April, 2016

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Issue #79

All The Tales

The Burden of Absolutes, Part 2 of 3
by Robert McKee

Chickens clucked and scattered as Jeb and Mrs. Thomas rode into the yard. "Joleen," Mrs. Thomas called, "it's me, Dessie."

The house was a small frame that looked to have once been painted white, but now, in the dusk of early evening, was more a dingy gray. Through a thin curtain, Jeb could see a yellow blot of light from a coal oil lamp. A wisp of smoke curled from a pipe that rose out of the roof.

"Come on out. I got us a fella here you can tell your story to. He's from the court, and he can write down words just as fast as you can say 'em."

Jeb saw movement through the window, then the front door opened, and a woman stepped onto the porch.

"There you are," Mrs. Thomas said. "Look here who I brung." She reached over and gave Jeb a pat on the shoulder as though he was a prize head of livestock. "He writes down the trials, and he's come to write down your story about what happened to Lenny."

The woman gave Jeb and the machine he straddled a curious look. "You really from the courts?" she asked.

"That's right, ma'am," Jeb said as he swung his right leg over the rear wheel and leaned the cycle against the porch rail. "Name's Jeb Blake," he said, touching the brim of his hat.

It was impossible to tell exactly how old she was. She had a girl's small, thin-boned frame, but her face appeared worn. Two deep lines set her mouth off in parentheses. Strands of hair—a dull blond—had pulled loose from a bun at the back of her head and hung limply about her shoulders. When she came out to meet Jeb and Mrs. Thomas, she had been drying her hands on a dish towel. Now she held the towel close in front of her, twisting its ends first one way, then the other. "I just got done eatin'," she said, and her voice was fragile, the way a sparrow might sound if it could speak, "but there's a bit left if you're hungry."

"Why, yes, ma'am, that'd be nice."

"Starved," Mrs. Thomas said, rubbing her ample middle.

"Come on in, then," said Joleen.

Jeb and Mrs. Thomas followed her into the house. It was a two-room, sparsely furnished place. There was a table with four straight-backed chairs next to a wood-burning cook stove. On the far side of the room was an old Ben Franklin pot-belly. In front of that were two cushioned arm chairs that looked to be only a little more comfortable than the chairs around the table. A door led into what Jeb assumed to be the bedroom.

"It ain't much," Joleen said, referring to the food. "Just some biscuits and bacon, but there's sweet corn from the garden. She opened the fire box on the stove, stirred the embers with a poker, then tossed in two small sticks of wood.

Jeb and Mrs. Thomas sat at the table. The old woman shoved the Colt back into the flour sack, but she made sure Jeb saw her place the sack on the floor close by. She gave him a look that he read as saying he'd better not try anything funny.

"How's Bobby Joe?" Joleen asked as she shucked four ears of corn and placed them into a pot of water.

"Dumber than ever," his mother said matter-of-factly, "if you can believe it."

"He's still telling them he's the one who killed Lenny, isn't he?"

"He's tryin' his best."

"There's going to be a trial," Jeb said. "The judge is going to make the prosecutor prove his case to a jury."

"I reckon that won't be too hard," said Joleen, "if Bobby Joe gets up on the witness stand and says he's the one who done it."

"If you know something that could clear him, Mrs. Lukather," Jeb said, "then you need to go to town and tell the county attorney. Maybe there wouldn't even have to be a trial."

"I reckon I know somethin' that'd clear him, all right," Joleen said in a near whisper. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and Jeb saw how long and pretty her fingers were.

"Then you gotta tell," snapped Mrs. Thomas. "They're gonna hang the boy if you don't. What is it?"

Joleen took two plates from the cupboard and placed a biscuit and a couple of strips of bacon on each one. As she checked the pot of corn to see if the water was boiling, she said, "It's me. I killed Lenny myself."

After they had eaten, Mrs. Thomas said, "I reckon I don't need to be stayin' for this." First she looked at Joleen and then she looked at Jeb. "As long as you're talkin' and you're writin'."

"I'll take it all down, Mrs. Thomas," Jeb said, "and see that it's delivered."

"I have your word on that, Jebediah?" she asked.

"Yes'm, you do."

She stared at him a moment, then with a broad smile she said, "Thank ya, son. I 'preciate it."

Jeb tried his best to give her a dirty look rather than return her smile, but despite his good effort he couldn't do it.

The old woman rubbed her hands together and said, "I ain't been home in nearly two days. I expect there are things needin' done."

Joleen was sitting at the table with them, and Mrs. Thomas reached over and squeezed her hand. They didn't say anything, but their eyes met and held for a second. Then the old woman stood and headed for the door. Just before she turned the knob, she snapped her fingers, spun around, and returned to the table. "I dern near forgot my flour sack," she said to Jeb, then gave him a wink.

"You wouldn't want to do that," he said. "You never know when you might need to kidnap someone."

He could still hear her laughter as she climbed aboard her mule and rode away.

Jeb and Joleen sat and listened until the sound of the crickets drowned out the clop of the mule's hooves.

Joleen finally broke the awkward silence. "I'll put on some coffee," she said.

While she made the coffee, Jeb went out to the Harley-Davidson. When he returned, he brought with him three pencils and a small writing pad.

Joleen, noticing the pad, said, "Can you really write as fast as a person can talk?"

"Well, I guess that all depends on how fast they're talking, but, yes, within reason I can."

"That's really something," she said. Jeb heard the sound of amazement in her voice. "Here I can't write at all, and you can do it as fast as all that." She gave a little shake of her head and smiled. When she smiled, the deep lines around her mouth faded into dimples.

"That's the first time you've smiled since I got here. You should do it more. It makes you look like a girl."

When he said that, the smile vanished. She began to fumble with the loose strands of her hair, trying to reattach them to the bun. "I'm hardly a girl," she said. "I'll be thirty-two in December. I know I look older. I wasn't never a beauty."

"No," Jeb said, "you're wrong about that." He saw her give him a skeptical look, but he meant what he said. She wasn't pretty the way his wife was—no one could be—but there was something about her.

"No, I'm not," she said as she rose and crossed to the stove. "But that don't matter to me. It never has, really." She poured two cups of coffee and brought them back. "I don't have any sugar or milk," she said. "Sorry."

Trying to make her feel less nervous, he said, "This is fine. It's just the way I like it." The truth was he had a sweet tooth, and he used as much sugar as possible whenever he could get it, which wasn't nearly often enough.

"Do you want to tell me about it now, Joleen?" he asked.

"Sure, I reckon. I been wanting to tell someone ever since it happened. The law, I mean. 'Course I did tell Bobby Joe, which turned out to be a great big mistake. His mother's right about him, you know. He's not very smart." She paused and smiled. "He is sweet, though. And not at all like ever'body says. People think he's wild, but it ain't true, not a bit of it. He's kind. He's very kind."

Jeb opened his tablet and picked up one of the pencils.

Joleen sat staring into her coffee. Finally she began, "Lenny Lukather was my husband. But he was the meanest man the good Lord ever let be." She lifted her head and stared Jeb squarely in the face. "One afternoon when he was so drunk that he'd passed out leaning up against a rail of the pig sty, I used that shotgun over yonder." She nodded toward the corner of the room. "And I blew off the top of his head."

She told her story without interruption, pausing only long enough to refill their coffee cups. And Jeb captured every word. She spoke of how Lenny Lukather, who was born here on the La Prele, but who'd been gone for some time, showed up two years earlier looking for work. A year before that her parents had died when their team of horses spooked in a lightning storm and their wagon crashed into a draw. The place was in bad shape and she needed the help, so she offered to hire Lenny for room and board. She couldn't pay any more than that, but Lenny, who was also on hard times, agreed.

"At first he was nice as any man could be," she said. "He wasn't much of a worker, but he had a ready smile and was quick with a joke. You gotta know I haven't been around many men in my life. And he made me feel—well—" She stopped and Jeb saw a blush rise into her cheeks.

"We was married two months later. The Baptist preacher come out from Douglas. Dessie and Bobby Joe came over, and a few of the other neighbors. It was a small thing, I reckon, but I was never happier before or since." She blew on her coffee, but there was no need. Both hers and Jeb's had already gone cold.

"Before we got married," she said, "I'd never seen Lenny take a drink. And he didn't drink a drop at the party we had after the ceremony. But the truth is, our wedding was nearly two years ago, and that was the last sober day of Lenny's life.

"When we woke up that first morning, Lenny said we was on our honeymoon, and there would be no working for a while. He went down to the barn, and when he come back he was carrying a jug. He took a couple of long drinks and said, 'Joleen, come here.' It surprised me he was drinking, but I couldn't see any harm in taking it easy for a day or so. After all, I was a new bride, and I wanted to be pleasing. I came over when he called, eager to be with him. I'd been lonely for a long time, and I couldn't get enough of that man. When I got close, though, I could see that something was different, but before I could say anything, he rammed his knee in my stomach so hard I went down to the floor in front of him, choking for breath. I guess it stunned me for a second because the next thing I know, he was picking me up by my neck and lifting me off my feet so high our eyes were even. I still remember how cold and hard his eyes were that morning. He said, 'You ain't my boss no more, girl. You are now my wife. And the first thing that all wives has gotta learn is who the real boss is.' Then he slammed me up against the wall and hit me in the face with his fist over and over. It's strange. Looking back now I can't remember the pain of it, or even the fear. I just remember filling up with sadness. After two or three times of him hitting me like that, lights started exploding inside my head. Then finally things went all black.

"That was our first full day together as husband and wife. Most days weren't that bad. Some days were worse. Sometimes he'd tie me down, then heat up his knife blade." She rolled up her gingham sleeve, and Jeb saw at least half a dozen fiery red scars along her arm. "There's scars in other places too," she said, "private places. At least he never did that to my face, thank the Lord."

She stopped talking and took a deep breath. The telling of it seemed to be relaxing to her.

Jeb set his pencil aside and rubbed the palm of his hand. There was a lot that didn't make sense. He couldn't understand why she didn't go for help. She had the proof of her husband's brutality branded on her body. He started to point that out, but before he could speak, Joleen stood and said, "I know that confessin's good for the soul, but let's take a break from it and go out and look at the night. I love it when the moon's this bright."

Once they were on the porch, she said, "You're an easy man to talk to, Mr. Blake."

"I'm a professional listener."

"Bobby Joe has the same skill of making you want to tell him things."

Jeb leaned against the porch rail and watched an owl soar across the moon. "It doesn't need to be part of your statement," he said, "but are you going to tell me the rest of it?"

"You just wrote down how I shot my husband with a shotgun while he was asleep. What more could there be?"

"You could explain why you didn't leave."

"Leave? That's not something I can do."

"I don't see how you could stay."

"Sometimes staying's the easy way."

"With a man like that? Someone who beat you, burned you?"

Jeb could see a brief flicker of confusion cross her face. "Lenny Lukather was a bad man. The way I figure it, he got exactly what he deserved for the things he did to me. But the truth is, I didn't shoot him just because he was beating me. Not really."

"You didn't?" Now Jeb was confused. "Why then?"

"I killed him because he was going to make me leave this ranch."

Joleen sat on the porch and stretched her legs along its three steps. "I know that once you read them what I told you in there, they'll come get me."

"Yes," Jeb agreed, "they will. But you won't hang, Joleen. There's not a jury in the state that'd convict you of first-degree murder. I doubt they would even convict you of second degree. I'd say manslaughter at the most."

"It don't matter. It'll never get that far." Jeb could see her clearly in the moonlight, and he could tell by the look on her face what she meant.

