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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

Kershaw

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Okay folks, here we go. As I said in my original thread, this is a solo effort. I'll be starting another thread for comments and I'd appreciate it if the boos and catcalls went there instead of here. That having been said, please read on...

 

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The Old Man, as he was known to the trigger-quick gunnies and high-liners who rode the Hole-in-the-Wall trails from Canada to Mexico, sat stoically at a shadowy corner table in the rear of the smoky cantina. The bottle of pure quill Kaintuck bourbon sitting on the knife-scarred tabletop in front of him was half empty; the glass wrapped in the slender fingers of his left hand half full. Beside the bottle of amber liquid lay a long-barreled Colt revolver…

 

The room was silent except for the gurgle and gulp of poured liquor and the occasional slithering of pasteboard drifting from the desultory game of stud going on at the round table beyond the bar. The normally festive atmosphere of a Sonoita Saturday night was muted by the menacing presence sitting silently in the shadows at the back of the room, waiting. Waiting for the man, any man, to step into the cantina who might, somehow, be fast enough to kill him...

 

The beaded curtain that did duty as a door swirled; the clattering of glass beads against adobe was sharp in the quiet as a young man of perhaps twenty strutted confidently into the cantina. His midnight blue velvet charro jacket was opulently decorated. The intricate braiding that scrolled the length of his sleeves and across the shoulders of the jacket sparkled dully in the smoky light oozing down from the fat tallow candles that sagged around the perimeter of the wagonwheel chandelier suspended overhead. The polished conchos laced to the side seams of his pantalón de montar twinkled gaily as he strode to the bar. His highly-polished, silver-studded black pistol belt and matching holster carried an ivory handled Colt revolver low and tied-down to his right thigh. It was obvious that what had just entered the room was un hombre muy macho, in his own eyes at least…

 

“Tequíla, señor! I am thirsty!” he called to the paunchy, mustachioed tabernero. When his drink arrived, the newcomer casually tossed a handful of silver coins onto the plank bar top, lifted the boldly-painted ceramic cup to his lips and drank deep of the potent liquor. The Old Man rose stiffly to his feet, holstering the Colt. The scrape of chair legs on hard packed clay caught the youngster’s attention for a moment before he dismissed the viejo in the corner as beneath his notice…

 

The Old Man stepped up alongside the young charro. His right elbow lanced out, striking the other’s wrist and sloshing liquor on the velvet of his sleeve. Immediately The Old Man stepped away from the bar, turning so that his back was to the solid adobe wall; his gaze was cold, calculating, as the young Mexican reacted as expected. “Señor! You presume much!” He indignantly raised his tequíla-soaked sleeve into the light. “For this you must apologize!”

 

Like hell.” The softly-spoken words took the younger man totally by surprise; he drew back sharply, momentarily startled, as if his assailant had suddenly shouted them in his face. Swiftly regaining his composure, he studied the black clad figure before him for several ticks of the cobweb-crusted Teutonia clock above the bar…

 

Then I fear, viejo, that I shall be forced to seek recompense through blood.” The young man’s fingertips lovingly caressed the use-worn ivory handle of the holstered pistol as he eased himself away from the bar, polished spurs tinkling softly in rhythm with his steps…

 

You pull that pistol and you’ll die, boy.” The matter of fact tone of the words that drifted through the smoky haze froze the young man in his tracks. His back stiffened but he did not turn to face this new potential threat; his whole attention was on the man who had insulted him. A tall individual who appeared to be in his late forties stepped forward to place himself between the old man and the young one. Taking a calculated risk, the newcomer turned his back on the older in order to speak to the younger. “That gent yonder will kill you,” he stated bluntly. “You’re not fast enough. I’m not sure anybody is.” He turned slowly to face the boy’s opponent. “Howdy.”

 

Step out of the way, Kershaw.”

 

I can’t do that.”

 

You know me, Kershaw. You know I can kill you.”

 

Yes, I do know that,” Kershaw replied calmly. “But I’m not letting you kill that kid.”

 

“Señor…”

 

Shut up, kid!” Kershaw ordered harshly without turning his head.

 

He might get lucky,” The Old Man went on as if no other words had been spoken.

 

Not hardly.”

 

Move!” the Old Man barked.

 

I can’t do that,” Kershaw repeated. “I won’t do it. It’s gone far enough. It’s time to stand down.”

 

Not until I’m dead, it ain’t.” The Old Man’s hand flashed to his holstered Colt and flame lit the room…

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Chapter 1

“Who the hell’re you?” The harsh, prairie rattler buzz of the words cut through the end-of-the-day hubbub, the venom in their tone more than enough to lift a man’s hackles and accelerate his heartbeat. Alton Kershaw, sensing that he was the questioner’s target, slowly lifted his gaze from the bubbles drifting up out of the bottom of the half glass of beer on the polished mahogany in front of him to the cracked back-bar mirror. His casual movements belied the sudden tension that coursed through his lanky frame as he sighed inwardly in resignation. He’d only been in Concho for an hour and already some punk, ignoring the man and seeing only the stranger, had jumped to the mistaken conclusion that he was an easy mark.

 

Ten feet of spur-scarred planking off Kershaw’s right shoulder a slender gunhawk sporting a gray cutaway coat, ruffled riverboat gambler’s white shirt and black silk four-in-hand stood poised on the balls of his feet, his trembling right hand hovering over the polished ebony grips of one of Colonel Colt’s finest. Keeping his cool gaze locked on the gunny’s reflection in the mirror, Kershaw slid his left hand down off the edge of the bar and shifted his feet to lean almost imperceptibly to his right and away from the bar. “I’m a fella who minds his own business,” he answered softly without turning his head. “I’d appreciate being left alone to do just exactly that.” His voice carried clearly in the sudden silence that followed hard on the heels of the younger man’s words. Knowing while he spoke that he was wasting his breath, Kershaw’s fingers curled around the polished burl topping the heavy blackthorn walking stick that leaned out of sight against his left leg as he watched his words sink in. Ugly sparks flared like summer lightning in the dandy’s eyes.

 

“Turn around, mister!” The command crackled in the air for a heartbeat before the fancy-dressed gunhand strode impatiently forward to drop a long-fingered hand on Kershaw’s shoulder, intent on yanking the taller man away from his position at the bar. Using the impetus of the pull on his shoulder to help his turn, Kershaw spun on his right heel; the shaft of the blackthorn slapped into the cup of his right hand then the blunt, heat-hardened tip lanced out and over the polished silver buckle of the gunny’s hand-carved belt to drive the air from his lungs in a startled squawk. As he doubled over in surprise and pain with his chest heaving in a vain attempt to make his paralyzed diaphragm pull even a cupful of oxygen into his tortured belly, the dandy somehow managed to yank the Colt from the holster. The blackthorn burl snapped down and across the young man’s wrist; the crack of breaking bone was loud in the room, louder even than the thud of the pistol clattering to the floor. A gassy scream of pure agony escaped the dandy’s lips. Cradling his broken right wrist with his cupped left hand, he gasped out, “I’ll kill you for this, you son of a…”

 

“Not today,” Kershaw growled in answer as the blackthorn lashed out for the third time. The gunhand crashed to the floor, out cold, with blood trickling from his lacerated scalp. The older man’s icy gray eyes swept across the unbelieving faces of the other patrons of the establishment, gauging their intent, or lack of such, to step into the affair. Seeing that no one was so inclined, Kershaw turned back to the bar and reached for his beer as the noise started back up in the room, the saloon’s clientele excitedly discussing what had just taken place.

 

“You might want to fork whatever bronc you rode in here on and light a shuck, mister.” The words were quiet, the speaker a neatly dressed, chunky brunette cowboy who leaned on his right elbow against the bar to Kershaw’s right. The blunt fingers of his left hand were wrapped loosely around the handle of a nearly empty glass of beer. “That boy ain’t gonna be none too happy when he wakes up.” He tilted his head toward where two stunned-looking cowhands were lifting the dandy from the floor, their hands hooked beneath his arms, in preparation for taking him outside. “For that matter, neither will his daddy when he hears about it.”

 

Kershaw leaned on the blackthorn, favoring his stiff left leg. “I reckon he won’t,” he commented drily, pointing with his chin at the unconscious gunhand, “but I fail to see why that boy’s displeasure, or his father’s either, should have any bearing on whether or not I leave town. I just got here and I think I like it.” He chuckled sourly. “Folks are so welcoming and neighborly.” He swallowed some beer then set the mug on the polished mahogany.

 

The chunky cowhand brought his own glass over to where Kershaw stood. “That ‘boy’ is Donovan Yeakley’s son, Bart,” he said, as if the name should mean something to Kershaw.

 

“And?”

 

“And Donovan Yeakley owns pretty much the entirety of the range in this here valley. At least the part Kurt Gore don’t claim.” The cowboy held out his hand. “I’m Carl Rocklin.”

 

“Alton Kershaw.” The two men shook hands, looking each other over like two strange ranch dogs trying to decide who the boss dog of the pack was going to be. Rocklin was a stocky-built, well set up fellow who looked “old enough to know better and still too young to care” as the saying went. His dark blue, band-collared shirt was crossed by tan suspenders. The legs of his wash-softened canvas britches were tucked into the tops of his tall, Texas Star boots. His black hat was sweat-stained and battered from exposure to the elements. The broad, unadorned belt cinched comfortably around his trim horseman’s waist carried a bone-handled sheath knife ready to hand at his right side that was balanced by the well-worn Richards-Mason .44 revolver nestled in the cross-draw holster in front of his left hip. He was clean-shaven except for a bushy mustache that drooped around the corners of his mouth.

 

For his part, Rocklin saw a man several inches taller than his own five foot eight who was starting to gray around the edges. Brown hair liberally frosted with silver hung to Kershaw’s shirt collar and complemented his neatly trimmed salt and pepper mustache and goatee. The ends of Kershaw’s loosely-knotted, sun-bleached blue neckerchief were tucked behind the lapels of his wool vest; a silver watch chain decorated with an elk tooth hung in a gentle arc between the pockets of the vest. The red shirt, faded nearly pink from exposure to the elements, was tucked into the waistband of a pair of nearly new brown whipcord britches that he wore down over the tops of his flat-heeled boots. Small-roweled, silver-mounted spurs twinkled in the last fleeting rays of sunlight that peeked through the dust motes swirling in the blue clouds of tobacco smoke that formed a fog in the room. Kershaw’s left leg moved stiffly, explaining without words the blackthorn walking stick that had given Bart Yeakley his comeuppance. What Rocklin’s first appraising glance missed was the Smith & Wesson model 3 revolver holstered butt-forward at Kershaw’s left hip. The pistol was so much a part of the man as to go unnoticed.

 

“If you don’t mind my asking, what brings you to Concho?” Rocklin queried in a mild tone.

 

“I’m looking for a place to light,” Kershaw answered amiably. “I’m planning to raise horses.”

 

Rocklin took a sip of the flat beer that remained in his mug while he considered his reply. He swallowed and remarked, “There’s only been one place for sale around here that I know of, and that’s Pat Caldwell’s Lazy C.”

 

The big man whose hunch-shouldered frame was holding down the bar some distance to Kershaw’s left suddenly jerked himself upright as if he’d been bee-stung. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay away from the Lazy C!” he snapped, taking a step toward the pair.

 

Kershaw turned to face the belligerent newcomer to what had been until the interruption a private conversation. “And this is your business because…?” he questioned mildly. His tone was soft; the ice in his gray eyes was anything but.

 

“Because you ain’t gettin’ that spread!” the fellow grated. “I am!”

 

“Gore, Pat Caldwell wouldn’t sell to you if you had the last dollar on earth!” Rocklin retorted.

 

“You stay out of this, Rocklin!” Gore growled.

 

Rocklin carefully set his glass on the polished mahogany of the bar top then stepped away from the bar to face his challenger. His right thumb was hooked over his belt near his holstered pistol. “You don’t run me, Kurt,” he replied. “You found that out the hard way a long time ago, remember?” Gore stood glaring angrily at the stocky cowboy for nearly a minute with his fists clenched into hard, white-knuckled lumps before brushing roughly past the two men to stomp out of the saloon. The batwing doors slammed hard against the outside walls as he stormed from the room.

 

“What was that all about?” Kershaw asked. “And who’s that human grizzly bear?”

 

Rocklin answered with a question of his own. “How much do you know about the Lazy C?”

 

“I know that it’s been proved up, and that it’s got good water and grass.”

 

“Have you talked to Pat Caldwell about it?”

 

“A little, back about three years ago. I was passing through and stopped to water my horses. He invited me in for some grub, and over coffee and bear sign he mentioned that he was thinking of selling out at some time in the relatively near future. I liked what I saw of the home place, so I told him that when he was ready to sell, I’d be interested. Left him an address where I could be reached. I’d about decided that he’d changed his mind when out of the blue I got a letter a couple of weeks ago saying that he was ready to sell and asking me if I was still looking to buy. I wired him the down payment, and here I am. My plan was to spend the night here in town and ride out that way first thing in the morning. Why?”

