September, 2016

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Issue #84

All The Tales

Better Tombstones
by Mark Hinton

From the high rocks, he watched the riders moving up the hill. When they got to the long sage-brushed gully that ran toward the north, they followed his feint for a few hundred yards then they stopped. He could not see them, but he could see the dust their mounts made. It hung like a cloud in the high, still air. When the dust cloud stopped moving he knew they had stopped.

He looked up at the sun, it was directly over his head. He scooted back off the rocks where he had been lying, put his brown Stetson back on, and started downhill toward a little creek that ran through a small meadow at the the bottom of the canyon.

At the edge of the meadow, a tall dun and a grey appaloosa were tied loosely enough to the aspens that they could nibble on the lush grass that grew along the edge of the the small meadow. He walked quickly toward the appaloosa. After checking the two small packs on its back, he led the reluctant appaloosa over to the dun.

* * *

There were six riders. Originally there had been nine. Two had had mounts come up lame and had headed back. The third had just turned back this morning. Four days was a long time away from your new wife.

The six riders were working their way back out of the gully.

"I told you he's heading into the Big Belts," the man in the front called over his shoulder. He was a big man with a grey stetson and a big grey horse.

"He'll run out of trail and options soon, " a tall man riding a blue roan called from the back of the line.

"God damn drifter," the big man said, "Only a fool would try and head up there."

* * *

The trail out of the little meadow followed the creek. As he rode, he never looked over his shoulder, he only looked to his right and left. Sometimes he would stop where a game trail met the trail he was following. Once he got off the dun and walked about 100 yards up a wider trail. He stood for a while looking up at the faint line that weaved up through the lodgepole pines towards a gap in the rocks above. He stood for awhile, then shook his head and went back to the horses.

He got back on the the dun and headed farther up the narrowing canyon.

* * *

When the riders got to the little meadow, they stopped to rest and water the horses. The sun was close to the top of the ridgeline in the west. Already the western slopes of the narrow canyon were in shadow and even though it was July, the air was cool.

"He was here recently, but it was a few hours ago, Mr. Kane." The speaker was a young-looking cowboy with a blue shirt and a small black mustache.

"I followed his tracks up there," he said pointing to the rocks above. "From up there he could have watched us the whole way up."

He took off his hat. His hair was wet. His face streaked with dust.

"Anyone been up this canyon before," The big man asked turning away from the cowboy.

"Hell, Mr. Kane, I did not even know this canyon was here," said a tall middle-aged man who was slumped against a rock, his long legs spread out in front of him in the short grass, a canteen sitting in his lap.

"What I want to know is, if we make camp now or see if we can find another place further up?"

Kane stood for awhile looking at the men slumped on the ground.

"God damned, drifter." he said. "Let's make camp."

* * *

He was leading the horses along a narrow trail that switch-backed up and away from the creek and the canyon bottom. The canyon was all in shadows now, but when he came out of the trees at the top of the ridge, he was in sunlight. The horses slowed in the warming light, but he hurried them over the top of the ridge and into the shadows on the other side.

The trail dropped over the ridge into a narrow park that ran like a wide road toward the sunlit peak that towered above everything . He climbed back onto the dun and followed the park up toward the peak. They didn't stop until they were in the trees again.

He made a small camp without a fire up against some rocks in a little clearing. For a long time he lay in his bedroll smoking, listening to the impatient rustling of the horses, and looking at the stars.

* * *

The trail out of the canyon was steep. The men got off their mounts and led them up the switchbacks. The horses did not like the narrow, twisting trail or the loose rocks that skittered down the steep hill in small avalanches. Neither did the men.

At the top of the ridge they all rested.

"How the hell could some drifter find this trail?" a small man with a brown Stetson sitting on a rock asked. "Only an Indian or a mountain man could have found that trail."

"What are you saying, Johnson?" Kane said standing up and facing the questioner.

"I'm saying, Mr. Kane, that no down-on-his-luck drifter could have just 'found' this trail. This man knows this country  . . . "

The others were looking at the Kane who was glaring at Johnson.

" . . .  and I am thinking that if this man knows this country this well, he might have spent some time up here. And if he spent much time up here and he ain't an Indian or a mountain man he could only be one man."

Kane started moving toward Johnson who was standing up.

"Say what you're saying, Johnson."

"I'm saying this ain't no drifter we're chasing. This is Thad Stewart. I heard he might be out of Deer Lodge."

Kane stopped moving.

"What if it is?" he said.

"I'm saying if it is Thad Stewart, I want no part of this," Johnson said standing up. "This is between you two." He started moving back toward the horses.

"You're a coward, Johnson," Kane said.

Johnson stopped, but did not turn around. "Maybe I am," he said. "But I will be a live one." He turned toward where the other four men were sitting and watching. "Anyone want to come with me?" he asked.

Two riders stood up and started following Johnson toward the horses.

"You're all cowards," Kane said taking off his hat. His hair was thinning and his scalp pale in the high, bright light.

One of the men following Johnson turned.

"You killed his father, not us."

"It was a fair fight," Kane said putting his hat back on. "You saying it wasn't."

"That one might have been. This would not be," he said turning toward the horses.

* * *

From the edge of the big meadow, Stewart watched the remaining three riders moving through the long park below. He had sat in the high rocks and watched as the men had argued and as three had left.

He scooted off the rocks and went back to his horses. The little appaloosa was dozing in the sun. He scratched behind one of its ears and leaned down and whispered something to it. Then he got back onto the dun and started along the old trail that wound through the lodgepole pines.

The trail went up through the band of trees and ended in a small meadow bordered on three sides by the steep edges of the snowcapped peak that towered above. He rode across the meadow into the small stand of larches that stood on the other side, next to a small pool of snowmelt that spilled into a mountain stream.

He dismounted and took the saddle off the dun and the packs off the little appaloosa. He pulled some grass and wiped them both down and led them over to the pool so they could drink. When they were done drinking he led them back to the edge of the meadow and hobbled them so they could eat. Then he went back to the saddles and packs and picked up a Winchester and walked to the pool.

When he got the the pool he leaned, the Winchester up against a small tree, took off his hat, kneeled down, and put his head into the ice cold water. He held it there a moment and then stood up, letting the water run off his face and head.

He stood for a long time looking up at the peak. He held his hat in his hands in front of him and his dark wet hair shimmered in the high light.

When he heard the sound of horses reaching the opposite edge of the meadow, he put his hat back on and turned around, his hands already reaching for the Winchester.

* * *

The three riders were just coming out of the trees. Kane was in the middle, with a rider on each side. They had pistols drawn and were moving slowly through the trees.

Stewart raised the Winchester to his shoulder.

"That's far enough, Kane." he called. His voice echoing against the sunlit rocks.

The riders stopped their mounts and lowered their pistols.

"It's three against one, Stewart," Kane called back.

"Better odds than nine against one," Stewart replied lowering the rifle to hip level.

"That's my horse," Kane said, pointing toward the big dun. "That makes you a horse thief."

"It came from my father's ranch," Stewart said, raising the Winchester again toward his shoulder. "Which you stole from him. That makes you a liar, a cheat, and a murderer."

"It was a fair fight," Kane roared back.

"So is this one, now." Stewart said, smiling. "If you want me, or the horse, come and get us."

"What's you plan, Stewart," Kane said relaxing in the saddle. "Take back your father's ranch one horse at a time? The ranch is legally mine. The horse is legally mine. You got no rights to any of it."

Stewarts smile grew tighter, "Legal don't mean right. Never has, never will. Just because you're rich enough to buy politicians and judges, don't mean you are right."

Kane sat up straight in his saddle.

"You two can go now. I have no quarrel with you. If you stay, I will kill you too," Stewart called.

The rider on the left began to turn his horse back toward the trees, but the rider on the other side of Kane started to raise his Colt.

Before he could even level the Colt, two quick shots rang out. The rider fell out of his saddle, and so did Kane, who tipped over backwards onto the ground but did not move.

The rider who was leaving stopped moving. His back was toward Stewart. He looked back over his shoulder. "You going to shoot me, too?"

Stewart lowered the gun back toward his hip.

"No, you are the witness."

"Witness to what," the rider replied.

"Rich men die the same as poor men. They just get better tombstones." Stewart said, letting the Winchester's barrel drop towards the ground.

The End

Mark Hinton grew up in California, Eastern Washington, and Montana. He has published poetry and short stories and blogs on (formerly His story "Cottonwood Death" was voted fan favorite in the December 2011 issue of FrontierTales. He lives and writes in Minnesota.

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The Blood of My Enemies
by Kenneth Mark Hoover

There are times you have to use a shotgun. I don't like them. It is not a weapon of accuracy. But when all you want is to murder someone in a confined space it's the best gun you can put to hand.

I knew all three men were holed up inside a line shack on Gila Creek. I waited until the sun came up through the cottonwood trees and the sky grayed out. Then I loaded the Remington .10-gauge with buckshot, and moved in.

I wasn't here to arrest them. I didn't have a warrant, and there was no bounty.

They had killed a Virginia family of seven moving through the territory, headed for California. They raped and killed a ten-year-old girl. Men like that, you don't need words on paper to put your foot on the right path.

I carry the badge. I took it up some years back because a man had done a favor on me. Saved me from myself, you might say.

But I am only one kind of man. I don't believe in forgiveness. Forgiveness only perpetuates evil. People who turn the other cheek have that luxury because men like myself are out here on the frontera.

I am under no illusions. One day I'm going to die under the gun, or the knife. But I'm not going to change the way I think about the world.

I am never going to change.

The horses were hobbled out behind the line shack. Two bays and a chestnut mare. If these men had any sense they would have brought their animals inside to provide cover. Smarter men would have done it.

They hadn't even locked the door. I pulled both hammers back on the coach gun and went inside. As soon as I stepped through I cut loose one barrel on a man pissing into a morning slop bucket. Caught him in the back square with a full load. It opened him up clean. The other two were under woolen blankets on the dirt floor. I stood over them and fired the remaining barrel while one struggled to sit up and reach for his gun on a table, and the other screamed at me not to kill him. The pattern caught them both. Nothing moved in the line shack after that.

I cracked open the coach gun and blew down both barrels. Smoke stung my eyes. I figured they had gold on them what they had stolen from the family. I didn't search for it. I have never cared about that blood metal.

And that, as they say, was that.

I went outside, let their horses go, and caught up my own and rode him back to the graves. A fifty mile ride.

I had buried the family in a mesquite grove. Seven people, seven graves. They didn't have anything for markers but stones I had pulled out of the ground. It was the best I could do.

I unsaddled my horse, wiped him down, and built a fire. Night was coming on hard, and it was cold. It clouded up, and you couldn't see your hand for your face. I boiled some coffee, drank that. And then I waited.

It was around midnight when the three dead men showed up. They'll do that sometimes on me. Come back like that. I could see them walking through the trees, their clothes bloody and torn all this way, and that. One had his hat on. Another held his pants up with one hand because he had forgotten his belt. The third had long greasy hair, white hands limp at his sides.

They came abreast and stood on the opposite side of the fire. Their eyes were dark. The first man give me a nod before he spoke.

"Marshal. We've come to speak before we head to the other side." It was the man I shot in the back, holding his pants with one hand.

"I've been waiting on you boys to show."

"My name is Jim Overton."

I watched him.

"This here is my cousin, Dove. We grew up in Tennessee together. This other man is Treat. Bill Treat. We met him down in Navasota and he threw his gun in with us."

I didn't say anything.

"You never give us a chance to surrender," the little one, Dove, had the beginnings of a blond beard. He might have amounted to something if he had someone around to kick his ass everyday of his life.

"Like how you killed that girl?" I asked. "And the rest of her family?"

Treat was a tall man. Maybe not educated, but there was animal cunning in his eyes. "What you did ain't considered the law." His voice was deep, and challenging.

"That's right, Treat. It's not in any law book."

He forked his hat back with his thumb. "You carry a badge, Marshal. You are supposed to stand up for the people who support the law it represents. But you set yourself higher than them. You set yourself up against yourself. And that's vanity."

"Treat. You're absolutely right." I tossed the dregs of my coffee into the fire and set the tin cup aside. "I do carry a badge. But I don't represent the law of this land. Not even this world."

"There ain't no other kind of law," Overton said with a certainty.

"Yes, there is," I told him. I looked at all three of them. "There is a different kind of law, and a different kind of badge."

I stood up. I took off my hat and threw it down on my bedroll. I stripped off my shirt, then I kicked off my boots, shucked my pants, pulled off my stockings. I stood bare naked in front of them by the red light of the fire. They could see the Okipa scars covering my body.

