October, 2016

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Issue #85

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Read this month's Tales and vote for your favorite.
They'll appear in upcoming print volumes of The Best of Frontier Tales Anthologies!

Charlie Gauss is Dead
by Dick Derham
Why anyone would care enough about Charlie Gauss to pay good money for his killer mystified the Runnels Brothers. But the price was reasonable and they had nothing better to do, so they mounted up and rode south.

* * *

That a Fact
by Larry Flewin
All he wanted was a cold beer and a hot bath, but the law said otherwise. Seems a man couldn't just ride into town anymore and shoot what he didn't like. No guns meant no guns, unless you were looking for trouble . . . 

* * *

Home is the Sailor from the Sea
by Tom Sheehan
Looks, good or bad, of an apparent stranger, mean little to a real man in a cow town, especially a throwback born to the saddle and wed to the gun. So one had best be prepared for the difference, the manner he sets his goals and full intentions straight-off, and beware the non-believer.

* * *

The Brute
by J.C. Hulsey
Gabriel Montague, a newspaper man from Philadelphia, is searching for anomalies in the Appalachia Mountains to write a series of stories about for his newspaper. But instead, he comes across something or someone like he has never encountered before in all his travels.

* * *

Cattle Annie and Little Britches
by John Young
Cattle Annie and Little Britches have been mostly forgotten in the annals of western history, but not in Oklahoma a nd Indian Territories. There, they were two of the most famous female outlaws ever to strap on a six gun.

* * *

It Can Cost You
by B. Craig Grafton
Life is a gamble. And to some, gambling is their life. But be advised to always look to your hole card before placing your bet. Can you afford to cover it if you lose?

* * *

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All the Tales

Home is the Sailor from the Sea
by Tom Sheehan

At the Rialto Saloon in Point of Interest, Nevada, after what was undoubtedly a difficult ride for most horsemen, Burl Edwards, a Navy veteran, had ridden from San Francisco just to lean on this bar before he headed home. Here he had had his last drink with his father, Sullivan Edwards, some eight or nine years earlier, in 1874, an unsettled adventurous spirit taking him off to sea. Now he was but ten miles from home after a trip nobody else in the room or in all of Nevada might have accomplished. It was not just the rough 500 miles from Mares Island Naval Base to Point of Interest, Nevada . . . with some other interests en route. This sailor'd been farther and deeper into dangers, made tougher decisions that others' lives depended on, seen more of the top of the world than all the Rialto customers put together, and survived where none of them likely would have come out alive. Rough and ready was he, a sense of timing built into his make-up, and an innate ability to see what made some men tick in their roles in life.

There were times that sense proved some men were lacking where others were heroic. Life in many places is accompanied by chance, and what else you might find around it. The young but experienced Edwards might have said, anytime he was back in America proper, "I've been there and seen most all of it," or what might sound like that.

Perhaps it was an element of temperament and taste, or the devouring curiosity that comes with adventure, or a hunger for other and newer space, but Burl Edwards, armed with these attributes, was one tough dude, though he was not a dude; not in the least, and not because of the clothes he wore, or the manner he dressed in them. Something about him said, along with his actions, a full statement about himself: "I can make myself at home anyplace I drop the reins or serve my thirst. On my hip I carry a Navy Colt .44 revolver a dying shipmate gave me with his last breath, his very last breath, just an hour before I slipped his body off a huge icepack into Alaskan waters with a commensurate salute."

Three of the Rialto's working women had immediately and with some admiration looked upon Burl Edwards as a stranger, and a new breeder type; he was a picture for them, clean-shaven, showing blond curls on his neck and at his collar, blue eyes that could open conversations from either side of a meeting of the sexes, long and rugged fingers showing a bit of foreign-earned music in their simple application of holding a glass, just the way some women might envision such a grace. The handsomeness of the man was very apparent to them, enough to make them stare dreamily at him, life being unsettled enough as it was in the daily grind.

Burl Edwards, for sure, had raised all eyebrows at his entrance to the Rialto with the odd mixture of clothes on his rugged frame, salvaged from his navy career, over for good now that he was home, though his garb had not called for "all" the attention. He wore a Russian fur hat, an Eskimo sealskin vest and a pair of spurred boots bought from the widow of a man killed in a gunfight, and carried a rifle that had not been used for a thousand miles plus and for which he paid $10 in a used gun shop. The boots had been the best deal of all.

