July, 2016

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Issue #82

All The Tales

The Not So O.K. Corral
by Gerald E. Sheagren

Detective Vinny Carlotto entered Worldwide Time Travel, taking a few moments to examine the myriad of posters on the walls. They were big and colorful, heralding trips from the Antebellum South and Victorian England to gladiator spectacles at the Roman Coliseum.

One huge poster pictured Abraham Lincoln, stating that for the extraordinary price of $350,000 one could leap back in time to November 19, 1863, to witness the Great Emancipator's delivery of the Gettysburg Address. There was another poster, advertising a trip back to February 9, 1964, tickets provided, to experience the Beatle's groundbreaking performance on the Ed Sullivan show. This two day package deal went for the remarkable price of $225,000.

Carlotto couldn't help but shake his head in wonderment. Who would have ever thought it possible? It was astonishing, completely mind-boggling. But, unfortunately, time-travel was far beyond the monetary grasp of the average American. As a lot of things, it was only for the filthy rich.

From behind the counter, a nerdy-looking man was observing Carlotto from over the top of his black-framed glasses. As most people, he appeared a bit intimidated by the detective's massive shoulders and no-nonsense demeanor.

"Can I help you, sir? My name's Ogden Kramer. As you can see, we have many outstanding trips. And, may I add, our prices are extremely competitive."

"Not for my pocketbook."

"We do have time payment plans." A chuckle. "No pun intended."

"Tell me; how does this time travel work?"

"There's so much rigmarole and so many rules and regulations that I rather not get into it unless you're seriously interested. Time travel is very highly regulated by both the state and federal government."

"Just like everything."

Kramer cocked his head, raising a brow. "I have the feeling you're here for something other than time-travel."

"You're feeling is spot on." The detective pulled his ID pack, displaying his gold shield. "Vincent Carlotto, NYPD."

"Uh-huh. I pegged you as soon as you walked in."

"What gave me away—my cheap clothes or my sparkling personality?"

"Just by the way you carry yourself."

Carlotto produced a photo, pushing it across the counter with a forefinger. "Have you seen this guy by any chance?

The nerd studied the face. As he did, Carlotto saw a small flicker of recognition in his eyes.

"No, I can't say that I have. Who is he?"

"Someone you wouldn't want to have dinner with. His name is Nathan Ostrosky. He and two of his pals have robbed a number of armored cars and banks, netting well in the excess of seven million dollars. During the course of these robberies, a total of five guards, two tellers and three innocent by-standers have been killed."

Kramer swallowed hard, his large Adam's-apple bobbing.

"Three days ago, up in Westchester County, Ostrosky's two cohorts were found dead in a car, each with a bullet to the head. Obviously, Nathan is not the sharing type." Carlotto tapped the photo for emphasis. "Ostrosky, here, is numero uno on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List."

"His picture has been on TV, right?'

"Numerous times."

Kramer sighed, playing his game. "Yes, yes, now I recall seeing this face. It was on TV. Yes, that's it—on a news flash."

"I'm following up on a little hunch. I thought that maybe, just maybe, Ostrosky would think of time-travel as a means of hiding out. You know; to get out of the picture for a while until things cool down. He probably stashed his loot in a safe place for when he returns. What better way, right?"

The nerd started to sweat, a nervous tic playing at the corner of his mouth. "Well . . . uh . . . yeah . . . I suppose."

"So tell me. When was he here?"

"He . . . he was never here."

Carlotto reached out and grabbed a handful of the man's collar, nearly dragging him over the counter. Their noses were only inches apart. "I think he was. If you've helped him out in any way, you'll be up to your eyeballs in shit. I will see to it, personally, that you become an accessory to robbery and murder."

"You . . . you can't do that."

"Don't underestimate me, pal. Believe me; you will come to regret it. And I'm sure the FBI will lend a willing hand."

Kramer started to shake, looking as though he was about to break out in tears. "I . . . I didn't know who he was. I swear to you; I didn't have a clue."

"Bull crap! You said you recognized his face from TV."

"At the time, I didn't. I . . . I . . . I really didn't."

"Did you time-travel him? And if you did, how much did he pay you to cut through all the red tape and mumbo-jumbo? You're in a peck of trouble with both the state and the federal government, my friend. Speak up! Give me everything."

"Can . . . can you grant me some kind of immunity?"

"Jesus H! Speak to me."

The man quaked in his shoes for a few moments before finding his tongue. "I . . . I sent him back to Tombstone, Arizona, September the twenty-sixth, eighteen-eighty-one. He slipped me $250,000 to disregard all the paperwork and legal stuff. Hell, he never would have passed the background check that's required. The money was for me to keep my mouth shut and to delete the automatic recording of the trip on the time capsule panel."

"Automatic recording?"

"Yes. Every time-travel is automatically recorded. Each Friday, the tape is checked by the feds to make sure that everything is on the up-and-up. The state checks it out every two weeks. The recording is hard to delete, but I know how to do it."

Carlotto whistled. "You're going to be in a world of hurt, pal." A gritty chuckle. "While in prison, try to avoid the shower room."

Kramer appeared on the verge of an emotional collapse. Wailing in anguish, he ran his shaking fingers through a mop of Einstein-like hair. "What can I do, what can I do? Can I help you in some way to get me out of this?"

In an instant, Carlotto knew what he had to do. "Okay, okay, how long is Ostrosky staying in Tombstone?"

"For an indefinite period. He has a control belt, so he can return whenever he pleases. Plus, he's not accompanied by one of our company's highly-trained chaperones."

"What do you mean by chaperone?"

"Worldwide Time Travel always sends a chaperone with its travelers, to make sure that they return in the allotted time and also to make certain that they don't tamper with history in any way."

"Okay, here's the deal. You're going to send me back to Tombstone, a full month later than Ostrosky, and when I get back, I'll cut you some slack. If you cough up the $250,000, I might even keep my mouth shut about everything."

"Why do you want to go back a full month later than Ostrosky? It doesn't make sense."

"It makes a lot of sense. I want him to be relaxed and comfortable with his surroundings. If he's off-guard, I have a better chance of nailing him." Carlotto rested a firm hand on the man's shoulder. "And I'll expect you to delete my time travel from the automatic recording."

"Yeah, yeah, sure. Well then, follow me and I'll get you a change of clothing."

"What I'm wearing will be fine."

Kramer barked a laugh. "If you insist on wearing that suit and tie, some cowpoke is likely to put a bullet square between your eyes. At the very least, the Earps might throw you in the calaboose for screwing with the dress code."

Carlotto was led to a wardrobe room where he picked out a suitable outfit for 1881 Tombstone. It consisted of a white muslin shirt with Mother-of-Pearl buttons, a gray puff tie and a fancy brocade vest, along with a black frock coat, matching trousers with a button fly and a pair of fine leather boots. He was going to play the role of a frontier gambler. He examined himself in a mirror, adjusting the brim of a black bowler to just above eye level. He had to admit that he cut a pretty dashing figure.

He was also provided with a hundred dollars in period money, both paper and coins. Last but not least, the nerd supplied him with a lightweight control belt, which Carlotto struggled to fasten around his midsection, hidden under his shirt and vest. Kramer had entered a special code into the contraption that provided a quick return to 2027 New York. All that was required was the simple pressing of a green button.

"Are you sure this little gizmo belt will work?"

"It's flawless. We have the testimonies of a couple of hundred satisfied customers. Plus, I gave it a test trial, myself." Kramer sighed, shrugging his shoulders. "Unfortunately, I can't supply you with a period six-shooter. Time-traveling with a firearm is strictly forbidden and the penalties are extremely severe; both for the traveler and the time-travel agency. It's a serious offense, punishable by a $100,000 fine and a good ten years in prison."

"It's amazing how honest and law-abiding you've suddenly become."

"Look, I'm an honest man by nature. I just had one little lapse."

"Correction. You had a very big lapse." Dispensing with his shoulder holster, Carlotto slipped his Glock, along with an extra clip of ammo, into the roomy pocket of his frock coat. "I don't need some ancient six-shooter, anyway. This seventeen-shot baby will give me all the firepower I'll need."

"Let me give you a bit of warning. Ostrosky traveled with a similar weapon."

"Boy, when you break laws, you really break them."

With that, Kramer led the detective into a room with a long control panel topped with monitors. Standing directly in the center of the room was a glass-domed capsule.

"How's this going to work?"

Kramer escorted Carlotto to the capsule, opening a sealed door and waving him in.

"It would be too lengthy of an explanation, but I'll give it to you in a nutshell. After I make all the necessary entries on the control panel, the molecules of your body will scatter like so much confetti. Once you reach Tombstone, the molecules will quickly join back together, and voila, you'll materialize."

"Materialize where, exactly?"

"That hasn't been perfected yet. All that I can guarantee is that it will be somewhere within the city limits of Tombstone."

"Answer me this. If it takes so much technical rigmarole to get to Tombstone, why is it so much easier to return simply by pushing a green button?"

"Good question. I'll explain it to you someday over a hundred cups of coffee. I can only hope it's not in prison."

After the door was closed and thoroughly sealed, Carlotto watched with a great deal of trepidation as Kramer hurried to the control panel, paying close attention to the monitors as his nimble fingers danced along, flipping switches and pressing buttons.

In those last few moments, Carlotto began a quick review of everything that he'd failed to do. He should have adhered to protocol and gotten clearance from his superiors. He should have notified the FBI. He should have called his partner, Tommy Martinez, who was out canvassing other time-travel agencies, so the detective could keep a close watch over Kramer to make certain he didn't pull any shenanigans. Kramer could probably make a few entries on the control panel that would leave him high and dry in Tombstone - never to return. Then the little geek could rest easy and keep the $250,000.

Well, it was too late now. All that he could do is cross his fingers and hope for the best. As he continued to watch Kramer, a bead of sweat formed, slowly trickling down the length of his spine.

Suddenly, there was a humming sound and Carlotto's thoughts were swept away by a strange whirling sensation.

* * *

Sometime later, maybe minutes, probably seconds, Carlotto found himself standing in the middle of a dirt street, his fuzzy brain grappling with what had happened to him. Dust. Strange smells and sounds. A freight wagon was bearing down on him, its startled driver yanking on the reins and shouting "whoa." One of the horses drew up head-to-head with Carlotto, snorting, its wet muzzle only an inch from the detective's nose.

"Are you plumb crazy?" shouted the driver. "Standing there like a gall-darned fool in the middle of the street!"

"Sorry, pal."

"I ain't your 'pal'."

Carlotto hustled out of the way, his heart pounding like a jackhammer. The wagon lumbered past, axles creaking, with the scowling driver launching a glob of tobacco juice that nearly caught the detective in the head.

"Dang fancy-pants gambler! Where you from, anyway?"

"New York."

The man harrumphed. "I should have known. An eastern tenderfoot to top it off."

Carlotto watched the freight wagon depart, the teamster whistling and cracking his whip, wheels stirring up a cloud of yellow dust. As he walked to the boardwalk, he nearly collided with a grizzled old miner, who'd been watching the whole affair in utter astonishment.

"Where in the blue blazes did you come from, mister? I swear you jus' popped out of nowhere."

"I think you're seeing things." Carlotto tapped the pint of whiskey that was poking from the old-timer's pocket. "If I were you, I'd lay off that stuff."

Gathering his senses, Carlotto started down the boardwalk, taking in the sights and sounds. He couldn't believe that he was in the old west; Tombstone no less, in the same year as the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. And that's when he drew up short, suddenly realizing that today—October 26, 1881—was the very day of the gunfight. He'd told Kramer that he wanted to arrive exactly one month later than Ostrosky and this is what he got. What a frigging coincidence! Carlotto stood there for a few moments, his legs fairly shaking with excitement. Sweet Jesus! Would he get to see it? Composing himself, he continued on his way, shivering with anticipation.

All sorts of sounds filled the air - piano music and the whinnying of horses; the steady ding-ding-ding of a blacksmith's hammer striking iron; raucous laughter and the clinking of glasses coming from a nearby saloon. The boardwalks were exceptionally crowded with silver miners and merchants and gamblers; gaudy prostitutes and finely-dressed ladies; Mexicans and Chinamen and swaggering cowboys. Despite the odor of unwashed bodies and horse dung, the air was decidedly fresher than that of 2027 New York.

Tombstone was rife with saloons and gambling houses, and it didn't bode well if Ostrosky was in one of them, drinking up a storm. The man was mean and gun-happy as it was and liquor was bound to make him that much worse. He hadn't thought of asking Kramer how much period money he'd given the man. Was it enough to tide him over for an extended stay, or would he have to resort to gambling and robbery to augment his supply?

Carlotto was so deep in thought that he inadvertently bumped into someone. It was a tall, thin guy, blue-eyed and blondish-haired, with fairly handsome features and a handlebar moustache. He was dressed in black, from his low-crowned hat to his long Prince Albert frock coat and boots. There was something about the man that was oddly familiar. And then it struck Carlotto where he'd seen the face before—in more than a few history books. Sweet Jesus, above! It was none other than Wyatt Earp!

Earp glared, brushing the shoulder of his coat as if the bump had dirtied it. :You've got to watch where you're walking, mister."

"I . . . I'm sorry. My mind was elsewhere."

A long stare. "Are you new in town? I'm not suggesting I know everyone, but I've never seen you before."

"I just got here, today."

"You appear to be a gambling man."

"I've been known to try my luck from time-to-time."

"Well, if you're looking for a little action, I recommend the Oriental Saloon. "Everything's above board, fair and square." A wink. "I have a one-quarter interest in the faro concession."

"Thanks for the tip. I'll make certain to give it a try."

As the two men started off on their separate ways, Earp suddenly stopped and turned, loudly clearing his throat to grab Carlotto's attention "You wouldn't be packing a gun, would you?"

Carlotto swallowed hard, heart drumming. "No, sir. Guns make me nervous."

