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Trouble Comes to Stone Creek


Calico Mary

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Michigan Slim and Badger Mountain Charlie had finally returned with news.  Having worried over the tracks, they had managed to follow enough to recognize the trail was leading to the old Hoover place.  Smartly they had broken off the trail and returned to town before being noticed, but not before a little reconnoitering around the property's border.

 

"Sentries are riding the perimeter." Michigan Slim volunteered  Badger Mountain Charlie nodded vigorously adding, "Must have saw a dozen or more before we slipped away.

 

With the swelling of our ranks, and Mary in Garner's hands, we had need to change our plans

 

Sheriff Cody insisted that Doc Ward not be on the wagon, but that he command a small group of men to clear any sentries and cover the rear of the house.  Now I'm not saying Sarah Jane had a role in this, but the apple pie on Cody's desk was fresh and homemade.  Doc was madder than a wet hen, but accepted his new role when he realized that it made more sense.

 

Boots advised as he would be happy to fire the stand of cottonwoods and provide cover for Linn and myself as we used our long range guns to cover our friends and fellow townspeople.  As the plan came together everyone seemed to get quiet and wait to hear from Sheriff Cody.

 

"Alright men, we will approach with the wagon two hours after sun up.  Everyone needs to be in position before then.  Flint,  you Boots and Reverend Linn join Doc Ward and his men for the initial sweep, Those sentries need to be out of the fight, don't kill em unless you have to."

 

Doc Ward struck a match and lit a cigar "If you want 'em alive, sending Flint doesn't make much sense."   He chuckled at his own joke.  Sheriff Cody responded seriously "Flint is going to be there to be your second in command, I don't want to have to haul you back to your house injured or worse."

 

I nodded "Neither do I.  I've had enough experience with redheads to know better than to piss them off."

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Flint's hand was firm on Linn's shoulder.
"Stand fast," he said quietly.  

Linn's Sharps was on the ground, where'd laid it as gently as laying down an infant:  he was crouched, one hand on the ground, weight on the balls of his feet and the left palm, and a knife from somewhere was in his left hand, the edge folded back along his forearm.

"I can take him," the preacher whispered, trembling like a hound on a hot scent, and Flint's hand never wavered.
Stand down," he said, his voice quiet, carrying the full weight of authority -- the voice of an officer.
Linn blinked, lowered one knee, sagged a little.
A figure rose behind the horseman, a lariat floated through the air, drew tight:  the rider fell backwards off the horse, choking, hit the ground hard:  two figures were on top of him, there was a flurry of violence, the side-stepping horse was caught, soothed:  riderless horse and horseless rider were both whisked out of sight, probably into a depression.

"Doc is very good at what he does."
Linn nodded, slid the knife back into its forearm sheath, resumed his flattened posture.
"We have good people," Flint said, his voice steady, still the quiet, confident tones of a man accustomed to command.  "Let them do their job. You don't have to do it all anymore."

Linn's head lowered, his mouth open, breathing deeply, slowly, visibly calming himself.

"You're right," he rasped.  "Thank you."

Flint's hand squeezed, released.  "I had to learn that same lesson."

Linn nodded, gripped his Sharps forearm.

"You know their attention will be on the fire."

"I know."

"They'll be looking right toward us."

"I know."

"You'll be okay now?"

"I will now."

"Wait for my signal."

The preacher nodded, looked around, lifted his Sharps not more than an inch from the ground, floated more than scuttled, crablike, low to the ground:  he worked his way left, to another firing position, a slight depression, with enough of an elevation to provide a good forearm rest, even with his crushed hat under the forearm for a steady rest.

Two hard men, separated by twenty-five yards, settled into their snipers' positions:  two men who knew their rifles intimately, two men who knew the range, two men who set the elevation on their tang mounted verniers.

Flint was a tidy individual and had his extra rounds laid out on a cloth on the ground.

The preacher had a brass panatela between the fingers of his off hand, a technique he'd used in the past:  he had more, but this would give him three repeat shots without reaching into pocket or warbag.

They settled in against the earth, waiting as the wagon approached, each man watchful:  Flint's study suggested he concentrate on the right hand side of the main building, and Linn, the left, but both knew that any plan of battle gets tossed out the nearest window with first contact with the enemy.

Linn turned his head a little to the left and he felt his eyes tighten a little at the corners.

The last outrider was accounted for, the last outrider removed:  one, and only one, got too close, and prompted Linn's reversion to his earlier self, to the quietly efficient murderer he'd become as a survival mechanism during what his pale eyed Captain called "this damned war" -- and Linn had to agree with the man's terminology.

He'd called on every skill he'd learned as a child, every trick to stalking and skulking and sneaking up on game -- he'd found he had a gift for slipping up on a sentry, he'd learned a knife thrust to the kidneys produced such an unbelievable sunball of utter agony as to render the victim unable to cry out, and it became one of his favorite means of taking out a solitary enemy.

He'd gotten very good at it, and it was a natural thing for him to start to target in on the circling rider when it looked like he and Flint might be discovered.

Now ... now he turned his head a little, swung his eyes as far left as they would go, felt the flesh tighten a little at the corners of his eyes.

The fire was starting behind him, and he knew the arsonists would have laid the first flames to windward, so the prevailing breeze would carry flames deeper into the stand.

He closed his eyes, took a long breath.

"God Almighty," he whispered, "You made me as I am, and You know I do what I must, to keep my wife and my fellows safe."  He opened his eyes, eased the big percussion-heavy hammer back to half cock, eased the lever down just enough to show cartridge brass, closed it.

"May Anna Mae forgive me for this which I must do, for I am about to deliver the sinners to their chosen reward."

His cheek settled on the rifle's comb, the long octagon barrel pointed to the building just over half a thousand yards distant.

He hooked his finger around the hammer's spur, brought it gently back to full cock, felt the sear drop into engagement.

He couldn't help it.

He smiled, just a little.

 

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The .44-77 Sharps was one of my favorites for medium range work.  With a custom 500 grain bullet and a firmly tamped load of powder I could not only precisely hit a target, I could maintain a high degree of accuracy for 6 shots without as much as a wipe of the bore.  Next to the laid out ammo was a cleaning rod with a moistened patch ready to go.

 

I tossed a bit of grass in the air doping the wind. I looked over at Linn and waved my bandanna to get his attention, repeating the tossing of grass into the air.  The smoke was blowing away from us, but the wind was moving diagonally toward us.  I adjusted my rear sight 2 clicks to the left and turned my attention back to the house.  The men in the wagon would be approaching soon.  I took my scope out and extended it trying to see anything my  eyes might miss at this distance.  As I looked from window to window I saw Calico Mary looking out.  I thought I could see the fear on her face, but knew that was my imagination.  That wildcat wasn't scared of anything.

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Doc Ward crept up almost silently next to Flint. Flattening out on the ground, he held a Scottish dirk in his hand. Using the long knife to gesture his intent, Doc spoke just loud enough to be heard. "We have all the sentries. So long as no replacements are due out, we're in good shape. I'll take Manassas Jack and Boots Cassidy around to the back of the house. Anyone that comes out that way, and we'll put a rope around 'em if we can. Otherwise, we'll keep it silent if we can..." Spotting Flint's glass in hand, Doc asked, "See anything down there we should be aware of?" Flint nodded. "I'm positive I saw Mary and another person in the window of the room to the left. We need to be careful about that. If you would, pass that along to the preacher on your way." Nodding, Doc eased back and started moving toward Parson Keller.

