February, 2017

 
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Issue #89



All The Tales

Ain't No Shootin' Here
by Avan Judd Stallard

Merk could hear the bullets slicing the air, the close ones, the ones he knew were just a few inches above his head. The sound reminded him of his brother, back when, blowing hard through a gap in his teeth till the rush of air pitched just shy of a whistle.

Two shots, quick succession, thudded into the meat of Merk's horse. The mare whinnied and kicked her legs; her neck arched so that she was looking at the sky, then she slammed her head down into dry brown dirt. Blood trickled from her nose and froth started to collect at the steel bit at the back of her mouth.

"You hit my horse again, you son of a bitch!" yelled Merk.

He shook his head and flared his nose and mashed his lips till he looked as animal as his own dying horse. He'd sooner kill a man than a good horse. He might yet. But first things first. He wriggled towards the head of his mare.

"I'm sorry ol' girl."

The first bullet had taken her in the shoulder, catching both off-guard. Now she had three pieces of fractured metal lodged in meat and bone. Merk reached his hand up and petted his mare along the forehead. It brought the beast no comfort.

Merk positioned the barrel of his 32-20 Winchester rifle under the horse's chin and rested his finger on the trigger.

"God-damn it."

A bigger calibre slug would have no problem finding its way to the horse's brain—end her suffering—but the 32-20 was no horse-killer. Merk used it to shoot varmints. If he pulled that trigger, likely as not the lead would ricochet from bone and smash through jaw, face, eye, or neck. She'd still be alive, only worse. Merk couldn't get into a position to rest the barrel right on her skull, end her suffering, not while the Sheriff kept blasting away with his cannon.

Thud.

The plain sound, intimate and modest compared to the thunder of the weapon that sped the bullet on its way, was a deceptive accompaniment to the violence wrought. A flap of skin on the horse's shoulder was poking up where lead had filleted skin from flesh. A thin stream of blood drained onto Merk's shirt as he pushed up against her. His ear was next to her chest. He listened to her labour at the work of breathing. She sucked fast and shallow, fighting the sensation of choking as her own blood filled a lung and spilled into her throat.

"You stop shootin' and let me kill my god-damn horse!"

The bullets stopped. Merk waited a tick. He poked his head above the saddle. It was an ugly head, even uglier than normal with the clotted gash separating his left brow and the blue-black swelling where his right check should have formed a harsh ridge. And then the Sheriff unleashed a volley.

"Hey! Hey!" Merk hollered as he ducked down.

Thud.

Thud.

Two more bullets ripped into the mare's flesh. Merk didn't see the surge of fury coming. It took him like it owned him. He jumped to his feet. Stood tall. Aimed. Fired. Stepped over his mare—kept on. Bullets zipped by close enough for him to hear their breathy whistle, but he charged the Sheriff anyway, one step at a time, varmint-shooter blazing.

Sixteen bullets, spent five, got eleven reckoned Merk as he strode forward, angry, but with a mind to stay alive.

Minus one. Fifteen.

Minus one. Fourteen.

Minus one and already he'd lost count, lost his tally, kept firing. The Sheriff kept at it, too. Stood in his door with a six-shooter held as far in front of him as he could push it, the way old men read a book. Merk fired and the Sheriff fired and Merk fired and the Sheriff fired, neither hitting anything that deserved a bullet. Merk was twenty yards away when he pulled the lever on his Winchester and yanked down on the trigger, only to hear a dread absence of sound as a tiny steel pin punched air.

The Sheriff was still shooting and Merk was in the open, the cover of his dying horse behind him. He dropped his rifle and sprinted, screaming a war cry like the Injuns in the pulp novels his brother read him. It wasn't the cry of a man lost of sense, gone berserk, though it must have sounded that way to the Sheriff. It was the cry of a man with an empty rifle, intent on scaring the shit right out a man's asshole.

The Sheriff backed away as he worked the hammer on his six-shooter till he was pounding on hollow casings. He looked at the man coming to kill him then looked at his gun, measuring the two. The Sheriff stumbled backwards and slammed the door of the building. He lunged for his desk where he had an open box of slugs. His fat fingers pulled the pin that released the cylinder. He bashed the empty shells out then picked up the box and slapped it upside down. Shiny brass cartridges spilled across his desk. He fumbled.

Merk's boot pounded the door. The iron latch ripped through its wood casing. Splinters scattered the floor, then there he was, filling the empty frame where the door had been.

The Sheriff only had time to poke a single cartridge into the chamber. He slapped the six-shooter together and raised it. He pointed it right at Merk and fired. Booth stood there. Both expected Merk to fall down dead.

After a few moments of silence and still Merk dropped his head and looked at his body. He knew that sometimes a man didn't feel it till later. But there were no pieces missing. No blood. He wasn't dead and wasn't hurt.

Merk looked at the Sheriff.

The Sheriff spun on his heel. His right arm reached out and swept up a handful of cartridges from his desk. He kept on and into the open cell. As he went, he grabbed the iron grill, slamming it shut, locking himself inside, but the cost of his retreat was to spill the only rounds in his clutch. They made a tinking sound as they bounced on the floor. The Sheriff took a step back, automatic, out of danger's reach.

Merk stopped, looked at the cartridges spilled across the desk, on the floor, then lifted his gaze to the Sheriff. The Sheriff lurched forward onto his knees. His arm reached between the bars and his fingers grabbed at the brass pills.

Merk skipped, his body lifting high in the air like a lithe girl jumping rope. All his force was directed into the heel of his right boot—and down it came, plumb in the centre of the Sheriff's hand.

The Sheriff wailed, yanked his hand inside the bars, scampered backwards on all fours till out of reach. Locked in his own cell.

Merk walked forward. He grabbed the iron bars and tested them. Good and locked.

The Sheriff got to his feet. He went to the back of the cell and sat down on the bare trundle that passed for a bed. He nursed his throbbing hand.

"I think you broke it, you bastard piece of shit. You'll hang."

Merk grunted his understanding of the situation. He picked up one of the cartridges from the Sheriff's desk and held it close to his eyes.

"Say, Sheriff. What calibre?"

"44. Dumb son of a bitch. 'Bout twice as much as your pea-shooter can handle."

"Figured some'n like 'at."

From outside Merk heard the gargled whinny of his mare, slowly drowning to death in her own blood.

"Sheriff, you and I, we got business, but it don't involve my horse. She's a good ol' girl. Hate to see her suffer like that. Give you my word, you lend me that piece, I'll put her outta misery. Give it straight back to you. Got my word."

The Sheriff sat up. He leaned against the stone wall. With his good hand he stroked the manicured goatee covering his mouth.

"They said you was a queer son of a bitch, but that . . . shit, son, middle of a gunfight you ask another man for his weapon? You just about the dumbest ass-crack of a man I ever set eyes on."

"'Atta no, then?"

The Sheriff stood up and lurched forward.

"That's a fuck you, you fuck'n cocksucker!"

Without losing his calm fašade, Merk snapped forward, his right arm shooting through the bars, his big hand grabbing for the fleshy throat of the Sheriff. The old man jerked his head back and Merk snatched air.

Merk drew his arm back; breathed a heavy, long breath. He walked over to the desk and opened its drawers, rifling; looking.

The Sheriff laughed. He picked up the keys attached to a lanyard on his belt and shook them.

"Looking for these?"

Merk smiled.

"Here we be 'n, Sheriff. Don't know 'bout you, but I'm sure surprised I'm alive. I get you any?"

The Sheriff sat down. His only reply was a scowl.

"Nah, didn't think so. Lil' brother says I need spectacles on account a seein' fuzzy when I look a ways. I say, 'Why a gold miner need see so far?' Every wakin' hour got a pan six inches from my nose. Maybe you, though, Sheriff. God-damn, you a bad shot."

"I shoot fine."

"Oh, come now, Sheriff. Don't reckon neither us 'd hit a turd in a hole. Though you sure managed find my ol' mare, plenty. What you got agin' horses?"

"I was aiming for your gut."

"See? You a bad shot. Anyways, you shouldn't a shot my horse. All I come for is to get what's mine."

"Self-defence. Any judge 'll see it that way."

"Agin' a horse?"

"Against you, you simpleton fuck."

"Hell, you take 'em things I say serious? Only words, Sheriff."

"'Next I see you I'm gonna shoot you, gut you, and me and my horse are gonna take a hot shit in your chest.' I believe they were your exact words."

"I may a spoken outta sorts—on account my passions bein' inflamed. That's what they say, ain't it? Inflamed? Like a fire."

Merk grunted disinterest for his own question. Thought a second. Then: "But you do have what's mine."

"Horseshit. I got what the government's owed. Unpaid tax. According to law."

"Yessir, owed forty dollars in tax and fees. Guilty as charged. You gone took it all, though. Musta been nearly three hundred in gold. Now, mistakes happen, so you take Uncle Sam's cut, gimme back what's mine, I be on my way."

"Fuck yourself."

Merk nodded.

"Mm-hmm. Thought you'd say that."

Merk reached into his pocket, pulled out a few coins. He held them close to his face.

"Reckon I got . . . nearly dollar twenty. Now, I'm gonna tell you what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna take my dollar twenty next door, o'er Mr Harper's store, buy me two bullets. One a them bullets for my horse. The other's for you, Mr. Sheriff."

Merk gathered up the cartridges spilled across desk and floor, careful to make sure he had every last one.

"Don't you go anywhere, now," said Merk, knowing that if the Sheriff made a run for it he was too slow to get far.

"Fuck you."

Merk walked out of the building. The Sheriff could hear the footsteps on his porch, then along the porch of the building next door. He couldn't hear whatever conversation was taking place, but Merk was only gone a few moments before he strode back inside.

"Darndest thing," said Merk, kicking one heel out and resting his thumbs in his pockets. "Mr. Harper wouldn't sell me no bullets. Seems a have some notion a me wanting to kill you, on account all the shootin'. Friend o' yours?"

"That he is."

"Figures. I sees you didn't try 'n run. Wouldn't done no good. You too fat and old to get far."

"You just all talk now, boy. Get the fuck outta my jail. Fuck outta my town!"

"Mighty confused, seems to me, Sheriff. I ain't in your jail. You in your jail. You all trapped, like one them rabbits in my snares. Yessir, you trapped, old man. And I'll god-damned starve you out, need be."

"Go ahead. But my deputy's due back in a few hours. And I assure you, he's got plenty a bullets. More than enough for your sorry carcass."

"That so?"

Merk paced the floor.

"Appreciate that info'mation. Seems we need speed this up."

Merk looked around the building. No key. No weapons. There was a length of rope hanging from a hook. Merk grabbed it and tied a knot at one end, forming a lasso.

"Oh, oh, that's real good, dummy," said the Sheriff. "You think you're gonna rope me like a steer? Well come on."

Merk walked across to the bars. He sized up the Sheriff.

"Nah, I ain'ts gon' rope you, Sheriff. Not yet. Move too much, even if you slow. And got them hands that a steer ain't got. Nah, I ain'ts gon' rope you. Yet."

"You ain't gonna rope me never! But you'll be getting acquainted with that rope, boy, real soon. Oh, it's gonna be a good hanging. Reckon I know just the tree."

Merk said nothing. He walked back to the Sheriff's desk and threw the rope down. He picked up a thin pulp novel, tattered and yellowed. The cover showed a cowboy wielding two revolvers, blazing away at a group of Indians on horseback.

"You like these, too? Lil' brother likes these. Can't read 'em meself. Never did learn. Some men ashamed a that fact." Nnn-nnn, hummed Merk, "I ain't ashamed. We all got dif'nt skills. Me? Good with my hands. Good at makin' stuff. All kinda stuff."

"Keep talking, asshole. Deputy Monroe's getting closer by the word."

"Injuns," said Merk, holding the pulp novel close to his face. "Ain't know any meself, but bet they's plenty good at makin' stuff, too. Gone give me an idea, Sheriff."

Merk pulled the bowie knife from his belt. The Sheriff stood tall, backing away to a corner. Merk laughed.

"Don't be scared now, Sheriff, not a this. Hell, you think I'd throw this ol' thing? Look."

Merk closed the door to the building then backed up. He grabbed the knife by the blade, sharp side up, and hurled it at the door. The knife twisted through the air. It hit the wood and fell to the floor.

"See? I ain't no Davey Crockett."

"What the fuck you gonna do, then, boy? Hmm? Time's a ticking. And I ain't getting any younger."

Merk raised an eyebrow and smiled. He strode outside and round back of the Sheriff's building where Merk knew a stand of green saplings grew. He hacked into the base of the saplings with his bowie knife, felling four that were small and thin, and one larger, though not so large as to have lost its suppleness. He quickly shaved along the lengths of the cuttings, stripping leaves and twigs, then chopped the ends off. He grabbed up the bundle, walked around the building and threw them inside. He continued on to the General Store where Mr. Harper, with no more than a vague glower, agreed to sell him some twine.

On the way back, Merk stopped, looking out at his horse. He could still see her tail slapping at the dirt, still see her chest moving, still hear her drowning.

"Hey. Hey! Can som'un shoot my god-damned horse? Hey! Ain't no shootin' out here now. Som'un shoot my god-damned horse. Gene. Gene! I see your head stickin' outta there. Gene, I swear to God . . . All I'm askin' is you put that mare outta her misery. Ain't no shootin' here, promise."

The door to a little cabin on the other side of the street closed. When it opened an older man had a rifle in his hand. Merk nodded his thanks and walked back into the Sheriff's building. A few moments later Merk heard a gunshot.

Merk got straight to work with his cuttings. He whittled a groove in the largest sapling right the way round its girth, about an inch from its end. It married with another groove he carved longways across its nub. He did the same at the other end.

"What the sweet Jesus you doin', boy? You think you gonna burn me out with them twigs?" said the Sheriff, shaking his head. "You just plain dumb, ain't ya? Came out your Mummy's filth dumb."

Merk kept working, moving on to the smaller cuttings. He sharpened one end of the thinner saplings, and notched a groove in the other.

"If you so smart," said Merk, without looking up, "why is it you ain't know what I'm doin'?"

"Cause you ain't doin' shit!" roared the Sheriff.

Merk kept at it. When he was done he put the sharpened saplings in a pile then sat down on the Sheriff's desk. He looked over at the Sheriff inside his cell, reclined against the stone wall. His swollen right hand was upturned, rested on his lap.

"Just so's yer know, Sheriff, wasn't my intention to kill yer, if it so comes to pass. But, hell, this is my first time playin' Injun. Could be I get you just so, how's I like. Could be I don't even scratch yer mangy hide. Could be I kill you. S'pose it don't much matter now, not after you shot my pretty little horse and stole everythin' I worked for, and tellin' me I'll hang for my troubles."

"You got delusions, boy. Jesus Christ, I seen some idiots, but you . . . What you gonna do, poke me? Poke me like half the town poked your sister?"

"You shut yo' mouth!" yelled Merk, jumping to his feet. He wanted to say more, but the anger that filled him with resolve drained him of words.

Merk snatched the big sapling from the desk, and the length of twine. He wrapped the twine three times round where he'd notched a groove, then tied it off. He ran the twine over the notch in the end of the cutting, then down along the sapling's length and over the opposite groove.

He flipped the cutting, so the tied end was on the ground, and jammed it up against his boot. He lent down on the sapling with his weight so that it bowed into an even curve. Merk pushed down a little more, then let off some. He liked what he saw.

He angled the twine down into the intersecting groove across the girth of the sapling. He looped it three times and tied a knot. Merk eased off. The twine pulled taught. He held up his creation and examined it, plucking it like a string instrument. At the dull twang, Merk smiled.

He picked up one of the other cuttings and walked across to the iron bars of the Sheriff's cell.

"What the sweet Jesus?" said the Sheriff, at once filled with disbelief and understanding.

Merk held his makeshift bow in one hand and threaded his makeshift arrow with the other. The little groove he'd notched in the cutting's end helped hold it in place. He pulled his arrow back as far as he could; stuck the point through the bars.

"You nothin' but a bully and a bad man, Sheriff."

Merk aimed, held steady, released. The arrow sped its way, shaking its tail. It smashed into the stone wall just next to the Sheriff's face. The Sheriff jumped in the opposite direction to the ricocheting arrow.

"You fuck'n crazy! What sorta backwoods coon huntin' bullshit?" hollered the Sheriff.

"Works better 'n 'spected. Who woulda thunk it?"

Merk got another arrow from the desk.

"Last chance now, Sheriff. Don't 'spect I'll miss again."

"I'm gonna fucking kill you for this you dumb prick," said the Sheriff through gritted teeth and scowl.

Merk fitted the arrow, pulled it back till the string wouldn't pull any further. The Sheriff started jigging from one side of his cell to the other. Merk's aim followed the moving target. Just as the Sheriff stopped and changed direction, Merk fired, trying for his gut, but the arrow's tip dipped down and it didn't recover. It met its mark midway along the Sheriff's upper left leg, tearing through pants and burying a good inch into his thigh. The Sheriff dropped to the ground and screamed.

Merk skipped back to the desk and grabbed his rope. He dangled it through the bars and let out the lasso so it was a gaping noose. He gave himself some throwing slack.

"Fuck you, Merk, you're dead! Dead!" screamed the Sheriff.

Merk used his wrist to get up a swing. He chucked the lasso. The Sheriff was still sitting on the floor, pressing down around the arrow with his good hand. The lasso landed on top of the Sheriff's outstretched leg. Merk pulled quick, jagging the Sheriff's boot, but the old man kicked at the last moment and the lasso jerked free.

The Sheriff grabbed the arrow and yanked it out of his body. His pants were wet with blood, though it was hard to see the red on the brown fabric.

Merk dropped his rope. He retrieved the bow. Got another arrow. The Sheriff pushed himself up so that he was standing, leaning heavily on one side.

"Listen now," said the Sheriff. "You ain't thinking straight. Killing a lawman 'll get you killed. Stop this madness now. You git on your way. Stop this business, no grudges."

Merk paused.

"Sheriff, reckon I'm thinkin' 'bout straight as I'm shootin'. Seems it's you who ain't got his head on. Gimme that gold back, I be on my way."

"Help!" hollered the Sheriff. "Help! He's tryin' to kill me! Help! Harp! Harp!"

"Heck, Sheriff, no one's comin' a help. You got yo'self in it, you git yo'self outta it. You know how to end it."

"I don't have your fucking gold. It's gone. Gone."

"Mmhmm. But then you confess to takin' what wasn't yours?"

"I had to ride out to the asshole of nowhere, out through fucking scrub and them prickles in them hills, looking for you and your brother for two god-damn days. I earned it. It's mine you. Fuck you!"

"So you confess."

"Confess? Hell I do. All I confess is sticking my cock up your sister's —"

In a single movement Merk raised the bow and fired before the Sheriff could finish spitting his bile. The arrow—just a cutting from a kinked sapling—twirled in a funny way, but shot true, hitting the Sheriff in the chest, lodging at a crooked angle.

The Sheriff slumped back and dropped to the trundle. His head slouched so that he was looking at the arrow sticking out of his chest. He grabbed it with his good hand and tried to pull it free, one quick jerk. It didn't move.

Merk picked up his lasso, measured the weight and cast. The lasso dropped round the Sheriff's neck. Merk yanked down and it tightened under his jaw. Merk quickly hauled back and the Sheriff sprawled forward. The Sheriff kicked with his feet and scraped with his hands, but Merk already had momentum. In a few hauls the Sheriff was pulled up hard against the bars of his cell.

Merk threw a fist through the bars, landing blows on the side of the Sheriff's head. Then Merk tied the rope off on another bar.

The Sheriff wheezed, the rope choking him of air. Merk reached into the cell and plunged his hand into the Sheriff's pocket. He came out with a handkerchief. He threw it away and moved to the Sheriff's other side. He found his pocket and straight away felt something. He pulled it out. A little leather pouch tied shut.

Merk recognised it. Teddy's pouch. Teddy and Merk's gold inside.

The Sheriff gasped and spluttered, trying to wedge a finger between the noose and his throat. Merk stood up. He untied the pouch and looked inside. He saw a rich pile of fine golden flakes. He held the pouch over the Sheriff's head and tipped it up a little, enough for a shower of gold dust and flakes to rain down on the spluttering man. They settled on his balding head and ruddy face and flecked his bloody shirt.

"Reckon that be 'bout what we owe, give o' take. Now, all's I need do so we settled . . . "

Merk tied the pouch and put it in his pocket. He crouched down and reached an arm through the bars. He gripped hold of the arrow. The Sheriff's eyes bulged; his good hand shot out and held on to its middle.

