The Last Shot

“Marshal? Do you think I’ll hang?”

Hank Markum said nothing at first, taking a sip from his coffee before considering the grave question of his prisoner. He looked across the fire, the flickering light played against the boy’s youthful appearance making him seem younger than his nineteen years. The tremble in Caleb Monroe’s voice only impressed upon the marshal that this was no grown man he was taking to the gallows.

“Son, they already strung up that boy, Oren Canter, and it doesn’t look likely that that judge up in Cheyenne is going to side any different with you,” he replied before taking another sip of his harsh brew. “You and the other killed that man, and took his horses, or perhaps the other ways around. Not that it matters much.”

“I know that man died. I know, but…” the boy began to bluster before falling into silence.

Markum saw the sheen of tears well up along the boy’s eyelids, cresting, capturing the dance of the firelight.

This was the first bit of concern the marshal had seen from the boy since taking him into custody down in Greely two day ago. Any attempt to speak of his crimes or what was to come in Cheyenne was met with silence, sometimes distraction. The boy wasn’t obliged to talk, but Markum was grateful for any conversation on the trail. Most of which leaned toward the boy’s pa, who Markum figured would have been about his own age had he not died when Caleb was eleven, leaving him orphaned, and eventually in the company of Oren Canter.

“Silence isn’t a defense, Caleb,” Markum pressed feeling the boy was ready. “It is not likely to be any help in Cheyenne, but maybe talking will ease your conscience, ease the load, before…before we get there.”

The boy swiped his hand across his eyes, “I didn’t know about Oren.”

The two boys, Caleb had told Markum, had been inseparable since he had found his way to Cheyenne after bouncing from one well-meaning home to another. Canter’s father drove the stage coach, giving the boys more freedom than ought to be had by two so rambunctious. The stories he told of the two reminded the marshal of the carelessness of friendship, and now the hollowness of the boy’s face reminded him of the loss.

“Oren didn’t deserve that, not for that old rancher. They was stubborn, the both of them—the old man for putting up the fight, and Oren for insisting we steal his useless swayback nag from the stable.” The boy balled up his fists and shook his head in frustration.

“Them tugging back and forth spooked an old gray in the next stall. It gave a kick and both got knocked sideways into the mud. Only the rancher didn’t jump back up like Oren. He just moaned, clutching his chest till he didn’t moan no more.”

“Why didn’t you get help,” Markum questioned.

“I wanted to,” Caleb demanded. “Least I might have thought about it if I weren’t scared and Oren weren’t insistent on that horse, and the other two.”

“It were just an accident. An accident,” he pleaded.

“Accident or not, whatever defense you boys had for the rancher’s death was void when you stole those horses.”

Caleb stared across the fire at the marshal, “I didn’t want to steal them.”

“But you did, and they still hang horse thieves.”

The boy’s expression crumpled, and without a word turned away from Markum to lie on the cold unforgiving earth, knowing that was all the comfort he’d enjoy in this life.

***

Cheyenne had grown in the years since Markum had walked its streets as Junior Bill’s deputy. The wooden gangways bustled with townsfolk and grangers on either side of the wide hoof-trodden, wheel-gouged main road. Markum noted the addition of a hotel called Gantry’s, as well as the expansion of the Sapphire, a saloon that sat across the way from where the old pile of lumber Sheriff Bill had called a jail. That too had changed; in its place was two story building with a prominent placard out front, Sheriff: Junior Bill.

Caleb had drawn quieter as the two approached the town. Its streets weren’t novel, and he didn’t appreciate how the town had grown. The streets had been the boy’s home for the last five years that Oren and he ran them wild, and now he found them confining, suffocating—his coffin.

Markum reined the two toward the front of Gantry’s.

“I’m not ready to see the sheriff, either,” Markum said, dismounting his horse. He pulled Caleb’s horse close, tethering it with his own, and then pulled a key from his pocket. The sheriff turned the lock on the boy’s shackles, allowing them to loosen. “How about we get something to eat?”

The marshal thumbed towards the sign promising fresh steak and hot baths.

Caleb attempted a smile, “I guess.”

Markum helped Caleb off his horse, and removed his shackle belt.

The boy brightened as he rubbed the irritation from his wrists, “How do you know I won’t run?”

“I don’t, son. However…” Markum patted the side of his range coat that lay over his colt. The boy blanched and marshal shot him a smile, “You’re not making any plans are you?”

Caleb shook his head slowly back and forth.

“Then let’s get some grub,” raising a hand to settle on the boy’s back, but before it could land with a pat, he heard a man holler out.

Markum turned to face two men standing midway in the street staring him down.

He heard the one, a wiry man whose clothes hung too loose on his frame, that were raggedy and dust-laden from riding the range, “That ain’t him, Win. That there man is the law.”

The other pushed his friend aside, and turned to the full view of Markum. He was also a slight fellow, with a few days growth of beard and a waft of whiskey that Markum smelled even with the distance between the two men. His clothes weren’t too old, and fit him well. Markum saw his muscles were wound tight beneath the fabric and skin—a rattler ready to strike.

The marshal knew the type, deceptively powerful and completely unpredictable. He pulled back his range coat, exposing his military issued Colt.

“We have a problem, mister?”

The snake hissed, “I don’t know lawman? You’re the one wearing a dead man’s face.”

Markum set his palm on the butt of the revolver, thumbing the strap. “Come again?”

“I’d seen you from across the way,” he motioned over to the Sapphire, “and I say to ol’ Tom here, I know that man. He’s familiar to me. But he didn’t believe me. Did you Tom?”

“No, not sure I do at the present,” Tom said, keeping his eyes focused on the marshal’s hand.

“I understand your being skeptical, Tom,” turning towards his raggedy friend, “But I know this man.”

“I don’t know you, mister,” said Markum.

“That’s what you say, Brookes. Brookes Randall.” The serpent grinned wider than seemed possible and gave the marshal a wink.

Before Markum could pull his Colt free of its holster, a boom crossed the span between the rattler and the lawman, and the marshal’s legs fell out from under him as his body thudded hard against the gangway timbers.

A cacophony of gunfire was all that Marshall Hank Markum heard before his world went black.

***

The light from overhead fingered its way through the throng of townsfolk standing over the fallen marshal. The light brightened and coalesced the more Markum stirred and the folk stepped away. Hank tried to right himself, but a firm, boney hand pressed him back.

“Take it easy there, marshal,” a grizzled voice barked. Markum felt the boney hands examine his scalp. “You took quite a blow to the head.  Ain’t the first one, I see,” noting a long scar hidden in the marshal’s graying hairline above his right temple.

Markum forced his eye to focus, squeezing them tight and opening them again. Kneeling over him was a bespeckled man with gaunt features lost in the forest of a snow-white beard, and bushy eyebrows that flourished beyond the rim of his glasses.

“Then why does my shoulder hurt, old timer?”

“Because, that’s where you were shot.” He pressed a deliberate finger into muscle around the wound and Markum winced, “Technically, we call that the trapezius.”

“I’m going to guess you’re the town sawbones?”

“Guilty as charged,” he held up his hands briefly before fastidiously continuing his examination. “Doctor Martin Wilkins, DDS. At least I’m the closest thing to a practicing doctor. Folks just call me Doc.”

Wilkins offered Markum his boney hand.

Markum extended his good arm and rose to his feet with a surprisingly sturdy arm from the doctor. “So what’s the prognosis?”

“You’ll live.” Wilkins sighed, looking pass Markum to his left, “I can’t say the same for the boy you brought in.”

Markum followed the elder’s gaze through a wall of townsfolk, a shifting throng, where he saw the boy at his final rest. A plume of red colored his shirt.

“His Honorable Judge Josiah Pendleton’s going to be disappointed,” Doc snorted. “He wanted to see that one dance on the gallows just like the Canter boy.”

Markum walked over to the boy, the crowd parted as he approached.

“I know the boy didn’t have anyone,” Markum said, focusing on his lifeless charge. He realized Caleb had been standing behind him, the shot travelled through the top of his shoulder and lodged in the boy’s throat. “All he talked about, when he talked, were his dead kin. And seeing Canter was the closest he had to family, I want to make sure he gets a proper burial. Not just a sack and a half dug hole.”

He reached in his pocket, and pulled out a few coins, handing them back to the doctor. “You think he can get that?”

“I’ll see to it,” Doc said, sounding choked.

Markum looked as long as he could and turned away, and when he did he spotted the raggedy man sprawled out on the bloodied earth, what decent clothes already stripped.

“Who got that one,” asked the marshal.

“Tom Haddy?” the doctor answered with a question. “I suppose it was Jenkins, Junior’s deputy. He has gone through a passel of them; either they got shot or they were sent running. They sure didn’t graduate to marshal, I tell you that.”

“So you know who I am?”

“The sheriff’s spoke on you. Mostly good, but you seem to be a sore spot for Junior.”

“We all have our sore spots,” Markum shifted his shoulder, and then twisted his neck. “Where is the galoot?”

“Halfway to Nebraska, I suppose?”

“How do you know he’s heading for Nebraska?”

“Chasing after that wound bit of barbed wire you met in the streets, Winston Dunne,” Doc replied and then explained, “Winston, and that Tom Haddy, comes over once or twice a season. At first, he and Junior are all familiar, like old friends, but as sure as the day is long Winston and Tom start getting rowdy.  And Sheriff Bill starts barking at the two, and they go turning tail home to his brother. A rancher out towards Scottsbluff, named…”

“…Frank Dunne,” Markum finished.

***

Frank Dunne sat on his gray mare, watching out over the hillside as Dirks Andersen and his boys wrangled nearly a 100 head of cattle down from the ridge. He had to get them corralled by suppertime; else he feared he might lose more to the wolves that ventured out at night.

He saw a rider tearing up over the ridge about a quarter mile from the west. Frank knew the horse, a chestnut with a large splash of white on its rear, well before the rider. Dirks also saw, waved to get cattleman’s attention and hollered, “Winston.”

Frank waved to Dirks to come along and turned his horse up the hill towards his brother.

The closer they got, they could see the chestnut foaming, and Winston hunkered close to the horse’s main and kicked at its sides.

“What do you suppose it is, boss?” Dirks asked.

Trouble, was the only answer that came to mind.

“I can’t imagine? He’s been over to Cheyenne, with that jackboot Tom Hanny. He probably rustled up some trouble with ol’ Junior. Not that that is much of a change?” He tried to assure himself.

“Junior Bill wouldn’t chase him all the way home, would he?”

Frank laughed. “Not if he knows what’s good for him.”

The three men converged. Then Frank realized that Tom wasn’t with Winston.

Frank grabbed the younger Dunn’s reins . “Why you running your horse to ground like that? Where’s Tom?”

“Junior shot him. Tom’s dead. Shot dead for nothing.”

Frank pulled him close. “What do you mean? Junior shot him?”

“Tom and I came out of the Sapphire and there he stood Frank,” Winston stammered. “As clear as I am to you, he was standing in front of me. Tom couldn’t believe it, but you know me Frank? I never forget a face…”

Frank felt the burn on his hand before he realized he had slapped Winston. “Who? Who did you see?”

“Brookes Randall. He ain’t dead,” pleaded Winston.

He pushed his simpering brother away, causing Winston to fall off the horse.

Frank slid of his mare and pulled his brother up, cinching the collar tight in his hand.

“Brooks is dead. You told me this. You told me you saw him shot, didn’t you?”

Winston didn’t answer, and Frank released his grip seeing his brother’s face redden.

Slipping to his knees, Winston coughed, tears burned along his eyelids. “I did. Shot by a train detective, like I told you. He was dead, but I saw Brookes Randall there in Cheyenne. And he called me out on the street. That’s when the shooting started. I just ducked and ran.”

Winston was no stranger to a lie, but he trembled before Frank. It was fear.

“And Junior shot Tom?” Frank pulled his brother up again.

“I don’t know? I mean I do, but I don’t. Junior and I were just fine—thick as thieves the night before. But you know, maybe…I just…seen Junior shoot Tom. That’s when I knew things weren’t going my side and I cut out.”

Frank helped Winston up onto his horse.

“Get yourself back to the house. We’ll be down shortly.” He smacked the horses flank and his rode on down the valley.

“Who’s Brookes Randall?” Dirks asked.

“My friend, once upon a time after the war, we rode together.” There was melancholy in his voice.

Dirks nodded. He’d worked for Frank Dunne for a better part of ten years since the cattleman pounded in his first fencepost. He’d been a hard boss, but he never came down on a man he deserved it, except for Winston. Those two were as good together as oil and water. He couldn’t ever imagine the man having a friend.

“And he supposed to be dead?”

“Yep. He and several others shot down,” Frank said staring down the short distance to his house, watching as Winston disappears into the barn with the painted chestnut. “That’s what I was told. Killed for my greed, if I have to be honest.”

He’d never really spoke to Dirks about his past, the robbing and the killing. Frank figured most knew, and those curious enough knew well not to ask. The past was an means to an end, and to him it was meant to be as dead as the men left behind.

Frank let out huff, “Go finish up. I need those steers off this ridge and with the rest of the herd before nightfall.”

He watched Dirks head off toward his men without question. There weren’t many he could trust, not even his own brother, but he knew that Dirks Andersen could be trusted with his life. This life he’d spent a decade to build.

Why didn’t you just stay dead? he thought.

***

“Back so soon, sheriff?” Markum asked.

Sheriff Junior Bill stood in the doorway of the jailhouse. It had been several years since the two men had seen each other, and from what Hank could see Junior had become comfortable.

“Hank!” the sheriff acting surprised to see his old protégé sitting behind his desk. “I half expected you’d chase after us, push us across that border.”

“Well the doc suggested I wait. Make sure the cobwebs were all cleared out, before I tried to inflict more harm upon myself. I figured I’d listen.”

“Doc does pretty good for a retired tooth puller, and between that bump on your head and that knick in your shoulder, it’s not bad advice. To take a little time, clear your head before you go and do something stupid.”

Markum stood, allowing the sheriff to take his own seat. Junior Bill settled behind his desk, adjusting his weight around his shifting belt.

“Seeing how things turned out today,” Markum said sat on the corner of the sheriff’s desk, “maybe, I was stupid for not going after the Winston fifteen years ago. That boy would be alive…”

“And dead tomorrow,” Junior added. “Pendleton had long decided the fate of Caleb Monroe. The boy was already dead before you even knew his name.”

“Doesn’t make it right, Junior. Besides, it was me the bullet was for.” Markum growled.

“Count your luck that Winston ain’t a better shot since the last time you seen him.” Junior insisted, “You need to let me deal with this, Hank. No good will come of you chasing after Winston.”

The marshal pushed away from the desk. “I suppose I should let him take another shot? Third time’s the charm. I don’t have that much luck left on my ledger.”

“Let me talk to Frank…”

“I suppose you’ll have your hand out when you do?”

“It’s not like that,” Junior said unable to look at Markum.

“Well, whatever it’s like, I guess it’s something I’m going to have to find out for myself. I should have known you hadn’t changed when I saw Winston Dunne on your streets.”

Junior Bill blustered as Markum turned toward the door, “You can’t do this on your own.”

Turning at the door, Hank stared down the older lawman, “I ain’t got no one else.”

***

The belt strap cracked against Winston’s arm as he attempt to block his brother’s relentless anger.

“Tell me again, Win!” Frank said allowing the belt to dangle at his side, “Why did Junior shoot Tom? Why would that fat sheriff raise a hand, let alone a gun, to you? It doesn’t add up.”