 

“Because if you buy the Lazy C, you’ll be buying your way into the middle of one helluva mess, and you’ve already got one side mad at you.”

 

“The Yeakley kid?”

 

“Yep. Donovan Yeakley sets a lot of store by that boy. Too much, if you ask me. Damn kid gets pretty much his own way ‘cause his daddy owns so much of the country hereabouts. He’s got himself convinced that since his Daddy’s one of the he-coons in the valley every stranger’s fair game.”

 

“It’s gonna get him killed if he isn’t careful,” Kershaw commented drily.

 

“Probably,” Rocklin answered. “And whoever does that little job had best have a fast horse handy if he don’t want to get his neck stretched.”

 

“And I take it that Gore’s the other ‘he-coon’ you were talking about.”

 

“Yessir, Kurt Gore’s it,” Rocklin replied. “What Yeakly don’t own, Gore does, or at least he’d like to. Him and Yeakley have been drooling over Caldwell’s grass ever since they come into the valley. Caldwell got here when there was nothing here but Indians, coyotes and deer, filed on the springs in Lobo Basin then put together the rest of the place. He dickered when he could and fought when he had to.” Rocklin drained his mug and set it on the bar.

 

Before he could lift his hand to signal for a refill, Kershaw waved the mustachioed bartender over and pointed at his own and Rocklin’s mugs, which were quickly replaced with full ones. Rocklin took a long drink, wiped the foam from his mustache with the back of his left hand and went on. “Much obliged. Now where was I… Oh yeah, Caldwell. So anyway, that canyon of Caldwell’s goes way to hell and gone back up yonder, it’s sheltered from the worst of the storms in the winter and shaded in the summer, both of the big dogs want it and Caldwell’s told ‘em both that they can’t have it. There ain’t been any bloodshed yet, but…”

 

“What would it take to get you to keep my reason for being here a secret?” Kershaw asked.

 

“After your little confab with Gore, I think maybe that particular cat’s done been let out of the bag,” Rocklin answered with a grin. “But I would sure like to have a ringside seat when the festivities start. I don’t like either one of them boys.”

 

“Deal!” Kershaw stuck out his hand and the pair shook. “The job pays forty dollars a month and some of the best grub you’ve ever laid a tooth to. After my cook gets here, that is.”

 

Rocklin was startled. “Job? What job?”

 

“As my foreman.”

 

“But you don’t know me from Adam’s off ox!” the cowboy protested.

 

Kershaw turned to look over at the bartender, who was standing a polite distance away polishing glasses with a relatively clean towel. “Do you know this gent?” The barkeep nodded his answer without stopping what he was doing. “Is he at least middling honest?” After a moment’s silent thought the fellow nodded again. Kershaw turned back to Rocklin. “See? You can’t argue with a character reference like that. And besides, the best seat in the house is right in the middle of the play, isn’t it?” He didn’t wait for Rocklin to answer; instead he quickly swallowed the last of his beer, set the mug on the bar and began limping toward the door. “See you out front of the livery at daylight,” he called back over his shoulder. Rocklin stared after him.

 

“Well, I’ll be damned,” the cowboy muttered softly.

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Chapter 2

 

First rooster crow found Kershaw awake and fully-clothed. The pain in his leg had kept him from sleeping for most of the night, much of which he’d spent pacing the scuffed planking of his second floor room in the Powell House in his sock feet. As the noisy bird announced the anticipated arrival of the sun the soon-to-be horse rancher splashed water on his face from the basin perched on the battered bureau beside the room’s only door. He dried his hands and face on the flour sack towel draped over the corner of the bureau then combed his fingers through his hair. Dropping to the edge of the sagging bed he tugged his boots on then pushed himself to his feet and buckled belt and holster around his waist. Picking his hat from the deer horn rack above the bed with his right hand and setting it on his head, Kershaw took the blackthorn from its resting place at the head of the bed with his left then he stepped out onto the wear-faded carpet in the corridor. A huge yawn accompanied his first steps as he set off down the hall, following the scent of boiling coffee that drifted up from below.

 

What little sleeping he’d done had been far from restful. In addition to the pain in his leg, as he paced the floor he’d been pondering Rocklin’s words regarding the ranch he had come to Concho to settle down on. Kershaw wanted no fight with any man; his years as an officer of the law had supplied him with more than enough of such activity and he was ready for what he considered to be a well-deserved rest. Not that ranching was necessarily a restful activity, but at least the horses he was planning to raise probably wouldn’t be shooting at him. On the other hand, it was not in his nature to let another man run roughshod over him. “Kind of puts you between a rock and a hard place, doesn’t it?” he asked his reflection in the mirror that hung on the wall at the head of the stairs, remembering Kurt Gore and Bart Yeakley. The reflection didn’t venture a reply as he started down toward the ground floor in search of breakfast.

 

After a fairly decent meal of biscuits, redeye gravy and crisp bacon served by the yawning, half-awake cook in the hotel dining room and washed down with copious amounts of hot black coffee Kershaw stepped out into the crisp early-morning air. Concho was high up, over five thousand feet elevation, and early-April mornings were often brisk. The chill caused the usual bone-deep ache in the bullet-torn muscles of his barely-healed left leg to begin clamoring for attention. He leaned his weight on the blackthorn walking stick and waited for the pain to subside. After a moment he started toward the livery. The thump of the stick on the splintered boards of the hotel porch echoed from the darkened false fronts of the buildings that faced the Powell House across the wheel-rutted expanse of weed-edged dirt that did duty as Concho’s main street. As he was preparing to step down into the street the hotel door squeaked open behind him and an amused chuckle drifted across the planks.

 

“Ol’ Joe don’t usually serve more than coffee this time of the morning,” Carl Rocklin commented mildly. “He must like you.” The stocky cowboy stepped out onto the hotel porch with a wry grin splitting his lips. Kershaw turned to look at his new foreman.

 

“It must be my sunny disposition,” he growled. Abruptly he turned back toward the street, stepped carefully down from the boardwalk and headed for Haller’s Livery. Unseen behind him, Rocklin’s grin widened.

 

“Yeah, that’s probably it,” he told his new boss’s retreating back.

 

Rocklin caught up with Kershaw in just a few strides then slowed to match his boss’s pace. The wind- and sand-weathered boards of the livery were washed silver by the first rays of dawn. The barn slouched comfortably with its back to the east, leaving the black gape of the livery’s wide-open double doors untouched by the light. Arriving at the livery Kershaw struck a match alight and lifted the flame to the wick of the bull’s-eye lantern hanging alongside the opening. A wide circle of smoky golden light surrounded the two men and gleamed from the eyes of the horses and mules stalled on either side of the wide center aisle of the big building. Kershaw limped toward the last stall at the back of the barn, where he was welcomed by the whicker of the sleek, clean-limbed buckskin stud standing attentively watching his master’s approach.

 

“Shiloh, how are you this morning?” Kershaw asked the horse affectionately. He offered a lump of coarse brown sugar on his open palm; the buckskin gently lipped up the treat. Hanging the lantern on a convenient nail Kershaw leaned his walking stick against a stall post and let down the single bar that did duty as a stall gate. He lifted the rawhide bosal and horsehair mecate from their peg and quickly haltered the horse then blew out the lantern and led the animal toward the brightening square of light some ten feet beyond the stall.

 

Stepping out onto the wide rectangle of hoof-packed clay behind the livery Kershaw dropped the buckskin’s lead to the ground, knowing from past experience that Shiloh would be standing in the same spot when he came back for him. Across the yard in a small rectangular pole corral two matched pairs of coal black, seventeen-hands-tall Missouri mules waited at the gate for his arrival, long ears pricked in anticipation. When Rocklin appeared around the corner of the stable leading his saddled dun Kershaw was backing the second of the two pairs of mules into place on either side of the tongue of his big Studebaker freight wagon; the wheelers were already in place, patiently waiting for Kershaw to tell them it was time to get to work. The wagon box was tightly tarped against the elements, the canvas unevenly ridged by the piles of crates and barrels it covered.

 

“Bring those nosebags over here, would you please, Carl?” Kershaw asked, pointing toward the small stack of leather-strapped canvas bags near the offside front wheel of the wagon. Rocklin dropped the dun’s reins, picked up the first of the bags, which was already partially filled with grain, and stepped toward the broad-chested black mule on his side of the wheel team. “Look out for…” Kershaw began. Quick as a striking snake, the mule whipped its muzzle toward the newcomer and its great yellow teeth snapped shut mere inches from Rocklin’s arm as the cowboy jumped back with an oath.

 

 

“That one’s kind of contrary,” Kershaw told his new foreman apologetically. “I’m about the only one who can handle him.” Wordlessly Rocklin held out the nosebag. Kershaw stepped up alongside the mule’s neck and slipped the sack of grain into place. “Why don’t you take the two on the other side?”

 

 

“Do they bite too?” Rocklin wanted to know, not sure exactly what he’d gotten himself into by taking Kershaw up on his offer of a job.

 

“Nope. Gentle as kittens,” Kershaw assured him with a smile.

 

“You say so,” Rocklin answered uncertainly. He picked up two of the bags and circled around the lead team to gingerly approach the other member of the wheel team from the front rather than the side as he’d done with the one that had nearly taken his arm off. “Let’s you and me get along, okay?” he questioned the mule cautiously. The animal pricked its ears at the unfamiliar voice, eyed the newcomer suspiciously for a long moment then stretched its nose toward the sweet smell of the grain. Rocklin set one of the bags on the ground and stepped forward to let the mule sniff his hand. He was poised to jump back if this one was a biter like its partner, but the mule merely snuffled the offered hand then reached its muzzle toward the sack in Rocklin’s other hand. The cowboy slipped the bag over the gelded john’s nose and the head band into place as the animal began happily munching its breakfast. He got the nosebag in place on the other mule on his side of the hitch without incident as well.

 

“What’s all this?” Rocklin asked his new boss when the two men came together near the tailgate of the wagon, indicating the tarped load.

 

 

“Supplies, what else?” Kershaw answered. “Can’t run a ranch without supplies. We might as well take them with us rather than making a separate trip back. Besides, I imagine the mules are getting tired of hanging around town; I know I am. As soon as they finish their grain, we’ll get started.” He made his way to where Shiloh stood patiently waiting, picked up the mecate, led the buckskin to the tailgate of the wagon and hitched the lead rope to an iron ring bolted into the center of the wood.

 

When the mules had finished their breakfast and the nosebags were stowed under the tarp at the rear of the wagon box, Kershaw climbed carefully to the seat of the Studebaker and gathered the reins in his gloved left hand. A twelve foot blacksnake whip lay coiled beside him. After releasing the brake he grasped the shot-loaded handle of the whip in his right hand, flipped the coils into the air behind his head then with a sharp flick of his wrist sent the plaited rawhide singing above the ears of the four mule hitch. The powerful crack! of the lash echoed from the backs of the buildings to the north of the livery. The mules didn’t need more than a twitch of the reins to set them in motion, but Kershaw was proud of his skill with the whip. He had never whipped the mules and never would; he just plain enjoyed hearing it snap. The team leaned into their collars and the heavily-loaded Studebaker began to roll. It was a big load for a four-up hitch, but the animals were big and well-conditioned, and he wasn’t planning to push them hard.

 

The mules were as ready to leave town as their owner. Once the heavy wagon was moving, the animals set a spanking pace through the still mostly dark town as if to say, Lookie here at us, y’all! Kershaw didn’t try to hold them back, instead cracking the blacksnake overhead twice more, suddenly feeling good and not caring whose sleep he might be interrupting as they jingled the length of the main street and out onto the road that led north to the ranch at the mouth of Lobo Basin. Once out of sight of the buildings he drew the big blacks down to a ground-covering walk. Though it was only ten miles to the ranch, the road gained elevation gradually for its entire length; he didn’t want to arrive in Caldwell’s front yard with the mules half dead. He was sure that sort of thing would not reflect well on a man who planned to raise and train horses for a living.

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Chapter 3

 

Madeline Caldwell Burns stepped out into the April freshness and turned her face to the east, clutching the woolen shawl she wore over her flannel nightdress tightly about her shoulders against the chill of the early morning. The boards beneath her sock-clad feet retained some of the night’s briskness and sent gooseflesh crawling across her skin. Ever since she was a girl she had liked watching the sunrise, and here on the Lobo Basin ranch the stillness made her feel that she was seeing the world as it was before man came along and made a mess of things. She drew in a deep, sage-scented breath as the sun seemed to leap above the horizon then she turned back to the house, her shadow stretching long across the wide plank veranda.

 

The warm, rich scent of boiling coffee tickled her nostrils when she stepped lightly into the kitchen of the small ranch house. “Mornin’, Sis,” Pat Caldwell rumbled as he vanished into the mudroom at the back of the house. Flames crackled merrily in the firebox of the cast-iron Monarch range.

 

“Good morning, Patrick,” she replied to his back. He snagged his hat from its peg near the door then, as usual, the door slammed as he left the house to start his morning chores. She chuckled at the sudden thought that her brother, gentle as he was in many ways, had never learned to exit the house without slamming the door.

