Hidden Past Part One

Los Olivos, California, 1882

The road was muddy as usual in the late Spring with a hint of more rain in the evening’s darkness. The trees still held drops from the last downpour and shook them off when the wind blew. My open buggy was no protection as my sodden trousers and jacket proved.

Betsy, my old horse, plodded along as tired as I, her head drooping like mine. She turned off the main road onto an almost-hidden one. Hidden if you didn’t know where it was. That’s the way Hank wanted it.

Along the right side was a breakfront of trees, all tall and sturdy. On my left, fields of grass and bushes, untilled and unowned. The road wasn’t much more than a cow path with two deep ruts. But it had a promise of comfort at the end of it, closer than going home, that’s what old Betsy was thinking and I didn’t signal her otherwise.

Hank and his daughter, Mary, lived alone. He stopped going into town five years ago. Mary was the one who fetched what they needed. His sudden seclusion was talked about in town with various explanations–a man of mystery, someone with a hidden past. As many reasons given as there were people to speak them. Not that folk had a lot of time for gossiping, nor was Hank a person they gossiped most about.

I was the only one who saw him on a regular basis. Like this evening, coming back from a patient.

Before the house came into sight, Betsy stopped. I must’ve been dozing. It took me a minute to take in the situation. We weren’t at the house yet, so why did she stop?  I reached to pick up the reins and that’s when I saw a figure lying on the road. I immediately grabbed my bag and hopped down.

Young man, early twenties, I guessed. Bullet wound in his back, on the left side just above the belt line. Feeling the front of him, it looked like the bullet had passed through. He was sopping wet, ice cold, and was about as white as anybody can get. White, about to turn blue. How long had he lain there?

He was no lightweight but I finally got him into the buggy. I tucked a blanket around him, climbed on the seat, and urged Betsy forward. I hoped the wounds wouldn’t open with the jostling on the rutted road.

The road ended at the house. One of the hunting dogs barked, but the other four just ran around the buggy and Betsy, their tails wagging.

Hank came out first, lantern held high, knowing it was me beforehand. When he saw another figure in the buggy, he half turned to his daughter and said, “Git back in the house, girl!”

“Help me with him, Hank, he’s lost a lot of blood.”

“I ain’t havin’ no stranger in my house.”

“If you don’t help me this minute, we’re both going to be accused of murder.”

“What!”

Even in the poor light I could see that hit him like a blow. I hadn’t meant to say it quite that way. He hurriedly set the lantern on the porch and stumbled down the two steps in his haste. I thought together we’d get him into the house, but before I could move, Hank picked him up and carried him in. The strength of the man!

He called to Mary, told her what to do, but she was already ahead of him. A spare bedroom off the main room was where we went. I had slept there often.

First, he laid the boy on an old blanket on the floor, for he was muddy and bloody. The snowy white of the linens and colorful patchwork quilt kept their pristineness.

“Get something for bandages, Mary.”  I pulled up his shirt. The wounds weren’t bleeding. Good. “Do you have something warm, ! can put on him?”

Mary set down the ewer she’d filled with hot water next to the basin on the marble-topped stand. I used a cloth to wipe around the wounds, taking care not to disturb nature’s sealing.

She came back with some good soft cotton material and scissors. I set to bandaging him up. Hank came in, shooed her out and shut the door. He pulled off the boy’s clothes, washing him as best he could, and rubbing his arms and legs with a coarse towel. I checked him thoroughly but the gunshot wound was the main part of it. He also had bruises, probably from falling off his horse.

We dressed him in a nightshirt, pulled stockings on his feet then lifted him onto the bed. I covered him with the sheet and quilt.

We worked in silence. Hank was a taciturn man, no nonsense, and knew what to do in these circumstances.

The boy’s clothing consisted of cambric shirt, brown corduroy trousers and good boots. Nothing in his pockets. I shrugged. Highway robbery came to mind. This stranger was luckier than the other two. They’d been shot in the back. Found dead.

Hank came back with a copper warming pan filled with embers, wrapped another towel around it and stuck it next to the boy’s feet.

At the moment, that was all we could do for him. We left the door open.

“Come on, doc, have a little stew,” Mary said. “It’s nice and hot.”  The table was set with steaming bowls and bread fresh out of the oven. She put down coffee for both of us as we went to the table. The smells set my mouth to watering.

“Found him down your road a bit,” I said between mouthfuls and in answer to Hank’s question.

Everything was so good. Much better than my bachelor’s dinner any night. To survive, I knew just what homes to stop to eat at, where I could bed down for the night. Or where I just went in, did the patching up and got out as fast as possible.

Here was like the home I never had, as a boy or an adult, and as close as I’d get to having a family.

“Ever seen him before?” I asked them.

Hank’s features were tight as though he was thinking of something sour.     “You think he was coming here?”

“Doubt it. He probably just stumbled on the road and was following it.” I knew it was what Hank wanted to hear. More’n likely it was true.

“How’d he get shot?” Hank’s voice was gruff, not liking any of this. If he hadn’t been eating such good food, he’d be growling.

“You know as much as I do,” I said.

The rest of the meal we ate in silence. I checked my patient then joined Hank by the fire and lit my pipe. “His color is coming back.”

“I’ve got some broth simmering. Is he awake yet?” said Mary.

I shook my head.

Didn’t matter if it was a hurt sparrow or a hurt man, she was ready to take care of it. Knew she’d already been to the barn to see to Betsy. Probably the reason my old horse headed down the lane.

Since the boy had my usual place of repose, Hank gave me his bed and he put a bedroll for himself before the fire.

I got up a couple of times during the night to check on my patient. He hadn’t moved but he was warming up and breathing normally. Ah, the recuperative powers of the young!

Hank was awake both times, sitting in his chair, pipe in his mouth, blue tin coffee cup in hand. He just nodded to me and went back to staring into the flames.   I knew how he felt about strangers and he wasn’t taking too kindly to having one under his roof.

I slept much later than I expected to. Chalk it up to the thick curtains over the window that kept out the morning light. I hurriedly washed my face and combed my hair, looking at the old man who stared back at me from the oval, wood-framed mirror. The sun and wind had made their impressions on my face. Thinking of old made me think of my young patient.

Good smells of pancakes and maple syrup greeted me. Hank was where I’d seen him last. I guess he wasn’t leaving the stranger alone in his house–with his daughter. That’s the look that was on his face.

“He’s been babbling a bit,” said Mary. “He’s taken a little broth.” Her cheeks had a mite more color than usual. Another patient of hers on the mend.

Passing through the kitchen, I went in to see him. He was still lying flat. I took a look at his bandages. No blood. His eyes followed me as though I was the one who had shot him.

“I’m a Doc,” I said. “Found you up the road a bit.” I asked him a few questions about how he felt and was pleased with his answers.

“Why don’t you tell me who you are and what happened,” I said.

“My name’s Johnny Bell,” he answered. He looked at me, like that might mean something. “I was just riding through, looking for work. I heard the crack of the

rifle, but that’s all I remember. When I came to everything I had was gone–horse, gun, money. I started looking for a farm house. That’s all I remember.” He looked past me and I turned.

Hank stood in the doorway leaning in with his hands on either side of the door frame.

“Seems there’s been a lot of highway robberies here of late,” I said, speaking the truth. “Sounds like you were their pickins for the day.”

“Maybe.” He didn’t sound too sure that I was right.

I asked him a few more questions about how he came to be in this area, but got no better answers than the ones he’d first given me. I knew Hank wanted those questions asked, and how he wasn’t satisfied with the answers, but there it was.

 

When he was about recovered, almost a month later, he started helping Hank and Mary around the place a little. Hank still wanted him gone. Nothing to do with the manners of the boy for I could see he’d been brought up right and proper.

I got him out of there as soon as was reasonable. Fixed him up with a job in the hardware store. Clem Enderley who owned the store was laid up with a messy break of his left leg. He could still do a lot of things but he needed someone with two good legs.

gaykinmanDr. Gay Toltl Kinman has eight award nominations for her writing, including three Agatha Award nominations; several short stories in American and English magazines and anthologies; eight children’s books; a Y.A. gothic novel; two adult mysteries; several short plays produced; over one hundred and fifty articles in professional journals and newspapers; co-edited two non-fiction books; and writes three book review columns, and articles for two newspapers. Kinman has library and law degrees. http://gaykinman.com

Johnny worked out well. Clem took a shine to the boy. Seems most folks did. Hank would’ve too, under other circumstances.

Right from that first week in town, Johnny came with me out to Hank’s place, always asking first if he could. Maybe not to see Hank especially, but he didn’t show that it was for any other reason than to help them out a bit. Trying to repay them for their hospitality. He’d even bring out stuff from the store that he’d bought. Hank still wasn’t too fond of having the boy around, number one, nor of him doing things on the farm, number two. Hank was still wary of him.

The boy had something on his mind, and I didn’t have the foggiest idea as to what it was. There wasn’t anything crooked about him and he wasn’t a thief, but he was hiding something. He didn’t just come to Los Olivos by chance.

I didn’t want any of my friends getting hurt. Since I was the one who brought them all together, I wanted to follow up on my instincts. Since he came over to my cabin frequently in the evening, I had the opportunity to find out what he was up to, what his hidden past was.

He never drank too much so there was no way to get him drunk and talking. I figured I knew him as well as anyone so I asked him a few questions.

“Are you married?”

“No, sir,” he said.

“Promised?”

“No, sir.”

“Taken a shine to Mary, have you?”

“Well, sir, she’s a very nice young lady.”

“Yes, yes, but are you thinking about courting her maybe setting up housekeeping?”

“Well, no,” he said, and fidgeted about a bit, then he left early that night.


The Last Day of Summer

The shallow riverbed spread twelve feet wide on her left side and the jagged cliffs of the ravine rose sharply to her right. The bottom of her boots slipped across wet river stones as she waded through the water. It was hot out. The sides of the gorge were coated in a red dust that looked like copper, baked deep by the sun’s summer rays. She moved slowly. Her sheriff’s badge dug into her hip and she wished for her hat to keep the sun out of her face but she’d left it on her horse about a half a mile back.

The pistol was warm in her hands. She smelled salt, the freshness of the pines at the top of the ravine blowing down across the water. The sky was free of clouds. It was the last of the summer days and soon the ravine would flood.

Handel would run before that happened.

This was her last chance to apprehend him before fall descended on the valley.

There was a tree ahead of her that had been torn up by its roots and tilted at a 45 degree angle over the drying riverbed. Its branches hung lifelessly down, swaying with the breeze. She darted behind it. The ravine cave was just ahead of her. She’d seen him out foraging around it earlier but had lost track of him as she scaled the crumbling precipice of the ravine.

She was going to get him this time. There was no doubt in her mind.

 

The inside of the cave was cool and moist, a welcome respite from the heat of the day. She wiped her forehead on the back of her hand, rolled her sleeves up as she slunk against the mossy walls of the cave interior. It was slippery. She could smell the remnants of smoked tobacco. Leftover meat that had been cured with salt. Maybe a touch of moonshine.

It was the same moonshine they used to make together. She could tell by the smell, the way the dispersed air particles tasted on her lips.

He had to be nearby. Maybe sleeping off a hangover deeper down in the cave. She brought the pistol up and aimed it forward, towards the belly of the cave, when she heard a rustle of movement behind her. The skin at the back of her neck pinched. She sighed.

“Damn.”

“Don’t worry.” Handel’s voice rasped against the dampened walls. “I won’t shoot yet.”

She turned carefully, held the pistol out in front of her like a peace offering. “You saw me comin’?”

“Last day of summer, Gretch.”

A breeze from the outside kicked up a piece of her hair but it did little to cool the heat that raged throughout her body. Her mind raced. They could draw but she was at a disadvantage. Her pistol dangled between her index finger and thumb and his was rooted firmly in his palms. She was the more accurate shot, but he was faster.

Would he even shoot at her?

The last time he couldn’t. But that was before he’d killed her deputy and she’d banned him from the town for good.  “I can’t let you go this time, Handel.”

He cocked his head. A five o’clock shadow obscured the bottom part of his face and she saw the wrinkles forming around his blue eyes. “Why not? You’re the sheriff, aren’t you? You make the rules.”

“You’ve taken too many lives.”

“So have you.”

“Mine were in the name of the law.”

“Does that make it any better?”

She stopped. Her breaths came unevenly in her chest, rasping with years of raw tobacco and moonshine. Somehow whenever she was around him she found herself itching for a bottle. Like now.

Gretchen straightened.

Her eyes skimmed over the man in front of her—his hunched stance, rifle gripped tightly in his hands. His skin was an even tan color. There was a fresh scar over his left eyebrow, most likely from the altercation that had killed her deputy.

“Put the gun down,” she finally said.

He eyed her.

The rifle was an old one. He’d had it since they were teens and it tended to jam. Sometimes the trigger would lock in place and he couldn’t even fire at all. Unless he’d oiled it recently which he probably had, especially if he’d been expecting her.

Gretchen waited. Her hand shook slightly and she watched his finger tighten over the trigger before loosening. He licked his lips. The stubble on his face was still a dark brown but she wagered there would be some grays in it before the year was out.

He set the rifle on the cavern floor. “Now you.”

“No way.”

“You don’t fight lopsided like this, Gretch. It’s not who you are.”

A bird flapped its wings somewhere deep within the cavern and she felt the vibration of it stirring inside her ears. “It still wouldn’t be fair. You always beat me in hand to hand.”

“But I’m wounded this time.” He nodded down at his left knee. “Your deputy did a number on it.”

“Good. I’m glad.”

His face pinched. He shifted from one foot to another, forcing a chuckle before rolling up his sleeves. His eyes grew dark. “Then what are you waiting for?”

She stiffened. There was something about his voice in that moment that struck her—something tired, something run down. Handel would be 45 in the coming spring.

He couldn’t run forever.

Gretchen sprinted forward and the knuckles of her right hand cracked as they collided with Handel’s jaw. Her pistol fell to the floor; droplets of blood burst from his lips. He was surprised but not unprepared. Before she could hit him again, he wrenched his leg up and kneed her in the stomach. She wheezed, gasping. As she bent over his elbow came down hard between her shoulder blades.

She used all her strength to hit him horizontally, tackling him, her hands locking around the backs of his kneecaps and pulling until he tumbled backwards. He hit the cave floor hard. His head seemed to ricochet off the cool stone. Gretchen felt the air escaping his lungs and then suddenly she was punching him. Hard punches, to the face. Harder than she’d ever dared to hit him before.

His left cheek split open, then his bottom lip. She felt the mist of his blood on her face, her knuckles torn and screaming in pain but she kept hitting him.