“I don’t know,” he whimpered. “Maybe they was in cahoots? Maybe Randall paid him off? You know that money was lost. Maybe it wasn’t? Maybe…”

“Maybe, maybe, maybe is all you can say? You’re always giving all the possibilities possibilities and never the truth.” Frank’s face reddened, temples throbbed. The years of watching after his brother eroded his temperament towards Winston, layering disappointment on disappointment. He contemplated taking another shot with the belt, but dropped the belt instead. Winston was curled like a hound, expectant; Frank wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction.

A rap came to the door.

“Frank,” Dirks Andersen hollered from the other side, “A man is coming down the ridge.”

Frank unlatched the door, pulling it open. Dirks stood in the doorway, sweating and out of breath. “Is he alone?”

“I think so.” Dirks panted, “I saw him approach and raced down as…”

Before Dirks could finish the ranch hand’s chest blew out red, followed by a distant rapport. Frank caught the falling man, his words and his breath silenced. Pulling him inward, he kicked the door shut. Two more shots splintered at the door.

“What have you done, Winston?” huffed Frank.

The window blew out, and Winston curled tight in a fetal ball, while Frank shuffled himself over towards his gun cabinet. He fumbled with his revolver, loading rounds with the occasional falling with a tink on the wooden floorboards.

Winston had his gun still strapped around his waist, but Frank doubted his brother could find the courage needed to fight off Brookes Randall.

He tried to suss out his current circumstance. Why Brookes, if he survived, wouldn’t have found him before now. And now why it appeared the man was bent on killing. Brookes had been a killer during the war, and during their time with Quantrill he’d seen what happened to men on the wrong side the gun.

Frank’s eyes were drawn over to the lifeless Dirks, his foreman, the job he wanted Brookes to have once he had the seed money for the ranch. The two men had talked often on that future, all they needed was one big score. A train full of government money.

For the second time, Frank heard his name through the door.

“Frank Dunne!” It felt as if the dead stepped on his grave, panic raced along his spine as his skin spread with goose bumps. He knew that voice, even choked with age and anger.

“Brookes?”

The ghost called out again, “I’m a marshal out of Denver. Your brother Winston shot a man a man in cold blood. A man I was duty bound.”

“It was an accident. I swear. I was trying to defend myself from Brookes. I swear, he was going to kill me,” Winston pleaded.

“Frank? You still in there? All I want is your brother. No more blood needs to be spilled today.”

“He says you fired on him first, swears it was self-defense.”

Frank inches toward the window, hoping to get a look at the marshal.

“He’s lying, Frank. You know it. The sheriff will vouch for my words. You know Junior Bill, Frank. He wouldn’t lie to you.”

“No, he wouldn’t,” Frank agreed sliding up the wall between the window and the door. “Then why isn’t Junior here?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just give me Winston and we can put this behind us.”

Frank motioned to Winston, hoping his brother would rise to the occasion.

“Okay, marshal, I’m going to come out. So’s my brother.”

“Take it slow and steady. I’ll be waiting.”

The door opened.

Hank Markum, the very image of Brookes Randall, stood on the other side, a rifle in one arm and his hand firmly on his holstered colt, its thumb strap already dangling.

“Frank, sorry about your man. I needed to make a point and I didn’t need any more guns pointed my way than necessary.”

Frank looked bewildered “I was told you were dead. The papers said so, too. Winston said you weren’t, but you know how that boy leans towards less than the truth, whatever he can conjure to get out of trouble.”

“Lies or not, I’m only here for Winston. Dead or alive, either would suite me just fine.” Markum unconsciously shifted his left shoulder, with a grimace.

“That ain’t going to happen,” finding defiance the only reason to stand for his brother.

Frank lifted his pistol.

“You going to mourn after me again, Frank?”

Frank shook, confused, hearing whispers of deceit coming from Winston, standing behind in the doorway. Shoot him. Shoot him.

“I don’t know what game you’re playing, Brookes. I did mourn over you—you and the others that were killed—or I thought were killed by those murderous train detectives.”

Shoot him.

“I let Brookes Randall die a long time ago, when your greedy brother decided he wanted a large cut of the money. Did you get your fill of whores and whiskey with that money, Winston?”

Markum saw Winston behind Frank still whispering into his ear.

Shoot him.

“What money?” Frank answered for his brother, “We got nothing out of that robbery but dead men. Why would Winston shoot you?”

Markum shrugged, sliding his colt from its holster. “I wondered about that for a long time, but I wondered more why I let you get away with the money. It served you well.” He lifted the gun, waving it about suggesting the property they stood. “I even suspected he was following your orders, or maybe it was just about the money. I guess I was wrong on both.”

The two were silent. Shoot him.

“Frank, give me Winston.”

“I…” A gun fired.

Frank’s eyes bulged, and he slipped to his knees. The revolver clanked on the wooden porch. And behind him Winston stood, his gun smoking in his hand. Instinctively Markum fired two shots, both hit propelling the younger brother back into the house.

Frank lifted his hand, a motion, and Hank holstered his colt to kneel by his old friend.

“I never knew,” sputtered Frank. “I…I’m sorry…”

From behind there was a snap, Hank turned.

“Junior?”

“Yep.”

Hank Markum never heard the shotgun blast.

The rotund sheriff stood over Markum. “You were supposed to kill Winston in Cheyenne, Hank. Untie that albatross from my neck, our necks. Set us free.”

***

“I’m not causing no trouble, Junior.” Winston said as the old sheriff rousted him out of bed. “I’m just trying to spend some quality time here with…” He looked mournfully back at the bed, the woman’s name he’d already forgotten.

“I know you ain’t, Win. You and Tom have been good. I just need to tell you about Brookes.”

“What about Brookes? He dead, ain’t he?” Winston rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

“If he were, we wouldn’t be having this talk.” He poked a thick finger against Winston’s skull.  “So listen to me. He’s coming to Cheyenne, and he’s wearing a badge.”

“A badge? Who would…” He cut off, realizing he’d known Junior most of his life and never knew a more crooked man.

“You need to get out of town, Tom and you, both. If he catches a hint that you’re here, there’s no telling what Brookes will do.”

Winston laughed, “I don’t see a problem. I’ll keep myself occupied until he’s out of town.”

“We can’t risk it, Win. If you don’t head out, I’ll tell him myself. Let him chase you all the way to Scottsbluff. See what your brother says when his dead friend shows up talking about the shooting? The money? Think he’ll understand?”

“No.” Winston looked back at the inviting bed.

Junior pulled a wad of money. “Look, you best get out of town. No other options”

“Maybe there is another option?” He walked back into the room, pulled his gun from his holster and cracked a smile.

Junior smiled back, knowing this is the last time he’d ever have to indulge Winston Dunne.


The Last Shot

“Marshal? Do you think I’ll hang?”

Hank Markum said nothing at first, taking a sip from his coffee before considering the grave question of his prisoner. He looked across the fire, the flickering light played against the boy’s youthful appearance making him seem younger than his nineteen years. The tremble in Caleb Monroe’s voice only impressed upon the marshal that this was no grown man he was taking to the gallows.

“Son, they already strung up that boy, Oren Canter, and it doesn’t look likely that that judge up in Cheyenne is going to side any different with you,” he replied before taking another sip of his harsh brew. “You and the other killed that man, and took his horses, or perhaps the other ways around. Not that it matters much.”

“I know that man died. I know, but…” the boy began to bluster before falling into silence.

Markum saw the sheen of tears well up along the boy’s eyelids, cresting, capturing the dance of the firelight.

This was the first bit of concern the marshal had seen from the boy since taking him into custody down in Greely two day ago. Any attempt to speak of his crimes or what was to come in Cheyenne was met with silence, sometimes distraction. The boy wasn’t obliged to talk, but Markum was grateful for any conversation on the trail. Most of which leaned toward the boy’s pa, who Markum figured would have been about his own age had he not died when Caleb was eleven, leaving him orphaned, and eventually in the company of Oren Canter.

“Silence isn’t a defense, Caleb,” Markum pressed feeling the boy was ready. “It is not likely to be any help in Cheyenne, but maybe talking will ease your conscience, ease the load, before…before we get there.”

The boy swiped his hand across his eyes, “I didn’t know about Oren.”

The two boys, Caleb had told Markum, had been inseparable since he had found his way to Cheyenne after bouncing from one well-meaning home to another. Canter’s father drove the stage coach, giving the boys more freedom than ought to be had by two so rambunctious. The stories he told of the two reminded the marshal of the carelessness of friendship, and now the hollowness of the boy’s face reminded him of the loss.

“Oren didn’t deserve that, not for that old rancher. They was stubborn, the both of them—the old man for putting up the fight, and Oren for insisting we steal his useless swayback nag from the stable.” The boy balled up his fists and shook his head in frustration.

“Them tugging back and forth spooked an old gray in the next stall. It gave a kick and both got knocked sideways into the mud. Only the rancher didn’t jump back up like Oren. He just moaned, clutching his chest till he didn’t moan no more.”

“Why didn’t you get help,” Markum questioned.

“I wanted to,” Caleb demanded. “Least I might have thought about it if I weren’t scared and Oren weren’t insistent on that horse, and the other two.”

“It were just an accident. An accident,” he pleaded.

“Accident or not, whatever defense you boys had for the rancher’s death was void when you stole those horses.”

Caleb stared across the fire at the marshal, “I didn’t want to steal them.”

“But you did, and they still hang horse thieves.”

The boy’s expression crumpled, and without a word turned away from Markum to lie on the cold unforgiving earth, knowing that was all the comfort he’d enjoy in this life.

***

Cheyenne had grown in the years since Markum had walked its streets as Junior Bill’s deputy. The wooden gangways bustled with townsfolk and grangers on either side of the wide hoof-trodden, wheel-gouged main road. Markum noted the addition of a hotel called Gantry’s, as well as the expansion of the Sapphire, a saloon that sat across the way from where the old pile of lumber Sheriff Bill had called a jail. That too had changed; in its place was two story building with a prominent placard out front, Sheriff: Junior Bill.

Caleb had drawn quieter as the two approached the town. Its streets weren’t novel, and he didn’t appreciate how the town had grown. The streets had been the boy’s home for the last five years that Oren and he ran them wild, and now he found them confining, suffocating—his coffin.

Markum reined the two toward the front of Gantry’s.

“I’m not ready to see the sheriff, either,” Markum said, dismounting his horse. He pulled Caleb’s horse close, tethering it with his own, and then pulled a key from his pocket. The sheriff turned the lock on the boy’s shackles, allowing them to loosen. “How about we get something to eat?”

The marshal thumbed towards the sign promising fresh steak and hot baths.

Caleb attempted a smile, “I guess.”

Markum helped Caleb off his horse, and removed his shackle belt.

The boy brightened as he rubbed the irritation from his wrists, “How do you know I won’t run?”

“I don’t, son. However…” Markum patted the side of his range coat that lay over his colt. The boy blanched and marshal shot him a smile, “You’re not making any plans are you?”

Caleb shook his head slowly back and forth.

“Then let’s get some grub,” raising a hand to settle on the boy’s back, but before it could land with a pat, he heard a man holler out.

Markum turned to face two men standing midway in the street staring him down.

He heard the one, a wiry man whose clothes hung too loose on his frame, that were raggedy and dust-laden from riding the range, “That ain’t him, Win. That there man is the law.”

The other pushed his friend aside, and turned to the full view of Markum. He was also a slight fellow, with a few days growth of beard and a waft of whiskey that Markum smelled even with the distance between the two men. His clothes weren’t too old, and fit him well. Markum saw his muscles were wound tight beneath the fabric and skin—a rattler ready to strike.

The marshal knew the type, deceptively powerful and completely unpredictable. He pulled back his range coat, exposing his military issued Colt.

“We have a problem, mister?”

The snake hissed, “I don’t know lawman? You’re the one wearing a dead man’s face.”

Markum set his palm on the butt of the revolver, thumbing the strap. “Come again?”

“I’d seen you from across the way,” he motioned over to the Sapphire, “and I say to ol’ Tom here, I know that man. He’s familiar to me. But he didn’t believe me. Did you Tom?”

“No, not sure I do at the present,” Tom said, keeping his eyes focused on the marshal’s hand.

“I understand your being skeptical, Tom,” turning towards his raggedy friend, “But I know this man.”

“I don’t know you, mister,” said Markum.

“That’s what you say, Brookes. Brookes Randall.” The serpent grinned wider than seemed possible and gave the marshal a wink.

Before Markum could pull his Colt free of its holster, a boom crossed the span between the rattler and the lawman, and the marshal’s legs fell out from under him as his body thudded hard against the gangway timbers.

A cacophony of gunfire was all that Marshall Hank Markum heard before his world went black.

***

The light from overhead fingered its way through the throng of townsfolk standing over the fallen marshal. The light brightened and coalesced the more Markum stirred and the folk stepped away. Hank tried to right himself, but a firm, boney hand pressed him back.

“Take it easy there, marshal,” a grizzled voice barked. Markum felt the boney hands examine his scalp. “You took quite a blow to the head.  Ain’t the first one, I see,” noting a long scar hidden in the marshal’s graying hairline above his right temple.

Markum forced his eye to focus, squeezing them tight and opening them again. Kneeling over him was a bespeckled man with gaunt features lost in the forest of a snow-white beard, and bushy eyebrows that flourished beyond the rim of his glasses.

“Then why does my shoulder hurt, old timer?”

“Because, that’s where you were shot.” He pressed a deliberate finger into muscle around the wound and Markum winced, “Technically, we call that the trapezius.”

“I’m going to guess you’re the town sawbones?”

“Guilty as charged,” he held up his hands briefly before fastidiously continuing his examination. “Doctor Martin Wilkins, DDS. At least I’m the closest thing to a practicing doctor. Folks just call me Doc.”

Wilkins offered Markum his boney hand.

Markum extended his good arm and rose to his feet with a surprisingly sturdy arm from the doctor. “So what’s the prognosis?”

“You’ll live.” Wilkins sighed, looking pass Markum to his left, “I can’t say the same for the boy you brought in.”

Markum followed the elder’s gaze through a wall of townsfolk, a shifting throng, where he saw the boy at his final rest. A plume of red colored his shirt.

“His Honorable Judge Josiah Pendleton’s going to be disappointed,” Doc snorted. “He wanted to see that one dance on the gallows just like the Canter boy.”

Markum walked over to the boy, the crowd parted as he approached.

“I know the boy didn’t have anyone,” Markum said, focusing on his lifeless charge. He realized Caleb had been standing behind him, the shot travelled through the top of his shoulder and lodged in the boy’s throat. “All he talked about, when he talker, were his dead kin. And seeing Canter was the closest he had to family, I want to make sure he gets a proper burial. Not just a sack and a half dug hole.”

He reached in his pocket, and pulled out a few coins, handing them back to the doctor. “You think he can get that?”

“I’ll see to it,” Doc said, sounding choked.

Markum looked as long as he could and turned away, and when he did he spotted the raggedy man sprawled out on the bloodied earth, what decent clothes already stripped.

“Who got that one,” asked the marshal.

“Tom Haddy?” the doctor answered with a question. “I suppose it was Jenkins, Junior’s deputy. He has gone through a passel of them; either they got shot or they were sent running. They sure didn’t graduate to marshal, I tell you that.”

“So you know who I am?”

“The sheriff’s spoke on you. Mostly good, but you seem to be a sore spot for Junior.”

“We all have our sore spots,” Markum shifted his shoulder, and then twisted his neck. “Where is the galoot?”

“Halfway to Nebraska, I suppose?”

“How do you know he’s heading for Nebraska?”

“Chasing after that wound bit of barbed wire you met in the streets, Winston Dunne,” Doc replied and then explained, “Winston, and that Tom Haddy, comes over once or twice a season. At first, he and Junior are all familiar, like old friends, but as sure as the day is long Winston and Tom start getting rowdy.  And Sheriff Bill starts barking at the two, and they go turning tail home to his brother. A rancher out towards Scottsbluff, named…”

“…Frank Dunne,” Markum finished.