"You wouldn't do that, Joleen."

"I would have to," she said. "I'd have no choice. It's not what I'd want, Mr. Blake. I don't want to die. But if I let them take me, I would die anyway."

"That doesn't make any sense."

"I know. It doesn't make sense to me neither. It didn't make sense to my mother and father. But it's real."

"What is? I don't understand what you're saying."

She pulled her legs up and placed her feet on the step below the step where she was sitting. She wrapped her arms around her calves and placed her head on her knees. "It's fear," she said, then looked up and corrected herself. "No, it's more than fear. Fear's not strong enough. It's terror. Plain ol' terror. I know it's crazy. I've tried to make it go away, but I can't. Fact is, it's gettin' worse."

Jeb pulled his tobacco from his shirt pocket and rolled a cigarette.

"I can't leave this place, Mr. Blake. As soon as I start down that road yonder, I panic. Iron bands crush against my chest. I can feel it squeezing the life right out of me. I can't draw a breath. When they come for me, I may as well take my own life, because I'll be dead before they get me into town anyway. Either dead, or out of my mind."

"Dessie mentioned something about you never leaving."

"I know. The neighbors all call me Crazy Joleen. All of them except for Bobby Joe. Bobby Joe's special. He's the only friend I ever had. Maybe that's because he's crazy too. He knew Lenny was doing bad things to me. He even called him on it once, but Lenny was strong as well as mean, and he just beat Bobby Joe down. I think Lenny would have killed him if I hadn't come between them. That made Lenny mad enough that he turned on me. Bobby Joe's never forgiven himself for not being able to protect me better."

"Looks like he's doing it now."

"Lenny decided he wanted to sell this place and move us to Sheridan. He had some get-rich scheme to build a sawmill up there. It would never have worked. I expect the sawmill business requires some labor, and that was something that Lenny wasn't too fond of. I stood up to him about that, and the beatings got worse than ever. Finally, he said he'd found a buyer for the place. The papers'd be signed by the end of the week, and we'd be leaving for Sheridan soon as they were. That's when I killed him. Bobby Joe showed up right after I done it. He threw Lenny's body on the buckboard and headed off to town. I waited all afternoon and night for the sheriff to come. I sat right here on this porch with the same shotgun I used on Lenny. Soon as I saw the sheriff coming down the road, I was going to use it on myself. But he never come. Dessie did, though, and she said Bobby Joe'd told 'em all that he'd killed Lenny."

"And you couldn't go tell them any different."

"Funny, isn't it? I can't let them take me away to prison because I can't leave the prison I'm already in."

"Has it always been like this?"

"For as long as I've lived here."

"I thought you'd lived here all your life."

"No, the people I call Momma and Papa really weren't my parents. They found me when I was five years old wandering along the side of the road."

She put her hands behind her and leaned back. The light from the fat moon was bright enough to cast her shadow along the porch.

"Will and Sadie Felder," she said. "They were fine people. They loaded me onto their wagon, and tried to get me to tell them who I was and where I come from, but I couldn't say a word. They planned to bring me back here to their ranch, then Will was going to ride into town and get the sheriff. But before they got home, they run across my mother and father. Those were wilder days, I reckon, and there were plenty of bad men around. Pa, my real pa, had been killed outright, but Momma . . . " Joleen's voice trailed off. She then cleared her throat and said, "They killed her, but not outright."

Jeb crushed the stub of his cigarette with his boot heel, then kicked it into the yard. "Did you see this happen to your parents?" he asked as he sat down on the step beside her.

"Every bit of it," she whispered. "I watched from a willow thicket, too scared to even cry. Will and Sadie tried to find out if I had other family somewhere, but never could, so they kept me. They were older and never had kids of their own. They treated me good, but still, it was a year before I started talking again. They brought me here to their ranch and took care of me. They gave me love, and treated me like I was their own. It's been three long years since they died, but I don't hurt from missing them any less now than I did the first day they were gone."

Because of Jebediah's line of work, he figured he'd seen more than might be expected for his years. At one time or another just about every bad thing that could happen to folks had come through the court. But never had he met a woman who'd been given more to bear than Joleen Lukather. Even though what Bobby Joe was doing was wrong, Jeb now understood why he was doing it.

Joleen pushed herself up, took one last look at the fullness of the moon, and said, "It's late, Mr. Blake. You're welcome to stay here for the night. I'll make you a place in the barn, or even here on the porch."

"No, thank you, Joleen. It's only five or six miles back to town."

"You'll see they let Bobby Joe go, won't you?" she asked.

Since saving Bobby Joe meant dooming her, Jeb wanted to tell her no, by God, he would not. But he couldn't do that. What he did say was, "Yes, Joleen, I will."

To be continued next month

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Hangin'est Rope in Oklahoma
by Jane Hale

"What say you, Frank Ford?" Judge Johnson asked the Negro called before the bar of Justice.

Ford mumbled, "I have nothing to say."

The Judge's voice thundered the words. "Frank Ford, I order you confined to Tillman County Jail until the 12th day of June when between the hours of 5:00 and 8:00 a.m. you shall be taken therefrom by the Sheriff in said County and hung by the neck until you was dead . . . dead . . . dead . . . and may God have mercy on your soul."

What was it the Judge had said? Frank swayed, righted himself, and stared hard at the floor. The sickness that had been with him for the past few weeks had lifted a bit. But now blackness seemed to overpower him. He jerked upright as the Judge's voice rang out in the courtroom once more.

"The hanging of Frank Ford will be the first in the state of Oklahoma." Judge Johnson announced

"Wish I'd kept my ring," Frank babbled.

"What's that you say? Changed your mind about talking?" Judge Johnson questioned.

Frank didn't bat an eye. His finger caressed bare skin where once a ring, having the appearance of bone and smoothed by many wearings had rested on the finger of his left hand. His wife, his sweet Nancy, had given him that ring as a promise of her love. Now, the finger was bare. As bare as his life since Nancy was gone. Sweat poured down his collar as he was led back to the Fredrick jail.

The Fredrick Sheriff stopped to hand a letter pouch holding an official looking envelope to a rider. "Take this to Sheriff Frank Carter. Tell him come posthaste and bring the hanging rope."

Hearing the words, hanging rope, the judges words resounded inside Frank's skull, hung by the neck until you was dead . . . dead . . . dead. Suddenly, the condemned man stiffened, threw back his head and repeated Judge Johnson's lament, "Mercy on my soul."

The Fredrick Sheriff shoved Frank in the direction of the jail. "Your mercy will come at the hands of Sheriff Carter, an expert tie of the hangman's knot."

The jail cell was much like the one at Manitow, where he'd been housed those months since the murder of Nancy. After the door clanged shut, Frank sank to the cot, placed his head in his hands, and tried not to think about Manitow. But, shadows lurked in the corners of his mind. One of those shadows wore a badge. Even with his head buried in his hands, his eyes squeezed shut, and his mind blank, Frank could feel the hateful stare of deputy Sheriff Silas Stanley.

"I'll see you dead, you black bastard." Silas's threat hung in the stale, cold, air.

Frank groaned. Peeking through his fingers, he surveyed the cell. He'd not be surprised to find Stanley waiting for him. But the cell was empty. He stared up at the tiny window at the back of the cell where rays of light strained to get inside.

Frank fell back on the cot. Sleep claimed him. In his dreams, he walked once more with Nancy .

She whispered her secret lovingly in his ear, "A baby, yes, maybe a boy child."

Frank placed his large hands on each side of her cheeks and raised her face to his. The square face of the bone colored ring with four blackened dents shaped to look like dice, on his finger, symbolized their destiny. "When we going to have this baby?"

"On the Baby Jesus's birthday." Nancy crooned.

Clang, clang. Noise outside the window roused Frank from the depths of sleep. Where was he?

Clang, clang. Could it be men at work in the streets of Lawton, Oklahoma, where seven years before, he'd waited in the long line of lucky men and women, who held winning lottery tickets? Yes, surely that was it. Frank would never forget that day. Frank had tried to control his excitement but at odd moments the thought of sixty acres of land all his own would cause his face to break into a wide grin exposing white teeth against the blackness of his skin. The winning numbers were posted. One was his! Now, he and Nancy could get married.

Clang, clang! The noise came from the back of the jail breaking into his memories. Frank stood, stretched, and relieved himself in a far corner. He ambled to the back wall where the window waited, tip-toe high. Stretching, he looked out on the south east corner of west Grand and 4th street where a carpenter was at work building a gallows. A shudder ran the length of Frank's body. Cold sweat leathered him like a hard-rode steed.

A young boy raced past with a parcel of newspapers hung on his back. Waving The Frederick Leader he shouted, "Murderer sentenced in the district court last Friday afternoon. Get your paper! Read all about it!"

Frank escaped back to the cot and to the past where for a brief time he'd hoped to own sixty acres of land and live there with his sweet Nancy and child. Memories flooded his mind as tears scalded his face and truth pierced his heart. This world was not made for black men. Never was, and never would be. Frank was back at the land lottery headquarters watching a scene that was burned forever on his brain.

A tall, muscled, black man struggled against several white men, who were dragging him off the porch of the lottery headquarters.

"I won. I won me sixty acres." The black man protested.

"No black S.O.B. is going to own land in Oklahoma. Not if Silas Stanley has anything to say about it." Stanley ripped the paper from the man's hands and shoved him to the ground. It was then Frank saw the tin star on Stanley's vest for the first time.

The black man jumped to his feet, started toward Stanley, and shouted, "Give me what's mine. I won it fair and square."

Metal flashed, as Stanley whipped the gun from his holster, and fired.

Blood bubbled from the corners of the black man's mouth. He muttered, "No different, it's no different here, Lord." He slumped to the ground. Scarlet outlined his body in the dust before the deputy ordered men to drag the body away.

Frank backed away from the steps of the lottery headquarters which he's so joyfully approached minutes before.

Cole Younger, the only white man who'd ever been Frank's friend turned to stare hard at the black man. In the stare, Frank saw a warning to be cautious. As if Cole had spoken aloud, Frank heard the words, "Go back to the lean-to and wait."

As Frank turned to leave, he saw the Deputy stuff a crumbled piece of paper in his pocket.

"What you looking at?" Stanley's eyes disappeared into slits beneath the battered felt hat he wore low on his head. They settled on another black man, who might, or might not, be trying to claim some Oklahoma land.

Frank froze. His hand caressed the folded sheet of paper tucked safely inside his pants pocket. He tipped the battered brim of his hat in a show of respect. Keeping his head down, eyes averted, Frank started to shuffle away. "Nothing. Nothing at all."

He heard footfalls behind him.

A voice commanded, "The Sheriff asked what you's looking at Nigger?"

Frank recognized Cole Younger's voice. He turned to answer just as a hand grabbed his shirt and swung him around. Before he could speak Cole's fist caught him under the chin sending him sprawling. "Now get along with you, Nigger. And show a little respect when you're talking to the law."

Frank struggled to his feet. He watched as Cole tipped his hat to Stanley and strode off. Stanley spat on the ground near Frank, turned on his heel and left.

Frank knew Cole had just saved his life.

Back at the lean-to, Frank found Cole waiting for him. "Thanks Mister Cole."

"No thanks needed. You almost lost more than that worthless piece of paper you got in your pocket, you know?" Cole asked.

Frank stared at the ring his sweet Nancy had given him. He knew he'd never own land in Oklahoma and he'd never marry Nancy. Life just wasn't worth living. He pulled the lottery ticket from his pocket. "Here, you take it, Mister Cole. It'll mean something to a white man."

