The Last Time I Felt Anything

I didn’t know my Daddy very well but that’s not to say I didn’t know plenty about him. None of what I knew was good.

Oftentimes there wasn’t enough to eat. He made damn sure though that he always had enough to drink. He would come home after I was in bed. He would be drunken mean and fight with my mother.

Laughter was never heard in that house. Instead, the sounds I heard were screaming, things breaking, his fists striking flesh and my mother crying softly after he passed out.

We rented a ramshackle farmhouse a few miles outside of Buckeye. When my father worked, he did construction or farm labor. I guess he wasn’t good at either. When he got paid, he drank.  He sure was good at that.

Somehow, he got in trouble with bad men. He started sticking around home more, doing his drinking there. He seemed to grow even meaner. I awoke one night to the sound of the front door being kicked in. There were muffled voices. Curios, I looked down into the kitchen from the top of the stairs. There were two men. One of them behind my father. All I could see was the back of him. I got a good look at the other one, the right side of his face was badly scarred like it had been burned. They both had guns pointed at him.  As I turned away there were gunshots, four of them. I didn’t look back.

There was an attic in the old house full of junk and dust. There was nothing of interest to a nine-year-old boy except for a trunk in the furthest, darkest corner. The trunk was full of old clothes that smelled of must and age. The scent somehow comforted me. I used it as a hiding place when my parents fought.

At the sound of the shots, I crept up the stairs and burrowed deep under the clothing. It wasn’t long before I heard footsteps. They came closer and the lid opened. I held my breath for what seemed like an eternity before the lid dropped. I stayed in the trunk for a long time.

My parents were in the kitchen. They lay face up on the floor with their eyes open. There was a hole in the center of Daddy’s forehead. My mother had three holes in her chest. There was a lot of blood. My father didn’t look mean anymore and my mother just looked sad.

That was the last time I felt anything.

I went through the foster system, never staying long anywhere. It was a constant parade of men who drank too much and women who didn’t care -except for the check the state gave them for taking in kids like me.

I don’t know if it was that environment or genetics. Whatever it was, I turned out more like Daddy then I would have liked. I drank hard and fell in with the wrong crowd. At nineteen I robbed a liquor store in Casa Grande. I was driving on a reservation backroad when they caught me.

They gave me a nickel in the state pen in Florence. That’s where I saw him. Prison had aged him, but he still looked just as hard as he had when he held a gun on my Daddy all those years ago. I was told he was doing life without possibility. He murdered a man and his family in Prescott. When he exited the house, a ten-year-old boy was riding by on his bicycle and identified him.

After about three months I walked beside him on the way to the yard.

“You remember killing a couple in Buckeye some time ago?”  I asked.

He gave me a blank look.

“There was a kid in that house. He was hiding in a trunk in the attic.”

The blank look was replaced by recognition, not fear.

My shiv sank into his liver.

After pulling it out I buried it in the back of his neck.

“I was that kid. You should have looked harder.”

He fell face down, strangling on his own blood.

I walked away. I felt nothing.

Road Kill

Tommy Miles was decent, decent but not good. Not nearly as good as he thought he was. He was a light heavy with a record of 16-4. The wins came mostly against washed up palookas or kids who had just turned pro. The losses were against guys with .500 records. He had never fought anyone of note. He was destined to become nothing but another tomato can.

His trainer told him about a fight in Oregon. Tommy envisioned The Civic in Portland. It was actually at an Indian casino in Klamath Falls. But it was an eight round main event with a ten thousand dollar purse. His opponent would be a kid from Yakima named Hector Chavez who had won the Washington Gold Gloves and was 5-0 as a pro, his five early round knockouts stamping him as an up and comer.

Just Like Dillinger

Don’t ask. Don’t, because I couldn’t tell you. What I can tell you is that killing two junkies in a Tucson alley for the cash they had just gotten from cashing some paltry government check wasn’t worth the needle ride it might cost us. Jimmy and me must have been stupid. It was the kind of thing that always happened when we took a couple of downs mixed with a forty or two.

Now here we were, in a silver Lexus that was hotter than a Hooters waitress driving through the middle of Wyoming, two tatted up hoods with greasy hair and nerves all jangly from the speed that’s kept us going for the last twenty four hours. We stopped in Scottsdale and again in Santa Fe to switch plates that we stole from similar cars. But I ain’t seen a Lexus in the last 500 miles. Might as well of been riding camels down this interstate.