Bury Me Deep

The stranger rode into town on a horse that was nothing more than dried skin stretched taut over creaking bones, one eye glancing back over his shoulder watching the devil that he knew, the other wandering forward to spy the one that he didn’t. He slid off the horse, a layer of dust and grime coating his torn clothes—lanky and disoriented, his lips chapped, torn and bleeding from riding into the wind, his yellow teeth chewing on them to slow his worried heart. He’d left the shadows in the mountains, their stench still in his bandana—the cloth around his neck damp with sweat, covering the thin slash marks that ran a red line from ear to ear. Peace was all he sought, and perhaps forgiveness for his done deeds. Whether the legs that were roasting on the open spit had two legs or four, a man had to eat, regardless of the cries that echoed through the whispering pines—his eyes twitching, bony hands trembling, his swollen gut twisted in knots.

The town had no name that he knew, but the sign at the crossroads pointed this way, offering work, and maybe a place to rest his head. He closed his eyes for a moment and prayed for forgiveness, and then he prayed for a glass of something dark and hot, a bit of amber to coat his throat, and wash away his sins. The hefty woman in the doorway of the saloon had no hair on her shiny bald head, hands on her hips, apron straining over a faded blue dress, but her smile was as white as bone, beckoning him inside with a nod of her head and a wave. He went to tie his steed to the rail, and wondered what was the point. The mare would be dust soon, drained of its life over the trails these past few months. It was better that the horse should close its eyes and forget what it had seen.

He found his way to the bar, slid onto a stool and exhaled all that he had carried over the hills and dry, empty land. She poured him a short glass, asking for no payment, simply walking back towards the mirror that reflected his shaking hand rising slowly to his lips.

“You come over the mountains, through the pass?” she asked.

“Yep.”

“How long, weeks maybe? Did you miss the snow, or catch it?”

“Months, I reckon. No snow when I passed through, just a bitch of a wind, no offense.”

“None taken,” she smiled. “Your horse is dead,” she muttered.

The stranger glanced out the door, “I know,” he said. “She just doesn’t know it yet.”

The empty bar was nothing but tables and chairs, a small piano by the back wall, and rows and rows of shimmering bottles sparkling in the gleam of stray sunlight beams, the woman polishing a tall glass nearly to dust.

“Thanks for the drink,” the stranger said.

“First one’s always on me.,” she said. “I’m Sadie.”

He nodded.

“Much obliged.”

“You looking for work or moving on?” she asked.

“Not sure—just trying to keep breathing, ma’am. But I suppose the work will find me, it always does—one way or another. Can’t seem to shake nothing these days. Must be getting old.”

He grinned in her direction, brown teeth filed down nearly to points, a cough and a hack filling the dusty room, spitting towards the floor, the blood stained mucus holding their attention.

Her smile faltered and she placed the glass on the shelf.

“Well, stranger, maybe there is something you can help me with after all,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of folks here in town, or even on the farms still. Hard to raise much of anything here.”

He nodded, licking his lips. She wandered over and refilled his drink.

“That’s for the work, what I’m about to tell you about,” her eyes turned to steel, and then blinking, back to light brown.

The straw man knocked it back and nodded.

“Go on,” he said.

“Kids wander off,” she sighed. “They run to the hills, wanna get nekkid or maybe just shoot something. Sometimes they come back, sometimes the don’t.”

She rubbed her neck and eyeballed the man. Taking a deep breath, she went on.

“Same with the cattle, the dogs, the chickens, the hogs. Don’t know what draws them up to them damn mountains, but take your eyes off them for a moment, and they gone.”

The double-doors to the saloon slapped open and pale young boy bounced in, took one look at Sadie, and the stranger, and stopped.

“Go on, Jeb, get out of here. We’re talking business.”

The boy turned and fled, eyes wide. The stranger didn’t move, didn’t turn his neck, or blink his fading eyes. Instead he swallowed what liquid was left in his mouth and stared into his mangled hands.

“I got a well out back, and somehow a calf fell down it, just happened before you wandered in here, in fact. If you listen, you can hear it crying out there, broke its legs in the fall I suspect.”

The man craned his neck and listened, and sure enough there was a low bleating moan, drifting on the wind.

“Help me out, stranger? I got rope, the men are all busy harvesting or hunting, some two towns away selling seed and corn, nobody giving a shit about Sadie until they want to wet their whistle.”

The man picked up the glass, licked it clean, what was left of the brown liquid, and stood up straight.

“Sure, Sadie, I’ll help you out. Then we can talk about what other forms of compensation y’all got around here.”

She smiled a wide grin, her face nearly folding in half, running her plump hands over her slick, bald head.

“Deal,” she whispered, and topped off his glass one last time. He knocked it back, hitched up his jeans, and headed for the back door.

Sadie followed him out, the wind picking up, the sun sliding behind the heavy clouds. He could hear the noises seeping up from the bottom of the well, and on the wind, they changed, from bleating calf to crying child to weeping man and back to farm animal, a low guttural moan.

“How deep?” he asked.

“Not far,” she said. “Enough to snap a thin leg, like my calf, but not that far, maybe fifteen feet? Not sure, it’s been here longer than me.

The man stared at the stones that formed a ring around the hole, dust and dirt, a chip here and there—dark stains splattered now and again, water perhaps. There was little fear in him, because there was little life left in his weary bones, so he hopped up on the lip of the well, grabbed hold of the rope, nodded once to Sadie, and down he went.

Above the sun held a fading gray light, his boots on the stone, looking down into the darkness, looking up to the circle of sky. It grew colder the deeper he went, and then it grew colder still. And yet, a sheen of sweat coated his back and neck, the stench from the bottom of the well growing, the fading bleat rising up to meet him.

He landed on the bottom with a wet slap, bones snapping under his feet, the dank mossy smell mixing with copper and rotting flesh. As he knelt to grab the calf his hands found a shoulder and a skull, thin arms and wet denim running down worn out boots. The dying man moaned, took his last breath, and expired. Glancing up to the darkening circle above, the stranger watched as Sadie leaned over the hole, a cast of shadows standing tall beside her, her long arm pointing down the hole towards him, and the shades spilled over the lip, finally catching up to him, and the town of Redemption moved on.


Grave Frontier

I ride south, morning sun to my left, head tilted so my stetson keeps away blindness. A weeping willow stands along the dusty path, its shadows reaching toward me like skeletons in silhouette. A rabbit clears the road and hides in a briar patch. The six-shooter on my hip feels heavier than normal.

Old Sally trots along leisurely, ignorant of her owner’s demise, pleased to be out of the stable and in the sunshine. I pat her gently and urge her on towards Tulsa and away from the ghosts of Kansas City.

* * *

 The first time I saw Sally, my sister Beatrice was riding her side-saddle. We’d had a good year of sales and she’d asked me for the money to buy the old mare. A gift to herself, she’d said. But she’d earned it. All those laces and frills behind the counter made the pioneers more likely to restock at our shop than any other in town. Seeing Beatrice on top of that black Quarter Horse always brought a smile to my face.

Jimmy came along shortly after Sally became part of the Callahan family. Like most of our customers he was looking to restock his wagon before setting back out on the Oregon trail. He was a young lad, barely twenty, over six feet with a curly black mane down to his shoulders. He was as clean-shaven a pioneer as I’d ever seen, not a whisper of whisker on his porcelain face. Jimmy ordered his breads, beans, and grains before buying a Journal-Post and leaving. He was just another face that I assumed I’d see once more when he picked up his supplies and then never again.

I shut down shop at seven and ambled over to the saloon for some whiskey. Jimmy was at a table alone with his paper and a bottle of Jim Beam. I called for a second bottle and sat down next to him.

“Any good news?” I asked.

“Looks like the cholera’s slowing down out there.” he replied.

“Rick Callahan.” I said and stuck out my hand.

“Jimmy Pickens.” He gripped my hand strong, but his skin was cool and smooth instead of the callous, sweaty palms I was accustomed to.

By the time those two bottles were empty we’d discussed every topic from the weather to the meaning of life. It’d just been my sister and I for going on five years. Having someone else to talk with was a pleasant change.

“Rick, come on up to my room. I got another bottle up there and a couple nice cigars I picked up in St. Louis.” Jimmy said and stood up.

“Nah, I got to get back to Beatrice. She’s likely got dinner waiting in the oven.” I slid my chair back and stood up, too.

Jimmy hesitated a moment. “Beatrice?”

“Guess she weren’t there when you came by. Beatrice is my sister. All I got left. My folks were claimed by the land ‘bout ten years ago.” I explained.

Jimmy smiled. “Beatrice probably knows how to take care of herself, then.”

“Well, I reckon she could use a little time alone to rest. She’s been riding all day long, anyway. Got her a black mare a few days ago and she’s been saddled up ever since.”

“Sounds like it’s settled, then.” Jimmy said and shot off to the staircase.

“You drive a hard bargain, son.” And I shot off after him.

I felt like a ballerina as I entered Jimmy’s room above the bar. The whiskey had me light on my feet and even lighter in the head. The room circled slowly around me like the stars moving across the night sky.

Jimmy had the bottle and cigars on his night stand. He stumbled and fell into his bed before sitting up and looking me square in the eye. “I’ve got something to show you.” he said.

“What is it?” I asked.

Jimmy ripped his shirt open exposing a smooth chest and muscled abdomen.

I never thought myself a queer and I still don’t. Then again, I aingt never been much for chasing women, either. Mostly I just left people alone and they left me likewise. But my veins burned hot that night. I don’t know if it was Jimmy or the whiskey. But my body seemed to think it the former.

I fell into his arms and the rest of the night was a blur of wet lust and soft flesh. I slept like a babe and woke before sunrise. My head and stomach hurt like hell. Hangover and guilt was a nasty cocktail. I slipped out of bed and ran the mile to our homestead while Jimmy and the rest of Kansas City slept.

I had bathed and made breakfast before Beatrice woke. After she finished her eggs and biscuits I informed her I weren’t feeling well and would be staying home. When she asked me what was wrong I reminded her she’d been out galloping for the last few days while I’d been keeping shop. She acquiesced and went about making herself pretty. I drew a big breath of relief knowing I wouldn’t have to face Jimmy when he came to pick up his supplies.

I sat there all day trying to figure out what happened, who I was. My momma raised me a Christian and I aingt never heard no preacher say that what I’d done was okay. But it felt okay. I realized I weren’t feeling guilty, but scared. If one of them old-timers in the saloon new what I’d been doing with that boy they’d laid us both out on a slab. Probably wouldn’t even give us a proper Christian burial.

I cried myself tired most of that day until I finally realized there was only one person I could talk to. Jimmy. Who else could I go to about this topic without getting beat up, shot, or stabbed?

I strolled slowly toward town. On two occasions I turned around and walked a fair distance before gathering my courage again.

I went around the back side of the saloon, hidden from Callahan’s Supply so my sister wouldn’t see, and snuck in the side door.

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I pushed Jimmy’s door open and there he was. On his bed in nearly the same position I’d left him.

Except that he was lying nose-to-nose with Beatrice.

Jimmy woke slowly with a flutter of the eyelids. He stared for a few seconds, I figured he must have thought he was dreaming at first, then his eyes got wide and he made a half-hearted plea for his life. “Rick, it’s not what it… I’m sorry, Rick.” He looked like a man who felt deserving of death and I didn’t disappoint.

The sound of the gun ripped Beatrice from her slumber. She saw Jimmy first. He’d fell back to his sleep position so she woke to the same face she’d fallen asleep with. Only now her lover’s skull was hanging by a jagged hinge of flesh, flapping like a flag in the wind.

She leaped from bed screaming with her hands clutching her head while never taking her eyes off Jimmy’s sweet, torn body.

“Bea, get a grip.” I said, but she couldn’t hear me over her own screams. “Beatrice!” I yelled and smacked her on the shoulder.

That got her attention. She turned to me and fell silent but the scream still contorted her face.

“D’you know who that man is you bedded?” I asked.

She nodded. “Jimmy.”

“He know your name?”

“Yeah. I ain’t no whore.” Beatrice said.

”Then how‘d you end up in bed with a man you just met?”

”He came in the shop to pick up an order. Asked if you was there. I told him no and that I was your sister. His eyes got real big and he asked me if he could take me out for a drink.”

“He tell you about us?”

“He just said that you and him were friends and that he owed ya one for the other night. Didn’t say nothing else.”

“Did he tell you about him and me?”

She sighed as if having a revelation. “Dammit Rick, I don’t need no one to tell me about you. I done knew it for years. You was the only one ain’t figured it out ‘til now.”

“What do you mean the only one?” I demanded. My gun started raising in my hand. It wasn’t by choice, though. It was like the gun moved on its own.

“Everybody in this whole damn town knows you ain’t got an eye for no child-bearin’ hips.” she said.

“How do they know? How do you know they know?”

“They ask me. The ones who got the nerve, anyway.”

“You tell ‘em I ain’t no queer, though. Right?”

“Aww Rick.” She put her hand on my arm and softened her voice. “Ain’t no sense in lyin’. Can’t fool nobody anyway.”

She was standing so close she didn’t even see me pull the trigger. I threw one arm around her to catch her and hauled her back into the bed. My sister was always a tough broad, even in death. Didn’t scream a lick.

“Turn me over.” she grunted. “I wan’t to see a pretty face ‘fore I go.”

I turned her to face Jimmy. It was the least I could do.

“I never believed it, you know?”

“Believed what?” I asked.

“I never believed you’d go to hell just for being a queer.” she said.

“That’s nice of you to say, sister. Now you go on to sleep.”

“Now I figure it don’t matter what you are. You goin’ to hell for sure.” She closed her eyes and the rise and fall of her chest came to a stop.

“I reckon I’ll see you soon, then.” And the was the last words I ever spoke to her.

 * * *

 There ain’t much in the way of lawmen out this way. I convinced the townsfolk that Beatrice and Jimmy had been stealing from the shop and were fixing to run off together.

Beatrice saved me some trouble. I didn’t have to deal with any rumors about my relations with Jimmy since they found him in bed naked with my sister. They figured my motives were only business-related. It gave me time to sell the shop and contact an oil man in Tulsa. Working the fields had never been a dream of mine but Kansas City was haunted for me.

I tell all of this to Sally but she doesn’t give a damn. If I can get a good price for her in Tulsa I’ll sell her. If not I’ll send her to be with Beatrice. The two of them can gallop through fields of Heaven, if they manage to make it there. But something tells me they’re both deeper than the crude in the fields of Oklahoma.

The shadows of trees recede into strange shapes; laughing ghosts, cheering skeletons. Somewhere in the distance a coyote howls.


The Kid at the Crossing

Trench was stacking stones from a cleared field. Bone breaking but honest. His older sister Abby, stood in the sun and did what sisters do well. Cried a bit, then stopped, then cried some more. “Their young, impetus and they had you as an Uncle.”

“Look Sis I told you and the boys, them days where done. No more ridding the range looking for somebodies war to fight. This is my life.” And he waved his arm at the worn out horse and plough. The sun was high in the heavens. And the sweat poured off him like an overworked panhandle mule.

He looked at her and thought about the boys. They had ridden away with the immortality cloak of youth. Heading for Largo. The latest boomtown north of Silver City. Laughed at him when he said be careful. “Come with us Uncle Jim.” was their reply. We’re going to strike it rich” Trench had thought about going. Largo was a silver mining town and mining towns had graveyards full of drunks, fools and young immortals. But Josh and his friend Matt needed some growing to do or they would never be happy pushing a plough.

“They know you there, Uncle Jim. They know maybe, your name.”

“No, nobody knows a sodbuster called Trench.”  Matt and Josh looked disappointed but Trench helped them pack and sent them off, on their way.  Abby, Josh’s Mum was not so happy.

