Your Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Near Miss

Two days after I found John at Kelson’s Ledges, his innards hanging out like a gutted pig, the horde swarmed.

I was still in shock when his sister descended on the house, her husband and children in tow, packing the four-room house so tight that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to breathe much past the morning.

Then his mother came. An aunt arrived just as I thought that was the last of them. They cried, handkerchiefs in hand, and bemoaned the fact that their brother, son, and nephew had been murdered.

His mother wailed. “Who could do it? Everybody loved him.” Her name was Lucinda and she was a big barrel of a woman with an attitude to match.

I wanted to kick them right straight out of the house but I couldn’t get myself to do it. I understood their grief.

The sister paced back and forth, Bible in hand, but it was the aunt who was coarse. Her eyes were chips of ice, frozen and cold. She jabbed a finger at me. “It’s only been two days. You’ve already gone and buried him. Why couldn’t you wait for a proper burial?”

I didn’t answer any of their questions; there was no point. How could I tell them that their brother, son, and nephew had been but a blood-red husk of himself after he’d been eviscerated and left to die? The image of his tubular intestines dripping from the beaks of carrion still stalked me. Why would I want the same for them?

They continued to bicker over what I did and didn’t bury John in. Funny, no one once mentioned how I would get by, being John’s widow, with a ranch to run, and 10,000 head of cattle to care for.

The rocking chair groaned when I sat in it. I figured I had a lot of work to do now that John was gone but I just couldn’t get my feet to move. My legs felt as heavy as my heart.

Neighbors and friends stopped by with condolences. A lawyer came but he wasn’t mine. I could smell him as soon as he set foot in the house. Blackstrap. The cheapest alcohol around.

“Well, Ms. McLachlan,” he said, “Looks like the ranch is yours now.” He sniffed loudly. “Guess you’ll be itching to sell. You’ll make a nice home for yourself with the profit from this land and cattle.” He pulled out papers and a steel-nibbed pen, and pushed them toward me.

I had a strange feeling, like my insides were tightening, and it surprised me because I hadn’t felt much of anything since I’d buried John. It hadn’t even crossed my mind to sell the place even though part of me knew how hard it would be to run the ranch, especially since I was still learning the business.  I looked down at my hands, which were raw and cracked open. They weren’t a lady’s hands. I fingered the papers. “Who’s looking to buy?”

“A businessman who-”

“What’s his name?”

“Mr. Cole. He’s the gentleman-”

“I know who Clarence Cole is.” My hands clenched and I suddenly felt on fire inside. “He frequents the saloon downtown. Likes the prostitutes on Murray Ave.”

“That’s nothing but innuendo, ma’am.”

“I ain’t done talking yet.” I glared at the lawyer. “Seems to me, Clarence got himself in a duel last week and shot that young newspaper man from back East.”

The lawyer cleared his throat, sniffed again. “Now, you can’t blame that on Clarence.  That boy didn’t know the rules around here, like when to stop running your mouth and when to walk away from a fight you can’t win. Listen,” he leaned forward, “there’s no reason to stay here now that your husband has passed. Think of the life you can have in Tucson. You can’t run this ranch yourself, being a woman and all.”

I felt my face flush with anger and I tried to calm myself as a pious woman should but thought better of it being that I never was all that pious.  “I’d run it just like a man would, I presume. At least better than a drunkard like Clarence Cole.”

I got so angry sitting there looking at the lawyer in his fancy duds that I up and left him sitting there in the sitting room.

I ended up in the kitchen where Lucinda was fussing over a pot on the stove, but the lawyer followed me and stood so close that I could smell the stench of his words.

“Clarence is the only one who can pay you what you’re due for your property. You don’t sell to him, you don’t sell to no one.”

“Well, that’s fine since I ain’t selling.”

“He’ll come for you if you don’t sell.”

My hand moved to the knife in my pocket. “It ain’t right to anger a lady and that’s just what you’re doing. The thing is, I ain’t selling to nobody, ‘specially no murderer. Clarence Cole shot that newspaper man from New York and that was murder fair and square. Now get outta here before I do something that ain’t becoming of a lady.”

He stepped toward the door but paused at the threshold. “There ain’t no proof that Mr. Cole killed that newspaper man.”

I almost laughed at that. “Except for a handful of witnesses.”

“The sheriff checked out his alibi. Mr. Cole was with his ailing mother all night.”

I wasn’t quite sure what an alibi was but I knew a fib when I heard one. “His mother would say anything for a dollar.”

“I’m just looking out for you, is all. He ain’t gonna take no for an answer.”

The truth was, I did know it. Clarence Cole had always wanted our land, our cattle. He’d started a feud months ago, underselling us, spreading rumors about our stock even though we were an honest ranch just looking to make good on some cattle. Talk had it he’d taken to drink and he was one helluva mean drunk. I didn’t doubt that he could kill me and even my in-laws, but I couldn’t sell to that man. “Well you tell Mr. Cole that if he wants my land, he’s gonna have to take it.”

I heard Lucinda gasp, and the lawyer stared at me but I guess he could see the resolve in the set of my jaw because he left without another word.

Lucinda turned on me. “What have you got yourself into now?” she asked, like I was a kid caught stealing from the pantry when she was the one getting into my affairs and my home and my kitchen. “It’s not worth it, Anna. You’re selling this place and living with us.” By “us” she meant herself and every other in-law. I didn’t think that was a good arrangement.

I was wishing John was there to help me make the decision to sell or not, but it was made for me when I looked out the window and saw his headstone under the acacia tree. I knew I would never leave him, not even his grave. He’d been a reckless sort of a man, always dashing into danger, but he’d been full of life, and he’d been kind, and gentle, and had crawled into the dark crevices of my heart.

“I’m staying here. I got a ranch to run.” This was said with more gumption then I felt. Seems the fight went out of me. That was happening a lot lately.

I spent that night restless. My bed was lonely even though my mother-in-law, aunt, and two nieces were sharing it with me.

I woke before dawn, thinking I heard something, and sure enough the dogs were barking. I threw on yesterday’s clothes, grabbed my shotgun, and moved to the backdoor. It creaked a little when I opened it and I thought for sure Clarence would be there with his gun sighted on me but I couldn’t see real well in the dark and I figured that if I couldn’t see, neither could he.

The voice out front was loud, authoritative.  “Open up there, Ms. McLachlan. I got something to say to you.”

I scurried around to the front. Peering out from behind the curtain, I could see Clarence standing on the porch with his lawyer at his side.

The shotgun felt solid in my hands. “Awful early to be making a house call, Clarence Cole,” I shouted.

“This here is business,” he said. “Come on out and talk.” That was when I realized he was slurring his words. The bloke is drunk.

“I don’t think so. You got something to say, you say it from there.”

“Ms. McLachlan, this conversation is better had face-to-face. Now come on out. I won’t hurt you.”

He reached out and jiggled the handle. My hands were perspiring.

Now it was the lawyer’s turn. “We just want to have a friendly chit-chat. We ain’t even armed.” They both held up their hands.

The rising sun was casting a light across the valley and I could see the dust swirling in the barren landscape but it was Clarence that I was interested in. I took a closer look at him. I didn’t see no guns but there was something clasped to Clarence’s belt. I gasped. A bowie knife. The blade had to be at least ten inches long and it was surely long enough to rip up a man’s bowels like John’s had been when I’d found him. I was suddenly sure as night follows day that this man had killed John to get our land.

I wasn’t perspiring any more. Throwing the door open, I aimed my shotgun at the sorry coot standing in front of me.

His look was one of shock and confusion but I didn’t care. I was filled with such terrible hate toward this man who’d murdered my husband that I wanted to hurt him as much as he’d hurt me. I was like a snake springing for a ripe old bite of something good.

“You’re a murderer, Clarence Cole,” I shouted.

Someone grabbed my shoulders from behind as I fired.

I can’t really explain what happened next because the next thing I knew, I was laying on the hard ground with nothing but sky above me. I didn’t feel no pain so I figured I got knocked over by whoever was preventing me from killing Clarence.

The sky was blistering and a mass of people hovered, sinister, above me. I was a cow, dead as dirt, and they were carrion staring, watching, eyeing me out of the corners of those unnatural eyes to ascertain if I was dead or if they would have to pull the succulent flesh from my bones alive. Makes sense then, that those faces looked familiar.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” My aunt was in her nightclothes. Her lips were pinched together in a very disapproving fashion.

I opened my mouth but nothing came out. There was yelling from somewhere over to my right. “She shot at me. I can’t believe it.” I could see what I presumed to be Clarence’s legs pacing back and forth beyond the crowd of in-laws that stared down at me.

“I come to ask her for her hand in marriage and she shoots at me!”

Words spewed from my mouth then. “Are you crazy? Why would I marry you, Clarence Cole? Why you’re nothing but a -“

“now Anna,” my sister-in-law interrupted, “let’s get you on inside before Mr. Cole decides to call on the Sheriff. Now you go on,” she nodded toward Clarence and the lawyer. “You two get outta here.”

She pulled me up in one swift motion and helped me to the house. The aunt’s voice followed after me. “What’s wrong with you? I ain’t ever seen a woman as batty as you.”

Lucinda was in her element the entire day, fussing and hovering and bickering.

“Anna,” she said, “I know you’re real set on staying here at the ranch but I just don’t see how. There’s too much work for one person. If you’re so intent on living here, I think you should remarry.”

I tried to stifle my curse because my sister-in-law walked into the room, my youngest niece in tow. They sat in a chair together.

“There’s Andrew, the merchant at Smith’s and Sons. He ain’t all that good looking but he’d make a fine husband. And there’s that banker, Levi. I know he’s a little on the older side but you’d have a good, secure future in front of you.”

I was at a loss with what she was saying. “My husband, your son, just passed three days ago.”

Lucinda ignored me. “And Clarence, well, he might reconsider if you had a mind about it and apologized to him for shooting at him like that.”

I stood up so quick the rocking chair I was sitting in slammed into the wall behind me. “Clarence Cole doesn’t want to marry me. He just wants my land. Besides, he murdered John.”

Lucinda snorted.

I continued, “It’s convenient, ain’t it, that John was murdered right as Clarence was trying to get our land? And that John was found at Kelson’s Ledges on the border of our property and his? And then,” my voice rose, “Mr. Cole has the nerve to step onto my land with a bowie knife slapped on his hip which very well could’ve caused the same kind of damage that was done to my John.”

My niece’s eyes were as large as china dishes. She’d probably never seen so much fuss from a woman before.

“Just because a man has a knife doesn’t mean that he’s a murderer. If you think like that, any man in these parts could be a suspect.” Lucinda reached for my niece’s hand. Her voice was sweet as molasses as she drew the little girl towards the kitchen. “Let’s go get some hot chocolate.”

But I got a good audience out of my sister-in-law. “You really think it was him?”

“Swear on that good ol’ Bible of yours you like to carry around.”

She seemed to think about that for a minute. “Well, it ain’t right to kill a man, especially a good man like John. But mama’s right, Anna. Sometimes a woman’s got to do what a woman’s supposed to do.”

“And what’s a woman supposed to do when her husband’s been murdered and her life’s been threatened?”

“Be controlled. Discreet. Let the men do all the brawling and just accept the fact that we women were meant to take the modest route, even when angry and ready to fight.” She stood up and patted my shoulder. “It’ll be alright. Just think on what I said.”

So I did. I thought about it far into the night while my nieces’ elbows poked at my ribs, and their little feet kicked at my shins, and Lucinda’s snores answered my aunt’s louder ones.

It was an awful thing to feel scared and angry and dead inside all at the same time but I knew that if I didn’t do something soon that Clarence would either take my house and everything I owned, or kill me, my cow hands, and my in-laws. Maybe I didn’t care so much about him killing me but I didn’t think the others deserved to die even if I didn’t always get along with them.

My in-laws seemed determined that I should remarry;  be more discreet and modest like other women. Maybe they were right. Maybe I’d gone about all of this the wrong way.

They wouldn’t ever get off my back unless I agreed to marry.

The next day, I announced my plans to marry Clarence Cole if he’d still have me. Out of the three single men left in the area who weren’t elderly coots, he was the only one who knew how to run cattle and the only one who made sense to marry besides the fact that he was a wicked drunk and murderer.