He was comfortable with his clothes and gear though he was fully aware of the odd looks he was receiving. Such looks or passive curiosity, as it proved, did nothing for him, coming or going, and the whiskey at hand settled an old argument within him: anything out of the ordinary is unusual with some people his shipmates had dubbed "half-souls."

The bartender said, as he poured another drink, "You sure enjoyed that drink, Mister, so the next one's on me. You passing through Point of Interest? I think a good drink is worth a little light conversation when all these other dudes are hard at messing up their day." He released a short harumph of a laugh. "My name's Max Gilbert and I own the place."

"Then you've been here no more than eight or so years," Edwards said, much to Gilbert's delight.

"You've been here before and you hit the time right almost on the minute hand. I'm coming up on five minutes to eight years owning the whole thing." His smile was still in place as he spread his arms after looking at his pocket watch.

"You bought it from Silky Smithers. Is that right?"

Edwards had the drink to his lips when Gilbert shook off the question by saying, "In a manner of speaking. I won it in a card game, a game that Silky should not have been in." No explanation followed, and Gilbert walked away as though a mystery should remain a mystery.

Edwards, at that point, was a mystery to the bartender and to all the patrons in the saloon; he didn't recognize a single one of them though looks came furtive, sidelong, looking for some kind of information that might feed the general curiosity abounding in the room as though he was supposed to alleviate all their questions.

He could have done that so easily. About eight years earlier he had wandered away from town and eventually ended up on the Jeannette, a bark-rigged wooden steamship he knew had been built in England in 1861. It was commissioned as the British gun vessel Pandora and was sold in 1875 for an Arctic voyage. A New York newspaper owner, James Bennett, eventually purchased the boat in 1878 and renamed her Jeannette. She was sailed from Europe under control of the U. S. Navy's Lieutenant George Delong who had planned with Bennett to use the ship to try to get to the North Pole. Under an agreement, the Navy provided officers and crew for the North Pole expedition, Bennett paying for all other expenses. The Jeanette was refitted at the Mare Island Navy Yard in San Francisco Bay with new boilers and other equipment, and the hull was heavily reinforced to withstand and navigate among Arctic icepacks, which constantly endangered ships in northern waters.

In July, 1879 the Jeannette, under DeLong's command and according to her log book, sailed with four other Navy officers, twenty-three enlisted men, one being Burl Edwards, and three civilians. Visiting Alaska, she stopped at Unalaska and Saint Michael, where two Inuit dog drivers with their dogs and sleds joined the boat's complement. The Jeannette then called on an eastern Siberian port to refuel, went through the Bering Strait and headed for Wrangell Island in Alaskan waters. The ship was frozen in the icepack on September 6, 1879 but was carried the next twenty-two months by drifting ice for several hundred miles in a northwestward direction, until June 12, 1881. That day her hull was smashed open by the crush of ice and she sank the next day after all boats, equipment and provisions were off-loaded for a long journey on foot across ice to reach open water north of Siberia.

Eventually, as Edwards would tell some of his new friends in Nevada, only thirteen of the crew survived the sea in an open boat, perhaps 11 of them died on the tundra after they landed, and supposedly only two men returned to civilization. But Edwards, separated from others, found survival with an Eskimo group. His stories were long and emotional and filled with admiration for Eskimos.

Burl Edwards came home in the year 1883, a year that had come around the corner in a hurry. This seemed so to his father who had rushed into town at the prompting of a neighbor, yelling out his good day and, "Sully, I saw a stranger ride into town earlier dressed like he's been livin' with Eskimos and he's the spittin' image of your son, Burl, I ain't seen all the years since Martha left me."

Sullivan Edwards slid out of the saddle at the Rialto rail, rushed inside and hugged his son in a long and hardy grip.

Reunion soon reigned in the Rialto. "The bar's open," yelled Burl's father, the crowd rushing to get its share and the small talk starting in one corner; "By God he don't look like no cowboy I ever seen," said one cowpoke at a table, by name of Spurs Spurrier, "not with them duds, a hat like he's been born a foreigner and been pokin' fun at the hats we wear, a vest like he's an Eskimo and a funny look on his face like he don't believe anythin' he sees, that's meanin' us, me and you, Sparky, spendin' more time here than anybody in town, us reg'lars. If he's to look funny at either of us, he gets what's comin' to him, father or no father that's a rancher."