 

Moving up quietly next to Keller, Doc relayed what Flint had told him, before explaining his plans, again gesturing with the dirk. Keller nodded his understanding, then smiled over at his friend. "Is that a knife or a short sword?" Looking at the knife himself, Doc laughed quietly, "Whichever I need it to be. I also have something shorter, for emergencies, if need be." Doc bent his leg and tugged his pant leg up, tugging the sgain dubh from his sock. "So I see," Keller replied. "Doc, you make me wonder about you. I never saw you carry a weapon until this mess started, unless it was one of your shotguns to go after some birds, and now..." Keller, shook his head in mock disbelief, a grin on his face. Doc returned the grin. "I keep telling everyone, I just want to be left alone to read a book." Keller shook his head again, asking, "How are you going to explain that to Sarah Jane?" Doc started to say something in reply, then stopped. As Doc moved away, Keller stifled a laugh. He was sure the man was blushing.

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There are charlatans and bunco-artists who pretend to skills they don't have.

There are those fakirs and swamis who promise to read minds or foretell the future.

Most of it is hokum, most of it is bunk.

There are those with gifts not of this world, wise women mostly, mountain witches and the like:  had one their gift of listening, it might have proven interesting to listen to the equine thoughts of a certain mule.

Ophelia had her picket-pin between her teeth, and she was quietly, persistently, working it to the north and then to the south; when she worked a little slack, she turned and began worrying it to the east, and then to the west:  persistence paid off, she raised her head, the pin between broad yellow teeth, then she dropped it, got the picket line between her teeth and gnawed meditatively.

She'd smelled smoke and she did not like smoke.

She remembered the smell of smoke just before the branding iron hit her, just before her hind legs slammed out and caught a man just right, sending him over a rail fence without killing him.

She'd spun and driven her forehooves into the other fellow, and his fortunes were not as generous: when we focus energy on a small area, the energy penetrates more deeply, and the full-on weight of a mule, focused through the steelshod hooves and muscle-contoured forelegs, was more than enough to cave in the rib cage and do very unkind things to the underlying organs.

Yes, Ophelia was a killer, or at least Ophelia had killed:  she'd been pursued, shot at, she'd known what it was to hide and evade, and her quick mind -- a mule's intelligence is significantly better than a horse's -- her quick mind told her she could live if she could continue to evade, and hide, and outrun.

It would take too much time to describe her travels and travails, her discovery and the resultant friendship; suffice it to say that she started out well far north and west of the Preacher's hacienda, and that she'd made the acquaintance of a fellow outcast, a woman who rode a huge black horse, a woman with pale eyes, a woman wore disguise as easily as she might wear another dress: in the guise of one of the White Sisters, she'd delivered Ophelia to where she needed to be, and our story has now returned to women who know things -- but, like I said, that would be too long a tale, and we're trying to keep up with the escapee Ophelia.

The preacher frowned a little, turned, and found he suddenly had a whole face full of bristled, damp nose, snuffing loudly at his:  he considered ordering her to go away, but before he could utter the command, Ophelia folded up and lay down beside him, close enough to roll over against him ever so slightly and give a groaning sigh of contentment.

Just what I need, he thought sourly, a cuddle-mule!

"Don't spoil my aim," the Preacher muttered as his only comment.

 

 

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Calico and White Eagle spent the entire day talking, there wasn’t much else they could do.  They told each other about their homes, their families, their childhoods….White Eagle expressed his sympathy when she told him about the death of her parents, but didn’t say much more about his mother.  Calico wasn’t about to pry, if he wasn’t comfortable with talking about it, that was certainly his choice.  He also only had one sibling, a younger sister, but aside from that they had grown up in two entirely different worlds, and Calico was fascinated by his stories.  She’d always thought that the indians in the area were a little on the wild side, but White Eagle was a complete gentleman.  Even when she had to use the chamber pot in the far corner of the room, he had the courtesy to turn his back.  The guards had refused to consider letting her out to use the outhouse, so she hadn’t had much choice.

 

Dinner wasn’t any better than breakfast, if anything it was even worse.  Calico hadn’t wanted to eat whatever the slop in that bowl was, but the grumbling in her gut finally won out over her taste buds.  When they were done choking down the whatever it was, White Eagle had taken both bowls over to the door so the guards could grab them, then came back and sat down even closer to Calico then he had before.  For the first time, she was a little nervous….he’d behaved himself perfectly so far, but how much did she really know about this half-breed?  She’d heard horror stories all her life about indian braves doing…well, something horrible….to white woman, but she wasn’t exactly sure what that was.  She didn’t really want to find out either…but he was being so nice, and he was nice to look at as well, and easy to talk to.   She didn’t try to scoot over and increase the distance between them, but he also didn’t come any closer, at least until late in the evening when neither of them could hardly keep their eyes open any longer.  “Would you like to sleep next to me again….I mean, just to keep each other warm…” he asked.  It made as much sense as it had last night, but she still couldn’t understand why he was blushing again.

 

After they ate the next day’s so called ‘breakfast’, White Eagle needed to relieve himself so Calico took the opportunity to see what was outside the small window.  What she saw at first was no consolation, too many men walking around the buildings outside, and far too much distance between the house she and White Eagle were being held and the nearest trees that could provide much cover.  Then staring the other direction as far as she could, to her surprise she caught a quick glimpse off in the distance of what looked like J Mark Flint and Preacher Keller, low to the ground and trying to remain hidden.  Hope sprang up in her for a moment, then just as quickly she dismissed it as wishful thinking.  No way could just the two of them be enough to get her out of there….Gardner had way too many men, the odds were not in favor of just two men, no matter how good they were with their firearms.  She must have imagined it, but just in case, she was prepared to do whatever it took to get out of there alive.  White Eagle had finished taking care of business by then, and was just sitting down again.  Quickly kneeling down next to him, she whispered, “There’s a small chance someone from my town may be out there…not sure, but if I’m right, are you ready to try and fight our way out of here if we get the chance?”

 

White Eagle didn’t answer, just slowly nodded then reached into his medicine bag and pulled out that little arrowhead….the only weapon they had available.

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White Eagle hesitated, then reached into his medicine bag again:  he withdrew a white shell, about the size of a man's thumbnail, and handed it to Calico.
Surprised, Calico took it, ran her finger along its rim.

"It is not sharp," White Eagle said slowly, "it is ... you."

He turned, looked out the window again.

"We are watched."

"I figured that," Calico grumbled. "At least they didn't tie us up again."

White Eagle looked long into the distance and whispered, "Hastsehogan."

"What?"

Calico watched as White Eagle looked into the distance again.

She blinked, puzzled.

"Why is a mule coming toward us?  And what's that smoke?"

"Hastsehogan watches," White Eagle said quietly. "Nayanazgeni is with him."  He looked at Calico, turned, leaned back against the wall. 

"I do not know the mule."

 

The hardest part of any operation is the wait.
I knew Doc had to get the wagon squared away, then they'd have to drive in and come boiling out from under the tarp.

I wished for a glass -- Flint had one, and a good one by the look of it, but there was too much distance between us for easy talking.

I knew he'd seen something important.

Ophelia was warm and solid against my side, and I was starting to like having her rolled up against me, and she decided to hoist herself upright and trot down toward the very center of where we were watching.

I watched her go, disappointed, but a little relieved.

I could stand my side missing its warmth, but with Ophelia no longer rolled up against me, I didn't have to worry about a twitch throwing my aim off.

 

 

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Manassas Jack, Boots Cassidy and Doc Ward moved as quickly as they could to approach the old house from the rear. As they worked their way around they used the smoke to their advantage where they could, and otherwise made use of every bit of cover. As they moved around the side, they could see where a three sided shelter and a paddock had been built for horses. The men crept to the fence and one at a time moved through as the others covered. They then moved to the back of the shelter, keeping spacing between themselves as they moved. Doc took the lead, dirk in his left hand, pistol in the right, quickly moving to the back of the shelter.

