into the bargain.

He's heeled with the hog leg but he hankers for a carabina. He doesn't know what he would shoot nohow, it's the weather that will have done with the whole kit and caboodle.

He stops at what looks to be the last place on the trail before it begins its rise up off the valley floor.

In the old way he rides up to the door. "Hallo, the house, anyone to home? Hallo," his voice is such even though he is trying to shout what comes out is only a smidgen above a normal voice, and fractured at that.

The door opens a slight then more. "What you needing?"

"Why I'm taking this animal over to Worthing's way and was wondering if you could spare a crumb of bread or something."

"There's a little sopapilla in the pan, step down and welcome."

Settled at the table, Buster fills his plate and digs in, his host one Christian Matthews hoists the jug of red eye takes a pull and places it down on the table with an obvious invitation for Buster to help himself, which he does.

"Wall, you're a life saver that's what, I hadn't had nothing since the morning yesterday and I was right empty, I'm thanking you."

"Glad to be of service," says he. Actually, Christian is just as glad to have the company which being rare this far out. Additionally, he likes having a man more his age, one who knew the west back when with stories to tell.

Passing the jug back and forth lubricates their language, "So you really are going to walk that bull up over the mountain?"

"Well, I won't say it don't sound foolish, but truth be told I don't know what options I have, I promised a lady as she was dying I would, can't take it back and she can't let me off the hook."

"But that colds gon'a kill y'a and the animal both, that horseflesh your riding can't make it, there ain't no feed atall, he'll freeze sure if he don't break a leg." The jug to his lips he allows the liquid to flow into his mouth and over, down his chin and the front of his shirt.

"Probably you're right but what's to be done I give my word." Pouring the brown venomous juice in his mouth he guzzles what he can and the rest spreads on his breast.

Buster is having the best time he has had in years. There is in his mind just the slightest reminder of the old days, and how they were just like this.

The only thing missing is a little female companionship; however, he recognizes he has little use for it.

At some point, the bottle ceases to be passed, the two take to the cot, one with his head at each end and sleep peacefully till the morn.

After coffee, biscuits and sowbelly, Buster rises to be on his way.

"I'm grateful for the night's entertainment, it brightened my spirits." Taking Christian in both hands he is warm in his parting.

"I'd like to talk you out of this fool venture, but if you are agoin take a poke of biscuits at least."

* * *

In the pen Buster surveys the carcass of the stricken horse, down on his side, overcome by the previous day's exertion or the cold or both. He expresses no disappointment or consternation, just proceeds with his affairs.

He puts a cavraces about the horse's neck and ties the other end to the bull. Then with a quirt he encourages the critter to pull the load out to a brasada of black chaparral.

Returning he restores the rope to its place in the shed.

Without expression or even a thought of change of plan, he takes up a piece of twine, ties it about the top of the sack of biscuits and makes a loop for over his shoulder.

Then grabbing onto Ismael's lead and he begins to walk up towards the mountain pass.

"You a crazy soma bitch!" The epithet rings in his ears. In his heart there is the warmth of fellowship.

Their ascent while slow is steady and they make a good distance. Ismael works without belligerency, he plods at a good pace.

Eventually, dusk begins its descent. Buster searches for a place to spend the night. He finds a suitable overhang which will keep him out of the wind and snow.

Eating his third and fourth biscuit of the day revives him to a degree which lets his mind wander to the many times in the past when he has slept out of a night.

The round-ups, the drives, on the prowl for cattle on the high plains and even just for the sheer fun of it, he and his paisani out to hunt, drink, tell stories and generally howl at the moon.

The flour sacks under his thin jacket and the poncho over that, insulates his chest and gut to a degree. The scarf wrapped about his neck and head under his slouch hat provides protection for that portion.

However, all that shields his legs from the bitter weather is the worn pants flannel a most pitiable insulator.

His legs propelling him up the mountain all the day generated heat within however, now at rest there is nothing to keep them warm. He feels the chill seep in the moment he lays down.

He pulls his legs up to his chest as high as their inflexibility and the stiffness of his spine will permit. This allows the poncho to cover from his shoulders to his ankles maximizing its protection. But it is not enough. He is thoroughly chilled in moments.

Were there sufficient light he could keep walking thereby maintaining flexibility and warmth. However, the darkened mountain trails present inestimable dangers. There remains only hoping for sufficient life to realize the morning's false light which will allow the resumption of his trek.

Lying as he does on the cold ground with nothing between him and the soil, the little heat in his body is drawn away.

The effect is to keep him in agitation unable to sleep soundly.

There is now a horrific scream in the night. He recognizes the sound immediately as that of the bull being attacked by a cougar. He has heard it many times on drives and round-ups when steers screamed in the same way as their throats were being torn by the huge canines of the cat.

He secures his pistol and tries to rise to the bull's defense however; his frozen legs and stiff back restrict his movement.

As he struggles to regain his feet the cries of the animal become decidedly weaker until they cease and there is no longer cause for Buster to rise. Ishmael no longer needs his help.

He folds back unto the poncho, slumping too tired to unravel himself, panting and wheezing from his exertion.

The cold continues its invasion of his body however; Buster Clemens nee Ricallio Francisco Bolivar Jesus Warez experiences a warming sensation throughout his body except for the creeping numbness of his extremities.

His mind is reeling with the wheen of remembrances of the wonderful, happy days of his life. Interestingly, there is difficulty in recollecting any bad days except for the fruitless potential of Miss Estelle.

There is a slight tinge, but only slight, that he failed to attain the levels of achievement for which people once considered him worthy.

In all I've had a good life being the penultimate thought to pass through his mind before sleep, Miss Estelle being the last.

The denizen's lips are curled into a faint smile as has not appeared on the vaquero's features for these many years. The mien is reflective of the peace in which he abideth.

The End

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A Gunfighters Last
by Christopher Davis

Alone, the old gunslinger lay in bed listening to the frigid wind making its way down from the north. Cold blew through cracks in the old shack, but it seemed warm inside, some of this due to the fever and some to the fire crackling in the stove.

Lying in the same clothes that he wore when he found the bed sometime last week, he wondered who had stoked the warming fire. Could it have been the boy? Surely not, he had ridden out for Texas last fall before the weather closed in.

Oh what the old man wouldn't have given to see him just once more. Knowing that his time to saddle up and ride on to the great beyond was drawing near, he thought back to the life he and the boy had shared.

Rising to cough brought more blood and phlegm, the only cloth nearby was saturated in the spew from recent episodes. A traveling doctor had told him it was consumption that had taken hold. "The hell it is," He had said to the doctor, "As sure as my names Mont Morgan I don't have no damn consumption."

Hell if that old doctor hadn't been right.

Half empty, a bottle of whiskey had been left on a table by the bed along with one of his pistols. So far the whiskey had helped, in due time, there might come a use for the Colt.

Morgan struggled with the bottle and lay back on the bed thinking about the boy. It would be something to see him just once more, once more before he was planted for good in the bone-orchard at the bottom of the hill.

Whiskey beginning to ease the pain, Morgan fumbled rolling a cigarette and lit it from the lamp near the bed. More coughing followed the first drag. Turning his head, Morgan spit the blood and phlegm to the floor and took another hit, closing tired eyes wishing to see his boy again.

