The Yarn Spinners
by Willy Whiskers, Constable of Calliope NV
There are fibs, lies, and tall tales, and exactly which one was afoot in the Peachtree Saloon that night could be debated. Savanna Sal, Harvey McCallian, and Muley Sam got to yarn spinning over a few beers. Each one put a dollar on the bar betting who had the best story. The bar patrons gathered around to listen and later vote on who got the prize.
Sam was a prospector and early mountain man from the old days with his footprints covering much of the land west of the Platte. When his turn came he stepped up with his favorite reminiscence from his time in California.
"If you get up in the back country of the Sierra Nevada you might run into a man-bear. Some say it's not true, but I'm here to tell you it's real 'cause I saw the making of this creature.
"There were five or six of us trapping in those mountains back in '35. One of the men was Red River Ralph. He was a big man, maybe the biggest man I ever saw. Rough, rugged, with a mighty chest and a bellowing voice that could strip bark clean off a pine tree.
"One morning outside of camp we heard a crashing and growling in the brush. Ralph went to see what it was and up popped the greatest grizzly bear in the world. It busted out right in front of him. They were both startled and held their ground for a moment, then the bear opened his grand maw and through its gleaming sharp teeth dripping with slobber, let out an ear splitting roar. Not to be out done, Ralph drew in a full breath and responded with a deafening roar of his own.
"The bear was not used to anyone or anything standing up to him. So, he reared up to his full height, maybe 12 feet or more, and roared again. Standing his ground, Ralph responded in kind, even though he looked puny next to the mountain beast.
"Now, full of anger, the beast dropped to all fours and bolted full speed at our fellow. Ralph was quick for a big man and sidestepped the bear as it lunged for him. In a quick moment the bear stopped, turned and went back after Ralph. Our friend started to run in a circle around the bear. We were sure that the bear would have him in a short order, but Ralph continued to stay just one fang away from the beast's jaws.
"The faster the bear ran, the faster Ralph ran; around and around they ran in tighter and tighter circles. They kicked up a thick cloud of dust so we could not see which was which at any moment. They came to look not as two beings, but one being spinning around like a great puppy chasing its tail.
"Finally, they slowed with exhaustion and to our amazement there was not the two of them, but only one creature standing there all out of breath. It was a curious thing. It had fingers extending out from its paws, with Ralph's face where the bear's face had been, and it was wearing Ralph's britches.
"We were rooted to the ground with fear and awe and could not have defended ourselves if the man-bear had turned on us, but it didn't. Confused and full of mystery about its condition, it turned and wandered back into the underbrush.
"We followed after it for a spell, but to no effect. For the rest of the season we would catch sight of the man-bear up on a high ridge or down in a valley or hunting in a stream. The next year we were back trapping the same ground and we caught sight of a she-bear with two cubs. Each one had fingers and a child's face. Since then you hear reports of man-bears up in the Sierra Nevada all the time.
"A man bear?" Harvey McCallian thought to himself. He scoffed, but felt it was not right to question another man's tall tale so he let it go. "I too met a bear once when I was riding for the Pony Express and had an experience that will make your flesh crawl."
"You remember the poster for the Pony Express: 'Young, skinny, wiry fellow not over eighteen; must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. $25 per week. Apply at the Pony Express Stables.'
"So there I was, not a month past fourteen and an orphan just like they wanted. I walked in and they gave me a job, no questions asked."
"Hold it right there," Sam interjected, having no problem with stepping on another man's tale. "I know your dad and brothers. You ain't no orphan."
Without skipping a beat, Harvey countered, "I picked them up after this happened," and went on with his yarn.
"It was on my third or fourth run, three days out of St. Joe, when a band of Crew Indians cornered me and shot my horse. They were a fierce lot with painted faces and none too friendly, I'll tell you.
"Figured I was a goner when they stripped me and staked me out on an ant hill. Then they slathered me with this sticky goo that smelled worse than anything that ever came off a stable floor. Guess it must have been to get the ants to agree. The cowards took off and left me to die a horrible death being swarmed by them little beggars.
"They were in my mouth, up my nose, all over my ears and eyes, and they even got into places that one should ever go. I was in a hell of a fix for sure. Then I started to laugh.
"Don't know why, but them varmints crawling all over me gave me the tickles. The more they moved the more tickled I got until I could do nothing but laugh out loud. I laughed and laughed and laughed like I was possessed, half mad.
"I raised such a ruckus that all manner of critters came by to see what was the matter. Among them was a passel of lizards including a gila monster. Well those reptiles got to feasting on those pesky ants and in no time they had picked me clean.
"Of course I was still staked to the ground and the sun was getting pretty hot by then. That's when a bear came by sniffing around. He was a proper bear too, no man-bear. Seems he liked the stinky goo pretty well and started to lick it off my body. That was one time I lay so still, like the dead, who I was not looking to join.
"After his licking he set to work digging into the ant hill. He dug so ferociously he popped my stakes out of the ground and, when he finally left, I was free.
"You must have been bad sunburned and nearly starved for water by then," Sam questioned. "How did you survive?"
"Well Sam, I was pretty bad off, but that is when the sky clouded up and it started to rain and I got swept up in a flash flood that carried me to the next Pony Express station where I arrived holding a fat trout in each hand that they cooked up for my supper."
"Bears, ants, gila monsters, trout" Sal piped up. "They're not so strange." Sal owned the saloon and was known to be a woman with a bawdy soul, so the patrons were ready for a ribald tale.
"I grew up in Kansas and you know when it gets to blowing out there on the plains a lot of strange things get to happening. So this one afternoon I was walking home from school and the black clouds came up out of the west and it got dark real fast. The tongue of that twister came down right behind me. I headed for a small grove of trees as fast as I could run, but it caught me and lifted me up and spun me around.
"Round and round I went, sweeping about with all kinds of stuff like boards, farm tools and even a fat sow. Higher and higher the storm took me. It blew so hard it stripped off the flour sack dress Momma made me."
The men in the bar leaned forward, anticipating the next line. Here at last was the juicy tale they wanted.
"That didn't bother me much as in a few minutes a much prettier dress came whirling by. I grabbed it and put it on."
From the men, a disappointed sigh circuited the room.
"There was no way of telling how long I was up in the air, but finally the wind started to fade. Instead of sending me back to the ground I found myself sitting on a thick, puffy cloud. With clear air below me, I saw farms and cities and rivers. At first I was scared that the cloud would give out and I'd plummet to my death, but that fear passed over time as I sat there and the wind moved us along.
"In the distance there was another cloud, much bigger than mine, and the wind was pushing me towards it. The closer I came the more I could see and, to my surprise, there was this man standing on the edge of the cloud. He wore a white beard, dressed in white robes and stood in front of massive gates of pearl and gold. For my whole life I've heard about the pearly gates and St. Peter who guarded them. That was the nearest thing I could think of, looking out at the big cloud.
"As my cloud passed by I stood up and yelled, 'How do I get home?' At first he paid no attention, so I called again and again. He heard me at last and as we whisked by, he stretched out his Shepherd's crook and tapped my cloud.
"The cloud began to swirl around me and in no time it reformed into a great grey-white steed with me seated high up on its back. 'Home,' I yelled and we took off right into a head wind. His cloudy mane whipped around and my long hair was swept straight out behind me. The longer he ran the faster he went and soon we were circling our old farm house.
"He lay out on the ground like a thick fog and my feet touched. As soon as I was down, he reformed into his horse form and winged off into the sky. Every now and then I look up at the sky and see him waiting for me. When I'm done on this world I know he will be there to take me back to those pearly gates."
The other story tellers and the assembled bar folks had not expected Sal to tell such a tale. No one knew she had such a soft side, but she told it with such passion one could only think it happened just as she said.
Not letting the silence last one moment longer, Sam started in on his next yarn.
"I've never been one for ghosts and hauntings. But, when something happens that you cannot explain, it gets one to thinking. This one time I was working the Haverhill mine in Colorado, rigging a string of charges for the next blast. After all the men cleared out—"
Just then something caught in Sam's throat and the patrons were suddenly aware of a tall man standing in the doorway, dressed in black silk, wearing a wide brimmed hat that cast a shadow across his face and obscuring his features.
"It seems a bit rude to have a story contest without including the master liar of them all." The dark figure slipped up to the bar and placed a dollar next to the other coins. Strangely, his coin rang like a great bell when it came to rest.
The patrons, transfixed by this newcomer, sat in dead silence as he began his yarn.
"There are ruins down on the Pecos that you should stay clear of if a long life is what you want. Seems at one time a dance hall stood there, and folks came from all around to have a fine old time dancing and singing. A more jovial crowd one cannot imagine. Sometimes, in the early Fall, the dances would go on all night with several musicians taking turns providing the gaiety.
"It was on one of these Autumn nights under a full moon that a new fellow showed up carrying a fancy fiddle case. Not drawing much attention, he appeared as just a regular gent, but there was something about his eyes that didn't look exactly right. When the usual music makers took a break, he stood alone on the stage and opened his case. From it he pulled a shiny, black fiddle that seemed to glow with a light of its own, gleaming in an eerie way. Next came out his bow, strung with black hair, like the fiddle.
"Stomping his foot, he swept the bow across the stings and started playing the old Virginia reel. The people were tired from all the dancing they had already done, but the strains of the old fiddle perked up their ears. After a few more bars they all felt the urge to get back out on the floor and start to spin. Even the old people who usually just sat against the wall were up on their shaky legs.
"Once they were all going, the fiddler played a little faster. To follow the pace, the dances took to spinning a little faster too. The faster he played, the faster they moved. They could not stop even when they were spent. They could not sit down. Something unnatural was holding them up.
"Faster and faster the bow slid across the strings until the bow itself began to smoke. The dancers too were moving so fast they too seemed to give off wisps of smoke. Someone looking in on the scene would be hard pressed to distinguish one person from another.
"The room filled with an unearthly smoky fog and then the fiddler's bow burst into flame and bits of fire flew off, igniting the roof and walls. The dancers were so entranced they didn't notice the dance hall burning down around them. The fiddler played even faster.
"Finally the people started to dissolve and become one with the smoke. As the flames built higher the disembodied dancers were swept up into the sky along with the burning embers. And still the fiddler played.
"By morning there was nothing left of the dance hall but a few ruins; no people, nothing but the fiddler still standing on the remnants of the stage. As if nothing had happened, he replaced his instrument in its case, held out his arms and spun around like the dancers. Turning into a wisp of smoke, he blew away with the wind."
