Monkey Business

Twas hotter than a Tennessee showgirl underneath six buffalo blankets, but the idgits in Blind Gulch came out anyways, eager to get a glimpse at the strangers.

Their half-dozen wagons were drawn up single file in the center of town. Each wagon was caked in dust, dimming the bright stars, moons, and flowers that had been painted on the sides. The drivers, stern-faced bearded men quietly watered their horses as the locals looked on with hot dusty contemptuous faces.

“Gypsies,” Courtney Anne said from the steps of Professor Pauley’s Office of Dentistry. “Thieves and liars, every one.”

“I hope Ol’ Andy hornswoggled them on every penny,” Mrs. Betsy replied.

Heads turned as the door to general store swung opened. Out walked Ol’ Andy, puffing on one of his Mexican cigars. He was followed by a tall raven-haired woman, who seemed to speak for the travelers. Her features were sharp and exotic, smoky dark eyes and shimmering bronze skin. She wore a white blouse with embroidered roses that matched her scarlet dress. Odder then the colt on her hip was the small chittering monkey that sat on her shoulder.

She stood with Ol’ Andy on the porch of the general store, watching as Andy’s boys carried sacks of flour, beans, and what not out to the stranger’s wagons.

Things seemed fine, until Ol’ Andy’s dog caught sight of them. He started barking and carrying on, the whole while his eyes are locked on that monkey.

The dog’s name was Laramore, half shepherd and half Labradore. He was stocky with one remaining tattered ear. Where he wasn’t covered with scars and bite marks, Laramore’s fur was coarse and jet black.

He jerked against his chain, snarling and thrashing, foam frothing from his jaws. Ol’ Andy yells at him to hush, but that dog is damn near choking itself to get a bite of that monkey.

Now, the whole time, the monkey is just loving this. It’s racing back and forth over the woman’s shoulders, a squeaking and a jumping, taunting Ol’ Andy’s dog.

You remember Devon, the one-eyed feller that used to play the piano over in Tankersley’s?

He jerked against his chain, snarling and thrashing, foam frothing from his jaws. Ol’ Andy yells at him to hush, but that dog is damn near choking itself to get a bite of that monkey.

Well, he leans over the rail around the saloon and yells out, ”Better mind your monkey, ma’am.”

Folks laughed for a bit. The dark-haired woman, she don’t laugh.

After they quieted down, the woman yells back. “If that beat up old hound got off his chain, this little monkey would make him sorry he did.”

A low whistling sound escaped the crowd; they knew a challenge when they heard it.

I could see the idea forming in Ol’ Andy’s eyes before he opened his mouth. He knew, just like everyone in town, that Laramore was undefeated in Kassa County in both dog fighting and bear baiting.

“That sounds like a challenge.” Ol’ Andy said, pulling his cigar from his puckered red face. “Perhaps we should have a little wager, miss?”

“Rachel,” the woman replied.

She nodded at the monkey. “Her name is Julia and if you’re willing to make wager, we might arrange a friendly competition.”

Ten minutes later, the town had huddled in a circle. On one side, Andy’s boys clung to Laramore as he snarled, pulling against the chain. On the other side of the circle, Rachel waited with her hands on her hips; Julia perched calmly on her shoulder.

Ol’ Andy declared that if the monkey won, the strangers could take their supplies free of charge. In return, the raven-haired women, promised to pay double the worth of the goods if Laramore was victorious.

franklarnerdFrank Larnerd is an undergraduate student at West Virginia State University where he has received multiple awards for fiction and non-fiction. Recently his stories have appeared in LOST CHILDREN: PROTECTORS and DARK DREAMS PODCAST. His second anthology as editor, STRANGE CRITTERS: UNUSUAL CREATURES OF APPALACHIA will be released in the fall of 2013 from Woodland Press. For more visit: www.franklarnerd.com

Motioning for attention, Ol’ Andy stepped into the circle. “Now when I drop my cigar, my boys will let loose this dog. You might want to make sure that monkey isn’t on your shoulder when I do.”

Rachel nodded.

Ol’ Andy tossed the smoldering butt into the circle. As it hit the ground, his boys let loose on Laramore’s chain. The dog surged forward, snapping and growling.

The monkey leapt from Rachel’s shoulders, landing gracefully, rolling onto the parched sand. Dodging a frenzy of teeth, Julia snatched up Ol’ Andy’s cigar and jumped up onto the dog’s back.

The crowed howled in laughter as the monkey clung onto the dog’s tail, puffing away on Andy’s cigar as Laramore whirled around in circles.

Chattering gleefully, the little monkey poked the burning end of the cigar against Laramore’s butt hole. The dog let out a painful yelp and charged into the crowed, trailed by a cloud of cigar smoke.

The people screamed, scattering every which way as the frantic dog raced around their legs and under their dresses. From the dog’s back, Julia chirped happily, puffing and singing Laramore’s hindquarters as she rode.

Amongst the commotion, Rachel climbed aboard the lead wagon.

As she snapped the reins, she called out to Ol’ Andy. “Pleasure doing business with you.”


Six Bullets in F Minor

Claude Wooley lost Theodora in a saloon fight.

The fight was of a common variety – one cowboy got mad at another cowboy, punches were thrown, tables and bottles were smashed and, before you knew it, just about everyone in the establishment was involved.  The saloon was also of a common variety – Smilin’ Jack’s was the only watering hole in Whispering Gulch and, with no competition to contend with, the owner didn’t aspire to much.

Theodora, however, was not of a common variety.  She had a dark brown complexion, an hourglass figure and strings so taut they could make clouds dance in formation.  Theodora was a fiddle.

Claude Wooley’s fiddle.

It may seem unusual that a man would name a musical instrument, and, in particular, give that instrument a female name.  What you have to understand is that Theodora was the most important thing in Claude Wooley’s life.  She had been a part of his existence for over fourteen years.  A gift from his father on his tenth birthday, she’d been constant, always there, perpetual.  Throughout his boyhood, at the loss of his parents to a stagecoach accident at the age of seventeen, through years of wandering the west in search of a home – Theodora was there.  She allowed him to procure food and shelter in mining camps, in military settlements and, as was the case with Whispering Gulch, in small frontier towns.  In good times and bad, no matter where he was or what he was doing, Theodora supplied a vocation, a companion and, most importantly, music.

sixbulletsShe was his everything.

Smilin’ Jack’s had sawdust on the floor, bottles behind the bar and men that hadn’t bathed in a while sitting at tables in twos and threes.  No matter where you were in the establishment, you could smell spilled whiskey.  Claude was paid a pittance to come in every night and play along with Darwin, the piano player, to give the tavern a tad more ambiance.

When the brawl broke out, Claude was standing in the corner accompanying Darwin in a version of “Turkey in the Straw.”  He wore his good blue suspenders, his dark hair was slightly disheveled, his toe was tapping and he was letting Theodora carry him away with her melodies.

“Careful, Claude,” Darwin said, as he stopped playing, but Claude was way ahead of him.

Fights were common in the saloon and Claude knew how to handle them.  The minute he heard voices start to rise, he stopped playing, shielded Theodra with his body and put himself as far away from the violence as possible.

Bodies and chairs were thrown hither and yon, beer mugs and bottles shattered and obscenities were shouted to the heavens.  It was the donnybrook to end all donnybrooks with three jaws fractured, four noses busted, two arms broken, six eyes blackened and one badly twisted ankle, all in the space of three minutes.

As the voices and demolition died down, Claude came out of his protective crouch.  Unfortunately, the last punch had yet to be thrown.

The final altercation went like this:

Three pieces. Theodora’s body broke in two and her neck snapped. She hung from Claude’s hands by her strings, dangling like a musically-deprived marionette.

Paul Burrows punched Benjamin Trask in the left temple.

Benjamin Trask stumbled backwards into Claude Wooley and Theodora.

Theodora, in all her beauty and splendor, was caught between Benjamin Trask’s back and Claude Wooley’s front.

And that was it.

Claude felt the crunch of Theodora cracking and it felt like the destruction of his own soul.

Three pieces.  Theodora’s body broke in two and her neck snapped.  She hung from Claude’s hands by her strings, dangling like a musically-deprived marionette.

“Oh, no!” Darwin said.

