August, 2016

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Issue #83

All The Tales

A Dragoon's Adventure
by Tom Sheehan

The cowman Oliver Weddle sat his horse on a small hillock, looking out over his ranch, the grass running off to the hills, Texas itself stiffening his backbone as it always had. He tried again to count the help he'd need to get the ranch back in prime order after his return from the war, wishing some of his command had come along with him when he left the service. They were good soldiers, riders, and courageous and loyal to duty; but had their own visions of search. Three foremen in a row had failed him and their mission, one or two he suspected had complicated issues on purpose. So glaring were the failures that they cost him a good deal of money. Now he was contemplating what would happen if he didn't get a good man for the job.

Even as his backbone stiffened again, hope still working him with lures, he caught sight of an odd rider coming his way, ramrod straight in the saddle, commanding the horse, pride in the pair, but an unusual pride and seemingly an uncomfortable pride.

The rider was odd in manner and wore a strange hat, its brim swept to one side and up along his head, a long loop of leather hanging about his chest to catch that hat if blown off. A saber's sheath and holsters for a rifle and an ax were strapped to his saddle, part of each weapon clearly visible. The saddle itself was different than a western saddle. Such equipment immediately set the rider off from the usual rider in the west, marking him as an object of attention and potential derision. A cardinal-red shirt, scarred or stained where military chevrons once were attached, was filled by a rugged body, huge upper arms and prominent, wide shoulders. The man's neck was thick, tanned, muscled. Weddle suspected the man was not comfortable in the saddle but bore any and all his discomforts with command and control, like a poor cowpoke dancer challenged at a barn rally.

"Sir," the rider said on reining his horse in at Weddle's side, "I am one-time Sergeant Branwell Kirkness, late of His Royal Majesty's 6th Inniskilling Dragoons Cavalry Regiment, war my training ground and war my nature. Finding my pay cut after harsh service in India and South Africa, my comrades so treated likewise, I departed the military in 1865 and I am looking for a job riding herd here in western America. The chip I carry on my shoulder concerning my military treatment is most likely evident in all my outward manners and can be determined, by the most observant people, as roiling under my skin. But I am a hard and loyal subordinate when treated with respect and will protect with my life if necessary all trusts given unto me."

He stared into Weddle's eyes when he said, "Do I have a position in your employ?"

"That you do, sir," Weddle said, the iron up his back stiffer than ever, and hope as firm.

There, at that moment, began one of the great associations in Texas cow history.

Kirkness said to Weddle, upon being hired as foreman, "Tell me what you need done, but don't tell me how to do it."

"I need a crew to drive a herd of 3000 cows to Fort Gibson and merge them with two other herds for a drive up the Shawnee Trail to Abilene. I've heard they'll be 10,000 cows in the final push into Kansas. There's money to be made while the opportunity lasts."

"That I will do," Kirkness said, his voice as sure as a line sergeant's voice. "When is the drive to start?"

"In two days."

That evening former Dragoon sergeant and new BLB foreman Branwell Kirkness was in the Barrows Saloon, leaning against the bar, talking to one man who was a possible hire. "I don't expect promise from anybody, only duty from men with heart. Of course," he added with appropriate needling, "not all men have such heart. I am too particular to hire a slave or a roustabout or a lackey. I just want men. It may seem such a simple demand, but it has a lot at stake. Real men are rare when it gets tough."

"Yeh," said a voice from a nearby table, "how come the BLB hires foreigners wearing funny hats to be their top man? Ain't that a kinda funny hat?" A big, bony man, looking hard as a rock, stood up and faced Kirkness. "What is that hat, mister? Your mother make it for Christmas or did you bring it all the way from Inja with you?"

With one punch Kirkness dropped the big man beside the table. The big man did not move. Five minutes later he was still motionless. Stillness, sudden stillness in a noisy saloon, came with the mystery that silence has.

Kirkness eventually said, to all the cowpokes in the saloon, "I'm looking for real men, not flag mouths that can't take a punch. I wouldn't have that man now prone on the floor handling my wagon on a Sunday ramble. In India he would not have lasted one skirmish against the Gurkhas or the Sikhs at their worst. Nor would he have made his way against the Africans bent on freedom. If you want to measure men, measure me. I would guess that the prostrate figure there on the floor is typical of you westerners; all mouth and no guts for a long drive, or taking orders from their betters, or averse to good pay, real decent pay and a piece of the big pie, as the boss man has promised. How you ever did wrest the colony from the Mother country goes beyond my ken."

So convincing was Kirkness's approach that the following morning he arrived at the BLB Ranch with 11 men, and more on the way. The sun was shining on the small parade, with former sergeant Kirkness riding out front of the new hires, straight and upright in the saddle, his funny hat perched atop his head. Some of the new hires were battle-tested on the way to the ranch when Kirkness was openly challenged. He pummeled three men before dawn slipped up on them. Now, in the clear sunlight of morning, Oliver Weddle watched his new foreman bring a trail crew to the BLB. A sudden shot of surprise and happiness flooded his frame and he rode out to meet the men.

Weddle stood in his stirrups to get a clear look at his new crew. "Gentlemen," he said, "I am pleased to meet you. I trust you have met Sergeant Kirkness and know now who the real boss is. I too am a mere hireling here, but with a great project in front of us, with the promise of a great payday for all of us, we can complete our task." He pointed at Kirkness and added, in a voice full of will and determination, "That man will take us to Hell and back if that is what it will take, clear through the Oklahoma Indian territory. I don't doubt for a minute that he'll get us through and that some of you, wiser after the journey, will start your own business. There's room for all in this part of the land. The east is hungry for good beef, from Chicago to Philadelphia to New York City to Boston, Texas steaks have caused a craving. I don't know how long it will last, but let's get in on the feeding."

In the ranks a soft voice said, "Amen."

In the matter of two days a cook with trail experience was hired, a remuda assembled for herders and a remuda boss put in charge, assignments wagered between the men, and a partner system set in place. Kirkness was highly in favor of the partner system. "Stony, no matter where Clint Harkness goes, you be his pard. Keep your eyes open when it's your turn to do so, and he will do his in turn. The man who falls asleep at his watch gets the holy hell from me, and then some. And you've seen some of that and then some. I don't have time to fool around or play games this side of beef delivery. Be alert. Be aware. Be smart. It'll all come back on you.

At the outset of an Indian attack in the middle of Oklahoma, the Indians rode in against the herd in a double column, as if trying to split the herd and drive cattle off through whatever proved to be the weakest side, a maneuver none of the cowpokes had seen before.

"What the hell they up to, Cap'n?" one rider said. "I ain't seen them do this before."

Kirkness replied from horseback, "I've seen this before, in India, at the hand of the Gurkhas, some of the finest fighters in the world, and the meanest I've ever seen in action." He yelled to any herder close enough to hear him, "Fire on the right column. Concentrate on the right column. Obliterate the right column. Fire on the right."

He said it a dozen times.

Then, heedless of the onslaught and the odds, he swung head on at the left hand column and brought his rifle to bear on the column heading in on his herd and emptied the rifle. Then he blazed away with his six guns and saw several Indians fall from their mounts in succession. The raiders veered off from the left hand column as the right column suffered significant casualties as they were repelled by the herders, and the cattle in a mad turmoil it would take hours to arrest. The main attack, though, was stemmed in a matter of minutes and three other riders rode out and joined Kirkness in his continuing rush at the Indians.

Kirkness made a point of driving a couple of cows toward the retreating Indians, knowing it was cheap enough to buy some time by assuring they had meat for their meals. When the Indians were all driven off, including the few cows that Kirkness assured were in close pursuit of the fleeing braves, night came down on the herd as most of the herd was finally rounded up. Kirkness went on a regular night watch. He had done so since the drive first started.

Near midnight, from the edge of a small dip in the land, he heard the moans of a distressed person and found an Indian suffering from a serious wound. He managed to stop his bleeding, bind him with a piece of his shirt, and hustle him back to the chuck wagon where his cook could better treat and dress the wound. The cook was a good man at his trade and almost as good as any doctor in the area, and had no aversion to treating the Indian who was still unconscious.

"You know what this'n be like when he wakes full, boss. He won't be any less meaner'n he was afore. Too bad he won't git to know what you done for him. Want me to tie his hands?"

"Best do as you ask, Silas. Tight at each wrist but loose enough between them so he understands he's been left to have some use of his hands. We will try to communicate any way we can. Let us hope he has some understanding of the situation." Looking down at the brave, who was obviously a normally rugged individual, he added, "Poor bloke is not about to go too far in his shape. Set a bit of food where he can have it if he chooses. Keep trying to communicate any way possible." He went back on his watch for another hour and came back to sleep. In a matter of minutes, under a blanket and beside the wagon, he went to sleep.

Just as dawn broke over the plains, Kirkness was awakened by the coughing of the wounded Indian, who had risen on the other side of the wagon. The rope at his wrists allowed him to kneel, and then, with a struggle, stand upright. Kirkness pulled on his boots, went to the Indian, and put his hand on the bandaged wound. Then he set the food the cook has prepared at the feet of the man, taking a piece of dry beef for himself and chewing on it. Retrieving his blanket he put it about the Indian shivering in the morning light.

Silas the cook, already awake, said, "Boss, some of the boys be mighty upset at the kindness you've spent on the critter. They been shootin' at us and tryin' to make off with our pay stake 'n' that don't sit well."

Kirkness was back to his old self in a hurry. "Any man wants to change things, tell him to see me, Silas. I'll take care of his ailments too."

The story, the rest of what has come down to me, went something like this, with portions or snippets some of which I must have conjured up in my own way of telling it; but Kirkness, that late afternoon, rode off with the wounded Indian on another horse toward the far hills. The Indian sat a horse that Kirkness told the remuda boss to "get the one we can most spare."

Half a dozen riders watched the boss man ride off with the Indian still trussed up like he'd never get any place on his own. But somewhere out of sight of the herd and its riders, Kirkness untied the bound wrists of the brave who rode on ahead of him, turned on the crest of a small hill and held his hand palm upward. Kirkness did the same, the universal salute between warriors of the first line. The Indian rode down into a wadi and was out of sight and Kirkness, a sense of timing and circumstance working in his mind, sat his horse and waited.

He might have been waiting for a sign, an omen, any signal that his efforts, his belief in man, would have brought off a response of a similar nature. Most men would bet against him.

Kirkness stayed in his place, giving his horse a bit of water, watching for the evening star to give promise of night, hoping one harsh day would lead into one of clearer comfort and ease. Man, at his labors, at his wars, whatever the causes and the reasons, needed his rest. He clearly wanted his. This business he was into, the adventure in a new land, this liaison with a trusting owner like Oliver Weddle, had come like a reward to him, even though the costs might be high. He again hoped for the best in man, as he had often seen the worst in man . . . on both sides of the fray.

It was at first a small illumination that came to him in the wavering shadows, from north of him, from where they were planning to drive the herd, right through country inhabited by Cherokee or Cheyenne or Arapaho. He could not tell the difference from one to the other if they stood in front of him at parade rest, but assured himself that they were as different as Gurkhas and Sikhs standing in the same formation, under the same colors.

The illumination grew, brightened, came on the obvious rise of a small hill hidden in darkness. It was, he knew, a signal, for the Indians could have gotten a lot closer to him. In the morning, he assured himself, other signs would be evident.

He hoped he had made peace for the time being.

He would like to do the job right for Oliver Weddle; trust was always part of his duties.

Beside the wagon, under the light of stars, the former Dragoon slept a deserved sleep.