 

Since I had no family besides my in-laws, my aunt’s husband rode out to Clarence’s property to apologize for me and arrange everything. He came back with news that I was to be married in two days.

I let Lucinda plan everything. I didn’t really care one way or the other what happened at the wedding although I did get a little sad when she pulled out my wedding dress from my first marriage.

“It’s still good as new.”

laurenLauren B. Fawcett has a Master of Science degree in Education. A rather indecisive person with varied interests, she enjoys writing in multiple genres, including Fantasy, Western, Historical, and Science Fiction. Previous works have appeared in The Lorelei Signal, Mystic Signals, and Mused-The Bella Online Literary Journal. She resides in rural Pennsylvania with her husband, Patrick, and a cat with ninja-like moves.

“Should be.” I grunted. “It’s only six months old.”

I spent some time at John’s grave the night before I was to be married. It was a solemn thing and I didn’t feel much like reveling. I went to bed tired but unable to sleep.

Knowing that my in-laws could sleep through an earthquake like the one that’d shaken California, I dressed quietly and snuck outside. After saddling my horse, I rode her northeast, taking care that her tracks didn’t show.

I found myself at Kelson’s Ledges, crouching silently behind a tree, staring down at the unsuspecting bloke who’d murdered my husband. It’d been a hot day and he was sleeping out on the porch, probably to get some relief from the heat. He was alone. It was just us and the birds and maybe God was watching, too, but Clarence hadn’t any notion I was there.

There was some grief in knowing that I’d gotten my in-laws hopes up that I was to marry but I’d never really planned on going through with it. After all, agreeing to do something and doing something were completely different.

I aimed the revolver at Clarence’s head, thinking that maybe my sister-in-law was right this one time, that maybe it was good to follow etiquette every now and then and do what any respectable woman would do by staying controlled and discreet; it was much harder to get caught. And then I pulled the trigger.


Newton’s Law

Hobbs burst into the one-room cabin, slammed the door behind him, and leaned back against it, his eyes closed and his chest heaving. “Apaches,” he said. “Other side of the river. At least a dozen.”

Old Amos Bassett, who had already jumped to his feet, spit out half his biscuit and swallowed the rest whole. The third person in the room, a long-haired man named Jack Fountain, stood also, but a little more slowly: his wrists were handcuffed behind his back.

“Did they see you?” Amos sputtered.

“Don’t matter,” Hobbs said. “They saw our smoke.” He glanced around the interior of the cabin. It was an old line shack, dark and rundown and smelling like years of woodsmoke and unwashed cowboys. His gaze stopped on the rope-handled bucket, still empty, that he held in his right hand. He stared at it blankly for a second, then flung it into a corner. “Let’s get movin’. If we can make it to the woods and double back to the river . . .”

The old man was already gathering his gear. “What about the horses?”

“Leave ’em.” Hobbs took out his pistol, spun the cylinder, holstered it again. “We’ll have to go out the back window—”

“Give me a gun,” Jack Fountain said.

Both the others stared at him. “What?” Hobbs asked.

“You heard me. Take off these cuffs and give me a gun.”

Newton Hobbs regarded him a moment. “Let me explain something to you, Fountain. I’m the Law, he’s the tracker, you’re the prisoner. Prisoners don’t get guns.”

“Yeah, well, I ain’t no regular prisoner, Deputy. For one thing, I ain’t really been arrested yet, have I. And if that’s Red Shirt’s bunch out there”—Fountain nodded his shaggy head toward the closed door—“you’ll need all the help you can get.”

Before Hobbs could reply, Amos Bassett said, “He’s right, Newt. We’re just supposed to bring him in for questioning, you said so yourself.”

Hobbs turned to the old man. “So what are you saying, Amos? Give him a gun so he can kill us like he killed them two women in Hays?”

“I didn’t kill nobody,” Fountain snapped.

The old tracker swallowed and lowered his voice. “What if he’s tellin’ the truth, Newt? One of the Cado boys did say he saw him in Dodge at the time.”

All three men fell silent, thinking their own thoughts.

“Come on, Deputy,” Fountain said, half-turning and jingling his handcuff chains. “We’re wastin’ time.”

Still Hobbs hesitated. Finally he muttered, “God help us,” and nodded to the old man, who fished a key from his pocket and unlocked the cuffs. When that was done, Hobbs pulled a second pistol from his belt, flipped it over, and handed it to the prisoner. “Head for the window, I’m right behind you,” Hobbs said. He turned to grab some jerky and a canteen from the tabletop.

When he turned again, stuffing the jerky into his vest pocket, he froze.

Jack Fountain had taken two steps back, and was standing alone in the center of the room. The borrowed pistol was pointed straight at Newton Hobbs’s chest. Amos already had his hands high in the air, and was gawking at the gun as if hypnotized.

“What’s this?” Hobbs said.

Fountain cocked the pistol and studied both of them a moment. His lip had curled into a cold, bitter smile. “Let me explain something to you, Deputy,” he said. “You’re a dead man, he’s a dead man, I’m a free man. As of right now. And free men don’t get taken back to hang.

Hobbs nodded. “So you did kill ’em.”

“You bet I did. Enjoyed it, too.”

Old Amos suddenly spoke up, sounding hurt as well as scared: “But Sam Cado said you was in Dodge that day, with him…”

Fountain’s gaze flicked to Amos. “I’ll give you some advice, old man,” he said, still smiling. “Don’t believe everything you’re told.”

With that, he raised the revolver, aimed it at Hobbs’ head, and pulled the trigger.

The hollow CLICK sounded loud in the confined space of the cabin. For an instant Fountain just stood there, staring in disbelief. Before he could recover, Deputy Hobbs’s own gun was drawn and cocked and ready.

“Jack Fountain,” Hobbs said, “you are under arrest for the murders of Clara Garvey and Janie Sims. Amos, take his gun and cuff him again.”

The old man, who was every bit as stunned as the prisoner, blinked and nodded. While Hobbs held his pistol pointed at Fountain’s heart, Amos retrieved the empty revolver and with trembling hands snapped the cuffs into place.

In the silence that followed, Jack Fountain’s twisted grin returned. “Pretty cute, Deputy,” he admitted. “But you’re still dead men. Red Shirt and me go way back, but you and your tracker’ll be scalped and roasted by noontime.”

Amos Bassett swallowed again, and glanced over Hobbs’s shoulder at the closed door. “He’s right, Newt—it’s too late to run now. What about the Indians?”

Keeping his eyes on Fountain, Hobbs backed up until he was leaning against the doorframe. “Let me put it this way, Amos: So far he’s only been right about one thing.” Without looking, Hobbs hooked one of his spurs into the crack of the door behind him and kicked sideways. The door swung open again, to reveal a wide deserted clearing, a shallow river, and plains that stretched flat and empty all the way to the distant mountains.

“…Don’t believe everything you’re told,” Hobbs said.


Big Jim’s Secret

Along with thousands of other hopeful or desperate men, Big Jim Montgomery trekked across the mountains forty years earlier at the height of the California gold rush, before staking his claim and setting up camp near Longridge in the spring of 1850. He never discovered the big seams that made a few others very wealthy but occasionally an odd small nugget or tiny scraps gave him encouragement to dig deeper and deeper into the hillside, as well as panning the stream running across his land and down through the forest.

In those days he was a giant of a man who often took the side of the underdog, he couldn’t abide bullies and dished out his own version of justice from time to time. He never wanted or sought permanent company, happy to live and work alone in the mountains. Every few months he would wander into town calling at the assay office to exchange a little of his spoils for cash. After that the same routine was followed each time. First stop was the bath house, taking great comfort in a tub of hot water after bathing in the ice cold mountain streams, next the barber shop to make him look human again. Clothing and boots next, time to replace the old smelly and worn out stuff. That left his favourite three things, the general store to order enough of whatever he needed to see him through to his next visit; the bar always followed, beer, whisky and a meal. After a good fillin, time for a bed for the night, there were always plenty of young women eager to take a handful of dollars in return for a good night of not too much sleeping. He made the most of these pleasures but never wanted the attachment of a wife or girlfriend.

Jim had his biggest find in the spring of 1873, an exceptional amount of rain and snow melt softened the ground exposing new potential just feet from his old workings. That had kept him busy ever since. As always Jim kept his secret to himself, storing his small pieces of treasure away, certain that the big find was just around the corner. By then Jim was approaching fifty, years of living and sleeping in tents or in his mine had given him a few health problems, he was much slower than ten or even five years earlier although almost as strong, but his mind was still sharp. He could sense trouble coming and occasionally had to deter thieves and low-lifes looking for a quick buck.

He knew the mountains better than any other man, no one was going to get the better of him. His treasure was safe, two wasters like Dan Waters and “Smiley” John Fort had no chance. Jim saw, heard or smelt them coming a good hour before they reached his land.

“You boys looking for me or just lost your way?” he called from somewhere up the hillside above them.

Smiley’s face changed, he had no idea where the voice came from, his first reaction was to draw and point his gun upwards. Staring straight into the bright midday sun, he could see nothing or no-one. A forty pound lump of rock, smashing into his head and shoulders knocked him to the ground as the sound of a bullet being fired at random echoed for a few seconds.

Dan jumped to the ground crouching behind a small outcrop of rock, “Now then mister, that was real unfriendly, I don’t like being made to feel unwelcome or angry and that’s what you just did.”

“Now, that’s too bad, ain’t it? You better get your buddy on his horse and get out while you can, there ain’t nothin’ here that belongs to you, you got five minutes or you get a new hole right between your eyes. You listenin’ fella?”

Smiley was still stretched out, he wouldn’t be moving for a while but Dan was quick, quicker than most, especially a middle-aged man. He crept into the trees below, running and circling around to where the rock had come from, but Jim, as you would expect, was long gone. Dan heard a sound behind him and fired off two shots as he turned, all he saw was a bird flapping madly from the bushes.

Dan’s instinct was to take him to where the bird had just been, moving slowly he parted the branches, only to be whipped across the face by a branch tied back by Jim. He picked himself up, cursed a number of times and carried on, creeping, crawling, running for what seemed like an age but that wasn’t the only trap waiting for the unsuspecting young thug. He never saw or heard Jim, each faltering step drew him closer and closer to the next trap. The end of this battle of stealth and craft came when a log the size of a deer, swinging in a rope cradle, hit him on the back of his head, his hat, gun and a boot flying in different directions.

Big Jim laughed and clapped his hands, his next task was simple enough, strap them over their saddles and head off towards the town.

Two hours or so later he had just made the Pinehurst road, flagged down a passing wagon and told the good folks to call at the sheriff’s office. He was going to leave Dan and Smiley at the crossroads half a mile further on, the sheriff could pick them up when he was ready. By the time the sheriff and a couple of deputies arrived the two were upside down, stripped and tied to a couple of trees, their clothes smouldering in the remains of a bonfire alongside.

Once again Jim had dealt out his own justice, just as he had a number of times before and since that time. He grew more cautious with age. His mine and property had traps of all kinds.

Big Jim relied on his mules, they were the only transport he had ever had, they carried all the provisions and equipment he needed and he treated them well. He’d bought his current mule (Mardy) eight years ago, but this one was the most stubborn, bad-tempered animal he had ever owned. He soon learned not to walk behind him as Mardy would kick out for no reason. Jim had received more than a few bites in his time as well. The only person who seemed to be able to get close to Mardy was Eaton, a five year old red haired lad who bribed the mule with a bite or two of an apple. Eaton could sit on him, pat him, anything where no-one else dared try.

Eaton’s folks had a new house on the edge of town, just off the Sacramento road and the youngster attended the small town school where his mother was a teacher.

By the time he was ten, he’d built a good friendship with Jim, mainly through his abilities with Mardy although there was nothing more than a chat as Jim either arrived or was leaving town. Jim always had words of advice for Eaton, “never tell anyone your secrets or they ain’t secrets no more” was one of his favourites.

One day Eaton saw Jim leave an attorney’s office. “What you doing in there Mr Montgomery?” Eaton asked.