That night Frank listened as Cole explained over and over to him how they could both live on the land Frank had won in the lottery. But it would have to be in Cole's name. Frank would help work the land. He would have a shack of his own where he could bring sweet Nancy and they could raise their child.

"Thank you, Mister Cole."

"Don't thank me Frank. You'll earn every bit of it." Cole's eyes lit up with excitement. "Now, I can send for my wife and kids, too."

Frank and Nancy moved into the smaller of the two shacks Frank and Cole had built. The bigger one was reserved for Cole and his family. Nancy grew larger with child. She moved between both houses and kept the cooking and cleaning done. The day Claire and the kids arrived Nancy prepared a Thanksgiving celebration supper. Frank rode with Cole to pick up his family.

It all happened as Cole had explained until his wife, Claire, and their kids got there and Claire met Sheriff Silas Stanley.

Frank waited with the wagon as Cole rushed toward his family waiting for him.

Cole tipped his hat to Sheriff Silas Stanley, who stood by Claire's side being more than friendly. "Evening, Sheriff Stanley. I see you've met my wife, Claire, and our two sons."

Stanley moved even closer to Claire and picked up one of her bags. "You've got a sweet little woman, Cole. Be sure you take care of her." Stanley followed Cole as he loaded his family and their baggage onto the wagon. "Get your lazy butt off that wagon and help your Master, Nigger!"

Frank jumped from the seat and moved toward the baggage. "Yes Sir, yes sir!" When everything was loaded Frank ran along side until they were at a safe distance. Only then, did he jump on the back of the wagon.

Claire never accepted Frank and Nancy as anything but trash. It didn't bother Nancy, who was busy preparing for their child, who was but a month away. But Frank resented the extra work Claire piled onto Nancy. She left the kids behind and begged to go to town with Cole.

Frank liked Cole's two boys, Will and Jim. He hoped his son would be like them. Soon they followed Frank behind the plows. They helped feed the few animals they had acquired.

Claire's cheeks were blushed pink with excitement each time she and Cole returned from town.

Frank knew trouble was brewing. He and Nancy talked about it at night in the privacy of their shack. "That woman is going to be the death of Mister Cole. Don't she know her every word is Sheriff Silas Stanley. His name rolls off her lips like sugar."

But it wasn't Cole's death that Claire caused it was his sweet Nancy and their unborn babe. And he had to bear the blame.

Frank and Cole had been to the far side of their land fixing fence that day in December. They looked up to see Cole's son, Will, galloping toward them. "Dad, come quick! Sheriff Stanley is hurting Mama and Nancy."

Frank was on his horse and riding with Cole and Will close behind. Just before they reached the shacks Frank heard a shout from Cole. He looked back and saw Cole and his horse on the ground.

Cole shouted. "Go on! We hit a hole."

Will was hot on his heels as Frank pulled into the shacks.

Franks's breath left his body when he saw Nancy lying on the ground in a pool of blood.

"Help!" Claire's scream came from their shack.

"Leave my Mama alone." Jim cried.

Frank sank down on the ground by Nancy. He cradled her head.

Nancy's eyes opened. "I tried to help Ms Claire but that Sheriff shot me. You better help. He'll kill us all." Her body went limp.

Will ran into the shack as Cole rode into the yard.

"Mama! Jim!" Will screamed.

Sheriff Stanley ran out of the shack. He stopped short seeing Frank on the ground with Nancy's dead body. "You S.O.B. you killed her." Stanley's rifle butt caught Frank against the head.

Frank woke up in the Manitow jail.

On the day before his hanging Frank woke to find Cole Younger visiting him. "Mister Cole, you shouldn't be here."

Cole said. "Frank, I've come to get you out of here. Will and Jim will both testify that it was Stanley that shot Nancy."

"No, Mister Cole. It don't make no difference now. I appreciate it but I don't want to cause your family any more trouble. I'm going to meet sweet Nancy. It can't be soon enough."

Cole handed Frank a handkerchief. Inside was the ring Nancy gave Frank.

"That's the best thing you could have brought me."

Frank sat on his cot fingering the ring until he heard his jail cell being opened. He had another surprise. N. L. Fraley, who was his care taker at the Manitow Jail had come to say goodby. When Fraley left Frank gave him his ring.

Fraley promised he'd keep it in his family. One day he'd pass it to his grandson, Arnold.

Frank was the first person to be hanged with what was called "The hanging 'est rope in Oklahoma by Sheriff Frank Carter, who was said to be an expert tie of the hangman's knot. Frank would not live to see it but the rope lasted through every hanging that the state performed.

Carter was recognized as an authority and other Sheriffs often ask him to come and bring the rope.

The last time the rope was used was in Oklahoma County when it's victim was spared by Goveror Lee Cluce, who commuted the sentence to imprisonment.

The intended victim was taken to the State Penitentiary where he later killed a fellow prisoner as a result. He was one of the first to die in the electric chair in 1913 in Oklahoma."

The rope later was given to Gene Hamilton of Habart, the deputy sheriff, because Carter didn't want it in the same house with him.

Oklahoma's hanging rope is now on display in Oklahoma City.

The End

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Wooden Indian
by Keith Laufenberg


Murder is murder and somebody must answer, somebody must explain the streams of blood that flowed in the Indian country, in 1838. Somebody must explain the 4,000 silent graves that mark the trail of the Cherokees to their exile. I wish I could forget it all, but the picture of six-hundred and forty-five wagons lumbering over the frozen ground with their Cargo of suffering humanity still lingers in my memory.

Let the Historian of the future day tell the sad story with its sighs, its tears and dying groans. Let the great Judge of all the earth weigh our actions and reward us according to our work.

-John C. Burnett, U.S. Army and interpreter on the Trail of Tears, ca. 1890.

* * *

They walk right by me, as if I was a wooden Indian, which is what I am, to them. A statute, someone they need not even think about or consider, for I am, you see, an old man; I have lived for almost 100 moons, but that does not matter to the white man, for they do not respect age, on the contrary, they disdain it. I am writing this on a paper, in Cherokee, for if the white soldier-coats are able to read it they will surely destroy it, just as they are destroying our lands and my people.

It will soon be the cold months, it is now what the white men call September, in the year they call 1838 and it is as good a day as any for me to fight and as good a day as any for me to die. I have lived many moons and am ready to meet my maker, the Great Spirit, for I know he is very upset with these white soldier-coats, because they are imprisoning the Cherokee people for no reason but to steal our lands, lands that the Great Spirit has given to us to live upon in peace. These white soldier-coats have their orders from the Great White Father, in Washington, to move us across our lands onto other lands, because the white men want the lands that they call Georgia and Carolina and don't want as much the lands that they call Oklahoma.

I see in the eyes of these soldier-coats how they look upon us, as they look at dogs and as they look upon the blacks they bring from a faraway land to enslave also. I will not bow to any of them and I refuse to go on their long walk to the Oklahoma territory.

I am called Black Eagle, and I am a brave warrior of the Cherokee People, and I will die here, upon this land, where I have lived my entire life; where my people have lived from days beyond history's records. I will die here, in my native land, by the streams where I have hunted and fished for all my days upon Mother Earth.

I, Black Eagle, have seen many of these same soldier-coats taking our young Cherokee children from their play to the soldier-coats' place that they call the stockade, and I have seen the soldier-coats taking Cherokee families who were eating their meals and braves at work. They take them to their stockade-house, that has bars on it, and they throw them inside, where they treat them worse than they treat their dogs and horses, which they also abuse. I have seen many braves die in battle with these soldier-coats and I have seen too many surrender to them. I, Black Eagle, will not surrender to them, for my heart will not surrender my spirit.

I have seen these soldier-coats, along with other white's, go into our sacred burial grounds and rip open coffins, in search of the yellow rocks that they call gold; I have seen them imprison as many of my people as there are ants in a colony. They have brought nothing but shame and dishonesty to my land, they have brought a way we do not wish to live by, a way of clocks and calendars, and account books and selfish, greedy men that they call lawyers, who wish to rule everything with their money and possessions, and wish to force every human being to be like them. The Real People do not believe like these whites believe; we believe that every rock, every mountain, every tree and every living thing has a soul and the Great Spirit flows through them, but the whites are different and their soldier-coats have no beliefs but money and will not accept us or leave us alone to live as the Great Spirit meant for the Real People to live. They show no respect for anyone or anything, unless they can profit from it, themselves. They are greedy and selfish and they cheat each other and are proud of themselves when they lie or cheat or steal, to their gain.

These same white people go to their churches and they pray to a God that they say is good and just and they say everyone is equal, but then they enslave anyone who is different from their culture, as they enslave blacks and Indians to do the labor they wish not to do and they use their guns and force to make us bend to their wills, saying this is God's will but, I, Black Eagle know that this is not the Great Spirit's will, and I will not bend; I have lived many moons, almost 100 of them, and I am ready to die this day.

The white men are wrong and they must know it, for they bring us rules and laws that we do not know of and then they put us in the house with bars on it when we do not obey them. They did not even ask us if they could live here, they just moved in and then stole our lands and made up rules and laws that all Cherokees know that the Great Spirit does not want us to obey. They rape the earth as they rape our women; they do not realize that the earth is filled with the Great Spirit and they will kill their own souls if they continue to dig and cut and bleed the earth, for the earth is all human beings' Mother.

They do not understand that because of their deeds they will have to go and live with the dragon, where he is buried, deep beneath the mountains, where he rumbles, even to this very day.

Now I, Black Eagle, hear them talking about me, for I understand some of their words, and they are coming towards me and I am going to hide this paper, under this rock below me, and even though I can speak some of their talk I am only going to speak Cherokee. I am going to die today because the Great Spirit has told me this. I, Black Eagle, am a great and brave warrior and I am going to take a soldier-coat with me, for I see the one with the many stripes on his coat coming towards me and he has done many bad things to my people, he has raped my granddaughter and he wishes to go and live with the dragon, in the fire beneath the earth.

And, now I will go to join the Great Spirit soon, and so, I feel my spirit is joyous.


I look upon you as a good being. Order your people to be just. They are always trying to get our lands, they come upon our lands, they hunt on them; kill our game and kill us. Keep them on one side of the line, and us on the other. Listen, my father, to what we say.

-Kaskaskia leader to George Washington.

* * *

"Hey Sarge, let's git this ol' chief off'n the ground," the private said. "He's givin' me the creeps; way he sits there starin' at the crik."

"Ah, hail Buck, he ain't starin' at the creek, he ain't even a real Injun, he's a statue, a wooden Injun, is what he is."

"Yeah, that right Chief, you a wooden Injun?" Private Buckwalter Phillips yelled at Black Eagle and then kicked him on the leg with his boot, causing a deep gash to appear on his knee.

Black Eagle stood up slowly, his knee dripping blood as he did so. He clenched the knife in his right hand and slid it underneath his buckskin shirt, then spoke to the soldiers, in Cherokee, "Today is as good a day as any for me to die; I never liked the cold."

"Wha'…what'd he'd say Sarge? Gola? He thinks we want 'is gold, huh Sarge?''

Sergeant Terry 'Red' Calahan smiled a grisly, greedy smile, one with which Black Eagle was more than familiar. "Heh, we do want his gold, Buck." Calahan stepped towards Black Eagle with the skull smile of death on his face and Black Eagle saw the twisted mask of inhumanity and prepared himself. Calahan raised his musket towards Black Eagle and Black Eagle smiled, causing Calahan to hesitate just long enough for Black Eagle, who, despite having lived almost a century, was still strong enough to twist his body to the side and arc his knife up and into Calahan's chest, where it plunged towards his black heart, even as Calahan's finger pulled the trigger on his musket and the musket-ball entered Black Eagle's throat and exited through the top of his head, taking with it clods of bloody brain matter and Black Eagle's husk of a withered old body.