Sparky Tottingham, by all who knew him from older events, was ignitable, on the spot ignitable, as one townie was generally credited with saying numerous times, "That Sparky can git lit quicker 'n a sparkler, and he ain't got no proper name but his nickname."

Spurrier patted the side arm in his holster and his pal Tottingham slapped the table top with a loud bang. If Edwards had been at that table, heard that conversation, he'd have known they were "half-souls." As it was, he didn't have to budge very far before it came up in a louder conversation, which the senior Edwards tried to still with an additional round of drinks. The drinks were finished off in a hurry but the idle and irritating chatter continued with Spurrier and Tottingham until the elder Edwards stomped back to their table, slammed his fist on the top of it and said, "If I was a pup I'd smash you down with my bare fists."

The wise but unfortunate retort from Spurrier was, "Well, I see you got a pup over there with you. What's he up to in them duds he's awearin'?"

He received his reply from the seaman's rifle stuck in his mouth by Burl Edwards coming to his father's aid. "Taste the iron before you taste the lead, old half-soul, before you're all kinds of alloy and sorely mixed up in this life. If you apologize to this elderly gent who's been buying you drinks and who's my father I haven't seen in a long haul, I'll let it go, but if you're not so agreeable, we sure can find agreement other ways." He was standing over the table looking like a select man posing for the sculpting of a testimonial statue. Impressive he was, impressive and measurable to the whole saloon crowd.

Slowly withdrawing the wet tip of the rifle barrel from Spurrier's big mouth, casually, not in the slightest rush, he rubbed the rifle tip through the crook of his left elbow as if getting rid of germs, turned his back on the pair at the table and rejoined his father at the bar. All that crawling time of wiping the rifle tip clean, it was pointed directly at Spurrier, informing Spurrier and everybody else in the saloon that he would entertain no surprises. Not in the least. And never once did he seemingly acknowledge the other man, the one called Sparky.

Alternate periods of silence and buzz made awkward ways through the patrons of the Rialto, some of the buzz being recognition of the sailor/cowboy come home from his earlier years as plain cowboy. One old timer, sipping an hour on his beer of the day, declaring, "That boy had an adventure workin' on him since he could walk. I 'member his pa findin' him down at the riverbank one time like he was gonna float off 'n' visit anybody he could find. Scared old Edwards half way to Hell, kid was gone for hours. He musta knowed what was comin' along with that boy. Some of 'em come that way. My Paulie went off to Pilgrim Hill once just to deliver a package for Alden Smithwyck and ain't seen him since 'n' I can't do no more searchin' but worryin' takes all the time anyway."

Two drinks were waiting on the bar for the pair of Edwards, Gilbert the bartender smiling and nodding his head with more of his own thanks, and managed, in a later aside, to offer a bit of advice to young Edwards; "That noisy fella, Spurs, is a bad one. You got him cowed now, sure as shootin', but the one you gotta watch is that quiet one, Sparky. He ain't to be trusted no way in Hell. He ain't said much of anythin', but talkin' ain't his way." His eyes finished off the incomplete statement with a sour-faced and positive declaration and an imaginative smoky finger as he attended another customer.

When the Edwards duo left an hour later, headed for home like it was always going to be there come Hell, high water or Alaska, darkness was setting its way off the peaks, along the river bank, out past the end of town where the trail twisted with the river before the trail rose to the east and pointed the way to the Two Caliber spread. The ride was comfortable, uneventful even in the darkest areas where a struggling moon had begun its own ride. Sullivan Edwards watched his son study the rising of the moon and the position of the stars as though he was reading a chart. He said, "You know your way around up there, Burl? I haven't ever made any sense of them but that they hang around forever in their own way."

"Well, that's part of it all, Pa. You can count on them if you can see them. If there's no clouds you can find your way east, west, north or south and most of the in-betweens. At sea you have to know what they'll give you. It's not like a trail the Indians cut out a hundred years ago or the cows bring up with their push for water. If there's too many clouds to see the stars, I can make do here, with knowledge of the peaks, how the rivers run up or down, or a hundred other signs. At sea, it's like the boys say, 'a whole other world.'"

