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Trouble Comes to Stone Creek

Calico Mary

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The two ranch hands trailed the cattle, only a few head, off the S Bar D. It was clear they were being pushed in that direction, but beyond that, the signs on the ground made little sense. It appeared there were horses being ridden by the rustlers, and they were wearing heavy burlap or something over their hooves, and they were working hard to push the cattle while staying far from them. As the cowboys continued to follow, it seemed the cattle were pushing straight toward Calico Mary's place.


A couple of hours later, they saw that one steer was culled from the other two. The cowhands found those two in a small pasture, protected from going far from all the fallen trees. Tracking the third, the cowhands eventually found what was left of it. A well placed bullet felled the beast, but then it was butchered in a very amateurish fashion, leaving much meat behind, and among them some of the best cuts. The horses then seemed to head toward Mary and Charlie's house before seeming to disappear altogether.


As they pulled up, one looked at the other. "Makes no sense to me. We best ride down and tell the sheriff."

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The Parson's file whispered along the froe's edge.

He had considerable experience sharpening with a file and preferred it over a stone.

A stone, he knew, was generally better if you were away from home -- home meant a work shed, and a work shed meant a vise, and a vise meant he could clamp his work and have both hands for the file -- but here, he was able to brace the froe one-handed and restore its edge with the other.

He worked slowly, taking his time; it was a way he disciplined himself, for he was inclined to act on impulse: given his own inclination, he knew, he'd likely look like an insane jackrabbit, bouncing from one thing to another and finishing nothing.

He set the froe against the block he'd been cleaving, picked up the maul: a little adjustment, a swing, another shingle clove free:  the Parson almost smiled, for it was rare he had good, straight-grained wood that split a full shake shingle with one lick.

He worked until he ran through the wood he'd designated as shingle material, then he picked up a smaller chunk and clove off another stack of shim shingles.

A man could always use shims when buildin' an he had ready takers for his work.

The Parson's shingles roofed two buildings here that he knew of, and he'd been told if he got tired of preachin' he could make a living cleaving shingles, and he'd smiled and nodded when he was told this, for he knew it was hyperbole: there wasn't that much a market, and damn neart everyone could split shingles if they'd set their minds to it.

He stacked his work neatly -- it made several impressive stacks -- enough to shingle off the barn he'd discussed with a rancher -- he'd come out, not knowing the rancher was out tending his cattle, so he'd off loaded the wood, he'd touched the edge of his froe, he took off his coat and set to work, and now, now that his belly was calling him unkind names for ignoring mealtime, he clucked at his nag and headed back toward town and the parsonage, satisfied that when the man built his barn, he could roof it.

The Parson made a mental note to gift the man with a sack of nails.


Once he'd gotten home, once he'd washed up and fixed a small noonday meal (a couple hours late), he turned to his Scripture.

It didn't feel right.

The Parson frowned, closed his worn-cover book, looked at his book shelf and his hand raised almost of its own accord.

He drew down one of his journals, let it fall open.

His bottom jaw thrust out some as he read his own words, written in his own hand:  he nodded, closed this book, set it back on the shelf, picked up the Scripture again.

He looked in the mirror.

"Is that what I'm supposed to learn today?"  he asked the reflection in the silvered glass, recalling the discussion with the former Union officer who'd been tormented with a guilty conscience, a man who sought his counsel.

He recalled the words he'd told the man, the words he'd inscribed in his journal that night, the words he read now, and remembered the crushing failure of being unable to extend a gift and have it accepted.

"You can't buy your way into heaven?"

He, and he alone, knew the crushing misery that lived behind his eyes:  he, and he alone, knew the torment of those wartime memories:  he, and he alone, flogged his spirit with a mental whip, bloodying his soul with self-imprecations.

"You can't buy your way into heaven," he whispered again, looking at the reflection and considering.

He sat down, leaned close to the glass, leaned closer, until his breath fogged the smooth surface.

"You're being selfish," he whispered.  "Stop it."

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The Sheriff's office was a cacophony of voices all trying to make their point to the sheriff.  Doc Ward was trying to present the evidence he saw relating to the butchered steer.   Calamity and Lorelei were trying to bring the conversation in Whiskey's place to the sheriff's attention.  Calico Mary was trying to explain the strange goings on at her place.  There were other assorted towns folk in the office as well concerned for their town and wondering what was going on.  Finally, sheriff Cody stood and shouted "SILENCE EVERYONE.  I understand some unsettling events have happened lately but I can't help you if you all speak at once.  Doc Ward, since you got here first, you start with your story.  Calico Mary, you're next.  Calamity, you're after Mary.   We'll all take turns until all voices have been heard."  Much whispering was heard in the crowd but no one spoke up.  Doc Ward moved through the assembled crowd and walked towards the sheriff's desk. 

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Doc Ward stepped forward to report his findings to the sheriff. "It's pretty much like the cowhands said. Three of their cattle herded over toward Mary and Charlie's place, two of them in an area that would keep them from wandering off, and the third partially butchered. By the time I got over there, the varmints were getting to it, but it was still pretty clear it was not a well done job. I'm not much for reading sign, beyond tracking a blood trail, but the horses' hooves appeared to have burlap or some cloth over them. They headed toward Mary's house before just sort of disappearing." Doc paused a moment, then added, "I had them take the other two back to their spread, and to ask their boss what he would like done." Doc shifted his weight, the look of concern clear on his face as he finished his report. Not for a second did Doc, or anyone else in the room, believe that Mary or Charlie had rustled cattle. The fact remained, though, that they were found on their place.


Sheriff Cody looked over at Calico Mary, and asked "Any ideas?" Mary's face reddened a little and she looked like she was about to cry or go on a tirade. One could never quite tell. Tears spilled over and down her cheeks, as she said "It weren't us! We've both been too busy tryin' to work jobs and keep what we got in one piece to go traipsing' over and stealin' cows!" Cody held up his hand to reassure her. "I wasn't accusing you, I was asking if you had any ideas about it." Reaching and pulling the handkerchief she saw peaking from Doc Ward's pocket, Mary wiped her tears, then blew her nose. Doc waved his hand as she offered it back to him. Mary continued "No, I don't have any ideas. I do know that the past couple of nights I haven't heard no owls, coyotes, night birds or anything else outside. It kind of creeps me out. That's what I wanted to tell you about! Both me and Critter have taken to sleeping with our guns under our pillows." The worry on Mary's face as she relayed the story was obvious. "Do you want me to see if someone can come out and stay? Maybe camp out on your place to keep an eye on things?" A flash of panic crossed Mary's face for a moment, but quickly disappeared as she began stammering, "I-I don't think... uhmmm... I d-don't think that's nec- n-needed..." Cody glanced over at Doc Ward who gave him a look that seemed to say "See what I mean?" Cody then looked back at Calico Mary. "Well, what would you like me to do?" Mary responded quickly "I don't know! You're the sheriff!" With a look of exasperation, Sheriff Cody nodded and responded, "I'll try to think of something."


Sheriff Cody then looked at Calamity Kris and asked "What is it you want?" Looking over at Lorelei, Calamity blurted out the event's at Whiskey's Saloon, about the man bragging about a gold strike, and how he was going to be rich. Both Sheriff Cody and Doc Ward maintained poker faces, but Mary let out a little squeak and suddenly asked "Is J. Mark Flint back in town? I need to talk to him!" With that she ran from the office, slamming the heavy door harder than a woman her size should have been able. The sheriff shrugged and turned his attention back to Calamity. "Sheriff, is there gold here? Is there going to be a rush that will ruin our town? You know those things bring all kinds of bad people." Sheriff Cody shook his head. "If there's any gold around, I haven't seen it. I don't think there is any. Just some prospector making big talk, or someone with a head full of bad information. As for bad people, trust me and Doc Ward to handle it if it comes to that. Still, the two of you need to be careful, Try to be around other people you know and trust as much as possible. Things may get a little worse before they get back to normal." With that, the two ladies, still looking concerned, left the office.


Sheriff Cody pushed his hat back on his head and sighed. "Well, damn." Looking over at Doc, he asked "You think there's gold on Mary's place? It would explain a few things. Mary's behavior, maybe the cattle, and Gardner..." Doc nodded and responded "My thinking, exactly. I think we need to keep an eye on her place, and keep an eye out for Flint, and make sure there are no issues with her title. If I were Gardner, that would be one of the things I would look into." Doc sat down in his seat and looked over at Sheriff Cody. "You know, when I agreed to put on this badge, I was under the impression it was only going to be temporary." Cody grinned back at him. "All jobs are temporary. Some just more temporary than others."

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A telegram found me drinking in Toostone.  Calico Mary need an attorney and my return was being sought.  I paid Silver Dollar Bobby 2 dollars and sent a reply. "Will not be returning in the foreseeable future STOP have sent message to a lawyer J Noble Dagget, who will be contacting you soon END"  I sent a second telegram "Lawyer Dagget need your assistance in Town Creek STOP  Contact Calico Mary- all expenses and fees will be covered by me Stop Mark Flint Stop."


With that done I looked to Bottles "A couple of bottles of the good stuff to take with me."  I tossed a gold piece on the bar as he pulled the Sour Mash I enjoyed out and set two bottles on the bar for me. An old friend walked over "J. Mark, you're hitting the bottle pretty regular these days, you okay?"  I looked at him "Oh I'm dandy, never better."  I took a long slug from the closest bottle. "I'm dandy, but there are a lot of folks a moldering in their graves that are awaiting my arrival."

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"Ain't that kind of a sight, now," came the jeering voice, and I felt that old familiar surge inside me, and I drew the shirt out of the woven basket and reached up to hang it on the line.

"Kind of galish, ain't he?"

"Now why ain't you wearin' an apron, Preacher?"
Yeah," came the laughing rejoinder, "or a skirt!'

The sun was warm across my shoulders, the wind was steady and more of just a breeze, but it would dry clothes in fine shape.

I'd intended to hang up my wet laundry.

I recognized the three, they'd been causing trouble and I recall thinking they were part of that bunch that was causing trouble here in town and elsewhere, and unless I missed my guess, they were probably giving Calico grief out at her place, from what I'd been hearing and piecing together.

I heard leather squeak and boots hit the ground and knew he was coming, but I did not change my slow, methodical movements:  I hung the shirt up, set the clothes pin over the wet cotton, stretched the shirt out, just before a dirty hand snatched it away.

My punch caught him in the wind, just under the wish bone, and lifted him off the ground.

My second caught him under the chin, square in the throat, and I hit him hard, I intended fully to drive his Adam's apple out the back of his neck.

A man doesn't do well with the wind knocked out of him, he does even less well once his boots come off the ground, and by the time my third hit caught him in the soft ribs, he was a dead man that hadn't quit breathing, but that didn't stop me.

My hook punch drove ribs in until they broke off and one last punch  was the mirror to its previous, and he hit the ground with blood running out of his mouth and not able to make a sound.

The shirt was still hanging by one sleeve but the free arm was in the dirt and filthy.

I looked back at the other two rowdies, still mounted.

"You fellas want to say somethin' about bein' galish?" I said mildly, slowly, not raising my voice:  I opened and closed my hands, started pacing toward them.  "This fella thought a sky pilot wouldn't fight."

I walked up to within ten foot of the pair:  their horses must have smelt the mad a-boilin' off me, they got kind of tippy-toed and restless, and the pair looked at one another and then at me and I stood there ready.

I'd kept my strong side away from the only direction anyone could approach, at least until it was time to move, and a good thing that was.

They hadn't noticed the Smith & Wesson in that slender holster on my right side, not until I turned to face them square-on, and now they didn't like the notion I'd killed their chief troublemaker barehand and I was more than ready to take the pair of them on, and may God forgive me, I liked it.


There is a savage joy to killin' someone that deserves it, there is a righteous rejoicing in a man's soul when he beats the livin' snot out of someone that's earned it, and that's how I felt, I'd hit a man who wanted to tear down my washin' and make me beg and plead and then smack me around some and I hadn't.

One of the pair made a move he shouldn't have and the Smith was in my hand and I felt it shove out toward him and I felt it shove back in my hand and the muzzle rolled up and I caught the hammer spur and brought it down and it bucked a second time and then I turned my eyes and my gun muzzle toward the second one and he raised his hands slow and real careful and I never raised my voice.

I caught the reins of the first horse before the body fell out of the saddle, and I handed them to the second man and said "Now you and I are going to go walkin' over to the Sheriff's office and we're goin' to tell the man what just happened."

Part of me wanted nothing more than to put one through this second man's head and finish hanging up my laundry, but that would not be right, and if I'm going to be the sky pilot, I'm not going to do what's not right.

Neither am I going to allow the unrighteous to put a hole in my hide.

Not if I can hole his hide first.

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Sheriff Cody stood on the steps as Pastor Keller walked up, the reins of two horses in one hand, his Smith and Wesson pointed at the back of a man riding a horse. The dead man in the saddle of the second horse leaned forward and lurched side to side, his wrists tied to keep him from falling. A second body was draped over the back of a third horse. Rubbing the stubble on his jaw, Sheriff Cody asked Keller "What do we have here?" Before Keller could respond the remaining troublemaker blurted "That crazy sky-pilot killed my friend with his bare hands and then shot my brother just for moving!" Taken aback, Cody looked at the pastor. "Parson, what actually happened." Keller shrugged and said "Pretty much what he said, but with a little more to it." The sheriff's eyes widened only slightly as he nodded. "Do tell," he replied.


Keller elaborated, "These three thought they were going to have some fun at my expense, and who knows what else. I tried ignoring them, but when that one draped over the saddle got off his horse, came up behind me and decided to put hands on, I realized I wanted no part of his fun, and punched him." With a look and sound of complete innocence, the pastor added, "I only hit him five times. Although, I will admit I don't think the last couple mattered much." Cody jerked a thumb toward the dead man upright in the saddle. "And him?" The preacher shrugged. "I told them I'd fight, and they saw the gun on my hip. He made a move he shouldn't have, like he was going for his gun. I didn't like the idea of me pushing up daisies at this particular point in time. This one," he added, gesturing to the scared man, "saw wisdom in not doing likewise."