 

Madeline busied herself with preparing their breakfast of ham, eggs and biscuits, the latter of which she had put in the oven before she went out on the porch to greet the day. When she first arrived on the ranch two weeks before from her home back East, fairly recently widowed, Pat volunteered to do the cooking; she soon found out just how bad his cooking really was. He could handle steak and taters fairly well and was a fair hand with a pan of biscuits, but much of anything else was beyond the scope of his culinary talents, especially anything involving eggs. Consequently she was now the one who made breakfast every morning. Her brother would be back in twenty minutes or so then as soon as they ate the pair would be headed for the spring back of Windy Butte to work on some fencing. She laid several slices of home-cured ham in the cast iron skillet warming at the back of the cooking surface then moved the skillet forward. The ham began to sizzle, sending off wisps of appetizing smoky aroma.

 

Humming softly to herself, Maddy, as she was known to the friends she had left behind in Baltimore, stepped into her bedroom for a quick change of clothing, emerging five minutes later clad in canvas range britches, a tailored calico pullover shirt that accentuated her well-proportioned figure, and a pair of comfortable calf-high boots with low heels suitable for either walking or riding. Her long brown hair, liberally streaked with gray, was bound in a tight braid that reached down her back nearly to her slender waist.

 

Forking the ham slices onto a pair of chipped enamelware plates, she set them at the edge of the cooktop to keep warm then cracked half a dozen eggs into the ham drippings to fry. The eggs should be ready to eat at just about the same time that Patrick returned from his choring.

 

The clatter of steel-shod hooves announced the arrival of a small band of riders who approached Patrick as he made his way from the corrals toward the house. Curious, Maddy peered for a moment through the unevenly glazed glass of the kitchen window, wondering who would be about at such an early hour, before going back to her breakfast preparations. She was unsure where any of the neighboring ranches might lay but knew that the Lazy C was miles from the nearest town.

 

 

“What do you want, Hawkings?” Pat Caldwell demanded of the lead rider, a lanky fellow dressed in faded range clothing, scuffed bullhide chaps and a bullet-notched, nondescript black hat who slouched comfortably in the saddle of his rangy sorrel gelding. The long barreled Colt revolver holstered at his waist showed signs of ample use. “You know you’re not welcome on my place!” Hawkings had once worked for Caldwell and been fired for shirking his work. Pat Caldwell had little use for a man who wouldn’t do his assigned job, and consequently Hawkings’ departure had been far from amicable.

 

Tom Hawkings leveled a flat stare at the bristling rancher. “No need a-gettin’ hostile, Caldwell. We’re here to make you a business proposition,” the rider answered.

 

“What kind of proposition?”

 

“We’re fixin’ to buy you out.”

 

“With what? I know good and well you and your kin,” the rancher growled, nodding toward the others flanking Hawkings, “ain’t got the wherewithal to buy out nothin’.”

 

“That’s where you’re wrong, old man. We got money.”

 

“I doubt that, unless you stole it,” Caldwell snorted. “And even if you did, the place is already sold.”

 

“To who?”

 

“That’s none of your business. Now you boys get on out of here. I’ve got work to do.” The rancher turned stiffly and began to stride angrily toward the house.

 

“Don’t you turn your back on me, Caldwell! I ain’t done with you yet!” Hawkings snapped, his own loosely-controlled temper rising. The rancher marched on, waving his hand in a gesture of dismissal that said Maybe not, but I’m done with you so leave me alone.

 

“Damn you, turn around!” Hawkings drew his Colt and snapped a shot at Caldwell’s feet, splattering bits of gravel across the unarmed rancher’s boots that went totally ignored; Caldwell continued his determined pace toward the house. The Colt blasted once more. Pat Caldwell felt a sharp, tearing lance of burning agony rip through his back then his world went black as he was slammed face-first into the rocky soil of the ranch yard.

 

 

The first shot, and the tumbling whine of the deformed bullet as it caromed through the sunlight just touching the ridgepole of the roof of the house, drew Maddy back to the window in time to witness the cold-blooded killing of her brother. She screamed his name and ran to the mudroom door; she had never felt such pain and anger in all her life as she did at that moment. Her right hand twisted the knob and jerked open the door while her left caught the splinter fore end of the Parker ten gauge double gun that leaned against the wall beside the door in an iron grip. Throwing the heavy shotgun to her shoulder, Maddy hardly felt the recoil as she fired both barrels into the milling mass of horses and men beyond her brother’s body then raced madly into the middle of the group, swinging the weapon by the barrels and shrieking her rage and sorrow.

 

The weight of the heavy gun slashed right and left, thudding against flesh and bone. The stock slammed one man from the saddle with three of his ribs broken, the seasoned wood breaking in turn from the impact. The steel hammer spurs slashed another’s arm to the bone.

 

“Somebody git aholt of her!” Hawkings yelled as he fought to get his frightened horse under control. The sorrel had never before been faced with a screaming banshee such as Maddy had become and was doing its level best to depart for any place not occupied by the madwoman in their midst. The other mounts were little better as each fought the bit wildly, bent on escaping from the melee. Then one more shot rang out and the silence that followed, broken only by the frenzied hoof falls of the thoroughly spooked mounts, was deafening by comparison. Finally Hawkings found his voice.

 

“What the hell did you just do?” he snarled as he finally managed to drag his crazed gelding to a wall-eyed, trembling standstill. His angry glare bored into the gimlet gaze of his cousin Taylor Hawkings, whose smoking pistol told the tale of the shot. Not backing down in the least, Taylor returned the heated stare with one of equal intensity.

 

“How did you expect us to git aholt of that hellcat?” the younger man demanded. “And what did you plan on doin’ with her once we did? Just turn her loose to go tell the sheriff that you done kilt Caldwell?” His gaze dropped to where Maddy lay in a boneless heap in the dust of the ranch yard, crimson rivulets oozing through her hair to drip onto the dirt. He holstered his Remington. “And what are ya gonna do with ‘em now?”

 

Hawkings looked thoughtfully down at the two bodies for a full thirty seconds while various solutions tumbled through his brain. “Put ‘em in the house and burn it!” he suddenly declared. “There’s fires all the time. Anybody who comes along and finds it will think it was an accident!”

 

“We got two men dead, too,” Taylor growled. “What do we do with them?”

 

“Catch their horses and tie the bodies across their saddles. Whadda ya think we was gonna do?” Hawkings answered. Taylor glared at him for a moment before reining his sorrel in pursuit of the escaped horses. “Bo! Jim!” Hawkings called to his two brothers. “You drag Caldwell and the woman into the house and find some coal oil. Make sure ya burn it to the ground. I don’t want no sign left that we was here.” He turned to two other of his cousins, Sim and Lyle Walston. “You two find some dry dirt to spread over the blood. And git Jaeger back on his horse!”

 

“She done broke some of my ribs!” Jaeger panted from his seat in the dirt where the blow from the shotgun butt had deposited him. Hawkings turned his jittery sorrel to face Jaeger.

 

“On your horse or across it!” he snarled at his injured cohort. “It makes me no nevermind.” Under Hawkings heated gaze Jaeger forced himself to his feet and stumbled to his horse. His left arm was wrapped across his middle as if to hold his insides together. With a painful grunt the injured man swung himself into the saddle. Hawkings turned away to snarl at his brother Bo.

 

“What are you waitin’ for?”

 

“She ain’t dead, Tom!” Every eye turned to where Bo Hawkings knelt alongside Maddy.

 

“She will be as soon as that house falls in on her! Git her in there, and git the fire goin’!” his older brother snapped. “The sooner you git that done, the sooner we can git gone!”

 

“Are you sure you…”

 

“Just do it!”

 

With a resigned shrug Bo grabbed a fistful of calico cloth, lifted Maddy’s limp shoulders clear of the ground and began to drag her toward the house, his steps uneven as he struggled to move her. Her hands and legs dragged in the dirt. Brother Jim had already dumped Caldwell in the middle of the kitchen floor and was searching for coal oil to kindle a fire with when Bo dropped Maddy alongside her brother. A moment later Jim appeared from the pantry, swinging a galvanized steel container of kerosene by the handle. “You got any matches?”

 

“No, I ain’t, but there’s probably some by the stove,” Bo answered. “Hurry up and let’s git outta here.”

 

“Yeah, yeah.” Jim twisted the stopper from the spout of the fuel can and began splashing the flammable liquid across the furniture and walls. When the can was empty he tossed it into the mud room and snapped a match alight on the surface of the table. The match dropped into a puddle of fluid and immediately small blue flames began to lick hungrily along the floor, growing larger as they greedily began biting into the wood of the table and the walls. The two men stood watching for a minute then as the smoke began to thicken they hurried outside and trotted clumsily to where the others waited and mounted their horses. The two dead men were tied across their own saddles. As soon as the brothers swung themselves aboard their mounts the group turned and loped from the ranch yard.

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Chapter 4

 

The hard, wracking cough that seared through her chest jarred Maddy to jumbled consciousness. She rolled onto her right side as throbbing agony lanced through her head. The stabbing pain made her gasp, sucking thick black smoke into her lungs. The acute irritation of the smoke triggered another paroxysm of coughing. Over the sound of her own voice Maddy could hear the crackling of flames. Waves of heat rolled over her. Fire! her battered brain screamed at her. GET OUT!

 

The next minutes were a hellish eternity. The kitchen was engulfed in flames, the tinder-dry wood of the walls and floor succumbing to the greedy heat of the fire. Maddy blindly clawed her way across the floor on her belly, feeling her way past the worst of the flames, too dazed to think about anything but escape. Her hair singed and smoked and blisters began to form on exposed skin as she attempted to cheat the fiery demon that hungrily consumed her brother’s house.

 

Behind her the kitchen window suddenly blew outward, the glass no longer able to withstand the heat and pressure of the atmosphere inside the room. The resulting current of outbound smoke and heat sucked the door leading to the cool, life-giving outer air open in front of Maddy and blessed chill washed over her while behind her the fire roared higher, energized by the sudden inrush of oxygen. Instinctively she crawled into that crisp current toward light and life, forcing aside the pain that coursed through her in syncopated rhythm with her heartbeat.

Maddy felt the rough texture of the weathered granite doorstep under her splinter-laced palms and knew that she was nearly out of the conflagration. With an effort that left her panting she threw herself out into the yard and rolled away from the seething furnace the house had become. She scrambled, on all fours now, toward the small stream that meandered through the ranch yard and threw her pain-wracked body into the water. The frigid embrace of the gritty snow-melt that filled the stream bed rolled over her, cooling her burns. Lucidity returned and she turned to stare at the flaming structure as the roof caved in and sparks billowed into the air. Her brother’s name was abruptly torn from her smoke-ravaged throat. “PATRICK!”

 

 

Kershaw and Rocklin spent the travel time between Concho and the Lazy C in getting better acquainted. Like many western men Rocklin had been born back East. And like many a young man before him, he had left his home in Ohio at the age of fourteen to “become a cowboy”. When he had stepped into the battered McClellan saddle cinched around the slat ribs of his swaybacked, cow-hocked bay with a battered cap ‘n’ ball Navy Colt belted snugly around his waist, his father handed him two dollars, a pouch of powder and ball and a canvas bag containing a couple of pounds of home-cured bacon and a loaf of bread. They shook hands and Father wished him “Godspeed” before clucking to the plow mule and going back to his farming.

 

Rocklin had been a soldier, a cowhand, and a meat hunter and surveyor for the railroad. “Even did a stint as a lawman once,” he commented with a wry grin quirking his lips beneath his mustache. “That town was scrapin’ the bottom of the barrel on that one. But they needed a fella to sort of keep the peace on Saturday night, and I needed a stake, so there I was.”

 

What he failed to mention was the fact that before the city fathers hired him, the previous three city marshals had each lasted less than a week in the job. The unsavory elements of the population took it as their duty to keep law enforcement presence in the town to a bare minimum and had used threats, intimidation and outright violence to maintain the status quo. It had taken him most of a summer, but he had managed to get the town settled down to some semblance of peace without killing anyone. That didn’t count cracked heads and other assorted broken bones, bruises and contusions. He’d gotten little help with his task from anyone in the town and was on the verge of saddling his horse and riding on more than once, but he was stubborn enough to want to finish the job. But he was very glad to leave that town behind him once he’d finished out the summer.

 

“What about you, Boss?” Rocklin asked amiably once he’d finished telling the very much condensed tale of his life. “What’s your story?”