"There is another law," I told them. "One older than the mountains, and the grass, and all the rivers. It came into this world like a cold wind, and it waited. It waited a long time for man to appear. But when he did, it raised its head, and it opened its eyes. And on that day the stars fell from the sky. We were thrown out of paradise. But some of us made a deal, and we came back. Picked for other work, you might say."

While I talked my Okipa scars started to bleed. I could feel the blood trickling down my naked limbs, my chest. It dripped off my fingers. You could hear the night wind whispering in the tops of the mesquite trees.

"Murder?" Dove asked. He turned his head and spat. "That the devil's work you got picked for, mister?"

"Not murder, Dove. Not even justice. Memory. A remembrance of what the world is. What it has always been, always will be. You opened the door to violence when you killed that family. And now you're squawking because a bigger violence came and met yours. That's the world, son. That's life. I carry the blood of my enemies, as you can well see. I don't forget them."

"So why do you—" Treat began.

"I don't do it for you," I said, "or the victims. I do it because the world demands it. I do it because that is the world, and you boys should have known that before you massacred those people."

They looked at the fire for a space. Then they turned around one by one and walked back into the dark trees.

I cleaned myself up and got dressed. I sat and watched the fire burn down to a bed of glowing coals. It was late, but I wasn't sleepy. After a while the sky in the east lightened.

She came walking across the open prairie. Her torn, white calico dress blew around her legs. Her hair was long and blonde. She came up to the dying fire and looked at me.

"We're leaving now," she said.

"I know."

"I want to thank you."

"I didn't do anything. I didn't do anything at all to be proud of."

"I know," she said, "but you went ahead and did it anyway. Most men would not have taken on that burden. We want to thank you for that." She looked toward the rising sun. "We can rest now."

"I'm glad I could help."

She stared at me. "You don't like this, do you?"

Now it was my turn to stare at the coals. I shrugged. "Not much. But it's all I am. All I have left."

"It's not all you have," she said.

I looked up, curious.

"She's waiting. She's in Haxan, and she's waiting for you to come back. Your work here is done for the day, Marshal. You need to go home, and be human again. With her. At least for a little while."

She didn't say anything more after that. She walked away, and I watched her top the grassy rise and disappear down the other side and after a while the sun came up full in my face.

I broke camp and saddled my horse. I swung into the saddle, leather creaking. I sat a moment staring at the seven graves and the unmarked stones I had placed there for markers. It was the best I could do.

I remembered the girl's words to me. Well. Maybe this time I had done more. Maybe this time I found a little bit of something I once thought was lost.

I reined my horse around and kicked for Haxan.

The End

Kenneth Mark Hoover is a professional member of the Western Writers of America. His latest novel, Quaternity, is also set in the Haxan universe and available from CZP and Amazon:

Mr. Hoover currently resides in Dallas, TX.

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The Two Marys
by E.G. Willy

Walter had a beer instead of champagne, watched the soldiers choosing their women, waited. Colonia Dublán was known as a "sanitary" station, but it was really a whorehouse, una casa de citas, un lugar donde hay prostitutas trabajando, un prostíbulo. Pershing and his men privately called it a remount station, as if women were horses and men were studs. But Walter kept its definition pure. It was a whorehouse. When he saw her first, he didn't think this. For a moment he allowed himself to think that it was sanitary, that good women meant for good men gathered here. It was the flip of his stomach, the surprise of seeing Mary Pretty Bird here in this whorehouse, a place where she could not be, that made him believe it was a good house. The impression was a short one, but an impression nonetheless.

Though the girl looked like Mary, she was Apache. She and Mary shared the same snaggled tooth, the thick Indian hair, the slight body and small breasts. She was Mary Pretty Bird and she was not Mary Pretty Bird. To Walter this made sense. He knew there were people who were two and three and four people at once. He didn't need to be told. They existed. The women here weren't Nuchu. They were Mexican and Apache, gathered by Pershing's men from Namiquipa, Galeana, Ahumada, Ojinaga, Tompochic, and Chihuahua. Small women who smelled of corn and manteca. But they looked like the Nuchu, broken women who were now touched by disease and poverty.

This was his lie to himself: He would save her. He would save her by dancing with her. Because she was Mary and Not Mary, he would buy the places of the men that came. Poor slight Mary. Poor starving Mary. Her winter of a thousand horses. Her place with the Nuchu. He would save her. He would go inside and see if it was her.

As he got closer, he saw that this one was younger than Mary, as if time had no meaning, as if a woman's face could stay forever the same. He would dance with her and pretend he was younger too. They would drink champagne and dance, him and the whore that looked like Mary. He would pretend for a moment that this wasn't really a war for water and that Pancho Villa was just another excuse. Just like with the Nuchu. All wars are for water, the rivers and the grazing land. Because if you cut into the flesh of the Chihuahua desert you find water, big holes of it, ojos de agua, eyes into ancient aquifers. And this is the real thing they had come to plunder.

He drank three beers before she arrived for her next dance. Then a tequila to steady his resolve. She swept the room with her dark eyes, looked down when she saw Walter. Walter felt his foolish heart flutter. Yes, this was Mary. This was her. She had been sent to him here. Mary, so that he could ask her once again. So that he could rescue her from this place. Her face was freshly washed, as were her privates from the last customer. Her sleeves were rolled up, showing her slight arms, her dark skin. She looked up again. Their eyes met.

Walter set down his drink, approached with definition. He could do this. He had the money, a goddamned pile of it as a civilian operator. He ran the real remount horses, sold plenty to the government, real horses for real riders. And Casas Grandes was a place where horses were worth more than whores. He had more money than all of Pershing's soldiers together.

"Bailamos," said Walter. "Let's dance."

"Okay, bailamos," said Mary but Not Mary.

As they touched Walter saw his lie dissolving. Her hands were oily, the skin of a whore. Her breath was sweet and sour all at once. He forced his mind around this, forced Not Mary to have cool hands like Mary, to have breath sweet from sucking on the stems of wild oats.

They were both slightly intoxicated, and their motions were halting. Soldiers came and went. Many asked to dance with her, but Walter brushed them off with a snarl, his tall form enough to make them doubt.

"Vamos ya," she said at last, tired of dancing.

Walter said, "Vamos ya" with her.

She lead him to her stall, her small hand pulling on him. A small room, enough for two. The linens were freshly washed, changed each day, stained at the end. A dresser. A wash basin. A bed with the legs of the bed sitting in dishes of kerosene to keep out the bedbugs. So a fellow couldn't smoke in there. A pair of hooks where the client was to hang his clothes. A wooden chair. A pot. Two shirts hanging. The smell of other men. Walter stood in the door and observed these things, then watched her remove her clothes. There was a scar on her back like a star, the flesh white and bumpy. He placed his hand over the scar, kissed her back.

"Son tres pesos," she whispered.

"Claro... o más. Tengo más." I have more. As if this meant something.

Walter's first moment inside her revealed that she was not Mary. She was instead Epifania, the small Apache whore who looked like Mary. Inside her was not like inside Mary. It was another woman. He couldn't force her into being Mary now. With Pershing's condoms, how could it be otherwise? This barrier between his penis and her vagina made her Not Mary. He said a prayer as he was inside her. "Ecani tawicuwatun ktelo." I will have a wife soon. Though it was technically not a Lakota prayer. That prayer would be said to the wind. Or it would be sung. This prayer he said in his head as he made believe that it was Mary beneath him. He came again and again inside her, as if this could prove that she was Mary.

Tom Threepersons was in the corral of the true remount station. He was counting horses. When a hundred came through the gate, he stopped counting and wrote a note to himself on a paper.

Walter approached, pulled himself up on the gate.

"You fucked her?" asked Threepersons.

Walter looked at the rodeo man's big, round face. Threepersons was smiling.


"All night long?"

"I did. Though I shouldn't even be telling you this. A man lying with whores is his business alone."

Threepersons laughed. "Yep. I did the same. Stayed all night. Couldn't keep my hands off her. That gal is damned pretty."

"She is."

"You pretend she was your gal?"

"I did."

Threepersons laughed harder now. "Well, shit, you ain't the only one she's been with. Though you pretended otherwise. I did too. Damned good pretending."

"Goddamn," said Walter. "Son of a bitch. I couldn't help it."

"Hope you didn't get upset just now when I told you I was with her too," said Threepersons. "I get it if you're upset. But understand I was there first, and don't make me out as a bad friend. She was pretty as a young deer. Couldn't help myself."

"Lord, she's beautiful."

"Yep, she is. And now we got something in common. She's a regular treasure whore. And you'll wait a week before you go back?" asked Threepersons. "Just to show you ain't hooked."

"I ain't hooked."

"There are people you'll have to fight. And if you pay for her, there won't be anything you can collect on. I know that might sound strange. You think when you buy something, it's yours. It ain't. Shit, I know this. I shouldn't but I do. I've already put that on a list of stupid shit that I've done. Knew a gal like that once in Reno. A soiled dove they called her. Pretty as candy. Couldn't keep my hands off of her. Big idiot Indian. Thought I could purchase people. I thought I knew everything."

They laughed together on this, then smoked a cigarette.

Walter waited two days and he was back in the whorehouse.

There were a few men who had heard of Epifania. He had to wait his turn behind Hadley, the slight built man from Arizona. Hadley came from the stalls, dancing, saying, "Hoo boy, I put a sting on it. Yes sir, that Apache girl is one fine lay. And I showed her the way. Yes I did."

Walter didn't like Hadley bragging, for discovering what he had discovered. So now he'd have to come every day, buy as many dances as he could.

Walter's fifth visit he came with food. They ate at her bed, then made love. Slowly this time, Walter not wanting to lose the moment, wishing that she could be Mary. Epifania silent as usual, her small hands folded over her back.

Walter sat on the edge of the bed, a hand on her thigh. He drew his fingers across her haunches, then let them rest on the small of her neck, a caress she wasn't used to.

"Regresa manana?"

"Sí, manana, sí."

"Trae comida?"

"Sí, comida."

Walter stood, went to put on his shirt, then sat again at the bedside.

"Que no veas a Hadley. Ese tipo trae mala suerte."

"Me paga bien, más que los otros."

Walter registered this. Hadley pays better than the others.

"Pago por él. Que no lo veas."

Epifania sat up, placed a hand on Walter's shoulder, pulled it away. She hesitated before asking, "Uste' me quiere?"

Do you want me? Or was it, do you love me? Walter frowned, bothered by the fact that she didn't tutear, that Walter was never to be close like that, Epifania speaking to him as a stranger. Like the cowboys Walter hired out of Michoacan, never daring to cross into the informal, keeping their distance. Even to a dog in his own house the Indian would do this, the fast, truncated, uste', never lapsing into the vos of the southern coasts or the tú of the Indians in Sinaloa.

"Do I want you?"

"Yes, do you want me?"

Walter put on his shirt, kept his back turned to Epifania as he buttoned the garment. Or do I love you? He hadn't thought of this, that he could love a prostitute.

"Que no veas a Hadley."

She saw Hadley even though he asked her not to. Because Walter couldn't be there every hour. He couldn't control Pershing's men, as much as he thought he could. This time Hadley was drunker than normal. He broke Epifanias jaw, cut off her fingers, left her blind in one eye.

Tom Threepersons took the news silently, let Walter complain for a good while.

"I guess you know it was your fault," he said at last.

"I did. I do."

It was his goddamned fault. There he was, Walter staring at Epifania's broken face, thinking it was Mary. And then it was not Mary's face. Walter was not there with Tom Threepersons. He was back ten years now, and it was night and not day. The grass was prickly dry. The evening was cold. Walter had his hands on Mary's legs.

They felt smooth and cool in the night. Mary was skinnier now. He could see the delicate line of her collar bone, the taught pull of her neck. Walter shivered, though the cold was nothing to him. The shiver was perfunctory. The cold would never touch him. Even if there were snow, they would still lie there.

They kissed. And then the inevitable explorations of their bodies. They set their clothes out on the grass, made a bed. The moon was a sliver. And the nighttime insects were calling softly, working into the night. They made love. Then stopped. Then made love again. Mary began to cry.

Walter said, "Why are you crying?"

Mary turned away when she said, "I'm with Jim now."

"I know. I get it."

"Do you?"

"I do."

"He doesn't know I'm here."

"He doesn't know you're here," Walter said back. Though he didn't mean to show it, there was recrimination in his voice, as if he were saying Mary should be with Jim.

Walter rolled onto his back. Mary had her head in his arm.

He would be ashamed of a name like that. Indian Jim, the regular Indian name, the one the whites gave to the good Indian, the one that wouldn't start problems or get into fights. Walter had followed Mary on the path that lead from the village, thinking she was with a tougher man. But now Jim seemed appropriate. He would be a broken Indian. The fighters were all killed or hanged.