 

Motioning for Boots to go to the right, Doc slowly crept to the left, Dropping to his stomach before sliding out far enough to get a look around the side. Doc saw a tall, thin man leaning against the corner of the building, his attention on the fires that were burning off on the hillside. Doubting any of the three could get a loop around him, and worried of a shout if they did, Doc holstered his pistol, putting the thong in place. Considering it's use, Doc looked at the dirk, before sliding it into its scabbard. Waiting to get Jack's attention, Doc gave held up a single finger, then pointed, and motioned Jack to come closer.

 

Sliding the smaller knife from inside his boot, Doc stood and slowly crept toward the unaware man, glancing down to plan each footfall. As he got close, Doc slid the knife into his belt to secure it for the moment. Doc only paused a moment before quickly grabbing the man from behind, hands going around to cover the sentry's mouth as he forced his elbows between the man's shoulder blades, levering his head backward. As he did so, Doc drove a boot heel into the back of the man's knee, forcing him back and down. Jack was around the corner in a flash and the two dragged the man backward, Jack showing his roping skills. He had the man bound hand and foot, with a bandanna forced into his mouth and another piece of cordage holding it in place in very short order. Boots came back to report that there were only a few unsaddled horses in the shelter itself.

 

Doc slid the sgain dubh back into its sheath in his boot. Taking a breath, Doc exhaled, "Now we wait."

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Anna Mae rested her forehead on the altar rail.

She was not alone.

More than one soul came into the Church, and offered their words, their wishes, and in some cases, their silent tears:  they well remembered their pastor's quiet words in moments of difficulty, when he observed that tears are the prayers we offer when we have no words.

An anonymous hand rested on her shoulder, warm, gentle.

 

Calico leaned back against the wall, closed her eyes, leaned her head back against the bare boards, took a long breath.

Waiting, she thought, is the hardest.

Waiting, and not knowing what's coming next!

She fisted both hands, wishing for the means to strike out, wishing for the means to flatten her enemy, to swing a clout, a quirt, a war club and belt the deserving soul upside the head and just plainly FLATTEN him --

A hand, warm, gentle, rested on her shoulder, and she felt White Eagle beside her:  he settled in beside her, not touching, save only for the hand on her shoulder, the touch of an understanding soul.

 

Anna Mae raised her head, biting her bottom lip:  she reached up, laid her hand on her comforter's and whispered, "I'm glad you're here."

 

Calico whispered "I'm glad you're here," and reached up and across, and laid her hand on White Eagle's.

 

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Sarah Jane stepped into the church, looking around at the others there in prayer. A surprising number to her, given the size of the town, and the fact that it was not a Sunday. Seeing a man she did not recognize stood with his hand on Anna Mae's shoulder, looking down at her in a concerned, paternal manner. As Sarah Jane walked forward, he glanced up, smiled and as she got close began walking almost silently down the aisle between the pews, tipping his hat as he passed.

 

Reaching the alter rail, Sarah Jane carefully knelt next to her closest friend. Glancing over, Anna Mae smiled to see Sarah Jane. Leaning toward her, Sarah Jane whispered, "I don't know what sort of prayer to say for a man who doesn't believe." Anna Mae gave a look of understanding, responding in a whisper of her own, "One from your heart, I believe that is what matters."

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No wagon, you idiot.

He told you there would not be a wagon.

He said they were going to go among the enemy.

Stop holding onto old orders like they're precious!

Preacher Keller closed his fists, slow, hard, crushing his grip until a knuckle popped, then another; he opened his hands, took a steadying breath, looked back down, looked over at Flint.

Flint looked as sleepy as a cat on a sunny windowsill.

No.

Not a cat.

A painter, a catamount, a mountain panther:  relaxed, drowsy looking, but utterly, absolutely, with no doubt whatsoever, deadly.

Preacher Keller watched his mule trot industriously behind the building where he'd seen two faces in the window, swinging her tail and swinging her ears, looking around.

Idiot mule!

 

White Eagle smiled.

A long nosed face appeared in the glassless window, shoved in:  White Eagle rubbed its nose, murmured quietly in his native tongue:  the mule closed her eyes with pleasure and rubberlipped a quiet greeting.

Calico brought her feet under her, rose, blinking.

"That's the Preacher's mule!" she said quietly.

The mule with drew, drifted a little, shoving her side against the window:  White Eagle quickly unbuckled the saddlebag, reached in, seized a wrapped bundle, tossed it to Calico.

Cloth flapped loose and she snatched the package from the air and her belly growled: it smelled like good fresh baked bread, and she looked up as White Eagle set a canteen quickly, carefully on the floor.

He turned with a pistol in his one hand, a box of cartridges in the other, and a quiet smile on his face.

"Your Preacher," he said, "is an interesting man."

One more dive into the saddlebag and he came up with a sheathed knife.

His smile went from quietly pleased to absolutely wolflike.

"I think I like your Preacher."

He handed Calico the pistol.

They put the cloth wrapped bundle on the floor, opened it:  White Eagle split the bread down the middle and Calico blinked, delighted, for it wasn't just bread, it was a sandwich, and a good thick one it was.

They looked toward the door, looked at one another:  each took half a sandwich in one hand, an un-gentle persuader in the other, and cat footed toward the door.

They ate in silence, they drank from the canteen:  fortified, they waited.

The mule stood patiently, drowsing in the sun.

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Pausing for a moment, Sarah Jane thought, then asked, "Who was the man with his hand on your shoulder comforting you? I've never seen him before." Anna Mae's eyes showed her surprise. "I didn't look up. I thought it was you when you I saw you kneel next to me." Sarah Jane shook her head. "He was tall, thin, very kindly looking, with the look of a gentleman. Wearing a long black coat, a string tie and a white planter hat?" Anna Mae cocked her head, and her breathing quickened for a moment as she looked at Sarah Jane, then glanced behind her to see if the man were still visible. Sarah Jane also glanced, but neither saw a man fitting the description. Anna Mae paused for a long moment, her head shaking side to side in a very slow manner, as if in disbelief. "I don't... I don't know anyone alive as you describe."

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I opened my pocket watch, not to see the time, but to communicate with  Linn.  Using the inner lid, which was polished to a mirror finish I lazily flashed it in his eyes until he looked my way.  As I pointed my rifle at the front door he nodded and did the same.  His mule had been the best entertainment of the day, but the sun was getting too high and the sentries would be missed.  I could feel the energy in the air even as my heart and breathing slowed to a sleep like state.  As soon as Cody pulled up with the wagon with Matthias,  the race was on.

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No word was heard about the whereabouts of Mary.  The towns folk were doing their best to continue day to day activities but the tension was apparent.  Calamity and Lorelei chatted briefly between watches, wondering and waiting.  They were hoping for the best, but still edgy about what the future might hold.  Clara had brought a round of sandwiches for the watch team.  She too was weary of the unknown. 

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 The Captain suggested that Rye and his pards leave to go help out the folks in Stone Creek. "Leave the prisoners here with me" said the Captain. They mounted up and headed for Stone Creek not knowing what to expect. All they knew is trouble was brewing and Rye's friends needed help. "I suggest we be very careful when we get close to town, there may be some guards posted to watch who comes into town and they may not be exactly a welcoming party" said Rye. "Yuma Sam said, "Maybe we could split up and come in from different directions". Rye said, "Yea and we also gotta watch out fer Doc, Cody and Preacher Keller. They're all good shots with rifles and they may not let us get too close. They may mistake us for the bad guys"! 