 

Kershaw was normally reticent and closed-mouthed about his past, but he found himself liking the stocky rider on the dun horse. He stared at the trail ahead for several ticks of the Ingersoll watch in his vest pocket before he spoke. “There’s not much to tell. I was marshal in a small timber and mining town in northern Idaho for a little better than fifteen years. Born there, in fact. Ma was Virginia Tidewater gentry, and Pa was pure quill Louisiana Cajun swamp rat. They told me one time when I was a kid how they got together, and I’m still not sure I believe it. All I do know for sure is that they left the South in somewhat of a hurry and never looked back. Ma taught me to read, write and do my sums, and what few manners I seem to have, and Pa taught me how to live off the land and how to shoot. More importantly, he taught me how to know when not to shoot. I cowboyed for a few years before going back to Idaho and the marshal job, mostly in Montana and Wyoming, and now I raise and break horses for a living. Or at least I’ll be raising horses once I get settled into the Caldwell place. “

 

Figuring that it was none of his business and that if the boss wanted him to know he’d tell him, Rocklin decided not to mention Kershaw’s injured leg. Instead he asked, “Speaking of which, where are the mares comin’ from? I know for a fact that Caldwell doesn’t have more than half a dozen horses on the place, and I’m pretty sure that they’re all geldings, even the draft stock.”

 

“I’ve got mares scattered around and about from here clean up north to Oregon. We’re going to be doing some traveling for a while, once we find somebody to watch over the home place while we’re gone,” Kershaw answered with a grin. “I’ve been taking some of my pay for breaking horses in horseflesh, if the rancher I was working for had anything worth having. Some of those girls are mighty fine. I figure on breeding them to Shiloh the first year or two, then I’ll bring in another stud to expand the bloodline. But we’ve got some work to do before I can think about that. The Caldwell place is well laid out, but I plan to build more corrals, and I want to fence some pastures close to the house, that sort of thing, before we bring in the mares. I hope you're not allergic to working on the ground.”

 

“Buildin' fence ain't my most favorite activity, but I don't reckon diggin' post holes and stringin' wire ever killed anybody yet,” Rocklin replied with a wry grin.

 

“My sentiments exactly,” Kershaw answered with a small smile of his own.

 

Wagon and rider topped out on a small rise. Kershaw drew in the mules then set the brake and wrapped the lines around the brake lever. He stood as best he could, bracing his legs against the wagon seat to stretch some of the stiffness from legs and back. As he twisted at the waist with his hands on his hips, the distant plume of smoke from the burning house caught his eye. He stiffened as his brain rapidly turned over possible scenarios to explain the presence of the smoke; none led to any sort of pleasant conclusion. “Rocklin!”

 

The stocky rider had stepped down from his saddle to check his cinch; the tone of Kershaw’s voice caught his attention immediately. As he turned to look at his new boss he too saw the dark plume rising from beyond the far ridge. “I think that’s comin’ from the Caldwell place!”

 

“It sure looks like it!” Kershaw replied tightly. “Help me saddle Shiloh, would you?” he asked as he began to scramble gingerly down from his perch on the wagon. “My saddle’s under the tarp just ahead of the tailgate.”

 

“Never mind that!” Rocklin snapped. “Take my horse, and I’ll bring the wagon! The stirrups’ll be a little short, but you won’t be going all that far.”

 

“I imagine I can cope. Thanks.” Kershaw limped to Rocklin’s horse. “Will he stand for me to mount from the off side? My left leg won’t lift me yet.”

 

“He’ll stand. Now you’d best get aboard and get moving. I don’t like the look of that smoke.”

 

“Neither do I.” Kershaw grasped a handful of black mane hair in his right hand, the saddle cantle in his left and heaved himself into the saddle, carefully swinging his left leg over and down. With a little effort he hooked the left stirrup with his toe. “See you shortly.” He heeled the dun into a trot down the back side of the rise toward the smoke. Rocklin climbed to the wagon seat, unwrapped the reins and released the brake.

 

“Heeyah, mules! Let’s move!” The wagon lurched into motion, following Kershaw.

 

 

The dun gelding loved to run and run it did, belly low to the sage-dotted bunch grass prairie as steel-shod hooves pounded out a staccato rhythm of speed and power. Horse and rider, taking a more direct line than the track the wagon would follow, covered the distance to the headquarters of the Lazy C in just a few minutes, thundering into the ranch yard at a high lope. Kershaw lifted the hackamore rein and the dun tucked its tail into the dirt of the yard, sliding to a clod-showering stop near the barn. While the sweat-darkened gelding stood panting and catching its breath Kershaw lowered himself carefully to the ground, the pain in his left leg intensified by its recent exertions. He dropped the horsehair mecate lead rope to the ground, yanked the blackthorn from its resting place in Rocklin’s rifle scabbard then limped toward the flaming remains of what he had meant to be his new home.

 

“Caldwell! Where are you?” Kershaw called worriedly, pitching his voice to be heard over the whoosh and crackle of the fire, reluctantly considering the possibility that the ranch’s owner might be buried somewhere under the blackened mass of burning timbers. “Pat Caldwell!”

 

“H-h-help! H-help me!” The quavering words were barely audible over the noise of the fire but Kershaw immediately turned towards their source, the narrow creek bed at the edge of the yard. His searching gaze found Maddy’s smoke-blackened visage peering from the water and he hurried forward, expecting to see Pat Caldwell. Instead he was taken aback to find an injured woman at his feet.

 

He knelt gingerly and extended his hand toward the woman. She grasped it tightly with both of hers and allowed herself to be pulled from the cold water to a sitting position on the bank. Kershaw carefully supported her against a bent knee. “Ma’am, who are you? And where’s Pat Caldwell?”

 

“My name is Maddy, Madeline, Burns. My brother is dead,” she answered hoarsely.

 

“Your brother, Ma'am?”

 

“Yes, my brother. They shot him, and when I attacked them, they shot me too. Then they must have put us in the house and set it afire. I woke up and managed to drag myself out of the flames.” Her eyes were red-rimmed and watery from her ordeal, but her voice was steady. “They killed Patrick! And they tried to kill me!” Cold creek water, dripping from her hair, coursed down her soot-blackened cheeks, leaving runnels in the grime as she kept an iron grip on her composure. She found herself suddenly unwilling to show weakness in front of this stranger.

 

“They? Ma’am, who did this?”

 

“I don’t know who they were,” she answered coolly, “and I don’t know why they shot Patrick. But I killed two of them with the shotgun before they shot me!” she finished fiercely. When he pulled her from the creek he had noticed the crusted graze in her scalp but chalked it up to having been caused by falling debris from the fire. Now he suspected that the injury was instead a bullet wound, and he felt cold anger flare in his chest before he tamped it down. There were more pressing needs at the moment.

 

“Can you stand, Ma’am?” Kershaw asked gently. “I’m only asking because we need to get you to some place warmer, and I can’t carry you. You’ll catch your death in those wet clothes. If we can get you to the barn, there’s a blanket roll on the saddle of that dun.”

 

“I, I think so,” Maddy replied. “You’ll have to help me.”

 

“Of course, Ma’am. It’ll just take a moment.” He placed the hardened tip of the blackthorn solidly and used its heft to lever himself to his feet. He reached down for Maddy’s long-fingered left hand with his right and dragged her up to her knees. She wrapped her right hand over top of his left on the burl of the stick then forced her left foot up and forward until it was firmly planted. “Ready, Ma’am? One…two…three!”

 

Maddy staggered to her feet. Her head was spinning, and the effort of rising set her to coughing again. The hacking breaths nearly knocked her fragile balance askew; she wavered and came within a whisker of falling back to the ground before Kershaw hurriedly pulled her against his side and wrapped his arm around her slender waist, holding her steady while her coughing subsided.

 

“Ma’am, you’ll have to bear with me. I don’t walk as well as I’d like, but we’ll get there. Now put your arm around my back and grab hold of my belt.” He felt her hand, cold through his shirt, hook his belt. “Good. Now we need to very carefully turn toward the barn.” He tightened the grip of his arm across her back, cupping his hand on her middle. He was taken, just for a moment, by the slenderness of her waist before he banished that thought from his mind to concentrate on keeping her upright; she in turn was impressed by the strength of his arm as he nearly lifted her off her feet. Careful to match his stride to hers, he started toward the black gape of the barn doors. Behind them, the last of the timbers holding up the roof and walls of the house gave up their tenuous grip on order and structure and crashed down into the heart of the conflagration.

 

Inside the barn, just to the left of the doors, a backless chair stood forlornly waiting for someone to have need of a rest. Maddy slumped down on the cracked and britches-polished seat, breathing heavily from the effort of traveling the fifty yards from the creek to the barn. Her head hung down and her pulse thundered in her temples. Kershaw helped her to lean back against the tattered bark of the log wall, made sure that she was sitting in such a way that she wouldn’t fall over when he released his grip then turned toward where the dun still stood ground-tied, patiently waiting. As he was untying the saddle strings around the blanket roll back of the saddle cantle the freight wagon rattled into the yard.

 

“Ho, you brutes!” Rocklin hauled back on the lines, drawing the four-up hitch to a jingling halt a few yards from his dun horse. He quickly set the brake, looped the reins around the upstanding shaft of the brake handle and dropped lightly to the ground without bothering with the wheel or the hub. “What the hell happened here, Boss?” he called as he strode toward Kershaw. “Where’s Caldwell?”

 

“Caldwell’s dead.” Kershaw’s tone was flat and cold. “His sister’s in the barn. She…”

 

“Sister? Caldwell’s got a sister? Is she alright?”

 

“Somebody, I don’t know who yet, shot her, dragged her into the house and set fire to it. Or so it appears. She says they shot Caldwell, too.” His expression was bleak as he nodded toward the slowly subsiding fire. “He’s in there.” He tossed the blanket roll up to lay across his shoulder then turned back toward the barn. “Fetch that bottle of brandy from underneath the wagon seat, would you please?” he called back to Rocklin.

 

“Hey, Boss?”

 

Kershaw paused. “Yes?”

 

“What’s this gonna do to your ownership of this place?”

 

“I don’t know yet.”

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great story Charlie I'm going to need more

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Chapter 5

 

Maddy had never been one to lament misfortune. Consequently, as she stared sightlessly into the shadowed recesses of the barn’s dusty interior, a single angry thought chased its tail in tight circles across the surface of her aching brain. Patrick’s dead and I will find those who killed him…Patrick’s dead…Patrick’s dead… Kershaw’s hand on her shoulder startled her.

 

Ma’am, I’d like you to take a drink of this.” He held the pint bottle of south of the border brandy Rocklin had handed him to her lips. Her nose wrinkled at the pungent aroma of the liquor. She tried to pull her head back and found that she was backed firmly against the barn wall.

I don’t drink alcohol,” she said tiredly.

 

This is for medicinal purposes, Ma’am,” Kershaw replied. “Now drink. You’ll feel better.” He tilted the bottle and she took a small sip. The liquid flowed warmly across her tongue then dropped into her stomach where it started a small fire of its own, a tiny ball of heat that spread throughout her chilled body. She took another, larger sip then forced herself to sit upright as Kershaw draped the heavy wool blanket he held in his other hand around her shoulders. Her shivering began to slowly subside.

 

Thank you, Mister...”

 

Kershaw, Ma'am, Alton Kershaw. The fellow who brought my wagon in is Carl Rocklin, my foreman.”

 

Why, you're the gentleman who was to purchase the ranch from Patrick!” she exclaimed.

 

That's right, Ma'am,” Kershaw replied. “But there's no need to talk of that now. We need to get you warmed up, and see to that gash in your scalp. I believe the fire cauterized it, but it will need to be cleaned and bandaged. If you'll excuse me, I'll go and get my medicine bag.” He stepped out of the barn and limped toward the wagon. He gingerly climbed up to the seat, where he knelt painfully and grasped the handle of a small leather satchel that lay beneath it. He lowered himself to the ground and went back to the barn. Rocklin stepped in behind him.

 

You got a plan, Boss?”

 

My first plan is to make the lady here comfortable, and see about fixing her wounds. Then I'll worry about the future, but not until.” He set the satchel on the ground near Maddy's feet, opened the clasp and slipped his hand inside. He brought out a small mortar and pestle made of stone and a drawstring bag and set them on a nearby block of wood. He poured some dried leaves from the bag into the mortar, added water and some of the brandy then used the pestle to grind the leaves into a fragrant paste.

 

Kershaw reached into the satchel a second time and brought out several clean, irregularly-shaped pieces of linen cloth. He folded two of them into thick pads and handed one to Maddy. “Hold this for me, please, Ma'am.” The other he soaked in the brandy. “This is going to hurt, Ma'am, but we need to get that graze in your scalp cleaned up. I'll be as gentle as I can, but it's still going to be a painful process.”

 

I've been hurt before, Mister Kershaw,” Maddy answered resolutely. “Do what you must.”

 

When the liquor touched her lacerated scalp Maddy hissed in a deep breath through suddenly clenched teeth. Kershaw lifted the cloth away for a moment, but she stopped him with an upraised hand that trembled visibly. “Get it done, please, Mister Kershaw. Don't worry about me.”

 

Yes, Ma'am.” Kershaw wet the cloth again then handed the bottle to Maddy. “Perhaps another drink?” She took another sip of the fiery liquor then cradled the bottle in her lap as he returned to his work, quickly cleaning the worst of the soot and burned bits of hair from around the wound site. He dropped the soiled cloth atop the satchel then lifted the mortar. “This should help, Ma'am.” He dipped two fingers into the greenish paste and began to spread it over the wound as gently as possible.