"Have you married him yet? A proper church thing?"

"Not yet. It was arranged as we do things. I thought it was how it was supposed to be. No church yet."

"You don't have to do this. There's other ways of doing things."

"We say who we are to marry. It's our tradition."

"Traditions don't have to be everything."

"It's our way."

"I don't like it."

"He was a man, Walter. Not skinny like you. Not young. A real man. Someone who could do things."

"Mary, you don't have to say this."

"No." And then, "I don't like him."

"I'm sorry."

They lay for some time, looking up. The night sky was filtered, hazy. The owls wouldn't see so good in this light. Nor would the bobcat or the coyote. The haze would make them worried. These were nights now where the animals hurried, anxious about getting fat.

"Winter's coming," said Walter.

Mary began to cry again.

Walter replied by pulling Mary closer.

"Walter, don't do that now."

"But Mary, you're hurting."

"No, I'm hungry." Mary hid her face in her arms.

"You need food, Mary, I'll bring it."

"It's not that . . . "

"I will. I swear."

A sob exploded from her torso. And then another. Her body flexed. And then contorted. Mary sobbing. He was reminded of a donkey braying, and then of a child falling.

"It's my fault," said Walter. "I didn't mean to follow you out here. Something forced me. I don't know. I didn't have a choice on it. But I had to follow you."

"No, Walter, I wanted to be with you."

"I'll bring you whatever you need."

"I don't want anything, Walter. Don't help me. I don't need it."

"Mary, they won't starve you," said Walter, though he knew he was wrong by saying this. The government was planning on it. There would be no more shooting, nor more hangings. Just a slow depletion, a denial of water, of livestock. It was how the range wars worked.

Waska had told him this so many times when he was young that it was part of him now. When she came to his father's house, she had been part of the arrangement. Waska living on boiled grass and bentonite clay. Hungry Waska, who would never grow big no matter what she ate. Her brothers and sisters gone, the weak ones taken by common colds and runaway infections. And Mary had seen the same, her own family destroyed by the crush of winter.

"There are too many of them here," said Mary.

"I'm sorry, Mary," said Walter. "I'm damned sorry."

They gathered their clothes. Mary not looking at him. He ashamed that he was with her. She waiting for him to say something.

They mounted his horse, Mary on back, her thin arms around him like sticks. Walter rode slowly back towards the village. In the dark were other soldiers. Other couples on the path just like them, white men and Indian women meeting, scrambling in the night towards an unknown future.

"I'm sorry, Mary."

She placed her hand around his waist. Walter put his hand over hers.

Jim would be waiting when Mary returned. They would talk. Mary would lie to him about where she had been. Though they would both know she had been with Walter. There would be no accusations, just disappointment in what wasn't said.

As they approached the path to the village, Walter told himself what he was supposed to do. He had missed this that night at her uncle's house. The night they were supposed to run away. This was the story, how it should be done. They were to flee as had so many young lovers before that. It wasn't a new story. It had happened millions of times before. Two young hearts moving towards the other. He felt Mary's arms around his waist, clinging tightly, was reminded again how skinny she had become. This was his second chance. He could ride with her now and they would be together. But how far could he go? Where would they hide? Could he change his name? Could he find work? Perhaps somewhere out towards Oregon or up North in Canada, where they would remake themselves, where folks didn't care about these kind of arrangements.

Walter felt his breath shortening. The night's haze invaded his vision. It was as if he were riding in a cloud. He drew on the reins, let his horse go slower. He thought that by slowing things he could slow the inevitable. If she leaned forward and whispered in his ear, "Walter, let's leave this place," he knew would turn the horse south.

The horse stopped instinctively at the path, drew up. Walter couldn't say later how much time passed. It could have been five minutes or half an hour. Mary's arms were around Walter like ropes. He was present and disappearing all at once, listening to the boom of his heart, the cool of the night shattering him. He wanted Mary to choose him. If she slipped off the back of his horse, she would choose Jim. If she stayed, then they would go.

He would wait all night if he had to, Mary on the back of his horse, gripping him forever.

Mary slid to the ground. He held her hand as she dismounted. When she tugged at her arm, he gripped her for a moment.

Her face showed a flash of confusion. He knew what he was supposed to tell her. "Ecani tawicuwatun ktelo." I will have a wife soon. But his mouth was closed, resolute. How could he not speak now? Why had he chosen this moment to be silent?

"Walter, wana iblable ktso." I'm leaving now, Walter. The same words she has used that night in the cornfield. Behaviors repeating. Two people unable to change.

"Mary, wait . . . "

"Good-bye, Walter."

She pulled herself free, then turned along the path.

"You gonna do something."

"I'm thinking on it."

Walter wiped his face. He didn't like the memory, how it could come and go without him calling on it.

"You thinking about her? You look far away, anywhere but here," said Tom Threepersons.

"I am," said Walter.

"Goddamn, I saw that. Just looking at you I could tell."

"I figure you did."

"So you want to fix something you can't fix?"

"I guess I have to."

"You need help?"

"I wouldn't mind it."

"Well, goddamn, let's do this."

"Yeah, I guess we should."

Their moves were economic, unplanned. Both men had done this before. Though he was younger than Walter, Tom had already shot enough fellows in his day, starting with those men who'd killed his father. It didn't take him much to decide on killing. Walter was a bit slower, more circumspect, had only shot one man so far. He preferred fighting with his fists, knocking a man down, then working his head, his torso, letting the lesson stick, making sure the beating went deep and memorable.

The two men headed out in into the matorral. They didn't need to be told where Hadley and his crew were set up. They were at the edge of the grazing land, far enough off to hear someone coming, close enough not to be considered out of reach. They were at the edge of the command, the soldiers that would go first when Villa's men came, the ones that took the periphery like dogs.

The best grazing was out there in the ruins, a big, damned fertile valley. So men would be placed there to secure it. Walter and Tom worked their way a mile up from the encampment, came south towards the men. It was a useless measure. Though on watch, Hadley and his crew of two soldiers were gambling and drinking around their campfire. It didn't take much to see they'd been looting. They had property gathered up around them, articles they'd taken from folks' houses, mostly tack, bridles and saddles full of silver, things a fellow could move quick.

"I got three of her fingers now my pocket," Hadley was telling his boys.

"What you gonna pick your nose with them?" wondered the kid from Montana.

"Well, maybe I will. Or maybe I'll wipe my ass with them. I don't know," replied Hadley. "Or maybe you want to try that. I'll give you one. You wipe your ass with it."

The kid from Wyoming let a chuckle. Montana followed. It wasn't their first time with a bottle of tequila in their guts, but they were still young guzzlers, weren't practiced yet at boozing.

Walter and Tom exchanged glances. It was the perfect time to strike. They wouldn't waste time or thought on it. It was as it was supposed to be. Walter had seen this done enough times on the prairie to know its efficiency. It was just like popping melons. A fool who wasted time on this decision was a fool.

Walter and Tom simultaneously cocked their arms, threw their rifle butts forward. The butts met the back of the men's skulls. The men dropped forward silently, landed like sacks full of grain.

Hadley stood up, said, "What the hell, man?"

Walter stepped into the light of the fire, knocked Hadley down. Hadley knew enough to get off the ground, pulled back, pushed himself up, said, "What's this all about?"

"You sit down," ordered Walter.

Though Hadley was a slight man, he was fighter. Sitting down meant he was lost. He feinted to one side, scrambled away from the light of the fire towards his gun. His trajectory brought him towards Tom Threepersons. Tom stepped aside to let him pass as if he were inviting Hadley towards his weapon. Hadley was too drunk to know that this was a bad move. He kept going towards his firearm. Walter saw the knife appear, watched as Threepersons drew it in an arc by Hadley's neck.

Hadley let out a yelp, set off on a stilted run amongst the yucas and the agaves. He didn't get more than fifty yards into the matorral. Threeperson's knife had nicked an artery. By the time they arrived, Hadley had already bled out, was unconscious.

"Goddamn, I was just getting warmed up," said Tom.

"We got maybe half an hour," noted Walter. "I'll do this one, Tom. You set back."

"We'll do it together. Make it look like Villa's doing."

Walter couldn't see if the two they'd rifle butted were dead. He told himself he didn't care much either way, though his shaking hands made it tough as he went through their clothing. When one man started to make motions of consciousness, Tom Threepersons cut his neck, wiped his blade on the man's collar, then did the same to the second.

"I'll finish this. You do Hadley," instructed Tom.


Walter went back through the matorral. It wouldn't take much to make it look like Villa's men had struck. The methods were always the same. Walter drew a blade around Hadley's skull, tugged off Hadley's scalp in one pull. He walked a few yards, flung it into the bush. He returned to the dead man, went through Hadley's papers, scattered them about on the soil. He found Epifanias fingers in a front pocket, threw them down amongst the papers. If he had been by the fire, he would have read that Hadley was married, had a wife in kids in Arizona. Instead he found himself looking at the dark stain of blood that had flowed from Hadley's neck. He tried to pull his gaze away, felt himself looking into Hadley's neck as if this were the most important thing to do now, as if her were meant to do this.

Walter found him mind trailing again, going back to the Nuchu. He wished he had control over these things, but the memory wouldn't let him go. He saw he had a horse with him. It was a roan mare, about ten years old, already showing the beginning signs of Cushing's disease, its coat winterizing far too early for the season, making it look fatter than it was. The horse was the last of Walter's trades with Nuchu, an afterthought, and he wondered as he led the horse along the path to the Sioux village that the horse knew if she was going to die. The way she fell behind his own horse, nose to his tail, the desire to herd so strong that she could do nothing but follow, indicated she knew nothing. But it still made Walter think.

He had seen coyotes at two hundred yards off, fleeing the sting of a rifle they couldn't possibly see or be aware of, simply running, sensing the doom, running fast into the wind as if this could preserve them. And horses, when frightened, moved closer to the herd, tightened their bodies.

The Thunder Butte men were gone when Walter arrived at the home. It was a one-room log house with a dirt floor. By Walter's count there would be at least seven living in there. But now there were only the women. No children. Just the women. Mary, two older Sioux, then her cousin Josephine standing closest to the path. Mary looked once at Walter, moved towards the house, her face down. The two Thunder Butte women stood so that they formed a triangle of protection, Mary closest to the house, the women a few paces further away, waiting.

Josephine approached, said "Han, Walter."

Walter noticed Josephine was skinnier too. She had always been the plump cousin. Now her body looked straighter, hardened. He said, "Hau, Josephine. You doing okay?"

"I'm okay."

"I didn't expect you here."

"I came with Mary," said Josephine. She changed her stance, her body facing his, her round breasts obvious under her mission dress. Josephine, though older, had not been found a husband.

"I see," said Walter.

Josephine said, "You come for a visit?"

"I brought a horse. It's for you and Mary. Though mostly for Mary."

Josephine waited for Walter to say more. When it became obvious he would not, she said, "You know, you coming here isn't a good idea."

"No, probably not." Walter looked up at Mary, hoped she would return his gaze. But she had her face turned away, was brushing at something on the threshold of the house.

"There might be a fight."

"The horse is for you," said Walter. "They say this winter will be cold. I brought you the mare."

Walter pulled the mare forward on her lead. The horse shuffled forward, banged against Walter's saddle, pressed close into this herd of two, worried.

"You can have the halter too," said Walter. "I don't want it."

"Mary doesn't want you here," Josephine went on.

"No, I'm not staying."

"So maybe you better keep the horse."

"I won't."

Walter handed the lead to Josephine. She took his hand.

Walter began to pull away and she tugged on him.

"Where you going to be, Walter?"

"Just moving on."

"Going far?"

Walter glanced up, hoped the Thunder Butte women couldn't see Josephine clinging to him. Their eyes were averted, watching the feet of the mare.

"By the cavalry camp?"

"I don't know. Maybe. I think," said Walter.

"Don't leave yet," said Josephine.

Walter said, "No." Though he knew he wouldn't be with the men from the division. They were rough types, gamblers and rogues. He would stay his distance. Though he was white, they would still consider him Indian.

Walter pulled his hand free from Josephine. He felt her eyes grazing his face, looking. He was confused that she had held his hand for so long but had told him to get along. He felt she could be his if he wanted. He would just have to make a promise. Agree. And she would come to him. They would make love. He was sure of it. He checked again with Mary. She turned her back, picked up a stick in front of the door.

"Don't come again, Walter."

"No, I won't."

Walter turned his horse, gave it a click. When he was a hundred yards down the path, he swiveled in his saddle, looked back.