“Now that would be tellin, ain’t that so? But I’ll tell you, just you mind, I’ve made my last will and testyment. Told ’em who’s to get my stuff when I’m gone. Now don’t you get spreading that round, d’ya hear?”

“I’ll tell you another thing, I always keep secrets backwards, so if I get drunk and talk too much, I don’t tell nobody nothin.”

Eaton didn’t understand but as promised, he kept Jim’s words to himself.

The following summer, Eaton was walking to school one morning when he heard a familiar sound, Mardy braying loudly, trotting along the street with two saddled horses following behind. As usual Eaton was munching an apple and handed the rest to the mule.

“What’s wrong Mardy, where’s Jim?” The mule just kept on eating and braying. Eaton led him down the street to a corral behind the livery stable, opening the gate for all three to enter. He ran home to tell his father, both of them running across to the sheriff.

“Something’s wrong sheriff, Mardy just came by with two horses but neither Jim nor the riders were with them.”

“‘Spect they just got fed up of waiting around or spooked by something, you know what horses, and that danged bad-tempered mule are like.”

Eaton’s father (Curly) said the mule wasn’t bridled but the horses had been hard ridden for a while “and Jim don’t take kindly to visitors or strangers, does he?”

After being harassed by the two for some time the sheriff gave in “Ok, come on then, let’s go take a look,  Curly, you and the lad better get saddled up and fetch the doc as well. Tell him to ride, he won’t get the wagon up there. Never know what we’ll find. Better be careful though, Big Jim does like setting traps, he’s likely got stuck in one.”

It was a good two hours ride to the mine. The picture that greeted them was a mix of smoke and dust billowing from the entrance with a mound of rocks barring the way inside. They would need more hands to clear the debris.

It took six men digging for two days before they had a breakthrough, they managed to clear enough rock to get inside. It seems that Dan and Smiley had unfinished business from years before and caught Jim unawares, maybe while he was asleep. The two of them were a mess, face down in the dust, blood everywhere, battered by rocks from behind, guns still in hands while Jim appeared to be smiling although he too was covered head to foot in his own blood and dust having taken the full force of the blast in his face and chest, there would have been no escape. The narrow trail of a burnt out fuse from Jim’s seat to the mountain of rubble led the sheriff to understand that Jim and the two “bandits” had been caught in Jim’s final, deadliest trap. They would get away with nothing.

couslandDavid Cousland, born 1950 in West Bromwich, England. Grew up in the industrial West Midlands. His father was a bespoke tailor, a craftsman but a partial colour-blindness problem kept David away from the same trade. A married man with two daughters and two grand-children. He was a life-long banker, specialising in card payments in later years. Sports and travel were and still are his two favourite activities. Lucky to have a number of great relatives in California. Writing was never even considered until mid 2012. Since then however a number of potential stories have and are being researched and worked on.

Weeks followed before the attorney met with various townsfolk including the sheriff to read out Jim’s will and hand over a hand drawn map with a couple of markings.

“I leave all my wealth, belongings and possessions to Eaton Hardy, the only person who ever showed me any kindness without asking for payment or something in return. Doc Watkins and Sheriff to take care of matters until Eaton is an appropriate age. This map will show the way. Signed, Jim Montgomery.”

“It’s legal” added the attorney, “signed and witnessed in my office two years since. I don’t know what the map is but I guess it’s his mine and land, and I know folks have been out there looking around and trying to get themselves killed.”

“Tomorrow, we’ll take a party out there and see what this means, don’t suppose there’s anything to find but we need to check, then we’ll seal the place up. You might just get to look after Mardy, kid.”

The same group of men plus Eaton and the attorney rode out again next morning. Despite following Jim’s map every inch, they found nothing.

While taking a break Eaton said “You’re looking in the wrong place, Jim told me he always had his secrets the other way round, up is down and left is right. He always told me that, in case he got drunk and talked too much.”

Within an hour they were back with two battered trunks, one lightweight but holding almost fourteen hundred dollars, the other needing two men to carry it. When they broke it open they discovered that forty years of gold mining and panning had been very worthwhile.

Big Jim’s secret was a secret no more.


The Unholy; or, How the Gowan Gang Died: A Hawthorne Tale

This is how the Gowan gang died.

They ambushed Hawthorne near Greek Pass, a desolate cluster of rock and hard-packed dirt in west Texas. It was a perfect spot for a bushwhacking. The six of them set up in the high rocks in the morning hours, and by early noon Hawthorne came through.

He rode a tall Morgan, gray like his clothes, and just as rough-looking. He held reins in one hand and rested a rifle across his lap.

The rifle didn’t help him. The Gowan gang didn’t give him a chance to use it. As he ambled his horse through the pass, they opened fire.

Chet Gowan saw at least two bullets strike the rider in gray, one in his left thigh and another low in his torso. Several bullets hit the horse. The animal fell, pinning Hawthorne  under it.

The bastard still managed to return fire. He’d lost the rifle, but that damnable Schofield was in his hand and he somehow managed to kill two of Chet’s men in the span of five seconds.

But DeMarcus, the big-muscled former slave and Chet’s second-in-command, was wily enough to come down the outcropping of rock from behind, and while the rest of the gang distracted Hawthorne with a barrage of rifle fire, DeMarcus snuck up and whacked him on the skull with his rifle stock.

The once-six but now-four men gathered then, whopping and hollering. To their minds, they’d dispatched a living legend, an unholy sonofabitch whose name was spoken in hushed tones among gunmen, murderers, and all manner of ne’er-do-well. Losing two friends was worth it.

Chet Gowan kicked the unmoving Hawthorne in the head. He looked at the jagged white scar on Hawthorne’s forehead, cut in the rough shape of a cross, and felt a slight chill of apprehension. He shook it off.

There was immediate talk of killing him, but Chet vetoed the idea. He elected to take Hawthorne out to the high desert and leave him tied there to die of thirst and exposure. It was what Hawthorne had done to Chet’s brother, Chet explained, and he wanted to scar-faced bastard to experience the same slow, agonizing death.

The gang wasn’t overly fond of the idea and balked about it. But a murderous glare from DeMarcus convinced them of the plan’s merits.

They draped Hawthorne’s unconscious body over a horse and lit out.

****

A white-hot sun burning into his brain brought Hawthorne back to life. He opened his eyes, close them again immediately as the ungodly glare nearly blinded him.

He took an quick inventory before moving. His head throbbed and his face felt burnt and raw from the desert sun. He was monstrously thirsty. The shallow wounds along his torso and thigh ached, but not nearly as bad as the pain in his skull.

He opened his eyes again, wincing, and saw that they’d tied his wrists with frayed rope to the dead stump of a desert willow. In every direction he could see, there was nothing, nothing but dry scrub and flat yellow dirt and sand.

He pulled against the bonds, but the rope stretched less than a millimeter along the stump.

Hawthorne laughed weakly at his predicament.

He faded out.

When he came to again, the sun was still high in the clear sky and the furnace-like heat of it pounded him into the ground. He pondered the likelihood that he would die here, tied to a dead stump in the middle of the desert. Already, most of the pain was gone and it occurred to him that dying might be acceptable now.

But his mind turned, as it always did, to all the wickedness of the world, all the suffering and the monsters that roamed this land, natural and otherwise.

Hawthorne’s bloody work was not done. It would never be done, but he couldn’t stop now. And if he was going to live, he had to act, while he still had the strength.

Slowly, methodically, he began pulling the rope back and forth along the stump.

It took hours, days, lifetimes. He closed his eyes, sawed his arms back and forth, thinking of nothing. The sun burned and the muscles in his arms screamed and he kept sawing the rope against the stump and his mind went somewhere else, somewhere remote and empty.

Yet another lifetime later, he felt some give in the rope, felt it loosening against the stump.

He pulled hard, a snarl of desperation on his lips, and the rope snapped.

The relief he felt was tempered by exhaustion. He willed his body to move, to get up, but his muscles wouldn’t respond. He lay there in the sand and faded out again.

This time when he awoke it was night, and bitterly cold. He sat up, head spinning. A moment after that he made it to his feet. Every muscle in his body clenched in agony. He ignored the pain, stood straight.

The desert was dyed blue in the moonlight, and stretched out in every direction. Hawthorne looked at the stars, got his bearings.

They’d taken his gun, his hat and his boots. It didn’t matter. He started walking.

****

And kept walking.

****

He walked the entire night and into the next morning. He found some condensation cupped in the crotch of another dead tree, just enough to wet his teeth, and the ugly cold gave way with the sunrise to an even uglier heat. It beat down from the sky and reached up from the ground, smothering every breath and burning the sweat from his pores before it had a chance to form. By mid-morning, he didn’t have enough moisture left in his body to sweat at all.

His brain felt like it was being boiled. His lungs burned and his tongue swelled in his mouth. He kept walking.

When the sun was once again directly overhead, he started seeing the demons.

It started with peripheral glimpses, flashes of furtive movement that would vanish before he could focus on them. Then they started appearing closer, peeking scaly, horned heads out of the sand before disappearing again. One stood staring at him from less than fifty feet away, pointing at him with gnarled fingers and laughing. When Hawthorne came closer, the demon transformed into a stunted, deformed tree.

He staggered along, not slowing for them, not acknowledging them. He knew it was what they wanted and he wouldn’t give them the pleasure.

Evening came, and with it the Devil.

Hawthorne wasn’t surprised. The Devil stood by a desert willow in full bloom, his arms crossed, smiling. He wore a good suit, black with a red vest, and a short-brimmed hat. He looked like an older, more respectable version of Hawthorne.

With the sun sinking, Hawthorne and the Devil spoke. They traded insults. The Devil told a joke. Hawthorne didn’t laugh. The Devil cajoled. Hawthorne threatened.

And it all came down to the inevitable.

The Devil called forth three demons, stinking of brimstone, and they descended on Hawthorne, screeching. Fire shot out of their hands. Smoke billowed from their mouths.

Hawthorne fought. Flames scorched along this shoulders from the fingers of one demon, but he shut out the pain of it and smashed his fist into the creature’s mouth. Another came at him with wickedly long claws stretched; Hawthorne caught its wrist, broke one of the claws off, plunged it into the demon’s stomach.

The fire-shooting hand of the first demon had fallen off. Hawthorne didn’t question. He snatched it up and aimed the fingers at their former owner. Fire belched out and enveloped the demon’s head. It dropped.

Hawthorne stuck the claw into the last demon’s chest, and turned to face the Devil.

The Devil was backing away, his face distorted by fear and confusion. Clearly, this wasn’t the way he’d imagined the situation playing out.

Hawthorne grinned, his lips splitting, called the Devil and sonofabitch, and stabbed the claw in his neck.

Blood sprayed and the Devil clutched his throat, gurgling, and fell dead.

Hawthorne stood over the corpse, breathing hard and ragged. He was soaked in demon blood, and knew he’d been gripped by a kind of madness. He’d killed the Devil, with made him wonder if he was the new King of Hell now.

He closed his eyes and got his breathing under control.

lowranceHeath Lowrance is the author of THE BASTARD HAND, CITY OF HERETICS, DIG TEN GRAVES, and the Gideon Miles novella MILES TO LITTLE RIDGE. He also pens a Kindle-exclusive series of weird western stories about the mysterious gunslinger called Hawthorne. He lives in Lansing, Michigan.

When he opened them again, he found he was surrounded not by demons but by dead men. One’s head was blown off. The other three bled from stab wounds.

The Gowan gang.

Hawthorne looked at his hands, saw he was holding a spent shotgun and a hunting knife.

He laughed a hoarse, slightly mad laugh, but got himself under control quickly. He was in the Gowan gang’s camp, and a warm fire crackled and the smell of a roasting wild pig set his empty stomach rumbling.

He found a full canteen under DeMarcus’ body, drank a few measured sips to avoid being sick. He pulled a chunk of meat off the spit and shoved in in his mouth and chewed slowly and deliberately. Then he drank more water.

He didn’t bother to bury the corpses. In the morning, after he’d found his boots and hat and gun, he rode off on Chet Gowan’s horse and left them there to rot in the desert.

And that’s how the Gowan gang died.