The Pueblo have no word that translates as "religion." The knowledge of a spiritual life is that of the person 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Religious belief permeates every aspect of life; it determines man's relation with the natural world and with his fellow man. The secret of the Pueblo's success was simple. They came face to face with nature but did not exploit it.

-Joe S. Sando, Jemez Pueblo.

Well, God's above all; and there be souls must he saved, and there be souls must not be saved.

-Shakespeare, Othello. Act ii, sc. 3, 1. 105.

* * *

"Sarge, SARGE! Gee-zuz,he ain't comin' to. I think this here Injun done kilt 'im. I, I think they done kilt each other."

Sergeant William McGuire glared at Private Buckwalter Phillips and kicked him in the backside. "Go git the doc, Private, NOW!"

* * *

Sergeant Terrence 'Red' Calahan stared up at the Indian and couldn't believe his eyes. He thought he must be hallucinating because he could swear that the Indian was floating in the air. Then he saw the doctor bending over him and nodding at Sergeant William McGuire.

"Hey Mac, go get some men to get rid of the ol' Injun's corpse and then take Calahan's body to the morgue."

Calahan watched as his old buddy, Bill 'Mac' McGuire, ordered Phillips to drag the Indian's corpse away and then saw the doc throw a blanket over his body. He couldn't believe his eyes; did they think he was dead or something? Not him, not old Red Calahan; why, he had killed more Injuns than half the men in his company combined. His name was a legend among enlisted men and anyway, he was up for a promotion, he couldn't die, could he? He looked up again and saw Black Eagle smile and disappear, even as he felt as if his body was in quicksand and he slowly sank deeper and deeper, into the deep dark pit that his soul had garnered for itself in his twenty-plus years in the Calvary and his forty-plus years on the planet earth.

The End

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A Burial of Sorts
by John Grabski


The second of March was as cold and windy as any winter day on record in west Texas, and Jesse knew that if the wind blew any harder or the snow drifted any deeper that the old horse's lungs would burst and their blood would freeze hard in their veins. Tears ran down the side of his nose and mixed with blood brought by the wind and ice that tore at his face, and when the saline taste of the tears and blood found the frozen corners of his mouth he spat into the snow to gauge the bleeding. Winter kills everything but then gives way to spring before returning to kill again. But that would be to say that winter is tolerant when it is anything but tolerant. On the contrary, it seemed only too clear that winter's true aim was to kill him and everything along with him to make room for the new life of spring. Jesse hated this and he hated himself for spurring the old horse on—a friend that obeyed him blindly, undaunted through wind and the ice of the storm. And though it had crossed his mind, there was no turning back for the hell he would pay if he didn't see the trip through. With nostrils flaring and nose outstretched, the old horse lunged forward to clear the snow one last time before collapsing as if shot with a gun.


When he awakened he felt warm and pleasant—immersed in a sweet musky air only present in a spring morning free of any breeze—a condition rendering earth's fragrances too heavy to rise from the ground. As if everything good in the world was making its presence known again, as if to say winter did not kill after all and had retreated to leave everything that lives and breathes in a safe place again. The sun warmed his face while a blackbird atop a fencepost sang his mid-morning song in perfect pitch. "Purple-geeee, purple-geeee, purple-geeee, purple-geee," the bird sang, "I'm awake, I'm alive, I'm awake, I am alive." With eyes closed tight, Jesse drew a slow deep breath to take in more of the sweet warm air, his thoughts on the bird as he continued his song. "I'm awake, I'm alive, I'm awake, I am fine." It was a moment of bliss, warm and safe and entirely free, free of shame, free of any guilt and absent any feeling that he should be anywhere else, for anyone else.

He realized, now, that he was lying in the open air of a ranch-house porch but the view and the gray walls were unfamiliar. He recognized nothing except the crumpled old boots that sat next to the door and he struggled to recollect one memory at a time until visions of the storm untangled and became clear. Had he been a calf dragged headlong to a branding fire, he might have related somehow to this sudden rush of the storm's images that washed over him—thundering unforgivingly, forcing any feeling of safety and contentedness from his realm. Though he tried, he could not recall a single moment beyond the ice and snow and blood and the fear of not seeing the job through. For a fleeting second he wondered if the blackbird and the smell of spring and the sun on his face were a dream, or if he and his horse had died in the snow—this possibly their afterlife.

Startled by the echo of footsteps striking a hollow wooden floor, he fought to sort out his whereabouts, and who belonged to the sounding approach.

He glanced at his bare white legs and drew up the sheet to cover them just before the rickety door swung open. Through the door bounced a bustling round woman—her face, lively and glowing.

"My goodness, good morning, oh thank the lord, good morning! I was beginning to think you might never wake up. You've been in and out for weeks," she said.

The old woman passed him a ladle pulled from a small tin pail.

"Here, drink this, but just a sip. Oh, sweet Jesus, you must be thirsty."

Jesse sipped from the ladle but kept an eye on the woman as she backed away. She was a sweet looking woman, wide as she was tall with a scarf wrapped around yellow-grey hair. Her pale dress half covered by a white apron, its edges frayed and thin. He took another sip, shut his eyes to force the water down, and then coughed to clear his throat.

"Where am I?"

"Well my boy—you're a guest in my house!"

The old woman glanced about the porch with her hands perched high upon her hips, elbows pointing in opposite directions, then let go a sigh.

"Not much, not much at all, I know. But it keeps our old bones out of the cold—me and old-miserable that is."

"How'd I get here?"

"Don't fret about that now. We can talk later, tomorrow maybe, if you're feeling up to it. You just close your eyes and rest. He'll be back soon enough and we both know what that means."

He shifted his weight and sprang up on one elbow to face the old woman.

"You mean the foreman—you don't mean the foreman?"

The woman mumbled beneath her breath and flung open the rickety old door—slamming it behind her to make a loud crack that sent the blackbird skyward. She seemed crass at that moment and he hoped it wasn't something he said.

* * *

The birds stopped singing as they do in late afternoon when the sun grows hot. He felt better now and hauled himself out of the makeshift bed one quivering limb at a time. Suffering to steady himself upright, he walked in quarter-steps to the end of the porch to find his saddle sprawled flat on the floor. His bridle lay coiled over the seat, and on top of the bridle, his saddle blanket sat stiff with the dried sweat of his horse. He gathered it up in both hands and thrust his face into the blanket to find the smell of his horse and sank to the floor on his knees. He knew now that he'd lost him in the snow and he knew too that he had only himself to blame. The old horse trusted him, unconditionally it seemed, and obeyed without hesitation. He had violated that trust and the thought of it drew his stomach up tight in a dry, bristling knot. With the heel of his hands, he pressed his eyelids tight to squeeze off the oncoming tears. He shouldn't have spurred the old horse, shouldn't of pushed him through the storm, but he could not refuse the foreman—a callous user who would've been only too happy to hand his job to the first taker. Had he the chance to do it again, he never would've gambled so reckless. Never should he have gambled a life, the life of his horse, simply to please another man.

He lay awake thinking of the old horse off and on throughout the night. He killed him no different than if he'd shot him and he knew too that by now the buzzards and coyotes had picked his carcass clean. He stretched the sheet up over his head and cried—the tight veil and darkness beneath somehow deflecting up the weight of the shame now pressing upon him.

He arose the next morning to the hollow sound of footsteps on the wooden floor again, only this time they were heavy and slow—groaning as if made by some lame perpetrator with a mind to creep soundless. He pulled himself to a sitting position and recoiled at the smell of cigar smoke rising up thick alongside the guttural sound of the user's voice barking orders like some cur to the old woman to be finished by nightfall. It was work enough for three people, let alone the old woman. He felt somehow akin to her, somehow sorry for her, and was ashamed too that he had thought her crass the day before. The user walked to the porch—cigar set hard between his yellow teeth like a dog, growling while mouthing a bone.

"You be ready to ride in two, maybe three days tops. You got catchin-up to do boy—it be high time to make good on what you owe. There won't be no more tending your skinny ass and you'll be needin to get square with the woman. I'll ride ya a horse around day after next. You'll be heading west to the Rio Grande and then south to Santa Fe to ride back papers from a deadbeat. Nuther no-account felled back on what he owes." With that, the user shuffled his splayed feet down the plank stairs, struck a match on his spur strap, flared-up his wet cigar, and rolled up heaving in his saddle like some bloated miscreant mounting a burro half his size.


She burst through the door carrying spoons and a bowl of jackrabbit stew between her hands. A loaf of bread was tucked under her chin and, judging by the smell that had overtaken the porch, had just come out of the oven.

"My name is Flossarina Marie, but you can call me Flossie. Let's set a minute. We might talk now he's finally gone."

Hours passed and as the sun began to fade they talked unremarkably while getting to know each other and he thought how pleasing it was to be in the company of the old woman.

But it was the storm, his horse and how he came to be under the care of the old woman that concerned him most. She seemed to be avoiding, perhaps protecting him from some truth that he was too weak to bear.

After a while, Flossie rose up out of her chair, gave her skirt a sharp twist and retied her apron that had stretched out loose.

"You know Jessie, we're two of a kind. A pair of kindhearted souls for everything that lives and breathes in this wonderful world—that's what we are. Ain't no-one can take that away from us either. Don't you forget that. Ain't no one can ever take it away. Not now, not ever."

But it was the dirty shame that came from availing themselves to a charter they knew in their hearts to be wrong that gnawed away at any goodness they might have shared. They knew that, too. Sellouts, you might say, like two faint-hearted hacks of the user.

Flossie pulled her chair up close to Jesse and sat. Sat silent for a moment, squinting.

"Like to know how you wound up here?

"Yes Ma'am, I would."

"Art Johnson from the X-Bar was the young man that found you. And just in the nick of time too. He was passin through just two days behind the storm on his way to Dallam County to buy supplies when he rode up on your horse. You was curled up dead-like, next to his belly from what I could gather, protected from the wind. Guess your horse probably kept you from freezing, truth be known. That good boy Johnson tied you across his saddle and then led his horse on foot with you hanging over his side the whole way home—back here I mean. You imagine, Jesse, forty miles afoot? What a wonderful young man, that boy Johnson! Next day Doc Spence come by and had a look at you—said you was in the grip of a bad hypothermia with a blackout concussion to boot. Took a pile of army blankets and the better part of a week fore you quit to shiverin. He set you up on a pint of clear broth twice a day till your blackout went clear. Thought we was gonna lose you there for a day or two but old Doc wasn't about to give in. No siree. Came every day for a week all the way from town and he wouldn't take a penny for his trouble neither. What a good man that Doc Spence—such a beautiful soul that man. Finally we up and moved you to the porch to let some sun on you. And that's when you started to come to."

Jesse fell silent. How different they were—Flossie from the user, not to mention the user from Art and the Doc. It puzzled Jesse how Flossie, such a caring old woman, could work for the cold-hearted foreman. That he owned a bank that extended terms to landowners only in the most desperate of situations made him out all the worse. If a landowner fell behind, as they most often did in those times, the user would send a rider to claim the deed and evict the owner—the coldest of tasks, and one Jesse knew all too well.