* * *

Now there were as many rumors as to how Morgan and the boy fell in together as there were lies about the lost Dutchman's gold mine.

Truth was, Mont and some of his pards had hit a bank in Coffey County and were blazing a trail in trying to get away. Mont took a high fork up through the hills. To the benefit of those pards the posse followed his trail and not the others. Old smoke drifted on a gentle wind, Mont figured the jig was up, he had run onto civilization out here in the badlands with any number of gentlemen ready to grab hold of him as he rode through.

The smoke wafted from the remains of an old shack in the middle of a sharecrop farm. A young lad of maybe four or five years of age mulled about dirty and tired, his tear-streaked cheeks told of a story Mont didn't have the heart to ask.

Reining in his mount, Morgan asked, "Where's your folks son?"

A flood of tears welled up in the boys eyes, Mont knew well what the answer would be.

"Got any kin folk in these parts boy?" Morgan asked glancing back over a nervous trail as the lawmen were bearing down hard behind.

Morgan was an outlaw, no disputing the fact, but he couldn't leave the boy out here alone. Once the sun went down it would get mighty cold on the plains and there was no guarantee the lawmen trailing would even find him. It had to have been twenty miles to the nearest settlement and the boy would surely starve to death if the coyotes didn't start picking at him.

Morgan reached down extending a hand to the lone boy and pulled him up into the saddle, "I'm in a predicament here son," Morgan said, "But I'll see to it that you get to the next town safe."

Spurring his big Chestnut mare on, the gunslinger reasoned out a plan for the boy. Morgan had never been much on paternal instinct. He didn't have any children or rather any that he stayed around to provide for. That's not to say the outlaw had never been with a woman, he had bedded down with plenty of 'em. Surely he was the father to many a tike running fatherless like he had in his younger day.

When darkness came, Morgan hobbled his mount near a spring fed creek and secured a place for both he and the boy.

"You hungry son?"

The boy shook his head in the affirmative not saying a word.

"Hard bread and coffee's all I got for us tonight, but I'm glad to share it with you," Morgan said already preparing some for the boy.

Morgan's bedroll only contained a coat and one old wool blanket, a tattered leftover from the war. After supper the boy stayed close to Mont Morgan and the little fire. Morgan wrapped the lad in wool and covered himself with his canvas slicker to keep the night air away.

Miles turned into days, Morgan found that he had really taken a liking to the boy and the boy seemed to like him although he never said a word. The lad could understand well enough, he just couldn't talk.

Two weeks and who knows how many miles the pair traveled when they rode into Denton Texas. With the mare spent and no law on their trail, Morgan figured they'd have to rest for a few days.

"Now you got any problem with me telling them you're my kid?" Morgan asked the boy, smiling at the thought of a place to stop. "If it'd be right with you, that's what I'm going to say if anyone starts to asking questions."

The boy nodded as Morgan stepped off at the town's livery and set him to the ground. A shave, good hot bath and a meal later, Morgan and the boy were resting comfortably in a second floor room at the Illinois Hotel. Saddle bags full of money Morgan had saw to it that they both had a new suit of clothes to boot.

"Now son," Morgan explained, "It's time for me to be moving along. You know put some distance between me and those lawmen that I've been running from."

Tears streamed down the lads cheeks as he shook his head in the negative clinging to Morgan's leg.

Knowing that he was probably all the boy had other than the prospect of a lifetime spent in the orphanage, Morgan asked, "Do you want to continue on with me, son?"

Smiling the boy shook his head in agreement.

It wasn't a bad idea come to think of it. No one would be looking for a clean shaven man traveling with a small boy in his keep.

"Well then young fellow," Morgan said, "We'll see this thing though to the end I reckon. I'll look for us a pack horse and we'll start out early tomorrow, if that'd be right with you?"

Together for good, Morgan and the boy walked to the livery to check on the mare, when a fellow started asking an awful lot of questions.

Morgan explained, "Dammed rouge Indians killed the old lady and burned me to ground. This here boy is all I got."

The boy smiled a coy smile as he stood next to Morgan's leg, a holstered Peacemaker against his cheek.

"Yes sir," Morgan answered, "I reckon I can work cattle as well as the next fellow in line?"

When the sun came up the next morning, Morgan and the boy awoke in a one room bunk house at the Triple R Bar S ranch. It wasn't much, just a room with chow and dependable work. After terrorizing the land, settling down wouldn't hurt Morgan's feelings any and steady pay would stretch the bag of money from that bank in Coffey County. Besides the old woman that did the cooking at the ranch took a liking to the boy as did he to her. Morgan would have someone to look after the lad while he was away earning a living for him and the boy.

* * *

Ten years flew by as Morgan and the boy worked on this ranch and that, one going bankrupt another selling out. Mont traded an old saddle for a good little horse and taught the boy to work and rope cattle. A Navy .36 Colt given when Morgan figured the boy was fifteen provided a smile just short of ear to ear. The boy was a natural with a gun in his hand.

Well built, the boy started working alongside Morgan to earn his keep, turned out to be a hell of a cowboy when there came a need. Pay from the weeks work in his pocket the boy took a liking to drinking whiskey and chasing the whores in town, wasn't anything wrong with it as far as Morgan could see, just a young man sowing his oats.

Morgan had taken ill one winter and had never quite gotten over the cough. Notice had been given that the ranch would be liquidated. Morgan and the boy could stay on for a month or so, but would have to move on by spring.

Long winter nights were spent near the stove sharing a bottle of whiskey with Morgan retelling his stories of the gun slinging days. The boy understood that old Mont wasn't his father, he had never forgotten his folks, but it was Mont Morgan who had been there when he cried, carried him to the doctor in the snow and taught him the things that a boy needed to know. The boy enjoyed those stories. Morgan felt the boy becoming agitated at their lot, restless.

Consumption the doctor had said about the cough that winter. Morgan argued, but he knew the diagnosis was true. He had felt sick inside for some time. Spent from hard years of drinking and raising hell, Morgan knew it would soon be over. How soon?

"You think we could pull just one off?" Morgan asked one night by the stove, "I'd like to feel my heart pumping just one more time like it did back then."

The boy was becoming restless, Morgan knew that try as he might he could never contain such a boy to working on some ramshackle ranch in the middle of nowhere.

Spinning a blued Colt pistol on his index finger, the boy smiled and nodded.

Taking the bottle back from the boy, Morgan rubbed his head saying, "Well then partner as soon as I can get healed up from this cough we ride."

Problem was, Morgan didn't get better. One night the cough got so bad the boy got their horses saddled and managed to get Mont up in his for a cold ride into town. Powders and a bottle of tonic quieted the ailment some. Warmer weather brought more improvement.

Morgan traded an extra horse for a Winchester rifle and a few dollars credit at the mercantile in town.

A good supply of coffee, whiskey and tobacco was packed away for the coming ride. Plans were made and remade near the stove over coffee by morning and whiskey by night.

One morning as Morgan warmed by the stove, the boy led their horses up to the bunkhouse having rolled their blankets and fastened their belongings behind the saddles.

Morgan looked back at the cozy little cabin as the miles grew that morning, he knew they could never come back to the way things had been. He loved the boy and didn't want to see anything happen to him, but there was no way to stop this train now and he knew it.

