November, 2016

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Issue #86

All The Tales

Through Hell & Sweet Water
by Ray Dean

A hot afternoon in Agua Dulce wasn't the time to be out on the street. Pretty much every living creature found something to sit under or duck into. Jack Butler knew that well enough, but as he walked up to the swinging door of the Diamond Rough saloon he shook his head. The noise level for the time of day was beyond his liking and he stepped along down the boarded sidewalk. An itch under his nose lifted his hand and as his fingers attempted to smooth the errant wiry hairs, his thoughts drifted toward another refuge.

The mustache that scratched his palm and tickled the underside of his nose drew him to the next business along Second Street. The barber was open nearly every day but Sunday, so he didn't have to look for the sign hanging in the window to know they were taking customers.

The door swung open easy enough with its glass panels shaking around as he closed it behind him. Jack pulled his hat from his head and used his fingers to loosen up the thick lengths that had been plastered to his skull by the well-worn hat. "Mornin' all," he nodded at the barber, "Henry."

Winking at his friend, Henry Bricker went back to whirling foam on the jaw of the man relaxing in his chair. "You come for a trim or some bleedin', Jack?"

Pulling up his posture, Jack tried to give his friend a dark look. "Don't I look well enough?"

The barber dropped the brush into the whisker cup at his side and sighed. "You look like you got one foot in the grave, Jack. How about you sit down and wait and I'll give your 'stache a good trim and make you look like a human again."

Jack leaned over and made a deposit in the spittoon before he found a chair to his liking. He sat down, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "I wasn't plannin' on comin' in here. There's some kind of a celebration over at the Diamond."

Henry glared at the joining wall as he reached for the strop. "They've been at it all morning. Guzzlin' booze and makin' all manner of noise. If they take to shootin' I'm runnin' across the street to the Marshal's office."

Leaning to the side in his chair, Jack looked through the windows of the barber shop and across the way into the Marshal's office. Even with the curved imperfections of the glass, he could see the general look and build of the men inside and their various positions. "Looks like they're keepin' an eye out of their own accord."

Nodding at his friend's words, Henry began to sweep the blade down the man's froth-covered face. From his ear to his chin, the man now had a clean track down the side of his face. "Nice to know they're workin' for their money like the rest of us."

"Mmhmm." He kept his gaze on the street and saw young Paul Foster run the length of the packed dirt street and deliver a paper to his boss, the owner of the Weisser's Freight. The boy was known to talk a blue streak and it appeared today was no different as he seemed to let his mouth run away with his story. It was during one such run of syllables that his boss cuffed the boy on the side of his head. The child stumbled, but before Jack could get out of his seat, one of the men in the Marshal's office banged on the glass window of the office and gave Dick Weisser a pointed gesture of his hand. The boy backed up to the wall and rubbed at his head, messing up his hair at the side. Unwilling to challenge the deputy, Dick straightened his spine and stomped off down the street. The boy watched the older man go and repeated the telling gesture at his retreating back.

Relaxing into his chair, Jack tried to ignore the muffled twang of badly tuned piano keys and the rough swipe of Henry's blade over weather-worn skin. It was nearly enough to lull him to sleep. Nearly.

The sharp report of a handgun snapped his eyes open; the second pulled him to the edge of his seat, his hands reaching for the matched pair of pistols strapped in their holsters. "What the hell is that?"

Henry's customer was sitting up, his hand pressed to his cheek. There was a thin rivulet of blood slipping between his fingers. With a quick snatch, Henry had a clean cloth in his hand as he moved the man's hand out of the way. "Sounds like the Harris boys had one too many. Come on, Vincent; let me put this cloth on it." He set the towel on the shallow cut and sighed. "Jack, take a look outside and tell me if Marshal Sawyer's on his way."

Dropping his hat back onto his chair, Jack stood and moved to the door. The hard morning glare of light coming through the panes of the door made it hard for him to see. With a side look down toward the saloon, Jack swung the door open and stepped outside.

One of the deputies waved him back inside and Jack fought down a caustic comment and the bristling anger that reared up within him. He wasn't used to listening to a deputy that didn't even have the makings of a beard on his chin, but his indignation cost him a moment and a measure of his instinctive caution.

"Oh, hey!" Someone ran right into him from the direction of the saloon's front door.

Jack grabbed the man and set him back a step. "Watch where you're goin', boy!"

The young man looking up at him, his own hat clenched tight against his chest as though it were a shield of some sort, rather than a woolen derby. "They're shooting!"

Another couple of pops shook the young man from head to toe.

Shaking his head at the younger man, Jack grabbed him by his shoulder and shoved him through the door into the barber shop.

Henry looked over at the young man. "What's you got there, Jack?"

Instead of answering, he gestured for the young man to speak. "Well?"

Wetting his lips with a quick swipe of his tongue, the young man managed to explain. "I was going to the saloon for a drink."

"Well," Henry chuckled, "that is usually what you find in places like that." His own laughter was joined by his customer who was nearly done bleeding into the cloth.

The young man didn't take kindly to their jest. "I'm getting married today! I wanted to celebrate."

"Oh! That is cause for celebration." Henry nodded at a glass cupboard. "Look in there, Jack. I think I got some of that whiskey you brought me from St. Louis."

Jack complied and took the bottle from the cupboard. "It's from Ireland, Henry."

"Yes," answered his friend, "but you bought it in St. Louis. Complain about my word choice later and give the boy a drink. Looks like he needs it."

Snatching a whisker cup from the shelf, Jack looked inside it to make sure it was clean before he poured a measure of the whiskey into the cup. The young man took it and downed it whole. Jack pounded on his back through the coughing fit. "You sure you want to marry the woman if she makes you this nervous?"

Smacking his hand against his thigh, he turned his head. "I'm nervous 'cause someone shot at me!"

Jack took the cup away and set it down. "You get your share of that in towns this far west, son. You'd best get used to it or get out."

A loud hollow bell chime was heard and the young man clutched a hand over his heart. "Dear me, what was that noise?"

The look shared between Henry and Jack was clear. 'Poor, jumpy fellow.'

Henry answered him as he took another swipe at his customer's face. "The clock over the bank. Looks like it's noon."

"Noon? I'll be late!" When no one said anything the young man continued. "My fiancé is due in on the train at 12:15 and we're set to board the stage a few minutes later."

A volley of gunfire shook the windows and Henry's hand. "Damnit. Sorry, Vincent, maybe we'd better wait." He looked up at Jack. "Better settle in for the duration until the Marshal and his boys get this all sorted out."

Henry almost expected Jack to argue, but it was the boy that said something first. "No! I can't stay here. I have to meet my fiancé at the depot."

Jack couldn't believe he opened his mouth, let alone said something intelligible. "She'll wait for ya, son."

The man's anxiety seemed to bleed from his very pores as he leaned in toward Jack. "She's one of them mail order brides," he confessed, "I told her I'd meet her at the depot with this gray hat." He held it out so Jack could see it. He almost managed to smile at the pretentious woolen cap. "If I'm not there, she's gettin' right back on the train."

More gunfire. This time a resounding boom from a shotgun across the street. "Seems like Marshal Sawyer's boys are expecting a heap of trouble."

The younger man groaned like he'd been gut-shot. "At this rate I'll never get married."

Henry laughed outright. "What are you . . . twenty?"

"Twenty-two," the young man pointed out with a loud sigh, "half a life over."

"Well," Jack groused, "I'm in my forties, looks like I'm out of luck." Before the younger man tripped over himself to apologize, Jack let him off the hook. "Let's just worry about what's in front of us. You can still get there if you pay attention and move quick."

"Pay attention," he repeated, "and move quick." He repeated the words a second time and moved toward the door. "I think I can do that."

Jack rolled his eyes when the young man walked up to the door, yanked it open, and stepped outside.


A shot drilled into the side of the door and the young man leapt away, taking shelter behind a porch post. Even turned sideways, his stomach drawn in like he had donned a fashionable corset, the young man was going to make an excellent target for a stray bullet.

It was a decision made on the fly. A whim that Jack knew might cost him in more ways than one. "Looks like I'll have to come back for that trim, Henry." He took a few steps toward the door. "Save me a chair."

The older man nodded. "Will do, Jack. Keep an eye out for those Harris boys. They won't care why you're in their way."

A moment later, Jack was out the front door, grabbing the younger man by his collar.

"Jack, wait!" Henry grabbed something from Jack's chair and moved toward the doorway with unexpected speed. "Here—" With a flick of his wrist he flung the gunman's hat toward him.

It was an inch from Jack's hand when a bullet bit out a nick of the crown, changing the downward arc of the hat. Jack leaned out further to grab the trail-worn cap and push it down on his head. "Damnit."

Half carrying and half pushing, Jack got the young man across the road and up against the wall outside of the Marshal's office. With a resounding thud, they both took a breath and Jack hoped the brilliant light from the sun overhead would make it hard for one of the Harris boys to get a bead on them.

When the young man looked up at him with something akin to fear, Jack had to explain.

"If I leave you to be . . . you, I'm lookin' to attend your funeral rather than get you to the station so you can marry that woman you've got comin' in like a package in a freight wagon. So, if you want to get from here to . . . there, then you listen. And you move." He kept his gaze riveted on the younger man's eyes, trying to get his point across. "I'm old according to you, but I know what it'll take for us to survive the day, so let's get you moving."

As if to drive home the importance of Jack's edict, a bullet struck the wall behind the young man, near the nape of his neck. Half a second later, he was running.

Twenty feet down the sidewalk they stopped behind one of the deputies. He had a rifle to his shoulder and a six gun in a holster at his hip. He didn't spare them a glance. "I saw you comin' across the street." His voice had a distasteful edge to it. "I thought you had more sense, Butler."

Jack resisted the urge to swat the deputy on the backside like an errant child. He'd known the boy since he wore highpants. "That's Mr. Butler to you, Saul." He watched the deputy take a shot and take out a chunk of the wall to the right of a window. "A hair to the left, I think."

"I do my own shootin', Mister Butler." He'd hissed out the words, but sure enough he adjusted the sight of his rifle and fired. A yelp was heard a second after the window shattered and Saul nodded in satisfaction. "You best be movin' on if you've a mind to," he chuckled. "Just in case I only winged him, instead of drillin' him straight through."

"Keep your aim where I told ya and you'll be fine, son." Grabbing the bridegroom's collar with one hand and pulling a gun free of the holster with the other, Jack walked around the deputy and toward the corner of Second and Main.