The father, looking back over his shoulder, said, "Think those two boys from the saloon will try to square things away with us, try to get even with that rifle poke. He never saw that comin' at him in the blink of a cow's eye?"

Burl Edwards could have pounced on the "us" his father had announced, which meant he was still the top dog, the sharer in all things to do with the family. He turned sideways in his saddle and qualified his own thoughts on the matter, "One of them isn't ever going to do anything, Pa, but follow the other gent's lead. He's the one I'll look for, but first I got to see Mom and give her a present I bought in Alaska."

* * *

He looked up at the moon still working its way over a peak, saw the Big Dipper tell its silent story, and heard a shipmate, part-time astronomer and full-time story teller, explaining the role that Orion played in the heavens while it was nailed against the deep blue of the night sky and the almighty universe itself going every which way on its own. That part-time astronomer had said of Orion, "That bunch of stars has more secrets tied to it than any other bunch of stars up there in the Milky Way, the universe, and all the other worlds put together. I heard that from one of the old Indian folks who said it came down the line to him all the way from the beginning. Said his folks knew more about the stars than anybody and learnt a lot of it from drawings on cave walls and deep cuttings."

Myra Edwards was a bounteous, round-in-the-face happy woman, but never happier than when she heard the unmistakable voice of her son from outside, from the tie rail in front of the house, and her husband's generous and hearty laughter also in joyous accompaniment. She couldn't remember how long Burl had been gone. Suddenly, as she stood transfixed in her kitchen, alone, a whirlwind happening within her body, being "taken over again," she saw him at age ten when she first noticed what she'd call from then on, "the long look in his eye."

That feeling came back to her in a rush, the awareness that her little boy wouldn't be little for long and there would come a kind of separation. Acutely, as if it had happened only moments ago, that feeling had returned and she felt like Owl Who Speaks Thunder, the shaman of a local tribe, exhorting her to be aware of all tendencies, all motion, all things that mattered to her. The first time he had said to her, in a swap of goods, "Winter comes twice, ice melts twice, fire logs run away in the smoke." It had drawn her imagination and she had had her husband gather and stack twice the amount of wood he had planned on. It was all used up by the fiercest winter the family and the ranch had ever encountered.

So aware, so agonized, yet so happy, she swept her boy into her arms, amply hugging and kissing him, the full grown man he had become, at one and the same time, her kitchen immediately turned upside down, her excitement obvious.

Burl, caught up in his own excitement, handed her the carefully wrapped present that he had carried many miles, though neither of them would ever know how far. It was wrapped in a cured leather skin that had earned a shine from handling and tied with leather thongs with Navy knots practically needing a code to untie.

After she hugged him for an eternity, she held the package in her hands. There seemed no tendency to open the present right away, but she added a quick and logical dictate to that appearance: "You've filled out, Burl, grown fully, and you've been gone a long time. Obviously you have learned something in the time you've been gone. I'll just think about what the present is for a few days, maybe until next week, next month, wondering, after all this time, what you brought home for me, what made you choose it, what you were thinking. Is that okay with you?" She hugged him again and ushered him directly to a seat at the table in the kitchen; mother's work was at hand

She smiled widely, clapped her hands, tousled the hair of both men in her life and said, "I suppose you men will want a drink or two to celebrate. I'll go right along with that." Three glasses came right onto the table and she poured the drinks, the aroma coming to her quickly as well as views of other years in quick succession.

They had a grand homecoming.

In the morning, Burl heard early kitchen work being done in a quiet manner, but pots and tins were not usually quiet in his mother's hands. Burl swung the blanket around him and went to the kitchen just as the sun was barely coming upon the house. His father came barefoot from the bedroom, pulling up his pants. His eyes were forcing themselves open.

"Don't go outside, either one of you," she said, a threat in her voice. "I've been cooking since four this morning, never heard anything, but we've had company. Don't go out until you've had breakfast. You won't like what you see."

When her husband rushed for the door, she looked at Burl, shook her head, and added, "The first thing he'll do is come and get his rifle."