At first Claude couldn’t believe it, he couldn’t accept this broken, hopeless thing as his beloved Theodora.  He’d played Mozart on her.  And Bach.  And Vivaldi.  He’d played “Arkansas Traveler.”  And “Wabash Cannonball.”  And “Strawberry Roan.”  One time, in the wilds of Montana, he’d played her well into the dark of night, her music keeping a pack of wolves at bay.  Claude looked at Theodora, examined her pieces, gave her a couple of pokes with her now useless bow.  She was beyond repair.  Now he would play nothing.

Claude’s heartbeat rose.  The edges of his vision became blurry.  His constant companion was gone.

Claude grabbed Benjamin Trask by the arm hard enough to wobble Benjamin’s battered brown Stetson.   He held Theodora up to the cowboy’s face.

“Look!” Claude said.  “Look what you did!”

“I’m sorry, Claude.  I sure didn’t mean to smash your fiddle.”

Claude couldn’t process what Benjamin said.  All he could do was repeat “Look what you did!”

“Sorry, it was an accident” Benjamin said, then turned away, not having anything to add to the discourse.

That was when Claude saw the Colt Double Action hanging on Benjamin’s hip.

weagly
JOHN WEAGLY has had over 50 plays produced by theaters around the world. His short fiction has been nominated for a Derringer Award 4 times, winning one in 2008, and has been nominated for a Spinetingler Award. He is an ensemble member at Raven Theatre Company in Chicago, Illinois. www.johnweagly.com

Claude grabbed the revolver, taking the firearm out of its holster and aiming it at Benjamin Trask’s back.  The same back that had slaughtered Theodora.

And then fingers accustom to making music brought murder.

Six bullets went into Benjamin Trask and the toll for the saloon fight went up to three jaws fractured, four noses busted, two arms broken, six eyes blackened, one badly twisted ankle and a dead cowboy.

It was a cold, ruined-heart revenge.

A few weeks later, as Claude Wooley was led from his dismal, silent jail cell to the gallows, as he listened to spectators heckle him on his march to death and thought about the absence in his life since that fateful day, the absence of music, the absence of companionship, the absence of love, he realized…

Theodora was worth the hanging.


Whore’s Gold

They’re here all right.

I hear ‘em.

Hell’s waitin’ for me just outside this dusty old cooper mine. They’re madder than hell, lookin’ to kill me on a count I killed one of them.

I’d kill that son of a bitch again, if God let me.

Fat Boy came up to my room last night. All sweaty, drunk and dirty off their ride, lookin’ to ride me. Got no problem with that, that’s what a girl like me gets paid for. Well, used to. Had no quarrel with his notions of mounting me for a minute or two, but this Fat Boy wanted to beat on me first.

He slapped me good too, split my lip. He asks me, “You like that whore?” Told him, “No, I do not.” That made him happy, like he wanted me to hurt, only made me want to hurt him. He pulled his belt from his britches and came right at me.

Tried to whip me, I moved, but he kept coming, laughing like it was good fun. Wasn’t fun for me. Things happened so damn fast. I stepped back and found my straight blade on the chest of drawers.

Some boys like a good shave after they do their business.

Before I know it, I grabbed that blade and slit his throat. Ain’t never killed nothin’ before. Maybe a bug or two, but never no person. Seen a lot of folks get killed, never really bothered me, but when it was me doin’ the killing?

It felt damned peculiar.

Before I know it, I grabbed that blade and slit his throat. Ain’t never killed nothin’ before. Maybe a bug or two, but never no person. Seen a lot of folks get killed, never really bothered me, but when it was me doin’ the killing?

Felt sad, even though Fat Boy was a horse’s ass.

Didn’t have much time to think on it, I knew someone be coming soon. It’d be either Lady McAlister or Fat Boy’s friends. Hate to say it, but I was lucky I cut his throat so he couldn’t call on nobody for help. All he did was bleed like a pig and make god-awful noises.

Men make all sorts of noises ‘round here.

I had to run. I grabbed what I could fast. I saw Fat Boy’s Winchester against the wall. Ain’t seen a rifle that pretty since my Daddy showed me how properly to shoot one. Right before he and Momma got sick. They died shortly thereafter, Momma first, then Daddy. I fight every day to remember them, some days I wish I didn’t.

I heard girls down the hall say these boys were train robbers of some sort. Sounds ‘bout right, I saw Fat Boy bring in a leather bag. Didn’t think much of it at the time, but when I peaked in the bag, I saw more gold than I’d ever seen in all my sixteen years. I snatched up the bag, the Winchester and jumped out my window.

Never liked being no whore. Never liked the name, whore. Should have called it, didn’t have a damn choice. ‘Cause I didn’t have a choice in the matter at all.
whoresgold

Whore or starve, you choose.

Maybe this gold and this Winchester can get back who my Daddy and Momma wanted me to be. They’d kiss my forehead every night and say “sleep tight Kate.”

I landed from the window outside Lady McAlister’s hotel and stole closest horse I could find.  Rode all night and half a day ‘til I came to this old cooper mine outside of Yuma, seemed the best place to rest a bit.

I closed my eyes, imagined a life where I wasn’t no whore.

A life where I was Kate, it was nice, until I woke up hearin’ them outside.

Hell’s here. Rest of them train robbers, I suppose. They’re madder than hell and wanta kill me.

I peaked around the rocks so I can get a good look at them. Four in all, they all kinda look like the Fat Boy, probably brothers. The Older One steps up a few feet, give or take, to the front of the mine. I hide best I can, but I still have an ok view. I wipe my sweaty hands on my flower dress and grip the Winchester tight.

mccraryMike McCrary is a screenwriter, his short fiction has appeared at Out of Gutter, Shotgun Honey and he is working on his debut crime novel. He’s been a waiter, a dishwasher, an equity trader and an unpaid Hollywood intern. He’s quit corporate America, come back, been fired, been promoted, been fired again, and currently, from his home in Texas, he writes. You can catch up with Mike on Twitter.

“Trixie” from Deadwood © HBO Films.

“You in there, whore?” Older One calls out.

Grit my teeth and says, “I am.”

“You killed my brother?”

See, knew it. “I did.”

Older One spits, “Know what’s gonna happen here?”

“I can guess.”

“We’re gonna drag you out, strip you, me and my boys are gonna have a little fun, then we’re gonna tie-up whatever’s left of your whore-hide for the wolves to pick at.”

I swallow hard, “That was my guess.”

“That right?” He grins. “Let’s get to it then…”

Crack. My shot echoes for what seems forever.

The Older One’s head kicks back with a red blossom popping out the back of his head. Took a second for him to drop, like the rest of him didn’t realize what happened.

Didn’t feel bad about killing that horse’s ass at all.

The other three look around dumb as can be. They draw their pistols. I notice they have stuffed leather bags to their horses. Just like that one Fat Boy had.

As I ready my rifle, can’t help but thank the Lord for his many blessings.

Three horse’s asses up against Kate with a Winchester, like them odds.


Haitian Slim

The Dogleg Saloon was bustling. Hardly a minute went by without a prospector or cowboy coming through the swinging doors. Folks crowed around the bar ordering shots of rye and whiskey. Whores walked bow-legged among the rowdy crowd while the piano player banged out the tunes of Stephen Foster.

Not many of the patrons paid attention to the music. Poker was the main attraction this evening. Card games had broken out all over the saloon. Most were friendly games amongst amateurs; just a few cattle hands wasting the evening by swapping antes and stories.

The poker game in the corner of the saloon was a different story. A silent tension hung over the table that was as thick as the cloud of cigar smoke. It had been three hands since any of the players had spoken a word… and that word had been a muttered ‘Sonovitch!”

The current hand came down to just two players. Haitian Slim sat grinning behind rows of staked chips. The tall stranger had arrived in Dogleg just the night before. He dressed like a dandy shadow with a black top hat, long dark coat and slacks. Haitian Slim’s smile was so white, it was unnerving. Some folks would have sworn he had an extra row of teeth.

On the other side of the table was Jed Monroe, who spent the last twenty minutes watching his money migrate over to the man from the Caribbean. If Haitian Slim was dressed to the nines, Jed was dressed to the twos. His clothes were dirty and stank of sour beer and horse sweat. The only impressive thing about the ugly man were the notches on his gun belt.

Revered Graves and the two McFee brothers had already folded. Sweat dripped down the fat preacher’s face as he watched the hand come to its conclusion. He gave his crucifix a little tug and held his breath.