As the dark stranger told his tale, saloon patrons had not noticed the thickening layer of smoke gathering above their heads. That is, until the storyteller described how the fiddler wended his way into oblivion. Then the listeners began coughing and their eye's burned with the acrid air.
The dark yarn spinner concluded, "Now if you go down to those ruins when the moon casts just the right shadows and the wind is just so, you can see those dancers to this day and hear the old Virginia reel wafting through the trees."
By then no one was listening as they milled about in confusion and discomfort. Some men tried to find the door, but could not find a way out. The stranger laughed out loud in a hideous cackle that added to the unpleasantness. "I think these coins are mine," he declared, sweeping the money into his fist. He walked calmly out the door and disappeared into the night.
Willy Whiskers, Constable of Calliope Nevada is an active Cowboy Action Shooter from Florida and a retired
Physics teacher, but that's not who Willy really is . . .
Born in 1854 in Missouri, he found the answer to life in 1923 in Carson City Nevada. Starting out with the
railroad, he becoming an engineer at the age of 21. Holding many jobs, like station agent in Fallon NV and
railroad detective, he ended up as Constable of Calliope, Nevada, This is where we meet him through his
stories in Frontier Tales.
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by Robert Walton
Joaquin Murrieta wrapped his reins three times around the hitching rail in front of the Cosmopolitan Hotel. He patted his horse's dusty neck and then stepped onto the boardwalk in front of the hotel. Three men approached from his right. The man in the middle, the tallest, snarled, "Get out of the way, old man!"
* * *
Joaquin turned and looked at the men. They were dressed in jeans and patterned shirts. They wore wide-brimmed hats and pistols hung in holsters at their sides. They were young.
Joaquin's eyes glittered for a moment. There was a time when he would have taken blood for such disrespect. Not now.
He stepped aside and said, "Your pardon, sirs."
The men swept by without another word. Joaquin watched their backs recede. An ancient man, white-bearded and hatless, stepped away from the hotel's door. He said, "Sorry about that, mister. Most folks in our town don't act like that. Come on in and make yourself at home."
Joaquin turned to the man. "I thank you. I have traveled far and need rest."
"Well," the old man grinned, "The Cosmopolitan is the best hotel in Tombstone and for fifty miles around. I'm Bill McKean, the stable hand. I'll take your horse if you like."
I would appreciate that very much, Mr. McKean. Those young men, they live here too?
The old man shrugged. "On ranches near. The Bernard Cattle Company took over several local spreads and brought these fellows in. The tall mean one calls himself Kid Vineta. He's the ringleader. They think they can do what they please. They won't think so when Big Kitty gets back to town, I can tell you."
McKean grinned. "She runs the saloon next door. If they act up in there when she's around, it'll be the last thing they do."
"This Big Kitty is a strong woman?"
McKean spit in the dust next to the hitching post. "Why, mister, they say a bear broke into Kitty's cabin up to Volcano in the California gold country several years back, got her out of bed after midnight, tried to eat her."
"She was seriously injured?"
"Hell, she was killed. Kitty stuck a Bowie knife in that sow. Served up bear stew to the whole town for the next week."
"She is a formidable woman."
"That ain't the half of it, mister." He gestured down the block with a grimy thumb. "See that saloon down there?"
Joaquin looked through dust-laden heat. "I see tents and lean-tos attached to a large shack."
"That's it. Belongs to Big Nosed Kate."
Joaquin thought for a moment. "She is associated with Doc Holliday?"
McKean nodded. "That's her. She and Kitty don't get along."
"They are enemies?"
"Let's just say that they agree to disagree. Lordy, if they ever tangle I foresee fatal consequences for one or both of them. They do agree on one thing."
Joaquin looked at McKean. "And that is?"
McKean spat brown juice in the dirt beneath the horse. "That those pups who rousted you got to learn to behave."
"More coffee, Mister?"
* * *
"Please, it is very good." Joaquin pushed his cup to the table's edge. Mrs. Colby—proprietor, cook, dishwasher and waitress of the Nugget Café—tilted the heavy pot she carried and poured. Mrs. Colby's brown hair was shot with gray and she was sturdy, though trim. She wore a calico print dress, somewhat faded, and a plain apron, somewhat stained.
Joaquin said, "Thank you." Mrs. Colby smiled and turned to leave. Joaquin continued, "May I ask you a question?"
Mrs. Colby glanced at the other three diners seated at a large table near the window, decided they could wait a few moments for more coffee and nodded to Joaquin. "Sure."
Joaquin smiled. "Several people in town have mentioned a certain woman in passing, a Big Kitty. Can you tell me something about her?"
Mrs. Colby frowned. "Mister, I ain't no gossip!"
Joaquin leaned forward. "Of course not. I want no gossip, just enough information about her so that I will make no blunders. I wouldn't wish to offend Miss Kitty by saying the wrong thing to the wrong person."
"Well, when you put it that way . . . "
Joaquin patted her hand. "It is that way. You are a responsible person of business and know how careful one must be."
Joaquin sipped from a glass of what passed for brandy in Big Kitty's saloon. The slightly amber liquid, though possibly derived from grapes, was also likely used to start fires and dissolve paint. He swallowed with stoic determination. His stomach needed as much help as it could get digesting Mrs. Colby's pork chops, mashed potatoes and gravy.
A young cowboy stood a dozen feet to Joaquin's right. His clothing and gear were worn. He looked weary from many hours spent in a saddle. A half full mug of beer stood on the bar before him.
Kid Vineta and four of his gangsters pushed through the bar's swinging doors. Curses and general abuse trailed after them like yipping dogs. They pushed up to the bar and demanded service. The bartender produced bottles and glasses.
Vineta noticed the young cowboy. His eyes glittered. He turned to the young man. "Say, what kind of pistol is that, mister?
The cowboy glanced down at the holster on his right hip. He shrugged. "It's an old Colt. It's broke, though. I think it's got a busted spring. I don't have call to use it much, but I guess I should get it fixed."
Vineta spoke carefully. "Mind if I look at it?"
The cowboy said, "Sure."
The Kid straightened and his muscles tensed, ready to draw and kill as soon as the cowboy touched his gun. Joaquin moved before the cowboy could reach for his broken pistol. His arm uncoiled like a striking snake and flung the rest of the brandy into Vineta's eyes. Vineta screamed and clutched his face.
Vineta groveled on the barroom floor and cried, "I'm blind! God help me, I'm blind!"
The tough behind Vineta pulled a Bowie knife and advanced on Joaquin. Violence again. Joaquin hesitated. He hesitated though he knew the young toughs would think him afraid. Fear encourages such men, excites them, makes them feel justified in whatever they do. He thought of the blood his knife had drunk, of the hearts pounded open by his blunt bullets. Such acts appalled him now. If God could have mercy on men such as these, then so could he. He would not kill again if he could help it.
Joaquin met the man's eyes but without defiance. "Wash your friend's eyes with warm water. He will recover. I meant only to prevent bloodshed."
The man laughed. "Well, old fool, you're too late to do that. Blood will be spilled here. Yours first." He raised his knife, took another step forward. Joaquin spread his hands wide. The man grinned and prepared to lunge.
An iron frying pan impacted against the knife-wielder's left temple with a clock-tower gong. He fell to the floor like a sack of rice. His Bowie knife landed on the bar and spun slowly.
A glowering woman, well over six feet tall, stood in the kitchen door. She transferred a second frying pan from her left hand to her right. She asked, "Who's next?"
One of the other gangsters reached for his pistol and drew. Joaquin drew first. The crash of his heavy .44 froze everyone in the bar. Its cloud of smoke washed over and around the gangsters. The man who had tried to draw looked at the round hole in his hand in stunned wonder.
The big woman charged into the room screaming obscenities. Her frying pan rose high. Two swift, loud clangs sounded. Both remaining gangsters slumped to the floor.
Joaquin lowered his pistol. The young cowboy, leaving his unfinished beer on the bar, turned and walked through the bar's doors. He didn't look back.
The woman dropped her frying pan on the unconscious Kid. She walked over to Joaquin. "Thanks for getting that fellow with the gun, Mister. I wasn't sure I could get to him."
Joaquin looked up at the woman towering above him. She had a wide, pleasant face, slightly freckled. Her nose was sunburned. Her sun-bleached light brown hair was pulled back and tied with a yellow ribbon, though some had escaped restraint. She wore slacks and a man's shirt with the top three buttons undone. Her impressive bosom heaved impressively.
Joaquin smiled. "You needed little help."
The woman shook her head. "That fellow might have got me." She glanced at the gangster now dribbling blood on the barroom floor. "You should have killed him!"
Joaquin shrugged. "It was not necessary. " He smiled. "I am pleased to meet you. I have heard much about you, Big Kitty."
"What did you call me?"
"I meant no offense. Others call you 'Big Kitty'. I assumed that you permitted it. I apologize if that is not so."
"I'm not offended, stranger, just surprised. You see, my name is Priscilla Barnes. I'm not Big Kitty." She looked at the unconscious cowboys sprawled around the bar. "These fellows would have been in real trouble if Big Kitty walked in here tonight."
Joaquin glanced at the bruised, bleeding men.
Priscilla continued, "Big Kitty believes in solving problems permanent, if you know what I mean."
Joaquin nodded, "I understand."
Priscilla continued, "Besides, compared to Kitty, I'm just a little bit of a thing."
Joaquin tilted his head and looked up into blue eyes sparkling with a merry light. He smiled. "As you say, Miss Barnes." He holstered his pistol.
She patted his hand. "Thanks for helping me out, mister. None of these other weasels here even lifted a hand."
Joaquin inclined his head in a polite bow. "It was my pleasure. Now, if you'll excuse me, I wish you good night." He turned and walked toward the door.
Priscilla called after him, "Good night, stranger! And say . . . "
Joaquin paused and looked back over his shoulder.
"If you don't mind my saying so, you're pretty spry for an old fellow. You should stick around for few days."
Joaquin's eyebrow arched a question.
Priscilla winked. "Kitty and me could show you a good time when she gets here. Maybe you and McKean."
"They don't call him T-bone for nothing."
Joaquin inclined his head in a polite bow and holstered his pistol. "Good night, Miss Barnes."