Another crinkle of noise and Jack looked up to see a barrel poke out from a new hole in the saloon's windows. "Gun!"

Saul hissed when Jack took the first shot. "Get down!"

Using his shoulder, Jack pushed both of them into the mercantile at the corner.

The young man almost tripped into a cracker barrel, putting out a hand to keep his balance. Jack stepped back from the door and into the half shadows as he set his gun back in place.

A shout from the street drew their attention. "They're in the bank!"

Jack sighed. "Ah, drunk and greedy. This just keeps getting better and better."

The young man looked up at a clock on the wall. "We have to keep moving."

"We," Jack argued back, "need to keep breathing. Keep that in mind." He nodded with his head down the center aisle of the store. "That way."

They moved along, ducking behind shelves. When they passed by the cash register, Jack saw the wisp of hair that crowned the head of Mr. Porter who owned the store, visible above the level of the counter.

"Keep your head down, Porter. You might come out of this will all your hair."

Raising his eyes above the counter, the little man glared at Jack. "Keep your finger off the trigger, Butler. I don't want you to shoot my wares."

A quick volley of shots outside and a bullet slammed into one of the outside walls.

Jack tilted his head toward the window. "I think you should worry about them instead of me." He saw his companion sifting through a stack of silk handkerchiefs embroidered with flowers. Hissing his displeasure he brushed his hand against the back of the boy's head, almost dislodging his fine woolen hat. When he scrambled to settle it back down, Jack gave the boy a shove. "Shop later . . . after you're married."

A foolish blush crept over his cheeks. "Yes, of course . . . so sor— Oh!"

They were moving again, this time out the opposite door from where they'd entered. Jack didn't bother to offer a farewell to the mercantile's owner. Neither one of them would have believed it.

A step outside of the store had them both squinting into the afternoon sun, and the heat that rolled over them like a wildfire could only owe a small part to the time of day. Their feet sliding on the stone and dirt beneath them, Jack had to tug the boy back before he flew into the scorching heat of the forge.

Holding his hands up to block his face, the wayward bridegroom nearly fell on his backside with the sudden change in direction. "Where—"

"Get down." Jack pushed the younger man down behind a waist-high stack of cut wood. He echoed the movement, crouching down behind the wood and stumbling to his knees.

A scoff of sound drew Jack's attention to the table slab near the front of the forge. "Never thought I'd see Jack Butler crawlin' in the dirt."

Relief rushed life-like color back into his face as he sputtered out a few colorful epithets at his old friend. "You keep runnin' your mouth like that, Chauncey, and I'll—"

The nearly-friendly banter stopped short as a bullet rang off the side of the anvil and sank itself in the wood pile. Jack quickly did a pat down of his chest and legs a second before another bullet whizzed through the crowded smithy and rang off the forge's smokestack.

"Damn it all to hell!" Chauncey got up on his knees in the dirt and flung a horseshoe in the direction of the stray bullet. "You better watch where you're throwin' them hunks of iron, you lazy—"

Another bullet sailed overhead and rattled some of the chains he had hanging on a rack, sending Chauncey down to the dirt, flat on his belly.

"Well," Jack chuckled as he got his feet under him, "that went over as well as could be expected."

"I'll remember your smart ass comments the next time your horse throws a shoe."

Dragging the boy up on his feet behind the wood, Jack bit off a curse. "Don't take your temper out on my horse, Chauncey. She never did you no harm."

"Fine, but I'll," Chauncey sat down with his back to the block as a bullet sailed over his head, intending to wait out the rest of the trouble, "but I'll . . . charge you double. Just see if I don't!"

Jack gave the boy a reassuring smile; he could see how the fear was getting to the younger man. "He'll forget about it, he always does." The boy nodded, but Jack knew he wasn't really listening. Still, he took the opportunity to push the boy to the other side of the smithy behind a standing rack of tools. Holding the man in place, Jack peered around the edge of the rack and saw a familiar flash of red ruffles on the balcony of Rose's Social Club. Wetting his lips, he whistled a little melody and heard an immediate answer.

"Jack?" He saw a fluttering curtain in a window from his half-crouch. "Where are you?"

"Havin' some tea with Chauncey."

Her laughter was immediate and a little surprised. "That sounds lovely. You boys threaten each other yet?"

"We'll talk about that later, love. Until then, think you can find me a way to get across the street to the freight yard?" He waited for the answer, wiping the back of his hand across his forehead. Jack felt the wet swipe of his sweat-soaked woolen hat along his little finger. His comfortable seat in the barber shop seemed so far away at that very moment.

A commotion from the direction of the Club turned his head. He was a hairsbreadth away from standing up when he heard Red's voice again. "You tell Thom Harris that if his boys shoot up my fancy upholstery in the downstairs parlor, I'm never lettin' any of them step foot inside again!" The muffled quality of her voice changed, clearing up a moment later. "Jack? You best stay put for a bit. The Harris boys are comin' down my side of the street and the Marshal and his deputies are makin' their way down t'other."

"Yes," mumbled the hapless bridegroom beside him as he sagged down in relief, "I don't want to be anywhere near those guns."

Biting back a sharp comment, Jack worried about his sanity as he took the time to explain. "If we let them get past us, they'll be between us and the stage. So we either move or give up on your wedding right now."

That got the boy on his feet and nearly headshot when one of the Harris boys fired wide to cut off the deputies. Still, Jack could only offer a silent prayer as he all but carried the thinner man south. Passing Chauncey's wide-eyed expression, Jack ferried the boy into Madame Shen's Laundry.

Even with the deputies drawing fire behind them, a few bullets winged kitty-corner across the street and nailed themselves into the wooden door, swinging it closed behind them.

Madam Shen looked up from her abacus and narrowed her eyes at Jack. "You bring your money?"

Jack managed what could be considered a charming smile. "I'm not here for my laundry, Madame Shen. I'm here because—"

"Then go away." She smoothed her hands down the black gown she wore, the movement drawing some interest to the glint of metal on her fingers. "No time to waste on a man who does not pay."

Gritting his back teeth together, he looked at the boy. "You got some money?"

He blinked up at the gunman for a moment before he nodded. "Some."

"How much?" Jack swiveled his head around to the older woman. "How much do I owe you?"

A couple of clicks on the wooden beads of her abacus and she looked up at the mismatched pair. "Four bits if you pay now."

The boy was already reaching into his coat pocket. He withdrew a small purse that looked more like a tobacco pouch. Fishing around with his fingers, he withdrew a half-dollar coin and put it in the hands of the woman.

She gave him a good once over and decided not to bite the coin. The boy must have had an air about him that didn't remind her of Jack. Dropping it into a box beneath the counter she produced a paper-wrapped bundle and set it before her on the counter. "Your shirts."

A loud spate of gunfire drew Jack's attention to the door. "I would appreciate it, my dear, if you would hold onto it for a bit. I have to get the young man to the stage."

She looked at the clock, ticking away on the wall. "You have three minutes to make the stage."

The younger man gaped at the sudden tick of the second hand. "Two!"

Another round of bullets peppered the wall of the laundry, earning the miscreants a rather colorful string of syllables from Madame Shen. "You," she turned her dark eyes on the gunfighter, "go out that door." She pointed a work-worn finger toward the back door of the laundry. "You gonna be late." She shook her head. "Like always."

This time it was the boy preceding the gunman out the door. He was lucky enough to duck behind the fluttering of a bed sheet before anyone saw him.

Jack was right behind him, checking the position of the sun. The glare wasn't in a position to do them any good, but it wouldn't hurt them either. The hot push of light wouldn't cast their shadows on the clothing, giving away their position. The only part of them that would be visible would be the tops of their heads and their feet that extended beyond the hems of the linens and garments on the line.

Swiping his hat off his head, Jack did the same for the boy, stuffing the once crisp hat into his hands. When the younger man looked at the crumpled woolen chapeau with despair Jack scoffed at him. "Better it than you, son."

With a quick peek around a freshly washed pair of split drawers, Jack could see the Harris boys slowly backing up into the maze of crates and cartons in the yard of the freight company. Advancing on them was Marshal Sawyer with two of his deputies. A glance back at the walk before the smithy told him that one of the deputies was down, his hands clutched over his middle.

"Damnit to Hell." Jack reached to his side and the butt of one of his trademark pistols nearly jumped up into his hand. "This isn't just some drunks lettin' off steam no more," he grumbled under his breath as he pulled back the hammer until he heard the whisper of a click that said he had a bullet ready to go.

A bullet singed a hole in someone's shirt and Jack was grateful his were wrapped up inside, waiting for him. Leaning to the side of the ruined garment he drilled a hole through the crown of a hat and earned a sharp rebuke and a threat from the man wearing it. "You folks settle down," Jack bellowed back at him. "All I'm tryin' to do is cross the street! You boys keep takin' shots in my direction, it's gonna give me an excuse to wade in there and plug y'all up until they lay you in the ground. So leave off!"

A bullet flew, it was thrown in another direction, but it drew his attention for a moment. Out of the corner of his eye, Jack saw a flutter of color at the edge of the freight yard and drew a bead on the figure. He lifted the barrel when he realized who it was hiding near the corral.

Little Paul, his hands over his ears, crouched down behind one of the large posts.

Pursing his dry lips, Jack whistled at the child.

Shocked, Paul looked up and pulled his hands an inch away from his ears. He watched as Jack tried to use his hands to explain what he wanted. With a curious tilt to his head, Paul pondered the gestures and then pointed up at the metal closure of the gate.

Jack, all the way across the street, fighting to keep someone's nightshirt from tangling with his mustache, saw the gesture and nodded with satisfaction. Holding out his hand he gave his companion a pointed a look.

'What?' the bridegroom mouthed at him.

'Coin!' mouthed the weary gunman. 'Now.'

Rolling his eyes, he took another half-dollar coin from his purse and dropped it into Jack's hand.

Ignoring the grumbles from the man beside him, Jack used his left hand to lob the coin into Paul's grasp. The boy looked down at the coin and nearly forgot to breathe. Dropping it into his pocket he stood up, the thick corral post blocking him from the arrhythmic pattern of gunplay. With a mock salute and grin, he unlatched the gate and let the weight of it swing the arm open.

The earlier spat with his boss made it easy to convince the child to help out. The coin had only been a tip of sorts for the quick service. The sturdy oxen that pulled some of the freight wagons had already been stirred up from the gunfire; the arrival whistles of the train were enough to send them running.

"She's here!"