The four women had already circled the mare. The older of the Thunder Butte women had produced a long-bladed knife. She swept the blade across the neck of the mare. The horse took a step back, pulled on the halter. Josephine held the lead tight. The mare faltered, waved her head. Josephine pulled the lead towards the earth. The mare fell to her front knees first. Her head swayed. Then the hindquarters came down slowly. She leant on her right flank, rolled slowly to the ground.

"Wamakaskan," observed Walter as he said into Hadley's neck, saw how a man and a horse shared the same blood.

Tom Threepersons came stamping up the matorral. He was also carrying a scalp. He flung it in the same direction Walter had sent Hadley's.

"Come on, bring yourself back," said Tom. "You can't get stuck out here."

"Shit, I don't like doing this," noted Walter. "I can't think right."

"This had to play out this way," said Threepersons. "You know that."

"I do."

"Come on, let's get moving. We got tracks to cover."

The men went back along their path, brushing behind themselves a ramo seco as they walked. It wasn't far, a quarter of a mile at most before their prints mixed with the thousand other prints left by their occupation. Walter felt light and free and filthy all at once.

The End

The Two Marys is the third in a series of Walter Wright tales. Wakan won the Laine Cunningham Novel Award. Walter's Final Ride appeared in Lost On Route 66 from Gondwana Press. E.G. Willy writes in Spanish and English. His short stories have appeared in Zyzzyva, The Berkeley Review,Redwood Coast Review, Azahares, and Acentos. Anthologies that have included his writings are "Stories From Where We Live," "Milkweed Editions," "The Breast," "Global City Press," "Creatures of Habitat," "Mint Hill Books."

Willy's latest work can be found at: Issue #3 June 15th 2016

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Los Condenados
by Joshua Dyer

Tucky puffed another breath into the smoldering tinder beneath his cone of busted branches and twigs. A healthy flame engulfed the wood, illuminating the cowpoke's soiled face. The past few days' worth of trail grime did little to hide the dried blood spatters on his cheek and lofty forehead. He righted his squat, muscular torso and scooted back from the snapping fire. A pair of deerskin chaps and trail spurs lumbered into his ring of solace and plopped down on rock protruding out of the desert sands.

"Whatdaya reckon?" the figure asked, dropping a bulging cloth sack in between them.

Tucky's bewildered brown gaze never faltered from the fire. "I ain't never seen the like, Creek. Never."

Creek slid down off his perch and strode closer to his stoic compadre. He drew a thin cigarette from the pocket of his black vest and placed it in his mouth. "We got what we wanted, didn't we?"

Tucky followed his senior partner's every move as Creek bent into the flames and lit his tobacco. A cloud of fragrant smoke wafted into the young man's face as Creek's black hat and matching duster receded into the shadows. "You look like you've seen the devil himself."

Tucky turned in time to see the burning eye of Creek's smoke pierce the dark ahead of a hearty chuckle.

"I'm still not sure what it was I saw," Tucky said in a weak tone.

His buddy's spurs clinked up next to him while the wood snapped and crackled. Creek dragged the heavy sack across the dirt and took a seat across the flames from him. Moments thereafter, a thin bar of pure gold glimmered just beneath his pal's soulless blue eyes.

"See that?" Creek waved the bar back and forth in slow strokes.

Tucky glanced up from the dancing light, his eyelids narrowed.

"Exactly," Creek said, holding the gold upright. "That's what we went in for, and that's what we got outa there with. A whole damned bagful of it, to be more precise." The gold clanked into the bag in the dark as the outlaw took another hit off his tobacco.

Tucky wiped a tear on the cuff of his black and white flannel shirt. "At what cost?"

"Ah, shit." Creek groaned, easing back against a tree trunk. "So, we killed a few people, Tuck. What of it?"

"A few?" Tucky spat out the words in a venomous hiss.

Creek laughed once more at his protege's expense. "I know that you probably didn't see much killin' back in Lexington, but it kinda comes with the territory."

Tucky's eyes bounced around their makeshift camp. "Th-they're gonna be comin' for us. Ya know that, right?"

Again, the lone demonic eye of his companion's smoke burned in the arid darkness.

"Maybe," Creek said, "maybe not." The desperado's black boot heel crept out of the wavering light. "What I know for sure is that we'll be able to live off this loot for the rest of our lives."

Tuck's head shook back and forth in slow deliberate swaths. "Nuh uh. We took somethin' sacred, Creek."

"What?" his mentor asked. The loot sack rustled on the far side of the fire pit. "You mean this?"

A small golden statue plopped in the dust at Tucky's left knee. The idol's diamond eyes twinkled in the firelight. The young, inexperienced gunman scooted back from the artifact.

"It's just a statue, Tuck."

The idol's eyes pulled Tucky into their hypnotic depths. Visions of his escape from the hallowed temple percolated in his imagination. Wild-eyed followers of the priest had ripped and clawed at Tuck's back as he ran up the gentle incline within the pyramid's underbelly. They hissed and howled for the revenge of their fallen master.

"It's more than that," Tucky said, snapping out of his daydream. "These things gave them some sort of power."

Creek scoffed and flicked his spent butt into the glowing embers. "Come on. Don't tell me you buy into that mess."

"You had the loot on your back." Tucky rocked back and forth on his haunches. "You ran ahead of me. You didn't see what I saw."

Creek slid into the flames' luminance. "Perhaps, but I heard the same things you heard. People will do some crazy stuff when they're good and mad."

"Their eyes, Creek. Burning like the end of your cigarette." He stopped and turned his emotionless glare up to his pal. "Crazy ain't the half of it."

One of the logs deep in the fire let out a long hiss, startling the two men. Creek slid his gun out of its holster and held it sideways toward the fire.

"If any o' them natives wanna try something," he said, closing one eye, "let 'em come."

Tucky sat his hat on a smaller stone to his right and ran a shaky hand through his damp, brown curls. "That won't stop 'em." He removed a crumpled packet from his left hip pocket and unfurled it. Tucky pinched off a bit of his aromatic chew and sat it in his right cheek. "I shot one square 'tween the eyes and he kept on comin'."

A look of concern consumed his buddy's face on the opposite side.

"That's what I've been tryin' to explain, Creek." Tuck spat a line of tobacco juice into the flames. "We've got Pat Garrett and his posse huntin' us on one side, and who knows what on the other."

Creek shook off the notion and unlocked the chamber of his sidearm. "Garrett's got guns and knows how to use 'em." He peered off into the dark to the flashes of lightning to the south. "These natives ain't got squat."

"I'd rather take my chances with Garrett," Tucky said.

Creek snapped the chamber of his weapon closed and jabbed the barrel at Tucky. "That's not in the plan."

"I think it's time the plan changed."

Creek slapped his gun down on the loot next to the dying flames. "We take this bag, run west to California, and cash ourselves out."

Tucky snatched his hat and sprang to his feet. "Nowhere in this plan did it mention a thing about natives that can't be killed neither!"

His elder partner pulled out a tobacco kit and rolled another smoke. "Calm down, Tuck." He lifted the paper cylinder to his mustached mouth and licked it. "Fear don't suit you."

A rumble of thunder grew from over the southern hills and shook the ground under Tucky's boots. He snapped his head toward the looming natural wrath - his hand went for the Colt out of instinct.

"I don't like the looks of that."

Creek held his cig to the fire and brought the burning tobacco up to his lips. He released a plume of smoke into the growing breeze and sank into his tree. "Me either. We'll have to see if we can rustle up a good canyon soon." A coughing spasm overtook the trail-hardened criminal, bending him over at the hips.

"That ain't what I meant, Creek."

Tucky strode away from the light as more bright bolts darted across the desert skies. His youthful features froze at the illuminated skull taking shape on the leading edge of the storm. "It's them. They're here!"

Creek spat into the sand beside him and eased off the roots of his tree. The seasoned gunslinger sized up the swirling winds as the grainy grit stung his exposed hide. "Meh. It looks like a gully washer to me, Tuck. You're losin' it, amigo." He knelt to the loot sack and tied its rope off around the top. "At any rate, we'd best be movin' on. Toss me that statue over there, would ya?"

Tucky's eyes went back to the golden idol lying in the dust. Its glimmering eyes intensified as he took apprehensive steps forward. Kneeling down, he extended a hand hover over the gold, but let it linger a moment too long.

"Come on, Tuck! We're gonna get drenched soon."

The trinket's glare blinded him as the inexperienced thief lowered his fingers around it. "Nuh uh. No way, Creek." He stammered to his feet and shuffled away from the glowing treasure. "You want it, you come get it."

Creek took another drag off his smoke. "Ah, hell, boy." He stomped to Tucky's side. "What's all the . . . ?" His cig hit the dirt between his black boots and rolled around in the shifting winds.

"I warned ya," Tucky said. He jabbed a quaking index finger at the statue. "It's cursed."

A gust from the impending storm blew Tucky's hat off his head and out into the night. He held up a protective arm, turning southward. One flash after another raked across the dark in quick succession. In between gusts, he scanned the terrain for any signs of their predators. The blowing debris made it hard to discern, but Tucky could have sworn that he saw a fog rolling in among the sagebrush.

A sudden powerful gust bent their feeble fire and threatened to snuff it out. "Let's get to the horses and ride out," Creek said, staggering like a drunk in the winds.

Tucky stood motionless as a soupy mist snaked into their encampment, consuming everything below their kneecaps. "Too late."

He spun around as Creek climbed into saddle of his chestnut mare. "N-no!"

Wisps of the milky cloud slithered up around Creek's legs and jerked him out of the saddle to the ground. Bones snapped amidst enraged shrieks within the fog. The gunman howled to the sounds of his flesh ripping from the bone.

"Jesus. Creek?"

Tucky forced his numb legs to churn through the swirling mists toward his pal's horse. Flashes of red light pulsed here and there underneath the heavy cloud as he neared the garbled pleas for help.

"Creek?" He pulled his gun from its holster and inched the tip of his boot out to nudge whatever was left of his companion. "Cr—"

A bloody stump lunged out of the mists at Tucky's left shin. Its black coat had been shredded just below the elbow joint. He screamed, stumbled over something behind him, and plopped on his rump. "I-I gotta get outa here."

He lumbered to his painted horse and fumbled to get his left boot into the stirrup.

"Come on. Come on," he said as more hisses and feminine laughter engulfed him.

Tucky felt the brace of the foothold hit the front of his boot heel and heaved his bulky frame up into the saddle. Long, sinewy digits clamped around his lower leg. Tucky scrambled to swing his other leg over his horse and make a getaway. "Let loose, damn you!"

Before he could spur his ride, more inhuman claws tugged on his right leg. They had him by either extremity and yanked them hard into the fog. Tucky's horse whimpered as he felt its spine buckle beneath him.

"Oh, God."

Clusters of glowing red eyes drifted along the cloud's surface as he and his horse plunged into oblivion.

The End

Joshua Dyer is the author of several books and short stories. Many of his works have won the Reader's Choice Award from the Los Angeles Times. He has been writing for over fourteen years and is a member of the Western Writers of America. He lives in the hills of West Virginia with his wife and children.

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by Jeffrey Paolano

On the high west Texas plateau the sun draws moisture from all.

What is left is parched, leathered, crisped and jerked.

What is left is the search for water, the control of water, the ownership of water, and the battle for water's possession.

What is left are base human instincts sieved of gracious values, empathies and compassions.

* * *

Rene Harronwod navigates such terrain as a matter of course and fate. He having been born on the land is of the land being informed by the nature and character of the land.

* * *

Rene enters Saloon Number Seven, saunters to the bar without acknowledgement either by him to others or from others to him.

He approaches the spread, begins to build a plate of frijoles, boiled chicken, rice, and tortillas, proclaiming in sufficient voice for the barman to notice, "I'll have a schooner," without interfering in anyway with his construction of a substantial midday meal.

Balancing the plate in his left and the mug in his right he moves smartly to a chair situated against a wall, alight therein he will face the door.

He takes his seat, sips his beer and addresses the platter.

While so engaged, he in concealment draws his pistol, sliding the piece between seat and thigh.

As Rene gobbles at his food, and swigs of the suds, his survey of the room is ceaseless. Without acute demonstration, his eyes constantly scan, through their hazel light, taking all in, measuring spaces and distances.

Identifying persons and locating in his mind each individual while marking their movement or potential to move.

There is but little of Rene's body open to observation.

His long fingered, rather thin hands protrude from the frayed sleeve cuffs of his sun bleached shirt.

A garment, it may be said, long in need of water and soap.

His gangly neck supports a weathered face which disappears in the half-shadow of his wide brimmed Texas hat.