She struck a serious blow to his temple and suddenly the glimmer in his eyes went out. Like a candle being extinguished—there in one moment and gone the next. He growled and the darkness that washed over his face melted into her. She shivered, caught a glimpse of his left hand balling into a fist at her side. Handel had a sucker punch that could push a man’s nose into his brain. Gretchen exhaled slowly. Her mind flashed back to their childhood. Hadn’t they once stolen bread from a street market and burned an abandoned wagon for firewood? He taught her how to fight, how to build, and how to skin animals for cooking.

Time had torn them in opposite directions.

Handel grunted. His fist struck her temple and she succumbed to darkness almost immediately.

 

cwaitC. Wait is a short fiction writer living just outside of New York City whose works can be read in the Horrorzine, Left Hand of the Father, Microhorror, and Smashed Cat.

When she woke up again, her head was pounding. She felt dried blood caked to the side of her face and coughed as she sat up. The smell of burning wood lingered even though the heat of the day had faded with the sun. Her chest throbbed.

Handel was gone.

She shuddered to her feet. Her pistol lay on the ground a few feet away and she ran her hand over the smooth finishing before tucking it into her waistband.

There was a trail of blood out to the riverbed, then dusty footprints that disappeared into the water. Gretchen sighed. By now he could be anywhere—as far north as the mountains, as far south as the desert of Mexico.

She shook her head. Rage blossomed in her chest as she stumbled over the slippery river pebbles and over to the section of rock face that she’d scaled earlier. The dust had settled and it smelled like pine. Like salt and fresh grass. Her fingers scraped across the jagged outcropping as she climbed.

He would come back next summer. He always did.


Trouble Comes to Dover Plains Part Two

Mackay threw Andrew over the saddle of John Hardy’s horse and led them both up to the jail on Front Street at the edge of town.

Dover Plains was a prosperous town by Montana standards. Lumber, mining, farming and ranching thrived all around it, so the town had the resources to build a solid jail to house its criminals. After leaving the cavalry, Mackay came back to Dover Plains and was elected sheriff. He made sure a jail was built to his standards: a two-storey stone building that was damned near impossible to burn down.

Mackay had dumped Andrew on the cot in a cell in the back. The young man had barely stirred.

A familiar knock came at the jailhouse door before a rattle of keys opened it. His father, Brendan “Pappy” Mackay, came in and shut the door behind him. He held a Winchester rifle in his right hand. Pappy was short but broad with the arms of a blacksmith and the temperament of a man half his age. The full white beard made him look seventy, but he’d only turned fifty that year.

Although he’d been in this country since before the War between the States, Pappy had never lost his Longford brogue. “Heard you’ve got yourself a spot of trouble, boy.”

“Nothing I can’t handle,” Mackay said as he locked Andrew’s cell. “Get back to your hardware store and keep your head down.”

The old man grinned. “Bullshit. There’s a fight comin’ and I aim to be part of it.”

Which was why he didn’t want his father anywhere near the jail when Hardy’s men got there. The old man’s fighting spirit had gotten him a chest full of medals when he’d served with Sherman, but Mackay didn’t want him – or his mouth – sparking a fight with Hardy’s men. “I’m shorthanded, so I need you to get the other shopkeepers ready when Hardy’s men come to town. Chances are, someone’s already ridden out to tell his men what happened, so when they come, they’ll come shooting.”

The elder Mackay clearly didn’t like being dismissed. “I don’t like you bein’ here alone. Where’s Billy Blue and Sim?”

“Running the Scanlon boys down to Butte for trial,” Mackay said of his two deputies. “Don’t worry about me. But I’ll need you and the others to kill Hardy’s men if things go sideways.”

Mackay had never won an argument with his father in all his twenty-seven years, so he was surprised when Pappy relented. “Think things will break that way?”

Mackay took his Winchester down from the rifle rack on the wall. “We’ll find out soon enough.”

*          *          *          *          *

            Mackay was in his rocking chair on the jailhouse porch when he heard the riders coming down the hill into town. He knew a man his age was too young for a rocking chair, which caused no shortage of consternation and amusement among the citizens of Dover Plains. But the gentle rocking motion served to calm him in ways neither liquor nor women nor tobacco ever could. And if there was ever a time he’d need calm, it was now.

Mackay had figured if Hardy’s men rode in with the cattle, it meant they didn’t know what had happened to their boss. But since they were riding into town alone, that meant word of the shooting must’ve reached them.

That meant they’d be ready for battle.

So was Mackay. The Winchester was propped up against the wall beside him and the Colt on his belly holster was loaded.

Mackay kept rocking slow and steady as he watched seven men rein in their mounts to a trot when they reached Front Street. Horses and men alike looked trail lean and dusty from their long trek up to Montana.

The jailhouse was easy to spot from the edge of town and it didn’t take long for them to ride his way.

Mackay didn’t get up to greet them. He just kept rocking instead. A man in a rocking chair was easier to talk to than a sheriff with his hand on his gun. Especially when that sheriff had just killed the man who was supposed to pay them.

In Mackay’s experience, odd numbers usually meant one clear leader of a group. This group was no different. A thin, tan man who looked more vaquero than cowpuncher surprised him by spurring his horse ahead of the others. “You Mackay?”

Mackay rocked, nodded. “Sheriff Mackay. And I take it you boys work for John Hardy.”

“I am Ricardo Narvaez,” the man said, “and we did work for John Hardy. That is, right up until you killed him.”

Mackay saw that Narvaez’s eyes were dark, yet clear with intent and purpose. Trying to buffalo this man would be a waste of time, so he kept his tone civil and plain. “I knew John Hardy pretty well. And seeing as how you rode up all the way up here with him, you knew him pretty well, too. He wasn’t an easy man to back down.”

“Not when he was in the right,” Narvaez said. “And from what we’ve heard, he had every right to kill the drunken bastard who spat on him.”

The six other riders nodded and grumbled their consent.

“Maybe so out on the trail, but in my town, drunks get jailed, not killed. I gave Hardy plenty of room to let it go but he went for his gun instead. And I’ve got the witnesses to prove it.”

Narvaez leaned over and spat into the thoroughfare. “That’s what I think of your witnesses. Cowards who’d put their name to anything you wanted. Hell, we heard John didn’t even clear leather before you gunned him down.”

“That’s right. I took his gun out of his holster right after, along with the money he had on him. Five hundred dollars, cash money. I’ll hand his whole rig over to anyone who can prove they have a rightful claim to his property.”

“We’re here to claim his property right now,” Narvaez said. “And we’re laying claim to that drunk, too.”

Mackay looked down the street to where the cattle pens were. “Looks like the cattle broker’s gone home for the evening, boys, but you or your paymaster can see him first thing tomorrow about squaring away whatever pay you boys have coming to you.”

“And the drunk?”

Mackay kept rocking. “Afraid you’re going to be disappointed on that score.”

When the six men other men looked at each other for assurance, he knew they weren’t fighters. They were in this for the money and Mackay had already settled that question fairly.

But Narvaez only looked at Mackay. “John Hardy wanted the drunk, but he was just one man. How do you think you’d fare against seven?”

Mackay kept rocking. “About the same.”

“That so?”

Mackay stopped rocking. “There’s only one way to find out.”

Narvaez looked at Mackay but said to the others, “You boys head back to camp. Tell the others we’ll bring the cattle into town at first light.”

The rider on Narvaez’s left looked relieved. “That’s fine, Ricky. But what are you gonna do?”

Narvaez smiled. “I’m going to keep talking to the sheriff here. See if I can’t make him listen to reason.”

The sheriff and the vaquero kept looking at each other as the six riders wheeled their mounts and went back to the herd. It wasn’t long before it was just the two of them on Front Street. Dusk had only just begun, but the entire town was already quiet and the boardwalks empty.

Narvaez sat up straighter in the saddle, showing Mackay he wore his gun on his belly, just like Mackay. “I’d wager you have the town buttoned down pretty tight, don’t you marshal? That on our account?”

It was Mackay’s turn to smile. “I’m just a sheriff, Mr. Narvaez. And Dover Plains is a careful town. Started up by old war vets like my father who believe there is prudence in precaution.”

maccauleyTerrence P. McCauley is an award-winning writer of crime fiction. His latest novel, SLOW BURN is currently available from Noir Nation Books. His first book, PROHIBITION, published by Airship 27, is a full-length novel set in the colorful, exciting world of 1930 New York City. Terry Quinn is an ex-boxer turned mob enforcer who must use his brains instead of his brawn to figure out who is trying to undermine his boss’s criminal empire and why.Quinn’s boxing career is also featured in a prequel – FIGHT CARD: AGAINST THE ROPES – published by Fight Card Books.

Terrence has had short stories featured in Thuglit, Action: Pulse Pounding Tales Vol. 1 and 2, Atomic Noir and Big Pulp among other places. He recently compiled GRAND CENTRAL NOIR, an anthology where 100% of the proceeds go directly to a non-profit called God’s Love We Deliver.

A proud native of The Bronx, NY, he is currently working on his next work of fiction.

“John Hardy was a prudent man, too,” Narvaez said. “Taught me a lot about life. How to stand up for what’s right and put an end to what’s wrong.”

“Words to live by. But I ordered him to walk away and he went for his gun instead. Now he’s dead and there’s nothing that’ll bring him back.”

“Maybe, but the dead can be avenged.”

“Seen my share of death, son. Never saw any avenging in it. Just more death.”

Narvaez wasn’t smiling anymore. “John Hardy was like a father to me.”

“He was a good man,” Mackay said. “That’s why you ought to learn from his mistake and ride on.”

“He was full of drink when you shot him. I’m not.”

“Neither am I.”

Narvaez’s hand moved toward his gun. Mackay drew from his rocking chair and fired twice. The first shot hit the vaquero in the chest. The second in the throat. The gunfire made Narvaez’s horse rear up and drop him from the saddle before bolting back up the hill to the cattle camp outside of town.

Mackay stood up and slowly stepped off the boardwalk; his gun aimed down at Narvaez. The vaquero was still alive, but gasping for air through the hole in his throat. His gun arm twitched up, but Mackay’s boot pinned it down. Not even death dimmed the hatred in Narvaez’s dark eyes.

“You forced this,” Mackay said. “Not me.”

With a final twitch and a gurgle, Narvaez joined his hero in whatever lay beyond death.

Like ants from an ant hill, a crowd quickly filled in on Front Street to see what had happened. Pappy Mackay was the first one across the street. His Winchester still in hand.

“Think that’s the end of it?” he asked his son.

“Should be.” Mackay watched Narvaez’s horse gallop up the distant hill out of town. The sky had taken on a rich evening hue. Too pretty a night for so much death.

He emptied the two dead cartridges and replaced them with new rounds. “And if it isn’t, I’ll be ready.”


Trouble Comes to Dover Plains Part One

Dover Plains, Montana – 1877

“Tin star or not, Mackay, I’m gonna kill that son of a bitch. And I’m going to kill him right here and now.”

The gamblers and drunkards and whores in the Tin Horn Saloon quietly pushed their chairs away from their tables as John Hardy made his declaration.

But Sheriff Aaron Mackay stayed by Andy Johnson’s side, even though the young man had been passed out drunk since before Mackay had gotten there. “No one needs to die here today. Not Young Andy, here. And not you, either.”

The cattleman’s hand quivered as he pointed at the sodden lump at the table. “That little bastard threw a drink in my face – the very same goddamned drink I bought him – and then he spat on me. Did you hear what I said, Mackay? He spat, goddamn it! And for no good reason, either.”

Mackay knew arguing would just make Hardy angrier than he already was. “And he’s going to spend the night in jail for it. I’m going to give him a heavy fine, too. But the boy buried his father today, Johnny. If a man ever deserved any leeway….”

“Ain’t no leeway when it comes to spitting on me.” Hardy lowered his hand toward the holster on his right hip. “Now stand aside and let me do what needs doing.”

But Mackay didn’t move. He didn’t have to. His hand had been on his belt the whole time, next to the belly holster to the left of his belt buckle. The butt of his Colt already aimed in Hardy’s direction. Mackay had taken to wearing his gun that way back when he was in the cavalry. He liked the edge the easy draw gave him either on horseback or on foot.

“Don’t do anything stupid, Johnny. You won’t live long enough to regret it.”

Hardy’s face quivered as his eyes narrowed. “I’ve never backed down from any man.”

“I know. I’ve heard that before.”

“And I’ll be damned if I start now.”

“Yeah,” Mackay said. “I’ve heard that before, too.”

He’d always known John Hardy to be a reasonable man whenever he’d come to Dover Plains to sell his cattle. He tried one last time to appeal to that reason now. “You’re not a bad man, Johnny. You’re a trail boss used to campfire scrapes and drunken cowhands getting rowdy. But you’re not on the trail now and I’m not one of your cowhands. Don’t make me kill you.”

Mackay never took his eyes off Hardy, but he could feel the mood in the saloon change. None of the drunks or whores or gamblers made a sound, but their fear and expectation was palpable, like a strong prairie wind pushing Hardy toward the decision he’d come to. If it had just been Hardy, Mackay and the boy, Mackay figured Hardy might’ve listened to reason.

But it wasn’t just the three of them and reason didn’t apply. Hardy had an audience now and pride was involved.

Mackay had seen pride kill far too many people to doubt what would happen next.

Henry’s hand jerked toward his pistol.

Mackay drew and fired two shots through his chest before Hardy cleared leather.

Hardy’s body tumbled backward through the batwing doors onto the boardwalk on Front Street. With his Colt still in hand, Mackay pushed his way through the customers of the Tin Horn who’d managed to find their legs again as they rushed to look at the freshly dead man.

Mackay pushed through the batwing doors, gun first. But one look at Hardy’s vacant eyes and he knew the cattleman would never threaten anyone again. He slid the gun from Hardy’s holster anyway. Dead men can’t hurt you, but Aaron Mackay had never been one for taking chances.

As was his custom, he searched Hardy’s pockets for valuables. He liked to collect all property and catalogue it in front of witnesses so no one could claim anything had been stolen later. He found a wad of cash in the inside pocket of the cattleman’s jacket. A quick count came up five hundred dollars.

A crowd of Tin Horn customers and regular townspeople had gathered to gape at the body of John Hardy and at the man who had shot him. Dead bodies weren’t foreign to the town of Dover Plains. It was why they’d hired a man like Mackay to be sheriff in the first place.

But in the two years since Mackay had returned to Dover Plains and became sheriff, dead men on Front Street had become an infrequent sight in this small Montana town.

Mackay holstered his weapon and held up the cash for all to see. “I want all of you to see that I’ve taken five hundred dollars from John Hardy’s pockets. I will hold this money and his horse until someone lays rightful claim to his possessions.”