One Town Too Many

A town boy burst up to Sheriff Wilkins’ office yelling out, “He’s dead, Sheriff. He’s dead. Mr. Purley ‘s dead in his store. I peeked in the window and he’s on the floor and blood all over him!” The sun had barely warmed up Carver Grove and small bunches of the story came back to the sheriff in flashes, as if they had been announcements in the first place.

The odd pieces came to him, gathered into a clutch, and became a story, as seen here.

A few weeks before the boy’s terrified cries, Sheriff Jerry Wilkins, sitting outside his jail and office in Carver Grove, finding the early sun a source of pleasant feelings as he did on special mornings, had seen the well-dressed stranger eyeing Asa Purley’s General Store with a studied manner. He watched the man walk off a measurement twice, and then make an entry on a small pad of paper. Then the scribbler went down the alley beside Purley’s place, at which the sheriff sauntered from his comfortable perch, and watched him duplicate the measuring action. Looking up to the second floor of the store, the stranger apparently had all the measurements he needed.

For whatever reason.

**

Wilkins had gone over to the Charnley Hotel to check the owner about the well-dressed stranger and ask if he knew where he came from and why he was in Carver Grove. The owner, from past observations by the sheriff, stood out as a tight-lipped cuss to begin with.

Owner Jeb Charnley said, “He registered as Harry Whitcomb. Said he traveled up from Plague City and is here on business. Nothing else, and I didn’t ask for that information, he offered it.” Charnley, Wilkins realized, paraphrased he was still a man who tended to mind his own business.

After lunch with a special woman friend at the edge of town, the widow Paula Fortunato, smooth, silky, literate, Wilkins went to the Double Yoke Saloon to have his noon nip with another old friend, Adam Barkley, the saloon’s lone bartender. Barkley had been hurt on a posse run a few years earlier and found himself confined to a new kind of work.

“Yuh, I know him,” Barkley said. “Came from Plague City in the territory, and before that hung around in Dawson’s Village. Seems as slick as all-get-out to me. Bought several rounds in the last couple of days, like he’s trying to make friends. Got a poke on him that’d choke a bear.” He showed a thumb and forefinger about three inches apart. “A real bankroll, a strike somewhere along the line that might excite some of the boys for cards or something else.” He raised one eyebrow acknowledging the duties of a sheriff.

“What’s he after, Adam? You have any idea?”

Barkley said, as he went off to serve the other end of the bar, “Nothing I got stitched in my head yet, but I’ll keep my eyes and ears open for you. Might ask some of our other pals. Maybe Twigs or Caleb. They’re still riding out there with the tin on their shirts.”

Wilkins sent off telegraph queries to a few old compadres, and the result came just as Barkley suggested; Twigs St. Martin came back with his reply: “Gent of ? advance buyer big eastco. don’t take no for seller answers. hires local gs, pays gc. Some jobs not solved, open. I’m rid here. I owe. Tree part will be stranger.”

Of course, it made Wilkins smile, seeing the image of his old buddy, tall and skinny Twigs St. Martin, composing the message, explaining the past and present of Harry Whitcomb, eastern rep with a big bucks company, hired killer guns who killed for gold coin, that St. Martin himself owed some of them for something but Twigs (tree part) owed Wilkins good and would leave his job shortly and come to Carver Grove as a complete stranger to the sheriff and Barkley, “and bound to help.”

It was store owner Asa Purley who came to see the sheriff after dark the following week, slipping into the office when he came out of an alley between the jail and another store. Nervous and skittish, he kept looking out the window into darkness as he spoke to the sheriff. “Jerry, it’s that Whitcomb gent, too damned pushy but scary at the same time. Said if I don’t sell my place to him, he’ll get me out of Carver Grove if I’m still alive by hook or by crook.”

“Did he use those exact words, Asa?”

“Not exactly. He said that accidents always happen to public figures, like me, because people see them all the time and they’re bound to attract bad customers along with the good ones. He puffs that fancy cigar and drops ashes when he taps it with a finger, like at the end of a sentence loaded with double meanings, or more like pulling a damned trigger. He’s scary. I’m just a store owner, Jerry. Just a store owner.”

“Hell, Jerry, I can’t arrest him for dropping ashes or saying what can be true in any town about bankers, grocers and sheriffs. But I’ll keep my eye on him.” Noticing that Purley still acted unsettled, he took him by the elbow and said, “C’mon, I’ll walk you back to your place. It’ll be okay.” From the touch, Wilkins knew Purley shook in his boots.

The lanky stranger was already in the saloon by noon the next day, a gawky looking fellow with long arms and legs and looking like he needed a horse 19 hands high to ride on. Perhaps a few patrons conjured up a picture of him throwing his right leg over the back of a horse with his left foot still on the ground. His face ran narrow and thin and a bad under-bite exaggerated the length of his features. A small rumble of remarks had started because of his appearance, among which came a series of nicknames for skinny men who could drink like he could. On his 5th or 6th drink at a corner table, often leaning forward as though he’d fall asleep in a minute, the stranger wasn’t sleeping and he wasn’t drunk.

Some of the names were clearly audible to him and every now and then a speaker, using a new nickname, would double-check the stranger’s demeanor or reaction. All was quiet in the room until one customer with a loud voice said, “That beanpole can sure put ‘em away down that skinny trunk like he ain’t got no bottom to it. Must have leaky boots at the far end. Wore the toes right off ‘em, I’ll bet.” His laugh pried sharp as a knife under the skin of the stranger.

Before he knew it, the speaker’s butt banged on the floor of the saloon as his chair was whipped out from under him. With a grunt and a thud he had fallen, along with a bunch of embarrassment mixed with awe and fear as he looked up at the mountain-tall man standing over him, saying in a voice so deep it might not properly belong to a skinny man, “When you’re atalkin’ to me or about me, best look at me for an okay, or else it’s somethin’ else comin’ down on ya, down and deep.”

In truth, the gawky but fearless stranger had earlier noticed the sharply dressed man across the room working a rich-looking cigar at his mouth, and had decided to cater to his curiosity. The man Sheriff Wilkins and Barkley the bartender knew as Twigs St. Martin responded to Whitcomb who had shortly approached him at the bar after the escapade.

Whitcomb put out his hand with a wide smile on his face and dealt his humor card. “That was some piece of wrangling, Mister. Sure took care of that big mouth. I’m Harry Whitcomb up from Plague City and a few other places along the trail. What do you call yourself?” The humor was clear in his words, on his smiling face.

“Hell,” the lanky gent said, “I call myself what my Pa called me all the way back to Tennessee near like a 100 years ago. Called me, ‘Sticks,’ he did, the second ‘Sticks’ in the family. Had an uncle came home with a leg missing from the first day of the Big War. The very first day, by practic’ly the first shot fired. My Pa cut him a chunk of branch from an ash tree growin’ right in the front yard and made this rig for him fit right up under his armpit, right up here.” He jammed one fist up into his armpit. “Snug as a porker in a hollow log.” He took his turn at a loud laugh.

Whitcomb said, “Well, I really like a fellow that brings a sense of humor with him.” Looking at the gun belt on the tall Sticks, he said, “I see you’re carrying two side arms. You any good with them?”

“One of them’s in your belly right now, Whitville or Whitfield or whatever else you been called.” It was as though Sticks had not even moved. But Whitcomb felt the gun in his belly, too low to be nice.

It didn’t seem to faze Whitcomb and he asked, “Are you looking for work, Sticks? Do you mind how you use those side arms if the pay is good?”

“Sticks don’t hate money at all, and you can bet my last dollar on that. These small cannons can be used to knock down a desperado or the fella chasin’ him with the little tin okay on his shirt. Makes no difference to me.” He put the gun back in its holster, almost as quickly as it had come out. “It gets a rest whenever it gets tired, like as all I can promise.”

**

Wilkins and Barkley stood together when Asa Purley was buried at the edge of Carver Grove. Mrs. Purley did not shed a tear or blink an eye at the short services, but when she looked at the sheriff she subtilely nodded her head back toward town, which he understood to mean she wanted to talk to him … and alone.

An hour later he met her in the small apartment above the store. “I can’t prove anything, Sheriff,” she offered, “but that Whitcomb fellow is behind this. Told Asa he had to sell to him or he’d burn us out, me included, but he wanted the only store in town to be his. He offered a ridiculously low figure to buy this whole place. When Asa didn’t bite at it, he wagged his cigar and then waved a small pistol at him he carries in a jacket pocket. Right in his face he waved it. I don’t suppose that little gun did all the work that killed Asa, but that gun wagger’s behind it, mark my words.”

She paused and said, “And I’m not selling either.”

“Did you hear anything in the night?”

“I went down to Paula Fortunato’s place earlier, stayed late helping her on some decorations she wants to do (she offered a coy smile to the sheriff), stayed late and came home to see the lights in the store. The lights meant Asa was busy and I was exhausted, so I went right up the back steps and into bed. Didn’t hear a thing, but I want to show you something.”

She went to the back of the store and brought back a stuffed leather pillow that was a mess. “I found this in a trash box out back. I think this was held by the killer because it’s got some holes in it probably made by bullets and stinks of burnt gunpowder. Look for yourself.” She handed the leather pillow to Wilkins. Her “Smell it,” sounded like a marshal’s order.

“That’s really helpful, Ma’am,” Wilkins said. “Anything else?”

“I’m guessing that whoever did it likes apples. Two of them, chewed to the core, were tossed in a corner.” She held the cores out to the sheriff. “See, down to the last bite. Asa would never leave them around and neither would I.”

The sheriff picked two apples out of a barrel’ “How much?” he said.

She managed a smile. “We’re having an Asa Purley Special Give-away today. They’re on the house …. and do good with them.”

They nodded their understanding to each other.

The sheriff motioned Barkley to the end of the bar. He took the two apples out of his shirt and spoke of his needs; “Keep them in back of you, under the mirror. Tell me who asks for them, and then eats them down to nothing if it happens. And announce so all can hear, but from a conversation, that I’m off to Seth Crawford’s spread to check out some robbery in his house. Make sure our old pal hears where I’m going. I’ll meet him out on the trail somewhere.”

Twigs St. Martin found him on the trail. He hailed Twigs as Sticks, at which both men laughed. “You meet with Whitcomb yet?”

“Was supposed to two days ago, but he had a tight meeting with one of his boys, name of Turkey Coalwell.”

“Know anything about him?”

St. Martin replied, “Only that he’s never been caught at what he does best, and that’s killing for a price. But they got a whole gaff of stores they bought behind them, all the way back to Independence and some in Illinois and Ohio. Noise and trouble with each one changing hands, but nobody settled behind the bars. Not yet. This Coalwell’s been hanging on his pockets for a few years.”

They went back to Carver Grove by different trails, at different hours. Wilkins came in after dark and went directly to the Double Yoke. The room, on a Saturday evening, was filled; the tables were full up and a stream of men lined the bar. The noise was raucous, loose, weekend spirits on the fly.

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.

Barkley poured him a beer and said, “Whitcomb’s in the corner and the ugly gent in the funny hat, name of Turkey Coalwell, ate both apples in an hour. Like there wasn’t a nip left to either of ‘em.” He added a guarded qualifier, “Then he tossed the cores into the corner like he wants me to clean up after him, of whom I ain’t so burdened. Not ever.”

Wilkins studied the table, saw Whitcomb staring at him in return, and decided now was his best time. He left the bar and walked right to their table and stood over it.

Whitcomb said, “Can we help you with something, Sheriff?”

“Yes, you can,” Wilkins said with a clear voice. “I’m here to arrest Turkey Coalwell for the murder of Asa Purley, store owner.” He held a gun on Coalwell.

“You’re crazy on that account, Sheriff. I don’t know a thing about any of it.“ Coalwell sat back, smiling, looking sideways at Whitcomb.

“He sold you out, Turkey,” Wilkins said, and nodded at Whitcomb. “He told us about the leather pillow you used and where you threw it away and how we’d most likely find some apples bit down to the core on the floor of the store.” He looked into the corner and added, “Just like them two down there, right to the last bite.”

Wilkins didn’t know it, but Coalwell had pulled his pistol under the table when the sheriff started walking towards them. Now, the tables turned on him, he turned on Whitcomb and killed him with one shot under the table. Before he got off a shot at the sheriff, Wilkins knocked him out of his seat with a single round.