“They have to go. It’s what men gotta do.”

“They’re not men. Their just boys.”

Trench had no answer to that.

Now just dead boys. The rider came in hot and fast kicking up a twister of dust.

The screaming brought Trench running in from the fields. Gunned down in a bar in Largo. Called some slicker out and paid the price. Largo Sherriff said it was a fair fight. They wanted someone, kin, to come and pick up the bodies.

“They’ve been murdered and you could’ve stopped it.”

Trench held her. “People die, Sis. It’s the way it is. In a bar. In a storm. In a field of stones.

“But they were only boys.”

“Sis I’ll bring them back. And if it turns out there was a helping hand. I’ll deal that deck when I come to them.”

Abby just said “I’m coming to.” Abby looked at him and he knew there was no going back.

“You know what’s going to happen.”

“Yes, evil men will die. It’s the way it is.”

Sometimes Trench worried about Abby. She was a fine looking widow. But men were put off by the hardness.

Then Trench went and got the tools of a forgotten trade. Well-oiled and well used.  A Walker Colt. Big, heavy, but when you hit something they stayed hit. Last was a Winchester 92. Kept them well-oiled and in fine trim. A gun was a just tool. And needed tending and caring. As much as a horse or a wife.

Work as a regulator involved killing and these where the tools of the trade. He could clear the 15 inches needed to point and shoot the Walker Colt. And Trench didn’t miss.

Lesson number one from a master. You pull a pistol, goddamn, you better hit the target every time. Trench had been taught by the best shooter in the business.

Trench and Abby took the wagon and headed for Largo. Largo was a boom and bust town. As soon as the silver ore ran out. It would slide away. Buried by history. But for now, it was a magnet, for every card sharp, grifter and dandy pistolero for miles around. Dumb ass miners losing their shirts at the tables. And their pants to the sporting ladies. The big beasts of the saloons just ate them up and spit them out. Brain dead from drink they headed back to the hills to mine for more ore to sell, spend and lose. A never ending circle. Only interrupted by a one-way trip to boot hill.

Trench stood at the bar and watched Farargo through the long mirror, sitting, playing cards, Trench had no pistol. Met at the town border by a reception committee. Every man entering the boom town had his pistol taken away. Returned when he left. A new, keep the peace order from the Sheriff. Trench had a weak beer in front of him as Farargo studied him from his table. Three companions just sitting dealing cards. All very innocent like. The bar keep was cleaning glasses, looking nervous and kept glancing at Farargo.

“Trench, it is Trench,” Farargo said, raising his voice over the piano player plonking away in the corner. The unmusical sound quickly died away, as the sporting girls fled upstairs. A built-in bad weather warning system. Developed to go with their lusty trade. They say, prairie dogs scarper just before a storm or a quake. Must run in the blood. Thought Trench. He had dealings with Farargo. Had ridden with him. Should have killed him. Didn’t, regretted it now. If ever a man deserved killing, it was John Delfone Farargo. Born bad, lived bad and without any doubt, will die bad.

With his pistol taken at the edge of town. Trench felt as naked, as a Godless sporting whore. In a Bible thumping revival meeting. Trench didn’t think he’d get shot in the back. But then again, this was the Boom Boom West. And a lot of folk, of various honest persuasions, tended to die very quickly. While looking in the wrong direction. Trench drank slowly and watched the sweat gather on the bar keeps mop head, then drip down his face. He knew Bonehead. One of Farargo’s crew. So he must have the town all tied up tighter than a Comanche slave.

Trench turned, elbows on the bar, to check out the opposition. Farargo was sitting at a gaming table in the middle of the room. He had three confused looking gentlemen sitting with him. Nervous gaming players. There for show. With no stake in a pistol fight. But, thought Trench, in a shootout everyone ends up wearing a target. The tables around him where full of the Farargo twisted brand. Loyal drunken members, of the Farargo back shooting fraternity.

“Yea, it’s me. Been a long time. When was the last time we rode together? The Castaic Hills feud?”

“Yea, damn thing is still running. Jenkins is as crazy as that other mad gopher “Old Man Chormicle.”

“You and the boy’s cash out then,”

“You betcha, getting to dangerous and to crazy, even for us, professionals.”

And he waved around the room to show just how many professionals he was talking about.

Trench counted nine and a one more hovering on the stairs. Farargo smiled and stroked his flowing blond beard. Trench knew some of them. Canada Bob, Mad Jack Howling, Turn Coat Blue, Reefer McGrantin. Back shooting killers, everyone. The rest looked like wannabe flotsam, picked up in a bad canyon flash storm. Rash itchy on the trigger. Looking to make that name. The name the world would read about in a New York Dime Novel.  Farargo sure knew how to pick these fools.

“Now here, it’s still crazy. But it’s our kinda of crazy. No gun problems, as all hardware is taken at the town’s boundary by the local committee.”

Trench got a nasty feeling this was a flowing threat. Farargo followed it up by placing Trench’s Walker Colt on the table. Then flicked his coat to show his Town Sheriff tin star.

Farargo continued, “As the Law, we are duty bound to carry hardware.”

Trench just smiled. Thought, Wolves in Tin Star clothing. Trench turned back to the bar. But continued to watch Farargo through the long polished mirror.

Said, “I just came to pick up the remains of my nephew and his friend. And take him home for burial with their Kin. Know anything about what happened.”

“Knew you’d come. As soon as they started running their mouths off about their great Uncle Jim Trench. That’s when they got plugged. They squealed for mercy when then got done. Squealed to the wrong people. Called me and my compadres, cheats.”

“And you’re still a cheat.” Trench said looking at the mirror.”

“Now that aint a nice thing to say to an old range companion.”

“I should have killed you back in California.”

“Now is your time Uncle Jim. You are gonna be given a sporting chance. Aint that right boys.”

The boys laughed.

Trench knew most of these tinhorn flotsam couldn’t shoot straight, if their life depended on it. It was difficult to hit anything unless you trained very hard and every day.

Back shooting required no such finesse.

“I’ve always been meaning to ask, Trench. About the Crossing. Is it true you where the Kid at the Crossing. I hear, the way it went was, Old man Trench was blasted by the Randall’s gang. Then this Kid, comes out of nowhere, shooting like an Apache. How many got it that day, five, six or seven.”

“It was seven including the Indian,” said Trench, to nobody in particular

“But that was a long ways back. You don’t look the age.”

“Honest living, Farargo. You should try it sometime.”

“Well, this is where honest living and small talk, parts company. Give him a gun Bonehead.”

Bonehead smacked a big Walker Colt on the bar.

“Never knew why you like that there pistol. It’s too big and too heavy. And takes an age to clear before you can start shooting.”

Trench drank some beer. “It works for me.”  Trench looked at the gun on the counter and then Bonehead. A tame pistol, 6 caps light.

As soon as he picked it up, the Gatling effect would come into play. As ten shooters would start peppering the bar. All lousy shots but someone was bound to hit home, in that hail of flying lead.

The rustle of a petticoat broke the silence as a lady entered the bar. She stood serenely taking in the scene. A tall good looking gal with a white bonnet and an odd looking parasol down by her side. The shock on the faces of Farargo’s crew was the signal for Trench to start moving. Sliding over the bar and smacking Bonehead with his fist. All that rock busting coming good as Bonehead went down like the sack of shit he really was. Under the counter lay the saloons Parker Coach shotgun and a loaded six shooter Remington. The doubled barrel Parker blasted the Cowboy off the stairs and the first Remington shot blew a hole through Canada Bob’s head.

Abbey Trench’s odd parasol had turned into a smoking Winchester 92 working overtime. Trench continued emptying the Remington into the Farargo flotsam as everybody dived for cover. Then stood, as the Kid from the Crossing went through Farargo’s crew with her Winchester like a wheat scythe. Abby had taught Trench to shoots just like she had been by their Dad. Every shoot struck home. Anybody that went for a pistol got drilled. Including the few that just twitched. Farargo slumped dead over the table a confused look still on his face. As his poker hand of Kings turned into a busted flush. His three gambling companions sat frozen and bolt upright as the bullets whistled around them. The spent shells bouncing of the wooden floor. The Kid from the Crossing, once again was doing the work of the Lord. Smiting Evil. She shot them in the back as they tried to run. She shot them with arms outstretched in surrender. Turn Coat Blue kneeled and begged her for forgiveness. But The Kid from the Crossing was beyond reach beyond mercy. As she shot him between the eyes. Trench tracked the terrified bystanders with his Remington as they fled from this vision of sweet pure hell. Then the petticoat rustled again as she bent over Farargo and took his Tin Star. And threw it with disgust behind the bar.

Trench thought, with the heavy gun smoke and the bandana, people had seen what they wanted to see, that night at the Crossing.

It will be the same here. Buntline will get his Gunfighter Dime story and there will be nary a mention of petticoats.

“It was eight.”

“Eight?”

Abby looked wearily at him. “At the Crossing that night. Eight if you include the Indian. Now let’s get Josh and Matt and go home. I’m getting sick and tired of killing worthless godless vermin.”


Oh, Brother!

Dan Byrne received the news during a poker game at The Round-Up. He turned his upper body around, empty beer mug raised in his right about to scream across the noisy saloon for a refill when he noticed Sheriff Beckley bearing down on him. The lawman’s look said trouble.

“See you a minute, Dan?” his thick moustache twitching.

With a collective nod, the players excused Dan and rested their cards on the pitted circular table.

Beckley put an arm around Byrne’s shoulder. “’Fraid I got some bad news, Dan. It’s ‘bout your brother…”

Dan’s shoulder, along with the sheriff’s hand dropped an inch. Hank Byrne was about the last thing the older sibling wanted to think about. It had been going on two years since Hank was locked up in a Nevada jail for murdering three residents of Laramie, in the newly created state of Wyoming. The victims were Jonathan Field and his young twin sons. The only saving grace was that the man’s wife, Mary, wasn’t home at the time. Tracking down Hank proved difficult at first. But, weeks following the rampage, he headed to some place called the Belt Buckle Saloon where he got roaring drunk and passed out. Prior to hitting the floor and cracking his empty head open, Hank had bragged to the stunned patrons about what he had done. He was arrested and jailed shortly thereafter. Dan made the three and a half day ride from Rapid City to Laramie to attend the burial and to pay his respects and apologize to the widow. It was about the most difficult thing he had ever done in his 28 years. He’d tried to raise his brother right, took him to church every Sunday, but without a mother’s or father’s help, it wasn’t in the cards. Hank Byrne was more than a handful ever since he learned how to shoot a pistol. It started with small critters when he could barely hold a gun and quickly progressed to humans. The Laramie killings were particularly unthinkable. According to the doctor who examined the bodies, the two little boys were murdered after their father, and probably witnessed his killing. This was determined by the fact that Jonathan’s blood had run down the Field’s slanted wooden planks and could be found underneath the bodies of the twins.

“…he’s done busted out of jail. Just got this here telegram.” The sheriff pulled a slip of paper out of the back pocket of his jeans and showed it to Dan Byrne. “We’ll find him, sure enough. U.S. Marshalls along with every other lawman in the territory are watchin’ for him. Doubt he’ll roam around for too long, but just in case I figure if he can get this far, he might come and see you.”

The sheriff was half right. No lawmen would stop Hank, Dan was certain despite the sheriff’s confidence. He was also sure that Hank would at some point pay his older brother a visit. “Hell of a time to tell me, Sheriff. I had three aces.” Dan tried to force a smile. “Got some business in Laramie. Be back soon as I can. Keep an eye on the place while I’m gone, will ya?”

***

     It was a rough couple of weeks for Dan Byrne. Waiting. He tried to go about his business in a normal way, but images of Hank drowned his thoughts like a whiskey-soaked liver. Reports of murdered lawmen from Nevada clear to South Dakota made their way across the prairie.

A pot of coffee was heating up when Dan Byrne tensed. He could smell the stench. “What’s wrong, Dan?” the woman asked.

“He’s here. I know it. I can feel his filth and terror. I’ll be damned if he didn’t make it after all.”

The door to the small ranch house flung open. The first thing Dan noticed about his younger brother was his teeth, broken, brown and rotted. Hank looked around from one to the other and let himself in. He was dusty, the hair on his hatless head matted down as if painted onto his scalp, his tan trousers torn beyond the help of the most skilled tailor. He carried a battered suede bag.

“Get the hell out of here, Hank!” screamed Dan. “You’re not wanted here. Do everyone a favor and turn yourself in at the sheriff’s office.”

Hank took a few steps toward the coffee pot. “Is that a ways to talk to your little brother? The little brother you ain’t seen in years? Coffee smells real good. Ain’t ya gonna offer me a cup?”

“Get out!” Dan was hot. He felt as though his skin could have branded a calf.

Hank turned toward the woman tending to a loaf of bread. “Sure looks good. And I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout the bread there.” With that, he let out a great hoarse laugh. “Yessir, its been a long damned time since I’d been me with a woman, ‘specially one as purdy as your missus here, big brother. You didn’t even invite your little brother to the wedding.” Hank laughed again, coughed, and spit a filmy wad against the wall.

Dan jumped out of his seat. “You son of a bitch. I’ll kill…”

With that, Hank yanked a colt .45 from his bag and pointed it at Dan. “Shuddup! I’ll kill you just as I’m standin here. You…” he nodded his head away from Dan, “tie him up.” With his free hand, Hank tossed the bag across the room. “There’s rope in there. Tie him up tight, real good, or things are gonna get real messy in this nice little house. Brothers should share what they got.”

“Do as he says,” Dan commanded, “You’ll never get away with this, Hank. I’ll   personally see to it that you’ll pay for this and every other horrible thing you’ve done.”

“Ain’t that sweet. I told you to shuddup!”

Once Dan was tied and gagged, Hank sat down at the table and gulped down the coffee. He tore into the bread like a vulture on a coyote carcass. “Now, it’s time for dessert.”

The rabid human animal moved a step forward and pressed against her. At contact, the breadknife plunged into his breadbasket. With a sharp upward motion, the sharp side of the blade met resistance and stopped against bone. Bright red flowed like an oil gusher. Hank’s stunned face showed a brief sign of bewilderment, then a sickly grin and then nothing as he fell face down against the hard clay floor. The crunching sound was his nose. His rotted teeth, shoved back down into his throat, were too soft to make a noise. She left the knife, now dug in deeply, in the lifeless body and untied Dan Byrne. “That’s that,” said Deputy Mary Field.

***

     “Come back any time, ma’am,” said Sheriff Beckley with a tip of his ten-gallon. The three of them, Dan Byrne, Sheriff Beckley, and Mary Field were standing in front of The Round-Up Saloon as the stagecoach to Wyoming pulled up.


Sunset at Devil’s Gulch

Dayton could hear the coyotes circling; growling and yipping under the setting sun.  They must have caught his scent just after Maggie died.  The horse thieves had opened fire on him and his mare when he came upon their den on the western edge of the prairie.  Maggie had taken the lion’s share of the burning lead.  But the mare had been a fast one, and he’d managed to elude the thieves by pushing her through the tall grass and thorn bushes down into Devil’s Gulch.  He could still hear the pounding of hooves thundering past him up on top of the hill, and deep down, he knew they would eventually double back and find him.  They would find him, sure as his daddy was gunned down by them very same sonsabitches when he went after them to get their horses back.

Maggie died quick.  The roan mare had least half a dozen bullet holes up and down her flank, and judging by the amount of blood pouring out of her, one of the bullets must have nicked an artery.  It had been a miracle that the beast could even stand after the first round or two hit her, and an even greater miracle that she hadn’t thrown him clear off and left him to fend for himself.  The dust from the prairie had coated her hide, mixing with her blood into muddy cakes around the bullet holes.  The color of these cakes blended in with her velvet red fur.  Maggie had made it down to the bottom of the gulch on all fours, but had stumbled and fell at the bottom of the ravine.  She drew in a few frantic breaths, and then her spirit galloped away.