Crossing Texas like a deadly twister, the pair hit a bank in Lubbock and made their getaway in the direction of Albuquerque, with the latter being on the receiving end of another gunfight. Phoenix and San Diego both fell victim before Morgan and the boy headed north for a little rest. By that time Morgan was spent from hard use. A little river town provided the shack were the pair of outlaws could lay-low for a time and try to heal.

A country doctor confirmed the earlier diagnosis of consumption, Morgan and the boy remained holed-up trying to sort the future.

Outside of the lonely shack, a vicious cold wind was dying down. Full and bright in a cloudless sky a winter moon watched from afar.

Morgan reached over for the revolver on the table. Now here was something that felt good in his hand, cold and well made the Colt brought a sense of peace. He reached over to turn down the lamp it no longer provided comfort. Dull and lifeless his eyes could no longer see, maybe they didn't want to see anymore. Blind now from the whiskey and the cancer ravaging his worn body Morgan gasped for breath, his chest rising and falling in great convulsions.

"Now Lord," Morgan coughed, "I know that you and I haven't seen eye to eye on most everything." He stopped to cough and spit again before continuing, "But don't hold it against the boy. He couldn't help the circumstances that found him." Blood trickled from the corner of Morgan's mouth as tears began to flow down his weather burned cheeks.

Taking in the feel of the Colt in his hand, Morgan said in a tired voice, "Lord, see to it that the boy finds his home in Coffey County before the weather turns bad out on the plains. I loved that boy more than anything in this miserable life that I was given."

* * *

Outside under a bright moon, the boy urged his mount onward. One shot rang out ahead from the rundown shack. Echoing in the cold night air, the sound swirled around and around as tears of pain began to flow unabated. Looking over his shoulder, intermittent flashes from the doctor's buggy were following close behind.

Dismounting at a full run, the boy pushed back the door and fumbled with a Lucifer to light a lamp on the table. Sulfur from the match stung swollen eyes as the young man, no longer a boy, knelt by the bed taking the hand of the only father he had known. Smells of piss, cheap whiskey and stale tobacco smoke overwhelmed the senses.

With Angels gathering about the somber scene, words struggled to trembling lips, "I love you father."

Words Mont Morgan had waited a lifetime to hear.

The End

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Betrayal, Part 2 of 2
by Jesse J Elliot

Iragene and Cassie were riding to town when Cassie stopped suddenly on the trail. "What is it?" Iragene called out. "Something the matter?"

"I'm having an odd feeling, Iragene. Something is wrong, I know it."

"Are you sure? What makes you think so?" This wasn't the first time Cassie had a premonition, and she was usually right. "What is it? What do you think is happening?" Iragene asked and waited.

Cassie closed her eyes and remembered a dream she had last night of horses. The vision came back to her again. "Iragene, I think something is wrong. In my dream I remember seeing horses running wild in a blowing storm, but I don't see any riders."

"Are you sure? Should we take that dream literally, Cassie?"

"I don't know what to think, but I'm concerned."

"If you feel that strongly that something is wrong, let's turn around and go back home to see what's happening with the horses."

"Thanks," Cassie responded, relieved that Iragene respected her feelings. Like many of the healers and curanderas, Cassie had the ability to sense when things were not all right. Both women turned around in the trail and began to ride back to their ranch. The promise of the sunny day was quickly disappearing as an unexpected, early winter storm was beginning to build. By the time they got back to the ranch, sleet was falling on the two women, and they were relieved to be home and not on the trail.

Daniel who had been waiting for his horses ran out to greet them. "What's the matter?" he asked.

"Cassie had a vision of horses lost in a blizzard without riders. She felt it was better if we got home, and I'm glad we did. The weather sure changed quickly."

Both women scrambled off their horses and pulled them into the stable. Cassie looked around and asked, "Where are the other horses? They should have been here by now." She paused and then realized that her vision was not off the mark. "I'm hoping those horses are in better shape than they were in my dream. I'm worried about Bobby and Alonzo and the men."

"I am too, but there's nothing we can do now. Go into the house and warm up. I'll tend to the horses. When I'm done, I'm going out to find Bobby and the herd. I've been plumb worried, and I didn't even have any visions," Daniel said.

"I'm going to change, and I'm going with you, Daniel. Remember, I'm the sheriff, and you may need me." Daniel turned and looked down at his sister. His frown turned to a smile, and he reassured her that he'd wait.

He began to care for the two wet horses in the barn. As the women headed toward the open barn door, they saw a strange caravan of apparitions coming out of the whirling whiteness of the storm. Men and horses and five shivering foals following their mothers, every so often trying to get a drink of milk or falling in the effort.

Daniel saw them too. "What the . . . ? Bobby is that you? Doc? Tim, Angus, Tootsie, Silas, and Russ? Damn I'm glad to see you all. Come in, come in," and he held the door to the stable open for them. "What in the dickens happened to all the horses, including yours?" he paused, almost embarrassed at his questions. "Well, questions can wait. We have some extra clothes in the bunkhouse, and I'll have some hot food for you all." It was only then that Daniel, Iragene, and Cassie saw the bloodied faces and bruises.

"Oh my God, what happened to you all? Bobby?" Cassie gasped. "I'll run and get my medicine basket."

Iragene walked up to the seven men to find out what happened while Daniel worked on the cold, wet horses, trying to save the mares and their foals. Cassie reappeared with her medicines and bandages. She chose Russ, the youngest and the most needy to work on first.

"Bobby," Iragene asked, "where's Alonzo?"

"That sonafabitch is the one behind all this! While cozying up in your home, his buddies were beating up your men and stealing your horses. That goddamn bastard was the one who shot me, left me hog-tied, and stole my horse. I'll kill him!"

"Bobby, are you sure there's not some mistake? Are you sure Alonzo wasn't forced to be a part of this?" Iragene was only fishing. She pretty much believed Bobby about his so-called best friend, but she had to be sure. No one would ever have guessed that Alonzo was capable of turning into a rustler, shooting his best friend, and stealing Bobby's horse.

Killing someone for stealing a horse was justifiable homicide in many Western counties, but not in El Brazo, so she wanted to make sure Bobby turned the job of catching the rustlers over to the sheriff—to her.

"Damn," she said and then looked around surreptitiously, hoping none of the men had heard her, but they all had. "I wish I had Cruz here. He could track those horses through any country and any weather. The only good thing is, the weather that's keeping us put is keeping those horses put."

While Cassie and then Pru worked at cleaning wounds and bandaging the men, Iragene went around and asked each man what happened and if they had overhead anything that would suggest where the rustlers were taking the horses.

Their stories were similar. After Bobby and Alonzo left camp, the other six men turned on the Austin ranch hands. Their actions caught them completely off-guard; they hadn't even a clue that these men were rustlers until they turned on them; they had played their parts so well.

Tootsie, an older bewhiskered man who was the cook, spoke after Bobby. "I swear, Miss Jones, those bushwackers caught us all by surprise. They got the drop on us 'fore we knowed what were happening! I'm so sorry 'bout your horses. Damn that Alonzo anyway (pardon me, Ma'am), but he's the worse rattlesnake of all. Me 'n Bobby 'n the boys thought he was one of us. We still can't believe that bast . . . uh owlhoot shot Bobby and left us to die."