Robert Walton is a retired teacher, a lifelong mountaineer and writer. His writing about climbing has appeared
in the Sierra Club's Ascent and been broadcast on NPR. His published western fiction includes two award-winning
short stories, Joaquin's Gold and Black Maggie's Secret. Robert's Civil War novel Dawn Drums was
honored by two awards: first place in the 2014 Arizona Authors Association's literary contest, and the New Mexico Book
Awards Tony Hillerman Prize for best fiction. Further information about his writing is available on his website:
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The Last Gunfighter Out of Dodge
by J.R. Underdown
The times were changing. But no one bothered to tell Billy "Bull" Windborne anymore. They used to. But he had been as accepting of such talk as the dry ground around the infamous Dodge City. It was 1894 and the "Old West" was dying off. But old Bull Windborne wasn't dead yet, and, as far as he was concerned, neither was the West he grew up on.
* * *
On one particular afternoon, Windborne rolled into town atop his spotted grey thoroughbred and headed for his familiar haunt, the Saratoga Saloon. He sauntered in and glared at all the men in quiet conversation around the bar. They spared him a glance in return, most moving off to tables. Bull took his place beside Kirby Jackson and the two looked like a contrast of eras. Kirby was dressed in a nice black suit, with a derby hat to match. His face was clean-shaven save for a finely trimmed mustache. Bull, on the other hand, was dusty, dressed in ragged wear, with his cowboy hat stained with sweat, rain, and dust. His face was grizzled, with a scraggly beard that never seemed to grow and Bull never seemed to cut it.
"Still acting like a dentist, Kirb?" Bull began.
Kirby looked sideways at his drinking partner. "Still acting like a tough gunman, Bull?"
Several men snickered behind them at the tables. Windborne glared over his shoulder and the snickering stopped.
"Jack, give me the usual," Bull demanded.
As the barkeep readied the strongest mix of alcohol anyone ever ordered, Kirby Jackson turned his body to face Bull Windborne.
"How long has it been, Bull? Four years since you came back? When will you realize this town ain't what it used to be?"
"It can be great again, Kirb," growled Bull, "When you pansy men get the yellow out of your bellies!"
Kirby shook his head. "That ain't happenin', Bull. The East has finally caught up with the West. We're a civilized cow town . . . thank goodness." Some men muttered "here, here" to that statement and Bull glared over his shoulder again to silence them.
"Yet in the midst of all this sophistication," Kirby continued, "you remain as the ever-present reminder of our town's odious past."
"Odious, my foot!" Bull shot back. "This town used to have some flavor to it. Now it's all dried up like Boot Hill! Why, all the good saloons burned down (no offense, Jack) and what did you do about it? Nothin'! And now all the people that made this town int'resting are gone."
"Yes, and they moved farther west. Which makes me—and a whole lot of other people—wonder why on earth you prefer to stay here? Do you think you can be some gun-slinging preacher of the older days to start a revival? Or do you just hide here in the shell of an old cow town because you're a shell of the man you want to be?"
A tense silence swept over the place. Bull turned his body to face Kirby and rested his right hand on his gun.
"Sounds like fightin' words to me," Windborne said quietly. "You want to take this outside, Doc?"
Kirby stared at Bull with a quiet confidence. "I don't carry a gun, Bull. Besides, there's a law against fighting in the streets. Fists, guns, or otherwise."
Jack, the barkeep, couldn't handle the tension anymore and cut in. "Bull, you gonna drink up or am I gonna hafta waste my liquor?"
Windborne's eyes shot to the little glass filled with its deadly concoction. He picked it up, raised it to his mouth, and looked at Jackson.
"Here's lookin' at your teeth, Doc." He turned to the others in the saloon and downed the whole drink in one toss. Slamming the glass down on the bar, he proclaimed, "See that? That's how a man drinks! A nice, hard drink that sets your insides on fire but puts hair on your chest. If you pathetic excuses for men knew better, you'd join me!"
No one moved. Kirby sighed. Bull always made a speech like this whenever he drank at that saloon, ever since he returned to Dodge City.
The jagged man glared at his fellows, fumbled for a couple coins in his shirt pocket, slammed them on the bar next to his glass, and stormed out through the door. The barkeep sighed, "He doesn't even realize the price has gone up."
Typically Bull Windborne would stop by a dry goods store or someplace else along his way out of town. But today he was in a bad humor and, mounting his steed, galloped down the street to beat a path home. What the dentist said had him rankled.
As he rode past one particular house, a man standing at the window smiled.
"There goes old Bull Windborne," said the man, dressed in a white suit with a straw hat on his round head. He was a young man by the name of Logan Branch and he was vice-mayor.
"I saw him roll in," replied the voice of an older man, currently hidden by a newspaper. "He usually stays later. Something must have gone wrong."
"Probably couldn't find anybody to get in a fight with," the young man laughed. "Why does he hang around here, anyways?"
"It's a free country, Logan, a man can stay wherever he wishes."
"I know, Bo, what I meant was—"
The older man put down the paper. "I know what you mean, Logan. Some things just aren't our business to know." The older man glanced out the window and seemed to drift off in his mind. He was Mayor Bo Otis Hill. In his younger days he came to Dodge City and was run out by Wyatt Earp. Now, in his old age, life had been better to him. He married a wife who bore him five children and cooked some mean suppers. Those suppers showed on his rotund figure and his fat face noted for its bushy white mustache.
"But to more important matters," the mayor suddenly said, "we need to figure out how to keep this town alive. More and more people are picking up stakes to go to Colorado or all the way to California. We need a reason to keep people here."
Logan looked at the mayor, nervously wiped his bare chin, and sat down at a chair across from the mayor's desk. "That's a thorny issue, Bo. Thanks to the railroad, there's not much use for Dodge City anymore."
"I know. But we need something that shows we're still an important town!"
Logan glanced out toward the window and then the wheels started turning. He snapped his fingers and leaned forward.
"I know what we need! Or rather, who we need: Bull Windborne!"
While Logan Branch expounded on his thought to an incredulous Mayor Hill, Bull Windborne arrived at his small dilapidated shack just a mile or so west of town along the Arkansas River. A small stable around the back housed the horse. He corralled the steed and looked down toward the river and saw one of the few friends he had in life, Nakos, an Arapaho Indian who lived in a wigwam another mile west of Bull.
"Howdy, Nak! Whatcha doin' up this-a-way?"
Bull laughed. "I think you have a better chance of catching fish in a cactus."
Nakos laughed, too. "Join me, Bull." The cowboy acquiesced. "Man came around looking for you."
"Yeah? Who was he?"
"Don't know. Bad looking character. Said he'd come back."
Bull smiled slightly. "Sounds like my old foe, Clay Tremont. He said he'd drop by one of these years."
"Men still have those these days?"
"Real men do!" Bull snapped. "Now, granted, we're not into killing each other, but I guess you could say we're competing whenever we meet. Fact is, he gave me my nickname. Earned it in a fight when I called him cheating at cards in Arizona. We went out into the street and in the middle of the fight I saw a couple of cards fly out of his sleeve! He knew he was caught. Said, 'Billy, you're a bull, you know that? I'll call you 'Bull' from here on out!' Then I told him to get me my money that he won and while he went in, I cleaned my face in the horse trough. Well, he never came back. Turns out he snuck out the back with my money, stole the owner's horse, and got away!"
Bull Windborne laughed at this. Nakos gazed into the river.
"You odd man, Bull," the native replied at last.
"Everybody else seems to think so!" Bull replied, anger returning to his voice. "What's with everyone? They act like it's strange to be the way I am."
"You strange. You act like man from last decade."
"Yeah? What's wrong with that?"
"Last decade is no more. Time is like a river. Always fluid, always moving, never still. You float along or you sink." He turned to Bull and pointed at him. "You are sinking man."
"Sinking my ears!" Bull returned. "I'm just livin' as I was born to live! My grand-dad fought Indians out here. He survived all that and died in the War. My pa survived the War and brought me west when ma died. Then he got murdered here in Dodge. Buried him in Boot Hill. Been nearly twenty years."
"Yes, and you left to find killer. Never found him."
"No, I found him! Someone beat me to the kill, though . . . "
"So you returned home. You expected things to be the same. But no. Savage land now tame. You belong in another place, another time, Bull Windborne."
"What's your point?"
"Trying to keep you from drowning."
They sat in silence for a moment, watching the river run by.
Then Nakos spoke again. "Why do you stay, Bull?"
"Why not? It's home."
"You been a drifter. Drift on to new home!"
"You don't understand."
"Because your father is buried here?"
Bull looked sharply at his Indian friend. "Maybe." Then, after Nakos stared at him for a minute, "Well, he's the only family I have left!"
"Father is dead. Make own family. Join rest of your people."
Bull squirmed a little and finally bolted up and paced back and forth along the bank. He seemed on the verge of an answer but finally muttered something about needing to cook dinner, and turned to leave his friend alone on the bank.
"Bull," the Indian called after him, "Your father, victim of past age. You are different man in different time."
The next afternoon, Bull returned to Dodge for another round of drinking and taunting others into a fight. After again being unsuccessful, he slowly cantered home. On his way out, a man hailed him from the doorway of a house. He hurried to him with hand outstretched.
"Bull Windborne? Logan Branch, vice mayor. You have a moment?"
Bull was a little tipsy and on the verge of throwing a punch, but he squinted his eyes to try and focus on the important man.
"Bull, I want to tell you about a celebration we're plannin' on throwing in a couple weeks for the Fourth of July. I've convinced the mayor to make the emphasis our fine city's heritage. So, we're going to have a shooting and quick draw competition!"
"Sounds fine, Mr. Vice Mayor," Bull muttered back, "but why tell me?"
"Well, I want to be sure that our town's last true gunfighter will be there to show us how it's done. And did I mention the prize for winning the competitions is a pretty sight of money?"
Bull instantly sobered up a little. "How much exactly?"
"We haven't cleared it yet in our budget, but it'll be a good amount, I promise you."
The old cowboy straightened up in his saddle and peered down at the young man. "Well, Mr. Vice Mayor, you better ready your eyes for some of the finest shootin' you ever did see!"
And without another word, Bull kicked the horse into a trot, riding off into the sunset. Logan grinned stupidly after him.
Bull spent most of his ride home thinking about the competition and the prize. This was certainly a good sign that the town was returning to its roots. Maybe once people saw how slick and fancy gun-slinging was, they'll all wear guns! And then there was that prize money. What money Bull had accumulated in his travels was nearly expended. That prize sounded like easy money to Bull. How could he pass up such an opportunity?