Silas shook him awake. "Boss, coffee's up, biscuits on, shift change." And in a most condescending tone, said, "It looks quiet out there 'n' all the way back toward the risin' sun 'n' clear through to Montana up in front of us I'da bet." It was an affirmation of what the old soldier had done the night before.

Kirkness, with soldier skills still working his system, changed his socks, pulled on his boots in preparation for his day. When he rinsed his used socks and hung them on a pin on the wagon, he spotted the dried blood of the wounded Indian on the spokes of a wagon wheel and thought of the flames from the night before. "There," he said lightly, "was enough light for all of us."

Again, as it had so often happened, his whole life passed in quick review, as if a silent bugle had summoned his thoughts. "Call to Colors" came to him and "Reveille" and other bugle calls that were locked into his system. He remembered, coming this way, arriving at this place, the morning he walked through West Point and felt the ramrod spiking up his back. The military in him would, even in separation, carry him through. It had made him the man he was.

Oliver Weddle, of course, finished off the story as it had begun with him. Time and time again, in all his meetings with old friends and old comrades, in saloons, at card tables, at the spiked bowl at a now-and-then barn dance, said always that "Branwell Kirkness, late of His Royal Majesty's 6th Inniskilling Dragoons Cavalry Regiment, is the best herd driver I've ever known, the toughest man I've ever met, and the most trustworthy man that ally and foe can possibly know."

He told them all that Kicking Horse, a son of a Comanche chief, had cleared the way for Kirkness's herds for three years in a row. Not a shot was fired, not a cow was lost, though other drivers had their problems.

"The man's a soldier no matter what he wears," was often the way he said goodnight.

The End

Sheehan's published 24 books, has multiple work in: Rosebud, Linnet's Wings, Serving House Journal, Copperfield Review, KYSO Flash, La Joie Magazine, Literary Orphans, Indiana Voices Journal, Western Online Magazine, Provo Canyon Review, Nazar Look, Eastlit, Rope & Wire Magazine, The Literary Yard, Green Silk Journal, Fiction on the Web, etc. He has 30 Pushcart nominations, five Best of the Net nominations and awards from Nazar Look for 2012- 2015. Swan River Daisy was just released by KY Stories and The Cowboys is in production at Pocol Press. His "Author's Page, Tom Sheehan"—is on the Amazon site.

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Death Rides a Slow Horse
by Robert Perret

I saw the pale rider up on the cracked ridge, silhouetted by the San Velasquez sun, his shadow a dark finger pointing across the shrubland at me as I rode my painted horse across the desert. We had found each other, back in the crowded saloon in Chapequa. I had been dealt a dead man's hand and looked up over the edge of the cards to see his eyes, flared and white, locked onto my face with a grim reckoning. I thought he meant to shoot me right there. Probably would have, but guns weren't allowed on the streets of Chapequa. A fact I recollected as my fingers closed around the air above my holster. My fingers drifted down towards the knife in my boot, but the pale rider he just stood up, his chair calling for silence as it screeched against the wooden floor. He squared himself to me and made as if to say something. In the back a dancing girl who was being dandied on the knee of some cowboy let out a laugh and the spell was broken. He turned and stalked out into the night and I returned to my cards.

Tonight the dead man's hand was good luck. No feller would bet against a man who had just escaped death. The game broke up after that hand, but the pot was rich and I did alright for myself. Paid the barkeep for my repast, the madame for a room, and the piano player to keep me in a right fair mood that night with my favorite melodies. Old and timeworn, a little bit sad. The whiskey tasted better that way. I awoke the next morn to a scraggly old face in a cracked shaving mirror. I washed myself with the water that was already in the bowl, eased back into my empty holsters and my duster, caked with the grit of a thousand nights sleeping rough. My old hat was beaten down and I propped the crown back up with my finger before resting it on my head. It needed a reblocking to restore its shape but I wasn't sure it could take it. I knew the feeling as I traded floorboards for stair steps and found myself back in a now mostly empty hall.

A couple of dancing girls smoked listlessly at the counter, the makeup and the frills gone, small town whelps trapped on the wrong side of nowhere. The barkeep stood his vigil like no time had passed since the evening before. I expect he was standing there polishing a glass before the place was even built and he'll be there surveying the scene long after the town of Chapequa has returned to the earth, dust to dust.

"Got biscuits and bacon and strong black coffee if you have another two bits."

I threw a coin on the counter. Some Mexican vintage I didn't recognize. "Alright."

From the speed with which the barkeep snatched the coin into his apron I surmised I'd overpaid. The money had come easy so I didn't mind that it spent easy too. Besides, now that I'd seen that pale rider I didn't reckon on being around too long. The biscuits were mixed with sawdust, the bacon tasted like horse, and the coffee didn't come from no bean. I held the cup out at the barkeep.

"You must've known from how far you rode in. There ain't a railway for a hundred miles, even wagoneers avoid the San Velasquez desert, what with the snakes and Injuns and no a drop of sweetwater to be had. What little we have gets packed in, by Mexicans mostly."

"Or found, on travelers what expire here in Chapequa." The girls giggled to themselves.

"We make do with what the desert gives us."

I nodded at the cup again.

"Boiled root of a plant we call Devil's Garter. About the only thing that will grow round here."

"Beautiful to look at, toxic to touch," one of the girls breathed at me.

"That so?"

"Boiled like this, it has a kick to it, that's all. You taste the raw flesh, through . . . been known to drive a man to strange behavior. You get stuck out in that desert you won't have much choice."

"Most don't develop a liking for it until they been here a while. Say they can still taste the devil's sweat in it." The girl made to take the cup from me. I drank it down in one gulp.

"I like it fine."

Something in my belly now, I proceeded to the livery. Pleased by my mount's clean coat and satiated demeanor, I flipped the boy another one of them coins. He tipped his hat to me and then slipped the coin in the band. With a skip and a jump he ran to his master and produced a wholly different coin from his bib pocket. The man bit the coin and placed it in his apron. Lead in hand, the horse and I proceeded to the Sheriff's station. I presented my claim stub and he retrieved my weapons from lockup, two pistols and a rifle. He asked me where I was going and I said nowheres, I was expecting to be met in the desert.

"Ain't nothin to meet in the desert except death. Head you back up north. Man can make an honest living back in the green grass. Stake out a bit of land to build a life on."

"I think a man like you understands when I say that ain't for me."

He gave me a hard look and then closed the station door.

I headed south, seeing nothing but the sun and the flat land and the town of Chapequa disappearing behind me. I let go of the reins and simply let the horse walk. Around me the horizon shimmered and the rifle across my lap became too hot to hold. I'd felt only a little buzz from the Devil's Garland at the saloon, but instead of sweating it out under the sun my head was getting muzzier. The heat waves dancing at the periphery of my vision became flames, the sky became black and I heard another set of hooves ride up beside me. I turned my head, feeling the whole world swoon around me. I expected to see the pale rider sighting me down the barrel of his gun. Instead I saw a massive beast, horned and red, its hooved feet clomping on the ground. Its body was that of the greatest bull I had ever seen, but from the shoulders of the bull sprung the torso of a man.

"You keep me waiting," said the thing.

"What is a matter of days against the dark canyon of eternity?"

"Nothing," the thing said amiably as we rode along together.

"Is there a place in Hell for them what sell sawdust as biscuits and horseflesh as bacon?"

"That weren't horseflesh."

"I know it." I said, spitting. I had tasted the flesh of a man before. "It was polite to pretend."

"He has bloody vengeance burning in his heart. I placed it there."

I had nothing to say about that. The rain began then, burning liquid embers fat and wet, like all the fireflies in the world didn't want to live anymore. I looked again at the thing.

"Sometimes I think our suffering comes not from our nature, but from our awareness of our nature and our inability to change it."

"Is that why you let the pale rider live?"

"It is why I let him come for me." The thing stopped while my horse kept plodding. As we moved away the embers became raindrops, the flames splashes of water upon the dry earth. Dry even in a deluge, the water sucked deep below. My hat, my coat, my guns, and my horse were washed clean. My hands stayed dirty. Before me the ground became rutted with tracks. Cattle and wagons and men each left their scar upon the earth, now pooling in the rain. Before me rose up the town of Delavista. If San Velasquez could be said to have a capital, this was it. The banditos around these parts had become so rich, robbing the armies of two countries, as well as every mining baron and railroad tycoon who tried to connect one ocean to another, that they had become the very genteel folk they once abhorred. They had mansions and mineral rights and grandchildren to protect now. What was once the most lawless place in America now operated with the inflexible surety of a police state.

As I rode in a pair of uniformed men rode out to meet me. They demanded of me my business.

"None, except a warm bed and a hot meal. I'd be moving on tomorrow."

"Anything to declare?"

"No sir, I travel light, as little as possible truth be told."

"A drifter?" I showed them my change purse, fat with my recent winnings. "We'll hold onto your weapons. You'll not need them here, you are under the protection of the Territorial Army."

"There's a pale rider who wants to kill me. He has vengeance burning in his heart."

"You can rest easy, señor. Death will not be visiting Delavista tonight."

I laughed. The men escorted me directly to the Presidential Hotel. The manager gave me a sour look that turned sweet when I turned my purse upside down. Soon I found myself eating a lobster dinner from a golden tray attached to the biggest bathtub I'd ever seen.

"Where do you find lobster in a desert?" I asked.

"Mayor Blanco, his family owns the ground this town sits on. Beneath it runs natural caverns farther than any man has dared go. There are natural pools down there, underground grottos. The Blancos, they stocked the pools decades ago. They go fishing down there, they have their own private haciendas. This lobster, of course, was not caught by a Blanco but by one of the fishery managers down there. I have heard they are never allowed to leave, and eventually their skin turns translucent and their eyes go blind, like the very cavefish they tend."

I looked down at my plate and thought about how I'd eaten the horseflesh of a cowboy earlier. I wondered what the fishflesh of one of these subterranean gamekeepers would taste like.

Outside the open window, I has been listening to the orphans across the street singing and playing games. Now my reverie was interrupted by a man shouting and a whip cracking. The children screamed and then I heard a woman's voice. I looked out the window to see a nun facing down a trio of vaqueros in the street. The leader struck her with a whip and laughed cruelly. The men said something to each other but it was lost on the wind. I leapt through the window and climbed down the trestles, my bare body still dripping with perfumed water.

"On what account do you crack that whip?"

"On account of never you mind." The bandito sized me up. He wore white and silver from head to toe, even the jewel in his bolero was pearl. He stood a man and a half tall. I wore nothing but the scars of my trade and the bathwater of a presidential tub. I dripped, he twitched. With a smirk he turned away from me and raised a thick arm to strike the nun again with the whip. I grabbed the end out of the air and yanked, the bandito toppled over like a rockslide. His companions turned to me and crunched their bony knuckles against their meaty palms.

"Run, señor!" the nun cried. "You do not know these men!"

"These men, Blancos I take it. Foxes in the henhouse."

The first man lunged at me with a knife, trying to stick me like a pig. A single deadly point aimed straight at my heart. I slapped the blade aside and spun through bringing my elbow into his soft nose. He stumbled across the street blind with pain and fell into a watering trough. The second man grinned and what few teeth there were was gold.