Earp cocked his head and stared, trying to determine if he was hearing the truth. "Good. Because there's an ordinance, banning the carrying of firearms within the city limits."

"That's a very good policy." That will be to my advantage, if I come across Ostrosky. But there's a good chance that the man's in violation, like me. "Yes, sir. That is an exceptionally wise policy."

Satisfied, Earp strode off, tipping the brim of his hat to a lady. Carlotto watched as the legend crossed Allen Street to the opposite boardwalk. My God! He'd actually exchanged words with the famous Wyatt Earp! No one will ever believe this. Unfortunately, he'd also lied to the famous Wyatt Earp. He sincerely hoped that he would never come to regret it.

Carlotto decided to make the rounds of the saloons and gambling houses to see if he could locate Ostrosky. The man could be anywhere; hanging out a few miles out of town or maybe in a whole different town. He still wasn't sure what his course of action would be if he found the killer. Would he shoot him dead on the spot and be done with it? Or could he somehow subdue the man and hold onto him, pushing the green button so they could both be transported back to New York together?

Carlotto visited the Capitol, Hafford's and Crystal Palace saloons, but came up empty. In the Campbell and Hatch Saloon and Billiard Parlor he thought he saw Ostrosky, but decided that the man was only a look alike. All of the establishments had been mobbed with drinkers and card players, not a person offering him a second look. To his satisfaction, he'd blended in perfectly.

Then he looked for Earp's suggestion, the Oriental Saloon, locating it on the corner of Fifth Street and Allen, cautiously pushing his way through the batwing doors. Surprisingly, the place was a lot fancier than he expected, with an intricately carved bar, backed by shelves of glittering liquor bottles and crystal. Small chandeliers graced the ceiling, providing plenty of ambient light. Piano music sounded, joining the gruff voices and boisterous laughter. Miners and cowboys were playing poker and faro and chuck-a-luck. Wreathes of tobacco smoke hung in the air.

Carlotto headed for the bar and found an empty space, ordering a whiskey as though he was in an old western movie, his eyes searching the room for any sign of his quarry. No luck. Instead, his eyes fell on a frail-looking, pallid-faced man with a thick moustache, dressed like a dandy in a gray suit and puff tie. A half-emptied bottle of whiskey was sitting in front of him. As he watched, the man suddenly doubled over in a fit of coughing, hacking up a phlegm ball into a handkerchief.

"Excuse me," said a bartender, laying a warning hand on Carlotto's arm. "I wouldn't stare too long and hard at Doc. He doesn't taking kindly to prying eyes."

The detective's heart did a somersault. "You mean that's Doc Holliday?"

"In the flesh."

Holy cow! First Wyatt Earp and now the infamous Doctor John H. Holliday!

"Honestly, mister; I've seen Doc call out men for a lot less than staring. So you'd better be careful."

"Thanks for the warning." Carlotto slipped the photo of Ostrosky from his pocket. It was a modern high-definition picture, bound to attract attention, but he had to take the chance. "Have you ever seen this man around?"

"I've never seen a picture like this before."

"It's the latest from New York."

The bartender raised his brows in surprise. "Well, I'll be danged."

"So, have you ever seen him?"

"Yup. That's Nat Osterman."

Apparently, Ostrosky was using an alias to be on the safe side, employing the first letters of his first and last name.

"He's been chumming with the Clanton and McLaury boys. They call themselves cowboys, but they're more cattle rustlers than anything."

The news hit Carlotto like a sledgehammer. This was definitely not what he needed. Things had just gotten a lot more complicated.

The bartender suddenly cleared his throat. "Uh-oh. It looks like something's up."

The detective turned to see that a young boy had appeared, whispering urgently into Doc Holliday's ear. Looking concerned, the tubercular dentist jumped to his feet and pulled a gray overcoat from the back of his chair, quickly slipping it on. Then he grabbed his silver-knobbed cane and hustled out the door.

Carlotto blew a harsh breath. "Damn, it's going to go down at the O.K. Corral."

The bartender looked perplexed. "What's going to go down?"

"You'll learn about it, soon enough."

Carlotto blew through the batwing doors, hurrying up the boardwalk. Was Ostrosky at the O.K. Corral with his new-found friends? If so, how was this all going to play out? Should he make his move now, or should he wait to see what happens? But he wanted Ostrosky and if he was at the O.K. Corral, he wanted to nab him before the Earps and Holliday showed up on the scene. There was a good chance that he might change the course of history.

The detective hurried across the street, going over what he'd learned about the gunfight. The Earps and Holliday would head down Fourth Street to Fremont in that slow and deliberate walk of theirs. That's when they'll get held up by Sheriff Johnny Behan, who will attempt to defuse the situation.

Carlotto figured that if he headed straight down Allen Street, he could get to the Corral before them. And then what? What the hell would he do? If Ostrosky was indeed with the Clantons and McLaurys, how was he supposed to handle the situation? Everything told him to play it cool and wait, but he'd never been a man to let the grass grow under his feet.

Carlotto picked up his pace to a near run, his heavy breathing suggesting that he was out of shape. Too many doughnuts and cheeseburgers. He shook off the bad vibes, bracing himself for whatever he had to do. Reaching the corner of the block, he looked across the street to see the Earps and Holliday urgently conversing in front of Hafford's Saloon. Morgan, Virgil and Wyatt looked nearly identical in their black hats and frock coats.

The detective kept up his pace, trying to calm himself. Something like this deserved a steady hand and a focused mind. When he drew abreast of the Dexter Livery and Feed Stable, he finally came to a stop, trying to catch his breath. He slipped the Glock from his pocket, holding it close to his leg. The O.K. Corral was directly across the street. But he'd read that the gunfight hadn't actually taken place at the Corral, but in a vacant lot that was sandwiched between the Harwood residence and Camillus Fly's Rooming House. He had to find the way.

With that, he took off across the street, motioning for some startled civilians to run for cover. With his Glock at the ready, he headed forward, bending low and keeping alert, his heart drumming and sweat stinging his eyes. Jesus, he must be a complete idiot to throw himself into this mess. He slowed to a creep as he neared the corner of Fly's Photo Gallery. Sucking in a calming breath, he eased his head around the corner to chance a look.

He spotted a total of six men gathered around two horses. He didn't know one from another, but, as history went, there would be Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, and Billy Claiborne—although Claiborne would quickly run from the gunfight. The big man wearing the slouch hat and canvas duster could very well be Nathan Ostrosky. Why the killer-robber would involve himself in this was a mystery. Their eyes were away from Carlotto as they conversed in urgent tones.

The detective's heart was pounding so hard that he thought it might explode. He would have to make his move, now, because he wanted to get everything over with and make a quick return to New York. He'd break from cover and shout Ostrosky's name. If the big man in the duster snapped to attention, he was going to shoot him down in his tracks. With so many others around, trying to take the man captive was definitely out of the question. Jumping into the open, he assumed a shooting stance; legs planted firmly apart, his weapon gripped in both hands.

"Everyone freeze! Ostrosky, throw your hands in the air!"

All six heads snapped in his direction as though operated by a single muscle. No one moved, wide-eyed with wonderment, staring with their mouths hanging open. Everyone, excepting for Nathan Ostrosky. Reaching inside of his duster, the killer had his weapon out in a flash. The others, seeing that this was a confrontation between the two men, wisely decided to withdraw, hurrying onto Fremont Street.

Suddenly, one of the horses reared, obstructing Carlotto's view. With that, the wily Ostrosky dropped onto his stomach and fired off a shot under the animal, striking Carlotto in the right arm. In the process of switching his Glock to his left hand, another bullet caught the detective in the leg, sending him to the ground. Two more slugs kicked up dirt no more than an inch from his head. This whole deal was not going in his favor.

Sensing victory, Ostrosky was back on his feet, moving forward as he continued to fire away. Carlotto started to roll to provide less of a target, desperately trying to draw a bead on the advancing man. Finally, with a shaky left-handed shot, he managed to strike the killer squarely in the chest. But Ostrosky kept on coming, firing crazily, his eyes ablaze with fury.

"You idiot cop! You're not taking me back." A gritty laugh. "You're going to die in the old west."

Yet another bullet struck Carlotto, cutting a bloody furrow across his scalp. His head began to swim, vision blurring, and he feared he'd pass out. And that would be that. He was going to die, with no family and friends present, a hundred and forty-six years from home.

Then two shots rang out. Ostrosky stumbled, wavering for a moment, eyes rolling, before dropping heavily to the ground. His legs twitched for a few seconds then grew still.

Carlotto remained where he was, lingering on the brink of unconsciousness, his weak fingers pulling the shirt from his trousers in order to get at the control belt. He had to push that damn green button. His head was swimming, blood leaking from three wounds, colorful stars dancing before his eyes. Then Wyatt Earp's mustachioed visage began to come in and out of focus. A voice sounded, seemingly a mile away.

"You're dang lucky I broke into a run when I heard the shooting. Otherwise, this bastard would have had you." A pause. "Say, you're the fella who bumped into me. You're also the fella who said he wasn't packing a gun."

"So sue me."

Carlotto felt the Glock being pried from his left hand.

"What in the be-Jesus? I've never seen a gun like this. Where in tarnation did you get it?"

"You . . . you wouldn't believe me if I told you."

Virgil and Morgan and Doc Holliday gathered about, joined by the Clanton and McLaury brothers; all animosity having been cast aside. Finally, Carlotto passed out, while his trembling finger pressed the green button.

* * *

Tucson - 1914

Carlotto sat rocking on the back porch, smoking a cigar, his wife, Lydia, crocheting next to him. As usual, the temperature was over a hundred, the back and underarms of his shirt soaked with sweat. There was a scar across his scalp, the covering strip of hair having grown white. Carlotto watched fondly as his youngest grandchild - seven-year-old Vincent the third - marched across the backyard with a book in hand.

"You were off reading again, eh, Vinny? What book is it now?"

"The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. I've nearly finished it." The boy cocked his head. "Do you think someone will ever invent a time machine, Grandpa?"

Carlotto thought back to the convoluted events of 1881. He had to chuckle to himself, thinking of the sensation that his Glock and Ostrosky's weapon had caused, not to mention the non-functioning control belt. As he'd worried about, Kramer had rendered it useless, keeping him stuck in 1881, so he could go scot free with the $250,000.

Wyatt Earp had wound up nowhere near as famous as he would have if the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral had actually happened. He heard that Earp, along with his wife Josephine, was now living in Los Angeles, after thirty odd years of dabbling in gold mining, gambling and saloon-keeping. Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers had lived to see another day. Hell, they were probably still alive, rejoicing in their own grandchildren. Ike Clanton had been shot and killed by detective Jonas V. Brighton on June 1, 1887, while resisting arrest for the act of cattle rustling.

"Grandpa? Did you hear what I asked about the time machine?"

"Well, since we now have the Model T and biplane, you just never know what might come along." The old man chuckled, twirling the ends of his graying moustache. "No sireee. You just never can tell."

The End

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 every now and then he hits paydirt with a western or a historical piece.

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Crossing the Red
by Dick Derham

"A San 'Tone boy will be a man when he crosses the Red River."

That's what Shanghai Pierce told me, but my Mama wasn't seeing it, not her little Henry, me being still a shaky colt just turned sixteen and nowhere near his full growth. Why couldn't she understand I craved the adventure—no, the challenge—that's what I needed. When South Texas' most famous trail driver promised he could turn me into a man, there was no holding me back.

What finally decided Mama wasn't all my importuning or whining; it was something more basic. You see, Mr. Pierce was paying real honest-to-God gold, something a mite scarce in South Texas ever since the Blue Boys came marching in back in '65 and turned all the folding money in folks' mattresses into kindling for the stove.

So one bright morning, I saddled up and rode off to see the world, me who'd never been farther from Pa's corn field than the Methodist Meeting House down to the Crossroads.

* * *

Eleven of us there was, counting Mr. Pierce. The cook and the wrangler had their jobs so that left eight cowhands—don't never call me a "cowboy." Even back then I didn't like being called "boy" not at my "growed-up" age. Two of the hands was dark of skin, and not that long from being "property", but on a dark night in a stampede, you didn't notice. Come to that, after a couple of weeks on the trail, I began to feel like "property" myself. And not just because the thick red Texan dust had begun to seep deep into my skin. So there was eight of us to move twenty-five hundred head, a mixed herd, steers, cows, and all of them bound for some Easterner's dinner plate.

The sellers had the job of shoulder-burning the SP trail brand, so we had no real work to do before turnover count. The wrangler herded the remuda into a rope corral and we drew our cavvy of five horses each. I guess I proved what my Pa said: it's better to have luck than good looks because my first choice was a sorrel gelding with a white stocking on its right foreleg. I called him Single Sock, and you'll be hearing more about him. We spent a day or two getting to know our string and setting around the campfire—me and real men, what a rush—and swapping stories—well, I mainly contributed the big ears for the story-telling, and of course, I believed everything they said. Something I'm a mite less inclined to do these days.

On delivery day the sellers roused the herd and started it on the move. We drifted in and paired off with the sellers' hands, moving the herd easy, funneling it down between two "reps" from each side, each man holding a pegging rope in which he tied a knot for every ten head that passed between them. When we was done, Mr. Pierce and the sellers compared the counts: one man was one over, one was one under and two agreed. So that was the accepted count: 2517 and all that was left was to deliver the herd at the Abilene stockyards, not more than seven hundred miles north.

My Great Adventure had begun.

* * *

The trail routine I'd get to know like a broke-in boot began the next morning: up at first light, coffee and ham in our bellies and the herd roused and on the trail before the first sliver of gold edged over the horizon. I was accorded the honor, me and Reb, him who had seen the big world from Shiloh Church to Chickamauga, of the most responsible position in the whole drive, so the older hands told me, riding "drag" to make sure no steer got a hankering to drop back and mosey home. Dusty work, drag is, trailing after ten thousand plodding hooves, but I took to it, filled my belly with a couple pounds of good Texas dust, and kept the herd moving.