"I'm ashamed Flossie. I can't help but think that I'm the greedy one here—never mind the foreman. I've been seein after him like some gutless bottom sucker for three years and I'm ashamed to admit it. Following him around, too afraid to quit him, too afraid to say no. He's a user. That's all he is, just a no-account user. That I play a role in his affairs at all, the lowest way to make a dollar, one that profits from the sweat and bad luck of others, is sickening, and yet I ride."

"You mustn't confuse your needs with greed."

"Needs! You reckon I oughta be looking after my needs like a parasite? If I were a better man I'd take up work as a carpenter, a farmer, or maybe a store-clerk. Can't be right that I ride aimless through life like a flea on the back of a rabid dog—it can't be. A dog that does nothing but steal, and bite and bark and steal till there's nothing more to steal from folks that ain't got no chance in the first place."

Jesse bowed his head, took a handful of hair in each hand and gave it a pull. He pondered the existence of a flea. Even the lowly flea has a role in the natural order of things. Perhaps he was a flea, a human flea—sucking blood from a failing host, too weak to . . . he stopped. Ridiculous, he reasoned, to reconcile his life to a flea.

"Maybe I am blind, Flossie. Maybe I'm so weak that I can't see, or maybe I'm just plain fencepost stupid. Why do I follow this man so obedient-like, like some sheep? I should've found different work, found a different man to work for—chased other options—made other choices but there was none to be had...."

Flossie rose straight in her chair and turned to Jesse with the stern look of a mother readying herself to school a child.

"You might look a little harder for starters. There's plenty enough to chase after in this life, I can tell you that. We're not as much alike as you might think, Jesse. I live this sort of life not cause I want to. I do what I must. I can live with that too. God knows it, and I know it. But it's different for you. You're young, and you're a man. A man's got choices. Like the stars in the sky, so many opportunities lie ahead for you. Your problem's not finding the perfect option, Jesse, it don't exist. It can't exist. Never did exist. You need to act on what you know to be right. That's what you do. Act on what you know in your heart to be right."

Flossie paused, fixed her eyes to the floor, and took a breath.

"Look, Jesse. Your horse, the foreman, the storm, the choices were there, in front of you, and the choice was always yours to make, the reins have always been in your hands. It's not a matter of someone leading you down the right path. It's a matter of you, and only you. It's a matter of finding your truth. It's a matter of finding the man inside you. The man with the courage to stand straight."

And so she consoled him, comforted him, and seemingly instructed him, imploring him to stand up, the way she put it, like a man worth his salt ought to stand.

She paused again to regard the man sitting still and silent—this young man struggling, still searching.

"Do you feel it now? Can you feel it coming to you now, Jesse? Can you see the truth?"

"Yes, Ma'am. I believe I do."


There was no mistaking the stale cigar smoke when the foreman announced his arrival late the next morning, dragging a tired old horse behind him. He handed Jesse a penciled map to the ranch, a dollar for expenses and as he always did, described the beating he'd take if he didn't return with the deed. The bank would sell the ranch at auction in the fall and it would take two months beforehand to settle legal matters, print the sale posters, and arrange phony bidders, whose job it was to drive up the price to ensure the bank raked-in more than its fair share of profit.

He'd make one last ride. Besides, he owed it to Flossie and wished to repay her for the trouble. The trip would be long but it was a comfort to know that it would be his last. If he rode hard, he judged he'd close the trip out in less than a month. He was instructed to send a telegraph to the foreman's office on the last leg of his journey from a town thirty miles from the old woman's place to allow the foreman time to ride out to meet him. Once there, they would swap the deed for his wages, and that would conclude the trip.

* * *

It was late afternoon by the time that he was packed and ready. Though he seldom fired it, he wiped down his single action Colt and placed it inside his saddle bag, within easy reach. Flossie glanced at the long barreled pistol, took Jesse by the sleeve and tugged it softly. The usual gleam in her eyes now darkened, now quiet, now solemn.

"Promise me, Jesse. Use it if there's no other choice."


Any other night, the twinkling lights of Santa Fe in the distance would have seemed beautiful and serene, especially after a hard ride stopping only when too dark to navigate the rocks. But the shimmering lights marked the end of his journey, summoning thoughts of his duty the next day. Anxiety crawled through his bowels like acrid bile as he stepped from his horse to bed down for the last time. Turning away from the old horse, he bent over at the hip, locked his arms out straight, and propped the heel of his hands on both knees. Sagging slowly to find the ground, he rocked back on his boot heels and cried.

The morning ride to the ranch took less than an hour. He approached the house where a young woman stood on the porch. She was beautiful in a way that Flossie might have been beautiful in her younger years, wearing a tattered dress half covered with a white apron, a blue scarf tied loosely about her face. In her hand was a white sheet of paper neatly folded. Two rosy children clutched at her sides as if to hide behind her bustling dress—peering out occasionally for a glimpse of the man who had come to take away the only home they'd ever known. Behind the dress they held hands. The rancher appeared moments later—a tall rugged man with a loose fitting shirt that hung freely on a work-hardened frame. Jesse announced himself and dismounted—his back to the saddle. The rancher said nothing, stood silent. His eyes met Jesse's briefly then he turned to the woman and placed his hand gently upon her arm. He looked into her eyes as though boarding a train. Tipping his chin slowly, he motioned the woman inside. But she did not move.

Jesse studied the rancher's eyes now fixed upon him but they offered no signs—vacant, like two black holes in the snow. His stomach secretly searing with fear left him unable to speak or move. The rancher inched along a half step at a time, down the steps toward him without blinking or breaking his gaze. His face hung slack and expressionless. The stillness of his eyes revealed neither thoughts nor intentions. Jesse eased in a backward direction to find his saddle. His shoulder pressed against the reassuring steel of the Colt still tucked inside the bag. With the quicksilver grace of a gunfighter, the rancher dropped fast to one knee, and with one violent, almost savage motion, plunged his hand deep in his pocket. Jesse, flat footed stood motionless, frozen with the feeling that death would follow, and all in a moment.

The rancher waited, then strained, and rose up slow and difficult with his hand still buried in his pocket. A long minute stretched out thin, then passed. He shifted his gaze to the woman and the two children still silent, still clutching her dress. A dog ran three-legged between them through the dust and one of the children squealed. The rancher's eyes darted the dog's way then fixed ahead. He pulled a thick square of paper from his pocket, and with his arms outstretched walked ahead. It was the deed, faded yellow, and neatly folded.

Jesse felt the weight fall away.

"I've coffee on," said the woman.

He stood leaning into the full face of the sun, his heart pounding like a hammer drum. His face rained out beads of cold sweat then slackened. Were he a fighting man he'd a pulled the gun from his bag and shot a hole through him. He stared, trembling, and shook his head. He surely would have killed him.

"What the hell?" asked Jesse. "I said, what the hell? You had me think you were pulling your gun. For God's sake man, I . . . I mighta killed you. Look!" he said, turning to the woman, "She's holding papers. The deed! I thought she had the God forsaken deed."

"Insurance," said the rancher, "Wasn't no other way."

"You'd of had me kill you? Shoot you?"

Jesse looked down. The three legged dog loped between them again with his awkward gait. The rancher boot flicked dust the dog's way and spat a stream of tobacco through the dust. Jesse stopped to breathe—his mounting fear, uncontrollable just moments before, now replaced by the familiar sense of shame. His thoughts turned to Flossie, the Doc, and Art Johnson and then back to Flossie and then the storm and then back again to Flossie. He straddled a crossroads at this moment, and if he failed to choose, if he failed to break his conscious clear, he would drag the dead weight of shame forever. Was his destiny to live a cruel and despicable existence nature's design? His mind raced frantically for a precedent or some natural rule to prove that his instinct for kindness was true which is to say that to rationalize his actions would be wrong and false.

He reasoned nature's rules to be the only certain truth that could not be challenged for nature is absolute and pure and balanced, absent any notion of greed. But that didn't resolve nature's cruelty. He recalled watching a pair of wolves bring down an injured cow, scared and lost from the herd—teeth gnashing as they tore at her hamstrings, pulling her to the ground. If nature were true, and all things living followed her rules, then the rancher was the injured cow and he some servant of the wolf. Was this nature's intention? He stopped, unnerved by the realization that these thoughts were natural too—the idea of rationalizing such a line of work and reconciling himself to the wolf as though it were somehow part of nature, somehow real, somehow acceptable.

A calm came over him and he let go a laugh that made no sound. With his pencil between his teeth he carefully unfolded the yellow paper that represented all that was sacred in the world to the rancher, and his family. He removed the pencil from his teeth, placed the paper on the side of his saddle and on it he wrote, I, Jesse Grey, received payment in full in the amount of, one thousand six hundred dollars for the debt owed The Herald Bank. He handed it to the rancher who read it to the woman then spun on his heel to face Jesse.

"We ain't charity takers."

"Clyde," said the woman.

Jesse tapped his hat brim the direction of the woman as thunder rumbled in the black clouds that had gathered. However on this day, the thunder wasn't to be followed by rain or lightning or danger of any kind for its wrath had been avoided, leaving in its place a glorious calm where a blackbird perched atop a fencepost sang his mid-morning song in perfect pitch.

Jesse swung his leg high over his saddle, gathered the reins and turned his horse away towards a country where men spoke a language new and fresh and entirely unknown to him, thinking not of the rancher or foreman, or even the cow or the wolf. He had ridden two weeks without stopping—and he had finally buried his horse.

The End

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Chase for Uber Mix
by Robert Gilbert

Once again the two intoxicated gentlemen, now prisoners, were brought in and finally squared away in the Cheyenne River Marshal Office jail. It started with name calling, tangling ensued, squaring off in a fist fight. They were charged with disorderly conduct in the middle of rain soaked Front Street. Both had too much whiskey in their bellies.

The bigger of the two, Joe Mays, owner of the Double Diamond spread, was enjoying the festivities inside the Grey Owl Saloon. Ferris Crowd, hired on as foreman and cowpuncher of Mays' property, suddenly and without warning, was fired for spending too long of leisure time with the owners daughter, some twenty years difference in age. Crowd, yet muscular and burly, continued to have distasteful concerns for his previous boss. He was no match in their continuing brawl, ending in the street as a mud bath, rinsed in the nearest trough and hauled off to jail.

Consequences of this goings-on feud would be answered by Circuit Judge Abraham Pitt in a few days. In the mean time, my Deputy Howard McClintick and I would keep the prisoners separated. The least they could do was name call each other and there was plenty of that.

Deputy McClintick had just returned from walking the quiet and empty streets and everything was secure for another night. I was near ready to head home to my small house at the end of town, leaving Howard to handle the night shift. We take turns regarding night duty and I seriously compliment my partner as one the best. No complaints at all.

I was finishing up the last swallow of cold coffee and the front door opened. Standing there in a starched white shirt and blue uniform pants was Silas Tibbs. He runs the telegraph office next to the hotel. He was holding a piece of paper with a lot of inked words.

"For you, Marshal Brothers," he said. He pushed it my direction and, as usual, his hands were shaking. Maybe the news wasn't that pleasant.

"This just arrive?" I said, beginning to read. Howard was looking over my shoulder.

"Yes, Sir. Word-for-word it was just received."

"Says here," I said, "Uber Mix escaped from Issaquena Prison."

"Thought to be headed this direction, Warren," Howard said.

"Salis," I said. "You wire this same message up and down the line. See who else might have more information."

"Yes, Sir. Right away."

"Let me know what you hear by morning," I said. "If you don't find me hear, I'll be in the Gray Owl drinking coffee. You understand me?"