"I sees you is faster than a whip and a knife. How about a bullet?" The man shot his cuffs and out slid a holdout pistol for each hand. As he raised the first to fire I made a slow serpentine motion with my hand. When the man fired I caught the slug in my palm. As if in a daze he raised the other pistol and I waved my other hand in a reflection of the first. The second bullet found my second palm. I stepped towards the man and he lit off like he was on fire. The whipman heaved to his feet. The orphans jeered and threw trash at the man. He looked at me with murder in his eyes and skulked back into the night. I flexed my hands and the slugs fell to the ground. The nun, she took in my naked, ravaged body and the wounded hands I held outwards and cried "Dios mio!" She took me in the church. That night I loved a woman who had forsaken all men.

The next morning I found the whiphand and an older man waiting outside with my horse. The whiphand still had murder in his eyes. At least that was honest. The other man was somehow awful to gaze upon, despite his fine clothes, adorned with more silver than most folks here probably earned in a lifetime.

"Morning good sir," the awful man said, taking me by the arm. "I am Mayor Blanco. I see you have been enjoying all of the hospitality Delavista has to offer." He gestured back at the church. The nun hugged herself and looked away. I just about punched the Mayor right then. "It has come to my attention that there has been a misunderstanding between yourself and my son." The whiphand spat. "By way of apology I have taken the liberty of filling your saddlebags with all of the provisions you will need. To go somewhere else."

The saddlebags were full. The Mayor had been riding a desk too long. Any range hand would know to never touch another man's saddle bags. I was within my rights to shoot him right there. I saw whiphand rest his giant palm on the grip protruding out of his holster. For that matter the Mayor proudly wore a sterling silver bandolier with two more pistolas protruding backways from the hips. It looked like today was one more day the rules didn't apply to the Blancos. I rummaged through the saddlebags and threw the rations to the orphans. In the left bag there was a bank sack of golden coins. I hefted it. Mayor Blanco smiled. Quick as a snake I pulled the Mayor's pearl handled knife from his belt and stabbed the bag. My eyes never left the Mayor's, his smile never faltered.

I lifted myself up into my saddle.

"You ain't welcome in Delavista no more," the whiphand said.

"I'll be back anyway, if I hear of any more trouble for these people. Next time I'll be in a planting mood."

"My men will return your weapons when you are out of town." The Mayor slapped the flank of my horse and we were off at a trot. I gave that unctuous face one last look. If I saw it again I'd bury it good where none in this world would ever have to see it again. As we made our procession south, a thousand faces turned towards us. Some from windows, some from doors, some from bushes, and some the were just there. I could see that they did not know if I had done a good thing or a bad thing, if I were angel or demon, if I had made life in Delavista take a turn for the better or the worse. I held the bank sack out and began trailing gold coins. Whiphand made to grab some until I stopped him in his tracks with a steely look backwards. Now the orphans ran forward, and the old folks, and the mothers burdened with squalling babes. Each took a coin, none more than the rest. I looked back one last time at the nun, maybe her name had been Maria, maybe she had just been praying. I tipped my hat to her and she blew me a kiss. I had thought about leaving the gold at the Church but I didn't want anybody to misunderstand. I wondered if I'd left anything else behind.

If you rode south from Delavista far enough the desert became jungle and in the jungle were savages that built pyramids and cut out still-beating hearts to sacrifice to their pagan gods. They met death with a roar and defied death to control them. Their calendars were wheels what kept spinning. No word in the void, no judgment by hellfire. Just a wheel what spins forever. I didn't figure on getting that far south, not with the pale rider up there on that cracked ridge, shadow pointing right at me, accusing. I watched that shadow creep until it touched me, wrapped around me, cast a little night in the bright endless desert. I heard the hooves behind me now, felt the pale rider's gaze upon my neck. Was he figuring on how he was going to do it or was he just going to let events unfold? Over the horizon came the vultures, hearing that silent siren song of death. They would feast here in this place of famine. The click of a cocked hammer echoed through the empty air.

"That's enough. I can't let you carry on as you has been."

"The vengeance in you heart was placed there by the Devil."

"I don't care."

"I'm not making excuses but I am what I am and I done the only thing I could do."

"Taking a mama and her defenseless babes from this world, I thought you'd be cold. Unfeeling. But I seen what you done for them orphans. Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why'd you take mortal injury to save them orphans and yet my darlings had to die?"

"I don't decide these things, I just am what I am and I make the best of it, like anyone."

"That don't tell me why."

"Far as I know there are no whys. No big ones, anyway."

"Why don't you run when you know I'm coming for you? You got a guilty heart that hopes I catch you?"

"I don't know from guilt or fear. They just aren't in me."

"Why, then? Why you just let me ride up behind you like this. You've known I was coming a long time and you ain't done nothing about it."

"I wondered what it would be like for a man to outlive his days. When you walked out of that killing in Chaperqua my little experiment began. I've had the Devil nipping at my heels, but I've also known some luck at cards, enjoyed some sad music and the loving of a saintly woman. Been about the closest to freedom I'll ever know. I wish it could have gone on forever."

"Now that I've caught you, got you here face-to-face, I'm about to put an end to all that."

"That you are. I can't stop you and I know it. You asked why I let you catch me? It wasn't a choice."

"It weren't?"

I made a grasping motion at the pale rider and felt his soul wriggling in my grasp as his body fell to the ground.

"Death rides a slow horse."

The End

Robert Perret is a writer and librarian living on the Palouse in north Idaho. He was introduced to Westerns by the piles of Louis L'Amour novels in his grandfather's house, eventually developing a taste for spaghetti in his Westerns. He enjoys reading and writing across the pulp spectrum, with special interests in crime and supernatural horror. Recent publications include The Canaries of Clee Hills Mine in An Improbable Truth and For King and Country in The Science of Deduction. Discover more of his stories at

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GW Galony
by Martin Slusser

George Washington Galony. To his friends, Wash. To his enemies, Mr. Galony, or Sir. And, they had better tip their hats in respect. To the ladies, though, any durned thing they wanted, so long as they were smiling, allelu.

At thirty-four, he was newly freed from the constraints of war and the military. True, the Yankees would be happy to see him back. At least happy to see him in chains. Yes, and swinging from a rope with his tongue hanging out and feet kicking. Some folks just have no sense of humor.

Somewhere between that and the war was a too long visit to that Yankee prison camp.

That's where the lust for good food and plenty of it came from. Any cook can take odds and ends and make it food. It takes an Army cook to know how to ruin prime beef right. Prison cooks only have to know how to boil water. That's mostly what the meals were made of. Most of the cooks being Army, they managed to ruin even that.

Well, hey, the war was over. Yet certain Yankee officers wouldn't mind making his sentence a permanent one. Good thing they grabbed that corporal instead of him. Pity for the soiled doves suffering that raid filled his heart. The house up in Fort Smith, Arkansas, would never look the same.

Such is life.

Brooding on the way things went he shot a glare up at a certain mocking raven and raised a finger, muttering, "Bang. You're dead, Gramps."

Not amused, the raven shot down to give the brim of the sombrero a hard rap, then sailed away. The buckskin gelding was unperturbed. He was used to fools like Wash.

This part of West Texas looked pretty innocent, too. Provided you were a complete fool in need of thick glasses and a dose of castor oil. These few desert counties made all the rest look like a Sunday school picnic. For a man who spent as much time as he did among the dying and the desperate and the powerful sadistic, it looked okay to Wash.

Mountains towered around them. The grass was thick, trees made the mountains black. A fellow in some goat-ridden village called these the Sierra Vieja. He peered at them, then pulled a cracked leather tube. One thumb flipped it open.

For all the brass barrel was a little green from being buried for several years, the spyglass worked pretty good. For that spyglass alone, a man could get his neck stretched. Colonel Chivington would no doubt do it himself. Well, he had the right. It was his spyglass.

Canyons and brush met the eye. He raised it. Trees. Pines and some oaks, for the most part. Lots of cedars. A frayed noose. A dead cottonwood tree. Antelope and a longhorn cow—

The glass swung back. For a long moment, Wash was quiet. He urged the horse towards the tree.

* * *

It was a little disturbing when he found a likeness of himself tacked to the tree. The tattered remains of a noose swung in the hot air.

Frowning just a hair, Wash decided not to see the noose. The reminder of near-death experience was just a little less than pleasant. Bones scattered under the tree didn't help. Especially when the gelding made a habit of walking over them. He leaned from the saddle to tear the poster down.

Another bone snapped and the man winced.





for the murderer of

Wil. A. Butler, Lt.

No, gee. Not thee General Butler's sadistic brat? What a be-dewed shame. And the waste of a good knife. But, Gramps would agree nobody wants to hang onto the knife used for that reason. For that matter, nobody wanted to hang.

Over the words was a real bad likeness of Wash.

"Five hundred dollars, gold?"

For a moment, he had a serious thought of turning himself in. That was a lot of money.

"Of all the crap. You ever hear of such trash?" Wash said the horse. "Durned fools. They even got my name wrong. It happens to be Galony, not Galoony." He scowled over the poster and his neck started to itch. Refusing to rub out the itch, he said, "Galoony. Makes me sound like a mooncalf. Galony is a respectable name. Galoony, bah."

The raven jeered and the horse slowly gathered himself for a good buck. The gelding was getting stiff, and besides, his back was starting to ache. A nice stretch of the muscles would relieve him of both problems.

"Try it and the next to mount you is going to be that ugly crow up there." Not taking his gaze from the poster, Wash tipped the sombrero at the raven. Casting an innocent look over one shoulder, the horse sighed.

"Don't give me that. I knowed ye since ye was but a suckling foal. Even then you were mean and inclined to fool stunts."

In addition to that jackanapes, Butler, there were a few other names, like Corporal Johnson. Wash scowled.

"Here now. I never."

In the act of reaching for a taste of Wash's boot, the gelding paused and thought better of it. He reached for the other one, instead.

Staring at the paper, Wash booted the horse in the nose and grabbed the saddle horn for a short but exciting ride.

A few crow hops later, the gelding shuddered and uncrossed his eyes. Wash scowled at the poster.

"Butler? The hey. It was them boys in blue that shot him. Even they didn't care for that skunk." Shot him while Wash was diving out that window after Johnson.

Head under his chest, the gelding tugged at the cinch strap. A shudder ran through his body. Lips distended, he let go of the strap. It was too tight to loosen anyway, but he had such hope. He sucked in air, lots of air. Fresh stuff, but this was Texas and the air was almost as hot at the peppers Wash rubbed on the cinch knot.

Seeing the horse's eyes bulging and his breathing grow erratic, the raven dropped to the tree and gave a hopeful croak.

The horse snapped his teeth at him and moaned.

The raven muttered a small laugh.

Just in case it was Comanche or maybe those pesky varmints in the posse closing in, Wash took a quick look around. The raven laughed again.

"You do that," Wash said. "And when I'm swinging from a tree branch somewhere, why, you just come and laugh all you want. Maybe you'd prefer Comanche would burn me alive? Be-durn crow."

The raven hissed. Humans, bah. The Comanche weren't into burning people alive. They were worse than that. They learned a lot, hanging out with the Spanish.

Straightening the wanted poster with a cool snap, Wash read the description.

"Redskin? You would figure with all the injiuns what died fighting on their side they might be a tad more polite."

The raven rolled his eyes and huffed.

"Shut up, Gramps."

Hissing, the raven aimed his beak at Wash's sombrero again. Wash ducked. The raven zipped by, banked hard and almost wound up in a patch of prickly pear.

"Blamed fool crap." Wash ripped the poster to small pieces. The wind took the remains. "Let's git."

He raised the reins and the gelding glanced back. Teeth bared, Wash pulled a .44. It aimed between the gelding's trembling ears.