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On a hillside hundreds of yards in front of the Gardner house, J. Mark Flint and Pastor Linn Keller watched from their hidden positions as a wagon with two men sitting in it rolled toward the house. Rifles trained on the house, they watched carefully for any movement. The wagon was loosely covered by a tarpaulin. Behind them, fires burned through the woods. Behind the house, Doc Ward, Boots Cassidy and Manassas Jack waited patiently for anyone to come out the back of the house, guns at the ready

 

As the wagon crept forward. four men sweated under the tarp. Sheriff Cody sat at the reins, but his eyes were scanning the house. Next to him, Matthias Gardner sat, hands cuffed and ties around the waist to the wagon seat. For all that, he appeared impassive, almost bored at what was going on. Sheriff Cody would quietly speak about what he was seeing around him, describing the house, the windows and more. Sheriff Cody spotted Ophelia and mentioned to the men to be careful, that she would be off to their left.

 

Rolling as close as he dared, Cody stopped the wagon. "HELLOOOO THE HOUSE!!!"

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Calico's mouth went dry and she felt her stomach shrivel around the only good meal she'd had in far too long.

She glanced at the canteen, then to the doorway:  she was on the far left, away from the mule's window, White Eagle was halfway between the small, glassless window and the door.

White Eagle frowned, looked at the wooden bar dividing the window, making escape impossible:  he seized the wood, set moccasined feet against the window sill, crouched a little:  Calico saw the cords stand out in the backs of his weather-tanned hands.

His surge was almost unnoticeable, but the result wasn't:  the dried wood broke in the middle, White Eagle fell back, rolled, came up on his feet, facing the door, knife low and ready:  he glanced at the window, took two steps toward the door, placed a hand flat against the wall beside the door frame.
Calico looked at the window.
They could get out ... it would be a squeeze, but they could get out.

The mule, surprised, danced back a little, then shoved her whole head through the now-expanded portal, blinking hopefully.

 

I lowered my cheek to the rifle's comb.
The wagon was part of the plan after all.

Was I not laying on my belly I would have kicked myself.

I misheard, or most likely wasn't paying attention well enough -- with reinforcements I thought the wagon was discarded in favor of infiltration -- I damned my wandering mind and concentrated on the building, on the men coming out the front.

I barely heard the challenging hail that brought forth the hated enemy.

Our people had moved like corporeal ghosts, seizing sentries, taking down individual enemy, even at this distance I recognized them, and I knew this was critical.

It would not do to put lead into our troops.

I should have suggested an identifier, I thought: a contrasting arm band, maybe a wild rag tied around an upper arm.

Too late now.

I almost smiled.

Why do these good ideas always come along too late to be useful?

I heard the set trigger's metallic click and realized that while my mind was wandering, my hands were attending the work of war, and a man came around the front of the building with a shotgun, raised it.

My breath died in my lungs and the world froze and the sight came steady and I saw the little spirit level was dead center and I'd adjusted for range and for windage and I knew this first shot from a cold barrel would go exactly where I wanted it to and my finger uncurled and started to extend and began to curl back to caress that whisper-light front trigger and  a healthy charge of soft coal ignited deep in its metallic throat and my octagon barrel Sharps shoved back into my shoulder and the fight was on.

 

Anna Mae remembered her husband's cautioning words.
She turned, looked the opposite direction, her stomach shrinking.

She looked at her husband's long barrel shotgun and knew this wasn't the right tool, so she picked up his '73 rifle, eared the hammer back:  she tapped its crescent butt plate sharply against the parapet, the sharp woody sound carrying well across the street.

Anna Mae raised two fingers to her eyes, pointed due east, then turned, two fingers to her eyes, pointed due west:

Riders from two directions.

A whistle from the street, voices:  she knew the word was being passed:  she looked from one approaching group to another, her hands tightening on walnut and blued steel, and she wished most sincerely that her big strong husband was there beside her.

 

My middle finger hauled back on the set trigger as my thumb brought back the hammer to full stand:  I dropped the breech block, the mouth-smoking empty flew out, I shoved in a fresh hull from between my fingers, closed the lever easily, not wanting to slam the action and risk that light front trigger's accidental release.

I'd learned to be miserly with my rounds, even in battle, I'd learned not to turn Blue Whistler loose unless it was looking at the enemy, because a round wasted is a round I just might need in the worst possible way.

 

Feminine hands shaded feminine eyes; ladylike hands cupped behind ladylike ears.

The eastward group of riders knew they were spotted, and halted, and one came forward, a familiar figure.

Sarah Jane threw her arms wide, one hand open, the other gripping a rifle.

"Rye, you ugly old horse thief!" she almost screamed, relief releasing her new-found vernacular.  "Am I glad to see you!"

Rye swung out of the saddle with the ease of a born horseman, blinked, puzzled:  the last time he'd seen Sarah Jane, she was in a respectable dress and round-lens spectacles and had an armload of books.

"Now what in the world," he asked, "is a librarian doin' in a man's drawers clear out here?"

 

 

 

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A man with a shotgun appeared and Linn's rifle bellowed, he had the duty to cover the left, mine was to the right and I waited.  A rifle poked out of a window  and I fired as the figure holding it centered up in my sights, automatically I reloaded while I scanned the scene for my next target.

 

As our friends exited the wagon, Sheriff Cody shoved Matthias down into the floorboard and cracked the whip, sending the wagon on its way.

 

The door splintered from the bullets going through it from both directions, I took careful aim and blew away the upper hinge, Quickly reloading and repeating the shot on the middle hinge.  As I prepared for my nest shot I saw the lower hinge blast though the door and I changed my aim to the door knob.  With the set trigger pulled I breathed out through pursed lips, ever so slowly stopping and settling the front sight and I felt the push of the Sharps in my shoulder.

 

I set the Sharps down and grabbed my long barrelled 73,  Emptying it in the vicinity of the doorway in a matter of under 5 seconds.  I held on the edge of the roof and dropped bullets in with surprising accuracy.

 

I took the prepared cleaning rod and ran it through the bore of the Sharps.  I returned to scanning for targets.

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Doc Ward would have used a booted foot thrust hard against the locked rear door to break it, however, he knew his leg was still not up to the task. As Doc gripped his dirk tightly, he launched himself to send his shoulder into the door and the anticipated tumble inside, the door opened, and the face of a swarthy muscular man showed as much surprise as Doc's own as the two men slammed into each other. Doc, being taller, and a strong man from working with horses, hit the shorter man high in the chest with his shoulder. Being prepared to hit the door, while the swarthy man was simply seeking an exit from which to engage the fight, Doc's shoulder bowled the man over, sending the rifle he held clattering back into the house.

 

Rolling over the man, Doc rolled on his shoulder and came up. Even as the man rolled to his stomach to attempt to push himself up, Doc used both hands to drive the dirk down into him, causing a gout of blood to fly. The power of the downward thrust drove the air from the man's lungs, even as it drove through one collapsing it, leaving the man to lay coughing and struggling, gasping for air. As Doc was scrambling, Boots Cassidy was leaping over he and the dying man, pistol barking and echoing in the confines of the mudroom that lay at the back of the house, killing another man who was attempting to recover from the surprise of what he had seen.

 

Doc tugged the dirk from the man as his struggles slowed, and Manassas Jack pushed past. Standing, Doc looked around, breathing heavily, his teeth bared in a grimace at the effort. The blood on his face and the bloody long blade in his hand gave Doc Ward a nearly diabolical countenance as he glared around him for threats. All three men focused on the door out of the mudroom. They could hear shouts from inside, panicked shots, and the occasional echoed boom of heavy rifles from he distance. Jack pointed to Doc, then the door knob, then himself and Boots, before pointing at the door itself, then pressed his back against the wall next to the door. Doc Ward, standing on the far side, reached across for the handle, preparing to pull the door toward himself if it would open at all.