 

I know that scent,” Maddy said suddenly. “Where did you get comfrey leaves?”

 

From an old Scots apothecary in Missouri,” he answered absently, his attention focused on continuing to work the paste into her scalp. “He grows it himself.”

 

Some of the stinging is gone.”

 

Good,” he replied. “That graze should probably be stitched up, but I'm not confident enough in my sewing skills to do it right, so we'll cover it with another pad of cloth then we can look to your other injuries. Submerging yourself in cold water was a smart thing to do. It should help the burns to heal faster. But you're still going to be a very sore lady for several days.”

 

Kershaw reached into the satchel again and brought out several long strips of cloth that he handed to Rocklin. He smeared some of the remaining comfrey paste on the second pad he had folded and placed it over the bullet graze. “Help me wrap this pad in place, would you please, Carl?” Rocklin carefully wrapped the pad in place and tied the strips solidly then stepped back to admire his handiwork.

 

How are you feeling, Ma'am?” Kershaw asked.

 

Much better, Mister Kershaw,” Maddy answered. “I've begun to warm up as well.”

 

We need to see to your other wounds, Ma'am.”

 

Mister Kershaw, I believe that you have earned the right to call me something besides Ma'am,” Maddy informed him. “My friends call me Maddy, and I much prefer that to Ma'am.”

 

If you say so, Ma', er, Maddy. Where else are you hurt?”

 

Mostly my hands, Mister Kershaw. I filled them full of slivers from the kitchen floor.” She turned her palms so that he could see the myriad sharp bits of wood embedded in her skin. She shuddered when he took the bottle of brandy from her lap. “Once again, this is going to hurt, isn't it Mister Kershaw?”

 

Yes it is. I need to clean your skin then pick the slivers out as best I can. Some of them look to be deep enough that they may have to work their way out on their own.” He took a spool of thread from the satchel. A large, very sharp-pointed needle protruded from the side of the spool. He pulled the needle loose and poured brandy on it then grasped Maddy's right hand in his left and began to gingerly pick out the slivers that were closest to the surface.

 

Boss?”

 

Kershaw looked up at Rocklin. “Yes?”

 

What do you want me to do while you're doctorin' the lady’s hands?”

 

Kershaw stared at him for nearly a minute, pondering various courses of action. “Here's an idea. If you can find a shovel, I'd appreciate it if you'd dig two graves...”

 

Two? What for?”

 

Whoever shot Maddy and her brother and burned the house down around them thinks they're both dead. We're going to do our best not to disabuse them of that notion. If they come back and see two graves they'll figure they're safe, and they will be, at least until we decide to let them know that Maddy's still alive. The hard way.” He smiled grimly before turning back to the slivers. His cold expression sent gooseflesh marching the length of Maddy's spine, and she found herself suddenly glad that it was not aimed at her.

 

Except for an occasional indrawn breath that hissed through her teeth when Kershaw's needle dug especially deep into her flesh Maddy was silent throughout the painful process of removing the slivers from her palms. When the final slivers that he was able to reach had been deposited on the straw-littered sand of the floor her palms were dotted with spots of blood. Kershaw applied the last of the comfrey paste to her abraded skin then carefully wrapped more of the linen strips around her hands. He rose stiffly to his feet, favoring his injured leg. “That's the best I can do, Maddy,” he told his patient. “Now it's in the hands of Nature and the Good Lord.”

 

I think you'll find that I heal rapidly, Mister Kershaw,” she replied.

 

Please, call me Alton, or Kershaw. I'm not used to being called Mister. I keep wanting to look around and see who you're talking to.”

 

Rocklin stepped back into the barn. “Uh, would you step outside for a minute, Boss?” he asked Kershaw hesitantly. “I need to talk to you about something.”

 

If you're going to discuss my brother's remains, Mister Rocklin, you may do so right here,” Maddy said softly. “I believe such discussion concerns me, too.”

 

Yes, Ma'am, I suppose it does,” Rocklin replied. “I just wasn't sure you were...”

 

Ready to talk about it?”

 

Yes, Ma'am.”

 

I must come to terms with Patrick's death sooner or later, Mister Rocklin,” Maddy replied. “It's been my experience that the sooner one begins an unpleasant task, the sooner it will be finished. Please go on with what you wanted to discuss.”

 

Yes, Ma'am.” He looked at Kershaw. “I got the graves dug. I was about to go see if I can find Caldwell’s body. I'm just afraid there won't be much to find. That was one hell of a hot fire. Beggin' your pardon, Ma'am,” he finished, glancing at Maddy.

 

That was indeed 'one hell of a hot fire', Mister Rocklin,” Maddy repeated. “I'm sure that you will do your best to recover Patrick's remains.” Her voice quavered when she spoke her brother's name and she suddenly covered her face with her bandaged hands as shuddering sobs shook her slender frame, unable to keep her grief under control any longer. Rocklin opened his mouth to say something, anything, that might possibly help but was silenced by Kershaw's frown. The two men stood silently waiting for the storm of sorrow that had suddenly thundered through her to pass. Several minutes crept by.

 

Enough! You're acting like a silly schoolgirl! Maddy berated herself silently. The time for mourning will come later. Now you have to be strong! She forced her grief into an ironbound box tucked into a corner at the back of her mind, slammed the lid and lock it up tight. As she did so, a cold anger at the men who had killed her brother and so suddenly destroyed her own life was kindled anew. She nursed the flame, feeling it pulse through her. She would use that flame's strength to fuel her resolve. Stolidly she dried her eyes with a corner of the blanket wrapped about her shoulders.

 

Excuse me, gentlemen.” Maddy looked up at Kershaw and Rocklin. Her face was deathly pale except for two bright red splotches over her cheekbones. Steely determination stiffened her expression. “I don't mean to be a burden. Now if you'll help me stand, we can go to the house and find my brother so he can be given a proper burial.”

 

There's no need for you to go, Maddy,” Kershaw began. “We'll do what's necessary. You can rest. You've had a rough time of it this morning.”

 

I will not sit by and let relative strangers do my duty for me, Mister Kershaw!” Maddy answered sharply. “Now please give me your hand!”

 

Yes, Ma'am,” he answered, extending his left hand to grasp her right wrist above the bandages covering her injured palms. Rocklin stepped forward to take her other wrist and the two men eased her to her feet. She stood swaying for a moment then visibly forced her shaky limbs to some semblance of stability.

 

Thank you, gentlemen. Mister Kershaw, if you'll give me your arm?” Maddy wrapped her left hand through the crook of Kershaw's extended right elbow. He took a tight grip on the knob atop the blackthorn stick and gingerly led the way from the barn. The fifty yards between the barn and the blackened shambles of the house took several minutes to cross, but eventually the trio arrived at the stone stoop at the rear of the ruins.

 

It still plenty hot in there,” Rocklin observed. “Might be a good idea to wait a bit before we try to dig through it.”

 

You’re probably right, but I'm not sure we have much time to wait, Carl,” Kershaw replied. “Whoever did this may be coming back to make sure they did a good job of it.”

 

Good point,” Rocklin agreed. He turned to Maddy. “I hate to ask this, Ma'am, but can you point out where you saw your brother last?”

 

Maddy raised her hand to point toward the kitchen and the charred hulk of the stove. “Go toward the stove, Mister Rocklin. Patrick's body should be between here and there.”

 

Rocklin tugged a pair of heavy elkhide gloves from behind his gun belt and slipped them on his hands. “Well, here goes.” He tugged his neckerchief up to cover his mouth and nose then the stocky cowboy began to make his way gingerly into the still smoking wreckage, careful to place each step as solidly as possible as he worked his way toward the blackened Monarch range. Here and there, small tongues of flame still flickered; a heavy pall of smoke lay over everything. Several heavy roof timbers had fallen at an angle across the stove, leaving a section of relatively untouched flooring of some size in front of it. Rocklin used that as his target.

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Chapter 6

 

Beads of sweat popped out on Rocklin’s forehead to roll down into his eyes, salty liquid continuing the burning that the smoke from the blackened remains of the house had begun. He worked his way toward the heavy cookstove, shifting the wreckage as best he could, careful not to burn himself, silently thanking the powers-that-be that there were no more timbers overhead to fall on him. Now to find Caldwell…

The ceiling joists and roof planks that had fallen like jackstraws against the stove had formed an alcove of slightly protected space directly in front of the heat-warped fascia of the heavy cast-iron range. It was there that Rocklin found Pat Caldwell’s body. The heat of the flames had charred clothing, skin and hair, but the remains were surprisingly intact. But he’d have the devil’s own time getting the body out of what was left of the house.

 

Boss!” he called over his shoulder as he stood looking down, calculating where to start.

 

 

What is it?” Kershaw answered, silently dreading what he was sure what the cowboy’s next words would be.

 

I found him, but I don’t think I can get him out by myself. Think you can get in here and help?”

 

Before Kershaw could answer, Maddy laid her hand on his arm. “I’ll go, Alton. After all, he is my brother. I should have a hand in bringing him out, instead of relying on someone else to do it.”

 

Are you sure about this, Maddy?” Kershaw asked. “You’re injured.”

 

Maddy’s gaze locked with his, steel glinting in the depths of her normally warm brown eyes, eyes that were cold and hard in this instance. “As are you, Mister Kershaw,” she answered coolly. “And I believe that I have more right than anyone to go in there. Patrick was my only living relative, and I intend to see that he is properly interred. If that means that I must bring his body out of the remains of the manmade hell that nearly took my life myself, then so be it. Now if I may borrow your gloves and neckerchief?”

 

Heat radiated from charred and broken timbers and planks as Maddy made her way gingerly into the wreckage of the house toward where Rocklin waited. The cowboy watched her progress solicitously, ready to jump forward if he saw her stumble and begin to fall, for a fall here could be devastating. After several anxious moments she made it to his side and looked down at what remained of her brother. She felt the tears begin to form again but she fought them back resolutely. She would mourn when it was time; for the moment, there was work to be done.

 

What can I do to help, Mister Rocklin?”

 

I’m gonna try to lever these here timbers up a little higher,” the cowboy replied soberly. “One of ‘em has him trapped. Once I do that, if you could drag him out where I can get aholt of him?”

 

I can do that,” Maddy answered resolutely. “Any time you’re ready?”

 

Yes, Ma’am.” Rocklin had found a broken length of four by four several feet long to use as a lever. He bent at the knees, inserted the broken end of the piece of lumber under the beam he wanted to move then began to slowly straighten his legs, one flat side of the four by four on his shoulder. Gradually, as he strained against the weight and fresh beads of sweat burst out on his reddened face, the heavy timber began to move.

 

Maddy knelt near Patrick’s shoulders and grasped the cloth of his shirt, which had burned through in several place, her eyes fastened on her brother’s left leg where it was pinned beneath the charred beam. The cast iron of the range radiated enough heat, still, to cook on had she been so inclined, and sweat cascaded down her face, neck and back, soaking her shirt all over again.

 

The timber shifted with a groan that matched Rocklin’s own. Slowly at first, the beam moved, then more rapidly as Rocklin forced his quivering legs to push upward. Maddy began to steadily pull on the body, leaning her weight against the resistance from the beam. Suddenly, her brother’s crushed left leg slipped from the charred wood’s embrace. “He’s free!” she cried out as she tugged his body from its entrapment.

 

Can I let down?” Rocklin gasped, his voice hoarse with the strain of holding up the heavy roof beam.

 

Yes!”

 

Rocklin painfully lowered the mass of scorched wood to its former resting place, dropped the four by four, and knelt to help Maddy with Patrick’s body, careful to place his knee on a mostly unburned section of planking. “Help me get him up on my shoulders, Ma’am,” he ordered softly. “I’ll carry him out of here.” With her help he wrestled the fire-tautened bulk of Patrick Caldwell’s body onto his back and shoulders then pushed himself to his feet. His legs still trembled from the struggle to shift the heavy beams from the body, but he began to carefully pick his way out of the wreckage toward where Kershaw waited.

 

 

Rocklin gently deposited the horse rancher’s body on a small patch of grass that grew in the shade of an overhanging willow near the creek. He did his best to straighten limbs blackened and twisted by the intense heat, finally giving up the task as hopeless. The crunching of gravel caught his attention and he quickly turned to face Maddy and Kershaw. “I’ll get something to cover him with,” he muttered then turned to stride hurriedly toward the barn. He returned after a few minutes carrying a large tarpaulin he’d found draped over a wheel-less buckboard beneath the lean-to built at the side of the barn. Maddy stood hunch-shouldered with her arms folded tightly across her chest, staring wide-eyed at the wreckage of the ranch house. Kershaw stood beside her, leaning lightly on his blackthorn stick, lending what comfort he could by his presence. His icy glare was locked on Caldwell’s contorted features.

 

The cowboy knelt at Caldwell’s side to spread the tarp as best he could beside the body then looked up at Kershaw. “Boss? Can you help me here a minute?”