Innocent as pie, the horse stepped out. Wash held the gun on him for a full minute more. Just in case.

* * *

El Paso was a fine little community situated on the banks of the Rio Grande. It was out of the way and probably would stay a small, dusty burg all its days. Wash and the horse both were a little on the nervous side. For a town of its size, people tended to notice strangers. And they weren't the sort a man with his face on a wanted poster needed looking at him. Shoot first and ask questions later.

"Probably some Yankee, too." Yeah, a Yankee would do it. Hey, they put him in that camp for no good reason, didn't they? True, when they caught him, he was face down with some blue belly decorating his Jim Bowie. Good thing he had on his uniform and not the ugly blue one the captain had him in hours before. Yankees had no sense of humor and tended to hang a man for the least reason. Like spying behind their lines.

Wash sighed over the injustices of this world. He kept his eyes straight and looking at nothing in general. He rode down the main street right to the biggest saloon in town. Wash slid off admiring a row of scalps decorating the saloon doors. Next to that was a sign but he decided to ignore it. He threw the gelding's reins across the rail. The gelding plunged his muzzle into the water trough.

All he was missing was a hump and a bad stink and he could pass for a camel. Well, he already smelled bad.

Wash slid through the doors and into a dim lighting and raucous noise. Frowning, he ducked under a lot of stares and went to the bar. Both hands on the planks, he offered the bartender his most generous smile.

The man glared at him, then, pointedly, at a sign tacked over his side of the bar. It was a copy of the one by the door.



"Well, hey," Wash said. "You gonna let that keep you from making a sale?"


Wash straightened. A half-dozen or so ex-slaves sat drinking and gambling. They stared at him, too, and looked real handsome in those blue uniforms. Wash sighed.

"Look, I just come in from a long ride—"

"Get out."

"Hey, no reason to be unneighborly, is there?"

A cowboy grabbed him by the arm.

"You heard the man, you son of a—"

Wash popped him in the mouth, ducked under a fist, and rammed the man one in the guts. He took a chair and cleared a little space for himself. A knot of men jumped him.

Chivington's .44 in hand, Wash cracked it down on a floppy sombrero and jumped over them into the arms of a handsome lady.

"Lordy, but this town got some fine lookin' women. I am truly sorry, ma'am, but I can't stay."

He stole a quick kiss and ran for the door.

A few bullets followed him out. He dived for the gelding but the horse was already running. Wash managed to grab a stirrup and then the horn. He threw himself onto the animal.

A bullet hissed past his head and the gelding jumped to one side leaving him hanging on for dear life. An alley loomed and the horse raced into it. He came to a halt at a small, friendly looking place, Cantina Casa de Perro.

Wash's Spanish was a little rusty, but the sign was enough to translate for him. Painted on it was a grinning Chihuahua dog tipping a giant schooner of beer. A mariachi sang about the travails of life and worked his guitar hard. Wash stooped to enter and the music stopped. They all stared. He killed a wince.

"Can a man get a drink here, or don't you allow a 'breed, either?"

Brown faces stared back. Muttering under his breath, Wash stomped over the clay floor to a table and took a chair.

A lady more girl than woman slipped to the table on bare feet. She waited until he finished pretending not to be looking around.



She moved away and the mariachi strummed his guitar and started singing again.

"Oh, gentle eyes shed many a tear, but her father loves not this poor vaquero."

She came back with a cow horn tankard of beer, brown foam sliding down one side. He dropped a nickel on the table.

"Keep the change."

"Thank you, sir," she whispered, then rushed to the owner to show him. Her father smiled, nodded, and closed her hand over the coin.

Four beers later, Wash took one out for the gelding. Cool evening air stirred a little dust from the alley. The raven hopped off the roof, landing on his shoulder. Wash let him take a swallow first. The raven hissed.

Glaring back, Wash said, "Look, Gramps, whiskey ain't good for ye. The doc said so even before ye died."

Muttering to himself, the raven dipped again and the horse snorted, knocking him off Wash's shoulder. The horse sucked down half. Wash tipped the tankard up for him. The horse licked it clean.

Wash started in to get another for himself. Feeling a little less ornery, he belched. He glanced down the alley. A man in a floppy, dented sombrero stood in the shadows. All of a sudden, Wash didn't feel so good. Eyes wary, he moved back into the cantina.

"Girl," he said, beckoning to her. She raced over and he gave her the tankard. "You got a back door to this place?"

Nodding, she pointed at a door where smoke drifted out to scent the air.

"Through the kitchen. There is a door there, in an alley."

"You know anybody who could take my horse 'round back? They got to be careful."

She smiled. "¿Como no?"

Wash gave her two bits and slipped through the kitchen. Three older women were reducing good steak to tiny pieces, all busy pretending he wasn't invading their territory.

The meat was cooked. He reached for a piece. Just a hair too close for comfort a knife chipped wood near his fingers. If that wasn't bad enough, the knife was backed up by a little old lady with deadly eyes and a worn wedding band of gold.

"Uh, excuse me, dear hearts. Might a hungry man have a bite?"

The old woman nudged a large piece of meat towards him. Wary for his fingers, he took it, chewing on it while mumbling his thanks and watching the back doorway.

Somebody whistled. He slipped to the door with the gun drawn. Outside was a very small boy heaving on the reins of the horse. Keeping to shadows Wash moved out. He gave the boy a penny, winked, and jumped on the gelding's back.

The horse rasped a grunt. At Wash's urging he swung around and stepped down the lane. They passed a corral with a couple of winsome lady horses in it. Head up, he tried to make their gentle acquaintance and Wash started cursing him.

"Noisy jackass," Wash said, leaning over the horn. "Shut the hey up."

The gelding's head went up again and Wash cocked the .44. The head dropped. Wash shot into the air. He crashed through a shed roof, crawled out with the gelding laughing at him, and pointed the gun. Some fool cleared his voice and spoke with a high-tone Southern accent.

"If you please, Mister Galoony, drop it."

Wash looked up to see five soldiers and a lieutenant smiling over the barrels of rifles. And at him, too.

He sighed, dropping the gun.

"Durn nag. Hey, can't I at least shoot him?"

"Well, no." The lieutenant was most apologetic. "I'm sure the captain wouldn't see that as constructive. He is, after all, proof of your crime, a horse thief. Now, sir, please surrender."

Wash grunted. He held his hands up.

The raven shot down through the dark and rammed his beak into the lieutenant's hat. He shot through the soldiers pecking hard enough to draw blood. The men fell away cursing and crying out in terror.

Not one to overstay a welcome, Wash dived for gun, then gelding.

"You rip," he shouted, charging after the horse but the animal had a good head start and four long legs that churned dust from the road.

* * *

Wash caught up with the horse deep on the right side—meaning Mexico—of the river. He was soaked and the horse had the reins tangled under the shod hoofs.

"Serves you right, you dolt."

The gelding gave him a mournful look.

It was past dark and coyotes sang in the brush. There was no sign of pursuit, but that didn't mean the captain wasn't giving instructions to a pack of varmints dragged out of the saloons. He debated starting a fire while the gelding picked up a hoof only to plant it on another part of the reins.

Wash pulled a rope from the saddlebags, tying one end around the horse's neck, then relented and changed it from a noose to a slipknot. And cursed the need. The other end tied among the branches of a mesquite, he pulled the bridle and saddle. The blanket got slapped in the air till it was a little dry. Enough for a bed, anyway.

He scratched the hair on the horse's back smooth. Rolling up in the saddle blanket with his boots firmly in place on his feet and the .44 light in his hand, Wash yawned. Next to him, the rifle was ready and he lay the knife near that. The horse could about see in the dark and his ears and nose were finer than any hound. On top of that, the raven would only nap and even then be far more alert than any man.

And this part of the Rio was safer than most.

* * *

The raven woke Wash to a new day with a hard rap on the hat. Wash came up with the gun out. He scowled, aiming at the dun. The horse was tangled in the rope, of course.

The animal shifted, picking up first one hoof, then another. The raven took a moment to flap to the horse's rump and peck him. Ears back, the dun kicked in protest. The rope tightened around the leg. One iron-shod hoof stopped a few scant inches from Wash's staring eyes.

Wash frowned. About time for new shoes—Wash ducked to one side. The rope slipped and the hoof knocked the hat from his head, not the head from his shoulders. Wash jumped up aiming at the dun and the horse grew meek. Just to show they were all friends, he even farted. The raven croaked in disgust.

The bird jumped and soared, crying a warning.

Not one to hold a grudge, Wash threw the saddle on the dun and cinched it in no time at all.

An arrow flashed by. Three Mescalero in war paint and screaming to high heaven charged through the brush. Bullets snapped branches from the mesquite.

With a cry all his own, the dun bolted down a trail.

It was then Wash remembered the dun's only redeeming quality. When someone shot at him, he could outrace Pegasus.

* * *

Miles into the hills, they were all flagging. One by one, the Mescalero dropped out. The last, a woman, naturally, pulled up. Wash saw her fade into the trees.

The dun slowed, stumbling a little. The raven cried and Wash grimaced.

They were heading down into a river valley. Movement showed at each end.

"Durn it. What now?"

Pulling the spyglass, Wash looked from one to the other. One side looked to be a ragtag bunch of Juaristas. The other, Royal French troops wearing Maximilian's fancy uniforms.

Puffs of white smoke came from each group. Horses charged and thin pops of rifle fire came from the valley.

Wash reined in the dun and turned him to take the long way to Creel.

Grinning from ear to ear, the Apaches popped out of the trees. Their horses were gasping for air, but eager to play some more. So were the Apaches. Wash sighed. He glanced at the Indians, then back at the fifty or more soldiers. Badly outnumbered, the Mexicans were dying.

The raven cried a long scream. He dived at the French.

The dun spun and leaped down the trail.

Wash jerked the rifle from the boot.

He aimed. Like Gramps always said, a short life, but a merry 'un.


* * *

The Mescalero charged to the verge of the hill watching that idiot race into certain death.

One man shook his head and tapped a long finger on his temple. The finger circled an ear, but he scowled. The woman stared at the nutty one with something no proper wife should have in her eyes.

His gentle bride may not have been the prettiest woman from home, but she was about the deadliest and that made her darn sexy, at least to an Apache. Shrieking hate for Wash, he bolted down the trail.

* * *

The dun noted there was an awful lot of bullets zinging around in the valley and tried to angle away from it. All in Wash's best interest, of course.

Wash booted him and he was about to stop and talk some sense into the jerk's thick head when the Mescalero raced down the hill. He bolted into the thick of things—it seemed saner than facing Apaches—and kicked a few of the French out of his way.

Before Wash knew it, they were on the far side and the horse still running.

"Whoa! Whoa, dang it." He sawed on the reins and turned the horse. Wash stilled, frowning. A lot of French were dying. He peered through the dust. Those three Mescalero had cheerful looks as they slit throats and chopped away important body parts.

To one side, the rancheros passed around a jug. One man beamed and rode to Wash with the jug.

"A thirsty business, war."

Taking the jug, Wash nodded. He tipped the jug and liquid fire roared down his throat. Coming up for air, he noted the last dozen French had scattered and the Mescalero looking for more entertainment.

The raven landed on the saddle horn and pecked at the jug.

Wash jerked it way, crying, "How many times I got to tell ye? The doc said no more whiskey."

"Bah! Fool!" The raven hissed and was about to give Wash a hard peck when he stilled, looking over one shoulder. Golden eyes widened.


A Mescalero paused. Another one leaned forward and dropped the French soldier he was about to finish and hopped on a fresh horse. The raven croaked in terror and flapped away.