Then it was time for night herd. Only one of us needed, Mr. Pierce said, with a clear starry night and the herd traveled hard enough that day to drive out its home-bound yearnings and no marauders, either two-foot or four-foot, expected. I got two hours in my soogans before Jessup's boot nudged me awake to pull my shift. "Two hours," I was told.

"How will I know?" me not boasting one of those fancy pocket watches you see suspended from the gold chain that stretches across a banker's broad belly.

"Just watch that star." Jessup pointed to something he called the Big Dipper and told me how two stars always pointed to my timepiece. "When it sets, rouse the next man."

I circled the herd slowly, singing some quiet hymns to pass the time, full of the excitement of being away from home and having a real man-size job. Round and round I went, picking a different hymn each time. After awhile I started to eye the star, trying to calculate how many times I'd have to circle the herd. My blankets sure started calling out to me, but that star was moving real slow, it seemed.

Finally, it got real hard to see the star—not that it had finally made up its mind to let me rouse my relief. No, sir. Just more eyestrain trying to make it out against the paling of the sky. Then a hand rode out. "Just had breakfast," he told me, "I'm first on the day shift."

Well, you can believe I was dead tired by the time I started guzzling coffee, and then it was time to switch horses and begin the day's drive.

We was just getting ready to put the herd in motion when Jonah, he's the Wrangler, sidled over to me. "The boys sure appreciate your pulling their shift."

"I don't think that durn"—I hadn't been far enough away from Mama to get more salty than that—"star ever set."

"Ever hear of the Pole Star?" he asked. That's when I learned my first manly Life Lesson: the one that stayed with me forever. "Don't never trust nobody."

Knowing cowhands, the way I do these days, not much should have surprised me. Now I get my kicks out of teaching a new hand his "astronomy lesson", so I figure I've got payback.

* * *

After that, Solomon, one of the Darkie drovers, kind of adopted me. I didn't know enough that he was supposed to be called "boy," and in return he didn't treat me like the boy I still was. I was drooping in the saddle that second day when he drifted over and gave me the advice that settled me down. "Let them see you can take a joke, and you won't get so many of them." Sure enough, I still got my share of greenhorn attention, but I took it in good humor and we all got along pretty well.

That was my second Life Lesson: when folks are snickering at you, the sting goes away when you laugh along.

* * *

Cattle ain't the brightest creatures in God's wide earth, and that's good and that's bad. The good part is that once you got the herd moving, the only idea they can get between their horns is to follow the rump plodding ahead of them. The bad news is about the same—but I'm getting ahead of my story.

Mr. Pierce told us a drive went easy if we got the cattle into a routine. So every morning we caught and saddled and roused them at first light. The point men cut out their special friends, the steers that liked to bull their way to the front, and started them north. Before long, the herd was strung out a half mile and we hands was just lolling in the saddle alongside them or, for Reb and me, trailing in their dust.

The chuck wagon would pass us early and stop on the nooning ground where we took shifts powering our motors for the rest of the day while the herd did some midday grazing. By the time we slapped our saddles on fresh horses and started again, Mr. Pierce was back from his scout and told Coosie where to night-camp. It did seem to me that he was a good deal more thoughtful about letting the herd have its beauty rest than the two-footed folks along, but Solomon reminded me maybe I'd rather get the pay he promised me than what he had in mind for them.

Like maybe you know, Texas, the part we was trailing across, is as flat as a pancake before the molasses, 'cept where some creek-carved gullies take it into their mind to cut across our way. Off west, the tops of the Blue Mountains broke the plane of the tableland that was Texas, a banquet spread for the trailing herd, the spring grass still being lush and nourishing and not too badly grazed over by passing herds that early in the season.

After a week on the trail, the herd was getting trail-broke nicely and me and Reb got to know some of steers almost personal. "Brownie's lagging again," Reb would say to me, or "here's old Bess coming," I'd tell him, them being the names of our laziest companions on the trail, the ones that maybe had an idea they were skillet-bound and were in no hurry to get to Abilene.

Not long after leaving home range, we began having some cows that got a bit ornery with us, this being a wet herd. When a calf got dropped, the little toddler couldn't keep up, not at fifteen miles a day, so Jessup, he seemed to take to the chore, would drive the calf off trail somewhere. We'd hear a single shot, and then Jessop would saunter back into his position riding swing. Mama cow would keep giving us work, trying to turn back to find her baby. After a couple of days, she gave up—or maybe just forgot—but likely we'd have another mama or two claiming our attention by then.

We bedded ourselves down in night-herd pairs so wake-up calls didn't steal sleep from them not coming on shift. Maybe you think sleeping out under the stars, a gentle breeze wafting through the sweet smell of the sage as your dreams start their pleasant ramble through your head is a great adventure. I sure did, up until that first night—well, the second night, the first night I spent much time in the blankets.

Let me tell you, I never yet found a camp site as soft as a featherbed. If I spread my blankets before dark, maybe I could knife-blade out the bigger rocks, but a couple of nights on the hard ground and ever after I blessed the man who thought up straw-filled mattresses. And that sweet smell? Like as not it came from the herd, even half a mile away, me being too polite to mention my fellow trail hands.

As to food, the coffee was hot, and the chuck was plentiful. Some days we ate salt pork and beans; other days, for variety we'd have beans and salt pork. On a special occasion, Coosie would open a can of stewed tomatoes and spoon out a mouthful to each of us. It fed the inner man, but Delmonico's it wasn't.

One day, the craving for a strong injection of hot, thick Arbuckle's being high at the end of the day, I headed straight for the pot. Me being a fellow who don't like to make himself or his horse work more than necessary, I rode right up to the cookfire and swung down, which I guess is up there with the "Thou Shalt Nots" they got in the Good Book. I learned a powerful lot about my ancestors from Coosie, mainly the four-footed ones, as well as about how a horseman scattering sand into the skillet or cook pot could stand to go without dinner.

Some say it don't count as a "Life Lesson," but anyone who knew Coosie will tell you "always approach the fire from downwind" is awful durn close.

* * *

We'd been trailing north three weeks the night Single Sock taught me my next two Life Lessons all at the same time.

Texas being so flat, the morning's zephyr didn't have nothing to meander it gentle and by mid-morning a cutting wind swept down from the north to play its games with us, finding its way through the arm holes, around the collar, between the very fibers of the light work shirt I had pulled on when the morning sun promised a normal sweat-soaking day on the Texas plateau.

By noon the wind had brought a mess of water, the rain dropping like Noah needed to be building his arc, a steady, pelting, drenching rain, cold as all get out and maybe sent purposely by my old friend the Pole Star to make a simple trail hand's life one of misery. But them Eastern bellies needed to be filled, so we kept the herd moving and by supper time the rain had eased into a drizzle, just enough to let us know that we wasn't going to dry out any time soon, and enough to keep the herd restless so not a head would bed down.

And if they wasn't going to sleep, neither was we. Mr. Pierce doubled the night guard and told us to cut out our best saddle horse. Single Sock and me had got to know each other pretty well by then and soon he'd get a chance to prove how good he was.

The night-herd chore didn't seem so bad, not at first. We couldn't wear our slickers, of course, because a flash of color might startle them cows—didn't I tell you they wasn't gifted with a full load of smarts?—but we was already soaked down to our union suits, so it didn't matter much. I'd learned lots of new songs I could sing, ones maybe I wouldn't be belting out at the next Hymn Sing, not where that old Methodist preacher could hear, but they reminded me I was doing a good manly job. So I just jogged around, partly dozing as I went. My four-hour shift was nearing its end—not that the Pole Star was giving me a clue but I'd learned about Orion and his belt and my blankets were beckoning.

Then I noticed sparks when my bridle touched Single Sock's mane. That was something new. Not long after that I saw little blue flames that seemed to come right off the tips of the horns of one after of my drowsy trail companions. It bathed the whole herd with a gentle blue glow against the night's blackness. I thought it a sight of wondrous beauty.

Of course, I don't see it that way no more. Nowadays, I get ready for all Hell to bust loose, which it promptly did. With the first crack of lightning the herd was on its feet and running.

Them lazy cows? Somehow they didn't seem as lazy when they began trying to shake the earth off old Atlas' shoulder. But why did they all take it in their mind to run for me? I figured my job was to stop the stampede and it looked like I'd have to do it all by my lonesome. All through the drive, I'd never had a problem getting Old Bess or Brownie to pay attention when I said "get a move on you ornery hunk of beef," but I didn't know none of the thunderers by name and they didn't look much of a mind to listen no how.

What's a trail hand to do? Admitting he don't know squat never comes easy for a man, not that I claimed that honor yet. But old Single Sock had come to know me well enough that he wasn't going to pay me no nevermind anyway. He turned tail and galloped, with me going along for the ride and pretty soon him and me had left the herd far behind us.

When he finally stood panting, I looked around and couldn't see no other hand in the blackness but I could hear the herd—likely folks in Fort Worth could hear it. Not wanting to be left out in the dark by myself, I pointed Single Sock toward the sound. Finally, I got close and there was Jessup and Solomon racing for the front of the stampede and closing in on the leaders. Jessup yanked off his hat, began beating his leg like his thigh was covered with a mess of hairy tarantulas, all the time screeching like a banshee. Once Solomon caught up, he began doing the same. I couldn't see what good making a fool of myself would do, but I didn't have no better idea, so I joined in.

You ask me, them lead steers didn't want no part of our screeching, because they turned left away from Jessup. We kept making our throats hoarse, and pretty soon them cattle was going back the way they came, and then they was running into the tail end of the herd, and the stampede had been turned into what drovers call a mill with the herd running in a circle until it tuckered itself out and got down to serious sleeping like nothing ever happened.

So Single Sock taught me one of the most important Life Lessons: when you got ten thousand tons of beef thundering at you, don't do no thinking, just skedaddle

There was a second Life Lesson as well: Unless you're an almighty wise old coot, which you ain't, you don't know your horse's job near as good as he does, so back off and let him go to work. Later I learned that applies to men too.

* * *

We was four weeks out of San 'Tone and still in Texas. Now that may surprise some of you as live in them postage-stamp states back East, so let me put it this way. If we started trailing north from Washington City, we'd have been bowing down to Queen Victoria by now. You see, we live large out here; we ain't near as crammed together as you fellas.

There was a river ahead and I was kind of glad to hear the news. Back in the day, when I was just a green hand, crossing a river was some challenge, but now I must have crossed half-dozen rivers, some even big enough to have names on the maps, like the Colorado and the Brazos. So when I tossed my bedroll in the chuck wagon, I figured for a hand like me, how big could one more river be?

"Today's bath day," I told Commanch when I slapped on my saddle. Should have taken Single Sock, but I worked him hard the day before. And it was just another river.

Then, whilst the point hands got the herd moving, Mr. Pierce took the rest of us to give the river a look-see. We followed the trail about a mile and saw that the herds that came before had shifted, some angling off east, others west, and some going straight on. Mr. Pierce said each trail boss judged the river conditions as he found them. We went straight and pretty soon saw some trees up ahead, like grow along river banks, and then we came over a small rise and there it was before us.

Well, Howdy! Right away, I could see this wasn't the Brazos. A full mile across it seemed, though later someone told me it was "only" three thousand feet. The current divided into several channels, some sandbars separating them. Wide it might be, taken all in all, but see it as several streams and a fellow wondered what all the fuss was.

The debris along the river bank told us that the gully washer we had ridden through had driven the river to flood, but that morning only occasional chunks of driftwood bobbed in the current. In another day it seemed like we'd barely get our boots wet, but Mr. Pierce pointed to clouds off west, with streaky lines telling us that rain was falling. Maybe that was far away, but water flows downhill and all that water would be upon us by morning. So we pushed forward.

Like always we stripped to our birthday suits, there being none of the softer sex around to make us bashful, folded our shirt, pants and union suit up, weighed them down with our boots and gun belt, and stirruped up, wearing only our Stetson, the knee-slapping tool a trail hand beats all out of shape in the face of some dumb cow hankering to go her own way.

Mr. Pierce had us string out the herd to more than a mile in length, so when the leaders showed their natural reluctance to get their hooves wet, they could be edged forward without the herd bunching and milling in confusion. By the time me and Reb brought up the drag, the herd was spread out in a big half moon, arcing upstream, and curving back in homage to the demands of the river. The swing riders was working hard, yelling and pummeling their thighs with their hats, especially them on the downstream side. I could see the river hankered to feed some beef to the sea gods way down in the Gulf of Mexico.

The river was swift and the bracing coolness welcome against the already building of heat and, like I said, me being an old river hand by now, how much trouble could it be? But before long, Commanch wasn't walking no more but had taken it into its mind to swim and I was wishing I had Single Sock between my thighs. A swimming horse needs freedom, so I let loose of the reins and buried one fist in a manehold with gentle slaps, or maybe not so gentle, on the neck to try to tell Commanch where I wanted it to go. Not that it paid a peck of attention.

Maybe it was fun, at first at least. I don't know. I was too busy riding forward, then back, watching for Bessie or Brownie or any of my most "friendliest" acquaintances. I guess that's why I didn't see it coming, just a piece of driftwood, not too big, with its leafless branches reaching out at odd angles.

I don't know what Single Sock would have done, but it turned out Commanch was just as green as me. Too late, I slapped Commanch on the side of the neck to turn him away, but a swimming horse has a mind of his own—the branches hit, and tangled Commanch's legs. My saddle went one way and I went another.

As the water closed over my head, I recollected someone saying, "You don't drown by falling in the water. You drown by staying in the water." It seemed like I had a chance to prove that true.