"Tootsie, I'm sorry you all got beat up. We'll get by without the horses, but we couldn't get by without you men," Daniel interrupted as he entered the barn. He had just finished up with the mares and their fouls. "Hey, we've already got two new colts and three very pretty fillies. Worse comes to worse, we can start over."

"Oh, no! There ain't gonna be no starting over, because I'm going after those sonafabitches and kill them all. I'll especially take my time with Alonzo. You'll get your horses back all right!" Bobby spit out angrily.

Iragene turned to him, "We might, but not the way you want to go about it, Bobby. I'm not going to let you kill anyone and end up in jail for it, let alone possibly hang. We'll do it right. I'll deputize you, and we'll let that arm heal a bit. Besides, no one is moving cattle in this blizzard. "

Daniel left and heated the bunkhouse. He helped the men who couldn't maneuver themselves over there and promised some warm food in the next hour. "Thanks, Mr. Jones," said Silas a wizened old cowboy who had known Daniel's father. "You know, me and the men decided while we was walking here that you don't need to pay us nothin'. We sorta let ya'll down, losin' your horses. Hell (pardon, Ma'am), we'll understand iffen ya'll don't even want us here."

Daniel looked at the men. "I need you here. If we can't get those quarter horses back, we're going to have to go after those mustangs and start from scratch. I'll need every one of you. As for pay, hell, you boys earned every dime. You delivered ten good horses, and we'll get more." He looked up, "Ahh, here's the missus with Cassie and the food. I'll get the coffee."

The men were relieved though still feeling guilty about letting the rustlers get the drop on them. But they enjoyed the ham, the calabasitas, and the fresh bread. The men were in good enough shape to eat, and the food and hot coffee did wonders. A few finished up their meals and had a smoke or two while the others called it a day and went to sleep. Adelaide and Iragene cleaned up while Pru and Daniel put the baby to bed. Cassie made a final round of her patients.

Outside the wind and occasional sleet continued. Through all this, a lone horseman rode onto the Rancho Tecolote. He and his horse were half frozen, but they plodded on until they came to the front door of the main house. Daniel heard the horse's neigh and began to run out into the cold, but as an afterthought, he first grabbed his rifle.

The storm was really blowing, and Daniel could barely identify the rider. He looked closer, "Cruz, what the hell are you doing out on a night like this?"

Cruz, Iragene's deputy was a small man who could take on men twice his size. He spoke several languages, and he was dedicated to Iragene since she lost her fiancé, Alejandro Gallegos. Cruz had made a promise at Alejandro's grave that he would watch over Iragene. He kept his word, and he became her deputy when she became sheriff.

"Señor Daniel, Señorita Iragene did not return to town, and I was afraid she had gotten lost in the blizzard. Is she all right?" he tried to sound professional, but his feelings towards Iragene were known by everyone.

Daniel quickly reassured him, "Cruz, she's all right. Come in and warm up. I'll take care of your horse. Once you're warm, we'll explain everything!" Daniel went off, and Cruz entered the house. Iragene was talking to Adelaide by the sink when she turned around and saw the shivering young man.

"Oh my God, Cruz! You came out in this weather to look for me! If something had happened to you, I never would have forgiven myself!" She ran over to him, made him take off his wet coat and stand by the fire. Adelaide brought over a cup of coffee and then went back to the kitchen to prepare a plate of food for him."

"I'm fine," he chattered, "I knew there was a good chance you would have turned around when the storm hit, but I had to be sure."

"She put a wool wrap around him. "As soon as you're back to room temperature, we'll tell you everything that happened today." Cruz looked around the room and saw a large stranger asleep on the sofa, hanging half off on the ground. He looked a little like Iragene, same curly, reddish brown hair and coloring. He wondered if he had her sapphire blue eyes—Cousin Bobby.

"Will our talking wake him?" he whispered.

"No, don't worry," she continued in her regular voice, "he's had enough whiskey and laudanum to knock out a buffalo," Iragene chuckled. She looked at the question in his face, and figured he was warm enough to sit down and eat. Then she would retell the events of the day.

"Come on over to the table. Some nice hot food should help you thaw." They walked over to the table, and Adelaide brought a hot plate of food to him. She warmed his coffee and then removed herself to the kitchen to finish cleaning up after the seven new guests. Iragene started at the beginning of the day when she and Cassie set out for La Madera, and Daniel waited for the horses and his hired hands. She told Cruz about the double cross by Alonzo and the condition of the men from Austin who refused to go along with the plan to take the horses and sell them. She then told him how Alonzo turned and shot Bobby.

Iragene continued and even told him about Cassie's dream and their decision to turn around and come back to Rancho Tecolote. Through all this, Cruz said nothing. Then he sat for a moment, thinking and finally asked where the rustlers were camped yesterday and where did they said they were heading.

"Las Vegas," Iragene said, "Bobby said Alonzo told them they were heading for Las Vegas [New Mexico]. Their last camp was twenty-five miles east of the ranch."

"Señorita Jones, Las Vegas is more wicked than Dodge City. That town is the worse of the worst. The only way we can get those horses back is to catch them before they get to Las Vegas. Some of those passes can get bogged down in snow, so I'm hoping we'll be able to catch up with them."

"But we'll have the same problem, won't we?" she asked.

"Probably, but we won't be tied down feeding and caring for a hundred horses in the snow. We'll be able to make better time than they will," he concluded with a reassuring certainty.

"Fine, we leave at first light tomorrow, snow or no snow," she said. "I second that," added her half lucid cousin sprawled on the sofa. They all looked over to Bobby. He was already back to sleep, but they had little doubt that he would be up tomorrow morning and ready to go.

Sure enough, while Cassie packed enough food to hold them for about three days, Bobby came back into the house, dressed and ready to ride. He was wearing some of Daniel's warmer clothes, including some rabbit hide gloves with the fur on the inside. Tim was the only Austin men in any shape to ride, so the posse of four rode out. Daniel was to stay back and take care of the newly arrived mares and fouls until the five men were on their feet. Cruz was in the lead with Iragene, riding side by side with Bobby and Tim behind him. Cruz figured that the rustlers would have taken the shortest route, not realizing that they were heading into an early snowstorm.

The snow had stopped falling temporarily, but the New Mexico sun that normally burned away the snow was itself buried under heavy gray clouds. Though no wind blew, the temperature continued to stay well below freezing. The four horses and pack mule blew out steam with their breath as did their riders. They were all cold and silent as they headed southeast to avoid the saltflats.

After a day of riding that usually took only hours, the wind began to pick up again. They were all relieved when Cruz pointed to a small cabin that had smoke coming out of its chimney. "My friends live here." Cruz turned to the two cousins, "Let me tell Carlos y Rosa who you are. They'll open their home to you. They're too proud to accept anything in exchange, but I know they would love some of your ham, if that is all right?"

Iragene nodded, and they proceeded to the building. Cruz knocked and entered, speaking the entire time in a soft, rhythmic Spanish typical to New Mexico. After a moment, he signaled to the others. They entered the home, Iragene bringing in the oilcloth that contained the ham. Carlos, a thin older man, shyly greeted them and left the room to go outside. Rosa said something to Cruz, and he turned to translate.

"Carlos will take care of your horses, and Rosa says to warm up by the fire. She has some beans and tortillas that you can eat."

"Will you ask her about the ham? We can add some to the beans and then leave the rest of it for them tomorrow," she suggested.