But his mind instantly switched from visions of free cash to wariness as he approached his shack. Someone was in it. A flickering light shined through the dusty window. Quietly he dismounted, drew his gun, and crept up on the door. In one swift movement, he swung it open and aimed his gun at a spindly man leaning back in Bull's lone chair. The man's squashed face grinned at Bull.
"Bull Windborne! 'Bout time you got home!"
"Clay Tremont! I oughtta fill you solid with lead for scaring me like that!"
The two came together in a cordial handshake. Bull excused himself to put his horse in the stable, only to find Clay's horse occupying it. He soon returned, however, and the two immediately fell into talking about past fights they had between each other.
After one particular story, Bull laughed aloud and shook his head sadly.
"Clay, we need someone like you around here. You'd help me liven this place up."
Clay laughed a little and said, "Oh Bull, I don't plan on settling anywheres. Question is, why'd you stay here? Figured a man with your travels and reputation wouldn't leave the trail so quick! They say you found the grave of the man you was huntin' and came straight home. What happened to you?"
The smile vanished from Bull's face. "I had my fill of roaming. Wanted to settle for a while. Figured Dodge would be a good place."
"But it ain't! It's deader than a prairie dog in an eagle's nest here!"
"Yeah? There's hope, though. Just saw the vice mayor and he told me they was having a big shootin' competition this Independence Day. Asked me to be a part of it. I think they're realizing my value to this town!"
Clay looked thoughtfully at Bull. "Shooting competition, you say? Probably a big get together, right?"
Bull eyed Clay suspiciously. "Yeah. What of it?"
"That would be perfect cover for why I came here. And you could help me!"
"How?" asked Bull, still suspicious.
"Well, you see, I've fallen on some hard times with money and need some quick dough."
"Enter that competition I told you about! 'Course you'll have a rough time of it against me."
Clay smiled and shook his head. "No, Bull, you got it all wrong! Why win money when you can simply take it?"
Bull knew where this was going now. "Clay, are you fixin' to rob a bank?"
The other gunfighter's smile widened. "Not just any bank, Bull, the one in Dodge City!"
Bull eyed him for a moment and thought hard. "You can't," he said at last. "If you rob the bank I bet the whole town would go under!"
"Well then, we could be Clay Tremont and Bull Windborne: The Men who Destroyed Dodge! That'd be a pretty epitaph!"
"As pretty as a longhorn shoving a horn up your butt!"
"Oh think sensibly, Bull! Help me out and I'll give you half the cut."
"No, absolutely not!"
"I've been a rough man, Clay, but I'm no outlaw! My father would turn over in his grave."
"So let him! His opinion don't matter no how anymore."
Bull's face turned a dangerous shade of red and his eyes resembled storm clouds. "I ain't taking no part in your misdeeds. What you do on your own time is your business. But, so help me, if I catch you robbin' Dodge I'll shoot ya!"
Clay smiled and leaned back in his chair confidently. "You won't shoot me. You've never shot a man in your life."
"Get out!" Bull roared, leaping from his bed and drawing his gun. Clay could see his welcome was worn and promptly exited the shack. "And get your horse out of my stable!"
For the next couple of weeks, Bull practiced his sharpshooting, setting up a target on the other side of the river, as well as his quick draw. Nakos initially joined him with a mind to enter the competition, but gave up after seeing Bull's superior aim and skill. In town, the competition had been announced and a buzz the citizens hadn't felt in a long time returned. When Bull rode into town, he no longer harassed the Saratoga's patrons, but further goaded them into excitement. Most of the men planned on entering and going against Bull as an act of civil revenge after all the evenings he spent insulting them.
So the fever was right when the Fourth of July 1894 came upon Dodge City. Bull rode in early, sitting straight and tall in his saddle. Today, he thought, he would show the town a true cowboy. In the town square the whole city gathered. Most of the men who frequented the saloons stood at the firing line with their rifles handy. Even Kirby Jackson was among them, though he looked awkward holding a gun.
The shoot-off lasted a good while. In the end, it was between Bull Windborne and the town undertaker, Shoal Helmand. Bull finally won when they pushed the targets back so far only Bull's bullet reached (and hit a bull's-eye) and Shoal's thudded in the hay beneath the targets.
Soon after, the quick-draw contest took place. It was not only who had the fastest draw, but the best aim, too. Bull Windborne won easily. By now the crowd cheered wildly for Bull. For once he was the talk of the town, and not in a bad way. As the targets were removed to make way for the next competition, foot racing, Bull waded through the crowd toward an ally to place his rifle in his saddle scabbard. As he came around the corner, Nakos met him.
"Nakos, you're as scary as a ghost sometimes!"
"Bull, we have trouble. Saw Clay Tremont robbing bank."
Bull's mirthful face changed drastically. "Are you sure?"
"I don't make mistakes."
"I'll go settle his hash," Bull grumbled ominously.
"Bull! This not like old days! Let police handle this."
"Well, you go get the police and I'll hold Clay up."
Nakos ran off to find a policeman and Bull wound his way through the city to where the bank was. Sure enough, there was Clay, loading up a pack mule. Bull drew his pistol and stepped out into the street.
"I told you not to do it, Clay."
The robber turned quickly and went for his gun, but froze at the sight of Bull's. An uneasy smile stretched across his face.
"Bull! Now what are you talking about? This? Nothing wrong with having a horse and pack mule is there?"
Bull advanced toward the mule, his gun always pointed at Clay. He lifted a flap on a satchel and peered in.
"I told you not to rob the bank, Clay," said Bull after reaching in and confirming the presence of money.
"Now Bull, keep that gun steady. I'm not sure you know how to use it!"
Bull scowled at him. "Know how to use it better than most! Won two competitions with my guns."
"That so? Well, it made for a great distraction while I did my job."
"All right, 'nuff talk! We'll get ya to the sheriff's office and maybe I can add some more money to my winnings."
Clay eyed the gun and then looked across the street at the Saratoga Saloon. "How 'bout we drink on that?" Clay nodded toward the saloon. "Let's drink to celebrate! You winning so much money and me nearly getting away with it."
Bull glanced at the saloon and then back at Clay's face. He had a hard time reading Clay. It could be a trick, but he was a little thirsty for some liquor. Surely Clay would honor the fact that Bull had him as a prisoner.
"OK . . . but no tricks!"
Clay raised his hands and put on an innocent face. He led the way across the street and swung open the doors.
"I'll make the drinks!" Clay declared, taking his place behind the bar. "What'll it be?"
"The usual," Bull replied, holstering his pistol and not realizing that Clay had no idea what "the usual" was. Clay said nothing, though, seeing that Bull was loosening up some.
He mixed together some drinks and slid the glass across the bar to Bull, who picked it up and sniffed it. The smell was a little off. Clay pulled out a mug and poured his own cocktail of alcohol. He finished by raising his glass to Bull. The two sipped their drinks in silence.
"I said I'd shoot you if you tried anything," Bull muttered at last.
"And you haven't yet," Clay responded. "For which I am grateful."
"Well, it's like this, Clay, you and I may be pretty opposite, but I respect you. You're one of the few friends I have in this world. I'd sure hate to shoot ya."
Clay shook his head humorously. "That's the thing I like about people these days: Everyone's so trusting! Leave their front doors unlocked and wide open. Let's drink to that!"
Clay raised his glass and Bull mirrored him. Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Clay cock his arm back and hurl his glass at him. He twisted his body in time for the mug to shatter on his left shoulder. Next thing he knew, Clay sprang out the door. Bull threw his glass down and gave chase.
The robber reached his horse and wheeled it out into the street to dart off. As he kicked the horse into a gallop, Bull leapt and caught onto Clay's leg and was carried off with the horse and its rider. Bull thought it curious that Clay would leave behind all that money on the mule, but as his body bounced off the saddle bag he realized the man had filled his own bags full.
Clay tried desperately to shake Bull. He pulled his leg out of the stirrups and tried kicking Bull off. But the determined man reached up and grabbed at the reins, steering the horse down a side street. Soon they were riding the opposite way through the race course, past several participants, and finally they burst into the crowded square. It was here that the old cowboy finally pulled the outlaw from his steed and the two crashed to the ground in front of a hotel.
Clay was the first up and looked wildly around. He wasn't good in situations like this, when things were going wrong. The only thing he could think of now was trying to find a way of escape. He ran toward the hotel. Bull, a little slower to get up, lunged after him, but Clay turned and laid a fist across Bull's jaw. Bull fell to his hands and knees but quickly resumed the chase into the building.
Now Clay realized he didn't know where the backdoor was, and with Bull hot on his heels, his panic instinct drove him upstairs. At the top, Bull managed to tackle Clay and the two rolled along the hall. Clay threw Bull off and when they stood, the former gave the latter a hard kick to the chest, sending him through a door and into a room.
An idea struck Clay now. He had heard of people escaping along rooftops, surely he could do it, too! He jumped over Bull's body and made for the window. His hand was reaching out when Bull's strong arms enveloped him and the two old cowboys crashed through the window, rolled down the awning, and fell with a terrific thud on the hard ground.
By now the whole crowd was riveted upon these two fighters from the past. Women gasped, men stood shocked, and kids gaped with eager anticipation. The two men, much older than they used to be, staggered about trying to be the first to face the other. They finally pulled themselves upright about the same moment and Clay's face had lost all pretense of coolness.
"Enough of this, Bull!" And he went for his gun.
Bull naturally went for his and displayed his winning fast draw. But Clay's pistol was caught on a thong and he struggled to get it free. Bull waited. He couldn't shoot a man who didn't have an equal chance. Besides, could he shoot a man at all?
The world seemed to stop and Bull's eyes opened for the first time. He saw all the families gathered around the square. All the nice carriages. Even the houses and storefronts looked pristine. And then Bull thought of all that just happened. The chase, the fight, crashing through the window. All normal fare for a cowboy, he used to assume. But now he felt out of place, almost embarrassed. Maybe it was time to move on . . .
But then Clay yanked his gun free and fired wildly from his hip. A slug smashed into Bull's left rib cage and he reactively clenched his fists. As a result, he accidentally squeezed the trigger on his pistol and a shot went off. He had aimed at Clay's heart and his aim held true. A fire burned in his side and Billy Windborne slowly collapsed to the ground as he watched Clay Tremont fall lifelessly backwards. Gasps and screams echoed all around. Bull dropped his gun in disgust and the sky, the town, the people all faded into nothingness.