With a friendly smile, Wash handed back the jug.

"Much thanks, friends," he said and the horse bolted from the field of battle with the Mescalero hot on his tail.

But, the rest is another story.

The End

Martin Slusser has worked places in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Chihuahua, MX. He says, "If you want to be a cowhand, best advice is, go find a nice war. Fewer hospitals stays, less exciting, and safer. But, I'd do it all over again, and so would you."

Credits: Rope-&-Wire published short story, 10 Horse Drive Stories-by-Email full-length novels, Life and Times of Ryan D. Ganian, Shadows, and Lost Not Found. Mundania Press full-length novel, Valley of the Damned People's Mexico, a short story, When the Bull Hit the Fan Cabins ezine, short story, Cabin.

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Likeable Old West Swindler Ben Hodges
by John Young

Benjamin Hodges arrived in Dodge City, Kansas in 1872 bringing in a herd of cattle from Texas. Nobody seemed to know anything about this mysterious stranger other than he had just come from Texas.

Benjamin F. Hodges arrived in Dodge City, Kansas in 1872 as a drover bringing in a herd of cattle from San Antonio, Texas. Nobody seemed to know anything about this mysterious stranger in town other than he had just came from Texas. That and he was of mixed parentage. His father was a buffalo soldier with the Ninth Cavalry in San Antonio and his mother was Hispanic.

Benjamin wanted more out of life than just being a cowboy and he figured Dodge City was the place he could make that happen. At the time, Dodge was a melting pot of nationalities, races and people . . . good and bad. But, it was also the gateway to a new frontier where businesses of all types were being established, including saloons, dance halls, brothels, and gambling houses. And that suited Hodges just fine since his skills as a card cheat, swindler and master forger would fit in quite nicely.

Hodges arrived dead broke, but everybody has to start somewhere and he took a menial job as a handyman. One day he overheard a group of ranchers having a discussion about an old Spanish Land Grant and the rightful heirs were thought to be in Texas. Since everyone knew he had just came from there it wasn't hard to pry a little more information out of them.

Hodges, being of mixed ancestry, went back to San Antonio and used that to his advantage. He set about learning all he could about the land grant. Through some artful forgery and acting skills he was able to procure documentation indicating he was the sole heir. However, Hodges wasn't interested in the land per se, but rather how he could use it to part wealthy citizens in Dodge from their money.

A short time later he returned to Dodge City, where his documents and a fanciful tale allowed him to secure large loans. From there it was easy to outfit himself in the fashion of a rich businessman and join the ranks of Dodge City's socially elite. He also retained the services of a prominent local attorney to represent his claims. The scam almost succeeded. A man recognized Hodges as someone he almost hanged for rustling his cattle.

However, Benjamin was the sort who subscribed to the philosophy "If at first you don't succeed . . . " He kept his eyes and ears open looking for situations he could take advantage of. He didn't have long to wait.

When a fire destroyed the Wright, Beverly & Company store, their four-ton safe had fallen into the basement, landing face down unable to be opened. Hodges knew Texas cattlemen deposited their legal documents in the vault. He also knew a large section of land was currently open for settlement in Gray County and those documents happened to be in the safe.

A new land office had been set up in Garden City, Kansas and believing the documents concerning the property had been destroyed in the fire, Hodges wrote a letter to the land commissioner submitting his claim to the land. Attaching a number of signed affidavits to support his position, he was able to convince the commissioner to issue him a letter of credit identifying him as the owner until the land documents could be retrieved.

This letter of credit also included false claims Hodges had made indicating he also owned a large Mexican land grant in New Mexico containing profitable gold and silver mines. With the document in hand Hodges strutted about town playing the part of a wealthy cattle baron negotiating for cattle herds.

However, his plans backfired when prices for beef spiraled, leaving him unable to meet his debts. When the scheme finally unraveled, Hodges's reputation was in the toilet with financial institutions from San Antonio to Kansas City. But, Hodges persevered. He made a bid for the position of Dodge City's livestock inspector, but that failed as well when local ranchers informed the governor he was the region's biggest and most ingenious cow thief.

Hodges patiently awaited another opportunity to ply his trade. It came in the form of a huge storm which scattered a large herd of cattle and horses belonging to John Lytle and his partner, a Major Conklin. The two informed the public their company would issue receipts which could be redeemed for cash to any who assisted in rounding up their livestock. Enter Benjamin F. Hodges, master forger.

Hodges forged several hundred receipts and headed to Kansas City to redeem them for cash. There he met Major Conklin, the partner responsible for redeeming valid receipts. Conklin didn't know Hodges or his shady reputation and was known to be an incurable cheapskate. Trying to save a few bucks Conklin made Hodges an offer. Instead of all cash he enticed Hodges with a reduced amount of cash, new clothes, ten dollars in spending money and a week's boarding at an upscale local hotel. Hodges couldn't lose either way so he accepted the deal.

Hodges lived high on the hog for a while but decided it was time to clear out when he got wind John Lytle and a group of business partners were headed into town. When the group met with Conklin, he bragged about how he had made a sucker out of a man named Ben Hodges. Lytle knew Hodges and therefore was naturally unimpressed with his partner's ignorance. However, the other cattlemen knowing Hodges as well, got a good laugh at Conklin's expense.

Despite his soiled reputation as a notorious con man, people of Dodge City liked Hodges. He was charming and polite, but what really attracted people to him was watching him work a scam. His brilliance, ingenuity and mastery of the art thoroughly amused judges and citizens alike. It was fortunate for Hodge's he was well liked.

One job he tried to pull off nearly cost him his life. He was arrested on suspicion of rustling a herd of dairy cattle. The penalty for cattle rustling was death. Ironically, it was none other than Robert M. Wright of the Wright, Beverly & Company store who posted his bond.

At Hodges's trial the courtroom was filled to capacity with those curious as to how he would manage to wiggle his way out of this predicament. As usual, he didn't fail to entertain. His courtroom performance was brilliant making the case it was the death penalty which inspired him to lie about his ties to Spanish nobility and landholdings in New Mexico .

His theatrics caused the courtroom to explode into bouts of hysterical laughter. The jury later returned a verdict of not guilty, not so much for his performance but because, the cows had returned to their owners on their own. A storm had scattered them from a canyon Hodges had secluded them in.

Hodges's lived out the rest of his life in Dodge City, later on becoming somewhat of a celebrity. He finally retired and lived the straight and narrow. Although poor, he managed to make a living selling geese and vegetables he grew. Children frequently visited him, loving the stories he spun about the Old West.

He died in 1929 at Dodge City's Saint Anthony's Hospital and was buried in Maple Grove Cemetery. An inscription on his tombstone reads "Ben Hodges, Self-styled Desperado, a Colorful Pioneer."

The End

John Young became a news reporter in the Marine Corps back in the early '70s. He writes on a wide variety of subjects. Before that, he served in the US Army during the Vietnam War. After leaving the Corps he worked in many other fields. News reporter, photojournalist, editor on a weekly, surgical technician, truck driver, route salesman, security guard, and many others.

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Chasing a Killer
by Larry Garascia

His name was Moss Cotton and he was a killer of men, women and children. He was sentenced to hang for his killings and in 1890 was being held in the Jago City, Montana jail. It was not a legitimate jail, housed as it was in the back of the general store. There was just one cell and a small hallway where an old wooden desk was jammed against a wall. There was a .50 caliber sharps rifle on the desk and a holster with a .45 pistol hanging from a peg. The weapons belonged to the sheriff and his deputies and were kept in the jail while the men were off duty.

The occasional prisoners were drunkards and never caused any trouble. But now there was Moss Cotton in the jail and he was real trouble. Except the old jailer couldn't appreciate that as he shuffled through the store carrying a dinner tray.

"Bout time you was getting here", Moss said, rising from his bunk. "Come on you old gizzard! Let me have my eats!" he said, angrily.

"Just you settle down!", the old jailer hissed at Moss. "Now step back. All the way back", the old man said as he watched Moss step to the back of his cell. Then he opened the door and Moss sprang at him. He was on the old jailer in a second. He grabbed the old jailer and pushed his head against the cell door, knocking him out. Moss grabbed the holster from the peg on the wall and fastened it about his waist, then took the rifle, opened the desk drawers and took out several boxes of cartridges. Then he went through the back door into the alley. It was cold and the wind was blowing but Moss never hesitated as he ran for the distant hills.

It was three hours before the old jailer was missed and by that time Moss Cotton had a good start. The mayor wired for the marshal and Cody Justus received the telegram in Flat Head. He looked at a map and found the small town of Jago, realizing it would take most of the night for him to get there.

And now it was late the next morning and he was in Jargo and the hills were there in front of him. They were gray and black in the early dawn. Dark smudges against the sky. He could not climb the hills on horseback; the trail was too narrow and treacherous. A mule could negotiate the trail but Cody didn't have a mule.

It had been cold in the night and the wind was up and a storm was coming and he wanted to make it to the top of the hills before the storm began. So he set off up the trail, carrying a .50 caliber rifle.

He started with carefully measured steps. His pack was heavy and it felt good to be walking up the trail in the cold morning with the heavy pack and his rifle in pursuit of Moss Cotton.

The trail made a turn and there was a stream rushing with clear white water. He looked for fish but there were no fish. Then he waded across the stream and back up onto the trail. As he climbed higher the air grew colder and the wind stronger and now he was climbing in earnest when a sudden burst of snow flew towards the ground. Snow began to gather on the trail and made walking more difficult. Then he heard wolves baying as dark shadows began to settle over the hills. He picked up his pace and walked for another hour and at last he mounted the crest of the trail and there was the cabin.

He took off the heavy pack and set it in the snow and looked carefully for foot prints, just in case the killer had found the cabin too. There were no prints in the snow and the cabin was empty. He walked back to the heavy pack and lifted it and went to the door.

He sat down at a small table and lit an oil lamp and rolled out a cigarette, glad to be out of the storm. In the morning he would begin to hunt Moss Cotton again. As the storm grew stronger the wind moaned outside the cabin and he sat and drank coffee and smoked his cigarette. He ate a can of beans and a piece of bread. Then he unrolled his sleeping bag and took off his boots and climbed inside the bag.

When Cody woke in the morning the storm had passed and the sun was bright and powerful. All around the cabin the terrain was steep and the hills kept rising. And Moss Cotton could be anywhere between the cabin and the other side of the hills.

Meanwhile, high up in the hills, Moss was cold, wet and almost frozen. All night he had climbed in the dark through the blowing snow and had not stopped. He was hungry and shivering from the cold and to make matters worse, he was lost. He tried to think clearly but it was hard to do when all he could think of was food. He knew he had to find something to eat. So he stood by a tall fir tree, rifle at the ready and waited for a rabbit or deer to come by. He waited an hour and shot two rabbits and made a fire and roasted the rabbits over the fire and ate them greedily. Then he kicked out the fire and started up the hills again.

Cody heard the rifle shots, way out in the distance towards the east, high up in the hills. He looked at his map and noted an old mine up near the crest of the hills. He folded the map, stuck it inside his shirt pocket and made ready to leave.

It was cold and bright outside as Cody began climbing the snow covered trail up towards the crest. His boots crunched in the snow and the going was slow as the trail twisted and turned awkwardly.