Above his lip there grows a brush. His need of a shave is several days past.

The nose is long and thin, high bridged, with small nostrils.

The cheek bones protrude high-up compounding a squint.

From, hands, face and neck one can discern there is little meat upon the bone past skin and sinew.

Seen through the hat shade, his eyebrows are substantial, tinted a full black as is the hair upon the back of the neck.

There is a suggestion of native blood although no one dare put the question.

Rene sports an abused leather vest, layered over his faded shirt, his jeans are worn to ruin, his boots crushed to mush.

In stark contrast his holster sheens of oil.

The weapon within of blued metal dressed with wooden handles is unremarkable, past it being a very serviceable model, well chosen.

The gun is a workman's tool, the option of the mechanic not the showman.

That said, to the practiced eye, the oil on the holster tells all.

* * *

The unsophisticated observer would remain unaware of any tension in the room, while the more experienced would detect a slow, but constant migration from the general area about Rene.

Over time even the uninitiated would discern all patrons other than Rene were now clustered about the space at some distance from Rene and none were located to his rear or sides.

His glass empty he raises it in invitation to the barman to bring his pitcher to replenish it. The barman promptly complies.

The uninitiated might think he, the barman, is but providing attentive service.

The seasoned might clearly see he wants in the worst way to limit his exposure to Rene's general vicinity.

To the left of the swinging doors hangs a substantial pendulum wall clock, advertising via an etching on its crystal the Sonora and Colorado Railroad and Transit Company.

The pendulum is capped by a round brass plate something on the order of eight inches. Apparently the weight is the genesis of the brilliant clock tock which with constancy fills the theatre.

The clock now reveals it is a chimed clock as it plays a replica of London's Big Ben tune, followed by the noon-day strike.

While the gong ticks the hours, the swinging doors each open. Through the space strides a man of singular height and substance.

His head carries what in these parts is known as a planter's hat, black. His shirt is bright, white except at the neck line where the dust of the trail has melded with body sweat creating a brown stain around the throat.

He sports a frock coat, vest, and high boots.

Initial observation does not reveal a weapon although he may be carrying a pocket piece or belly gun.

He strides to the table at which Rene sits, "Mr. Harronwod forgive me for being blunt. Sometime in the past few days, I know not exactly when, the dam I constructed on Paulee Wash was dynamited. I ask you straight sir, do you have any knowledge?"

Rene puts down his fork, lifts the beer to wash down his gob, looks up to the man and says, "Mr. Gooslinger, I have cordially explained to you the realities of water rights in this country. Others, I understand, have also tried to apprise you of how we must share the water one and all for everyone's benefit. You have for whatever reason insisted on a concept of possession and control being the overwhelming considerations. I see no reason for us to continue this fruitless banter. I give you fair warning, you rebuild that dam I'll hunt you as I would a wolf," with that he raises his fork and resumes his repast.

"You should know sir; I will order my hands to fire upon you on sight should you venture onto my range," with this pronouncement Mr. Gooslinger spins on his heel.

His posse follows him through the swinging doors.

The barman appears at the table, pours from the pitcher filling the bowl, while questioning, "What you gon'a do now?"

"I'll have to kill the bastard, seems like, dumb bastard," keen listening might reveal a despondent note in Rene's voice.

Rene rises, throws two dimes on the table and strides towards the door. This time his advance is accompanied by friendly grunts and head nods, to which he makes no reply.

* * *

Once at his rancho, he packs a mule.

He puts on the cross tree. Then loads the bags with tent, pans, salt, pepper flakes, frijoles, plates, cups, spoons, fly rod, fire grate and other truck, a jug of Who Bit John, hangs the bags on the tree, and diamond hitches the pack up tight.

With the available mule deer meat, prairie chickens, trout, wild onions, berries, pine nuts, cattail root and rattlesnake, he's good for a month, maybe a bit more.

He leaves his doors unlocked, leaves wood in the bin and a note on the table asking whoever passes through to wash up what they use.

Then he's off to the mountains.

If he's in for a fight, he wants to sleep where no one can find him. Deep in the mountains is ideal for that purpose.

His horse and mule are walking, not to overheat in the midday sun. Rene drifts in half slumber.

The azure sky scuds with white clouds, birds sing in the grass tips while the smell of mesquite and sage sweetens the air.

Eventually, he dismounts, loosens the belly belt of the horse, hobbles it and the mule, and then stretches out with his head on the water bag for a pillow to smoke a cigarito.

His heavenly survey reveals circling buzzards arise on the wind, waiting for whatever dies beneath to expire.

Rene thinks possibly an old cow or bull, possibly a young calf, maybe just the afterbirth or the remains of a deer after a puma or wolf has had a feed.

His mind plays about with the possibilities as he lingers over his smoke and absorbs the day's pleasures.

Once more in the saddle, the trail leads beneath the gliding birds. He is slightly aroused at the thought of the minor amusement in discovering the correctness of his musing as to the cause of the birds' congregation.

First, to appear is a dog cart, squat in the grass, appearing for all the world deserted. Upon closer inspection there is revealed a faded calico dress, at initial glance appearing to be empty but then there is exposed a body within. The head sheltered by a prairie sun bonnet.

Rene leaps from his pony. He addresses the form, feeling at the neck for a pulse, raising an eyelid, then feels for warmth in the cheek.

The young woman is alive.

Rene secures his water bag in a trice, washes the girl's face, wets her bodice then dribbles a small amount of the liquid on her lips.

He removes his kerchief, rinses it several times then places the wet cloth on her lower face.

He pulls the cart forward situating it over the girl then places a blanket across the trace handles to create a patch of shade.

He splashes additional water on the cloth across her mouth, being rewarded with a moan accompanied by a movement of the girl's head.

"Now, ma'am we're in good shape now, I've plenty of water, we're not that far from cover and we can have a meal right smart, no worries now, we're in good shape, ma'am," coos Rene while he awaits her further revival.

He takes notice that her face is blistering.

He uses his knife to scrap the inside of a wheel hub for grease as well as the chest of his horse for sweat with these he mixes a slimy concoction which he slathers on the girl's damaged skin.

Her apparent delicacy is not lost on him. His prurient thoughts a shameful embarrassment to a man of honor and are quickly suppressed.

The girl tries to sit-up, "You might want to stay down for a while," encourages Rene.

"I must get my baby," says the girl the shrillness in her voice betrays an anxiety verging on panic.

Rene is shocked at this revelation, frantically he searches the area for a sign of an infant, "I see no baby, Miss, you sure you ain't dreaming?"

Now the girl rolls to her knees and pushes herself up on the cart handles. With hands on the cart for support she makes her way back to the cart box uncovering a swaddled babe, "Here she is," says the girl triumphantly. She cuddles the wee one.

Then decorously turns for the sake of decorum sake to undo her dress in preparation to suckle the child.

Rene turns back to while over his shoulder he questions, "Do you have everything you need, ma'am?"

"Yes, we're fine thanks," says the girl her attention riveted on the mite.

After some while Rene is able to organize a caravan, wherein he pulls the dog cart, while the horse reins are attached thereto, the girl occupies the cart with the babe in arms and the mule's halter is tied to the horse's tail.

Slowly, the train makes its way to the shelter of the tree line at the base of the foothills guarding the approach to the mountains.

Rene follows along a game trail, which guides the group up the hills onto the mountain side, then higher into the rocks, crevices and caves.

In this area Rene believes shelter is to be found.

His diligence is rewarded with an overhang, deep enough to shelter the three while a meadow adjacent will serve the animals. Within an outcrop a small though adequate spring weeps. The smoke of their fire will rise against the stone to be torn by the eddying breeze. Their presence should not be exposed.

In front of the overhang, are arranged several large boulders which will shield them as well as provide a vantage point for observation of the approach.

In short order, Rene has unloaded the packs, hobbled the animals in the lea, arranged ground cloths, blankets, begun a fire and is ready to sally forth in search of a mule deer.

Short an hour later finds the two with coffee, a roast on the spit and the baby now wailing in good health.

Rene has strung the deer skin on a stretcher. He has begun to scrape the hide persuading Pauline ('twas the young ladies name) to reveal her history.

"John, that's my husband, he was my husband, and I came out from Ohio. We had been told the grasslands contained riches to be uncovered and through hard work we could make our fortune. We scraped and saved, borrowed from family and put together the wherewithal for a wagon, provisions and the necessary animals."

"We came across under the direction of a professional guide Captain Barings who brought a passel of us pioneers to this country of bounty to become homesteaders on the free land."

"We chose our claim, built our cairns, raised a Soddy and John broke the prairie."

"Soon after, Indians spirited away our livestock and there was nothing for it but John must pursue them."

"We were without friends, neighbors, anyone to lend assistance."

"When next I saw John, all that remained were his bones and the clothes he wore."

"I found him when I ventured out, having born Mercy, the baby, run out of food and was desperate in the face of starvation."

"Within a few miles of our claim, I came upon John's body. I had not the strength to dig a proper grave. There were no stones about to pile over his remains, and so I left him there, to my shame, exposed to the elements without the benefit of a Christian burial."

"I traveled but little further and succumbed to hunger as well as the sun's glare, as you found me."

"That is my story. I can only say how very grateful Mercy and me are to you for saving our lives."

"You have my sympathy for the loss of your husband. Texas is a harsh land. There are heavy demands on those who would reside thereon," says Rene hoping to sound a sympathetic note.

"Yes, I am aware," whispers Pauline seemingly involved in preoccupying thoughts of other matters.

"A penny for your thoughts, if I not be prying," allows Rene in a most genteel manner.

"No, it's not prying, it's as obvious as the nose on your face, I've nothing, the claim has no worth, and nothing of value remains there. We had no china, crystal, fancy clock, mirror or other trinket of substance. I am a pauper and must find a way in this world for myself and my child," her declaration could easily have been that of a flimflam although it was laid in such transparency and innocence, Rene preferred to think not.

Rene studied the young woman a moment then having evaluated her attributes said, "In the morning we'll make for the town, Locerton, there you will be able to discuss your circumstances with the Parson. I'm confident some solution will become apparent," Rene believes he delivered a solicitous and calmative message.

"Thank you Mr. Harronwod, you are most kind," says the young mother, her babe nesting at her breast.

A comfortable arrangement of ground cloth and blankets is developed close on to the fire, snug indeed.

Thereon mother and daughter will pass the night in comfort.

* * *

Daybreak finds Rene sparking the fire, slicing venison, and brewing up some coffee.

Pauline sleeps on having awakened several times during the night to perform the necessaries for the infant.

Now as the sun breaks into the cut away, Pauline rouses, "Good morning Mr. Harronwod," she gives out with a gay air.

"You sound much revived," observes Rene joyously.

"I am. I feel quite grand," proclaims the young mother as she fusses with her charge.

Modestly, she turns away from the man's eyes, allowing for privacy as the infant feeds.

At this moment of calm and bliss a shot rings out, the pellet ricochets on the rock face.

Rene grabs for his long gun then clambers up on the outcrop.

He shields his eyes from the sun's glare with his hands cupped about his eyes while he surveys the area in search of the shooter.

"I have you Mr. Harronwod, you've reached the end of the trail I'm afraid. We can prolong this or you may step out bringing the matter to a close. Which will it be long or short?" The voice of Mr. Gooslinger is easily recognized by Rene's ear.

"Mr. Gooslinger, we've a complication here. I am traveling with a young mother and her child. We must arrange to remove the two from danger," shouts Rene down to the crowd of gunmen below.

"I'm afraid that is not possible. Obviously, the woman released to tell the tale of events here would not be to my advantage. I see no profit in her being allowed to escape. I believe I will have to account of her as an accomplice in the matter," retorts the pursuer.

Rene lays upon his back upon the rock, in disbelief that this man means to harm innocents in his prosecution of his perceived rights. "I can't believe your crowd will participate in the murder of an innocent woman and her infant."

"Well, we can take a tally if you like, but I'm rather sure the consensus is they would like to be paid and to be paid they must pursue my interests, so there you have it. That's enough palaver, what will it be fast or slow? If you have a young woman with you I should think prolonging the inevitable would only heighten the discomfort. Why not step forward and bring the matter to a hasty end?"

A shot grazes the rock close by Rene. A gunman must have worked his way up on the rock face above the cut-out positioning himself to be able to fire down upon Rene.

Rene keenly appeals once more to Gooslinger's humanity, "Mr. Gooslinger, please don't do this. Let the woman and her child go. They are not part of any of this."

"I've given you your choice. You don't want to make a decision so I'll make it for you."