When Bull came to, he found himself on his own bed and a morning light streaming through the window. Nakos had a fire going in the stove, cooking eggs and bacon. He groaned and stirred, drawing Nakos' attention. He spooned some food from the skillet to a plate and handed it to Bull.
"Here, friend," he greeted. "Eat up. You out nearly whole day."
Bull groaned again and sat up, accepting the grub. His side still burned.
"What happened?" he muttered. "They didn't arrest me?"
Nakos smiled. "How could they? They found money Clay stole from bank. Besides, you shot in self-defense. Whole town saw it. You waited for him to shoot first. Not smart for health. But smart for law. Lucky doctor retrieved bullet."
Bull grinned a little and ate some eggs in silence while Nakos dished some food out for himself and ate at the table. Bull realized at this point that Nakos was a good cook. He had also been a good friend. Someone he knew he could trust.
Finally, he laid his fork down with his plate and looked at his Indian companion. "Nak, I realized something out there, while I waited on Clay to draw." He paused. "I realized I was drowning."
Nakos smiled. "About time, Bull Windborne."
"The fact is, Nak, I stay here in Dodge because I feel guilty. I spent almost 20 years roaming the vast expanse of the West, living the rough life as I always wanted to. Then come to find out my pa's killer had already been killed. I felt like I had failed. I wasted all that time in saloons and fights and in the end failed my one mission. So I came back to Dodge, hoping to prove myself in the shadow of my pa's grave . . . Maybe I tried too hard."
Nakos nodded slowly, solemnly. "Ghosts tend to exist only in our mind. We think we know what dead think. It is a guess. Time is a rough current. Hard to swim upstream."
John Underdown is an up-and-coming writer living with his wife, Amy, in Kansas City, MO. Enjoying Westerns
with his father while growing up, his love for the genre has been re-awakened in recent years. He blogs
weekly at https://jrunderdown.wordpress.com/,
has independently published a YA fantasy spoof novel, Plethora, on Amazon, and is planning the release of
a small book of poetry later this year.
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The Double Bar Kid
by Jack Bates
Luke Posen rode up on his horse and shot Theodore Rorke in the face. It caught everyone at the Double Bar ranch by surprise. Rorke died instantly. The men stared dumbfounded at their dead boss. Luke snapped them out of their reverie.
"Where's Boss Dotson?"
One of the men fumbled at his holster. Luke cocked back the hammer of his own six shooter.
"You know who I am?" Luke asked.
The man nodded.
"Then you know drawing on me is the wrong thing to do." Luke studied the man. "I don't remember you."
"I wasn't there the night Boss Dotson tagged ya," the man said. He raised his hand to his own cheek silently indicating the scar Luke would forever wear.
"None of us were, Kid," another man said.
Luke looked at the half dozen men standing around the dead rancher.
"That true of all of ya?" Luke asked.
The others nodded.
"Those men all ran off," the first man said. "It's why Mr. Rorke hired us."
"What's your name, mister?"
"Art Londrow. Everyone here at the Double Bar calls me Lonnie."
"All right, Lonnie" Luke said. "I believe ya. Wasn't more than a few that come out to our spread that night anyhow."
The second man, the one with the edge in his words, said, "Heard you been after the ones who run off."
"You heard right. Now I'm looking for Boss Dotson."
"He's on a drive, Kid," the man name Lonnie said. "Goodnight-Loving Trail. One day out."
"That the truth?" Luke asked.
The men nodded.
"Otherwise you'd be dead." The edgy man rolled his open palm over the butt of his revolver. His fingers flipped at the grip.
The first man saw this. "Walk away, Miller," he said.
Miller, the man itching to draw, spat in the dirt at the feet of the Luke's horse. "Another time, Kid," Miller said. "Without all these squaws around. I'll do what Boss Dotson didn't."
"I got no beef with you, mister," Luke said, "but if you want to get to hell before me, I can send ya on your way."
Miller stared Luke down but looked away first. He walked off talking low.
"Been enough killing here for the day," Lonnie said.
Luke turned his horse and rode off the ranch. He'd ride through the night to Cheyenne and catch Boss Dotson at the start of the Goodnight-Loving trail. It was history what drove the Double Bar Kid. History, and vengeance.
Two years before Luke would gun him down, Theodore Rorke had accused Luke and his brother Oliver of rustling his cattle. Luke insisted it wasn't true. All the same, Rorke sent his men out to their spread, a spread Rorke had always said was on the outskirts of his land, a spread that had access to the Hobak River, an access he needed. It wasn't long after Luke's dad was found dead with a bullet in his back outside The Three Planks Saloon that Rorke sent his hands to bring the Posen boys to the Double Bar.
It didn't go well. Ollie Posen was gunned down when he stormed out of the house, sawed-off, double barrel in his hands. Forgot that it was loaded with birdshot. He'd only wanted to scare the men off their land. Boss Dotson took it as an act of aggression. When he fired, so did the men he'd brought with him. Ollie staggered back to the house.
"They shot me, Luke," Ollie said. He died on the porch.
Luke fired from the window. He took out two before his world went to shit.
Bullets continued to fly. A stray one shattered an oil lamp burning on a table. The fire spread quickly. Flames and smoke choked Luke. He could barely see.
"Ollie? Where are you?"
The smoke billowing out the open door parted. Something heavy and dark pushed through it and fell with a thump to the smoldering floor. Luke crawled over to his brother's body before the smoke overtook him. His lungs burned.
They dragged Luke from the house ready to string him up. Luke fought back. They held him down. Boss Dotson, Rorke's chief hand, pulled the iron out of his saddle bag and held it in the flames of the burning Posen house. He waited until it glowed like it was pulled from a rising sun.
"Hold him steady," Dotson said.
Two of the men did as they were told. A third held Luke's head. Dotson slowly lowered the hot brand. The parallel bars with a rope R between the two would serve as a permanent reminder of his crime.
"We didn't steal your cattle," Luke yelled.
"I say ya did," Boss Dotson said. Verdict delivered, he'd put the brand to Luke's face. Dotson rode off leaving his men to finish the job. They did a piss poor one at that. Instead of lynching him for rustling, they beat at him with their pistol grips and kicked at him with their boots all while passing around two bottles of whiskey one of them found in the Posen's shed. They left him beat, broken, and burned to die in the night.
Resilience can be a strong tonic.
People started talking about the Double Bar Kid. It was said the Kid looking for Boss Dotson and then men who'd helped him murder his family and burn down his home.
One of the men was shot dead in a whore's room. A single bullet from the roof across the street pierced his heart.
The next man died in Medicine Bow. Nine in the morning and the man was drunk. He saw Luke's face in the mirror behind the bar. So drunk was the man that he thought the man with the brand on his face was standing in front of him. The man cursed the image and put a bullet in the reflection. When he turned around, gun still in his hand, the Kid put a bullet in his chest.
By then word had gotten out that the Double Bar Kid was gunning for the men who had killed his brother, more than likely his father, and put the brand on Luke. No one knew if it was actually the Double Bar Kid who killed the third murderous ranch hand or not but the man who had held his head as Boss Dotson put the brand to Luke's flesh was found hanging from the hay loft pulley of a livery in Jackson Hole.
With Theodore Rorke dead, that left Boss Dotson.
And so it would happen outside of Cheyenne that the Double Bar Kid and Boss Dotson would meet. Luke hoped to come upon the man alone. No more than twenty men would be on the drive. It took about half of that to drive a herd of thirteen hundred long horns up from El Paso. Any extra men were only there to protect Boss Dotson. Luke had no fight with any of those other men but if they drew on him, he'd would do the same to them.
Around one in the morning Luke spotted a campfire. He tied off his horse and made his way through the trees to come within a few hundred yards of the camp. Three covered wagons making a C around the fire pit. Four men took watch. A couple squatted on chests. All had Winchesters cradle across their chests. The way they were grouped led him to believe Boss Dotson was in the center wagon.
Cold iron pressed into the back of Luke's neck. He heard the click of the hammer on the gun.
"Play it smart, Kid," the man behind him said. "Lay your guns in the moss."
Luke crouched low to put his rifle to the ground. "I'm going to put my revolver down now, mister."
"That's a good idea, Kid."
Luke slowly pulled his six-shooter from his holster. He set it next to his long barrel.
"What are you waiting for, Kid?" the man asked.
"Waiting for you to tell me what to do next," Luke said. "Didn't want to spook you."
"You're pretty smart, Kid." The man put his hand under Luke's arm to lift him. As he pulled Luke up from his crouch, Luke pulled a knife from his boot. He turned and jabbed the tip into the man's gut. He gave it a twist and a tug. The man doubled over. He brought up his pistol. Luke caught his wrist and swung the gun hand away. The man fired. Luke used the bloody blade to silence the man by dragging it over his throat.
He only had seconds to spare. Luke grabbed his rifle. He shot two of the men by the campfire before anyone returned fire. The other two men fired on the run as they dove for cover. One went behind a strong box. The second man went under a wagon as it broke formation. Even over the volleys of gunfire Luke could hear the man's screams as the wagon wheels broke his legs.
The wagons separated into three different direction. Luke knew Boss Dotson was in one of them. If he wanted to end this tonight, he'd have to decide on one and chase it down.
He made his decision and shot the drivers of the other two wagons.
Luke mounted his horse. It had been a hard ride since leaving the Double Bar. He patted her neck and rubbed her mane. "Let's ride, you and me," he said into her ear. As if she understood, his horse snorted and kicked the dirt.
He rode through gunfire. He felt the sting of hot lead more than once. At some point his horse dropped. Luke hit the ground hard enough to see tiny dots of flashing lights around his eyes. The rapport of guns snapped him out of his daze. He crawled behind his horse. All he had with him was the knife in his boot and his six shooter.
"Didn't that guy back there say I was smart?" Luke said to his horse. He emptied the spent shells and filled the chambers with rounds from his belt. There weren't many left. Didn't matter as long as he had one for Boss Dotson.
Bullets continued to hit his dead horse. Luke rolled onto his belly and fired over the horse's flank.
"I ain't dead yet," Luke yelled.
"You will be soon, Kid."
Luke spun around. Boss Dotson and a half dozen men stood behind him. All of them pointed their guns at him. They'd doubled back, come around through the trees. In the glow of the fire Luke recognized one of the men from the Double Bar Ranch that afternoon.
"Lonnie." Luke said.
"Thought you said there'd been enough killing for one day."
"Well, that was yesterday."
Luke laughed. He raised his gun. Boss Dotson shot him in the gut.