Doc Ward came out of the office to see what the discussion was about and stood, surprised at what he saw. Listening to what happened, Doc stepped down and lifting the head of the band draped over his saddle, took a look and shook his head. "First thing I learned as youngster was to tuck my chin in a fight and keep my arms in tight. Seems he learned that lesson a bit late."  Looking at the pastor with a bit of a smile, Doc shook his head and said "I'll take 'em to the undertaker and get a couple of boys." He  started patting the pockets of the two. When the man on horseback started to protest, Doc looked up, asking, "I don't suppose those two have a couple of gold pieces on them do they?" Even as he asked, he found two gold pieces in the pocket of one of them, and set about searching the other. "Hey! That don't belong to you!" The man shouted, growing agitated. Doc shook his head as he found another. "Nope, it belongs to the undertaker. You want 'em buried, don't you?" The man angrily responded, "He killed 'em, let him pay for it! That was my brother, that money should go to me!" Reaching and shucking the man's revolver out of his holster and sticking it in his belt, Doc tossed the coins to Keller, who deftly caught them. Doc said, "Tell ya' what, why don't you fight him for it, bare knuckles, no holds barred?" Sheriff Cody chimed in, "Now that's a right good idea. Sounds fair to me." The man looked around, panicked, his voice becoming shrill, "What?!? Him? He just killed my friend with his bare hands! You want me to fight him? I'm no fist fighter." Doc nodded. "Scared, huh? I get that. Well, I suppose you're a gun hand, you might want to shoot it out?" Doc pulled the revolver and offered it back. Shaking his head, the would-be tough said "Mister, you didn't see how fast he drew that iron of his." Laughing, Doc said, "Well, hell, I got no other suggestions." Joining in the laughter, Sheriff Cody added, "I have a checker board in my office."


Finally, Doc said, "Tell ya what. I know you got gold of your own. You go down to the undertaker's and tell him the name of your brother and your friend and ride on out of town. If I was you, I'd keep riding. Whoever's paying you, probably has more where that came from to pay others." The man tried to glare.  His statement of "You ain't heard the last of this," was clearly false bravado, given his unwillingness to challenge the pastor. Now Sheriff Cody came off the steps, quite serious. "Son, you take my advice, and you make it the last we hear of this. If you stick around, the pastor might see you and think you've come hunting him. Heck, if Doc sees you, he might think the same. I'd say the atmosphere around here is apt to be awfully unhealthy for you. The undertaker is that way," he added, pointing his finger.


Watching the man trot off, Doc gathered up the reins of one of the horses, and Pastor Keller took the other. Walking off together, Doc grinned wryly. "Pastor, I've heard it said a man can't buy his way into heaven, but if one can fight his way in, seems you might fare pretty well." Doc saw a brief flash of an astonished look, like Doc knew something he shouldn't, but the pastor recovered quickly. Clearing his throat, the pastor responded "Seems you might fare OK yourself, by the sound of it." Doc shook his head as he kept walking. "Afraid not Pastor, you forget you have one important thing I don't." Curious, the parson asked, "And what might that be, Doc?" Glancing at the preacher with a look of appreciation on his face, and tapping his heart with his closed fingers, Doc replied, "Faith, Pastor Keller, you have faith."

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"That's your preacher?"

Calamity's ear drew back as if tugged by an invisible thumb and forefinger:  it was a woman's voice, but a stranger's voice, and she didn't remember any strangers coming into town.

She turned and saw a worn-looking woman that was probably quite pretty, at least when she was young; her hair was dry and shot with grey, her eyes were tired, but her complexion was clear, even if she did look under fed.

"I'm Anna Hill.  I rode in with a rancher."  She grimaced a little, looked away -- almost guiltily, Calamity thought -- then she looked back.

"At least until he wished to be ... improper."

"That would explain your shoulder," Calamity murmured sympathetically, stifling an urge to reach up and swipe at the ground that apparently rose up to meet her shoulder as she left the rancher's conveyance.  "Do you wish to speak with the Sheriff?"

Anna shook her head and Calamity did not miss the pained look that crossed her face.

Bad memories, she thought.  I've seen those before.

"You were riding ...?" Calamity prompted, tilting her head curiously.

"In a wagon, yes, but ... I jumped."

"Your things?"

"Who knows."  Anna's voice was as washed-out as the color in her dress.  "I didn't have much, anyway.  Nothing of any value."

"Not even a change of clothes?"  Loreli swung around, her sudden appearance and stern voice bringing a squeak and a start from Anna, who fell back a half-step, at least until she bumped into one of the menfolk:  she swallowed and turned a truly remarkable shade of red as the anonymous townsman lifted his hat and murmured "I beg your pardon" -- typical courtesy of the West, Loreli thought with an almost-hidden smile:  she fell into him, and he begged her pardon!

Loreli looked at Calamity, and Calamity looked at Loreli, and they both looked at their preacher as he turned and headed back toward the parsonage, and then they looked at Anna as she, too, followed the black-suited sky pilot with almost-hopeful eyes.

"I think," the two women said, then laughed, and Calamity nodded her go-ahead.

"I think we can fix you up with your needfuls."


The Parson bent over the laundry table, the filthied shirt sleeve wet and soapy, laid out flat:  he held it with spread thumb and fingers, and the other hand plied a small bristle brush he kept for such tasks:  he persisted, he dunked, he sloshed, he scrubbed:  he frowned, threw out the dishpan of dirty, soapy water, dipped a tin cup in the hot water kettle, poured clean into the dish pan, reached for the soap.

His eyes snapped up and he turned a little, then froze, honestly surprised.

"Ladies," he said courteously, dropping the freshly-soaped shirtsleeve and drawing back a step:  he toweled his hands quickly, reached for his coat, grateful he'd kept his vest on:  it would not do to be seen in just his shirt -- horrors! -- he might as well be viewed in his red-flannel Union suit! 

"We've seen more than you've got," Miz Loreli declared, then changed the subject just as abruptly as she'd spoken.  "We need your help."

"Of course."  

The preacher considered reaching for his hat, hesitated, decided against it.  "How may I be of service?"

"No, I don't want to be any bother," Anna whispered, twisting a little:  a glare fixed her in place as if she'd been pinned like an insect to a display board.

"You made quite a generous offer," Calamity said, emboldened that she was helping a fellow sufferer rather than her own self:  "if your charity is still good, Anna here lost everything she had."

The preacher stopped and considered, then picked up the shirt, hung it carefully with the rest of his laundry, turned back to the three.

"Ladies," he said, "let us counsel together."  His smile was quick, almost sad, his expression ...

He looks just like she did, Calamity thought with a little surprise.


The fare was simple, but well spiced: the ladies ate with appreciation for a meal they did not have to prepare.

Before the preacher could ask them to be seated, they looked around, half in admiration, half in surprise:  they knew he lived alone, but they'd never known bachelor's quarters to be so ...

... so  absolutely ...

"You live here?" Anna asked, and the preacher nodded.

"It doesn't smell like it."

The preacher placed the tableware precisely, carefully, almost soundlessly:  "I try to keep it clean," he said, and Loreli caught the barest catch at the back of his voice as he said it.

There's another painful memory, she thought.  I'll ask Calamity if she knows what it is.

Anna stared at the shimmering amber, steaming in the teacup set before her:  it had been years since she'd had tea -- oh, she couldn't remember when she'd had tea last! -- she looked nervously at her two feminine benefactors, waited until the preacher set out meat and green beans he'd had on the stove, apparently long enough to take full advantage of the bacon, fried and diced and well mixed with ... 


He has onion?

"You'll spoil us, you know!"

"You ladies deserve to be spoiled."  It was a statement, not a question, but none missed the flat certainty of his words:  such a thing would normally be said with a smile, but the man was most definitely not smiling.

He was dead serious.

It wasn't until they'd eaten their fill that talk turned to the needed relief.

Anna was clearly less than comfortable at being the recipient of such unexpected largesse:  she'd honestly expected to go hungry, to have to wash her only garments in a stream and wear them wet -- and now arrangements were made to put her up, and to have new clothes sewn --

"But I can't pay," she protested, and the preacher raised a finger.

"I seem to recall something in Scripture about clothing the naked and feeding the hungry," he said.  "I don't often get a chance to do that."  He leaned forward, his forearms pressing into the edge of the table.  "Let me do this, at least.  After today I need to beat the dents out of my corroded soul."

"You watch your back, Preacher," Calamity said quietly.  "Their kind blame everyone else for their own sins."

"I know."  He wiped his lips, wadded up the napkin, placed it beside his plate, stared at it for a long moment, then rose.

"I'll be right back."


He managed to press more gold on Calamity than she'd intended to take.

"I don't know what-all a woman needs," he'd admitted quietly, so only she could hear:  "she might have family and need a train ticket, she might need everything from the hide out and things like hair brushes and I don't know what-all."  He'd looked a little lost as he said it, as he admitted he was out of his element.  

"You don't know a thing about her," Calamity cautioned.  "She could be a no-good golddigger trying to weasel you out of --"

She stopped, surprised at the lost look she saw on the man's face.


"I'm worried, Miz Calamity," he admitted.

"You're worried?  After the way you handled those --"

"That's part of my worry," he admitted.  "One of two things is going to happen.  Either they'll figure everyone in town is as mean as the preacher and even the chipmunks will fight, and nobody will ever come around to cause trouble again, or someone will find gold and the place goes straight to hell."  He took a long breath, leaned against the door frame.  "I've seen what happens to a nice little town with a gold strike."
"Pretty bad?"

He nodded, slowly.  "Mud streets, everyone empties their chamberpots out in the road, prices --"

She saw the man shiver.

"Eggs ... a dollar apiece, then two, then three dollars apiece. I've seen eggs priced at five dollars apiece!"

Calamity's mouth opened but not sound came out.

"Common everyday everything .. priced for gold, and if you can't afford it, there's no ..."

He shook his head, straightened.

"No.  No, please God, not here!"

"Is that why you pulled those shenanigans with fool's gold in church?"
This time his grin was quick, boylike.  "You liked that?"

"I thought you were going to cut your fool fingers off!"

He shrugged.  "Nobody slept through my sermon."

Calamity folded her arms, glared at him over a nonexistent set of spectacles.

"I wanted to discourage any rumors of gold.  I've shown the pyrites around, struck sparks with them, laughed with men who've been fooled by the fool's gold.  I don't want anyone to think there's gold here!"

Calamity looked at the preacher with unreadable eyes.

Whatever her response, she kept it to herself.





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Doc Ward had decided to take a ride over toward Calico Mary's place, wanting to keep an eye on things. As he rode, he kept a wary eye, reins in one hand, a rifle in the other. He had learned long ago to trust to his instincts, and something told him something was not right. As he came through the woods toward the house Mary shared with her brother,  Doc noticed the prints of two horses heading back along the property. Pausing, Doc looked through the downed trees, trying to determine where they were going. Turning his horse, Doc sat out to follow the tracks.


Another fifteen minutes found Doc watching as a man wearing rough clothing led one saddle horse and one pack horse up the far side of a steep draw through heavy brush. Doc was quite sure he had never seen the man before, but he more or less fit the description of the man Calamity Kris had described bragging about gold. Pausing, the man bent down and picked up a rock, looking it over before tossing it aside and continuing on his way. Dismounting, Doc did a quick loop of his horse's reins and then moving behind a tree more than large enough to provide cover. Putting a hand alongside his mouth, Doc called, "Hello down there!" The man, who had been reaching for another rock, jumped as if burned, and looked around, as if trying to find somewhere to hide. When he realized there was nothing but brush where he was, he slowly turned to look up at where Doc's voice came from.


Stepping from behind the tree, the rifle cradled in his arms, ready to quickly be put into action, Doc called down again, "What might you be doing here?" Even from the distance between them, Doc could see both suspicion and consternation on the man's face. "None of your business!" the man replied shortly. "Funny thing, but that's where you're wrong," Doc said in a loud but calm voice. The man started to tug on the reins of the saddle horse, the lead of the pack horse tied to the pommel. Turning to shout over his shoulder, the man said "Leave me be, and go away, I said!" Doc Ward, feeling a little impatient, responded, "Mister, I'm the deputy sheriff here, and you are trespassing on private land. Now, I don't want to belabor the point, but you being here is my business. I'm above you on a level spot and you're on a nice slippery slope with two horses you're trying to control. A well thrown rock would put you in a world of hurt if I hit one of those horses, so why don't you stop where you are."


Turning, the man glared up at Doc Ward. "Who said this is private property? I don't believe you." Doc laughed and shook his head. "Quite frankly, I don't care whether you believe me or not. But you better go check the records. J. Mark Flint, Esquire, made sure that the property you're standing on was filed on properly and is owned by Calico Mary and her brother. That includes land, timber rights, mineral rights, lock, stock and barrel. I have it on good authority that there's no gold to be found here, but if you did find any, it would belong to the two of them. So, why don't you come back this way, and we can head back to town, and you can go check for yourself." The man looked up at Doc, getting angrier. "You can go back to town, or go to hell, I don't believe you, and I'm going to keep looking." Doc tugged back on the hammer of his rifle, knowing it would just be audible to the stranger below him. "I'm sorry, you must be under the misapprehension that I was making a request. It wasn't."


The stranger, having heard enough from the rumor mill to believe that the deputy sheriff was apt to go off half-cocked for no apparent reason, decided that he was better off doing as the man said. Slowly getting the horses turned, the stranger struggled to get them back up the draw. Doc, carefully moving down, helped the man get the two animals up and over the edge, watching as they fought their way up and over, hooves slipping and striking stone as they did. Catching a glint of light, Doc Ward glanced down to see a good sized chunk of quartz with a good bit of gold running through it. "Huh, well I'll be, I need to mention that to Mary," Doc said aloud before climbing up over the edge himself. As the stranger watched Doc climb up, he asked "Did you say something?" Shaking his head, Doc responded "No, just trying to get myself back up that incline. Now, let's go back to town, and you can see for yourself who owns the land around here. Then maybe you'll realize there are greener pastures elsewhere." The man glared at Doc as he mounted his horse.

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Lorelei and Calamity gathered Anna up and proceeded to Calamity's dress shop.  The ladies made sure Anna had a couple sets of propers, then proceeded to try on some dresses.  Anna was very reluctant to try on anything even remotely fancy.  She said they made her feel uncomfortable.  I wonder if she didn't want to attract attention, Calamity thought.  Anna fell in love with a pretty yellow day dress with tiny pink flowers.  Lorelei helped Anna put the dress on because of her sore shoulder.  "You really ought to go see the doc about that shoulder, Anna.  You could have something seriously wrong", Lorelei started.  "We have a good doc in town", Calamity added.  Anna only continued to protest.  Finally, Lorelei and Calamity took Anna to the table in the back room and sat her down.  Lorelei started.  "Listen Anna.  We want to help you.  We can't do much for you if you don't let us."  Anna started "you have already done so much for me."  Calamity interrupted "how did you hurt your shoulder anyway?  Did a man hurt you?"  Anna  just hung her head and began to sob.  All three ladies hugged and decided they had enough excitement for the day.  Lorelei offered to take Anna home with her.  After some protests, Anna agreed.  It had been a while since she slept in a real bed.  The ladies agreed to get together in the morning and continue their work.