Murmurs started among the crowd like coffee percolating in a pot until Sam Warren, the owner of the Tin Horn, stepped forward. “Aaron, I…”

But Mackay was in no mood to hear the fat man’s nonsense. “I ought to lock you up, too, for letting young Andy get drunk enough to start all this. Just because his old man left him a pile of money when he died doesn’t give you the right to take it from him in one night. Christ, Sam. We just buried his father just this morning.”

maccauleyTerrence P. McCauley is an award-winning writer of crime fiction. His latest novel, SLOW BURN is currently available from Noir Nation Books. His first book, PROHIBITION, published by Airship 27, is a full-length novel set in the colorful, exciting world of 1930 New York City. Terry Quinn is an ex-boxer turned mob enforcer who must use his brains instead of his brawn to figure out who is trying to undermine his boss’s criminal empire and why.Quinn’s boxing career is also featured in a prequel – FIGHT CARD: AGAINST THE ROPES – published by Fight Card Books.

Terrence has had short stories featured in Thuglit, Action: Pulse Pounding Tales Vol. 1 and 2, Atomic Noir and Big Pulp among other places. He recently compiled GRAND CENTRAL NOIR, an anthology where 100% of the proceeds go directly to a non-profit called God’s Love We Deliver.

A proud native of The Bronx, NY, he is currently working on his next work of fiction.

Warren, a fat little man who seemed to always be drying his hands in a bar apron, surprised Mackay by taking the rebuke well. “There’s time enough for us to talk about my failings as a proprietor, Aaron, but there’s more pressing matters facing you at the moment. Because John Hardy’s men will be coming into town with the cattle he was driving up here.”

Mackay had already figured that. But it didn’t make shooting Hardy any less necessary. “Any idea on how long Hardy’s been in town?”

Warren pointed at the money in Mackay’s hand. “Long enough to get an advance on the cattle he’s bringing. Maybe a couple of hours at most. He came in here all smiles and bought the house a couple of rounds. Him and young Andy seemed to be getting along just fine until the boy took offense to something and started all the trouble. That’s when I sent someone to get you. Hardy came back heeled just after you got here.”

Some men would’ve asked for all the particulars, but Mackay knew particulars didn’t matter anymore. Because John Hardy was dead and his men would soon be bringing his cattle to town. They’d be looking for their payday and, most likely, for the man who’d killed their boss.

Mackay spotted a burly red nose named Robinson just inside the doorway of the saloon and said, “You sober enough to go fetch Doc Ridley?”

Robinson shrugged. “Probably.”

“Then do it. Tell him to bring his wagon and haul Hardy away until his men come to collect him. And no drinking along the way, or I swear to Christ, you’ll be lying on the table next to him.”

Robinson went off and Mackay said to Warren: “I want you to write that down on a sheet of paper what happened here and sign it. I want everyone else who can sign or make their mark to do the same. Bring it over to me at the jail as soon as possible. You’ve got half an hour. Any delay, and what I just said to Robinson goes for you, too.”

The bar owner looked genuinely hurt. “Jesus, Aaron. No need to threaten me. I’m only tryin’ to help.”

Mackay looked back into the bar and saw young Andrew still passed out at the table. The drunken bastard had no notion of how close he’d come to dying. “You’ve helped enough for one day.”


A Smile on a Hot Afternoon

Samuel Dorner was eight years old when he witnessed his first public hanging from the withering execution oak tree on a dry, dusty afternoon. The hanging man swung like retribution’s pendulum and the youngster, having scrapped hard with the other children for a front row view, took a good long look into his lifeless bloodshot eyes, buried deep into the sockets of a face with a serene smile. Samuel surmised that the last thing the dead man saw was a cheerful crowd with all their attention fixed on him and he took a minute to imagine this experience for himself. A smile grew across his lips and he turned to scan the crowd for his daddy, at the back of the rabble, laughing with the grinning Sheriff Peterson, who stood ogling women and winking at other fellas who’d come and pat him on the back from time to time.

The preacher, a wiry elderly gentleman dressed in black cloth, shepherded the children away from the creaking corpse as soon as its bowels emptied. They followed him to a small patchy mound and sat scattered about his feet. The preacher, in a stern, solemn tone asked, ‘Now children, what have we learned from what we witnessed here today?’ He inspected the youngster’s faces; some drying their eyes and others with blank expressions etched into drained complexions. Apart from Samuel Dorner who was smiling and shuffling grit between his fingers. ‘Why are you smiling, Samuel?’

‘The man. The man was smiling. And he was dead. It’s funny’. The preacher’s brow furrowed and he flicked off beads of sweat with the tip of his thumb. ‘You think he was happy, Samuel? To die like that for being a thief? His last moments on God’s beautiful land, his brothers and sisters applauding his demise, you think he found it enjoyable?’

‘I’m sure he did. Why else would he be smiling?’

‘The muscles in the face please themselves when you cannot control them no more young man, and whatever your face says when your heart stops beating means absolutely nothing to nobody. Now, again, what have you learned, boy?’

Samuel’s smile faltered and he narrowed his eyes; flicking them toward the preacher he said, ‘I learned that if you’re gonna steal some, you’d best be smart enough to not get caught. And when you want it to be your time to go you might as well go on the tree. Did you see how many people came to wave him away? A thief, too. When my momma died, but three people was there besides me and my aunt. Daddy was away at the saloon and you wasn’t there neither. I heard you say that time to daddy that you couldn’t do nothing but pray and for him to find you when he had the money to do the funeral’. The preacher considered the boy and chewed on the inside of his cheek. He shook his head and dragged his stare away from Samuel to address the other children, none of whom were listening. ‘The lesson is, don’t steal. Hello? Are any of you paying attention?’ he croaked. He looked at their blank faces again and then turned towards the saloon. He shouted, ‘Oh fuck it’, and wandered off muttering under his breath.

 

Samuel found his father swaying drunk and cackling hysterically at something the Sheriff, also staggering, had whispered in his ear. They set off walking to the newspaper office and he trailed them, kicking up dust clouds in the searing heat.

The gruff beard of the newsman covered his lips and beady blue eyes stared over top and he said to the sheriff, ‘What am I publishing about the dead man?’ The Sheriff nudged Samuel’s father’s ribs and said,

‘He’s definitely dead. The Doc says he’s pretty sure it weren’t no hunting accident’. They burst out laughing and the newsman looked back and forth at them wearily, ignoring the boy lingering at the doorway.

‘Seriously, Peterson’.

‘Sorry, Tim. Just couldn’t resist. Okay, that dumb motherfucker –‘

‘Dumb? You mean mentally challenged. The fella wasn’t all alright was he, Peterson?’

‘Well, no. Anyway, that…the fella was caught in the act of stealing old man Steinlen’s cattle. The old man caught him good right in the middle of his misdoings and the…fella shoots old man Steinlen. We hear the gunshot and surprise him, take his gun off of him and haul him into jail. He don’t admit to nothing, just sitting there with a goofy grin on his face all the time. Finally me and the deputy is in with him and we says did you do it and the boy says yes. End of story.’ The newsman looked up from his writing and said,

‘And it’s right isn’t it that old man Steinlen was shot in the back?’ Sheriff Peterson stared at him, itched his chin and said,

‘Well, yes that’s right. He must have turned for some reason, maybe to fetch his gun to scare the thief away or whatever and he took one in the back.’

‘So, he was shot in the back, then you showed up and grabbed the thief.’

‘Problem here Tim? It’s the way it occurred from my memory, should it serve me so well’.

‘No, no problem here Sheriff. One final question though. Old man Steinlen, not having any offspring and all, got all that land and cattle and that big old house. Now, with nobody to look out for it, who’s it gonna fall on for upkeep?’ the newsman asked.

‘Well it’d be a dereliction of my duty to let that go to waste and ruin wouldn’t it. I’ll burden myself with that responsibility from this very day. You go on and announce that in your story, Tim.’

The newsman considered the Sheriff, smoothed his beard and said, ‘It’s much roomier than that tin can you’ve got now ain’t it just Sheriff? And I suppose you’ll be consoling the dead man’s grieving mother.’ Samuel watched as his father snickered and nudged Peterson in the ribs. Peterson struggled to contain his dirty grin, coughed and said,

‘Of course. My burdens are many but I’ve still got the back to bear it’. The newsman put down his pen, stood and said,

‘After all, he was only seventeen. And mental wise, barely a boy. I’ve everything I need. Thanks for your time Sheriff Peterson. Deputy Dorner’. He opened the door and stared at the floor as they left the room. Samuel could sense something wasn’t right and looked at the newsman as he followed the men out. The newsman took a deep breath and forced a wisped smile at the boy before closing the door.

Samuel thought back to the smile splayed across the dead man’s face and hard as he tried he couldn’t stop tears from rolling down his cheeks. He dabbed at his eyes with his sleeve, following his father and the Sheriff back into town. They arrived at the wooden platform of the saloon entrance and let the door swing without turning back. Samuel watched them disappear, trudged around back and lay atop the hay wagon, drifting into restless sleep.

*

Shouting and scuffling followed a barked, ‘You have troubles, take them elsewhere now, you hear? This joint’s a peaceful un, nevermind you’re the law. Should know damn better you pair of no good sum’ bitches’, from the proprietor. The deputy and the Sheriff stumbled out and growled at each other, waking Samuel. He climbed down, brushing hay off his clothes and through bleary eyes watched the two men wrestle. The Sheriff shoved his father to the dusty ground and turned back to the proprietor to tell him to watch his mouth however he’d already gone back in, tiring of their antics.

Samuel’s father scrambled back to his feet and hissed, ‘You got to give me something. I stood with you every step of the way God dammit. Shit, if I wasn’t there, you’d never have got the retard anywhere near Steinlen’s.’

‘Shut up boy, I owe you shit. You almost fucked the thing up anyway, not even man enough to shoot the old man proper like. In the back? I mean, that’s stupid. You’re almost as dumb as that retard. I owe you shit, fact is you nearly blown it. Now calm down. Tell you what, you can sweeten up the retard’s mother, I’ll leave that to you? How’s that?’ The Sheriff offered with his dirty grin. The deputy thought for a moment and returned the smile.

‘Throw in a few Longhorn Steer and I’ll shake your hand on it’.

‘Hard bargainer. Slick boy, I’ll give you that. Done deal partner’ he slurred. They shook hands and walked through the town with their arms draped over each other’s shoulders.

Samuel thought about following until the image of his mother came to mind. He fought off nausea and ran to the news office.

*

The dead man’s mother peered out of the window of her timber shack and trembled as she watched the two lawmen stagger up to her door. They walked into the house and sprawled out adjacent chairs. Deputy Dorner slipped immediately into a drunken sleep. The Sheriff grinned at her. She folded hers arms and shakily said, ‘Just what the hell do you want’.

The Sheriff straightened out his clothes and said, ‘I’m awfully sorry for your loss Ma’am. Must be hard losing the boy. I mean, he weren’t goin’ be up to much being simple and all, but..still. I mean you got to see it from my viewpoint, Ma’am. He was bad. And this is my patch and I gotta keep everybody safe, you know?’ She listened intently as her rage built,

‘How dare you. My boy was innocent as the night is dark. He was innocent, innocent by God in ways you’d never be able to comprehend you drunken fool’, she cried, pointing. The Sheriff held up his hands, smiled and said, ‘Well, whoa now Ma’am. I was just trying to explain my position. And I gotta tell you I thought the same to be completely honest. See I figured he’d not even know what to do with Steer if he even had stolen ‘em. But it was my deputy here’, he said, nodding his head to the snoring form, ‘that dealt with it. Dealt with everything. I mean he told me he’d had to go hard on the boy for the confession to flow, you know. Busted his hand real bad on your boy’s thick skull’, the Sheriff let out a laugh, ‘but I had my doubts. And in my eyes, and indeed in the eyes of Our Lord I’ve come to offer you a tooth for a tooth.’

lasykesL.A. Sykes is a writer from Greater Manchester who’s works include his debut short story collection Through A Shattered Lens, I Saw and the novella The Hard Cold Shoulder out now in all formats through Thunderune Publishing’s crime noir arm. He’s been up at Shotgun Honey, Powder Burn Flash and others and has an episode coming up at Mark Slade and Frank Larnerd’s Blackout City Podcast while he works on his first novel.

The Sheriff reached to his hip and handed over his Derringer to the weeping woman. ‘I tried to figure a way to let the law deal with this bastard but they won’t believe the only way I know your boy is innocent is because I can see the truth in your eyes when you say so Ma’am. That won’t move no judge in this great country though, not a one. So, I offer you the chance to even the score and we’ll concoct a little tale between ourselves as to why you ended up shooting him’. The Sheriff smiled.

The woman stared at the smile, sobbed and shot the sleeping Deputy three times in the chest as the door burst open. She dropped to her knees crying, the gun skittering into the corner under the dead man’s chair. The newsman pointed his revolver at the Sheriff and said, ‘Move. I’m begging you to go for that there gun. Reach for it, go on. I want the satisfaction of blowing your head to bits instead of waiting on the Marshals’. The Sheriff twisted his face, looking back and forth between the gun on the floor and the gun pointed at him. He spat and put his hands on his head. The door creaked open and Samuel peeked inside. The newsman shouted, ‘Out, boy!’ and kicked shut the door.

*

A week later Samuel fought the other children to get the best view on the front row, yards from the withering oak tree. The crowd roared and cheered. Samuel looked into the swinging Sheriff’s dead eyes, down to the smile fixed on his mouth. The badge on his lapel glistened in the noon sun. The preacher rested his hand on his shoulder and asked, ‘What have you learned from this here event, boy?’ Samuel said,

‘I learnt a smile don’t mean a damn thing’.


Six O’Clock Draw

Daisy Bateman, her face half covered with a scarf, entered Parker’s General Store. She purposefully came into town on this morning because she knew it was Peter Hutchins’s day off. The last thing she wanted was to see Peter. The thought of it brought shivers. Daisy’s plan was to pick up a new coffee pot and get back home as quickly as possible. She grabbed the first pot she saw and walked toward the cash register. The back door of Parker’s slammed shut. Daisy heard footsteps.

“Be right there. Sorry ‘bout that. Quick stop to the outhouse, but I’m back now and whoa…”

Daisy froze. It was Peter Hutchins!

“Sis? Is that you? Why the scarf? It must be nearin’ a hundred degrees out there for gosh sakes.”

“P-P-Peter, you’re w-w-working today? I didn’t. I mean, I wouldn’t have…”

“Sis, what’s wrong? Is it Mary? What happened? Did something happen to my little niece? Oh, I had a feeling something happened to her.”

Daisy placed the coffee pot down and did her feeble best to compose herself. “Peter, dear, you’re working today. How nice. That’s a surprise.”

Peter Hutchins walked out from around the counter and gave his big sister a hug. “Old man Parker wasn’t feeling too well, so he asked me to come in and work. I could always use the extra dollar.” Hutchins took a step back. “What’s wrong, Daisy? Something ain’t right. Is it Mary? Why is your face covered?”

“Don’t, Peter. Please, just don’t. Mary is fine. I’m okay. Honest.”