Looking angrily from his pair of sevens to Haitian Slim’s pile of money, Jed decided to call. He reached down into his vest and pulled out his pocket watch.

The watch was solid gold and worth a good price. That wasn’t the only reason why it was special. It had a engraved message of absolute love from Jed Monroe’s mother to his late father. The gunman had taken the watch off his father’s corpse after he shot him over a bottle of whiskey.

Wiping the trail dust off the watch, Jed sneered at Haitian Slim. Then he causally tossed it into the kitty.

Reverend Graves swallowed hard.

The sight of the watch made Haitian Slim’s eyes light up. His big smile seemed to get even bigger.

As he laid down his cards, Haitian Slim said in a deep suave voice, “Three Sixes.”

“Put down my daddy’s watch!” snarled Jed. His hand started drifting down to his sidearm.

Jed slammed the palms of his hands onto the table. Stacks of chips toppled over and glass mugs jumped. The piano player hit a sour note and every head in the Dogleg Saloon turned to the source of the disturbance.

“You just won five hands in’er row! Nobody’s that lucky!” shouted Jed. “Haitian Slim, yer nothing but a lousy cheat!”

For a moment, the only sound was the jangle of the glass in Reverend Graves’ trembling hand. Nervous eyes watched the six-shooter on Jed’s gun belt. The townsfolk slowly slinked away from any possible lines of fire. Even the naked lady in the portrait hanging above the bar looked worried.

Leaning back in his chair, Haitian Slim grinned. He reached down and plucked up Jed’s gold watch from the center of the table. Turning it over in his long fingers, he chuckled softly to himself.

“Put down my daddy’s watch!” snarled Jed. His hand started drifting down to his sidearm.

“Careful, Slim.” Reverend Graves whispered. “That’s Murderous Jed Monroe. I’ve seen him kill thirteen men.”

Ignoring the preacher, Haitian Slim held the gold watch up for Jed to see.

The ticking of the watch was in synch with Jed’s own heartbeat. The gunman could see his own angry reflection trapped in the watch’s polished surface.

Inspecting the watch, Slim remarked, “This is a nice watch, Jed. You must have carried it very close to you for a very long time. It would be a shame if it fell into the wrong hands.”

“Ya’ dirty sidewinder!” Jed erupted like a train whistle. “On the street! I’m calling you out!”

Haitian Slim rose from his chair. His eyes sparkled as he titled his top hat forward.

Flashing Jed another pearly smile, he said, “I‘ve heard people talk of you, Jed Monroe. They speak your name with fear. Soon they will speak my name, not just with fear, but with absolute terror.”

With a turn that sent his coattails flailing, Haitian Slim strolled across the sawdust floor. It seemed like he didn’t have a care in the world. He paused suddenly at the swinging doors and glanced back at Jed. With a little nod, Slim held up the gold watch once more as he stepped outside.

Reverend Graves muttered, “That poor devil.”

“Shut up, preacher.” Jed shot back. “I’m going give Haitian Slim just what he’s come fer… a belly full of lead.”

Jed trudged out of the saloon. His face and neck were red hot with fury. He flexed his hand in homicidal anticipation.

There was a buzz of excited whispers as the townsfolk began to pour out after him. A skull-like moon hung above the small desert town. Haitian Slim was calmly waiting at the far end of the street. His tall lanky frame cast a long shadow all the way to the swinging doors of the Dogleg Saloon.

“Drill a bullet through his dark hide!” cheered a buck-toothed McFee brother.

A few spectators muttered in agreement and slapped Jed on the back. Reverend Graves gulped down the rest of his drink.

Pain shot through Jed. He looked down and saw six bullet holes in his own body. Blood began to spurt onto the dusty street. His six-shooter tumbled from his hand and Jed dropped dead to the ground.

With his spurs jingling, Jed took his place on the street. A trio of buxom dancehall girls watched from the baloney. They giggled as Jed gave them a confident wink.

He cracked his neck and sneered. In the glow of the moon, he could see Haitian Slim holding his gold watch. His lips were moving silently as if Slim was praying.

“No more time for prayers!” shouted Jed.

The folks crowding the sides of the street fell silent. Then the wind died and the crickets went quiet. Tumbleweeds stopped dead in their tracks. Reverend Graves cupped a shaking hand over his mouth.

Haitian Slim looked up from the gold watch in his hand. His eyes burned with hellfire.

Jed drew his revolver. His hands moved like lightning as slapped down on the hammer. Six shots rang out in rapid succession.

The town gasped. Somewhere a woman screamed. The milk curdled inside the Dogleg General Store.

Haitian Slim stood at the other end of the street. Holding the gold watch to the night sky, he exhaled a dark cloud of gun smoke.

“What in heaven’s name?” Reverend Graves breathlessly wondered.

Pain shot through Jed. He looked down and saw six bullet holes in his own body. Blood began to spurt onto the dusty street. His six-shooter tumbled from his hand and Jed dropped dead to the ground.

Haitian Slim let go of the smoldering watch and sent it tumbling to the street. It glowed like brimstone as it sizzled in the dirt.

One of the dancehall girls up on the balcony fell to her knees and wailed over the crowd, “He’s dead! Haitian Slim killed Jed Monroe!”

“The devil himself!” cried one of the McFee brothers. “Haitian Slim is the devil himself!”

Another McFee screamed, “He’ll kill us all! Run for your lives!”

The crowd broke like a stampeding herd. Men and women went scattering in every direction. They clawed and scratched at each other as they fought to get back inside the saloon.

“Yes! Say my name,” laughed Haitian Slim. Beaming with pride, the stranger watched the town of Dogleg explode in a panic. He seemed to drink in their terror. “Your fear only gives me more power.”

As he strolled toward Jed’s body, the frenzied mob parted. Pausing for a moment, Haitian Slim sneered triumphantly at his handiwork. He took a disrespectful step over the body and made his way toward the hitching post.

danlarnerdDan Larnerd is a graduate of Marshall University and has worked in radio and for a few newspapers. He lives in the Portland, Oregon area.

The street had emptied. The residents were either hiding in the saloon or praying in the church. Revered Graves was the only one left on the street. He looked as nervous as a bull about to be castrated with a dull Bowie knife.

“Haitian Slim,” he squeaked.

The tall stranger spun around at the sound of his name. When he locked eyes with Reverend Graves, the old preacher fainted.

Haitian Slim roared in deep dark laughter. It rolled down the deserted street like an unholy thunder.

Still laughing, Haitian Slim mounted his pale horse. He put his spurs to the beast causing it burst into a trot.

All over town, frightened faces peeked out of windows as the tall stranger rode past. God-fearing men wept together and mothers held their children tight. Still chuckling, Haitian Slim tipped his top hat to them all.

Then he rode out of town and into the setting moon.


One More Spring

The old cabin creaked and shuddered in the harsh winter wind. It was late November, 1857 and Jess Bender sat slowly rocking in the big pine chair he had made years ago. He was wrapped in an old buffalo blanket, but was still shivering. The one room cabin was warmed by a fire burning in a small stone and rock hearth darkened by the soot of winters past.

The fire was burning down, but Jess made no move to feed or rekindle it. His breathing was rattling and uneven. He was stoved up real bad this time for sure. Sam, his old trapping partner was sitting across the room staring at the fire and he wasn’t much better off. Both of them had been sickly since the big blizzard two weeks ago. Spring couldn’t come too soon.

He glanced back over at his trapping partner for all those years and it saddened him a considerable bit. Yessir, they had been through heaven and hell together but more and more he had a hard recollecting those things. Almost like it had never happened.

The glorious life and times of the Mountain Man had come and gone in a damn blink. The peak that is, they were still out there, but there number was dwindling fast. It was an all too short of a time. Damn shame.

When you tallied it all up, the two had walked and rode a thousand of miles together. Hell, two thousand miles most likely. They’d seen harsh bitter winters, blooming warm springs and blazing summers. Both had stood dumbstruck and awed by the beautiful shades of autumn in these mountains and plains. They had hunted and fished and trapped. Some folks might have considered their lives peculiar back east, but that’s the way they liked it. Isolated, free and alone.

Neither of them had much use for anything this world had to offer other than just being up here in these mountains. Other people, and civilization on the whole for that matter, was something they preferred to live without. Those things seemed to only bring trouble with them.