Rene scurries back into the overhang, Pauline huddles with the baby, in a haze, distracted from clear thinking, "Pauline, listen to me," Rene gently shakes her by the shoulders. Her look is vacuous, "I believe despite what he says, he just wants me. I believe if he is pursuing me he will leave you be."

Rene sees in Pauline's face unmitigated fear, raw, ragged terror, probably not so much for herself as for her child. "Look, you've plenty of water, there is cooked meat. You've enough to get you to town. You've the cart. There is just a matter of putting one foot in front of another until you reach safety," he hopes by putting it so simply it will encourage her, fortuitously he sees that she appears to buck up.

He sees a determination return to her, a determination to overcome, to succeed, a determination to bring her darling daughter through to safety.

They fill the water bag, wrap up the cooked meat, then the young mother and the child locate in a hidden recess in the back of the overhang with the provisions.

They are not completely hidden however; it may be enough if Gooslinger's men only make a courser search.

Rene considers rigorously the option of leaving the pistol with Pauline. In the end he believes there is a greater opportunity for him to do damage to the assailants rather than her. Further, without a weapon there is a slight chance she might be addressed with pity and compassion something not as likely if she has killed one or more of their number.

Rene checks the loads in his long gun and his pistol.

His objective is crystal clear to him, that is, to kill Gooslinger.

The gunmen have no opportunity to profit from this enterprise once Gooslinger is dead.

There is a better than even chance they will depart, leaving Rene, Pauline and the child to make their escape.

Rather, than present himself frontally to the aggressors, Rene moves to the outside edge of the overhang, drops to his belly, with his long gun tucked through his belt on his back. He endeavors to crawl out into the rock field.

He angles towards the rock face eventually finding a chimney. Bracing his feet and back against its sides he will be able to jack his body up and out where he will then be located on the ledge rock above the overhang.

Danger lay in being spotted by the gunmen. If they observe him he will be an easy target to dispatch with several firing at the same time concentrating the deadly volley.

The long gun is a problem. His solution is to slip the long gun through his belt at his front; it will be cumbersome but should serve.

Rene begins his ascent, pushing against the inner plane of the chimney with feet and back, shoving with his hands.

Soon the shirt on his back is shredded and his hands bleed from the abrasive nature of the rock face.

He gains the ledge.

Immediately he is presented a new dilemma. The child is bawling. Within the overhang the sound is amplified out over the belligerents.

Fading within mesquite shadow, he crouches, "Shut her up, oh God shut her up," a mournful plea, unable to be heard by the young mother, but the only refrain possible for Rene in his desperate predicament.

The climb has taxed him, the time in the chimney, under the full assault of the sun, exaggerates his thirst.

His hands are shredded and his back abraded.

At the worst possible moment, Rene's mind is befuddled.

He experiences a light headedness.

A tendency to want to keel over which he cannot resolve with a vigorous shake of his head.

He crawls in amongst the mesquite, scrapes a cavity and places his face against the cool earth. Within a space of several minutes, relief is his.

There persists a sharp pain within the top of his head.

He rubs his hands with dust to coat the scuffs thereby mitigating his exposure to pain to some degree.

Thus fortified he pursues his quarry.

In his reckoning he knows at least one gunman is on the ledge rock with him however, logic suggests more than one made the climb.

A team would be safer than a lone man.

Rene keeps to the mesquite cover, crawling through attempting to locate one of the gunmen.

Eventually he realizes his objective. He sees a man sitting on a rock, his pistol in his hands hanging down before him between his legs, appearing rather lethargic.

Rene waits.

His patience is rewarded when another man shows himself.

The two palaver, in a heated fashion. Eventually, they reach some agreement and both proceed out over the rock ledge to peer down into the overhang. They both lay on their stomachs, with their heads down over the rock face.

Rene leaps up, runs pell-mell up to the two and when about ten feet away fires a shot with his pistol into the back of one assailant and then the other.

One of the gunmen spins about firing at Rene, catching him in the flesh at his side just above the waist. The round passes through.

Rene fires one more shot into each to assure they are dispatched.

As he stands above the men, firing his pistol a shot rings out from below. The missile catches him in the left shoulder. The bone is not broken but the arm is disabled.

Immediately, he retreats to the mesquite and proceeds in a crouch along a line that will allow him to observe if others are on the ledge rock and to gain the approach the gunmen took to reach the ledge rock.

Rene's thinking is the men below will not anticipate that he will come down the way their compatriots went up.

With the wounds in his side and shoulder, Rene is somewhat clumsy as he struggles to navigate the steep incline.

With each dislodged rock or miniature slide, he is fearful of his discovery, however, his luck prevails.

He is able to slip into the shadows of the Pinon pines without detection.

Navigating about under this cover, Rene is able to discover the deployment of the posse.

He is able in short order to locate Gooslinger as he has about him several men at all times.

Rene considers his best opportunity will be to await Gooslinger's need to relieve himself. When he moves off for privacy Rene might position himself for a shot.

Several hours pass before Gooslinger moves to a tree, unbuttons his pants begins to urinate.

As Gooslinger begins to move, away from the group, Rene anticipates this might be his opportunity and slithers through the underbrush to position himself appropriately.

Now he is located a scant ten yards from Gooslinger, as Gooslinger attends to his needs.

Rene quickly stands in order to obtain clear fire over the Pinon and brush putting a round through Gooslinger's chest.

Gooslinger is dead before he crumples to the ground.

Immediately, a volley of fire is unleashed by the gunmen about, leaving Rene wounded on the ground.

In addition to the previous wounds in his shoulder, and side, he now is punctured in the thigh, stomach and lung.

The men gather about him.

To his good fortune, the men's desire to torture him outweighs their good sense in assuring his dispatch. They resolve to leave him to bleed out in pain rather than to humanely dispatch him.

This last barbarism, caps their abhorrent conduct.

They gather their goods, mount and move off.

Some time passes while Rene lays upon the ground his life's blood spilling out into the dust.

The wounds now festering are excruciatingly painful. He writhes as each damaged location expresses a harrowing throbbing.

The wounds in aggregation put his teeth on edge, cause his muscles to cramp and excite his extremities to twitch.

There is naught he can do to improve his circumstances. The damage to his arm and leg prevent any meaningful locomotion.

In delirium, no longer conscious of the pain, he awaits the inevitable.

Eventually, Pauline appears, pulling the cart.

She has the water and cooked meat, as well as the stalwart heart necessary to execute her intention to gain refuge thereby securing the safety of her child, in the town.

She is greatly buoyed by her discovery of Rene.

"Oh, Mr. Harronwod, I'm so happy to see you're alive. I'll help you into the cart," Pauline is naïve in her enthusiasm for she has not the strength to lift Rene into the cart.

Alternatively, the severely wounded man is unable to assist her sufficiently to achieve his placement in the vehicle.

After several attempts reveal the impossibility of achieving the desired result, Pauline ringing her hands laments, "Mr. Harronwod, what am I to do? I can't move you. I don't have the skills to tend to your wounds. Shall I make a camp here? Place you on the ground cloth and cover you with blankets, possibly I could rig a cover to shield you from sun and rain. Oh, Heavens what shall I do?"

Her dreadful lack of competency plays havoc with her dignity.

Her failure to adequately address the situation manifests as a dishonorable reality.

"Ma'am there is but one thing to do. I can lay here and bleed out or you can mercifully put a bullet in my brain, ending my suffering. I pray you ma'am, please release me from my agony."

In this way, the strong willed mother bent on rescuing the life of her daughter must address a horrific choice.

Pauline, in the face of the barbaric demands of the West Texas plains, relinquishes her innocence.

The End

Mr. Paolano writes fiction in southeastern Ohio.

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Death Trail
by Bruce Harris

Cloverdale and Big Black, their horseshoes leaving perfect imprints in the soft soil, simultaneously felt the reins tighten as they pulled up in front of Polk City's assay office. The stage's big wheels slowed to a complete stop. The few townspeople loitering nearby took no notice. His boots still perched on the raised footrest; Sykes Thompson turned his head, spit, and rested the beaten leather reins near his boot heel. "Okay, we're in Polk City. Happy?" he said in a raised voice. He leaned over and with a gloved hand knocked twice on the wagon's door. Sykes stared at the town's lone saloon, licked cracked lips, and then with the back of his heel wrapped again on the door below. "Out! You were in such a hurry to get here. Well, we're here."

Thompson's riding partner, Billy Tucker showed nicotine-stained teeth as he aimed, and then tossed a dead cigar between the horses. Gray ash ticked off of Cloverdale's rump before settling on the ground. "It's good to see Polk City again. Haven't been here in months." As if he were reading Thompson's mind, he said, "Whaddya say we go get us a couple a drinks? I sure could use one, or two, or three after this here trip." The trip to which Billy Tucker referred was, in a word, hell. Not that it took a long time. A one and a half hour ride was nothing. Tucker and Thompson's normal route covered over two hundred miles from west Kansas territory to the Oklahoma border, a trip that on a good day lasted a few days. The pathway, or lack thereof, made the leg from Flatbed Flats to Polk City challenging. The clearing, if one could call it that was narrow, full of rocks, with winding sharp turns, some at nearly 90-degree angles barely cut into the steep end of rugged mountainside. Three stagecoaches within the last few months had completely turned over killing the horses, drivers and coach occupants. "Death trail," folks called it. The poor safety record had forced the hand of The Haystack Company, owners of the stage line. They had sent a crew out to widen the pathway and make it safer. Despite their best efforts over several weeks, most drivers refused to take the route. Tucker and Thompson, both long in the teeth, were familiar with these parts, and actually were not only anxious to accept a challenge, but were looking forward to seeing Polk City again.

It was Thompson who spoke next. "Damn, what's the matter with that guy? He still drunk?" He stomped both boots down hard. It briefly surprised Cloverdale and Big Black. He raised his voice. "Hey! You in there! Get out! Last stop! Polk City! Out!" The two drivers exchanged glances, cursed, and jumped down off their respective perches. Tucker grabbed the reins and secured them to a nearby hitching post. Thompson opened the stagecoach door. He was about to yell again, but the lifeless body of a man, silver pearl handle knife protruding from his back, slumped out of the semi comfort of the stagecoach and onto the ground.

"Well I'll be damned!" blurted Thompson. "Billy, come quick, Get a load a this."

"What's the matt . . . " Tucker stopped. He regained composure and moved closer to the facedown body. "Guess that explains why he didn't come outta there on his own."

The townspeople gathered around like ants to bacon. Men pointed, and stared. Women turned away and shielded the eyes of the young. Big Black glanced back, snorted, almost as if to say, "You mean we traversed this horrendous trail for nothing? For a dead man?" Or, maybe she was just upset that the prostrate body had obliterated several perfect dirt horseshoe imprints. A man in the growing crowd yelled, "Someone fetch the Sheriff!"

Sykes Thompson scratched three days' worth of chin hair. Barely audible, he muttered to no one, "Good idea." He was quiet. Thinking. He turned toward his riding partner. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking, Billy?"

Tucker, four thin fingers of each hand embedded in his jean pockets, rocked back and forth. His free thumbs rubbed carved horns on his enlarged silver belt buckle. "You meaning, it ain't possible? That what you thinkin?"

Thompson nodded. "How in the heck? I don't right git it." Thompson looked back, sensing discord and an uneasiness among the crowd. They didn't exactly part like the sea. Sheriff Stock pushed his way through the thickening throngs until he approached the eye of the storm. He stared down at the dead man, then at Thompson and Tucker. He kneeled down, examined the knife and the deadly wound more closely, and then stretched upward his six-foot, one-inch frame. "What happened Sykes?" he asked, never taking his eyes off the body.

"Yer in luck, Sheriff!" came a voice from the crowd. As if one, the mass merged closer to the scene. "Looks like you'll get to fill that empty jail cell of yours after all, if you could find out who done this, that is!" Laughter erupted from the small but growing crowd. Sadly, Sheriff Stock's growing reputation was that he couldn't put the town drunk behind bars. "Perfect timing for a dead to show up around here, huh Sheriff?" That led to more anonymous snickering.

Stock ignored the heckler. Above the crowd's growing chatter, "Sykes, what happened?"

It had been nearly two years since Sykes Thompson had set foot in Polk City and seen Sheriff Stock. Thompson thought the lawman had aged within that short time. Thompson couldn't put a finger on it. It wasn't simply the extra skin lines or hair color change that had given the sheriff an older look, just an overall softer appearance. Had he been more familiar with the goings on in Polk City, Thompson would have known that Sheriff Stock's job was on the line. He was under terrible pressure from the U.S. Marshall in the territory to lock someone up. There was nothing but cobwebs in the single cell jail. Rightly or wrong, Stock was getting a reputation of being an ineffective lawman. The one thing Thompson had noticed immediately was Stock's distinctive felt hat, beige with howling coyotes imprinted on each side. It had been custom-made in San Francisco. No one had ever seen anything similar. "Damnedest thing, Sheriff. Me and Billy pull up and we have us a dead passenger." Stock said nothing. Billy Tucker, anxious to get in on things, chimed in.