Boss Dotson kneeled next to Luke. "Won't be long now, Kid."
"I still got the blood lust in me, Boss."
"I know you do." Boss Dotson took the gun from Luke's hand. "Now tell me. What did you and your brother do with the cattle you took?"
"We ate some and sold the rest."
"So you two were nothing more than cattle stealing murderers."
"Y'all killed our daddy. Y'all tried to run us off our land."
"Your daddy got shot in the back. That sound like me?"
"No, sir." Luke coughed. Blood rolled from his mouth. He moaned. He put a bloody hand on Boss Dotson's shirt to pull him down. "Who?"
"Ask Saint Peter when you get up to his pearly gate." Boss Dotson gave him a wink.
"I'll see ya there." Luke grabbed for his boot knife one last time. Boss Dotson caught his wrist. He shook the knife free.
"I should've come for you first," Luke said.
"You had your chance, Kid. Now go run in the fields with your brother and your daddy."
Luke wanted to tell him he'd be back for him. He wasn't planning on dying until he'd stared into Boss Dotson's cold, dead eyes. But then the night settled in around him. It was so cold.
All that anger and hate had churned in him so long it clouded his thoughts, derailed his judgment. He'd lost sight of who he sought his vengeance from. How many men had he killed in the name of avenging his family?
Luke closed his eyes.
When he opened them, the sun was up and his horse was there.
It was a new day.
A new chance to right the wrongs.
He touched his hand to his cheek. The brand was gone. The R between the bars never stood for Rorke. It stood for redemption.
Luke got on his horse and rode towards the rising sun.
Jack Bates is an award-winning writer of short fiction, screenplays, and one children's book. He is a three-time
nominee for a Derringer award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. He writes in a house north of Motor City.
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A Divine Intervention
by Gerald E. Sheagren
Newt Parsons threw back his shot, grimacing as the whiskey burned its way to his empty stomach. God, it felt like molten lava. Holding out the glass, he raised an inquisitive brow to Bill the bartender.
* * *
"How 'bout another? Jus' one more. On second thought, make it a beer."
"I dunno, Newt. Your tab's gettin' mighty high."
"I know, I know. An' I'm feelin' real bad about that. But I think I might have landed a job."
"Oh yeah? Where 'bouts?"
"At the livery. Ol' Joe needs someone to muck the stalls, haul in hay, and the likes of that. He's willin' to pay two bits for an eight hour day."
"It's been a long time since you've had any gainful employment," said Bill, placing a beer in front of Newt.
"This trick knee doesn't exactly make me a candidate for jobs."
Bill chuckled. "That ol' knee only tricks when you want it to."
"Now that's an unfair statement if I ever heard one." Newt guzzled from the beer, froth lining his pale lips. "Can you see your way to one of those pickled eggs?"
Sighing, Bill removed the lid of a large jar, fished out an egg with his fingers and held it up in front of Newt. "Now don't go fartin' up the place. "Will there be anything else, Your Royal Highness?"
Newt winked. "Maybe I'll have a steak an' potato supper, with a big piece of apple pie."
"Don't hold your breath."
Just then, the batwing doors creaked open. Looking over his shoulder, Newt spotted a tall, lanky man with a sweeping handlebar moustache. He was wearing a black Stetson and a knee-length Prince Albert coat, along with a brocade vest with a gold watch chain. Newt noticed the pearl-handled Colt right off, nestled in a finely-tooled holster. The stranger's boots thudded on the rough pine floor as he strode up to the bar, ordering a whiskey with a beer chaser.
Everything about the man struck a gong of alarm in Newt's head. The self-assured swagger; the way those dark eyes never blinked as they constantly checked out the room in the fly-specked mirror over the bar. How the left hand did all the work, while the right never strayed more than an inch from the Colt. He was a shootist, for sure. He just had to be. There was no doubt about it.
The hum of conversation had died to a few hushed voices. All eyes in the room were glued on the tall man.
Bill appeared nervous, sweat beading on his forehead. "Pardon me for askin', but you're Lucas Payne, ain't'cha?"
"What if I am?"
"No harm meant. I . . . I was jus' askin'."
"If I'm not mistaken, this whiskey an' beer are on the house."
Bill gave an uneasy laugh. "Between you an' Newt, you're gonna drive me out of business."
The dark eyes narrowed.
"Sure 'nough. They're on the house. No problem, at all."
"An' my next round as well."
"Yes, sir. It would be my pleasure."
Newt shook his head, offering a chuckle.
In a heartbeat, Payne's eyes darted from the bartender to Newt. He turned slightly, the leather of his holster giving a small creak. "Are you laughing at me, mister?"
"He wasn't laughin' at you," said Bill, waving off the question. "He chuckles to himself all the time."
"I wasn't asking you. I was asking him."
A nervous tic began to play at the corner of Newt's mouth; a suddenly very dry mouth. "No, no. I . . . uh . . . I was jus' thinkin' of something funny. It . . . it had nothing to do with you."
"I think it had everything to do with me."
Payne's stare became intense, piercing Newt's heart like a cold knife. "Well, I think it did." The gunfighter drained his shot glass in one gulp, thudding it on the bar. "If you fessed up to it, like a man, I might have let it slide. Not now." A sip of beer. "So, I want you to meet me on the street, noon on the nose, tomorrow. If you're not there, I swear, I'll find you, wherever you are, an' shoot you dead on the spot."
"High noon? Tomorrow? C'mon, I'm jus' a poor cuss, tryin' to get from one end of my miserable life to the other. I never hurt anyone. Why would you want to soil your reputation with the likes of me?"
"You own a gun?"
Newt started to gnaw at his lower lip. If all eyes in the room weren't on him, he might have resorted to groveling.
"I asked if you own a gun."
"A gun? Uh . . . yeah. But I haven't shot the darn thing in over two years. And, then, it was at a bunch of rusty ol' cans." A nervous chuckle. "I missed a lot more than I hit."
"You might consider a little practice." Payne motioned for Bill to refill his shot glass. "Tomorrow, noon sharp, right outside this hole."
Newt stood glued to the floor, mouth flapping, trying to find the right words to wiggle out of his predicament, but the conversation appeared to be over. He looked to Bill for support, but the bartender could only shrug. Finally, he turned tail and hustled out of the saloon, his quivering legs feeling as though they might buckle out from under him.
Newt ended his thoughts of the day before and reluctantly swung out of bed. He'd spent a restless night, tossing and turning, his pillow soaked with a cold sweat. This was it—the last day of his worthless life. There was no place to hide, no place to run. He'd thought of saddling up and high-tailing it out of town, but he didn't own a horse and he couldn't afford to rent one. And the sheriff, what a joke—he was totally spineless. Hell, the fool probably skedaddled the moment he heard that Lucas Payne was in town. A knock sounded at the door, causing Newt's heart to jump, and he shuffled over to answer it, wearing only his long johns.
* * *
Tom Hastings, the rooming house owner, was peering at him from over the top of his spectacles. "Morning, Newt."
"My last one."
Hastings cleared his throat, looking pained. "That's why I'm here to talk to you. Do you think you can come up with your back rent before . . . before . . . ?"
"Before I go an' get myself killed?"
"Uh . . . yeah. I guess that's what I was trying to get at."
"I don't have a penny to my name. But you can have everything that I own. That should square things."
Hastings craned his neck, looking into the room. "What, exactly, do you own?"
"Some clothes. But they're pretty worn. A decent pocket watch, which my poor departed mother gave to me on my sixteenth birthday. And my gun. You can jus' take it, along with my holster, when I'm sprawled dead in the street."
Satisfied, Hastings nodded his head. "That sounds fair enough." As the man was starting away, he turned. "I don't know whether you know this, but Lucas Payne is reputed to be the fastest gun in the west. The north, south and east, too, for that matter. Faster than Wyatt Earp. Quicker than Johnny Ringo. More lightening than Wild Bill Hickok had been. I jus' thought you ought to know."
"Thanks for the wonderful news. You can have these long johns, too, if you want."
Hastings appraised the holey garment. "Thanks. It's nothing that a needle and thread can't fix up."
Newt stayed in his room for the morning, pacing back and forth, yearning for a drink, occasionally parting the yellowed curtains to examine the street below. He didn't even have the money for a last breakfast. The thought of dying on an empty stomach brought on a bout of near hysterical laughter. Deciding to dress up for his death, he donned a black suit he'd had for years, its sleeves and trouser legs a bit too short. At a little after eleven, he left the room, wearing his old gun and holster. His scuffed boots had barely touched the boardwalk when Mordecai Adams, the town undertaker, rushed up to him, his top hat askew and his watery eyes aglitter with excitement.
"Can you hold up for a few moments, Newt?"
"Right now, every second counts."
Adams whipped a tape measure from his pocket and quickly strung it from the top of Newt's head to the toes of his boots. Next, he measured him from hip to hip.
"Sorry, Newt. I'm jus' gettin' your measurements for a pine box. I might even be able to swing mahogany."
"I don't have the money for either a coffin or a funeral. You can jus' plant me in the ol' potter's field."
"Don't you worry about that, none. Everyone in town is pitchin' in for a right nice sendoff. There might even be enough to buy you a new burial suit." Adams snatched off his top hat and smiled. "I kicked in a sawbuck, myself."
"Much obliged." Newt felt the wetness of tears. "That's very touching."
"You bet. They say that Lucas Payne has twelve notches on his pistol grip."
"I guess I'll be his lucky thirteenth."
"He killed Tom Dahlgren in Tucson jus' last week. And Dahlgren was faster than greased lightning. I don't envy you, Newt. Not for a second."
"No one ever envied me, Mordecai."
With that, Newt headed for Morgan's Saloon, hoping that everyone's generosity would extend to a few free drinks. The drunker he was, the easier it would be. He might even go down, laughing at the top of his lungs. Upon entering Morgan's, he immediately noticed Lucas Payne in the far corner of the room, sitting with his back to the wall, sipping a beer and playing solitaire. He had his coat off and Newt noted that he was wearing an immaculate white shirt with a black string tie and sleeve garters. The gunfighter's moustache was so heavily waxed that it looked as though it might shatter at the touch.
Bill looked sadly at Newt. "How you holdin' up?"
"It looks like it might rain out there."
The free whiskies came one after the other, everyone wanting to buy Newt a last drink, and it wasn't long before he was feeling woozy-headed and a bit indifferent to his fate. Hell, my life ain't worth a hill of beans, anyway. If he's feelin' merciful, ol' Saint Pete might even wave me past the Pearly Gates. He hadn't been a bad person, really. Just a very foolish and unlucky one.