Jess Bender had chosen this route at the age of fifteen, after his father had decided to settle the family in Denver. Jess knew that he couldn’t just stop there, not with so many places west, places yet to be seen. His family was done traveling, bone tired, disappointed and broken in spirit. Jesse on the other hand, felt he had to keep going and not necessarily just west, north or south. He just had to keep going.

It was a lucky thing for Sam that they met that last day because he was in poor shape, hungry and tired. Jess had cottoned to him right off. Being the older by far and much more experienced, he had offered to take Sam on as help.

He left in the middle of the night on Buck, the big black horse, one of three the family had. In his saddle bag he had some biscuits, jerky and a bedroll. He took the old Remington that his father had never shot. It was a poor hunting gun but it was all he had back then. Never saw his folks or siblings again.

His partner had left his family in much the same way. There was a certain wander lust they both shared no doubt. Sam had run away from his family near the border of Nebraska and Colorado, as they struggled their West in a doomed, bedraggled wagon train. He had struck off one night without anyone knowing.

Sam had been on his own for about a month when the two had met at the rendezvous on the South Platte River. Jess had always enjoyed the yearly meet but they lasted too long for his tastes and he was always anxious to leave.

It was a lucky thing for Sam that they met that last day because he was in poor shape, hungry and tired. Jess had cottoned to him right off. Being the older by far and much more experienced, he had offered to take Sam on as help.

After trading in Jess’s furs and re-supplying, they had set out, heading back into the mountains.

Jess looked at the dark cabin ceiling and thought that rendezvous might have been ten, twelve years ago. Hell he wasn’t even sure what year this was.

For the years that followed, they had enjoyed high adventure, dangerous times and grand scenery. Landscapes that took your breath away. They had crossed paths with Blackfeet, Comanche, Utes and the Crow.

There was peace, war, friendships and enemies. It had been a quarrelsome life at times and not just with the tribes. There were men of ill repute, men with no souls and rogues of all kinds to be dealt with. Jess and Sam had cheated death on more than one occasion to be sure.

onemorespringThey had traversed rivers such as the Columbia, Snake, Colorado, Green and Platte. They had enjoyed the brief acquaintance of famous trappers and mountain men, such as Jim Bridger, Henry Fraep and even Captain Bonneville one summer. Also came to know men that no one knew then, or ever.

Jess slowly closed his eyes. He could hear the wind blowin’ outside and it seemed to take him with it.  Drifting him now, slow and easy, like a slow moving stream in summer. His memories were flowing like they hadn’t for quite awhile.

He remembered at one point a few years back, him and Sam had even enjoyed a little notoriety themselves. They was mentioned by name in a pamphlet book published back east somewheres. Imagine that.

There had been a woman once. His woman. Little Feather, a Ute girl. She had been hard and soft, mean and gentle. She was a mystery, like all women were to him. He’d loved her and mourned her all in a span of a single year.

He smiled to himself now, thinking of him and Sam walking and riding the damned Overland Trail. A hundred other trails with no names and many steep mountain passes too, by God. He’d always thought that a man hasn’t really lived until he looks down on the clouds. Looking down at tree lines from peaks so high they seemed to have touched heaven itself. Mountain lakes that were so clear that a body couldn’t distinguish the real landscape from the reflection.

Season after season, year after year, it had gone on and it had seemed like it would never end. That it would last forever. But that was foolishness and he knew it, even back then. Now, it was coming to an end. All of it.

Jess had no regrets though and as he opened his eyes again to look over at Sam. He knew his partner didn’t either. Hell, they had lived spectacular lives when you came right down to it. He stared back into the dying fire and nodded to himself. He thought that was right, in fact he knew it was. Damn it all though, he’d take just one more spring.

Across the room, Sam looked over at Jess and it was as if he could hear the man’s thoughts. What a prize that would be, but he didn’t think there was another spring coming. The wind shrieked a little stronger outside and he turned toward that noise for a second, but then shifted his gaze back to the fire. It popped and cracked from time to time but it was going out.

A short time later, he heard Jess take a sharp breath in, causing him to look over again at his old partner. He watched Jess’s head fall slowly to one shoulder. The rocking chair creaked to a stop and Sam stared at him hard. He waited for him to rouse back up but Jess didn’t move. He never took another breath.

He was never far away from Jess, never far off at all and he sure wasn’t going anywhere now. Jess had taken him in as a partner, had always made him feel wanted and given him years of loyal friendship. He wasn’t about to leave his pardner. Not now, not later.

jimwilsky Jim Wilsky has had a lifelong passion for writing and storytelling. His short story work has appeared in some of the most respected online magazines such as Shotgun Honey, Beat To A Pulp, All Due Respect, Yellow Mama, A Twist of Noir, Rose & Thorn Journal, Pulp Metal and Plots With Guns. In addition, he has stories two recent anthologies; Both Barrels – Shotgun Honey and All Due Respect – The Anthology.

His first novel, Blood on Blood, co-written with Frank Zafiro and published by Snubnose Press, was released in August 2012. Two WO He is supported and strengthened by a wonderful wife and two beautiful daughters.

Sam got up stiffly, looking around the small dark cabin, lighted only by the fire and a small grease candle by the wash pan in the corner. Scanning the room slow and sad, he looked at the familiar sparse contents. A worn out bunk, small table, guns on a gun rack made from antlers, two wood plank shelves, an ancient cook stove, some old pots and pans. He walked unsteadily over to the fire as if to do something about it, then paused and looked back at his old companion.

This was the end he thought simply. His head was low as he hobbled slowly over to Jesse’s chair and put his paw softly on the old man’s boot, letting out an almost silent whine. For a minute or two he stared into Jess’s face, intently looking and hoping for any kind of reaction, any small trace of life.

Finally convinced of what he knew already, Sam painfully shifted around and rested his head on his old friend’s lap. He whined softly just once more, which was his way of saying a sorrowful goodbye. The big pale yellow dog slowly sunk down to the floor and he leaned heavily against Jess’s leg. His eyes drooped and his head sank to rest on his paws. It wouldn’t be long now. He had been waiting and trying to hold on but now Jess was gone, so he could go too.

Just a minute later the fire died out to just embers, the weak blue flame finally sputtering out. As it went, Sam started to go with it.

His last thought was of him and Jess walking through a lush green valley. The South Platte was running high with the thaw. There were exploding clumps of wild spring flowers everywhere. The mountains peaks still draped in snow were off in the distance.

The last sound he heard was the hungry wind that whistled with a vengeance now, forcing its way through the cracks of the old cabin walls.

The cold crept in claiming its dark victory, but the old man and his dog were already gone.

They were walking through that lush green valley together now, warmed by a spring sun.


Hell Fire

“You ever have a woman get you in the God way?”

“I ain’t sure I follow you there, mister,” Sam said, annoyed that this stranger had yet again trespassed against the peace of his mealtime.  Shoulda knowed from that damn preacher hat, Sam thought, tall and rounded up top with its wide, flat brim.  Shoulda figured this lonesome traveler was lousy with religion and told him, “Horseman, you pass on by,” while the man was still mounted and searching for a place to bed down for the night.

“You know,” the stranger said.  “Have you pledge your everlasting soul to the Lord.”

“You want more of these beans?” Sam asked, trying to let the subject drop.  He didn’t know this fella from Adam and didn’t give a good goddamn about his soul one way or t’other.

The stranger shook his head.  “Et my fill already.  Thank ye kindly.”

Sam said, “I reckon I’ll finish them up.”

“You do that,” the man said.  “Feed your belly.”

Sam grabbed the pan and scraped the last of the beans onto his plate.

“I had me a god-fearing woman name of Loretta.  She taught me the error of my ways and set me right with the Lord.”

“Where’s she at?”

The stranger looked at him with untearing eyes.  “Gone to her eternal reward now in heaven, God rest her soul.  Now I am left to wander the earth alone.”

“Sorry to hear that, mister.”  Sam returned his attention to his plate of beans.

The stranger watched him eat.  “You’ve been evading my question, but you can’t avoid it forever,” he said.  “Are you just feeding your belly or are you feeding your everlasting soul.”  Under the wide brim of his dark hat, the stranger’s eyes danced alight with the flickering orange flames of the campfire.