Salis nodded, walked to the front door and made his way across the muddy street, returning to his kerosene lighted office.

Howard and I discussed the telegraph message. We had a run-in and arrest with Uber Mix before, maybe two years ago, being chased into the topmost span of Church Rock, a mountain range area in the upward loop of Mora Range. It's at the northern end of New Mexico Territory, a vast region of continual cliffs and sage, easy to get lost and absolute difficult to locate if running from the law.

Word had spread that Mix and two others had robbed a bank in Ensenada and hightailed north, using an escape into Colorado on the Chama train. Pretty smart thinking, I guess, but little did they know that at the end of the line, through Cumbres Pass, ending in Antonito, they were greeted by Howard and me. Their escape from the train wasn't too pleasant, an unwelcomed shoot out, killing the two others and wounding Mix. He was brought back to Cheyenne River and kept alive by the good hands of Dr. Mason. Thereafter he was put on trial, found guilty and the prison wagon escorted him to Issaquena.

I pushed the telegram in my pocket, said good night to Howard and proceeded home on the boardwalk. The cloudy night had cleared up, a full moon was finally visible and a thousand stars were like pin holes against an ebony canvas.

Early the next morning I relieved Howard of staying with the prisoners, letting him get some shuteye in the boardinghouse. Both men being held were fed and at the same time their finger pointing and insults to each other continued. A heavy door separated the two from me, and all I heard was muffled arguments.

I had paperwork to get done, keeping me busy through the morning hours. After filing some of my work, the front door opened and Howard had returned.

"Couldn't sleep," he said. "Kept thinking about that telegram."

"Yeah," I said. "Me too. I need to saddle up, searching where I think Uber Mix is headed."

"Want me to come along?"

"No," I said. "We got prisoners. If we release 'em, guaranteed they'll beat the shit outta each other. That ain't the way I run this town."

"How long you expect to be gone?" Howard pulled up a chair next to my desk and sat down.

"Don't know. But right now I'm needin' a fresh cup of coffee across the street."

"Bring me back one when you return. Black, no milk, and a biscuit."

"I'll do what I can." I said. "Coffee ain't no problem. The biscuit might cause some difficulty."

I made my way across Front Street, filled with ruts and mud that easily caked my boots.

A lot of my time was spent inside the Gray Owl Saloon, and today was no exception. I was nursing another cup of coffee, minding my business, giving random thoughts about the telegram message in my pocket. Something bothered me about Uber Mix's location and my hunch tells me that this outlaw has a passion for railroads.

For the second time in the past ten minutes, widow Mable Tews, sitting across from me, sipping on sour mesh, continually tapped her free fingers on the table. She was making an issue out of the noise.

I looked in her direction , continuing to listen to the distraction as her fingers kept tapping.

"I heard the news, Marshal Brothers," Mable said. "Rumors spread like front page news."

I ignored her long enough to take another sip of hot coffee and began to enjoy a good rolled smoke.

"'Bout time you go after 'im, Marshal," she said. Her voice was harsh and direct after lowering the glass to the table. "The more I keep yappin' at ya, and you jus' stiin' there, the longer Uber Mix is a damn distance away, somewhere maybe 'cross Pawnee land."

"Mrs. Tews," I said. "I'm sure he didn't get that far." The back of my mouth was becoming throaty from the bitter coffee.

"Sure right about that, Marshall Brothers," Conrad Devers said. He was playing solitaire the next table over and enjoying his favorite brand of whiskey. His words tended to slur the more he drank. Solitaire wasn't his favorite table game and he cheated to win.

"What ya meanin', Devers?" Widow Tews said. She showed her disbelief, looking straight at the card player.

"He's shot in the leg," Devers answered back. "Prison escape alright, but a guard got 'im with a Winchester. Ain't runnin' too far that way. That's what I'm hearin'. Word come through about that."

"Yes. Sir," I said. My words edged out slowly. I didn't know the extent of the wound to slow Mix down.

"So what ya gonna do, Marshal?" she said. "Sit here an' drink coffee all day 'till it runs out, or what? Time's passin' away real quick like." Widow Tews was a heavy drinker and allowed to come sit in the saloon, and most times enjoyed my company.

I moved my chair back to stand and swallowed the remains of coffee. I stared in the direction of Mable Tews.

"You get 'im, Marshal," Mable said in a matter-of-fact tone. "Do your job 'cause we pay you our fair share to keep Cheyenne River a peaceful place to live."

"Don't you folks worry none 'bout me," I said. "Been here long enough to keep this town quiet and respectable. If there's any bitchin' 'bout my business, put words to paper and take it to my office. I'll read it when I get back."

"Sure thing, Marshal," Devers said, trying to locate a lost Queen of Spades.

"Who's gonna be in charge once you leave town?" The question came from across the room. Billy Bently didn't want any fights as bartender of the Gray Owl. He didn't advocate trouble remembering the last skirmish that completely wiped out his business, having to start over.

"I'll send over my deputy," I said, "to take charge tonight. He'll be armed with a no-doubt-about-it shotgun. He has guaranteed practice with that fine weapon.

I adjusted my Stetson , walking passed where Mable Tews continued sipping her third drink of the morning. My spurs jingled against the wooden floor and made my way through the batten doors. I stood momentarily on the boardwalk taking in the town. Peaceful is was and I was proud in keeping it that way. I was about to roll a another smoke, changed my mind knowing the cigarette would taste better when I got to my destination. I carried coffee back to the office. No biscuit.

From the west another storm was brewing and that's the direction I was headed. Not knowing how long this ride would take, the saddlebags were filled with the usual necessities to be out on the trail for a period of time.

After saying goodbye to Howard who was standing on the boardwalk in front of the Marshal's Office, I grabbed the reins and mounting my roan. Heat of the day was already around me. Beads of sweat trickled from beneath my brimmed hat, curving down my rough face as I eased out of town.

Within three miles the storm had increased. Dipping my head to fight the on-coming gust of wind, venturing became slow into Cobble Canyon. I could barely see what was supposed to be the main road. Instead, I found shelter for the time being inside a sizeable cavern.

Although the storm was coming on strong, I knew in my mind what a characteristic Colt hammer sounded like when being cocked. From a distance that's what I heard from inside of the open cavern.

Before I had the chance to quickly dismount, a single round whizzed over my head into the muddy floor behind me. I was hidden behind a sizeable boulder, peeking upward to where the shot was fired. My entire body was being drenched by the continual pelts of rain.

I waited for a goodly amount of time before easing from my secluded location. I worked my way to the next formations of shrubs and rocks, with nothing heard but raindrops being absorbed within my clothing. The wind and rain finally subsided, I was completely drenched, still guarding my location. I waited for anything yonder to be fired my direction and nothing was heard. Even if the person came on horseback, no noise prevailed from his escape. I was certain to hear the clopping of fresh mud, but there was no evidence of any gunman poised to shoot again from above me. Was this Uber Mix, responsible for making Mable Tews a widow, losing her husband in the same canyon years back? Maybe so, but nothing was heard again.

I made my way to the roan, eased over the wet saddle and maneuvered out of this location without another shot being fired in my direction. I'll be through this location again when returning to Cheyenne River, knowing to be on the look-out for this culprit.

On the other side of these jagged slopes was the Western & Pacific railroad tracks, westerly in the direction of Buffalo Corners. Half way between here and there was Meeker Junction. It was a small way station run by John Hobbs, a friend of mine, who I've known over ten years. Their home was walking distance from the station and I've watched his youngin's grow faster than pesky weeds in a garden. Damn nice family that takes care of the responsibilities of a good business.

With the rain now to the east, the sun finally came thru, returning to devastating heat of afternoon rays. I was able to dry off from the previous storm, now smelling real bad. The smell wasn't awful enough to make me sick; rather a noticeable stink that painted over my entire body. Not much to brag about other than keeping a distance from others until I could find me a sizeable bathtub with some ordinary bath soap. Nothin' fancy in the whiff to make me smell like a sweet woman that prefers that kind of fragrance.

In the distance, perhaps another mile in following the railroad tracks, was the station at Meeker Junction. This was part of my territory that I liked to come visit, especially the cool of spring or when seasons would begin to change in the fall. Up in the higher elevation leaves would turn hues of brown and orange and deep scarlet; natures playground of turning colors.

I dismounted in front of the station and noticed the ticket window was empty. I climbed the few wooden steps and crossed the platform. The sound of my spurs tingled as I reached the front door, turned the latch and entered.

John looked busy, gazing at sheets of messages on a wide table and listening to the nearby telegraph line. He finally looked up at the presence of my big smile.

We came together to shake hands and my grip was strong compared to his gentle grasp.

"Warren Brothers," he said. His smile was white teeth. "The good marshal from Cheyenne River comes to visit again."

"Just here to cool a spell," I said. "The next train is on time?"

John looked across the room at the wall clock and nodded.

The telegraph key was vibrating a message. John sat down, writing something on a sheet of paper, trying not to be disrespectable.

The station was empty, quiet as the inside of a filled church before the Sunday sermon, except for the sporadic tones from the telegraph machine.

"Two telegrams come in for ya," John said, now standing, "not knowin' when you'd be here."

"You already read 'em?" I said.

"Yes, Sir. I had to write the messages on paper. But what's said ain't none o' my business."

"You get a lot o' messages through here, don't ya?"

"I ain't bein' nosey if that's what you mean, Marshal."

"Just doin' your job without pokin' your nose inta 'nothers business. Right?"

John kept a straight face when he looked at me. The telegraph key continued to hammer.

"When did you say the next train was due in?" I said, beginning to walk around, being nosey as I usually am. Always like to quiz people, making sure they know their business. I've met some real stupid sons-a-bitches over the years who don't know shit about their business.

"Maybe in another 20 minutes, or thereabouts," John said. "I have the complete schedule memorized." He remained standing and momentarily stopped his work. Taking a break, he had time enough to roll a smoke.

"You sure about the time?" I said. "This new telegram here in my pocket says the next Western & Pacific is due here in about 8 or 9 minutes."

"Somethin' special 'bout that train comin' in?" he said. "Not too many lawmen stop by here that often. 'Specially a lawman comin' all this direction from Cheyenne River."

I kept the business to myself without John asking too many question. A few minutes went by before John spoke again.

"You're in luck, Marshall," he said. He walked to a large front bay window that took in the distant view. Every east bound could be seen for over a mile, depending on the weather.

Outside, the nearing sounds of the train could be heard, finally stopping at the designated platform. A family with two children were first to exit, continuing to stand outside. A businessman departed next, looked to be wearing the fashions of New York City, walking in the direction of inside the way station. He found a comfortable seat in the far corner after using the privy.

At last I saw the reason for my coming here. Two men were handcuffed together and the smaller man had a limp to his step.

The first man turned the latch to the station door and entered. They stood a distance from me and both immediately caught a glimpse of my U.S. Marshal badge.

John hence trouble and immediately footed to the telegraph desk and sat down.

"Uber Mix?" I said. My hand was around the butt of my Colt .44, holding back from lifting it from leather.

"Marshal Brothers," Uber said. "Ain't this somethin' that we meet again." His smile was a hollow mouth. He leaned on the better leg, with blood in patches on the other.

"Don't raise that .44, Marshal," the first man said. In full view he was gripping a Colt .45, pointed my direction. "He's my prisoner with a nice cash reward."

"Bounty hunter?" I said.

"I'm Pruitt Moss," he said. "Make my livin' findin' those with cash on their head." He was tall and lean, beginning white hair dominated his temples below his shabby hat. In front of his eyes were round glasses. His smile was wicked, missing several teeth and those visible were yellow.