Merk let go. He balled a fist and punched the Sheriff in the face, swung back and punched him in the face, punched him in the face, punched him in the face, then the Sheriff dropped his hand. Merk grabbed the arrow and pushed. It didn't budge. Merk figured it was caught on bone, maybe cartilage, so he put some pressure on to change the angle, then pushed. It jagged past whatever was stopping it and started tearing deeper into the Sheriff's body. The old man screamed an empty scream. He didn't have breath for sound.

Merk felt neither pity nor remorse. He was just doing what needed doing. He kept pushing the arrow, threading it with patience and care, like he might thread a fat needle through hessian. Merk felt the arrow punch through into lesser resistance. When he stopped, the arrow must have been near four inches deep in the Sheriff's chest. Merk was satisfied. He stood up.

"Breathe, Sheriff," said Merk, untying the rope from the bar. "Breathe just like my mare."

The Sheriff gulped down big breaths that didn't sound so bad going in, but sounded like a man gargling water going out. Merk bent down, took his bow, slung it round his shoulder. He walked across to the Sheriff's desk and picked up the novel he'd looked at earlier. He folded it long-ways and shoved it in his back pocket. He reached into his side pocket and felt out a coin. He dropped it on the desk.

Merk found his rifle in the dirt just beyond the porch. He picked it up, dusted it off. He walked across to his dead horse, paused long enough to shake his head, kept walking.

He wasn't far gone when he noticed the burn in his knuckles. He held his fist up close to his face. In the afternoon sun he could see flecks of gold pressed into his skin. Flecks punched clean off the Sheriff's face.

"Hmph," grunted Merk. "Reckon just made me fifty cents."

The End


Avan Judd Stallard is an Australian writer and editor. He lives in London with his wife. He blogs at nolearningnohugging.wordpress.com/

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The Brown's Park Assignment
by Dick Derham

Chris McKay was an unhappy man as he reined up at the old Farnsworth homestead cabin.

The three unsaddled horses in the dilapidated corral were two more than he expected. Then a tow-headed string bean emerged from the barn. "They're waiting on you inside, Mr. McKay." The kid knowing his name, McKay didn't like that either, not in his business. What was the Rawlings lawyer thinking?

Grandison, in his tailored wool suit, sat with a short, stocky hard-set man dressed for the trail, an open whiskey bottle between them. At once, McKay felt an intense hostility to the stranger who would know part of his business, up to now always kept private between Grandison and him and whoever the unnamed client of the day might be.

"Pete Collier," Grandison introduced. "He'll be working with you this trip."

McKay was uncompromising. "I work alone."

"That's what I say, too," Collier insisted. "What's the idea?"

"Our client has special needs," Grandison replied. He laid it out quickly. A nest of rustlers working their own small spreads down in Brown's Park, Colorado, but riding out singly or in twos and threes into southern Wyoming to make their gathers finally had gone beyond the limits of tolerance and now required professional attention. "Minor nuisances at first, not grabbing many head each trip," Grandison reported. "But they keep at it. Finally, it's cheaper to solve the problem than live with it."

Grandison opened his leather briefcase and produced a stack of envelopes which he laid on the table. McKay grabbed for them, not letting Collier take control, not with them being worth good money. "I despise thieves," he said. "Cattle thieves are the worst." He held up one envelope and looked questioningly at Grandison.

"All contain the same one-sentence message," the lawyer said. "Five days to leave Brown's Park or die."

McKay riffled through the stack. "There's over ten of them," he said. "That's a wad of money."

"You only punch two holes," Grandison explained. "Mail one letter at a time, any order you want. Give each man fair warning, and if he doesn't run you do your work. After you've done two, you drop the rest of the envelopes in the post and come back for your pay. Client figures the rest will scatter like leaves in the wind."

"Popping a simple cow-stealer a week, that ain't hard work." McKay flashed a hostile glance at the hatchet-faced man beside him. "I don't need Sancho Panza here saddling my horse for me," McKay said, "splitting the pay."

Beside him, Collier's throat growled in resentment. Fine, McKay thought. If he had to be stuck with a sidekick, make sure the runt knew who was boss.

"Client's idea, and he's paying. You get full price, both of you, whoever crooks his finger. Someone needs to scout the area to find where the targets hole up. Client figures one of you doing the whole job would be too obvious." Grandison paused. "It requires a subtle touch. That's why he's paying for my two highest-priced operatives."

* * *

The Brown's Park stop on the famed Outlaw Trail had a well-deserved reputation throughout the West as an ideal location for a certain kind of enterprising man. Located just south of the Wyoming-Colorado state line, a few quick miles from the Utah border, a fast horse could outdistance the jurisdiction of any meddlesome posse that ventured the seventy-five miles from the county seat at Craig. At Brown's Park, men could rest, secure from pursuit, enjoy the fruits of their industry, and find partners for upcoming work. With the Cold Spring Mountains to the north and the Diamond Mountains to the south, the long six-mile-wide valley had a mixture of canyons and caves, ideal secluded campsites for men on the dodge, while the fingers of descending side ridges formed pockets with natural boundaries for small ranchers seeking advantage from the good grass and reliable water.

Not all the residents in Brown's Park strayed across the fences built by citified types who plumped themselves in legislative chairs or strode the streets with badges on their breast. But with little expectation of interference from a remote sheriff, temptation without risk seduces susceptible men. Honest cattlemen built their herds by careful husbanding of the annual calf crop, selling only the steers and holding the heifers back for future breeding. Ambitious men not given to patience could help nature along. With little penalty for "borrowing and rebranding" Wyoming stock, more than one small rancher sought prosperity through midnight round-ups.

There was no town in Brown's Park, merely a small cluster of buildings around Jarvie's general store and saloon which served the needs of the farmers and ranchers of the area. Visitors on the dodge made it their social club. When a new man with a long-rider's disdain for a razor bellied up to the bar one afternoon to wet his whistle, it was deemed a discourtesy to ask questions.

The man who called himself Chris McIntyre watched, observed, mainly he listened for the next three days, hearing names, matching them to envelopes, and letting ranchers become accustomed to him. Those ranchers who steered clear of a hard-faced stranger, who wanted nothing to do with a man likely carrying a dark secret, such men were not likely to have an envelope waiting for them. But by the end of the week, McKay was sharing his bottle with a few men, the kind who might hire a hand for a night-time drive, and he had learned where to find the cabin of Matt Rash. Collier rode to Vernal the next day to visit the post office.

Both men expected to be on the trail home in two weeks.

* * *

"Bad news," McKay told Collier as he swung down in their camp ten days later. "Turbot skedaddled so we got to send out another notice and wait."

"Already put one in the mail," Collier replied.

"Who we doing next?"

"Fellow named Isom Dart. Know him?"

"Had a couple of drinks with him. Friendly, easy-going fellow to swap yarns with. Kind of like him." McKay paused. "Never done it to a black man before. Guess they go down the same."

"If you want, I can do it."

"Naw. Work's never personal. He chose to be a cow-stealer. Until the law shows up when it's needed and protects a man's property, we just got a job that needs doing." McKay squatted down by the fire and reached for the coffee pot. "You dropped Rash. I should pull my turn. Besides, I figure he'll let me get in close. Should be easy."

"You going to scamper like Turbot?" McKay asked Dart over a whiskey when the middle-aged cowman disclosed he had received warning.

"What do you think I should do?"

McKay didn't think long. A second man running and he would be on the road another full week. "Fellow shows his colors at a time like this, Isom. Let folks see what you're made of."

"Fifty years, 'the man' been pushing me around, treating me like I was still someone's property," Dart said. "I sweated too many years, but now I'm building my spread. I'm done running. Let the bastard try for me. I'll be waiting."

McKay raised his glass. "Manhood," he toasted.

* * *

When he was sixteen, men in blue coats had brought Isom Dart freedom. Freedom and a prostrate economy where there were no jobs for man or boy, black or white. There were, however, uncounted unclaimed Texas cattle, the product of four calving seasons without branding irons.

And so Isom Dart entered the cattle business, learning that cows running free could, with the application of a growing man's muscle and sweat, be transformed into what the Yankees called greenbacks. It was a valuable lesson; one he never forgot.

When the mavericks gave out, Dart turned to other sources of support—Mexican horses could be swum across the Rio and quickly exchanged for a cattleman's cash. Cattle with brands could be sold to "nearsighted" butchers. Horses and cattle, cattle and horses, became the core of Dart's life; in Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, even as far as Idaho; shot, jailed, but never hanged, year followed year in the rhythm of his nomadic life. At length Dart traded in trail camps and bedrolls to settle in Brown's Park, first working as wrangler for a cattle company and then building his own brand, using the talents he had learned in Texas. When asked, a Colorado jury said, "Not guilty" and his path to respectability lay before him.

On his occasional trips to Wyoming, Dart assured himself that he was a man with modest ambitions, collecting—he never called it rustling—no more cattle than one or two men could quickly drive home, not enough even to be noticed by one of those rich ranchers running thousands of beef on unfenced range. What he took was no more than what the white ranchers owed him for the years his parents had slaved without pay for other rich men.

Then came the damn letter, the unfair letter. He could point to neighbors with unquenchable appetites. Why him? Why not them? Matt Rash had laughed off his warning and been killed, Turbot had run. But the drifter calling himself Chris McIntyre had it right. A man worth the name stands his ground and fights.

Now, the day had come. As Dart stood in the doorway of his cabin, scanning the range in front of him, the hillside a mile away, the tree line—Rash had been shot from trees—his eyes fell on a small dust cloud leisurely moving his direction. He reached for the carbine leaning against the wall inside the door and prepared to give the bastard murderer an unexpected greeting.

Dart lowered the carbine when he recognized the approaching horseman. "Morning, Chris. Today's the day. You come to stand with me?"

"Something like that, Isom. Smells like coffee on the stove."

Inside McKay took the coffee and smiled at Dart. "Glad you didn't run, Isom; I miss my boys." McKay did his work, finished the coffee, and rode back to help Collier break camp.

* * *

As the shadows fell, their world became a small circle circumscribed by the light of their flickering campfire. Now, with their work behind them, and only one day out from the Farnsworth cabin and their pay, the month-long intensity of their job faces decompressed. In a word, they relaxed. Collier pulled a flask out of his saddlebags, took a nip and passed it over to McKay.

"Didn't think I'd like working with a partner, Pete," McKay said as he returned the flask, "but we teamed well. I'll let Grandison know he can pair you with me any time."

"Been a fine four weeks, Chris." Collier agreed. "Been good getting to know a stone-cold workman like you, a man who takes his job serious and gets it done with no fuss." Collier took another swig from the flask and reflected on his career.

"Been an easy life," Collier reflected, "ever since the first chore I done for Grandison, when he pointed me toward some old geezer past his prime, holed up in his cabin in the hills. Maybe worth his pay once, but by the time I popped him, nothing but a used-up whiskey mill, judging from the number of empties he'd used for target practice. One hundred dollars was twice what I'd been getting free-lance and I figured I'd hit the Comstock Lode, which shows how green I was." He took a pull from the flask and passed it over. "You been doing it long, yourself?"

"Eight years." McKay felt the warmth of the whiskey slide down his throat, then passed the flask back. "Up in Buffalo, I got disgusted watching juries ignore the evidence so I tossed my badge in the Judge's face. That's when Grandison showed me how rustlers could be fought. Using a man's talent for something needful makes him feel proud of his life's work." McKay shoved aside the shadowy thought that riding close to the line, necessary as it was, threatened to change him. Maybe he was less proud of that. You're still a lawman in your heart, he reassured himself. He prayed it was true.

"We got us a good job," Collier said, "rustlers, squatters, who cares what. Give us a name and the sorry son's just a stack of double-eagles on two feet." Collier chose to ignore McKay's grimace of disgust; no skin off his butt if a man chose to blind himself to the brutal reality of how they made their money. Collier gave a lusty killer's laugh.

"Lots of good times me and my Smith and Wesson have had since I got my start." He took his pull on the flask and passed it back. "Once Grandison started working me regular, I moved into the old man's cabin myself. Stay in town and folks wonder when you go on trips."

"My wife and me have a small spread outside Medicine Bow," McKay said. "No hands except for branding season, so when Grandison sends me to administer justice, I'm not missed."

"She must know."

"She don't ask. I figure she knows." McKay's face was transformed as he thought of the joy Anna had brought into his life these six years. "We got us a fine set of boys. Bright as buttons they are. Bill is growing up fast. He starts his schooling this year. Mickey is a year behind him." McKay looked across at Collier. "The best part of the week is the time I spend teaching them how to ride a horse or bring in a fish."

Collier felt the glow from McKay's pleasure. "You're a man who's found a core to your life. What do the kids think when you ride off?"

"Don't like to see me go, that's a fact. Leaving them is hard." McKay's eyes lit up. "But the best part is the excitement I'll see when I ride into the ranch yard and they race to be the first I hoist in my arms." He took another swig of the flask. "Life's good, Pete. Don't know what more a man could ask. They grow up fast, though, getting of an age where they start asking questions. Haven't figured out yet how to deal with that."

"Couple of braggy kids in the schoolyard." Collier gave a chortle of remembrance of his own school days. "Back when I was in short pants, I fisted shut any mouth trying to talk someone bigger than my Pa." He took his turn at the flask, as he considered the new information. Relaxed and jovial, he lowered the flask. "Sure. That explains it."

"Explains what?"

"Why you're up."

McKay froze as Collier eased his revolver into view, casual and confident. "Never cared much about the whys, Chris. Not my business. Still, we had the time and I wondered. Maybe the kids wouldn't blab, but likely Grandison figures it don't hurt nothing to make sure." Collier shrugged indifferently. "Makes sense. You agree?"

It didn't matter whether McKay agreed, not to this man cheerfully contemplating another wad of greenbacks that would soon be stuffed in his Levis. McKay didn't insult Collier's professionalism by begging away the bullet. And drawing against a filled hand would mean to die like an amateur. McKay had always been a realist.

Collier continued in the same relaxed tone of voice he had used all evening, a man in control of his work. "You know how it goes, Chris, forefinger and thumb on the gun butt and toss it clear or spend the night finding how much blood your gut can leak."

When McKay had defanged himself, Collier eased back on the hammer. "My flask is still near full and I never liked drinking alone," he told McKay. "Unless you're in a hurry."

By tacit consent, these two men experienced in the ways of life ignored the business at hand while the whiskey lasted. They reminisced about past actions, laughed about near screw-ups and how they had pulled things off. They remembered how things were in the old days, before the profession went all-to-Hell, the young kids these days satisfied with sloppy work. "All they think about is pocketing their pay and getting back to the nearest saloon and crib, no sense of workmanship," McKay said. "They got no more bottom to them than that scruffy cowhand we saw at Farnsworth's."

They talked about Grandison, about how he found a way to get rich providing a service that folks in a lawless world needed, grounding his business on first-rate talent —"men like us." They talked about how trust seemed an outmoded concept, how the youngsters were driving down wages. "I'm having none of it," Collier declared. "Not three months ago, I told Grandison I do a man's work, I expect a man's pay. Five hundred dollars or I don't saddle up." He paused and reflected. "Likely I'd have done you cut-rate, since he was already paying my travel time, but he didn't ask. The way I look at it, you and me ain't in the charity business, am I right?"

McKay had stretched out his time by barely wetting his lips when his turn at the flask came, while Collier was growing mellow and relaxed. McKay handed back the flask. "Making top profit, first, last, and always, that's what drives him.

"He's slickered you good," Collier agreed with no hint of disrespect. "You never saw it coming." McKay's new-found wisdom led to discussion of Grandison's single-minded management of his workforce. "Got to admire him," Collier said. "If a youngster works for starter wages, he's happy to let some young kid ride out of your stall in his stable."

McKay gave a short, bitter laugh. "Grandison pinches the dollar so tight he finagles a top hand to work his last job for free." You can learn from my story, Pete."

From there, inevitably talk turned to the new technologies in their trade; they compared Colt's newest model and the old Smith & Wesson Collier favored; they debated whether Collier's Winchester or the new Remington model was better for distance work. They talked into the night, just two men engaging in shop talk.

Finally, the flask was empty and the talk came to an end.

* * *

The lanky young cowhand he'd seen before was lounging hip-shot at the corral puffing a cigarette when Collier drew rein. "Mr. Grandison around?"

The kid dropped his cigarette and booted out the ember. "He said to fetch him when you and Mr. McKay got back."

"McKay's not coming. Fetch Grandison." Collier swung down and turned his horse into the corral.

"Yes, sir. Soon as I curry and grain your horse."

Collier strode across the yard to the small cabin. End-of-trail after a piece of work always brought a relaxation of tension and a thirst for pleasure and he was pleased Grandison had anticipated his needs. Collier uncorked the whiskey bottle on the sideboard and went to work. The bottle would last long enough for the hand to ride to town and for Grandison to come back with his money.

The kid swung the door open. "Thought you was riding to—" Collier slurred. He tried to focus his eyes on the revolver in the kid's hand.

"Let's take us a walk outside Mr. Collier. No need to splash your mess around the cabin."

Collier struggled to his feet, grasped the edge of the table to help his balance. Stiff-legged he took two steps, reached out to the wall to steady himself.

"You can take your time, old man. I won't rush you on your way." Collier wasn't sure what was worse, Grandison's brutal betrayal, or the snotty condescending sneer of the young killer. He seemed to have his balance as long as he moved slowly. Collier stepped toward the door. A clumsy stab toward his revolver would be laughable.

"That whiskey . . . " he began.

"Got a special bite, don't it, Mr. Collier? I used it before. You ain't even a fifty-dollar pop now," the kid said. "Not that I won't take my full hundred."

Collier walked slowly across the yard. The corral was only fifty feet from the cabin, but it seemed like five hundred as he took one step at a time. By going slow, he didn't stagger too much and he succeeded in staying on his feet all the way.

"I have my fun a mile into the hills," the kid was telling him. "I can start you now and let you bleed it out on the trail, or you can swing to the saddle and I'll do you quick when we get there."

Collier braced himself on the corral rail and turned to face the killer. "You know, this ain't right," he appealed. "We're in the same line of work."

"We were," the kid corrected. "Not no more. I figure you tangled your rope too often, and now you're just a spavined old nag needing to be put down. The whys of it don't matter. You'll pay for my cribbing for a good spell."

Then, standing there by the corral, leaning against it, apparently struggling for his balance, Collier reached his free hand up and removed his hat. Perhaps the kid thought he was about to make his final useless appeal. Or maybe it was a signal. Because immediately the kid's shirt puffed out front and back, he crumpled and lay still.

Collier, his act set aside, nodded as McKay rode in. "You're right. Remington's new model has better penetration than my old Winchester."

* * *

Sheriff Tidwell and Dr. Burke looked down at the jumble of bedclothes and the form within them, seemingly shrunken now that it had been deprived of the vitality of life.

"Looks like natural causes to me, Doc," Tidwell said.

Dr. Burke stepped forward and ran his hands down the dead man's face, closing the eyes that stared upward in panic. The bruises showed the imprint of a man's rough hand grinding into the lawyer, cutting off nose and mouth for the several minutes Grandison took to die. The bedclothes revealed the desperate struggle, the handprints on the bruised ankles showed where another man had pinned Grandison in place while the work was completed.

"In his line of business," Burke said, "it's natural enough."

Meanwhile, at a small ranch outside Medicine Bow, Chris McKay held his wife tight and wouldn't let go. "I'm home for good."

The End


Author's Note.

In the frontier West, the law had a light footprint outside the towns. In the vastness of the open range, rustlers could drive small gathers of cattle many miles before detection, and if they crossed a state boundary, organized law was shackled by jurisdictional limitations.

In his Harvard Law Review parable "The Case of the Speluncering Explorers," natural law philosopher Lon Fuller posed the question: where the state is unable to project its power, what then is the true source of law? The question took on more than academic vitality in the sparsely settled frontier where it reflected the challenge of daily life. To many, where the law is unable to protect a man's property, the age-old right to self-help became the governing principle. Thus, Chris McKay could see himself as merely "administering justice."

Brown's Park, Colorado was far from organized law, lightly settled, quick riding distance from the Utah and the Wyoming state lines, but not far from the reach of ranchers grown tired of supporting petty criminals. In 1900, when they ignored warnings to leave Brown's Park, Matt Rash and Isom Dart, a black cowman, were killed by Tom Horn who had hated cattle thieves since his own start-up ranch was rustled into oblivion. Others took the warnings seriously and fled.