After Lorelei and Anna left, Calamity couldn't help but wonder about Anna's real story.  Was she running from an abusive husband?  Did she fall off the wagon to escape or was she thrown off and left for dead?  Is someone looking for her now?  Calamity resolved to get answers to these questions and soon.  She wanted to make sure her, Lorelei's and the Preachers charity wasn't going to bring more harm than good.

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I had been deep in the bottle for a good 10 days before I finally sobered up enough to realize that the Saloon was in need of a good airing out and that I was the cause..  After a shave and a bath and a fresh set of clothes I almost felt human again.  I headed down to the livery and paid my tab and saddled up my horse. 


Once in a while a man needed a good drunk, but it didn't pay to become the town drunk.  It was time to find another place to spend my time and money.  I stopped by the mercantile and stocked up on what I would need for a long trip and carefully packed it on my pack horse.  I paid the bill and swung a leg up on my horse and turned toward the southeast. 


I'd head to Texas, then New Orleans, then from there, perhaps I'd go to Europe and put on a Wild West Show. Or Maybe I'd find a saloon along the way and get good and drunk.  Who can tell?

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Word travels fast, especially bad news, but thank God it only got as far as the Parson.

Doc showed the preacher a chunk of quartz, shot through with gold, and it was a rich vein it came from.

He told him about the fellow looking around out there and Preacher Keller tasted ashes and remembered another town, a nice little town, one that went straight to blistering hell when gold fever hit, and all the gold in the stream and underground amounted to enough dust to cover a man's thumbnail ... and one nugget, the spark that lit the fuse that burned down town, hopes, dreams, families, friends ... one gold nugget, the size of a man's thumbnail, a nugget with tooth marks in it.

The preacher's tooth marks.

He'd found the nugget.

He'd made the mistake of letting one other soul see it, and that's all it took.

The preacher sat miserably on the side of his bed -- it was narrow, hard, not at all comfortable -- even in his repose, the man punished himself -- he lowered his face into his hands, shoulders rounded with the crushing enormity of his self blame.

It was maybe three minutes, but it felt like an hour:  he finally came up for air, looked at the hunched soul in the mirror, then lifted his face fully from his palms and stood, slowly, like an old man.

The preacher walked over to the tall, wide, expensive mirror, leaned in close until his breath fogged the glass.

"You destroyed one town, damn you," he whispered.  "What are you going to do to save this one?"

His bottom jaw thrust out and he turned, quickly, he strode into the kitchen, he seized the handle on the cupboard and hauled it open.

He reached in and pinched the fore-end of his One of One Thousand rifle, lifted it out, considered it, ran his palm over its rearstock like a man will run his hand over a lover's thigh, then he set it back, frowning.


His hand drifted to the right, closed firmly around a heavier barrel, a slender fore-end, and he lifted out a Sharps.

His lips peeled back from his teeth, looking less like a smile than a wolf's snarl: his fingers had eyes, his middle finger hauled back on the set trigger, his thumb brought the hammer back to half cock, he lowered the lever just enough to drop the breech and see cartridge brass.

He considered the last time he'd shot this rifle, the last time he'd brought it to shoulder and peered through the Vernier tang peep, the last time he'd stilled his breathing and his heartbeat and he'd touched the feather-light front trigger, and he remembered the powerful shove into his upper arm, how the recoil spoiled his view for a moment, and when he blinked and looked again, a man lay dead on the ground.

He'd needed killin'.

It was neither sin nor crime to kill a rabid beast and that's what he'd been, the preacher saw his handiwork and he'd followed him three days and waited, waited for that one clean shot, and he took it.

When the local law finally found what was left of the carcass, they found a pink ribbon tied around the dead man's wrist, and they didn't quite know what make of this, but as there was no price on the dead man's head, they rolled the rotted, partly-gnawed carcass into a shallow grave, stacked some rocks on top of it and called it good.

The preacher bowed his head and his hands tightened on the Sharps, tightened until two knuckles popped and he realized he wasn't breathing and his teeth were set hard together and he threw his head back like he was coming up out of deep water and took a convulsive, gasping breath, and he steadied himself, and he set the Sharps back into its seat in the cupboard and panted like he'd run a distance in high country.

"No," he whispered, his strained sibilants harsh on his own ears:  he closed the cupboard doors slowly, carefully, then turned and looked at the mirror.

"You," he thrust a savage finger at the reflection, "just hold yourself now.  This isn't up to you!"

He turned, stormed out of the kitchen and through the other room, through the short hallway, yanked the door open to the church, stepped into the silence and the smell of beeswax candles, strode like an angry man to the center of the altar rail, stopped.

He closed his eyes, threw his head back, took a long breath, calming himself:  he opened his eyes, raised his hand, looked at it, surprised, as if not realizing he'd wound it up into a tight fist.

He performed a flawless left-face, looked up at the smooth-finished cross on the back wall.

"Lean not unto your own understanding," he said, his voice firm, as if addressing a Sunday congregation, pitching his voice to be heard in the back row, as if throwing his voice against the back wall and hearing it reflect back to him:  "Lord, I've done too much of that, and I am justly chastised."

His breath was coming quickly and he stopped, calming himself with an effort.

"Lord, I am of a mind to take action," he said in a less forceful voice.  "I've seen to the sick and the shut-ins this day, all two of them, I've tended my own house, Sunday's sermon is written and I can't stop thinking about that claim jumper and Doc's warning."

His shoulders rose and fell as he slowed his breathing, then he went to one knee.

"Guide me, Lord," he whispered hoarsely.  "I can't buy my way into Heaven and I can't shoot my way in either."


Anna Mae bit her bottom lip and she pressed a kerchief briefly against one eye, then the other.

She'd been restless, she'd started for the doc's office, her eyes lifted to the church's steeple, and she turned, quickly, toward this beacon.

She'd slipped into its welcome hush, she'd settled into a rear pew, she did her best to turn invisible -- never mind she was the only one there -- if she were very quiet, if nobody saw her, she would be safe, she wouldn't be hurt again --

The panic came, as it always did, and she pressed the folded kerchief against her mouth, breathing quickly, raggedly, muffling her frightened gasps as the memory roared over her again, seizing her with hard hands, she heard their voices, felt their hands, she felt her fine gown tearing, she saw buttons flying through the air and she was slammed to the ground, they laughed and punched her and there was the sound of thunder, she saw fire, she heard angry voices and saw men running and a Union officer brought his revolver down again and shot another of his own men and his voice was that of an angry bear and his face was that of an enraged angel and she curled up in a ball, wounded, violated, frightened beyond fear, then there were other hands, gentle hands, other voices, voices that offered comfort, voices that said "You're safe, you won't be hurt any more," and she felt the hands again, warm, strong, and she leaned into a man's front, shivering like a scared little baby rabbit, and she flinched a little as one hand closed on her bad shoulder, and she felt the hands reach under her, and pick her up, and then she was in the sunshine again and she was being carried and she heard a boot kicking on a door, a rapid tattoo:  voices, and she was brought inside, and set down, and someone said "Preacher, you just keep bringin' me surprises, now, don't you?" and she heard a voice say "I seem to be good at that, Doc," and then Anna Mae realized she wasn't a hurt girl back in the Carolinas, she was in the doc's office and that man killin' preacher was looking at her the way a father will look at his little girl when she's been hurt, and she remembered how she'd been looked at by her neighbors, her friends, she remembered the whispered "Used goods" and how people looked quickly away from her, and how she'd left with nothing more than the clothes on her back --

Hands closed on her shoulder about the time she started to cry, and the tears were only partly for the pain of the examination, and partly because the preacher looked at her the way the ladies looked at her, how Calamity and Loreli looked at her...

They looked at her like she was worthwhile, like she wasn't ...

Used goods.

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Rye turned to his pards and said ,"I wonder how everyone in Stone Creek is doing"? No sooner did he get those words out but they heard the crack of a rifle. Then another and another! Someone was pouring lead at them in a fury! A big tree less than 3 feet from Rye got hit a couple times. They all ran for a couple of boulders they could hide behind! They dismounted and pulled their rifles from their scabbards and tried to see where the shots were coming from. A couple puffs of smoke from about 50 yards away.was all they could see. They all started firing at that spot. They heard a scream and knew one of them hit somebody. The shots kept coming so they knew there was more than one. Cat Spencer crawled on his stomach to get closer while Rye and Yuma Sam yelled at him to stay back. Cat was fearless and took chances that very few men would. He got close enough and fired a couple rounds . They heard a shriek and a moan and knew Cat got someone. The firing stopped. They miraculously put down the threat. They heard some horses take off and didn't know if riders were on them or maybe they were riderless. They all waited a few minutes and got up and walked cautiously to where the shots were coming from. Two dead bodies laid behind some rocks where they were firing from. It looked like the Brennen brothers , cattle rustlers, who they were after. One job done, now to take 'em in to the law!

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Doc Ward's voice was quiet, the voice of a man who knew worry when he saw it.

"Preacher, you all right?"

The preacher leaned back against the dusty clap boards, looked into the distance.

"I'm worried about Rye, Doc.  I know he can take care of himself, but ..."

He shook his head slowly, his eyes staring at something only he could see.

"I got me a bad feelin', Doc."

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Pain hazed Anna Mae's vision as she lay face down on the broad wooden table.

Her right arm hung down, a bucket of water tied to her right wrist, and her shoulder muscles ached and burned and finally fatigued, and as the sawbones' fingers massaged her injury-stiffened muscles, she felt her shoulder slip back into place.


She didn't just feel it ...

She heard it, and the sound it made ran cold willies down her spine and made her half sick.

The doctor felt the shoulder slip back in and he eased up on the bucket's rope handle, quickly pulled the slip knot, unwound torn bedsheet strips from around Anna Mae's wrist.

"Don't move just yet," he said quietly, but Anna Mae lifted her arm, bent her elbow, gave a little squeak of pain, let it hang again.

She bit her bottom lip, squeezed her eyes shut, felt tears squeeze out of her tight-shut eyes, felt one run down her nose and hang, cold, wet, before falling.

The tears weren't just for the pain, though she could certainly be forgiven for her stolid silence during a pain that would have brought roars of agony from most grown men.

No, her tears were for a realization, a shock, something that nagged at her ever since she saw him for the first time, there at the Sheriff's office, when she listened to his quiet words, to his plain spoken description of bringing two murderous sinners to meet their Creator.

She remembered a Union officer, a man who held her while she shivered, hurt, scared, clutching her torn-open dress shut with one hand, her other arm across her bosom, guarding against any further invasion of her sanctity.

I know him.

I've found him.

All these years, and I've found the one man who didn't hurt me!

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The words brought Sheriff Cody and Doc Ward to their feet. Their first thoughts were identical. "Again?" Then a cold chill ran down Doc's spine as he realized that panicked scream came from Calico Mary. Doc knew she had been working in the livery, and he was at the door in two long steps and slamming it open. Looking toward the stable, Doc could hear the terrified screams of horses inside and see fire and smoke billowing out. Doc broke into a sprint, passing others who were on their way already, buckets in hand, as though they were standing still.


Doc immediately ran into the structure, feeling the lick of flames on his face as he began pulling horses from stalls, slapping hind quarters, tugging, fighting to get horse after horse to the nearest exit. Leading them nearly to the exit before they would lurch toward the outside and safety in a run. He felt the burn of embers on his neck, and slapped at a sleeve that began smoldering, but worked to get horses out. Others were rushing in, throwing buckets at the hay and wood that were on fire, sidestepping around horses, moving out of the way of others running in to fight the fire as they ran out. As he got further in, Doc grabbed wet burlap to cover the head's of horses to try to ease their fears as he tried to get them out. The sound of panicked horses, of people shouting and fire beginning to rage created a cacophony inside the building, but Doc was heedless.


As the back part of the livery gave way, hands grabbed at Doc as he started back in after another. Fighting them away, Doc tried to get back in, only to feel several hands and pairs of arms lift him, pulling him back. Doc screamed, as if the agony of dying horses were his own. His words were pained as he shouted "Let me GOOOO!!!" Fighting, struggling to get free of those intent on saving his life to no avail. He heard Sheriff Cody's voice loud in his ear. "That's it, man, you can't do no more for them." Still Doc tried to pull away, until bodies got in front of him, clutching at him. Five strong men fought to keep Doc out, to save him from himself.


Finally, Doc sagged, going to his knees as they let him go. Dropping his head to the ground, Doc pounded it with his fist, again and again. All around, people stood, watching in horror as the building and the horses remaining inside, died. Some turned their backs and walked away from what they heard, covering their ears. Others cried. All felt a sense of shock. Mary fell beside Doc Ward, sobbing. Placing her arm on his back, attempting to comfort him as well as herself. Her voice was tiny, almost drowned out by the sounds around them. "I don't know what happened. I wheeled some manure out, and when I came back, there was that cart of hay and dry wood, against a beam on fire. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."


Doc Ward kept his head to the ground, crying, as a figure knelt next to him. Strong hands went to his shoulders, avoiding spots where embers had burned Doc. A familiar voice rang in his ears. "Come on, stand up. You need to stand up." Still Doc remained, not responding to the voice of the man who had recently become more of a friend than any he had called such in years. Pastor Keller, almost willing Doc up, urged again, "Doc, there's nothing to be done, you need to get up and come with me. At least move back, for your own sake." Doc realized the heat was still very intense where he was, and slowly, pushed himself up and back to kneel on his heels, before letting himself be lifted to his feet and be walked back.


Docs hair was a dirty mess. His eyes were red and bloodshot, his face covered in soot, dirt and grime. His shirt had numerous burns in it, and a large hole had burned into one sleeve, exposing the flesh of a burnt arm. His black pants and boots were covered in dirt, but nobody seemed to notice. But then, many standing around him showed the dirt and grime, and even burns, of attempting to fight the fire.


Stepping back to a safe distance, Doc sank back down, sitting, hugging his knees to his chest, rocking slightly as if he were trying to forget a bad dream that had jarred him from his sleep. There he sat, watching, as the sounds of horses were silenced, as the building burned brightly. Many of his belongings he kept in his office, close at hand, instead of in his small house. His books that were all but irreplaceable. Ledgers and correspondence with others. His cherished Parker shotguns, and more. As he sat thinking, his mind reeling, Doc knew he would have traded all of those things gladly if he could have saved one more of the half dozen horses that died inside. He would have given his life if he could have saved one horse in particular. Her horse. His wife's horse.