Peter Hutchins was having none of it. After their father died when Peter was only 13- years old and Daisy sixteen, Peter began looking after his big sister. That was a decade ago. Their Ma had done her best to raise the two children, but over the years Peter continued to play the role of “big brother” and substitute father. Peter grabbed at the scarf and pulled it away from Daisy’s face. Daisy tried to hide the bruise with her hand, but she was too late. “Oh, my lord!” screamed Peter as he took hold of Daisy’s hand, gently removing it from her face. “What in the world happened to you?”

Daisy tried to take a step back. “Nuthin’, Peter, nuthin’ at all.”

“That don’t look like no nuthin’ to me.”

“It was an accident. Honest. It was Sparky, the big colt Jack just traded for. Silly me, no matter how many times Jack warned me, I bent down too close behind the horse and I musta scared him. He kicked me with his…”

“Daisy, you just stop right there. You want me to believe that bruise by your mouth is from a horse kick?”

Daisy swallowed hard. “It’s the truth, Peter. Please, let me buy the coffee pot and get. Ma is watching Mary and I’ve got to…”

While Peter’s hand held onto Daisy, he noticed blistering and redness on her wrist. He pulled back her sleeve, revealing burns and open wounds. “Daisy, you tell me what’s going on right now! I mean it. Is it Jack? I know its Jack! I’m going to kill that no good husband of yours!”

“Peter, please,” she pleaded between tears. “It ain’t Jack. Let this go. I’m fine.”

“What happened to you, Daisy?”

Daisy looked faint. Peter brought over a wooden stool just in time. His sister collapsed into it. “I’m so scared. It was last night. Jack was, well, into the liquor again. He came home full of whiskey. He accused me of all kinds of things. Oh, Peter, I’m so ashamed.”

Peter stood next to his sister, his arm around her shoulder. “Keep going, Daisy.”

“He said I was a terrible mother to Mary and a terrible cook. Said I couldn’t even make a cup of coffee. He p-poured hot coffee over my arm,” she struggled to get the words out, “and then h-h-hit me in the m-mouth with the coffee pot.” Daisy was full-blown crying. “He s-s-smashed the pot, and told me if-f-f I know what’s good for m-me, I’d buy a new coffee pot and n-n-not say a word ‘bout this to anyone. It’s all my fault, Peter.”

Peter Hutchins was hotter than a campfire. “Let’s git over to Doc Mathews right now so he can take a look at you. I’m fixin’ to do a little talkin’ to Jack. This ain’t the first time he’s done this to you, but I’ll promise you it’ll be the last.”

“No, Peter. He’ll hurt you. Please, for my sake, s-s-stay away from him.”

“For your sake, Sis, no.”

* * *

     The regulars were gathered at the Double Eagle Saloon drinking, smoking, laughing, playing cards, and just whoopin’ it up. Peter Hutchins pushed through the swinging double wooden doors and headed for a table in the rear, next to the bar. No one paid him heed. “Get up, Jack!”

Black Jack Bateman ignored the command. He was holding two-pair, Kings over tens. He flipped another silver dollar onto the middle of the table. “Raise ya another dolla.” Then, he removed the cigar from the corner of his mouth, kissed the dancehall gal sitting on his lap and asked her, but loud enough for everyone to hear, “Stella honey, did someone say somethin’ to me?

The other players dropped their cards and turned toward Hutchins. Stella stood, pushing down and smoothing out her dress.

“I said, get up, Jack!”

Bateman stood and faced Hutchins.  Black Jack stood six feet, three inches and towered over Peter Hutchins. “Now, what do we have here? My little brother-in-law, what do you know? Fellas, you all know little Peter, right?” He stuck the cigar in his mouth. “This better be good, Peter, you just cost me a nice pot. I have two…”

With that, Peter threw a looping right toward Jack’s chin, but Jack easily blocked it with a left and socked Peter across his cheek. Peter Hutchins went down hard. He looked up at Black Jack. Peter spit sawdust. He rubbed his cheek and worked his mouth around, opening it wide and closing it shut. It felt as though buzzards were hovering over the saloon. “You’re going to pay for this, Jack, with your life! Tonight, six o’clock, you and me, one bullet each, one man left standing.” Peter got up and dusted himself off. “Six o’clock, sharp!”

* * *

     Word of the gun duel spread quickly. By late afternoon, the small town of River Foot Run was becoming the center of the universe, an unwanted tourist attraction, a perverse coliseum for the morbidly curious from nearby towns and territories. Loners and drifters from parts unknown had suddenly taken up spots along the hardened dirt road that comprised River Foot Run. Women packed picnic baskets. Some brought along their children. By five o’clock, hundreds of people had gathered and the entire street was overflowing. Those who came later found spots up in trees and on rooftops.

In the sheriff’s office, Daisy Bateman pleaded with Sheriff Hank Hilton. “Sheriff, I beg you, stop this before it’s too late. Jack will kill Peter. Peter is no match for him. This entire thing is my fault.”

Sheriff Hilton reached out, gently touching Daisy’s chin. Inwardly, he cringed at the nasty bruise on her face. “Daisy, this is a kin matter. It’s not for the law. I can’t rightly lock a man up for accusations or for sayin’ things. There ain’t nothin’ I can do.”

“How can you say that? Sheriff, Peter is going to get hisself killed. Jack Bateman is a brute. If you don’t stop this, I will.”

“Now, hold on just a minute, Daisy. You know I was a very close friend with your Pa before he died, right? And, I remain the closest of friends to your Ma. In fact, we just spoke about an hour ago. There is one thing I know, and that is your Pa was very proud of Peter. He taught him well how to be a man and to stand up for himself and to defend what he knows to be right no matter what the consequences.” Daisy gave him a confused look. The sheriff continued, “What I’m trying to say, Daisy is that your Pa would not want me to interfere with Peter and what he intends to do. If I did, Peter would never forgive me and he’d never forgive himself. We have to let him go through with this. He knows what he’s doing.”

The burn on Daisy’s wrist throbbed and was causing her great discomfort. She patted the bandages the doctor had applied earlier. “I can’t let Peter be shot down in cold blood. I won’t let it happen.”

Daisy began to turn away, but the Sheriff took hold of her. “I’m sorry, I can’t let you interfere. I’m going to lock you up in the jail until it’s over. Believe me, Daisy this is the best for everyone.” With Daisy behind bars, the Sheriff walked out of his office and took his place just outside his office. Daisy was screaming, but no one among the throngs of onlookers heard or paid any attention.

* * *

     At five minutes to six o’clock, the two men took their positions in the middle of River Foot Run. Black Jack Bateman adjusted his gun belt, bent his knees slightly, and smiled. He was impressed with the number of spectators. “One bullet. That’s all I got.”

Peter Hutchins stared straight ahead. “One bullet.”

At four minutes to six o’clock, Bateman dug his heels into the dirt. “It ain’t too late to call this off, Peter. There ain’t no shame backing out now. Folks would understand. Hell, no one will call you yeller or nuthin’ like that. Folks know I’m one of the best shots in this territory. Ha, supposedly even killed a few men in my time. How ‘bout you, Peter? Have you ever killed even a rabbit with a gun?” There was laughter amongst the crowd. Peter Hutchins said nothing. He stared straight ahead. Fact was, Bateman was correct. He’d killed a number of men during his violent lifetime. Peter was a novice when it came to shooting a pistol.

At three minutes before six o’clock, a man standing next to Sheriff Hilton gave him a nudge and whispered, “Sheriff, maybe this thing has gone far enough. Maybe you should put a halt to this here. No one wants to see the kid get shot.”

The sheriff didn’t take his eyes off the two men in the street. “They’re kin, Barney.”

At two minutes before the six o’clock hour, Jack Bateman squinted. “Last chance, kid. Don’t be a fool. You don’t stand a chance against me. Call it quits before it’s too late. I’m giving you one last opportunity. This is it.”

Peter Hutchins stared straight ahead. He didn’t move.

One minute to go. The entire town was at a standstill. It appeared as if everyone was posing for a photographer’s camera, but the anticipated blast would not be coming from a flashbulb.

bruceharrisBruce Harris is the author of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: ABout Type (www.batteredbox.com). His fiction has appeared (or will appear) in A Twist of Noir, Flash Fiction Offensive, Out of the Gutter Online, Pine Tree Mysteries, Yellow Mama, and Over My Dead Body!

Now seconds away. Both men facing each other in the street began slowly moving their arms toward their pistols. With the slightest movement of his head and a shift of his eyes, Sheriff Hilton looked up toward the old abandoned barn behind the bank. The slightest trace of a smile crept across the lawman’s mouth.

Six o’clock. Jack Bateman and Peter Hutchins both drew their pistols. Bateman showed tobacco-stained teeth. Experience told him he was a fraction of a second quicker.

A shotgun blast shattered the silence and Bateman’s skull. He crumpled to the street. Bone pieces mixed with tumbleweed. Blood dotted the dirt. Everyone, including young Peter Hutchins, turned their heads toward the direction from which the blast had come. They all stared at the upper window of the red barn, the same site Sheriff Hilton had looked at seconds prior. There, holding a smoldering shotgun was Ma Hutchins. She tossed the weapon down into a pile of hay. “Jack Bateman, you’re a vile beast. You got my baby girl pregnant,” she said to no one but herself. “You had you a shotgun wedding. Now, you got you a shotgun death!”


Two Steps Over the Line

A Model-T chugged into the shimmering horizon of Albert Hunsicker’s land. There was time to decide if he needed the Flat Top Colt .44 sitting next to the pitcher of lemonade on the small table. People on the border should know better than to come unannounced.

His Mexican, Ruiz, was putting up a picket fence on the side of the porch, whispering Spanish prayers to God.

“Do that in your head. I’m trying to relax.”

Ruiz looked up at him from his work, to take a small swallow from his canteen. Touches of perspiration salted his face. The sun seemed to have been burned into him at birth. “If I was working on the windmill, you wouldn’t have to hear me. Why don’t you let me work on this in the evening? It’s much closer.”

“You may not question The Lord, but you never have a problem questioning me.”

Ruiz’s brown eyes met his blue.  They both thought about the further discussion and what would come of it. Al topped off his glass of lemonade. Ruiz went back to the fence, his chant a shade louder.

A reddish brown bulldog huffed onto the porch, carrying one of Hunsicker’s work boots.

“Damn you, George!” Hunsicker yelled at the animal.

The dog dropped it on the edge of the porch and staggered away. A string of slobber stretched a foot from his mouth to the boot, before it broke.

Hunsicker rocked as far as he could, reaching out for the boot, trying to hide his wince. Ruiz climbed up on the porch, nabbed up the boot.  He tossed it back into the house, went back to the fence.

Hunsicker rubbed at the ache in his hip. He hated the pain more than any man he ever faced. It reminded him of his sixty-seven years. He hated having to use that Flat Top revolver instead of a more accurate rifle, just because it was easier to pick up. How many praying Mexicans would he need at seventy?

He tipped his hat over the remains of his white hair, watching the automobile trudge along.  A badge flashed from the driver. Local law still used horse. Must be rangers.

The bulldog trotted to the upturned ground. Ruiz brushed a hand away at the animal. “Get, Jorge.”

“His name’s George. Don’t want to have to speak Mex to get him to come to me.”

Al patted his leg. “C’mere.”

The beast looked at him for a moment. Al half expected a cuss word to come out of its ugly mouth.

“Vamanos Jorge.” Ruiz said.

The bulldog jumped onto the porch. He thought about kicking him. The round little bastard would probably bite him.

Al put the sweaty lemonade glass against his cheek, feeling like a small oasis on his body. Wouldn’t last much longer, his ice already melted into slivers.

A hiss erupted from the Model-T. Steam trailed out of the front as it slowed to a halt. Two men got out. The heat turned them into vague blurs, though Hunsicker could tell one had a rifle, the bulkier one a shotgun. At least his eyesight hadn’t gone yet.            Ruiz took more notice. “Maybe I should look at that windmill.”

“It’ll wait. Might need you here.”

The large ranger poured a jug of water in the car; they got back in, rambled forward.

Hunsicker rubbed against the back of his rocker. His shirt had stuck to him, causing a bit of an itch. Ruiz shook his head, then looked up to the sky with a prayer, no whisper to his voice.

“We’re not in Hell yet.” Hunsicker said, cutting the lemonade with some whiskey in his flask.

It looked like a geyser was going to pop the Model T’s hood off. It stopped 10 feet away from the porch. The husky one got out of the driver’s side with his shotgun. He looked like a buffalo hunter, that someone made a half assed attempt to civilize. His pinched eyes aimed toward Ruiz. Ruiz didn’t move an inch.

“Might want to show us your hands, boy.” The other ranger said, hopping out of the car. He was clean. White Stetson, tan uniform, polished cowboy boots, not a round edge on him.  “Price gets along a lot better with brown boys if he knows they’re not holding.”

Ruiz tilted his head his head a bit to glimpse his boss. Hunsicker gave a brief nod. Ruiz showed his hands.

Price still kept his eyes on Ruiz, finger near the trigger guard. Both rangers stayed behind their car doors.

The square ranger held up is left hand in greeting. His right held a 44-40 Winchester model 53 carbine. He looked back at the spot they were stuck in. “Don’t think Henry Ford ever lived in west Texas.”

“Never had any problem on this land with a horse.”

The ranger leaned over the passenger door. “You’re Albert Hunsicker, right? I heard tales about you, Sir. Cowboyed under Goodnight, saved Pershing when Villa went after him.”

He put the lemonade glass near the Colt.

“That pistol’s sure from the Wild West. You getting trouble from some of these rustlers from the other side, we could give you a hand, no problem.”

“Jack rabbits were getting near the garden.”

“Anything left of the thing after you shoot it?”

Hunsicker scratched George’s back with the heel of his boot, picked up the lemonade glass.

The ranger took off his Stetson in a cordial manner. It allowed him to wipe the sweat collecting at his temples.  “Guess Price and me are hunting our own rabbits. Looks like two Mexican Federals got lost.”

“This is the Texas side of my land.”

“Seems they were looking for one of those speech-making banditos that thought he was the next Pancho.” He squinted toward Ruiz; the sun was behind the Mexican. “Sounded like he may have headed in your direction.”

Hunsicker just took a long sip of his lemonade. “You boys take your orders from Austin or Juarez?”

The ranger studied Price and Ruiz. “They say the one they were after’s not some simple, smiling peasant. He killed a man.”

“Who hadn’t?”

The ranger put his hat back on, squared it on his head, blocking it from any sunbeams that might interfere with his sight. He nodded to Ruiz. “You know about any Federales, boy?”

“No comprende’.” Ruiz said, taking a step back. Hunsicker wondered if they noticed the knife tucked in his boot.

“He doesn’t speak English, how do you tell him what to do?”

“I speak Spanish like any smart man on the border. Don’t you?”

“Haven’t acquired that skill. Maybe you could ask him for me, Sir.”

Hunsicker swished his lemonade around. “I just know how to give orders.”