The 21st century reader can decide what to think of Chris McKay's 19th century answer to Lon Fuller's question.

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

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The Kiowa Springs Incident
by Dave Barr

The sun was setting in magnificent blaze of colors while a harmonica player filled the air with a jaunty tune. The cowboys finished their supper and began to think about where to stretch out their bedrolls. Tin plates and pots banged and scraped as Ol Cookie the negro cook cleaned up and started a batch of bread dough for tomorrow. The fire that Cookie had used to prepare the evening meal was stoked up into a roaring blaze as the men settled in for a few moments of rest after a long day in the saddle. There were twelve men running this herd of close to two thousand long horns up to Kansas for shipment back east, ten cowboys, Ol Cookie, and Ben Crawder the Trail Boss. Crawder looked over his crew thoughtfully. All cowboys are drifters moving from job to job, and this batch was no different, there were whites, blacks, and Mexicans, all hired for their skill in riding and roping and little else. Some had been in the War that had ended fifteen years ago, and others had fought Apaches and Comanche's in the time since then. Crawder nodded thoughtfully and stretched as he stood up, gazing out at the rapidly darkening sky where the first few stars were beginning to make their appearance. "Whose turn to ride herd guard tonight?" he asked as he looked around the campfire.

"Augusto is out there right now," One of the other cowboys said as he eased a stone out of the ground where he hoped to spread his blankets shortly.

"It's my turn I guess . . . " a young black cowboy called Jackie stood up regretfully. None of the cowboys liked riding night herd guard very much. It was usually a long sleepless vigil with nothing to show for it but an aching back and a strong desire to do something else with their lives when this drive ended. Off in the distance a coyote howled. Jack paused as he gathered his gear and looked toward the sound. "Hey Roy, can I borrow your pistol for tonight?" he asked an older black cowboy. "If there's one of those bastards out there I'll bet there'll be more snoopin' around before long."

"What's the matter Jackie-boy," a worn-looking white cowboy called Livy grinned from his spot by the fire. "Getting spooked already? That's jus' some ol' coyote lookin' for a meal," The man lay back on his blanket and twisted his sore muscles. Jack ignored the jib and continued gazing at his friend. All of the cowboys had a man they usually liked to work with, these pairings were encouraged on the trail since it made sense to have someone watching your back when you were trying to herd a couple of thousand bad-tempered steers someplace they don't want to go.

"Sho' Jack, you can use my iron tonight," Roy said as he reached among his things for the gun belt. "Pistol be just the thing to scare off a coyote lookin' fer a heifer supper," he handed the holstered gun to Jack.

"Be careful with that thing," Crawder admonished as the young cowboy headed toward the rope line where the horses where tied up for the night. "You start shooting at shadows and you'll spook this herd." But if Jackie heard this advice he showed no sign of it. The young man tossed the big dragoon pistol and its belt over his shoulder and walked out of the firelight and into the gathering darkness.

Old Cookie dumped the last of the dinner plates into a side box on his chuck wagon and limped over to the fire. The old man walked awkwardly because his right leg was several inches shorter than his left, a condition he claimed was the result of youthful accident loading a wagon. This bad leg had kept the cook safe from both the Civil War and much of the action since then. Now, the old man had signed on for this drive and did his job well, keeping the cowboys fed and more or less satisfied when their day was done. Cookie sighed deeply as he settled down beside the fire, stretching his bad leg out in front of him. "Almanac says it'll be a full moon t'night," he wheezed as he looked around the firelight. "Anybody got a smoke?" he asked hopefully.

"I got a chaw," one of the other cowboys said as he held up a plug of twisted tobacco.

"Put that shit away Macon." Livy growled. "The only reason you chew is cause nobody wants to borrow any of it," the cowboy growled as he fumbled with a button on his shirt. "Here Cookie, I got some fixin's. Just remember me when it comes time to scoop out the breakfast tomorrow." The man tossed a small bag to the old cook who caught it deftly before extracting the papers and tobacco to roll a cigarette.

"Oh I'll most certainly remember you Livy," the old cook said as he leaned toward the fire to light his smoke.

"Full moon . . . " Crawder said thoughtfully as he studied the sky, it was the time of day between light and dark. If you looked west the sky still showed a strip of bright yellow slashed with blood red, but if you looked east the stars were out, and the night was coming on. The sound of a horse approaching drew everyone's attention. A Mexican rode into camp and drew up his horse with a flourish. The man dismounted, and walked over to the coffee pot where he pored himself a slug of the dark, harsh brew.

"Is there anything left from supper?" the Mexican asked quietly. The man's voice was a rich tenor that made the question into a song.

"You can eat after you've tended to your horse." Crawder growled. Augusto was not his favorite; the two men had not gotten along since the drive had begun.

Augusto looked at the Trail Boss and nodded. "As you say, senor." He drank off the coffee and walked back to his mount to begin stripping the saddle and blanket from the horse.

"There's biscuits and beans in a pot over there fer ya boy!" the old cook called after Augusto as the man worked on his horse.

"I even saved ya a chili and onion to eat with 'em." Livy smirked as he twisted around to get more comfortable. Several of the other cowboys grinned at this wit. In the distance more coyotes howled . . .  This time the animals seemed closer, but the herd remained quiet.

Crawder looked toward the east. "Hey Cookie, when did you say the moon would rise tonight?"

The old cook took a last drag off his cigarette and flipped the butt into the fire. "I didn't say, but if you want to know I can look. Would somebody get my bag from under the wagon seat?"

None of the other cowboys moved at this request so Crawder finally ambled to the front of the wagon to look for the bag. After a day in the saddle he didn't feel like moving too much, either. Crawder found the bag, and brought it back to the old man by the fire. "Here ya go . . . " he said, tossing the canvas sack to the cook who began pawing through it looking for the dog-eared almanac that he kept inside.

Upon finding the book, the cook began turning the greasy pages looking for the right date. Crawder leaned back and watched. It always surprised him when the old ex-slave showed that he could read. Crawder wondered where the man had learnt that skill, but he never asked. "Sunset at 8:08 if today is the 15th. Of August . . . " the old cook croaked as he studied the charts in the book. "Here tis . . . Moonrise at 9:10," Cookie leaned back and waved the book in the air as he grinned at the Trail Boss, "What else you need to know Crawder?"

Ben looked down at his cook and grinned, "I was wondering who should spell Jackie on guard tonight, but I think I know now . . . " he leaned over and playfully punched at the cook. "I'll just send you since you know everything . . . "

"Then there'll be no breakfast in the morning'," the old man shot back as he dodged the poke.

"Thank God for small favors," growled Livy from his spot on the ground.

Riding herd guard is a lonely job. A solitary man in the darkness tends to think too much, if only to stay awake. Now a pensive Jackie rode through the night with Roy's huge dragoon revolver draped across the horn of his saddle. Working cows at night is a touchy business and the cowboy didn't want the heavy gun getting in his way as he made his rounds. Jack noticed that the eastern horizon was a pearl grey line, and that meant the moon was coming up soon. Off in the distance, the coyote howled again. Jack thought about that. Usually when one of the bastards started up a whole chorus of them would join in. He hoped he wouldn't have to use Roy's pistol before the night was over. Jack pulled the weapon from its holster and thumbed the hammer back, and the gun cocked easily, Jack realized he hadn't fired a pistol in a while; he sighted down the barrel for a moment before easing the hammer back to the safe position. Most of the cowboys carried a rifle of some sort, and all had knives, those were tools of the trade out here on the trail, but a pistol was something that gamblers and cavalrymen usually carried. Jack had never been in the army but he knew Roy had. This dragoon colt was proof of that.

The coyote howled again. This time the animal sounded much closer. Jack nudged the flanks of his mount and headed in that direction. He wanted to shoo the beast away before the cows spooked. Jackie glanced at the horizon again; the moon was just shouldering its way into the starry sky. He decided it would be quite a show in another hour or so. As the cowboy rode around the edge of the herd he noticed the steers were nervous. There was the occasional rattle as two sets of horns clattered together, and the dust was beginning to rise as the cows shuffled their hooves in the dirt. Usually by this time of night the herd was quiet and resting, walking all day in the Texas heat wasn't fun for them, either. Jack tried to watch the shadows along the edges of the scrub. This was where lurking predators would hide while waiting for a chance to steal a stray heifer. The coyote howled again, this time just over the hill ahead of him, Jack reined in his horse, thinking that something wasn't right. The last howl had sounded much deeper, and had gone on longer than any coyote he had heard before. The moon was now completely up, beaming its reflected light across the prairie, outlining clumps of grass and the odd scrub brush. Jack eased the pistol from its holster and felt the weight in his hand. What had seemed a convenient gesture back in camp now took on a more comforting feeling as he held the gun by his side.

"That last howl sounded more like a wolf than a coyote." The young man thought as he urged his horse forward. At the top of the hill Jack paused and looked around. To his right was the herd, now milling around a bit as if something was disturbing them. To his left was the prairie. The ground was reasonably flat and dark with the occasional scrub bush outlined in silver moonlight. Jack sat quietly on his horse and watched the ground to his left front, this was where he thought he would spot the animal. He rested the colt across his saddle bow and waited. If he was quiet and the wind didn't blow his scent toward the creature he might get a lucky shot. If he managed to kill the wolf he could always skin it for the $5 bounty. God knew he could always use the money.

Suddenly on his right there was the sound of a cow bawling piteously. Jack heard a tearing noise followed by a heavy thud as a body hit the ground. He swiveled the pistol in the direction of the sound and kicked his horse into motion. The animal seemed reluctant to move though, and finally stopped altogether before they got down the hillside. Jack cursed to himself and kicked at the horse, "Damn horse is spooked over the scent of a wolf . . . " he thought. That's when he saw the dead steer laying on the ground. "Dammit. Crawder gonna be mad as Hell about this!" he muttered to himself. Jackie swung down from the frightened horse and wrapped the reins around a scrub tree. He remembered to keep the pistol out in front of himself and even took a second to cock the gun as walked toward the dead steer. Jack looked around carefully, still no sign of the coyote or wolf, whatever the hell it was. "Must be a big son-of-bitch to take down a steer by itself," he thought.

Behind him Jack's horse started pawing the ground and neighing in a frightened manner. The cowboy glanced at the animal and then faced back toward the dead steer. That's when he saw it. From behind the body a head slowly arose. The moonlight showed the features of a wolf, and the animal seemed to chewing on the liver of the cow it had killed. Blood stained the silver gray fur of the muzzle and chest of the big beast. "Jesus Christ, it's a monster!" Jackie thought as he sighted down the suddenly unsteady barrel of the revolver. The cowboy used his other hand to steady the gun as he took a deep breath and pulled the trigger. The shot went low and a hole appeared in the back of the dead steer just underneath where the wolf head was at. Jackie knew he must have hit something, because there was a howl of rage and suddenly the wolf seemed to grow.

Jack stood rooted to the spot as the wolf changed shape. The creature seemed to unfold into a bloody, grey-furred, man-like monster that towered over him. The thing seemed to have hands that were stiff paw-like claws mounted on long wiry looking arms. Jackie never did see the legs because they were hidden behind the dead steer, but they must have been powerful because the creature leaped over the body and lunged at the frightened man. Behind him Jack heard his horse go wild with fright, rearing and pulling at the knotted reins in the scrub. The cowboy managed to point and fire the pistol again before the wolf-monster was on him . . . 

Back in camp, the shots woke Crawder from a deep sleep. The Trail Boss sat up and looked around. The moon was up and he guessed it must be close to eleven at night. Livy was sitting up as well.

"Did you hear that?" the cowboy asked from his spot across the dying fire.

"No I just woke up. What was it?" Ben asked.

"I heard a shot," Livy answered.

"Two shots," Roy spoke from his place on the ground. The black man sat up, "Two shots from a .44! Crawder, that boy seen something out there tonight!"

"We'll ask him about it when we catch up to him," Crawder said as he tossed his blanket aside and ran for the horse line. "Get the boys up! The herd is on the move!" Crawder yelled, "UP boys! UP! STAMPEDE! STAMPEDE!

Two thousand head of longhorn cattle were on the move. The sound of the shots had frightened the skittish herd into motion. Now, a dull rumble filled the air as the steers ran away from the object of their terror. With only unreasoning fear to guide them, the big beef cows mowed down anything in their path as they fled the danger behind. Fortunately Crawder's crew was not in the immediate line of the herd's flight. The cattle were headed southwest back into Texas, and they would have a good head start before the cowboys could get organized to stop them.

Crawder cursed loudly as he slung his saddle onto the nearest horse and frantically tightened the girth and buckles, making the animal whinny in pain as he over-tightened some of the fasteners. By now the other cowboys were up and running to their mounts, several of the better horsemen had skipped the saddle altogether and were riding bareback for the head of the herd. If they could turn the lead animals, the rest of the herd would circle, gradually slowing down until the entire mass would again settle down for the night. Crawder vaulted into the saddle and kicked his horse into a gallop, racing through the moonlit night to get in front of the herd. Back in the camp, the remaining men saddled up and followed as best they could. It took almost two hours but the men finally circled the herd and quieted them down.

Crawder looked over his crew as the men gathered on a small hillock close by their charges. Like himself, most of the men sat wearily slumped in their saddles, some hatless, others without their coats or shirts. Two of the men's horses didn't have saddles at all, just a ragged blanket between their buttocks and the rough hair of the horses back, they reminded Crawder of Indians when they handled their horses like that, but they had managed to turn the herd, and he was glad. Now there was another matter to attend to, and Crawder wasn't looking forward to it.

"Where's Jackie?" he asked as he looked around.

"Ain't seen him since he took off after supper," somebody answered. The others agreed, the young cowboy hadn't helped stop the herd, and wasn't anywhere around.

Crawder detailed a southerner they called Macon, and Augusto to watch the herd, then, turning to the others he said, "The rest of you, spread out, form a line, and work back toward the camp. Look for Jackie's horse, it must be around somewhere." The Trail Boss looked at the night sky, the position of the moon and stars said that there was probably four or five hours till daylight. Crawder thought angrily that if that kid was shooting at shadows and caused this stampede, he was going to ride night guard for the rest of this trip.

They didn't find Jackie's horse till they had almost reached the camp. The animal was nibbling at a bush, and there was a long broken stick tied to the reins. A little later they found the body of the steer, and just as the sun started over the horizon they found Jackie. The young black man was lying on his back with his throat torn out. There was blood everywhere and he was still gripping the big dragoon colt in his right hand.

"What kilt him like that?" a slightly built cowboy said in awe as he looked down at the body.

Roy was kneeling beside Jackie and slowly pulled his pistol from the man's hand. The gun was caked with blood. "Looks like a wolf," he said absently as he wrapped the gun in a piece of Jackie's shirt.

"That's a damn big wolf," Crawder said as he swung down from his horse and stretched his back. "I never heard of a wolf doing anything like this either. Least ways not by itself," He looked around the body.

Another cowboy rode up, "Jesus," he said, "Whatever kilt him sure made a mess of him."

Crawder wanted to end this quickly, the cowboys were going to spook themselves, and then he would never get them moving again. Action was needed. "You two," he pointed, "Slim and Boggs, ride over to Cookie's wagon and grab some tools. We want to get this fellow underground before the sun gets too high. Roy, I need you here for a bit."

"What about the herd?" Boggs asked.

"They'll just have to wait for now, if you see anyone else on the way to camp send a couple down to relieve Augusto and Macon, they must be beat." The cowboys turned to leave and Crawder had another thought. "Hey, tell the old man to make an extra big breakfast this morning too!" turning back to Roy and the dead man Crawder sighed, "Looks like we're gonna need it."

Roy had stood up and was looking at the Trail Boss intently. "Crawder, you read sign?" he asked.

Ben Crawder thought back to his early days when he was riding herd for another crew. He had learned to read certain tracks and understand what they meant back then, but that was a long time ago and he was rusty at the skill. "Some, what's the point?" he asked as he looked at the dead man, "Whatever killed him is long gone."

Roy pointed to a piece of shredded shirt that had been cast aside, using a stick, he flipped the rag away revealing a huge elongated print that seemed to be part wolf and part something else. "You ever see anything like that before?" he asked.

Crawder knelt by the print and studied it. "Nooo." He removed his hat and rubbed his dirty hair with a gloved hand. "What is it?" he asked.

"When I was in the 10th Cavalry, there was an old Indian tracker we used to use. He was a Tonto Apache, and was nearly crippled with arthritis, but he was the best tracker we had. If that old man read the signs and said don't go down that wash, you didn't, you know what I'm sayin'?" Crawder nodded. Apache knew how to track better than any man, if danger was lurking out there they could feel it, and they could tell you if they felt like it.

Crawder stood up. "You seen somethin' like this before?" he asked, as he motioned toward the strange print in the dust.

"Once." Roy flipped the rag so that the track was obliterated. "We were on patrol. There were twenty of us and the old Indian. Grandfather, we called him. Something came to camp one night and killed a horse same way as that cow. Butchered it out and ate the liver. You notice the guts was ripped out of that steer?" Crawder nodded and the black man went on with his tale. "When we wanted to go out after whatever it was, the old man walked over to the body and looked around it. He shook his head and said, "Don't go." Roy looked down at Jackie's body. "We didn't listen. The Sergeant sent ten men to follow the tracks, and kill whatever we found. Those men were gone twelve hours. Five of them came back. I was one of them."

"Did you see it?" Crawder asked.

"See it? Oh, we had some glimpses of it. It was big as a grizzly and covered in fur, but it could walk like a man when it wanted to." Roy laughed quietly. "I quit the army and came back east to get away from it."

"IT." Crawder said in a perturbed tone. "Roy you talk like it was some sort of monster or something. What was it really? Apaches?"

Roy shook his head, "I wished to Hell it was Apaches. Those we could fight and kill if we had too."

"Well what was it?" Crawder asked. "A mountain lion?"

"Grandfather called it The-Wolf-Who-Walks-Like-A-Man. He said that they were very rare in the mountains, and that they were the children of the Wolf Spirit." Roy spat on the ground "We called it a werewolf."

Crawder made a face, "A werewolf?' he said. "Part wolf and part man? That's not a real thing is it?"

Roy gestured toward Jackie's body "There's your answer boss," he said.

Ben Crawder was a practical man, he liked to think a problem through and come to some sort of decision. Now he was facing a problem that didn't seem to have any logical solution. He looked down at Jackie's body. The blood was drying in the morning sun and flies were stating to settle on the dead man. Using his hat Crawder fanned the insects away from his ex-employee. "If it was a werewolf," he said finally. "Did Grandfather tell you anyway to fight it?"

Roy shook his head. "The old man told stories about a lot of things. That's why we kept him around," he looked at the horizon trying to remember some half-forgotten Indian legend that he had heard years ago. "Grandfather said that the werewolf comes with the full moon, it kills and eats, then hides by day in the body of a man," Roy looked back at Crawder, "That's the easy part. But Grandfather said there was something that the werewolf feared as well, and it seems to me like it was a cross or something."

"A cross? Crawder said. "There must have been something else, there's crosses everywhere," Behind him Crawder could hear Boggs and Slim riding back with the tools. "For now don't mention this to the others OK? Not until we got some way to fight this wolf-thing if that's what it is . . . " Ben Crawder leaned over and grabbed a piece of Jackie's shirt, "Now, lets cover his face and keep the flies off him till we get a hole dug."

"Sure," Roy frowned, and leaned over his young friend. "Never thought I'd be doing this again though."

They buried the young cowboy in the shade and headed back to camp. Cookie had made extras for breakfast and there was plenty of coffee to wash the biscuits and oatmeal down with. Ben knew he had to say something to the men about Jackie's death. But how do you tell your crew that a man died from a werewolf bite? That one is easy to answer, he thought, "You don't."

After all of the men had eaten and rested a bit, the Trail Boss stood up and looked over his crew. The men were all tired looking; their faces were drawn and pinched with fatigue. Behind them were tethered the horses they had used last night, these animals were tired as well. Ben Crawder wondered how he looked, and then realized that he was really looking into a mirror when he looked at his men. Of everyone present, only Cookie seemed fresh and ready for the new day and whatever it would bring, but the old man hadn't spent the night in the saddle chasing a herd of long-horns across the prairie. Cookie stumped around the camp, serving food to the tired men, and cracking jokes just ornery enough to get them to think of something other than the empty saddle where Jackie should be sitting.