I stayed tucked between two semis that were hauling cattle in the slow lane. That’s about all that was out here, big rigs and the occasional cowboy in a pickup. That and troopers. They all blew by us in the fast lane. I couldn’t figure out why there were so many cops in the middle of nowhere. There’s a hotel in downtown Tucson where they once caught John Dillinger and a bunch of his gang. Every year they have a big festival to commemorate it. But what always blew me away is how he was Public Enemy #1, the most wanted man in the world and they drove all the way from Indiana to Tucson without getting caught. Made me think we had some kind of shot.

Jimmy says he has to piss; I tell him I ain’t stopping until I come to a town. If I pull to the side of the  road we’re just begging a cop to stop and issue us one way tickets to death row. I got no idea where we’re headed. Montana, maybe northern Idaho. Maybe we could find a place to get lost or join one of them white survival gangs. That’s still a lot of miles away.

I think about how I got here. I could blame my old man for never being around. Fuck that. I don’t like even thinking about the bastard. I could blame my mom for never reading to me but she was too busy working and trying to keep her family together. Besides, both my sisters turned out okay. One even got a two year degree from the community college in Tucson. I could blame Jimmy but a fuck up is all he’s ever been, the whole time I’ve known him and that’s been almost twenty years since the day he was the new kid in third grade and we got in a fight just to see which one of us was tougher. Or dumber, I think now. But if I want to be honest, I can only blame myself. Being a fuck up just seemed to require less effort than anything else. I became pretty damn good at it.

It’s getting to be twilight and I weigh the options, is it more of a risk driving at night? I’m getting edgy from the speed, going fucking nuts at 55 when I want to be going a hundred. My teeth are grinding and gnashing and I’m sweating like crazy.

Out of nowhere, there are blue lights and a siren behind us. I punch the accelerator and hit the fast lane. The freeway is nothing but a flat, straight ribbon as far as I can see. There are more cops behind us and in the distance I see what looks like a road block. I start to pull to the side of the road. Jimmy is screaming at me, telling me not to fucking stop. But one way or the other, they got us.

Two cars pull in front of us, two behind and one alongside. They all have their guns drawn. Jimmy reaches inside his leather jacket and I know he’s grabbing the nine. I also know the end ain’t coming by needle.

We’re going to go just like Dillinger.

Shotgun Honey Presents: Locked and Loaded

Today we launch the third volume of the Both Barrels series with Shotgun Honey Presents: Locked and Loaded.

Featuring 25 stories by:

  • “A Boy Like Billy” by Patricia Abbott
  • “Border Crossing” by Michael McGlade
  • “Looking for the Death Trick” by Bracken MacLeod
  • “Maybelle’s Last Stand” by Travis Richardson
  • “Predators” by Marie S. Crosswell
  • “Twenty to Life” by Frank Byrns
  • “So Much Love” by Keith Rawson
  • “Running Late” by Tess Makovesky
  • “Last Supper” by Katanie Duarte
  • “Danny” by Michael Bracken
  • “The Plot” by Jedidiah Ayres
  • “What Alva Wants” by Timothy Friend
  • “Time Enough to Kill” by Kent Gowran
  • “Copas” by Hector Acosta
  • “Yellow Car Punch” by Nigel Bird
  • “Love at First Fight” by Angel Luis Colón
  • “Traps” by Owen Laukkanen
  • “Down the Rickety Stairs” by Alan Orloff
  • “Blackmailer’s Pep Talk” by Chris Rhatigan
  • “With a Little bit of Luck” by Bill Baber
  • “As Cute as a Speckled Pup Under a Red Wagon” by Tony Conaway
  • “Chipping off the Old Block” by Nick Kolakowski
  • “Young Turks and Old Wives” by Shane Simmons
  • “The Hangover Cure” by Seth Lynch
  • “Highway Six” by John L. Thompson

Available in paperback and Kindle editions. Buy your copy today!

Martin’s List

Martin Chambers had been happily married nearly twenty- five years. He was still very much in love with his wife Rebecca. He found her to be even more beautiful than the day they met. Their anniversary was just weeks away and they were planning a trip to Hawaii. They had never had children but enjoyed each other and the life they shared.

There had been no other women since they exchanged vows but there had been plenty beforehand. As the years passed, Martin found he thought of them more infrequently with every day that went by. Sometimes, when he could not sleep, he would try to count them – much like others might count sheep. The count never seemed right though. It seemed as if with the passage of time there were becoming more of them that he could not remember. He seldom counted past fifty. He knew for a fact there were many more than that.