Her husband came in cursing loudly, and grabbed his rifle from over the fireplace and grumbled about where he had left his boots the night before. "Those sons of bitches, he said. "One of our best cows is out there, cracked on the skull and dragged right into our yard here on two ropes still tied around her neck. Both our hired hands are over in the north canyon bedded down with the herd, so they wouldn't have heard anything during the night."

With boots on he went back outside followed by his son, also carrying a rifle, the one last in someone's mouth.

Sullivan Edwards walked around the cow, bloodied, two legs broken, bones showing through the breaks. With his belt knife he cut lose the two ropes and tossed them aside.

Burl, now in his pants and boots and a hanging shirt, gun belt in place, rifle in one hand, picked up the two ropes. His father didn't notice, but his mother saw Burl studying the knots in the ropes, how the loops went, where the sure knuckles came in the knots, what else he might glean from their knotted composition. She kept such thoughts to herself; it was her way not to embarrass her husband with finds or secrets he had missed in his observations . . . it had always made for the healthiest of marriages.

But she managed to say, "Nice homecoming for you, son. Did you gents step on some toes in town last night?"

Sullivan almost exploded. "That son of a bitch last night, the big mouth, I ought to go in there now and kick his ass all over town." He was spinning around in his anger like a top spins, in place, and then a slight wobble took hold of him.

Burl said, in a measured and sure tone that perked his mother's interest and intelligence in a hurry, "It isn't the mouthy one, Pa. It's the other gent. Spurs is not the fellow who set this. It was the other fellow, the one they call Sparks, not the one who doesn't like iron in his mouth. But we'll surprise him by going the way he won't expect us. Right through his buddy, Spurs, the talk of the galley."

Sullivan Edwards shook his head in wondrous doubt, while Myra Edwards, secretive on some things, quite open on other family matters, smiled at the years that had topped her son's thinking, whatever it was, whatever it intended. Her small wonder of a boy was now a grown up wonder, and a stalwart hero and survivor of a harsh naval experience and, with his return, a future rancher of means. She laughed inwardly at that as she thought, "Ah, the east and west meet, the cowboy and the sailor do mate up."

She knew she might as well put all her change on the table and count it out, so she said, without a trace of coyness in her tone, "When are you gents going back into town to square this away?" She looked out the window at the trussed up and dead cow, read the serious invisible signs employed by the perpetrator and knew quick action would be the best method of revenge for whatever comes out of it, for it would be revenge. The innocence of the cow in the incident might have made another woman cry seeing the protrusion of sharp, broken bones, one eye busted free, two legs broken, and the awful sense of revenge, anger and hate welling up in her usual "too-busy-am-I for that kind of Tomfoolery."

"Not me," issued from under her breath, for the trail to this very location had been a long one from Missouri, her first born buried en route in a lost and lonely place along the way, never to be visited again, she knew without doubt, because it would never be found again. Her morning prayers for him, already said, were said again, making repetition feasible, amenable. But she had kept serious thoughts on the job, kept them working, worked them into knitted or crocheted patterns spread about the house, in each room, as visible as she was: Happiness is not where you are, but what you allow around you. . . . Relationships come with clasp and the last fingernail and are not accidents of shallow touch. . . . Time doesn't have a whistle or a gong. . . . Mountains move and so does Time, but the speeds are different.

She looked sneakily, sideways, at her son Burl, gone for so long, back in the bosom of the family to be enjoyed, and to make amends when required; It was what older sons were born for. And out here, beyond Missouri, beyond the great river, beyond the lost graves, those needs were inevitable the way the west moved in continuous motion.

A few hours after breakfast, and after the dead cow was tended to, the two Edwards men tied up at the far end of the Rialto rail, at Burl's insistence. Overhead the sun was a brilliant flame of orange as it soared between clouds, as it poured sunshine onto the whole of Point of Interest through the same breaks in the clouds.

The pair walked casually past the horses gathered there, and the younger Edwards studied each horse as he passed by them, stopping twice to check out two horses, both grays, all the while his father kept shaking his head. Burl had not said a whole lot on the way into town, except to say, "The man who dragged our cow left a marker on his work."