Ben Crawder wanted to give his men something other than a fresh death to think about too. He paused a moment, gauging dates and distances in his head, the crew had been pushing pretty hard and they deserved a bit of rest, this business with Jackie only made the choice that much easier. The Trail Boss made his decision and faced the men. "Boy's, we've had a hard trip so far, and you've all been working hard. Now, here's what I'd like to do. Kiowa Springs is about fifteen miles northwest of here. It's not too far out of our way. If you fellows don't mind an extra day on the trail, we can all rest a bit and water the stock and ourselves before we get to town up in Kansas." Crawder waited for a reaction from the men, and he wasn't disappointed.

Predictably it was Livy who spoke up first, "I wouldn't mind a day off and a wash."

"You could use one." Macon chuckled.

"We got enough beans and bacon for an extra day or two," Cookie chimed in.

Crawder caught Roy watching him as he cleaned his big pistol of the blood that was fouling the cylinder. "What do you think Roy?" he asked.

Roy took his time answering; he wiped the gun frame and re-inserted the cylinder, snapping the pins that held it in place as he looked up at his boss. "Crawder, I signed on to trail this herd to Kansas, if you want to walk us to Canada first I'll follow. But boss, there is one thing I won't do."

Crawder looked at Roy and leaned against Cookie's wagon, "What's that Roy?" he said expecting a joke.

"I won't ride down that wash." The black cowboy said cryptically as he returned to his gun cleaning and the conversation ended on a sour note.

* * *

Crawder guided the herd to Kiowa Springs. They arrived that afternoon, and the cowboys let the animals water themselves, while the men adjourned to a nearby tank where they drank their fill. After the men had swallowed as much water as they could hold they filled Cookie's barrels on the chuck wagon and then started splashing in the tank, trying to wash off some of the trail dust they had accumulated. After dousing himself, Crawder rode over to the nearby herd and looked things over. The cows were quiet and grazing on some of the lush grass that grew around the springs. They would be alright for a while. The Trail Boss rode over to where Cookie was stirring a big pot of beans and was surprised to see a haunch of beef roasting over the fire.

"Where'd that come from?" Ben asked as the old cook held up a tin cup of strong coffee for him to drink.

"That cow t' was butchered last night," the old man answered. "Didn't see any reason for it all to go to waste."

Crawder nodded. "Yeah. I suppose the company will take it out of the boy's pay anyway." Cookie grinned. "Company don't have to know everything Ben."

Crawder nodded agreement, then looked at the old cook before answering. "Company man counted'em before we left, you can bet they'll count'em when we get there, too." He drank some of the coffee, then gestured toward the beef haunch sizzling over the fire, "How'd you find the carcass out there in the scrub? It was pretty far from the camp," he asked idly.

Cookie shrugged, "I smelt the blood," the old man said. "You get as old as I am and you get a nose for that sort of thing."

Ben Crawder nodded at the cook's answer, but his attention had shifted to the sky, "I'm gonna have everyone eat together tonight Cookie. I'm thinkin' of doubling up on the night guards." He looked down at the cook, "Just to keep everyone awake."

Cookie studied the Trail Boss for a moment before nodding his head. "Might not be a bad idea," he said. "Moon's full for another two nights according to the almanac."

"I know," Crawder said as he handed back the tin cup and turned his horse toward the herd.

Cookie out did himself on the dinner that night. Instead of the usual beans and bacon, the old cook had prepared some barbeque sauce and served that with the roasted beef, there were beans (of course) and cornbread with wild honey from a hive the old cook had spotted in a tree by the spring. The cowboys lounged around the campfire stuffing themselves with food as they watched the sun ease down toward the horizon. It was only after the meal was over that the subject of night rider for the herd come up again. Predictably, it was Livy who started the conversation, "So who wants to ride first tonight?" he grinned as he leaned back on his saddle. Nobody answered, and several of the cowboys suddenly seemed nervous.

Inwardly cursing the man, Crawder wiped his hands on his chaps and spoke up. "I think we can double up tonight and tomorrow," he said. "Cookie says, the moon will be full both nights and that means more critters sneaking around the herd. We should be ready." More of the men exchanged glances. Crawder continued, "You all have a partner you like to work with, I'll just let you boys sort out who rides with who. I'm thinking two pairs of riders switching with their relief about 2 o'clock."

Several of the cowboys groaned at this, but Crawder ignored them, he looked over at Cookie, "When does your book say the moon will rise tonight?"

"Thought you might want to know," the old man grinned. "Moon comes up at 9:04 tonight. I checked."

"Uh, Ben?" Roy stood up and motioned to Crawder as he walked over behind the chuck wagon. Ben followed the cowboy and stopped when the man turned to face him. "Ben, Jackie was my partner . . . " he started to explain.

"I know, you'll ride with me." Crawder said.

"Oh," the man looked off toward the herd. "Are we going out soon?"

"When it gets dark, Roy, we need to try to keep things as normal as we can, OK? If the boys get too shook up we'll never get to Kansas." Crawder explained.

"I realize that." The black cowboy agreed. "I remembered some more of Grandfather's stories about the werewolf. "

Crawder didn't want to hear anymore about monsters right now. He had spent the day telling himself that a big lobo had killed one of his cowboys, and he liked it that way. This talk of were-monsters was unsettling, and it smacked of the unknown, Crawder didn't want to deal with that. He had ten men and two thousand steers to worry about.

Roy mistook Crawder's hesitation for interest, and went ahead with his tale. "If I remember Grandfather's words right, the werewolf came be harmed or kilt with a cross, a Holy symbol blessed by a priest, or with something made of silver."

"Silver?" Crawder grunted. "Why silver?"

"I don't know, that's just what Grandfather said." Roy shrugged.

"You sure?" Crawder asked.

Roy nodded and held out his hand "Look at these . . . " There were five .44 cartridges in his palm. " . . . See the tips?"

Crawder looked at the bullets closely; he saw that the black cowboy had carefully cut a cross into the heads of each of the bullets. "Well, those will certainly make a mess of anything they hit," He said.

The cowboy pressed the bullets into Crawder's hand, "They ain't blessed, but the cross should make'em more potent against the thing," Roy said. "I made a mess of 'em fer my pistol too."

"What are you two whisperin' about back here?" Cookie's voice croaked out of the gathering darkness.

"Roy was concerned about who he rides with since Jackie was his partner." Ben said automatically, as he stuffed the bullets in his jacket pocket. "I told him that he could ride with me," he added as he turned to face the old man.

Cookie stood watching them. The firelight shone on half of his face making the old cook look sinister in the gathering darkness. Ben abruptly stalked by the cook, and headed back toward the campfire, "C'mon, we need to get the night watch settled before it gets full dark," he said.

"Good thinkin' Ben." The cook smiled at Roy as both men walked back around the wagon. "Our boss got a lot on his mind?" he asked.

"Yeah," Roy answered. "Lot's to do . . . " and he headed toward his blanket roll where he began oiling his big pistol again.

To be fair and to show the others that he would do the same work that they had to do, Crawder had himself and Roy stand first watch. He also had Livy and Macon saddle up. "We'll ride west and south of the herd," he told Livy, "While you fellas' ride north and east. That way we can see each other once in a while. If you hear anything working around out there, stay put and make sure of where it's headed before you do anything, and we'll do the same."

For once Livy didn't have a smart answer, he just clamped his jaw tight and nodded. Macon walked a pair of horses over for the two men. They were all using fresh animals tonight from the string of spares that trailed from the back of the chuck wagon. Livy looked at his partner and made a face.

"Jesus man, where'd you come up with that thing?" he said. Crawder looked over at Macon; the southerner had a long holster strapped awkwardly to his leg. Inside the holster the butt of a sawed-off shotgun was sticking out.

Macon appeared embarrassed. "Ma Daddy carried this durin' the war," he said as he patted the stubby gun, "He gifted it to me when I left home, but I never had no need to carry it till now," the young Georgian looked at the others. "You let Jackie carry Roy's dragoon t'other night. What's the difference?"

Crawder busied himself with checking his tack. "I don't care what you strap on yourself as long as you stay awake and do your job." He answered over his shoulder. "Jus' remember we're here to watch those steers, not go bat-shit crazy over some big lobo in the brush," he turned to face the two men, "Jus' do your jobs and stay awake." The two men nodded as they mounted up and headed out. Roy walked over leading the horse he had selected for this nights work, a dark colored mare.

"You ready?" Crawder asked.

"Ready," the ex-cavalryman said as he patted his side where the big dragoon pistol rested in its holster.

"Damn man," Crawder said as he slung his leg over his mount, "we are going on a night ride, not to war."

"I here you," Roy answered. The two men were silent as they rode out, the clatter of the camp dwindled to silence as the other cowboys settled down for the night. The two men rode quietly around the herd, watching the scrub brush and the night sky. Then, after they had been out about an hour, they heard the howl of a wolf to the north of them . . . 

Livy and Macon heard the howl as well; they reined in their mounts and listened.

Macon looked around nervously, "Should we go after it?" he asked.

"Shut-up and listen." Livy growled. The older cowboy squinted into the night; there was no breeze, and very few clouds. He eased his right hand down to where he kept his rifle in its scabbard. Pulling the weapon out Livy checked the action by moonlight; then cradled the gun across his saddle bow. "That bastard is out there again tonight," he whispered. "It's following us."

"Lordy Livy, what're we gonna do?" Macon's hands fiddled with the reins, his horse felt the man's nervousness, and started stamping its hooves in response.

Livy spat into the dust. "Kill it," he murmured. "Now settle down. We know it's out there now, if we can figure where its going to hit us we can be ready fer it." Livy grinned "If it's as big a lobo as it sounds, there'll be a good bounty paid fer the skin. We split 50-50," he looked at Macon and grinned.

Macon smiled now. The thought of the bounty money seemed to cause the southerner to relax a little, he scratched an ear and said "When I was young, if we had a fox stalking the farm we'd stake an animal out as bait . . . " he looked toward the herd, then at Livy. "You reckon Crawder will mind?"

Livy looked at his partner. "Damn boy, you got a head on your shoulders after all," and he slid his rifle back in its sheath and reached for his lasso. Pausing for a moment as he paid out some of the rope, Livy looked toward the herd. "Let's find us a volunteer."

Out in the scrub the wolf howled again.

"You hear that?" Roy said out of the darkness. The voice startled Crawder, who looked around for a moment before he found his partner riding off to his left and a little behind him.

"Yeah," he glanced back at Roy, the black man had on a dark poncho and hat, and the horse he was riding was dark as well, the entire effect was that of a blob of darkness moving slowly through the night. "Sounded like it was to the north?"

"Northeast." Roy answered.

Ben met the black mans questioning look. "Let's go."

Roy nodded "Quietly," he said.

The two men trotted their horses around the herd. Time passed, and Crawder began to doubt the wisdom of his actions. The night was hot, and despite his recent wash Ben felt himself sweating under his shirt and jacket. The occasional cloud floating across the full moon threw the landscape into pitch darkness and made it very hard to see. The horses were steady enough, but the herd was once again starting to move around as if they sensed something amiss.

"Hey Crawder, you got your Winchester don't you?" Roy murmured from off to his left.

Crawder nodded in the darkness and then realized that the other man couldn't see the gesture.

"Yeah," he answered.

"Not so loud man. If this thing is the same as what I saw in Arizona it'll hear you a mile away." Roy urged his horse up next to his boss. "You got them cartridges I crossed for you?"

Ben had forgotten the special slugs Roy had shown him earlier, they were still in his jacket pocket. "I got'em, but we won't need anything like that. This has to be just a big wolf," he answered, but he didn't sound like he really believed the words.

Roy was silent for a moment. "Seeing is believing boss," was all he said as he allowed his mount to lag back into a trailing position once again. The wolf howled at the moon and the steers became visibly more nervous. Roy and Ben were almost to the opposite side of the herd now. Up ahead they heard a cow bawling in terror. The night echoed with the sound of a rifle blazing away. One shot followed by two more in quick succession.

Ben kicked his horse into a gallop and headed for the sound of the gunfire. Behind him he heard the hooves of Roy's mount as the cowboy trotted after him. Up ahead the two men heard the BOOM! Of Macon's shotgun and then a long wail of terror that was cut short in mid-screech. Roy kicked his horse harder, but the animal was suddenly shying away from where he wanted it to go. The horse was fighting the reins, something no trained cowpony would ever do. Rather than fight the horse Crawder pulled up on the reins and brought the animal to a halt. He listened. Behind him Roy walked his horse silently into position, once again on his left, and to his rear.

"You hear that?" Crawder whispered.

"Couldn't help but hear it." Roy whispered back. "It's out there."

Crawder pulled his rifle free from his saddle. "I'm going to look for the boys. Stay here or come with me, it's up to you."

Roy hesitated, and seemed to be listening for something, but there were no sounds in the night except the occasional cricket chirping away and the steers moving about uneasily in the darkness. He dismounted and tossed his reins into a nearby scrub tree. The two men started walking through the grass. The tall dew covered prairie plants soaked their boots and pants after only a few steps. Crawder walked more or less upright with his rifle pointed forward, while Roy crossed over behind his boss to the right side, here he moved along as carefully as he could, crouched low with his pistol cocked and pointed ahead of him. Both men said nothing, they were looking ahead of themselves and down at the ground. Every hump and stand of weeds seemed to shelter a possible wolf. Nowhere was safe. They moved like that for what seemed like an eternity. The long stalks of the prairie plants swished around them, and moths flickered across their line of sight, once some small animal bolted across their path.

Crawder brought his rifle up to fire before he realized that he was trying to sight on a rabbit. He cursed under his breath as he lowered the weapon. The night had been quiet since they had heard the gunfire and the scream, now he was wondering what to do next. Behind him, Crawder could hear Roy stepping lightly around something lying in the grass; he turned to speak to the man and almost threw up. Roy was standing beside something that Crawder at first took for a pile of bloody rags. Then it dawned on him that what he was looking at was what was left of Macon the cowboy. It looked like every bone in the man's body had been broken, and then the body had been tossed aside. The long holster that had held the sawed-off shotgun was empty.

Crawder looked at Roy who shrugged, "Still think we ain't at war Crawder?" he asked tightly.

"Jesus," Crawder managed to get out, "I never seen a man so broken up."

"The werewolf is strong . . . " Roy said " . . . and Macon's shotgun must have stung it a little to piss it off so much. C'mon Crawder, we can't do this boy no good. Let's see if we can find Livy. That was his rifle we heard."

"Yeah," Crawder wiped his face with one hand. "God what a mess that thing made of him."

Roy turned to Crawder, the black man was all cavalryman now, "Look man, take a deep breath, look anywhere but at the body, but pay attention! You're not getting me kilt because you were worryin' about a dead man!" Then Roy turned and disappeared into the high weeds crouched low with his gun pointed forward. Ben Crawder followed instructions. Roy had seen this sort of thing before. He had fought Apaches', he had seen something like this monster in the deserts of the southwest. He knew what to do. Then Crawder remembered that Roy had said he had quit the army and left the desert to get away from the thing in the first place . . .  Crawder shook himself like a horse being bitten by flies. He took a deep breath, and started through the weeds behind Roy, crouched low with his rifle pointed forward.

Listening.

Ten long minutes later they found the steer. The animal had a rope looped around its horns, with the long end tied off on a stout mesquite bush. "Looks like they tried to set a trap," Roy said as he surveyed the dead animal. The belly of the steer had been torn open and the entrails pulled out on the ground. The liver was missing.

Crawder's boot kicked something in the darkness at his feet, it was Macon's shotgun. He picked the weapon up out of the dirt and noticed that there were several loose shells lying on the ground, also. "Here's Macon's gun," he commented as he held up the shotgun. But Roy wasn't paying attention to him; the black man was standing beside the dead steer looking around, as if he was expecting something.

"Wonder where Livy is?" Crawder said.

"I'm lookin' for him now," Roy answered shortly, as he slowly surveyed the dark landscape around them.

"They thought they were smart," Crawder said as he knelt by the steer and prodded it with the barrel of the shotgun, the same oddly shaped tracks were everywhere in the dust by the dead animal.

"They played it right." Roy answered, "But they didn't have nothing that would hurt that thing."

"Something hurt it." Crawder said as he stood up and brandished the shotgun. "That monster won't have taken the time to kill Macon like that if it hadn't been in pain."

"Grandfather used to say that the Wolf-Who-Walks-Like-A-Man was always in pain," Roy's attention settled on a nearby pile of brush and sticks, "That's why they're so mean." The cowboy walked over to the pile, giving the heap a wide berth as he neared it. Crawder looked up as Roy cocked his pistol and stepped around behind the brush.

"Roy?" Ben called, he suddenly had a terrible fear of being alone out here in the night with whatever had killed the cowboys.

"Right here Crawder," Roy answered softly. "I found Livy."

Crawder didn't know if he wanted to see what was left of the other cowboy or not, but he started walking toward the brush

"I think he's still alive." Roy continued. Off in the distance a wolf howled.

Crawder immediately faced the direction of the howl. "That's back toward the camp!" he said tightly.

Roy ignored the wolf in the night however, "This man is alive. We need some light, I think he is clawed pretty badly, but I can't tell in the dark." Roy looked around, "Crawder, can you get a small fire going?"

Ben was already on his knees raking together a small pile of grass and twigs. He used this as tender and lit it with a match. The flame rose and light flooded the small area around the two men. "This light'll kill our night vision," Crawder said as he looked toward the camp again. There was the sound of a single gunshot in the distance, then it seemed like every gun in camp was shooting. The dark night was rent with flashes and sounds as the various weapons sounded off. The herd picked up on the sound and started to move away from it. "Roy, the herd is starting to move again!" Crawder shouted. "Something's going on back in camp! I need to get over there . . . " But despite Crawder's concern, the herd merely flowed away from the camps position. For some reason the tired steers refused to break into a run tonight. Crawder silently thanked God for that small favor.

There was a rustling sound as Roy straightened Livy's body. The man was breathing and Roy had rolled him around so that he was resting on his back looking up at the night sky. Whatever had hit the older cowboy had clawed him across his face; Livy wasn't a handsome fellow to begin with, now he had three diagonal claw marks scratched across his forehead and the bridge of his nose. The left eye was swelled shut and it seemed that his right shoulder might be broken as well. There were the same odd wolf tracks all around. Livy's rifle was broken in two pieces beside him on the ground. The fire light gleamed off of brass cartridges mixed with blood spots in the dirt. Roy picked up one of the bullets and looked at the tip before holding the bullet out for Crawder to examine. "Look at this." The ex-cavalryman said. The tip of the bullet had been filed flat and then a crude X had been cut into it.

"Dum-dum's" Crawder said as he glanced at the slug.

"Livy's a smart-ass, but he wasn't stupid." Roy agreed. "Those slugs would have torn the heart out of anything they hit."

"An X is a lot like a cross." Crawder said thoughtfully.

"Right again Boss," Roy nodded. " . . . and they seemed to have worked, see the blood stains in the dirt? Now we got to figure what to do next."

Ben fished in his jacket pocket and pulled out the handful of special bullets that Roy had given him earlier. "First things first . . . " he said as he emptied his rifle of cartridges and replaced them with the special bullets. Far away they heard the wolf howl again. This time they thought they detected a note of pain in the plaintive cry.

"I go back for the horses," Crawder said as he handed the shotgun and shells to Roy, "then bring yours here. I need to get back over to the camp. I think that werewolf is over there someplace."

Roy nodded as he looked around for some more wood to toss on the small fire. "I'll keep this going, but I'm not staying outlined in this light. I'll be off somewhere close, "he said.

On the way back to where they had tied the horses Crawder had to pass the body of Macon lying in the tall grass. The man had been thrown almost sixty feet from where they found the shotgun and the steer. Crawder didn't dwell on what injuries had killed the southerner, because he knew that he was going to have to look at the man tomorrow in the day light as they buried him. The horses were still skittish when he reached them, but they would move when he mounted his and kicked them into motion. He was back by Livy's fire in no time, Ben tied Roy's horse to a brittle bush, he didn't see the black cowboy and didn't say anything as he tied the horse off. If Roy wanted to remain hidden that was his business. He dismounted from his horse and took his canteen from the saddle; carefully he poured a little water on Livy's mouth. The man stirred and winced as the pain rolled over him. Ben poured a little more water onto the cuts on the man's face and told him to lie still.

"Ya git it?" the damaged mouth asked.

"Not yet Livy, hold on man, helps coming." Crawder answered as he mounted back up and headed for camp.