Rosa agreed, and took the ham, slicing and dicing it to add to the hot beans. By the time Carlos came in, the smell of smoked pork was in his home. His eyes twinkled as he looked over to Iragene and acknowledged her gift. Through all of this exchange, Bobby said and did nothing.

Iragene was surprised at his silence, but then remembered his best friend betrayed him. Bobby hadn't gone into details why Alonzo turned against him, but no matter what it was, it must have hurt Bobby badly. Tim too was quiet, but then he always was.

Cruz and the couple were talking about the horses now. Iragene was able to follow the conversation a little. Bobby probably could have understood too if he was listening, but Iragene wasn't sure where his mind was.

Cruz turned to Iragene. "Sheriff, Carlos told me that he was out looking for some stray sheep just before the storm broke. He said he saw your horses, but they were cutting too far north too soon. They were headed right to the salt flats. In this weather, with the blowing wind, the horsemen are probably blinded by the alkaline salt."

"The horses would probably not be too happy either, but their lashes would be better protection. Too bad we can't protect our own eyes and go after them now," Bobby muttered.

"It's only late October. I can't imagine this storm lasting another day. Can we stay here tonight and head out tomorrow, Cruz? Can you ask the couple?" she wondered, hearing the wind blowing again and the occasional sound of hail on the shutters.

"The Vigils insist that you stay. They even offered you their bed, Sheriff! I politely declined for you."

Before she could thank the couple, Bobby yelled, out, "Hey, I'll take the bed." His cousin and her deputy each gave a disgusted grunt. "Hell, I was only joshing, Iragene."

The visitors all got their blankets and rolled them onto the sheep skins covering the couple's floor. By moving back the table, they just fit. Iragene slept by the door. Carlos banked the fireplace and went into his corner room, and they all fell asleep even though it was early by everyone's standards.

* * *

The next day bright rays of sun were sieving through the cracks and holes in the shutters. They all awoke to the smell of freshly cooked tortillas and went out to freshen up. The day was cold, but the southwest sun promised to take the chill out of the air. The snow and hail, so visible last night were no more than memories.

The posse ate their breakfast, and Iragene left the additional cut of ham. They thanked their hosts and left, heading straight for the flats, hoping the weather had caused enough damage to stall the rustlers.

The four rode directly north and arrived at a small bluff overlooking the salt flats about noon. The sun was up, and the weather was finally comfortable. However, from the appearance of the chaos below them, the rustlers hadn't had such an easy night. Apparently some of the mares got separated, and some of the young stallions took advantage of their departure to join them, ignoring the frustrated riders who must have gotten little sleep for the past two nights.

Six riders could be seen trying to herd the horses together away from the flats. The horses were probably thirsty after the salty storm and lack of drinkable water. They weren't any happier than their handlers. "Weren't there seven men? Six rustlers and Alonzo?" Iragene asked.

"Maybe someone is off somewhere, looking for strays?" Bobby volunteered.

Iragene continued to watch and then turned toward the men. "Let them round up the horses. They can do the work for us. We can wait until they get closer, and then I'll go down and tell them to surrender. If they don't, there's four of us, and we'll just do what we have to do. Cruz, you're best with the rifle, how about finding a good hiding place halfway up the bluff with Tim? You'll be covering us. Bobby, you're with me.

"You know I don't like to take orders from a woman, Iragene, but jes' this once," he quickly added as he saw her hand go down to her holster. They took up their positions and watched the rustlers do their work for them, even going so far as to pull out cheese and jerky and eat.

* * *

Bobby interrupted Iragene's observations. "I've been watching these guys. I don't think I see Alonzo or my horse. Wonder where he is."

"Forget Alonzo for now. You and Tim spent time with these men. Got any ideas who would be in charge here?" Bobby shook his head.

"I do," Tim answered, "it's Salazar, the large man on the black. His boss owns a saloon in Las Vegas. Apparently the boss man, Silva, has been robbing and murdering for years, but he's been so good to the locals that they turned a blind eye to him." Iragene was about to comment when Cruz interrupted.

"Sheriff, the herd is coming closer. Maybe, we better get into place?"

"Right. And I want to be the one to put a bullet through Alonzo's head!" Bobby jumped up and shouted.

"Quiet, Bobby, or we'll be the ones with bullets in our heads," Iragene shot him a look that quieted him.

As the six men began to round up the strays and headed closer to the bluff where Iragene and Bobby stood sheltered behind some rocks, Iragene could see their clothes were haggard and probably still wet. She hoped this would make the men more agreeable to turning themselves in, but in reality she prepared herself for a fight. She stepped out and pointed her rifle directly at Salazar. Bobby stepped next to her and did the same.

"Stop where you are! I'm Sheriff Iragene Jones, and I won't shoot if you take off your holsters and drop them. We have all of you covered, so don't try anything stupid." The lead horsemen looked up and her and started to chuckle, "Huh, Alonzo said the sheriff's a women. Don't do nothin', men, we can take her and Bobby on." His foolish grin disappeared as Iragene took aim and shot off his hat.

"I said drop those guns! I've got men on the bluff. You're all covered. The next time I'll shoot to kill!" she shouted. Just as she finished, a loud blast from the top of the bluff sounded, and a man in the rear of the herd bent over, dropped his rifle, and fell off his horse. Cruz shot the man as he had pulled up his rifle to shoot Iragene. She and Bobby shot at the same time, and two men on each side of the herd fell. Now the horses began to panic and run in every direction.

Salazar and another man tried to get themselves into a more defensive position, but they were too exposed. They continued shooting, but shooting from a moving horse amidst a herd of panicking horses wasn't the same as being stationary and being semi-sheltered by a rock. When they saw Iragene and Bobby weren't hit, neither of the rustlers looked interested in rounding up the horses or facing the law. They both turned their horses to go, but two shots rang out, one from Iragene, and one from Bobby. Both men were shot from their horses.

Cruz took a few moments to climb down the bluff. Though still above her, she could hear him without shouting. "Sheriff, I've got you covered if you want to check the men," Cruz shouted. "Thanks, Cruz," she responded as she and Bobby quickly climbed down to the flats, empty now except for the six prostrate men.

She and Bobby walked among the fallen rustlers. Four were dead, and one was barely alive. Though Iragene hadn't shot to kill, the panicking horses had done their damage with their shoed hoofs and weight. Just as she neared the sixth man down, she saw a slight movement of the man's left hand, reaching slowly for his downed pistol. "I wouldn't if I were you," she barely finished saying when he made a quick grab for his gun. Immediately, she and Cruz both put a bullet in him. Her bullet went into his head, and his went into the man's spinal cord—both bullets deadly.

Bobby looked with renewed interest at his cousin. "Iragene, Ah need to apologize to you. Little cousin, you really do know your job," and he patted her on the back.

Iragene ignored Bobby and looked over at Cruz who was coming down the bluff, Tim behind him leading their horses. "We have wanted posters on these four men," she said pointing. "I don't doubt the other two are also wanted."

"What are they wanted for?" asked Bobby.

"Would you believe rustling and murder?" she answered.

"I'll round up the rustlers' horses, and tomorrow I'll take the bodies into town," Cruz said and looked out at the plains before him. "Sheriff, I see three riders coming. I'm not sure, but I think one of them is your brother."