"He's right 'bout that, Sheriff. Don't make none sense. We's come on up from Flatbed Flats—"

"Flatbed Flats? You two . . . " the Sheriff hesitated a moment, briefly looked down toward the knife, " . . . and him rode in from Flatbed Flats?"

"Yessir. Had us one heck of a trip, too."

"I don't doubt that. Latest I heard is that a couple of stages toppled over trying to make that trip. Don't know when someone's gonna do something about that path. How bad was it?"

"Is he dead?" shouted someone from back of the crowd. "Murdered? Looks like someone will be in jail soon enough for this. I can't wait to see who it is. Drinks will be on me!"

The three men nearest the body ignored the crowd's comments. Thompson addressed Stock. "Bad trip, sheriff. Real bad. Heck, I thought we was gonners a couple a times. Miracle we stayed upright, 'specially comin' 'round near by Trout Rock. That's Big Black and old Cloverdale fer you. Best damn team this side of Colorado territory. That was a doozy, let me tell ya. Right, Billy?" Tucker nodded.

"I can't figger it," said Stock. "I don't think this poor guy stabbed himself in the back without no help. He was alive when you picked him up, I reckon?"

The two drivers looked at each other. "Sure, Sheriff. 'Course he was. I mean, he needed help and all gettin' into the coach, but he was livin' and breathin' I ain't got no doubt."

"Whaddya you mean he needed help?"

"C'mon, Sheriff! Who's the dead man?" It was Stevens the town's barber.

Stock bent down toward the deceased again. He placed a large, thin hand between sand and head and angled the dead man's face upward enough to get a look. "Well I'll be a sonofagun!"

"What is it, Sheriff? Who is he?"

Stock turned toward the crowd. "Ya'll get along now. Go on. Everyone, back up and go back to your homes and businesses. This here is a matter for the law."

"Oh, c'mon Sheriff. Let us know who this is. What happened? Are you fixin' to bring some outlaw in for this? And fill our jail? Hallelujah!"

The Sheriff lifted his signature hat away from the top of his forehead, wiped sweat, and replaced the unique headpiece. "This here dead man is none other than Dustin Brown!" In the sheriff's mind, he pictured a warm body finally occupying the cell, his job saved.

"Who?" Thompson and Tucker shouted simultaneously. "Never heard a him," added Tucker.

"Never mind that now. Tell me what happened from when he walked into the stage in Flatbed Flats." He looked at Thompson, figuring he'd get a story with less rambling.

"Well, he didn't exactly walk in, I mean, not really. We told you he needed help."

"What're you sayin' he didn't walk in? What kinda help?"

"That's right, Sheriff," interjected Tucker. "A nice lady done helped him out 'cause he was a staggerin' drunk."

"Drunk? How do you know?" Again, Stock looked toward Thompson for a response.

"Like Billy says, he was so bad drunk he couldn't barely walk so this woman helped him into the stage. She said he had too much to drink. Bein' there was a saloon only 'bout 50 feet up the road, well that explained it."

Sheriff Stock's eyes widened. "So she killed him before she helped him . . . "

"Looka here Sykes." Billy Tucker pointed into the empty stagecoach. "Ain't no box! It's done gone!"

"Whoa. Well, I'll be. You sure?"

"Sure as this here Dustin Brown's a dead man."

Sheriff Stock sighed. "You two mind telling me what box? What you're talking about?"

Thompson didn't look at the Sheriff. His head bobbed in and around the stagecoach as if he'd missed the box the first two times he looked. "It belonged to Mr. Brown here." Sykes straightened and turned, glanced briefly at Brown and then turned his attention back to Stock. "That woman who helped him," he pointed toward Brown, "made a point of telling Billy and me that the box was his," he nodded in Brown's direction as if no one would know to whom he was referring. "This box belongs to him she said and set it down in this Brown's lap. She said she took it out of the saloon, lest he'd forget it on account of his having too much to drink. Now, it's gone. He's dead and his box is gone."

Sheriff Stock had heard enough. "Boxes don't just disappear. Far as I know, ain't no ghosts here in Polk City. Ain't none in Flatbed Flats neither. Maybe someone stole it. Ya know, grabbed it right outta the stage."

"No sir," retorted Thompson, "ain't nobody stole nothin' from underneath me and Billy. No chance of that happenin'."

The sheriff thought for a second. "Box musta fallin' out during the trip."

"Sure. Sure! That's it!" chimed Billy Tucker. "Bet it fall off around Trout Rock whens we nearly tumbled over."

"Reckon you're right about that, Billy. We can backtrack the trail and see if we can find it. But, that don't explain a man with a knife in his back. He didn't put it there himself, so I'm sayin' that woman who helped him into the stage put it there and killed him and I got me a good suspicion of who that woman is."

"Nope." Sykes Thompson sounded confident.

"Nope what?"

"Nope, she didn't kill him. He was alive during the trip over here, won't he, Billy?"

Billy Tucker picked up where Thompson was going. "True enough, Sheriff. Man was alive enough. Wouldn't stop jabberin'.

The Sheriff tried to make sense out of it. "Jabberin'? You mean you two was talking to him during the ride?" Again, he turned toward Thompson for the answer.

But it was Billy Tucker who obliged. "Yup."

"Well, what did he say?"

"Nothin'. I mean, he just kept askin' if we was in Polk City yet."

"What did you say?"

"Nothin'. I mean, we just kept tellin' him not yet. Until we was, that is."

The hat came off Sheriff Stock's head exposing graying hair, shined by a pomade and sweat mixture. Frustrated, he scratched, replaced the hat. He spoke directly at Thompson. "Sykes, during the trip, this here Dustin Brown asked you about Polk City?"

"Yessir, Sheriff. Like Billy says, he asked a few times about Polk City. Are we in Polk City? I believe that's what he asked. Are we in Polk City?"


"That's all he asked."

"And, you spoke to him too?"

"Like Billy says, we told him we wasn't there yet but we'd tell him sure enough when we got there. Guess he was just nervous 'bout the rough ride even if he was drunk. Can't say I blames him much. It was a helluva trip, 'specially—"

"Wait. Let me get this straight," Stock interrupted. "You two start in Flatbed Flats—"

Thompson stopped him. "Nope. We hitched our stage back in Tudury. Took a well-dressed man and woman to Flatbed Flats. They got outta the stage. Billy and me waited a few minutes thinkin' we wasn't pickin' us up any new passengers to Polk City. After awhile, we got us up on the coach to head on out, and that's when this woman helps shove the drunken Mr. Brown over here into the stage. She was polite enough. Say, is this the woman—"

"Stop! I wanna be as clear as old Doc Jackson's glass eye 'bout this. You were 'bout to pull outta Flatbed Flats with an empty stage, and a woman helps a man, this Dustin Brown into the stagecoach. She tells you he's a drunk. Then, she places a small box on his lap and walks away. That about right?"


"Okay then," Stock continued, "The trip is rough. We all know how difficult it can be. During the ride, the drunk man inside the coach talks to you. He asks if you are in Polk City. Twice?"

"Nope. More than a couple a times. Whaddya think Billy? More than a couple?"

"Yup, more than a couple a times is 'bout right."

"So he asks if you are in Polk City maybe three times or four. Good. You answered him. Then, when you finally arrive, the man ain't speakin' no more on account of he's got a knife in his back and he's dead. It ain't possible."

Thompson grinned. "And the box that was on his lap is missin'."

"Right. Right. This ain't possible. A man can't stab himself in the back." The Sheriff was thinking out loud, talking to himself. Nothing was easy. Maybe he wouldn't be able to bring anyone in and charge him or her with murder. Would he ever get to slam the jail door shut and lock it? He sighed, turned a bit grayer. Then, "Deputy! Where's Monroe?"

A man in his mid-twenties emerged from the crowd. He could have passed for a teen. He still looked forward to the day when he'd need a shave. "Deputy, git Perkins and Bell and move this crowd away from here. Then the three of ya take care of this body. Me and these two have some business back in Flatbed Flats. Get me my horse, and saddle up two fresh horses for Sykes and Billy. Oh, and deputy," he paused.

"Yes, sheriff?"

"Prepare the jail cell for a visitor!"

"Yessir!" screamed Monroe, "Yessir!"

Tucker's shoulders dropped. "We headin' to Flatbed Flats, Sheriff? We gots to leave right now? Shoot, I was kinda wishin' to whiskey wettin' my whiskers first over in the—"

"No! Now. A man's been murdered and I aim to show the killer we got laws in this here territory."

The three rode in silence, carefully backtracking the path the stagecoach had trekked. Just outside of Polk City, around the sharp bend at Trout Rock, Sykes pulled up, broke the silence. "The box! There's the box!" He dismounted and picked it up. "Empty. Well, if that don't beat all. There ain't nothin' in it but a little dirt!"

"Well, whatever was in there musta fallen out," replied Stock. "Let me take a closer look." The sheriff examined inside and out closely. "Interesting."

"What's so interesting?" questioned Thompson.

"Might not be anything. Then again, might be something."

The two stagecoach drivers looked blankly at each other. "Should we keep the box?" asked Sykes Thompson."

The Sheriff thought a moment. "Sure. Never can tell. Let's move on. We got us some business in Flatbed Flats."

Thompson finally asked. "Sheriff, how'd you know the dead man's name is Dustin Brown? And, who is this woman done helped Brown into the stage? You gotta tell us . . . "

* * *

Dustin Brown lifted the corner of the faced-down card one more time, just to be sure. He knew what was there, but felt better seeing the large 'A' again. The freshly clipped thin cigar he smoked matched manicured thin fingers. To his left, Stinky Peterson wiped a freckled brow with a badly stained handkerchief. Stinky took two large gulps of what was his fifth or sixth beer, and looked around the small saloon anxious to order another. Two other players, both smoking nearly identical scarred old bent pipes completed the foursome. Sam Joiner puffed his gently beat-up briar sending quick pops of acrid smoke upward, adding to the poisonous atmosphere. This was his hand, a winning hand, a full house. He couldn't afford to lose another dollar. Melissa, his wife, the love of his life pleaded with him to stay at home. He couldn't. Not this time. This would be the last time he promised himself, Melissa, and their 16-year-old son, Jack. Sam hated to think about the money he'd lost gambling over the years. He figured it was in his blood, though. His father had died broke, betting on anything from cards, to coin flips, to rifle shooting contests, to who would be the last man standing after a pistol duel. Sam grew up broke. But, Sam knew in his heart he was better than his old man. He'd fight the urge. Once more, tonight, and then he'd be finished with this addiction. Now, the five cards in front of him confirmed his self-made promise. He glanced briefly at the other players, and then slowly shoved three even stacks of silver dollars and gold coins toward the already large pile of currency at the table's center. Through clenched teeth, "Gentlemen, I'm all in. Anyone going to see me? Anyone feelin' lucky?" his glance lingered on Dustin Brown.

The other pipe smoker, Frederick Mulholland, took the pipe from his mouth, folded his cards and shook his head. "I'm out. Ain't got me nothin'."

An almost imperceptible grin crossed Brown's face. Without taking his eyes off of Joiner, he matched the bet, adding to the pile. This brought a certain quiet inside Muldoon's, broken by the scraping of chair legs across pock-marked wooden floor panels as the other saloon patrons gathered around the table to watch. "Stinky, your call."

Stinky's head spun, a combination of too much beer and a feeling of claustrophobia as the onlookers pressed closer. "Mmmeee, umm, Mmeee, umm, umm, I'mmm out. Yup, I'mm, umm, out." He could barely get the words out.

This was a draw, two men facing off with cards in their hands instead of guns. "Whatcha got, Sam?"

Sam Joiner exposed his full house, Kings over Tens. The pile of money would be his. He'd be able to stop spending time in dark saloons around card tables. He'd be the husband and father he always wanted to be. Joiner thought about leaving Flatbed Flats. Heck, there was nothing there to keep him. He'd bring his family out west, where the air was freshest and salmon fishing plentiful. Jack Joiner didn't know how to fish proper. "How could he?" thought Sam, "Not in this town. There ain't no fishin.'" He was going to remedy that. It's funny how a mind wanders at pivotal moments. His thoughts turned to a small fire, him and Jack cooking the fish they had just removed from hooks. They are with Melissa in the kitchen, a freshly baked apple pie cooling at the windowsill. Church. He'd see to it that the Joiners began attending church regularly. He'd have a reason to worship and to give thanks. Sam pictured Melissa dressed in her Sunday best, holding hands in the pew, and Jack getting the spiritual education he lacked. He even thought that perhaps Jack would join the church choir. Since he was a youngster, Jack whistled and softly sang to himself, his voice smooth, comforting, and mellow. Jack would leave one life for another, a healthier and much happier—

"Aces over Queens. Sorry, Sam."