At a little before noon, Lucas Payne consulted his gold pocket watch then stood, flexing his arms and cracking his knuckles. Slipping on his coat, he strode confidently across the room, giving Newt a nod, and pushed his way through the batwing doors.
"Well, Newt," said Bill, extending a hand. "It's been an honor knowin' you."
"You can cut the horse manure, Bill."
"Well, maybe not quite an honor, but it's been good. Just remember; try to keep your back to the sun."
"The sun's not out."
Everyone in the saloon stood and filed past Newt, either pumping his hand, wishing him luck, or patting him consolingly on the shoulder. Funny, no one ever paid him any particular attention to him, before. As Virgil Simms, a local rancher, approached, Newt leaned in close, lowering his voice to a near whisper.
"Hey, Virge. Can you spare a bullet? I jus' remembered that my gun is empty and I don't have any."
"Sure thing." The rancher plucked a cartridge from his holster belt and handed it over. "I can give you the full six if you want."
"Naw. Jus' the one."
Feeding the bullet into the chamber of his Colt, Newt reholstered the weapon, tipped the brim of his hat to those watching and marched out to the street. To his surprise, it looked as though everyone from miles around had gathered, lining both boardwalks for as far as he could see. Men, women, even little kids, and they were all staring in his direction. Where the hell did they all come from? Did they jus' drop out of the sky? Are they all comin' to my funeral? There was silence, with only the yipping of an excited dog. The day was overcast, the sun hiding behind a darkened cloud. How appropriate.
Lucas Payne was maybe twenty yards off, pacing back and forth, his ego boosted by the size of the crowd, his hand clenching and unclenching near his Colt.
Newt hesitated, taking it all in. Payne could be blindfolded and the outcome would be the same. Why does he even want to bother with me? Hell, I'm just a fly in a town of honey bees. The dozens of whiskies had filled Newt with bravado and he found himself strutting to the center of the street. A bead of sweat stung his eye and he blinked it away.
Payne grinned beneath his fiercely-curled moustache. "Since you're such a sorry case, you can go for your gun first."
"No, you go first. Ugly before beauty."
A chorus of laughter erupted along the boardwalks. The sound felt good to Newt. In the last minute of his life, he'd managed to get something right.
"You'd better take this seriously, ass-wipe."
"Yup. As serious as a raging case of hemorrhoids."
Another round of laughter.
The two men faced one another, the seconds ticking away. Newt knew that for ego's sake Payne wanted him to make the first move, but it wasn't going to happen. After fifteen more seconds, Newt started a comical Irish jig, whooping and hollering away, drawing even greater laughter from the scores of spectators. Ah, the wonderful effects of whiskey.
Finally, with his patience exhausted, Payne went for his Colt. And lo-and-behold, in that split second, if the sun didn't burst free, striking the gunfighter directly in the eyes and throwing off his aim. The bullet buzzed past Newt; so closely that he felt its passage rustle his sleeve.
Shocked, Newt stumbled back as he fumbled out his gun, very nearly losing his balance, his finger clumsily yanking the trigger. The shot went completely wild, ricocheting off a wash tub hanging in front of Kramer's Dry Goods and cutting a perfect path to strike Lucas Payne in the left temple.
"An act of God if I ever did see one," more than one witness would later speculate. The gunslinger took a wobbly step, arm falling, his finger reflexively firing a shot into the ground. Then his eyes rolled and he fell flat on his face, sending up a small cloud of yellow dust.
An uproarious cheer went up from the crowd and before Newt knew it he was surrounded by a swarm of people, slapping him across the back and vying for the privilege of shaking his hand. Mordecai Adams hustled over to Payne's body, taking the shootist's measurements and rifling through his pockets for the cost of a funeral.
"Dang, Newt, I thought I'd seen everything," laughed Virgil Simms. "And to think that it was my bullet that nailed him. C'mon, I'm gonna treat you to a right-fittin' breakfast. Eggs, bacon, biscuits, flapjacks, anything you want."
Strangely enough, the sun had quickly ducked behind another cloud.
"You can forget about your tab, Newt," piped up Bill. When you're finished chowin' down, the next dozen whiskies are on me. You're gonna be famous, boy. The news about what happened here will spread like wildfire."
"Hey, Newt! You come on by the store later and I'll fix you up with some right fine duds. You gotta be lookin' your best."
And the invitations kept flying, boggling Newt's brain. He didn't want to be famous, he didn't deserve it, it had all been a quirk of luck, but he had to admit that he was enjoying all of the attention.
"Newton Parsons," called the Widow Drummond. "I want you to stop by the first chance you get. I've been terrible lonely since my Henry passed away and it would warm my heart to cook you a real nice meal."
The dog was running in circles around Newt, yipping again and nipping at his heels. Little kids, both boys and girls, were staring at him, wide-eyed, reaching out and touching his holster as if he was some kind of national hero.
"When you have the chance, come on over to my gun shop, Newt. I have a beautiful Peacemaker with fancy scroll work and ivory grips. It's yours for free. All you have to do is mention my business in your interviews."
Yet another cry went up. "I want to take some pictures of you, Newt, when you're all decked out in your new outfit an' gun. You jus' stop on by my photo shop. No appointment necessary."
A short, gaunt-featured man, clad in a white canvas duster, gun slung low, was idling on the boardwalk, casually rolling a cigarette and smirking at the hullabaloo. Lucas Payne was history. Who would have ever thought it possible? Now, he had another shootist to deal with, if that's what you could call the bumbling idiot.
He'd have to call him out, maybe today, maybe tomorrow; the pecking order demanded it. The man chuckled at the absurdity of it all. Striking a sulfur match to light his smoke, he headed for Morgan's Saloon, kicking the pesky dog out of his way.
Gerald E. Sheagren is a 69-year-old retiree; a former Connecticut resident who now lives in the historic town of
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, along with his wife Sharon and three rambunctious cats. His interests include writing,
reading the current bestsellers, and studying American history. Over the past 25-odd years, many of his short
stories have appeared both online and in hard print. Most of his successes have come in the genres of horror and
crime, but very now and then he hits pay dirt with a western or a historical piece.
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by Gary Ives
Houston slathered the lard over his jowls and chin. He stropped the razor and began shaving. As he shaved, he considered the matter of the ransom recovery, one shit load of money. But it wasn't the money, was it? Naw, it was feeding of some of his own shit to that fat-assed, pompous bastard who called himself a general. And satisfaction. Satisfaction for Billy's memory. That's what it was all about. Finished shaving, he called to his partner, "Get the horses, Charlie; we've got a train to meet."
"First I say goodbye to the prisoner, then we go."
General Rolf E. Pollson, superintendent of the Arkansas and Canadian Rivers Railroad, shivered in the mine tunnel wrapped in the Mexican blanket. How many days was it now? Ten? The ten most miserable, godforsaken days of his life. Where in Christ's name was the law? Where were those overdressed, overpaid dandies hired to protect him and the railroad? Goddamned slackers. Heads were damned sure gonna roll when he got out of this shit. And this piece of garbage; he would see this pistolero's head on exhibit in a jar of formaldehyde on a shelf in his office, by God he would. Dammit to hell, where is that bastard with my food? "Hey you. Hey. I'm freezing in here, can I have my clothes and I need more blankets? Hey? Can you hear me? Hey!"
Houston put the sack mask over his head and carried the bucket with two rusty tins of cooked pinto beans to the old zinc mine's entrance where he unlocked the grill and lowered the bucket with a piggin. "Hey General, time for grub. Not gonna get your clothes yet, maybe 'nother blanket if you're sweet. Before we go though, you got a visitor, General."
The Indian, Charlie Quick, also wearing a flour sack mask, lowered the ladder down into the mine shaft and descended into the darkness. Once his eyes accustomed and he had located the naked man cowering against the rock wall, Charlie punched him hard in his gut then broke the General's jaw with a fierce back hand. General Pollson was terrified of this man, who three days earlier had terrified him with a hatchet, jambing his hand against a shoring timber and chopping off his ring finger with one swift deliberate whack.
As Charlie pulled the ladder to the surface he yelled down to prisoner, "When I come back maybe I scalp you, fat man."
They had stripped the General of his boots and every stitch of clothing to prevent escape and to humiliate the rich man, although escape was unlikely as the only access to the mine shaft was an iron grill and the twelve foot ladder. With the grill padlocked and the ladder pulled up all hope vanished for the fat prisoner. For water General Pollson had to lick from a seep down the dark east wall of the tunnel, he had to lick the water from the stone like a damn rat. In fact he soon found that he indeed shared that very seep with rats in the mine shaft. Before leaving, his captors locked the grill and covered the opening with a piece of canvas and a brush pile. " Holler your fool head off; can't nobody hear you."
In Ft. Smith there had been much talk of the kidnapped superintendent. Legions of peace officers combed the Indian Territory, Kansas, and as far away as Texas looking for signs of the important man. Some said Bill Dalton was likely the man who had kidnapped the railroad superintendent. Some said it was Mexicans. Others maintained it was most likely injuns as everyone knew there were still plenty of young bucks who would just not let go. Wasn't there plenty of mischief against whites over there? Cut telegraph wires? Obstructions placed on tracks, and even occasional rifle shots at rail crews? Fact was nobody knew a damned thing other than the train hauling a tender, two freight cars of rails and cross ties and the superintendent's private coach had been halted near midnight by burning logs placed on the rails, a common nuisance in the Indian Territory. While the crew cleared the tracks the superintendent's coach had been uncoupled from the gondola. By the time the engineer reckoned the superindendent's coach was missing and got the engine reversed, Houston and the Indian Charlie Quick were a half mile away. They had tied and chloroformed the sleepy superintendent and with a bag tied over his head had thrown the fat man over a packhorse. Earlier that day with a hired a wagon, they had laid a trail clear enough for a blind possee, a wagon trail leading from the Indian Territories toward Texas, while the pair with their prisoner doubled back north on a worn cattle trail. The railroad had put out a $5,000 dollar reward for information leading to the General's safe return and rumor was that the reward would be raised an additional $5,000 every seven days. The ransom notes appeared on the seventh day of the General's kidnapping.