He decided to do something he had never done before- make a list. One evening when Rebecca was out, he sat at the desk in the den and began. There was the beautiful brunette he met on a snowy night in a bar in Colorado, the statuesque blonde that was jogging through Central Park, the exotic Asian woman on a fog shrouded beach in San Francisco. After half an hour of examining scattered fragments of memory, there still was nowhere near the number he thought there should be.

So he began to divide them into categories. Older woman, like the two in Seattle and the tall redhead he played Blackjack with in a Reno casino, a Mexican cutie in El Paso, the rancher’s wife from near Boise. The list quickly grew longer.

And there were younger women, like the ones in San Jose, Portland and LA. Now he was getting somewhere, their memories came flooding back to him. Their smiles, how their hair smelled, how they tasted. It wasn’t long before there were over a hundred on the list. That was more in line with what he remembered. Some were just places but others had names. Like Holly from Louisville and Michelle from Mobile and on and on.

After an hour and a half, when he had reached a hundred and twenty, he thought was close but there could be a few more. He put the list under a stack of papers on his desk, meaning to add any others that might come to him in the next day or two. Then, he would get rid of it.

Martin became extremely busy with work and eventually forgot about his list. It stayed under the papers on his desk for weeks.

Days before their anniversary trip, Rebecca was in the office finalizing details. She was on the phone and inadvertently knocked the papers off of the desk where they scattered across the office floor. After completing the call, she began to retrieve the strewn pages. That’s when she found Martin’s list.

At first she was perplexed, wondering what it could be, what the names and places meant. But the more she studied it; she was struck by an ice cold realization. A wave of panic swept over her, a level of fear she had never known.

An internet search confirmed what she already knew. She remembered the news accounts of some of them before she met Martin and others she recalled from just around the time they first began dating, back when he worked as a traveling salesman.

Debating what to do, she wondered if she should flee or call the police first. Nearly frozen with terror, she couldn’t make a decision.

That’s when Martin came home and found her in the office and noticed the papers still on the office floor. He read the terrified look in her eyes and she began to scream. It broke Martin’s heart to do what he did next.

And he knew this one was going to be harder to cover up than any of the others that had occurred all those years ago. The first thing he had to do was get rid of the list. Then he would figure out what to do with her body.

Last Shot

Mike Grabow lived in the kind of neighborhood where some houses sported Christmas lights strung like cheerful beacons that never came down. But from busted appliances littering front yards to dead automobiles that leaked oil and other fluids onto soiled driveways, it wouldn’t appear that there was ever much to celebrate.

Grabow was drinking hard even though it was before two in the afternoon. It wasn’t the celebratory type of drinking either. Not unless pain, loneliness and despair were reasons to celebrate. He took a long pull from a bottle of Ancient Age, chasing it with half a can of Bud. Putting the beer can down on a table covered with empty cans and full ashtrays, he stopped to examine the fingernails of his right hand. With his left, he unsnapped a sheath on his belt and set to work scraping dirt from under the nails with a folding knife.

After replacing the blade, he sat still for a moment, his eyes unfocused, seeing nothing but memories. With sudden fury, he grabbed the half full can and flung it across the room, punching a hole in the thin plaster. He snatched a bent smoke from a crumpled pack and lit it with the adept flip and roll of a dented chrome Zippo.

He had nearly finished a stretch in Yuma when Veronica sent the letter saying she was done with him. In some ways he understood. They had been together seven years and he had been away for four of them. When he got out, he found she was living with Lester Willis.

It had been Willis who had set up the job. Everything went  right, the entire thing well planned. They had split up, Willis saying they would divvy up the take after the heat died down, warning him that the only way they would be caught was if they started throwing money around. Two days later, the cops were kicking in his door. Grabow knew he had been set up. But, he wasn’t a snitch. And it wasn’t until he found out they were together that he knew the real reason why. One look at Ronnie and anyone would know Willis hadn’t dropped a dime just for the dough.

He had been stewing over it ever since. Too scared to do anything about it and drinking hard to mask his feelings, cowardice and shame.

Suddenly almost sober, he made a decision. They were in L.A., a six hour haul from Phoenix. It was time for the miserable bastard to get what was coming to him. And he was going to get Ronnie back.