Out ahead of him, working his way up the crest, Moss was shivering. The sunshine felt good but it was not strong enough to warm him and he knew if he didn't find protection from the cold he was done for. He was lucky he had survived this long and not frozen to death. So he kept at it, his breathing heavier as he climbed higher. The trail ran off to the right and finally leveled off onto a flat plateau. There were a few scrawny trees to the right of the plateau and then he saw the entrance to a mine shaft. Moss walked quickly toward the mine shaft and stood and looked down into the shaft. The sunlight illuminated a wooden ladder and Moss could see about ten feet down. Gingerly he turned, put the rifle over his shoulder and stepped onto the ladder and began descending. The sunlight faded and he was in the dark, feeling his way carefully down the ladder until he touched firm ground and stepped off the ladder and turned and looked around. He lit a match and found an oil lantern on the floor near the ladder and lit the lantern and turned up the flame. There was a shaft leading off to the right and he took a few cautious steps. Holding the lantern high in front of him he walked forward, the walls of the shaft squeezing inward until he was rubbing shoulders with the rough hewn granite. It was dark and smelled musty but he kept going. A thin stream of water ran down the middle of the floor, black and cold. Moss kept going, not knowing exactly what he was looking for or hoping to find. He made a right turn with the shaft and the ceiling suddenly grew higher and there was an old desk pushed up against the left wall. He went quickly to the desk and pulled open drawers and sighed in frustration as all he found was a box of matches. As he moved away from the desk he saw a splash of yellow light from the oil light fall onto something and he went forward and was excited to see a large metal box. There was a folded blanket in the tin box and a can of beans and a tin of crackers and he unfolded the blanket and draped it over his shoulders. Then he picked up the lantern and began looking beyond where he had found the tin box. There was a broken axe, a shovel with a bent head, a cask of iron nails, some dirty rags and another tin of lamp oil. Moss went back to the desk, stuffed his pockets with the tin of crackers and the can of beans and took up his rifle and climbed the ladder up to the surface.

A mile away, leading two mules loaded with boxes of supplies up a steep rise towards the mine, August Gunner walked in the bright sunlight. He was a tall old man with broad shoulders and gaunt features. He walked stooped forward, his shoulders burdened by a heavy pack. His face was narrow and tanned and he showed a growth of white whiskers on his sunken cheeks. He was used to walking and to hard work. Once not too long ago he had made real money from the mine and lived well for several years. He had lived in a fancy room in the best hotel in Nixon and ate three full squares a day. But he had spent the money and now was going back to the mine to search for more silver. He knew it was a risk, but his entire life had been a risk and now as he walked up the green hills in bright sunlight he felt confident. He could find silver where others could not. He would go far back into the first tunnel and mine some older veins until he exposed a new vein. As he continued up the hills under the bright morning with his two mules and enough supplies to last several months, August Gunner was sure there was more silver in the abandoned mine and he was going to find it.

Now he paused and removed his pack and took a long drink from a canteen worn on his left hip. He rolled a cigarette and smoked and looked behind him down the green slopes at a small lake, glistening emerald blue under the brilliant sunshine. He had lived for sixty eight years and most of them had been good years and now he had the beautiful hills and the emerald blue lake and the new sunshine. Those were riches nobody could take from him, even if he didn't find any silver.

Before he had been a prospector August had been a sheriff. He was twenty-nine years old then and had been very good with a handgun. He worked in the town of Zayden. It was a small town of five hundred people up near the Canadian border and he was the only lawman for more than two hundred miles. He earned forty dollars a month and was sheriff for three years. Now he wondered what life would have been like if he had stayed a sheriff. But he had no regrets. Even though he was in his sixty-eighth year he still had keen eyes and was good with his handgun which he wore on his right hip, just as he did whenever he went out. Long ago when he had been sheriff he had carried the big Colt and twice he had been forced to shoot men to death. One man he shot through the heart and the other he shot through the head. The men had called him out one cold winter night in front of the saloon and he had killed them. He killed them quickly with two well-aimed shots. He had not wanted to kill them but they left him no choice and so he had done it. And that was the way it was, no more and no less. There was nothing more to say or think about what he had done. But it was why he quit being a sheriff.

Out in the distance off towards the east, August heard the wailing of the Santa Fe as it raced westward around the little town of Nixon. He had heard the train hundreds of times and knew that if he turned and looked in just the right direction he would see the train. But he didn't turn. He had seen many trains and they no longer held his interest. He kept his head bent, leading his mules forward.

Moss heard the train too. He was standing looking down over the hills towards the line of black smoke billowing out behind the engine. He would make for the tracks and hitch a ride on the next train and be shed of these hills and Montana. He would go Canada where he was unknown and start a new reign of terror.

Cody was just cresting the top of the hills and he looked down the other side and saw Moss Cotton and below Moss a man leading two mules up the hills towards the mine. Cody raised his rifle and took careful aim and squeezed off a round which struck Moss in the right leg.

Moss felt the sting of the round impact his right leg and his leg went limp and he pitched into the dirt, going down hard. He reached for his pistol and took it out but he was too late. "Drop it Moss!" Cody called out and Moss knew he was had.

Then August Gunner was there with his mules and Moss could see the old man was holding a pistol in one of his hands. Sunshine fell down on the scene and Moss blinked at the bright sunlight and raised his pistol a few inches off the ground in the direction of the old man. "I'll kill you old man and take your mules and all you have," he thought. But the old man surprised Moss and shot him. Moss saw a puff of blue white smoke and felt a terrible pressure in his chest, a hard, gigantic squeezing and then he went limp and was dead.

Cody came running and stopped and spoke earnestly with August for a few minutes and then the two men walked over to where Moss lay dead.

"He was aiming to shoot me," August said. "Had his pistol pointed right at my heart. He didn't give me no choice so I shot him. Knew I wasn't gonna miss," August said, with finality.

Then under the bright sunshine Cody and August did right by Moss and carved out a grave and buried him. "Well, be seeing you", August said, grabbing the reigns of his mules, setting off towards the mine.

The End

Lawrence Garascia is a retired sales professional who lives in Cincinnati. He has traveled the West extensively, including Texas, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona, and has always been interested in western themed fiction. His work has only been published in Frontier Tales and he plans to send more stories for publication consideration.

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They Were Cowboys
by Lowell "Zeke" Ziemann

They were cowboys. Alex and Hank endured long, saddle sore hours, thunderstorms, two stampedes, a rustling attempt and three fist fights in Dodge City's Long Branch Saloon. A few bruises and the swollen eyes were gone. So was most of their wages. Now it would be odd jobs until they hired on somewhere for the next summer roundup.

The two cow punchers drifted south to winter at ranches in Arizona Territory. They rode for miles with little conversation. After a week of steady travel, Alex suddenly stopped just south of Flagstaff. He dismounted and tightened the cinch on his saddle.

"I been thinkin'" he said. "Here we are . . . same as last year, headin' to Arizona Territory with no money and no wages 'til Fall. Why don't we try some other line of work?"

"I don't know no other kind . . . and I like bein' on horseback," said Hank.

Alex studied the angular face of his lean partner and grinned. "You like dusty sweat, chuck wagon food, sleepin' on the ground and stampedes too do you?" asked Alex as he stepped back into the saddle.

"Well, puttin' it that way, if I had my druthers, maybe guiding eastern dudes and game hunters would be better."

Hank drifted from job to job each winter; satisfied if he could do the work from the back of a horse. Alex tried to save enough to purchase a small spread of his own; but good times and costly carousing at the end of trail drives always seemed to get in the way of his plans.

"What was your wages this season?" asked Alex.

"Same as you . . . Thirty a month and board," replied Hank.

Alex paused in thought; then shook his head. "Hank, there's lotsa gold on those coaches that run in Arizona Territory. If we held one up, we could easy get three or four year's pay quick like."

Hank reined in. "I ain't cut out to turn outlaw," he said. "But then, I don't hold with the law all the time neither."

Alex studied his partner: Uncomplicated man with a hair-trigger temper and a long memory of those who wronged him. He shot a gambler in Contention over a card game; and a saloon girl in Albuquerque after she flung a knife at him. Other cowboys gave him a wide trail when he was on the prowl. Hank was shy of common sense, but fast, practiced, and deadly with a six-gun.

"How old are you Hank?"

"We been ridin' together for four years and you never asked me before, why now?"

"Well, my guess is you're about thirty . . . same as me. I say it's time to get enough to take a year or two away from joining some Texas outfit, and marchin' up the Chisholm Trail and crossin' all those danged rivers."

"There could be some shootin'," said Hank. "I might kill somebody and end up in a noose."

"You think on it Hank," said Alex. "You're good with a gun. Why not use that for quick profits? Then you can stay away from poker cheats and fights over whores."

They rode on, silently, for the next hour. Finally Hank pushed his hat up off his forehead and turned to Alex with a wide grin. "I quit schoolin' after three years, and didn't do too well in the first two either. You're my Pard. Have you got a plan?"

"I'll let you know when I'm ready," said Alex.

After that brief conversation, it was decided. They would become outlaws. Just temporary you understand. Only long enough to take a couple of years off. Rob a stage or two, and their outlaw days would be completed.

That night they stopped at a lonely, dilapidated miner's shack near the top of Mount Union in the Bradshaw Mountains. The Prescott saloons were near, but the two cowboys were played out, and besides, they were near broke.

Alex laid out his plan: Hank would stop the coach as it ascended the hill in the country between Skull Valley and Wickenburg. The coach would be moving slowly due to the steep incline. Hank, being handier with the gun, would disarm the driver and guard. Alex would ride in the coach and disarm the passengers. Alex knew the country, so he would take the heavy gold and hide in the Bradshaw Mountains. Hank could dash to Mexico for a week or so.

"I will meet you back at the miner's shack on the Fourth of July so you can take your half," said Alex. "I give you my word on it."

"Done," said Hank. They shook on it.

* * *

Marshal Calley looked up from his desk and smiled at the stout man who entered his Prescott office. "Jess Bodie, you mighty manhunter," he said. "I figured you'd show soon. 'Spect you're lookin' for yer blood money."

Bodie smiled. "I brought the Dayman brothers to you, didn't I Calley?"

"Yeah, you brung them in . . . dead. Did you have to kill 'em? They weren't nothin' but a couple of drifters."

"So you say," said Bodie. "You're just mad 'cause I cheated you out of a hanging."

Calley laughed. He spun the dial on the safe behind his desk. "Here's your bounty. Three hundred per head."

"Wrong Marshal, the poster said three hundred per ear."

Calley shuffled through the posters on his desk. "Yer plumb right, I guess. Here you go."

Bodie counted the twelve one-hundred dollar bills.

"You headed back to Tucson?" asked the Marshal.

"Yeah. Getting on the noon stage in a minute. Gonna gamble a spell." He pulled his hat level over his long blond hair. "Adios Calley. Send a wire if you come across any bad ones who carry a bounty."

* * *

Jess Bodie secured his wallet in his inside coat pocket and stopped at the stage station to buy his ticket. "Any other passengers?" Bodie asked.

"The manager handed him his ticket. "Yep, a cowpoke just off a trail drive. He's getting hisself all prettied up at the barber shop. And," he continued with a bold grin, "a pretty young lady going to see her father. He's the Sawbones in Wickenburg. There ain't no extra guard since the stage ain't carrying gold."

Bodie stashed the information in his memory bank, and ambled to the coach. He needed a few days of relaxation. Dressed in a black suit and dark gray hat with string tie under the collar of his white shirt, he looked like a professional gambler. Actually poker was his second occupation. He invested in poker with about half of his bounty earnings, and the rest he put into mining interests.