A collective roar from the gathered nearly served as a fan scattering the stagnant smoky air. Dustin Brown wrapped two large hands around the mountainous pile of money and slowly brought it closer toward his black leather vest.

"You cheated! You cheated! You dealt yourself that last Ace of Clubs. Admit it, Brown! Admit it right now!"

As quickly as the roar erupted, it stopped. Dustin Brown continued gathering his money. Without looking up, "Sam, why don't you go home to your wife and boy. I'll just pretend you said nothing."

"You can't take that money, Dustin! That's my money! You cheated me out of my money!"

"Them's serious words, Sam. Anyone here see me cheat?" He looked around the room."

"I don't care! You're a cheater! I'm gonna kill you—"

News of Sam's accusation and the shooting travelled more quickly than tornado-driven tumbleweed. When it reached the Joiner home, Melissa was out. Jack took it hard. He grabbed a rifle and headed toward Muldoon's. It was barely a 100-yard walk. "Everyone out!" screeched the teary-eyed youngster. When he saw his father dead on the saloon's floor, blood puddle around him, he nearly fainted.

"Whoa, Jack. Just a dern minute there, son. Put that thing away. It was self-defense. Your daddy shot first. Mr. Brown had no other choice," cried the bartender.

Jack heard not a word. "Everyone outta here 'ceptin' him," pointing the rifle at Brown. "You stay! You killed my Pa. I'm gonna kill you! Everyone, out!"

The remaining customers slowly filed out, looking over their shoulders as they did.

"That includes you too, Mr. Stackhouse. Outside." The bartender removed his aprons, shook his head, and exited.

"Now, it's just me and you, Mr. Brown," said Jack. Actually, that wasn't true. Stinky Peterson had passed out and lay unobserved on the floor.

Dustin Brown remained calm. "Listen to me, Jack, you are making a big mistake. This here was not my fault. I had to defend myself. You heard what Frank, er, Mr. Stackhouse had to say. Ask anyone. Go ahead. They'll tell ya, your Pa drew first. I'm sorry, Jack, I really am." Dustin Brown began walking slowly toward Jack.

"Stop talking! Stop walking. Stop! If my Pa said you was a cheater than you're a cheater!"

"I understand you're upset. Sure, I lost my daddy the same way years ago. Put down the rifle, Jack." Brown continued to close the gap between him and the youngster.

"Stop it. Don't take no more steps, Mr. Brown. Don't! I'm a good shot."

"Sure you are. Let me tell you somethin' 'bout your daddy, boy."

"No! Stop it. Stop or I'll shoot!"

Another step closer. "Your daddy was a good man, he—"

"That's it. Stop!" Jack aimed, but Dustin Brown was on him and the two wrestled momentarily before they and the rifle were on the floor, inches from the dead Sam Joiner. It was no match. Brown easily overpowered the boy and slid the rifle out of arm's reach. Dirty and breathing hard, Brown stood the boy up. Tears streamed down young cheeks. "Now, go home son. Don't come back."

Jack Joiner spit. "You're a cheater Mr. Brown. You cheated and you killed my Pa. You'll pay for it!" With that, Jack Joiner turned to leave the saloon. He never made it to the door. Not with a knife stuck in his back.

"No one calls me a cheater and lives to tell about it." Dustin Brown spit in the same area as had Jack.

* * *

" . . . and that's the way it was, fellas," continued Sheriff Stock. "Dustin Brown got off, scot-free. See, Stinky Peterson was the sole witness. He swore on a stack of Bibles, not that he never read him one, before the judge that the youngster attacked Dustin Brown and tried to kill him. He said the boy grabbed Brown's knife from its holder, and during the struggle, was stabbed in the back. Strictly an accident, swore Stinky."

Sykes Thompson couldn't believe it. "But, this Stinky was drunk and passed out, no?"

The Sheriff grinned. "Well, yup and nope. See, I'm sure old Stinky didn't see or hear a thing. But, he was the only one present besides Dustin Brown and Jack Joiner. The law is the law. He told the judge and me what happened. No reason for the judge not to believe him."

"Wait. Whaddya mean he told the judge and you?"

"I was the coverin' sheriff in Flatbed Flats at the time. Regular sheriff was too sick. Can't say I agreed lettin' Dustin Brown go, but there wasn't nothin' any of us could do about it."

"Well, I'll be somethin'," said Billy Tucker. "And Stinky ain't never said a word to no one?"

The Sheriff bounced on his horse as the three rode closer to Flatbed Flats. "Stinky ain't talkin' much these days. Dustin Brown keeps Stinky in liquor every day and night. He's a drunk, pure and simple. All day, every day. He ain't much use to no one, including hisself."

"Is he ever sober?"

"Never. Only when he sleeps, I suppose, but maybe not even then."

Flatbed Flats was in sight. Thompson spoke, "So, we're goin' to see this Melissa Joiner? That it? You figger she lost both a husband and son the same day at the hands of the same man, this Dustin Brown. And now, Dustin Brown turns up all mysterious with a knife in his back just like Jack, and we told you a woman helped Brown into the stagecoach. That right, sheriff?"

"Yup, that's 'bout it, Sykes." I'm pretty darn certain Melissa Joiner was the woman you and Billy saw assist Brown earlier."

It was Billy's turn. "But if she killed Brown, how is it Sykes and me heard him talkin' durin' the ride?"

The sheriff shook his head. "Don't know. Meanin' to find out." He tried to sound confident. He knew putting Melissa behind bars would save his career.

The sweet aroma of apple pie that greeted the three men as they approached Melissa Joiner's poor excuse for a house was incongruous with the surrounding pig and chicken stench. A broken screen door flapped open. Melissa Joiner walked out on the weather beaten porch. A swing, once designed for lovers to stare out at stars or the moon or neither, hung crookedly, precariously on two broken chains. "Ha! If it ain't Sheriff Stock and two of his friends. What brings you here, Sheriff?" Had the three men arrived thirty minutes earlier, a different site would have greeted them, one of murder. Specifically, they would have witnessed the killing of Melissa's pet parrot, Abigail. After hearing Abigail yelp, "Are we in Polk City?" for the last time, Melissa buried the parrot and the razor used to slit its throat. Stock dismounted, tipped his distinctive hat, "'Evenin' ma'am. This here is Sykes Thompson and Billy Tucker." The two men smiled and nodded in turn as their names were called. "Recognize them?"

She glanced at the two men and ignored the question. "Is this here a pleasure visit sheriff? Or, is you-ins here on oh-fficial business? You sheriffn' again in Flatbed Flats?"

Sykes nudged the sheriff, his mouth inches from the lawman's ear. "That's her, sheriff. Sure 'nough that's her that helped what's his name into the stagecoach."

"Dustin Brown."

"Yup, that's her."

Stock turned toward Tucker, received nonverbal confirmation.

"No ma'am. I'm not returning here as sheriff of Flatbed Flats, but I am here to talk about a murder. Do you recognize these two men, Melissa?"

A cursory up and down glance ended with, "Sure do. These two men drove the stagecoach early today. Seen 'em myself."

"Yes, ma'am. Did you help a man into the stagecoach?"

"Funny you should ask, sheriff. I sure as heck did. Poor soul could barely stand up on his own two feet. Drunk he was. You knows what Jesus say, love your enemies."

Through squinted eyes, Sheriff Stock asked, "Was that man Dustin Brown? The man who done killed your husband and son?"

As if thinking about it for a moment, Melissa rubbed her chin with an unclean hand leaving a smeared dirt mark. "Now that you mention it, sure was. Yes, that was Dustin Brown."

"Was he alive when you helped him into the stage?"

With shocked expression, "'Course he was alive! You think I'd help a dead man into a stagecoach? Why? Is he dead?"

"Dustin Brown arrived in Polk City dead. A knife stuck in his back."

"If that ain't somethin'. Sheriff, you ain't thinkin' none that I had nothin' to do with that now, do ya?"

"Melissa, you were the last person to see him alive."

"Now that ain't 'xactly true, sheriff. These here two men were with him after I helped him into the buggy. Maybe theys could tell ya a heap more than I can."

Sykes Thompson balled his fists. "I resent that, miss. Billy and me saw ya help the man into the stage. That's all we know. We don't know no more than that."

Sheriff Stock was not one to let his frustration show. "Ma'am, forgive me, but see-ins that this Dustin Brown killed two of your family members, I'm thinkin' you had a good reason to want to do him in. Fact is, ma'am, I could hardly blame you if you did kill Dustin Brown, but the law is the law and I've come to take you in."

A smile showed two missing lower teeth. "Ain't ya got no proof? Ain't ya got no witnesses? Maybe Stinky Peterson saw somethin' and can testify 'gainst me? Besides, like the good book says, it's best to turn the other cheek. That's what I done all this time."

Stock asked Thompson for the empty box they had retrieved on the ride back to Flatbed Flats. "Recognize this?"

"Just a box."

"Ma'am, I asked if you recognized it."

"Well, mighta been Mr. Brown's box. Mighta not, though. Can't tell me for certain. All them boxes look alike to me." Melissa continued, "Why don't you three come inside and have some pie and coffee. Pie is fresh, it's . . . I mean . . . was . . . Sam and Jack's favorite kind."

Thompson and Tucker didn't wait for the sheriff. They scurried into the shabby house. Reluctantly, Sheriff Stock followed. Melissa held the door for him. Inside, living quarters were minimal. Stock noticed a table, a couple of chairs, stained curtains, and an empty bird cage in the far corner of the room. Several pieces of firewood were scattered about.

"Sure is stuffy in here. Sheriff, would you mind openin' that back door some? Won't stay open by itself, darn thing. Take that shovel there to prop it open." Sheriff Stock complied. He noticed fresh dirt caked on the steel blade. It was the same shovel Melissa had used a half-hour earlier to bury Abigail. She continued, "There, that's better. I can feel me a little breeze now. Anyways, "I wish I could help you sheriff, but like you say, you cain't buck the law. Cain't lock nobody up where there ain't no evidence and ain't no witnesses, can ya?"

Three quarters of the pie was gone. Thompson and Tucker were on their second cups of coffee. "You men stay here as long as you like. Make yourself comfortable. I got to pick me up a few things over in town. I'll be back in an hour or so."

The sheriff interrupted her, "Melissa, this ain't finished business yet. You are not going nowhere except back to the Polk City jail with me 'cause I'm chargin' you with the murder of Dustin Brown." The two stagecoach drivers continued to stuff their mouths with pie.

"You got you evidence, sheriff?"

He held up the box. "Right here, for one." That finally got the attention of Thompson and Tucker.

"Ain't nothin' in the box, sheriff." Tucker spoke with a full mouth.

"Not so. What you men thought nothin', or simply specks of dirt at best, is bird droppings."

"That right?" Tucker went back to the pie.

Stock turned toward Melissa. "That's right, ain't it ma'am? Parrot droppings."

"How should I know that, sheriff?"

"'Cause you put Abigail in there. Say, where is Abigail? I notice her cage is empty."

Melissa smiled. "'Fraid Abigail ain't no longer with us."

"Hmm, now that's a shame. A real shame, since I'm sure if she were still around she'd be able to tell us something."

Again Tucker briefly ceased his gorging long enough to say something. "How's that sheriff? What could a parrot tell us?"

"Well, if my guess is correct, and I'm certain the judge will agree with me, I'm sure old Abigail would be askin' us if we was in Polk City yet." Thompson and Tucker looked up from their plates and stopped chewing. Sheriff Stock continued, "I'm also certain if we take that shovel over yonder and find the right spot out back, the spot where you buried the parrot."

"What does that prove, sheriff?" asked a defiant Melissa. "That parrot wasn't no good. Couldn't even talk."

"Wrong again, ma'am. You forget I met Abigail last time I was in Flatbed Flats."


"So, she could speak, remember?" Melissa didn't respond. "She was in her cage. It was a different five words back then. Bird kept sayin', 'Abigail wants out of jail. Abigail wants out of jail.' Now do you remember?" Thompson and Tucker's mouths hung open. "That's exactly where you're heading, ma'am, to jail."

The End

Bruce Harris is the author of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: ABout Type.

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