Ignoring the rapturous gush of the younger man's voice, Jack grabbed him by the collar of his store bought suit and propelled him forward. They took a few steps together before the young man noticed the oncoming cloud of dirt and hooves.

"Dear God! You're not . . . we're not . . . you can't be serio— wait!"

"Move and keep moving, I'll direct, you just keep moving forward!" Jack shouted the words over the thundering riot of oxen and a single donkey that picked its own way through the larger beasts.

The slap of a shoulder and the bump of a belly here and there made them struggle to keep on their feet, but the sound of gunfire was mercifully drowned out beyond the moving wall of livestock. At one point, the bridegroom tried to turn around, but Jack forced him onward and suddenly there were wooden planks beneath their feet. A signpost over their heads proclaimed 'STAGE DEPOT.'

Practically tripping over his dust-caked shoes, the young man ran the rest of the way, leaving Jack to follow him, shaking his head as he went. Behind him, the Marshal shouted out a few choice words at the drunken outlaws who were apparently holed up in the livery stable.

The joke, Jack supposed, was that there was only one way in and out of the place. Old man Stemple who had built the thing upon his arrival in Agua Dulce had been too cheap to put in a second door. So the Harris boys were going to learn the hard way that drunk really was stupid.

Now, perched on the edge of the platform outside the stage office, Jack watched his young charge tentatively approach a young woman.

She was dressed in a traveling suit that gave the appearance that it had been taken in a few times, its seams crooked and bunched. Her hair was falling down in the back, a bent wire pin poking out from the curl it was supposed to conceal.

And when she turned to look at her would-be bridegroom, Jack could see a sheen of perspiration on her skin from the tight quarters of the train car and the baking sun of their little town. For a moment, he wondered if the boy would change his mind instead of saddling himself with a woman.

Then she smiled.

It was the kind of smile that crinkles a woman's face in all the right places, and sets her eyes to dancing with light. She smiled and Jack dropped his pistol back into its holster and pulled the back of his hand over his cheeks to brush away the sweat on his skin.

Later, if someone were to question his red eyes, he would brush it off as nothing more than the dust from the angry livestock.

But as the eager young bridegroom took her hand and drew her over to meet, "the man that got me here through a hail of gunfire," Jack couldn't help but blink back a few tears.

He always did cry at weddings.

The End

Ray Dean was born and raised in Hawaii where she spent many a quiet hour reading and writing stories. Performing in theater and working backstage lead her into the delights of Living History, creating her own worlds through writing seemed the next logical step. Historical settings are her first love, but there is something heady about twisting the threads of time into little knots and creating new timelines to explore. There are endless possibilities that she is just beginning to discover.

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by Jerry Lambert

Ringnecked pheasants flush from under the feet of the black stallion, followed by two blasts from a double barrel shotgun. Two roosters fall from the sky and Gabe Tackett dismounts to collect his bounty. This scene is repeated five more times on the western prairie, giving the weathered warrior an even dozen.

Gabe puts the birds into two sacks that are tied onto the horn of his smoothly worn saddle. A tailwind pushes the rugged cowboy back to the cattle drive which is currently camped along a wide, shallow river. Gabe's mouth waters at the thought of the roasted birds. Gomez will season them just right and create a tasty treat; this he knows.

Later that evening, Gabe sits at the campfire and enjoys a cup of coffee. Trail boss, Ty Colter, sits on the other side of the fire. The other men give these two rugged, ace-high, cowboys a wide berth. Respect is earned in the west, not given, and these two have earned it in spades. Their legendary deeds could fill volumes of the 10 cent booklets that marvel the talents of much lesser men.

Ty looks at Gabe and grins, "Fire-roasted pheasant, it don't get no finer."

"I thought some white meat would be a good change of pace," replied Gabe.

The men spend the next several minutes sitting in silence savoring the occasion. Cowhand Hank fills the air with the sound of his brass harmonica.

When Ty speaks again a serious tone resonates in his voice, "I'll need you to scout and find our next water tomorrow, but be careful. I have a feeling down in my gut that trouble is awaiting. Do you want me to send Hank out with you?"

Gabe drains his cup, stares at the stars and says, "I prefer to go alone, I'll be out well before light."

It is as Ty expected it but as boss he had to voice his concern. He couldn't count on one hand the number of times that his gut feelings were actually wrong. He hopes that this will be one of those times, but he highly doubts it.

Sitting at Hank's campfire is a young buck named Luke and a wise old-timer named, Sam. Luke's been pondering for a while so he decides to finally ask, "What's Gabe's story? Boss sure favors him. Why is that?"

Sam looks at the green-horn and blurts out, "Let me give you some advice boy. Be careful before you pry into another man's business while out here. You could find yourself killed. I can tell you Gabe's story because it ain't a secret. His mother named him after the archangel, Gabrielle. Gabe was a top lawman in Tennessee. Folks in those parts loved him and even wanted to make him the next governor but Gabe wanted no part of that. He said that it would cut into his hunting and fishing time. As a lawman he sawed-down a half dozen outlaws with those cat-quick reflexes. He was, and for that matter still is, highly respected. Gabe's heart hardened when the fever took his wife and son. Ten days after his wife's burial, Gabe turned in his badge, mounted up and came out west. Boy, you will probably never again ride with men with such a strong pedigree as Gabe Tackett and Ty Colter. If you are smart, you need to watch them and learn."

Gabe's worn, dusty boots hit the stirrups early the next morning. Strapped into the scabbard is a .44 caliber Henry rifle with a 16 round magazine. Holstered on his side was a Colt .45 revolver.

When the rising sun made its first appearance, Gabe was five miles from camp. The black stallion was hidden under a grove of sycamores. Gabe had climbed a rock outcropping that gave him a view of the stretching valley floor. From this lofty perch he would sit and observe. There were no fresh tracks of fellow travelers but these parts of the west were crawling with rustlers, killers, and thieves. A wolverine scampered along some rocks below. He had heard of this vicious animal but this was his first time actually seeing one. A half-hour later a mountain lion took the same path as the wolverine. The area must be rich with wild game for this kind of predator activity. Gabe kept a watchful eye on a grove of cottonwoods that probably held the desired water source.

A mule deer buck casually grazed in a grassy meadow wearing a wide antlered rack that easily exceeded anything else that the hunter had ever shot. Normally, Gabe didn't shoot game this far away from the cook and gunfire would alert anybody within hearing range of his presence and that is not a good thing considering that he is alone, but this buck was exceptional. The antlers were in velvet which made them look even bigger. From a prone position, Gabe placed the fat muley into the sights of the Henry rifle and with the pull of the trigger the barrel spit fire. The buck hunched up and ran into a cluster of pines.

Gabe left his lofty perch and descended down into the pines. Slowly working the blood trail, the grizzled hunter found the big buck lying on the bank of a small stream. Good memories from his hunts in the Tennessee mountains reeled through his mind. He specifically recalled shooting a wide buck that carried ten comparable tines. He had taken the tines and crafted them into silver-ware handles as well as for the knife that is sheathed on his belt. As the thought of his wife bringing the venison roast to the table crossed his mind his ears took in the sound of horses walking the stream.

Gabe removed the tie down from his side-arm and cocked the hammer of his rifle. Four riders were approaching and they looked like trouble. Before Gabe could seek cover they were upon him. Gabe cussed himself for foolishly letting these rough-riders close in on him. The excitement of the hunt had dulled his common sense and now he was in a predicament that only he could solve.

A heavy set man sitting on a black and white mare grinned mischievously and said, "Howdy friend, what do you got there? Looks like a load of venison, care to share?"

Gabe recognized the man. Walt Lilly. Walt and his companions were wanted for the murder of a homestead family. A ten-year-old boy had survived their ambush and slaughter by hiding high up a pine tree. The kid easily described the overweight scoundrel to the Sheriff. Walt had a distinctive limp and red birthmark on his neck that grew up into his right cheek. This obviously riled Gabe who lost his own family and his sympathies were with the young boy.

"This venison is for the men working the cattle drive," Gabe sternly replied.

Walt and his crew started laughing before Walt said, "Your cattle drive is still some miles back and me and the boys are hungry right now."

Gabe raised his rifle and aimed it at the fat man's belly and spoke deliberately and slowly, "I know who you are and I know what you did. Now I need you four to slowly undo your belts and let those side-arms fall to the ground."

A lean man wearing a red bandana around his neck glared back and declared, "There is only one of you and four of us. You realize you're going to die today, don't ya?"

Gabe didn't flinch and retorted, "We're all going to die someday, but if you don't do what I tell ya, then you and the fat man will be dead within the next few seconds."

Quick tempered, the lean fellow reached for his gun. As he did this, Gabe shot Walt in the chest and then peppered the initiator with two bullets toppling him from his horse to a quick death. The other two riders were taken aback by the quick exchange and while one of them froze in place the other fumbled for his gun. Gabe shot the fumbler in the shoulder and followed up with a shot through the heart. By this time the fourth fellow had drawn his gun and shot Gabe in the shoulder spinning him to the ground.

After hitting the turf, Gabe looked up to see the shooter fleeing down the creek. Gabe drew his pistol and took three quick shots. Two of them hit the rider in the back and, like his outlaw hombres, his soul went straight to hell.

Gabe started tending to his wound and was pleased to find out that the bullet went straight through. The bullet severed a nerve and the pain was intense. Right before passing out, Gabe heard another horse approaching. Hopefully this rider was a friend or this would be the end.

The following morning Gabe awakened to the smell of tenderloins cooking over the fire. Tending to the meat was Hank. Hank looked at him and simply said, "I thought that the smell of venison might bring you out of that deep sleep. That buck you shot is like no other."

Gabe attempted to rise but his shoulder was stiff and sore. Hank stopped him, "Whoa, don't you mess up my bandages. You need to rest right there. Let's get some food in you before you go attempting any movements."

Hank pulls some meat off and feeds Gabe. The juicy protein tastes good and will be vital for recovery.

Hank continues to cook and while he roast the meat over the fire he says, "Ty had me follow you. Ty's gut told him there would be trouble and he knows that his gut is never wrong. He also knew that you wouldn't want anyone to accompany you but shortly after first light he told me to go find you. I was just approaching the valley when I heard the shooting. I see that you got four of them. By the looks of the tracks it looks like that is all there was. Is that correct?

Gabe nodded but fell back to sleep. While he recovered, Gabe's mind continued to return to his life in Tennessee. Images of his lovely wife and bright-eyed boy filled his mind.