He carried a Colt forty-five in the holster on his left hip and a derringer in his vest pocket. Well known in the Southwest, most men avoided him because of his reputation as a dangerous man, especially when on the hunt.

* * *

Alex climbed into the stage. He was surprised that there didn't seem to be an armed guard riding along.

He watched a gambler leave the marshal's office, buy his ticket and saunter to the stage. The two men exchanged a silent tip of the hat and a casual look.

"No guard and no gold on this run," said the gambler. "Probably be a hot boring ride."

Alex stirred. Mixed thoughts bothered him as he tried to relax. No gold? What now? Would Hank remember my plan? Will he be at that sharp rise on the stage coach road? Will he remember the Fourth of July? I'm probably a damn fool for partnering up with a chancy addlehead like Hank.

His thoughts drifted away when he noticed a smallish dark haired woman leave the hotel and walk toward the coach. The gambler immediately took the lady's arm to help her step up into the coach.

She smiled and took a seat next to Alex. Their eyes met. "Hello," she said with a soft voice.

"Settle back folks," yelled the driver. "We're hittin' the trail." With the crack of a whip and a string of curses the driver set the stage in motion on the road from Prescott to Tucson.

* * *

The gambler ignored Alex and concentrated on the dark eyed girl who stared out the window at the gray outline of pine covered peaks to the east.

"I understand you are going to see your father who's the Doc in Wickenburg," he said with a friendly smile.

"Yes," she stated, and then turning toward him boldly asked, "And why are you on the stage?"

The gambler grinned at her inquisition. He seemed surprised. Apparently people seldom asked him about his plans. "I'm on a short vacation and plan to gamble a spell in Tucson."

"And then?" she asked.

The stout man grinned and shook his head. Her audacious questions apparently intrigued him. "Ma'am, I will go out and hunt down some more outlaws. The job has its dangers, but," he patted the inside pocket of his coat with a significant gesture and smiled with satisfaction, "It pays well." Alex shifted slightly in his seat and sent a narrow-eyed sideways glance toward the bounty hunter.

"I see," said the woman. "When you find these bad men do you kill them or bring them to the law?"

"That is up to the outlaw," he said. "My name is Bodie. You can call me Jess."

"Do you like your work Mister Bodie?" she asked with a bit of sarcasm.

"I guess . . . "

Not waiting for a complete answer she turned toward Alex. "And where are you headed?"

"A'm headed to some Tucson ranch to find work for the winter," he answered.

She looked at the holster tied down on his right hip. "Are you hired to shoot people too?" she asked.

"No ma'am," he answered. He thought a few seconds, and continued, "Generally I bust horses for ranchers near Contention City. Hope to own my own spread in that area someday."

The lady smiled. "I'm going to help my father in Wickenburg," she volunteered. "I haven't seen him for three years."

A sudden darkness appeared in her eyes. She spoke softly. "My husband was with Sherman at Atlanta. He came home with only one arm and bad lungs . . . consumption." Following a deep breath she continued. "He died in seventy eight."

"So sorry to hear that," said Alex. "My condolences."

Her winsome glow returned as she studied Alex. "Thank you," she replied. "My name is Hannah." She smiled and held out a gloved hand. "What is yours?"

"Alex Jen . . . Jones," he replied.

Bodie reached out toward her with his right hand. She did not take it.

Bodie slumped back in his seat and turned to stare out of the window.

Alex grinned and slowly cleared his throat. "Will you be staying with your father long?"

"Long enough for you to call if you wish."

Alex reddened, stunned into a few seconds of silence. "I will do that," he said.

Her gaze returned to the landscape. "Those mountains are beautiful, especially that high one in the middle," she said.

"That's Mount Union," said Alex.

* * *

After a supper of steak and beans at the Kirkwood station, Alex stepped out of the dining room and rolled a cigarette. He lit the smoke and leaned against the top rail of the station's horse corral. The lengthening shadows of from fading sunset suited his muddled mind. Would Hank be waiting tomorrow as planned? No gold on board, but Bodie has cash. Bodie? Not a man to trifle with. And then Hannah, beautiful Hannah, why did she have to be on this stage?

He noticed Hannah stroll out of the hotel. She looked toward the downtown area and back. Spying Alex, she adjusted her scarf as walked toward him. "Care to take a walk through the town?" she asked.

The moon rose to slowly light the town's only street. Lamp light from the open door of the general store cast a warm glow on the boardwalk. The town appeared almost deserted.

They walked in silence. Alex wondered what to say. Suddenly he hated the thought of his ill-conceived plans for tomorrow.

He found his voice. "Kirkland ain't much of a town is it? Not like the cities you've been in back East."

Hannah pushed back a wisp of hair from her brow and looked up at him. "I like small towns," she said. "They are friendly and peaceful and I like walking through this one with you," she said.

She hooked her arm into his. "Alex. You seem a bit preoccupied. Do I make you nervous?"

"Oh no," he said. "I like the way you talk; I mean forthright and honest and all."

They stopped at the end of the boardwalk and sat on a bench in front of the bank.

"Will you really call on me when we get to Wickenburg?" she asked.

"Oh yes," he answered. Then, rather shyly, he added. "I want to see you once again, and a great deal more after that."

She stopped turned and quickly gave him a peck on the cheek. "You are a handsome man. And a decent one," she added. "That will be nice."

With a sudden impulse he turned to her and took her head in his strong tanned hands and kissed her. She responded to the kiss and he held her for a minute.

Back at the hotel door, he held her close and kissed her again.

Later he lay in a bunk at the Kirkland Stage Stop, rolled another cigarette and blew smoke rings at the ceiling.

He had always been free. Now he was trapped by his own greed. Hannah was beautiful and sincere. He couldn't run. He had given his word. And Bodie? He was the wild card in this complicated game of crime and love.

* * *

A hot Arizona June morning greeted the travelers. With the four horses hitched and passengers boarded, the coach continued toward Wickenburg. Weaving along the twists and turns of the trail it approached the hill country just outside of Skull Valley. Before the downhill ride into Wickenburg they would pass over dried creek beds lined with rock formations and scrub pines.

Old Ollie, the stage driver cracked the whip and urged the horses forward as he tried to gain some speed to help the coach as they neared a steep incline.

Alex leaned forward and peered out of the window. Hank should be about a mile up the trail. He should have two mounts rested and ready.

"Whoa! Whoa!" yelled the driver.

The stop shook Bodie out of his nap. "What's the trouble?"

"Holdup! Road Agent," yelled Old Ollie.

Bodie hand slid toward his gun. Alex reacted quickly and poked the business end of his pistol into Bodie's neck. "Don't try it! Everybody out." he commanded.

Bodie raised his arms in surrender and Alex used his left hand to pull Bodie's pistol from the holster and stick it in his belt.

He gave a quick glance at Hannah who sat like a statue with her mouth open and eyes wide.

"There ain't no gold box," yelled Hank.

"I know," said Alex. He prodded Bodie with the pistol. "But this fine gentleman has cash aplenty."

Alex reached into the Bodie's inside jacket pocket and tossed out his money pouch.

Hank checked Old Ollie, then picked up the wallet and peeked at the cash. "Wooee!" he said.

Hannah found her voice. "Alex, nooo Alex . . . please tell me this is a joke . . . some sort of game . . . you're not, you're not a thief?"

Alex looked at Hank who was counting Bodie's bounty money. Then he turned toward Hannah. What now? The cards were played. Words would be useless.

"Crack!" Alex recognized the sound of a small pistol. He spun back toward Bodie and quickly slammed his six-gun into the temple of the bounty hunter's skull. Bodie went down with a moan and his derringer fell to the ground. Alex snatched the small gun and flung it into the brush.

Hank doubled over and dropped to one knee. Blood began to ooze from his midsection.

Hank pointed his pistol at Alex. "You . . . you were supposed to have the coach clean . . . no arms . . . no guns . . . you, you." He fell on his side.

Alex's attention went to Old Ollie who still sat transfixed; dumbfounded with his hands still in the air.

Hannah recovered her wits and ran to Hank. She pleaded toward Alex with her eyes. "He's hurt bad and needs a Doctor."

"It's all my doin'," said Alex. "All my doin'. I, I, I'll get him help."

He turned and peered into her eyes. "I'm sorry Hannah. Maybe we will meet . . . "

She stared with a blank look of disbelief.

Alex turned to the setting sun. He needed time. He checked Bodie for any other hidden guns, then strode to the front of the coach and unhitched the lead horses. They wouldn't wander far. When Bodie came to, he and Old Ollie could re-hitch them. It would give him a couple of hour's head start.

With a final look toward Hannah, Alex stowed the cash in his saddlebags. He helped Hank struggle into his saddle. With one hand, Alex kept Hank on his horse the three or four miles to Wickenburg.

Near midnight, Alex found the Doc's office. He knocked. When an inside lamp was lit, he slipped a twenty dollar bill from the holdup into Hank's vest pocket and left his unconscious partner on the boardwalk. He quickly mounted and dashed out of town.

If Hank lived he would not forgive and forget. Half the stolen money belonged to him. Alex tried to convince himself. "Too bad," he said to himself. "Hank knew outlawing is a dangerous business."

When Hank healed up he would be coming and Alex could not predict his reaction. Though he moved and talked slowly, he had seen the deadly impulses of his partner. Alex shook his head. "He might blame me more than the man who shot him," he thought.

The bounty hunter? Alex nasty reputation; a wealthy killer for hire. He probably will be thirsting revenge, even more than retrieving his blood money.

And Hannah. Hannah. "I'm a damn fool," he said to himself.

He knew the reputation of the Wickenburg sheriff; a political hack who avoided trouble if at all possible.

At any rate, Alex knew he needed to hole up for a week or so. He would camp near the miner's shack; moving every day, hiding in the tall pines. Even if Hank recovered it would be week before he could travel. It seemed doubtful that he would get there by the Fourth of July.

* * *

Near midnight, Old Ollie steered the coach into Wickenburg. He stopped at the hotel and went to wake the Sheriff.

Hannah spied a sign hanging over the board walk. It read "Dr. C. B. Turnbill".

"That's my father's office," she said.

Bodie walked with her. A lamp light shone through the window. Without bothering to knock Hannah opened the door.

"Hannah?" came a voice of surprise. "Hannah, Hannah. According to your letter I expected to see you tomorrow."

She ran and hugged her father. He held her at arms length. "How beautiful you are. Just like your Mother."

"What a night of surprises," said the doctor. "First somebody drops a wounded man on my doorstep and now my daughter arrives."

Bodie stepped forward. "Did the wounded man die?" he asked.

"Not yet. Probably won't if he gets some rest. Small caliber bullet in his stomach and he bled quite a bit. I patched him up and he's asleep in the back room."

"Father this is Mister Bodie," said Hannah. "He shoots people for a living."

Bodie scowled and the Doctor grinned. "That's my daughter," he said laughing. "Just a shy little girl."

The doctor studied the Bounty Hunter. "I heard of you Mister Bodie. You're known as a dangerous man. How come you shot this man?"

"He was robbing the stage. And, he took over two thousand dollars from me." He pointed at the lump on his forehead. "His partner, a man named Alex Jones cold cocked me with the barrel of his six-gun."

Doctor Turnbill pushed the hair away from Bodie's skull. "I'll put an ice compress on that swelling."

"You do that Doc," said Bodie. "And keep that other outlaw alive. I need him to tell me where his partner may be."

The doctor looked Bodie square in the eye. "You stay away from my back room. I've notified Sheriff Canton and when that outlaw starts to heal up he will be in jail."