Few of us hands could swim. Where in the arid lands of Texas was there enough water? All I could figure was to flail with my arms and kick with my feet, and see if something happened. After an hour or so, it seemed, I saw daylight and gulped in a breath of air, but only one before I went down again. When the water closes over you the second time, the coldness gets to you. You start wondering which of your so-called buddies poured concrete into your boots. Then you remember, you ain't wearing any boots and kick harder. I saw daylight again and my lungs gasped for air, but all I got was a half mouthful of dirty water. Going down, I heard a voice whisper to me, "three times, that's all a man gets." My legs were kicking, my arms was flailing, but they didn't seem to do no good. Then my arm brushed against something—a rope, I thought, someone had tossed me a rope. I grabbed it. Right away I could tell it weren't no rope but I didn't have nothing better to do, so I got my hand around it anyway, and held on tight.

I bounced along, sometimes up for air, sometimes down into the turbulence, long enough to wish I'd paid more attention to that old Methodist preacher's jabber. Finally, that Texas steer clambered up the bank, and headed after the herd, dragging the hundred-ten pound weight latched to his tail. Bumping across the dirt and rock, the notion came to me that I was alive and I let go.

And that was my last Life Lesson: when you're cold and wet and in over your head, find something you can hold tight and don't never let go.

* * *

So now you know about my Great Adventure. Mama had been right. Her little Henry hadn't been ready for a trail drive.

But I had crossed the Red. Now I was a man.

The End

Dick Derham, a native of Seattle, has been reading Western history and fiction since his teenage years. He seeks to combine historical accuracy with an understanding of how real people dealt with the experiences of frontier life. His first work in Frontier Tales, "The Pride of the Apache," which builds on the tension between Geronimo and the hostility of Arizonans to the Apache, with the US Army caught in the middle, appeared in the April 2015 issue of Frontier Tales. His five stories relating the adventures of Wells Fargo agent Dave Mitchell show different aspects of the challenge of law enforcement in the frontier and appeared in the July through November 2015 issues of Frontier Tales.

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Little Hearse on the Prairie
by Heidi M. Roth and Adrian Ludens

Hold on there, Henry! That package isn't for you. I appreciate your offer to help but you need to give that back. Your Christmas gifts are all in the house already. I'm back from a long day in Sundance—home safe and sound after quite an adventure, as it turns out—but I haven't brought you anything from town.

You remember our neighbors, the Kerbaughs? Carl Kerbaugh came over early this morning. He was alone, on horseback of course. It was right after breakfast. You might have been in your room. He looked close to having a heart attack. He told me one of his oldest girls, Mary, got stuck out in the blizzard last night. Heck of storm. Did you know one snow drift rose up to the roof of our calving barn?

Carl said she had attended a dance in Sundance last night. That's where she should've been coming back from when the blizzard hit. Mary is only a year older that you and someday real soon you'll be old enough to attend socials and dances. I hope you'll have more sense when it comes to noting the onset of bad weather. She should have stayed home.

I knew it would be a chore trying to pull a wagon through the drifts on the roads, but one look in Carl's eyes told me it had to be done. I hitched one of our best horses up to a buckboard and Carl hitched his up to it too. We were plodding along in a few minutes' time. We didn't talk much; just scanned the terrain for any sign of Mary.

I figured our search would be in vain. Like as not, Mary got stuck and started walking in the blizzard, ending up only-God-knows-where. Someone would find her body in their pasture with the first spring thaw. I shuddered at the thought of it. Kerbaugh may have plenty of kids to spare, but that's a hell of a way to go. You wouldn't want to be out there in all that snow, would you? I didn't think so.

We worked our way along the road to town. The crunch of snow under the horses' hooves and the jostling of the buckboard kept me feeling edgy. I glanced at Carl and noted the ashen hue of his face. His eyes were red-rimmed and swollen. Had his tears spilled over, I bet they'd have frozen on his cheeks in the frigid morning air.

"It's my fault." Carl swallowed hard but didn't look at me. "I should have never let Mary go in to town."

I tried to think of something reassuring to say and came up empty, so I didn't say anything. A few minutes later, a gray shape ahead of us separated itself from all the layers of white. I seen right away that it was a wagon, turned off the path and facing nowhere in particular. Someone dressed in a bonnet sat bolt upright on the jockey box. The wind tore the bonnet free as we watched. It tumbled across the snow but the figure didn't move. I heard Carl groan beside me and then he pulled back on the reins. The team stopped. I jumped from the buckboard and stumbled through the drifts of snow until I got to the wagon.

Whatever horse or horses that'd been pulling the wagon were long gone. I turned around in time to see Carl retch over the side of the buckboard. I climbed up beside the frozen frame, took one look, and knew it was Mary. She sat there looking mighty reverent, as if listening to the preacher's sermon on Sunday morning. Back straight, knees bent, hands neatly folded in her lap. Her eyes milked over, like frost-covered panes of glass. Or maybe it was frost, after all. She was long past hearing any more Sunday-morning sermons; I could see that for a fact.

After Carl collected himself, he climbed up next to Mary from the other side. He held her and cried, and I found other things to look at. I did some thinking and figured all we could do was take her the rest of the way to Sundance and find Mr. Keats, the undertaker.

Working together, we pried her off the seat and lifted her down to the ground. It felt like toting fragile wooden rocking chair. Mary was frozen solid. She stayed just the way she'd been when we found her. We couldn't get her to lie down in the back of the buckboard so Carl sat her in the middle of the driver's seat.

"I don't know about this," I said. "Folks might find it strange."

Carl didn't say anything. He just sat down beside her in the most dignified manner he could muster. After a few moments of hesitation, I climbed up and settled in on her other side. I knew we wouldn't want her falling out. I gathered the reins and whistled. The horses began to move.

We left the wagon. I figured we'd fetch it later. For the time being, I focused on fulfilling what I saw as my obligation as a friend and neighbor. It was Christmas but this Mary didn't need a manger, she needed a casket.

It seemed like a long journey, with just him and me—and her between us. At last Sundance appeared on the horizon. I thought of the passersby that would watch us roll into town. I wondered if talk would spread through Sundance faster than we could get across it. Mr. Keats might even be waiting for us outside his funeral parlor. I felt a pang of sorrow for the dreadful way Mary would be presented to the townsfolk. We didn't even have a blanket to drape over her features like a death shroud.

Ironic that only last night she'd been in town for a night of fun and frivolity. I looked down at her shoes and wondered how well she'd danced in them. Had she laughed, spinning gaily while the twin fiddles played? One never knows the consequences of one's actions. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

I felt the eyes and heard the murmurs as the horses took us down the main street. Carl must have felt them too, but he never lowered his head. I had to admit I admired his steadfastness.

Mr. Keats was not outside to meet us as I had imagined. I wondered how to proceed. I thought one of us should remain in the wagon with Mary.

"What do you think we should do, Carl?" I asked.

He just gritted his teeth and lifted Mary out of the buckboard without a word. He draped her rigid body over his shoulder and staggered toward the funeral parlor door. Her frozen hair fell in a lump and obscured her face. I thanked the Lord for small blessings. I hurried ahead of Carl and pushed open the door. He carried her inside and sat her in the first available chair. Mr. Keats burst through a door at the back of the room and I nearly jumped out of my skin. He took a look at the situation and moved to Carl's side.

I figured Carl might want some privacy so I excused myself, went outside and rolled a smoke. As I savored the tobacco and my temporary respite from the situation, I could hear the two of them discussing the details of the funeral. Part of me kept waiting for Mary to speak up; she had never been shy about sharing her opinion as I recall. Just as I ground the cigarette butt into the snow with my heel, Mr. Keats called me back inside. Carl sat in another corner, looking numb. I remembered that the rest of the family didn't know yet, were still waiting for word. It would be a sorrowful, miserable Christmas for the Kerbaughs.

Say this for Keats: he wasted no time in starting preparations. He pointed out the wood stove. "The deceased needs to thaw before I can prepare her for burial," he said to me.

I dragged Mary's chair across the floor and placed her in front of the stove. Carl and Mr. Keats had moved to another room. I followed the undertaker's murmurs and joined them for a cup of black coffee. It warmed my insides and swept away the buzzing of my brain.

We decided that Carl would unhitch his horse and ride back home, securing the abandoned wagon along the way. He wanted to be the one to break the news to the rest of the family. I volunteered to stay behind to assist Mr. Keats in whatever small way I could.

Several hours passed, as did several cups of strong black coffee. Different groups of curious townsfolk had braved the cold to pause before the funeral parlor before moving on; Keats had locked up and drawn the blinds. An uncomfortable silence spun out and seemed to pile up between us. I kept glancing at the doorway to the room where Mary sat defrosting by the fire. At length, Mr. Keats excused himself and went out the back to use the privy.

A sound from the front room made me jump. I tiptoed across the floor and looked around the corner. There lay Mary, thawed out plenty. She'd slid from the chair. I walked over, put my hands under her arms and lifted her. I thought I heard water droplets or something wet pattering on the floor as I eased Mary back onto the chair. She slumped over sideways but stayed. That's when I saw it: a little one, just a mite bigger than my two fists put together. It slipped past her undergarments somehow. I reckon it'd dropped out when I lifted Mary up. Do you understand? She was with child. Mary was too young, if you ask me. Most folks would agree. She was going to have a baby, but didn't have a husband. I don't believe anyone had been courting Mary, either.

I doubt Carl knew; he'd have said something about it if he'd known her condition. And standing there in the funeral parlor, I got to thinking maybe he didn't need to know. Maybe it would make things worse. I didn't want Carl to have to decide on one coffin or two. What would his God-fearing wife Rachel say when she found out? What would the townsfolk say?

I remember the Virgin Mary in the Good Book. Christmas turned out to be a happy day for her. Then I thought about this Mary, who always sat at attention in church, always a good example to the other young people in the congregation. The children all looked up to her, and I recall seeing the two of you together often, chatting after the service. That's why this story has to be our secret. We need to protect and honor her memory. You understand that don't you, Henry?

Mr. Keats had told me there would be no wake and that he would keep the coffin locked in a special shed until the ground thawed enough for proper burial.

I made a hard decision.

You've been patient, Henry, listening to my story instead of running off with that package. Maybe I said a lot more than I should have. What you just grabbed from the buckboard is not a Christmas gift for you or your brother. It's more of a gift of sorts for Carl Kerbaugh and his wife. I took the little wooden box from Mr. Keats' funeral parlor while he used the privy. I wrapped it in burlap which I bought from Ed Mason over at the Mercantile on my way out of town. I need to put the whole thing somewhere safe and out of the way until spring.

I know you, your brother, and your ma are all chomping at the bit to start Christmas dinner and get to opening presents. I'm sorry to have kept you waiting. You had an idea about me riding up in Santa's sleigh, but our wagon was serving as a hearse instead.

You look pale as milk, Henry. Maybe this wasn't a story I should have shared. Best to put it out of your head, son. Just hand that package back to me nice and easy… Henry, why are you crying?

The End

Adrian Ludens is a horror and mystery story author from Rapid City, South Dakota. Favorite and recent publications include: Blood Lite III: Aftertaste (Pocket Books), Shadows Over Main Street (Hazardous Press), Darker Edge of Desire (Tempted Romance), Insidious Assassins (Smart Rhino Publications), and Surreal Worlds (Bizarro Pulp Press). Visit him at www.adrianludens.com.

Heidi M. Roth is a photographer who lives in Spearfish, SD. This is her second published short story.

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The Man With the Schofields
by Jordan Tyler Quinn

The sun was almost directly overhead as the coach rounded the bend approaching the station located south of Flagstaff, its bright rays shone down making the buckskins sweaty flanks appear shiny. The team of horses kicked up a pair of floppy-eared jack rabbits from the side of the dirt and cinder road, as they passed along, drawing closer to the lone wooden platform and bench that passed for a stagecoach station. A group of prairie dogs stood guard opposite of the ditch that ran north to south beside the road.

It must have been 110 degrees in the open air and there wasn't much to account for in shade. A single ponderosa pine tree occompanied by a scraggly bunch of juniper stood across the road from the station's platform. The road consisted of two deep ruts gouged into the earth from the passage of many wagons and coaches over the years. Underneath the lone pine, a man dressed in the outfit of a rugged drifter began to rise and brush himself off. The man was packing a bone handled .44 caliber Shcofield revolver, butt forward and slung down low, on either hip. He wore a pair of dusty rattle snake skin boots that sported the large Spanish styled spurs of the Mexican banditos on each heel. The tip of his weather faded black hat covered his cold grey eyes.

A short and stocky man with a silver streaked beard of red and a horseshoe shaped receding hairline occupied the driver's seat as the rig glided up to the platform. He swung down from the box atop the coach and beamed at the elderly Latino man and young woman who had been sitting on the bench. The man exchanged words in broken Spanish with the pair, while the guards watered the horses and stretched their legs.

One of the guards shouted something at "Red", whom the man under the pine trees expected to be the driver, he listened for a response from Red but heard none. He also did not see the look of poor taste that ran all over the man called Red's face, at only hearing the voice of the guard named Tommy. The driver continued loading the traveler's luggage, and then helped them up and into the coach. The man crossed the road and handed the driver his ticket and climbed into the rig after the young woman and her elder escort.

The man exchanged greetings with the man and woman, in the fashion of brief eye contact, followed by a brief and courteous nod. As he settled into the seat across from the Spanish appearing companions, he heard Red conversing with a younger sounding voice that he assumed to be the one named Tommy, through the window slits at his side. "Damnit man! Can't you ever help being nosey? I don't know nothing!" that would have been Red, sounding aggravated, the drifter thought to himself. "Other than the fact that the man paid for his ticket in Flagstaff, with cash money, and he aims to take this rig south just like the other paying customers do!"

Tommy began to talk and he sounded offended, "Calm down there boss man, I was just curious, see?" The sound of a something lightly splattering unto the ground could be heard before he continued. Tommy probably chews tobacco, the man pondered to himself. "I just never saw him before is all, you know how I am with memorizing folks faces and what all." said the upset stagecoach guard.