Sure enough, Daniel, Silas, and Tootsie came riding up. One of them was leading a horse with them. Iragene and her two deputies watched as the riders came closer.

"We thought you might need some help, ma'am," Silas said with wonder in his voice as he looked around at the six, "but I see ya'll have everything under control."

"I said she'd need some help with the horses, Silas, not with the rustlers," Daniel said grinning. "I knew she could handle them," he chuckled.

"How did you find us?" Iragene asked.

"I remembered Cruz mentioning the Vigils once. We checked with them," Daniel responded.

Bobby walked forward and grabbed the extra horse. "My horse! Where'd you find him? Was that sonafabitch Alonzo riding him? Did you shoot him?"

"Bobby, we found your horse, but we didn't find Alonzo." Daniel said.

"Where was Rebel?"

"Five miles due west of the camp where you found us," Tootsie replied. "He was just grazing, relaxed and content." He looked up and saw Bobby on the horse. "Bobby, where ya goin'?"

" I'm going to get that double crossing bastard. I'll be back when I find Alonzo and not before," and he took off.

As Bobby rode away, everyone else started rounding up the horses and the bodies.

Not wanting to waste a minute, Bobby ate while he rode. Hoping that his horse had had time to rest, he pushed him to his limits. He arrived at the last camp and looked around. Sure enough, Bobby recognized Alonzo's boot prints and horseshoe prints. Why the hell did he come back here?

Bobby got on his horse, and followed the horse's trail easily in the soft soil from the melted snow. Anger, hatred, and betrayal spurred him on. Huh? The sonafabitch was headed back to the Jones property. "Damn," he said, and he quickened his pace, knowing that only the two women were there.

Finally ahead of him he saw Alonzo. He realized that the man was hurt, but he didn't care. Alonzo was wobbling and barely able to stay in the saddle. "Alonzo, you bastard, I've got you covered," Bobby shouted, "and I'm not going to shoot you in the arm, I'm going to shoot you through the heart!"

Alonzo turned and panic was written all over his face. "Don't shoot, Bobby, I'm already hit. You were right, those bastards did turn on me."

"You think I care? If you're dying, I want to be the one who puts the final bullet in you." Alonzo looked once more at his former friend and then kicked his horse to go faster, but his horse tripped slightly. Normally Alonzo would have righted himself, but this time he fell to the ground, his head striking a piece of granite. When Bobby rode up to where he had fallen, he saw Alonzo had been shot several times, and now with the fall from his horse, his head was bleeding profusely. He was dead. Bobby thought about putting a slug in his heart, but he decided it wasn't worth a bullet.

Bobby callously threw Alonzo's body across the horse, tied him down, and took him to the Joneses'. He entered the property only to find both women there with their rifles. Normally he would have laughed, but not today. Cassie and Pru put their guns down when they saw Bobby with the body of his former friend.

Cassie ran out to examine Alonzo. "Oh, Bobby, I am so sorry about the death of your friend," Cassie gasped as she saw the injuries.

"Sorry? Why? If that bastard wasn't already dead, I would have killed him myself," he said indifferently and led Rebel and the other horse into the stables.

* * *

A few days later, most of the horses were again eating the Joneses' food and grass. Daniel had the men working with the herd. He had sent word to town with Cruz and was waiting for the arrival of the army to purchase them.

Iragene was back in her office in town. She and Cassie had ridden in to town on horseback while Cruz drove the wagon with the seven bodies in it. He had dropped the bodies off at the mortician, and Boot Hill would soon have seven new occupants. Iragene was busy doing the paper work to pay the mortician, and Cassie was with Dr. Stein, sharing medical procedures.

Suddenly, Iragene heard several loud whoops and stood up to see Bobby walking past her office with a girl from Mrs. Brown's establishment on each arm. She shook her head knowing things would be a little livelier with cousin Bobby in town.

The End

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The Amazing Demise of Old Jerry
by Robert Cameron

I heard you boys wondering about Old Jerry and whatever happened to him. That was a big mystery awhile back, and still is, about his mysterious disappearance, and nothing ever found of him. Well, I happen to know the truth about that, and I guarantee you won't believe it, but it's true; I was there. And I'll tell you something else—it was the most amazing thing I have ever seen. Just unbelievable. If yall'd care to hear the tale? And if you could spare a splash of that whiskey, friend . . . thank you very much.

This was back in ought-six. We was up at deer camp, the one by Killair Lake, by Coyote Ridge. Jimmy and Georgie—remember them two doorknobs?—were there, supposed to be helping take care of the camp. And Old Jerry was there too, just for hangin' around, cookin' and whatnot. Enjoying life—he loved the camp, loved having people up there, but loved being alone, too, got old-man snarly sometimes and everybody knew to leave him be. You'll recall there was a lot of speculation about somebody maybe killed him for his loot—he owned quite the spread in the old days, ran cattle on it, but he was retired by then—or if he just lit out, went off lookin' for his lost youth or whatever. Or couldn't stand his shitty kids and just had to get away from them and left all his money for them to squabble over. Nobody knew, but there was this speculation.

So we were sitting by the fire, and Old Jerry had a pot of stew going—what was it, rabbit or something? We didn't have any deer yet, being as we'd just arrived. And Old Jerry didn't hunt no more, having that thing with his shoulder. He was getting on, getting a little wobbly—if he shot a rifle the kick'd probably knocked him over. And plus he had this seriously rotten tooth, just driving him crazy, and he said it was so painful he couldn't hardly see, his vision was all blurry from it. I believe it too, 'cause his breath? My God. Gag a maggot. Smelled like something crawled in his mouth and died, and he forgot to pull it out. But more about that later.

So we's sitting there, waiting on the stew, and Jimmy and Georgie start yarlin' away at each other, you know how they got. Been brawling since the cradle, those two. They start cussin' and bitchin' at each other about some goddam thing. It was about that gal, what was her name? Shawna? Sheila? I don't remember. She was from town, worked in the tannery. Always looked like she was wearing gloves, but really wasn't. Sherry, that was her name. Georgie and Jimmy were both sweet on her. Frankly I never quite understood the attraction. She wasn't much to look at—about as wide as she was tall in her boots, and a face looked like she fell out of a ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.

But who cares. Don't matter what she looked like—the important point is: She put out. Hence the conflict.

Anyways, Jimmy and Georgie. They start calling each other names, all "You basterd," and "No, you're a basterd!" and like "Screw you and your mother, basterd!" Blah blah blah, on and on. Just epithets, didn't mean nothing. But it just sounded extra stupid, them being brothers.

So it's basterd this and basterd that, blah blah bloody blah. I'm getting annoyed at their bullshit, and so I pipe up, in my very clever "keeping the peace" kind of way, "So, sounds like yuz both a couple of basterds! Haw haw." And well, that was maybe not the best thing to say in that situation, because they both stand up and turn on me, all "Don't you talk to my brother that way!" and I'm all, "Gosh golly, take it easy . . . basterds." I thought this was pretty funny, but maybe my timing was off, thinking back.

Anyways. Now things start excalatin'. They'se mad as shit, spittin' like a couple of farm cats, and they start coming at me, ready to whup my ass. But see, I'm packin', so I pull my gun. And I point it at them, and I'm all, in my Wild West voice, "Which one a you basterds wants to die first?" Again, I thought it was hilarious. And it was. But not to them so much.