The good book says that it is appointed for all men to die and Gabe's time came all too soon. Just when it looked like he was going to pull through the wound became infected and a strong fever took hold. Gabe died one week after the shootout. Ty spoke a few words over his friend and then he led the men on down the trail. A wooden cross marks the grave of this brave western hunter. You can't miss it; Hank lashed the wide antlers from the mule deer buck to the cross.

The cowboy is now reunited with his family in a much better place. The legendary tale of Gabe killing Walt and his gang of ruthless outlaws continues to live on as the story is repeated time and time again by cowboys seated next to campfires all across the western plains. One cowboy who has told the story the most is named Luke and he always finishes his account with, "I never rode with anyone finer. Gabe Tackett was Ace-High, and I will fight any man who says otherwise!"

The End

Jerry Lambert is the author of Trophy White Tales: A classic collection of campfire stories about North America's #1 game animal—the whitetail deer, and The Hunting Spirit. Both books have been Amazon Best Sellers in the Hunting category. Jerry is also a freelance outdoor writer who has been published in Bear Hunting, Big Buck, Buck Fax, Michigan Out-of-Doors, Michigan Outdoor News,, North American Whitetail, Outdoor Life, Turkey Country, Whitetails Unlimited and Woods-N-Water News. To find out more, visit the author's facebook page:

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Riders on the Backtrail
by P.D. Amos

My name is Jacob Woodwright. I doubt we'll ever meet.

The liquor I drank in that last Missouri town had more than alcohol in it. Turpentine probably.

And although I'm still able to ride, it takes two days of hot sun and four canteens of cold water to purge the stuff from my system. At some point, amid my blinding headaches and dry retching, my horse Nate decides to wander off onto a secondary trail, so we no longer ride on a heavily traveled road. I know that we're heading generally northwest, towards Kansas City, but have no idea how long it will take to get there.

I can't fault Nate for this. I've found that most decisions made by horses are at least as good as those made by people. And I wasn't exactly taking charge.

The secondary road is generally deserted, crawling through mixed lands of woods and fields. Now and then I pass a ruddy log cabin or farm shanty with frayed burlap sacks fluttering in the empty window frames. Doors are barred shut, though, and the occupants stay hidden, save for an occasional hollow-eyed child whose face bobs lightly in the window for a second or two before being smacked away by an adult hand.

We are riding through a fairly open stretch when Nate gives a high snort and jerks his head around to look back. Thousands of miles on Nate have taught me what this means. Riders are on the trail behind us. Nate throats a high whinny but there is no reply. We ride on for an hour or so.

Jerking sideways, Nate snorts and looks back again. I rein him tight and stop for a minute, waiting for someone to appear on our back trail. No one does. Blood rushes through my head with the sounds of a busted pipe and my chest gets real tight. Four years of surviving on horseback trigger my alarms.

Riders on your back trail are common. But when they mean you no harm, then one of two things will happen. If they're traveling faster than you, then they'll eventually ride into plain sight at your rear. If traveling slower, then they'll fall farther and farther behind, to be seen and smelled no more.

But, and I mean but, if they travel at the same speed as you, and never get closer or farther, then they aren't traveling at all, they're stalking.

I have to make decisions now, and fast. Unless you know for certain that you can outrun your pursuers, then trying to escape by speed is a bad choice. In short order, they will ride you down at a time and place of their own choosing and finish you.

On the other hand, you can make use of what little time you have and make a stand at a place of your choosing, so long as you have enough food, water and ammunition.

I have plenty.

Nate is prancing, and wants to get moving, wants to make a run for it. Yet he is worn from long travel, and despite his overnight rest and grain in the last town, I know he can't last.

I turn him up trail, and let him go, but only to an easy cantor, not a gallop. We are moving yes, but just enough to create some extra time and distance.

And while we go, I sit high and look for something, anything, to work with. My hands shake and I get that sick feeling again, but I am very focused and colors seem brighter somehow.

Up ahead I see a smaller trail branching off to the left, pushing into heavier woods. We take it and continue to move. I'm looking for a crease or an opening in the trail that I can use to advantage, and after a half mile or so, I spot it. A small clearing on the right side of the trail, from an old lightning strike or brush fire.

I ride into the clearing, tie off Nate, and find two tree trunks that sit about eight feet apart. I stretch a rope between the trees, pull it tight, throw my canvas groundsheet across it, and hope it looks like a tent. I pull the four corners out and weigh them down with rocks. It looks pretty good to me.

Scraping a shallow hole in the ground with my boot heel, I put a few pieces of crumpled paper into it. I fling on lots of small pine branches snapped from the bottom of trunks, light the pile with a match, and step back. It starts up quickly, giving off lots of smoke- and wood-scent. Exactly what I want.

Nate watches me over his shoulder. He knows that something is coming, but is relaxed. I pull the Sharps, the shotgun, and an old gray blanket from my rig and set them aside. I am breathing really heavy now and sweat pours down my face.

They are coming and will be here soon. I pull the saddle and bags from Nate, walk them into the woods about twenty-five yards, and cover them with dead leaves. If I lose Nate, I don't want to lose everything else as well.

Back at the clearing I snatch up my guns and blanket, cross over the trail, and plunge into the woods on the other side. I need to move fast, but can't afford a mistake.

I make my way through the trees in a large arc, swinging back towards the section of the trail that I just rode in on. When I get to the trail, I stop about fifteen feet short, staying in the thicket. I find a huge white oak, and squat behind it. It stands between me and the trail. Nate and the clearing are about 100 yards down the road. I can just see Nate's rump and a swatch of the tent. I smell the smoke. I cover myself with the blanket to stay hidden.

I am waiting. I am shaking. I am sweating.

The birds are singing.

I am still waiting.

I hear them now. They slow to a trot.

I hide. My face is down and covered. I will not try to look at them until they have ridden past.

I hear the creak of leather. The trotting stops. Their horses smell me and balk and whinny softly. They pause in the trail, almost even with the oak.

"There," a man whispers. (I can imagine him pointing to my camp.) They see Nate. They see the smoke. They think their horses balk at the scent of Nate instead of me, and that will cost them.

Another whisper. "Careful."

Slowly, they nudge their horses onward, focusing on the clearing.

I wait. One beat. Two beats. Three.

I gently pull the blanket from over my head and let the cloth fall softly behind me.

There are two of them. A very big man and a skinny one. They ride good horses, weighed down by fine rigs and iron. Their backs are towards me as they ease forward to the camp. Too well-heeled to be lawmen or outlaws, my guess is that they're bounty hunters, professionals at that.

But hunting who? Me? I'm not wanted for anything.

Now I realize. Out here, there are no tin photos of outlaws. Just rough sketches on yellow posters, with vague descriptions and the seductive phrase . . . "Dead or Alive."

When they are fifty yards past,, I slip with my guns from behind the tree and sit in the brush next to the trail. I put the big Sharps into shooting position and wait.

They move closer to the camp and then halt. They study the tent, wondering if I'm asleep within.

The skinny one dismounts, handing his reins to the big man. The big man sits in his saddle, holding both sets of reins in his left hand and a Colt Walker in his right.

Skinny has a rifle, and walks quietly towards the clearing, trying to get the correct angle to peer into the tent.

I cock back the hammer on the Sharps. In the quiet dry air, it is harsh and metallic. The men's horses hear it. I see their ears flick backwards. The men do not.

Lining up the sights on the big man's back, I draw a deep breath, let it halfway out, and squeeze the trigger . . . gently . . . taking my time.

"BLOOM!" The Sharps rocks rearward, belching a huge plume of smoke.

Big man pitches forward, completely out of his saddle and onto the ground, one foot hanging in the stirrup for a second and then dropping away. He is dead. His horse prances to one side

Skinny is quick but confused. He hears the shot, sees his partner go down, but has no idea where the shot came from. Up ahead? From the side? Certainly not from behind.

His horse is well trained and does not flee. Skinny swings into his saddle, scabbards his rifle, pulls a pistol and rides hard, trying to flee back up the trail the same way he came.

He is riding straight towards me. I am unseen.

I have set down the Sharps and taken up the shotgun. I cock the hammers. I wait.

He will arrive in seconds. He still does not see me.

I can see his face though. It is middle-aged and afraid. And now he makes his biggest mistake. He looks back over his shoulder, casting one last glance to see if he's pursued.

I stand as his horse draws near, point the bead of the gun at his chest, swing smoothly as though tracking an incoming grouse, and pull the right trigger. The shotgun roars even louder than the Sharps, slamming him with buckshot and knocking him out of the saddle. He loses his pistol on the way down and hits the ground hard.

I walk towards him from the woods, my second barrel cocked and ready. He struggles to his knees, his chest pocked here and there with red holes, and pulls a second revolver from the small of his back.

I shoot him again, and he is finished.

I stand for five minutes I guess. Maybe longer. I am calm again.

I am in the middle of the trail, looking up at a boiling gray sky, or rather a swatch of it, through swaying green branches. The wind is cool and licks at my neck. Rain is coming.

Skinny's mare returns and yanks green nettles from the roadside, apparently unconcerned with her master. I hear the "chomp-clack" "chomp-clack" of her bit as she chews and swallows.

Skinny has no badge, and that relieves me somewhat, though a dead man on an open trail, or rather two, is still a serious state of affairs. A folded paper flaps noisily in the wind from his vest pocket. I yank it out.

$500 REWARD!

A charcoal sketch of a killer's face peers back. It is lean and hard, bearing a vague resemblance to mine, but older . . . much older. The physical description puts him five inches taller as well. From a distance, I guess, Skinny and Big Man may have thought this was me.

Or maybe, after killing me and stretching me out to ripen for a few days, they would have said it was me. I guess I'll never know.

I do know that from the time I saw them tracking me, I didn't have to think. Something just . . . took over. That "something" is what kept me alive through four years of butchery, but now it feels out of place, even out of control.

Since the War is over, I guess I'll have to remember to give strangers a better chance to kill me before I defend myself.

Big Man's body is so heavy that it is tough to roll over. A large exit hole is blown out of his chest, but there is no badge on him either, at least none I can find.

I'm dragging Big Man about ten yards off of the trail into my camp when his horse returns. He seems to like my tent and waits for grain.

I drag Skinny back to my tent and prop him up against a tree, facing Big Man. If I'm real lucky, then for five or ten minutes someone might think that they shot each other. I make sure their guns are out, and fire off a couple shots from each. I'm surprised at how much money they are carrying. Almost eighty dollars all told.