There’d be no trial on the pair, but the expansion of the big eastern stores combine came to a halt, in tiny Carver Grove.

Later, the sheriff told his old pal Twigs St. Martin about the apple clues.

“Looks to me,” St. Martin said, “like a case of apple pans doubty.”

The two lawmen were loose enough to laugh at anything.

And they did.


Amanda Lynch

Black Ridge, Wyoming, 1861

The thoroughfare through town was a coursing stream of mud, cutting and forking as the clumps gained a foothold. The steady downpour had been feeding the soil for hours, and looked to continue well into the night. As the lantern lights flickered, so did the veins of lightning, washing the storm clouds above with a brilliant flash before the thunder crashed. Only eight buildings lined the street, each one connected by a series of longboards that bowed and sagged as they were traversed. The last trickle of nightlife scurried from porch to porch, heading toward the lights and the clamor that was building within McMasters’ Saloon. Two cowboys stumbled out the doors, followed by a tall lawman – the Sheriff.

We been cheated,” one of them spat, struggling to keep his footing on the slick boards. The rain was pounding, and the sky cracked with thunder. “You ain’t got no right, Sheriff. You hear?”

“I’ll tell you what I hear,” Sheriff Lynch replied, his hand hovering the worn hilt of his six-shooter. “I hear a drunk running his mouth. You’d do best to sleep this one off and come see me in the morning.” His eyes were piercing, and set.

“I ain’t goin’ for that, Sheriff,” he spat back. Taking a step back, he slipped, spilling backwards in the coursing mud.

“You may just wanna see about a dunk in the tub before you come see me tomorrow,” the Sheriff replied, his thick mustache hiding a smirk.

The second cowboy went over, pulling his partner from the muck. Sheriff Lynch turned back to the saloon, and was met with the cold steel of a Colt Revolver pressed to his forehead. “Now that’s not how we’re accustomed to things, Sheriff,” Kris Walker said. The sky flashed with a streak of lightning, and the thundering crack of a gunshot. Sheriff Lynch was thrown back – dead before he hit the porch.

Kris stood over the body, looking down with indifference as he placed his boot upon it, pushing it over the edge. It slid off the porch, hitting the muck face first. Mud belched and pooled as it slowly took him under, burying the Sheriff.

Dane pulled Jeb onto the porch, helping him to his feet before turning to Kris. “What the hell, Kris? You just killed a sheriff. They’ll hang us for this.”

“Murder is murder,” Kris replied. “We’ve killed before, and this ain’t no different. Now let’s get outta the rain so I can think.”

Jeb exchanged a look of concern with Dane. “It ain’t smart to stay here, Kris,” Jeb said, slipping as he followed the other two. “They’ll come after us in numbers.”

“They ain’t,” Kris replied, shooting Jeb a piercing look over his shoulder. “They’re farmers. I ain’t seen one killer among ’em. We’ll hole up for the night, and head out in the mornin’.”

“Where we gonna go?”

“The Sheriff’s place,” Kris said, pointing to a small house set behind the storefronts. “We’ll stay there for tonight, figure the rest out by mornin’.” Scurrying along the boards like rats up a mooring line, they descended upon the house, guided by a flickering light that shown from within.

* * *

amandalynchAmanda Lynch put another log on the fire, watching as the twigs curled back to ash. She was small, even for twelve, but she was well versed in keeping the house. A tarnished locket dangled from her neck, containing the only picture she had of her mother. It had been four years since she had passed, but the ache still burned. Amanda flinched as the fire popped, spewing a sparky dust as the husk of a log crumbled to coals; a vibrant glow that faded to black. She was transfixed by the glimmer of flickering heat – until the door crashed open, rattling upon its hinges.

Three men burst into the room, two of them leveling their guns on Amanda. Her eyes were drawn and wide; wild with surprise. She stepped back, retreating to the far corner of the room as they came, bolting the door behind them.

“Well, well,” Dane said, surveying the room. “Looky what we have here.” A distasteful lust crept into his eyes, raping the room of its former warmth.

Amanda eyed the iron fire-poke that hung beside the mantle, but it was too far, and already they were circling her.

Kris struck a crisp blow to the side of her head, sending Amanda spilling upon the floor. Standing over her for the briefest moment, he savored her terror before reaching down and picking her up by the scruff of her dress, tossing her towards the back bedroom. The door closed behind them, and they were upon her.

* * *

Jeb was the last to emerge from the back room, sweaty and short of breath. His hair fell over his face in clumps of oily curls, and his breath was stale and dry. “Boy, I sure needed that,” he said, strutting across the room.

The other two cowboys sat at the dinner table, having rummaged through the cupboards for some pickled beans and a dry loaf of bread. A pitcher of water sat at the table, cloudy from the well it was drawn from.

“Put another log on there before you sit down,” Kris said, gesturing towards the pile of split wood. Jeb strolled over and did as he was told.

“What are we gonna do with her?” Dane asked, taking a drink straight from the pitcher. “We can’t just leave her here. It ain’t wise to leave kin alive.”

“That little thing?” Kris said, chuckling. “What’s she gonna do? Besides, I already thought this through.” He paused as he heard something fall over in the back bedroom, and all three of them laughed.

“That little thing?” Kris said, chuckling. “What’s she gonna do? Besides, I already thought this through.” He paused as he heard something fall over in the back bedroom, and all three of them laughed.

* * *

Amanda stooped in the far corner of the room, cowering in the darkness. She had pulled a sheet over her flesh, but had otherwise remained still. She listened to them rant and boast, but their voices were muffled and distant. She was within herself, retracted and wounded. Her thoughts were stilted, and every thought was heard in her mother’s voice. Soft and soothing, it ran over her like water down a leaf. You’ve got to be strong, Amanda, her mother’s voice cooed. You’re Pa will need you now more than ever. Men are such untamed creatures, but without a woman to look after them, they fall prey like sheep – although your Pa is a handsome sheep at that. The memory faded with her mother’s warm laughter, and the clattering of dishes. Scooting over to the door, Amanda pressed her ear, and listened.

“We gonna head back down to the Saloon, and drink our fill, ya?” That voice was linked with the scratch of coarse whiskers and the stench of stale liquor. The sound of chairs scooting back was followed by footsteps leading away. “And after we’ve killed ‘em all, we’ll return here and have another go at that one, and then we’re gonna ride on outta here. Sound good?” The other two voices eagerly agreed before the room fell silent in the wake of a closing door.

The tears began to fall as soon as the burning shame took hold. Her left eye stung, nearly swollen shut, and her legs were weak and bruised. Amanda slid up to a crouch, nearly falling forward before catching herself on the bedpost. And she heard it, the creek of a loose floorboard. She thought back to all the nights she had sat surrounded by these very walls, listening to her father speak about his deeds. How he had to shoot Opee Douglas for a killing up in Kansas. “There are times when the law just doesn’t work out here,” he had said, “and a man’s hand was forced to do what needed to be done to keep others from harm.” He had never let Amanda touch a gun, but she had seen him handle a revolver countless times, cleaning them in the dark hours after supper while she pretended to be working her needlepoint. She had seen, and she knew what to do.

Squeezing the locket, Amanda buried her mother’s warmth, replacing it with a burning rage. She looked down upon the floor, and the clean edge of a loose board. She rolled to her knees, sliding out from the sheet and pushed the bed back, and reaching down, she ran her hand under the lip of the board, pulling it back. There within the small hole was an oil soaked rag, draped over the dull finish of cold steel, and she reached in. As she stood up, she felt the weight, and the large revolver dwarfed her little hand. Her eyes were cold and lethal, and she set out for one thing – another go.

* * *

The rain was still pouring, and Jeb and Dane were seated around a card-table, guns resting on the green felt while a man was forced to deal under the threat of death. Kris sat at the bar taking pulls off a whiskey bottle that was nearing drained. A pair of boots peered out from behind the bar, toes pointed up, and another body lay face down in the corner, strewn amongst the shards of a broken table.

“Hey,” Kris shouted, slamming the bottle upon the bar. “Can’t a guy get some service ‘round here?” His chin dripped, and his words were sprayed more than spoken.

Dane and Jeb both erupted with laughter, downing the last of their whiskeys. The dealer’s hands shook as he cycled through the deck, and a card flipped over as it sailed to Dane. Jeb’s face twisted with anger and his hand flew back, launching his empty shot glass at the dealer. The man’s eyes pressed tight as he took the blow, scrambling to retain the pile of cards.

“Whatcha say there, Dane my boy?” Jeb said, leaning back in his chair. “I think you ain’t got shit in that hand, you lousy bastard.” Kris erupted in laughter, spraying the bar with spit whiskey.

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 laughter was cut short as the doors to the saloon flew open, and a thin little girl walked through them, dripping wet. Amanda’s hair was matted to her face, soiled with mud – and her piercing eyes were set upon Kris. “Hey, women ain’t allowed in the Saloon,” Kris said, erupting in a fit of drunken laughter that sent him spilling off his stool. Before anyone could react, Amanda put the revolver to Jeb’s head and pulled the trigger, spraying Dane with chunks of skull and brain. The dealer threw himself back from the table and crouched into a ball. Dane was stunned, and he hesitated. Amanda kicked the table, knocking the wind out of him as it slammed his gut. With her eyes still on Kris, she leveled the gun and fired, killing Dane where he sat. He fell forward, sliding onto the floor. Kris went for his gun, but his drunken fingers pulled the trigger and he shot himself in the foot. He fell to his knees, gripping his leg in agony.

Amanda strolled forward, looming over Kris Walker who was now frozen in a crouch, and she kicked his gun with the side of her boot, sending it skidding into a far corner. He flinched as it struck the wall, stealing the predatory component of his gaze. He met her eyes, and he knew he was looking upon the last face he would ever see – his killer’s. Amanda leveled the revolver, aiming at his pooling crotch.

“Now just hold on a minute,” Kris slurred, his hand raised before him. “Please–” Amanda never took her eyes from his, even as she pulled the trigger, spackling the floor with his manhood. He screamed in agony, rocking forward and groping his wound. He scrapped and clawed, trying to collect the spatter of his pecker, and looking up one final time, it was not her eyes he met, but the dark barrel of her father’s gun.

A brilliant flash streaked the sky, followed by three thunderous booms as Amanda Lynch had another go.


Demon’s Road

The fire came over the prairie as if the anger of a God gone mad and every living thing in the whole world ran before it; Coyotes, deer, antelope, all rushing mad through the night, like Hell’s own children.  Rye Lee dashed back from the well too hastily and tripped. The bucket he held crashed to the ground and the spilled water began to steam in the heat blowing off the flames. He sat in the dirt and gazed ahead, helplessly. The farm buildings stood between two creeks, and the inferno lit the trees on either side as it passed, surrounding them with a barricade of fire. Rye felt the scorching wind steal away his breath and smolder against his eyes, but pushed his way across to his father John Wilson regardless. His heart cracked against his throat as he stumbled through the clamor of farmhands rushing back and forth to the well and weeping neighbors driven off their own land, seeking the protection of the Lee farm.

The wind howled in dark smoke and the claws of flame reaching over the land. ‘Rye!’ c’mon boy’. His father and every other man in their part of the county were beating the dirt with wet tow sacks, fighting, protecting their faces with damp bandanas and outstretched hands half-cooked by the ravenous heat. The earth trembled like a dying thing beneath the hooves of stampeding cattle, a confusion of burning shapes bellowing in pain and terror. John Wilson Lee handed his son a hazel broom to wrestle the backfire alongside the rest.

The men had started burning strips of prairie around the fields before the sun had set in the hope of turning aside the fire. They beat out the inner edge of the flame and the outer edge was set to blaze away towards its wild brother, eat up anything that would burn. Fire was fighting fire. Only the flames had jumped the fireguard, and they were struggling now for their lives.