Hell_Fire_gray_900Sam spooned his mouth full of beans and chewed, thinking of places he’d rather be and excuses for taking his sudden leave from this damn zealot.  But he’d already unsaddled his horse and hobbled it for the night.  Already unpacked his bedroll and taken off his gun belt.  It lay over yonder with his saddle.  Not that he was afraid of this fella exactly.  Just annoyed was all.  He tried reason, talking as he continued to shovel beans into his mouth.  “Listen, mister,” he said.  “I don’t mind some conversation but I’d rather not have the preacher talk, if it’s all the same to you.”

Unspeaking, the man regarded Sam steadily in the firelight.

Sam said, “It’s just I don’t care for no Jesus sermons.”

“Well, I apologize,” the stranger said.  “I didn’t mean to trouble you, friend.”

“No bother.  It’s just I ain’t got no truck with God,” Sam said.  “But I’m sure we can find something else to talk about.”

“Such as what?” the man asked.

Sam shrugged.  “Anything that comes to mind.  The weather.  Our travels.  Whyn’t you tell me where all you been the last year.”  He licked his spoon clean and set it aside, clattering onto the empty tin plate.  “Listen,” he said.  “I’ve got some whiskey in my saddlebags that I’m willing to share if you’d like a pull or two.”

“I don’t take no strong drink,” the stranger said.  “There’s the devil in it.”

“Well, I’ll take some,” Sam said.  He started to stand, but the man’s hand came down on his shoulder.

“No, you better not neither.”

Sam sat back down but he shook off the man’s touch.  “Get your damn hand offa me,” he said.  “You got no business grabbing hold of me there, mister.  That’s how people get themselves shot around these parts.”

The man took his hand away and held up his open palm.  “I apologize if I gave offense,” he said.

The two men looked at each other steadily in the flickering firelight.

“This is humbug,” Sam said finally. “I’m done talking to you now, mister. Let’s just bed down and go our separate ways in the morning. I’m plumb exhausted tonight. Reckon I’ll sleep like the dead tonight.”

“This is humbug,” Sam said finally.  “I’m done talking to you now, mister.  Let’s just bed down and go our separate ways in the morning.  I’m plumb exhausted tonight.  Reckon I’ll sleep like the dead tonight.”

The stranger’s eyes flashed.  “I reckon you will.”

Sam blinked and saw the man standing over him with a big revolver in his hand, its barrel gaping like the mouth of an open grave.  The man said, “Zephaniah 1:12.  And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The LORD will not do good, neither will he do evil.”

Sam held up his hands.  “I’m unarmed.”

“Well, I ain’t,” the man said.  “And I’m talking about your salvation, friend.”

“I ain’t got much money,” Sam said.

“Do not tempt me with your filthy lucre.  It is written man cannot serve both God and Mammon.”

“I ain’t got nothing else to offer.”

“You’re wrong,” the man said.  “You’ve got your soul.”

“You want me to find Jesus at gunpoint?”

“If that’s how you’ll learn to fear God.  Now get on your knees.”

Sam said, “This is some goddamn foolishness, mister.”

“Do not blaspheme.”  The man gestured with his gun.  “Now get down on your knees, sinner, or I’ll finish you where you sit.”

Sam shifted onto his knees in the soft dirt beside the campfire.

“Now what?” Sam asked.

“Open your heart to the Lord,” the man said.  “Romans 6:23.  For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Now pray.”

Choking on his words, Sam prayed, confessing all the sins he could remember.  The man listened silently, holding his tongue in his head and his gun on Sam.

When Sam was finished, the man said, “That’s good.  Now pledge your soul to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior.”

chuckcaruso1012Chuck Caruso lives in an old Oregon farmhouse with a medicine woman and their two cattle dogs. His western noir has been published by Shotgun Honey, Flash Fiction Offensive, Fires on the Plain and The Western Online. Find him at http://chuckcaruso.com/

Artwork © 2013 Robert Elrod. http://robertelrodllc.com

Sam said the words slowly, voice shaking.  “I pledge my soul to Jesus and accept his as my Lord and Savior.”

“Now say amen.”

Sam said, “Amen.”

When the stranger said nothing for a few moments, Sam asked him, “Can I stand now?”

The man cleared his throat.  “Do you promise to go your way and sin no more?” he asked.

Sam nodded.  “Yes, I do.  I’ll go my way and sin no more.”

“Liar,” the man said.  “All of us are sinners in the eyes of the Lord.”

The roar of the big pistol filled the darkened woods as a dark blossom appeared in the center of Sam’s forehead and his pulped brains exploded out the back of his shattered skull.  An empty look of horrified surprise hung frozen on Sam’s vacant face as the upper half of his dead body pitched forward into the fire with a spray of bright sparks.  The stranger silently watched Sam lie there unmoving while tiny orange flames licked around the edges of his shirt and climbed up the back of its plaid collar.  As the fire began to take hold, the man said, “May the peace of God be with you.”

His work here done, the stranger saddled up and rode out in search of more sinners he could save from the hell fires of eternal damnation.


Hot Spell

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

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

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

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

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

Leading his horse into the stable, he found the attendant fitfully sleeping off a drunk. After removing the saddle, he let the horse drink its fill then wiped it down with a wet towel, being careful to wipe the dust from the animal’s eyes and nose.
bigadios_seeds_01

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

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

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

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

“Come far?” The bartender questioned

“A piece.” Rogers responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whiskey!” Shorty bellowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artwork is modified from the movie The Gunfighter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hot spell was over.


Seeds

“Mary! Get in the house and bar the door.”

God knows I loved that woman, but she had a passel of stubborn in her.

Mary ignored me as she was want to do in most things. She stood firm and holding my old Navy with both hands she fired at the man riding her down. Mary knew her business better than most and took him high in the chest. He went spinning from the saddle like he’d been hit with a fence rail and was dead before the hooves of his mount stomped him into my door yard.

“Will you heed me and get in the damn house.”

Mary spat an insult at the twitching corpse and hurried on to the porch. Deep down where most men were afraid to look, I knew it wouldn’t make no difference, not once her gun ran dry and I lay dead.

The Carson Boys were just murderous range scum; they didn’t spare anyone to bear witness. Everybody knew the story of what they’d done to the preacher over in Folsom. Come Sunday, his congregation had found him crucified on his own cross. The church going folk in our little town prayed that Jeb Carson would take his crew north. Those of us who homesteaded further out didn’t put all that much store in prayer and took to keeping a loaded scatter gun to hand.

My shouting at Mary had drawn most of their fire. I ducked beneath the buzzing swarm of lead and fumbled the last few shells into her daddy’s Henry repeater. Poor old Evan was as good a man as you’re likely to find anywhere in this territory; now he lay slumped over beside me, shot through and through more times than I cared to count.

I’d never killed outside of war, but passing Jeb Carson’s no-good soul to the devil’s keeping would be a good way to start. I sighted on him crawling around the barn, wiggling along on his belly. The picture on his hand bill was a passable likeness. It had said either dead or alive beneath it and I reckoned dead would do just fine. I steadied the rifle, aiming to make the world a better place.

bigadios_seeds_01

“Drop it Mister.”

Jeb’s little brother, Brodie sprung out of the scrub behind the old place like a Jack rabbit. He had a bead on me with his shotgun and rightly guessing I wasn’t about to oblige him, he let go both barrels.

When I came around everything was cast in shadow. I gulped for breath that came too short and ragged to bring near enough air. Somewhere way off, beyond the blood and the pain I could hear my Mary screaming. I tried to raise my head and the weight of a boot ground my face back into the dirt.

“You just lay there and enjoy the show,” Brodie said.

They took turns. When they all had their fill, Jeb was the one who did for her.

Something like that burns in real deep and it don’t ever fade. It steals a man’s very soul, but it also gives him a purpose; maybe it even keeps him alive long after he’s been left for dead.

* * *

The sun was prowling in the steel blue of a cloudless forenoon, searching for something living to beat on. I stood under a dry season Ironwood, but it cast no shade. Its crooked branches were bare, save for the murdering carcass of Brodie Carson, which hung there like a piece of over ripe fruit. I screwed up my eyes against the day’s glare and wiped the grit of this hard land from my face with a blood stained kerchief.