I'm no robber. You know that. But I take most of the cashy, leaving the rest in their pockets. When someone finds the bodies, I hope he'll be glad to get the remainder and keep his mouth shut. What hurts the most is leaving their guns behind. They are well oiled, well cared for, and in great shape. In a few days, they'll be rust, but I can't risk being caught with them and besides, Nate is weighed down as it is.

Neither of their horses carry a brand, thank God, so I yank the saddles off, throw them near the bodies, and then whip the horses really hard to drive them further up trail. In a day or so, they will wander into somebody's homestead, and times being what they are, some starving farmer will hide them in his barn for a few months and then claim they're his. He sure won't turn them in.

Big cold drops splat hard against my shoulders and hat, and the wind picks up. I re-saddle Nate, but leave the tent in place.

I'm riding down the little trail again, heading back to the main trail from which I turned during the pursuit. The rain is a good thing. It'll wash out the tracks.

I push hard for Kansas City.

The End

P.D. Amos is a retired businessman living in the historic Civil War town of New Market, Virginia. He is fascinated by the tales of day to day life on the Western frontier during the post-War years.

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Mountain Justice
by B S Dunn

Part 1 of 2

Dan Pearson kicked out the fire and cursed the cold. A small column of brown smoke flecked with glittering orange sparks floated up into the bitter morning air. He pulled the collar of his slicker higher trying to keep out the biting autumn chill. It was only a matter of time before the first snows would fall in this part of Wyoming and he wanted to be out of the high country before that happened.

Dan wasn't a big man, he stood a touch over five and a half feet in his socks. His collar length hair was brown and shaggy, most of it hidden away under a black, low-crowned hat. His face was deeply tanned, almost leathery, and made him look somewhat older than his thirty years. It did however, give him a ruggedly handsome appearance which many women found alluring.

Pearson shivered again as the insidious cold crept beneath his slicker and through his woollen shirt. Tall pines and cedar blocked out the morning sun's warmth and the heavy air caused the wood smoke from his now defunct camp fire to drift like a blanket of fog halfway up the trunks of the tall rough-barked trees.

A creature of habit, Pearson checked the loads in his single-action Colt army model and then the Winchester which was chambered for a .45-.75 cartridge.

Finding everything in order, Pearson mounted his buckskin mare, and with slight knee pressure, the horse moved off in a slow walk, picking its way along the narrow, winding trail towards the town of Woodsville.

* * *

It was late morning when the mountain trail opened out into a lush alpine meadow bordered by immense ponderosa pines and giant cedars. West of the town a stand of silver barked aspen sparkled, leaves of gold and orange standing out against a back drop of green.

In the midst of it all, situated on the banks of a fast-flowing mountain stream, was the town of Woodsville.

Woodsville had humble beginnings as a lumber camp. Trees were felled in the mountains and the stripped logs freighted down from the camp to the timber mills at the foot of the range.

The discovery of gold some twelve months later saw the camp boom with an influx of miners keen to make their fortune. The rush lasted three years before the last of the placer mines played out and the miners left. In their wake was left a town that struggled to survive.

An English timber man, Edward Fox, had made his fortune selling milled lumber to the miners. Though little was known about him, rumour had it that many years before he'd gone into exile from his native homeland after the suspicious murder of his wife and her lover. Though in reality, nobody actually knew.

Fox and his son had arrived with the first miners. He brought machinery and men with him and soon after, had his lumberjacks felling in the best stands. He supplied timber hand over fist to the miners at exorbitant prices.

Other timber companies saw an opportunity for themselves to come in and take a share of the profits but Fox would have none of it. The first time a rival company tried to move machines into the high country, the freighters were ambushed and the equipment destroyed. It was a single ill-fated attempt.

Therein Fox found another way to make money. He offered to buy ready-to-mill logs from his opposition, at a substantially reduced price.

Of course the deal was refused. Rather than sell to Fox, they chose to keep freighting it down out of the mountains. Once again, it was tried only once. From then on, they were at the mercy of Edward Fox.

After the miners left, Fox's profits slumped, but the "entrepreneur", as he referred to himself, was not one to stand idly by and let money escape his grasp. He began to buy the most lucrative businesses in Woodsville and once more was making money.

Pearson reined up on the outskirts of town and reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a nickel-plated star and pinned it to his chest, high and on the left side.

He'd worn it for the past two years in a small town called Tawny Creek. Tired of wandering, he'd looked for an opportunity to settle down, and Tawny Creek had provided that for him.

Pearson leaned forward and rubbed his horse between the ears. "I guess this is it girl. Let's ride in and get it done."

* * *

Pearson's first stop was the livery stable. Not much more than a large barn, it had double doors at both ends and a corral out the back. The hostler's name was Orville. He was a middle-aged man with grey hair and a limp courtesy of a Reb mini-ball.

"What can I do for you stranger?" Orville asked warmly while Pearson was tethering the buckskin to a wobbly hitch-rail.

Pearson turned around and the hostler noticed the badge.

He swallowed hard and his warm demeanour shifted to one of nervousness. "What can I do for you sheriff?"

"A stall for the night if you've got one?"

"Sure, no problem," Orville answered. "People around here call me Orville. Are you just passin' through sheriff?"

"The name's Pearson," Pearson told him. "And no I'm not passin' through."

The hostler's face fell. "No, I didn't think you were. The stall will be four bits for the night."

"With feed and rub down?"

"Feed is included, but it'll cost you an extra two bits for the rub down."

Pearson nodded. "Fine."

After the horse was stabled Pearson said, "I'm lookin' for two men. One rides a paint and the other rides a chestnut. Do you know of anyone around here who forks broncs like that?"

Orville shook his head but his eyes gave him away. "Nope, I don't know anyone around here who rides them kinda horses. Come to think of it I don't think I've ever seen any such horses like that in town, ever."

"That's funny," Pearson said, "because I was told I could find 'em here in Woodsville."

The hostler shook his head vigorously. "Nope. Whom ever told you that must've been drunk when they told you that. Yes sir, blamed drunk."

The next time Pearson spoke, his voice possessed an edge. "Is everybody in town runnin' scared like you?"

An indignant expression came over the hostler's face, all but fleeting. He knew what Pearson meant, but denied it anyway.

"What do you mean?" Orville asked, refusing to meet the lawman's eyes.

"You know what I mean," Pearson snapped. "You also know who I'm after and that they blamed well live here in town."

"Sheriff, I know nothin'."

"You mean you choose to know nothin," Pearson scolded him as he would a child. "Where can I find the local law?"

"The jail is about halfway along main street on your left," Orville informed him. "It won't do you any good."

"Why?" Pearson asked harshly.

Orville didn't answer. He turned and limped away.

* * *

Pearson entered the law office and found the sheriff sitting behind a scarred, dark timber desk, drinking a steaming mug of coffee laced with rotgut whiskey.

Pearson stood in front of the desk. "My name's Pearson. I'm the sheriff of Tawny Creek. It's a small town south of here. I'm lookin' for two men who robbed the Tawny Creek stage and killed the driver and messenger. They stole four thousand dollars from the strong box the Concorde was carryin'."

Pearson could tell from the expression on the lawman's face that he knew exactly who Pearson meant even without mentioning names.

The sheriff was an overweight man who looked as though he'd not moved from his chair in years. His puffy face had turned a pale sickly colour.

"I'm sheriff James," he croaked. "If there is any way I can help, just ask."

Pearson knew that there was no heart in the offer.

"The men I'm after live here," he said, knowing he didn't need to add the last bit of information. "One rides a paint and the other a chestnut. Do you know 'em?"

"Nope. Never heard of 'em," James answered with a shake of his head.

"You too sheriff?"

All he got in return was a puzzled look.

"Hell James, you know who I'm talkin' about. Let's see if this jogs your memory. Jonathan Fox and his pard Abilene. They were the two who hit the stage and did the killin'. I'm here to take 'em back for trial, so you can either help me or stay the hell out of my way."

Pearson paused briefly then continued. "I've been here five minutes and it's not hard to tell that Edward Fox has this town buffaloed. So tell me, where can I find 'em?"

"I . . . I don't know where they are," the fat man stammered.

Pearson's eyes grew flinty. "So that's how it's going to be is it?"

"You could try the saloon across the street," James said acting as if he was being helpful. "The Crosscut it's called. They could be there."

"Yeah, I'll do that," Pearson said icily. "Thanks for all your help."

With that the Tawny Creek sheriff turned on his heel and stalked out the door.

* * *

James waited until he saw Pearson enter the saloon before he rushed from his office and lumbered along the street to the office of Fox and Son.

Edward Fox sat at a large, finely hand-tooled cedar desk, in a leather upholstered chair. His son, Jonathan sat on a lounge along a side wall, with his cohort Abilene. A pot-bellied stove in the far corner emitted sufficient heat to warm the room.

Fox senior was a thin man with fine, grey hair which was immaculately groomed. He was a man who exuded an aura of great confidence.

Junior was a younger version of the same while Abilene was an average looking young man with lake blue eyes, blond hair and a right arm that could pull a six-gun in the blink of an eye.

"What can we do for our esteemed peace officer today?" the elder Fox asked in a voice that dripped sarcasm.

"You got a problem that just rode into town," the big man gasped out and pointed at the young men on the lounge. "Actually it's you two who have the problem."

Jonathan and Abilene gave him a questioning look.

"What the hell do you mean?" Jonathan snapped.

"Well, just lately I had noticed you two have been flashin' money around town. More than usual and today a lawman from down Tawny Creek shows up with a story about a stage heist and lookin' for you two."

The two young men remained silent.

Edward Fox looked over at them, his eyes narrowed with his rage.

"What have you two gone and done now?" he hissed.

His son shrugged nonchalantly. "When we went and took care of that business for you we picked up a little spendin' money along the way. Nothin' much."

Fox's face turned crimson,."Of all the stupid, idiotic things to do. What the hell were you two idiots thinking?"

"They killed the driver and the shotgun messenger too," James put in.

"Watch your mouth fat man," Abilene warned.

"Shut up!" Fox exploded. "I can't believe that the pair of you thought that I wouldn't find out. And now your stupidity has brought outside law here."

Abilene leapt to his feet, drew his Colt .45 and checked its loads.

"Where is he?" he asked staring hard at James. "I'll fix the problem right now."

"He went over to the Crosscut," the sheriff answered.