Billy Dayton had been struck in the belly.  It burned terrible, but he was fairly certain the hit hadn’t been lethal.  No, he’d survive the hit, but the coyotes were getting nearer.  And with the sun setting in the western sky, the hot prairie would cool off fast.  He’d have to build a fire to stay warm, but that would most definitely give away his position.  The Travis brothers would see the smoke rising, and would close in quicker than the coyotes.  And they would want blood.

He still had his pistol in his hand.  He’d fired four or five shots, and one of them had taken the life of Glenn Travis, the youngest of them horse-thieving bastards.  The lead ball had caught him right in his lower jaw, and there was the briefest moment where Glenn had spun around in surprise after the hit, and Dayton could see the kid with the lower half of his face completely gone.  His eyes went wide with surprise and then he hit the ground hard, his body rocking and convulsing in the throes of death.  Dayton had time to squeeze off a few more rounds before the Travis boys were going for their rifles and mounting their own horses.  Dayton looked down at his pistol, opened the wheel, and glanced woefully at the one last bullet tucked in the chamber.

Just one.

He could hear the voice of his daddy.

That one bullet is your final blessing.  Don’t you ever, ever fire off all six shots.  You always leave that one last bullet, just in case.

            The sun was now beyond the hillside, and the tall shadows crept toward him.  He could feel their coolness caress his face and the hole in his belly.  Just like with Maggie, the prairie dust had caked and coated the hole but it had least managed to stop the bleeding.  If he could make it back to Tipton, Doc Mulligan would be able to get him right again.  He could almost see the face of the Irishman, and smell the cheap whiskey on his breath as his instruments extracted the bullet and sewed him up again.  Tipton was at least twelve miles away, and it may as well have been twelve hundred.

There was no leaving Devil’s Gulch alive.

The cold.  The coyotes.  The Travis brothers.  And that one last bullet.  One of those things would set his spirit free.  Then the coldness would consume his body.  And then the coyotes would eat for the night.  The Travis brothers would take his iron and the billfold in his britches pocket, and anything else they wanted, and the dust would eventually bury his bones.

That one last bullet is a blessing.

Dayton closed the bullet wheel and turned the chamber to that one last bullet.  If he was going to leave this world, he would at least cheat the Travis brothers in claiming his death.  One of them had gunned his daddy down in cold blood, and left him for dead here in Devil’s Gulch.  He’d heard rumor that the Travis boys were notorious for using a long bone-handled knife to dig out their slugs, just to melt them down and make new bullets.  The eldest, Martin Travis, had gone so far as to boast that the rounds that had killed his daddy had also taken down Marshall Goudsward, and “Dirty Dog” McLeod before him.  All talk, of course, as Robert Dayton’s body had never actually been recovered.  For all he knew, he could have been sitting on daddy’s bones right now.

Something spooked the coyotes.  They’d been cautiously crawling and sniffing their way down into the gulch, but then suddenly stopped in their tracks.  By the fading light, he could see the pack of dogs suddenly cock their head up to listen, and then they all turned tail and fled back up the hill again.  Dayton lowered the gun and listened, and then he, too, could hear it; the sound of horses galloping hard back toward the gulch.  The Travis brothers had gotten wise to him and were returning to finish the job.  Dayton lowered his head and the tears began to fall, leaving cool trails down his burning cheeks.

“I’m sorry, daddy,” he whispered.  “I’m sorry I failed you.”

He lifted the gun and squared the barrel between his eyes.  One bullet.  Truly a blessing.

There was a rustling in the distance, and Dayton lowered the gun a second time.  The last of the evening light was dying, making it hard to focus, but he could still tell that something was approaching.  He could see the tall grass and brush bending as the approaching thing came forward.  It plodded and skulked toward him, floating along the bottom of the gulch like a phantom in the dust.  Dayton raised the pistol ready to shoot, ready to give up that last bullet, when he recognized his daddy.  Robert Dayton loomed above him, enormous holes in his forehead and eye socket where his left eye used to be.  There were telltale signs of knife gashes where one of the Travis brothers had indeed carved their lead pellets out of his skull.  A third wound sat in the middle of his chest, along with a third set of knife wounds.  The ghost moved slowly, balefully, but there was no mistaking the rage in his father’s face.  His one good eye was narrowed into a slit, gazing his crazy dead-man’s gaze.

Dayton stared up at his father, unsure what to do.

“Daddy?”

The ghost thrust his hand out, as if to take his child and help him up.  But when Dayton tried to grasp his daddy’s hand, he felt nothing.  Instead, he pushed himself up to standing, and then began to follow his father as the senior Dayton began floating back along the bottom of the gulch.

They had barely gone fifty paces when the boy noticed the wooden crate.  The ghost had walked right up to it and pointed its dead finger at it, his angry gaze never leaving his face.  And in his mind, the boy could hear his daddy speaking…

That one last bullet is a blessing.  Did you save it, boy?  Did you save that last bullet like I told you?

            Dayton still had the pistol clutched tight in his hand.  From above the gulch, he could now hear the sound of the Travis boys, hooting and hollering as their horses came to a stop at the top of the hill.  It wasn’t long now.  Devil’s Gulch was about to claim life once again.  Only now, Dayton felt the spark of hope returning to him.

The crate had been left forgotten at the bottom of the gulch.  When the railroad line was laid between Tipton and Silverado, the company had blasted through the mountains at the southern edge of the prairie.  A case of TNT had been stolen (whether it had been the Travis brothers or some other thieves he didn’t know…didn’t really care at the moment), and hidden down here at the bottom of Devil’s Gulch.  Now here it was, a second blessing that the good Lord saw fit to share with him.

Robert Dayton lifted his head and looked upon his boy with his one good eye.  In it, Dayton saw the unmistakable badge of fatherly pride.  The rage in his face lifted, just for a moment, and then the ghost began to fade away.

“Daddy…Daddy, don’t leave me!”

The Travis brothers were halfway down the hill.  Three of them left…out for blood and vengeance for their dead brother, who was undoubtedly being picked apart by vultures back at their lair.  They’d left in such a flurry that they’d never bothered to cover him up, more or less give him a proper burial.  If they made it back, they’d find nothing but a bloody carcass covered with flies, and goddamn him, he deserved it.  As did the rest.

Dayton grabbed the crate by the rope-handles tethered to either side of the top and began dragging it back toward Maggie.  He let go of the crate, sending up a cloud of dust around his dead mare.  And then he was scrambling off into the brush to wait.

The Travis boys came in fast, each packing a gun in either hand.  Six guns waiting to tear him to pieces, and then a long, bone-handled knife to extract the bullets so that the lead could be reused.  They whooped and chided, trying to get him to come out, but Dayton waited patiently.

“Look, there’s his horse.  I told you I got ‘er!”

“Yeah, if you’re such a great shot, how come you didn’t shoot him instead of the horse?  We coulda sold the horse if she was still alive.”

“Hey, whattaya think’s in that box?”

Thank you, God.  Thank you for this one last bullet…

Dayton pulled the trigger, and then the crate exploded in a blast that rocked the gulch.  The basin of the gulch filled with ferocious light and heat, followed by a boom that echoed all around him, making Dayton scream and cover his ears.  And then body parts were raining back down from the sky.  Flesh and blood fell on him and all around him, in the form of severed arms and legs and organs and charnel.  Maggie’s carcass was also blown to bits, adding bone and fur into the mess.  The tall grass and brush quickly caught fire, and then it was day again in Devil’s Gulch.

Dayton opened his eyes.  In the burning firelight, he could see three pairs of boots scattered about the ground.  That was all that was left of the Travis brothers.  By now, their horses had surely been spooked away (as were the coyotes), but that was fine.  The fire would continue to spread once the night breeze picked up.  If he could climb back up to the top of the gulch, he could remain warm and safe until the dawn.  And if God saw fit to bless him one more time, maybe one of the horses would return.  Karma was a wheel that never stopped turning.

He scanned the floor of the gulch once more, but his father’s ghost was also long gone.  Dayton began to crawl out of the gulch, thinking of the rage in his dead father’s eye, and wondering if he would now spend eternity punishing the Travis brothers through the burned out hell of Devil’s Gulch.  The thought made him smile.


Hangman in the Wind

Graham flipped up his collar and adjusted his hat as the wind blew through the last straggling trees before the timberline. It was October, and winter could come hard and fast in the high country. Did the wind smell like snow? Maybe the chestnut gelding knew, but he wasn’t telling Graham.

Graham had taken the horse when he had taken his wages from his last drive. Tired of driving the cattle he had branded with other men’s brands, Graham took his stake – and the stakes from other ranches and other drives – and thought he might find a place of his own. So far, though, he hadn’t seen the right land, and he knew that before long he’d need to find a line camp, or lose another year on another ranch, or lose his money in a town below, or –

And then the wind brought a dark smell of sweetness and rot, a smell that the smell of aspen trees couldn’t hide, that Graham recognized. The horse stopped, or Graham stopped it; he couldn’t exactly remember, later. He slipped the thong off the Colt at his side. There could be even more to lose.

He slid off the horse and walked slowly toward the scent, toward what might have been a clearing in thicker woods, but here was only a gradual barrenness amidst the hardiest trees. The cabin was at the far end – a hundred yards away. The bodies swung from the four corners of the cabin, as if the hangman hadn’t trusted the trees. Graham edged around the barren, through the trees, closer to the cabin. He had seen death in nearly all its forms, from Shiloh to the bucket of blood saloons in towns that didn’t even last long enough to have names. Some of the deaths had even been peaceful. But not these.

They had been a family – man, woman, two boys. One of them had been white. One had been black. The children had been their children. Now they were bloated bags of meat, not rotten enough yet to tear from the ropes, but swollen and rank. At the man’s feet was a board. Scrawled on it in charcoal was a single word:

“BREEDS.”

Graham spat, but not enough to get the smell out of his throat. He took his knife and cut them down as gently as he could, hoping they wouldn’t burst like overripe fruit as he lowered them to the ground. There had been no gentleness in their death, but he thought they deserved some now. He went back and got the chestnut, leading it to the edge of the barren, but upwind of the dead. After, he looked at the bodies again. A grave would mean more digging than he had time for, but he found the wood the family had lain aside, and it would do, he guessed. Cleaner than they had gotten.

The fire had burned through the afternoon hours, and the sun was beginning to set when Graham heard a voice from the woods.

“Hello, the fire!”

“Come ahead,” said Graham.

There were four of them, and they led their horses into the wide spot. They were hard-looking men, of the sort Graham had seen over the years as he ate dust alongside them, except for one who was older, in a coat of gray patched with butternut.

“Saw your smoke,” the old man said. “What brings you here?”

“Just drifting,” Graham said, “Saw this, thought there were things needed doing.”

“Maybe you should keep drifting,” the old man said.

“Maybe so, and I appreciate the advice. But you mind telling me who you are?”

“I’m Colonel Hiram Pickens. I own this territory.”

“Colonel, huh? Judging from your coat, sir, I’m guessing your commission has been expired for a good fifteen years or so.” Nobody smiled. “Got a better claim to the land?”

“Yep. It’s riding with me. And you’re burning some more of it.”

“Seems to me I’m burning what’s left of some folks were trying to have a home but got interrupted.”

Now it was Pickens’s turn to spit. “If that old boy had wanted a home, he should’ve kept his black ass in Mississippi, stead of coming this way. He wanted to be free, he shouldn’t be trying to take a white man’s land. His kind already got mine after the Unpleasantness.”

“Mm-hmm. And I reckon you told him nicely to move along, like you have me?”

“You may be a drifter, boy, but you’re a step above a darkie, his whore and their whelps. You get a warning. Him? Telling him would’ve been stooping, and like the poet said, I choose never to stoop.”

“Appreciate the consideration, Colonel.” He stood between the men and the fire at his back. “It’s kind of late, though. Mind if I stay the night?”

Pickens laughed emptily. “You might stay longer if you aren’t careful, boy. There’re empty corners on this shack again.” He glanced to his left, Graham’s right. “Beecham, shake out a loop and let’s help this drifter move along. Don’t spare the spurs.”

Beecham had the rope starting to move when Graham shot him through the throat. The other cowboys started to reach for their own guns when Graham said, “I got more,” and they froze. “Y’all in or out?”

One said, “Colonel, I think you can keep my wages. You didn’t pay me gunfighter money.” He turned his back and led his horse away. After a moment, hoofbeats echoed and receded in the distance. Pickens’s curses lasted longer.

After he quieted, Graham stared at them both, their faces bathed in the firelight. “How about you?” he said to the other.

“I took the Colonel’s money. It don’t seem like much of a brand right now,” he said, “but I guess I got to ride for it.”

“All right,” said Graham, and shot him in the chest. He looked back at the colonel. “Me, I don’t mind stooping myself. Not real poetic, though.”

Pickens stood there, his mouth slightly open and his hands in the air. “You’d kill men for hanging niggers?”

“I’ll damn sure kill them for hanging a woman and kids, and wanting to drag me didn’t help either.”

“I’ll give you money,” Pickens said.

“You don’t have enough.” Graham kept him covered as he took the bloody lasso from the hands of the dead man named Beecham. “Put the loop around your neck.”

“I’ll do nothing like that, you son of a bitch!”

Graham fired once more; Pickens fell to his knees, his hands clutching his stomach. “You gut-shot me!”

“Yep. This may take some time.”

Graham called the chestnut over, and looped the lasso around a slender aspen, hitching the other end to his saddle horn, with a length dragging alongside. Walking the horse, he bent the tree, and then tied the slack end of the rope around Pickens’s neck. He took one loop of the rope from the saddle horn.

“I’ll see you in hell,” Pickens said weakly. “I’ll see you boiling in shit!”

“Likely so,” said Graham. “But I’ll be standing on your shoulders.” He released the loop; the tree sprang upright, and Pickens was jerked out of reach. Graham dragged the two dead cowboys to the fire.

The next morning, Graham emerged from the cabin. He glanced at the aspen, with blood at the roots and the Colonel moving in the breeze that made the trees quake. The fire had done what it could do. He took a smoldering brand from the fire and tossed it into the small, empty house. As the light inside grew brighter, Graham mounted the chestnut and rode away, toward another mountain and cleaner air.


Soldier’s Heart

“Cap’n,…Cap’n,… where‘d they go?”

“Shut up, an keep watchin,” barked Captain Titus Barnes as he crouched behind a dead horse, looking around nervously over the grassy plain below.  “They’re out there, in the grass, waiting, watching.”

“Don’t see ‘em,” said 19 year old recruit, Private Archer as he rose to a stranding position to look down off the small ridge where the soldiers had taken refuge in a hollowed dip, a now dry buffalo watering hole  that collected water in the rainy season.  Hoof prints made by buffalo in the rainy season now made bumpy ridges in the hard soil that caused the soldiers to squirm uncomfortably as they tried to hide behind a slim three inches of soil and grass.

Whiff. Whiff. Two arrows flew by.  “Huuh,” gasped Archer, as one arrow sunk into his stomach, its barbed arrowhead protruding from his back. The young soldier looked numbly at the arrow and his now bleeding mid-section. Blood trickled from his lips, his face turned whitish gray, and he collapsed into the circle of six fellow soldiers who huddled behind tufts of grass in the small hollow,

“Stay down, you idiots! Stay down!”  BAM, click, click, BAM. Captain Barnes fired his lever action Henry repeater down the hill aimlessly at the waving blades of prairie grass.  “Dammit!” Barnes cursed as he saw young Archer writhe in pain. Another young recruit, Tibbets, began sobbing as he lay next to his dying friend. Tibbets’ shoulder was bloody, having been nicked by an earlier arrow when the troop had been ambushed by the Indians.