“I see you do.” The square ranger said, not keeping his eyes off him.

Price finally took a good look at Hunsicker with those pinched eyes Al took a gulp from his glass. They could all hear George pant.

The Ranger pointed to his flask on the table “See you enjoy spicing your lemonade.”

“Don’t like it too sweet.”

“You hear about this being a dry county?”

“Heard you need proof someone’s selling it. Course who knows with all the laws.”

“In case you didn’t know, there’s one about harboring fugitives.”

Ruiz took a quick glance at the Ranger, then back to Price and his shotgun. This was not the moment to do something stupid.

“Isn’t like you Rangers have been interested in the law much of late, son.”

“That was the past, Sir.”

“I’ve been around long enough to know not much changes

“I like to think the law means a little more.” The ranger said. He blinked the salt out of his eyes.

Al shook his head. “It’s just working for different people.” He licked some of the lemonade that remained on his lips. “And that pretty much stayed the same to folks out here.”

Price turned his attention to the two for movement. It gave Ruiz enough time to turn his heel and look down at his knife in his boot.

“We’re trying to help you out here.” The ranger explained. “You wouldn’t like bandits crossing your land.”

“That’s why I shoot them.” Hunsicker said. “It’s the Mexican Federals crossing the border that has my suspicion. You’d think your own law would do something about that.” He cooled off with another taste of lemonade. Damn, he hated talking.

“Now there’s a dangerous man out there. Maybe you can think of your neighbors.”

Hunsicker looked around his place, at the vast miles of nothing only blocked by his barn and their damn metal heap.

“Hell, he could be anywhere, now.” The Ranger said. He quit hanging over the passenger door, the black metal drawing in the South Texas heat.

“He’s probably dead.” Hunsicker said. “People out here didn’t get their land with a bouquet of blue bonnets and a serenade. Or waiting for the law.”

“I’m doing my best to respect your land, sir, you might try respecting our stars. We’re just doing what we can to help.”

“I’ve got a pistol.”

“Believe me, I know.” The ranger said. The conversation seemed to be getting him a bit agitated too.

Hunsicker poured more of his flask into his lemonade.

“Well, you can’t expect much from the law, unless you got some spread like the Kings. Think maybe those Federals are up there?”

The ranger turned away from him, picked the sweat from his cheek. “We just want to know if you’ve seen the Federals or just maybe you’ve seen a suspicious Mexican.”

Both rangers put their attention to Ruiz. Ruiz didn’t know whom to look at. He did look down at the knife.

Hunsicker slammed his lemonade next down to his Colt. Price noticed, then the square ranger. Ruiz lifted his heel. The square ranger raised up his rifle.

Al swiveled back, clamped both of his hands on each arm of the rocking chair. “No, I haven’t seen any of those Mexicans.”

Ruiz put down his foot. The Rangers hadn’t put down their guns.

“Now if we’re through here, you can get that rusting hunk of scrap off my property.”

The square ranger found a way to exhale and fume at the same time.  “Mind if we look around?”

“Got over 900 acres. I let some of the Comanches from the reservation come and hunt. Believe there’s some bad blood between you boys.”

“You could go along with us.”

“Too much for a man my age on a day like this. There’ anything else? This lemonade’s made me a bit sleepy.”

The square ranger looked like he wanted to shoot Al.  He then looked over at Ruiz again. “You sure you don’t speak English?”

Ruiz just stared at him.

“Lets get moving, Price. Maybe we’ll find someone helpful.”

Price took out the jug, opened the hood. Only a few drops dribbled out.

The square ranger turned back around, exhaling an uncomfortable breath. “You have any water?”

“That’s what people in Hell are always asking for.”

Ruiz tossed Price the canteen.

“We might be back with more men to look over those 900 of yours.” The square ranger said.

“If you think it’s worth the trouble.”

Price shook the remaining water of the canteen in the radiator, tossed it back to Ruiz.

“Want to make sure you’re safe.” He slid back into the car.

scottmontgomeryMainly known as a bookseller and critic as MysteryPeople, the mystery bookstore inside BookPeople, Texas’ largest independent, and co-editor of The MysteryPeople website, Scott Montgomery has been accepted on Slagdrop and their anthology America, You’re Welcome. He’s happy to have his first acceptance on The Big Adios, being a die hard western fan.

Price kept his focus on Ruiz until he got behind the wheel.

Ruiz didn’t relax until the car was a mile away. “I am starting to believe you belong in Hell.”

“Get to work on the windmill.”

Ruiz lumbered to the barn, muttering in Spanish. It definitely wasn’t prayers.

The bulldog was digging into the fresh dirt behind the fence. Al rocked himself out of his seat, ambled over, little less stove up than before. “Get out of there!”

He gave the dog a kick in the rump, hopped back on the porch before it could turn around with a bark or chomp. It just ended up looking at him like a grumpy old man.

“Get, Jorge.”

The animal trotted off. Nothing on this land agreed with him.

He looked over the work Ruiz had done so far on the fence. The lemonade was going through him. Didn’t want to take a walk to the outhouse in the heat. He unbuttoned his fly there on the side of his porch.

“You boys thirsty?”

His urine sprinkled across the two mounds behind half done picket fence.


Crowbait

There was snow in the wind’s teeth. The boy rubbed the stinging cold from his eyes and squinted up at the bare trees tearing at each other in the gale. He moved forward, elbows squelching in the sodden earth, settled at the bluff’s edge, and watched the rider approach from Table Rock to the south.

The rider sang a few lines and then drank from a bottle half wrapped in leather. He was in no hurry, pausing now and again to glance up at snow whirling dark against the failing sun.

A rifle rested beside the boy, catching light from a sky gray as a crow’s beak. A bitter Nebraska chill cut through the torn sheepskin jacket and leather gloves the boy wore. He breathed softly, hoping he would not tremble too much. He gently laid his hat on the long, brown grass that was his cover, and then rested his elbow on the brim to prevent the wind’s snatching it. The fat man on the dappled gray horse dropped the bottle and the boy heard him curse as he swung a leg over the animal and collapsed to the earth with a wet thud, “God damn.” The man’s hat blew from his head and he stumbled to catch it. The sudden action startled the horse and the fat man grabbed at the reins, and then paused to collect himself.

The grass hissed around the boy’s ears and he steadied the rifle on a limb broken from the tree, and flipped up the sights. It was his brother’s Whitworth rifle, the one he’d used as a sharpshooter for Lee’s Army of North Virginia. It had directed dozens of souls down the trail to hell. The boy held his breath, stared hard along the barrel, felt the cold settle inside him, waited for the wind to hold, and then squeezed the trigger.

Scarlet and gray painted the flank of the horse, which bolted back towards Pawnee City. The fat man fell for the last time. A murder of crows shook from the trees lining the bluff and the boy stood, shouldered the rifle and stumbled down the steep bank. The man’s graying black hair was wet against the hail-torn mud. The ball had gone through his eye. The boy panted through the long grass towards the body and when he reached it, he stared at the blood seeping over the dirt. Its heat thawed the fallen snow and he watched the melt run into the steaming black of the man’s life. ‘Elder McLennan,’ he said, in his high, winter-dry, boy’s voice, ‘that’s for what you all done to Dan Cotheran, you jay hawking son of a bitch.’

He spat, retrieved the bottle, and headed south off the trail.

 

Mary Blackler watched her husband run out of the stable towards the cabin he built when he settled this land; she stood, wiped her hands on the front of her apron. Her blonde hair had worked loose as she plucked the chicken whose carcass now lay beside the tin bucket on the porch. ‘Girl,’ he shouted, skittering to a halt on the frozen yard of the farmstead, ‘the horses all been killed, my best team, every one.’  His face was as blanched as the break of day air above him and his hands shook.  She stared over at him, saying nothing. His eyes were wet, and glittered against the morning. ‘Some devil done cut they godarn throats, all of a piece.’ He spat. ‘Damn it, my best team.’ He looked over at her. His long rust-shaded moustache flickered in the breeze and she was stunned to see he was weeping. ‘I apologize for my language, girl.’

She said nothing as she sat back at the stool and ripped a handful of feathers from the bird’s puckered and bleeding skin. Her blue gaze flickered across his. Then she spoke slowly and clearly, her rich voice carrying over the dry, frozen wind,” If you do that which is evil, be afraid; for he bears not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath on him that does evil.”

Blackler glared at her, his brow knotted, and she saw for the first time that blood dripped from his arms and had stained his rough spun shirt and old army pants. ‘I thought I told you about that kind of talk.’

‘It is the word of the almighty, ain’t no “talk”, husband.’  She pronounced the last word with a heavy irony. ‘Your sins is finding you out, that’s all. All you stole and carried off during that wild time weighs on you like pig iron. Your sins…’

He ran across and silenced her with an open palm slap, leaving a handprint of horse blood across her pale cheek. ‘I warned you to hobble your lip. Now look what you brought me to,’ he turned and looked back to the stable. ‘My sins is my business, and I’ll thank you to remember that.’

 

The boy watched Blackler from a copse of dead trees a few hundred feet towards the sun. He lay flat on his stomach, sheltered by the stones of an old wall, watching through a brass telescope that had also belonged to his brother. He’d waited three years to see Blackler’s ruddy Irish face again, and the old black whirlwind started ripping again at the fabric of his heart. The last time he’d seen that man was at the head of a gang of guerrillas tearing towards the ranch southwards of Kansas; they knew his brother, were jealous of the stock of horse he raised; so they dressed in blue and claimed to be acting against the known rebel, Dan Cotheran. They’d dragged him out, missing foot and all, and hanged him like a common thief from the highest bough of the old Elm; then they took everything else that weren’t rooted down: horse, dollars, food, even his two sisters.

The lead they put in the boy had not killed him as intended, and he waited, shadowed his brother’s old friends who were the only teachers he needed, ended up in raw Abilene, Kansas, where, over a crowded saloon, he saw Elder and Blackler, whooping it up with a pair of whores. He knew then it was time to quit beating the devil round the stump, and pay back his brother’s blood.

 

The boy waited for the sun to clear the line of trees behind him and then fixed the rifle on a broken stone and waited. Blackler, halfway to drunk judging by the way he stumbled out of the cabin, was now dressed in a thick blue jacket and wide hat. He paused to light a clay pipe and shouted back into the house, “Girl, bring my….”

The Whitworth kicked at the boy’s shoulder when he fired. His heart raced, and he tasted tin and at the last moment, he’d flinched. He had not expected that, but Blackler was down just the same.   The boy rested his face in the dirt behind the fallen wall and breathed into the earth as though trying to breathe life into it. Grit had stuck into the sweat lining his brow when again he lifted his expression to the air. Blackler lay still on the hard ground before the stable. The boy felt nothing. It was over too quick. The idea had been to kill the horses, get Blackler worked up, fearful, teach him terror before taking him away from the sunlight forever, but he was impatient, as boys are, and too filled with a rage that had now departed.  He climbed to his feet and started across the pasture, re-loading the rifle as he walked, looking left and right, seeing nothing but Nebraska grassland and wintry trees. Snow was again trying to fall. The boy’s hands trembled.

Blackler lay with his legs crumpled beneath him like a shattered doll; the lead had cleaved his skull, scattering bone and blood across an iced over puddle.

garethsparkGareth Spark writes dark fiction from and about the moors and rustbelts of the North East where grudges are savoured, shotguns are cheap and people get by in the economic meltdown any way they can. His work has appeared at Near 2 The Knuckle, Out Of The Gutter, The Dying Goose and Shotgun Honey.

He stood. Wind moaned through the beams of the stable and the long grass. The boy felt nothing. He rested on the rifle and looked down at the ruin of his enemy and when the shot came, it hit like a kick from a crazy horse. He fell forward, and it felt as though an almighty hand had reached inside the boy’s back, took hold of his spine and yanked it through his flesh.     He lay beside Blackler on the earth kicking in the other man’s blood and tasting his own well in his throat. It stained his sandy hair as he twisted towards the shooter.

Mary stood close by the porch, holding an old Hawken rifle at her waist. She breathed fast and her face was wet. Her skirts blew in the rising wind as she stepped slowly towards the boy. ‘You killed me,’ he said, or tried to say at least; the flood of his life’s end caught the words, turned them to mush.

She stood over him, glanced at Blackler, then at the boy, ‘I know you,’ she said, her voice was frail, ‘how is it I know your face?’

The boy reached for her but could not raise his hand far enough from the hard ground. Then there was a tremble at the horizon, as though a fire was rising beyond where he could see, and then he saw nothing.

Mary leaned on the rifle, looked up into the harsh white sun. Then she remembered.


Amanda Lynch II

Black Ridge, Wyoming, 1865

Four riders dismounted in the cold freeze of November, gusting with a fresh drift of snow. The air stung crisp with frost and cold. US Marshal Merle Walker tied off his Appaloosa to a hitching post just outside the Sheriff’s office, brushing the snow off his long sheep skin coat, lined with a thick layer of spun wool. His collar pulled high and his hat low, he rubbed his gloved hands together, warming them with a ghostly breath that crept from his mouth – ethereal and smoky. Stepping up onto the porch, he turned to his men. “I’ll speak with the Sheriff in private,” he said, looking up into falling snow backed by a sky of gray. “You boys just sit tight and stay warm.” He chuckled as he turned, their eyes cutting him through. Every one of them wore the look of a killer, and law had little to do with their brand of justice. They were cutthroats here on an errand, one paid in blood.

Marshal Walker stepped into the Sheriff’s office, letting the door slam in his wake, and the Sheriff jumped, looking up with a grim expression, one born of shame. “Evening, Sheriff,” Marshal Walker said, drawing himself a chair from the wall. It creaked as he rocked back and he let out an exaggerated groan of relief as he slipped off his gloves. “Seems you have things all tied up in your little corner of the world. Very nice indeed.” He slid back, folding his hands in his lap and stretching the ache of cold from his jaw. “So, how many of them is up there?”

The Sheriff rubbed the back of his neck, unable to hold the Marshal’s gaze. “This ain’t right,” he said. “You know this ain’t in the covenant of the law. This is blood for blood, plain and simple. You’re no more a peace officer than she is a killer.”

Marshal Walker set his jaw and leaned forward in his chair, letting its legs strike hard on the floorboards. “I’ll ask you again, Sheriff. You were served with an official warrant issued by the Governor of the State of Wyoming, and I aim to see it served. Now, how many has she got up there with her?” His hand slid along the lip of his belt, adorned with bullets before easing low into the worn hilt of a Remington six-shooter.

The Sheriff looked away, peering out the front window at the three riders that milled about in the snow, all of them armed and deputized. “Three,” he said, looking back upon the Marshal. “Amanda, her boy, and a colored woman she looks after. I’ll ride out with you and see to it the boy is looked after.”

“Boy?” Marshal Walker said, “I was lead to believe she lived alone, after her old man met his end.”