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Rye and his pards saw smoke rising in the distance, they estimated about 500 yds ahead. "What the hell is going on?" asked Cat no expecting an answer because none of them were aware of what was going on. They slowed up to a walk and were very careful of their surroundings. " I suspect that maybe Flint, Doc and Cody were up to something", said Rye as they moved slowly forward. They decided when they got about half way they would split up. Cat would go to the left, Sam to the right and Rye would ride straight ahead. They all dealt with danger before and were aware that anyhting could happen.

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A puff of dirt kicked up 50 yards short of Linn Keller.  I shouted in my most commanding tone for him to drop back below the crest.  He looked at me and I motioned with my arm for him to fall back even as I dropped down and did the same. Moving back with the rifles I felt the tug on my coat of a bullet passing through.  I cursed as I clumsily dropped the Winchester and reached down to grab it, but my hand wouldn't work.  I dropped to a knee and tried to force it and managed to close my fingers around the receiver, but the blood  caused it to slip again.

 

Keller raced over and I felt his shoulder strike my gut as he lifted me up and raced back down the hillside another 100 yards before setting me down as gently as he could.  "You move pretty good for a holy man"

 

He sliced through my coat and shirt and tore the sleeves away.

 

Quickly he put pressure on the upper arm with a make shift tourniquet.  "Wound  isn't too bad, looks like it came from a pistol caliber rifle.  But your arm is broken and I can't say how bad."

 

I smiled through gritted teeth.  "Finish the job." and I handed him the sharps still held tightly in my right hand.

 

I whistled three times and Thunder trotted up.  I loosened the bandanna until my arm was bleeding slowly and slipped it into my shirt like a sling.  I swung up in the saddle and lightly wrapped the reins around the pommel.  With my heels I put Thunder in to a fast canter, finding a rhythm that didn't hurt too badly.  I rode back towards the road with a colt in my hand.

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Flint's teeth set as I tended his arm.
I was neither gentle nor courteous, the man was hit and I had to stop the blood, stop it I did: he never changed expression, at least not until he curled his lip and whistled, and I read death on the man's face.

Hurt or not, he got on his horse:  pistol in hand, he turned and headed to where he could do the most good.

I strode back for my Sharps.

I was mad now.

I was good and ready to kill with my bare hands mad, but someone had him with a lever gun and that meant I was in range, and that meant I was going to address the matter.

I picked up my Sharps and saw a man bringing a rifle to bear on me.

It was the last mistake he ever made: nerveless fingers dropped the rifle and he sagged a little and then went over sideways.

My hands were swift, sure: I'd lost the other two cartridges I'd had between my fingers:  I looked around, quickly, spotted them, bent to snatch them up just as something buzzed angrily where I'd been standing upright a moment before.

I went to one knee, turned: the front sight found the impolite soul who turned loose a lead bumblebee in my direction, and I gave him half a thousand grains of a Sharps headache, then I turned back, still on one knee, and looked back down at that dirty little town with the dirty sons of perdition who'd shot my friend and troubled my wife, and it was in me to scream rage and attack on a run, but I heard Flint's voice -- "Finish it!" -- and finish it I would.

Where did those two come from? I wondered, and I realized there was no one behind -- no one who should be there, anyway -- I turned, eyes busy, knowing that I had to finish the job, and stay alive long enough to do it.

No one behind.

Let's see who I can reach out and touch.

 

Calico stuffed the revolver in the small of her back, took two running steps, grabbed the window sill and jumped.

She got most of the way out before she overbalanced: she fell, tumbled, came up on the balls of her feet, her hand reaching back for the Preacher's spare Smith & Wesson.

Still there!

Ophelia cocked her head a little, regarding Calico with a solemn yet hopeful look, as if wishing she could produce a stick of peppermint candy.
White Eagle thrust out a leg, did a little hop, slid out:  he looked at Ophelia, at Calico, at the wagon, at men yelling and firing into a building.

Calico felt more than saw his obsidian eyes, he looked from her to the mule, and Calico did not need to be told twice.

She thrust a boot into the stirrup, shoved hard against packed dirt, powered into the saddle, pointed Ophelia's nose uphill.

 

That's Calico, I thought, and someone else rolled out the window -- a stranger, but Calico was in arm's reach, the man had a knife, made no move toward her.

It looked like they said something -- couldn't tell at this distance but I could tell they knew one another -- she swung up into my saddle and Ophelia turned her nose toward me, started uphill at a good pace, and the fellow with the knife ran beside her, pacing her easily.

I saw a gunbarrel poke out the window after them,  saw it fall out the window as its former owner fell back into the room with a bad case of indigestion.

I don't reckon a good dose of Sharps lead agreed with his belly.

I dropped the breech block, dipped my hand into my coat pocket, grabbed another three rounds, set them between the fingers of my off hand:  I took a long breath, blew it down the breech and through the bore to keep the fouling soft, loaded another Army issue round, closed the lever.

500 grains of lead and a full charge of soft coal was not kind to the shoulder but I did not care.

Another face at the window, this time a pistol: he got off a round before mine got him, but his shot went wide, I saw its dust kick up as the bullet howled off to who-knows-where.

I stood, so Ophelia could see me, whistled, then I turned and drove the muzzle of my Sharps into some fellow with a pistol pointed at me:  the octagon barrel punched hard into him just under the center of his breast bone and I hit him hard enough to bring him off his feet and the rifle went off and the BOOM was kind of muffled some and he kind of puffed up for a moment and then collapsed just deader'n a politician's promise.

I do dislike bad manners, and it is ill manners indeed to come up behind a man like that.

 

Rye kissed at his horse, picked up the trailing reins, walked on into town with Sarah Jane on his arm, his cohorts following: very obviously, these were what the military mind would consider "Friendly Forces."

The men were surprised to find the ladies of the town coming out to meet them -- ladies, yes, but dressed in men's britches and coats, ladies bearing the less than ladylike tools of safety, ladies very apparently drawing the line in the dirt and saying to all comers, "Thus far, and no farther" -- and then backing it up.

Rye tilted his hat back and scratched at his thatch and wondered aloud, "What in Sam Hill is goin' on here?" and Sarah Jane laughed and said "Rye, you have no idea!"

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As Doc reached to grab the handle to the door into the main house from the mudroom, bullets started splintering the wood as they flew through the door, causing Doc to jerk back, spinning away, cursing. Doc stepped away from the door, still off to the side as he slid the still bloody dirk down in his belt. Pulling his pistol from his shoulder holster as well as the one on his hip, Doc began firing rounds through the door. Manassas Jack stepping back to follow suit with his own pistol, shooting from the opposite direction. Doc's nostrils flared as he breathed in and out, his eyes large and intensely focused, his lips tight over his teeth in a frown. Boots Cassidy covered as the two men reloaded as quickly as possible. The empties tinkling on the floor and the cylinder's clicking seemed unnaturally loud in Doc's ears, echoing through the ringing in them from caused by the gunfire. Doc gave the cylinder of one gun a quick spin before holstering it, then set to reloading the second. Checking the cylinder of the second pistol, Doc looked to see Jack finished and waiting.

 

Giving a nod, Doc again reached for the door handle and with a twist, jerked the door open and waited to follow as Boots and Jack flooded through. Looking around the room, they realized it was a pantry of sorts, with a steep stairway leading upward. It was then Doc recalled Old Man Hoover was said to have had a dozen kids, and a few of them had wives and kids, all living in the same giant house. Ideal for a large group like Gardner had seemed to put together, clearing it would take some work.

 

A man in gray clothing lay on the ground looking up at them, breathing heavily and holding his belly as blood seeped between his fingers. Doc reached down and grabbed the man's pistol out of reach, stuffing it in the back of his waistband, Jack emptied the man's rifle. The man's look was fearful and incredulous as they did. "Ya'll gonna help me?" Doc glanced down, then dropped to a knee. Instead of beginning to render aid, Doc started patting the man for hideout guns as he spoke. "Despite the fact you wouldn't do the same, if you're alive when this is over, I'll see what we can do." The man whined, insistent, "Please, Mister, I'm hurt bad." Doc nodded, "Yep. Sure are. But those are the risks when you pick up a gun and start shooting at other armed men."