"Yeah and I know how ya are with questions too. One day it's gonna get ya in a world of trouble if ya aren't careful Tommy," chided Red, hauling himself back up into the drivers position, obviously done with the conversation. Smiling broadly, Tommy swung up onto the bench beside the older man, and laying the company scatter gun in his lap, linked his fingers behind his head and began whistling a lazy tune as the stagecoach slowly pulled away from the platfrom headed south to Yuma.

The road from Flagstaff to Sedona was dull and eventless for the man with the Spanish style spurs. Very little talking had been taking place amongst the other two passengers, so there was not much to divert the man's attention from the squelching heat of the Arizona high desert. The woman, upon closer inspection, appeared to be closer to the age of a girl in her teens. The man looked old enough to be her grandfather, perhaps he even was. They were both dressed well, the girl in a solid and earthen colored dress. The man wore a dark suit, some what simple yet very elegant with a Spanish flair, no doubt expensive. The old man could have been a rancher in his prime, thought the man with the Schofields.

A few miles along the road, outside of Sedona, with the snowcapped peaks of the Flagstaff area behind them, a fresh landslide barred the way forward, forcing them to move off of the road and out of the sight of any random passerbys. The coach came to a sudden halt, throwing the passengers forward, the man in the low brimmed hat woke, realizing he must have dozed off in the heat and the bumpiness of the trail. Now he heard the voices of Red and Tommy arguing but, also new and unfamiliar voices coming from ahead of them on the road as well. The new voices were accompanied by the sounds of horses stamping their feet.

"Tommy you son of a—" Red never finished, for a .45 caliber bullet from Tommie's pistol caught him in the throat.

Inside the Coach the passengers heard the single gunshot, followed by the sound of something heavy hitting the ground, and soon after a thunderous explosion from the double barreled shotgun followed by another thud, then whooping from the newly arrived men.

The doors of the coach flew open and too many rifle barrels to count were shoved in the passengers faces. Evil grins flashed upon the faces of the men who stood there the instant they beheld the old man and the girl. When the man wearing the dual Schofields moved his eyes towards the girl, he felt sick, at the fear that he saw there. He saw terror. True terror.

Some of the gunmen's rifles came down and the Spaniards were ordered out of the coach. At this point the girl became almost hysterical, her eyes were wild and filled with tears. The old man, looking ghastly pale and sickly himself, urged her out of the coach and then followed behind her looking noble and proud with his head held high. As he began his climb down out of the coach his feet were knocked out from underneath him and he fell sprawled out face first unto the hard baked earth.

The gunmen laugh like a pack of hyenas as they formed a semi circle around the old man. The girl then began to scream hysterically as she was being dragged away by two foul smelling men. She tried kicking and screaming, desparately, to get to her fallen Elder. Through stinging eyes blurring with hot and salty tears the last thing she sees before being whisked away by the thugs is the elderly Spanaird being jerked roughly to his knees and a gun pressed against his right temple.

The man with the Schofields stepped down from the coach and his entire world went black. Thunder rumbling in the distance filled his entire head and he felt what his slipping mind perceived as multiple bees tugging at his clothes and stinging him simultainously.

* * *

The man with the Schofields awoke as the shadow of a bird passed over him. High up in the sky, riding the thermals, a second bird soared in a lazy arc across the sky towards him.

"Damn buzzards" the man croakedis, his throat beyond parched. He felt asif he could drink an entire body of water.

He tried to rise up but swirling nausea quickly forced him back down. Muttering to himself something that sounds like "Bastards shot me," he pulled a bone handled bowie knife from his boot. Cutting his shirt open he took a piece of fabric and waded it up as tight as he could he began to probe for bullet holes to plug. After finding and plugging the third hole he lost consciousness due to lack of blood, shock, or both.

* * *

The man came to with a start. He had no idea of how much time had passed. The is sound of crows cawing cam be hear from their nearby perch on a juniper. He opened his eyes and instantly squeezed them shut again wishing he hadn't opened them. That doggone mid-day Sun could blind a man. Gradually, after much blinking, hewas able to hold them open for a moment at a time until the adjusted.

The stagecoach was gone, and he saw no dust on the horizon that might indicate their direction of travel. His hands felt around for the trio of wounds he'd plugged with his shirt and come up with only three neatly stitched bullet holes.

"What in all of hell's creation," the man thought to himself, "Who the blazes shot me? And who in the blazes stitched me up?"

He took a moment to put things together. Where he'd been headed and what had happened. He lay there saving his strength, and thinking. He was on the Stage coach from Flagstaff to Yuma, two other passengers had been on board other than himself. A man and a woman. Shortly after passing through Sedona, the rig had been held up. During the hold up, the driver had been shot at close range by the guard named Tommy. The rear guard, who like Tommy, was also a younger man had been dropped with a shot gun blast. An armed group of men had abducted the other two passengers, only to gun him down under trained rifles as he himself was forced off the coach with hands held high.

So what had become of the grandfatherly figure and the young woman he had been traveling with, thought the cold grey eyed drifter. Why had they been taken away and not simply gunned down like he had been, and what was it about the look upon the girls face that bothered him?

Something was tickling the back of his mind though that he'd not quite been able to put his finger on yet. Oh yes! The looks on the gunmen's faces when they had opened the coach and saw the passengers, as well as the look upon the young woman's face as well. There had been something significant there, something personal in the eyes of the two passengers, like the sort of recognition seen dawn in a man's eyes when he's caught sight of someone who has done him dreadfully wrong in the past, someone he now hates with a passion . . . but also of someone he has developed a deep seeded fear for as well.

The man in the snake skin boots carefully rolled to one side and gingerly propped himself up on one arm to survey his surroundings before slowly climbing to his feet. Empty bags and clothing was scattered everywhere, suitcases had been opened and thrown from the disappeared rig. A short while later he pushed himself up from the hard and dusty blood soaked earth, gritting his teeth at the pain, and took a moment to read sign.

The tracks left by what he assumed were hired gunmen had been replaced, or obsorbed rather, by what appeared to be a dozen or so unshod pony tracks upon. The bodies of the Spaniards were nowhere to be seen and this both worried and relieved the man at the same time. The other passengers had perhaps not been killed, but to be intercepted by an Indian war party could be an even worse fate. It was an end he would rather not think of.

"Apaches," he spoke only to himself. "Is Cochise country after all I suppose." The pony tracks led off to the north east. The stagecoach tracks led the same direction, off of the road and over the land, surrounded with Indian pony tracks. As he continued to read the signs he thought he caught the scent of wood smoke and In the distance he thought he heard a warriors fierce cry from the hills beyond, and then from much closer another sound. The whinny of a horse.

A single painted Indian pony stood grazing on some dried up grass only yards away. The man felt almost bewildered, thinking back. While he had lain unconscious frying in the sunlight and bleeding from bullet wounds, knife in hand, apparently an Apache, for whatever reason, had taken the time to stop, extract the bullets, clean his wounds, pack them with some sort of compound that he guessed may have been cactus guts and sand, and then stitch him up. Perhaps the same Indian had conveniently left the unattended pony for him to find? He certainly did not believe in coincidences, a hard life had taught him otherwise. There was a reason for everything that happened to a person in their lifetime.

Sometimes Indians had a funny way. Maybe they were curious to who this man was, had they had somehow seen or guessed that he'd been gunned down without a chance to fight? The warrior mentality is very important to the Apache. Perhaps they were curious what this man wearing bone handled Schofields would do to the cowards that had mercilessly gunned him down? Or could they have only stopped to loot his body and then realized he was not yet dead and then for whatever reason helped to rejuvenate him, possibly as payment or trade for the loot they would carry off. It would be significantly wrong in the warriors eyes to kill him off at such a disadvantage. There was no honor there. Either way, the man was not upset that his bone handled Bowie was missing, he felt lucky and blessed for the trade.

Upon further investigation the man turned up the trail left by the banditos who had attacked the coach, it was a bit of a challenge but years of reading the ghosts of trails left by others had honed his skills well.

Returning to the wrecked belongings of the coach passengers, the man with the Schofields fished out a blanket to throw over the ponies bare back. He also pulls on a pair of boots, judging by the fancy style he wondered if they belonged to the old man who was abducted from the coach. He man managed a grim smile. The boots fit. Climbing onto the horses back, he gripped the beast with the muscles in his legs, and heels the painted pony forward. They turned south on the road.

* * *

The sun was a giant fireball sinking over the western horizon of Williams, Arizona when the man on the painted pony rode up to boardwalk in front of the saloon. He slid off the horse, slapping its rear and send the beast running off down the street. Glancing at a fine sorrel tied to the post amongst a group of hard ridden looking horses, he tipped his hat. Fine horseflesh, but it had led the man straight here. He would have never suspected the gang to have stopped for drinks so soon, they had come only a mere 15 miles from their crime.

Pain wracked the man's entire body in great waves as he mounted the handful of stairs that lead up the boardwalk and into the saloon. He came to the top and pushed through the swinging double doors. The bartender looked up from his place behind the counter and coolly nodded as he took in the new customer, at the same instant two of the rifle wielders from the previous day recognized him and jumped up from the table they had been sitting at playing poker with three other men. The card table flew over, spilling cards, drinks, and money into the air as the trio of men frantically grabbed for leather.

He felt the warm bone handles of the Schofields bucking in his cold hands before his still somewhat slow acting brain could even register that it had already started to think about drawing the weapons let alone aim and fire them. He saw the men being carried backwards off their feet as the heavy .44 slugs passed through their lungs and chests. A man at the top of the stairs to the gentlemen's room ackwardly wheeled around, bearing down on him with a double barrel shot gun. The Schofields kicked again and the man was falling away. Once more the dual pistols sprouted flame and a man who had been standing and taking aim with his rifle braced against the frame of the back door, which now stood open, dropped his weapon and crumpled over, half in half out of the doorway.

One gun held out in front of him, the man swung the other firearm around, gazing down its sites, scanning the room for more of the hijackers. Fairly certain he was in the clear, he looks to the rattled bartender to explain, pulling open the inside of his shirt, he reveals a silver circle with a star in the middle dangling from a chain. "Arizona Rangers." The man with the Schofields says as he collapses back against the wall. "These men are wanted . . . for stagecoach robbery . . . and the attempted cold blooded murder of an officer of the law." And then his knees gave out from underneath him and the world around him was once again black and void.

* * *

Town Marshall of Williams, Ruben Nelson, had been standing across the street, caddy corner from the saloon, in front of the general store smoking a cigar and talking to a local rancher by the name of Ray Chrismond who sometimes took on the oaths and duties of town deputy, when he had ridden up the street that night. Nelson and Chrismond apparently had been quick to react to the gunshots, arriving on the scene and taking control of the situation nearly as soon as he'd blacked out.

One more man had been shot that night and two more were apprehended by Nelson and Chrismond. The girl had been found upstairs in one of the private rooms above the saloon that had been rented to the men. She was gagged with a handkerchief and had restraints around her ankles and wrists. Her name was Katrina, and it had been her great-grandfather whom had been pulled from the stage and gunned down outside of Sedona.

Ortega was the old man's family name. Recently his clan had lost a feud with a cattle baron of the Telluride township area who was intent on buying most of southwestern Colorado. The family ranch stood in a picturesque valley among snow peaked mountains a couple of days ride from the town. The spread was called "The Stone Ranch". Katrina and her grandfather had been forced to retreat from the ranch and were headed to Mexico when the stagecoach had been held up. They were trying to cross the boarder in order to reach other family members and recruit more men to fight the cattle baron and save the families land.

The cattle baron had apparently sent a dozen or so of his most loyal hands to take out the old man and one of his young heirs, Katrina, enroute to Mexico on the coach, just not within the borders of Colorado, where he had aspirations of becoming a Governor one day. No mention of Apaches was ever made, so the Ranger assumed it had been a random band of warriors that came across the coach and looted it for the team of horses. They must have burnt the coach shortly after heading away from the road and taking the buckskins.

Too bad for the cattle baron that he, Mac Sheldon, a man of the law and a product of the hard frontier that was made up of the great wide open western states, had been on that fateful stage coach. If he had not? The Ortegas might have been pushed away from their family estate and heritage forever. He felt remorse that he'd not been able to save the old man, Juan, and such was part of the burden that belongs to men like him, but at least Katrina, her brothers, and her cousins would have a chance with their ranch now. A chance at the life their ancestors had bleed to build. The life that had been intended for them.

Two weeks later, the last of the perpetrators from the hijacking and killing near Sedona were captured and hung. The posse that carried out the job, consisted mostly of Katrina's brothers, cousins, and uncles. William, or Mac as the other Rangers called him, was there with Ruben Nelson and Ray Chrismond. The lawmen's presence made the hangings legally recognized by the state of Arizona and the closest town to the actual crime, Williams.

The men felt no regret about the sort of justice they served on that day. It was their belief that a man was what a man made himself. If a man chose to live as an outlaw, he knew what brand of men would be riding out after him. They did not feel responsible for the life these men had led, they felt responsible for the lives that were tainted or destroyed by men like these. Those who had love for nothing but whiskey and gold.

What was most important to Mac was that the Ortegas were able to reunite and were now on their way back to their prized ranch, on their way to reclaiming and rebuilding their home and their pride. As Katrina and her relatives headed north, she looked back, shielding her eyes from the sun. She looked for the Ranger. Seeing him she waved and then turning forward in her saddle, she rode away into the distance. Ruben and Chrismond said their goodbyes and parted with the hardened Arizona law man, heading back towards Williams.

As for the man with the Schofields? He too was headed for Colorado. The law was coming to Telluride.

The End

Jordan Quinn is currently a History major at Southern New Hampshire University, he is working towards a teaching degree. Jordan has also studied at the Institute of American Indian Art, he is the amateur author of several short stories and several volumes of poetry. He is currently working on a full length novel. Some of his poetry is also self-published in multiple chap books, including River Of Love, The Sound Of Darkness, Exit Light, and The Silver Lining Of Dreams as well as being featured on several popular poetry websites, such as: www.allpoetry.com, wwww.lovepoetry.com, and www.behappyzone.com. His Batman fanfiction can be found on: www.fanfiction.net. A personal blog from the Author: ashamanicjourney.weebly.com.