“She had the boy in seclusion sometime after the passing of her father,” the Sheriff replied, his brow creasing as he searched for a purpose in the Marshal’s piqued interest.

Walking across the room, Marshal Walker looked out through the rippled glass window, watching as the weather picked up. “How old?”

The Sheriff stood up, his face lined with confusion. “How’s that?” he said, running a calloused hand over his brow.

“The boy,” he pressed. “How old?”

“What’s that to you? Your warrant is for Amanda.”

Marshal Walker spun around, turning on the Sheriff in a quick flash, his face slack and even. “She was left with child wasn’t she?” His hand swept low, easing to the hilt of his gun.

The Sheriff caught the motion and went for his gun, but the Marshal was quicker, skinning his piece with a killing reflex as the room was filled with the deafening blast of a gunshot. The Sheriff jolted back as the bullet tore through his chest, spattering the backdrop with blood and pulp, the Marshal’s Remington oozing smoke from its barrel leveled at his hip. The Sheriff spilled back over his chair, flailing as he hit the floor, and he choked out his last breath as Marshal Walker stepped out into the deadfall of winter, leaving the door swinging open and wide in his wake. “We’ve got a slight change of plan boys,” he said as he looked out over the husk of the shantytown. Mounting his horse, he wheeled it around and heeled it onward, bearing down on a small house set high and back – the home of Amanda Lynch.

* * *

The living room flickered with firelight as a boy played with tin soldiers upon a thick cotton rug. The chill of night was stifled by warmth as the fire cracked and the coal bed bloomed, washing in a surging glow of amber and orange. His mousy hair fell across his brow, spilling over eyes of clear blue – his father’s eyes. Michael Lynch grew up knowing only his mother’s love, and Milla’s boisterous laughter – a smuggled slave living as an equal, yet not altogether free.

Amanda stood near the kitchen, watching him play, lost in his own little world where he was just an ordinary boy. The clattering of cast iron pulled her attention to the kitchen, as Milla pulled the lid off a boiling pot of stew.

“Mmm, mmm,” Milla said, hovering over the waft of gravy and stewing meat. “Now that shore do smell good. You clean up them soldiers now, child.” Michael looked to Milla and smiled, pitting his full cheeks with dimples before thoughtfully stowing his toy soldiers in a tinderbox lined with padded blue silk. Amanda smiled as she looked down upon him, his smile and his way about things so inviting and honest. Then the moment was stricken cold with the echo of a gunshot.

Amanda spun around, throwing a look of confusion upon Milla, who in turn dropped the lid and ran for Michael, herding him away from the window. “Get him upstairs,” Amanda said, drawing the curtains over all the windows, and as Milla scooped up Michael, running him upstairs, Amanda reached above the front door, pulling down a double barrel shotgun that hung across the wall.

Amanda ran over and turned down an oil lamp that burned on the kitchen table, casting the room low in firelight. Crouching beside the window sill, she peered out beneath the curtain, and waited.

Milla returned, pulling her house dress to her knees as she descended the stairs, taking two at a time. Rounding the base of the staircase she took up the opposite window, crouching low. “What’s happened, child?” she said, gasping for breath.

Amanda met her gaze, unable to speak and they heard them, hooves pounding the frozen ground, the clamor and clank of bits and bridles in motion, shifting with the weight of mounted riders. Torchlight shone through the falling snow, throwing back the veil of night. Four riders bore down on the house, all of them looking every bit official, if not lethal. Amanda sunk back, pressed to the wall, the double barrel clutched in her trembling hands. “You remember when I told you about my father, about how he was killed in cold blood?”

“Yeah,” Milla nodded, her face blank and confused. “What’s that got to do with this, ‘manda?”

Amanda closed her eyes, reliving the vivid blackness of that night just over four years ago. “I told you those who wrought their wickedness with me were met with justice,” she paused, hearing them slow their approach, calling out as they dismounted. The arming clicks of their guns rang out like a field of crickets. “I just never told you how they were brought to justice.”

“Amanda Lynch,” a coarse voice called out from the cold. “This is US Marshal Merle Walker. I think you know good and well why we’re here.” The voices of his men followed as they scouted out the perimeter of the house, speaking hushed and low.

“What did you do, child,” Milla pressed, her eyes wide with alarm. “Did you kill ‘em?”

Amanda’s eyes confessed the truth of that night as the tears began to pool and spill, streaking her cheeks with years of buried darkness. Milla put a trembling hand to her mouth as the full scope of their trouble took hold, and she nodded.

“The man I killed,” Amanda began, her voice trailing off as she turned over the Marshal’s words. Walker.

“We know you’re not alone in there,” Marshal Walker said, gesturing his men to the flanks of the house, their torches crackling against the cold gusts. “You’ve got two minutes to decide how this plays out, Amanda. We’ve come to see you served justice in the deaths of three men, killed in cold blood by all accounts. We’ll hang the nigger, but the boy will be spared.”

Milla’s eyes flashed wild, and her brow folded low over her black rimmed eyes.

Amanda looked at Milla, cracking the double barrel open, ensuring it was loaded. Two brass caps shone back, one stuffed in each barrel. “He’s his brother, the one I killed. The leader. They’re not here by the order of no court – not one worth recognizing anyhow. Those are godless men out there, and they’ll not be laying a hand on my son.” Looking toward the stairs, her face tightened with deep set lines of hate; hate at knowing her son was surely curled up in a dark corner, scared and helpless. She knew all too well what that felt like, and she’d not see him haunted by such darkness as she’d been herself. She turned back to Milla, running a hand over her reddening eyes – shining cold and deadly in the firelight. “I’ll not have him grow up with that, the wickedness those men sow, them and those like ‘em. And with God as my witness, I’ll see them all dead before any one of them lays claim to Michael, and if that damns me to Hell, well, so be it.” Amanda looked to Milla, seeing the woman’s face wrung with concern, and she reached out, placing a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it in tenderness. “I’ll not see you suffer for something I did.”

Milla’s face hardened and she leaned in, shifting up to one knee. “Child, I’d rather die for something than live for nothing, so don’t be telling me again that this ain’t got nothing to do with me. They ain’t taking that boy, no sir.” Reaching out, Milla gestured for the gun and Amanda tossed it over. Slamming the breach of the double barrel shut, Milla stole a peak outside before taking up the right side of the door. Amanda shuffled into the back bedroom, crouching down beside the loose floorboard, and reaching in she was stung with the cold familiarity of the gun, the revolver she’d put to Kris Walker.

A silhouette slid over the curtain-drawn window as Amanda drew the revolver from the cut-out in the floor. Backing out slow, she gestured Milla to take up the window, pointing out the crouched gunman. “I’ll need the Marshal close when I shoot him,” Amanda said as they passed. “He’s the skilled gun of the group, and with any luck some of the others may scatter at seeing him slain. Once I’ve taken that shot, well, just be ready.”

Milla nodded, meeting Amanda’s eyes with her own, two deep pearls cored with lethal purpose. Amanda parted her lips to say something, but fell silent as Milla shook her head. The message was clear however, and both women knew what they were up against. Kill or be killed, that was the governing rule of this game, and there was no way around it. Milla’s eyes were set, and stealing one last look into Amanda’s, she turned and crept into the back bedroom, closing the door behind her.

Amanda slid into a jacket that hung beside the front door, drawing the collar high and tight around her neck. The cool breath of night slipped through the floor boards, leeching the heat from the room as she reached back and stuffed the revolver down the line of her neck, tucking it snug beneath the spill of her hair. And unbarring the door, she drew a deep breath, and called out to the Marshal, “I’m coming out.” The front door eased open, and Amanda stepped out onto the porch, and approached the man she aimed to kill.

Marshal Walker stood no more than ten feet off the porch, one man with him, just to his left. Both stood easy, the Marshal with his gun sunk low, holstered at his hip. He watched her step out, his eyes pulling tight. Spitting in the snow, he wiped his mouth and stepped forward. “The nigger?”

Amanda stole a look at the Marshal’s man, searching his eyes. He wore a smirk on his young face and the beginnings of a mustache on his lip, no more than two winters old. He bore a striking resemblance to the Marshal. “You know, Marshal,” she said, “he pissed himself, just before.” Amanda took another step forward, measuring their posture as she closed in.

Marshal Walker’s face pulled back, his brow folding over, confused. “How’s that?”

She took another step forward, showing her hands as she slowly placed them upon her head. “He pissed himself, your brother. Right before I put a bullet in his head. How he begged too, really something to see.” Two more steps. “Honestly, Marshal, your resemblance to him is uncanny, what, with that same cowardly fold in your brow, feigning courage. It’s quite unbecoming really, a man folding like a whipped dog at the moment of truth.”

richosburnRich Osburn set out into the world in desperate need of direction, and the US Navy provided just that. After traveling the world many times over, he transitioned into the Coast Guard, where he enjoyed many years of honorable service. As the joy of fatherhood settled in, he bid farewell to the life of a sailor, embracing a new one – that of a writer. Seeing his first story come to publication on this very page, he has much to be thankful for, and many more stories to tell. So it can be said that at his heart Rich is a father, a sailor, and a writer, and most of all, a damn lucky husband.

The Marshal flashed with rage and his mouth pulled thin as he went for his gun. Amanda was four paces away when her hand slid back to her neck, but he was quicker. His piece flashed out of the worn holster, cracking to life as he fired from the hip. Amanda’s head rocked back as the bullet caught her neck, and the white snow was sprayed in red as pulsing rivulets leapt from her wound. She fell to her knees, gripping her throat, blood streaming through her fingers. The Marshal looked down at her, dying in the cold dark of November, and he slid his piece back in its holster, strolling over to her as he savored the moment, watching her die. “Well now, little gilly,” he said. “Seems your mouth has found–” His words were cut off as the thunder of a shotgun blast rocked the air, followed by a screaming voice, one familiar to him. He looked beyond Amanda, peering through the open door of the house, and she drew.

Amanda thumbed back the hammer as she leveled the gun on his chest and fired. He hadn’t a moment to flinch as the shot threw him back, shattering his spine as the bullet tore through him. He hit the ground, scraping back furls of snow with his booted heels as he arched in a fit of agony, kicking out against the pain of death. And before the second man could draw, Amanda swept her arm across and fired again, catching him in the ear before spattering the wintery backdrop with his brains. His body collapsed in the snow, and so did she. Bleeding out, Amanda looked back through the open doorway, seeing Milla roll out, discharging the second barrel into the back of the fourth rider as he fled for the horses.

The deep cold reached in as she lay there in the snow, filling her with a searing pain that radiated and throbbed. And everything seemed to move in refracted stills, washing over her like some muffled, milky dream. Milla was there, weeping and hollering into the sky, and little Michael was running out onto the porch, screaming for his mother – for her. She peeled her lips apart, feeling as if her jaw would crack, and she reached out. “I love you,” she said as he spilled to his knees in the snow, curling up next to her. “You’re safe now, baby. You’re safe.” And with the snow falling all around her, her son in her arms, Amanda Lynch died. It was the winter of 1865.


A Gunfighter’s Last Call

He had simply stepped over from one building to the next one, from one flat roof to another, a wide step but one step. The agility in his body, especially in his legs, had diminished from several falls … not unexpectedly. The challenge in the beginning, in getting here to the roof of the Trail Drive Saloon and Hotel in Willowbar, Oklahoma, was climbing from his saddle to the porch roof in the back of the general store. His horse had stood still long enough for him to manage his way erect on the saddle so he could pull himself up onto the roof. If he had fallen, it might hurt and be noisy, but noisy he didn’t need.

Once up on the porch roof the rest was easy. On the way he flexed his gun hand as often as he could, the fingernails all trimmed the same as in the early days when he never threw a caution aside … never let a broken nail mess up a fast draw, never snag on an edge of cloth or leather, never let a life hang in the balance of a broken fingernail. He felt the slight difference from the new to the old and a small laugh started in his chest, but he managed to shut it down. None of them in the saloon had any idea he had slowed down.

They all thought he was dead.

They all thought Leather Goods Gregory was dead.

They all thought he was killed by a posse whose fusillade of bullets cut him down as he rushed from a half-fallen barn on the burnt-out site of Curtis Curly Lockwood’s old spread on the Cimarron River. The victim had fallen, rolled over several times in pain, and finally ended up face down in the dust. One man kicked him several times to make sure he was dead. He yelled an exultation loud and clear, “He’s dead, boys! He’s damned dead! The drinks are on the house!”

They left him there with his elegant holster, made from his design by a Ute maiden as part of her Bear Dance and which brought him the nickname of Leather Goods Gregory. The holster was empty of his special long-barrel pistol created by a Kansas City gunsmith, an infamous weapon of destruction in the hands of this sharpshooter. Here, as sworn by the posse, was the gunman in the dust, still and silent, nevermore to cast a shadow in any direction. Disregarding the possibility of anyone being alive in the barn, they all rushed into town to tell Lockwood. He had promised an open bar at the saloon for all posse riders when Gregory was killed, captured, or run over by a stampede of cattle, even sporting his own brand. Lockwood finally changed that invitation to the whole town, though women were not included.

But names had been noted that once hung in the air. There was a man in the barn who had heard the names called out in the subsequent moments of Gregory being declared dead … and the rush to town.

Gregory planned on letting everybody know how wrong they were about his death; especially Lockwood, land baron, land thief, and a plain old bushwhacker who had come all the way from jolly old England like he was a mighty purist bent on nothing but good deeds. The two had a long history of enmity and contention from the time Billy Gregory was just past his 10th birthday … a hot July 21, 1867 when his parents were killed by masked renegades during the supper hour. They hadn’t even opened the door when they were leveled by gunfire, with the boy still sitting beside the Cimarron River a mile away where the fish were biting as good as ever and he dared not let them be, as though it was a moment in heaven.

It was later as he scrambled on his own around the Cimarron River basin that young Gregory first heard rumors about the suspected association between Lockwood and the masked killers. With insistent poking about, scratching at odd place and various parties, compiling the names of Lockwood’s ranch hands, he became convinced Lockwood was responsible for the murders of his parents, and noted the man’s subsequent acquisition of his parents’ property.

The names hung in place as if they had been spoken only the day before.

When the orphaned lad latched on to a family moving upriver, his hatred and call for revenge went deep under his skin and sat there as he grew into manhood. He paid his dues on every kind of a job, learned how to shoot, how to become so good at it that word on his prowess spread around the territory. In turn he was a lawman, protector of the downtrodden, hired gun in some situations demanding corrective action against crooked operations and crooked men, and a general force against evil no matter what it took, consequences included. A few times he had been jailed and let free by a temperate judge who had looked with approval on Gregory’s stands against real criminals.

At 26 years of age, notorious in one manner, infamous in another, he could no longer deny the festering inside him. It had brought him back down the Cimarron River.

Lockwood knew of his arrival in the area, and made the connections. It would pay to keep an eye on Gregory, “that orphan boy who has come to something.”