 

Looking at Jack and Boots, Doc pointed at the stairs and asked, "Up?" Both men nodded and they started up the steep stairs, Doc in the lead. Doc took it as a good sign that he hadn't heard the booming of heavy rifles in some time, although he could hear the crack of pistol and smaller Winchesters going off with regularity. By the sound of it, someone was firing from the second floor, as the sound seemed to echo loudly to his ears. Doc could hear the rifle crack, the ringing in his ears, and the pounding of his heart, all seemingly to slow as the fury of battle began to rage inside him, and he began to feel the need to destroy whatever confronted him.

 

Stopping at the corner at the top to the stairs, Doc poked his head around for a glance and pulled back quickly as a man fired from the hall, much too slow. Doc thought he saw a second man at the end of the hall firing from the window before pulling his head back. Pushing his revolver around the corner, Doc fired three shots as fast as he could pull the trigger, before pushing himself around the corner and diving for the floor to fire again at the man shooting in his direction. Boots and Jack were right behind him and Doc watched the man's body jerk as dark spots appeared on a light colored shirt and the man seemed to pirouette before falling to the ground. The shooter at the window reacted far too slowly and was halfway turned around when bullets started finding their mark, even as the man between them spun. Trying to pull his Winchester in, the man was hit again and again, tumbling backward against the window, taking it out, frame and all, as he fell.

 

Standing, wiping the blood and sweat from his face with a sleeve, Doc reloaded his pistol, the fury mounting within him. Taking a deep breath Doc shouted in a booming, baritone voice. Only one word, loud and drawn out, echoing. "GARDNER!!!"

 

 

 

 

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I rode Thunder around the hill and to the house, ignoring the gunfire.  Thunder went right up the porch steps and I ducked under the doorway my eyes adjusting to the change in light.  I pressed a knee in and kicked a heel lightly and up the stairs we went.  Near the top of the stairs man leveled a rifle my way and I steered Thunder to the left and he kicked out catching the man in the throat.  I held my fire as he gurgled on the floor.  "GARDNER!" I heard from what had to be Doc Ward down the hall.  I dismounted and swatted Thunder and he left the house, pausing only to drop a load of unaged manure on the gurgling man.

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After Sarah Jane brought Rye and his pards up to snuff on what was happening, they all tipped their hats to Sarah Jane and took off for the house that all the trouble was brewing at. As they approached the big house shots were fired at them. They dismounted and looked for the smoke of gun fire. The bad guys had obviously staked out the house and had some guards posted. Rye took out his trusty Winchester and nailed one of the men that was peeking out from behind a tree! The bullet ripped through the guy's arm and knocked him down. Rye's next shot was fatal as the bullet got him right through the throat. Blood spurted out in all directions like a broken water pipe! Cat snuck up behind one of the so called guards and slit his throat with his 12" Bowie knife. Yuma Sam was in a gunfight from behind a rock with another one of them. A bullet tore into Sam's shoulder and caused him to drop his rifle. The no gooder raced toward Sam to make sure he was dead and when he got within 25 feet Sam hefted his Schofield and fired two quick shots into the man's torso, he groaned with pain and dropped to the ground. Sam stood over him and was contemplating a final blow to the head when he thought maybe they might want him alive if possible. Rye ran over to Sam and started to tend to his arm. "That bullet went clean on through your arm Sam, you'll be fine" said Rye as he tore off a piece of Sam's sleeve and used it for a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. "Looks like we got all the guards that were posted, but I don't know for sure and there's shooting going on in the house. We'd better stay here and keep our eyes peeled" said Rye.

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Anna Mae watched as Rye's men swarmed through town, watched the running gunfight, watched as they charged the house the intruders occupied.

Anna Mae felt something sour in the back of her throat as she realized they did not know that house had been taken over.

She watched hard men kick the door, pour inside:  there was the sound of muffled gunfire, shouts, a figure ran out the back door, turning to fire behind him at the house.

Anna Mae went to one knee, rested her husband's One of One Thousand over the parapet, sighted the way she'd been taught:  the fleeing felon turned, stopped, fired again, and so did the Preacher's sweet, gentle, ladylike wife.

Anna Mae cycled the lever, ignoring the spinning brass as it sang, smoking, closed the lever fully and swallowed.

Her husband's voice murmured in her memory:

"Never underestimate the power of a woman," he'd said quietly as they lay in an intimate moment, as he held her and stroked her hair, as she cuddled into him, feeling very womanly, very feminine, very protected:  she blinked, she realized she was holding her breath.

Anna Mae took a long, shivering breath, flinched as something spanged off the church bell above and behind her, turned her husband's Winchester toward the bloom of smoke from behind a building.

A moment later, a man spun around, rifle up, raised toward her.

Anna Mae's finger tightened on the trigger.

There were no more lead streaks on her church bell that day.

 

Miz Loreli turned as she heard footsteps, hurried, heavy, on the back porch.

She was in the saloon, in back:  she turned, wiped the hammers of her double gun back to full stand.

Someone hit the back door with a shoulder, seized the latch, pulled with a desperate effort.

"Don't try it!" Miz Loreli shouted, fading back, to the side, knowing if a shot came, it would probably come straight in, and she was right.

She gave the door both barrels, a quick left-right, blowing two holes through the desiccated wood:  something hit the porch boards, something like a body falling.

Miz Loreli thumbed the release, plucked out the empties, reached into her coat pocket and delicately picked up one, then another loaded rounds, dropping each daintily into its chamber, then she closed the action and waited. 

 

"Preacher!" Calico yelled, and the Parson reached for Ophelia's bridle.

He pulled her uphill from his rifle pit, that little natural depression that provided his excellent vantage, reached up as Calico came out of the saddle toward him:  he swung her down, turned to the black-eyed man with the familiar knife in hand.

The Preacher saw his own sheath in the man's belt.

"Name's Keller," he said, switching his Sharps to his left hand and shoving out his right.

"White Eagle," came the reply and the return grip:  tanned, stubby fingers held a good strength of grip.

"They held us both prisoner," Calico blurted, and then raised her bent wrist to her lips:  "Oh dear God I am so sorry I forgot and left your canteen back there --"

Her words were the sudden, run-together release of unbelievable tension, and Linn ran his arm around her, drew her close, laughed.

"Dear heart," she heard him say, his voice deep and distorted with her ear hard against his ribs, "I can get another!"

Ophelia, hopeful, laid her long jaw over the Preacher's shoulder and muttered a little, and Linn released Calico and reached into an inside pocket.

"You bum," he murmured, and Ophelia happily crunched the half-stick of peppermint candy.

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and as suddenly as the fight had started, it was over.  Zeb Gardner had miraculously escaped.  Matthias Gardner laid in the floorboard of the wagon three miles from the house as the horses milled about.  Doc Ward took a look at me and my bloody arm in the improvised sling.

 

"You okay there Flint?" he asked.

 

I leaned against a wall, the energy all drained from my body. "No Doc,  I could really use a drink about now."  I slid to the floor in a seated position.  "Go find Gardner and put a bullet through his head."   My head tipped forward and my eyes closed as I remembered the war "Sleep is a weapon, get it when you can for you never know what lies ahead."

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Doc Ward pulled out a flask of whiskey. Opening it, he took a drink. Handing it to Flint, Doc said “Medicinal, of course.” Flint took the proffered flask and took a long drink before raising it to offer it back. Waving his hand, Doc grinned, “Hang onto it, I think you can use the medicine.” Flint nodded his thanks and Doc turned away.