After a time, the crowd started to filter away. Doc remained still for what seemed like hours. Sheriff Cody, Pastor Keller and Michigan Slim stood around, as if keeping sentinel over him. Calico Mary sat, her dress bunched around her small body, tears still streaming, as Calamity Kris, Miss Lorelei, and a woman Doc had never seen before sat with her, consoling her, each with tears in their own eyes. Finally, as if fighting against a massive weight, Doc Ward struggled to his feet, and stood, staring at the stable, slowly burning still. Turning to look at the three men who stood, all watching him intently, Doc, his voice hoarse from smoke and grief, said "You said there was nothing more to be done. I beg to differ. I intend to find those who started this fire, and I will see them dead. I intend to find those who caused them to set it, and I will see them dead. Mark my words, if they are smart, they will run for the gates of Hell to get away from me." With that, Doc Ward executed a smart military turn to his left, and began walking to his home. The three men stood, exchanging looks as Doc walked away. Pastor Keller spoke softly, "He means it, and by God, I do believe he would go through the gates himself if it meant getting to them."


Doc paused as he reached Calico Mary, and took a knee, placing his hand on her back. Looking up, she could only repeat "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." Doc placed his hand gently on her shoulder, shaking his head in a fatherly fashion. "You did everything you could. If you hadn't, things would have been far worse. Please don't forget that. You did good, Mary. Thank you, thank you for everything." Looking at the other women, Doc smiled a sad smile. "Help her, will you?" Glancing at the unfamiliar woman, Doc saw an inscrutable look on her face, as though she were cautious, no, suspicious, yet somehow appreciative of him. Reaching up to tip a hat that was still laying in the street from when he began running, before realizing it wasn't there, Doc nodded and said "Ma'am, I wish we were meeting under different circumstances, but people call me Doc Ward, and I am thankful of you caring for my friend." The woman nodded and said "My name is Anna, and you are most welcome, Sir." With that, she turned back to Calico Mary, helping the others get her to her feet.


Doc rose and continued his journey to his home. Inside him, a cold fury built, but with it a sense of calm. He had a job to do. He would find men, he would kill men. If he were killed in the process, so be it. He had been ready for death for five years, since he couldn't save a wonderful, beautiful woman who trusted her life to him "till death did them part."

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His words were almost a whisper, the soothing tones a father will use with a frightened little girl.


Anna Mae watched as the Parson, down on one knee, very delicately and very gently brushed a wisp of singed hair from the woman's forehead.

Calico looked at the sky pilot with an expression of utter misery.

"Calico, dear heart, are you hurt?"

Calico squeezed her eyes shut, squeezing out fresh tears to run clean streaks down her soot-smeared cheeks:  the preacher pulled out a bedsheet hankie, dabbed carefully at her still-hot cheeks, watching for any flinch that might indicate a burn.

"I'm sorry," Calico repeated, and the preacher shifted from down on one knee, to sitting down on the dirt with her:  he drew his legs up and crossed them like Big Chief Mug Wump, and he slid his hand under hers, carefully not gripping it.

"Calico, you said there was a cart of hay and dry wood run up against a beam and afire."
She nodded, staring, her eyes wide, seeing only the horrors she'd just experienced.

"Calico, Doc is right. You kept it from being much worse, and I am proud of you for that."

He looked up at Anna Mae.

"Stay with her?" he asked, his voice dry, as if his throat were suddenly as well watered as the desert floor.

She nodded:  he was on his feet, shot a look at the Sheriff, then strode after Doc, who was a good distance away already.

Anna Mae watched him go, his long legs setting into a steady military pace.

Part of her wanted to laugh at the dirt on his backside.

The rest of her looked at Miz Loreli, and together they managed to coax and hoist and get Calico on her feet.

She'd helped get Anna Mae set back up after she'd lost everything, and now it was Anna Mae's turn to give back.

The Sheriff considered all he'd seen, nodding a little, and then he looked around, mentally cataloging who was there, for he knew someone who'd set a fire will often come back and watch it.

No strangers, he thought, then mentally kicked himself.

Of course not.

That's why Doc Ward was looking around like that.

Nobody here fits the bill, so he's gone on the hunt.

The Sheriff looked again at what used to be a livery, his eyes hardening.

Someone is going to pay, he thought.

The Sheriff remembered the sound of horses screaming to death and he mentally added, Doc, when you catch 'em, kill 'em slow!



Doc Ward stopped, turned.

"Don't try to talk me out of this, Preacher," he said, his jaw set.

"I'm offerin' to help. Let's get your burns tended first. I've clean shirts that should fit you and I'll stake you to whatever you need for this hunt."

Doc Ward blinked and the preacher knew the ghost of a surprised expression was something not common to the man's face.

"This is needful, Doc, and you're the man for the job."

Doc turned his head a little as if uncertain, at least until a burn on the back of his neck stopped him.

"I still can't ride a horse, I would only slow you down, but I can supply you with what I'm able."  The preacher's expression was quiet, the look of a man who knew war and killing a little too well.  "I've pemmican, jerky, a fresh batch of rolls, loaves of bread, two new canteens, rifles, ammunition, bedrolls. You need it, it's yours."

Doc realized he was favoring his hurt arm, looked at it, looked up.

"Is the rest of me this dirty?"

The preacher nodded.

"Might be I'd best clean up before I take out."



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Calico was clean now, her burns dressed, her hair trimmed:  women come together when one of their own is hurt, and the ladies did:  quietly, efficiently, they way they always did: Anna Mae was one of them now, finding her place in tending one of her own, and before the sun began its final slide behind the horizon, she was herself again, though she still smelled smoke and it was all she could to to keep from clamping her hands tight over her ears to block the sound of screaming horses.

Anna Mae drew up a chair, sat directly in front of the woman, took her hands.

"Calico," she said, her voice low, "I need your help."

Calico swallowed, misery filling her eyes, but she looked at this stranger, now friend, and nodded.

Anna Mae dropped her head, bit her bottom lip, then plunged ahead like diving into unknown waters.

Miz Loreli settled gracefully into a chair, listening:  the other ladies stilled, drew around, encircling Calico with a wall of femininity, a citadel of safety, but they all listened as well, for Anna Mae had come to them a stranger, and few really knew of her.

"Calico, when I was fourteen -- it was my fourteenth birthday -- the damned Yankees came and burned us out."  

Anna Mae's hands were on her knees, her fingers tightening into the material with the memory, then she relaxed them with an effort, continued.

"I went to the only authority I knew.  They'd murdered my ... my entire family, they hanged Papa and my brothers and I didn't know what to do, I was a girl, I ... we didn't have a Sheriff anymore and he would be too far away, and ..."

Her mouth was dry and she tasted ash and smoke and she swallowed something sticky in her throat and took another breath.

"The damned Yankees waited until I was well among them and then they ... they grabbed me and they ripped ..."
Her arms came up, her fingers clawed for a moment as if to mimic seizing her bodice, then involuntarily crossed over the breasts and she bent almost double and groaned, for the memory was far fresher than she wanted to admit, far more real than she'd let herself feel for a very long time.

An anonymous hand caressed her hair and she gasped, straightened, looked at Calico, injured herself, but knowing she had to draw the hurt woman out, had to keep her from collapsing into her misery.

Anna Mae had done that and it had crippled her heart, her very soul, and she knew if she could keep Calico from that collapse, she would be doing a good thing.

"A pale eyed officer caught them ... they pinned me down and tore my ... they ..."
Hands gripped her shoulder and she realized she was staring, panting, shivering:  Calico's bandaged hand caressed her cheek, and she looked desperately at the woman, part of her mind marveling that singed hair was trimmed away and it was a very attractive frame for the woman's still-reddened face.

"The Union officer shot three of his own men and he hanged three more that helped him and one man among them ... one drew my dress back around me and held me while I cried and he alone was kind, and ..."

She bit her bottom lip, hard, until she tasted blood.

"It's the Preacher, isn't it?" Miz Loreli said gently.

Anna Mae nodded.

"Calico," she gasped, "he ... I ... that yellow dress."

She swallowed again.

"Help me, Calico.  Make me that yellow dress."


The Preacher's cupboard was empty.

Rifles were ranked on the table, boxes of ammunition beside each.

He recalled Doc saying something about his Parker shotguns, so he'd not need a two pipe shoot gun, as an old hunky of the Preacher's acquaintance called it years ago, but he might want some rounds, so the Preacher set out two boxes of brass hulled heavy shot.

He looked at the mirror, at the savage looking man in the immaculate black suit glaring back at him.

"One man on the run is a jackrabbit," he said to the reflection, "but one man in pursuit is an arrow.  Two men is a squad and two men are more than twice as likely to be detected."

"That's bull and you know it," the reflection snapped.  "He's your friend, damn you! -- and you're letting him go alone?"

"I can't ride a horse!" he roared at the mirror.

"And whose fault is that?" came the equally enraged reply.  "You've had time to learn!"

The preacher sat, slowly, in one of the spotless, absolutely immaculate kitchen chairs, planted his elbows on his knees, lowered his face into his hands and groaned.


The yellow dress was already started, though Anna Mae didn't know it:  as a matter of fact, it needed only two tucks and a button at the throat, and she stood in front of the fine oval mirror and stared in absolute astonishment.

Dear God, she thought, I'm gorgeous!

Willing hands sat her down, plied with hair brushes and pins and ribbons: her hair was turned, piled, placed: another mirror, a hand mirror this time, and a shining crown declared her beauty.

Calico reached for the mirror, took it gently, put her fingertips to Anna Mae's cheek.

"Go to him," she whispered.  "Go, while you can!"

The ladies parted, a lane opening between Anna Mae and the doorway.

The last time this happened -- the last time humanity parted for her -- she'd been cooking at a gold camp, refusing to brothel herself: she'd had nothing but lean times since she went West, but her virtue was intact, if barely.

A drunken miner came into her kitchen and insisted she would bed him, and when he seized her dress, she drove a knee into him, slung a pan of hot grease into his face and slammed the hot frying pan down hard on top of his head.

The tribunal that followed was a travesty, a mockery, a comedy:  it consisted of a jury of drunken miners, a half-sotted barkeep for a judge, all of whom argued loudly and profanely with each other, until finally they decided for killing the drunken miner, she should be condemned, and so she was fined all the money she'd made:  the jury then decided, with loud and profane declarations, that any man who sought to take a woman's virtue, should be killed, and she should therefore be rewarded:  they'd fined her every cent she'd made, then passed the hat and awarded her with twice that sum, and they drew respectfully back to allow her exit.

Anna Mae remembered this as the ladies drew back, as she lifted her skirts and lifted her chin and tried to look confident as her heart quailed within her tightening breast.


"Is that all you're going to do?" the reflection sneered.  "Big strong soldier boy, sitting here feeling sorry for yourself!"

Reflection and Preacher alike turned their heads to the sound of the knock.

It was a light rat-tat, tat, a woman's knock, and the Preacher spun the coat about his shoulders, tugged it into place, opened the door.

The woman in the yellow dress lifted her chin, and she and the Preacher spoke at the same moment.

"Hello again."



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Doc Ward stood amid the belongings in his small house. Looking around, he tried to decide if he had forgotten anything. Canteens, pemmican, hard tack, flint, steel and char cloth, ammunition, bowie knife, bedroll. Some wax paper with pieces of aloe rolled up in it for the burns on his neck, face and arm. All that was left was a trip to Seamus' store to buy a saddle, then to the Sheriff's Office to gather up his remaining guns, and be off. Then it dawned on him. One final task. Pulling out a chair from the table, Doc pulled out some paper, pen and ink, and began to write.


On one side Doc wrote "Pastor Keller: To be opened upon my death." Turning the paper over after blowing the ink dry, Doc paused before writing:




If you're reading this, I didn't make it past this journey. I suppose this could be considered my Last Will and Testament, although I have little remaining as a result of the fire to bequeath, and nobody in this life to pass it along to. If my body is returned, please have it cremated, along with the box this letter is attached to. If not, please burn the box and the contents in an appropriate manner. I would take it as a personal favor if the box were not opened, just know that the contents are important to me.


As for my house and remaining belongings, I hereby give you authority to dispose of them in a manner as you see fit, for the betterment of the town and its people. Time is short, so this will have to do. You've become a friend, and you have my respect and admiration. Despite our differences in faith, if there is something beyond this realm, I hope to shake your hand again.


I remain Yours, with great esteem,




Doc carefully folded the paper into thirds, and lighting a match, carefully dripped a small bit of paraffin to seal it. Getting up, Doc went and pulled out a small wooden box and brought it to the table. Lifting the lid, he pulled out a folded paper and opened it, revealing a letter written in a fine delicate hand. Scanning it as he blinked back tears, he read it, hearing the voice of his wife as much as reading the words it contained. Getting to the end, he read the words, "Darling, I cannot wait for our next meeting, when we shall be together always and forever. I remain truly and faithfully yours, your loving Wife." Doc closed his eyes tight, fighting to recall the vivacious, beautiful face he loved, instead of the bloodied, pain wracked face he last saw as he did all he could to console her and convince her everything would be OK. He could still hear her words as she laughed through the pain. "You always were a poor liar to me, my Darling. I will be out of pain shortly, then you can do what you must. But whatever you do, don't stop living your life. Be the man I know you to be. I love you... More..." Blinking back tears as her last words echoed through his ears as though they were being spoken just this moment, Doc closed the letter and placed it back in the box. Taking some string, he tied it closed, and slid the letter to Pastor Keller underneath.


Five years ago, and Doc had spent the next year hunting men down. Almost a dozen men had died. Some by guns, several by a rope, and one with his bare hands. Doc had thought he had put that fury behind him. More accurately, had hoped it was behind him. That cold, almost painful need to lash out, to destroy those who needed it. But here it was, filling his thoughts, his bones and sinews. If he were to die soon, he knew he would do so over the bodies of enemies.


Pushing back from the table, Doc gathered up the box, then the pack he had put together, and walked out the door, making sure it was closed tightly behind him. Gathering up the reins of the hackamore he had fashioned, he managed to get onto the small sorrel horse, bareback, and headed for the small white house next to the church where he expected to find the parson. Pulling up once he got there, Doc dismounted and tied a quick loop before heading inside, the wooden box held carefully in his hands. Walking up the steps, Doc knocked. Hearing the pastor's voice, Doc waited, and when the door opened, the pastor looked momentarily surprised, and a little unsure. Then, Doc saw the movement over the man's shoulder and glancing, saw a beautiful lady in yellow, and it took him a long moment to realize it was the same woman he had spoken to as she knelt next to Mary. She looked poised and every bit the lady, but slightly frail with traces of a haunted expression to her eyes.