I watched for a time, the searing heat of retribution making my sweat run. People said that coyotes wouldn’t eat cooked meat or Mexicans, but I don’t set no store by that. In my experience most critters will do what they have to regardless of how bad it tastes.

Brodie made seven, eight if you counted the Mex and it ain’t done yet. I don’t put notches on my gun handle any more than I do my bed post. But what kind of man would I have to be to forget them that I killed. They didn’t all have it coming, at least not from me. The way I look at it those other boys should have chosen their friends more carefully.

Blood still leaked out of Brodie, but that was mostly down to gravity. The rope around his ankles creaked as he slowly twisted in the warm desert breeze, his busted fingers scratching lazy pictures in the dust. You see, there’s more to being a man than having a fast hand and a good pair of boots, you also have to know your limitations. Brodie was sorely lacking in that respect. Sure enough, I found his limitations early in the piece, but I didn’t let them get in the way of what I came to do.

chrisleekChris Leek is a greenhorn from back east. He shoots straight and tells tall tales. You can read some of them at: All Due Respect, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, Near to the Knuckle, Thrillers, Killers ‘N’ Chillers, Grift and Spinetingler. www.nevadaroadkill.blogspot.co.uk.

Artwork © 2013 CD Regan.
http://www.cdregan.com

Before he died he gave up Jeb; he told me his brother was staying in the back room of a cat house in Mesquite Flat. The telling didn’t save him. The bible has it that whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. Brodie came to understand that once I had gotten him acquainted with the reaping part.

The day was too hot for digging and regardless of the season I’d not extend the courtesy of a grave to a Carson. I picked up the bottle of liquor that Brodie had been sucking when I bushwhacked him. The Paiute called this brand coso paa, fire water. Well we’d see. I emptied the bottle over Brodie then reached into my pocket for a parlor match. I struck it on my heel and cupping my hands against the breeze I carried the flame to his flapping shirt tails.

I watched for a time, the searing heat of retribution making my sweat run. People said that coyotes wouldn’t eat cooked meat or Mexicans, but I don’t set no store by that. In my experience most critters will do what they have to regardless of how bad it tastes.

“Reckon we best get on girl. Mesquite is a fair ride,” I said and hosted myself in to the saddle.

The mare snorted and shook her head. Perhaps she was agreeing or maybe it’s was just the stench of burning flesh in her nostrils. I tugged on the reins and turned away, leaving Brodie Carson to the tender mercies of god, assuming god would have him.


Missing

Cash Laramie’s often called The Outlaw Marshal. Not so much because he goes outside the law in the course of doing his duty as a Deputy U.S. Marshal as because he delivers justice so often in his own peculiar way. Him and me both work out of the Cheyenne office, and we both work for the chief deputy, Devon Penn. Penn didn’t seem to keep as tight a rein on Cash as he did on the rest of us, but that may have been because Cash’s patron was none other than Judge Evan J. Hickey. I’ve heard some stories about their ties, but don’t know how much of them are true. Don’t make no difference no how, as they say around here.

“Gideon,” Penn said. “It’s not like Cash to be gone for three whole months without letting us know what’s going on.” He paced back and forth in the space behind his huge mahogany desk. “Not like him at all. And do you realize we haven’t heard so much as a squeak from him for nearly three months?” He repeated himself, but I said nothing.

I didn’t say a thing, just leaned back in my chair and studied the art of lighting up a good pipe. Studied it, but didn’t do it, ’cause Penn wouldn’t allow smoke in his office no how. I may have looked nonchalant, but I thought it was strange that Cash would be out of touch for so long. A man can do a heap of thinking whilst studying the skill of lighting a pipe . . . but Penn cut my pipedream short.

“Let me have a look around, Lenora.” I pushed my way into the room. “He may have left something that’ll give us a hint as to where he’s gone.”

“Gideon Miles,” he said, his voice more sonorous than usual, “You know Cash Laramie better than anyone else in the territory.” He sat down and slammed his open palms on the desk with a satisfying smack. “I want you to get on that hard-headed friend of yours and get him the hell back here and on the job.” He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his ample chest. “Yesterday would not be too soon. Do I make myself clear?”

“Clear,” I said, as that was what he wanted to hear, but nothing about Cash being gone for three months was clear. Still, the chief deputy gave me a job, and it was my job to get it done. That meant starting at the Beckett Hotel.

* * *

“Gideon. Gideon. I’m scared stiff. This is not like Cash. Not like him at all.”

I’d gone to Cash Laramie’s room on the top floor of the Beckett to see Lenora Wilkes, Cash’s girlfriend. She was good looking. She worked the line. I had no idea what kind of arrangement she had with Cash, didn’t want to know, for that matter.

“Let me have a look around, Lenora.” I pushed my way into the room. “He may have left something that’ll give us a hint as to where he’s gone.”

She stood back from the door and let me in. It was definitely Cash’s room. Lenora’d not made many inroads toward turning it into a home, as it were. Maybe she was too busy.

What can you say about a hotel room? This one, at the top of the hotel like it was, had a little more space than most, a bedroom and a sitting room linked by a big double door with squares of glass in them. It looked like Cash was ready to move out on the next train to the Barbary Coast.

I swiped a finger through dust that seemed a quarter of an inch thick. “You don’t clean in here at all?” I asked Lenora.

“Cash don’t like for me to touch things,” she said, a whine in her voice. It was kinda like she was afraid of doing something wrong. Legally wrong.

A big freight wagon rattled down Main Street, probably filled with supplies for Rock Springs, where a new strike was drawing make-it-rich hopefuls like honey draws flies. I didn’t look to see what kind of rig it was, but it sounded like a Murphy.

The dresser had a plate full of dry cigar butts on it. I lifted it, scrutinized the dusty dresser top under it, set it back down. Lenora stood at the window, watching the people walking the boardwalk across the street, I reckon. She tossed her fair hair back over her shoulder with one hand. I could see where men folk would put out a pretty penny for a poke with that woman.

I picked up the book that lay next to the cigar butts. North Against South. Jules Verne’s latest. I wondered what a Frenchman knew about the War Between the States. More than that, I wondered why Cash would be reading Verne. He spun a decent tale, but was better left to flights of fantasy than trying to spin yarns about stuff he knew something about. I put it back on the dresser. Nothing to tell me where Cash might of took off to.

Lenora still looked out the window. I walked into the sitting room. A newspaper laid spread out on the table, along with a handful of mail. The date on the paper read March 28, 1887. Today’s calendar showed June 22. “You been tearing the sheets off the calendar, Lenore?”

“Least I could do.” She pouted. “Cash won’t get after me for that.”

I gathered up the handful of letters from the desk and headed for an overstuffed chair to see who was writing to Cash Laramie. By habit, I glanced out the window as I sat down. A spare man, tall and long with bug eyes and a sallow, yellowish complexion. His face was upturned as if he watched me, but he could have been staring lustfully at Lenora. I saw he was walleyed, but I paid him scant attention as I was much more interested in Cash’s correspondence.

Before I could even pick up the first envelope, Lenora sauntered into the sitting room. She held a flint arrowhead in her hand. “Not like Cash to leave this behind,” she said. “His Arapaho mother gave it to him. I imagine she did the leather work on the holder and neck strap, too.”

Cash lived with the Arapaho for some years, and he was especially fond of Elina, wife to Chief Lightning Cloud and his foster mother. On her deathbed, she’d given Cash three flint arrowheads with leather thongs. He always wore one around his neck, which is how some people identified Cash himself—they’d heard of the arrowheads, but didn’t know the wearer by sight.

I couldn’t help grinning to myself.

“What’chu laughing about, Gideon Miles,” Lenora said.

“Thinking about how Cash always has one of those arrowheads on a leather thong around his neck.”

“He says his mother watches over him when he wears them.”

I just nodded. Cash did indeed feel that way about his dead Arapaho mother. The letters were mostly from familiar places and unopened. But the one that was opened was unusual. High-priced paper and envelope with a hint of lavender on them. Yet not from a woman. I pulled the letter from its stiff envelope, but it wasn’t a letter, it was a court summons. From Boston. Part of it was printed, part written in hand, like court summons are.

Cash Laramie esq. is summoned to my chambers, No. 11, Cumberland Street, Boston, Mass. on Saturday the eighth day of July 1887 at 1/2 past 11 of the Clock in the fore noon or shew cause if not Why an Order of the Court cannot be met.