So Jimmy says to me, "You're gonna die, basterd!" and I says,"Wait a minute, I thought he was the basterd!" and Georgie's all, "That ain't me, that's him!" and Jimmy's all, "Shut up, basterd!" And it was just so stupid that I start laughing and I let my guard down, and they's so stinkin' mad they draw their own weapons! (Cause they're packing too, see.) Georgie's just fumin', all red like a beet; he points his gun at Jimmy, ready to settle this old matter once and for all, and meanwhile Jimmy's already drawn on me, not realizing the situation, thinking they was drawing on the common enemy, which was me, and I, I guess just needing something to aim at, point my piece at Georgie.

So there we were—classic Mexican standoff. Georgie's got a bead on Jimmy, Jimmy's got a bead on me, and I got me a bead on Georgie's right ear, ready to shoot it off his damfool head—just give me an excuse.

Well this kind of situation can last awhile. You just stand there, pointing your weapon, because the first one to shoot is also guaranteed to die, that's how it works. Cause if Georgie shoots Jimmy, I shoot Georgie, not wanting to take the second bullet, so to speak. If Jimmy shoots me, then Georgie shoots him, same idea. And so on. So there we stood, tied up in this knot of guns and fear and pride.

So we're all tensed up, waitin' for someone to make a move, eyes eyeballing trigger fingers, muzzles tremblin'. Squintin'. Sweatin'. Adam apples luggin'. Dust. Fear. Old Jerry is there stock still, watchin', and he lets out a breath, like as halfway between a sigh and a whistle, and we all relax a little, but not too much.

He was no fool, Old Jerry. Not like us. And Georgie wasn't quite as stupid as Jimmy, and I was not quite as stupid as the both of them. But we was all three of us proud. And we was cornered, three-ways. So the guns stayed up, waitin'. Out the corner of my eye, I could see the corner of Jimmy's eye, and he's lookin' at me, lookin' at him.

Jimmy was young, and also stupid, and he didn't know even the basics of how this situation works, and at this rate he wasn't gonna live long enough to learn. He must've figured, Ooh, I got the bigger gun, I'm the bigger man. But actually? He had the dis-advantage—he wasn't quite as built as the other two of us, me and Georgie. Also his gun, an old long-barrel Peacemaker—I used to shoot that gun, and I remember how it was a great gun, shot real straight, could really knock stuff down. But it was a heavy mother. Pointing it was like holding a brick at arm's length—not something you want to do for a long time. Just point it and shoot it, then put it away. Don't hold it out like you're a big hero or something. You can hold it at your hip, of course, that's easier but not so accurate. Not that it would matter at that range. But Jimmy didn't think of that, him being young and also stupid, as I said before, and by then it was too late for that kind of thinking, with the tension and all. Me and Georgie had brought lighter weapons, just for plinkin' and whatnot. And plus, we had nothing to prove.

So Jimmy's arm's starting to tremble, and the Peacemaker is starting to wobble down and up and here and there, all over hell's half acre. And Old Jerry, he's standing behind Georgie, see, opposite Jimmy. Old Jerry was pretty old—hence the name—and his eyes didn't work so good no more, all rheumy, and his bad tooth was making them water even worse, but still, he could see a dis-advantageous line of fire when he saw one, and with Jimmy's piece all wobbly, I guess he got nervous and figured he should get out of the way. Out of the line of fire. And so he starts to move, ever so slow, so's not to startle the situation.

But he's looking up, at all the guns, not down at where he's steppin', and he steps on this stick or something, and it cracks out like a rifle shot, and he's startled, and his knee buckles, and he falls flat on his face! Clamps down on his sore tooth and lets out this shout, all "Ah, Jesus flapjackin' Christ!" and then as he's falling he kinda lashes out with his foot and kicks Georgie in the leg, and Georgie, his back is turned to all this, and I guess he got startled, and he jumps and just by accident lets off a round. It hits Jimmy in the chest, knocks him on his ass.

Then Georgie's all agag, mouth's gapin', like "Oh mah gawd, I jes' kilt my brather," and starts to turn on me, but hesitatin' slow, and I figure I'm dead if I don't do something, so I fire off a round too, just in his direction, just to warn him off like, and a-Whoops! I hit him, but just graze him. And Jimmy, just in his whatchamacall, his death throes, lifts the Peacemaker and BLAM! Shoots it right at me! Point-blank almost! But he misses! And then he falls back down in the dirt.

And Georgie, like I said I just grazed him, but I guess I must've grazed something important, 'cause he goes down, spurting all over the place. So it's curtains for them two, and their damfool bitching. In case you were wondering what happened to them, which maybe you weren't, they was such a pain in the ass. Good riddance.

But anyways, that ain't the amazing part. This is the amazing part:

So Jimmy's round misses me, like I said, but real close—I could feel the wind comin' off of it—and continues on past me. And get this, ok?: It goes on past me, hits the stewpot, and then ricochets off a rock in the fire pit and hits Old Jerry! Drills him in the face! And get this too: the bullet hits him right in his bad tooth! Knocks it right out of his head!

I mean, My God. It was the darnedest thing I ever saw. It was dentistry by bullet. I mean, God-dam! Shee-it! A-mazin'! Hah! Don't you boys agree? Guess not. Anyways . . . 

 . . . What's that? And then? Oh, what happened then? Well I'll tell you. If you would top up my glass . . . Thank you very much.

Well then the bullet, Jimmy's bullet, continues on its merry way, into Old Jerry, and blows the back of his head off. And then . . . then this silence descends upon the scene. I'm in a crouch, lookin' out for the next danger, and also in shock a bit, as you might expect, but I come out of it, and I stand up and pat myself down, checking for holes—extra holes, I mean—and finally I realize: Huh, looks like I dodged a bullet! Then I look around, and everybody's dead. Old Jerry's lyin' there, brains splattered all over, and Georgie'd stopped spurting, and Jimmy's there all bled out with his tongue sticking out like a flamin' idiot. Everybody deader'n doornails. Everything smelling like blood and gunsmoke, and weapons and brains and whatnot lying all over.

Then I sat me down and thought about what I should do. The stew was leaking into the fire from the bullet hole, which seemed wasteful, so I ate some, brought the level down so it didn't leak no more.

So I'm thinkin' what should I do? About all these dead guys. I could toss em in the lake, but I didn't want to poison the fish. There was good fish in the lake in those days. Cutthroat trout, big ones. Fine eating. Old Jerry used to fry em up in his special way, and dang, they was second to none. And plus, there was no guarantee they wouldn't just float around til somebody found them. The bodies, I mean.

Or I could bury 'em, but I wasn't in a mood for digging, and what about the next hunters that come up? They'll think, "Wull whaddaya know, fresh graves, and look, bullet holes in the dead guys." And then maybe put two and two together, which could equal me. So no. Or I could head back down the mountain and tell the po-lice, but the heck with that—they'd think I did it. Cause like I said, the story is unbelievable.