 

Kershaw shook himself, visibly banking the fires of his anger. There would be a reckoning, not for the loss of the ranch house, which was to be his, but for Maddy’s loss of her brother and for the killing of a man who Kershaw was sure would have become a friend. “Of course,” he replied as he gingerly knelt beside the body. “What do you want me to do?”

 

If you’ll take his feet, we’ll put him on this here tarp and wrap him up,” Rocklin answered quietly, casting a glance toward Maddy’s stiffly curved back. “Ready?” He grasped Caldwell’s shirt as best he could, much as Maddy had when preparing to draw the body from the wreckage, while Kershaw took hold of the legs. “Okay, lift!” Caldwell had been a big man when alive, so his weight, even though much dehydrated from the heat of the fire, was still considerable. “Again!” The horse rancher’s body came to rest in the middle of the sheet of canvas, and the two men hurriedly folded the cloth over the remains. Kershaw pushed himself slowly back to his feet while Rocklin went toward the barn again.

 

Maddy?” he asked softly. She continued to stare at the smoldering rubble of the ranch house. “Maddy?” he repeated, touching her shoulder lightly. She slowly turned her face toward him, misery etched across her delicate features. “We have him almost ready for burial. Carl’s gone to get some rope to tie the shroud with.”

 

Thank you,” she answered, her voice catching for a moment. She looked into his eyes for a long moment. “Thank you so much for what you and Mister Rocklin are doing for me and my brother, Mister Kershaw,” she said softly. “I don’t know how I’ll repay you.”

 

There’s nothing to repay, Ma’am,” he replied. “We were glad to help.”

 

This ranch is yours, you know,” she went on as if he hadn’t spoken. “Patrick was so happy knowing that someone was coming who he was sure would love this place as much as he did…”

 

There’s no need to speak of that now,” he interrupted gently. “We need to get your brother buried and get you to someplace safe.”

 

You’re right, of course, Mister Kershaw,” Maddy answered. She looked toward where Rocklin stood politely out of earshot of their conversation. Raising her voice, she said, “Mister Rocklin, thank you for your discretion. I very much appreciate it.”

 

My pleasure, Ma’am,” the cowboy replied, striding forward with a coiled lariat in his hand. He knelt and began to truss the corpse tightly in its makeshift shroud. When he had finished he pointed toward the handholds he had tied in the rope at each end of the tarp. “Boss? You ready?”

 

As ready as I’m going to get,” Kershaw answered. Gently the two men lifted their canvas-wrapped burden and turned toward the pair of graves Rocklin had dug earlier, Maddy trailing slowly along behind them. They lowered Caldwell’s body into the first of the rectangular pits.

Kershaw looked up. “Maddy? Would you like to say a few words before we, well…”

 

Cover him up, Mister Kershaw?”

 

Yes, Ma’am.”

 

She stepped up to the foot of the grave. Her back was ramrod straight, her expression stony. “My brother was not a religious man, Mister Kershaw, but I do know that he felt that no man should go to his final resting place without a word or two to prepare the way. I shall do my best to prepare that way.” She bowed her head and softly began to speak, her gentle tone belying her rigid posture.

 

Precious Heavenly Father, my brother was a good man who held no animosity for any man, but took all men at face value. I don’t know what enemies he may have had in this life, but I do know the face of the man who killed him.” A trace of iron crept into her voice as she continued to speak. “I know that the Bible says that vengeance belongs to you, but I would appreciate it a great deal if you would allow me some small role in the enacting of that vengeance.” She loudly swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat and her voice softened again.

 

Father, please take Patrick unto your bosom and ease his suffering, and guide my steps into an uncertain future.

I pray in Jesus’ Holy Name.

Amen.”

 

Ignoring the startled expression her words had brought to Kershaw’s face she picked up the spade Rocklin had left against the heap of dirt and rock he had shoveled out of the hole. Driving the blade deep into the pile, she poured a scoop of dirt into the grave then handed the spade to Rocklin. “Mister Rocklin, if you would do the honors, please?” Without a word the cowboy took the spade from her hand and began refilling the grave. Maddy turned to face Kershaw.

 

Did I shock you, Mister Kershaw?” Before he could answer she went on, “As I said, my brother was a good man, too good a man to be gunned down by such as those I saw this morning. I plan to find them, and I plan to see that they receive their just desserts. If you would like to assist me in that quest, you are welcome. If you choose to decline to do so, and wish to get on with the business of working this ranch, I fully understand. But I meant what I said about having a part in the Lord’s vengeance against those men. I intend to find them, and I intend to make them pay for what they have done to me and mine this day.” She stood gazing defiantly at Kershaw, invisible lightning crackling between them.

 

His smile was glacial when he spoke. “Can you shoot, Maddy?”

 

Extremely well, Alton.”

 

Then let’s us get this last hole filled and find someplace to hole up for a few days. We’ve got some planning to do.”

 

I believe I know just the place,” Maddy replied.

 

Oh?”

 

Indeed. Patrick showed me what he called his ‘hidey-hole’ shortly after I arrived on the ranch. It’s a cave in a remote part of the basin, with a spring and good feed for several horses for an extended period of time. He said he used it several times back during the days when the Indians were still raiding. He felt that it would be better to avoid them than to fight them by himself, although he had no qualms about fighting if the need arose and did so on several occasions.”

 

Kershaw bent and retrieved the spade. “That sounds like a plan to me. Carl!” he called without looking around for his hired man.

 

Yeah, Boss!”

 

We need something to put in the bottom of this hole to take up some space and make it look like there’s a body in it!”

 

Way ahead of you, Boss,” Rocklin answered as he led his dun gelding up alongside the hole, a pair of logs from the firewood pile near the barn dragging through the dust and gravel of the yard behind the horse. “Ho, boy.” He backed the dun a step to put slack in the rope that ran from the saddlehorn to the logs then dropped the reins to the ground. He slipped the loop of rope from the logs and rolled them into the grave. “That oughta do it.”

 

An hour later, the westering sun cast long shadows across the empty ranch yard where two lonely graves, only one of which was actually occupied, stood mute testament to man’s greed. Rocklin had caught and saddled Maddy’s bay gelding and tied it to the wagon’s tailgate and turned out the rest of the corralled stock, at Kershaw’s suggestion leaving the corral gate to swing in the wind. By the time another hour had passed, the lifting wind had erased all but the faintest traces of the tracks of the horses and of Kershaw’s wagon from the packed soil in front of the barn.

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Chapter 7

 

Tom Hawkings was mad and doing his damnedest to keep it from showing in front of his employer, who was not the least bit happy with the gunhand's performance. Hawkings' disastrous visit to the Lazy C was three days gone, and he'd come to collect his pay. But this particular meeting was not going as well as it might have...

 

What exactly were you thinking, Hawkings?” The cultured tone of the voice couldn’t hide the venom behind the words. “I sent you to Caldwell’s place to make him an offer, not to do something as stupid as killing him.” The speaker was of medium height and slender, his voice deep. He was dapperly-dressed in tailored tweeds that looked out of place in his present surroundings. He was coldly handsome. He and Tom Hawkings sat facing each other across a rickety table in one of Donovan Yeakley’s line shacks far to the west of the Lazy C headquarters. Even Hawkings didn’t know his accuser’s name; the lanky rider only knew that he had been paid well to approach Caldwell with his offer to buy the ranch, and he had botched the job very badly.

 

What did he say when you told him you were there to buy him out?” the man across the table asked.

 

He said it was already sold,” Hawking answered sullenly.

 

Sold to whom?”

 

I got no idea who. Then he told us to git off his place ‘cause he had work to do. An’ he turned around and walked off.”

 

So you shot him.”

 

I fired into the ground by his feet, first, and told him ta stop walkin’. He kept goin’, and I guess I lost my temper.”

 

“’I guess I lost my temper’,” the other mimicked. “I suppose that one could say that. I think a better way of describing it would be that you completely lost your mind.” He turned his gaze toward the open door, potential courses of action marching in linear array through his brain.

 

I ain’t crazy, mister!” Hawkings retorted hotly. “It was that woman who was crazy!” Immediately it dawned on him what he had just blurted out, and he wished desperately that there was some way to retract the words.

 

Blazing pale blue eyes suddenly pinned the gunman in his seat. “What? What woman? You told me that Caldwell was alone there!” The voice lost some of its culture and its cold aloofness as a finely manicured hand reached out to grasp Hawkings neckerchief, twist it up against the rider’s exposed throat and yank the taller man halfway across the knife-scarred surface of the table. “WHAT WOMAN?”

 

I don’t know who she was!” Hawkings sputtered, fighting to breathe. “When Caldwell went down, she come stormin’ outta the house and cut loose with a shotgun! She killt two of my men outright, then she clubbed Yeager out of his saddle and damn near tore Belzer’s arm off with the empty gun.”

 

And where is this woman now?” the man demanded coldly.

 

My cousin Taylor shot her, and two of my brothers drug her and Caldwell into the house and set it afire.” He at least had the presence of mind to make a rapid decision not to tell his assailant that the woman had been still alive when she was hauled into the house. “There ain’t gonna be nothin’ left of either one of ‘em, as hot as that there house was burnin’.”

 

The pressure on his throat eased and Hawkings slumped back in his chair, sucking air deep into his oxygen-starved lungs. When he could speak normally again, he asked, “Why is gettin’ that ranch so important? Who are you, anyway, mister?”

 

None of that is any of your business, now that Caldwell’s dead,” the other man answered. He lifted a small buckskin pouch from the pocket of his jacket and tossed it into the middle of the table top, where it landed with a thump. Hawkings heard the jingle of coins. “There’s your money, Hawkings,” the man told the lanky gunhand acidly. “Or as much of it as you’ve earned.” Hawkings stiffened.

 

If you think you can short me, you better think again,” Hawkings growled, his temper flaring once again at the treatment he'd just gone through. His hand drifted down to rest on the butt of his Colt. “We went to Caldwell’s like you said. An’ I lost two men ‘causa that crazy woman. I think you’d best pay us what you promised.”

 

I hardly think you’ve fulfilled your side of the bargain,” was the cold reply. “You’ll take what you get, and like it. I refuse to pay full price for such poor service.”

 

Hawkings roughly shoved his chair back from the table and jumped to his feet to stand glaring at the man who sat calmly facing him. His fingers were wrapped tightly around the walnut handle of his pistol, every muscle in his lanky body tensed and ready. “Maybe I’ll just take my payment outta your hide, then!” he snarled. Suddenly he drew his Colt; or at least that was his intention. His arm froze in mid-motion with the cylinder of the pistol barely clear of the holster when he heard the four distinct clicks of a revolver’s hammer ratcheting back on the opposite side of the table. His blood ran cold as he stared down at the black hole of the muzzle of a pistol that was pointed, unwavering, at a spot just north of his belt buckle. He had no qualms about taking another's life, but he wasn't ready to cash in his own chips yet. He suddenly realized that the gent seated across the splintered expanse of roughcut pine, refined though he appeared to be, was cut from the same cloth. The lanky rider tried in vain to swallow the lump that had rapidly appeared in his throat; he’d never seen anyone produce a gun so fast in all the thirty two years of his misspent life. Carefully he released the Colt’s handle, letting the gun slip back into the leather.

 

Sit down, Hawkings.” The lanky rider did as he was ordered, every fiber of his being concentrated on the single dark eye that stared at him from across the table. His tongue flicked out to lick his dry lips.

 

Now pick up your money. Pick it up with your right hand. Do not attempt to do anything clever, or I will shoot you down like the cur that you are.” The man’s voice was totally without emotion, making it all the more frightening. “You will pocket your payment then you will go outside, get on your horse, and ride away. I don’t care where you go, as long as it’s away from here. You will under no circumstances mention our dealings, or this conversation, to anyone. If I should for some reason decide that I have need of your services in the future, I will contact you. Do not under any circumstances attempt to contact me. Do you understand me?” Hawkings nodded stiffly, swallowing loudly.

 

I can’t hear your head rattle, Hawkings. I asked if you understand me.”

 

Ye-yes Sir,” Hawkings stammered. “I understand.” He was as brave as the next man, but facing a gun at such close range, knowing that his immediate future was controlled by another’s ability to grant him either life or death, by a few ounces of pressure on a trigger, was a lesson in humility that he silently vowed to teach the other man at the first opportunity. Tom Hawkings had been raised to stride hard-shouldered through the world, and kowtowing to another man was galling beyond belief. He would bide his time, for now, but he would get his own back some day.

 

Good. Now take your money and go.” The lanky rider lurched out of his chair, snatched the pouch from the table and went at a shambling trot to his horse. He threw himself into the saddle and booted the sorrel into a lope almost before he was fully seated. The dapperly-dressed man watched him disappear in a cloud of dust and distance before he stood, let the hammer down on his pistol and tucked it inside his jacket. “Damn you, Hawkings!” he muttered. “I should have shot you when I had my chance!”