Dated the 9th day of March 1887

James Bacon

Justice of the Peace

Boston, Massachusetts

Hmmm. The return address was to one Arden V.S. Thompson. Esquire, it said.

“What’s it say, Gideon?”

“Don’t you bother your head about it, Lenora. You just relax. I’ll go find Cash, and bring him right back.” I escorted her to the door as I folded the summons and stuffed it into an inner pocket of my vest. We left the hotel together, but immediately split up, Lenora turning up the street and me going down. My peripheral vision caught the watcher I’d seen from the window. He’d not gained any weight, and he was as walleyed as ever, and he didn’t follow Lenora, he came after me.

I made like I hadn’t seen him, but he followed like he didn’t give a shit if I caught him out or not. He never came close enough for me to say something to him, but he was never that far away, either. I wondered if he’d follow me out of town, and I decided to see.

In the livery, I saddled Smoke, my dappled gray. He was more than ready to go. Smoke didn’t like too many days standing around in a stall. He was a mountain horse and liked to get out in the fresh air. Time to see how far the walleyed gentleman would go. I mounted Smoke and rode him over to the courthouse to parlay with Devon Penn.

The hitching rails are behind the courthouse. I guess they don’t want horse piss and piles of dung right in front of their legal structure. Smoke didn’t care. Soon as I looped his reins over the rail, he went hipshot, hung his head, and shut his eyes. Old soldiers learn to sleep whenever they get the chance, and Smoke knew every trick.

In the courthouse, I rapped on Penn’s office door.

“Come in.” Penn sounded like he didn’t really want anyone to come in, but I pushed the door open anyway.

“She-it, I thought you’d be half way to Cash Laramie’s hidey-hole by now.”

I didn’t answer him, I just tossed the summons and its envelope on Penn’s desk.

“Arden Thompson?”

“Know him?” I asked.

“That woman Cash killed when she and her husband drew on him? Her maiden name was Thompson. Arden Thompson’s her uncle.” He shook his head. “Don’t make no sense at all. Her husband, the guy named Silver, he was innocent. Why in hell would him and her pull iron on Cash. Hell, all he could do was defend himself or get killed. Clear cut. Completely clear cut.”

* * *

Smoke and I rode out of Cheyenne going north toward the Silver homestead. My walleyed shadow came along. He stayed too far back for me to take a shot and too close for me and Smoke to run off and leave him. So I rode on and just let him follow.

After Cash shot the Silvers, their homestead fell vacant for a number of years. But by the time I got there, a family of four had moved in. The man of the family said they’d bought it for twenty-five cents an acre. He was a big redheaded man with shoulders an axe handle and a half wide. Farming work wasn’t gonna wear him to a nub, not likely. The wife was a tall rugged woman with sun bleached blonde hair and the kind of freckles across her nose that fair people get from working outside. The kids seemed hale and hearty, ready to grow up and make a good country for themselves. It was good to see that kind of family on the land.
missing“Howdy,” the man said, his eyes on my badge. “How can we help the law?”

I threw a leg over the saddle horn, pulled out my pipe, and filled its hickory bowl with Bull Durham. After I’d spent three matches getting the damn thing going—there was a bit of a breeze that day—I ask him straight out. “Tell me. Have you seen a lanky mule of a man about? He’d be close to six feet tall, and probably’d weigh a hundred sixty-five or seventy. Habitually wears a flint arrowhead around his neck on a leather thong.”

“Yep,” said the big redhead. “Yep. He was here when we got here. Had that arrowhead on. Sure did.”

“He say what he was doing here?”

“Said he need a place to stay. Just drifting through, he said. And I couldn’t fault him. He split up a bunch of wood for the stove and fireplace. The lean-to for the critters was all cleaned out. The fence, this one here,” the redhead ran a hand over a pole in the fence, “he had it standing up just like you see it right now. He done a lot of work around. Couldn’t fault him for staying in the house at all. Wasn’t like he was freeloading or tramping or such.”

“How long’d he stay?”

“Couple of days after we got here, maybe three.”

“Say where he was headed when he left?”

“Drayson. Yeah, that’s what he said. Drayson.” The farmer took a big bandana after his sweating face. “If you see him, tell him he’s welcome back any time. We sure appreciate how he took care of this place. It was kinda like maybe he thought it was his own.”

I pulled Smoke around and climbed aboard. “I’ll tell him that. He’ll be glad to hear it.”

“Marshal?”

“What?”

“He ain’t in trouble, is he?”

I had to laugh. “He’s on the right side of the law, you can bet on that.”

* * *

With Smoke’s nose pointed toward the mining town of Drayson, way up near the Montana line, I settled down in my saddle to have a think and catch some shut-eye. Man learns to do that if he’s been on the trail a lot, and working as deputy for Penn means plenty of riding time.

I gave him a stern look. People ain’t used to black men giving them stern looks. Makes ‘em take a step backward, usually. Hartley took a step backward. “Looking for a man,” I said. “Rides a big paint gelding. Calls him Paint. Could be he was wearing an arrowhead ‘round his neck on a thong.”

Beyond Drayson lay Montana, a godforsaken wilderness for the most part. Once in town, I started looking for trail sign of Cash Laramie. The ordinary white lawman would put his badge in his pocket and have a drink at the local saloon. Drayson had plenty of saloons. Every mining town has plenty. And I’d wager the men dishing out rotgut to thirsty miners get a bigger hunk of the mother lode than the miners themselves. But me being black makes walking into a saloon without a badge an iffy thing. I decided to try the livery stable instead. Finally found one on a little back street off the main drag. Hartley’s Livery, the rough-painted sign over the corral said. A man in a mackinaw and high-top boots that had seen more than a little wear used a pitchfork to muck straw and horse dung from the stalls. He paused when I rode up. His eyes went to the shield on my chest.

“You law?”

“Gideon Miles, Deputy U.S. Marshal outta Cheyenne.”

“No shit.”

I shook my head at him. “None whatsoever.”

“I ain’t got no stole hosses. Not one.”

“This the only livery in Drayson?”

“Yep.”

I gave him a stern look. People ain’t used to black men giving them stern looks. Makes ‘em take a step backward, usually. Hartley took a step backward. “Looking for a man,” I said. “Rides a big paint gelding. Calls him Paint. Could be he was wearing an arrowhead ‘round his neck on a thong.”

Hartley nodded. “I seen him. Surely did. He went and left that paint hoss here long enough for a rubdown and a good bait of oats. He walked over to Ellison’s general store and bought him outta them little black cigars, what’s it they call ‘em, yeah, cheroots, and he come back with half a dozen quart bottles of Maryland Rye, too. Yep. I seen him.”

“I reckon he’s not in town now, then?”

“He ain’t. Climbed back on that big paint, pulled the cork outta a bottle of Maryland Rye with his teeth, took a swig, and took off. I hollered at him. Wondered if he was gonna to pay the bill. ‘On the way back,’ he said. An’ I’m still waiting.”

“How much does he owe you?”

“Six bits.”

“Sounds like you could wait for that much,” I said. “Which way did he go?”

“He went straight east. Riding that paint, swigging Maryland Rye, and puffing on one of them stinking cheroots.”

“He’ll pay you when he gets back. If he don’t, I will.”

“Rather have it now, no insult intended.”

Cash Laramie and I had ridden a lot of trails together and he saved my bacon more’n once. I forked over the six bits. “Gonna be men on my trail, Hartley. Just as soon you didn’t tell ‘em what you told me, but don’t let them hurt you either. Get what I’m saying?”

“Yep.”

I lifted a finger to the brim of my hat. “My thanks, Hartley.”

He’d already turned back to shoveling horse manure, but he gave me a wave of his hand in farewell. Couldn’t help smiling. I struck out east, like Hartley said.

A skinny trail led toward a set of low-lying foothills that crowded up against a small peak called Rocky Point. I hadn’t gone far, Drayson was hardly out of sight, when I noticed the first cheroot butt aside the trail. The ash’d been snuffed all right, but the cheroot was Cash’s, no two ways about it.