It was spring of 1867, a few short months after Ogala Lakota chief Red Cloud had massacred a cavalry troop from Fort Phil Kearny under Captain William Fetterman, an uprising that was now referred to as Red Cloud’s war.  As the young soldier gurgled his last painful breath, Captain Barnes cursed his own stupidity, for pursuing a small band of Indians who had attacked the supply wagon train being escorted by troops under his command, only to be drawn in to an ambush. Though remaining hidden in the surrounding prairie grass, the Indians now yelled taunts to the entrapped soldiers.

Barnes mind flashed back, some two and a half years before,  to a crowded entrenchment on the southern fringe of  Franklin, Tennessee.  Confederate General Hood had engaged the dug in federals, in a fierce onslaught.  Then Lt Barnes, directed a company of soldiers manning a forward outpost, in front of the main lines defending the city.  Barnes’ 80 soldiers had fought valiantly, against persistent day-long  infantry assaults, and exploding artillery fire. Memories of the deafening noise, smothering smoke, and anguished cries of wounded and dying solders flooded into Barnes consciousness as he closed his eyes and hung his head into the dusty prairie soil.

“Cap’n,…Cap’n,  they’re coming.”  Tibbet’s high pitched voice projected his paralyzing fear.

An Indian warrior, popped up seemingly from nowhere, and came screaming, charging towards the small huddled circle of blue clad soldiers.  Wearing only leather leggings, a breechclout and moccasins, the Indian’s face was painted in reds, yellows with black marks.  The muscles of his chest and arms flexed as he raised a spear, running and screeching towards the cowering shocked soldiers. In a flash, he leapt into the huddled circle, smacking the wide eyed frozen Tibbets on the face with the spear, making a large gash across his cheek, then stabbing the broad brimmed cavalry hat from the head of Archer, and in a continuous motion sprinted with his prize over the dead horse and back into the cover of the tall grass.

BAM, click, click, BAM. Captain Barnes had now risen from his momentary stupor, and fired his Henry repeater in the direction of the now disappeared warrior.

“Wha,…why didn’t he kill me,” mumbled Tibbets.

“Counting coup,” answered the Captain, as his head turned around to survey the location of the Indians.

“What?”

“Counting coup.  It’s a demonstration of a warrior’s bravery, that he can come into our midst, touch us, and escape unharmed,” explained the Captain. “And now he has a prize, Archer’s hat.  The others will now demonstrate their bravery as well.  Their prize will be your scalp.”

“Keep shooting,” growled Corporal Davis, a soldier who had experienced battle against the Confederacy, and now on the plains. “Find a target, make ‘em pay.”

Whiff, thump.   An arrow flew into the huddle and stuck into the shank of the dead horse.  Captain  Barnes flinched and gasped uncontrollably. Then scattered gun fire erupted from the Indians on three sides.

“Aaahh! I’m hit.”  Captain Barnes rolled into a ball and clutched his thigh, now bleeding from a bullet wound.  “Ooww!  Ooww!”  Barnes’ body twitched uncontrollably.  His mind flashed again to the devastated entrenchment near Franklin, when a cannon fired round of canister instantaneously killed three Union troops and put multiple shrapnel wounds into Barnes’ body.  Now, Barnes gasped for breath, wheezing as he instinctively tried to get air into his lungs.

Next, a flaming arrow dropped into the dry grass and the flames took hold, fed by the winds, and began to blow smoke and fire towards the huddled soldiers. The thick smoke began to choke the soldiers, now trapped by fire on one side and a stream of bullets and arrows from the other side.  The Captain’s wheezing, now lead to a coughing fit because of the thick smoke.

“Captain Barnes! Captain,…take hold,” called the Corporal. The Captain continued to shake, in his tight curled position. “Captain,…take hold,” repeated the Corporal. This time he jammed the butt of his Spencer carbine into the Captain’s fanny. The jolt seemed to startle the Captain back the present reality.

“Franklin, … Rebs killed my squad,…happening again.”

“Here, take my kerchief,…bandage your leg,” said the Corporal to his superior.  Taking charge, Corporal Davis turned to the others and barked an order. “Check your ammo, reload,…watch your field of fire, make each shot count.”

Following the direction, the soldiers intensified their fire, holding the Indians at bay. The flames were drawing nearer to their small circle, and the smoke was thickening. Suddenly, there was a gust of wind downhill, pushing the smoke and flames in the direction of the Indians.

“Captain, winds turning in our favor,  I see a horse yonder uphill.  I propose we make a break for it, Sir,”   Corporal Davis suggested. “Perhaps, Sir, if I used your Henry, I’ll cover our escape.”

Captain Barnes grimaced in pain, glanced at his huddled troopers, and at the blowing smoke and fire. He gritted his teeth, nodded, and then handed his 15 shot  lever action repeating rifle to the Corporal. “Load your weapons, boys, Corporal’s gonna cover our escape.”

The soldiers reloaded, and at the Captain’s “GO,” they scrambled from the low trough up the rolling hill towards the loose cavalry horse standing in the distance. The Captain hobbled, favoring his injured leg, using the Spencer as a walking stick. Davis cut loose a barrage of fire with the Henry as his fellow soldiers ran through the smoke.

By evening, the soldiers had returned to the supply train.  Corporal Davis stopped by the wagon where Captain Barnes was now resting his re-bandaged leg.

“I’ll take the eleven to two watch, sir.  How’s your leg?”

“Flesh wound, Corporal.  I’ll live.” The Captain hesitated momentarily, then spoke in a hushed tone.  “About today,…” the Captain gestured with his hand as if to push away a flying insect, “you performed well today, Corporal. Demonstrated leadership under fire, we won’t speak of it further.  When we get to the fort, I’m recommending you for promotion to sergeant.”

“Yes sir, thank you sir.”  Davis looked down towards his feet and spoke softly, “Soldier’s Heart, sir, I been there too.”

“Cap’n,…Cap’n,… where‘d they go?”

“Shut up, an keep watchin,” barked Captain Titus Barnes as he crouched behind a dead horse, looking around nervously over the grassy plain below.  “They’re out there, in the grass, waiting, watching.”

“Don’t see ‘em,” said 19 year old recruit, Private Archer as he rose to a stranding position to look down off the small ridge where the soldiers had taken refuge in a hollowed dip, a now dry buffalo watering hole  that collected water in the rainy season.  Hoof prints made by buffalo in the rainy season now made bumpy ridges in the hard soil that caused the soldiers to squirm uncomfortably as they tried to hide behind a slim three inches of soil and grass.

Whiff. Whiff. Two arrows flew by.  “Huuh,” gasped Archer, as one arrow sunk into his stomach, its barbed arrowhead protruding from his back. The young soldier looked numbly at the arrow and his now bleeding mid-section. Blood trickled from his lips, his face turned whitish gray, and he collapsed into the circle of six fellow soldiers who huddled behind tufts of grass in the small hollow,

“Stay down, you idiots! Stay down!”  BAM, click, click, BAM. Captain Barnes fired his lever action Henry repeater down the hill aimlessly at the waving blades of prairie grass.  “Dammit!” Barnes cursed as he saw young Archer writhe in pain. Another young recruit, Tibbets, began sobbing as he lay next to his dying friend. Tibbets’ shoulder was bloody, having been nicked by an earlier arrow when the troop had been ambushed by the Indians. 

It was spring of 1867, a few short months after Ogala Lakota chief Red Cloud had massacred a cavalry troop from Fort Phil Kearny under Captain William Fetterman, an uprising that was now referred to as Red Cloud’s war.  As the young soldier gurgled his last painful breath, Captain Barnes cursed his own stupidity, for pursuing a small band of Indians who had attacked the supply wagon train being escorted by troops under his command, only to be drawn in to an ambush. Though remaining hidden in the surrounding prairie grass, the Indians now yelled taunts to the entrapped soldiers.

Barnes mind flashed back, some two and a half years before,  to a crowded entrenchment on the southern fringe of  Franklin, Tennessee.  Confederate General Hood had engaged the dug in federals, in a fierce onslaught.  Then Lt Barnes, directed a company of soldiers manning a forward outpost, in front of the main lines defending the city.  Barnes’ 80 soldiers had fought valiantly, against persistent day-long  infantry assaults, and exploding artillery fire. Memories of the deafening noise, smothering smoke, and anguished cries of wounded and dying solders flooded into Barnes consciousness as he closed his eyes and hung his head into the dusty prairie soil.

“Cap’n,…Cap’n,  they’re coming.”  Tibbet’s high pitched voice projected his paralyzing fear.

An Indian warrior, popped up seemingly from nowhere, and came screaming, charging towards the small huddled circle of blue clad soldiers.  Wearing only leather leggings, a breechclout and moccasins, the Indian’s face was painted in reds, yellows with black marks.  The muscles of his chest and arms flexed as he raised a spear, running and screeching towards the cowering shocked soldiers. In a flash, he leapt into the huddled circle, smacking the wide eyed frozen Tibbets on the face with the spear, making a large gash across his cheek, then stabbing the broad brimmed cavalry hat from the head of Archer, and in a continuous motion sprinted with his prize over the dead horse and back into the cover of the tall grass.

BAM, click, click, BAM. Captain Barnes had now risen from his momentary stupor, and fired his Henry repeater in the direction of the now disappeared warrior.

“Wha,…why didn’t he kill me,” mumbled Tibbets.

“Counting coup,” answered the Captain, as his head turned around to survey the location of the Indians.

“What?”

“Counting coup.  It’s a demonstration of a warrior’s bravery, that he can come into our midst, touch us, and escape unharmed,” explained the Captain. “And now he has a prize, Archer’s hat.  The others will now demonstrate their bravery as well.  Their prize will be your scalp.”

“Keep shooting,” growled Corporal Davis, a soldier who had experienced battle against the Confederacy, and now on the plains. “Find a target, make ‘em pay.” 

  Whiff, thump.   An arrow flew into the huddle and stuck into the shank of the dead horse.  Captain  Barnes flinched and gasped uncontrollably. Then scattered gun fire erupted from the Indians on three sides.

“Aaahh! I’m hit.”  Captain Barnes rolled into a ball and clutched his thigh, now bleeding from a bullet wound.  “Ooww!  Ooww!”  Barnes’ body twitched uncontrollably.  His mind flashed again to the devastated entrenchment near Franklin, when a cannon fired round of canister instantaneously killed three Union troops and put multiple shrapnel wounds into Barnes’ body.  Now, Barnes gasped for breath, wheezing as he instinctively tried to get air into his lungs. 

Next, a flaming arrow dropped into the dry grass and the flames took hold, fed by the winds, and began to blow smoke and fire towards the huddled soldiers. The thick smoke began to choke the soldiers, now trapped by fire on one side and a stream of bullets and arrows from the other side.  The Captain’s wheezing, now lead to a coughing fit because of the thick smoke.

“Captain Barnes! Captain,…take hold,” called the Corporal. The Captain continued to shake, in his tight curled position. “Captain,…take hold,” repeated the Corporal. This time he jammed the butt of his Spencer carbine into the Captain’s fanny. The jolt seemed to startle the Captain back the present reality.

“Franklin, … Rebs killed my squad,…happening again.”

“Here, take my kerchief,…bandage your leg,” said the Corporal to his superior.  Taking charge, Corporal Davis turned to the others and barked an order. “Check your ammo, reload,…watch your field of fire, make each shot count.”

Following the direction, the soldiers intensified their fire, holding the Indians at bay. The flames were drawing nearer to their small circle, and the smoke was thickening. Suddenly, there was a gust of wind downhill, pushing the smoke and flames in the direction of the Indians.

“Captain, winds turning in our favor,  I see a horse yonder uphill.  I propose we make a break for it, Sir,”   Corporal Davis suggested. “Perhaps, Sir, if I used your Henry, I’ll cover our escape.”

Captain Barnes grimaced in pain, glanced at his huddled troopers, and at the blowing smoke and fire. He gritted his teeth, nodded, and then handed his 15 shot  lever action repeating rifle to the Corporal. “Load your weapons, boys, Corporal’s gonna cover our escape.”

The soldiers reloaded, and at the Captain’s “GO,” they scrambled from the low trough up the rolling hill towards the loose cavalry horse standing in the distance. The Captain hobbled, favoring his injured leg, using the Spencer as a walking stick. Davis cut loose a barrage of fire with the Henry as his fellow soldiers ran through the smoke.

By evening, the soldiers had returned to the supply train.  Corporal Davis stopped by the wagon where Captain Barnes was now resting his re-bandaged leg.

“I’ll take the eleven to two watch, sir.  How’s your leg?”

“Flesh wound, Corporal.  I’ll live.” The Captain hesitated momentarily, then spoke in a hushed tone.  “About today,…” the Captain gestured with his hand as if to push away a flying insect, “you performed well today, Corporal. Demonstrated leadership under fire, we won’t speak of it further.  When we get to the fort, I’m recommending you for promotion to sergeant.”

“Yes sir, thank you sir.”  Davis looked down towards his feet and spoke softly, “Soldier’s Heart, sir, I been there too.”


Alacran y El Pistolero

The sun had become the old man’s worst enemy.

It beat against him without any remorse, lashes of heat hitting his back and sending painful jolts up his shoulders. Reaching into his coat pocket he took out a handkerchief and wiped it across his forehead.

The barren plains of the desert hadn’t changed much ever since he stepped off the bus a couple of hours ago. The old man reached into his coat pocket and took out a watch. It was a cheap thing, the sort of watch one could pick up from one of the many aldeanos that made their living selling trinkets and assorted mementos from bus stops. It had cost him one big coin, two small ones, and a medium sized one. He killed the first hour of his journey trying to figure out if that was a good price to pay or not.

He could have taken the bus all the way towards his destination, but the combination of a driver blind to all the speed signs, loud Mariachi music, and a ride with more bounce than a grasshopper had made him get off in the first station they stopped at.

Plus they’ll be watching the buses. Better this way,  he had decided.

He almost reached into his pocket again but stopped himself. The gun would still be there. Its cold barrel pressed against his ribs, a little piece of heaven in this hell. The old man took no breaks. When he became thirsty, he reached into the small backpack he’d bought at the bus station and took out a bottle filled with water. Hunger wasn’t much of an issue, but he forced himself to eat the sandwich he’d packed. The old man timed his chewing with his footsteps just to have something to do.

It was in the third hour that he got company. He knew it was the third hour because he had just checked his watch to see how long he’d been walking, and when he looked up a stranger was standing out in the distance.

“Hello,” the old man said when he was within speaking distance, his fingers already snaking around the grip of the gun.

“Hey,” the kid turned and looked at him.

He was young, a kid in the old man’s eyes. Good looking too, with that dark brown skin that most of the people around here seemed to have.  His hair reminded the old man of the beans he’d had for breakfast every day for the last twenty years, black and greasy.

They spent a moment in the type of silence that strolled casually into a conversation and made itself comfortable like a big lazy cat.  The old man wondered how far the sound of a gun would travel. Far enough to reach the ears of the man the bullets were really intended for?

“Taking a walk.” A statement rather than a question from the kid. He enunciated each word carefully, as if every sound was a work of art in progress. The old man imagined that was the sort of thing the tourist girls swooned for.

“Yes.” The old man’s voice on the other hand sounded like that of an old man who drank and smoke too much.

Tilting his head, the man looked past the old man and whistled. “Hell of a long walk.”

Shrugging, the old man said, “I done longer.” For the last twenty years he’d been walking. The only difference since stepping off the bus was that he was finally getting somewhere.  “You? Waiting for someone?”