Cinders from the scorched country fell upon them like dark snow and the yard dogs howled and ran among the feet of men whose skin was black with soot, ash and sweat. Cager McGill wept as he beat at the flames.  Rye stood beside him and watched the big man with something like shock, his face grimed with tears and dirt. The man who had followed the family from Vicksburg, who had faced down a squad of Guerillas on the bridge of that old plantation, wept as he stared into the flames on the far side of the creek.  Rye followed his gaze but saw nothing beside the hurricane of fire, howling in the north wind. ‘Don’t you look, boy,’ he heard Cager cry, then, above that, he heard a scream, something pure and tainted with horror, something he knew in his soul he’d remember always.

The heat was vicious, but finally the fire turned aside, and as the sun’s light started to seep through darkened air, they found the bodies of Augie Clark, his wife and their two-year-old son burnt up to bone and blackened skin, fallen in the dust on the far side of the creek. The woman held the child’s burned body in her arms. John Wilson Lee stood with Cager and they looked down at the human ruin. ‘I heard ’em screamin’, Cager said, ‘saw the fire catch ’em over.’

‘Weren’t nothin a soul could do,’ John Wilson said. His burned arms were sore and flame’s touch had scorched his hair. He was a young man made old by war and hardship and his expression didn’t change, even as he looked into the holes that were Tabitha Clark’s eyes, once blue as cornflower and summer and filled with laughter.  ‘Roy said something about that preacher man.’

‘That son of a bitch,’ Cager spat.

‘Said as how he threatened to burn up the whole county after we rustled him out of town.’

‘So what is it on your mind?’

John Wilson turned, looked at him with steady gray eyes and said, ‘That we got graves to dig.’

 

Rye brought his father’s service Colt out to the yard; the pistol was heavy and he carried it with awkward reverence, on the palms of both hands, like an offering. John Wilson Lee sat with his back to an Elm that grew between the house and Creek and was looking out at dust rising from a land now black as coal as far as the Mountains to the North. The sun was cold against the grime and stubble of his cheek and he drank muddied well water from a dented tin cup. He glanced up into the boy’s brown eyes, saw the ghost of his wife look back at him over the oil stained cloth holding the pistol. Rye handed him the Army revolver, his young face grave. John Wilson removed the cloth, turned the pistol in his hand; light twisted on the dull metal as if the sun mirrored in a dirty pool.  Cager stood close by, rubbing his naked scalp.  Droplets of whisky shone in his thick, grey moustache like river water on a duck’s feathers.  ‘You ’bout ready, Cap’n?’ He asked, squinting at the sun. Ten men stood by their horses in the road, their faces shrouded by hats pulled low, so they hardly seemed like men, but spirits pulled from the night-dark earth set loose to ride hard on vengeance.

‘Y’all the only one ever calls me that still, Cager,’ John Wilson said, ‘can’t be captain to an army don’t exist no more.’ He looked at the gun. ‘I swore on the book to the boy’s mother I wouldn’t ever carry this metal again.’

‘Seems it was the metal always carried you, sir.’

‘Maybe some days, at the Pittsburg landing and many times beside, maybe it did.’

Cager spat. ‘God save us from our memories.’

‘Amen.’ John Wilson stood and nodded forward to the black land. ‘The boys want this put right, Cager; I can’t sit back and do nothin’. Such reckless death, they figure needs answer, you and me, we know different. We know they ain’t any answer.’

 

The preacher Ezekiel Clifford dropped dried pork fat into a skillet above his campfire, waited for it to sputter, then crumbled hard tack into the pan. West Texas was his goal, and there he intended to preach the true word to those that needed it told.  He was bone thin, dressed in a dusty black suit and stovepipe hat. A dark beard that was more like dog fur than a man’s hair, hung across his chest. He sang tunelessly as the breakfast sizzled and spat. His wagon was set to one side of the tree to which he had fastened the horses, on a little rise facing the prairie and the far off mountains that were shining through the dawn’s haze. Smoke from his fire rose straight up into the clear sky, and he reflected happily on his good fortune.

Ezekiel heard the horses before he saw them. He had lain down to rest after his breakfast, and was smoking from a clay pipe when he felt the earth shudder beneath his backbone. He stood and watched the riders approach. Fear squirmed in his gut like a nest of toads. He was a tall man, and he faced the riders straight as they pulled to a halt in clouds of ochre dust caught in the low winter sun. ‘God keep you, friends,’ he began.

Roy Turner, a farmhand of eighteen years, interrupted him. ‘God keep you, you goddamn mudsill; we know what you done.’

John Wilson Lee pulled the bandana down from his mouth and tipped back his hat. He spoke calmly, over the sound of hooves turning on hard stones. ‘You were over in Hunt county, day afore yesterday; swore you’d burn up the place, seeing as I run you out of town for what you done to one of our daughters.’ He shook his head. ‘Now look what you brought me to.’

‘Now, listen, sir…’

Cager jumped down from his horse, marched over and knocked the preacher to the ground with a single meaty punch. ‘Do not “sir” us, blowhard, you was seen! Dragging a bunch of dried grass y’all had set afire through the prairie, fastened by a wire to your buggy there. North wind took care of the rest and now you all got blood on your hands.’

‘Wait, wait…’ the Preacher started, but the other boys were down by then and pinned him to the earth. ‘You can’t do this, it ain’t in the law!’

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.

‘The law,’ John Wilson Lee asked, ‘whose law? Those blue bellies in Washington?’  He stroked his moustache looked around and said, ‘That low branch yonder looks right suitable to hang a crow off of.’

The preacher started to cry. Cager kicked out three of his teeth and the man was in a daze as the boys draped a noose round his neck, and hauled him high into the tree. His tongue thrust out between bleeding gums and he kicked for what seemed a long time before he died. His face was blue as a fly’s back and his eyes streamed blood that gathered like hard tears in the lines of his face.  ‘That’s for the Clark family, may God have mercy on their souls.’ Cager said, with suitable solemnity. The former sergeant in the Mississippi Army turned to John William and asked, ‘We going to bury him?’

‘I reckon we boys have done our work.’

They mounted and headed towards Hunt County, a day’s ride distant. Cager rode beside John William Lee. He nodded to the pistol holstered at the other man’s waist. ‘You done kept your promise,’ he said, quietly, so the others would not hear.

John William stared at Cager with eyes as cold as a winter’s dawn, and his look was so fierce the other man looked away.

They rode in silence and the north wind raised dust on the prairie ahead. It would be a hard ride home.


Pine Tree Bluffs Justice

The rifle rack behind Sheriff Tommy Denton’s desk was empty. The one-of-a-kind rifle the Sheriff had won in a special Winchester-sponsored shooting contest in Pine Tree Bluffs was missing. The unique prize had been found laying next to a murdered man, a murdered Sheriff to be precise. That was two weeks ago. Sheriff Roy Byrd of the neighboring Council Hills Territory was shot down with the prized Winchester in cold blood. No apparent motive. No suspects. The only clue was Denton’s inscribed gold-plated Winchester. It was a poor attempt to frame the lawman. Denton was never a suspect. First off, he’d reported the rifle stolen from his office a week prior to Sheriff Byrd’s murder. Second, he had practically the entire town of Pine Tree Bluffs as his alibi. Hell, he was one of the most popular and trustworthy citizens, and there is no way he could have left town without someone noticing. The sheriff’s doorway looked out at The Four Aces Saloon across the street. A single jail cell was unoccupied. Two “Wanted” posters hung on either side. One poster had a large black “X” drawn across the face of Kid Belson. The second offered a $500 reward for the capture of an anonymous masked stagecoach hold-up man. Denton sat hatless leaning back in a chair, feet stretched, one folded over the other on a pinewood desk littered with stacked papers, smoking a long, thin cigar. The air was hot. Stale. He heard heels pounding against wooden planks.

“Sheriff, enough is enough! I want that stranger arrested. You’re the law. Do your job, or Bob here and me and the rest of the boys will do it for you!”

Denton continued puffing the cigar, removed his feet from the desk and stared into Jessie Cressey’s black eyes. “Slow down, Jessie. Who do you want arrested?”

Jessie Cressey wore a red bandana around his neck. He tugged on it and turned to his friend. “Did you hear that, Bob?” He didn’t give the man a chance to respond. “The Sheriff here wants to know who?” Bob shook his head. “Who do you think, Sheriff, that same no good stranger who rode into town about the time your Winchester went missing. Need another clue? Okay, the stranger staying at the Dakota Hotel for the last couple of weeks. I hear his name is Juan Pedro.”

Cressey looked out over the angry mob. Behind them, running from the area of The Dakota, Pete Williams was waiving his hands. He pushed his way through the men. Breathless, he approached Cressey and Lane. “He’s….g-gone,” he stammered.

With exaggerated effort, Sheriff Denton stood up. “Funny thing about the law, Jessie. See, a man’s got to do something wrong before he can be arrested. Being a stranger in town and a resident at The Dakota don’t exactly make the man worthy of an arrest.” Denton looked out and noticed a slow stream of men exiting the saloon, headed toward his office.

“Well, now that you mention it Sheriff, there is something else. My own Winchester was stolen from my rifle rack sometime yesterday. That’s right! What do you think about that?”

“And what makes you think the so-called stranger in town had anything to do with it?”

Cressey spit into a golden cuspidor. “Well, like I said, Sheriff, if you ain’t willing to do your job, why then we’ll take matters into our own hands. I mean, the guy did kill one lawman, one just like you. Now, he’s got another Winchester, mine. We don’t aim to wait for another killing.” With that, Cressey tapped Bob Lane on the shoulder, nodded his head toward the door, and out they went. The growing crowd from The Four Aces congregating outside Sherriff Dentons’s office had swelled to nearly 25. Cressey addressed the group. “Just like we figured men, the Sheriff here ain’t willing to do anything about this thieving and murdering stranger who’s taken up stakes at The Dakota.” He paused, waiting for a reaction from the crowd.

“Let’s go get him!” shouted one of the men. “What are we waiting for? Let’s string him up!”

Cressey looked out over the angry mob. Behind them, running from the area of The Dakota, Pete Williams was waiving his hands. He pushed his way through the men. Breathless, he approached Cressey and Lane. “He’s….g-gone,” he stammered.

“What?” Who’s gone?”

Williams took a deep breath. “The stranger. What’s his name, Pedro. Gone. He ain’t at the hotel. Matt at the front desk said he saw him leave late last night.”

Murmurs from the crowd began increasing like a locomotive gaining steam.  Cressey sensed the growing tension. “Are we going to let this stranger get away with murder?”
pinetreebluffs
Screams of “No” and “Hell no” flew like arrows. Someone from the back of the mob barked, “Let’s get a posse together and track him down. We’ll fix him. Who’s in this with me?”

Raised rifles and shouts of hate filled the normally calm town of Pine Tree Bluffs. “Okay, men, I’ll tell ya what we’ll do,” Cressey yelled above the din. “We’re going to divide up into small groups and spread out…”

“Look!” it was Bob Lane pointing to a smallish figure on horseback amid dust clouds heading full speed into town. “It’s him!”

Cressey spit and squinted his eyes. “Of all the nerve.” The man drew closer to town. By now, the entire mob of men faced east in the direction of the stranger. “Let’s give him a Pine Tree Bluffs special welcome. Whaddya say, boys?”

“I gotta rope, Jessie. Let’s string him up!”

Sheriff Denton stood at the entranceway not liking the mood outside. He had both hands on his pistols. As Juan Pedro approached on horseback, the now unruly and angry mob blocked his way. “Let me through! Move!” Pedro yanked the horse’s reins left and right, trying to inch his way closer to the sheriff, but by now the rowdy crowd had surrounded his horse and began dragging the man off the saddle.

BANG! BANG! Sheriff Denton had both pistols raised in the air pointing skyward. He again pumped cloud-destined bullets. BANG! BANG! There was no movement. Silence. Everyone, including Juan Pedro looked at the sheriff. “Let that man go right now.” Denton was speaking to the mob but looking directly at Cressey.

“Sheriff, this man’s a killer and a thief, and we aim to…”

“That’s enough, Jessie. Enough! This man, Juan Pedro happens to be a United States Marshall, here in these parts investigating the death of Sheriff Byrd.”

The men, most stinking of whiskey, took their hands off Pedro and in unison backed away from him and his horse.