Fox held up a gnarled hand. "Just hold up. You two have caused enough trouble. I'll sort this out. Meanwhile, you two go up to the cabin at Deep Creek and lay low. Don't come back to town until I send for you."

The two young men left and Fox turned his steely gaze on the sheriff. "Go and find Wells for me. Tell him I have a job for him and have him meet me at my house."

* * *

When Pearson entered the saloon, most patrons turned to stare at the stranger with the badge pinned to his chest. The room went silent for a time before the noise levels returned to normal once again.

Pearson looked about from his position just inside the bat-wing doors. A sawdust covered plank floor held round tables with scarred tops which were scattered throughout the room. The bar was constructed of hardwood and stretched across most of the width of the room while a long rectangle mirror on the rear wall sat above shelves of bottles.

Percentage girls were ensconced on the knees of customers, encouraging them to part with more money, while the faro table appeared busy.

Pearson weaved his way through the crowd as he crossed the smoke filled room and bellied up to the bar.

"What'll it be sheriff?" the short barkeep asked. "Beer or whiskey?"

Pearson shook his head, "Neither. I'm lookin' for Jonathan Fox; know where I can find him?"

The barkeep stared blankly at the Tawny Creek sheriff. Without a word he turned and walked away to a spot further down the bar where he started to clean glasses with a stained rag.

Finally Pearson's frustration boiled over. He turned to face the bar-room.

"I'm lookin' for Jonathan Fox and his pard Abilene," he shouted. "They robbed a stage and killed two men. Do any of you know where I can find them?"

Every person in the room ignored him. It was as if Pearson wasn't there.

"Hell!" he cursed and stormed out.

* * *

The next place of call was the Fox and Son office but it was locked up and the blinds pulled. More frustration.

For the rest of the day Pearson tried various other establishments, under the watchful eye of townsfolk too afraid to talk, for the same result. Finally he gave up in disgust after his belly told him it was time to eat. He would go to Fox's office the following morning and see what he had to say.

It was just on dark when Pearson found himself a small eatery on a side street that was run by a widow woman and her daughter.

Inside there was enough room for ten tables, no more. Each table was covered with a white table cloth and had two chairs. Clean cutlery sat on the table tops, along with starched napkins.

Although the place was small, Pearson thought that somebody took great pains to look after their patrons.

The room was filled with mouth-watering aromas and by the time Pearson sat down at the only available table, his stomach was kicking up a storm.

He ordered a plate of stew and potatoes, followed by home made dumplings. Without a doubt, it was certainly the best home cooked meal he'd had in a long while.

Pearson was halfway through his second cup of coffee when the widow woman's daughter sat in the chair opposite him.

She was thin, plain looking but not unattractive, her long brown hair tied back in a ponytail. It quickly struck him that she was not the young girl he'd thought she was. She was in every way a young woman.

Pearson's mug stopped halfway to his lips as he waited on an explanation for the intrusion. The young lady had a look of uncertainty on her face and the Tawny Creek sheriff thought that she might have changed her mind and stand up before she spoke a word.

In a soft voice she asked, "Are you planning on taking Jon and Abilene back with you mister?"

"That's the idea," he replied.

"Are you going to take them back alive or are you going to shoot them?"

Pearson was puzzled. "Why is it you want to know ma'am?"


"Pardon ma'am?"

"My name is Peggy," she informed him. "But if you're planning on taking them back alive that means old man Fox will try to stop you. And you might have to kill him. That would please me no end."

Pearson's face, although taken aback at the harshness that Peggy's voice held, remained passive.

"I'm sorry," she hurriedly apologised. "But you can't blame me for hoping. After all, that man is responsible for the death of my father, and now you show up. A real man who might be the only hope of breaking the choke hold that man has on this town."

"I'm sorry about your Pa," Pearson said quietly. "But my job here is to bring in the ones responsible for the stage robbery and deaths of two men. If Fox comes between me and my duty then I'll deal with him. But if he leaves me be, then that's all I'll do. I'm not somebody's avenging angel. Besides, hate is a heavy burden to be carryin' around."

Peggy remained silent for a while then she stood up, the chair scraped on the floorboards as it moved back. She brushed at the front of her floral apron and moved around the table to where she could reach the empty bowl the dumplings had been in.

"You might try the company cabin up on Deep Creek," she whispered. "It's four miles north of here."

When she turned and walked back to the kitchen, Peggy could feel his eyes on her, and that made her smile.

* * *

Pearson remembered seeing a hotel on his way around town and walked toward it along the dusty boardwalk, dim lantern light cast a dull orange glow across his path.

He pulled the collar on his jacket higher as the chilled night air bit sharply into his exposed skin. As his boots clunked along on the boards, Peggy's words played over and over in his head. He would take a look at the cabin in the morning. If the pair were there, they wouldn't be going anywhere in a hurry.

Pearson stepped down into the street to cross it when thunder filled the night air and the muzzle flash from a rifle lit an alley across the way.

A burning pain lanced across his left side as a bullet scored a deep furrow over his ribs. The force of it spun him around and Pearson collapsed to his knees.

Instinct took over and he drew his Colt, turned stiffly, raised his gun and fired at the darkened alley.

The bushwhacker fired again and dirt kicked up to Pearson's left. Pearson fired at the muzzle flash, two shots and was rewarded with a cry of alarm.

Ignoring the pain in his side Pearson leapt to his feet and ran across the street. He took cover up against the front wall of the mercantile and then edged his way along to the mouth of the alley.

No more gunfire sounded so Pearson cautiously entered the dark alley and found the bushwhacker laying in the shadows. Pearson knelt down beside the body and felt for a pulse. There was none. Whoever this man was, he was dead.

People started to gather around the mouth of the alley and it wasn't long before the sheriff arrived on the scene blowing hard from his exertions.

"What the blazes is goin' on?" he gasped out. "Well Pearson?"

Pearson pointed at the dark shadow of the dead man on the ground. "It would seem that this here feller wanted to blow a few holes in me."

"Has somebody got a light?" Sheriff James asked.

A tall, slim man stepped out of the crowd holding a lantern at shoulder height. He held it above the dead bushwhacker so his face was visible.

"It's Shorty Wells," murmured a man in the crowd.

The lucky shot from Pearson's Colt had hit the man high in the chest, killing him.

"Who's Shorty Wells?" Pearson asked James.

"He's um . . . he's nobody," James said hesitantly. "He's just a bum."

Pearson had been lied to all day and now he'd been ambushed. He'd had enough. With a fluid motion his Colt appeared in his hand. He raised it so the barrel poked up under the lawman's double chin.

"Who's Shorty Wells?"

There was a murmur from the crowd.

"He's . . . he's a man who works for Mr. Fox," stammered James.

Pearson holstered his six-gun. "See, now wasn't that easy?"

The Tawny Creek sheriff shouldered his way through the crowd and once he was clear, stopped to examine his bloody side. When he looked up Peggy stood before him. She took him by the arm. "Come with me and I'll fix that for you."

"What are you doin' here?"

"I heard the shooting," she explained. "I knew it was you."

"Yeah well, you shouldn't have come."

"Whatever," she shrugged. "Come with me."

Pearson allowed himself to be led away by Peggy. She was beginning to interest him very much.

End Part 1

B. S. Dunn loves to write western fiction. He has written six books to date, five are available on Amazon and the other is to be published in print by Crowood publishers in April. Three of his ebooks are the beginning of an action packed series featuring an ageing gunfighter named Laramie Davis. His travels thus far have pitted him against murderous outlaws in the Montana Rockies, gunrunners in the West Texas desert and the latest adventure sees him over the border, fighting for his life in Canada.

Apart from writing westerns, he loves to watch them and he thinks the western movies of the 50's and 60's are the best ever made.

He lives in a small country town in Australia with his wife and son.

B S Dunn Amazon page

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The Cute Little Mexican Kid
by B. Craig Grafton

"Grandfather, oh Grandfather. Tell them. Tell them of the time that you won a twenty dollar gold piece from the thimble man Mr. Thimblerig," shouted the little ten-year-old Mexican boy as he ran through the earth packed streets of San Antonio Texas to the family villa. His companions did not believe him when he told the story. He would show them. He would have his grandfather tell them. They would believe him.

Three ten-year-old boys ran as fast as their short legs could carry them each trying to outrun the other. The first youth, the one shouting for his grandfather, was small boned with a mop of coal black hair, black eyes, and dark brown skin. The second youth was of a average stature, had light brown eyes and skin and dark brown hair. The third boy was big for his age. Kind of a sturdy pudgy build with flaxen banged hair, very bright blue eyes, pink skin and a sandhill tacky washed out look. They skidded to a stop at the front door of the villa. The first youth's mother came out. A quick exchange of words between mother and son then, "Out back in the courtyard. In his favorite chair."

The three boys revved their bodies in gear, zoomed through the front door, tore through the house, banged open the back door and spurted out the into the cool green shaded gardened courtyard. There sat a shriveled up little old Mexican man swallowed up in his high back rattan chair. Dressed in white pants, red sash belt, white blouse buttoned to the neck, and leather sandals. Dangling his weathered calloused dusty feet over the front, his legs did not reach the ground. His arms rested on the sides of the chair. The old man's thinning white hair was shaggy around the edges, and thinning everywhere. There was a half dollar sized bald spot on top of his head. He brought his gnarled right hand up to his chin, rubbed it with his crooked arthritic thumb and fingers and gave the boys a toothless smile, pleased to have an audience.

"Tell them. They don't believe me that when you were our age that you outsmarted a shell game man and won a twenty dollar gold piece. Tell them."

"Oh I didn't really outsmart him and I didn't really win it."

"What ya do, steal it then?" scoffed the tow headed youth.

"Oh I kind of won it but I didn't know how until years later after I won it." He paused. The boys sat there eyes fixed upon him giving him that look that said, 'Well aren't you going to tell us the story?' The old man knew he had them now. "Let me tell you what happened," he said, his face grimly serious while adjusting himself in his chair and leaning forward to the three boys now deeply entranced all sitting crosslegged on the ground before him.

"It was in a little nothing of a town up in north Texas now called Jessup. At first the town didn't even have a name, it being so small. Just had a sign up along the road that said "Just Stop" to encourage travelers to stop and spend their money. Of course Texans being what they are started calling it Just Stop Texas and Texans being what they are somehow eventually mangled the words into Jessup, Jessup Texas.

"My parents worked for a big ranch owner who had quite a spread just north of town a mile or so. My father was a vaquero. That's a cowboy," he said directing his words to the tow headed lad.