An important question, the old man ready to use the gun if necessary. But the kid just mimicked the old man and shrugged. “Not really. I just like to come out sometimes and enjoy this place. It’s beautiful don’t you think?”
The old man had a limited vocabulary, and as such he hated to use beautiful on a piece of land like this one.

“You live nearby?”

The man showed his teeth, a sliver of white that didn‘t belong in the desert. “Yep, not to far from here.” He pointed towards the mountains and made a general gesture, “Nice little place. Got the necessities. A bed to sleep in, a hole to shit in, a bottle to drink out off, and a woman to fuck. What about you?” The kid asked, “Where’s your home?”

“Far away from here.” It really wasn’t his home anymore, but it been for so long that the old man figured he would always think of it as such.

“Then you must come to mine! I’ll share the bed and the bottle. The woman, you’re out of luck.”

The old man shook his head. “There’s someone I have to meet.” He took out the watch, and looked at the time. “I gave them my word.”

The kid eyed the old man’s watch and nodded. “Appointments must be kept, especially if those bonded by your word. It’s the only thing a man really has, right?”

The old man nodded. That and a backpack, a watch, and a gun.

“Still, at the very least I can keep you company for a while. You’re walking towards the mountains?”
“Past them, to Cerro Gordo.”

“Perfect, my home is on your way.” As if that settled everything, he begun to walk towards the mountains. The old man followed.

“So what’s your name?”

Recluso numero 787. The old man threw out a name he hadn’t used in a long time and figured he wouldn’t use again.

The kid pointed to himself, “Alacran.”

“Strange name to have.”

Alacran smiled, “It fits me. You ever heard of the ballad of the gunman?”

The old man shook his head.

Clearing his throat, Alacran began to sing. His voice rose and sank with the words of the song, filling the stillness around them. It was a strong, confident voice, but not necessarily a good one. If he wanted to he could probably make a nice tidy living joining a Mariachi quartet and working in some restaurant, moving from table to table and interrupting private conversations with the same three songs.

He sang of a pistolero. A good man that death could touch, the song said. That is, until he headed out to the desert alone one night and lay down to sleep. That’s how the townspeople found him the next day, still lying on the ground, his right hand holding his gun, on his other hand an alacran, the scorpion’s tail still wedged on the gunman’s palm.

“Everyone cursed the scorpion,” Alacran said,  “cried of how it made a mistake and killed a good man this time, but do you think the scorpion cared? The way I see it, the scorpion didn’t sting the gunman because he was good or bad. It stung him because it was just following its nature.”

“And that’s how you are?”

“Yes. Not that it’s hard to do living like I do. It isn’t like I get many chances to test myself, but I like to believe that no matter the situation, I would always do what’s in my nature and nothing else.”

The old man said nothing.

“For example,” Alacran continued, seemingly not bothered by the old man’s silence. “The other day I get this Mafioso looking guys knocking at my door.  Drove up in white Cadillac car, wearing nice pressed suits and dark sunglasses. I told them that the car was going to look like crap by the time they rode back up to town, but they didn’t care.  They were more interested in asking me if I’d seen anyone pass by lately.”
The click of the gun’s safety being turned off was lost in the old man’s suddenly loud shuffling footsteps.

“I told them, ‘look around you, how many people do you think cross the desert instead of taking the highways?’ They said that if I saw anyone, I should give them a call. I laughed and said sure, when the telephone company gets around to installing some lines here, you’ll be the first I call. So you know what they did?”

The old man shook his head. One bullet. Maybe two if I’m slow.

“They gave me a cellphone! Tossed it to me like it was nothing. They even put their number in speed dial.”

Alacran stopped and reached into his back pocket. The old man’s heartbeat quickened. He was about to pull the gun out of his pocket only to see the phone in Alacran’s hand.

“I’m thinking of selling it once I go back into town.”

It would take two bullets.

“You could probably get a few coins for that.” The old man said.

Tossing it into the air and catching it, Alacran resumed walking. “You think? Anyways, thinking back to that, they could have shot me right then and there. I mean, it wasn’t like I was being very cordial.  But it just isn’t in my nature to get into the middle of things. That’s why I live here. The desert is too big to find yourself in the middle of things.”

“More people should move to the desert then,” the old man said. In his mind he practiced the motion.  Pull, turn, squeeze. Pull, turn, squeeze.

“So this appointment you’re walking to, is it a friend?”
“Old business partner.”

“Been a while since you seen them?” Alacran still had the phone in his hand, his thumb mindlessly running up and down the key pad.

Twenty years, two months, three days. “Too long.”

“You going to kill him?”

They stopped walking. The old man turned and faced Alacran. “I‘m going to try.”

“Why?”

Looking into Alacran’s face, the old man thought he saw actual curiosity in his eyes. “He robbed me of twenty years of my life by sending me to prison. I’m going to rob him of the last twenty he has left.”

“And if he has more than twenty to live?”
“Interest.”

Alacran looked to be thinking. Then he asked the old man, “Are you a good man or a bad man?”

“I thought you didn’t care.”

Alacran shook his head. “The scorpion in the song didn’t care. Me? I like to know if I’ve been talking to a good man or a bad man.”

“I was good to my family. Went to church every Sunday, never forgot to pay the bills or anyone’s birthday.  I also killed people. I’d like to think they deserved it, but I don’t know.”

Staring out into the mountains, Alacran said, “You still have a long way to go.  A little way after my house it starts to get civilized again. You’re going to have to pass two more towns before you get to Cerro Gordo.”

The old man said nothing.

“Maybe you should just give up on this idea of revenge and come to my home. Share my bottle like I asked you to. If they came talking to me, they also went to those two towns, so chances are someone’s already keeping their eye out for you.”

The old man shot him then. He surprised himself by being quicker than he expected himself to be. The first bullet hit Alacran in the chest, sending him back. The second one struck his shoulder, and it wasn’t till the third one slammed into his forehead and blew out the other end that Alacran went down, his blood already staining the dull brown of the desert, seeping into the ground and marking a new territory.

The old man’s hands were shaking as he put the gun back in his pocket. Kneeling next to the body, he picked the phone off the ground and turned it on, searching the tiny glowing menu. It took him a few minutes, having never handled a piece of technology like this, but soon enough he found what he was looking for, the call log.

No calls sent or received.

The old man stood and turned away from Alacran’s body. Like he told Alacran, he’d liked to believe everyone he ever killed deserved what they got, but he wasn’t a fool. One more innocent person wouldn’t change things.

Alacran’s song came back into his mind, carried perhaps by the wind, or maybe just guilt. But at the end, the old man started walking again. His own journey would come to an end soon enough, and he doubted it would be as peaceful as the one gifted to gunman in the ballad.


A Merry Christmas in Hell

We rode back to the site of the Harrison massacre and I picked up the trail that led into the thick woods. It was easy to follow and whoever it was we were following had made no move to cover their tracks. In places the snow was almost touching the belly of my pony as she stepped through. I wondered what kind of man had managed to drag a girl through the drifts of snow. Why hadn’t he done what he wanted and then fled on his own?

“Isn’t Old Curly Taylor’s cabin down this way?”

Curly Taylor had passed over more than five years back and I had to think to remember where the old bastard’s cabin had been.

“Could be.”

The deeper into the forest we went the darker it became; the sun was dipping further in the sky and the branches above us had knitted together to form a roof of pine needles. I had dismounted to look for sign and was leading my pony when we sighted the cabin, a wagon outside. Light showed around the frames of the door and shuttered windows. Dan dropped down into the snow and drew his long rifle. He tied the lead rope of his pony to a bush and fanned off to the right of the cabin. Captain Grieg pulled one of the long pistols from his belt and cut away to the left remaining in the saddle. That left me in the centre. I tied up my horse and took both rifles with me as I moved towards the cabin. I stayed low and moved forward fast, expecting a rifle shot to sound with each pace.

The cabin had changed some since it had been Curly Taylor’s; the log walls had been battered by the weather, the roof needed fixing and when I got closer I saw that strange symbols and letters had been hacked and scored into the walls. Dan moved to cover the rear of the cabin and I kept my Hawken trained on the front door. Captain Grieg had dismounted and appeared at my side, his sword now drawn. I nodded to him and then kicked at the front door. It burst inwards and we rushed into the cabin. A fire burned in a pit in the centre of the room, a five pointed star had been scratched in the dirt around the burning logs. Three young women huddled in the corner, naked and smeared in blood, covered in dozens of cuts, they were linked together by a length of cord tied around their necks. The man turned as we entered and grabbed for a rifle which lay across a filthy cot. I shot him in the thigh. Captain Grieg stepped past me and stood on Elkin’s throat, the tip of his sword blade less than an inch from the man’s eyeball.

“Mr Elkin. I’d advise you stay as still as possible else you’ll have one less eye to read those books of yours.”

I looked around the cabin and saw books and papers piled on almost every surface. I picked one of the heavy leather-bound books up and stared at the letters on the page. Dan had now come into the cabin and looked over my shoulder as he approached the women.

“Anything there, Val?”

“Reckon it’d make about as much sense to you as it does to me, Dan.”

“Hell, you know I can’t read.”

“Exactly. This ain’t no language I can read either.”

The man on the floor giggled and the Captain pressed his foot down until the sound died in Elkin’s throat. Dan whispered in Shoshone to the two maidens and held his hands out to show he meant no harm. The women retreated from him and pressed themselves against the rough wood of the walls.

“Get those women covered up, Dan” I looked down at Elkin “got some folks who are looking forward to meeting you.”

“And I have a friend you’ll meet very soon!”

A sick light shone out from the man’s eyes.

“He got anyone else with him?”

“No, there was just him.”

“Then get his hands tied, Captain.”

The woman managed to get some clothes on, those that weren’t cut to shreds, and we handed them our blankets to use as cloaks. I looked out the door and saw that night had fallen.

***

The two Shoshone girls shared Dan’s pony and the Harrison girl took mine. We tied Elkin to the saddle of Grieg’s pony much to the protestations of the Captain.

“We should make him walk barefoot back to the camp!”

Dan grunted.

“That’d take too long,” I replied “besides I think I broke his leg when I shot ‘im.”

We pushed on into the woods.

“Not long to wait now, my lads!” Elkin’s eyes seemed to shine in the darkness at me.

“Anymore and we’ll gag you.”

Captain Grieg had brought a lantern and he walked ahead leading my pony. Dan was in the middle of the group close by his own pony and I stayed with Elkin in case he gave us any trouble. I caught a glimpse of movement in the trees off to the left and turned towards it. In the dark of the shadows I could make nothing out but I was sure something or someone had swiftly moved through the trees. I let out the lead rope of the Captain’s horse and moved towards Dan.

“Terrapin?”

“What, Val?”

“Might be we need to keep one eye on those trees to the left.”

The big man grunted and cocked his rifle. I did likewise with the Hawken and then dropped back. Elkin began to giggle. I sidestepped and cuffed him once around the ear, not taking my eyes off the trees for an instant.

“Next time it’ll be the stock of my rifle.”

When it came it was so fast that my brain could hardly follow my eyes; there was a sound like that of a bird when you’re real close to it and it begins to beat its wings, then something exploded from the dark kicking up snow so that the body of it was obscured in a white haze.

“Hold your shot!” screamed Dan and then he triggered his own rifle at whatever it was that rushed towards us. His shot seemed to have no effect and the thing continued towards Captain Grieg who turned, drew one of his pistols and fired. He dropped the pistol drew the second and fired. It was almost upon when he drew his sword. The light from his lantern gave me a glimpse of it; something old, tight drawn skin, black holes for eyes, terrible wings like those from some huge rotted crow. I brought the Hawken up to my shoulder, blocked out the gibberings of Elkin and fired at the things head. Grieg’s lantern had been knocked away into the darkness but he drew back his sword and stabbed out at the creature.  The beast shrieked before hurling the Captain down into the snow. It leapt from the snowbound ground and hurled itself up into the dark with its dreadful wings. The women were sobbing quietly and Elkin continued to giggle and chatter.

Dan had reloaded and sent another shot after the creature as it flitted across the moon. I watched as the creature swooped down amongst the treetops and out of sight. I drew my Bowie knife and held it against the flesh of Elkin’s throat.

“What does it want?”

He stopped laughing.

“Want? Why it wants to see us all dead. I thought I could hold it but it slipped away into the wilderness. I was trying to bring it back when you brutes arrived! You’ve killed us all. All it wants is to watch the world burn.”

We pulled the horses together and checked on the women. They looked as before, locked inside worlds of their own. Dan picked up Captain Grieg. The Captain’s topcoat was torn open and the flesh of his chest was ripped by three clean cuts, as though they had been made by blades as sharp as my Bowie.

“You hit it, Val?”

“Think I got it through the head but I can’t be sure.”

The Captain began nodding.

“Your shot struck it in the temple. There was no blood, just dust.”

He shook himself free of Dan’s hands and bent to retrieve his hat.

“Seems to me that we need to push on, gentlemen. There are ten more men with rifles back at my wagon and if that…fiend returns I would like to have those guns with me.”

“You can’t stop it!” cackled Elkin. I turned and rapped him over the side of the head with the butt of my Hawken.

“Captain it might be best if you rode up on my pony.”

The Captain had retrieved his weapons from the snow and was reloading his pistols while Dan tried to relight the lantern.

“I’ll remain on foot, Mr Pettigrew.”

“As you wish,” I replied.

I retrieved the old Baker rifle from my pony and passed it to the Captain with a powder horn and bag of shot.

“Might be that’ll do more than your pistols.”

“You reckon it’ll come again?” asked Dan.

“If I could take a Hawken fifty in the head and still be moving I’d come back.”

***

We made slow progress after that. It seemed that the creature lurked in every pool of shadow and shaft of darkness, of which there were many as we threaded back through the trees. The screams carried up the mountain and musket fire sounded like the start of rain on the roof of a cabin.

“My God, the women!” shouted Grieg. He dropped the lead rope to my pony and tried to push himself on through the snow. He fell, climbed to his feet and ran pumping his knees high and clear of the snow. He fell again and cried out in frustration. Dan and I plodded along. Easing ourselves and the ponies forward – we’d been around snow too long to try and run anywhere.

“It’s maybe fifteen minutes away, Captain. No way you can make it any faster than that.”

We pushed on and came back out of the trees near the Harrison wagon. The girl grabbed the Captain’s shoulder and twisted the fabric of his coat for a moment. He patted her hand and we pushed on. As we grew closer to where Grieg’s wagon lay Dan began to speak to the two Shoshone girls in their own language. Dan pulled the pony to a stop by a small copse of trees.

“Gonna need your pistols, Captain.”

“For them?”

“Yep and Miss Harrison can look after my shotgun for me. We leave the ponies here.”

The Captain gave up his pistols and the girls looked eagerly at the semi-concious Elkin. Dan spoke again his Shoshone better than mine. As we left the women to hide amongst the trees I asked him what he had said.

“Just told ‘em it was best to skin that bastard in front of the men who would be their husbands.”

I laughed at that and then we moved towards where the Captain’s wagon lay. It was chaos. Bodies lay here and there, torn and bloodied. A man ran to the Captain, blood running from a deep gash above his eye.

“Cap’n! We thought surely you were dead. A thing came, a damned monster from the very pits of Hell. It…” the man seemed to lose his words and he held out his hand at the devastation that lay around him.

“My wife?”

The man was silent.

“The child?”

Again there was no response and the Captain sat down in the snow.

“We tried, Cap’n but there was nothing we could do! Lars swears he shot the thing through the heart but it kept coming.”

Grieg dismissed the man with a wave of his hand.

Altogether eight of the settlers were dead and a half-dozen were injured. The men loaded up what weapons they could and built walls from the snow around the Captain’s wagon. We brought the Harrison girl in and then Dan and I set off down the trail towards the Shoshone.