"He's my prisoner, let 'im go," I said.

"Full 'o shit, Marshal," Pruitt said. "Gettin' my money after reachin' Cheyenne River."

I was irked by his cool, aloof manner.

"You just back away," Pruitt continued. His smile increased. "The train outside is waitin' for us. You can follow us, but he's my property 'till the money's in my hand."

"Once more," I said, "give 'im up!" A shadow of annoyance had crossed my face.

Suddenly the rear door to the office opened and running inside was Timmy Hobbs, the youngest of John's family.

"Bang, bang, bang," Timmy said, pointing his wooden play gun around and finally toward Pruitt. "Got ya covered!"

Pruitt acted too quickly, turning, leveling his Colt toward the boy. Uber reacted as the gun was fired, lifting Pruitt's arm and the bullet entered a ceiling post.

My reaction was instant, free to remove my .44 and squeeze the trigger once. The bullet lodged into Pruitt's mid-chest. A swift shadow of anger swept across his face, blood oozed from the entry hole and within moments he fell to the floor entering death. The weight of his body pulled Uber down, still handcuffed together.

"Don't go for his gun, Uber," I said. There was a critical tone in my voice.

Later that day, Pruitt was belly down over his saddle, Uber handcuffed to his pommel and I foot the stirrup and eased over hard leather. I gave my regards to John Hobbs and his family.

The return home didn't seem that far. It was moving into sunset as the few lighted kerosene lamps in Cheyenne River came into view. All around me the cliffs of red stone and rust were slowly being painted over in hues of deep plum and hints of midnight.

Making my way into an empty and quiet town with two horses in tow, I had stories to tell.

Two days later, as scheduled, ranch owner Joe Mays and Ferris Crowd stood in front of Circuit Judge Abraham Pitt. The fine was ten dollars each. Ferris didn't have the money and was put to work cleaning my office and outhouse for one week.

Nothing more was said between the two men, guessing the feud was over. I still think Ferris had a liking for Joe's daughter but nothing was ever mentioned again.

The End

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The Dry White
by Jonathan Oosterhouse

Hadley Barlow looked into the fading embers of the fire. The red-orange glow slowly flickered and faded. A wispy-white smoke snaked into the air. He kept his eyes on the dying fire as the sun peeked over the horizon, unleashing a an explosion of orange and red light. The clouds and trees turned pink at the morning sun.

Barlow turned his attention toward the tin cup of coffee in his hands. The black liquid filled his nostrils with a sweet and calming aroma. He touched his lips to the edge of the cup and sipped. The bitter drink warmed his throat and chest as he looked into the colorful sight in front of him.

It had been two weeks since Barlow and his small outfit had passed Santa Fe with their hundred heads of cattle. Their destination was Fort Apache, Arizona. Barlow had accepted a contract from a small beef company in eastern Texas to drive the small herd west to resupply the fort. He was told to gather his own outfit. It seemed an easy task, for Hadley Barlow had been a cowboy for 20 years. You couldn't say that for the rest of the drovers.

To save some money, Barlow had hired four cheap cowboys who were still new to the range. But with such a small herd, Barlow figured he could manage, and with such a small outfit, he figured he needn't a cook. The small outfit would move fast and reach Arizona before winter of 1880.

After stocking up on provisions, boxes of rifle and pistol cartridges, tobacco, and plenty of clothing, the small band of cowboys departed Cherokee County, Texas.

Barlow was not a hot-weather person. He was used to midwest driving since he was from northern Indiana. So going through the vast New Mexico and Arizona deserts would be harsh, especially on someone who wasn't used to them. It was already apparent that the long and dry drive had taken its toll on Barlow. His face was a reddish tan and resembled a shriveled up mud pile. Clothes were bleached and stained with salt and sweat. Already dry bread biscuits and sourdough were now impossible to consume without water.

Barlow was eager to get the drive over with and fast. And knowing that the fort was only a one or two day ride made him all the more giddy.

That morning, the outfit started early without Hadley Barlow. Though it was unusual, Barlow was not worried and took his time with the coffee.

* * *

Hadley had withered his coffee down to only a swallow then dumped the rest onto the dusty ground. He stretched his arms and legs then bent to dust sand and dirt off his worn leather chaps. So much use had been squeezed from the chaps that they were cracked and lacked a leather smell. Standing straight again, he adjusted his hat to the rising sun. A golden crown of glory illuminated over the crest of the Galiuro Mountains. It wouldn't be long until they had to pass through the dry Arizona desert. This worried Hadley because of the ominous presence of the Chiricahua Apache. He had not been in Indian territory before and heard they were touble.

Just to the left of Barlow was an ash tree with his bedding and his horse hitched around a branch in the cool shade. It was a beautiful black Tobiano paint. Its magnificent head was hooded in dark black and its body spotted with large dark spots. Barlow strode up to it and gently stroked its face. The horse was content with its rider and nudged him with its pink nose.

Barlow stepped back from horse and crouched next to his bedding. From a saddle bag he pulled a plug of tobacco and cut a generous portion with a knife he had on his belt, bumping his holstered colt. Tucking the tobacco into his cheek, he folded up a red saddle blanket and laid it across the beast's back. As his mouth filled with a rich brown juice, he heaved up his saddle that he used the previous night as a pillow. The paint did not flinch as Hadley set the saddle over the blanket and fastened it in place.

After he spat a wad of tobacco juice into the dirt, he picked up his Winchester rifle that was laid against the tree and observed it. He loved his Winchester, taking care not to abuse it and making sure the action was always well greased. The stock and grip were of finely polished walnut and the blued octagonal barrel shined, well oiled. The magazine tube extended to the end of the barrel and could hold fifteen metallic cartridges.

A few moments had passed of Barlow observing his rifle when he gently inserted it into its scabbard, which he had placed on the left side of the saddle. He then rolled up his bedroll and tied to the back of the saddle. Lastly, his saddle bags slid in place on the horses rump, Finally mounting, Barlow rode just beyond the hill, just to the left of his campsite. The camp area was a rare oasis. A few cottonwoods sprung up and provided a nice shade. A small puddle of water, more like a small pond, offered plenty of water for the horses and the men.

It seemed hard to leave the place, knowing it would be a long while before he would see anything like again. Only a long expanse of sand and an inferno-like heat lay before him. Barlow resentfully brought his horse to the crest of the hill.

* * *

The small hillock overlooked a large dry plain littered with mesquite, small cactus and the occasional Joshua tree. There was also some yucca and saguaro cactus. Baked sand and dust were heated again as the desert sun rose in its splendor. Tumbleweeds drifted in some areas as an arid breeze carried them along. This was the usual New Mexico terrain. However, one thing was out of place.

Hadley looked left and right, but to no avail. His cattle were gone. Then he noticed a small dust cloud in the far distance. He looked through the field glass he had in his saddle bag, and through the shimmering heat he could barely make out three specks that were his comrades and a mass that was of cattle. And just underneath the large grouping quickly galloped the fourth drover. The trail of dust the rider left seemed larger than the herd's.

What in hellfire is going on? He thought to himself.

It did not calm Hadley Barlow to see his cattle that far ahead or to see Quinlan Spencer high-tailing it back to the camp. Since Hadley was all packed and ready, he spurred his horse forward to meet Spencer. He held his hat down with his left hand as he held the reins in his right. The two met each other next to bush of desert sage.

Quinlan was the first to speak, shout rather. "They're takin' the cattle!" He yelled. "The three of them are takin' the cattle."

Barlow asked, "What'ya mean they're taking cattle?" His heart started thumping hard.

"I mean they stealing the cattle. Tom Daede persuaded Ash and Levi into takin' and sellin' the heads top notch, then splittin' it between themselves."

"Why would they do that?" Barlow's sun-baked face squinted at the distant thieves. A rage burned through his veins.

"They said you'd under pay them, He convinced them of it," Quinlan looked at Hadley worryingly. "They said you're a cheapskate."

Barlow looked shocked. "Where the hell you suppose he got that horse crap from?" He didn't wait for an answer, and was yet stupefied, "You think that too, Quin?"

Quinlan quickly answered, "No, sir. I figure you for a fair and honest man." He rubbed his sweaty forehead with the back of his rough gloves, then tilted his salt-stained hat forward. His mouth was dry. He quickly took a large swig of water from his canteen.

"Then I suppose you'd help me get my beef back and sell it to the army fair and square." Hadley was not asking.

Quinlan looked from his canteen and pulled it from his mouth gasping for air."Yes, sir." Quinlan was breathing hard as he brought his horse around. Quinlan Spencer was a young fellow of twenty-one years. He had little experience with cow handling, but he was good with a revolver. No, he wasn't fast at drawing, but he could shoot straight and hit a bottle twenty yards off without looking down the sights. At his hip, on top of his dusty chaps, rested his holstered stag-handled colt. His cartridge belt was full with .45 colt cartridges. Under the right side of his saddle was his .45-70 Springfield trapdoor carbine. He wasn't as good with the rifle as he was with his revolver.

Quinlan was also a smart one, knowing when to act and when to just stand by. He wasn't the toughest, but he could hold his own. In this situation, he knew he couldn't take on three armed cowboys. And he knew it wasn't right of them either.

"You all loaded up then?" Barlow nodded to the colt.

"Yes, sir."

"Then let's see if we can persuade them back." Hadley spurred his horse to a medium gallop and Quinlan followed. The herd was about a mile-and-a-half out as they rode to catch up. Grit and dirt exploded into the air as the horses hoofs pounded the hot ground. They avoided the cactus and mesquite, careful not get a thorn in their horse.

* * *

Hadley and Quinlan had made up a large amount of the gap between them and the herd when they slowed to the sound of a rifle report. Both came to a complete stop as a bullet kicked up sand just twenty feet in front of them. Quinlan's horses neighed and jerked its head back. The shimmering heat had subsided as they got within two hundred yards of the herd.

Quinlan said, "We're just out of rifle range." His face began to show the signs of the long drive, chapped lips and a creased face. The forehead wrinkled even more as he squinted to see the tree rustlers. "Maybe not out of range of Tom's sharps. But I get the feeling that was a warning shot." The thought of a .50 caliber buffalo bullet tearing through his chest scared him.

"I'd have to agree, Quin," Barlow responded with a faint smile. During the time of figuring out what was happening and riding, Hadley had calmed down, knowing that the three cowboys and the herd were not going to escape two riders. That and the fact he was still chewing on a plug of tobacco. His anger was still rampant.

"What do you suppose we do?" Quinlan asked, getting slightly worked up.

"Don't worry, Quin. We follow and stay just out of rifle range. They have to stop to rest at some point. That, and the fact that they are green to herding and driving."

Quinlan nodded in response, and the two of them trotted along. They were careful not to get to close or stride to far, lest they lose the herd or get shot at again.

The man who fired the shot went by Levi Johnson. Barlow didn't know him all that well, just knew he had a lever-gun and was an ass at cow herding. Levi was from Louisiana and had a thick southern accent. That was pretty much it. But as for Tom, he was a red-faced Irish man. It was rare for Tom not to complain about the sun or the long drive. However, he was smart and knew how to work someone over, probably how he convinced Ash and Levi to help him and abandon the boss.

Ash was easily intimidated, so it didn't surprise Barlow that he was a part of the thieving group.