He took a cold shower, grabbed his S &W Airweight and, after stopping at 7-11 for doses of various over the counter speed, pointed his Impala west on I-10. Just past the California border, he stopped to piss and for coffee that tasted like the cardboard cup it was in. He watched a blood red sun sinking fast in the desert to the west. Two more hours and Willis would be dead.

Traffic thickened as he neared L.A. but Grabow never slowed. He imagined Ronnie sitting close to him on the drive back to Phoenix and could taste her scent. He had no trouble finding their rented house in an Inglewood neighborhood that was a hell of lot nicer than his. There was muted light coming from the back of the house and the flicker of a television screen. He slid an expired credit card into the door jam and quickly jimmied the lock, smirking at the fact that an old thief like Willis didn’t have a deadbolt on the door.

They were fucking in the bedroom when he entered and flipped on the light. Willis rolled over and Ronnie covered herself with a sheet. When Willis reached toward a nightstand, Grabow pulled the trigger until Willis’s face was crimson pulp. When he stopped, there was one bullet left. Ronnie was swearing and screaming at him. When he told her he wanted her back, she told him to drop dead.

He raised the gun and fired again.


She had to step over him to get to the phone.

Spring Planting

Early in that summer of 1905 we came west on a train, Ma, Pa, my sister Pearl and me. Pa worked as a clerk at my grandpa’s store in Ohio. He said he wasn’t ever going to get anywhere being a store keeper. Ma said he was just restless by nature. That he was a dreamer with big plans. Pa said he was felt stifled being indoors all the time working for someone else. Ma gave up her house on a tree lined street, her friends and her church so that we could we head for Oregon where the U.S. Government was giving land away and Pa could try to chase his dream.

I was confused. Miss Lindstrom, my teacher, had taught us about the wagon trains bound for Oregon sixty years before and how so many had risked everything for the fertile soil of the Promised Land. Surely all that land was gone by now. I had no idea what we would find when we got there. Truth of the matter is, I doubt Pa did either.

Other than a trunk that carried little more than our clothes and Ma’s bible, we left everything behind. The train was packed with people just like us. Made me wonder how many other dreamers there were. We got off the train at the end of the line in a place called Shaniko. There, Pa bought a team, a wagon and a milk cow. The wagon was loaded with tools, bags of flour, rice, beans and coffee. Pots, pans and everything else we might need to start a new life went in too. That left little room so mostly, we walked.

Four long, dusty days later, we made it to a new little town dubbed Farewell Bend. Nothing I saw along the way was what I imagined Oregon to be like. Everything was brown and grey. I could tell Ma had reservations. She hadn’t said much since we got off the train. She was most likely thinking of the green elm and oak trees back home.

The next morning, we headed east, out into the desert where the free land was. There were hundreds of folks in wagons just like ours. From talking to folks, Pa wanted to look at the land near a small settlement that had sprung up called Hampton. The dust was thick on the main wagon road to Burns and the sandy soil was deep, slowing our progress. We made Millican the first night and Brothers on the second. There were a bunch of folks camped in a grove of juniper trees a mile or so off the main trail. Most of the men at the camp were gone. They had ridden out to survey the countryside for quarter sections to claim.

There was a spring there and it was good to clean up and wash the grit away. Ma made beans and bacon for supper and afterwards, Pa and me walked over to a fire where a bunch of men were standing around.

One man, a stranger among strangers became a bit agitated. He uttered a curse and said,

“You’re a bunch of damn fools, all of you. This country ain’t good for nothing and in a hundred years it’ll be good for nothing else.”

It had been a hot day and the evening air was still warm. Another man said,

“Well, all you need to grow crops is heat and water. I reckon it may be warm enough for things to grow here.”

The first man responded, “And you could grow crops in hell iff’n you had the water. I’ve covered 100 miles of this country and other than the river in Farewell Bend and that spring yonder, there ain’t no water here. There may be a few damp years with some spring rain that you might make it through but when a drought comes, it’s going to be the end of you. Don’t know where I’m going to go but in the morning, I’m getting shut of this country.”

The next afternoon, we made it to the little settlement of Hampton. I was just twelve but if this is where Pa thought our future was, I had my doubts and I know ma did as well, she just hadn’t voiced them yet. It was hot and still, every once in a while, off across the desert, a dust devil would dance for a moment before it disappeared. The country scared me, it was too big. You could look off across it and see further than you could travel in a week. When we were in Farewell Bend, the Cascade Mountains were still a distance to the west and here we were sixty five miles from town and we could still see them.