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White Crow's Bargain
by K.S. Thomas

Western Texas, Boquillas Canyon along the Rio Grande, November, 1850

"What now, gringo? You gonna' kill me?"

"No. That's up to the judge in Eagle Pass."

James Robert Mitchell had beat the wounded Mexican horse thief nearly into unconsciousness with his feet and fists, leaving the outlaw delirious from pain. Mitchell swore he heard one of the bandit's ribs break after being kicked by the pointed toes of his square-cut knee-high boots. The outlaw's hands were now cuffed in front of him. Mitchell dragged and slammed the bandit against a low stone wall. The Mexican yelped into submission and slumped to the dirt.

Mitchell draped his plain brown and tan serape over his shoulders to allow for easy access to his gun belt. He caught his breath and adjusted the brim of his brown felt sombrero to keep the sun out of his eyes. Sweat beaded behind his knees beneath his dark wool trousers. A white linen shirt clung to his back and chest beneath a buckskin vest.

"No se mueva," Mitchell said, but the obese Mexican wasn't going anywhere.

Mitchell had descended upon the man before he could reach another weapon, and that was when he was still a hundred yards out. A slug from one of his .44 Colt Dragoons was buried deep in the outlaw's left thigh. Mitchell had five more shots and all the time in the world to squeeze them off if necessary. A large Bowie knife was sheathed across his waist and two .36 Colt Patersons, butts forward, were also holstered high on his hips—all were eager for a fight, but at this point the fighting was done.

The outlaw's four companions were already dead long before Mitchell rode up on them. The wounded man had taken care of his partners, their bodies splayed and lifeless near their horses. Mitchell heard the gunshots from half a mile away and closed in quickly, grateful that the incident—in what appeared to be a fateful act of betrayal—had led Mitchell to their location along a trail near the canyon.

After stealing nearly thirty horses from ranchers not far from Eagle Pass more than two hundred miles away, the outlaws had holed up at an abandoned Spanish mission not far from the Rio Grande, perhaps an hour's ride at best. The Mission de San Lucia overlooked Boquillas Canyon and was established when Spain controlled the region along the Comanche War Trail. It was later used during the Republic years as a small fort and resting place for soldiers, rangers, and a few settlers passing through the area, but that was a short-lived endeavor. The mission was abandoned ten years ago after a Comanche raid left it burned and in its current state of disrepair. The state never raised the interest or the funding to restore what was left of the crumbling fort. San Lucia had since become the last refuge of the Mexican rustlers, but now the chase was done. Why the outlaws went out of their way and brought a herd of horses to the mission overlooking the canyon confused Mitchell, especially since they could have just driven the horses across the Rio Grande straight into Mexico.

They were, for all practical purposes, almost home.

Mitchell checked both of the wounded man's revolvers and found that all the rounds were spent. He only fired two shots at Mitchell before trying to reach for one of his dead companion's pistols. Mitchell only fired once, spinning the outlaw around and dropping him with a shot to the leg. He was easy enough to hit given his size, and the olive green and yellow serape he wore over his white shirt and brown trousers didn't exactly make for good camouflage. Mitchell was pissed at himself for shooting sooner than he needed to. If he had been a dozen or so yards closer he would've been more accurate and not having a conversation with the portly outlaw. It may've just been easier just to bring him in dead, but Mitchell could at least question a live man, so maybe it was for the best.

"Why'd you shoot up your amigos, Redondo? You think your share would get bigger with each dead man?" Mitchell collected the guns of the dead banditos. Soon he'd be heaving their corpses onto the backs of their horses, securing them so they could be carried back to the nearest settlement. One of them had been shot in the back of the head—executed. Another was hit twice in the back, while the remaining two were stained in blood over their chests and abdomens. Only two of them had managed to pull a revolver. None of them had fired a shot in return. Three of them looked young—not too young to be stealing horses, but not old enough to be giving orders. The other was no older than thirty years from what Mitchell surmised.

"They tried to kill me first." The outlaw was on the verge of tears. "They wanted my share of the money."

"Money? What money?"

"It was hidden in the mission. We found it."

"Why would you go thinking there was money at an abandoned mission?"

"A gringo in Piedras Negras talked about a pay chest that got left behind when the mission was abandoned," the man said. "It was enough to keep the mission running, pay soldiers, occasional traders. Then the territory joined the Estados Unidos, but that didn't matter to the Comanche."

"Never did."

"The Comanche burned the mission. The soldiers were scalped and killed, everyone but the old gringo in Piedras Negras. The gringo drank too much mescal and told them of this place and the payroll left behind." The outlaw pointed toward his dead companions. "They hired me to come along with them, to tend to the horses."

"Tend to the horses?"

"Sí, I handle horses."

"You expect me to believe you saddled on up here with your amigos on a treasure hunt? Why steal the horses then?"

"To sell them. A bonus."

"Where?" Mitchell kicked the outlaw in his wounded leg.

"At Presidio del Norte!"

"You and your 'padres here also done killed quite a few families back near Eagle Pass, women and children. Was that necessary?"

"I didn't kill no one but them." The man wanted to say something, but held his tongue before speaking. He nodded his head toward the dead outlaws. "They killed those women and children, not me. I was tending the horses!"

"I'm sure you were." Mitchell hated liars. "Let me tell you how much your little fandango just cost me. The bounties on each of you was two hundred dollars, if I brought you in alive for trial. If you're dead I get paid half. Right now you done robbed me of four hundred dollars."

"You hunt men for money then?"

Mitchell said nothing. He started securing the dead outlaws to the backs of their horses, wrapping them tightly in canvas. They were going to start to smell real bad in a day in this heat.

The outlaw sized Mitchell up, squinting and creasing his brow. He focused on Mitchell's horses, eyeing two large .44 Colt Dragoon revolvers in pommel holsters over his saddle, a new .52 caliber Sharps rifle in the saddle boot, and an older .54 M1841 Mississippi rifle in the saddle boot of another horse. Mitchell may have rode alone, but the three mares and single stallion he led—two gelding quarter horses, one light gray and a sabino-white, a sorrel Friesian gelding and a black Friesian stallion—each carried enough firepower for a patrol of soldiers. There were also four mules in the remuda with plenty of field supplies. From a good vantage point and plenty of cover Mitchell was prepared to hold off at least fifty men in a gunfight, probably more.

"Ah, I see what you are, gringo." The Mexican spit in Mitchell's direction, but was too far away to reach him. "One of los Diablos Tejanos, no? There are no Diablos now, not after the war. You're no law man."

"You're wrong. We're still around and this is all the law I need." Mitchell tapped one of the butts of the .36 Colts holstered at his hips. "While you're sitting their bleeding you may want to reconsider spitting my way."

The outlaw was right, though. When the war with Mexico ended almost three years ago the volunteer ranger companies were essentially stripped of their official functions and replaced by Union soldiers to perform the same duties. At least the frontier was supposed to be protected by soldiers. So far the soldiers at Fort Duncan near Eagle Pass were proving to be less effective than anything else. It may have all sounded like a fine plan in Washington, DC, but the realities of the Texas frontier were too much territory, too many Indians and Mexicans stealing horses and cattle, and too few men to put a stop to all the rustling and thieving and killing. It's why Mitchell never stopped doing a ranger's work even when he was no longer being supported to do it.

Mitchell would've preferred to stay with his mother and sister on the family ranch outside of Austin, taming horses as he already had a respectable reputation for, but he found another way to survive by collecting the bounties of fugitives and selling their horses and gear to help make a living. Ranger or not, someone had to help protect the ranchers and settlers of Texas and Mitchell just happened to be damned good at it. He finished securing the last of the dead men across the saddle of a Spanish Jennet and opened the saddlebags. Mitchell looked inside the bag and removed a stack of red printed money, neatly bound and almost crisp. He thumbed through it and glanced at the Mexican.

"Ah, you see, gringo? I told you there was money here." The man smiled, revealing crooked and chipped teeth stained by too much tobacco.

"How much?"

"Five thousand dollars' worth." His grin grew even larger as he accentuated his words. "I needed my share of that money to feed my children."

"You should've thought this through some more before crossing the Rio and killing those families. You've got bigger problems than feeding yours right now."

"And what would that be?"

"Other than getting shot, this money is worthless."


"You just don't get it, do you?" Mitchell shook his head.

"Stop playing games! Tell me!"

"You done killed your amigos here for a few thousand redbacks when you had all these horses and were this close to making it to the border."

"That's a lot of money, gringo, five thousand dollars' worth! I know how to count!"

"Are you stupid by choice?" Mitchell knelt in front of the Mexican and smacked his face with the stack of bills. "You see this? They're called redbacks. It's the old currency of the short-lived Republic we took from your asses when we didn't want to put up with Mexico's crap anymore. These ain't the shinplasters or greenbacks you think they are. This money never added up to much even when it was in use. They were so worthless a God-fearing Texian couldn't pay his damned taxes with them."

The Mexican glared at Mitchell. The reddish ink on the currency was plain and clear. It was money, that was certain, but it was printed by a government that no longer existed.

"That's right, Redondo, imagine that. The same government that printed this money didn't even want it back. You murdered your compadres here for stacks of useless paper when you should've just kept right on going to the border with the horses."

"You're a liar!" The Mexican didn't find his situation as amusing as Mitchell did.

"Really? Can you read English?"


"You can count numbers then? They're the same in English and Spanish."

"I know numbers, puta!"

"Then read the damned dates, right here!" Mitchell slapped the outlaw across the face again with the redbacks and held them closer so he could read the print on the bills. The notes were issued in 1839 when Texas was an independent republic.

"You still need a history lesson or are we settled?" Mitchell walked away from his prisoner and stuffed the money back into the saddlebags. There was no need for a further lesson in humility when his leg was wounded plenty. The Mexican cursed for the better part of an hour while Mitchell rounded up and calmed the horses.

Two of the horses in the herd were wild—a Choctaw and an Appaloosa—and neither were branded or shoed. The animals were familiar with each other but apprehensive around the rest of the herd, keeping their distance without straying too far. The wild horses had no brands, nor were their hooves shod. Rather, they had hide wraps molded around their hooves. These were Indian horses and had to be handled differently than the horses of a white man.

Rather than facing them from the left as a white man would, Mitchell approached them from the right as an Indian would mount his horse. The technique worked, and after a few minutes of reassuring the horses Mitchell worked a lasso around each horse and led them over to the rest of the herd. When the animals were ready he turned his attention to the outlaw and dragged him toward the horses.

"That Appaloosa and Choctaw you picked up are Indian horses," Mitchell said. "You kill some Indians you want to confess to?"

The Mexican said nothing. Mitchell pulled the man to his feet and tied his cuffed hands to a length of rope, securing the loose end to the saddle horn of one of the mules. The outlaw was in too much pain to put up much of a fight.

"You've got several days of walking ahead of you, Redondo," Mitchell told the man. "You ain't making it to Presidio. We're going all the way back to Eagle Pass where you started. Try to keep up with the horses, don't get trampled, and don't make me drag your stinkin' ass all the way home."

"Stop calling me Redondo!" The outlaw spat again in vain at Mitchell, aware of the insult to his girth. "My name is Paco Rivera!"

"I didn't ask. Just start walking while I get us down from the walls of this canyon." Mitchell mounted and spurred his horse to a trot while the rest of the herd followed. The rope binding Rivera's cuffed hands yanked him forward and kept him hobbling behind the pack mule he was tethered to.

"You gonna make me walk with all these horses? You shot me in the leg!"

"Use your good one."

* * *

Eagle Pass was a little more than two hundred miles from the Mission de San Lucia. Mitchell wasn't going to let Rivera walk the entire way, as that would slow him down and increase the risk of being ambushed by Indians or Mexicans. Yet it was necessary to exhaust Rivera to keep him weak. Rivera would be turned over to the authorities at Eagle Pass. The trial would be swift. Mitchell wasn't looking forward to riding with Rivera, as that meant almost a week of light sleep and heightened security in the event the outlaw attempted to escape. Yet keeping men alive long enough often leads to useful information, such as the names of complicit ranchers or accomplices and their locations on the Mexican side of the border. That could be more valuable than the bonus of bringing Rivera in alive. If Rivera grew smart he'd also figure out that sharing more information might save his life.

Mitchell wouldn't light a fire for the night, a fact that caused Rivera to curse at him even more. It was a little cool for November and a wind cut through the Baquillos Canyon with no regard for any man's comfort. It wasn't freezing, but the chill at night was noticeable. Mitchell enjoyed the warmth provided by the extra layers of his serape. He left Rivera partly bound with his back to a tree in the bosque forest along the Rio, though he took some time to wrap the wounds and staunch the bleeding, leaving the bullet inside. Not that it mattered to Mitchell, since the man was likely going to hang in within a week's time.

"You should light a fire, gringo. You wouldn't have to eat cold beans."

"No. Indians." Mitchell moved about the camp, carefully tying up the horses within the tree line and unpacking their gear. They needed rest after several hours of swift riding along the banks of the Rio. The Mexicans had run the horses hard and fast without much care. Mitchell wanted to ensure the animals had enough water and grass to regain their strength before bringing them back to their rightful owners.

"To hell with Indians."

"They'll find us even without a fire. I just don't want them seeing what I'm doing."

"What're you doing anyway? I can barely see."

"I ain't doing nothing that concerns you. We're nowhere near the Comancheria, but we're still not safe. Apaches also come down here. With this many horses we're still a tempting target. Plus, we've been tracked."

"Tracked? By Indians? How do you know?"

"Can't be sure if they're Indians yet, but I saw a dust cloud on the horizon behind us before sunset. Whoever it is they'll make a move tonight or tomorrow."

"How can you be sure?"