* * *

Sheriff Luke Canton opened his office door. He looked up and frowned. "Jess Bodie," he said. "I heard you were in town. Still chasing bounties I s'pose."

"Not this time," said Bodie. "Only want what's mine. Two thousand stole from me when the stage was held up."

"Can't help you there," said Canton. "There weren't no gold on that stage, so getting' yer money back is yer business. When will you be leaving town?"

Bodie didn't answer.

He turned his attention to the young woman with Bodie. "Who are you?"

"Doc Turnbill's daughter. I'm here to change your prisoner's bandage."

Bodie brushed by the Sheriff. "I ain't expectin no help from the likes of you Canton," he said "I just want to talk to that prisoner the Doc patched up."

Canton opened the door to the cell room in the back of his office. "There he is. Says his name is Hank Mackey."

Hank lay on the bunk in the jail. His open shirt revealed a bandage wrapped around his waist. He looked up and fixed hateful eyes on the bounty hunter.

"You shot me," uttered Hank with a groan. "I don't know who I'd rather see pack it in . . . you or Alex Jenks. Alex didn't take yer gun like he promised."

Bodie cut to the point. "How would you like to help me find him and make, say, two hundred dollars to boot?"

"How?" asked Hank.

"C'mon," said Bodie with impatience. "Don't play me for the fool! You must have some idea where he's headed."

Painfully, Hank rose to one elbow and hesitated. He looked squarely at Bodie. "We're supposed to meet on the Fourth of July on a high peak up in the Bradshaw forest. Doubt if he will show though. He's probably half way to Californy by now."

Bodie walked back to the Sheriff's desk and looked at the calendar hanging on the wall. He sent a hateful stare toward Hank. "That's in five days," he said, "And I don't know that country. Your goin' with me."

Bodie looked to Hannah. "When can he ride?"

"Maybe in a week or two," said Hannah.

"I'll give him one more day," said Bodie.

"Good," interjected Sheriff Canton. "He's a lot of upkeep. Take him out. The sooner the better."

"That wound will open up and he will bleed to death if it isn't properly bandaged," argued Hannah. She took out fresh bandages and began her work.

Bodie shook his pointed finger at Hannah. "His thieving partner has a three day head start already. Hank Mackey will be guidin' me to his partner day after tomorrow."

Hannah shook her head. "He needs more time. You can try to find Alex on your own."

"Bodie's narrowed eyes studied Hannah with a sideways stare. "Now I see it," he said. "Ain't that too bad. Well, your sweetheart is a thief and needs killing. Smart talkin' females like you should be shut up."

Hannah stepped to the door; swung around, and put her hands on her hips. "Mister Bodie, your kind always ends bad. You just wait. Someday, someone will come along who is not afraid of big bounty hunter Jess Bodie."

Sheriff Canton turned his back to hide a grin.

* * *

Before first light, Hannah dressed in a pair of her father's pants and an old woolen shirt. She took his fringed leather jacket and his traveling hat. She picked up some grub in the kitchen. At the last minute she decided to tip toe into her father's office. His six-shooter lay in a bottom desk drawer. She took it and a few shells. With a rented spirited black gelding from the local livery stable she rode out toward the mountains. Hannah always loved a morning on horseback, but this was not a pleasure ride. It was a trip of definite purpose.

She knew the coach road had skirted the Bradshaw Mountains. She tried to remember the highest peak. But even when she spied it would she able find a trail that led toward the top? Would she find the shack? Would Alex even be there? She had to try.

Bodie caught outlaws, but he had dismissed the value of human life, deciding, like God, who should die and who should not. Humiliated by Alex, Bodie would have reason enough to become the cowboy's executioner.

Hannah had to find Alex, and soon.

* * *

Alex looked around his small camp site. He buried any remnant that might leave a hint of a camp. His jerky was gone and he needed supplies, a drink and a hot meal.

As the sun began to cast long shadows in the tall pines, he mounted his pony and left the deep woods of the Bradshaw Mountains. In Prescott he would go to the Palace Saloon and have a hot meal and a drink or two. If he arrived about midnight there would be only the cowboys and gamblers in the saloons. No one would care about a stranger.

Alex could run, but he had given Hank his word. He had forgotten the date, but knew it was close to the Fourth of July. If Hank was alive and able he would be coming. He would give him half of Bodie's money and hoped that would satisfy him.

He wondered about Hannah. Where was she? Where was her heart? I won't see her again . . . best put her out of my mind . . . but how?

In the dark alley behind the Palace Saloon he tied his horse and entered the back door. He walked to the bar and took particular notice of a calendar that had dates crossed out through July second.

No one bothered him or even paid any attention to him. The cowboys, gamblers and miners were more interested in the noisy small band and the three dance hall girls swaying with the music.

He asked the bartender for a drink and a couple of steaks that he could take with him. The barkeep brought them out in a few minutes. They were wrapped in the Prescott Times newspaper. Alex saw the headline near the bottom of the second page: Stage Robber In Custody, and in the sub headline: Second Robber At Large.

Alex paid for the drink and the meat and left. He rode quietly out of town and headed back toward the cabin, making sure that he was not followed.

* * *

The setting sun turned the forest into a dark, gray fortress when Hannah finally stopped. Looking back the tallest peak in the area was outlined on a graying sky away from the setting sun. She rode a short way off of the trail and tied her black filly to a scrub pine. She spread a blanket, built a small fire and sat down to a supper of boiled potatoes. With heavy eyelids she prayed a small petition asking for guidance to help her find Alex.

It was the evening of July third.

* * *

As Alex approached the foothills of Mount Union., he suddenly spied the flicker of a small campfire. Reigning in quickly, he dismounted and tread as softly toward the flame. A smallish man sat on a blanket and stareds into the fire.

With gun drawn he announced himself. "Stand easy mister! I mean no harm. I'm coming in."

"Alex, oh Alex!" Hannah rushed toward him and threw her arms around his neck.

Alex welcomed the embrace. "What are you doing here?" Then he looked her over carefully and laughed. "You certainly are a beautiful little feller," he said.

Hannah sighed with tears of relief, then grinned. "And you're a mighty handsome young feller."

Alex kissed her. "I didn't think we would ever meet again . . . or you would ever forgive me. The holdup was a foolish idea; a whim set about by laziness and greed."

Hannah smiled. "It wasn't a holdup. Sheriff Canton isn't pursuing it since no gold was taken. He told Bodie to go it alone if he wants his money back."

A fearful look replaced her smile. "I came to warn you . . . and run away with you, if you want. Bodie and Hank will be here tomorrow . . . on the Fourth.

"Hank? Is he able to travel already?"

"No. But Bodie said he'd pay him to guide. The Sheriff was anxious to get him out of his keep. Hank's wound will open up and he might bleed to death if he rides."

Alex looked into Hannah's eyes. "We'll wait. We will go up to the cabin and wait. I owe that much to Hank; gave him my word."

Hannah became uncharacteristically silent. She gathered the reins of her pony and followed Alex up Mount Union to the cabin.

* * *

A bright moon lit the trail up to the shack. The old dilapidated structure sat among a patch of maple trees. They tied their horses out of sight and entered the back door.

As the Fourth of July dawned, the rising sun enabled a glimpse of the trail that led up to the shack.

Alex rolled a smoke as he sat on a pine bench on the porch. Hannah gazed through the pines toward the trail. Finally she broke the silence. "What are we going to do?"

"I'll try to give the money back to Bodie and then take Hank back to your father for doctorin."

"Hank hasn't forgotten that you did not disarm Bodie. He might seek revenge too," said Hannah.

Alex nodded in agreement. "You might be right. I know he can carry a grudge for a long time. But we rode together for three years. That might count for something. Let's hope so since I doubt if I can take both he and Bodie at once."

Hannah lowered her head and peeked at Alex with pinched glance. "Well Bodie certainly won't forget and forgive. If there is money involved he kills . . . and he enjoys it."

Alex showed little emotion. "Then I'll have to try to kill him," he said.

Hannah shook her head. "He doesn't' know I'm here. I brought a gun and I can help."

"No you hide behind the shack until it is over."

Hannah put her hands on her hips. "Alex," she said, "Your cowboy gallantry won't work with me. I will not stand by and let you go into this fight alone."

"I hurt you once and that's enough on my conscience . . . not again," said Alex. "Go. Get behind the shack."

Hannah did as asked but as she retreated she plainly said. "Alex Jenks, you are one stubborn man,"

* * *

Bodie followed closely behind Hank as the two rode into the foothills of the Bradshaw Mountains. A rifle was lashed to his saddle horn. He pulled his Colt from the holster and checked the loaded chambers. Hank's gun was stuffed in his belt.

Hank slumped in the saddle. Bodie noticed a crimson stain soaking the front of his shirt. The blood dripped onto his left boot.

Hank let out a long labored breath and reined in. "I can't ride no more," he said. "See that tall hill on the left? That's where the cabin lies. The trail up to it crosses this trail about a quarter mile farther up."

Bodie looked at him. "Get off then and stay here. You better be right, 'cause I'm comin' back this way."

"I can't go nowheres," said Hank.

Bodie tossed Hank's gun to the ground. "If Alex shows up here hold him until I get back."

Hank dismounted, picked up his gun and sat down on a pile of leaves. He removed his neckerchief and belt. He stuffed the cloth into the wound and moved the belt up around his waist to hold the cloth in place.

Bodie rode off.

* * *

Alex watched Hannah walk around to the back of the cabin. He picked out a spot near the front porch where he could see most of the trail leading toward him. He loaded all six chambers of his Colt and slid it back into his holster. He waited. It was a quiet, windless morning.

The crack of a shot and the splintering of wood on the door of the shack sent Alex diving to the ground. "Hell!" he muttered. "He's got a rifle."

He scrambled behind a small rock near the side of the house. "Bodie," he yelled. "Come out. I got your wallet right here. I'll throw it to you."

"Crack!" Another shot whizzed over his head. "Go to hell!" shouted Bodie.

"Boom," another shot from a different gun echoed from behind a stump maybe twenty yards to his left.

Alex looked over to the stump and watched Hannah taking aim and firing once more.

"Hannah. Hannah get down!" Bodie shouted.

Alex now figured he had no choice. He stood up, showed himself and drew his gun. In the distance he saw Bodie rise up taking aim with his rifle.

"Boom. Boom. Boom." Three rapid shots came from behind Jess Bodie. The Bounty Hunter grabbed at his arched back, spun around and fell face down into the weeds.

Hannah ran to Alex. "I think Bodie's down," she said. "Did you shoot him?"

"No," said Alex. "He was shot from behind."

They hurried to Bodie. He was dead.

"Who . . . " asked Alex.

He walked further down the trail. He found Hank leaning against a dead pine tree.

Hank smiled and spoke haltingly. "Bodie left me back aways. I follered him on foot . . . knew he would try to kill you." Then he sunk to the ground.

Alex bent over his cowboy partner. There were tears in his eyes.

Hannah stood next to Alex in silence.

"He saved me," he said.

The End

Zeke earned a Master's Degree in Mathematics and coached sixteen years. His athletic career earned election into three Halls of Fame.

He entered the financial services industry eventually serving as the Compliance Supervisor for the Arizona office of a Wall Street firm.

He uses his vast library of Western magazines and biographies, and membership in the Wild West History Association to make certain that the settings, language, and conditions of the time are accurately represented.

Zeke's stories can be found at Frontier Tales, The Western Online, Rope and Wire, and Author's Stand. Two of his anthologies are on Amazon.

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