Pa set out early the next morning to look for our homestead. He returned just before dark and was all smiles. He reported that he had staked out land off to the northwest near a series of buttes that rose there. He said that there was some pine on top that we could use for a cabin. Junipers, which were the prevailing local species of tree, were just too tough to work with. Also, he reported that there was a wash that ran out of the hills where a pond could be dug to catch the rain water that drained off of the buttes. We rigged some tarps between trees for shelter from the sun until the cabin was built. After Pa made a trip back to Farewell Bend where he bought some chickens, vegetable seed, ten barrels of water  and other things we would need, he and I set about cutting trees and hauling logs for the cabin. By the middle of August, we finished a one room small house that had a little loft where Pearl and me slept on pallets. One day, I saw Ma looking at that little cabin with tears on her cheeks. It sure was different than our house back home.

Winter came early that first year. Cold rains turned the ground into a muddy quagmire that a wagon couldn’t get through and before Thanksgiving, there was a foot of snow on the ground. When it wasn’t snowing, it was frigid and the wind raced across the land like it was being chased. It was, by more wind.

One night, when that wind whistled and moaned through the cabin’s cracks like a runaway freight, I heard ma plead. “John, can’t we go back?”

“Damn it Marlene,” was his reply. “There’s nothing to go back to.”

I watched Ma grow grim and gaunt. The doubt simmered in her like lye on the stove. Her disappointment spread like a weed.

I recalled the truth of that stranger’s words when spring came and all it brought was bone dry, soul numbing cold. One day Pa was grubbing the sage out of the sandy soil when he clutched his chest and collapsed, just 39.

I wonder if Pa knew – soon as we arrived in that country – that there were no dreams to be found there. I sometimes thought afterwards that the reality kicked him like a mule and somehow, he just gave up.

Ma made plans for us to go back to Ohio, said I could finish school, maybe work at grandpa’s store. I guess she was hoping I wasn’t restless like Pa.

It was fitting, I suppose, that we buried him there in that barren soil. Soil that was adept at growing only sage and killing every hope and dream that he could of ever planted there.

Your Blues

It wasn’t the kind of place we would normally go into. But we were out for an evening and neither one of was ready to call it a night. The truth of the matter was Trish and me weren’t getting along all that well. Dinner had been a little tense and neither one of us wanted to face thirty- five silent miles back to the ranch. On a side street downtown, the bar was packed with a week night crowd of college kids. I thought back to when I was that age and realized it was the kind of place you and I might have spent some time in.

There was a young guy, maybe thirty, playing an acoustic guitar. He was damned good. After we got a beer and sat down, the first thing he played was Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice it’s All Right.” After that, he went right into “Ring Of Fire.” His name was KC Flynn. He sang with feeling, some real soul. He played a beautiful blonde Ibanez and really knew what he was doing. I wondered about the songs he was playing and if they were totally lost on the kind of crowd that was in the place. He did “Working Man’s Blues” by the Hag and I started thinking about how much this town has changed, how there ain’t a cowboy bar left and you have to go to one of the yuppie joints to get a good steak.

The only money in KC’s tip jar was the dollar he had put in at the beginning of the night. Between songs, I went up and dropped a couple of singles in. Asked him if he knew any John Prine and he replied that he got asked that all the time and he figured he should learn a song or two of his. I told him maybe he should since Prine was the drinking man’s Dylan.

Maybe I was getting a little drunk, at least a bit melancholy. When he went into “Folsom Prison Blues,” I started thinking about you. How you sang that song with that silver belly Stetson pulled low over your eyes to keep the stage lights out of your face and how you leaned over into the microphone like some later -day Ernest Tubb.

I remembered when we first partnered up and spent most of the winter working on a feedlot operation over in Eastern Idaho. The nights we spent in that drafty bunkhouse drinking cheap whisky to try and keep warm and your guitar the only thing keeping us sane.

Then I thought back to the scab rock outfit where we spent a miserable year south of Jackpot working for that crazy bastard Ernie Harding and how he was going to run us off the place after we went on that three- day blow in Elko and he had to tend to the calving in what he claimed was the worst blizzard he’d seen in his sixty- four years in that country. Served the cheap sumbitch right. I think we spent more in town those three days then we made the whole time we worked for him. Seventy five bucks a month wages and a mouse ridden trailer that sat in the desert like a sun blasted rock twenty miles from the nearest tree.