The Rialto, of course, came to full attention when the Edwards tandem walked in and went straight to the bar where Gilbert at the bar asked, "Beer or whiskey, gents?"

Openly, he spotted the change in clothing that the returned sailor was wearing, those making him look like a working cowboy; the Stetson, old as Box Mountain perhaps, sat square on his head, the shirt had a worn but clean color, the denim pants slim by choice and discolored by wear wrapped under a gun belt primed with a Navy Colt .44, which, to the bartender and a few older men in the room, looked as mean and as tough as the man at the drinking dais who was obviously delivering a message to someone in the room, of whom Gilbert would make no mistake selecting.

"Bit of both," Burl Edwards said, his voice in immediate ascension, marked for close listening, the far corners of the room coming to rapt attention, poker hands being dealt coming to a halt, creaking chairs leaning their weights in silence. "We come to fetch a yellow-belly cow killer. Dragged a cow almost to our doorstep, two legs broken, one eye lost, and dead as a marlin spike. Now you tell me, Mr. Saloon owner, what kind of a patron would someone like that be, yellow all the way through his guts, or just yellow on the back of his neck or down that thin little yellow stripe that crawls down his back and hides from everybody's eyes in his all-year-rounders? You know, those duds he ain't washed once since a year ago Tuesday next and I can smell him from up here even with a strong whiskey in my nose."

Not once had he looked at the table where Spurrier and Tottingham sat, not once in any portion of the special delivery message to the Rialto-at-large.

He swallowed the shot of whiskey, picked up his beer, held it aloft, and said, in a firmer and louder voice, "Here's to the yellow belly wherever he's hiding at this moment, and to his best pal, who's not as yellow as him because he did not dare to do what his yellow-belly pard did to a damned harmless cow that ain't got no way to hit back even to anybody wearing that much yellow-to-the-bone way under his dirty old year-rounders he'll wear until they go to tatters on some prairie yardarm."

Burl the sailor, as if he were on the waves again, or the immense icepack that carried him and his shipmates months on end and hundreds of miles, faced the throng of patrons as he had faced polar bears, wolves, and the madness of a crazy, rifle-wielding, partly-clawed prospector he'd met in an Alaskan gold field. He figured then he was halfway home to Point of Interest, Nevada and another threat in front of him against that journey's completion. Each of those appointments had been met with courage, ingenuity and utter confidence. He'd been a crew watchdog; now he was the family watchdog. At the back of his head was the phrase his mother had crocheted in a frame beside the mirror in the hall; Who sings to my family sings to me, and I hear all the curses too.

For the hundredth or so time, he realized how far her words travelled to get to him. One place was near the top of the world; another was at the Rialto Saloon in Point of Interest, Nevada. There was nothing like home teaching, he had boasted to his shipmates and had told them countless times about his mother's methods, and one other saying stitched on the wall and in his mind forever: The least expected is always the last on the horizon, so don't wait on Santa Claus.

Spurrier made the first attention-grabbing move, tapping Tottingham on the shoulder, accompanying it with the age-old gesture of ignorance, the hunch of his shoulders and a hands-up and silent gesture that said, "Are you goin' to take that from him, Sparky? From that stupid sailor?" and then looking around for support for his questions, as though he had some part in arousing his pal from the dumb silence at their table.

Tottingham ignored him completely, keeping his eyes on Burl Edwards the way a lion tamer has to tend his fanged subject . . . or face the consequences, the awful consequences. The old man of the Edwards was not so noticeable, not so formidable, or so he thought as he started to find new things, prominent new things, about the younger of the clan, the way he had directed a clear and clean challenge right at his feet, where he sat at the table, where he now felt the chip on his shoulder was heavier than ever before.

Tottingham might have said to himself, "I'd better not mess with this gent, no matter what he looks like, even though he doesn't look as different today as he did yesterday: there's a power emanating from the sailor boy I'd not ordinarily contend with."

On the other end of things, Spurs Spurrier and his stupid talk bothered him, and had already pointed him out to every person in The Rialto as the man who sure looked like he had been the one who killed a helpless cow and dragged it into the Edwards' yard and who sat here challenged, so he might as well stand up and face the music.