**

Now on the roof of the hotel, Gregory found it easy to make his way onto a rear porch roof and gain entry into an unoccupied room on the second floor. The room opened onto a hallway with stair access directly down into the Trail Drive Saloon where Lockwood’s open bar extension neared the end of its second day, last call coming at midnight.

He lay low while he listened to the liquor setting deeper into the customers, measuring that depth by the noise rising in the saloon, a constant and hilarious yowl of men caught up in another spirit. That noise grew louder and brought with it several outbreaks between acquaintances, or good friends on a couple of occasions. The spats were resolved by blows to the back of the head by a few of Lockwood’s ranch hands brought in just for that purpose. Lockwood was plainly celebrating the death of a man, “Who’s hated me for something I didn’t do many years ago, and killed three of my men, which no rancher can abide because we’d end up with no faithful hands.”

He had qualified it all by adding, “This celebration will not be interrupted for long by a few stupid drunks. If one man fights back ferociously, he’ll be clubbed into silence by two gun butts and dragged out of the saloon for deposit in the alley beside the bank.” When the drunken mob roared with laughter at that remark, it brought a broad smile to Lockwood. His face, hardened by his 60 years at carving out a large place in the west, was the kind that needed a smile, and the broader the better.

It was his last smile of the evening, for he had been looking for his son Carlton who had not shown up for two days. His son’s trips away from the ranch, mysterious to some of his ranch hands and to much of the community, but not to his father, were exclusively connected to his insatiable need to be with, and abuse, young Indian maidens. Lockwood’s continuing questioning glances at his top hand standing by the door only brought back shrugs saying he had received no good reports from a few men scattered in a local search for Carlton Lockwood.

Meanwhile, in the upstairs room, Gregory was turning over in his mind all the images and notes and whispers he had accumulated over the years … some of them admittedly false but some of them obviously true … and used them all to fortify his stance. Foremost of those images was his actual return from the river that fateful day with a dozen fish on his line and his tingling with joy at the prospect of his parents’ great pleasure when they’d see his catch.

It was all dashed, crushed, tossed to the wind, just as the catch was, when he saw his parents clutching each other in death, his father lying across his mother, his body riddled with bullets as he had tried to protect her. Young Gregory had suspicions, but using his head as his father had always urged him to make greater use of, he began his collection of evidence against the mighty Lockwood. That collection had grown steadily over the years and had brought him here at this time to exact revenge, the inner darkness too long-carried and now allowed to speak its own mind.

The strong images had provided Gregory with a revelation that he’d toss into Lockwood’s lap in front of as many people as possible, as many witnesses as possible, for it was his sole intention to not just bring the big shot rancher to his knees but to end his dominance in the Cimarron River basin. To kill him directly would not be enough; to wound him all around would be better.

Much of it leaped into his mind, the way he ought to present it, what advantages he had to attain, what results he should expect. Clearly none of it was touch and go; he had to be decisive in his plan, in his approach, in his actions.

He had carried plenty of ammunition with him, a rifle, and three hand guns, all ready to do his bidding, to go directly as aimed, to accomplish the act of vengeance. At times he thought it would overpower him and had slowed down his anger and its energy, found the natural pace he had known much of his career.

At one point, after 11 PM, he had slipped the door to the landing open, only to find a young lady, a pretty thing exiting another room, staring at him. He shushed her with a finger to his lips, brandished a revolver, pointed down into the saloon, and directed her back into the room. She did not appear again.

Then, feeling it was time, he slipped out the door with rifle, bandolier, and hand guns, bent low and moved to his right so he could see down into the saloon, see Lockwood at his customary table in the far corner, several men lolling there with him, a few of the ladies running drinks to their table. He kept low, finally knelt back against the landing wall where he could keep his eye on Lockwood and some of his men. Others he spotted in the room: at the bar, at another table, two of them standing at the door like sentinels on army watch, the top hand making slow rounds throughout the room.

If it was to be nothing else, it would be last call for one or more principals.

One hand gun, a Colt repeater, he placed on the floor. Two others were in his gun belt. The rifle was a Winchester Model 1866 lever-action rifle. He was also a skilled shooter with this weapon.

Gregory felt himself ready when another spat broke out down below, two men clubbed from behind and dragged out of the Trail Drive Saloon to be deposited in the alley beside the bank. The patrons to a man laughed at the interruption, as if they could laugh at themselves, saying “At least it’s not me. Not yet.”

At his table, Lockwood sipped on his drink as he had done all evening, and so did his men at the table. Few others in the saloon, if any, saw them tempered in their drinking, but Lockwood had demanded it from his men: and beware the man who did not obey.

When the clock above the bar said 11:29 PM, a single round slammed into the clock, destroying its acute mechanism. A second round, before any man in the saloon could make a move, slammed into Lockland’s table close to his elbow and smashed the glass but inches away. One of Lockwood’s men tried to draw his revolver when another round slammed into his side arm.

The yell came from the landing above all of them in the saloon, “Your time is up, Lockwood! Just like the clock says!”

That voice carried instant sobriety to some of the patrons.

Gregory yelled out to the entire saloon. “We have you all covered. None of you move, and that goes special for the biggest killer and murderer in the whole river basin, a ranch stealer, a horse thief, a plain old fashioned killer who hires all his shooters and won’t let himself get caught in any crossfire, Curtis Lockwood. And it goes to all of his men spread out through the saloon who haven’t been drinking their fill by orders of the big boss. The rest of you are so drunk you couldn’t help yourself if war broke out.”

At that moment Lockwood yelled out, “Who are you? What do you want?” He appeared as if he wanted to stand up, but didn’t dare to.

“You’ve been calling me Leather Goods Gregory for a long time now, but when I was just 10 years old my folks called me Billy. That’s what they called me until they day they were shot by a hail of bullets from a band of masked men. I suspect that some of those same men were in on my “killing” two nights ago when your men, including Danno Hanlon and Iggy Ignawyckz and Slice Diamond, who we’d bet were in on the murder of my parents because they’re been working for you all this time. “

Lockwood managed to say, “Who’s we? I don’t see anybody else with you.”

“Oh, we’re around. You don’t think I’d make this last call by myself, do you?”

“A voice from the other end of the room said, “Are you really Billy Gregory, the one I used to go fishing with in the cove where the river bends? Is that really you, Billy? I’m Harvey Dean.”

Before Gregory could answer, Lockwood’s top hand, and top gun, made a move at his place beside the door, and Gregory put a round into his right forearm that must have carried away fragments of bone with it, as blood went everywhere. He’d never use that arm again to cock a rifle nor toss a saddle on the back of his horse.

Silence reigned in the once noisy saloon. The two bartenders stood their ground, neither one moving. Glasses stopped tinkling. Chair legs sat motionless as dead weights settle onto them.

Lockwood said, trying to fit some steadiness in his voice, “You’ve got no evidence that said my men had anything to do with that terrible killing of your parents. I’m deeply sorry for that, but it was not me. It was not Danno or Iggy or Slice. They’re not that kind of men.”

“Oh, yes they are,” Gregory said, “because I heard them. I was in the barn when they thought they had killed me. I heard them plain as day. But it was not me, of course, who they shot. It was someone I made put my clothes on in the barn before your men showed up. He was playing around with someone in the barn. I heard the screaming. I heard a girl screaming.”

Tom Sheehan at work. (640x436)Tom Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry, Korea, 1951. Books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short Spans; A Collection of Friends; From the Quickening; and This Rare Earth & Other Flights (poetry). He has 20 Pushcart nominations, and 350 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine. A recent eBook from Milspeak Publishers, The Westering, 2012, was nominated for a National Book Award. His newest eBook, “Murder at the Forum,” an NHL mystery novel, was released this year by Danse Macabre-Lazarus. His work is in/coming in Rosebud (6th issue), The Linnet’s Wings (6th issue), Ocean Magazine (8th issue), and many internet sites and print magazines/anthologies. He strives, in his 86th year, to write 1000 words a day.

A sudden realization, a sudden fear, slammed through Lockwood. His face turned absolutely white. His chin drooped onto his chest. His mouth fell open, but no words came forth, but his bloodline was telling tales.

The prevailing stillness said that the saloon, in one quick image, was now a kind of courtroom, as well as a wooden mausoleum for broken dreams.

The entire gathering listened as Gregory said, “He had a young girl tied naked to a stall post and was abusing her like Hell had come on Earth for one last fling.”

Lockwood knew who that tormentor was. So did his men, the ones who had killed the boss’s son. Many in the audience knew too, the stories so difficult to keep hidden forever.

“She was a Ute maiden by the name of Chorita. I took her to her father, Chief Ouray, The Arrow, of the Uncompahgre Utes. You can bet your last drink that he’ll be letting you know how the nation feels about it.”

At one end of the bar, Territorial Judge Herman Godring, enjoying his last day in town on his rounds of the territory, slammed an empty jug on the bar top and proclaimed loudly and clearly, “Court is now in session.”

A half dozen or more of Lockwood’s men tried to rush from the saloon but they were swallowed up by the crowd of patrons who suddenly, in two nights of free liquor, felt a lot of old pains, and old memories, break loose from their lack of temerity.

It was a night to remember, even if it was last call for some of them.


Goat Sucker Blues Part Two

Tobin had supper with Teresa, in her office.  They kept the door closed.  None of the other hands, not even Mel, said a thing about it.  Tobin had been there the longest of them all, since before Michael Cole, the old man’s heir, had taken control and left his sister, Teresa, in charge of the day to day matters.  Cole went to the city to spend all the money they made of the cattle he could.  Even before the old man had died, the younger Cole was a rare sight on the land.  Teresa had been raised up among the horses and cattle.  Tobin had been a young man, new to the Texas sky, when he taught Teresa how to ride the mare her father gifted to her.  There was no need for talk of the time they spent together.  Old man Cole had thought highly of the Okie.  He had always been a good worker, the best on the ranch.  There was talk from the old man that he would sell the ranch to Tobin one day, but the old man’s son had raised a stink about it, about how the ranch was his inheritance, that it was only right it came to him when the old man decided it to be time to give up control, and when the old man’s health took a turn, Michael Cole signed the papers and the ranch was his, but he gave his sister the position as manager to placate her.   He came by maybe once a year to make sure it was running as best to keep his bank account full to the brim.

Tobin had a bunk out with the other hands, in the cabin old man Cole had built, with a television and showers and enough beds for ten men, but he spent most nights in the main house with Teresa.  The younger Cole may not be the most loved of bosses, but Teresa was fair, and Tobin a respected elder, though he could still do all he needed and had no issues throwing a few punches when necessary.  No one talked about the time they spent together.  There was no need.

After having their suppertime in the office, Tobin went out to help Mel put together what they needed for the night.  Canteens of water, a bundle of tortillas and beans, the goat and the bottle Tobin had conceded, their rifles, and a bedroll for each.  Teresa gave Tobin a peck on the cheek, and not a hand there so much as snickered.  Mel was up on his horse and looked away, out to the southern field.  Tobin nodded at the woman, put his foot in the stirrup and lifted himself up to the saddle.  The two vaqueros were off with out a word into the dying light, their horses moving without a hurry through the standing cattle.

In the northern sky stars began opening their eyes to the lonesome men, watching with interest as they rode towards the clouded night.  In the south, a cord of blue light cracked through, out over Mel’s homeland, and some moments later a rumble came out over the land, into the heart of each man, a reverberation that rattled their ribs as the evening wind blew coldly over them, bringing the smell of cattle droppings to their nose, a smell familiar and comforting to each.  The moon rose like a black eye in the east.  The cows murmured in their slumber.  The goat trailed behind them, its rope tied to Mel’s horse.

The low, childlike gurgle of the thirsty river met them after an hour’s travel.  From his saddle pouch, Tobin drew forth a flashlight, and as they went along the river, he shinned it like a searchlight until he found what he was hoping not too.

“Un toro,” Mel said, looking at the bull awash in the halo of light, less than five feet from the river.

Tobin got down from his horse, as did his compatriot.  Both men crouched down low on their knees over the deceased.  The wound on the animal’s neck was still steaming in the cool night, and he didn’t have to, but Tobin put his hand to the beast’s chest.  “Still warm.”  He stood back up and shined the light over the surrounding sand.  A trail of tracks led to the bull and back to the water.  The air smelled of shit.

“What do you think?”

“Seems whatever did this is across the river.”

“Si.”

“Come on.  Let’s cross here.”

“Here?”

“The river’s barely a foot or two deep.  Get your lazy ass back up on that horse.”

“Pajero.”  Mel went got back on his horse, and Tobin picked up the goat and handed it up to him.

The river was fifteen feet wide and came up to their horse’s knees.  They crossed slowly, keeping the animals calm, each man mindful of loose rocks.   The foul stink in the air got heavier when they got to the other side, and the horses started to behave skittishly, jumping at the wind in the brush, the water running by.  The two horses were tied to a low tree.  Tobin found a thick stick, two feet long, and started whittling a point on the end.  Satisfied, he pushed it deep into the ground, and tied the goat’s leash to it.  The animal went to the end and started eating the fresh grass.

The two vaqueros sat at the base of a tree and waited, a rifle across each lap.  After an hour of silence, Mel took out the bundle of tortillas and beans.

“Frijoles están fríos.”

“What you want me to do about that?”

“Get a fire going.”

“Give it an hour.”

“Tengo hambre.”

“Eat them cold, then.  Let’s wait and see what we see before we start up a fire.”  Mel put the food back in the bundle and set it to the side.

“What do you think that smell is?”

“Cow shit.”

“Don’t smell like no cow shit I’ve ever smell.”

“You a connoisseur of cow shit now?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah.”

“Ever been this side of the river?”

“Maybe once or twice.  We never kept nothing out this far.”

“We’re not all that far from the border.”

“Nope, we’re not.  Be quiet.”

“Could be anything out here.  Narcos.”

“Ain’t no narcos out here.  We’ve never had a problem with anyone crossing the land.  Be quiet.”

“I don’t like it out here.”

“Shut up.”

“Extraño.”

“I mean it, shut up.  Did you hear that?” he asked, standing to his feet, clutching the rifle.  Mel mirrored him.  They stood stock still, watching the outer dark, listening.  There was a sound like breathing, quieter than the horses, the goat.  Tobin lit up the flashlight and shined it out over the surrounding brush.

A flash of movement, and something like a growl came from the north.

Quick footsteps away and the two vaqueros were following, away from the horses, the bait.  After a minute, Tobin stopped, and Mel almost ran into his back.  The sound of the pursuit had gone quiet.

“What was it?” Mel whispered.  Tobin swept the light from side to side, all around him.  The breathing was still there, just outside of sight.  It was heavier, winded.

“Don’t know.  Looked white.”

“White?  Un gringo?”

“Don’t know.  It was low to the ground.  A wolf, maybe.”