Before the war Rolf E. Pollson's factories manufactured steam locomotives and rail cars. Among themselves his workers referred to him as "Boss Roly Poly," alluding to the short man's 275 pound frame. The war which had quickly elevated the importance of his manufacturing business was an event Pollson had prayed for. Once President Lincoln realized the full extent of the war he had quickly marshaled Yankee industrialists, bankers, ship owners and merchants to the Union's cause by dispensing worthless, titular Army commissions that so appealed to the vanity of these civilian leaders. This, to curry the financial and material support so crucial to the war. Pollson received a nominal commission as one of the two thousand such non-combatant Quartermaster Corps brigadiers. This august rank took him no further than his tailor for his custom filigree laden uniform. His foundries and factories would pull in wartime contracts fetching millions, enough to later underwrite his dream, to build a railroad.
Houston Wells had suffered a miserable damned war. Pressed into service by a squad of cavalry just before the Battle of Pea Ridge, the young mining engineer had been captured on only his third day of military service in the Forty-Fifth Arkansas Military Regiment. He was marched to Memphis, loaded onto a steamer and carried up river to the Yankee prison camp at Rock Island. Prison camp was hell. Rations were barely enough to survive; a dead horse or mule the only meat prisoners ever saw. It was three years of short rations of dry corn or beans, and hard tack once a week. Gangs within the prison robbed food, blankets, clothing, anything of value. One had to join one of the organized gangs for protection. Yankee officers took money from local businesses to supply day labor. Seven days a week Houston's gang was marched to the Pollson Iron and Steel works where they riveted boiler plate nine hours a day, guarded by some blue-belly private soldier who pocketed a dollar a day from Pollson. A wagon from the prison brought a bucket of cold slop and hard tack for the prisoners, while bacon, bully beef or salt pork and soft bread was given to their guard. A complaint from a civilian worker could put a man on diminished rations for three days or could even have a man flogged. And there were plenty workers who had lost a son or brother and were only too quick to levy punishment on Johnny Reb. Houston reckoned it was the same down South in their prison camps, though. The War, was there anything more evil than war?
General Roly Poly, particularly fond of goading his POWs, would waddle down from his plush office above the factory floor in his fancy uniform to announce some Union victory or give his oft repeated urging " Men, we are going to treat these damn Rebels just like they treat the poor niggers down South." When Richmond fell he had trestle tables set up with hams, turkey, and buckets of beer for his workers; nothing for the starving POWs who had to watch the civilians stuff themselves with Pollson's offerings. Billy One Horse, a consumptive fifteen year old Chocktaw, and the youngest prisoner in the camp, picked up a half-eaten turkey leg that had been dropped or tossed on the floor. Pollson spotted the boy and called for the guard. "That young Rebel thief needs to placed on report, Private. You see that it's done, you hear me?"
"Yessir General, the boy will be dealt with, sir."
"See that he is and report back to me, son."
Next morning the entire company fell out to witness punishment as Billy took two dozen lashes. Three days later the boy died.
On the day General Roly Poly announced Lee's surrender, Houston's gang was loading rails onto flat cars. As the town Rock Island celebrated the great Union victory an Army marching band passed and all the Yanks rendered honors, he slipped from the work detail with two eight foot lengths of harness leather he snatched from an unattended saddler's wagon. Creeping under the flat car, he quickly fashioned a suspended swing seat under an axle of the rail car that would carry him to freedom.
The rail car was shunted off near the river seven miles from the foundry to allow passage of a troop train. Houston slipped out of his sling and crept under the loading dock of a military warehouse and there he hid until dark. The victory celebrations were still going on all around. He watched as they contented themselves smoking pipes and laughing in the dark next to a campfire. Within the warehouse he found pallets stacked high with tinned corned beef, sacks of beans, dried apples, and potatoes. Uniform items, trousers and jackets, were tied in large jute bundles, a huge crate held boots, others held cooking gear, tents, saddles, and surveying equipment - a lucky find for Houston who left sometime after midnight dressed in the uniform of a Union soldier with a haversack crammed with food, a razor, sewing kit, candles, a canteen, and extra socks. Posing as a returning wounded soldier he easily begged his passage onto the riverboat, The Lewis-Merriweather, bound for Natchez. The Union, ecstatic with victory, could not do enough for its conquering heroes. The boat's captain saw that Houston was assigned his own cabin and given free access to the galley and dining room.
The boat's tiny cabin exuded the warmth and security of a womb. Houston wept. He wept for his deliverance from hell, he wept for all those still confined, he wept for the dead of all wars, and he wept especially for Billy One Horse. He vowed that he would find Billy's people and convey to them his condolences and the sad truth of Billy's death. Clearly the years of harsh, brutal, dog-eat-dog survival in prison had taken a toll within. He'd had no religion before and having endured and seen the worst in men certainly had none now. No, Houston Wells was sour. Sour on people - their stupid religions, their corrupt governments, their incessant greed and their willingness to inflict pain on others. He was sour on plutocrats like Pollson under whose feet the innocent suffered and died. Oh sure there were the good people, but in such a morass of evil they were like abandoned fledglings, with no one listening or caring to attend their diminishing peeps. He wished to live with no one, in no community, in no home. The best thing about this country, he reckoned was that if one chose to be alone it was easy, easy to be alone and easy to just drift.
The war's end enabled government and business to resume the westward expansion. Smart investors looked west and the key to opening the West was clearly railroads. Rolf Pollson knew that his time had come. The fortune he had garnered during the war would build his railroad and yield wealth beyond common man's imagination, millions upon millions in land and government contracts. Pollson risked it all in development of the Arkansas and Canadian Rivers Railroad. Construction was in the final months and the country's newest rail line would go operational on the 4th of July. His official title, Chairman of the Board, gave him complete control over every aspect of the fledgling enterprise. The railroad was only days away from completion and once the final rails were laid and the stations opened at Shawnee in the Indian Territories and at Arkansas City in Kansas, the Arkansas and Canadian Rivers Railroad's coffers would open, and by God wouldn't the money flow like a spring flood! Like manure, thousands upon thousands of dollars in bribe money had been spread among the governors of Arkansas and Kansas, and all over Washington, D.C. including President Johnson himself who had personally assured Pollson's lawyer that the land grants and government contracts were locked in. Until the railroad went operational, General Pollson assumed the title and salary of superintendent. Why pay someone to sit on his ass when there was not yet an operational railroad? He wasn't a general for nothing, was he? In June he would inspect the entire line from his plush new personal railway car.
The war over and the South in tatters Houston had known the future was assuredly in the West. He easily found work and by the autumn of '65 as Western Mining and Drilling Company's District Engineer in the Indian Territories. Supervising mining and hydrographic surveys of the Indian Territories suited his ascetic nature and took him into areas few travelled. When his business brought him to Billy One Horse's poverty stricken people in Black Rock, an Indian village north of Ponca, his heart went out to them. He stayed with Billy's brother Charlie Quick for a full month; the two became friends while Houston supervised and paid for the drilling of two wells for their village. When the time came for him to move on, Charlie Quick accompanied him as the newest surveyor for Western Mining and Drilling.
In the summer of 1872 United States marshals from Ft. Smith rode into the Indian Territories to serve eviction notices to all Black Rock villagers. The land had been ceded under eminent domain to the Arkansas and Canadian Rivers Railroad by Presidential Executive Order signed by President Andrew Johnson, the same president who incidentally held a seat on that railroad's board of directors. The Choctaws asked Houston how such a treaty violation could occur. He told them, "Greed, corruption, and hate; that's how." Later when he read in the Ft. Smith paper that the president of the railroad was none other than General Rolf E. Pollson his gorge rose. When he informed Charlie Quick that this was the man responsible for his little brother's death, Charlie responded, "Well, let's me and you get him."
"Okay. Newspaper says he's making an inspection in his special superintendent's coach. Be comin' through next week. I reckon we could arrange something for the big man."
The plans were laid to grab the General and hold him in an abandoned zinc mine they had surveyed earlier; the mine located miles from any track. Food was laid in and an iron grill secured over the entrance.
Simultaneous ransom letters were delivered to the Railroad's Headquarters in Kansas, the Indian Territories, the Rolf E. Pollson Foundry and Iron Works in Rock Island, Illinois and the Rolf E. Pollson Bank in Ft. Smith. The note was short and simple.
If you want General Roly Poly alive it will cost $100,000 in gold. You have seven days to prepare delivery. Signify your acceptance by painting a large yellow star on all company signs. Details will then follow.
Yellow stars appeared two days later. Houston then sent the small packet containing the finger with Pollson's signet ring to the Ft. Smith bank with the final note.
The enclosed is to assure you that we do indeed hold General Roly Poly. On Sunday next send a locomotive with no cars other than the fuel car with orders to leave Shawnee Station at eleven o'clock p.m. and make the run to Arkansas City. Aboard this train will be only the engineer, fireman, and the bank president with a heavy canvas sack containing $100,000 in gold. All will ride unarmed in the cab. When three small fires laid in a triangle pattern are spotted, the engineer will slow the train. The train will not stop. From the moving train the ransom money will be thrown from the cab as close to the three fires as possible. The train will not stop until it arrives at Arkansas City. Our people will require two days to insure the quality of the gold. Once satisfied we will provide directions to the General's location for his recovery. Any presence or involvement of law or soldiers or armed parties will effect the General's death. You are further charged to keep these instructions secret from all law men, military, and the press.
Three days later the rescue party found a badly shaken man wrapped in a serape mumbling about rats and Indians. Doctor Selwin treated him for exposure and for the loss of a finger, and prescribed keeping the General sedated in a dark room until he recovered his wits. By that time, however, the Financial Panic of '73 had set in. In retaliation for former president Andrew Johnson's accusing him of installing a military dictatorship, President Grant abrogated and nullified all of Johnson's Executive Orders. The Arkansas and Canadian Rivers Railroad was dead. The Choctaw's land was restored, Without federal backing, without his health, without gold reserves in his bank, the Panic destroyed General Rolf Pollson who hanged himself three days after hearing of the death of Andrew Johnson.
Charlie Quick built a school, a hospital, and a community center for his people and lived a happy fulfilled life until he died at the age of 93 after falling from his horse. No one questioned where his wealth had come from. Houston Wells continued to drift west to Gila Bend where he established the One Horse Mining and Copper Company. As an honorary Pima Indian he, like his friend Charlie Quick, built schools, hospitals, and community centers throughout southern Arizona Territory.
Gary Ives lives in the Ozarks where he grows apples and writes. He has published scores of short stories and is a Push Cart
Prize nominee for his story "Can You Come Here for Christmas."
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