Noisy Spurrier, it appeared, wasn't about to let it go. Wasn't his pard the toughest thing ever to sit a saddle, flop a pistol out of a holster, hit what he was shooting at . . . and every time? No matter what the target was, how big it was, how small it was, how fast or slow it moved? Wasn't he?

"Whadya say about this make-believe cowboy wearin' an old gun, Sparks? He don't look as tough as some gents you've took care of, does he, Sparks? Does he?" He was getting animated while egging his saddle pard into a sure-fire easy fight. "He looks light enough for me to take." His smile was wide and cocky, but in the same breath of words he was wearing thin on a lot of folks . . . that included Gilbert the bartender and owner of The Rialto, the many patrons in The Rialto, the two Edwards men standing at the bar, and most of all, his own pard sitting right at the same table.

The Rialto crowd, from the tension at the table, knew something was afoot in their midst.

"Okay," said Sparks Tottingham, throwing both hands into the air. "Okay, you want him, Spurs, you got him. Go get him." He held one hand out as if he was an usher at the church showing the way to a nervous groom-to-be. Bustle, ado and snickering snuck around the room swift as a quick draw calls attention to its motion.

Fear crossed Spurs' face as if an inner torch had lit it up. "I didn't mean it all like that, Sparks. Not like that. Hell, I didn't drag that cow in there. I can't tie them knots like you can, those ones you learned on the Mississippi like you said. No sir, I ain't no fair mix for him like you are."

Gilbert, ashamed himself, almost said it, but Sparks Tottingham, suddenly aging, feeling the power of self-measurement, grabbing at full manhood, said it first, "Why the hell don't you get on your damn horse, Spurs, and get out of town, all the way out, before I ever catch sight of you again. Now git." His voice had risen, and so had Spurs Spurrier, amazement crowding his face, standing, walking backwards to the door, his hands checking the way through the crowd behind him, as though he was going to get shot in the back.

In a matter of echoed seconds, his horse took off down the main road of Point of Interest and nobody, for sure, would ever see him again.

Inside, between the table of interest and the bar, the space seemed like a vacuum, silent, not quite holy, but a change, a transition, taking place in front of everybody. And that vacuum was altered like it might never be altered again in the same kind of situation.

Sparks Tottingham, face gone ashen gray, hat tipped back on his head, placed his hands palms down on the table. He spoke directly to Burl Edwards; "I'm so damned sick and tired of him I couldn't stand any more of him. Y'all know I killed that cow cause I was mad at how you stood up to me. I don't know if I can outdraw you, but it sure don't look like it'd be worth it. You got a ton of guts and it looks like you got them from your Pa there, and I never had none of that. Not one minute of it from the first day I was born. Not one minute of it." There was loss and loneliness and honesty now invested in his voice, a whole wagon-load of it.

"I worked some as a kid on the big river on a few boats before I come out here and I'd sure like to know what you did and where you went in the Navy. I'll pay what I owe for the cow and I'll apologize to the woman of the ranch and to them what cleaned up that mess. Hell, I'd even go to work for you if you'd give me the chance."

His head shook in doubt, as if he didn't believe what he had just said to practically the whole damned town of Point of Interest. "Hell," he said, "I came out here to be somebody, not a coal stuffer on the river, not hid down below all the time and never gettin' to see any of where we went along the river."

Silence stood at attention in The Rialto, and Gilbert, a man with keenness in his bones, said, "The bar's open. I think we just celebrated big time in Point of Interest, and I'm pretty sure we've just seen a new hire taken on at the old Two Caliber Spread."

The End

Sheehan has published 23 books; work in Ocean Magazine, Rosebud, Linnet's Wings, Serving House Journal, Copperfield Review, KYSO Flash, Soundings East, Vermont Literary Review, Literary Orphans, Indiana Voices Journal, Frontier Tales, Western Online Magazine, Provo Canyon Review, 3 AM Magazine, Vine Leaves Journal, Nazar Look, Eastlit, Rope & Wire Magazine, The Literary Yard, KYSO Journal, Green Silk Journal, Fiction on the Web, The Path, Faith-Hope and Fiction, etc. He has been nominated for 30 Pushcarts, a National Book Award, a Military Book Award and 5 Best of the Net Awards, receiving one, and Short Story Awards in 2012 - 2015. His author's site is at amazon.com/author/tomsheehan

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