Clearing his throat, Doc said to them both "My apologies for the interruption, I won't be long." Looking down at the box in his hands, Doc continued, "I want you to keep this, just in case. I believe it is self-explanatory." Pastor Keller looked down, his eyes going wide as he read the words on the paper. "I..." Before he could say more, Doc Ward continued, "It's not because you're a sky pilot, it's because you're my friend. I have this to do, but I don't know what the future holds any better than you. I know your Bible has some pretty specific words about killing, but I know you understand sometimes it is a necessary thing. Vaya con Dios, Pastor." Holding his hand to his hat, Doc nodded. "Ma'am, my apologies again for the interruption." With that, Doc turned on his heel and went back to his horse.


Breathing a sigh of relief, he mounted and headed to buy the saddle, gun scabbards and bridle he needed, along with a couple of more boxes of ammunition. Everyone went quiet when he walked in the store, and both Seamus and Kay looked at Doc with a worried gaze. Both of them liked the quiet man, who was always polite and helpful, even if he did keep to himself. Seamus threw in a saddle blanket, along with some more food, and when Doc reached into his pocket for money, looked Doc directly in the eye. "It's on your tab." Before Doc could object, both Seamus and Kay turned and set about helping other customers. Hoping they both heard his words, Doc said "I'm grateful," before walking out and putting the saddle and blanket on the sorrel and stowing the things he had from the store. Mounting, he headed to the Sheriff's office.


Doc Ward walked inside the office, and nodded as Sheriff Cody looked up. Taking the badge he had worn from his pocket, Doc sat it carefully on the sheriff's desk. "I don't believe what I am about to do should be sanctioned by the law, Sheriff." Cody leaned back in his seat, his hands folded on his chest. Frowning, the Sheriff asked mildly, "You know I should try to talk you out of what you're about to do, or at least try to stop you? I should tell you to not seek revenge, to let the law handle it." Doc nodded his understanding. "So, are you going to?" Sheriff Cody shook his head. "Nope. You be careful, and when you come back, I'd like you to put that back on." A touch of a smile touched Cody's face, and Doc responded likewise. Doc grabbed up his gun belt from where he had left it when he ran from the office to the livery not many hours before. Doc slung it around his hips and pulled his Colt, pulled the hammer to a half cock and flipped the loading gate, checking the cylinder. Flipping the gate closed, he rotated the cylinder and pulled the hammer to a full cock before easing it down on the empty chamber. Holstering it, he then walked over to the rack and pulled down his shotgun, thankful that at least one hadn't burned. He checked to see it was loaded, then pulled his rifle down. Checking it as well, Doc turned and walked for the door. Looking back, he gave a nod of appreciation for the Sheriff's understanding before walking out. As he closed the door, the sheriff looked at it and said "You be careful, Doc."

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The night was quiet, with a damp chill, the feeling of coming rain in the air. On the ground, bundled in bed rolls, were two men, the fire between them burned to coals. One man lay on his side, the other on his back snoring gently. At a sound, the man on his back stopped snoring, his eyes fluttering open. Listening, he heard a muffled gurgling sound, then the shifting of cloth, then nothing. Turning his head, he could barely make out the outline of his companion. Trying to see in the near darkness, he thought he saw the haft of a knife sticking out of the bedroll. His voice a quiet whisper, the man called, "Nate... Nate!" When no response came, the man lifted his head slightly to look at the horses that had been tied nearby, only to realize there were no silhouettes, no sounds... The horses were gone.


Just as he was getting ready to throw back his cover, the man heard the unmistakable clicking of a revolver being cocked from above where his head lay. His blood ran cold and he stayed very still. Slowly tilting his head back, he could only see the silhouette of a figure, and the dim glint of a revolver barrel pointed at him. Slowly the man moved, his gun and his eyes on the man on the ground, and kicked some of the wood that had burned down together. Kneeling, he patted the ground for the small pile near the fire, and tossed on a bit more. As the fire slowly flared up, the man on the ground looked up and saw the face of a man with a couple of days of stubble, a black hat pushed back on his head slightly, and cold eyes. Glancing over at Nate, he saw that it was indeed the handle of a knife, seemingly Nate's own Bowie, sticking out of what must have been his ribs.


"Mister, I don't know who you are, but I got no quarrel with you. You want money, you can take all I got, and his too. You already got our horses." The man with the gun, still kneeling, took a deep breath, as if deciding what to do. "That's where you're wrong. You do have a quarrel with me, and you've come out on the losing end." The man on the ground began to move his arms when he saw the gun move to point at his forehead. "Don't.," was the only reply. Freezing, the man on the ground said "Can I at least smoke a cigarette?" He could see the humorless smile as the reply came, "Sure, if you can conjure a lit one out of thin air to your lips without moving." "So that's the way it's going to be?" he asked. The man with the gun nodded, "That's the way it's going to be."


Nearing panic, the man in his bedroll asked, "What did I ever do to you?" The man with the gun replied, "You, Nate there, and the friend of yours you split up with down the trail burnt my stables, you destroyed my belongings, you killed my horses. You took away from me what was left of meaning in my life." Gulping audibly, the man on the ground looked up at Doc Ward. "So... So what do you mean to do? Nobody died, we made sure of that." Shaking his head, Doc replied, "Doesn't matter." He continued, in a conversational tone, "You've got three choices. You can tell me what I want to know, and die quickly. You can be stubborn, and die slowly. Or, you can try to reach for whatever gun you've got in your bedroll with you and take your chances that you'll get your hand to it before I put a bullet into you."


Staying perfectly still, the man responded, "I don't particularly like those options. You're a hard man." Whatever else he knew, the man on the ground knew he was going to die as Doc replied, "Hard world, and you made the wrong choice. Your bad luck." Swallowing again, the man on the ground asked "What do you want to know?" As he shifted, Doc's gun steadied again on his forehead, stilling his movement. "Who hired you? Who is responsible for the fact that you're going to die, here in the middle of nowhere? Any loyalty to him is misplaced, and won't save you. And just to save me time, who is your friend that split up with you, and where is he going?" Smiling the smile of a man who sees one chance at a small victory in losing, the man on the ground said, "The only thing I know is the guy who hired us went by 'Joe," and he was tall, strong looking. Blonde guy with a thick German accent. I can't say anything else, other than he didn't seem the type to trifle with." Doc nodded and said "OK, and your friend?" The man on the ground laughed a little. "Hell, that's Mack Osborne, and you don't want any part of him. He'll drop you like a bad habit. But he's going to The Junction. I hope you find him." Doc Ward leaned a little closer, his eyes cold and black in the dim light of the fire, and the man knew his time was short. Still he grinned, until Doc asked "You ever think he might not want any part of me? Does it seem I care how I kill him?" Those were the last words the man heard as he saw the flash from the muzzle of Doc's revolver pointed at his forehead.


Putting out the fire, Doc made sure there were no coals to catch the woods afire, before walking into the trees to his own horse, the other two already long gone. Two down. How many more to go before he was done?

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My father's expression in such moments was "Well I will be sawed off and damned."

My mouth opened and my father's words fell out.

Anna Mae's hand was light on my arm and she reached for the envelope, turned it just enough to read the words on the front:  she jerked her hand back like she'd touched a hot stove, her hand cupped over her mouth, she looked up at me, eyes wide and distressed.

"Doc is an old man hunter from way back," I said quietly, laying my hand on hers.

Her answer was just to look at me, quietly, a little uncertain, then she nodded, once, slowly.

"Anna Mae, things are getting bad hereabouts and I want you kept safe."  I considered for a moment, thinking hard.

"Miz Loreli brooks no nonsense and right now I'd say with Calico hurt, was anyone to try anything, Miz Loreli would fill 'em full of regret."  

"The men in town are watchful," Anna Mae whispered.

"We have need to be."

Anna Mae shivered and leaned into me and I ran my arms around her, and she ran hers around me, and I laid my cheek over on top of her head.

We stood there for a long moment ... my only move was to lay the envelope on the table, beside the box.

I reckon 'twas a few minutes before either of us moved, and that was Anna Mae that moved first, and that was to lift her head and look up at me.

"I have not allowed a man's touch," she whispered, "in all these years since."

Her head was tilted back, her lips were apart a little, and I bent my face to hers and whispered, "Anna Mae, may I?" and she whispered, "Yes," and we spoke no more for several long minutes.

I reckon it's because I was a man alone, and full of sorrows, and she was a woman alone with sorrows of her own, that we both came up for air and looked at one another and we both liked what we saw.

"There may be more killing here in town," I said quietly. "You already know I killed two men, right outside this door. When the town's preacher carries a gun and has to use it, things are not safe."

Anna Mae nodded, her eyes big, trusting.

"I don't want to make you a widow, Anna Mae," I whispered.

"Then don't," she whispered back.

"You know I killed men."

"I don't care."

"I'm a preacher. Most days I haven't two nickles to rub together."

"I know."

"My earthly fortune may be slightly less than nothing, Anna Mae, and a woman deserves fine gowns and silver on the table and --"

She pressed a finger against my protesting lips.

"You are a richer man than you know," she whispered back.  "You have one true friend, one who entrusts you with his deepest secret" -- she looked at the string-tied box and the wax-sealed letter -- "and I ..."

She hesitated, swallowed, bit her bottom lip, then looked up at me with those big dark eyes, those deep eyes, I felt myself falling into those eyes, I could swim in those eyes --

"You have his secrets," she whispered, "and you have my heart."

That decided it.

I took Anna Mae by the wrist:  "Come with me" -- we thrust through the door into the little hallway, the next door, and into the sanctuary.

We stopped at the center of the altar rail and I turned and took both her hands.

"Anna Mae," I said, "they taught in Seminary that marriage was once a very simple thing.  The man said 'You are my wife' and the woman said 'You are my husband' and that was it.  Later they invited friends as witnesses so they'd have an excuse for a feast.  The statement was best given in public and often from a prominent point -- the village fountain, or the steps of the church, and clergy said "Bring it inside and enjoy the blessing of God!" and it got fancy from there."

Anna Mae seized my hand, squeezed it, drew it to her bosom.

"The church steps," she whispered, "will do."

We almost ran down the aisle for the church door.


The tale was told for some years after how two men were walking toward the saloon when they heard a familiar voice declaring to the wind, "Anna Mae, I take you for my wife!"  and a woman's voice declare, "Preacher, I take you for my husband!" and then the woman giggled and dropped her eyes like a bashful schoolgirl and admitted, red-faced, "I just married a man and I don't even know his name!"

The two men witnessing the event looked at one another and shrugged.

"Hell, let's go drink to the Parson's marriage!"


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The Junction, as it was called, was a junction in name only. Lore had it that an enterprising fellow had set up a trading post at the junction of two well travelled trails, miles to the East, and named it "The Junction." One day, on a whim, he loaded up everything that he could, and moved further west and set up again. He reused the old sign announcing the name, and as a few people gathered in the area and a few more buildings popped up, everyone just referred to it as "The Junction." Now a whopping five buildings lined the main street, such as it was. The trading post / general store, three saloons, and a diner that also rented rooms. Back away from the main street were a sprawling number of cabins and sod houses, many of them empty. Elsewhere, a couple of corrals and stock pens filled out the area surrounding the town. The town's main business came from a few ranches in the surrounding area, the occasional small herd passing through, prospectors, still the occasional trapper, and men on the move.


Doc Ward rode slowly into town, slicker pulled tight against the rain, water running from his hat in front of his face, with the inevitable bit finding its way down the back of his neck. He saw no movement in the gray haze created by the rain, not a surprise with the rain, as the noon hour approached. pulling up in front of the trading post, Doc dismounted and wrapped a loop around the hitching post before walking inside. Stepping to the side of the door as he let his eyes adjust to the light, Doc Ward saw a solitary old man seated near the pot belly stove. The man stood, and was tall, and clearly powerful in his younger years, although age had left him hunched, with arthritic fingers that bent painfully. "How can I help you, stranger?" Doc looked around, and took in the sights and aromas of the place. Dusty, with mildew and wet, along with woodsmoke and more filled the air. Looking at the old man, Doc replied, "Coffee, if you got it. I think I could use more. Jerky too, and if you have any muslin or clean cloth, I'd appreciate it." The old man looked at Doc's stubble, more gray than dark, especially over his chin, and nodded. "Coffee is mostly chicory, if that's OK. Some on the stove if you want, too. Cups on the shelf. They're clean but for dust." Doc nodded and added his thanks as he pulled a cup from the shelf and filled it with coffee.


As the old man moved through the store gathering things, he looked at Doc Ward. "Look like you been traveling awhile. Ain't got a barber in town, but there's a girl in the saloon at the end of the road that does a purty good shave and haircut. Goes by the name of Sarah Jane." Doc nodded and thanked the man again as he sipped the scalding hot coffee. Looking up, Doc asked, "Say, you don't happen to have any reading material, do you?" The old man shook his head. "No. Had a newspaper a couple of months back, but some feller set it on top of the stove and 'bout burned the place down. If I'd been ten years younger I'd have boxed his ears. Can't get good reading material." As he finished gathering up things, the old man moved behind the board that passed for a counter and pulled out a stub of a pencil and started doing the math. When he told Doc the price, Doc fished inside his slicker to find his pocket and pulled out some coins and passed them over to the old man.


Watching as Doc gathered his things, the old man asked, "I didn't see which way you came from, but we had a couple of horses come trotting into town yesterday afternoon. No saddles or bridles, but shod horses in pretty good shape. Thought you might have seen them, or had an idea where they came from. Doc sipped the coffee and frowned, as if in thought before shaking his head. "No, nothing comes to mind. Where'd they end up? If someone asks I can let 'em know." The old man shook his head and said "I wouldn't worry about that. That Mack Osborne took a keen interest in them. Looked them over real good, then led them back to the corral over yonder. He's a mean one, and between you and me, a thief. He must have made a haul somewhere, because he's had some money since he rode in yesterday morning. Anyways, I'd say he laid claim to 'em" Doc nodded his understanding. "Mack Osborne, huh? He doesn't hang out at the saloon where the gal gives shaves, does he? I'd prefer to avoid him." The old man gestured and replied "Naw, he tends to do all his drinking at the saloon across the main drag there, then usually shacks up with Katie that works there in the cabin behind." Doc nodded again as he glanced that direction out the small dirty window pain. "Thanks. What's he look like, just to be safe?" The old man held up his hand and said "About that tall, dark red hair and beard. Wears one of them short Mex style jackets."