"Because I know Comanche. They'll travel at night. It's easier for them to raid a herd this close to Mexico, but further down the Rio they're headed into settled white lands. Get some sleep."

Mitchell knew how desperate the Comanche were becoming despite the existence of trading posts and somewhat tenuous peace with the Texans. The once proud Comanche nation was being decimated by the white man's diseases. Raids on Texans were now uncommon while the numbers of Comanche warriors riding into Mexico were increasing. They were more also becoming ambitious and more daring out of necessity. Killing a lone Texan with his Mexican prisoner in a river canyon far from nowhere could be easily overlooked with more than two dozen horses to gain. A treaty may have been negotiated only a few years ago with Chief Buffalo Hump at Council Springs, but that didn't mean hard feelings were put aside between every Comanche band and Texan. Opportunities could still be exploited or created. If Apaches were also in the area that would be a problem. There were no such treaties between the Apache and the white men.

* * *

Mitchell was almost right. The Indians found the horses in the canyon, but they took their time. It was just sunrise when they began drifting into Boquillas Canyon, alone or in pairs. Mitchell slept lightly through the night among the horses, relying on their instincts to alert him in the event of trouble. The horses grew nervous as Mitchell finished saddling the horses and mules just as the sun rose on the horizon. The Indians came into plain sight as the sun rose at the eastern and western ends of the canyon. Rivera was still snoring. There was no escape from this, but Mitchell didn't know why the Indians weren't closing in for the kill yet. He kicked Rivera awake.

"Indians. Hopefully they're Penateka Comanche," Mitchell said.

"Hopefully? What do you mean, hopefully? Quick, untie me! Give me my pistolas!" Rivera stumbled to his feet, ignoring the pain in his wounded leg.

"Shut up." The Indians closed in, crowding the riverbank in greater numbers. Mitchell counted twenty-five of them, but expected there to be more. From a distance it was difficult to tell whether these Indians were Penateka, Nokoni, Tenawa, or any of the other Comanche bands. He hoped they weren't Lipan or Mescalero Apache. Mitchell held the length of rope binding Rivera's hands and mounted his black Friesian, walking the horse slowly into view.

"Friend," Mitchell said. "Friend. Amigo. Amigo." He held his hands upward to show they were empty and that he held a prisoner of his own. The Indians fanned out with caution, sizing up their opponents while scanning the canyon looking for others.

"Sí, amigos!" Rivera said. "We are friends! Amigos!" The Indians came closer. Their leader rode first, a tall lean warrior painted with black stripes on his face and clothed in buckskin hides and dark blue knee high riding boots. The warriors carried a variety of muskets and bows and arrows, lances and axes and knives among them.

"Do you speak English? Spanish? Are you Penateka?" Mitchell had no other options. He knew a few Comanche words and phrases, but not enough yet to be a translator.

"I speak your words, taibo," the war leader said. "I am Penateka."

"I am James Mitchell." He contained his relief. With the Penateka he had a chance at living. "These horses belong to my chief, Governor Peter Bell, and his people. This thief from Mexico stole them from us."

The Penateka examined the herd from the back of his own horse. He was broad shouldered like Mitchell and perhaps the same age. His face revealed a stoic wisdom greater than his years. The Penateka and his warriors saw the bodies of the dead outlaws draped and secured over their horses. They saw the arsenal of weaponry and supplies on Mitchell's horses and mules. They sized up Rivera and saw that he was unarmed, hands bound and secured by a rope. The war leader directed the attention of his warriors toward the Mexican.

"We hunt heavy man with short step," the war leader said. He gauged Rivera's stature and examined his boots. "A man like this killed my father, my wife, my son at trade post north from here. Took two horses. I see them now." The Comanche pointed at the wild horses, the Choctaw and the Appaloosa, who were becoming anxious within the herd. The Comanche whistled, a shrill call that brought the two horses trotting towards the war band. They were readily welcomed by the band.

Mitchell's suspicions were right. He glared at Rivera.

"Is that true, Redondo? You took those horses from the Comanche after murdering his family?"

"En Español, gringo?" Rivera was sweating, but not from the heat.

"Go ahead. What is it?"

"Yo no maté a ningún Indio!" Rivera said. "Son mentirosos y ladrones! Nos tienen rodeados. Matarán y nosotros tanto el cuero cabelludo!"

Mitchell didn't believe that Rivera didn't kill any Comanche. It didn't matter which of the Mexicans pulled the trigger. Rivera was partly right about the Comanche, though; they may not be trustworthy, but they weren't all liars even if some of them still stole horses and cattle from white men. The Comanche had them surrounded, but whether they'd kill and scalp both of them remained to be seen.

"También hablo Español." The Penateka leader glared at Rivera with cruel eyes and smiled.

The rest of the Comanche laughed and encircled the herd. They started to cheer. If Mitchell was forced to fight to the end he resolved himself at best to kill as many as possible before they cut him down. They hadn't yet, but that could change any second. Mitchell was in no position to instigate a fight to the death even though he was prepared to meet it. A different tactic—if not a desperate one—was needed right now.

"I offer trade with the Penateka," Mitchell said. The Comanche fell silent.

"What are you doing, gringo?" Rivera hobbled closer to Mitchell and his horse. It was the only hope at protection he had from the Comanche, even if it was only for a few moments more of life.

"Shut up," Mitchell said.

Mitchell removed a briarwood pipe from his vest pocket, showing it to the Comanche before filling it with tobacco and striking a match to light it. Mitchell took several puffs before offering it to the band leader. The Penateka was not old by any means, for he had a full head of long black hair without a hint of gray. Mitchell guessed they were close in age at twenty-five years. The Comanche took the pipe and smelled the tobacco before inhaling it. He approved and passed it among his warriors. Mitchell stayed calm but cursed himself. That was his father's pipe, God rest his soul at the Alamo. Now he may never see it again.

"I am Black Hawk," the Comanche leader said. "You offer trade. I will listen."

Mitchell shook his head and glared at Rivera.

"It's bad enough you stole from us, Redondo. Even the Comanche need their justice!" Mitchell handed the rope securing Rivera's hands to Black Hawk.


Rivera cursed and tried to pull the rope free and run, but Mitchell used the weight of his stallion to knock him to the dirt. Without hesitating Black Hawk handed the rope to one of his warriors, giving the band orders as they yelped with victory and dragged Rivera away from the herd. Many warriors followed after the captive Mexican, hooting and cheering for blood over Rivera's pleas for mercy.

"There's more," Mitchell said. "You can have his horse. I ask nothing of you but one thing."

"What do you ask?" Black Hawk asked.

"I need to bring these horses, all of them, and the bodies of these dead Mexicans back to my chief."

"Why is that good trade?" Black Hawk said. "You have many fat horses. I have one fat Mexican and his horse. You are one man. We could spare you but still take all horses."

Mitchell removed the saddle bags from Rivera's Jennet that contained the redbacks and placed them over his shoulder before handing the reins to Black Hawk. Most of the remaining Comanche were tearing Rivera apart, scalping and flaying him slowly in small pieces at a time. Rivera's gurgling screams were drowned out by the joyous cries of a victorious Comanche war party. They would take their time with him—that much was certain.

"You could," Mitchell said, "but consider this. We both want justice. That man murdered your family and stole your property. I need these horses and dead Mexicans as proof the Comanche did not steal them or murder Texans. This will be proof that the treaty at Council Springs is honored." Mitchell's last hope was appealing to the treaty with the Comanche only four years earlier. If that didn't work, he may never make it home—at least not with the horses, and it was a long way home.

"You have fine horses," Black Hawk said as he rode among the herd, stroking the backs and manes of the horses as his steed trotted past them. Mitchell could see that Black Hawk was familiarizing himself with Mitchell's weaponry, the rifles and arms of a ranger.

"You have also killed Comanche." Black Hawk led his horse alongside Mitchell.

"I have. I reckon you've scalped many taibo." Mitchell mentally prepared for treachery and the possibility that Black Hawk would attempt to strike at him any time.

"Not after Council Springs. I translate there. I know the terms."

"I was also there, an escort for my delegates."

"Crow Spirit is wise, but cunning. He plays tricks. Sometimes evil. Some of my warriors are not Penateka and would have killed you, but I say no. To kill the Crow Spirit is bad puha." Black Hawk took a final deep and long puff from Mitchell's briarwood pipe before handing it back.

"Tell your Chief that Black Hawk honors treaty at Council Springs. The word of Chief Buffalo Hump still stands."

"I will."

"Ride fast from this canyon, White Crow," Black Hawk said before departing to rip his piece of justice from Paco Rivera's flesh. "We will not pursue, but Apache may find you. I will send escort. You will not see them, but they will be there."

There was no need to linger and watch the slow and bloody execution. Rivera had what was coming to him anyway—but if Mitchell didn't get out of Boquillas Canyon fast enough he'd have no one but himself to blame for what any Apache or renegade Comanche would do to him. Mitchell led his herd away, grateful he couldn't hear Rivera's screams over the thundering of hooves.

* * *

Handing Paco Rivera to the Comanche was a cruel but just fate, for he had wronged the Comanche as much as he had the Texans—as much as he would any man, woman, or child who stood in his way. Mitchell prayed that God would forgive him for what he'd done, though there was little remorse for the man. If turning one horse thief over to the Comanche bought even just one more day of peace for Texan settlers it was a wager Mitchell wouldn't hesitate to make again.

Now there was the matter of getting the herd back to their rightful owners, at least the ones with living family members who survived the raids on their herds. Local authorities could deal with finding any next of kin. Mitchell intended to keep the dead men's horses and gear, either to sell or trade later or use for his own burdens.

Mitchell was also counting on turning in the cache of redbacks that Rivera unearthed. It was true the redbacks were no longer in use. Most Texans had already redeemed theirs for below face value over the past few months and Mitchell knew he'd have to as well. If the exchange rate was still holding around fifteen Texas redbacks to one United States dollar then there might be at least three hundred, maybe close to four hundred more dollars he'd receive for turning the old money in. Mitchell was going to have to count up the exact amount later. It wouldn't be enough to offset the extra bonus for bringing in the Mexicans alive, but it was a start.

The End

K.S. Thomas is a New Jersey native who grew up on Spaghetti Westerns and a love for the mythology of the Old West. He is a veteran of the US Marine Corps who served in Mogadishu, Somalia for Operation: Restore Hope in the early 1990's, for which he was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon. Quite a few of his Marine brothers were genuine cowboys, sons of ranchers, aspiring rodeo stars, and Native Americans from Texas, Arizona, and elsewhere in the West and Midwest. He fondly remembers their genuine matter-of-fact character and true-to-life sand and grit as Marines, as men, and more importantly as friends. He continues to live in New Jersey with his wife and currently works with veterans who file disability claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs. White Crow's Bargain is his first Western short story.

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A Good Friend of Bill Winston
by Trey Smith

Singleton Hood turned his sunken eyes toward the sun and squinted at its heat. His lips were starting to crack and he was weak, having finished off the last of his water yesterday. He rode lazily down a beaten, narrow trail toward Red City and what he hoped was an end to his recent misfortunes. He was destitute; ruined by gambling, women, and drink. He needed work and his moral inhibitions were left with his last bit of cash that bought him a stale biscuit and cold dumplings four days ago. A good friend of his in Red City was his last, desperate option.

He was an unsavory fellow, as much a coward as he was mean. He always had work though and paid well enough, especially if the work was nasty. His name was Bill Winston.

Hood arrived in town near noon. He was sagging in his saddle now, but kept trying to hold himself up so as to keep up appearances. He made his way toward Winston's saloon, situated in a filthy looking two story building on Main Street.

He tied his horse down the alley and entered through the side door. It was always best to gauge Winston's temper before asking for work, so he ordered a tall glass of water from the bar and took a seat in the shadows under the balcony that ran around most of the main room.

Bill Winston stepped out of his office into the hazy landing above his bar and called out for Tom Jewett, a scruffy looking man who some say is half-Indian with a barrel of a chest and a savage asa meat ax look that never left his eyes. Tom put down his whiskey and started to climb the stairs. Bill, being an impatient man, met him halfway.

"Is the marshal in yet?"

Tom shook his head.

"What's he good for then?"

Tom spit and shrugged.

Bill pointed at him and uttered, "Clean that up." before turning and climbing back to his office.

Tom glared after Bill for a long while, but then bent over and cleaned up the spit with a dirty rag before returning to the bar and finishing his drink.

Bill sat back down at his desk but felt that he couldn't stay there long, the itch was in him and he could only scratch it with the blood of Bart Haynes between his nails. He stood and crossed to the window, chewing on a stale unlit cigar.

The people of Red City were half through their day. The drunks of last night's faro games were either in the flop house or back in the bottle mourning their lost savings. The children were in the schoolhouse, the mothers attending to shopping or homely duties, and the fathers were either working or in his bar getting soaked on good whiskey cut with turpentine. You had to be a good friend of Bill Winston to get it straight.

And Bill Winston didn't have many good friends.

He lit the cigar and took a hard draw. That yellow bellied marshal was never this late, he was always on time when Bill called. Either he was drunk, dead, or worse, he wasn't going to accept Bill's offer.

Bill chewed on his cigar more ferociously.

Out in the bar Tom was rubbing the leg of a girl from the hookshop across the street who came over to make change from a ten. He was smiling, showing his three tar blacks. The whore didn't think it flattered him, he had the smile of Old Scratch, but she knew he finished fast and tipped good, so she let him rub.

Tom was a man no one could tame, he only did work for Bill because he gave him enough tin to keep that pig sticker on Tom's waist out of his fat gut. Tom did his job as well as any who was so viscous, killing never came clean with him, but it always came when he had money in his pocket for a man's head.