* * *

The campfire was roaring when Crawder reached it a good twenty minutes later. The figures of several of the cowboys were outlined by the light, and Ben understood why Roy had not wanted to stay close to their small fire, an outline of a man was as good as a target on a fence post. The cowboys crowded around Crawder as he rode into camp, they all looked scared, several had cuts and scrapes, while one man lay by the fire, his face white with pain as he nursed what was obviously a bullet wound in his lower right leg.

"What's going on here?" Crawder asked as he dismounted.

The men all started talking at once; even the wounded man by the fire had something to add to the din. Crawder finally held up his hands for quiet, and then he picked one man to tell the tale. "You, Boggs, tell it, and do it so you don't leave anything out," the Trail Boss said as he and walked over to the chuck wagon for a drink of water. He hadn't realize how thirsty being scared made a man.

The other cowboys stood back a bit, giving Boggs some room as he started to tell what had been going on. The man took off his hat and looked around at the others before launching into his story, "After you men rode out for the night, the rest of us sorta laid around the fire for a bit, gettin' ready to sleep." Crawder looked at the man and nodded to show he was listening. Boggs brushed a lock of hair out of his eyes before he went on, "I reckon you weren't gone an hour when we heard the wolf howling again. We all sorta looked at each other and didn't say nothin'. Couple of the boys pulled out their pieces and checked that they was ready, just in case. Somebody said we ought'a have a couple horses saddled in case the herd got restless, you know, after last night and all . . . "

Crawder nodded again, "What happened then?" he said as he dipped more water out of the barrel.

The man paused to think it through before continuing. "Well, we heard a steer bawling like we did last night, and then the rifle shots and the blast of Macon's shotgun." The man looked down now, "Then that scream. That spooked most everyone here."

Crawder nodded again, "Roy and I heard all that too," he said.

"After the scream things got quiet again," Boggs continued. "We talked it over, and some was for going out and checking on you boys and some was for waiting a bit to see if'n you came back yourselves . . . " Here Boggs looked around at his mates. "That was when we started hearing the growling sounds outside of the camp."

"Growling sounds?" Crawder said.

"Yeah, soft sounds like a big dog warning ya' to stay back when it's hurt. That sort of thing . . . " another cowboy suddenly added.

Boggs looked over at the man and nodded agreement. "Crawder, there was somethin' out there as sure as I'm a white man. We never did actually see it, but you could feel it out there."

Ben pointed at the wounded man. "How'd that happen?" he asked.

"When the growling started everyone pulled their guns out. Nobody knew exactly where to shoot, but they wanted to be ready. This here boy was standing by the chuck wagon. Somebody got jittery and squeezed a round off. When that happened everyone started shooting at shadows and this'n caught a stray bullet." He walked over to the wounded man "We wrapped the wound up best we could, it didn't hit the bone or nothin'."

Crawder looked around; he had just realized that someone was missing from the camp. "Where's Cookie?" he asked.

Boggs looked ashamed, "Well, that's the real tough part to explain Boss." He said as he turned to face Ben. "Ain't nobody here seen the old man since you boys rode out this evening."

"God . . . " Crawder thought, " . . . how was he going to explain this? Two men dead, one clawed half to death, one wounded, and now one man simply missing?" he realized the others were looking at him, waiting for him to make a decision, to tell them what to do. Ben tossed the rest of his water on the ground. "Four of you, walk around the camp in a circle, look for Cookie or tracks where he might have gone off to. The other three mount up and come with me, Roy is still out there with Livy and Macon, and we need to bring them in." He looked at the night sky; the moon was almost directly overhead. Man, was he tired, and the night was only going to get worse when the cowboys got a look at Macon's body out there in the scrub. Then there was the herd to worry about too. So far, the cows had remained restless, but fairly quiet despite the ruckus. But Crawder knew he couldn't count on that luck holding up all night. That meant he'd have to set another cattle guard, exposing yet another man, or pair of men to whatever danger was lurking out in the prairie night. How much longer would the cowboys do what they were told when their numbers were being steadily whittled down?

Mentally Crawder shrugged. He'd handle that when the time came, now he needed to bring in his people and secure the camp if he could. As the men started walking around the edge of the camp looking for the cook, the other cowboys saddled their mounts and he led the three of them out into the darkness. Ben Crawder watched these three men carefully for any sign of fear. All of the men were Mexican's, they all were short in stature, but excellent horsemen, two of these men had ridden out into the stampede last night without the benefit of a saddle. Crawder hoped they wouldn't break down when they saw what was left of Macon.

The ride back to where Roy and Livy were was longer than Crawder's trip to the camp had been. Ben had figured he could use the small fire they had lit as a guide to where Livy lay, but the light seemed to be lost in the prairie night. So Ben rode carefully, looking for the dead steer, and once he found that he knew he was close to where the hurt cowboy was. Crawder looked behind himself as he drew up beside the dead animal; the three Mexicans had bunched up looking down at the body, talking quietly in Spanish.

"El lobo sure make a mess of this beef." Augusto finally said in English. The other two men murmured their agreement.

Ben couldn't argue with that assessment, he looked around. Where the Hell was Roy? He had to have heard them coming. The man's horse was still tied to the brittle bush where Crawder had left it. The Trail Boss dismounted. Now that he had his bearings he could remember where Livy was laying behind the stand of bushes. He took two steps and stopped, remembering what Roy had said about being careful. He turned back to his horse and removed his rifle from the saddle sheath. "You men stay here till I see what's what," he said.

"As you wish senor," one of the Mexicans answered. All three men were anxiously scanning the surrounding brush.

Cocking the weapon, Crawder advanced on Livy's position. The man was laying where he had left him, only now he was propped up with Macon's shotgun pointed in his direction. "Livy, it's me Crawder," Ben said. The shotgun wavered a moment and Crawder realized that the wounded man was motioning him closer. The fire Crawder had made earlier had burned down to a few embers, but there was still plenty of heat coming from the ashes. He stepped around the debris and knelt beside the clawed man. "Where's Roy?" He asked.

Livy motioned him closer and Crawder could make out a whisper coming through a set of torn and bleeding lips, "Roy said to tell ya, "It went down the wash . . . " and he's gone in after it."

Crawder looked at the hurt man in disbelief. "He went after it alone?" he said.

Livy nodded. "Sorry bout this Crawder, Macon and me thought we had it cold with that steer as bait, . . . " the man's eyes closed in pain and remembering. " . . . It was so damn big and fast . . . " He said as he came back from where the memory had taken him. "I shot it." He said proudly, "I hit the bastard square, but it didn't do nothin' to it. Jus' made it mad . . .  I got two more rounds off before it jumped me . . .  That was when Macon opened up with that cannon of his..." He looked down suddenly realizing he was holding the shotgun now. "Where's the boy at?" he asked quietly.

"Out in the brush." Crawder said. "Look I got some men here who're goin' take you back to camp."

"Where yo' goin"?" the Livy asked.

Crawder stood up, "Down the wash to find Roy."

The night remained quiet as Ben Crawder and his Mexican cowboys hunted for, and found, the body of Macon. Crawder was grateful that the Mexicans said nothing as they slung the southerner's remains over a saddle. He was having trouble believing this was happening himself, let alone trying to explain it to someone else. Livy was hoisted onto another horse and tied so he wouldn't fall off. There was still no sound from Roy. The Mexican's spoke amongst themselves for a moment as they prepared to head back to camp, and then Augusto turned to Crawder. "Senor, what will you do now?"

Ben looked at the man and then at the night sky. He figured it was about three in the morning. "I got a man out there somewhere, and I need to bring him in safe," he said.

"You will go out there now? Alone?" the Mexican asked.

"Yes." Crawder answered and walked over to his horse.

"I will go with you." Augusto said.

Crawder looked at the man, "I'm not asking you to go Augusto."

"Maybe that is why I choose to do it," the man returned as he swung up on his horse. "Some things you just do you know?" he smiled.

"OK, I don't mind the company," Crawder answered as he nudged his horse forward.

"What do we look for senor?" Augusto asked.

Crawder thought about how Roy would have approached this problem and then looked at the ground, anything as big as this werewolf seemed to be had to leave some deep signs in the dirt. Looking around Ben found a print like the one he had seen the other day by Jackie's body. "We look for whatever made this Augusto." Suddenly Crawder thought of something. "What sort of rifle you carry amigo?" he asked.

"I use the same as you jefe. A .44 Winchester," The Mexican answered.

Ben levered two rounds out of his weapon and handed them over to the Mexican. "Here, put these in your gun. Make sure they're on top." Giving Augusto two bullets still left him with three, Crawder hoped that was enough.

"These are special?" Augusto asked as he peered at the bullets.

"Roy thought so. C'mon, he may need us." Crawder answered as he kicked his horse into motion. They started trailing the strange prints.

After Crawder had headed back toward the camp Roy had sat quietly for a bit, looking anywhere but towards the firelight to conserve his night vision. He opened Macon's shotgun and reloaded it. As he slipped in the new shells, Roy glanced at the paper bindings. "Packed by CROSSMAN OUTDOORS they where stamped "Finest materials used throughout" Roy smiled in spite of himself. The Georgian had hurt the monster by accident. " . . . And got himself kilt fer his trouble . . . " Roy thought. Then he started to wonder about what Crawder might find when he got back to camp. Roy tried not to think about that time in Arizona, when ten men had gone looking for trouble and only five had come back. Something about all this troubled him. Something about what Grandfather had said about the werewolf. The monster had to hide during the day in the body of a man. But they had seen nobody close to the herd as they drove north. The prairie had been empty of men. Hell, they hadn't even seen any stray horses wandering around. Where was the monster hiding? Roy's gaze strayed across the herd toward camp, and suddenly he knew the truth. The werewolf wasn't hiding. It was riding with them! The ex-cavalryman turned back to where Livy lay. The hurt man had pulled himself up a little bit so he could drink from Crawder's canteen. So that was two men Roy could cross off the list of suspects. No werewolf would claw itself, and Crawder had been with him all the time. Macon was dead, and Jackie was buried. Roy thought hard, the Mexicans all wore little silver crucifixes, something no werewolf could stand the sight of, let alone wear around its neck, so they were in the clear. Roy suddenly stood up and walked over to Livy.

"Hey man you hear me?" he asked, as he bent over the injured cowboy.

The man on the ground nodded.

"Crawder should be back soon," he said as he handed the Livy the sawed-off shotgun. "Keep this in front of you till he gets here. I'm going after that thing."

The injured man grabbed Roy's shirt. "Don't." was all he could get out.

Roy gently pulled free of the man's grip and said "Tell'em they'll hear me as I go down the wash." Then he checked his pistol and disappeared into the grassland, headed back toward the camp.

Crawder an Augusto rode silently, rifles at the ready, as they followed the werewolf tracks across the prairie. It was hard trying to track at night, but the size of the creature helped, since it broke branches off of small trees and crushed the grass flat wherever it trod. Crawder noticed several spots of blood when they first started following the creature but these dried up after about 50 yards. Once or twice Ben thought he saw the print of a cowboys boot in the dust as well, but after a while they too disappeared. The tracks lead the two men in long loop around the edge of the herd and back toward camp. Crawder was worried that the men he had left in camp were going to be ambushed. Then he wondered if they had found Cookie's body out in the brush, all mangled up like poor Macon. Crawder grinned a little at the thought of the dead man's shotgun somehow hurting the monster. Something had made it bleed for a while, he thought. The two men lost the trail when they were half way around the herd, and Crawder brought them up to listen. The sky said that dawn wasn't fair off; the eastern horizon was beginning to lighten. Augusto was nervous; no man likes to be up against the unknown on a moonlit night. The Mexican kept looking around in short jerky movements, eyes darting from one silver-rimmed object to the next. He would never see anything like that, Crawder thought, you got to take your time and pay attention.

Suddenly there were two reports from a pistol not 100 feet from camp, followed by a long wail of some animal in pain. Crawder looked at Augusto, "C'mon!" he shouted and kicked his horse into action. Augusto shouted something in return and slapped his horse's rump with his rifle. The two men covered the ground to the camp much faster than when they had ridden out to retrieve Livy and Macon. They bent low over their saddles and let the branches of the sage bushes whip over and around them. The tall prairie grass swished as they cut through it, and an occasional thistle plant slapped across their faces and hands. Up ahead, Crawder could see the chuck wagon parked across the light from the fire, the image of the wagon was a black silhouette, and off to one side there stood another outline, this was of a creature almost 8 feet tall. Beside the huge thing was a shorter figure, obviously a man who was fighting for his life. The monster had much longer arms and seemed to be holding the man with one of them as it swiped at him with the other. As Crawder watched, the smaller figure leveled a pistol and fired point blank into the monster's chest. The night was filled with that animal howl of pain and rage again. Crawder reined in his horse. The animal was starting to shy away like it had done before when it got a whiff of the werewolf's scent. Augusto pulled up as well. The two men looked at each other and then leveled their rifles, sighting at the monster.

BLAM! BLAM!

The sound of the shots was followed by another wailing scream and the monster dropped the man as it fell to the ground. Ben leaped off his horse and ran for the camp, jacking another shell into his rifle as he trotted along. Behind him he heard the sounds of Augusto struggling through the tall grass. Crawder suddenly stepped into the open. The chuck wagon was thirty feet away, and on the ground between lay a creature like he had never seen before. The body was covered in silver-gray fur, and if the spine hadn't been crooked, the thing might have topped nine feet tall. The arms were long, and the hands were without thumbs, the fingers, such as they were, ended in long sharp claws. The rear legs were bent like those of a dog, but they were still longer than a man's. Crawder noticed that one of the monster's rear legs was shorter than the other. But it was the head that Crawder kept coming back to. The head was that of a wolf, a huge lobo with pointed ears and a snout filled with long sharp teeth. The body on the ground twitched and Crawder fired another cross-treat bullet into it. BLAM! The response was electric. The creature heaved up off the ground in one pain-filled spasm and the night was filled with that animal howl again. The werewolf collapsed into a heap and Crawder stepped around it to the man lying in the dirt.

It was Roy. The dragoon colt was lying in the dust by the man, and once again it was caked with blood. Roy had fought hard and was still breathing, but both of his arms were clawed and bitten, and his shirt had been ripped down the front leaving deep claw marks in the dark skin. Augusto came up behind Crawder as he knelt beside the cowboy on the ground. The Mexican held his rifle in one hand and used the other to work his cross from around his neck.

"Senor Crawder . . . " the man said as he offered the silver cross to him. "Put it on Roy,  . . . as a comfort?" he said.

Ben Crawder nodded and placed the ornament around Roy's neck. Roy opened his eyes and looked at him. "Grandfather . . .  would be so angry with me . . . "

Crawder shushed the man, "You gonna be OK Roy." he lied. The other cowboys started to appear from wherever they had been hiding in the brush around the fire. Augusto called to some of them in Spanish, but Ben was concentrating on Roy. The man was trying to speak again.

"I . . .  figured it out Crawder." Roy mumbled. "The Wolf-That-Walks-Like-A-Man . . . He needs a body to hide in during the day . . .  Had to be one of us . . . " Roy's voice trailed off and the dying cowboy licked his lips.

Ben looked up quickly, "Water!" he yelled. "Somebody bring me some water over here!" He looked back at Augusto "Get something to use for a bandage, man!" Somebody brought some water, but Augusto didn't move. He could tell when an effort was wasted, the man on the ground was bleeding out very quickly.

"I left Livy out there . . . Hope he's alright . . . " Roy went on. " I had to . . .  get back over here . . .  I knew it would have to get back to camp . . .  before the sun came up . . . "

"Livy's safe." Crawder interjected. But he wasn't sure Roy heard him. In the east the edge of the sun began to appear on the horizon. A new day was dawning; one that Roy would never see the end of Crawder thought.

"I knew . . .  it had to get back to camp . . . " Roy repeated. "It had already . . .  been seen over here . . . " Roy took a deep breath. "I followed it for a bit . . .  then cut across the herd . . .  and waited by the wagon . . .  Knew he'd show up . . .  sooner or later . . . We all worked the stampede last night . . .  except him . . . " Roy nodded toward the chuck wagon.

"You did good Roy. Now just take it easy, we'll get you patched up in no time." Crawder said. He looked over at what was left of the werewolf. The body of the creature was rapidly changing before the startled Trail Boss' eyes, the corpse had shrunk and it looked more man-like every second.

Roy managed a grin, "No time . . .  is what I got Boss . . . " he answered, and then the mortally wounded man started to ramble a bit. "I . . .  heard the thing come out of the scrub . . .  and I waited till it was real close . . .  I know it must have smelt me . . .  because it started growling . . .  It turned to face me and I let fly."

"You hit it Roy." Ben said.

"I did more than that . . .  I kilt it . . . " Roy sighed.

Crawder looked down, but Roy was gone. The Trail Boss looked at the Augusto, who was offering him a hand up, "Senor, it is time to bury the dead," he said quietly. The rays from the morning sun were golden on the Mexicans brown skin.

Ben Crawder stood up and leaned against his rifle. He squinted into the glare in the east, it would be hot again today, but they wouldn't move the herd. Crawder's world was coming apart at the seams and he recognized that he probably was in shock, he gestured at the body of the cook, which was lying in the spot where just a few moments before there had been a lupine monster. "Bury'em separate, . . . " he said, " . . . drag that other thing away from here some place and toss it in an arroyo. But bury Macon and Roy together . . . "

"Si senor . . . " Augusto turned to the scattered cowboys, "Arriba amigos!" he said a little too loudly. "Let us give one cowboys last gift to another, and bury our friends in the shade . . . "

The End


Dave Barr is a retired park worker who has traveled and hiked extensively in the American West and Southwest. He lives in Columbus Ohio and frequently daydreams about camping and trout fishing.

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Apostate
by John Du

Around dusk on a mildly sunny Friday afternoon, many of the stores, shops, and businesses began locking up for the day in the tiny town of Manasseh, Wyoming. While most of the townspeople began walking to their houses, one business had just opened, the saloon.

Right before the saloon opened, a man rode into the western end of town. He stopped and tied his white horse onto the hitching post just outside the saloon. He walked up the steps and through the building's freshly painted navy blue batwing doors.

The old bartender looked at the man and thought about telling him that the saloon wasn't open, but he decided against it. The man sat down at the bar, and the bartender felt a falling sensation in his gut. I hate it when soldiers come, thought the bartender.

The man took off his U.S. Cavalry Stetson and placed it on the bar. "Give me a bottle of your strongest, please," the man said. He pulled his gloves off with his teeth, and then buried his face in his hands until the bartender put the bottle on the counter.

"Thank you," he told the bartender.

"Sure, you uh, you want a glass?" the bartender asked.

The soldier shook his head and took a few gulps from the bottle. He put down the whiskey and began tracing patterns on the counter's wood with his finger.

"You cavalry?" the bartender asked. The soldier looked at the bartender with deep, green, bloodshot eyes and nodded. "Any more of you around?"

"No," the cavalryman said, and he laid his forehead down on the countertop.

The bartender began to feel a touch of compassion for the cavalryman. "You alright, son?"

"No."

"Well, is there anything I can do to help?" the bartender asked.

The cavalryman sat up and took a few more gulps. "Do you know a place where I can sleep?"

"Sure do, you can stay at the hotel next door. My wife and I just opened it and this saloon. This is all brand new," the bartender told the cavalryman proudly. The cavalryman looked around the saloon, which had unpainted lumber walls adorned only with oil lamps, an untreated wooden floor, and a few tables. The wood in the place was so yellow and new, it almost made the cavalryman squint.

"I'm Josiah, by the way. Josiah Martin," the bartender said, holding out his hand to the cavalryman. The soldier took Josiah's hand and shook it firmly. "I'm Abe," he told Josiah.

"Abe? You mean like Abraham?"

The soldier shook his head. "Absalom."

Josiah smirked. "That ain't a name you hear often."

Absalom gave Josiah a quick, wry little smile and then looked down at the bar again. "My parents were odd folks," he said. Josiah smiled politely and decided to leave Absalom to his brooding.

While Absalom sat and drank, horses galloped up the town's main road. Four men tied their horses outside and walked into the saloon, talking amongst themselves.

"Two bottles of whiskey, Josiah, and glasses," one of the men demanded. Josiah put the bottles and glasses on the bar, and his waitress served the men, trying to give the men wide birth while giving them their drinks. After she finished, she walked back to the bar, narrowly escaping a grope from one of the men.