 

Looking for Sheriff Cody, Doc walked through the house, finding that after Zeb Gardner and Alice Slye fled, a number of their men simply surrendered. Other than Flint's wound, Lazarus Longshot had taken a burn from a bullet over his shoulder, and Badger Mountain Charlie had some powder burns from having a revolver discharge as he struggled for control of it. The revolver's owner hadn't fared as well.

 

Finding Cody, who was making sure the prisoners were being tended to before being transported to the jail in the wagon, Doc said, "There was a guy with a belly wound at the back of the house." Cody shook his head, and Doc nodded his understanding. Doc then asked "Any of them have any idea where Gardner went?" Cody shook his head again. "No, and I think the general consensus is they would tell. They have no use for a boss who will run out on them. They did say that Zeb, his son Nathaniel, Alice Slye, and a guy by the name of Michael, who had been partners with Johann, all escaped. They had a tunnel from the cellar. Exited behind the house to where horses were kept." Doc swore softly. "That means we missed them. Never expected a tunnel, I just assumed the shelter was to keep horses close for riding. I wonder if Matthias will have any idea."

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The boat rolled slowly side to side as it crossed over the waves.  I felt the sun on my face and smelled the salt in the air.

 

"Hello my love." I heard her say  I opened my eyes, but the light was bright and I could not focus "Maria? Is it you? am I dead?"

 

As my eyes adjusted I saw it was indeed Maria, still 25, still the same as she responded "You are not dead, but you need to wake up. It is not your time.  I will be waiting until that time comes."

 

"I want to stay here with you." I heard myself say.

 

Her hand ran through my hair "You can't,  not until your work is done.  Protect the weak, feed the poor and see that justice is done. I will see you soon enough."

 

I blinked and opened my eyes to see what was left of the house.  I struggled to stand up, leaning heavily against the wall.  As I nearly fell over Michigan Slim grabbed a hold of me. "You're heavier than you look Flint. Let me help you downstairs."

 

As we worked our way out of the house to the front porch I indicated that I had gone far enough. "Let me sit on the porch for a bit.  I believe I'll ride back to town in the wagon."  And with that I leaned against a post and closed my eyes hoping to see something, but instead only seeing the void.

 

 

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Rye and Yuma carried the wounded guard to the porch of the house and laid him down. Cody was coming out of the house with a prisoner and Rye said,"Here's another for ya Sheriff, I don't know how much longer he has but he may have some information we could use". Cody looked at the prisoner and said,"Drag him over to the jail, I doubt he'll be any help but I guess we'll see". Rye and Yuma carried him to the sheriff's office and gently put him down in the corner. He was starting to bleed pretty bad and they were stuffing rags and newspaper and anything they could to stop the bleeding and keep him alive. With a groan and a wheeze, he spit out blood and took his final breath! Rye said, "Let's get this bag of no good human flesh outta here".

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Once the word hit town that the battle was over, Calamity and the watch folks gathered at Sheriff Cody's office to exchange information.  Sheriff Cody and the men told of Mary's rescue and Lorelei and Anna Mae told of defending the town.  Even though Zeb, Nathaniel, Alice Slye and Michael had escaped, the town breathed a sigh of relief.  For the most part, the evil had been run out of town and peace could return again. 

 

As Calamity walked away from the Sheriff's office to her shop, Clara stopped her.  "Why don't we have a hoedown", asked Clara?  "I think the whole town would join in and have a wonderful time."  "That's a splendid idea", Calamity said, patting Clara on the shoulder.  "Let's bring it up to the ladies...............tomorrow, or maybe the next day.........or soon.  I think we could all use some rest first." said a weary Calamity.  Clara nodded her head in agreement and smiled.

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The jail was full of people, and the building was in chaos. Townspeople were coming and going, discussing events, giving statements and more. The cells were full. Sheriff Cody had turned the back room into an additional holding cell for the injured. A number of men sat, cuffed together in front of the cells. It had already been agreed that Cody, Doc Ward, Michigan Slim, Badger Mountain Charlie, Rye Miles, Yuma and Cat would rotate shifts to guard the men. A few men stood near the desk, as Cody tried to decide if he had grounds to charge them based on the information available. The majority of the sentries had never exchanged gunfire, many putting up little struggle at all. Several claimed they had no knowledge of any criminal wrongdoing. As Cody, Doc, Flint and others conferred, they compared notes and tried to decide on a best course of action for the individuals who were questionable.

 

Among those standing outside the cells was Matthias Gardner, standing next to several of his brother's hired men, his disdain for them apparent in his actions. While technically still under charge for conspiracy to commit murder, the information he had provided had been beneficial, and he had willingly gone along on the wagon, even after being told he would be cuffed and tied in place. He had also worked harder than most on the building of the livery, despite his genteel disposition, and had offered suggestions to Saul VanHoose to improve the design. Sheriff Cody was contemplating releasing him on a bond, keeping his belongings, including his money, at the jail. The only question was where Matthias would stay if he did so, because he was quite sure the townspeople wouldn't want to pay to keep him at the hotel.

 

Sarah Jane came into the jail, smiling with a bounce to her step. The fact that her husband had come away unscathed buoyed her spirits, and her attitude lifted the spirits of the townspeople. She carried a large basket of food for the lawmen, and some Arbuckle's coffee for them to make. Matthias Gardner, who had been leaning, stood up and nodded, simply saying "Madam," before turning his attention back to Sheriff Cody. The other men looked her up and down, barely disguising their admiration of her. As soon as Sarah Jane set the basket down, she turned to Doc and smiled, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek, not wanting to interfere.

 

Standing next to Matthias, was a particularly burly man. Almost six inches over six feet, with a thick neck, wide shoulders, flattened nose and bushy eyebrows, he was intimidating in his presence, but had remained quiet until seeing Sarah Jane's face. He laughed and elbowed the man on his other side, saying loudly enough to be heard, "Why, I know her! She's a tramp from over at The Junction. I'd know that scar on that cheek anywhere! Saw the guy do it. I had to teach her a lesson with my belt one time my ownself." Looking, Sarah Jane blanched, and began trembling, stepping behind Doc. The jail went quiet, and the voice of Matthias Gardner, soft, polite, with a trace of accent, was as audible as if he had shouted. "My good man, I would advise you to cease speaking. Your continued good health may depend on it." The man guffawed. "She may be dressed all fancy like she thinks she's a lady, but I'm telling you, it's that tramp Sarah Jane from The Junction. Looks like she's got a bunch of these town idiots suckered."

 

Doc Ward could feel Sarah Jane trembling violently as she pressed hard against his back. Doc felt himself go cold, his eyes going flat as he stared at the man. Matthias Gardner took a step away from the man, saying "I would tread lightly, you are on very dangerous ground, friend." Seeing the look on Doc Ward's face, the man sneered, "What's it to you, lawman?" Doc Ward spoke calmly, his voice quiet, but intense. "You taught her a lesson with your belt, did you" It was a statement, not q question. "A man your size and weight, and you beat her with a belt, with the buckle of the belt, because she didn't get back from the Saloon with a bottle of whiskey fast enough to please you." The man stood suddenly alone, others pushing away from him, but he stood, defiant in his belligerence. Doc continued, "You left scars on her back and sides as she curled up, trying to protect herself from the blows, defenseless against you. Scars she carries to this day." The man glared at Doc, but swallowed hard before saying, "Yeah, what of it? Like I asked, What's it to you, lawman? Doc pressed Sarah Jane toward Sheriff Cody, who took her arm, feeling her trembling himself. Stepping around the desk to stand in front of the man, Doc looked up at him, his gaze showing he had no fear of the massive man. "The tramp is now a respected member of this community who has worked hard to better it, and to help all of those around the town who have needed the help. She is also my wife."