There was that time over by Jordan Valley. The first night in the bunkhouse, that buckaroo who thought he was a tough guy braced you. Nobody else said a damned thing about your Brooklyn accent except for him. He wouldn’t let it go. Said he’d be darned if he was going to cowboy with some dude from New York City. Finally you knocked him on his can with a short right hand that would have made George Foreman proud. He was gone the next morning and later that night in town every hand on the ranch bought you a round. They all said no one had ever taken to him much and how glad they were to see him gone.

I was thinking about things that had occurred over thirty years ago. I was holding Trish’s hand remembering the night I met her in a honky -tonk in Redmond when you were playing there with your band on weekends. Hell, we’ve been married twenty five years now and the kids are both gone and living in Portland. The oldest one’s married and she’s due in the fall. That means I’m going to be a grandfather. I’ll bet you never figured I would be around long enough for that to happen.

Right about then, the kid started to play “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” And I swear to God, that’s just what I did. Sat there in that bar and felt hot tears running down my face.

We had spent the summer on a forest service grazing allotment up in the Ruby’s. Must have been ’78 or nine. It was late October when we brought that herd down to the home ranch, collected our wages and headed home in your old Dodge pickup. I remember you had three tapes: one by Waylon, Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits and Havana Daydreamin’ by Jimmy Buffet. They were about worn out so most of the time we listened to the wind and the hum of tires on the two lane hiway.

We headed for Elko and went straight to Mona’s. Then we had a Basque feast at the Star and got falling down drunk on Picon’s. The next day, we were an hour east of Reno when winter’s first big storm hit. By the time we got into town, we learned all the roads over the Sierras were closed.

At three the next morning, we were in a 22nd floor room at Harrah’s drinking Old Crow and water. You were wearing a new hat and a pair of Tony Llama’s you bought at that big western store downtown. You looked out at the snow falling and without a word got out that old Martin guitar. I cried when I heard that song then and I’m crying again now.

billbaberBill Baber’s crime fiction has appeared at; Flash Fiction Offensive, Powder Burn Flash, Darkest Before the Dawn, Shotgun Honey & Near to the Knuckle. other places his writing has appeared include, Slow Trains, Literary Harvest and The High Desert Journal. A book of his poetry, Where the Wind Comes to Play was published by Berberis Press in 2011. A native of San Francisco, he lives with his wife and a spoiled dog in Tucson, Az.

I hadn’t talked to you much in the last five years or so. Last time we talked you were working as a wrangler on a guest ranch in Wyoming. I’m sure those tourists thought they were in the presence of the Marlboro Man, a real western cowboy until you opened your mouth and ruined it for them. I wonder what they thought when they heard that accent you never lost.

It was Charlie Waters from down by Paisley who called me with the news. Said you were on a rank three –year- old that got spooked by a rattler. I saw you ride some tough horses, never thought the one would be born that could do you in.

Charlie said they’re going to scatter your ashes on that ridge above the ranch. I remember how you used to saddle your roan mare on summer evenings and ride up there to sip bourbon and smoke while you watched the first stars appear. He said they were going to put a marker there with a guitar on it and the words “He was a helluva hand.” That’s what everybody always said.

KC was taking a break as we got up to leave. I kissed Trish on the cheek and told her I was glad she was there. I told her maybe we should take a trip to Reno. She kissed me back and said she thought that would be nice.

On the way out, I had the bartender send the kid a beer and a shot of Old Crow. As good as he was I figured he had better pay some dues if he was going to sing those blues.

Hot Spell

For weeks on end it had been hotter than Billy be damned. Heat lie on the parched, arid land like a wool blanket that could not be kicked off. Before noon each day, the sky turned a flat white, the sun becoming an unblinking eye of fire. There were no clouds, not a breath of breeze, just the steady, unbroken, oppressive heat.

Once the heat settled in for the day, the little town of Gleneden seemed deserted. There was no commerce being conducted, none of the usual midday sounds from the saloon, no riders coming into town because the trails were thick with alkali dust that would choke a horse and make a man mighty uncomfortable.

Yet late one afternoon, Ned Rogers did ride into town. He had been on the trail from Cottonwood for two weeks, traveling only early and late in the day. Most of the creeks were near dry, what grass there was had turned grey and bitter. He had been aiming his horse, a pale dun that was about played out, toward a hazy range, the summit and upper slopes of which appeared to be covered with timber. He thought it may be cooler there.