One of the cowboys took out a deck of cards and began dealing them around the table, while his buddies sipped on their whiskey. Once they started playing, they chatted, complaining about their work on a ranch and about a man named Bishop. Once they finished one of the whiskey bottles their conversation shifted to their activities the previous weekend.

Absalom sat up from the bar and inclined his ear towards the cowboys' conversation. After a few moments of listening, he sat straight in his chair and pensively rubbed his black beard. "Josiah," he called, "can you give me a couple of glasses?"

"Sure," he said. He gave Absalom two small glasses. Absalom poured two shots of whiskey and gave one glass to the bartender. Josiah raised the glass to Absalom appreciatively, and the two men drank. Absalom poured another shot for Josiah, and another, but neglected to pour shots for himself. "What're those cowboys over there talkin' about?" he asked Josiah after the old man had consumed a few shots.

Josiah just shrugged. "Can't say. Haven't really been listening."

Absalom frowned, and poured another shot for himself and another shot for Josiah. Josiah drank his in one gulp while Absalom sipped his shot. "I overheard them saying something about a Mormon family that lived on top of the hill just north of town," Absalom informed while he poured another drink for Josiah.

"Oh, yeah, that, I don't know when they'll stop talking about them."

"The Mormons?"

"Yep," Josiah said with a nod. "There used to be a Mormon family on top of that hill." Josiah said, taking his drink. Now the old man looked down at the bar, his cloudy blue eyes full of regret, or shame.

"Yeah, I saw that place on my way here," Absalom recalled, and he drained the rest of the whiskey from his glass. "Looked like somebody torched that whole farm to the ground. That where they lived?"

Josiah frowned and nodded.

"They all dead?" Absalom asked, and he looked Josiah in the eye. Absalom's intense stare unnerved Josiah, and the old man looked at his shoes. "Yes" was all Josiah could say.

"Huh, those poor, sorry shits," Abe grunted. He dropped some coins on the bar and stood. "Thanks for the whiskey and the conversation," he said. He grabbed his hat, his gloves, and his bottle and walked to the hotel next door.

He walked into the hotel to see an elderly woman reading a novel by lamplight. When Absalom walked toward her across the shiny hardwood floor, she smiled politely and stood slowly. "Hello, would you like a room?" she asked.

"Yeah, I got a horse outside. You got a stable?"

"We do. Daniel! Daniel I need you!" the old woman yelled. A few seconds passed before a boy around the age of twelve came downstairs into the small hotel lobby. "Daniel, this gentleman has a horse out front that needs stablin'," she said. "You go take it out back and fetch his things to his room when you're done."

The boy looked up at Absalom. To the boy, the man looked as tall as the ceiling. "It's the white one, with the U.S. brand."

"You a soldier?" the boy asked

Absalom nodded at the boy with a tight frown.

"You killed many Indians?" the boy asked. The old woman smacked him on the back of the head, and the boy grimaced while he walked toward the door."

"I'm sorry, I'm afraid my grandson don't have no manners." She said. "Now, how many nights you gonna be staying?"

"I'm not sure yet," Absalom admitted as he took a coin purse from his pocket.

"Well, you gotta pay up front. I've had too many folks leave without payin'."

"I understand. I'll just pay for tonight, and I'll pay you again tomorrow." He said. "You got a barber and a bath house in this town?"

"Owner of the general store's name's Walter. He's our barber, and the second floor of his store serves as the bath house."

Abraham nodded. He put the payment for his room on the countertop, and she slid him a key. "You'll be stayin' in room two-oh-one. It's the first room upstairs," she informed him. He smiled his appreciation and walked slowly up the narrow staircase, watching his feet as he ascended. He walked into his room and slammed the door shut behind him.

A few minutes later, Daniel walked back inside, carrying a large blanket, saddle, and saddlebags. He went up the stairs to Absalom's room and knocked on the door.

The door opened, and Daniel looked up at the big soldier with long black hair. The soldier's eyes were red and full of tears. The soldier snatched his things from the boy, turned, and kicked the door shut behind him.

* * *

Saturday morning, right around noon, Absalom trudged down the stairs to the front desk. He paid the old lady for another night, and then he went to the diner for lunch. After he ate his meal of cornbread and chili, he left the diner and walked towards the general store.

The townspeople went about their work diligently, but occasionally, some would steal a few glances at Manasseh's newcomer. Whenever Absalom looked at the wandering eyes of the locals, they looked away, without acknowledging his presence.

When Absalom walked into the general store, the owner mumbled a greeting without looking up from his magazine. Absalom stood in the center of the store, looking around at the store's various odds and ends, until the man's eyes left his catalog. "Oh, well, you're new. Can I help you with something?"

Absalom smiled thinly and walked up to the counter. "You the barber?" Absalom asked.

"I am. You need a shave?" the man inquired.

"Yes, I do, among other things, but let's start with a shave."

"Alright, then, step this way," the man told him. He beckoned Absalom to sit in the barber's chair at the back corner of the store. Absalom sat while the man drew water from a pump outside the store. While he sat, he saw a set of nice men's clothes hanging on a rack. When the man came back, he mixed some shaving cream for Absalom. "How close do you want it?" the man asked.

"I want my beard gone," Absalom said.

"Wow, that'll be quite the change. You got a handsome beard. You sure you wanna get rid of it?" asked the man.

"Yes." Absalom said in a whisper. "My momma always preferred me without a beard."

"Yeah? She uh, she here in town?"

"Nah, she's dead," Absalom admitted.

"Oh, well, I'm sorry to hear that," the barber said awkwardly. Absalom said nothing, so the barber began to give Absalom his shave.

When he got close to being done, the man Absalom if he wanted a haircut, which Absalom turned down. "I like it long," he told the barber, "but I am gonna need a bath, some new clothes, and my uniform washed."

The barber wiped off Absalom's face, and he saw why he had kept a long beard. Absalom had a large diagonal scar that ran from under his left nostril, across his mouth, and down to his jaw. "You see much action in the cavalry?" the barber asked.

"A little. When does the service start?" Absalom asked, eager to change the topic.

"Pardon?"

"The service," Absalom repeated. "I saw that big white church at the end of the town. It's real prominent. You do have services there, right?"

"Oh, yeah, we do. Service starts at 10. You'll hear the church bell around that time; it's big and loud."

"The congregation big?"

"Well, yeah, usually everyone in town and a few folks from outside attend."

"Well, you must have quite the preacher there," Absalom reckoned.

The barber shrugged. "I guess so."

Absalom chose a set of clothes before going upstairs for his bath. After he had finished, he put on his new clothes, picked out some pipe tobacco, and paid the storeowner for his goods and services.

After Absalom ate his dinner, he walked back to the hotel and saloon. He paid the old lady at the hotel for two more nights, and then he walked across the road to a building that had a shingle with the words "U.S. Marshal's Office" hanging above a locked door. Absalom looked inside and saw nothing and no one. He leaned against the hitching post outside the Marshal's office and packed some tobacco in his pipe.

While he smoked, he watched the town: the way it looked and the way it acted. Most of the buildings' wood looked new, and many of the buildings sat unpainted. At the opposite end of where he stood sat a small group of houses, and at the end of the neighborhood sat the town church. All the houses and the church had white paint. The church itself had stained glass windows and a tall steeple topped with black cross.

As the sun set, Absalom saw many men of the town begin entering the saloon, along with the same four men he had seen in there the night before. Absalom observed the saloon for a long time, watching the patrons leave long before the four men decided to go. Absalom watched as the men, drunk, decided to end their night. They walked outside, haphazardly mounted their horses, and trotted off out of town, seemingly guided only by their horses' memories.

When the town stopped moving, Absalom walked back inside the hotel, tipped his hat to the old lady, and went up to his room.

* * *

When the church bells began ringing, Absalom walked down the road to the church, passing a few other church goers as he made his way up the small, dirty street. He sat in the back and waited for the service to start, but when it started, few people had made their way to church that morning. The people sang their hymns to the Lord with apathy, and when the preacher got up to speak, most of the congregation looked down at the floor, except for Absalom and another man who sat in the pew opposite of Absalom.

The pastor spoke to his congregation about God's judgment on Apostasy and rebuked those who had not attended the morning's service. Absalom gradually lost interest, until the preacher said something that regained his attention: "Now, what happened to those Mormons—What Mr. Bishop and I did—that was us carrying out God's judgment. Those Mormon folks were apostates. All Mormons know the truth, they know the Scriptures, but they have rejected it!" the preacher yelled, startling a few members of the congregation.

The short, pudgy man sitting across from Absalom nodded his head furiously and delivered an encouraging "Amen!" to the pastor. A young woman sat next to him, looking down at the floor, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. The pastor nodded at the man and continued. "They're no better than blasphemous, idolatrous heathens! Mr. Bishop and I showed them the Lord's judgment," the pastor said as he pointed at the spirited man who sat across the aisle from Absalom.

When the sermon ended, Absalom shook the preacher's hand before leaving the church. "That was quite the message, Pastor," Absalom commented.

"Thank you, son," the old preacher said. "I've never seen you here before; you must be new here in town. I'm pastor Amos."

"I'm Abe."

"Oh, short for Abraham, I would assume," Amos stated.

Absalom smiled humorlessly. "Abe's just fine."

The pastor talked with Absalom a few minutes while the rest of the congregation went around them, avoiding eye contact with the pastor and going back to their homes. "Hey, listen, I'm afraid the diner is closed today, just like all the businesses here in town. Why don't you come to my place and have lunch with me?"

Absalom looked outside at the town. No one went down the street. Every family that attended the service either walked back to their houses or rode out of town. He traced the scar on his face with his forefinger for a moment before answering Amos. "Alright then, Much obliged, Pastor."

Absalom followed Amos to his house, a small parsonage that sat next to the church. The humble house had one room, with a bed in one corner, a wardrobe in another, a stove and kitchen next to the front door, and a square table that sat in the center of the room.

"Please, make yourself at home," the pastor invited. Absalom sat down at the table. Amos asked him the polite questions that people ask when they make a new acquaintance. Who are you, what do you do, and why did you come here? Absalom replied politely, but did not add much to the conversation. Once they ate the stew that the pastor had made, Absalom thanked him and left.

Absalom walked back to his hotel room and drank himself into a Sunday afternoon nap. When he awoke, he took out his guns. He disassembled and cleaned both his service revolver and his rifle, and then he sharpened his large bowie knife. Absalom ate some hard tack from some rations that he had brought for dinner, and after he ate, he went to bed early, just after sunset.

* * *

The next morning, Absalom awoke at dawn. He put on his clothes and rode out to the Mormon farm. He walked out into the middle of ashy remnants of the burnt house, fell to his knees, and wept. While he cried, he noticed something in the charred ruins that didn't resemble wood. He dug in the ashes a bit until he found bones. He stood and walked back and forth, digging through the ashes for more. The more bones he found, the more he sobbed. "I'm sorry," he cried, over and over, until he felt the sun's heat high above the back of his neck. "I'm sorry."

He stood and composed himself, taking deep breaths and wiping the tears from his eyes. He rode back into town and ate lunch. After lunch, he wandered around town until closing time, when the saloon opened. He walked inside and sat down at the bar. "Give me two bottles of whiskey, Josiah," Absalom ordered. Josiah put down two bottles of whiskey and a glass. "Put a glass down for yourself," Absalom told the man, and the old bartender poured himself a drink of Absalom's whiskey. Absalom took a shot for himself, and then poured himself another, and another.

When the four ranch hands walked in, they sat down at a table in the corner of the saloon. Absalom picked up his bottles and walked over to the table. He sat his bottles down and asked, "You men mind if I join you?"

The four men looked at the bottles of free whiskey with greedy eyes and smiled at Absalom. "Go right ahead," one of the men told him. "I'm Jack, by the way. These fellows here are Jonah, Brett, and Jimmie."

Absalom smiled and pulled a chair up to the circular table. He sat with his back to the corner of the saloon. "Pleasure to meet you fellas. The name's Abe." Absalom said, and he waved at Josiah. "Can I get four more glasses over here?"

The waitress walked over to the table and set down four more glasses, after she successfully shrugged off a few unwanted advances from Brett and Jonah and escaped a grope from Jack. Absalom filled their glasses. They drank, and he filled them again. Soon, the cowboys finished a full bottle without any help from Absalom.

As other customers began trickling in, Absalom just sat with a thin smile and watched them as they talked, contributing little to the conversation as the night went on and drinking little of the whiskey he had purchased. Absalom ordered another bottle of whiskey, but he switched to drinking beer while his new acquaintances continued drinking the free whiskey.

"You boys like cards?" Absalom asked, pulling a deck of cards from his pocket.

All four of the men hollered gleefully. "Do we ever!" Brett cheered. Absalom dealt the cards to the four men, and they began to play. The four drunk men liked Absalom even more when they realized that he had no idea how to play poker.

"Wow, Abe, I like you. You're easy money and easy drink," Jonah's words slurred together as he attempted to pay Absalom a compliment.

"Well, I'm not good at much, but I guess I've got charisma."

"What's carsma?" Jimmie asked.

"Charisma's just being likable," Absalom explained, and the four men laughed and nodded. "So, tell me," Absalom said, "I've been hearin' folks talkin' a lot about a family of Mormons, but I don't think I've seen any Mormons around town."

The four men looked at each other hesitantly, but then Jack laughed. "Well," Jack said, "that's because they ain't around no more."

"Oh really? Why's that?" asked Absalom.

Jimmie, Jonah, and Brett, hesitated, but Jack kept laughing. "Man, he ain't the law, it don't matter none," Jonah said to his three companions, then turned to Absalom, "they dead now, friend."

Absalom let out a sigh, and a small smile grew on his face. "That right? What happened to them?

Brett, Jack, and Jimmie, all sat and looked at Jonah with their mouths open, surprised that he had said this, but not stopping him from saying anything else. The conversations of the other patrons began to die down a bit at the mention of the Mormon family's demise. Jonah looked around at the other people in the room, and most of them stared down at their tables and their drinks. Jonah leaned closer to Absalom's right side and whispered, "We killed 'em."

Absalom nodded and bit his lip. "Tell me why."

"Well, uh, so," Brett stammered, struggling to find a place to begin, "We work for a Bishop . . .  uh . . .  Mr. Bishop . . . "

" . . . Go on . . . " Absalom urged.

Jack took over for Brett. "Mr. Bishop's daughter loved one of thems Mormons' boys, see, but Bishop's friend Amos wants to marry Ms. Charity."

"Pastor Amos?" Absalom asked, and Jack nodded.

Brett remembered what he wanted to say, "Preacher Amost and Mr. Bishop wanted to trick the Mormon boy, see?" he explained. "He said that they could use the church for some sorta Mormon hocust pocust . . .  some kinda . . .  Mormon marriage . . .  uh . . . "

"A sealing." Absalom said.

"Yeah that's it, only it was a trick, see!" Brett explained. Most of the saloons' patrons had left and Josiah ignored them by engaging in busywork. "We was waitin' for 'em inside the church. The four of us and Mr. Bishop and Preacher Amost." Brett explained, and as he tried to keep himself from chuckling sadistically, he started laughing. "We shot all a' them poor shits dead." Brett broke out into a real laughter then, and his friends just smiled awkwardly.

Absalom rubbed his eyes. "How'd the law handle word of that?"

All four of the men laughed then. "Marshall ain't been around for nearly a year now," Jack explained.

"Yeah," Jimmie joined in. "He probably dead."

"Nah, he probably just got bored," Jonah reckoned. "Nothin' much happens here."

Brett laughed hysterically then, and the three other cowboys followed him. Absalom said nothing. He just stared at each one of the men sitting around that table. Jimmie and Brett sat to his left, and Jack and Jonah sat to his right. His pistol rested on his left hip, and none of the cowboys noticed him unfasten the black flap on his holster. The pistol handle stuck out, pointed towards his right hand. His Bowie knife sat behind him on his belt, its handle pointed to his left hand. He sat back in his chair slowly and rested his hand on his stomach, close to the pistol grip. "Where does Bishop live?"

The cowboys' laughing died down a bit. "He lives west. That there road that leads into town goes straight by his ranch," Jack explained.

Absalom nodded. He traced the scar on his face with his finger. "That where y'all live?' He asked them. The boys all nodded sluggishly and grunted a drunken "Yeah" in response.

"So, let me get this straight," he said finally. He looked at each of the men and their stupid grins. "The six of you—you four, your boss, and Amos—killed 17 people: 4 men, 5 women, 3 little boys, and 5 little girls?"

Brett and Jack started to laugh again, and Jonah began again when he saw them. Only Jimmie didn't laugh. He looked slightly confused. "How'd you know th-"

Absalom stood and threw the table onto Brett and Jack, who fell backward onto the floor. He drew his pistol and shot Jimmie in the head, and blood sprayed out the back of his head as he fell to the floor. Absalom turned and did the same to Jonah before he had the chance to pull his gun from his holster. Brett and Jack squirmed underneath the table, struggling to reach their own pistols and get the table off them. Absalom knelt down on top of the table and shot Jack in the head. The new, dry wooden floor quickly soaked in the blood and gray matter from the freshly dead men.

Absalom then moved the table, and when Brett finally grabbed his pistol, Absalom stepped on Brett's pistol and shot the man three times in the arm: once in the wrist, once in the elbow, and once in the shoulder.

Absalom pulled the gun from Brett's holster and tossed it away. He then pulled out his Bowie knife, and started to stab it into Brett's flesh. He stabbed Brett seventeen times, and he continued to stab the man after life left him, saying the names of all seventeen members of the family as he sank the blade deep into the dead man's body.

Absalom stood then and sheathed his knife after wiping the blood onto Brett's blue bandana. He reloaded his revolver and slid it back into the holster. He picked up the scattered money from the game of cards and put it on the bar. Josiah didn't say or do anything; he just stared at Absalom, dumbstruck. "Sorry for the mess." Absalom said. He turned and walked out the saloon doors. He mounted his horse and rode into the night, toward Bishop's ranch.

He could see it from the town as he rode. The moon and stars illuminated the plains well, and light from the ranch burned into the night like a cigar's flame. He followed that light until he could see movement around the main house. He dismounted his horse and pulled the rifle from his saddle.

Absalom knelt down to the ground and watched the house for a few minutes. He saw little movement inside the house, and he heard no commotion. He moved quickly toward the house, staying low in the grass and keeping his eyes on the place. He knelt for a moment in the grass, less than fifty yards from the house, rubbing his scar. He fired twice in the air and let out a yell. "Brett! Keep that shit holstered!" he hollered at the house.

The door opened and the short man from the church service emerged. "What'd I tell you boys about-"

Absalom shot the man in the gut. The man stumbled back into the house, and Absalom chased after him. When he reached the door, he saw a woman seated at a table, screaming, and the man reaching for a nearby drawer. Absalom shot the man again, in the back, and the man's hand fell to the floor. Absalom walked over to the man and kicked him over; the man's dead eyes stared back at Absalom with fearful surprise.

Absalom turned and looked at the petite woman he had seen at church the day before. She ran over to the man lying on the ground and wept over his body. "Which one did you love?" he asked her. Her sobbing died down a bit at the question.

"What?" she asked without turning to look at him.

"Which one did you love?" he asked again. "Was it Solomon, Nathan, or Daniel?"

She turned and looked at the man who had killed her father and saw his face wet with tears. "Nathan," she said. The man nodded, rubbed his eyes, and left her with her father.

Absalom rode quickly back to the town, but he slowed his pace when he got close. As he approached he saw a crowd gathered outside the saloon. Word had spread throughout the town about how the outsider had killed four men inside the saloon, and folks wanted to see it for themselves. Absalom rode around the perimeter of the town and tied up his horse outside the church. He walked slowly towards the parsonage, looking inside the windows for Amos.

While he peeked inside the house, someone grabbed his long black hair and pulled him backwards. Absalom saw Amos as he stabbed Absalom in the stomach with a thin blade. Absalom tried to grab his gun, but Amos caught Absalom's right hand before he could reach it. Absalom reached back and grabbed his own Bowie knife, and Absalom stabbed Amos in the leg before he had the chance to sink the knife into him again.

Amos stumbled back and yelled, surprised by the strength of the pain. He looked down at the knife in his leg and pulled it out, yelling as the warm, sticky blood flowed out of the wound and down his pants leg. He dropped the large knife and looked down at Absalom, who lay on the ground with his gun pointed at his head.

Absalom pulled the trigger. The bullet went through the pastor's neck and took the life from him as he choked on wet gasps.