So I'm sitting there by the lake, belly full of stew—dang, Old Jerry could do up a stew, had some special spices in there, I wonder what they were—and this sweet breeze is coming off the lake, and I'm thinking Dang, life is good, let's think this through, let's not mess this up. And with the breeze comes drifting over some "yip yip yips", and I think huh, coyotes. And then some answering yips, pretty close, by the sound of them. Well sure, I thought, Coyote Ridge, must be a lot of em around here, hence the name. Guess they must probably come into camp pretty often, too, all hungry, looking for grub. Lookin' for leavin's. Guess it wouldn't matter what kind—what species, like. Human, anything. At any rate, they's awful thorough, in my experience—I seen coyotes finish off a moose overnight, nothin' left but antlers and hoofs. And then them gone too, soon enough.

And then I realize: So actually? All these dead guys? Not my problem. Not nobody's problem. They got no problems themselves no more, being dead. And I reckon, this is more of a opportunity, for the coyotes, anyway. And me, with my situation.

So I drug the dead guys into the bush a ways away from the camp, finished the stew and went to bed. Went fishing in the morning, caught some of them cutthroats, did 'em up for lunch. Then I saddled up and lit out for higher ground, took the long way home.

And that's how Old Jerry met his end. Like I said, pretty amazing, with the tooth and all.

 . . . What's that? Tell? You're gonna tell? Why heck, you go ahead, friend. You can tell whoever you like, whatever you like. 'Cause the truth is, I been lying from the beginning of this tale.

Far as you know. Thanks for the whiskey.

The End

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Hell Found Me
by Jim Pickens

Hell found me. That thought was running around my head as I lay in a small gully on the Mexican border with part of an Apache arrow sticking out of my leg, listening to the screams of four of my fellow troopers being tortured about 100 yards away.

Earlier that day, the five of us were looking for a break in the telegraph line between Lordsburg and Gila Bend, when we were ambushed by twelve Apaches who had left the reservation at San Carlos. The fort wasn't aware of the breakout, since the wire had been cut the previous night, so we weren't being especially cautious about the possibility of an ambush. There had not been any Apache trouble in weeks.

Our first warning of the attack from the surrounding rocks was when I got an arrow in my leg, as we rode around a bend in the trail. We galloped away, trying to reach the rocks at the end of the dry wash, not knowing there were six more Indians in those rocks. I fell off my horse, and scrambled into a bush just before the attacking Indians came into sight, chasing my fellow troopers. Half the arrow has broken off when I fell. The remaining Apaches were waiting about 200 yards down the draw, and captured the other four troopers. As yet, they hadn't seen me, but as soon as they saw a fifth horse, they would come looking.

I had crawled over some sharp rocks for about fifteen feet to a juniper bush, hurting every bone in my body, but I knew that wasn't a sufficient hiding place, and I frantically looked for a better place to conceal myself. About fifty feet away was a large stand of buffalo grass about two feet high, but I knew that if went directly there, I would leave a trail a blind Apache grandmother could follow. I had to stay on the sharp rocks. I figured I had about five or six minutes to get hidden before they saw me, so I crawled across the rocks around the grass, dragging my wounded leg behind me. I tried my best not to leave any blood drops that they would see.

As I crawled into the edge of the grass from the side of the field, I noticed a small wash, caused by the runoff from some of the annual flash floods. I crawled into the almost invisible wash, hoping to get far enough to be hidden by the buffalo grass growing on the flat ground. Luckily, I was completely hidden after I had gone about thirty feet up the shallow ditch. I could hear three or four Apaches riding back up the wash to find the owner of the fifth horse. I was afraid to move, lest one of them would see the grass move. I waited, hardly breathing, for three hours, until dark, while four Apaches walked within twenty feet of my shallow ditch, scouring the area for me. They finally decided I was in the rocks, and moved about a hundred yards away. That's when I started to hear the screams. They searched about thirty minutes, and went back to join in the fun.

As the wind shifted, I began to smell the burning flesh. I knew that if they found me, I would join the others in Hell before I died a horrible death. I had to ignore the pain in my leg and wait quietly, completely still, until they left, but I had no idea when that would be. I began to hear an occasional rattle from a snake's tail. Until then, I hadn't had time to think of the rattlesnakes, or scorpions, or fire ants, or Gila monsters that I was sharing my space with. I began to wonder if they would be attracted to my sweat. Since it was over a hundred degrees in the Arizona desert most of the time in July, I was soaking wet in my wool uniform. I've never been so uncomfortable and terrified in my life; not even in a fight where troopers around me were shot. At least, I had been able to shoot back. This time, the only weapon I had was to hide. I had no control. Maybe this is what Hell is; no control over what will happen. Maybe the Apaches would leave in the morning for the safety of Mexico. The border was only twenty miles away. Since my canteen was still tied to my saddle, I had no water, but I was determined to stay hidden until tomorrow night. I felt I could find water in a barrel cactus within a couple of miles. It was only twelve miles to the fort. Maybe I could make it back in the dark, if the Indians would leave for Mexico tomorrow.

My leg began to throb, and I thought it probably was becoming infected. I started to try to turn over, but I felt something rub my foot for about fifteen seconds. I couldn't see anything in the dark, but about a minute later, I heard a loud rattle coming from just the other side of my foot. I didn't sleep the rest of the night.

At first light, I could still smell the burned flesh of the captive troopers. I had to really make an effort to keep from throwing up, trying to imagine what my friends went through before they died. It did no good to waste my diminishing energy hating the Apache. That was just the way they were. They just wanted to see how brave their enemies were before they died. Each Apache probably expected the same treatment for himself if he happened to be captured. What good would it do to hate the Gila monster if you got bitten when you accidentally sat down on one? That's what they do. This is the desert. Everything you find in the desert will either cut you, or stick you, or sting you, or bite you, or kill you. That's just the way it is.

I gently parted a little bit of the grass, and saw several buzzards circling the area where the Indians had camped. I couldn't hear any noise at all. The desert was completely silent. I decided to wait until about noon before I left my hiding place. About two hours passed, and I heard a single horse snort as it passed about fifty yards from my hiding place. A single Indian had stayed behind, in case I showed up. I waited another hour, all was quiet. I crawled into the rocks above the dry wash, and eased my way toward the camp. It took me over an hour to crawl through the rocks until I could look down on the camp. The Apaches were gone, but I was sickened by the sight of my friends' burned bodies. They had been hung upside down from poles, their heads about two feet above the still smoldering fires. The tracks of about a dozen horses showed the Indians had gone south, toward the Mexican border. I finally convinced myself that they hadn't left one of the braves behind to wait for me to appear, and limped toward a barrel cactus about two hundred yards away. I needed water real bad.

I sat under a small tree, savoring the juicy pulp from the cactus, replenishing some of the fluid my body had lost, and trying to get comfortable. I was hoping the colonel would send a patrol to find out why we hadn't returned from our wire-mending trip yesterday. In the middle of the afternoon, I saw a dust cloud about two miles away, I crawled behind some large rocks and waited. Twenty minutes later, I saw the men of C Troop round the bend in the trail. I had never been so happy to see these dirty, smelly soldiers as I was now. I made my report to the lieutenant, and drank a whole canteen of water while a couple of troopers made a travois to carry me back.

As I was lying on the newly-made travois, I thought about the Devil finding me. I decided that he just gave me a taste of Hell for a few hours as a joke, and moved on to my friends for the serious fun. Their Hell was much worse than mine. I still remembered every detail of that incident when I retired from the army, twenty-five years later. I even became friends with a couple of Apache scouts a few years later, but I never forgot that night in the buffalo grass.

The End

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