Doc nodded. "Thanks again. Mind if I finish my coffee before I head back in the rain? I think I might be drying out a little." The old man grinned and said, "Take your slicker off and have a seat if you want. Have as much coffee as you want! You don't happen to play chess do you? I ain't found anyone that plays chess in over a year."  Doc smiled and said, "It has been years, surely I'm pretty rusty." The old man grinned and pointed near the stove. "Grab a seat, I'll get the board and pieces." Doc pulled his slicker off and rolled his sleeve to carefully remove the dressing from his arm and gently put some of the juice from the aloe vera on the burn before re-wrapping it. The old man held the board and watched, staying out of the way until Doc finished, then said "That looks painful. Too close to a campfire?" Doc grimaced, blinking away a flash of a fresh memory, glad the old man was busy putting pieces into place. "Something like that." When the old man finished he looked up and grinned. "Gotta be careful. Now, I'll even be a sport and let you have white. Your move."

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"The sermon today will be brief," said I, pitching my voice to hit the back wall and reflect back at me.

It was a little cooler that morning, we'd had rain, but with all those warm bodies inside it was comfortable.

Anna Mae sat in the front pew, next to the middle aisle, she was watching me like a bashful schoolgirl, and I had to fall back on the hard disciplines I learned in time of war to split my mind, shove one part into the corner and tell it to shut up and stand still, and let the rest of my mind do the work.

Otherwise I would have likely mooned after her like a smitten schoolboy.

At my pronouncement of my intended brevity, there were a few smiles ripple through the assembled, especially when I added, "Nor will there be knives, pyrites, sparks, nor shall I act like a lunatick.  A damned fool, perhaps, but I seem to be good at that."

Most of the men smiled just a little, a couple of them chuckled: smiling in public wasn't as common as it would become in years and centuries to follow, as too often a public smile was seen as a sign of weakness, of uncertainty, of submission: when I saw several collective, albeit quiet and almost stifled smiles, I knew I'd hit the common thread all men know as a fact of life that it's perilously easy to end up looking like the north end of a south bound horse.

God knows I had, often enough.

"We read in Scripture that it is better to marry than to burn, and unfortunately I haven't the original Greek to translate.  You see, there's some disagreement whether it means burning in Hell's fire, or burning with lust."  

I smiled with half my mouth.

"If I burn it'll be on my own merits, for I am now a married man.  May I introduce my beautiful bride, Anna Mae, who I've known for many years."

Anna Mae looked like she wanted to draw up inside her dress like a turtle and her face turned an incredible shade of scarlet: of the ladies present, there were a variety of expressions ... suspicion, delight, curiosity, mostly.  I didn't pay that much attention as I was intent on finishing up but giving a good message.

"The war taught me to strike while the iron was hot: an opportunity might not come again, and we read this same thing in Scripture, that we are to labor while there is daylight to work by.  We also see this in the Ecclesiastical admonition that for all things there is a season, a time for every purpose under the heavens."

I looked very directly at Anna Mae, and she looked shyly back up at me, and I could have ripped the beating heart out of my chest and laid it at her feet.

"I learned the hard way how brief life can be.  Anna Mae has learned the same hard lesson and from some of the same times and conditions, and" -- here I grinned and I did not care who saw it -- "now I'm just as happy as if I had good sense!

"This, then, is the lesson:  when it needs doing, do it: when a prize comes in reach, seize it: do what good we may, now, because tomorrow is not guaranteed."

I had no idea my sermon would continue outside, as church was dismissing, as the congregation filed out and swirled in loose groups, talking as people do.

There was a stranger among them, someone who hadn't been inside, who sneered at Anna Mae and looked at me:  "So you married a gold camp doxy --"

He never saw my backhand, nor did he realize he was hitting the ground until it slammed up against his back.

I uncorked a backhand that snapped his head around, I hooked my ankle behind his knee, I seized his throat and I drove him to the ground with my hand on his throat and my knee in his belly, and I didn't put it there gently a'tall.

I reached under his coat, pulled the gun out of his holster, tossed it to the Sheriff, then released his throat and stood.

"In the time of Christ," I declared in a loud voice, as people drew back from us, forming a circle, "to backhand someone was to declare them an inferior. When Christ said to turn the other cheek, He was not telling us to be a doormat."

I took a long breath, glared at the man struggling to his feet, my hands opening and closing, then fisting hard shut.

"To smack someone with the open hand," I continued, and my voice was not quiet, "was to smite an equal, but to backhand a man" -- my glare was hard, focused -- "was to declare him an inferior, and to turn the other cheek was to publicly call him a liar, to invite a forehand strike so the fight could start."
Anna Mae's hand was over her mouth, her eyes were big, she was backed up into a protective knot of womenfolk, gathered tightly around her: the Sheriff was casually looking around, as if he were at a county fair, leisurely surveying a crowd for acquaintances.

"We ain't done," the stranger snarled, and I was on him like a starving dog on a scrap of meat.

I learned the hard way when you fight, you fight to beat the other man so bad he'll be crippled for life or killed and next he sees you he'll run, and that's how I tore into this fella.

He was backing away, wiping the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand and I drove into him like I'd been shot out of a longbow.

We hit the ground and rolled and my knees was into him and so were my elbows and I drove my elbow down on his collar bone and felt it break, I reared up and landed my knees on his ribs and I felt at least one break and I knew he was out of the fight so I rolled back on my heels and stood.

"NO!"  I shouted, bent over a little, roaring at the gasping, groaning man on his back in the dirt:  "IT'S OVER NOW! IF IT ISN'T OVER I'LL GIVE YOU ANOTHER DOSE! IT'S OVER NOW OR I WILL BEAT YOU INTO FERTILIZER, YOU UNDERSTAND?"

I don't know if he understood or not, that's about the time he passed out.

The Sheriff took my left arm, Anna Mae took my right, they held me for a long moment until I got my breathing controlled.

Finally I nodded and they let go, and I gave my coat a tug to settle it back where it belonged, and the Sheriff gave me a long look and said "Preacher, you'd really ought to do somethin' about that temper of yours.  Someone could get hurt."

He gave Anna Mae a long look and then looked back at me, and then he reached up and rested his hand on my shoulder.

"On t'other hand," he admitted frankly, "if someone said that about my wife, I'd have done the same thing!"

Several men came up and shook my hand afterward and said my first sermon was quite good, but my second one was much better.



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Calamity Kris, Lorelei and Calico Mary sidled up to Anna to pay their respects.  Many hugs and well wishes around.  The ladies were overjoyed at Anna's new found happiness and wished her and the parsons their best. The menfolk invited the parsons to the saloon for a drink. The ladies invited Anna to Clara's for tea.  Anna looked at her new husband with a little bit of uncertainty but became all smiles when he nodded his approval.  As the ladies walked towards the cafe' poor Anna was peppered with questions, when did she meet the parsons, how long have they known each other, why keep it secret?  Anna shyly smiled and said they would know in good time.  Once seated at Clara's, the women were so eager to ask Anna questions, they couldn't stop interrupting her.  Clara finally came over, pulled up a chair and said "ladies, I understand your excitement and would like to get to know your new friend better but you need to stop and take a breath so she can answer what you asked her".  Lorelei, Calamity and Calico all looked at each other with embarrassment.  Calamity spoke up first.  "We are very sorry, Anna.  We meant you no disrespect.  We are all so happy that you have finally found happiness."  Anna looked at the floor and shyly looked back at the ladies.  "No disrespect taken" she uttered in a very quiet, shy voice.  Clara spoke up and said she would leave the ladies to talk.  She would be back in a little while to bring them some tea cakes.  With that, she rose and walked away to the kitchen.  The ladies looked at each other rather awkwardly.  Who would speak up next?  After a moment all four women broke out in fits of giggles.  Anna finally spoke and started with, "Let me tell you my story......."

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I reckon had I taken everyone up on every last offer, I would have personally run the saloon dry.

I took the first shot of Old Crud Cutter that was pressed on me, and I hoisted it and raised my voice.

"Friends, kindred and breathren!" I declared.  "Here's to wives and lovers, and may they never meet!"

This was met with good-natured laughter and I waited til that died down a little.

"Now fellas, it's not well known but I am a drinkin' man."

I reckon the grin on my face and my tone of voice said otherwise, least that was the understanding I read on their faces.

"Every year, on my birthday, I will take one shot of the meanest, nastiest, straight out of the still raw whiskey and it goes down as smooth as a wood rasp or a lit kerosene lamp" -- this got more laughter -- "and it reminds me yet again why I only drink once a year!"

I looked at the distilled sledge hammer shining in that facet-bottom glass and said "I reckon I'll make an exception!"

There were good-natured yells of approval as I downed that shot of top shelf bourbon -- I've no idea where they got it, but by golly now that was genuine sippin' likker -- and I had to decline with a smile the many offers for a refill.

The menfolk pressed hard about, pesterin' me to know more about my beautiful bride and finally I had to raise both hands and yell "NOW HOLD ON, FELLAS! I CAIN'T YEAR YOU, YE'RE ALL YELLIN' TOO LOUD!" -- which had the desired effect -- if you can't dazzle 'em with education, baffle 'em with your bull -- and when they realized I was coming at the answer kind of backwards, why, they hushed and I pulled two chairs together and stood up so everyone could hear me.

Almost had to duck, the ceiling wasn't all that high, but I managed.

"Now fellas, Anna Mae is a sweet girl," I said, and winked:  "she is gentle and kindly and in private I call her Big Red."
There were several elbows nudged into ribs on that one, knowing looks, wicked chuckles.

"Y'see, Big Red is mean as a snake and she keeps it hid, but for her morning exercise she'll run barefoot down a bobwarr fence, swingin' a wildcat by the tail, one out of each hand, just a-darin' 'em to growl!"

If you tell a big enough lie it'll either be believed or enjoyed, and they enjoyed this one:  I finally fessed up that I'd met her back during the War, but we got separated with everything going on and she only now caught up with me so I reckoned there was no hope and the moment I saw her, why, I knew it was time to run up the white flag and surrender.

The Sheriff came in and joined the festivities and shook my hand in congratulation, and he asked if he could take over the conversation, and that relieved me: I'd told the only big lie I had prepared, and he kind of let me off the hook, so to speak.

"Men, while we're all here, I want to organize a night watch," he said.  "So far they've fired two buildings and I don't want any more burned.  I want to set watches, but I don't want anyone out who's not assigned a watch."

"Why the hell not?" someone challenged.

"Because whoever is settin' fahrs," the Sheriff said, "is going to be treated pretty badly, and I don't want anyone clubbed, kicked or shot without need!"

They seemed to understand that.

I was exempted from watch, as I had a new wife and the Sheriff said he would take pity on me as I was about to be saddle broke, and the conversation went downhill from there.

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"I think I'm dried out, and the rain's stopped. Appears we're going to have to leave it at two games, friend. I'm hungry, tired, and I could use that shave you mentioned. When I come through again, we'll play a tie-breaker. Sound fair enough?" Doc Ward looked across the chess board at the old man who had just announced "Checkmate" to him. The old man nodded and said "Sure, that sounds fair enough. You just be sure that you come back for that game." Doc stood, stretching, and shook his head as he looked down at the board. "I think you might have gone easily on me the first game. I don't know that we need to try a third, but I promise." The old man, putting his hand on his heart and looking offended. "Easily? I did no such thing." Doc nodded, "I won't be impolite and disagree with you then. How's the food at the diner?" The old man shrugged. "It depends on if they're managing to serve beef instead of horse," he said dryly, adding, "Probably won't kill you though." Doc sighed. "Well, probably still beats my own cooking." The old man let out a snort, then said "Don't be so sure. At any rate, it's food."


The old man asked "If you don't mind my asking, where'd you come from?" Doc Ward gave him a glance and said "Originally? Kentucky, right close to the Virginia border. Or West Virginia, now, I suppose." The old man shook his head, "No, that's not... Wait, where again?" Doc Ward paused. "You familiar with the area? I was born and raised on a bit of bottom land along a creek that ran into the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River." The old man looked stunned. "You don't say?" The old man leaned his head back and took a long look at Doc. "Last name wouldn't be 'Ward' would it." Now it was Doc's turn to be stunned. "Well... Now... How did you know that?" The old man slapped his knee. "I should've known it from the get-go. You look like one of them Wards that have been running through that area since before the turn of the century. My name's VanHoose. You any kin to James Ward? The one that fought at Point Pleasant and King's Mountain?" Doc shook his head in disbelief. "He was my grandfather. You couldn't have known him though!" The old man laughed and slapped his knee again. "Why, I knew him as a youngster! I was about four, maybe five years old, but I remember folks talking about him even after he died. I'm older than I look, just so you know! So, you talk awfully well, I'm guessing your Pa was W.B? The preacher?" Doc nodded, then shook his head in disbelief again.


"Never thought I'd run into someone from back home way out here." VanHoose shrugged, "You'd be surprised. Why I've run into a few people from back that a-way here. Take that Sarah Jane I mentioned. Her family came west from Pike County. Last name of Hall. Seemed her old man didn't want no truck with that war and picked up his family and headed West. She sort of... Well,  ended up on her own, and you know what happens to a woman in these parts then... That Mack Osborne is another. Heard he came from Floyd County. He stole horses from one side and sold 'em to the other, and then tried to steal 'em right back, and headed West ahead of a Union squad set out to chase him. Some good Osbornes back home, but he ain't one of 'em! At any rate, I'd better let you go eat and get that shave. Tell Sarah Jane where you hail from, she'll get a kick out of it." Doc assured VanHoose he would, then picked up his things and headed for the door. VanHoose was happy as could be. "A couple of good games of chess and chatted with someone from back home. You've made my day! You avoid that Mack Osborne, and take care in your travels!" Doc nodded gravely and replied "Thanks, I will, and I hope to play that third game sometime soon."

VanHoose watched as Doc stowed his provisions and rolled his slicker and put it behind the saddle before mounting the sorrel to ride toward the saloon where Sara Jane could be found. Turning and closing the door behind him, VanHoose paused. "Well damn, I forgot to tell him to steer clear of Stone Creek if he's heading in that direction. Looks like trouble headed that way. He seems a good man, I'd hate to see him get hurt."

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Doc Ward rode the short distance down to the saloon. The few hours of distraction helped his mood, but the fatigue he felt was only outweighed by his resolve. He had one name, Mack Osborne, and another possible name, "Joe," who had a German accent. Doc tried to recall where else he had heard about an accent recently, but his tired brain refused to cooperate. Doc decided that a shave, some food, and some sleep were in order. It didn't sound like Mack Osborne was going anywhere, since he had money to spend and a girl to shack up with.