Absalom dropped his pistol and crawled toward his horse, chased by the sounds of the townspeople approaching. He had to struggle to climb his horse, but he managed, and he rode north, toward the Mormon farm.

When he got to the place, he rode the horse all the way into the ashes of the home. He fell off his horse and laid flat on his back. As the blood drained from his belly, his eyes began to close, and Absalom slept with his fathers.

The End


John Du is a recovering video game addict from Alabama living in Colorado. He enjoys reading, writing, running, and pretty much anything that keeps him away from an Xbox. He writes all kinds of stories, as well as rants about his life, at John Du.

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Bound by Duty
by Trey Smith

"Sure you wouldn't like some coffee, Marshal Mercer?"

Jeb Owens was finishing off his third cup and aiming to have one or two more if he could. The look Marshal Jack Mercer answered his question with told him he was to be disappointed. He sighed, stood with all the weight of his sixty two years, and poured a bucket of water over the fire.

"You know that girl ain't goin' nowhere, Marshal. Never does unless she's going into Terlingua for groceries."

Mercer was already unhitching his horse from the remnants of an old wood fence and preparing to mount it. Owens shook his head and spit before gathering up the rest of his belongings. They had camped there the night before, just a mile from the girl's house so as not to come upon her in the night and spook her. She lived alone out here and if talk was to be believed she was more likely to shoot you than offer you a greeting at night. So they made camp, though it was clear Mercer wasn't happy about it.

Owens doubted the marshal got any sleep last night due to worrying himself about getting out to see that girl. Such impatience made no to sense to Owens who had always believed to take life slowly. In all his sixty plus years of living under God's grace he had never deviated from this philosophy, and he was too old to even think of changing.

"Impatient old cuss, ain't ya, Marshal?"

"Mount up and let's go talk to this girl."

By the time Owens mounted his horse, the marshal was already on his way back toward the trail.

Marshal Jack Mercer was young and showed it in his demeanor. He was handsome, with a black mustache that, while not impressive, fit him well. His eyes were calm and blue. Some said there was a hint of coldness in them, but calculating was probably a more accurate description. He seemed eager to prove himself, bound by the duty of his office as only one so young could be. He did his job and did it well, never deviating from whatever course he set himself upon until he saw it through to completion. He operated only in full measures.

Owens had been hired to show the marshal out to an old homestead house a few miles out of Terlingua. A young girl by the name of Ellie Carver lived there alone. Ms. Carver was the sister of The Carver Brothers, three boys who had been robbing stages up along the Rio Grande for the past two months. The Carvers were a mining family who came to Terilingua some years ago. The mother had died on the journey, the father killed in a raid by Mexican bandits a few years after they had settled. After the death of the father the boys took up to thieving and had earned quite a reputation of being good at it.

"What you want to talk to that girl about anyway?"

"That doesn't concern you, Mr. Owens."

"Hell. I bet it's about them brothers of hers."

Owens was long retired, having lived his life as a miner. Nowadays he was more often than not posted up at the local saloon. These days his business usually tended to be gossip.

Again Marshal Mercer would disappoint him.

When they arrived at the homestead the girl was standing out on the porch holding a rifle. The marshal showed no concern but that didn't make Owens feel any better. He was worried that the brothers were holed up in there and that the whole damn family was ready to shoot it out to keep them from hanging. He watched the marshal as he calmly climbed down from his horse, tied it to a hitch, and slowly made his way across the yard to the porch of the girl.

Owens decided it would be better to let the marshal conduct his business and thus intended to stay on his horse.

Mercer stopped at the porch and tipped his hat to the Carver girl. She was small but looked strong. The heavy rifle she had no trouble bearing confirmed that she was tougher than she looked. She wore defiance as natural as a church hat on Sunday, but he saw no fear or concern on her face. That meant her brother's weren't likely here. He turned his back to her and leaned up against one of the porch posts, hoping to relax her a bit. He still kept a sly eye on her, though.

She lowered her gun, "What do you want?"

"I just have a few questions about your brothers."

Her grip tightened on the gun but she did not raise it again, "I haven't seen them in years."

"Lying isn't a good way for us to start off knowing each other, Ms. Carver."

"I ain't lyin'. That's about all I got to say to you."

She sat the rifle down by the door, picked up a weave basket filled with dirty laundry and stepped down off the porch toward the washtub. As she passed Mercer his hand shot out and grabbed her wrist. He twisted it, no so much to hurt her, but to knock the basket of clothes out of her hand. They spilled across the dirt.

"What in the hell did you do that for?"

He bent over to help her gather the clothes up. As he did he went through them without shame.

"You're a brazen man, you know that?"

Mercer picked up a pair of pants, "You often wear men's pants that are too big for you?"

Carver snatched the pants from his hands and threw it back into the bundle. Her face was flushed and the look in her eyes told Mercer that she was deciding between shooting him and cussing him. She settled on neither and just marched out toward the washtub.

Mercer watched her go and then followed her. He knew she wouldn't give them up, he had expected as much. He just needed to know how often she saw them and when she saw them last. If she was washing some of their clothes that told him they came here often enough. Maybe every couple of months, if not more.

"Ms. Carver, do you have any idea where your brothers might be holed up? I'm trying to help them."

"You're trying to hang them."

"It might come to that, yes. But there will be a trial first."

"Don't give me none of that. They'll hang and you know it. Besides, I already told you I don't know where they are."

"I know you did. And I said you were lying."

"I don't give a damn what you say or think. I think you should go."

Mercer grabbed her again and threw her to the ground. When she tried to get up and put his boot down onto her hand. He watched her for a few moments, saw the anger in her eyes, the wish to see his blood spilled across the desert. To see the birds peck the flesh from his bones as they bleached in the sun. He knew she'd never give them up and would die to save them. She would see him dead before she saw any harm come to them.

"You know they'll kill a man soon. When they do it will be too late."

She said nothing, but looked away. He pulled her up and turned back toward his horse.

"Thank you, ma'm."

"You son of a bitch!"

When Mercer climbed up on his horse he noticed Owens looked quite perplexed. That was fine. Let the old fool think on things for a bit, maybe that would shut him up. He had learned all he could from the girl. She had just seen them, the hot anger she felt when he had gotten violent told him the story better than her words ever would. She was worried about them, she knew they would die, her emotions were mixed up more than a virgin's with his first hooker. They were raw because she had just seen them, they had likely just told her they planned to keep on robbing stages.

Good, he thought. Let them keep robbing. I'll find them and I'll see them brought to justice.

Mercer met his partner Bill Foster at a hotel in Alpine, Texas, about 80 or so miles north of Terlingua. They were having breakfast at the hotel when the news came. A telegraphed message had come for the marshal and was to be delivered immediately. Mercer was dragging a dry biscuit through bacon grease when a small, ink stained boy came running in with it.

The marshal read it slowly, Foster following his eyes as they moved methodically over the page. With each word Mercer's face seemed to grow more solemn. When he finished he crumpled the letter up, waved its bearer away, and went outside. Foster tipped a coin to the boy and then followed.

"The hell happened, boss?"

Mercer rounded on him, "The sons of bitches killed someone."

"The Carvers."

"Round up a posse. We're going out for them."

Early the next morning Mercer, Foster, and six other men rode out of Alpine down toward Presidio on the Rio Grande. The boys had robbed a stage that had set out from there toward Fort Davis. At first it was believed to be Mexican bandits who had jumped the border, but one of the survivors had disputed the story and said it was two young white boys with a third holding back with the horses. When shown a drawing of the Carver boys the survivor had reckoned it was the boys.

A few days later they arrived in Presidio. Mercer dismounted first and set off toward the sheriff's office. The boys in the posse looked toward the saloon, the never-ending dryness of a long desert ride having made them thirsty for booze and other things. McDade, a big barrel-chested man with a beard to match, had boldly begun to hitch his horse on one of the posts when Mercer, his keen senses kicking in, noticed.

"I don't want any drinking while those boys breathe."

That was all he needed to say. McDade and some of the others muttered curses under their breath, but settled for drinking water near the stables.

The Presidio sheriff was old but still wily. He lived in a hard land, with bandits from both sides and revolutionaries from the South causing him no end of problems. He was tall and dark and a bit portly, but his movements were deliberate and hinted at a man who got things done, though maybe a bit slower than he used to.

"Yeah, it was them boys alright, as I said in my telegraph. But I don't know where they have gotten off to. I reckoned they were holed up in an old cave a few miles out of town. Damn place is always used by their sort. But by the time me and the boys rode out, they weren't there."

Mercer said nothing. He was scanning the horizon east. The cave was west, but he couldn't help but think the boys were heading back to their sister.

"Any signs that they may have traveled east?"

The sheriff looked perplexed, "East? Hell, I don't think so. Could be though."

Mercer nodded, "Can one of your men show me out to the cave?"

"Why I'd be happy t—"

"One of your men would suffice."

The sheriff shrugged, "Fine."

The cave was shallow and set into some rocks facing south toward Mexico. It was littered with the remains of many campfires and men. The sheriff's boy told Mercer they had killed many a bandit here. The American's they took up to the cemetery, the Mexican's they left for the vultures. The men Mercer was after were still living, he had no interest in bones.

"They haven't been here in at least two or three days." He turned and mounted his horse, "They are long gone."

Foster leaned forward in his saddle, "You sure, boss?"

"Yeah. They are going back to their sister."

"How do you know?"

"They just killed a man. They are scared. And they damn sure should be."

Billy Carver was shaking as he took a drink of whiskey from a dusty bottle. His older brother Tom stood by the window and their younger brother Jess slept in their sister's bed, tears still staining his dirty face. Ellie was fussing with food, though Billy didn't think he could eat a lick of it. Not since he had killed that man. Even though that man had skinned on him first, he hadn't slept hardly a wink and had barely managed to keep down any food. He started when his brother spoke.

"We can't stay here much longer."

Ellie didn't turn from the stove, "You'll stay here as long as you need to."

"That marshal is likely to come back."

"He don't know you're here yet. Anyway, you said yourself he'd likely ride toward Presidio first and that means he's at least a week from coming."

"Hell, who knows how a lawman's brain works, Ellie? He could be riding up right now."

Billy's eyes jerked toward the window full of fear.

Tom was watching him, "We should go out to the old Jesup place. It has served us well in the past. Like when that bastard Marshal first rode out."

Ellie turned with a pan full of eggs and bacon, "Do what you will, but I want you to eat first. Or at least Jess. I don't like you dragging him along."

Tom scowled at her, "Keep out of our business, woman."

Ellie rounded on him, "Maybe you shouldn't go about killing people, then."

Tom was stricken, Billy got up and rushed out the door, and Jess woke up and started crying again.

Billy stood by a tree throwing up food that wasn't there. He wondered what you threw up when you had nothing on your stomach. The thought made him heave again. He couldn't take it. He didn't mind the robbing at first, it was great fun when they started. No lawman or the laws they went on about had ever done them any good. They made their own way, like Pa did, or so Tom had told him. No one ever got hurt and Tom promised no one ever would. Sure, it could happen, if someone skinned on you, you had to shoot them. It was a matter of survival. But it would probably never happen

Except it did.

Someone touched Billy's back and almost jumped out of his skin. It was just Tom. The touch turned into a grip.

"I messed up." Tom said softly.

"We both did."

* * *

Mercer arrived a few days later with Foster, McDade, and the five other men. The Carver Brothers were gone and Ellie Carver stood waiting on the porch again, gun in hand. She looked paler than before. The defiance was gone and she looked scared. All eight men climbed down from the horses and approached the house.

"I don't reckon you can shoot all of us." McDade chuckled.

"Marshal."

"Ms. Carver."

She lowered the gun and put it back by the door.

"I reckon you oughta come in."

He nodded and told his men to hang back. Foster didn't like it, but he had long since learned not question Jack's ways. It didn't do any good to.

The house was small. Just one room with a kitchen, table, and a bed. Four clay bowls were stacked on the stove and four chairs pulled up around the table. It didn't necessarily mean the boys had been here, but he was sure they had.

He allowed her to sit first and then followed, never taking in eyes from hers. She tried to give him back in kind, but hers faulted and found the floor.

"I know they have been here."

"They haven't."

"They have killed a man now. Just like I said they would."

These words hit her hard, but not hard enough. She knew. Whether she heard it from town or the boys first, he knew she had seen them.

"Where are they?"

"I haven't seen them in weeks."

He slammed his fist so hard down onto the table that it seemed as if it'd split in two, "Don't lie to me, dammit! I know they were here and you're gonna tell me where they are."

She suddenly turned defiant again, "And what if I don't?"

"Woman, I'm a US Marshal. I'm hunting three fugitives on a federal judge's orders. They are now also responsible for killing a man. I will have them. I know you know where they are, and you are going to tell me."

"Words. Just more words."

Mercer regarded her coolly for a few moments, before saying quietly, "Is that how it's going to be?"

"Yes, marshal, that is how it's going to be.

He stood and walked out the front door. Ellie felt a heavy weight upon her chest, she sunk down in her chair and threatened to cry. It was all too much. The boys, this marshal. Why couldn't things go back to how they used to be? The boys playing, hunting, and laughing. Papa cleaning rabbits while mama did the laundry. Everything seemed so small then and she didn't know that it was her whole world and was to be cherished until it was all gone.

Jack Mercer reappeared as fast as he had left her, flanked by McDade and another man. He instructed them to take Ellie. She fought and screamed but it did her no good. They drug her out of the house and toward a dead tree on the edge of the property. Another man was tying a noose to one of the limbs. Foster stood nearby, his face downcast. Mercer lead his own horse just below the noose.

"Ellie Carver, by the power invested in me by the United States government I sentence you to hang. The crime of which you are accused is the aid of known murderers."

She was stunned. He couldn't do this. She was just trying to protect her brothers. Just trying to cling to the last pieces of her shattered world.

"Marshal . . . "

He stepped close, was there a hint of remorse in those blue eyes?

"Will you tell me where they are?"

"I can't."

He gripped her arm, "They killed a man. Does that mean nothing to you, woman? That man was a father, a husband. He had people who depended on him. And they shot him down and left him bleeding in the dirt. Does that mean nothing to you?"

"It . . . I don't . . . "

The grip tightened, pleading, "Tell me where they are."

"I can't."

Mercer released his grip and stepped away from her, their eyes locked for a moment before he spoke.

"McDade."

The big man picked her up with ease and sat her on the horse. He then placed the noose around her neck. She looked out on the desert. Not toward the Jesup Farm so as to betray her brothers, but out toward the road that lead her family to this place. She was going to die. However horrible that thought seemed at least she would leave this world knowing that they were still in it. She hoped they would escape, hoped that they would run as far away as they could and escape this bastard of a man. She wanted them to start anew, to be happy again like they once all had been.

As the rope tightened she knew this would never be.

* * *

Tom Carver learned of his sister's fate while buying food and collecting water from a roadside saloon near Jesup Farm. When he first learned the news his blood ran cold and he felt sick. As is normal for any man who drinks, and often those who do not, when bad news is learned, a bottle is found. The first few shots made him angry, the rest gave him a purpose. He was going to ride out and kill every single man that had any part in his sister's death. To tear them apart with his bare hands, dig into their skin, splinter their bones, and rip the very souls from their vessels.

But first he needed one more shot.

He was drunk enough to believe he could kill eight men alone when Billy found him. Billy begged him to return to the farm. There was no sense in getting killed on a fool's errand. They needed to all talk things over as brothers. Tom had no need for talk, but in the end he relented.

After sleeping off the drink Tom groggily climbed from bed and buried his head in his hands.

"I still mean to kill the son of a bitch."

Billy was sitting by the empty window staring out across the desert. The heat rising from the sands was palpable. He could feel it rising up into him., engulfing him.

"I think we should turn ourselves in."

"What!? Are you plumb out of sense?"

"No. We need to turn ourselves in for Jess."

"You stupid son of a bitch, they want to hang Jess, too!"

"I know, goddammit! But he had no part in the murders or the robberies. He always stayed back with the horses. If we could convince the marshal . . . "

"The marshal who hung our sister!? He killed an innocent girl to find us, what makes you think he has any sort of mercy on his mind?"

"Then we'll convince someone else! He ain't the only lawman who walks the earth."

Tom swore and reached for the bottle. It was empty and he knew Billy had poured it all out. He smashed the bottle against the wall and headed outside into the heat.

Marshal Jack Mercer was sitting at a table in the Terlingua saloon drinking a small whiskey. He had never considered himself a drinking man, but he felt drawn to it today. The heat down in this part of Texas was near unbearable. He didn't see how a man could live in it. So he rationalized that it must be the drink that allowed them to. And so he drank.

The note came in the night and was waiting for him at the bar the next day. He gave the proprietor a long look for not waking him with the news, but said nothing. He left to find Foster.

"You think its a trap?"

"I don't know. Don't care much. This is our chance."

"You just gonna up and kill them?"

Mercer regarded him coolly, "No, I'm going to arrest them."

Foster spit in the dirt and let his eyes wander from Mercer's, "Well, hell, I don't know, boss. I don't like it. They say they are coming armed."

"Let them. A bullet will get them in the bone yard a lot quicker than hanging."

"What do you reckon they want to discuss?"

"I don't care."

Foster nodded to show his lack of surprise.

Mercer handed him two pieces of paper, "Wire for the nearest judge and tell him we are in need of him. Tell him time is an issue. Then take the other note out into the desert and put it under a rock near the hanging tree."

He walked off without another word.

* * *

Tom and Billy Carver rode into town just before noon three days later. They were heeled as promised, but didn't pull even when Mercer stepped out from the saloon to greet them. They both felt anger boil up inside them. Though they had never met Mercer they knew him to be the man who had hung their sister. The calm eyes that watched their every move, calculating them before they even knew they'd make them. The arrogance of keeping his hand away from the gun half-hidden beneath his black coat. The pure hatred that emanated from his very presence.

Another man met them and invited them into the saloon, they were wary at first.

"We aren't going to shoot you, boys. You wanted to talk, we talk in there."

Tom nodded and they followed them through the swinging doors.

Mercer sat first then invited the boys to sit across from him, Foster hovered behind Mercer looking uneasy.

"Mr. Mercer, is it?" Billy asked.

Mercer said nothing.

Tom's face grew dark, but Billy put a hand on his arm.

"Me and my brother, we are willing to turn ourselves in. Just let our younger brother go, he didn't have no part in any of this."

"You killed a man. In your last robbery."

"He gave us no choice. He tried to kill us."

"So it was you or him?"

"That's right."

"Funny how that is. But it always comes to that. When you walk down that path, it always comes to that."

"Listen, if you just let our little brother go . . . "

"I'm not going to do that. The order from the judge is to bring all three of you in. And I intend to do that. And if found guilty all three of you will hang."

"You son of a bitch!"

Tom went for his gun. He was quick, but not quick enough. Mercer stood and kicked the table at the both of them. Tom fell out of his chair, while Billy was jammed between another table. Mercer took aim and shot at Billy, who managed to get free, but not before a bullet pierced his shoulder. He cried out and fell to the ground. Tom picked up his pistol and shot at Mercer, who jumped behind another table. A bullet splintered the wood near his face, Tom cursed and jumped up, pulling Billy out of the bar with him as bullets flew and men began to come from the upstairs of the saloon.

Tom helped Billy onto his horse and then mounted his own. They rode around the back side of the saloon. A side door kicked open and Foster came out, pistol skinned and aimed at Billy's head. Tom fired first, shooting Foster at close range, he fell back against the door and then to the ground.

Tom and Billy took off into the desert.

Mercer stood regarding Foster's body as men came to carry it away. He turned and walked out of the alley and to the post office across the street. There he posted up in a chair to wait for the stage. He tipped his hat over his eyes and began to hum an old campfire song.

When the judge arrived later that evening he listened to Mercer's account of what had happened. He didn't like the way Mercer let the boys have their say, he saw no sense in a wolf toying with its prey. The boys should have been arrested on sight. Mercer agreed that he had messed up, but still wished to bring the boys to justice.

"You're the only lawman worth a damn near here, so I reckon you'll have to do. But I want no mistakes this time, Mercer. Hang them when you find them. They've killed two now, one a respected lawman."

The judge left Mercer in the growing shadows of Terlingua's main street.

The sun rose early the following morning. The heat was with it and it was the worst it had been all summer. Mercer had slept badly the night before, but was up early anyway. He had a coffee at the small hotel next to the saloon and then waited for his men to wake up. For a moment he included Foster, but then realized that he would never wake up again.