 

Doc's attack was sudden, vicious, and blindingly fast, striking with a continuous blur of motion. The man started to sneer, and didn't see the fist that seemed to come from nowhere, straight up under his jaw. Driving his power up from the soles of his feet, Doc's fist slammed his mouth shut and broke teeth, even as it snapped his head back. Reversing direction, Doc struck down on the man's nose with the side of his fist, breaking it and showering both men with blood. Bringing his arm around in a circle, Doc shifted his weight and drove his elbow into the right side of the man's jaw, just below the ear, dislocating it. As the man's head twisted to the side, Doc brought his right fist around, shifting his weight, catching the man flush on the jaw. Stepping to the side slightly, Doc lifted and bent his leg, driving his heel into the side of the man's knee, causing a popping sound that was loud in the jail before the man finally cried out in agony as his knees hit the floor. Completely dazed, the man reached up with a massive hand to try to grab Doc, to press him away, but Doc grabbed the man's wrist and put his other hand at the man's elbow, forcing it straight and leveraging the man down to the ground.

 

As everyone watched, Doc lifted a booted foot and slammed it into the back of the man's shoulder, causing him to scream shrilly as it dislocated. Doc, his voice calm, said "Now you know what it feels like to be defenseless." Kicking at the already injured knee, Doc continued, "To be helpless." Putting his foot on the back of the man's neck, Doc added, "To be completely at the mercy of another. It isn't pleasant is it?" The man's only response was a whimper. Doc finally said, "I would break your neck, but you aren't worth it." With that, Doc released the man's arm and shoved him aside with his foot, where the man lay sobbing in pain. Looking around at the prisoners, his eyes wide and fiery, his voice still quiet, but intense... urgent... Doc asked "Is there anyone else who wishes to make a comment about my wife? I'll walk out on the street with you right now. Just say the word." The jail remained quiet until Matthias Gardner softly spoke, "There will be no others Deputy Ward. I did try to warn him." Turning his stare to Gardner, Doc blinked, as if coming from a trance. Gardner repeated himself, "There will be no others. You have made your point to them." Nodding, Doc turned to look down at the man on the floor. Pointing to four men, Doc said, "Get a blanket, drag him to the back. Doc Okie should be along at any time."

 

Once the man was dragged groaning into the back, Doc looked at Sarah Jane who still stood, with Cody, looking pale and terrified. Taking her hand, Doc walked from the jail with her. Turning her to face him, Doc said, "I'm sorry. There is that within me that abhors a bully. When I realized he was one of the men that..." Doc blinked back tears of his own at the thought of his wife in pain... "That hurt you, for no other reason than they could... I... It caused me to..." As Doc searched for words, Sarah Jane put two fingers to his lips. Smiling, her lips trembling slightly, Sarah Jane said "I've never had a man fight for my honor before you. I don't know what to say, other than I love you, my dearest husband."

 

 

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While Lorelei was at the general store, Cayenne Kay shared with her the part of the story where Ophelia participated, all on her own, in the rescue of Calico Mary and White Eagle.  She already knew that mules were infinitely smarter than horses, but what Ophelia did was brilliant, so she purchased a small bag of peppermint sticks and headed over to the parsonage.  After visiting a few minutes with Anna Mae and Preacher Keller, she inquired whether it would be alright if she went to see Ophelia and share some peppermint sticks with her. "Of course," responded Preacher Keller.

 

When Lorelei reached the corral, Ophelia immediately trotted over and put her head over the corral fence, whether it was because she smelled the peppermint or because she knew Lorelei had a connection with most animals is unknown.  Lorelei got out half of a peppermint stick and started a "conversation," such as it was with Ophelia. Ophelia took the peppermint and made some snuffling sounds while Lorelei talked to her about how she was a hero for helping save Calico Mary and White Eagle, and asked her, knowing full well she'd never get a full explanation, how she came to think of going up to the window where they were with the saddlebag containing food, water, and weapons.  Ophelia just made some more snuffling sounds like she was saying, "It was no big thing.  It needed to be done, and I was the only one that could do it at that moment." Lorelei just laughed and gave her one more piece of peppermint as though she had understood exactly what Ophelia had said.  Ophelia reached her head over the corral fence and laid it over Lorelei's shoulder for a few moments.  

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While Cat and Yuma took their turns watching the prisoners Rye took a walk over to the church to check on the piano. He had a small tool bag, more like a doctor's bag with his tuning hammer, some rubber mutes, a tuning fork a couple of screwdrivers, some pliers, a couple of wrenches and a knife. He walked up to the door and it was locked. He thought I wonder where the Pastor is? He knocked real hard on the big double front doors. Pastor Keller opened the door and looked groggy and beat! "Did I wake ya up?" asked Rye. Pastor said, "Yea rough night". It looks like you may be coming to check out the piano since you got that tool bag with you". Rye nodded and asked, "If you want to go back to sleep I understand, pounding on that piano might not be the most calming thing to hear". The Pastor laughed and said, "Actually it puts me to sleep! The repetition of the notes, one after another kinda puts me in a trance". Rye and the Pastor walked in the church and while the Pastor went up to his room Rye opened his doctor bag and took his tools out to get to work. The piano sounded awful, it was all out of tune and several keys were slow to respond and some were actually sticking. He had a job ahead of him, he'd be done in a couple hours so he immediately opened the top lid and removed the front of the piano. He also saw some mice droppings inside. "Damn church mouse" he said to himself!

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I leaned back in the straight back rocking chair, the closest thing to an indulgence I allowed myself here in my quarters.

Other than my wife.

She sat beside me in a brand new rocking chair of her own, a little lighter, a little more dainty.

Unlike my bare wood rocker, hers was prettied up: she'd made a colorful checkered-cloth cover for the back, and she had a matching, checkered-cloth-covered pillow for the seat.

Her hand was warm in mine and my eyelids were heavy and I murmured, "I am so very glad to be home!"

"I am so very glad you are home, husband."

We rocked, slowly, I kept my cadence matched with hers, my hand laid over to where I could rest the edge of my hand on her arm rest.

My rocker did not have arm rests.

I won't have a chair with arm rests, it interferes with a clean draw, and even here in the Parsonage, I wore a belted revolver.

God gave me reflexes and eyes and hands and a mind, and He expects me to use them -- kind of like the fellow in the flood who refused a passing boat -- "God will take care of me," he told the boatman, and when he stood in front of Saint Peter and expressed his surprise that God let him drown, St. Pete shook his head and declared, "He sent you a boat!"

On the other hand, I am a tired man and I felt the tension draining off me, soaking out of my hide, and I wondered what happens to the tension a man sheds at times like this, and I almost smiled at the thought of all that tension washing off me and soaking into the floor boards under me, making them shrink up and gap fiercely, and then I remembered someone telling me about taking her husband's shirt and sprinkling it lightly with water and hanging it so the wrinkles would fall out, and I asked if she was going to put a pan under the shirt to catch the wrinkles when they fell, and then I thought of the floor boards drawn up from those fallen-out wrinkles and Anna Mae's hand was warm in mine and I slowly, slowly allowed myself to relax, and I heard Rye's distant efforts on the piano, and I remembered home, long ago, how my Mama would play the piano and she would teach the young and they would repeat a note, or a measure, and Anna Mae's voice, distant, asking about getting a cat because there were mice in the church and I had strength enough to give a drowsy "Mm-hmm," and that's the last I recall until I woke up the next day with a quilt over me, with the smell of coffee in the air, with the dim and distant memory of someone saying "Thank you, Mr. Rye. The piano sounds lovely," or words to that effect, and a man's voice, gentle, a little rough edged, "Let him rest, he's earned it."

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