Cressey took a few steps closer to the sheriff. “What are you saying, Denton? Are we to believe this stranger is a US Marshall? Of all the…”

“I don’t give a damn what you believe, Cressey, but that’s the truth.”

Juan Pedro wiped his brow and approached the sheriff. He pulled a folded piece of paper from his shirt pocket. “Sorry it took so long, sheriff. I had a tough time getting it from the kid.”

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!

Pedro handed Denton the paper. “What’s this?” asked the sheriff. Pedro cleared his throat. Speaking loud enough for the crowd to hear, “It’s a piece of paper with a handwritten note I got from the 13-year old son of the murdered Sheriff Roy Byrd. The boy didn’t want to give it to me. His Pa instructed him to turn the paper over only to Sheriff Tommy Denton and no one else, and by gosh he was determined to do that. But, after speaking with him all evening and with the help of his broken Ma, he let me have it.”

“What’s it say?” asked one of the men next to the Marshall’s horse.

Pedro held up the note. “It says, in the event of my death, give this piece of paper to one man and one man only. Sheriff Tommy Denton.”

“That’s it?”

Juan Pedro continued. “He writes that he caught a glimpse of the stagecoach holdup man before the outlaw had a chance to cover his face with a bandana, a red bandana. Jessie Cressey is that outlaw, and if you are reading this letter, he’s also a killer, my killer.”

Before Jessie Cressey could say a word of protest, Bob Lane and a few of the other men surrounded Juan Pedro and Tommy Denton. Both lawmen made did little to resist. The rest of the mob went to work. Within minutes, the bottoms of Jessie Cressey’s boots were dangling inches over the hot, dusty Pine Tree Bluffs dirt.


A Hundred for the Crows pt. 3

Inside the quarry building, Lester found an office housing only two desks and a row of filing cabinets. A pad of blotter paper sat on each desk, along with a pen set and blank name plates. A thick layer of dust covered everything, as if all the workers had simultaneously quit or just disappeared. He heard scuffling toward the back and fought the urge to run. Jacob was a tough bastard when he was younger, and the years in this hellhole could only serve to fortify that, but where Lester’s family was concerned, no amount of caution would be unwarranted. If Hank got the drop on Jacob, if there were more men, Lester didn’t know any of it, so he slinked along the walls, trying to stay to any available shadow.

The first room had its shades drawn, but Lester could see enough through the thin slices that the room was empty. He stood quiet, tried to quell the blood rushing through his ears. The scuffling was further down, at the end of the hallway. He willed his breath away, then crept across the carpet, standing before the door with the bowie knife cocked back.

For years he kept the knife on his person, waiting for his daddy to feel treacherous again and meet the same end as his mother with the same knife. He’d had a hard time reconciling himself with murdering his own kin, but figured once his daddy inflicted himself upon Lester, he’d have no problem swinging the knife. Once he met Marnie, though, once Nathaniel came along, that anger just drifted away like smoke, and the knife became more of a reminder of his mother than a promise of death.

Lester wrapped his fingers around the handle, took a long breath to steel himself, then set his hand on the door and charged in.

Reams of chewed paper sat on the built-in shelves. Two thick rats scurried up the sides, disappearing through a hole in the ceiling. Black pellets and bits of pulp decorated the floor. Lester pressed his fist against his hip, breathing in and out through his nose to let the anger settle. Not like charging through a door hadn’t created enough racket to tip his hand, but he didn’t need to tear shelves from the walls and bring more attention. He spit on the floor and started to turn when he heard the click.

‘You better pull that trigger now, Hank, less I get a chance to turn,’ he said. ‘If I turn, you die.’

He heard a quick exhalation through the nose, a snuffed laugh.

‘I don’t give a fuck about that land, but I will crawl through Hell to protect my family. I’ll keep walking with all your bullets in me until I find them safety. Then I’ll track you down and gut you top-to-toe.’ He cleared his throat. ‘This is your chance.’

‘That land was my birthright.’

‘Your old man lost it. I didn’t even want the damn place.’

‘Well, you got it.’ He dislodged the knife from Lester’s hand then shoved him down the hall. ‘Come see what it got you.’

Lester opened the door with his face and tripped over the molding but managed to stay on his feet until his eyes adjusted to the darkness and he saw Marnie, her face so bruised it melded with the shadows, her shirt ripped and splattered with blood. Nathaniel stood behind her, visibly unharmed but with eyes shining with some animal combination of terror and fury. Maybe it was the same thing. Jacob perched himself on a stool behind them, smoking a cigarette and clicking his bootheels against the wooden legs while spinning the chamber of the revolver in his right hand. Lester started to run to them but held himself steady when Jacob snapped the chamber shut.

‘And so the prodigal brother returns,’ Jacob said.

‘Think you got your Bible stories mixed up.’

He hopped off his stool and flicked the cigarette into the void behind them. It left a red arc in the darkness before disappearing, leading Lester to believe that was the old quarry. ‘You killed them crops and let me take the beatings. You let him gut her like a hog and he gave it all to you anyway.’

‘He didn’t give it to me. You shanghaied me, stuck there with him. Fourteen years, it was just me and him.’

‘That land was my future. That should’ve been my family there.’

‘Wasn’t really our land to begin with, Jacob. Red man was there before Hank’s daddy lost it to ours.’

‘That was my birthright.’

Lester spit on the ground before him. ‘You and Hank watching the same pictures? You seem to have similar gripes with me.’

Hank shoved him with the barrel. ‘Shut your hole, you damn fool.’

Marnie gave out something between a grunt and yelp. Lester told her everything was going to be okay.

‘So what’s your plan, boys? I’m supposed to sign something, give a handshake and you take the place? What?’

Jacob had a little swagger to his step, letting the gun hang loose at his waist. ‘Plan is, I shoot your boy, let Hank here give your wife some maritals then shoot her, then take care of you. That what you’re looking for?’

Lester saw Nathaniel watching the revolver, his fingers flexing. Lester put his hands up and shrugged at Jacob, said, ‘I’d say it sounds like you got it all planned out,’ as Nathaniel lunged at Jacob, snatching the revolver from his hand.

He felt Hank’s            arm wrap around his neck, felt the barrel against his temple. He smelled the whiskey sweating from Hank’s pores.

‘Put it down, boy,’ Jacob said, hands held up to calm the boy. ‘Trust me, you don’t want to watch a parent die.’

‘Then tell him to let him go,’ Nathaniel said.

‘It does things to you,’ Jacob said. ‘Things you can’t undo, things that won’t be dulled by any number of bottles. Things you’ll see when you sleep for the rest of your life.’

‘Then let him go,’ Nathaniel said.

Jacob shook his head. ‘Nothing doing, son. Put it down before he ruins you like your daddy ruined me.’

Marnie tried to speak but the broken teeth shredded her words to unintelligible bits.

Hank let the hammer click back.

‘Toque la tierra,’ Nathaniel said. ‘En tres.’

‘Mijo,’ Lester said.

‘Hazlo!’

Lester took a deep breath, said, ‘Te amo, mijo,’ then let his knees collapse as a shot rang out. Hank grunted and his arm tightened as two more gunshots fired, Lester’s side exploding in bright white this time. He fell to the ground, Hank’s twitching body landing on top of him. The knife clattered on the ground beside him. He stretched out an arm, trying to pull himself free but felt the wound in his side rip open as he moved. Grunts in the darkness just above him. Jacob had his hands wrapped around Nathaniel’s trying to wrestle the gun free. Marnie had her arms wound through Jacob’s and was trying to push him aside. Jacob shoved his leg in front of Nathaniel then pushed him, flipping him over on his back. Jacob dragged a hand across his mouth, wiping away the blood, then stood over Nathaniel with the gun at the end of his arm.

Lester dug his toes into the ground and pushed himself from under the dead man, grabbing the knife and swinging it at Jacob’s thigh. His howl rang out like a coyote’s. Lester stabbed again and stuck the blade in the front of Jacob’s knee before falling back to the ground. Jacob hobbled back, screaming twice more before tottering backwards over the edge of the quarry. His voice echoed for long minutes.

Marnie’s face appeared over Lester’s.

‘I’m sorry it took so long to get back home,’ Lester said. ‘This is my fault.’

‘You damn fool,’ Marnie said, cupping her hands around Lester’s chin. If he hadn’t hung on every word she’d said for the last eight years, he wouldn’t have been able to understand her, teeth broken as they were. ‘Why didn’t you drop like Nathaniel told you to?’

‘Tried. Didn’t do it fast enough.’

‘Help me stand you up.’

NikKorponNik Korpon is the author of STAY GOD, OLD GHOSTS, BY THE NAILS OF THE WARPRIEST and BALTIMORE STORIES: VOLUMES ONE and TWO. His stories have bloodied the pages and screens of Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, 3:AM, Out of the Gutter, Everyday Genius, Speedloader, Warmed&Bound and a bunch more. He is an editor for Dirty Noir and Rotten Leaves, and reviews books for Spinetingler, NoirJournal and The Nervous Breakdown. He also co-hosts LAST SUNDAY, LAST RITES, a monthly reading series. He lives in Baltimore.

‘Can’t,’ Lester said. ‘Get the boy and drive back to town. Get some help.’

‘Dad,’ Nathaniel yelled to him. ‘Dad, he has the keys.’

Lester squinted away a wave of nausea. ‘How deep is it?’

The boy’s silence set Lester’s head spinning.

He touched Marnie’s hand. ‘You two need to run. Now. Fast as you can.’

‘I can’t leave you.’

‘You can’t stay. And I can’t go.’

Marnie opened her mouth to argue but snapped it shut then kissed him hard on the mouth. She called out to her son and they ran.

Lester tipped his head back to watch their silhouettes disappear into the night then trained his eyes on the moon. The stars poked holes in the black sky, the moon casting a silvery highlight on the surrounding rocks. A coyote bayed somewhere in the desert. He closed his eyes to focus his hearing, trying to determine how far away it was. In the silence, he could faintly make out the soft echo of his brother’s voice at the bottom of the quarry. Another coyote answered, this one significantly closer than the first.

‘You wanted to fill daddy’s shoes so bad, didn’t you?’ he called out. ‘Well, you hear that sound, Jacob?’

Jacob said something that was lost to the rocks.

‘Reckon they’ll oblige you.’

The coyote bayed again, closer now.


A Hundred for the Crows pt. 2

The midnight desert always held a special holiness for Lester. In the time after Jacob had left home, he’d tiptoe around his father’s drunken mass and out to the porch to watch the stars poke holes in the darkness, sky that same color as the onyx pieces he’d find when digging in the fields. He’d listen to the javelinas huffing through the fields, the bats and owls flapping through the night. It was about the only time that, despite there only being the two of them, the air felt still inside the house. Lester tried to let it all absorb into his skin like salamanders did water, carry it with him until the calm evaporated.

Hurtling through the night desert on two wheels, though, that was no time for Lester to become lost in revelry, revisiting a time that was probably only worth its salt when the memories were covered in dust. Lester wove around saguaro cacti, squinting his eyes to keep watch for the shimmer of moonlight on a kangaroo rat’s back, the highlighted fur of a jackrabbit. He opened the throttle for a moment then pulled it back, telling himself that an extra few miles-per-hour wouldn’t help his family when he hit a rock and split his head open like a walnut, leaving himself splayed out for the coyotes.

When he’d heard that Jacob had become part of the law, Lester understood. It was a logical step, considering their childhood, that he’d want to effect some peace and order. He never could figure out why Jacob ended up in El Pozo, though. Maybe it was the same reason Mabel’s granddaddy had for being in Ningunita, that his legs just couldn’t carry him any farther. The literal translation of El Pozo was hole, but held a meaning closer to pit or cesspool. Lester’d tried to teach his son, Nathaniel, a few words in Spanish and Navajo, hoping it might help him get on with some of the boys in town. He also showed him how to shoot, using the water tower as a target. Just in case the language familiarity didn’t work. To Lester, every shot Nathaniel lodged in the metal side of the tower was a bullet in his daddy’s chest. They would shoot every afternoon until Marnie called them in for dinner.

Off in the distance, a faint pink glow became visible over the horizon. El Pozo shouldn’t be too much farther. Lester opened the throttle.