Walking into the saloon, Doc Ward glanced around at a few men getting an early start on the evening's drinking, a couple of girls sitting close by them, hoping to get their attention and their money. Behind the bar, the bartender glanced over at Doc and pushed himself up from the spot he was leaning against. A short, stocky, balding man with a walrus mustache, the bartender had the bored look of someone who had done the job for a long time. Doc stepped up and gave a nod of hello. "Beer, if you have it." The bartender grabbed a mug and pulled a beer as Doc set a coin on the bar. As the bartender slid it to him, Doc asked "Is Sarah Jane here? VanHoose down at the store said she gives a pretty good shave." The bartender looked across the room and spoke up "Sarah Jane, this gent wants a shave if you're inclined." Turning, Doc saw Sarah Jane judging her chances of getting anything from the guy she was sitting with, versus getting a bit of money from Doc. As she stood, Doc was a little surprised. Sarah Jane was tall, taller than many men, with a lithe body not well hidden under the bright red dress she wore that complemented her auburn red hair. She looked attractive and graceful, and it wasn't until she drew closer that Doc realized the makeup she wore hid the effects of the hard life she had led, a long thin scar along her cheekbone, and another under her lip that was more jagged. She held her right arm in such a way that Doc was sure it had been broken and not set correctly at some point. Judging from the freckles sprinkled over her shoulders and visible chest, Doc Ward was sure there were more hidden under the heavy makeup. The fragrance of lavender that accompanied her was not quite overpowering.


Sarah Jane smiled and gave Doc an appraising look and smiled invitingly. "Well honey, you certainly look like you could use a shave, and maybe a bath to wash off some of that trail dust. But you look fit for about anything else you might need as well, if you're interested." Doc shook his head and replied, "No thank you, Ma'am, just a shave, then I need to get some dinner and some sleep. Then I need to be moving along. Mr. VanHoose said you did a pretty good job of it, and I figured it'd make my life a bit easier." Sarah Jane cocked an eyebrow and smiled. "Ma'am?" She looked over Doc's shoulder at the bartender. "Johnny, we have someone with manners here!" Then she looked back at Doc, "Old Saul? He's such a sweet old man. I think he looks out for me because we're from close to the same place, originally." Doc nodded, "That's what he said. Pike County? I'm from Lawrence County." Sarah Jane's eyes widened and there was a bit of a sparkle to them. "Really? Well you certainly don't talk like someone from those parts. You sure about that?" Doc smiled, "Yes Ma'am, born and raised within throwing distance of the Big Sandy, but never made it to Pikeville... Paintsville a time or two and Inez over the other direction. My father sent me off to get an education up in Ohio though." Sarah Jane smiled approvingly, and a little longingly, but then smiled, "But you wound up out here?" Doc shrugged. "Plenty enough do. So about that shave?"


Sarah Jane looked at Johnny, "Be back in a bit." She then looked at Doc, "You don't mind coming to my cabin, do you honey?" She then added, teasingly, a smile and twinkle in her eye, "I promise not to do anything you don't want." Doc took a long drink of beer before setting the half full mug on the counter. Taking a deep breath and exhaling, he tilted his head, "Lead the way, Ma'am." Sarah Jane looked over her shoulder as she walked off, her walk upright and ladylike, without the wiggle that many a girl put into their step, "Call me Sarah Jane, so I'm sure you mean me," she added with a small laugh. Doc followed out the back door of the saloon, pausing to look for trouble spots or anyone who may be watching. His movements weren't lost on Sarah Jane who asked "Expecting trouble, honey? If so, I'd really like to know ahead of time." Doc shook his head. "Expecting, no. Wary of it, yes."


A dozen yards from the back of the saloon along a pebbled path which kept the mud down, Doc stepped into the cabin as Sarah Jane lit a couple of lights and pushed open shades to let more light in from outside. The cabin was almost painfully tidy, despite the dirt floor, with a bed, a conveniently placed stand with pitcher and basin and a few odds and ends of her trade next to it. At the end of the bed stood a wooden chest. A pie safe stood on the opposite side near a small table with two chairs. A kettle, dutch oven and large coffeepot  were on the hearth of the fireplace nearby, where coals were banked and  still hot. Doc smelled the unmistakeable aroma of cornbread and his stomach growled its approval of the smell.


Pointing to a seat at the small table. Sarah Jane pulled a cup with soap, a brush, razor and strop out.  Wrapping a cloth around the handle of the pot, she poured some steaming hot water into the basin and dropped a towel in before carefully placing it over Doc Ward's face. Sarah Jane carefully ran the razor along the strop and checked its sharpness as Doc leaned back, watching and waiting. "My daddy taught me to do all of this when I was a little girl. He'd let me shave him. I actually think he enjoyed it. He didn't have any sons to teach, just me and my sister. They died of the cholera, along with my ma." Her words were matter of fact, as though she explained it often. Doc replied softly "My condolences," and Sarah Jane's head came up, surprised by the response. Smiling, she nodded and said gratefully, "Thank you. You're the first man other than Old Saul to ever say that."


Sarah Jane wrapped a somewhat soiled red and white checked tablecloth around Doc and proceeded to begin lathering his face. As she did, Doc stared straight ahead, noticing a couple of books laid flat on top of the pie safe. Sarah Jane continued to make small talk while she worked, carefully shaving a number of days' of growth from Doc's face. Doc appreciated her care and meticulous nature as she shaved him, then made sure the lather was wiped clean. Producing a small hand mirror, she allowed Doc to look at his face, waiting for his approval. "VanHoose was right, you do quite a good job, thank you Ma'am... Sarah Jane, my apologies." Sarah Jane sat about putting the shaving things away, and tidying up, her movements efficient as she did so. Doc slid two silver dollars out and sat them on the table. Taking note, Sarah Jane rubbed Doc Ward's shoulders, then leaned close to ask "Did you decide you wanted something else after all?" Doc Ward placed his hands over hers to stop her as he stood. "No, Sarah Jane, you did a good job, and you could use it perhaps a bit more than I can. I need to go get something to eat. The smell of cornbread has my stomach working to get my attention."

Doc Ward thought he saw a flash of disappointment, but then Sarah Jane said "Sit back down and turn around. My cornbread is better than anything you'll get at that diner, and I also have some bacon that I can cook up." When Doc started to protest, Sarah Jane said, "I'm not taking 'No" for an answer, so sit down, honey. I haven't fed a man since my daddy died." Knowing to object more would be an insult, Doc gestured and said, "If you insist, but if you don't mind, I'd like to take a look at your books while you get everything ready." Sarah Jane waved a hand toward them and said "Of course! Do you like to read? My daddy said reading and talking is what separates us from the animals. He insisted both me and Sis learn." Doc walked over as Sarah Jane worked and was mildly astonished. There was the family Bible, which he was sure was one of the few possessions she retained from her family. Next to it, though, were two volumes, something he had not expected to see. As he lifted the top one, he read the title aloud. "Frankenstein; or a Modern Prometheus." Turning, Doc asked "Where did you get this?" Sarah Jane turned, looking over her shoulder, her face a little flushed from the heat as she knelt on one knee, putting coffee on and beginning to fry the bacon. "That? A salesman that came through left it. He wanted to..." Doc felt a little awkward at her seeming sudden self-consciousness about her work as she paused before continuing, "Well, he didn't have any money after whiskey and poker, so he offered me that instead. Have you read it?" Doc Ward looked from Sarah Jane back to the book, "I have, back in Ohio. I always felt sympathy for his creation." Sarah Jane became animated as she responded, "Yes! I did too! I sobbed when he was telling of the life he had endured, and no fault of his own! What a horrible thing!"


Doc took a seat and flipped slowly through the pages as they made small talk, and Sarah Jane made food. Doc found himself remembering another kitchen, in a house with a beautiful auburn hair woman who was every bit a lady, as much so as Sarah Jane likely could have been if circumstances had allowed. The sound of small talk and the sounds and smells of the kitchen took him back until he had to close his eyes against them. "Honey? Honey?!? Are you OK?" Startled, Doc looked up, blinking his eyes, to see the concerned face of Sarah Jane looking down at him, a plate of cornbread in one hand and bacon in the other. Moving the book aside, Doc made room for Sara Jane to set the plates down. "Did I say something wrong?" Doc breathed deeply. "No, Sarah Jane, nothing at all. I just..." Doc heaved a sigh. "No, nothing at all, thank you." Her face showing her sudden understanding, Sarah Jane said, "You looked like you were in almost physical pain. I understand. Memories can do that sometimes. I think I get that way about my family from time to time. It can be hard to let go." Sarah Jane said no more as she walked to the pie safe and brought back dishes.


Setting plates, knive and forks in front of Doc, and herself, Sarah Jane sat down. "Dig in. I also have a cobbler I made from wild blueberries." Doc looked across at her as he sliced a wedge of cornbread and put bacon on his plate. "I thought you didn't cook for other men?" Sarah Jane shook her head, saying adamantly, "I don't. Those that come here don't want to eat. Usually a shave is just a starting point for what they really want. I like cooking, and I'll share some with the other girls. I'll occasionally take something to Saul or Johnny, because they keep an eye out for me. But actually cooking for a man?" She shook her head and continued, and Doc listened as he ate, realizing he was more hungry than he had realized. Sarah Jane ate sparingly, but seemed happy that someone was appreciative of her cooking. Finally, she got up and brought out the cobbler and carefully cut and scooped some out onto Doc's plate. Doc tasted it, and admitted he hadn't tasted any so good in a very long time. Sarah Jane was very pleased and offered him more, which Doc had to decline.


Doc's face turned more serious. "If I have any more, I'll sleep for days, and I have business to attend to. Speaking of, where would be a good place to sleep?" Sarah Jane thought for a moment, then said "Don't think I'm being forward, or have designs, but you could sleep right here. It's better than sleeping in a room with a group of snoring men, and cleaner too," she added proudly. Doc shook his head. "That wouldn't be proper, and besides, you might..." Now it was Doc being self-conscious, his breeding and manners keeping him from stating the obvious about her line of work, and he felt a bit warm under the collar. Sarah Jane again asserted herself. "It's the least I can do for someone from back home. You have a horse at the saloon? I'll bring him around and put him behind the cabin. You can put a chair under the door to keep anyone out... Even me," she teased. "I'll be late more than likely, and I can do what I need and sleep elsewhere. I insist." Doc, feeling very awkward, but not seeing a graceful way out, pondered a moment, then replied, "I'll do this. I'll go get my horse. I'll get my bedroll and sleep next to the hearth. When you decide you need to sleep, you come on back. I'll get up and leave when you do. That will be more than enough sleep for me." Sarah Jane seemed pleased and agreed.


Sarah Jane walked with Doc to the back of the saloon, where she went inside. Doc walked around and got the sorrel, riding it back and pulling the saddle from it. Pulling a curry brush from his bag, Doc Ward rubbed the horse down, then checked the horse's hooves before swapping out the bridle for a halter and picketing the horse on fresh grass. Carrying the saddle inside, along with his scabbarded long guns and bedroll. Doc rolled out his bed, pulled off his boots and gun belt. Laying down, Doc pulled his Colt from the holster and put it under the cover of the bedroll, his hand on it. Doc could hear the sounds from the saloon as evening got going. Relaxing his body, Doc drifted off to sleep.


Sarah Jane snuck in as quietly as she could, but Doc Ward's eyes sprang open, and he realized it was already daylight. Blinking his eyes, then rubbing the sleep from them, Doc looked at Sara Jane as he sat up. She was still wearing the red dress, but her hair was partially down and she clutched a shawl to her body as she looked at Doc. She looked tired, but she gestured toward the fireplace. "Get a fire going, and I'll make you breakfast." Not believing he slept the night through, Doc tugged his boots on, put his hat and gun belt on, then walked outside to answer nature's call. Coming back inside, he poured water in the basin and used a sliver of soap to wash his face and hands. He then sat to making a fire as Sarah Jane undid her hair, letting it fall down her back. She quickly set to making coffee, then more bacon and pulled out what was left of the cornbread. After rolling his bedroll, Doc took the coffee cup she handed him gratefully, and sat drinking it in silence while Sarah Jane cooked. Spying the two dollar pieces on the table, Doc reached into a pocket and pulled out a ten dollar piece, and replaced the two coins with it, sliding it out of the way. If Sarah Jane noticed as she served up the food, she didn't say anything.


After eating, Doc had more coffee, then got to his feet. "I appreciate everything you've done for me, Ma'am... Sarah Jane, I'm sorry. Your company has been a pleasure, and I couldn't ask for better food." Sarah Jane smiled and said, "if you ever come this way again and don't stop in to visit, I'll be most hurt." Doc nodded and replied, "I have to come back this way, I owe VanHoose another game of chess, and I will surely stop in. If you ever make it to Stone Creek, you look me up, just ask anyone for Doc Ward." At his words, Sarah Jane's eyes got large and her hand went to her chest as she gasped. "Stone Creek? There's trouble heading that way. I heard Mack Osborne sent four men to kill the sheriff, his deputy and a preacher! Do you know them?" Doc's face tightened with anger. "I'm the deputy. I'm planning on going to see Osborne. That's why I'm in town." Sarah Jane shook her head and said, "Sit down then, he won't be up until after noon, then he'll be at the saloon across from Saul's place."

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I looked at the edge of the porch and decided it was clean enough, so I turned and eased my back side down on it, and I took myself a good thinking posture, and I looked at that grey mule some fellow just brought me.

I'd not asked for a mule, I'd neither bought nor asked for one, but here it was, and a note addressed to me in a hand I didn't recognize.

The mule was content to blink and switch its tail and graze, and I broke the seal on the note and unfolded the half-sheet of good rag paper.

This is Ophelia, he read.

She is steady and reliable and she likes salt.

If you have Pepper Mint hard candy or molasses twist tobacco she will bribe as easily as a politician.

I understand you don't get along well with horses.

Ophelia should solve your need for a saddle mount.

It was signed with an ornate SLM, all swirls and curlicues, and I have no idea who in the world SLM might be.

The only soul through here that stopped for any good purpose was a blind woman from New Mexico -- I thought she said she was headed for the Rabbitville mission -- but that poor soul was stone blind, her eyes were real pale and she had this God-awful scar that went from the corner of one eye, down across her face and down across her throat, and she talked in a raspy whisper and said she used to sing opera, and she said there was an order of nuns at the Rabbitville monastery who all wore veils, and she wished to become one of them.

She's the one who left me that fat wallet of gold coin and Yankee greenbacks.

I'd never met her before and she never said anything about someone sending her and she never did tell me why she left that wallet, and the more I thought, the more I wondered if she had this kind of wealth to hand to a stranger, might she have sent this mule as well --

"Ophelia," I said softly, "what do you think?"