***

Pocatello and the old man met us.

“You are true to your word,” said Pocatello as he took charge of the two young women “that is the one who took them?” he gestured at Elkin.

“He did that and worse and he is yours.”

The old man eyed me from beneath the bear robe.

“Old man, you know me or something?”

He grinned at me again.

“Just good to see you still alive. I would never wish harm to one who is my brother in the bear.”

“You know anything about what that is that’s loose up on the mountain?”

The old man shrugged.

“White man’s magic, evil.”

“But can you help me?”

He spoke to Pocatello and the chief nodded before raising his rifle to the braves below. Three warriors split from the rest and rode up the track.

“Val?”

“It’ll be fine, Dan just stand firm.”

The big man grunted and I saw his thumb cock his long rifle. The old man saw it to but he didn’t say a word. The braves leapt from their ponies and cut the bonds that held Elkin. The old man spoke quickly and Pocatello turned away taking the two maidens back down the trail. The braves pinned Elkin down in the churned up snow of the trail and cut away his clothes – one held each of his arms while the third knelt on his legs. The old man slipped out of his bearskin and stood before us in a vest of bones and a loin cloth.

“Your knife, brother of the bear.”

I drew my Bowie and handed it to him, handle first. The old man straddled Elkin and slapped him awake. Elkin came to spitting like a rattler.

“Maker of evil, bringer of death to the mountains from which springs life.”

The old man held my knife up the rising sun and caught its first rays on the blade. Elkin made to speak but the knife bit into his chest and the old man cut through his breast. The old shaman reached inside until his hand closed around the white man’s heart. He tore the heart out and held it up to the sun. Then he passed it to me. The old man spun himself around and cut at Elkin’s leg until he retrieved the bullet I had fired into the man earlier.

“Bait and one shot.”

I took the proffered bullet, gore and all.

“Thank you.”

“I need no thanks. But know this – one day the bear will call and you must answer.”

I nodded, uncomprehending.

***

Elkin’s heart lay on the stump of a rotten tree, an offering. I waited. I lay in the snow atop my buffalo robe the Hawken next to me. I thought about the things the old man had said to me and how much the bear had seemed a part of me since I had entered the mountains so many years ago. That terrible flapping of huge wings pulled me out of my thoughts. I cocked the rifle and waited.

The thing descended from the sky and it crunched down in the snow on bony feet. It looked like the shrunken body of a man with tattered wings erupting from its back – like a dreadful angel that had slept for a long time in a dark, dry place. It picked up the heart and dropped it as a whole into its mouth. The thing swallowed once and I saw the lump of the heart outlined in the creature’s throat. I aimed where the heart should have been and fired. The shot was true and the thing fell back into the snow. Dan stood from his position twenty feet to my right and fired his long rifle at the prone creature. Dust burst from the wound. We recharged our rifles and approached together.

“Like my bullet didn’t do a thing,” Dan muttered pointing to the small tear in the creatures withered hide.

I pointed to where my shot had hit and we saw the black blood draining out of the creature.

“Jesus!” muttered Dan “Merry Christmas, Val.”

“Merry Christmas, Dan.”


A Merry Christmas in Hell

Christmas time always sets me to thinking about Boston and the house I had grew up in. I stood in the doorway of my cabin and looked out at the snow that had already lain on the mountain. It reflected the sun and made for a bright morning. The pine trees made me think of the one my mother would have on display. She was a German and had brought the custom with her. My father, if he was home from the sea, smiled indulgently at her as Christmas approached and then went out with an axe and came back with the biggest tree he could fit in the room. My mother would clap her hands and get us to help her decorate the tree. I looked back into the cabin at the small specimen I had in the corner decorated with beads and other gee-gaws I sometimes used in trading. It made me think that it had been a long time since I written to my family – that was something I would have to rectify. I looked back out through the trees and caught sight of a lone horseman amongst the pines. I stepped back inside, loaded my Hawken and stood it up next to the door. My knife was scabbarded at my hip and tomahawk tucked in my belt. There hadn’t been any trouble recently now that the snows had halted the seemingly endless trains of wagons from the East but I wasn’t intending to lose my hair for want of a loaded gun.

The figure drew closer and halted about fifty yards from the cabin.

“Hullo the camp!” roared the rider’s voice.

I laughed.

“Hullo, yourself! That you Terrapin?”

“Yup.”

The man rode closer and dismounted in front of the cabin. I slapped my thigh and smiled.

“You come a visiting?”

“In a manner, Val.”

Dan “Terrapin” Meek dropped his large frame from the saddle and damn me if it didn’t do my heart good to see his bearded face. I’d known Dan Meeks for nigh on fifteen years, not long after folks started calling him Terrapin – on account of him acquiring a taste for dog flesh and swearing it was as good as Buffalo if you cooked it right.

“There’s coffee if you’ll have it, Dan.”

“Mighty welcome. Wouldn’t mind a little Taos Lightning if you have any.”

“Of course. Get your beast in shelter then come on in.”

Dan put his horse in with mine, came into the cabin and shrugged out of his buffalo robe. I handed him a cup of coffee and left the whiskey jug on the table. He finished the coffee in one deep bite, uncorked the whiskey and took a healthy swig.

“Now, Val why in hell is there a tree in your house?”

“Custom of my mother’s people.”

He nodded

“Heard of stranger,” then he took another taste before passing the jug over.

“Ain’t just here for a visit, although it’s damn good to see you.”

“No?”

“Nope. Could be we got some trouble a brewin’ on the mountain.”

I would have offered Dan a seat but he had already taken one by the fire. I took the jug and sat opposite him.

“Well?”

“Shoshone ain’t happy.”

“With us?”

Dan shrugged.

“Might be they’ll be looking to raise the hair on any white man they can find.”

“Now why would they be fitting to do that?”

“Two of their maidens got took and a buck saw from the distance. Swore it was a white fella who took ‘em.”

“Ain’t no white men but me and you on this mountain since the snow came down are there, Dan?”

“There are.”

“Who?”

“Bunch of pork-eating green hands who got caught by the snows.”

“Where?”

“ Down aways – they’ve forted up for the winter in little groups. I been taking ‘em the odd bit of meat – don’t want ‘em ending up like that bunch of fools in the Sierra Nevadas in ’46.”

I nodded, we’d all heard the stories about the wagon train that got cut off and took to eating their dead and then worse.

“And the Shoshone look like they’re gonna dig up the tomahawk on this bunch?”

Dan filled his pipe and nodded.

“Reckon we should try and help ‘em?”

Dan shrugged leaving it up to me but I knew why he had come.

“Best get my gear together.”

Dan looked up at me and smiled.

“Waaaargggh!” That greeting and show of appreciation amongst us men of the mountains that made my heart soar like a hawk above the snow topped pines.

***

Our ponies picked their way through the snow and the trees. We both wore buffalo robes, Dan had on a wide brimmed planter’s hat and I wore my fur cap with the eagle feathers. We were loaded for bear; in addition to my Hawken I had two pistols holstered on the horse and an old Baker Rifle I had traded from an Atsugewi brave on my way back from California the previous year. Dan was likewise heavily armed with a double barrelled shotgun in addition to his usual his long Pennsylvania rifle and Bowie knife.

The snow crunched beneath the hooves of my pony as I manouvered her down a steep decline. Dan held up a hand and I halted my mount. He turned in the saddle and then pointed to a lean to shack that lay some little distance from us; the wagon bed lay in the snow with a canvas shelter added to the front of it.

“This is the Harrisons – good peoples.”

I nodded and we rode towards the temporary home.

“Hullo, the house!” called Dan.

Nothing stirred in the canvas dwelling and we nudged our ponies closer. I slid the Hawken from beneath my warm robe and cocked back the hammer. As we drew nearer I noticed signs painted on the canvas of the shelter. Dan had seen them too and I stayed quiet as he slid out of his saddle. He took his shotgun and moved quickly across the snow, surprisingly quiet for a man of his size. I threw a quick glance at the trees around us and then climbed down to kneel in the snow with the Hawken watching for any sign of movement in the dwelling. Dan vanished inside and I could hear my breathing as well as see it in the cold December air. A few moments later Dan reappeared; his face told me a story better than if he had spoken it to me across a campfire – whatever was inside was bad.

I kept the Hawken at the ready and moved to where he stood.

“Shoshone?”

Dan shook his head.

“Even the Crow ain’t got the stomach for what’s been done in there; four of ‘em killed in the worst way and the daughter’s been taken.”

I looked at the signs that had been smeared on the canvas; five pointed stars, a terrible eye, a crude goats head. I realised that they had been painted in blood. For a moment I considered seeing the atrocity that had been committed inside but in the end I did not have the heart for it. Instead I slapped my hand on Dan’s shoulder and began to check the ground for sign. It didn’t take long; there were blood drops and drag marks showing clearly, a green hand could have followed the tracks. I stepped into the shadows cast by the trees and looked down the mountain – nothing stirred nearby.

“Tracks head off down the mountain, where the woods are deeper. You want to head off after them now?”

“Think we best check in on the other families first.”

I nodded and followed Dan’s lead. We remounted and continued down the mountain – all the time eyeing the thicker copses of trees that lay to our right.

By the time we reached the next encampment it had begun to snow lightly and the flakes fell lazily like leaves blown from a tree. A figure appeared from the flap of a canvas tent; he was a tall man with dark whiskers, a top coat of rich blue and he held a long pistol in each hand.

“Who goes there?”

“Dan Meeks!”

“And the fellow with you, Mr Meeks?”

“’Nother ol’ coon like myself – Tomahawk Val Pettigrew.”

The man strode over, a smile splitting his face. He tucked his pistols into the sash around his waist and offered me his hand.

“Captain Cornelius Grieg, late of Fort Brooke, Florida.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Captain.”

“How goes it, Dan?” he shouted.

“Not so well, Captain. Just come from the Harrison place.”

The Captain’s face clouded.

“Nothing wrong I hope?”

Dan dismounted and stood in close to the Captain.

“I’m sorry to have to say it but the whole family done went under.”

The Captain looked at Dan as though failing to understand.

“What Dan is saying, Captain, is that someone killed them all. Less’n the girl and she’s been dragged into the woods.”

“We must follow!”

“Now hold up” Dan raised his hands to Captain Grieg “there’s other troubles coming your way.”

The Captain shook his head.

“What could be worse than this?”

“The Shoshone are on the warpath. Think some of your folks had something to do with taking a couple of their women.”

“How many?”

“Maybe thirty braves” Dan looked to me for confirmation.

“Could be, somewhere between twenty and forty.”

“I fought the Seminoles in the swamps. I can raise ten or twelve fighting men. Will you stand with us?”

“That’s a big ask, Captain” Dan looked away and I knew he sorely wished to help the settlers.

“Might be it won’t come to that” I found myself saying “assume the worst and get the families together where you can best defend them – Dan’ll advise you on that.”

“And what of you Mr Pettigrew?”

I looked at Dan.

“Pocatello leading them, Dan?”

Dan nodded back to me.

“Best be I go palaver with the man then.”

“Might be he’ll try and raise your hair, Val.”

I shrugged.

“Ain’t like they haven’t tried before.”

I saluted Dan and the Captain with the Hawken in my clenched fist.

“I swear you got the hair of the bear, Val!”

“I best hope that old bear’s looking down on me today, I need her to be watching!”

Touching my heels to the pony I lit out towards where I knew the Shoshone would be making their way towards us. As I moved away I saw a woman stood in the doorway of the Captain’s tent with a baby in her arms.

***

A brave with a tattooed face rode up close to me, so that our ponies were almost touching. I stared him in the eye. A pogamoggan dangled from his fist, two foot of pine wood as a handle with a heavy stone head lashed to the top. He threw a whoop at me and I threw one straight back.

I spoke Shoshone, as much as I knew. Enough to send him back down the trail to the party of thirty or so riders who were gathered below. He rode down to the man who led the party and spoke to him. They stopped and waited. I held the pony in check as I descended keeping the pace nice and slow. The leader rode out to meet me accompanied by an old man. We looked each other over; Pocatello was maybe thirty or thirty five, well built with a strong face, he rode a painted pony and carried a rifle with an intricately carved stock. He was wrapped in furs, discs of beaten silver hung from his ears shining amongst his black hair. The old man was wizened and hid beneath a huge bear skin robe, complete with head.

“You are the great chief Pocatello?”

“You flatter me. I am simply the leader of a few families.”

“The mountains already ring with your name.”

“But I do not know your name, white man.”

“I am called Tomahawk Val.”

“He who rode with the Blackfeet as a brother?”

“That is my honour.”

“And why now do you bar our path? Our fight is not with you.”

I switched to English.

“Seems to me your fight isn’t with those folks up on the mountain either.”

He seemed to understand.

“That is not for you to say. You are known throughout the mountains but I have many braves with me eager to count coup on those who stole away our two maidens.”

“You are many and I am one, that is true but know this – you’ll have to cut me down and take my hair before I let you pass. You have many braves, Pocatello, again that is true. But how many will follow you after I stain the snow with the blood of as many of your warriors as I can? You will kill me, I know this, but I have sung my death song and the great bear waits to greet me. That is my truth.”

I patted my hand across my rifles, pistols, knife and tomahawk.

“But it does not have to be like this, great chief. Give me till the sun once again colours the sky and I will bring you the ones responsible.”

Pocatello looked me over. He had thirty warriors behind him but I could see he wanted to be a bigger leader than he was. If he even lost five warriors getting past me it could take his reputation years to recover. The old man spoke from beneath his bearskin. The Shoshone was too fast for me to keep up. The chief listened without replying to the old man. When the old man finished speaking Pocatello looked to the sky.

“You have until the sky is lit once more and then we will come.”

I waited until Pocatello rode back to his braves. The old man remained.

“Bad thing on the mountain.”

“What happened is bad but it can be fixed.”

The old man smiled, showing me a mouthful of yellow tombstones.

“Don’t die up there, mountain man,” he threw me a wink and then turned his pony.

I stared at the old man as he rode away and then I turned and made my way back up the mountain. It was slow going up the snowbound trail and I was conscious of the sun slowly moving down the sky.

***

When I arrived back at Captain Grieg’s wagon a small knot of men had gathered; they were haggard and a couple looked half starved. They held a collection of old muskets and shotguns. Dan walked over to me.

“Well?”

“We got till morning else they’re gonna come on.”

Dan grunted and went to retrieve his pony. Captain Grieg strode out of his tent wearing a heavy topcoat, a sword belted at his waist and the pair of long barrelled single-shot pistols tucked into his sash.

“You have bought us some time?”

“Till day break.”

“When do we start out?”

“Who is it that’s out there, Captain Grieg?”

He looked away for a moment before answering.

“Told us his name was John Elkin joined the company late on. He said he had spent some time in Albany and was eager to make his way west. Didn’t take us long to work out he was a bad apple. Something just wasn’t right with him, always locked away in his wagon with a trunk of books. When we got caught by the snows he took his wagon off away from the others, kind of glad he did if I am honest.”

“And you think it’s him?”

The Captain nodded.

“Is he armed?”

“I insisted every wagon carry a rifle or shotgun at least. I believe he had an old Brunswick rifle.”

Dan rode up.

“Don’t sound like he’ll be hard to take does it?”

“He killed a whole family, Dan. I won’t be happy till he’s trussed up across the back of a horse.”

The Captain’s horse looked as starved as some of his men.

“You’re sure those red devils won’t attack before we return?”

I exchanged a look with Dan.

“Pocatello’s a lot things but he ain’t no liar. We have until dawn.”

We looked to the sky.

“Reckon we got two hours of light,” said Dan.

Captain Grieg barked an order about posting sentinels and then turned his horse to join us. The people of the wagon train looked sad and small as we rode away.