 

********

 

Somebody done buried ‘em.” Tom Hawkings stared up at Sim Walston from his seat on the rickety ladderback chair, unable to comprehend for a moment what his cousin had said, as if those four simple words had been delivered in some foreign tongue. A chipped enamelware cup filled halfway to the top with a clear liquid sat momentarily forgotten beside him on the table to his left next to a heavy crockery jug wrapped in wet burlap.

 

Hawkings found his voice. “Whadda you mean, somebody buried ‘em?”

 

Just what I said, Tom,” Sim replied, licking his lips nervously. He had always been more than a little bit afraid of Tom Hawkings. The combination of his cousin’s hair-trigger temper and even faster draw was enough to give most men in the Concho area pause, and Sim was no exception. Sim was dirt-dumb and brute mean, but Hawkings was smart and vindictive and Sim always felt like he was on the short end of a deal he didn’t understand when it came to the younger man.

 

Sim sucked air through his teeth. “When I rode by there yesterday, there was two graves over beyond the crick.”

 

Dammit, I told all of you to stay away from Caldwell’s place!” Hawkings snarled, kicking back his chair and rising to his feet. His calloused right hand hovered over the grips of his Colt.

 

I didn’t go into the yard, Tom!” Walston protested. “I sat up on that big hill out there to the west and used my spy-glass!”

 

Then how do you know there was graves?”

 

“’Cause I seen the markers!” Sim replied hurriedly. “There was a board drove into the ground at the head of each one of ‘em. One of them boards had Caldwell’s name burnt into it. The other’n just said ‘woman’ on it.”

 

And you could see that from up on that hill.”

 

Yep. Plain as day. It was burnt in big letters.”

 

Hawkings dropped back into his chair, his expression thoughtful, as Sim breathed a silent sigh of relief. Sim pulled a grubby bandana from his vest pocket and wiped the sweat from his face while he waited for what might come next.

 

Hawkings lifted the cup to his lips and took a healthy swallow of corn liquor, feeling it burn all the way down to the pit of his stomach. He looked back up at his cousin. “Where’d they go?” he asked, setting the cup back on the rough surface of the table.

 

Where’d who go?” Sim asked in return, his expression puzzled while he deciphered the turn the conversation had taken. “Oh, you mean the ones who buried them two?”

 

No, the ones who set the damn house on fire!” Hawkings snapped. “Yeah, the ones who buried Caldwell and the woman! Where’d they go when they left the ranch? You do know how to read sign, don’tcha?”

 

Yeah, I can read sign, but I ain’t rightly sure,” Sim replied hesitantly, returning the bandanna to his pocket. “The ground’s dry out there, and the wind’s been blowing pretty hard for the last coupla days. Any tracks there mighta been were pretty much gone. I think I mighta found some wagon tracks north of the barn, but I ain’t sure how old they were. And why would anybody take a wagon up that canyon, anyway?”

 

Wagon, my ass,” Hawkings snorted. “Whoever it was wouldn’t take a wagon out there in the first place, ‘cause there ain’t no place to go with a wagon once you leave the house except back to Concho. What about horse tracks?”

 

It’s a horse ranch, Tom,” Taylor Hawkings cut in from his seat at the other end of the table from his cousin. He wasn’t averse to watching Sim squirm, but after a while it got boring. “Of course there’s horse tracks.”

 

I don’t remember asking your opinion,” Hawkings glared at Taylor. “You keep your mouth shut until you’re spoke to.”

 

Taylor grinned insolently. “You aren’t gonna get anything more outta Sim than you’ve already got, so don’t try running roughshod over me just ‘cause he can’t tell you what you want to know. It’ll just get you hurt, and we both know it.” Taylor Hawkings was pretty much the only member of the Hawkings outfit who wasn’t particularly afraid of Tom, because he was sure he could outshoot and outfight the other man if need be.

 

“Sim may be dumb, but he ain’t completely stupid. If he didn’t find tracks, there probably weren’t any tracks to find.”

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good story waiting for the next installment

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Chapter 8

 

Alton Kershaw leaned against a granite boulder, one of many in the outcropping that sheltered the mouth of the cave that Maddie had called Caldwell’s “hidey hole”. Silver moonlight whitened the grass of the hidden meadow where his mule team and his and Rocklin’s horses grazed contentedly. Beyond the animals the black opening of the close-walled canyon the trio had wormed the big Studebaker wagon through after doing their best to erase the signs of their passing through the basin outside gaped at him. He had no idea what sort of geographic cataclysm had formed the canyon, the meadow and the cave but he was grateful. For the moment at least they were hidden.

 

He heard the soft scuff of leather on sand from behind and to his right. As he shifted his position slightly, his right hand drifted across his middle to rest lightly on the butt of his pistol. “Are you always so cautious, Mister Kershaw?” Maddy’s amused tone questioned softly.

 

Always, Miz Burns. It’s kept me alive for quite some time,” he replied in an equally soft voice. He turned his head in her direction and smiled briefly before turning back toward the meadow and the canyon. “And I hope to continue that trend for the foreseeable future.”

 

Maddy stepped up beside him. Her arms were folded across her chest. “It seems so peaceful, doesn’t it?” she indicated their surroundings with a nod of her head. Her tone hardened as a brief shiver coursed through her slender frame. “But appearances can be deceiving, can’t they?” She turned to face him. “We must discuss the disposition of the ranch, Mister Kershaw. And the sooner the better.” She raised her hand to forestall the objection that immediately came to his lips. “My brother is dead and buried, and I will mourn him appropriately when time allows. This is not the time for that. We must instead bring those who murdered my brother to justice, whether it be the justice of the Old Testament or the New. That will be their choice!” she ended vehemently.

 

Can you shoot, Maddy?” Kershaw asked calmly.

 

Pistol or rifle?”

 

Both? Either?”

 

I am quite skilled with a rifle. I won a number of shooting contests back East.”

 

And pistol?”

 

My pistol skills are not quite as good as with a rifle, but Patrick seemed to be impressed. But haven’t we already discussed that particular topic?”

 

He gazed coldly into her eyes as if plumbing the very depths of her soul and her conviction. His own voice hardened, dropping to a harsh whisper that carried no further than Maddy’s ears. “And have you ever found yourself in a circumstance where it was necessary that you kill or be killed? I don’t mean in the throes of emotional anguish as when your brother was attacked and you used the shotgun on his killers. I mean in a planned assault, catching the other fellow totally unaware, giving him no choice but to yield or die. Have you?

 

Have you experienced the blood and the stench of war, the pain, the anguished cries of the wounded whose flesh has been torn asunder by bullets, bullets that might be yours, the sheer torment of seeing another person’s life fade before your eyes, knowing that they died by your hand? Have you?” Maddy found herself struck dumb by the savagery of his words, unable to move or speak as he went on.

 

His tone softened now, its harshness easing. “It’s very easy to talk of Old Testament justice when one is safely ensconced behind one’s own walls or with one’s own people. It is something else entirely to mete out that same justice when you are face to face with the man or men you wish to bring to face the charges you have laid against them. Are you ready to do that, to face the men who killed your brother and possibly kill them yourself?” Now it was his turn to hold up a cautioning hand. “Please, before you say a word, think long and hard about your answer. How you answer that question, both to me and to yourself, will change your life forever.”

 

Kershaw’s voice faded away as he turned back to the moonlit expanse of grass before them. Beside him Maddy Burns turned her own gaze inward, searching the depths of her experience and, more importantly, her soul for the answers to the questions he had presented her. As he had said, it was all well and good to speak of vengeance in the heat of the moment, but the cold-blooded taking of another man’s life was not something to be approached lightly. She reached deep inside herself, testing her resolve as she stared sightlessly out over the darkened terrain before her.

 

I was raised in a different world than this,” she began softly after an appreciable length of time had passed. “A world where there are officers of the law to turn to when there are problems. Murders are investigated, criminals are captured, good prevails. Or it should in a perfect world, which I realize that we do not, nor will we, ever dwell in, at least not in our lifetimes. Our father, Patrick’s and mine, was a retired military man, a sergeant of cavalry. Under his tutelage I learned to ride and to shoot, and to otherwise defend myself in various ways as a matter of course. Father brought us up to abhor the injustices of this world and to always be honest in our dealings with those around us.

 

Living here on the ranch has made me realize, more than I had done before, that not everyone has had my upbringing and as a result there will be times when I will have to take my life, and possibly the lives of others, in my own hands. I will need to defend myself, because there will be no one to defend me. And should the need arise I will be required to avenge injustices done. I believe that such a time has come.

 

I have never done any of those things that you asked me about, Alton. But I believe that the time has come when I must do whatever is necessary to bring those men to justice, whether of the law of the land or the law of the Old Testament. And I believe that I have what it takes to see it through. I would prefer that the law do what is necessary with those men, but if need be I will be the instrument of that justice myself. There is no one else available.”

 

“Are you sure about this, Maddy?” Kershaw asked after a moment.

 

“I am, Alton. As sure as I have ever been of anything.”

 

“Fine. We’ll need to come up with a plan for identifying the men who attacked you and your brother. Once we’ve done that, we can decide the best way to bring them to justice of whatever sort. But first, we’re leaving.”

 

Maddy turned to stare at him. “Leaving?” she asked, her voice rising. “What do you mean, leaving?”

 

Kershaw raised a hand to forestall further objections. “Temporarily,” he replied. “We’re leaving temporarily. You need time to heal, and I need to start gathering my mares. My original plan was to do some work on the property before I went for the horses, but your brother’s death and the burning of the house, not to mention the fact that we don’t know who your attackers were, has changed my mind. We’ll leave my wagon and mules here and head north, away from Concho. Unless someone else knows about Patrick’s “hidey hole”, we’ll be able to leave and come back with no one the wiser. We’ll pick up some of my horses, you’ll have a chance to get your health back, and then when we’re totally ready we’ll come back and make our presence known.”

 

“I suppose I can live with that,” Maddy said with a grim smile. “And I suppose I could use some shooting practice. When were you thinking of leaving?”

 

“The day after tomorrow. We need to check the riding stock’s shoes and put together a pack of supplies from the stores in my wagon. One of my mules will serve as a pack animal. And I’d like to fence off the mouth of this canyon so the rest of the mules don’t stray. Then we’ll leave at first light the next day.”

 

“I’ll be ready,” Maddy promised.

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Chapter 9

 

“I reckon you got a thing for gettin’ up early, huh Boss?” Rocklin grumbled good-naturedly as he poured himself a cup of coffee. The smell of frying bacon made his nose twitch.

 

“The early bird gets the worm, Carl,” Kershaw replied with a smile.

 

“I reckon I’ll take bacon and Miz Burns’ biscuits over worms, myself,” the cowboy replied with a grin.

 

The sun hadn’t yet risen but the eastern horizon held a faint line of silver. The “whoosh” of the nighthawk’s passing would soon give way to the “Chi-ca-go” calls of quail as the birds left their night campground to gather breakfast. The swish of a horse’s tail, the soft “clank” of steel shoe on rock, the light crunching sound of the grain in the nosebags, all combined into a pleasing harmony as the three sat down to breakfast before saddling for the day’s ride.

 

“Thanks for the grub, Miz Burns,” Rocklin said as he stood to scrub his plate and cup in the bucket of water that steamed at the edge of the fire circle. “Reckon I’ll start saddlin’.” He strode out into the small meadow to lead the three saddle mounts and the pack mule closer to the wagon that stood with its tail tucked into the cave that Pat Caldwell had enlarged over the years and called his “hidey hole”. He lifted the nosebags from the animals’ heads and stowed them in the wagon.

 

The pack bags had been loaded the night before and it was the work of a few short minutes to spread the saddle pad on the back of the mule that would be doing duty as their pack animal, carefully smoothing out any wrinkles that would, over the course of the day’s travel, sore up the animal’s back, then to cinch the sawbuck pack saddle in place. When the breast collar and britchin’ were adjusted to his satisfaction, Rocklin picked up the first of the bulging canvas bags and reached up to hang it on the crossed bars of the saddle. He let the weight settle slowly onto the mule’s back then, when he was satisfied that it was hanging correctly did the same with the other bag. Three bedrolls followed and were lashed to the top of the load. The canvas manty, or cover, was laid over it all and diamond-hitched.

 

“You act like you’ve done that a time or two before,” Kershaw remarked as he spread the saddle blanket on Shiloh’s back.

 

“Maybe once or twice,” Rocklin answered. “At least this one ain’t gonna try to take my arm off like that bugger out yonder.”

 

“And he won’t kick your head off,” Kershaw added with a smile.

 

“Why do you keep that mean one, Boss?”

 

“Because he keeps me on my toes,” Kershaw replied.

 

“You say so,” Rocklin said drily.

 

When the horses were saddled, Rocklin poured the dish water over the coals of their breakfast fire then kicked the wet ashes and bits of charcoal apart to make sure that the fire was totally extinguished. There was just enough light in the hollow to see the horses and mule where they stood waiting for the trip to begin. He strode to where his sorrel stood ground-hitched, picked up the mecate and turned to lead the little cavalcade toward the exit to the hollow. “I’ll get the gate. Y’all can keep the rest of the critters inside.”