"My mother was the head cook for the owner's family and all his ranch hands and domestic help. Every Saturday we'd hitch up the old mule team to the rattily old buckboard and our whole family with a passel of the hired hands would saunter into town to lay in supplies and find what limited entertainment there was, if any."

"Well this one Saturday there was this big whoop going on in front of the One and Only Saloon. It was named that because it was actually thee one and only saloon in town. A boisterous mob of about half dozen local barflies and drifters had congregated in front. So my father, myself and our fellow ranchhands hurried over to see what all the hubbub was about. Soon all of us, that is excepting my father, but me included, stood there drop jawed watching the wonders of this one man. A huge colorful display sign aptly proclaimed, 'The One and Only Amazing Mr. Thimblerig. Master of Deception. Do you dare to take a chance?' Actually he was the one and only Mr.Thimblerig in town and to me, a young boy, he was amazing, fascinating, and spellbinding. What is exactly what he wanted to be."

"His mouth verbalized at the rate of a mile a minute but not faster than his lightning hands as he shuffled, reshuffled, scooted, shifted and swept the three thimbles across the slick frayed worn surface of his fancy gold, purple and red fringed laced tablecloth. Then after he had everyone thoroughly confused as to where the thimble with the pea under it was, he would dare anyone in the crowd if they would be so bold as to make a friendly little wager. Some fool always would and some fool's friendly little wager money would slide into pocket of Mr. Thimblerig."

"Well I swallowed it all as they say hook, line and sinker. This thin tall debonair man in his fancy frilled colored suit with ruffled cuffs and ruffled vest and with a gold pocket watch tucked therein and gold chain dangling therefrom, slicked back fruity tonic smelling hair under his bowler derby hat, pencil thin mustache, and diamond and gold rings on both hands spellbound me. He was quite the man of the world to a little Mexican kid from nowhere Jessup Texas."

"So naturally during all this hoopla and gambling, I got pretty worked up as they say. I kept jumping up and down and hollering, 'Let me play. Please let me play. Let me play, Please,' Over and over I begged Mr. Thimblerig for a chance, but all to no avail."

"'Run along home kid. You're too young son. Don't I hear your mother calling? Don't bother me. Scram kid.' were some of his many quips that he threw at me as he tried to ignore me all the while shooing me away with both his hands."

"But I was so excited I just couldn't stop even though I was continually rejected over and over. Suddenly I realized what the problem was and screamed out, 'But I got money!' I really did have money, a few pennies for candy that my father had given me."

"Well right then and there Mr. Thimblerig stopped pitching his trade mid-sentence, turned to me and said, 'How much money kid?'"

"Then my father jumped in. 'Excuse me sir, he needs to speak to his father for a moment.'"

"'By all means please do,' said Mr. Thimblerig as he put his hand on top of my head and ruffled up my hair and said, 'Cute kid you got here mister.' Then he stared at me and said, 'You know I got a little boy about your age and kind of looks a little like you too down in San Antonio,' Then he paused and added, ' Or is it Amarillo?

"From the back of the crowd someone snickered, 'Got one in every town do you Thimblerig?' Then while the crowd went into a hee-hawing guffawing group laugh my father took me aside keeping his back to Mr.Thimblerig."

"'Look son I know how this scam works. I've seen it up in Dodge City and Ellsworth Kansas at the end of cattle drives when I was a young hand. Let me take it from here. You just follow my instructions. Don't speak just nod your head. OK?' my father whispered to me."

"I nodded my head yes and he continued. 'I'll make the bet. After he's done shuffling the thimbles, you chose the middle one. Only don't say it out loud or point to it like everyone does because that allows him to immediately turn it over as he always does. Put your hand on it and keep it on it until I place my hand on yours, then you can remove yours. I'll turn it over when appropriate. Got it?'"

"I nodded yes. 'Let's go,' he said and we brought ourselves to the table. 'We'd like to place a wager now sir,' said my father."

"'OK be my guest. Whatever you two wish,' offered Thimblerig."

"'Here's the bet,' my father continued. 'If we lose, I buy everyone here a round of drinks.' A roar went up from the crowd. ' If you lose, you buy everyone here a round of drinks.' A louder roar went up from the crowd. 'See the crowd loves it. Everyone wins,' exclaimed my father.

"'Except for one of us,' interjected Thimblerig."

"'Well? How about it?' taunted my father."

"Thimblerig started to say something then hesitated and stopped. He knew that he'd been lured in and had taken the bait.The crowd began to grow restless and stir. They started chanting 'Do it ! Do it! Do it!' He knew that they might turn on him on a moment's notice if he balked.

"'You said 'Whatever you wish. You backing down now?' goaded my father."

"'Ok!' shouted Thimblerig and he immediately went into his usual spiel with all the bells and whistles, smoke and mirrors, holding up the pea between his thumb and fore finger, lifting up and setting down all the thimbles to show that they were empty, placing the pea under one and razzling dazzling them by sleight of hand over the table top quicker than the naked human eye could follow. Then he suddenly stopped all the rigamarole, stepped back, thinking he had us, and said, 'The boy will choose. Young man make your selection please.'

"I did exactly as told and latched on to the middle thimble."

"'Let me get that for you son,' said Mr. Thimblerig quickly reaching to lift the thimble as my father's hand came down on top of mine.

"'We'll get it,' said my father."

"'Uh you sure you want that one and not one of these uh other two?' stuttered Mr. Thimblerig, his brow starting to sweat.

"'We're sure,' affirmed my father. 'For you see It can't be the one on the right,' he said as he reached down with his other hand and lifted the thimble. 'Nothing there'. 'And' he continued, 'It can't be the left one because there's nothing on the left side either,' he said as he lifted up a second empty thimble. 'So it has to be the one in the middle. To the bar! Thimblerig is buying!' shouted my father. A third roar louder than the first two combined went up and a torrent of humanity rushed forward and swept through the hanging bar room doors sucking everyone belly up to the bar. Everyone except Mr. Thimblerig, my father and me that is."

"'My son and I don't drink,' said my father, 'but my boy here would appreciate a few pennies for some candy.'"

"Now Mr. Thimblerig didn't deal in pennies only big denomination coins. He dug into his fancy vest pocket and tossed me a silver dollar."

"'Golly mister. Thank you, thank you very much.'"

"'You're very welcome', he said through gritted teeth. 'Now run along and enjoy yourself son, your father and I are going to, how do you all say it, palaver some, have a friendly conversation. He'll catch up with you later.'"

"My father nodded his approval and off I ran with my new fortune to treat my friends to a round of candy."

"Now my father didn't tell me about the conversation between him and Mr. Thimblerig that happened next for some years, not until I was a young man of about sixteen, but it went something like this:"

"'I don't take kindly to getting slickered by someone like you, senor,' he said, with the emphasis on senor.'"

"'But you do take kindly to slicker others don't you, sir,' retorted my father with the emphasis on sir.

"'You just cost me a lot of money.'"

"'Well the way I figure it Thimblerig, I could have cost you a whole lot more,' smiled my father as he lifted up the empty middle thimble. 'You got off cheap.' My father turned his back on Mr. Thimblerig and walked away."

"When my father found me I was pigged out on penny candy and had a high sugar buzz. I ran up to him jumping up and down shouting, 'I won. I won. I won.' But my father never responded."

"'I won didn't I?, I won?' I asked for the umpteenth time? 'Didn't I? Didn't I? The pea was under the thimble wasn't it?'"

"My father didn't have the heart to tell me what really happened. He meekly said, 'Yes you won son.'"

"'Good. Hurrah! Let's play again,' I screamed. 'Can I? Can I please?' I kept dinging and dinging over and over to play again. So much so I could tell it was driving my father crazy which was my plan."

"Finally he had had enough. 'Alright! Enough already!'' he shouted, 'I will go talk to Mr.Thimblerig and see if he's willing to play again. You happy now? You wait here. I'll be right back.'"

"Now once again I did not know until years later what transpired between my father and Mr. Thimblerig when my father told me that this is what happened."

"Mr. Thimblerig was folding up his table, taking down his sign, and closing up shop when my father approached him. He'd paid for the drinks and now just wanted to get out of town before his whole house of cards collapsed."

"'Kid wants another game doesn't he? Wants to make sure he won doesn't he?, spoke up Thimblerig before my father could say a word. 'And you're feeling guilty as a father and you can't tell him no or tell him what really happened and you've come crawling back begging for a rigged game so that your son can lift the thimble and expose the pea and see that he actually won. As we say in the business, that's about it in a nutshell isn't it?'"

"My father was stunned and all he could mutter was, 'God Damn Thimblerig.'"

"'You want a deal. I want my money back. What's your proposal?'"

"'How much you out for the drinks', asked my father.

"'About twenty dollars.'"

"'That include the candy money?'"

"'Yes it includes the goddamn candy money!'"

"'Here's a twenty dollar gold piece,' said my father handing it to Thimblerig. 'The bet between us will be for twenty dollars. Fix it so the middle one has the pea. I'll get me boy to chose that one again. Let him lift the thimble, see the pea and win. Then give him the twenty dollar gold piece. That way I'm out twenty bucks, you're out twenty bucks and were even.'"

"'And your son is twenty dollars to the good. Pretty generous Dad,' smiled Thimblerig."

"'And I'm throwing in for free keeping my mouth shut so don't even think about lighting out for the Territory because you'd never make it before the lynch mob gets you,' warned my father. 'Now its just me, you and my son, a private gentleman's game. Where we going to do it?'"

"'See that Baptist Church yonder over there. No one would think of looking for us there. See ya in half an hour.'"

"My father then found me and said, 'Mr. Thimblerig wants to play again. Wants to recoup some of his money. I've made all the arrangements for a rematch just between you and him. Look son I know how this works, I know how to follow his hands, as I said I've seen it before.' But my father had no secret knowledge. He was lying. But he had a plan so he continued."

"'Here's what will do. You will choose as before only I will be behind you this time. If I stand to the right of you, chose the right one, if to the left, chose the left one, if directly behind you, the middle one. OK?' I nodded my head in agreement."

"Half an hour later we were standing in front of the Baptist Church. 'But father we're Catholic . Why are we here?'"

"'Trust me son the Lord will be with us here too,' and he took me by the hand through the arched stained glass doorway into the house of worship. There in the front was Mr. Thimblerig placing his thimbles on a table in front of the altar before a huge cross with Jesus on it nailed to the church wall."