Bill reappeared on the balcony, leaning hard on the bannister, weighing his options. Tom wasn't careful enough for a job as delicate as Bart Haynes. It required smarts, it had to be handled properly with no messes and no whispers in the saloons across the territory. Whispers were sometimes good for business, they kept the buyin' men out and the payin' men in. However, Bart Haynes had to disappear without anyone knowing any better. It had to be as if he never existed. Tom would kill the man while he drank in the bit house next door, or while he was in his hotel room having breakfast with that devil of a wife. No, Bart Haynes had to go out in the desert some cold night. He had to be tossed into a rattlesnake pit, or buried so deep that the fires of hell charred his bones.

And for that he needed a plan. Tom didn't do well with plans, but the marshal did. He could take Bart out of town on some trumped up petty charge that could only be handled in the big city and then put a bullet in him out under the moon. Or else he could put the fear in him and get that family of his on the road to safe harbor. Lots of bad things happened on the road. If that woman had to go too, well, it meant nothing to him.

But if that marshal wasn't up for it, Bill was quite possibly screwed more than a nickel whore.

He didn't have many other options.

"Tom, get up here."

Tom looked up at Bill and didn't move, after a moment he went back to kissing the girl's neck. She was begging him to go with her across the street, but right now he was still enjoying his whiskey. Hell, the man was so darn wild he might even have her right there, before patron and God. Either way, he wasn't interested in what Bill had to say.

Bill swore weakly under his breath.

He started down the stairs and toward Tom. Uneasy eyes followed his every step. Where there was thunder, you found lighting. Where you found a man confronting Tom Jewett, you found blood. A few of the less adventurous patrons slipped out the door. Others just watched and waited.

Tom turned to face Bill, he looked amused. He had nothing to fear from Bill, for he saw the fear in his eyes. Tom Jewett had been waiting for this moment.

He was to be disappointed.

Bill stopped and smiled, the lily liver easing back into the big bug. He crossed the saloon to a man who had just entered and taken a seat. The patrons went back to their drinks and Tom stood with the whore and left.

The man who may have spared the Red City Saloon's dusty floor from a little more blood was still seated under the balcony near the side door, straddling his chair as if were the throne of God. No longer a husk of dehydration and hunger, he now looked the ego of man personified. He wore all black, matching his hair and thick mustache that danced when he talked and got wet whenever he drank.

"Bring us two whiskeys, Slobber." Bill told the halfwit bartender, "Out of my personal stock." he growled when he saw Slobber reaching for the gutrot. Slobber nodded and went for a box in the back.

"Singleton Hood, as I live and breathe. What are you doing way out here?"

Hood stood and shook Bill's hand, though he looked glad to see him, he didn't smile often. "Oh you know. A curly wolf like myself can't stay in a place long and eventually you run out of the decent places and end up in Red City." His voice was still a bit raspy.

Bill laughed and slapped him hard on the back. They both sat as the whiskey arrived.

"How's business, Bill?"

"To hell with business, Hood. We both know why yer here."

Hood downed his whiskey and stared hard at Bill, "And why is that?"

"Cause yer broke."

Hood shrugged and motioned for another whiskey.

Bill watched him for a few moments, waiting like a snake ready to strike. Just as Slobber started to pour Hood another shot Bill reached over and snatched the bottle out of his hand.

"Give me that." Bill said. Slobber cowered back to the bar.

"How you expect to pay for this? I just said yer plumb broke. The first one was on the house, but I didn't offer you a second, Gun Shy."

Hood licked his lips, tasting the whiskey in his whiskers.

"Bill, I don't reckon that's a kind thing to do. We're friends. Old friends."

Bill watched him, saw surrender in his eyes, or what he perceived to be surrender and poured him a glass.

"I need you to kill a man."

Hood picked up the glass and downed it in one hit. He reached over, picked up the bottle and poured another.

Bill smiled, "Come up to my office. Bring the bottle."

"I could do with some food, too."

Bill waved his hand dismissively, "Sure, sure. Slobber, bring him some bacon and a biscuit."

In the office, Hood swallowed a hunk of greasy bacon and poured himself another shot and listened to Bill's story. It was merely a formality. Hood didn't need the ballyhoo, he wanted the job before he even walked in the door. His lifestyle had robbed him of everything but his life, including his soul. He didn't care anymore, he felt like a man half in the grave. He just wanted to get back to drinkin', whorin', and gamblin' until the rest of him was obliged to follow suit. For that he needed money and Bill always paid fair. Well, fair enough.

"You know Bart Haynes?"

"Never heard of him."

"Well it doesn't matter. All you need to know is I want him dead. I want him dead and I don't want the world to know it."

With some food in him, killing a man for money didn't sit quite as right with Hood. He had a killed a couple of men in his lifetime, only one in cold blood, and even then, at least in his mind, that didn't mean the fellow didn't have it coming. The weakness he still felt when he shifted in his seat made him keep hearing Bill out.

"I was wondering why you weren't using Tom."

"To hell with Tom. I was going to use the marshal, but ain't no one seen the coward since yesterday and I'm sick of looking out my window and seein' that blue belly sole-slogger walking around."

"The marshal? Does he know what you wanted him to do?"

"He don't know the particulars."

"Good. Why do you want Mr. Haynes to die?"

"Nothing to nobody. I just want it done and I'm payin' to see that it do."

"Is he heeled?"

"Sometimes, but only when he's going out to Muddy Creek on business. Man is a regular blowhard that would sure rival Wild Bill. Thinks he ain't ever gonna get planted in the bone orchard."

"Ah. Well, I reckon the easiest way to keep this quiet is get him while he's headin' to the Creek. What's he do out there?"

"Not right sure. Charlie Luck told me that he leaves with a pocket of cash but rarely comes back with anything but empty trousers or some trinket for that new wife of his."

Hood nodded, poured himself another shot and sipped on it, thinking a bit.

Bill lit a cigar and watched him through the thick smoke for a few moments. Hood was perfect for the job. He was called Gun Shy, but Bill figured he'd kill a man if necessary and not lose a lick of sleep over it. He earned the name because he always did everything in his power to avoid killing someone. That rare quality is what made him perfect for this particular job. It took a man who understood the weight of killing, not someone like Tom. Business was all about the ramifications, cause and effect, and when it came to killing a well liked man like Bart Haynes, business always came first. People understand the world, deep down they know that sometimes killing is necessary, most of the time they acknowledge that it's awful and move on. But people like Bart Haynes made them think on it a little bit more, men like Bart Haynes made hanging judges famous.

"When does he usually ride out? Specific days."

"Saturday mostly, but usually once during the week too when he ain't busy in his shop or helpin' with the new chapel. It's already Tuesday and he ain't been since Saturday, so I reckon' he'll go tomorrow or Thursday. Don't recollect a time he's gone two days in a row."

"Alright." Hood said, standing up and fanning himself with his dusty hat. "I know a shortcut down through Sidewinder Trail that will get me out ahead of him. And if it don't, I'll get him on the way back."

"What's yer plan?"

Hood could tell Bill doubted him. He'd have to give him more to ease his mind and loosen the string on his money bag. He knew Bill had been up here in this stuffy office for, hell, who knows how long going over and over this job in his head. And it just kept getting more and more complicated. He just couldn't believe that it could be so simple. He just needed some convincing.

"Listen, Bill, it's easy. I'll pretend I'm sticking him up and lead him off the trail. You said he's a blowhard, well, he'll think he can get out of it by being calm or that he'll fight his way out given the chance, so he'll oblige. And then I'll just shoot him."

"And the body?"

"I'll rob it and leave it."

Bill's face turned red, "I don't want him found!"

It was just like Hood thought. "Bill, you're stumped. You think it's complicated, but it ain't."


"Listen here, if Mr. Haynes disappears the story will never die down. Ain't no end to it. The stories will start and they will get wilder and wilder. Some might involve you, or you might not even get mentioned at all. But they won't die. People know the road to Muddy Creek is dangerous. That's why Muddy Creek ain't nothin' but a few shacks now. It's too rough out there. If he dies, yeah, people will ask questions, they'll look for someone. Give them Tom."

"What? Are you crazy?"

Hood smiled a rare smile.

"Send Tom to Muddy Creek today. I hear there is some rotgut peddler out there with some good stuff."

"I'd know if there was."

"Follow me, Bill. Send Tom out there to talk to him, tell him he's supposed to arrive sometime tomorrow, but if he don't show to wait one more day and come back Friday morning. Along with enough money to cover a good shipment of whiskey, give him some drinkin' and whorin' money. Muddy Creek still has a hookshop right?"

"This is plumb dangerous, Hood."

Hood knew it, knew it was foolish too, but he needed the money bad, so he just poured himself another glass and took it hard, "Killin' always is. And if you play your cards right, Tom Jewett may cash in, too."

"Why don't I just pay Tom to kill him then? Cut out the middle man."

"Because Tom won't do it smart and you'll get dragged in eventually. He's wild, yes, but even a wild man has gotta have motive. He kills him here for seemingly no reason, minds will turn to you quick like. Out there? Things go bad, especially during a stick up. More money is always a good motive."

* * *

The sun burned down mean on Gun Shy Singleton Hood's weathered face from his vantage point behind an outcropping just off the road. He replaced his hat and spit into the dust. He glanced over at his bag where his payment from Bill was stuffed. Five hundred dollars, paid in advance. Bill was wary of paying before Bart Haynes lie dead, but Hood told him he'd know where to find him if the man came back into town riding a horse instead of tied to one. It was essential that the last the folk saw of Hood was Tuesday night when he rode out to camp off the road and wait.

Hood took a long drink of water. It was hot, he thought. He'd rather do it at night, when Bart was on his way back, but he couldn't risk Tom getting impatient and messing things up by coming back too early. Cracked as he is he still listened when he had money in his pockets, but when it ran out he'd come back into town and plop back on that stool. Plus, his plan worked better if Haynes still had the money he always took with him.

A swirl of dust danced back down the trail. Hood squinted his eyes and pulled a dirty rag around his mouth. Bart Haynes came around a bend in the trail. He didn't look like he suspected something was up, or maybe he did and didn't care. He was a rail post of a man, with that beaten down look of a society man who came out here for freedom and found it. He was heeled, but it was an old thumb buster, likely to jam, even though Haynes wore it like it never would when he needed it most.

Hood didn't like him, men like that had a habit of living when good men died. They just kept on, defying fate itself.

Straitening himself, Hood pulled his hat lower and stepped out around the rocks, gun out, eyes calm.

"Stop right there."

Bart rode past him a bit, but then stopped.

"Hot out."

Hood smiled, "Hot as a whorehouse on nickel night. Now kindly step down off the horse and get over here by me. Slowly. No need for anyone to get killed."

"You're Gun Shy Singleton Hood."

"Then you know that I don't kill unless I have to, so why don't we just make sure it don't come to that."

"I heard that you ain't killed many folks at all."

"Well I reckon folks will be hearin' 'bout one more if you don't get down off that horse."

Bart nodded and climbed down off his horse, arms raised, a smile on his face.

Hood smirked under his hood and gestured off the path, "Walk over there down into that dead creek bed."

Bart's smile faltered, but he obeyed.

When they reached the old creek bed, Bart turned and faced Hood, looking into his eyes, searching for the truth of it. He wasn't sure if Hood was going to kill him, but he knew it was possible.

If he wasn't already sweating from the heat, he'd sure be now. He swallowed and tried to remain calm.

"Is it Bill Winston?"

"It's that money in yer pocket."

Bart looked down at the cracked earth beneath his feet. It simmered in the sun. He had never noticed how visible heat could be in such a barren, dead place. Never noticed how it sunk into your skin, cooking it raw til it dried up and forever branded you with the harshness that is life out here. This knowledge struck him as something he was never meant to know until this very moment. It felt as if the salvation of his soul depended on that. He began to weep.

Hood laughed, "Bill painted you as a blowhard. I figured that too when I first saw you. But you're just a man."

Bart looked up, but said nothing.

Hood pulled the trigger and put lead in Bart Haynes' knee. When Haynes fell to the ground he walked over and shot him again in the shoulder, then in the chest. Then Hood bent down over the corpse, his jeans soaking up the oozing blood, robbed him of the money in his pocket and cut his gut open with a knife.

Waving his hand at the stench, Hood stood and made his way back to his horse. He saddled his bags, stuck Bart's cash in with his payment and started to mount his horse. Hood felt a lurch in his stomach, he coughed a bit, trying to steady himself, but felt it again, more violent this time. He pulled the rag down from his face and bent over on his knees, retching hard.

He swore and stood up, wiping thick spit off his lips. After a few moments of blinking and repeatedly wiping his mouth he bent back over and got sick. When he had finished he took a swig of water and spit it out. Shaking his head he finally mounted his horse again and rode off. He never looked at the stinking corpse of Bart Haynes.

A few months later Singleton Hood sat in a dirty saloon down near the border pounding back shots of liquor. He had heard the story a few days ago from a half-drunk Charlie Luck about what had happened when Tom Jewett rode back into town.

The marshal met him with his gun, but was too afraid to use it. He told Tom he was accused of killing and looting Bart Haynes. Tom rightly disagreed, but in a manner fitting his nature. He turned to find Bill Winston comforting the grieving widow Haynes and started toward him. Though the marshal ordered him to stop, the half-Indian had blood in his eyes. Bill pulled his pistol and fired off, the first shot missed Tom, but found a young boy exiting a shop with his mother. The second found its intended's gut. The boy's mother was screaming and Tom was writhing in the dusty street crying he'd been shot, but no one came to help him.

As for Bill Winston he was absolved of the murder of Tom Jewett on account of self defense, but hung for killing the boy by a judge out of Two Tree City. Bill Winston and Bart Haynes were buried next to each other in Boot Hill Cemetery. Tom Jewett was buried in a lonely corner under a dead mesquite tree.

Singleton Hood drained another shot of whiskey and dreamed of just one more, but his money was all gone.

The End

Trey Smith is hotel general manager in Middle Georgia who has had a passion for Westerns ever since he watched old movies with his grandfather as a child. As an adult the films of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah along with the many great folk legends and true stories of the Old West inspired him to try his hand at spinning a few of his own tales.

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