Quinlan and Hadley Barlow went after the group and followed them into the desert of Arizona

* * *

The sun rose to the highest point and scorched anything that dare exist beneath it. No breeze or wind subsided the intense inferno. Baked sand and dust made mouths dry and slowed the horses to a slow walk. There was nothing for Barlow and Quinlan to do except keep their hats tilted against the sun to keep their necks from frying. Any relieve from the heat came of the occasional sip from the canteen. Now it seemed they were running low on water.

Hadley Barlow had figured they had passed the border and were now subject to the Arizona desert. But, that also meant they should be passing a small river at the base of the mountains before coming in to Fort Apache. Barlow had to make up a plan to get the cattle back soon. They were no more than a day-and-a-half ride from the fort.

Apache. The thought of the word stung like a bee. They would have to be careful. It's said you never see the Apache before you slump over dead from a trade gun. But what was true and what was false. Hadley would have to find out for himself.

The long desert silence was broken by Quinlan. "I'm out of water."He looked into his canteen and slung it back on the saddle horn. He gave a glance back to Barlow. His mouth was open as he started panting. The intensity of the sun evaporated any form of liquid from the cowboys.

"We should be passing a river soon, just before those mountains," Hadley said, nodding to the distant Galiuro Mountains. He looked past hi thirst and gave another thought. The herd would have to cross the river before they could cross. Maybe that would be a good time to retake the cattle. He peered to see the wavering forms of the cowboys in the distance.

"Quin, I got an idea," Barlow started, "Say we make a move when they go to cross the river. They'd be vulnerable."

Quinlan didn't look back, but nodded. "Sounds like a decent plan," Quinlan said. "There might just be some cover near the water." Now he turned in his saddle. "Figure we come at 'em from their left flank. We southwest a bit 'till we hit the river." He paused, "Then we follow the river back to their crossing. That way we'll have plenty of cover." He thought of the cool water the river would bring.

Hadley's cracked lips formed into a smile. "Exactly what I was just about to say." He took another long look at the far herd. "We'd better get a move on then."

Plan in place, they swung their horses to the left and sped up toward the southwest . Quinlan was eager to make it to the river fast. Hadley took a last swig from his canteen and slung it back over the saddle. At the pace they were going they would be at the river within the hour, and they would be able to water their horses and refresh themselves. Then they would pounce on the thieves and retake the cattle.

* * *

The splashing of the cattle across the river was loud, but it was the perfect cover for Quinlan and Barlow. They had hitched their horses on a tree about a half-mile south down the river and now slowly approached the crossing herd. The two would have to move fast, for the small herd would not take long to cross.

Barlow had his Winchester as he crouched behind small tree. About fifty yards ahead were the three thieves. They were standing around; taking a break rather. The cowboys were dismounted, except for Ash. Hadley was just close enough to hear them talk as he peered from the wooden cover.

"Where did those two go?" Tom Daede asked. He seemed to be in a rotten mood as he stalked over to Ash. "You were suppose keep an eye for 'em." He grabbed Ash by his bandana and yanked him off the horse.

"They rode off to the south," Ash started as he regained his footing, "I figured they gave up." Ash's voice was quivering as he tried to keep eye contact with Tom. Tom shoved him back toward Ash's horse.

"You worthless sunnuvabitch," Tom barked, "Get across that river and steer the herd."

Ash jumped up and dusted his hide vest and leather chaps before mounting and crossing the river. Tom walked away shaking his head and snatched his Sharps rifle from the scabbard on his saddle. Levi grabbed his Winchester from his horse also and chambered a round. Tom knew that Barlow and Quinlan didn't give up, he just knew it. He took his hat off and let hang on his neck as he brought his horse to a tree and tied it up; Levi did the same.

"Where do you suppose they are, Tom?" Levi asked, wrapping the reins around a thin branch.

"Dunno, maybe stalking back after Ash lost sight," Tom paused and watched Ash splash across the river. "You stay by the heard or else," He yelled at Ash.

Quinlan took aim with his Springfield and cocked the hammer back from the cover of a bush. He looked back to wait for Barlow to fire the first shot. Barlow had already leveled his sights on tom. His finger slowly squeezed the trigger. He hesitated as his breathes became shallow.

Tom started to look around the trees as he opened the action of the sharps. His tense arm felt a cartridge on his belt as he looked in Barlow's direction.

Maybe I should give him a warning and fire a shot at his feet. Hadley thought. NO . The hammer fell and the Winchester boomed. Tom fell back as a bullet tore through his shoulder. Hadley would not allow him to resist. Quinlan fired his rifle and missed, shattering a dead log a foot from Levi. Tom quickly scrambled behind a large rock several yards from the running water; blood trickled from his wound. He slid a large .50 caliber cartridge into the breach of his sharps. Levi jumped behind the dead log and returned fire at random with his lever-gun.

Bullets splashed mud and dust, splintered wood and shattered stone as the gunfight persisted. Quinlan had reloaded his single-shot rifle three times before switching to his colt revolver. As he grasped the stag handle, the sharps buffalo rifle cracked and ripped the bush from the ground by the roots. Quinlan fan fired the revolver while running and peppered Tom's rock. He quickly found a new cover behind some low growing cactus and reloaded. Ejecting the shells, he quickly replaced them and primed the hammer.

Barlow had kept Levi suppressed with the Winchester when he bent to slide some more cartridges into the magazine tube. He pushed the metallic cases through the loading gate as fast as he could. Tree splinters exploded over his shoulder as Levi unleashed a volley of lead. But as Levi was levering a new round, Hadley sprung up and blasted a gory hole in his chest. The man fell down and the lever-gun fell from his hands. Barlow chambered a new round and turned his attention toward tom, who had given up trying to reload the buffalo gun with one arm. Instead he drew a Schofield revolver.

Quinlan had reloaded and readied his revolver before advancing toward Tom's rock fully exposed. The rock was white with pock marks and ricochet spots. Only adding to them, Barlow fired three quick shots before crouching to inject some more cartridges into his Winchester.

"You done yet, Tom?" Hadley hollered from his tree as he slid another bullet in.

"Go to hell, Barlow," Tom barked as the barrel of his revolver cracked. The bullet landed several yards from Hadley, who responded with a well placed shot that nicked Tom's other shoulder. Tom cursed as pain seared from the barely lethal wound. Yanking the hammer back on his Schofield, he tried to aim from cover, but received a face full of grit and sand from the rifle.

Quinlan had managed to sneak up on Tom during his and Barlow's quick exchange. Coming around the rock, he pressed the barrel against Tom's head and pulled the trigger. The bullet smashed through his skull and spat bone and brain all over the rock. Tom's limp body dropped the Schofield and his eyes stared lifelessly into the blue sky.

"I got 'im," Quinlan declared. He pushed his colt back into its holster and tilted back his hat, gazing intently into the hole he had just made. A sickening feeling came over Quinlan when he turned away. Barlow stepped close to Tom's body and kneeled next to it.

"Damn fool," Hadley growled. He stood back up. "Quin, go get the horses. I'll tend to the bodies." Quinlan ran off as Hadley caressed Tom's sharps in his hands. He leaned it against the rock and dragged Tom to the river. There was a river bank with a small cave-like structure underneath it. It was just large enough to fit the two bodies in.

Once Barlow had the bodies in the bank, he roughly sealed the entrance with stones and mud. He turned his head toward the other side of the river. The cattle was still there.

* * *

Quinlan and Hadley took small breather at the river side and they filled their canteens with fresh water. The sun had passed the center of the sky and beat down on the landscape. But the two cowboys were hid beneath the shade of the river trees and vegetation. Quinlan was lounged against a log and nibbled on A biscuit. He was still shaken at the sight of the messy hole he placed in Tom's skull. As good with a revolver as he was, he was still not used to killing folks.

Hadley was cleaning his Winchester with A handkerchief, gently rubbing away any dust and grit. He stuffed the cloth into his vest pocket and started to work the action of the rifle. It felt smoother than glass. When he was done, he walked to his horse and pushed the Winchester into its scabbard. The sharps was still leaning against the rock.

"Here," Hadley picked the buffalo rifle up and handed it to Quinlan, "You earned it." Quinlan finished the biscuit off and held the rifle in his hands.

"I ain't no good with a rifle," Quinlan said, mouth full of biscuit.

"Practice then." Hadley walked back over to his paint, his chaps opened at the bottom and caught some sand as he mounted.

"Now?" Quinlan asked as he stood up.

"Well, not now. We'd better get back on the trail. Ash is probably waiting for someone to claim the herd." Barlow splashed across the water and tilted his hat forward. Crow's feet formed on the corners of his eyes as they thinned at the intensifying sun. Quinlan joined him and replaced the sharps into the saddle scabbard. They moved across the shallow water with caution. Whether Ash was going to shoot or not was a complete mystery.

When they climbed the bank, they could see that the entire herd was accounted for. Ash was nowhere to be found. They did not inquire upon his whereabouts and moved the herd at a steady pace.

* * *

The herd covered a lot of ground, for the flat desert offered no barrier obstacles. But they began to slow due to the heat. It did not occur to Quinlan or Barlow that they took the shady river for granted. Trees were extremely sparse in the open desert. The occasional Joshua tree popped up here and there, but offered little shade. Mesquite and cactus did nothing. Clouds were never present to shield the sun.

Hours slowly passed by and finally the sun eased its searing tendrils. Evening came and gave the drovers and cattle a cool relieve. It was then that Barlow, who was ahead of the heard, noticed an unnatural shape in the oncoming trail. He broke his horse into a gallop and stopped before a corpse. Flies were still buzzing around the baked and rotting flesh. Barlow leaned over his saddle and spat tobacco juice at the recognition of the body. It was Ash. His clothes were stripped and stolen, his gun belt gone and his horse rustled. There was a defined gap in his throat where a knife had made its way across.

Apaches, Barlow thought. He looked around into the darkening land. Gone now. And as the herd caught up, he kept going. He didn't know Ash all that well, at least no more than the others. But Barlow knew Ash was unsure of his surroundings. Always wondering what to do and when to do it. He had always had others make his decisions for him. Ash's decision to flee from the herd had cost him his life.

* * *

The sun was sitting on the edge of the mountains when the adobe huts and cook fires were spotted. Quinlan let out a yelp of triumph as he started pushing the heard from the back. Barlow sped his horse up and the two moved the herd toward the fort. Fort was an understatement. There were no walls. It seemed like just a very small town. Some buildings were adobe mud and brick, while others were of logs and wooden planks.

An officer and a trooper rode out to meet the cowboys.

"This here for us?" The cavalryman asked in a gruff voice.

"Yes, sir," Quinlan was quick to answer and he came from the back of the herd. "All the way from east Texas."

Barlow nodded.

"Well good," The officer said. "I like some good Texas steak. Private, help these two drive them in."

It didn't take long to organize the cattle and fence them in. When the job was done, the cavalry officer came up to Barlow and Quinlan, who were overlooking the herd. He was carrying a worn saddle bag.

"Here's payment for the heads," The officer said as he hand the bag to Barlow. "You two are welcome to rest here a couple days." As Hadley Barlow opened the bag flap to check the money, Quinlan spoke

"We'd love to," His head turned toward Hadley, "That okay Barlow?" Barlow took a thick stack of cash and handed it to Quinlan.

"You go ahead and stay, Quin," He closed the flap and slung the bag over the saddle horn. "I don't belong here." He looked up to the setting sun then turned his horse around. He thought of the flat Iowa plains. "I don't belong here," he repeated as he overlooked the vast desert that stretched before him. How he longed for the cool breeze of the midwest. Quinlan nodded to Barlow as he spurred his horse into an easy gallop east, back across the dry white Arizona Desert.

The End

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