He had sent out three men to track the boys with instructions to only find and watch them. He knew one was gravely injured, so they wouldn't get far. They'd find solace in their hiding place, refusing to believe that they could be discovered so as to find time they didn't have to tend to their brother. He would likely never have a better opportunity to catch them.

When his men were up he didn't allow them breakfast. He wanted them angry, he wanted them going at these boys with everything in them. He didn't think it would take that, but then again he never operated in half measures.

They rode out as the town was beginning its daily routine. A few men shouted encouragement, most watched them gravely. Several children chased them in hero worship. McDade winked at a whore or two.

Jesup Farm looked like a mirage in the heat. There were no sign of the boys, but Mercer knew they were there because of the three horses tied out back. He directed his posse to surround the small homestead at various outcroppings around it and then found his own spot closer to the house.

McDade called out, "Boys! It's the law! Come on out without your guns or we will be forced to come in an' kill ya."

It wasn't eloquent, but it would do. McDade had a booming, savage voice. Hopefully that shook the boys up a bit more. It also allowed Mercer's location to remain secret.

A rifle stuck out of a window and fired a few pot shots. The men returned a few in kind but no one was hit on either side.

Mercer crouched low and moved closer to the house. He could hear them whispering now. Could hear the quiet sobs of the youngest brother, the curses of the oldest, and the raspy prayers of the one he had shot.

The boy was dying, but Mercer would not allow him to just yet. All of them would hang, all of them would face the justice coming to them. They would not find reprieve even in death.

He could hear the other brother loading his rifle and he whistled. Before Tom could finish he leaped through the window as another man burst through the front door. Tom dropped his gun and threw his hands up. Billy was lying on the bed with the stench of death on him. He was pale and drenched in sweat. Jess kneeled beside him holding a muddy rag to his brother's forehead.

Tom begged Mercer to spare his younger brother. All the fight had been beaten out of him just as Mercer knew it eventually would. Boys without the stomach for the work they chose should stay at home and take on more suitable work. Mercer himself had no stomach for the begging words of known killers. He ordered McDade and the rest in and had them escort the boys out. When he found Billy could barely stand he had McDade hold him up.

McDade coughed at the foul stench from the boy's shoulder, "Boss, I don't see no trees around to hang these boys in, but I reckon this porch beam is high enough for'em."

Mercer nodded and so the men set to work.

Tom, Billy, and Jess stood before him with nooses around their necks and rotting chairs beneath their feet. Tom was silent in his defiance, while Billy looked dead already, and Jess cried loudly.

Mercer wore a grim look of satisfaction at another job done.

The men kicked the chairs from underneath them and they all hung.

* * *

Mercer was at home, in a small homestead just outside of El Paso. He had a meager supper and drank a cup of coffee out on the porch. He then broke out an old bottle of whiskey Foster had given him as a birthday present years ago. He enjoyed it straight from the bottle while watching the sun set. It felt good watching as the heat faded from the day and cool whiskey enveloped him. When he was cold, numb, and drunk he decided it was time for bed.

After a fashion he fell into a deep sleep. He dreamed the sun was before him, illuminating the darkness and warming his face. As long as it was up, guiding his way, his path through the void was sure. However, he knew it would not stay in the sky forever, and already it was starting to set.

The End


Trey Smith is hotel general manager in Middle Georgia who has had a passion for Westerns ever since he watched old movies with his grandfather as a child. As an adult the films of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah along with the many great folk legends and true stories of the Old West inspired him to try his hand at spinning a few of his own tales. His first published story appeared in the July 2016 issue of Frontier Tales.

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Squire Canyon
by Robert Gilbert

A day's ride out of Cheyenne River took me northwest into the upper country of Squire Canyon. About a mile before the canyon I kept staring at the dawn side of Crow Pass. The morning sky was screaming with color to the far ends of canyon country. A swirl of pale yellow and shades of deep smoky purple painted the heavens, a backdrop against a range of lavender peaks.

In the opposite direction, a line of red stones in a cluster were awakening, returning to their natural hues of rust along the daybreak side of Tongue River Gorge.

In front of me were snow-covered high sage and small trees that had curled downward in shape from the devastating winter storm that blanketed this region. It caused towns like Rayner, on the upper high plains near the Pawnee River, to close up business for nearly a month.

Approaching Rayner, I purposely stopped at the homestead of Crandall Moss and his wife Clara, friendly folks I'd known for many years. Most times my visits in these parts were an excellent get-away from my rowdy cow town duties, but today it was strictly business.

"Warren Brothers," Crandall yelled from his porch in my direction. "Nice to see a lawman passin' through here now and then." Their dog had met me upon my approach.

He invited me in for coffee after I dismounted. He also suggested I stable my roan, away from the biting chill, which was much appreciated.

I crossed their wood floor and after removing my duster I shared conversation in front of the hot coffee served at their table.

"Jus' real bad off, Marshal," Crandall admitted. "Blame this storm and I've lost ever'thing." Everything except his wife and their friendly dog, Temper. Friendly dog he was until anyone came too close to Moss or his wife. Then a beginning growl would lead to a serious bite that would need to be tended by a doctor. Absolutely, a really mangy family dog.

The stage road between Rayner and Crowley had been virtually splintered in half with downed trees and drifts of snow, making the approach from either direction completely impassable.

I was enjoying my coffee, watching Clara pour a second cup for herself. Crandall liked to blend a nip of whiskey in his brew. Said it warms you up before having to do what chores can be done in this bitter situation. I passed on the whiskey, despite having tried it before, because I'd got miles ahead of me before dusk.

I thanked them for their hospitality and at the same time retrieved a telegram from my work shirt pocket. I'd already read it several times after it was handed to me by Will Barnes who runs the telegraph business, down a-ways from my office in Cheyenne River. Barnes was a little nervous about the telegram, and knew that I would understand, which brought me to the Crandall Moss spread. Something told me that my words would bring tears to Clara after my reading it aloud and I was correct. I did my best to keep my tone sincere and that's all I could do.

"Says here that in Buckskin Pass, Ellis Feber . . . he killed his wife, Joleene, and . . . " Before I continued, Clara covered her face with her hands, sobbing.

"Our daughter is dead," Clara screamed. "No good shit! That marriage was awful from the beginnin'."

Immediately Crandall comforted his wife. Visible tears had formed in his eyes.

"She was found with a knife protruding . . . " I was halfway through the telegram.

"Stop!" Clara forced the word out, louder in the hatred coming from her lips. Fury had choked her.

"That where you're headed?" Crandall said. He looked at me with teary-eyed vision.

"Happened sometime last night," I said. "Word got to me this morning."

"I'm ridin' with ya, Marshal," Crandall said. He moved in the direction of a loaded Winchester resting above the fireplace.

"I'm deeply sorry for both of you," I said. "Got a job to do and I'll find 'im." The folded telegram I tucked away in my pocket and never brought it out again in the presence of this family.

"You'll have to excuse me, Marshall," Clara said, sobbing, wiping the tears from her face.

I was concerned for both of them, listening to their rant.

"She run off with that bastard years back," Clara spat, breathless with rage.

"Sweet talkin' sonsa-bitch, he is," Crandall said. His lips thinned with even more anger.

"She didn't know no different," Clara expressed in a glowing mask of hate. "Was hooked on this feller passin' through. Said he was good with sellin' horses."

"That's what he said," Crandall admitted. "I 'member to this day. Doin' horse business 'tween the Pawnee Buttes and Cheyenne, Wyoming. All grassland."

"We was fools to put 'im up several days," Clara recalled. "Really bad rain was comin' down at the time and he was lookin' drenched."

"And so we did," Crandall voiced, his timbre cold and lashing.

"Stayed here longer than we wanted," she said.

Crandall nodded. He took a long swig from the whiskey bottle.

"Immediately took a likin' to Joleene," Clara voice was cold. "We could tell she was favorin' him a whole bunch. They was together more than they wasn't."

"Joleene was actin' like being struck with a blazin' romance," he said. "Didn't take long for her decidin' to take off with him."

"The next thing we knew was them gettin' married," she said.

"Somebody passin' through knew where we lived and gave us the weddin' news," Crandall said, fighting the anger.

Clara momentarily stopped her storytelling.

"We wanted to see Joleene," he said. "See if ever'thing was the way Ellis told 'bout his horse business. Me and the wife had a feeling he sure sounded to be all brag and no fact."

"Damn truth about that," Clara chimed.

"So we went up to Buckskin Pass." Crandall shook his head. "That's where Ellis mentioned in the very beginnin'. Said ever'thing was somethin' special up there."

"When we got there," Clara said, "all of those happy stories didn't sound so good."

"We found their spread alright. And it was . . . "

"Say it, Crandall," her temper flared. "You tell this marshal what it was."

"Nothin' but a shit hole, Marshal. Place looked plumb rundown. There was no corral of o' them sellable horses. Plain lyin' bastard."

"Joleene was there," Clara said with strength. "She'd aged real bad."

"She didn't talk much," he said. "Continued to side with Ellis and told us to go home."

"We told Joleene to grab what she wanted and come back with us. She didn't listen."

"And now you say she's dead, Marshal?" Crandall said. "She shoulda known better than to run with that varmint."

"More daylight is around me," I said. "Be to Buckskin Pass maybe by noon."

"I'm comin' with ya, Marshal," Crandall insisted.

"I can find him myself," I said. "No need to put yerself in harm's way."

"Shit with that idea," he said. "According to that telegram, Joleene is dead. Me an' Clara want him found and hanged. Ain't no backin' me down." His determination was like a rock.

"Get yourself ready and let's ride," I said. "I'm sure sorry 'bout Joleene. Gotta find Ellis and arrest him for murder." Beginning to stand, I studied both of them. Clara was still in tears.

It didn't take but a handful of minutes before Crandall was ready to ride. He was dressed for the conditions outside, heavy coat, thick scarf and a battered Stetson. His bay had aged significantly in comparison to my roan and the other few horses in the stable.

We said our goodbyes to Clara who was standing on the porch wearing a heavy shawl to try to keep warm. I watched her shiver and suggested she needed to get back inside.

Crandall and I mounted up and from my distance to the house I continued to voice a thank you for the coffee. Clara probably heard me but was showing chills watching Crandall and me disappear into the cold surroundings. As we moved away I also said my thanks to him but he paid no attention. My father always reminded me to be nice to people, whether or not you had a grudge, just in case you needed help sometime and they were the only ones around. It sounded pretty good then and just as much today. After all these years of wearing a badge, it took me this long to know he was right.

Dad was a preacher and had a short circuit of three different churches. Services were Saturday night, Sunday morning and religion school Sunday evening. He was a hell raiser standing in front of those congregations, making sure everyone stayed awake during his various services. If you nodded off, he would slam his fist down so loud that even those sitting in the last pew were not to be caught snoozing. He suggested I follow in his steps to preach his religion, to be a straight and level man, but something years back told me to follow the side of the law. I've had to kill a man or two in my life wearing this badge. To this day I don't know if Dad would have sided with me for what I've done, but when confronted with a person pointing a gun in my direction, it's a quick decision to make, to live or die. I chose the honest decision to defend myself. I'm sure Dad would understand, after listening to my honest opinion.

I let Crandall take the lead. If there was an existing trail away from their spread it had certainly disappeared. We were curled in our coats making our way through desolate territory that hadn't seen mankind in many days, if any at all. In front of us was higher ground with additional hard snow falling that had me guessing if we were headed in the right direction. The continual falling snow was bad enough but nothing compared to the angled tree branches and so much foliage blocking our ride forward. Suddenly the wind picked up, swirling around us, brushing against our skin with bits of snow stinging our skin. By my guesstimate, barely seeing anything in front of us, I didn't know if we'd even gone two or three miles. Our surroundings were unquestionably terrible. I knew that Buckskin Pass wasn't that far, but to get there remained extremely challenging.

Crandall knew this area better than me and we rode single-file for most of the way. Even looking at his back side ahead of me, I had to acknowledge that he was a big man. He was a mountain man and it showed. Burley and powerful, he exuded self-confidence. His face was rough with heavy lines, copper skin, thick chin hair turned gray and eyebrows full and bushy.

Within a half mile we finally came into a clearing. At last the snow had stopped and the landscape was somewhat open, allowing us to ride side by side.

I thought Crandall was a quiet man. The rugged type, and not much of a talker. I was overly wrong thinking that. He was a genuine storyteller, full of adventure stories from being everywhere his horse would take him.

"Ever been up in this direction, Marshal? Cold as it is. Bitter shit, is what I call it!"

"Up here in the summer," I replied.

"You just passin' through then?"

"Mostly. Like to get away from Cheyenne River for a while."

"Just to relax? Get to look at tall pines on this side and even prettier scenery around Squire Canyon?"

"You're mentionin' a lot o' great places and I've been to all o' 'em at least once.

"Took Joleene up here a lot. Always havin' a damn good time in these parts."

"Sounds like you two had a special bond," I said.

Cantrall's reaction seemed different than back at the house by his releasing a loving smile.

I caught his drift of happiness yet I couldn't help but also see tears well in his eyes.

"You never forget your daughter," Crandall slowly managed. "I'll guarantee to anybody that Joleene was a perfect tom-boy. She hated to get dressed up in all that fancy-lookin' pretty stuff. She wore outdoor workin' clothes and went huntin' with me ever'where. And she loved to fish."

"You ever bring her to Cheyenne River to show her a good-sized cowboy town?"

"We talked about it several times but nothin' ever developed. Joleene was raised in the high country and only knew the surroundings up here."

"Ellis saw her that way and wanted to marry her, right off?"

"He ain't nothin' but a low-life con artist," Crandall said, his voice heavy with sarcasm.

"Ellis took control of the emotions of your daughter?"

"More than that, Marshal." He swallowed hard, trying to offer a reasonable answer.

We shared conversation for another handful of minutes, seeing that we were approaching Buckskin Pass. Where we were headed was beyond this town, a bit northward into high timber country. These trees were so tall, I reckoned they were a good place to hide and never be found. I guess that's what Ellis wanted.

We stopped at the Eagle Nest Saloon and dismounted. It had been a long cold ride and we wanted to momentarily thaw out before dealing with the chill again.

We found the place wasn't crowded after entering and it didn't take long for those around us to know who we were. Crandall ordered whiskey, turned and squinted, peering around the room. I ordered coffee, faced the mirror in front of me, reflecting a glance from everyone.

"You're after Ellis, ain't ya?" It was a voice enjoying a drink at a far table.

That caused me to turn around.

"What do you know about Ellis?" Cantrall said. His voice cut the silence.

"He's waitin' up at his spread," the voice said. "Kill you like what happened to Joleene."

I walked over to where the voice was sitting, my duster open and the reflection of my badge visible. I lifted a boot onto a chair next to this man.

"Maybe he'll get you too, Marshall." The huskiness lingered in the man's voice.

"What makes you sure that's gonna happen?" I said. My voice was thick and steady.

"I'm just the messenger, Marshal. Heed my words. Ellis is full o' surprises." His eyes grew large and liquid. His laughter showed missing teeth.

"He's at his place?" I asked. My eyes narrowed on this stranger.

"Could be any place, Marshall. I rightly don't know. Maybe he decided to come to town. A lot warmer here than tryin' to keep warm in his small place."

"Since you know all the answers," I said, "where's Joeleen's body?"

"Was self-defense, Marshal," he related. "She was holding a knife. Ellis had a gun. They quarreled and accidently the knife ended up in her."

"Bull shit!" Crandall yelled, crossing the room to where I was standing.

"Ask Ellis," came the reply. "He'll tell you. Honest truth."

"How do you know so much?" I persisted.

"He and I've run horses together, going back a long time. Almost like brothers, but we ain't."

"Where's he at now?" I demanded.

"Try his place first," he said. "But he could be anywhere." His mouth twitched with amusement.

Crandall and I mounted up and rode north out of town. He had been there before and again in single file we followed a steep path upward across snow-covered timberland.

Although Crandall knew the way, it took us considerable time to get there. The trail was not easy to find, the latest snow having covered any existing location. Like the stranger said in town, Ellis could be anywhere.

Crandall was still in front of me as we approached, at a near distance.

Nearing a cutoff and extremely close to Ellis' place, I could hear the cocking sound of a rifle. My eyes glanced in various directions, searching for the gunman's whereabouts.

Instantly there was an explosion and a bullet penetrated Crandall's leg. He reached for the wound and immediately fell from the saddle. Despite the pain shooting through his body, he was able to pull himself away from the clearing behind a sizeable fallen tree.

Our horses were close enough for me to retrieve his Winchester and toss it in his direction. I quickly dismounted and lowered myself from sight, working my way to a separation of pine trees and loose vegetation. I took my time looking forward to identify where the rifle shot had come from. Moments passed and another shot whizzed by my location. Logic told me to watch any movement from a partially open-framed window to the left of the cabin front door, now visible through the sleet.

Although wounded and as strong-willed as Cantrall was, especially considering the loss of his daughter by the man in this shack, he was determined to make it to the back side with no complaint.

"Are you shot, too?" Cantrall yelled in my direction. "Got one in the leg but it ain't nothin'."

I yelled back that the bullets had missed me, while careful to not give away my location.

Suddenly came another round followed by then another. But this was different. The shot came from a different direction. Like maybe two persons with rifles were trying to flush us out.

Limping and in pain, Crandall made his way to the back of the house and quickly noticed a horse that had been ridden hard. Crandall eased back toward me and told me this through hand gestures.

Who was the new rider and was he the one shooting at me? Crandall and I moved in opposite directions, closer than before, hiding from sight.

Now even closer, my belly was soaked with cold wet snow, making movement that much more difficult. I could hear Crandall bitch because of the circumstances, working his way to the back door, wanting to find Ellis.

I zigzagged my way to a hidden location alongside the house. There was another window partially open on the side of the house and I cautiously crawled inside.

Ellis knew he was surrounded. He continued holding his rifle pointed through the window.

I was in the next room and could see Ellis. But where was the other stranger?

"Ellis, this is Marshal Brothers. Give up or be killed. What's it gonna be?"

"Ain't gonna be that way, Marshal!" Ellis yelled from his location.

Immediately Ellis turned in my direction and fired his Winchester. It missed me and I rapidly squeezed the trigger once from my .44 Colt. Hot lead instantly entered Ellis' gut. He tried to move back to the window, got halfway there when he fell. His eyes closed into death.

Crandall slowly entered from the back side and I informed him of one more person in the house. The only other location not investigated was in the bedroom.

The door to the bedroom was closed and I kicked it open, pointed my gun in his direction and yelled to drop his rifle. Immediately he followed my orders.

Strange as it was, the cowboy we met in the saloon was the same man before me. I guessed he knew a back way to get here. He came out into the main room where I stood, his hands in the air.

"I didn't catch your name," I said, "when we met in Buckskin. You seem to know all the answers."

"Don't matter about my name," he said. "You killed the right man but for different reasons."

Crandall walked to my side and we listened to the stranger.

"Joleene and I hit it off real good some time ago," he said. "She wanted to leave with me. Ellis found out and them two had a serious squabble. That led to the knife she was holding and things went too far. They struggled and she was too weak for his strength. He was just plain jealous. I sent the telegram to you, Marshal. Sorry 'bout me shootin' at ya but I wanted Ellis to think I was on his side. She was a real pretty woman that I would have chosen for my wife. It was all about the knife. All Joleene ever wanted to do was to leave and be with me."

It was a slow ride back to Buckskin. Crandall didn't speak much, not certain of his feelings other than knowing Ellis was dead. We'd found Joleene's grave in the backyard of the cabin. The man with no name rode behind us. Tied to his pommel was a rope pulling a bay with Ellis belly-down over the saddle.

The wind blew hard against my face on the return to Cheyenne River. I still had to pass through Squire Canyon and this time the evening shadows would turn the sky gray. The rustic canyon walls would sleep in darkness until tomorrow.

The End


Robert Gilbert, author of Westerns, romance and children's stories, lives near Chicago. Hooked on Westerns began when Gilbert lived in Hollywood, California as an entertainment writer. He spent numerous occasions on the Western back lot of Warner Bros. movie studio, His action packed Western heroes come to life on his computer and have been enjoyed worldwide. Several stories have been published in Frontier Tales: "Too Much of a Kid" in the December 2014 issue, "Pointed Gun" in the March 2016 issue, "Chase for Uber Mix" in the April 2016 issue, and "Run with the Outlaws in the December 2016 issue.

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