The horse’s nose had been covered with a burlap sack in a futile attempt to keep the dust out. He knew it wasn’t working because the bandana that stretched across the lower part of his face was thick with the fine, white powder.

His canteen was empty when he rode into Gleneden, a town he didn’t know even existed. Didn’t look like much, even for a new town. Just a block long, the saloon, general store and a livery stable being the primary place of business, all having the appearance of being hastily constructed. A few thrown together small dwellings that looked more like shacks completed the setting. Wasn’t much to the place and it seemed there never would be.

Leading his horse into the stable, he found the attendant fitfully sleeping off a drunk. After removing the saddle, he let the horse drink its fill then wiped it down with a wet towel, being careful to wipe the dust from the animal’s eyes and nose.

He stripped off his soiled shirt, ducking his head into the trough in an attempt to wash off as much grit as possible. His saddlebags contained a passably clean shirt. He beat the dust out of his hat and before leaving the stable cleaned and oiled his Winchester and the Colt he wore on his hip.

Stepping out into the blast of heat was like walking into an unseen punch. Above the saloon was a sign advertising rooms. He rightly figured that occupying one of them would be like visiting one of hell’s ovens. He planned on bedding down with his horse in the stable.

After entering the saloon, he paused for a moment letting his eyes adjust to the dimness within- empty, save for a pale, plump barkeep with shiny beads of perspiration peppering his receding hairline.

The beer was not as cold as he would have preferred but it served to cut the dust so he ordered another and asked for a taste of whiskey to go along with it.

“Come far?” The bartender questioned

“A piece.” Rogers responded.

You’re the first stranger I’ve seen in a long spell,” reported the barkeep, hungry for conversation.

“Not many willing to ride in this heat,” said Rogers. “Hard on a horse and a man.”

A few moments later, the sound of hoofs could be heard in the street. Just after that, a short powerfully built man with a scarred face busted through the swinging doors. He wore a sour look and a pair of pearl handled cross- draw revolvers. Right away, Rogers pegged him as a bad actor.

“I’ll be going to hell if some drifter is gonna sass me.” Shorty said as his right hand made a stab for the gun he wore on his left side.

Shorty Logan was not fond of the heat, made things too quiet. Besides, whiskey didn’t taste as good when things were this warm. Shorty was a troublemaker who fancied himself a fair hand with a gun. Maybe that was why he was in a one horse town like Gleneden, because he was nothing more than a fair hand with a gun.

There was no law in Gleneden, was never a need before Shorty rode into the new town early that spring. Since then, he had made quite a name for himself. He gunned down two strangers who were just passing through, an employee of the mercantile who was a little too surly for his liking and a sodbuster who had driven a wagon into town one Sunday morning with his wife and infant daughter- whose crying annoyed Shorty as he was nursing a hangover.

“Whiskey!” Shorty bellowed.

Ned Rogers could see the barkeep was intimidated by the presence of the man. His hand shook visibly as he poured the drink.

When his drink arrived, Shorty turned his cold stare to the stranger in the saloon.

“Driftin’ through?” sounded more like an order than a question.

“Depends who’s askin’ and who wants to know.” Rogers countered.

Ned Rogers wasn’t hunting trouble but as sometimes happens in a man’s life; trouble had come looking for him. He wasn’t the kind to run from it.

Shorty sized the stranger up. Rogers was tall, handsome and some years younger than himself. All were reasons to loathe him. He decided to kill the stranger.

He continued to stare at Rogers who, for his part, sipped his whiskey all the while keeping his eyes on Shorty. The stillness in the room increased, broken by the back peddling steps of the frightened barkeep and the sudden buzzing of a fly.

“I’ll be going to hell if some drifter is gonna sass me.” Shorty said as his right hand made a stab for the gun he wore on his left side.

As soon as he made his play, Shorty Logan knew he had dealt a bad hand. The last thing he saw was a blur, and then the stranger’s Colt was level and steady in his hand. Soon after, there was a hole in the middle of Shorty’s forehead.

billbaberBill Baber’s crime fiction has appeared at; Flash Fiction Offensive, Powder Burn Flash, Darkest Before the Dawn, Shotgun Honey & Near to the Knuckle. other places his writing has appeared include, Slow Trains, Literary Harvest and The High Desert Journal. A book of his poetry, Where the Wind Comes to Play was published by Berberis Press in 2011. A native of San Francisco, he lives with his wife and a spoiled dog in Tucson, Az.