 

 

Noon found them nearly twenty miles northwest of the grassy hollow where the wagon and the rest of the mules waited for their return. Stepping down in the shade of a rocky outcropping near a small spring, Kershaw stretched, both hands at the small of his back. The big buckskin nudged him with its nose as if to say, “Out of the way, there’s water!”

 

“Just a minute, you bossy varmint!” Kershaw slapped the horse on the neck lightly. “Take a breath first.” He led Shiloh to the spring to drink then after a few swallows pulled him back so the others could get to the water. When all had drunk a small amount Kershaw led the buckskin back and let him drink his fill then began to gather wood for a small coffee fire which was soon crackling merrily.

 

“How much further are you planning to go today, Alton?” Maddy asked.

 

“Buckwald’s trading post has a pretty clean bunkroom, and it’s about four hours from here,” he replied. “I thought we’d at least try to make that today. Why?”

 

“Well, it has been a while since I’ve spent a full day in the saddle,” Maddie answered with a smile. “I imagine I’ll be more than a little stiff tomorrow.”

 

“We could camp somewhere closer than Buckwald’s if need be,” Kershaw said. “But I’d really like to get as far from Concho as we can, as quickly as we can.”

 

“Uhm, Boss?” Rocklin broke in.

 

“Yes?”

 

“You might want to rethink Buckwald’s.”

 

“Why is that?”

 

“Because as the crow flies, Buckwald’s is only about twenty five miles from Donovan Yeakley’s headquarters, and I’ve seen his hands there more than once.”

 

Kershaw stared at the stocky cowboy thoughtfully for a minute. “You might just turn out to be useful after all, Carl,” he said at last.

 

Rocklin grinned. “I reckon, if I try hard enough.” He turned to the pack mule and brought out a small enamelware coffee pot, then reached into one of the saddlebags on his sorrel and brought out a sack of Arbuckles coffee. A quick dip of the pot into the spring and coffee was started.

 

“I don’t mind camping out a few nights if need be, Alton,” Maddy said. “I think we’d all rather not run into anyone from Concho yet.”

 

“You’re both right, of course,” Kershaw replied. “I must be slipping in my old age.”

 

“You’re no older than I am, and I don’t feel old,” Maddy replied with a smile. “But aren’t you the one that told me that we need to avoid detection for a while?”

 

“That I am, Maddy,” he replied ruefully. “And I should have thought of the fact that some of the local ranch hands would come into Buckwald’s once in a while. It just never dawned on me that Yeakley’s ranch would be that close. So that settles that. We’ll camp out tonight, and you can let us know when you’re ready to stop.” He lowered his voice. “I’m really glad that I hired Carl now, but don’t tell him that. I’d hate to give him a swelled head.”

 

“Don’t worry, Carl heard it,” Rocklin told him, chuckling as he rose from where he knelt tending the fire and coffeepot. “But I ain’t that het up with myself that I believe you enough to get all puffed up about it.”

 

Three days and many dusty miles later the trio rode into the town of Benson.

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Chapter 10

 

Benson was a town of no particular consequence that had sprung up in that particular location for no particular reason that any of the town’s current residents could recall off hand. It had grown sort of like a bad weed that accidentally got planted in a spot conducive to growth. It had one saloon of dubious reputation and a beanery whose output was better than cooking for oneself over an open fire, but not much. The buildings that lined the street, all but one, were weatherworn, slouching disconsolately on either side of the wagon-rutted main drag that ran from east to west and funneled the hot, dry breeze through the fringe of last fall’s ragged, sun-scorched weeds that bordered the dirt strip. What Benson did have, however, was the largest and best stocked general store for a good fifty or sixty miles, and possibly further, in any direction. As a result of its presence the town got a moderate amount of traffic from outside its general environs but not enough to convince the town council to make any kind of effort at beautification of the rest of the town. After all, nobody stayed nor usually wanted to; pretty much everyone who rode into Benson was there for supplies and maybe a drink of whiskey before turning around and heading back to wherever they may have come from.

 

“Welcome to the garden spot of this part of the world,” Carl Rocklin remarked drily as they dismounted in front of the dingy livery stable at the edge of town. Kershaw’s answering smile was erased by a grimace of pain as he swung gingerly to the ground. Long-legged horses are good for covering the country, he thought, but sometimes it’s a long way to the ground when you’re ready to stop. He stood for a moment with one hand clamped around the saddlehorn waiting for the subdued throbbing in his injured leg to abate. When it had settled down to a dull roar he slipped the blackthorn walking stick from its scabbard on his saddle and leaned against it.

 

“Are you all right, Alton?” Maddie asked, concern evident in her tone.

 

“I’m fine, or will be in a minute,” Kershaw answered. “How about yourself? We’ve ridden a lot of miles today.”

 

“If you mean my head, it aches a bit but that’s all. I believe I’m recovering,” she answered. “We’re quite a group of the walking wounded, aren’t we?”

 

“That we are, Maddie, that we are.”

 

Just then the owner of the livery stable, a scrawny sort wearing torn bib overalls over a grubby chambray shirt buttoned to the neck sauntered from his place of business. When he recognized Kershaw he hurried forward. “Why, Kershaw, as I live and breathe! How’re you?” he exclaimed, rubbing his palm on his britches before offering it to Kershaw. “Come back fer yer mares, I reckon?”

 

“That I have, Bob,” Kershaw replied. “We’ll be riding out to the Lazy K in the morning. I’m assuming that you’ve got room for these four?” He nodded toward Shiloh, the other two mounts and the pack mule.

 

Bob snorted through his mustache. “Like this place is ever full, and you know it, Kershaw,” he put in jovially, knowing full well that the horse breaker was joking. “I’ll put ‘em up in the Presidential Suite just as soon as you folks git yer gear off of ‘em.”

 

“What about the packs? I’d hate to lose any of our supplies.”

 

“Yer pack’s’ll be fine. I’ll tuck ‘em away in my own quarters.”

 

“That should work,” Kershaw replied.

 

“How bad’s the hotel these days, Bob?” Rocklin asked. “It’s been a while since I’ve been here.” Bob turned to the stocky cowboy.

 

“It has been a day or two, hasn’t it, Carl?” Bob offered his hand to Rocklin. “And the hotel’s actually cleaned up a little bit since you was here last. It still ain’t great, but at least the last I heard the bedbugs was gone.”

 

“Probably didn’t like the company they had to keep,” Rocklin said.

 

“This is Mrs. Madeline Burns, Bob,” Kershaw interjected.

 

Once again Bob rubbed his palm on the leg of his overalls before offering it to Maddie. “Pleased ta make yer acquaintance, Ms. Burns,” he told her. “I hope yer stay here in Benson is pleasant.” He paused. “And if I may ask, why is a fine lady like yourself travelin’ in company with a pair of ruffians like these here gents?”

 

“It’s a long story, Bob,” Maddie answered with a smile. “I may even tell it to you someday, but at the moment I’d really like to get to that allegedly bug-free hotel you mentioned and see if I can scare up a hot bath. I feel like I really need one.”

 

“Why ma’am, you look just fine ta me,” Bob replied gallantly, releasing her hand. “Lots better than these two characters you seem to be associatin’ with.”

 

 

It turned out to indeed be possible to “scare up a hot bath” at the hotel. Maddy sighed as she stepped into the galvanized tub the hotel’s owner had carted down the hall to her ground floor room and slipped down into the steaming water. Careful not to slosh any of the precious liquid out onto the floor, she slid down until she could tip her head back and wet her long, thick hair. The cake of soap supplied by the fellow who delivered the tub left a bit to be desired, appearance-wise, but it served to make enough lather to give her hair at least a cursory cleaning as she carefully scrubbed around the mostly healed gash in her scalp. In addition to the above, the hotel’s proprietor had offered to send her dirty clothes out to be washed. However the rest of the day might go, for the moment Maddy Burns was content with her current situation.

 

 

Kershaw pushed through the Dead Dog Saloon’s battered batwing doors, immediately stepping to one side with his back against the thick adobe wall to let his eyes adjust to the sudden dimness after the brighter light outside. It appeared that the saloon’s proprietor was worried about his overhead and bottom line, as the only light in the grubby room came from a pair of cobweb-crusted windows at each end of the small room.

 

The place hadn’t changed much since his last visit. The bar consisted of a pair of planks bridging the space between a pair of hickory hogsheads. The cracked backbar mirror reflected the images of the few bottles, most without labels, that stood on a shelf in front of said mirror. A few beat up tables, only one of which was occupied, and their accompanying mismatched chairs, were scattered about the room. The occupied table was currently host to a desultory game of draw poker between two men who looked like they might be cowboys and a third fellow whose attire indicated that he could be a down on his luck riverboat gambler far removed from both river and boat. That one Kershaw recognized, and he knew that appearances are often deceiving. The man’s disheveled appearance concealed an excellent acumen at poker, a hot temper and a fast gun hand; he just didn’t care to dress the dandy.

 

“Hello, Ronald,” Kershaw said quietly as he stepped up to the table.

 

The gambler’s head whipped around toward Kershaw so fast he should have hurt himself. After a moment the gambler, whose name was Ronald Curtis and who Kershaw had arrested once for creating a public nuisance (he’d gotten drunk and, on a bet, had ridden a borrowed horse into one of the saloons in a town that Kershaw had been marshal of) turned back to his cards. “Kershaw,” he grunted.

 

He dealt two cards to the short, dark-complected cowboy on his left and one to his taller, red-haired companion across the table to Curtis’ right. He himself took three cards. “What’ll it be boys? One of you gonna bet?”

 

“Four bits,” the redhead replied, tossing the coins onto the heap of discards in the center of the table.

 

“You must’ve got a good card, my friend,” Curtis said, adding his own coin to the pot. “I’ll see that bet, and raise you another four bits.”

 

“Damn, mister,” the shorter one complained, “we ain’t made of money. That’s a dollar to me, and I ain’t sure I’ve got that much left!”

 

“That’s right,” the redhead added. “We’re just thirty a month cowhands, and you’ve been takin’ our money purty regular for the last couple of hours. We ain’t got a whole lot left.”

 

Kershaw, sensing that things were about to get ugly, eased his weight off of his blackthorn stick and grasped the knob on its top tightly. At the table, Curtis looked back and forth between the two cowboys. “If you can’t stand the tariff, don’t sit in the game, friends,” he said softly, resting his hands on the edge of the table, cards forgotten.

 

“It’d help if this was an honest game,” the redhead declared hotly.

 

“So you’re accusing me of cheating?” Curtis asked, his voice still soft as he slid his chair back away from the table a few inches.

 

The dark-skinned cowhand’s mouth was open and he was about to speak when Kershaw cut in. “Don’t say it, friend, unless you mean it. I’ve known this man for fifteen years, and he’s never dealt a dishonest hand that I know of.”

 

“And we’re supposed to trust your say-so and just walk away from the money we lost, is that it, mister?” the cowboy asked.

 

“Butt out, Kershaw,” Curtis interrupted. “These gents are old enough to saddle their own broncs.”

 

“And you don’t need their last cent, Ronald,” Kershaw answered with a slight smile. He turned back to the two cowboys. “What do you say everybody takes the money that’s in front of him and calls it a day? That way nobody gets hurt.”

 

“Sounds like a plan to me,” the redhead replied. “Sam?”

 

“I suppose I can live with that,” the other cowboy answered sourly. “But I still think…”

 

“Like the man said, don’t say it,” Curtis cut in. “A card game isn’t worth getting hurt over.” He gathered the wrinkled bills and grubby coins piled on the table in front of him into a tidy heap. Across the table, the redhead reached out to scoop the discard pile toward his side of the felt. Before he had hardly moved the stack, Kershaw’s stick rapped him on the knuckles hard enough to leave a bruise. The hand jerked back away from the cards and money.

 

“Dammit, mister, that hurt,” he yelped, cradling the hand to his chest. “What’d you do that for?”

 

“That money’s not yours, yet,” Kershaw told him. “Might not ever be. It depends on the cards.”

 

“What’re you talkin’ about?” Sam asked.

“Everybody turn over your cards, and the high hand wins the pot.” The two cowboys looked at each other, then at Kershaw, then at Curtis, who nodded. Sam reached toward his cards.

 

“Three fours!” he said proudly as he turned them face-up. “Let’s see ya beat that!”

 

“You got me,” the redhead said in defeat. “I only got two pair.”

 

“Ronald?” Kershaw said.

 

Curtis reached for his cards, turning them over one at a time to reveal three sixes. “Looks like the pot’s mine, boys,” he said, reaching for the pile of cards and coins in the middle of the table.

 

Sam started to bristle up when he saw Curtis raking in the pot, but the look on Kershaw’s face forestalled any precipitous action. Instead he gathered the few coins left to him, stood and dropped them into the pocket of his vest then turned toward the bar. “Come on, Barney, let’s get us a drink and get outta here,” he called over his shoulder. The redhead followed suit and the two men quickly downed their drinks then strode from the saloon.

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