 

He pulled into town as the sun crested above the mesas. Main Street slumbered before him, the storefronts dimmed. The only people he encountered were a few milkmen and young boys on bikes throwing newspapers. He stopped into the one restaurant with lights on and asked where he might find the police.

The wrinkled man behind the counter cocked his head, considering Lester. ‘Where you from, son?’

‘Pardon me?’

He set plates out on the counter for future customers, a fork and knife on each one. ‘We ain’t had police for a spell. Sheriff got rid of them when he came on. Picked himself up two deputies. Now they keep watch, make sure things are as they like.’

Lester glanced outside. A row of wooden posts stood before the restaurant, fairly pointless except for tying up a dog during the meal. Maybe Jacob had been promoted to deputy. If not, they would probably know where to find him.

‘Where could I find this sheriff, then?’

The wrinkled man pulled off a meal ticket, licked the tip of the pencil a few times and drew a crude map. Lester slipped it into his pocket.

The man called out to Lester, ‘Sure you don’t want some coffee first?’ but Lester just let the door slam.

 

It was more of a house than a station, where the map led him. Lester was hesitant to knock, fearing the old man might’ve been pulling some local stunt, but his eyes were burning with a lack of sleep and he let his hand fall on the brass knocker. The sound echoed through the inside of the house. After a long quite minute, Lester debated knocking again, then turned around to leave. He stopped when the door opened.

‘I can help you?’ The voice was older and had been soaked in grain alcohol then left out in the sun and wind, but Lester would’ve recognized it anywhere.

He turned around and waited, watched as recognition crept across Jacob’s face.

‘Holy hell,’ Jacob said. ‘You got big.’

‘There was only one of us to eat. I almost got a full-portion.’

‘You always were crafty.’ Jacob gave his best smile and Lester saw his blunt and gnarled teeth. They were the same color as the star badge pinned to his left breast. He wondered if Jacob slept in his uniform, lest someone commandeer it during the night and assume power.

‘You got a bed I can use a spell?’

‘You hear about the world-famous beds of El Pozo and come to see for yourself?’

Lester propped himself up against a porch post. He swallowed, keeping the rising blackness of exhaustion from overtaking him. ‘Hank McCray took Marnie and Nathaniel. I don’t give him back his land, I don’t get back my family.’

‘Daddy won it from Buck McCray in a card game.’

‘Daddy always cheated at poker.’

Jacob shrugged. ‘So?’

‘So I’m going to lie down a bit, then track him down and gut him where he stands.’ Lester pushed himself off the post and took two steps toward the house. ‘So, Sheriff, can I use your bed or what?’

 

Lester woke to the sound of banging. He ground his palms against his eyes, trying to get himself together. The banging continued. In the breezeway, he could see the blood red glow of a setting sun pass through the window. Someone was knocking on the door. He opened it to find a young man in his dress browns, presumably one of the deputies.

The man pushed past Lester, his head on a swivel. ‘Why’d you lock the door?’

‘I just woke up.’

When the deputy found the adjacent rooms suitably empty, he grabbed Lester’s arm, pulling him out the door. ‘Sheriff tracked down the man with your family.’

‘Where?’ Lester started toward his bike.

NikKorponNik Korpon is the author of STAY GOD, OLD GHOSTS, BY THE NAILS OF THE WARPRIEST and BALTIMORE STORIES: VOLUMES ONE and TWO. His stories have bloodied the pages and screens of Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, 3:AM, Out of the Gutter, Everyday Genius, Speedloader, Warmed&Bound and a bunch more. He is an editor for Dirty Noir and Rotten Leaves, and reviews books for Spinetingler, NoirJournal and The Nervous Breakdown. He also co-hosts LAST SUNDAY, LAST RITES, a monthly reading series. He lives in Baltimore.

‘Edge of town.’ The deputy opened the door of his cruiser, watching Lester.

‘You better drive fast, son.’ He kicked over the engine a few times but the only response he got was a sad sputter. He shook the bike back and forth and opened the gas tank. He must’ve been more sleep deprived than he thought, because he’d normally never leave himself with less than a quarter tank, and he thought he’d filled up on the way back from Mexico. No telling how long you’d be before seeing another filling station. In his life, never had he been that tired nor careless.

The deputy called over to him, said to get in. Lester set the bike upright and climbed into the passenger seat, barely closing the door before the deputy spit rocks with his tires. Lester watched the dust cloud fade behind him.

‘You got a gun?’ the deputy said.

‘No. Should I?’

The boy glanced down at his own holster for a flash then kept his eyes on the horizon and drove.

 

They pulled up to an abandoned quarry as the sun whispered below the horizon. In the parking lot, Lester saw another dented cruiser parked at a severe angle. He had the door open before the deputy had even stopped and sprinted to the main building. The pieces of corrugated metal siding weren’t plumb with one another, giving the impression the building had been erected quickly and without much thought to structural integrity. The door stood cracked open. Lester had just laid his hand on the knob when the deputy spit rocks again, the tail-end of the car swerving as he tore away from the quarry. Lester pulled the bowie knife from his boot and entered.


A Hundred for the Crows pt.1

When Lester returned to his land after the twelve-hour ride back from re-burying his daddy, he found his house vibrating with emptiness. His voice echoed off the wood floors, off the tin dishes sitting in soapy water in the ceramic sinks, off the bare wood walls adorned with only two photographs. He stood in the kitchen, looking around as if his wife and son might be hiding beneath the folded Navajo blankets on the deacon bench. Faintly, he could smell burnt coffee and cornbread.

The funeral man had sent word two days earlier. Seemed the gravediggers hadn’t buried his daddy’s body deep enough and the coyotes caught scent. Lester was only supposed to be gone until sundown—the next morning at the latest—but coyotes have a tendency to scatter their food. He wasn’t happy about having to ride from the Navajo Nation down to Mexico but it was his father’s wish to be buried there. Even though his daddy was a mean bastard, Lester was still a son, and it took him damn near a whole day to collect and account for the bones to make sure everything would be interred within blessed ground.

Outside, he heard feet scuffling. He walked outside and was surprised to find one of the local Navajo boys, standing in the dirt at the edge of the porch with his back toward Lester. The boy kicked his toe at the ground and wouldn’t meet Lester’s eye. He glanced over the boy’s shoulder to the machine barn and the heavy rusted chains hanging through their eyelets, all the motorcycles and cars still safe inside. His Indian sat untouched beside the porch, the engine clicking as it cooled from the ride.

‘You need help, son?’

The boy backed up a hair but still refused to face him. Lester heard the boy mumbling but couldn’t understand. Whether it was volume of voice or origins of words, he couldn’t tell.

‘Speak up, son. You can turn around. I’m not one to raise a hand.’

He swore he felt the sun dimming, the boy moved so slow. Down in the town, all the Navajo boys ran after each other too fast and they were covered in similar amounts of dust so that faces blended together, and Lester couldn’t say he recognized this one. But he was pretty damn sure that boy didn’t normally sport a weeping gash on his cheek nor a rock-sized welt on his forehead. He spit in the dirt and stepped off the porch, then pulled the handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to the boy, nodding toward his cheek.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Benny.’ He squinted when he pressed the cloth against his face.

‘You got a good sense of direction, don’t you?’

Benny nodded.

‘Then why are you on my land?’

Benny looked to the side, then up, finally, at Lester. His eyes reminded Lester of the color this dirt used to be when he was a boy, back when his father raised actual horses, before Lester converted the family business into horsepower.

Benny mumbled something. Lester knelt before him. ‘Tell me, please, before I lose my temper.’

The boy looked over Lester’s shoulder then met his eyes. ‘Mister Hank said your daddy took his land, so he take your family. He gets land, you get family. He doesn’t, you don’t.’

Lester pressed a hard clump of dirt between his thumb and forefinger, watched the dust blow away in the wind. ‘He the one to give you those scrapes?’

Benny nodded. ‘Said he kill me, I don’t tell you.’

Standing up straight, Lester looked out over the fields. The mesas and boulders cut stark black shapes in the setting sun, throwing shadows across the scrabbled fields where cattle used to graze. Dots of light shone through the holes in the old water tower, a speck for each errant bullet Lester had put through it when he was learning to shoot doves and crows. Lester’s daddy had turned the leather strop on Jacob, Lester’s brother, and blamed him for spilling the water and causing the land to dry up, the steer and cattle slowly withering to dust. When Jacob stood tall against him, he went at Jacob with the bowie knife itself, and would have bled him dry if his mother hadn’t put herself in the middle. Jacob ran out of the house and kept running. While his father killed another bottle on the front porch, Lester buried his mother on the edge of the fields, and he had always held tight to the notion that it was her blood that poisoned the crops. Truth was, though, that if his daddy hadn’t been so intent on keeping his throat wet with whiskey, he might’ve noticed the grasses drying up long before. Turning to engine repair was the only thing Lester could do to keep the land, but sometimes he wondered if he should’ve just let the government take his half-acre of hell and moved to California like Marnie had asked him to.

Lester looked down at the boy drawing shapes in the dirt with a stick.

‘I don’t have a helmet for you,’ he said, ‘so you’re just going to have to hold on tight.’

Lester kicked over the Indian’s engine and hoisted Benny up behind him then set off toward Ningunita.

 

Benny hopped off and scampered around the back of the drug store as soon as Lester parked. The streets were covered in sand and dust on account of the wind, making it look almost like there never was any asphalt to begin with. A thread of smoke twisted over the top of the butcher’s shop. Smelled like someone was burning tires in the back, and Lester wondered if that was how he got his smoked pork so rich. He hung his helmet on the handlebars then pushed open the doors of Belle’s.

Mabel stood behind the gnarled wood bar, cigarette perched between two stained fingers, her thumb erratically flicking the end. She wore a men’s white oxford with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, dirt clinging to the sweat stains. Two lumps in grease-stained coveralls kept the corner from floating off into space, and a dried rose sat in a mason jar on top of the piano in the corner. Mabel’s grandfather had been caught in the Gold Rush current and swept from New York to the west coast. When his destiny manifested itself as lead and rocks, he turned back and got as far as Arizona. He opened a saloon and named it after his dead wife, Belle. Mabel’s mother, Isabelle, gave the building to Mabel when she passed. The place wasn’t designed to look like an old west saloon so much as it hadn’t managed to give up the ghost, but Lester thought decay suited the place well.

‘You come to pay your tab?’

NikKorponNik Korpon is the author of STAY GOD, OLD GHOSTS, BY THE NAILS OF THE WARPRIEST and BALTIMORE STORIES: VOLUMES ONE and TWO. His stories have bloodied the pages and screens of Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, 3:AM, Out of the Gutter, Everyday Genius, Speedloader, Warmed&Bound and a bunch more. He is an editor for Dirty Noir and Rotten Leaves, and reviews books for Spinetingler, NoirJournal and The Nervous Breakdown. He also co-hosts LAST SUNDAY, LAST RITES, a monthly reading series. He lives in Baltimore.

Lester gave her his James Dean smile. ‘Next time?’

She snorted a laugh through her nose then pulled out a chipped tumbler and sloshed some  bourbon into it.

He swung a leg over the stool and tipped back half the drink. The two at the end just sat there staring into their drinks.

‘Mabel,’ he said. ‘Where’s your nephew?’

She squinted one eye and took a long drag, considering him through the smoke. If she’d tried a little harder, she could’ve killed a whole cigarette at once.

After a long minute, she said, ‘I don’t get into feuds where blood is involved, but I heard he was headed down to El Pozo.’

‘He been in contact with my brother?’

She pulled out a tumbler for herself, this one with a complete rim. ‘I told you I don’t like it when blood is involved. Either kind.’

‘I heard you the first time.’

He threw back the rest of his drink and stood.

‘You going to kill him?’ She swirled the liquor around in her glass, like she was afraid her drinking it would seal his fate.

Lester glanced around the bar, at the tarnished mirror behind Mabel. He pointed at the rose on the piano. ‘Things don’t stay alive on their own. You got to work to do that.’

He walked out of the bar and kicked over the engine. El Pozo was well over a hundred miles for the crows, more than two for cars. Lester didn’t have that long.

He set out across the desert.