Artwork is modified from the movie The Gunfighter.

Shorty Logan was the first man Ned Rogers had killed. Right away, he realized he had no taste for it. But in the west, a man did what he had to do to survive. He knew that if he had to, he would do it again. He hoped he would just be left alone.

As the sound of the shot stopped echoing through the again silent town, another man came through the saloon doors. A slight, well kept man in shopkeeper’s clothes, he glanced at the body of the outlaw whose blood was staining the sawdust floor. A silent smile crossed his face.

“Mister, “he addressed Rogers, “I’m Walt Conner, mayor of this soon to be thriving metropolis. You have done us quite a favor. How would you like a job as town marshal?”

“Thanks but no thanks.” Rogers replied. “I’m just passin’ through.”

“Well then,” offered the mayor, “The least I can do is buy you a drink.”

The obviously relieved bartender, whose hand was suddenly much steadier, filled three glasses.

After a few more drinks and the biggest steak he’d had in quite some time, Ned bedded down in the livery stable, waking once during the night to the sound of a gentle rain and the feel of a cool breeze on his face.

He rode out of Gleneden the next morning at sunup. The mountains he rode toward stood in stark contrast against a brilliant blue sky, his trail free of dust, a new found spring in his horses step.

The hot spell was over.

A First Time for Everything

When I found Skeeter Hyland he was a fuckin’ mess. Chucky Nuts found him before I did. All I was supposed to do was break a bone or two. Chucky had done more than that and now I would have to find Chucky. Shit, I didn’t relish that thought. I was liable to end up like Skeeter, sliced up like salami and left to rot in the sun on a dead end dirt road.

There was a time Chucky and me had been best pals. That was thirty years ago, when we were kids. Couple a real bas asses. He really was crazy. When we were eighteen we robbed a liquor store in Santa Rosa. Did it just for kicks, it was a Friday night and we were fucked up and bored. Instead of just showing the gun, Chucky grabbed the clerk, shoving the barrel in the guy’s mouth. Teeth and blood were all over the counter and even after the guy gave up the cash, Chucky pistol whipped him then shot him in his right kneecap just to hear him howl.

Chucky had a record, I didn’t. The clerk was able to pick him out of a line up and of course Chucky was stand up. I walked; he got three to five in Chino. I didn’t see him for a long time after he came out. He laid low, living with his old lady up around Laytonville, growing a little weed. Sometime later he went to work for Hank Daggett selling crank to bikers. He was so crazy they wouldn’t even mess with him. Somewhere along the way old Hank just dropped out of the picture and was never heard from again. Suddenly, Chucky was the biggest dealer on the North Coast.

I guess Skeeter Hyland thought he was smooth. Thought he could screw over a lot of bad people and get away with it. All I know was that I was supposed to collect fifty K and hurt him a little bit. Now he was in a land far beyond hurt and the money was gone.

Danny Martinez was a guy who always had good information. He also had a problem with oxycontin. So I didn’t always trust him. He used to be a jockey at all the county fair meets up and down the coast. He was only in his late 40’s but needed a cane to get around. The ponies busted him up pretty good. He told me Chucky was shacked up with some woman and her kids in an old farmhouse outside of Willits. I paid Danny a hundred bucks and went looking.

Like I said, I didn’t always trust him and he gave me a bum steer. When I went back to beat some sense into him, Chucky had already been there. And Danny was in that great Winners Circle in the sky.

There was no two ways about it- I’d shoot him in the back from 400 yards if it came down to it. I’d seen enough of his handiwork to last me quite a while. I would have just turned away from it and left the state. But my people had connections and arms that reached everywhere. And Chucky knew I was after him which meant no matter where I went I’d be afraid of shadows for the rest of my days. I had no other choice.

Chucky’s mom had seven other kids. But Chucky was the only one from the man she had loved, a guy who died in Quentin where he was serving life for killing a sailor in Frisco who had whistled at her. She was a tough old broad and I had to slap her before she would call her favorite son. I tied her up, stashed her in a closet and waited with a cut down .12 gauge for her favorite son to come and visit.

He smiled when he walked in and saw me. Said he didn’t think I was chickenshit enough to use his mom to get to him. I smiled back and said I didn’t think I was chickenshit enough to use double ought buckshot either.

But, there’s a first time for everything.