I followed cheroot butts and the occasional dry bottle of Maryland Rye for the rest of that day and half way into the next before the walleyed follower showed up on my trail. Only this time he rode with two other hard men. Whoever wanted Cash six feet under was willing to pay prime dollar to get the job done. They weren’t all that close, but I caught the glint of shined leather and ivory gun butts. And they were wearing three-button suits with string ties that didn’t come a buck a crack. These gunnies were good enough to buy the best, pros, and they’d decided to let Cash’s best friend, me, lead them to their prey.

We started climbing those rolling foothills, looking straight at the summit of Rocky Point. They could see, and I could see, that Gideon Miles was no longer necessary in this search for Cash Laramie. They’d knock me off as soon as they got in range. I gigged Smoke into an easy lope. We went over the lip of a hogback and stared down on a sturdy log cabin.

“Gotta get there first, Smoke,” I said and gave him a slap with the loose ends of the reins. He was running belly to the ground in half a dozen strides. I never looked back, but knew those guns-for-hire were on my tail.

“Cash. Cash! Open up. It’s me, Gideon Miles.” Me and Smoke pounded toward that log cabin, but it looked dead silent. Damn. He had to be in there.

“Cash. I’m coming in.” I scrambled off Smoke, who trotted around back, smart horse that he is. I put a shoulder to the door just as rifles crashed and bullets torn hunks out of the doorframe.

I rolled onto the dirt floor and scrabbled away from the opening.

Cash lay on the only bed in the cabin with a Colt in his hand. His eyes were more red than blue, but he did have an Arapaho arrowhead hanging from his neck. Unlike the Cash Laramie everyone knew, this one had hair hanging down to his shoulders and a beard that was both long and scraggly.

“Took ya long enough, Miles. Mind shutting the door? Not all that desirous of catching the croup.

Slugs came through the open doorway and crashed among the pots and pans hanging on the far wall.

“Really should shut that door, Miles.”

I made the mistake of raising my head above the wall. A bullet chewed a long splinter off the top of the wall. I dropped. Then pulled on the rope that made the protective gate in the wall climb back into place. “I thought there were three,” I said. “That shot says four.”

I kicked it shut, and a solid four inches of tough pitch pine now stood between the shooters and us inside that bitty cabin. Cash used the barrel of his Colt to slam the shutters of the only window. Now two inches of oak stood between the assassins’ rifle fire and our own skins. The bullets thunked into the wood like overly loud raindrops.

The cabin was built for defense. Loopholes were strategically drilled around the walls, and it was too thick for anything but a 12-pound cannon to punch through. “Nice place, Cash,” I said. “All the comforts of home.”

“There’s a bunch more than you can see from there, Miles.” Three more thumps against the shutters as the three men who wanted to kill Cash Laramie fired at the windows, the weakest point in the cabin from all they could see.

“Follow me,” Cash said.

He went into a room in the back and climbed an oak ladder up through a trap door in the roof. “Keep down,” he said. “There’s a wall around the place, but if you stand up, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb.”

I took my Stetson off, tossed it on a table, and followed him up through the trap door, creeping on my hands and knees to stay below the line of the log wall that surrounded the roof.

“Look what I found,” Cash said. He pulled a tarpaulin off a wicked looking gun that looked kind of like an oversized pistol. “A Maxim gun. I reckon gun dealers used this cabin as a strong point. Probably trying to make a deal with Mexico. This gun’s something else. Heavy as Hell, but all you have to do is pull the trigger and it just keeps firing. Don’t know how fast, but a lot faster than I can count.”

“Got any ammo?” I said.

Cash grimaced. “Not all that much. But it shouldn’t take all that much.” He patted the action, then fed a canvas belt full of bullets into the back end of the gun. “Let’s give ‘em what for,” he said. “Miles, if you’d be so good as to lower that section of the wall.”

I kept my head down and undid the latches on one side of the swing-down section. Then I scrambled over to the other side and undid those latches. “Wall’s going down,” I said, and gave the loose section a little push. It fell over.

Cash swiveled the Maxim gun toward the assassins and pulled the trigger. Lead flew out of that gun like nothing I’ve seen before or since. Bullet tracks walked up the side of the hill toward one of the men. The Maxim chattered like an angry squirrel, only a hundred times as loud. Spurts of dirt stopped as the bullets chewed into the man’s legs, stitched their way up his body in tune with his screams, and literally chopped off his head as Cash held the gun steady on the assassin’s throat.

“Arrrrrgh,” Cash screamed as he swiveled the gun toward another assassin. A burst of firing. Not more than three or four seconds. The bullets punched a manhole-sized circle out of the man’s middle, nearly cutting him in half.

I flashed a glance at Cash. His face looked like a death mask. His teeth clenched, showing in a grimace of fatigue. Then he began to laugh. “Thought you’d get Cash Laramie, did you, bastards?” He laughed and laughed all the while he triggered the Maxim to cut down the third assassin. In less than ten seconds, the belt of ammunition ran out and the mountainside was silent. The hot barrel cricked in the cool mountain air. Cash sat down, cross-legged, and snickered.

Has he been pushed over the edge?

He stuffed another canvas belt into the breech. “C’mon shit-eating back-shooting gunnies. Come. On.” His index finger depressed the trigger in the pistol grip mechanism. Bullets chattered out of the Maxim at a crazy rate. “Come. On. You assholes think you can get me? Come. On.”

“Cash!” I had to scream above the sound of the Maxim.

His eyes slithered in my direction.

“They’re dead,” I hollered.

“Oh.” He lifted the canvas belt. Maybe ten bullets remained. “Pull up the wall, Miles, would ya?”

I made the mistake of raising my head above the wall. A bullet chewed a long splinter off the top of the wall. I dropped. Then pulled on the rope that made the protective gate in the wall climb back into place. “I thought there were three,” I said. “That shot says four.”

“Looked like he fired from that bunch of scrub oak around back,” Cash said. “You fire back at him, but don’t hit him. Just keep him looking up here for a target.”

“Gotcha,” I said and peered through a loophole in the wall. Cash went down the oak ladder as light-footed as a teenage kid. He wore a big grin, too. What the Hell?

Another look through the loophole, then I snapped a shot with my revolver. Almost instantly a return shot came. It tore a piece out of the loophole. Good thing I’d automatically moved off to one side after shooting. Smoke said the shooter was in the clump of oaks.

I scooted to another loophole about four feet away. Rather than shoot, I watched. The shooter was just a clot of black. Couldn’t see a face or a hat or anything like that.

Behind him a clump of grass and sod moved, slowly, slowly, then fell aside. Cash slithered out of a hole in the ground that I found out later connected to a tunnel to the cabin. I fired. The gunnie fired. I fired again, hoping to cover any sounds Cash might make. Return fire came while I stuffed more bullets into my pistol. I fired off three shots. Looking through the loophole again, I saw Cash was out of the hole. He stood there with that strange smile on his face.

“Hey gunsharp! You looking for me?”

The assassin whirled, bringing his rifle into line for a shot at Cash, but he wasn’t nearly fast enough. Cash’s Colt spoke three times, but the sound came to me as one long shot. The assassin crumpled like an ear-shot steer.

“Miles. Come on down. It’s over.” The smile on Cash’s face was gone.

* * *

DavidCranmer_ai8Edward A. Grainger is the pen name of David Cranmer. He is the editor and publisher of the BEAT to a PULP webzine (http://www.beattoapulp.com/pulp.htm) and books.

Artwork © 2013 Steven Russell Black.
http://stevenrussellblack.blogspot.com/

“Miles?”

I tightened Smoke’s cinch up a notch. “Yeah.”

“Thanks for coming.”

“Why wouldn’t I come?”

“You would. And I would. You know that. Tell Penn I’ll be back directly.”

I nodded. “I’ll tell him, Cash.”

“I’ve got to finish this thing. And it’s got to be finished alone.”

“I know. But them gunnies didn’t come from innocents. Think on that, man.”

Cash gave me a ghost of a smile. “Yeah. They got what was coming to them.”

“They did.” I climbed up on Smoke’s back. “We’ll be jogging down the trail, then. Penn’ll be wondering.”

“Like I said. I’ll be back. I surely will.”

And he was. He came back in the spring of ’88, and went back to marshalling. He never said how he came to terms with killing those innocents. Maybe sending those killers to hell helped. I’d like to think so. I don’t know how he handled the court summons, and I don’t know if he had to kill any more hard men from back east.

Yeah, they called Cash Laramie the Outlaw Marshal, but I never knew a straighter man.