"'We'll skip all the hoopla and get right to it,' he barked. 'What's the bet?'"

"'Twenty dollars!' responded my father. I was taken aback by such a large amount but I kept my mouth shut and kept a poker face. Mr. Thimblerig placed the pea under a thimble and furiously shuffled both his hands across the table faster than lightning can cut the sky, all the while constantly arranging and rearranging the thimbles. Then suddenly he stopped, backed away from the table, graciously bowed before me, waved his arm with hand extended palm upward and said, 'Please make your selection my fine young fellow.'"

"Now I remembered what my father had said and he was standing right behind me. I knew I was to chose the one in the middle but something told me that wasn't the one. I had a strong feeling, a gambler's instinct it was, since I now deemed myself a gambler, that it was the one on the right. I had to win this on my own. 'The one on my right, your left,' I said pointing to it but not picking it up."

"My father whirled me around, glared at me and put both his hands on the side of his head. He was too flummoxed to get any words out. I thought he was going to have a conniption fit right then and there and pull out his hair.

"'I'm sure it's this one. I just know it,' I proudly proclaimed."

"Before my father could speak, Mr. Thimblerig rolled his eyes, shrugged his shoulders and said, 'OK kid if that's your choice.' And before anyone could stop him he lifted my chosen thimble."

"There it was, the pea. ' Here you go kid,' said Mr. Thimblerig flipping me a twenty dollar gold piece, 'Don't spend it all in one place.'"

"'Gracias senor, gracias'"

"'Es de nada el kiddo.'"

"'Don't spend it on any more candy. You hear me!' warned my father. 'Now run along.'"

"My father had one last private conversation with Mr. Thimblerig without me present. It went like this."

"After I left my father crossed himself and mumbled, 'Madre de Dios.' But Mr. Thimblerig jumped up, waved his hands and arms in the air, looked heavenward and shouted, 'Praise the Lord. Amen and Hallelujah Brother.'"

"'I guess my boy got lucky. The Lord was looking out for him,' my father said meekly."

"'Like Hell He was,' roared Thimblerig. 'The Good Lord looks out for those who look out for themselves. Verse something, chapter something, right here in this Good Book somewhere,' he said while thumping on a Bible. Then he lifted up the other two thimbles, peas under both of them. 'Didn't think I was gonna let the kid lose did ya?' he grinned sheepishly flipping the twenty dollar gold piece back to my father. 'My treat,'"

"'God Damn Thimblerig,' again was all my flabbergasted father could spit out."

"My father told me the whole truth years later when I was about sixteen and had my first pocketful of wages. We were in town and a different thimblerig was setting up shop. Before I could get over to him to try my luck, my father took me aside and revealed all that transpired between him and Mr. Thimblerig."

"Oh Mr. Thimblerig thought that he had played a neat little trick on the cute little Mexican kid alright. But it was I, I who walked away with the twenty dollar gold piece."

The End

B. Craig Grafton is a retired attorney.

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Jus Sanguinis, Part 1 of 3
by Matthew Caldwell


When the winter wind on the west Kansas plain
blows straight from hell, your prayers are in vain.

Joe Vanek said the poem to himself as he quickly worked to patch the small hole in his wall that let in that cold, night wind. Quickly because his hands were going numb. Quickly because his wife and infant child deserved to be sheltered from the wind. Quickly because it was all his fault they were out there, anyway.

He could hear the boy crying inside, now, the victim of croup or some other prairie sickness that would be easily curable back in St. Louis, or Chicago, but was an unsigned death warrant here. They had a pitiable life already, back in Missouri, but the promise of free land for a little hard work was too good an offer for him, the son of Czech immigrant parents who worked themselves into early graves.

He poured a little water onto the last bit of dirt he'd brought from the floor of their hovel and poked it into the small hole in the wall, eclipsing the small glint of lantern light that trickled out into the night air. The rest of the dirt was already frozen hard in the ground, the effect of an early winter chill that rode down the mountains with inhuman vengeance.

He picked up the ash pail at his feet and made his way back inside. The warmth of the fire was only matched by the appreciation of his wife.

"It already feels better," she said, bouncing lightly with the poor baby in her arms. He was wrapped in a blanket her mother had knitted for her when she was that age.

"Good," he said, taking off his outer wool coat but leaving on the lighter one he wore underneath, at least until he got over the psychological shock of taking off cold clothes to get warmer. The boy hacked a wet cough.

"He's gonna need medicine," she said worriedly.

"I know, May" he replied. "It's just so expensive out here."

She quickly looked over to their wardrobe, but looked away before she thought he noticed. It didn't work.

"You still want me to sell them."

She didn't say anything. Instead she turned toward the fire.

"I know I'd get good money for them, but it seems rather rash to sell them, knowing I might need them again."

"I thought that's why we moved here?" she said. She stopped, turning to the baby to comfort him in his despair, singing him a sweet song in between the pops of the fire. Joe watched his family in the orange light.


The snow began early the next morning, coming down in large silver feathers that stacked on the roof and fenceposts. Joe quickly worked to saddle up his horse, Bojovník, before the roads became more unfamiliar. They'd only lived there for a few weeks, and he'd only been to town a few times, and he didn't need to add difficulty to what was already a laborious journey over the top of the nearest low mountain.

He placed a wrapped bundle in his saddlebag and fastened it closed. The trip to town usually took a couple of hours in the best conditions, so he packed some hard tack as well.

Bojovník snorted as Joe checked all the straps one more time. "I know, Bojo," he said knowingly. "I don't want to be out here, either." Joe smoothed down Bojo's impossible shaggy mane, which exploded out the top of the stallion's neck like fireworks before cascading down, the ends dangling below the neckline. It was what first drew Joe to the horse in the first place, the unkempt hair. The dark eyes that were always watching. An impressive nose that not only could smell strangers from a half-mile away, but he'd let Joe know about it.

They both gave one last look to the house and Joe squeezed the horse's haunches with his heels. Together they left the homestead, the morning light broken into a million pieces by the falling downy fluff.

* * *

Silver Creek was a small prairie outpost at the western end of Kansas, with neither a vein of silver nor a worthwhile creek within a hundred miles of the place. No, the name was more of a marketing decision than a truth of geography, and about five hundred poor saps had been deceived by it. May said that the town was strange in and of itself.

But it had a doctor and a general store, and both of those things were enough, for now.

Joe tied Bojovník to a post outside the general store and removed the bundle from his bag. He brushed the snow from his coat as he stepped inside.

The shop owner stared out the window next to the counter as Joe approached. "We'll get two foot of snow out of this by the end of the day."

"How do you know that?" Joe asked.

"I've seen this kind of snow before," the owner replied, lost in thought. "It blows down from the mountains, unforgiving." He finally turned toward his guest. "What do you need? Must be important."

Wordlessly, Joe placed his bundle on the counter and unwrapped the cloth to reveal two shining pistols. A man to the side gathered his purchases and walked to the door.

The owner whistled when the polished steel caught the light. "Well, well," he said, licking his lips in anticipation. "These yours?"

"Yes," Joe replied. "At least for now."

The bell rung as another man entered the store, replacing the one who was leaving. Joe watched carefully as the man went to the back of the store, toward the dry goods.

"These are Stephenson guns," Joe said.

"Oh, I know that. These don't come on the market very often."

"How much will you give me?"

"They yours?"


The owner blew a sigh through his pursed lips. "I'll give you fifty dollars."

Joe's eyes bulged. He knew that the guns were each worth at least seventy-five, but the thought of the money in his pocket, of medicine in his son's belly, quickly surmounted any offense. "Okay."

Reaching underneath, the shop owner pulled a pile of paper bills from a bag and placed it on the counter. "Thanks for doing business."

Joe took the money and gave one more look to the man at the back. He was tall, thin, and had a gray moustache that hung over his mouth like a curtain in a cheap opera house. The man nodded to Joe and a small amount of snow escaped to the floor.

The doctor's office was across the street, or at least the rutted dirt pathway that separated the buildings on each side. The young physician in there was cordial, polite, and he gouged the hell out of Joe for the price of the medicine. Joe took a small envelope of powder without comment and began the long trip back home. There were three inches more snow on the ground than when he arrived.


Nighttime came hard, and early, as the blinding white blizzard of the day turned blue in the darkness. The baby got his first dose of medicine midday, when Joe and Bojo returned from over the mountain through six inches of accumulated fluff.

"His fever's broken," May said.

"Good," Joe said. He peeked into a pot hanging over the fire.

"It'll never cook if you keep taking the lid off," she said, chiding him.

"I just want to warm up. Eat something warm. It's a long way to town and back."

"And I appreciate you going," she said.

"A dollar fifty for that powder," he said. "They overcharge for the medicine and won't give you half what your stuff is worth."

She wrapped her son in a blanket and placed him in his bassinet. "Are you mad at the price or mad at what you had to sell it for?"

He snuck another look at the stew and she slapped his hand. He didn't realize she was that close to him. "Can't it be both?"

She smiled at him.

* * *

An hour later, after supper, after Joe ventured outside to grave an empty bucket full of snow so they would have water to make coffee in the morning, Joe heard Bojo scuff at the ground in the barn attached to the house. The horse sensed something, and so Joe did, too.

"What?" she asked as Joe pulled open the small window cut into the door.

"Someone's out there," Joe replied.

"Why would someone come out in this?" she asked, but knew it was rhetorical.

Joe looked toward the wardrobe and frowned as he remembered what wasn't there. He still had a rifle, but it was useless in a fight, especially if this person was already close to the house.

Joe turned back to the small peeping window just as someone knocked from the other side. He jumped as he heard the noise and saw a man through the hole or, rather, a hat and a gray, curtained moustache looking back at him from the porch.

"Can I come in?"

Joe looked back to his wife, who had grabbed the rifle herself and kept it trained on the door. She placed herself between the baby and the door and looked at him with scared eyes.

"I'm Sheriff Richter. I saw you at the store earlier," the man said. "You sold the Stephensons."

Joe finally turned away from his wife. "So what?"

"I'm here to give them back."

End Part 1 of 3

Matthew Caldwell is a published author who lives in the midwest. His first book, The Zamler's Last Stand, was self-published and is available on Amazon. His second book, The Lost Tribe, was published by Kindle Scout Press in 2015, and is also available on Amazon. It was named as one of Shelf-Unbound Magazine's Top 100 Notable Indie Books of 2015. Readers can connect with the author through his Facebook page (, his Twitter account (@MattLCaldwell), or his Amazon Author Page at

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