“Thought you said there were no lobos out here.”

“Quiet.”  Tobin extinguished the light and put it in his back pocket.  He held the rifle like a soldier, stepped softly, avoiding twigs or rocks.  Mel took his lead.

There was a rustle to their left.

Tobin turned and fired at the sound.  The explosion kept anything else from reaching their ears.

The older hand took the light back out, shined it where the bullet had gone.

A drop of blood on the dirt.

A trail of red leading away from the river.

They followed the markings through the brush, direct for fifty feet to a small cave made from two boulders.  The outside was littered with the bodies of small animals, squirrels and rats, rabbits and bats.  Not a damn drop of blood anywhere to be seen.

“I told you.   El chupacabra.”

“Shut up.”

Tobin shined the light into the opening of the cave.  The dark was stronger than the light, refused to give any ground.

“Come on,” he said.

“In there?”

“In there.”

“Mierda.”

Stepping inside, they found the cave to be deeper, going into the ground, like a burrow.  They heard the breathing, louder, echoing off the walls.  It was harsher.  Whatever the source, it was in pain.  Something like a whimpering came to the two.

“You hit it.”

“Yeah.”

Ten feet into the cavity, there was a rustle of movement.  The flashlight illuminated crude designs on the dirt walls, shapes like bulls, buffalo, and something like a person, more animalistic.  The drawings looked to be made in blood.

They went towards the sound, deeper underground.  The walls got closer, more claustrophobic.  The light save for their torch grew darker.  The air thicker.   The smell fouler, shit and sulfur and decomposition.  More animal corpses lined the walls.

The tunnel opened up into a small den, ten feet wide.  A nest of twigs and scraps of cloth was in the center.  A body rested there.  The source of the breathing.

It looked like a man.  Emaciated, with not an ounce of fat under the pale, luminescent skin.  Thick fibers of muscle.  Hair long and dreaded with dirt.  A patchy, black beard crusted with blood.  The thing’s eyes were the color of the sky by the horizon, twisted with hate and pain.  It growled, not the sound of a man, but a cornered animal.  The bullet had hit its shoulder, gone straight through.  Thin rivers of blood on its chest and back.

chrisdealChris Deal is from North Carolina via Texas. He has been published in several journals and anthologies, such as Warmed and Bound by Velvet Press and the forthcoming Booked. Anthology by Booked Podcast. His debut collection of microfiction, Cienfuegos, was republished by KUBOA press. He can be found at www.chris-deal.com.

The thing got to its legs.  They trembled at first, but grew steady.  Tobin raised his rifle, took the thing’s head in his sight.

With an obscene screech it threw itself at the man closest, at Tobin.

He didn’t hesitate with the trigger.

The explosion was louder in the close walls of the burrow.  The thing fell to the ground in a pink mist of matter.

Tobin waited for his breathing to steady, for the hearing to come back to his ears.  “Told you weren’t no damn chupacabra.”

Mel didn’t respond.

Tobin turned slowly, making sure another bullet was in the rifle’s chamber.

Mel was on the ground.  Another thing on top of him, it’s broken yellow teeth in the man’s neck.

Mel tried to speak; only a bubble of blood came out.

Three more things stood between Tobin and the exit.

He fired, once, twice, until the cartridge was empty.

The things kept coming.


Goat Sucker Blues Part One

The two vaqueros rode out into the southern field as the sun decided it to be time to make its morning appearance.  They traveled the low, sloping hills, over grass eaten down beneath the hooves of their conveyance by the cattle they moved between.  Each bull, cow and calf bore the Cole brand, but the rich man rarely came out to the ranch from the city, and neither vaquero had even seen him astride a horse, much less riding the land.  The only time Tobin ever thought of the heir was when he took his monthly pay.  Mel had never met the boss.

Mel was seasonal, an indígenas, and would go home to Atarjea, Guanajuato in the winter.  Tobin was there year round.  He was always glad to see Mel come back in the spring, fat from his wife’s cooking, full of stories about his children, while Tobin spent the winter, Christmas, with the other hands at the Ranch.

“We could have waited for the huevos,” Mel said.

“Could have, but then the sun would be out.”

“Could have slept a little longer.

“Could have, then we’d be out of a job.”

They kept riding, the conversation silenced, drinking the remains of the morning’s coffee.  Mel watched as Tobin poured out tobacco from his pouch into an open paper, his cup balanced in the hand that held his reins.  He licked the cigarette and closed it tight.  He placed it between his lips and lit a match on the saddle, inhaling and letting out a filament of smoke that rolled and found the currents of wind, and left them to go down towards Mexico.

“You’ll need to teach me that someday,” Mel said.

“Can’t teach a stray dog no tricks.”

Four miles from the ranch, towards the river where the land got rockier and the grass grew sparse, they were past the herd, save for some stragglers.  The two men pushed their horses to the edge of the river and followed it to the west.  After ten minutes, with a smell on the air, they found what they were looking for.  A bull lay on the ground, a few feet from the river, covered in flies and early maggots, lying before God, the morning sun, and the two vaqueros.

“Ese es un gran toro,” Mel said.

“Yep,” Tobin replied.

“No coyote’d go after one that big.”

“I don’t doubt that.”

“Los lobos?”

“Ain’t no damn wolves around here.”

“Could be a stray.  La unica.”

“Could be.”

“Probably not, though.”

“Probably not.”

“Mi padre told me once that when he was a little gordo, un lobo came to the farms of his little village, down from the mountains, and it started killing goats and chickens, perros y vacas.  The men of the village were worried it would soon start going after los niños.  So, mi padre went out one night, just after la medianoche with mi abuelo, mi padre carrying the rifle.  They went out to the field and found a good place, favor del viento, and they waited for hours.  Mi padre was asleep when mi abuelo took the rifle from him, and he took aim.  Mi padre saw el lobo among the cattle, going slow, very low to the ground.  It was crouched, and just about to jump a vaca.  Mi abuelo, Dios lo bendiga, he pulled the trigger and boom,” Mel said, making the motion of the firing gun with his hands, “and mi padre swears he heard el lobo scream.  When mi abuelo y mi padre went to where el lobo was, it was gone, no blood anywhere, and mi abuelo knows his padre shot it.  The bullet was sitting on the ground where it was.”

“Bullshit,” Tobin said, spitting coffee grounds to the dirt.

“It’s true. La mano de Dios,” Mel said, his hand in the air.

“You’re from Atarjea.  Ain’t no damn mountains in Atarjea.  Ain’t no damn little village, either.”

“You calling mi padre mentiroso?”

“I’m calling you mentiroso.”

“I never said I wasn’t.”

“Neither did I.”  Tobin put the empty cup in his saddlebag, and got down from the horse.  His feet on the earth, he gave the reins to Mel, who stayed atop his mount.  Tobin took his knife from his belt and the sun struck the blade, scattering the morning’s light out to the field.

He approached the beast slowly, carefully, with the reverence the thing deserved on its deathbed of clean, trampled grass.  He crouched down on his knees above the animal’s throat.  It had been torn out.  Tobin poked into the wound with the knife, moving the growing maggots out of the way.  He then took the knife and dug it into the bull’s chest.  Nothing came out.

“No sangre?” Mel asked.

“Nope.”

“Could be caimán.”

“Could be, except there ain’t do damn alligators up in this river.  Ain’t nothing but cow shit.”

“Could be el chupacabra.”

“Ain’t no damn such thing as chupacabra.”

“How many does that make?”

“Seventh bull this month.”

“Could be more.”

“How’s that?”

“Coyotes may have taken some bodies.  Could be more we’re not finding.”

“Could be, but on those we’ve found, there ain’t no sign of coyotes.  This one’s been here since last night, I’d say.  They’d have been eating the damn thing soon as it fell.  Coyotes don’t want nothing to do with whatever’s been doing this.  Ain’t even a damn vulture around,” Tobin said, looking to the sky, holding his hat to block the sun rising in the east.

“Smells bad out here.  Extraño.”

“That it does.”

“Why ain’t the coyotes been here?”

“Don’t know.”

“Could be el chupacabra.”

“Ain’t no damn chupacabra.”  Tobin stood to his full height and put the knife back in his belt.  He took the reins back from Mel, put his foot in the stirrup and got back on the horse.  “Let’s get back.”

“Huevos are going to be cold,” Mel said as they started back to the ranch.

“Probably.”  Tobin rolled another cigarette, lit it and exhaled the smoke.  The wind had shifted, took the smoke out over the river.

“Nothing worse than cold huevos.”

“Well, you didn’t have to come out with me.”

“You told me too.”

“You could have stayed in bed a bit longer.”

“I don’t like you sometimes.”

“Yeah, well, at least you didn’t miss out on any time me.”

“Rather spend the time with el chupacabra.”

 

* * *

            When they got back to the ranch house, Mel went to the kitchen to scoop up the cold, leftover eggs, and Tobin went to the office, where Teresa, Cole’s sister and the only member of his family that wanted anything to do with the ranch was doing her paper work.

“What say you, Tobin?” she said when he knocked on the door.

“Another bull out by the river, ma’am.”

“Damn.  Sixth one this month?”

“Seventh.”

“Damn.  We can’t afford to be losing them like this.”

“At this rate, we’ll be out of cattle when the kingdom comes.”

“Maybe,” she said, laughing.  “What do you thinks doing it?”

“Don’t know.  No coyote could take down a bull the size of this one.”

“A wolf, maybe.”

“Doubt it, ma’am.  Aren’t any wolves around these parts anymore.”

“Guess not.  What do you think we should do?”

“I’m going to go out by the river tonight.  See if I can find what’s happening.”

“All right.  See if Melquiades would go with you.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And be careful out there.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  Tobin stood for a moment, about to say something more.  Teresa waited, the thought in her mind that she knew what he was going to say, but he nodded, and left the office, to go outside, to the porch.  He sat in an old rocking chair and rolled a cigarette, using both hands this time, finishing the job faster than on the horse.  He sat smoking, looking out over the land he worked.  There were clouds out, past the river.  He crushed the first smoke under his boot and rolled another.  Mel came out from the kitchen, holding a sopping tortilla wrapped around his eggs.  He chewed slowly, and watched the clouds with Tobin.

“What’d she say?”

“That you’re a damn idiot and you’re getting a pay cut.”

“Mámalo.”

“Figures you’d say that.”

“We going out there tonight?”

“I am.  You can come with you want.”

“I got a say in it?”

“Yeah, you do.”

“I’ll come out.”

“You really do deserve that pay cut.”

“Güey.  Bring a bottle with you.”

“Will do.”

“When do you want to go out?”

“After supper.”

“Trabajo?”

“Trabajo.”

 

 

* * *

 

The day moved as if under the apathetic eye of a sleeping god.  Tobin, Mel and the other hands were out in the fields.  A fence to the north needed mending.  The horses needed feeding.  The cattle needed to be looked after.  By lunch, Tobin had forgotten the morning’s dead bull.  All hands came to the kitchen for their daily tortas.  Tobin sat at the end of the long table, his back to the window brimming with sunlight, warming his back.  He took a big bite from the torta de lengua, a sip of his horchata, and he thought only of the food, the drink, the present.  Mel got his own sandwich and drink and joined him at the table, sitting across from him.

“Guillermo and Hugo were out in the southern field.”

“Were they?” Tobin asked after a swallow of horchata.

“Down by the river.”

“We need to have someone go get that bull.”

“That’s why they were there.”

“They get the bull?”

“Dos.”

“What?”

“And the calf.”

“What?”

“They were maybe 500 feet from the first, just by the river.”

“Three last night.”

“Guillermo said there were footprints around the bull.  It was barely out of the water.”

“We need to run a fence to block that river.”

“The footprints, they almost looked human, he said.”

“Christ.”

“There was no sangre.  None at all.”

“Christ Almighty.”

“You know what I think it is.”

“Don’t you say it.”  Tobin took the last bite of his torta and swallowed it down with some horchata.  He stood up, took his plate and cup to the washbasin.  He went out to the porch again, sat in a rocking chair and rolled a cigarette.  He didn’t want to say it, especially not to Melquiades, but a part of him was beginning to humor the man’s idea.

When Tobin rolled and lit up his third smoke, Mel came out onto the porch with a cup of coffee and sat in the rocking chair to Tobin’s left.  Mel put the cup on the ground beside him, and took a cigarillo from his shirt pocket.

“Tienes una cerilla?”  Tobin handed him the matchbook, and Mel took his time selecting the perfect stick.  He struck his match and lit his cigarillo, holding the smoke in for a few moments, savoring it.  “I was thinking,” Mel said, his voice filled with a dangerous tone.

“Now you know we don’t pay you to think.”

“Es malo.”

“We tried letting you think once, you know.”

“I know.”

“You thought it would be a good idea to try raising llamas out here.”

“Shut up.”

“This place ain’t going to make no damn money on llamas.”

“I was thinking, maybe we need to take some bait with us when we go out there tonight.”

“Bait.”

“Si, some bait.”

“What sort of bait were you thinking?”

“Cabra, of course.”

“Cabra.  You want to take a damn goat out there.”

“Thinking it’s only right.”

“It’s only right.  How is that?”

“We keep las cabras so close, that’s why el chupacabra goes after los toros y vacas.  It really wants them cabras.”

“You’re a damn idiot sometimes, Mel.”

“You’re going to tell me you weren’t thinking it.  What the hell else is going to be drinking the blood of them ganado.”

“It sure as hell ain’t a chupacabra.  Ain’t no damn such thing as a damn chupacabra.”

“You know, when I was a boy, I didn’t think there were such thing as gringos.  You sure changed my mind on that.”

“You ever stopped to think that the answer is obvious.”

“The answer.”

“It makes perfect sense, you just stop to think on it.”

“Que es?”

“Aliens.”

chrisdealChris Deal is from North Carolina via Texas. He has been published in several journals and anthologies, such as Warmed and Bound by Velvet Press and the forthcoming Booked. Anthology by Booked Podcast. His debut collection of microfiction, Cienfuegos, was republished by KUBOA press. He can be found at www.chris-deal.com.

“Chinga usted.”

“No, listen, it’s true.  Aliens came down and abducted them cattle.  Ran some tests on them, checked whether or not they’d make a good food source, found them not to be quite right for the need, then checked to see if maybe they could breed with them, then drained the blood to fuel their space ships, and dropped them back down, then went to your bunk while you were sleeping and shat in your pants.”

“Hijo de puta,” Mel said with a laugh, coughing on his cigarillo.

“Makes about as much sense as a damn chupacabra.”

“You’re right.  It’s silly.”

“Still, it’s a good idea.  We’ll go out there with a goat.  See if that can lure what-the-hell-ever is doing this into our sights, and then we blow it away.  If it happens to be a chupacabra, you and me will take it out on the freak show circuit, make us some real walking around money.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

“That it does.  Just don’t let me catch you thinking no more.”

“Puta.”