Ophelia swung her long grey ears and came over, nostrils flaring, snuffing hopefully at me.

Ophelia was already saddled, and I'd never ridden a mule in my life, but I'd understood they were more intelligent than a horse and I knew hunters back East preferred them.

"Tell you what," said I, "let's go over to the general store."

Ophelia didn't offer any protest.

I stood up and unwound her tether, I set my polished boot in the stirrup, I bounced once and swung my leg over her and set down in the saddle.

Absolutely nothing happened.

I realized my heart was beating faster, and my chest was a little tighter -- by now most horses would have me slung off and on my way to Terra Firma -- but no, Ophelia just stood there, patient, waiting.

I eased the reins over against her neck and pressed my off knee into her and she turned just pretty as anything and we rode over to the Mercantile.

I went inside and bought me a stick of pepper mint candy and broke it into four pieces, then I came out and offered one to Ophelia.

She was just standing there at the hitch rail, unconcerned as anything, but when I extended that hard candy, why, her ears came up and forward and I am willing to swear she had this expression of delight about her as she took that quarter stick of pepper mint candy just as dainty as anything.

I rubbed her neck and called her a good girl and she leaned her head over against me and grunted a couple times, and I climbed back in the saddle and we rode back to the parsonage.

I had no idea a'tall she was not a bitted mule, for she turned ever so nice without, and I didn't find out she wasn't bitted until I put her in the parsonage stable and scooped some grain her feed trough.

I came back into the parsonage and the good smells of a woman's cooking hit me right in the face and to be honest it took me by surprise.

Anna Mae had a towel thrown over her shoulder, her hair was frizzed up a little from the cookin' steam and her face was red, and she looked at me with those big adoring eyes, all whilst stirring a pot of something that smelled really, really good! -- I stepped up to her and took her carefully about the waist and said "Hello, Mrs. Parson," and she said "Hello, Mr. Parson," and I felt bashful as a schoolboy of a sudden and I cleared my throat and said "May I ask a favor?" and she nodded once, never taking those lovely eyes off me, and I said "If I ever, EVER fail to appreciate what you do, please take that rollin' pin in both hands and belt me over the head with it!"

Her face was already flushed from the cook stove's heat, but somehow she turned a little redder, and then she giggled, and then her arms were around my neck and I ran my arms around her and picked her up a little and I was surprised when my mouth opened and my voice fell out and it said "I'm happy," and she mumbled into my shoulder, "I am happy too," and I set her down and realized that yes ... yes, I was happy.

Finally, after many long and miserable years, I was happy.

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Sheriff Cody's voice sounded tired when I heard "Come on in." 
I did not count that a good thing.

I pushed open the heavy door, my hat in my hand.

Sheriff Cody was nursing a blue granite cup of steaming coffee and he looked like a man who needed more sleep than he'd gotten, but he still managed an approving look.

"How's married life treatin' ye?" he asked, and his eyes smiled more than the rest of his face.

I gave him my best Innocent Expression -- which hasn't worked yet, but I keep trying -- and deadpanned, "Well, she doesn't beat me too much," and I folded myself up and sat down in a woven-withie chair.  "Have we heard from Doc Ward?"

"Nary a word."

I frowned, rubbed my hands slowly together.  "Sheriff, I'm not the brightest candle in the chandelier, but not knowing troubles me. Rye Miles hasn't shown up either and I have no idea which way he went."

"I know."  Cody stretched, grimaced.  

"Sheriff, when did you sleep last?"

His reply was to grunt, to stand up, to pace the way a man will when he's tired but trying to keep his mind awake.

"Someone wants to burn out the town. Or maybe they want to burn out Calico and her brother. Or maybe nothing else will happen. Maybe that chunk of double-veined quartz was dropped there by someone who wanted to salt the place because he wants it for some other reason, or maybe there's a mother lode underfoot and the locusts will dig up every square foot of the county trying to get it."  He took a noisy sip of coffee, turned, his eyes scanning back and forth across the floor.

"This not knowing ..."  I shook my head.  "So far I haven't heard anything useful."

Sheriff Cody gave me a sharp look, right before he yawned again and drained his blue-granite mug.  

"Miz Loreli is a schoolmarm.  She hears more than a body would realize.  Until the stable burned, Calico could pick up a good bit, men were in and out of there all the time."

"I've kept my ears open but so far ... nothing useful."

"Keep listening, Preacher.  I'll check over at the general store.  Maybe Sixgun will have heard something, or maybe Whiskey will have."

I chuckled.  "Sheriff, let me tell you one I heard."

Sheriff Cody raised an eyebrow a little and he gave me a look that said Preacher, you're full of it, but go ahead, and I continued, "Back East, one of the seminary instructors went into a saloon just shy of Christmas and of course when the parson shows up there it'll give men a guilty conscience.  He commenced to pass the hat and said something about Christmas charity and men started throwing good coin into his skypice and he went right on down the bar, bless you my son, bless you my son, and when he got to the end of the bar he upended the hat and said to the bartender "Give me a double whiskey and a bottle to go," and they nearly beat the man to death!"

The Sheriff needed a good laugh, and by golly I gave him one:  that struck his funny bone, and I rose and settled my flat crowned hat on my head.

"I'll go see if Whiskey has heard anything, but I won't be passin' the hat!"

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Four men rode into Stone Creek, slowly walking their horses past the burned remains of the livery, one of them commenting so the others could hear, "Mack's handiwork." They continue riding into town, looking around, one commented "Seems they roll up the sidewalks a bit early in this town. Figured their saloon at least would still be going." As one pointed toward the church at the end of the street, and then the jail, the others looked and nodded.


The men continued to walk their horses, until a voice from the darkness asked, "What can we do for you boys?" Startled, the four men pulled up their horses, hands reflexively going to their sidearms until they see two shotguns pointed at them from either side. A tall slender man with a kepi pointing one of the shotguns shook his head, saying, "That'd be a bad idea on your part." One of the men in front replied "Sorry, you just sort of startled us. You close up this town kinda early, dontcha?" The man with the kepi stepped forward, and both he and the other man kept their shotgun barrels tilted up toward the men. "We've been having some trouble hereabouts, and we've decided to start calling it an early night all around and keeping an eye out for troublemakers. You boys wouldn't be troublemakers, would you??


The man who was doing the talking continued "What kind of trouble?" The man in the kepi shrugged "littering, loitering, larceny, being a general nuisance, asking fool questions. You get the idea. We've had a store burned. We've had the livery burned, we've had our sheriff beaten. Lots of strangers in town doing mischief, and we're getting a bit fed up with it. Now, if you boys have some business, it'll wait until tomorrow and the light of day. I'd say what might be a good idea is you head on back out of town, find yourself a prime camping spot, and wait until then. Miss Whiskey's cook usually has breakfast on for those who want some at about five in the morning." The man doing the talking looked down from his horse. "Do you two know who we are? We..." The man in the kepi interrupted, "I don't recall asking, and I don't know that we care. I wasn't making a suggestion. You head back the way you came, there's a fork in the trail off to the left about two miles. Along it aways and you'll hear a creek. Some water and downed wood there. Decent spot to camp. Or you can keep going, I'm not particular."


The men slowly turned their horses and as the two men on foot followed along slowly behind, walked out of town. One of the men spoke softly to his companions. "This could be harder than we thought. It ain't a good thing when an entire town gets up in arms."

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As had become my habit upon reaching a town, i stopped in at the telegraph office.  It didn't take long to learn about the troubles in Stone Creek.  Sounded like a cadre of hired guns was descending on the area and that there was going to be plenty of gun play.  I sent a short reply to the Sheriff.  "En route . Arrive 3 days from now. Try not to have all the fun without me. J Mark"

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Miz Lorelei was terribly saddened by the burning of the livery stable and getting more worried about the troubles happening in Stone Creek by the day.  She was very glad that Mary had had the time to spend teaching her how to use the new (to her) rifle and pistol she had purchased the other day from Seamus.  She and Mary were both pleasantly surprised that she took to the rifle with no problems at all and was a remarkably good shot with it even on her first practice.  She wasn't quite as accurate with the pistol, but Mary kept telling her she would get better with practice. Just being able to shoot accurately with the rifle and slightly better than so-so with the pistol gave her some comfort with all the troubling things that had been happening in Stone Creek lately. She just hoped she wouldn't have to use any of the guns against bad people trying to do bad things in Stone Creek.  Using the rifle to hunt was one thing, but using it against people really saddened her, but she knew if she had to, she would be able to protect herself and any of her friends and townspeople if necessary.

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"Thanks for stopping by this morning, Otis.  I'm OK here.  I really appreciate the patrols and the towns gentlemen looking out for us lady folks" Calamity said to Otis Fenster as he walked towards the door of her shop.  I'll come back in a few hours to see how you're doing, Otis called over his shoulder.  Maybe even look at that pretty blue hat you just put in your window.  My wife would really like to have that one."  "It's a deal, Otis.  Have a pleasant day," Calamity called as Otis closed the door.  Boy, folks sure are jumpy around here any more, Calamity thought to herself.  With all the goings on, I can understand it.  Maybe I should look at taking my extra fabric and trims, what little there are, to my place.  At least they won't get burned there.  With me here, are they safe out there?  At least I have Wolfgang to protect them.  He's the best German Shepherd I've ever had.  I had better start carrying a pistol with me when I leave the house.  You never know what I might run into.  I don't want to wear it here in the shop.  It might frighten folks off, but I don't want to be without either.  I'll have to find places to keep it here........

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"Howdy, Seamus."
"Howdy, Preacher."  Sixgun Seamus's grin was easy and genuine as he leaned against the edge of the display counter. "What can I do you out of?"

"I'd take another four sticks of peppermint candy," Preacher Keller nodded towards the heavy glass jar, "and a roll of percussion caps, elevens if you've got 'em."

"Oh, I've got 'em."  Seamus lifted the heavy glass lid, extracted four peppermint sticks, wrapped them in a paper and folded the ends to keep it shut. "You bribin' the little children to come to church now?"

I laughed.  "Worse than that," he admitted, "I've got me a mule!"

Seamus nodded and laughed quietly.  "By golly now I wasn't dreamin'!" he declared.  "Preacher, it's good to see at least one man in this territory with some sense about him!"


"Now don't you oh me, Preacher! A mule is steady and tough and a mule is a darn sight smarter than a horse! How many horses have you known ran back into a burnin' barn?"

Seamus pretended not to notice the haunted look in the sky pilot's eyes, and he politely ignored how the silence drew long between them.

"Anyway a mule is a good choice. My folks used to hunt coon muleback."

"Mine too."

"Do tell!"  Seamus's sudden grin would have lit up a dark room.  

"How about the percussion caps?"

"Caps! Good Lord, Preacher, it's a good thing you reminded me!"  Seamus turned, frowned, ratted around in a drawer, came up with a brown paper wrapped cylinder.

"Here you go, nice and fresh.  How about powder and shot?"

"I'd take a pound of three-F and a sack of .36 balls."

"I've got 'em."  Seamus sacked up the preacher's purchase, accepted good silver in payment:  "Preacher, you're not startin' a war now are you?"

The preacher looked dead level at the man and with an absolutely solemn voice said "Seamus, my friend, I have to do something to top insanity with fool's gold!"

His voice might have been serious but he couldn't keep his face that-a-way, and storekeeper and preacher alike laughed.

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Doc Ward asked Sarah Jane " Do you have a bucket or something for water? I need to check on my horse, then I'll be right back." Sarah Jane told Doc where he could find a bucket and where to get water. Walking out and around the cabin, Doc checked on the sorrel. Looking around, he found the bucket, and walked back to where a spring was to get water. Someone had carved away at a natural basin until it was deep enough to scoop water, and Doc soon had the bucket filled. Letting the horse drink his fill, Doc shifted the picket pin to fresher grass, and rubbed the horse, then checked his hooves one more time before heading back in.


When Doc Ward walked back in, he was a little surprised to see Sarah Jane sitting on the bed in a plain nightgown. Her face was clean and pink from washing, and she was tilting her head, running a brush through her long dark red hair. Doc nodded slightly to himself as he noted the spray of freckles across her chin and nose, thinking he had been correct in his assumption. Looking up, Sarah Jane said "You are welcome to sit and read or whatever as long as you would like. I am tired and I need to sleep." Doc smiled. "Thanks, I can leave if you'd like." Sarah Jane blushed slightly, which surprised Doc. "No, you can stay. Please do. I... It has been very nice having you around. And... And I know I barely know you, but you seem like such a nice man, I feel like you're my friend, and I'm scared of what is going to happen if you go confront Mack Osborne. He's mean. Cruel, and a bully."


Doc Ward, carefully poured some coffee and sat down. "Sarah Jane, I need you to know something. I've been raised to be a gentleman, even if it was in the heart of Kentucky. I'm educated, and I like to think I am a nice person, and kind. I treat people civilly, and I have only wanted a peaceful life. Things have transpired to keep that from happening. I am capable of great violence. I have killed men before. With guns," Doc held up his hands for her to see, "and even with my bare hands." Sarah Jane's eyes widened. "Were you aware of the two horses that came in without riders or anything a couple of days ago, the ones Osborne took an interest in?"" Sarah Jane nodded. "Osborne rode to Stone Creek with the men who were riding those two horses. They burned the livery stable I ran, along with nearly everything I own and of importance to me. Killed some very good horses, including one that was very special to me. They split up before I caught up with them. Those two men are dead. I killed them. I didn't give them a chance."


Sarah Jane sat very silent, her eyes wide, her hand covering her mouth as she listened. Doc continued, "So, perhaps I'm not a nice man, or a kind man, I don't know. I don't believe I am a civilized man. I reach a point where I must strike, and destroy those who commit such acts." Doc leaned forward on the chair, his forearms on his knees, coffee cup in one hand. "I don't fear Mack Osborne. Since I will confront him at the saloon, in front of others, He'll get a chance. But mark my words, I won't be bullied, and even if he kills me as well, he will die today." Tears spilled over Sarah Jane's cheeks. "I don't want you to die." Doc shrugged and said as gently as he could, "Everyone dies. I don't want to die, but I've lived the past five years waiting for that time. If it happens today, mourn me if you would like. But know I died doing what I believed I should. No, what my being demanded I should. I don't expect it to make sense, but it is the case. Do me one favor, though. Two, actually." Sarah Jane nodded, listening intently. Doc went on, "I'll give you money before I leave the cabin. Make sure if I die, to get my body back to Stone Creek, to Pastor Keller." Sarah Jane agreed with a nod. "What is the second favor?" Doc looked straight at Sarah Jane. "You personally tell him that if he preaches over me at a funeral, I'll haunt him."

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